If you caught last week’s post of my Japan Photo Diary Part I featuring our travels through Osaka and Kyoto, you might have seen how much we were able to see and do in just over a week- no easy feat given the freezing temperatures. Normally I would plan for the hubby and me to just power through a packed schedule, but I knew that might be risky given the cold weather (exhaustion would inevitably lead to a cold!). Knowing this, I planned a short getaway to Hakone, a town famous for their natural hot springs, to relax for a few days before our final leg in Tokyo.
:: 3 Days in Hakone ::
An afternoon spent riding cable cars at the Hakone Ropeway.
:: 6 Days in Tokyo ::
Takeshita Street, the most famous avenue in the Harajuku area.
Tableside cuts of meat and shaved ice for dessert at Yoroniku.
Late night desserts and nightcap at The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo’s Club Level Lounge.
Afternoon modern kaiseki at Yakumo Saryo.
Caffeine break at Onibus Coffee.
Afternoon tea service at The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo’s Club Level Lounge.
The view of the Tokyo Tower from Azure 45.
The big scramble at Shibuya Crossing.
Trying turtle for the first time at Suetomi.
The grand entrance to the Meiji Shrine.
The famous mirrored entrance at the Tokyu Plaza.
A memorable and length omakase at Sushi Ichiyanagi. Quite possibly the most impressive omakase we’ve ever experienced, thanks to Chef Iwa at Sushi Iwa.
Tickets for lunch at Tsuta after lining up at 7am.
Spending one of our last mornings at Senso-Ji Temple.
The view of the Space Needle from below.
Ramen well worth the wait at Tsuta for lunch.
Eye-catching Harajuku fashion.
Minimalist interiors at Dear All Cafe. Modern tea tasting at Tokyo Saryo.
The first round of fish auctions at 5:30am at the Tsukiji Fish Market.
Totoro cream puffs at TOLO Cafe.
- Hakone: If you are traveling to a region such as Hakone known for their natural hot springs, staying at a ryokan is a must. This is otherwise known as a traditional Japanese inn, and it is the best way to experience a truly authentic hot springs getaway. The town will usually have public baths, and likewise each ryokan will have their own for guests as well. However these are usually separated by gender and may not be as enjoyable unaccompanied by your significant other. For this reason, I booked Seikansou, which offers a private outdoor bath for every room. If you book any of the rooms on the third floor, there is no roof impeding your view, and you can soak all night underneath the clear night sky. We chose to enjoy an evening of drinking sake, stargazing, and watching Miayzaki’s “Spirited Away” (for those who’ve seen the film, I hope you get the connection!). Not only was the private bath spacious and heavenly, but the service and kaiseki cusines for breakfast and dinner (as is customary for all ryokans) were truly incredible. Finding information on ryokans is difficult in general, and I only stumbled upon this property on a whim. Thankfully I was fortunate enough to discover such a gem, and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Hakone.
- Tokyo: In Tokyo, there is no doubt that the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo is the premier choice for accommodations. Not only is the hotel well located with multiple subway lines just outside the hotel, but it is also sets an incredible standard for luxury in every sense of the word. Set high above ground level (45~53 floors to be exact), the views are unparalleled. Many rooms such as our own offer sweeping panoramas of south Tokyo while others boast full views of the Tokyo tower. We stayed in one of the Club Level rooms, which also granted us access to the elegant Club Lounge where we probably lingered far too long enjoying each meal, mid-day (more like all-day, rather) snacks, full tea service, and more. The hotel also offers 6 different dining options such as the renowned Azure 45 as well as full room service. The Bar, located just off the lobby in the 45th floor, also keeps an extensive collection of premier whiskeys, and guests can even store their most prized bottles under lock and key for future visits. If you’re still unsatisfied, the concierge team goes above and beyond to provide the best restaurant recommendations and make reservations for them if requested. In fact, they helped us secure most of our higher-end reservations during our stay, despite making the requests just days before or even on the day of. This incredible level of service won both me and Matt over, and we highly recommend it to all.
