Where to visit in Tokyo & Kyoto?

Where to visit in Tokyo & Kyoto? Recipe

Many of you have helped me out in the past when it comes to making the most of my travel adventures. I'm heading to Tokyo and Kyoto this spring (for a quick trip) and would love to hear any suggestions you might have. I like little shops and boutiques, art, natural foods stores, quirky little restaurants, farmers markets, flea markets, nature walks, and neighborhoods with character. I'm particularly interested in learning more about Shojin Ryori cuisine, so thank you in advance for any recommendations on that front. It's my first trip to both of these cities and I want to be sure to see as much as possible. Thanks again for any help, and I promise to post photos, highlights and my final itinerary when I get home.

The photo is of a tree near my house that exploded into pink blossoms seemingly overnight.

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Oh and, watch out for bacon bits/pieces in your pasta (etc.) For some reason, even when a Japanese person has explained I am a vegetarian and I do not eat meat or fish, my pasta ALWAYS has bacon in it unless I've remembered to say "no bacon!!"

Louise

I live in Japan right now - and am a vegetarian. It is a challenge but you'll be ok (assuming you are one) as long as you clearly stipulate you want no meat ('niku') and no fish ('sakana') - its also a good idea to explain you want no 'dashi' either - thats stock. Most onigiris will have some kind of meat or fish filling - there are pickle ones, but unless you can read Japanese it could get tricky. Good luck!

Louise

While in Kyoto, any cook who loves beautiful Japanese knives must visit Aritsugu knife shop in the Nishiki Market!

Anonymous

I have lived near Kyoto for 2 years now and definitely second the suggestions about the book Old Kyoto (and the Mochi Cream shop! so good!) But I think the number one spot in Kyoto is Nishiki Market. I take every single one of my visitors there. It's a narrow market, chock-a-block with mom and pop shops, several blocks long in a covered arcade. It's popular with tourists but remains a local market. Kyoto is famous for producing certain items, especially tofu/ tofu products, sake, and certain vegetables, which are then turned into pickles. On this street alone you can taste pickles made from all types of vegetables, sample freshly cooked Japanese omelet (with broth in it, to make it fluffy), watch fish flakes be shaved before your eyes, and wonder at just how many varieties of rice crackers there are... it's so much fun. There is a very famous knife store near the eastern end called Aritsugu. You can watch the tools being made and ogle the $500 knives :-) I highly recommend walking down towards the western end and buying a 20-piece bag of soymilk donuts. They're tiny and trust me, they go quickly! If it's a warm day try the soymilk soft-serve. I also second the recommendation for Nara and Uji. If you go to Nara and get off at the Kintetsu station, go through the covered arcade to the end to see some fresh mochi being made (guys banging giant hammers!) In Uji, stop by Byodo-in, a temple that has on its grounds the oldest wooden building in Japan. It's 1000 years old. For great shops and boutiques, try the Philosopher's Walk in the northeastern part of the city, and Gojo-zaka near Kiyomizu-dera. Toji does have a market on the 21st of every month but if you won't be in town then you're not out of luck. Try Chion-ji on the 15th or Kitano Tenmangu Shrine on the 25th. On the 4th Sunday of every month, Kamigamo Shrine holds a handmade market. On weekends there are often a few stalls set up on the grounds of Yasaka Shrine. Koyasan is THE place to go for shojin ryouri. Your second best bet would be Kyoto but I'm not sure of anyplace to go. I've never tried it. Definitely spend more time in Kyoto than Tokyo. Kyoto has every single one of those things you say you are looking for. My favorite part about Tokyo is how is easy it is to get out to Yokohama! If you have time, try visiting Yokohama's Chinatown and the Ramen Museum. Best museum I've ever been to! If you have time let me know if you'd like to meet up! Or email me for any more info. Nishiki Market can be a little daunting if you can't read anything, but they are used to foreign tourists visiting. One more thing: It will be VERY hard for you to remain a strict vegetarian while in Japan. Even if you speak the language and can make your desires clear, you will end up eating white rice for every meal. Whenever you don't see meat, they've certainly used fish stock to prepare your meal. I gave up on vegetarianism when I moved here. I'm sure you've heard it before, but just wanted to add my 2 yen.

