Japan with love…

By Guest Contributor: Shawn Ferjanec – Photographer
Contributor’s website: Shawn Ferjanec


Two years ago, we were fortunate enough to visit Japan. This trip was one of the most memorable trips that we’ve ever taken and will always have a special place in our hearts. We fell in love with the culture, the sights, and most of all…the people of Japan. Being an Angeleno, I was amazed and envious of the respect and kindness that they had for one another.

My thoughts are prayers are with them.

Itinerary:

We stayed 3 days in Tokyo and then took the Bullet Train to Kyoto for 3 days. We did an extremely adventurous overnight trip from here to Mt. Koya and then headed back to Tokyo for an additional 3 days.
We took a direct flight on American Airlines from Los Angeles to Narita Airport, about an hour outside of Tokyo. I used my Advantage miles to upgrade us to first class. Boy what a difference there is when you fly American on International flights. Great, spacious private “pods” with a seat/full flat bed that lets you get some shut eye on the long flight. Service matched the cabin class…first class. Very friendly and attentive.
We arranged an airport pick up through our hotel. After a pretty bland hour drive through the outskirts of Tokyo, we get our first glimpse of the city. Any jet lag that we may have been feeling quickly disappeared.

First stop…

Tokyo  (part 1)

There’s so much to see and do in Tokyo. The best way to see the sights, but also get a sense of the “real” Tokyo, is to hire a guide. We prefer a personal guide over the group tours. This way you and the guide set up a tour that covers what you want to see and do. We hired an amazing personal guide named Keko through Chris Rowthorn Tours .

Chris has written ten guidebooks for Lonely Planet about Kyoto and the rest of Japan. Kiyomi showed up on time and was excited and eager to show us the city.
We booked a full day tour and saw everything that we wanted and more. For lunch, she took us for a traditional home style meal called Hiroshima Okonomiyaki.

It’s kind of like a savory omelet/pancake but with ingredients such as cabbage, shrimp, bacon, octopus, vegetables, kimchi. It’s topped with a combination of a mayo sauce along with a sweet BBQ type sauce.

Add an ice cold draft beer and you have a perfect combo to fill you up and give you a taste of a traditional Japanese home style meal.
Chris Rowthorn Tours  * * * *  Great service! Very friendly and knowledgeable guides.

We stayed at The Peninsula Hotel Tokyo, located in the Ginza district. The Ginza is often referred to as the Beverly Hills of Tokyo. We first stayed at a the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong while on our Honeymoon. It’s my favorite spoil yourself luxury hotel in the world and The Peninsula Tokyo did not disappoint.

The Peninsula Hotel Tokyo: Great Hotel. One of the best we’ve ever stayed.
Location  * * * * *
Rooms  * * * * *
Service  * * * * *

The room was spacious with an amazing view of the skyscrapers of Ginza.

The service here was probably the best we’ve ever received at any hotel. One night we had reservations at Sushi Saito, a Michelin top rated restaurant. After a mix up in dinner reservations, it turns out that there are two Sushi Saito’s in Tokyo and we were booked at the wrong one, the hotel took care of us. The concierge re-booked us at the correct restaurant for the following weekend when we would return for part 2 of our Tokyo stay. Upon check out, a bellmen dressed in a head to toe white uniform greeted us and whisked us outside to a waiting Rolls Royce that would take us to Tokyo station.

They didn’t just “drop us off and run”, the bellman took our luggage all of the way through the station up to the tracks where we were to take the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Kyoto. He had us wait in the air conditioned waiting room while he stood by our bags next to the track. When our train arrived, he put our bags on board and personally showed us to our seats. He then waited outside the train standing at full attention and proceeded to bow as our train departed from the station. Now that’s service!!!

We’re off to Kyoto by Shinkansen (Bullet Train).

Kyoto
We went there to experience a slice of the old Japan and Kyoto did not disappoint. We arrived at Kyoto Station after a relaxing high speed 3 hour trip from Tokyo.

We’re staying at Hotel Granvia Kyoto. The location is great. It’s right above Kyoto station making extremelyy convenient for any day trips that you may have in mind…Osaka, Fushimi Inari (famous for it’s thousands of tori gates), and if you’re really feeling adventurous…Mt. Koya/Koyasan ( Must do this!!!) . There’s a mall above Kyoto Station that has some interesting shopping as well an entire floor…10th Floor, dedicated to only Ramen restaurants.

These are the real deal. No Top Ramen here. You’ve never had anything like this!

As for the rooms, they’re nice, clean and comfortable but nothing really memorable. Locations makes up for this.

As you would expect in Japan, the service is great. Very friendly and extremely helpful. They have a concierge in the lobby that will help with sightseeing tips, restaurant suggestions, info on getting around and they’ll also translate any directions to Japanese just in case you get lost.

Hotel Granvia Kyoto  : Nice hotel, great location if you want to do day trips.

