I took a different type of trip to Japan this summer.
Up until this point, Bryan and I focused our Japan trips almost exclusively around food. We would make reservations at hard-to-book places in advance and then schedule the rest of our activities around these food "anchors."
This past July, we celebrated one of our closest friend's big milestone birthdays (you'll never guess by the photos which milestone it is . . . he just looks so young). We decided to celebrate by meeting in Tokyo for a four day trip. Because my friend's not that into food, we decided instead to explore other aspects of Japan that he would enjoy.
This turned out to mean spending a few days exploring the quirkier side of Japan as well as a day trip to Hakone, a beautiful, mountainous area known for its hot springs and views of Mt. Fuji.
Day 1: Hakone
Hakone is a popular day-trip destination from Tokyo that boasts mountains, hot springs, museums, and gorgeous scenery. If you do try to see all of Hakone within a day, you'll have to pick and choose between the many available things to do and see in the area. If possible, I think a two-day trip is much more relaxing. Having said that, we only had one day, so we made sure to plan ahead and prioritize how we would spend our time.
We bought the very convenient Hakone Free Pass, which gives you unlimited use of the park's different transportation forms. We upgraded to the faster Romance Car (purchase separately after buying the pass), and booked early in order to score one of their special four-person "saloon" cabins in the 50000 VSE train.
We used many forms of transportation with our pass, including the Romance car (75 minutes from Shinjuku station to Hakone), the ropeway, and the mountain tram (which does switchbacks, so interesting!). We could have taken a boat ride at Lake Ashi, but instead chose to go a different route and spend more time at some of the museums.
I highly recommend taking the ropeway, which allows you to see a fascinating glimpse of steam rising from an active volcanic mountain. The ropeway passes right over it, which is very cool. On clear days, you can also see Mt. Fuji on the ropeway ride. My friends got a quick glimpse during our ride, even though I personally missed it (probably because I was busy taking photos of the volcano!).
I also really enjoyed the Hakone Open Air Museum, which had an excellent collection of modern art sculptures throughout the park. If the weather's not too hot, it's such a beautiful setting (in the mountains!) in which to spend a couple hours walking around and enjoying modern art.
If you're curious in seeing some of the modern art pieces, check out my Instagram post from Hakone here.
The Hakone Venetian Glass Museum was small but beautiful. I was especially blown away by how the glass bridge sparkles when hit by sunlight due to the many, many tiny pieces of crystal covering the bridge. There were also numerous pieces of ancient Venetian glass, very interesting wine glasses, and modern glass art, such as pieces from Dale Chihuly.
Our friend is a huge fan of The Little Prince, so we definitely had to stop by the Little Prince Museum. Here I learned so much about the author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, both his experiences as a wartime aviator as well as the details surrounding his famous book. The museum is very well organized and is also very beautiful.
Finally, we took a free "soak" in the famous hot spring water of Hakone. This particular foot soaking bath was located at the Hakone Open Air Museum. They sold mini towels for JPY100 (about $1 USD) if you wanted to dry off your feet afterwards (very handy and so worth it!). If I were to spend more time in Hakone, I would have loved to go to a real onsen to enjoy the full onsen experience. However, since we were short on time, this was at least a nice way to briefly experience it.
I highly recommend visiting Hakone at least for one day, if not two. It is a beautiful area with great, high quality museums, fantastic scenery, and a calm breath of fresh air away from the craziness of Tokyo.
Day 2: Akihabara + Other Unusual Japanese Experiences
Japan, especially the Akihabara neighborhood, has a lot of quirky cafes you can’t find anywhere else. Examples include their famous maid cafes (more on that later), an owl cafe, and even a hedgehog cafe. At the hedgehog cafe, you get to feed hedgehogs, pick them up (gently!), and buy one if you wish. Pay according to the amount of time you wish to spend with the hedgehogs. Each ticket includes a free (very ordinary) drink from a vending machine.
Although the hedgehogs are super cute (I'd never seen them before), we felt bad because the little hedgehogs definitely acted a bit traumatized from being handled so much. The staff do try to teach everyone how to handle the hedgehogs properly, but my guess is that a lot of people don't do it quite correctly, thus causing trauma to the animals. We only picked them up once (mostly for the photo), and then left soon afterwards.
Though I have been to Tokyo over 10 times, I had never visited their infamous “maid cafes” until this trip. This was indeed a fascinating look into one aspect of Japan’s subculture. The whole experience was bizarrely over-the-top cute with tons of hearts, cats, and high voices.
Pink colored “magic” curry (we had to cast spells on them), kitty omurice, and bling bling dessert were just a few of the offerings on the menu. For an extra cost, you could play a game with a maid or take a blurry Polaroid shot with one. They even had maid "menus" with heavily processed photos of each maid. The maids referred to men as "masters" and women as "princesses." The restaurant was quite strict about photography, and would only let us take photos of the food, not of the maids. You had to pay for those.
Food-wise this was probably the worst meal of our trip, but definitely not one that I will quickly forget!
We also had dinner at a restaurant in Shimbashi called Kagaya Izakaya. The food was pretty ordinary (like Japanese comfort food, almost like home cooking) but what made this restaurant really unusual was the personality of the owner, Mark Kagaya. Dining at Kagaya Izakaya is like half entertainment, half dinner. There are plenty of surprises. For example, the presentation of everything - from your hot towel and your drinks to your final meal - comes in the form of a show starring Mr. Kagaya himself. I won't give it away, but the acts involve stuffed animals, toys, costumes, and some mildly crude humor.
To be perfectly honest, it's not exactly my type of humor, and the food's not good enough to make up for it. However, the restaurant is extremely popular and guests love Kagaya-san's zany personality (note: book ahead if you want to ensure seats!). For those who appreciate very weird, unexpected, and slightly crude humor, this may just be the right unique experience.
We did enjoy some classic Japanese experiences this trip, such as singing karaoke, playing games at an arcade, and taking photos inside those silly photo booths where you can dress up using costumes they provide.
We also sampled several classic Japanese eats, such as Maisen tonkatsu, Yamagata wagyu beef yakiniku, tonkotsu ramen, and yakitori.
Our highlight meal of the trip was an exquisite dinner at 1-Michelin starred Crony in Nishi-Azabu. Crony is a French restaurant that focuses on using local Japanese ingredients.
I will be publishing a separate post to detail every single course of this amazing meal. For now, you can get a preview from my Instagram post back in July (see above).
All in all, it was a great trip even though it felt super short. It was fun to spend quality time with our friend and to celebrate with him during this momentous time in his life.
Happy Birthday Ed! (and no, he's not just turning 2o!)