Katie

My brother was in the JET program (Japanese Exchange Teachers) from 1997 to 2000. I visited him in March of 99 and before I left the states I purchased a train pass that was good for 15 days. It is only available to tourists and it will save you tons of money on train fares. Also unless you are staying within walking distance of your travels, the train system closes at midnight and to take a taxi back to your hotel can be quite pricey. Enjoy, it is a wonderful place to visit.

Betty

I won't leave a long, detailed message, but will instead point you to a travel blog my husband and I kept when we went to Japan in 2007: http://allenautumnjapan.blogspot.com/ We went to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Okinawa. There is so much to see and do, I would recommend going with a plan - and a back-up for weather purposes. Also, make sure you carry a package of tissues with you at all times. Most public restrooms do not have toilet paper in them and you don't want to be caught without! Definitely check out the Kyoto Costume Museum - it was really neat! Also in Kyoto: Ryoanji Yodoufu Restaurant - it's inside the Ruoanji Temple grounds and is also shojin ryouri. Find a good map or take a GPS. Addresses do you *no* good! And there are little 'koban' - police boxes - every few blocks. You can ask a policeman where a place or address is located and he will look it up for you on the map. They are very friendly and helpful. You *will* get lost, though, so plan it into your day. I am positive that Eric Gower would have a ton of recommendations for you... I'd definitely hit him up for a suggestion or two. Plus, he would be more familiar with "off the beaten path" kind of stuff. Most of us who went on short trips hit the "highlights", you know? Oops... This was a bit longer than I intended. Have a fantastic trip and I can't wait to hear about your adventure!

Autumn

Oh, Heidi, you are so fortunate! I have never been to Japan, or any Asian countries, but always have longed to go. I have no fabulous suggestions like the others..aren't your readers great!?..but, I did want to wish you a very safe and awe-filled trip! HS: Thanks Trish!

Trish in MO

I was so excited to see your blog...my husband and I are heading to Tokyo and Kyoto at the end of May for two weeks after he finishes some schooling in Okinawa. We also plan on spending a night in Hiroshima. If you get any good suggestions, send them along!

Marisa

Hi Heidi I have lived in Japan for 4 1/2 years and I am finally heading to Kyoto for the first time tomorrow. Will give you some recommendations when I return if they are different from previous comments. In Tokyo I would head over the bridge from Ginza Street to an area called Tsukishima. It is an older area of Tokyo where you can enjoy monja yaki (kinda like okonomiyaki but gooey). One restaurant called Keiko serves a great dessert made with an azuki bean crepe rolled around an frozen cream puff and sealed into little pockets. It's delish! Also, the subways are handy but I like to head above ground and wander the streets to take in all the sights. Have a great trip!

nancy Danuser

You have to try Mochi cream ice cream. It's amazing. The ones I found at supermarkets weren't very good, but there's a Mochi Cream shop right outside Shinjuku JR station.You'll see the line-up. The double caramel one is my favourites. Don't miss it. See a photo of it here. Have fun, bring lots of cash. The Japanese are the coolest people on earh. Shopping for cool clothes is a must. Here we have newsstands at train stations. Over there they have Gucci stores. If you are going in April, get ready for madness in Kyoto. The cherry blossoms are gorgeous but there are huge numbers of Japanese tourists. Have fun! Cherie

