Kyoto is a dream. For those of you that have been there before, that will come as no surprise. For those that haven't, picture a beautiful countryside city, frozen in time from a different era, tinged with modern, beautiful buildings. Many centuries ago, Kyoto - not Tokyo -was the capital of Japan. As the former center of the country - and still cultural hub - there are more temples to visit than any of you might know what to do with. The golden shrine is the most famous, but we enjoyed two others: Tofukuji Temple is a serene, less-popular space in southeastern Kyoto, complete with beautiful shrines and an incredible, life-size zen garden (paid area). Kiyomuzu-Dera, the other shrine area I'd recommend - is special because of the path it takes to get there; Matsubara Dori is a narrow, shop-lined street that helps make the slow climb to the temple a truly unique experience. It gets busy during the daytime, but even for someone (like me) who hates tourists, the density is worth it.
Let's have an honest conversation about Osaka, because I can already sense the vultures circling: yes, I was only there for one full day. No, I probably wasn't there long enough to make a true determination. But I was in Tokyo for 3 days, Kyoto for 2, and Kobe for an afternoon - and Osaka was my least favourite of the four. It might be because we visited Tokyo first, but we didn't connect with the city and its activities as much as we would have hoped. We stayed at the Hilton Osaka, which is exactly what I picture would happen if a block of inanimate clay became a hotel. Despite being adjacent to Osaka Station, finding the hotel's entrance took 30 minutes, which is about as frustrating as you might expect. We wandered aimlessly as usual, but fortunately were able to find Tenjimbashisuji, a long outdoor arcade with local shops and restaurants. Regarding the latter, again, you can't go wrong. But as the old rule of thumb goes, follow the people, which we did to a lineup outside a no-frills sushiya for lunch.
Fortunately, the city of Kobe - of Kobe Beef fame, for you rookies - is a thing that exists to save the day. Kobe proper is about 30 minutes by train from Osaka, but we stopped at a closer train station in order to visit the Hakatsuru Sake Museum and Distillery. Hakatsuru is one of a number of sake distilleries in the Nada District, so you can make an entire afternoon activity out of a walking tour. We were pressed for time, so one was it - but the free sake tasting was certainly well worth a visit.
Dinner in Kobe was one of the food highlights of our entire trip. Aoyama, a family run restaurant in the heart of the city, was a place I had earmarked based on recommendations and reviews. We weren't able to get a reservation in advance (even through our hotel), but we just showed up, and thankfully, we were given seats right away. If you go to Kobe as a tourist, you'll likely be targeted on the street by restauranteurs hawking second-rate beef, but Aoyama is worth holding out for. Family-run, the interior of Aoyama looks similar to a Teppanyaki-type restaurant that you might be familiar with from such American staples as Beni Hana, only the difference in experience is extraordinary. And of course, the food is worthy of all the accolades. Kobe Beef comes from its native cows, which - like many of us - have gotten fat because of the weather. When we looked at our cuts- sirloin and filet - we found that staring at the marbling was like looking into the sun.
Amanemu is also famous for the Onsen that run throughout the grounds. Onsen are natural Japanese hot springs, famous for their therapeutic and mineral properties.The general pool area at the spa (see picture below) is actually Onsen water, as is the water that fills each bathtub in the guest rooms (an awesome feature). Make no mistake though: Amanemu is a place for relaxation, not high-velocity entertainment. It's basically a resort designed for 400 guests with the goal of having only 25 at one time. Because the grounds are so sprawling, golf carts - for which there is always a chauffeur available - are necessary. As a result, I wouldn't recommend a longer stay.
But the serenity is welcome, especially in contrast to the culture in Tokyo and Osaka. The general pool area is sparsely populated (see picture below), so no problems securing a day bed. The grounds are spectacularly beautiful, and apparently are even nicer when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. And the staff is hyper aware of each guest. One of our favourite experiences was dinner at the hut of a local Ama. Ama are female pearl divers, who work in deep water searching for pearls, shellfish and other delicacies. The area of Ise Shima is famous for Ama (there is actually a museum), and the Ama dinner is the chance to experience their culture while simultaneously having an incredibly fresh (and delicious!) meal.
Left: Matsubara Dori. Right: Local sake "microbrew"
Top left: Steak Aoyama. Top right: Kobe proper
Bottom left: Kobe beef sirloin pre-cook. Bottom right: Kobe beef sirloin post-cook.
Top: View from the Amanemu pool deck. Bottom left: incredible burger. Bottom right: Japanese breakfast.
When we planned our honeymoon, I circled the trip to Ise Shima as one that might give us logistical problems. The purpose of the trip was to visit the brand new Amanemu, a tranquil resort on Ago Bay in the southeastern corner of Japan. In case you're as unfamiliar as I was, Aman is a boutique chain that prides itself on building hotels and resorts symbiotically within its natural surroundings. But that's a double edged sword, because the result means Amanemu is a chore to get to, especially when you don't speak the language: 4.5 hours, including two trains and a stop in Nagoya. To help navigate the train schedule, we relied on Hypderia, an english website that displays the train schedule for all the different railway lines in Japan. We arrived in Ise Shima in time to see the beautiful sunset and views. As isolated as Amanemu is, there is little need to journey far outside the resort - the surroundings are matched only by the food.
Top: Two pictures from the Ama's hut that we ate dinner
Bottom: General onsen area at Amanemu
Toro from Sushi Tetsu
Collection of images from sushi at Tenjimbashisuji
Our hotel - the Hyatt Regency - was situated right in the heart of Kyoto, close to the national museum, restaurants and shrines. It was another hotel that effectively blended western and japanese influences, though for the more adventurous, Kyoto has many highly regarded Ryokan. Ryokan are traditional japanese inns, complete with tatami mats, and most include absurd dinners with your stay. That said, Kyoto has more than enough excellent restaurants. Given my sushi addiction - and my dedication to this crazy hobby - I dragged my wife for our 945th sushi meal in a week. The place of choice was Sushi Tetsu, a restaurant next to a river that blew my mind. A small cover charge gets you in the door, and then - brace yourselves - every piece of nigiri (including ikura and toro) is virtually $1 US. I hope you were sitting down.
For non-sushi restaurants, I'd recommend Kurakura, a laid back izakaya with over 100 menu items. There's enough variety for all types of adventure. For the fancier folks, Kyoto has a diverse array of acclaimed restaurants making use of the outstanding local ingredients. Most are Japanese, but some - believe it or not - are French. Like the rest of Japan, it's very difficult to find a bad meal.
Lastly, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the food tour we did through the Shottengai (shopping streets) of Kyoto. Jason Davidson - an expat from the US - runs the tour through 10 local food stalls. At about $50USD, I couldn't recommend it more as a method for enjoying authentic cuisine that normally is difficult for english speakers to order.
Bathroom in a room at the Amanemu
|Length of trip||3 Days||1 Day||2 days||2 days|
Sushi Sho Masa
Ama pearl diver
|Hotel||Andaz Tokyo||Amanemu||Hilton Osaka||Hyatt Regency|
|Transportation||ANA First Class JFK to Tokyo Haneda||Shinkansen to Nagoya; Vista Car to Kashikojima||Vista Car to Osaka; Kintetsu to Kobe||JR West to Kyoto|
Tsukiji Fish Market
|Ama pearl diver museum|
Honkatsuru Sake Distillery (Kobe)
JD Kai Food Tour