as alex and i drove to the airport, we could hardly contain our excitement. it had been six years since we'd last set foot in asia, and in less than twelve hours we'd be in tokyo, the first city we visited. that trip was also our first time traveling together! fresh-out-of-college alex and carla would have been equal parts shocked and overjoyed by all the traveling we're doing now.
we arrived in tokyo late wednesday afternoon and took the train in. it wasn't long before we reached the city limits, but tokyo has so much urban sprawl that we were in transit for an hour-and-a-half. we finally got to our hotel in koto-ku, a few miles east of the city center. our room was tiny. alex could almost reach both walls with his outstretched hands! since we'd already been to tokyo, we were looking forward to wandering around the less touristy parts of town. that said, we did end up stumbling upon the same small, no-name noodle joint we ate at six years ago and sat down for a nice udon and curry rice lunch. that night we also had quite an authentic sushi experience at a corner restaurant with maybe six seats total. the menu was entirely in japanese, and the chef and two patrons could only speak about four words of english between them, but somehow we managed to order twelve-piece sushi sets that were cheap, delicious, and worth whatever radiation came with!
what's most striking about japanese culture is its endless pursuit of perfection. every park, building, street corner, and window is clean and well-maintained. from the hotel staff to the 7-11 cashiers, we were in awe of how focused people were on doing their jobs well, however big or small it was. the sidewalk cleaners meticulously brushed every loose leaf into neat piles for pickup. the metro attendants were helpful and polite – a rarity in nyc – and broke our 10,000-yen bill for us without hesitation. even at the pachinko parlors (the japanese version of slot machines), employees constantly wiped down baskets and polished loads of gold pachinko balls as customers sat for hours playing the brightly lit, incredibly loud game machines.
as spotless as everything was however, there was irony to be found in the little mannerisms we couldn't help but notice. for example, there was a lot of sinus- and phlegm-clearing happening around us at any given moment. and while people wore face masks to avoid spreading or catching germs, no one washed their hands with soap because there was never any in the bathrooms. that said, most bathrooms we went to had the nice toto toilets, complete with seat warmers and built-in bidets to ensure customers left with that ultimate clean feeling!
friday morning was beautiful as we set off for tokyo station to catch the shinkansen (bullet train) to kyoto. after wandering around the enormous, multi-level station for a bit we eventually found ourselves on tokyo ramen street. hordes of hungry locals line up here at their favorite ramen house for a fresh bowl of some of the best ramen around. we decided to try shichisai, a spot that our friend gabe had recommended to us. it was a bit tricky putting in our order since the automated machine was entirely in japanese, but with a little help we signed up for some shoyu ramen. wow. it's funny how perfectly cooked, quality ingredients can turn a simple bowl of soup and noodles into one of the best meals of your life.
after a memorable first ride on the shinkansen at a maintained speed of 200mph (!!), we arrived in kyoto and made our way to our ryokan (japanese bed-and-breakfast). our hosts were john and akiko, and their home couldn't have been more beautiful. it was built around 1900 and in great condition, with its sliding paper doors, tatami mat rooms, and traditional japanese gardens in and around the house. it was also situated in a quiet, affluent neighborhood near the kamo river in the north part of kyoto. that evening we walked along the river to the gion district and enjoyed a yummy dinner of okonomiyaki (savory pancakes). people often think of sushi first when it comes to japanese food, but there is so much more to japanese cuisine – and all of it is delicious! friday night also made for great people-watching, which included our first geisha sighting.
we spent saturday sight-seeing and visited the kinkaku-ji and ryoan-ji temples, which were built in the late 14th and mid-15th centuries respectively. the top two levels of kinkaku-ji are completely covered with gold leaf, and ryoan-ji is famous for its beautiful kare-sansui (japanese rock garden). suffice it to say that the temples and their gardens are absolutely exquisite. the japanese attention to detail is at its best here, where every foot of the gardens is landscaped and groomed to perfection. we also made it to the bamboo forest. although very crowded, the incredibly tall and vivid green bamboo trees that line the path created a very calming, reflective experience.
on our last day we took a short, scenic train ride to kurama, a small town nestled in the northern mountains of kyoto. we set off for kurama-dera, a gorgeous temple built high up on the mountainside. it was drizzling on and off, which actually made the hike all the more beautiful. everything was verdant, and each shrine along the way was framed by lush trees and colorful fall foliage. our last stop was the kurama onsen (hot springs). while the idea of being naked in a sea of equally naked complete strangers was nerve-racking at first, i ended up having the most zen experience of my life there. as i sat in the steaming outdoor bath surrounded by misty mountains and hues of fiery reds and oranges, a light rain began to fall around me. at that moment, i felt myself melt into the water and all insecurities evaporate into the haze. what an incredible hour of relaxation.
before we knew it, it was time to head back to tokyo to catch our flight. we made a pit stop at tokyo ramen street for one last bowl of piping hot goodness before we headed to the airport. next stop - seoul!
// asia trip to date: 1 flight, 4 trains, 3 cities, 1 country