I'm a vegetarian living in Tokyo. There are lots of great restaurants and cuisines, but more importantly there are great people! If your schedules overlap, I recommend looking up Elizabeth Andoh. She bounces between Tokyo, Osaka and NYC and is a bit hard to catch, but she is one of the foremost English speaking experts on Japanese food and is currently working on a book project with a Japanese vegetarian theme. http://www.tasteofculture.com/ In Shibuya, Nagi Shokudo is an all vegan fusion foods cafe run by a guy who is well-connected with the indie music scene. It is unpretentious & cosy. One of my faves when I am in that part of town. http://nagishokudo.com/ And one of my indulgences is Pita the Great, a one-man felafel shop in Akasaka whose owner, Avi, is a true character. His shop feels like it is in Israel, not urban Tokyo. He makes his own pitas, including one called SUPERNATURAL PITA http://pitathegreat.net Out in Saitama (90 minutes or so by train), you will find Alishan Organic Center, run by Jack Bayles and his wife, who started their business when Jack wanted organic granola and couldn't find any. Now they have a riverside, organic vegetarian cafe and event space as well as a mail order whole foods business. Absolutely delightful folks. http://www.alishan-organic-center.com/en/cafe/index.html This is getting ridiculously long, but I could go on with some shoujin recommendations and destinations that fit your preferences. Please e-mail me if you haven't had enough yet.

I can't recommend strongly enough a trip to the open-air sculpture museum in Hakone, as a couple of other posters have suggested. Imagine pieces of sculpture scattered on the landscape such that you can experience them one by one as you come upon them. In addition, the museum boasts a large and wonderful collection of Picasso's ceramics -- who knew? Hope you have a wonderful trip!

Julie

Oh...onigiri in convenience stores (combini) are fresh and absolutely delicious, and can be bought in the morning as a lunch to tuck in your bag for later! Onsen...please, please, please enjoy an onsen (hot spring bath)! Feel free to e-mail me at carolie AT wordmagix.com for more info if you want!

I'm going to visit my parents in Tokyo in spring! What a coincidence! There's tons of great suggestions here already. So, it looks that I don't need to say anything. But here's one from me. It's worth popping into supermarkets and the basement floors in department stores. Many natural/vegetarian food might not be there, but those places are for the latest food culture in Japan. Surely they will give you new ideas. And, if you have a chance, go to some streets off a train station, where some small family-run food shops are lined up. I know it's not easy to communicate in English when you are in an area where ordinary folks live. But it's fun! (If you hear somebody calling you name in Tokyo, it's me!;) )

Akiko

There are so many things to see and do..especially in Kyoto! Do try to hit at least two tofu specialty restaurants, and order one of the larger "set menu" meals...dinner is usually much more fun than lunch. I had a surprise birthday party thrown for me last night here in Sasebo, Japan at a tofu restaurant, and it was spectacular! If you are vegetarian, make it VERY PLAIN, as many dishes at a tofu restaurant contain chicken, squid, etc. I am most definitely NOT a "tour guide" person, prefering to explore by myself 99% of the time. However, if you have a short time in Kyoto, it may be well worth your time to book a private guide for a day. He may or may not speak English, but if you set up an itinerary with the tour company beforehand, it won't matter. Your guide will take you to see far more places than you will get on your own, will steer you to the less "touristy" sites, will know the least-crowded times to go to various places, and you won't spend your time figuring out transportation and/or parking. Our guide took us to an organic vegetarian Buddhist restaurant with a gorgeous, rustic buffet -- we were the only non-Japanese in the place. He also wangled us a special private tour of the studio and showroom of a famous sculptor of Buddhas, which was absolutely amazing, and almost never open to the public. He took us to a primeval bamboo forest that was like nothing I've EVER seen before, and finished the tour with a visit to his friend's cherry tree nursery, where his friend creates new types of cherry blossoms with hand pollination and traditional grafting techniques. NOT your usual tour! We also saw the Golden Pavillion, the Silver Pavillion, the Imperial Palace, the fabric center (with a kimono fashion show!) and Nijo Castle (of the famous nightingale floor). Gion is nice, but VERY touristy, and 95% of the "geisha" and "mako" one sees on the street are fake -- they're just costumed women, not true geisha, who are rarely seen before dark. (And of course, geisha are NOT prostitutes, they are entertainers -- dancing, singing, playing instruments and revered for their grace and conversational skills.)