Location- ****
Rooms- ***
Service – ****

Again we hired a personal guide, Koko, through Chris Rowthorn Tours. She was a wonderful guide who took us to all of the major sights as well as some hidden gems.

left: Private guide Koko / right: Kodai-Ji Temple (founded in 1605)

Make sure that you go to the Gion district. It’s an area filed with history. Go to a street called
Hanamikoji dori to see some actual Geisha on the way to the many tea houses that line the street.

Geisha and Maiko (Geisha in training) on Hanamikoji dori in the Gion district

To really experience the real Kyoto, you need go off the beaten path. Wander down the alleys and stop in for a beer and some of the best Japanese style “pub” food ever.

After reading an article in the NY Times, I made reservations at Kikunoi Restaurant. They’re famous for their 14 course Kaiseki meal.

This was, how should I put it, the best worst meal that we’ve ever had. Let me explain that. The setting is beautiful. You are seated in your own private room. A server brings you an assortment of courses of very traditional Japanese dishes. Some you’ve had before, sushi, sashimi, mushroom soup, mochi, and others that you have not, turtle soup complete with a drop of turtle blood, eel sashimi, grilled Ayu fish that you eat whole…guts and all, to name a few.

It was an incredible experience. If you’re adventurous and want to experience something different, go for it. It’s a meal that you’ll remember forever.

Mt. Koya/Koyasan

A friend of mine convinced me to take a side trip to Mt. Koya/Koyasan. It turned out to be one of the most memorable highlights of the entire trip! It was an adventurous 3 hour trip (due to the fact that once we left Kyoto, no one spoke English the rest of the trip) by Bullet Train to a subway to a local train to a cable car to finally meet our personal guide who completed the journey by car.

Our guide was a retired English teacher who volunteered his time in exchange for the experience of meeting travelers and keeping up with his English.

Koyasan started as a single monastery atop of Mt. Koya and has grown into the town of Koya, featuring a university dedicated to religious studies and 120 temples, many of which offer lodging in working Temples run by monks.

We stayed at Eko-in.  This 100-year-old temple has 36 rooms, with origins stretching back almost 1,100 years. This is about as peaceful as it gets. After a walking tour of temples in a redwood forest, we headed back to our room. It was traditional ryokan with a minimal decor.

The living room/bedroom/dining room has Tatami (straw mat) flooring and the bed was a futon put down directly on the Tatami floor, along with a bag of beans for a pillow. It doesn’t sound like it, but it was very comfortable. The meals are all vegetarian and are served by the monks living at Eko-in. Amazing food! If I could eat this everyday, I’d become a vegetarian.

In the morning we witnessed the monks fire ceremony. It’s one of the most beautiful spiritual ceremonies that we’ve ever seen.

After a peaceful 4 days in Kyoto and Koyasan, It’s time to head back to Tokyo for 3 more days.

Tokyo (part2)

Back to the lights and excitement of Tokyo. This time we’re staying at The Park Hyatt. The hotel made famous in the movie “Lost in Translation”.

The Park Hyatt Tokyo: I would advise you to go there and have a drink but skip this place. Doesn’t live up to the hype.

Location  * * *
Rooms  * * * *

Service  *

Upon check in, we were greeted by a receptionist, which was more like a concierge. Immediately we were asked if we’d like to be upgraded to a bigger room. I thought “that sounds great, how nice” but quickly found out that we would have to pay for this. I declined and again was asked if I was sure about declining the upgrade. Very tacky! Not a good start. Overall it’s a nice hotel but I prefer the Peninsula hands down. The best thing about it is that it’s located in the Shinjuku district which is very convenient to get to Yoyogi ParkHarajuku, home to dozens of kids who dress up every Sunday in Cosplay and Gothic Lolita costumes.

 

We finally got our chance to dine at Sushi Saito and let me tell you, it was worth the wait! The entire restaurant consists of about 9 seats at a single counter. We were the only non Japanese eating there and we decided to go for it. We did omakase and ate everything and anything that everyone else was eating.

It got pretty crazy at one point when the chef brought out what looked like a large mushroom. All of the other diners got very excited and when we were asked if we’d like to have some, we said “of course”. I love mushrooms but as soon as I put it in the mouth I realized it wasn’t a mushroom. It turns out that it was turtle and it tasted as bad as you’d expect. We powered through it with the thanks of alcohol and had one of the best sushi meals ever.

Another night we felt adventurous and headed over to Kabukichō, also known as Tokyo’s red light district.

 

The most surprising thing that we saw was the abundance of male escorts. You can spot them right away with their hair as if the just stepped out of a 1980’s heavy metal video.

Another “must do” is an early morning visit to Tsukiji Fish Market.

I found a great guide, Mr. Nakamura who does small group tours to give you a behind the scenes look at this world famous market. The 2 hour tour starts at 4:30 A.M. and ends with a sushi breakfast. Delicious!

Japan is an amazing, beautiful, spiritual place that will always have a place in our hearts. If you ever thought about going, or if this make you think about going…do it!!! You’ll fall in love with Japan.

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Contributor’s website: Shawn Ferjanec

(image credits: shawn ferjanec) 

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