- I realize when in Japan, one should probably eat mostly local fare, However after two weeks of eating only Japanese food, we welcomed the opportunity to refresh our palates with a new cuisine. Led by Chef Shintaro Miyazaki, Azure 45 is an amazing French dining option located within The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo. The plating, ingredients, service- truly everything was exceptional. For this, the restaurant has earned countless accolades, not to mention one Michelin star and recognition in the prestigious Gault et Millau guidebook.
- One of the trendiest restaurants in Tokyo at the moment, Yoroniku focuses on beef, especially utilizing every part of the cow. The restaurant’s concept is based on Korean BBQ such that you can cook the meat yourself at the table, and the menu also incorporates Korean ingredients such as kimchi. Every cut was amazing, and the shaved iced desserts were the perfect ending to such a delectable meal.
- Known only among gourmand insiders, Yakumo Saryo was well worth the trek to southern Tokyo. It flies under the radar, and most people can only visit if they have been previous guests or have been recommended by someone who has already been. We were lucky enough to secure a lunch reservation, and the minimalist, modern cuisine left us feeling wholly reinvigorated. Despite the many courses, we always felt comfortably satiated and our palate, feeling amazingly clean. For a modern and minimalist kaiseki (aka a multi-course meal), this is your best bet.
- One of the most unique dining experiences we had in Tokyo was dinner at Suetomi. When we requested the Ritz-Carlton concierge help us find a restaurant that would offer an authentic yet refined kaiseki meal, they suggested this establishment. One of the most popular restaurants in Tokyo at the moment, we barely snagged a reservation for the latest seating at 9pm. That evening, we walked to a nondescript residential looking building, took a cramped elevator that barely fit us both, and found ourselves greeted by a quiet hostess who ushered us into a small room seating only 12 or so. With no decorations or embellishments besides the pristine counter and the chefs working meticulously behind it, guests can direct all of their attention into appreciating every bite of the creations that Chef Kasumicho Suetomi assembled. Throughout the night, we tried everything from sea cucumbers, fugu, bamboo, lily bulb, turtle, and more. The restaurant also enforces a strict policy of no photography or loud chatter that may distract guests during their meal, but as we were the last in the room, Chef Suteomi quickly warmed up and allowed me to take photos while he and Matt conversed about the different restaurant scenes in Tokyo vs NYC. Overall we were so impressed with every single dish and would recommend this for any serious kaiseki enthusiast. P.S. Gwenyth Paltrow is also a fan, which Chef Suetomi mentioned beaming with a smile 🙂
- For omakase (chef’s choice menu for sushi), we first tried Sushiya Ichiyanagi, supposedly one of the best sushi choices in the city. Laughing jovially while entertaining guests, Chef Kazuya Ichiyanagi expertly crafted each piece of sashimi and created such a fun but intimate atmosphere in this small restaurant consisting of only 15 counter seats and one table. We did find that he has a heavy hand with portions compared to other sushi restaurants, so make sure to go on an empty stomach.
- Our best omakase experience throughout the trip was undoubtedly at Sushi Iwa. Chef Iwa has already won much acclaim for his expert knifework and cuisine despite being only in his 30’s, and it’s only a matter of time before he joins the rank of other sushi legends. Seeing him deftly cut each piece was such a special experience, and each sashimi felt like it melted in our mouths. We would have been content returning night after night!
- The only ramen restaurant to receive a Michelin star, Tsuta did not disappoint. Due to their limited seating and quantity of ingredients, they employ a ticketing system, which requires you to line up starting at 8am for a lunch ticket. Matt and I are the farthest thing from morning people, yet we dragged ourselves out of bed and made our way there one early morning. It was all worth it though when we received our 11am tickets and got to enjoy the amazingly rich broth and ramen later that day. You can immediately taste the difference from your everyday ramen shop, and one bowl is certainly not enough (although you may have no choice on that front, as they limit only one serving per customer). If you are an early riser, take advantage of it and make sure to get your ticket for lunch at Tsuta!
Coffee, Tea and Dessert Shops
- Dear All is a beautiful, minimalist cafe in the Sasazuka neighbood. Their latte art is on point, and their desserts pair perfectly as well. Although we could only stay for a quick bite, we could have easily spent an entire afternoon there.