I stayed in Koyasan too! Seriously, it was the best experience ever. And the shojin ryori was amazing. It is definitely a detour from Kyoto though, but if you can squeeze it in, I would highly recommend it too!

emily

I am not sure if people have already mentioned these because you have so many responses but: TOKYO: The Kappabashi District is a restaurant supply area so it's a fun place to look at an abundance of well crafted plastic food and perhaps to buy some unique kitchenware. They also have great knife shops so look out for those! Daikanyama, Meguro and Naka Meguro are small hip districts with great boutique shopping and cute cafes. I found them much less crowded are more relaxing than other more touristy spots. I know this isn't independent or boutique-y in the least but I loved just looking at all the beautiful confections in the bottom floor of department stores like Takishimaya. They have gorgeous looking petit-fours and cute pastries! Have fun, Japan is definitely a magical place.

Hopefully you will get a chance to see the cherry blossoms while you are in Japan :) In Tokyo, Ueno park is a famous place to see sakura, as well as Akasaka, and the sakura lined Kanda river between Waseda and Meijirodai is also very nice. I second going to Sensouji and Meiji Jingu, and if you get a chance, give the ningyoyaki (a pancake like cake filled with a sweet red bean paste) a try. There are plenty of shops selling them in the market on the way to Sensouji. If you get hungry, there are lots of places to grab food, but I really like Soup Stock Tokyo. It's a little expensive, but they have some really tasty soups, curries and fresh baked bread. Kyoto: Kiyomizudera opens at 6am, and it a beautiful place to spend the morning. On the walk down, you can swing by Gion, Yasaka jinja, and you'll pass by lots of little ceramic and lacquer ware shops. I second Fushimi-Inari Jinja, it's a little other worldly feeling, but a fun hike through the temple gates. Try the inarizushi, a sweet bean curd skin wrapped sushi. If you have time, I recommend taking the train from Kyoto to Himeji, and seeing the White Egret castle there. There are free English tours available Hope you have a lovely trip!

hi heidi, for any touristy place in japan, the key is to WAKE UP EARLY and beat the crowd (lots of them Japanese locals + students). all the shrines in Kyoto are open quite early in the morning, and if you go early (jetlag anyway!) you will be able to enjoy the peace and quiet without disturbance. Adds to the mythic feeling, too. Lots of restaurants in Kyoto, but to get a very special experience: http://www.wakuden.jp/ryotei/kyoto/index.html. You have to book ahead of time (ask your hotel concierge to do so, or friends) They don't tell you what the menu is. They prepare everything in front of you, course by course. And everything is vegetarian, freshly picked. Lunch is reasonably priced (which is what I got). Get the sake served in a bamboo stick. They speak English there so it's quite pleasant. The meal is not filing, though, which is a good thing b/c you can go try all the other stuff on the street! Also, bakeries in Japan are THE BEST. they mastered the French boulangerie + patisserie techniques and make everything even more delicate. Get the hot milk tea in the heat fridge at the counter. Yum. And enjoy the cheery blossoms! ( i went to Kyoto last April as well. Amazing)

grenelle

Oh! forgot about the tea ceremony we attended. Hamarikyu park in Tokyo (near Shiodome and the fish market) has a tea house in the middle of a large pond. They serve tea there in the traditional style. It's probably a tad rushed because they are pretty busy, but it is reasonable price-wise and the view of the garden is very nice. They have a little laminated card with instructions for those of us who don't know how to engage in the ceremony. :) We had dinner at Ninja, a themed restaurant that was very entertaining. It was a bit pricey and the food was just OK, but we enjoyed the experience a lot. They were very creative with how they served some of the food!

Jennifer

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