- Omnibus Cafe is another fantastic option, recognized as one of the premier roasting companies in Japan. Their brews were incredibly smooth and were perfect to warm up with on a chilly afternoon. Don’t forget to try their adorable smiley face cookies as well for a sweet dessert!
- If you’ve been wondering where to find those 3D character latte’s, look no further. Lattest is what you’ve been looking for. This comfy cafe has a hipster, living-room kind of vibe, which will make you want to linger for hours. The staff are also incredibly friendly in assisting you with your latte choice. You can show them a photo, mention a character or shape by name, or even ask the barista to improvise. They’re more than happy to craft a truly Instagram-worthy creation.
- We didn’t have time to experience a traditional tea ceremony in Kyoto, so we opted for the next best thing: the modern tea tasting at Tokyo Saryo. The first hand-drip green tea shop in Tokyo, this minimalist tea house offers a posh tasting with leaves brewed before your very eyes. If coffee’s not your thing, this is a fantastic alternative especially for those seeking a more refined experience.
- Finally, TOLO Cafe is a *must* for any Miyazaki fan. Their bakery is famous for their Totoro-shaped cream puffs, available in four different flavors- classic vanilla, caramel banana, strawberry cream, and chocolate cream. Their handmade pastas are also fantastic and can easily rival any great Italian restaurant. It’s rather out of the way, but it makes up for the journey ten times over.
Hakone Travel Tips
When in Hakone, there isn’t much to do besides relaxing at your ryokan and perhaps strolling through this small town. You can also take a short day trip to the Hakone Ropeways (approximately 45 min by bus to the first cable car station), where you can enjoy a scenic cable car ride with Mount Fuji in sight. You can also get off at Owakudani Station, an area where volcanic activity is particularly active and thick sulfurous fumes can be seen emanating from the mountainsides. If you stop by this station, make sure to enjoy the black hard-boiled eggs sold by vendors. The color is simply a result of being boiled in sulfurous water, and these eggs symbolize health and longevity. Lore has it that they add 7 years to your life 🙂
Tokyo Travel Tips
As Tokyo is a more urban city than Osaka or Kyoto, we spent the majority of our time simply walking around, taking in the culture, and most importantly, dining (Tokyo is the most- Michelin-star decorated city in the world). We did however make time for certain sites such as the Sensō-ji Temple and the Meiji Shrine, where we were lucky enough to witness two traditional Japanese weddings. As for view of the Tokyo skyline and the famous Tokyo Tower, we were lucky enough to enjoy them from the comfort of the Ritz Carlton hotel. However, one can also visit the Space Needle for the best views of the city.
Beyond these tourist sites, we ended up spending the majority of our time wandering the Harajuku and Aoyama neighborhoods, the latter of which resembled NYC’s SoHo albeit slightly more claustrophobic. Finally we would be remiss without having visited the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, the world’s largest. All the warnings of getting there in the wee hours of the night are accurate – we arrived around 2:15pm and were already 59-60th in line, the last to join for the first of only two auctions every morning. The live auctions were incredible to watch, and I would highly recommend this experience for any first-time visitor to Tokyo.
For additional tips on traveling in Japan in general, head over to my previous post here.
As mentioned in Part I of my Japan Photo Diary, the mister and I began our adventure in the western Kansai region and made our way east through Japan over the course of our trip. Just as the different regions of the USA have their own cultures and flair, so did each city we visited. Ultimately we ended up in Tokyo though, which most resembled the city nearest and dearest our hearts (or at least mine)- NYC. Despite spending nearly a week there, we still felt like there was so much left to do. Part of this can be attributed to the sheer size of the city as it took forever to get around, but we also felt this because of the incredible number of things to see, eat, do, etc. It’s clear that six days were simply not enough to fully experience Tokyo, nor was nearly 3 weeks enough to savor a taste of Japan’s rich culture and sites. Long flights or not, we certainly look forward to returning and spending even more time there if possible.
If you have any other questions or tips, make sure to share them in the comments. As always, thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed!
A big thank you for The Ritz-Carlton property in Tokyo for such incredible accommodations during our stay. All thoughts and opinions are my own. Learn more here: The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo.