Tokyo.

It was a blur. Recollecting what happened on which day is impossible, and no matter what we say here, we will never do Tokyo justice. So here are some awesome things we did, in no particular order:

We met up with Andrew and had a blast exploring the city, because the world is huge but not big enough to prevent your friend from New York from meeting you in Japan.

We visited a Maid café. Worth it? Probably not. Weird? Definitely. Were there some regulars who were totally into it? Oh yea. The whole kawaii (mega super cutesy) culture in Japan can be shocking, and this was a prime, almost fetishistic example.

We wandered in the electric city of Akihabara, where video games, japanamation, manga, and pornography all mix in a sense-overloading bolus of neon.

Andrew and Dima stumbled through Golden Gai for an entire night, making friends with an independent film maker with an interest in vaping culture (culture should be in quotes), where the late night involved tiny bars, karaoke, and a run-in with a well-known Japanese actor.

We went to Shibuya, Harajuku and Ginza, ate a lot, and then drank, and then ate more. Although by this point we may have had too much Japanese food, so we branched out to other cuisine. Andrew even introduced us to the finest food in Japan – the egg salad sandwich from Lawson, the convenience store.

A dynamic, bustling city and a blur of a weekend was the perfect way to end our Japanese adventure. Two weeks traveling and we feel like we’ve just barely skimmed the surface – in fact, we’re already discussing our next trip.

Hakone

Though we didn’t have enough time to take advantage of some of northern Japan’s mountainous regions, we wanted to make sure to check out an onsen – a natural hot spring. We spent two nights in Hakone, an area just over an hour outside of Tokyo, known for its hot springs and stunning views of nearby Mount Fuji.

We stayed at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel that serves both breakfast and dinner. We had a private onsen in our room, though there was also a larger, public one available (separated by gender – no bathing suits allowed). There’s a particular way to bathe, involving sitting on a stool and using a bucket to rinse – fortunately they provide etiquette instructions prior to entry.

It was a slow-paced, relaxing two days – exactly what we needed before heading to Tokyo. We left feeling refreshed and ready for our last, most hectic stop in Japan!

Hiroshima & Itsukushima

It was important to us to take a trip to Hiroshima while in Japan, so we spent half a day there on our way to Itsukushima.

Once off the train, we spent some time wandering around the city. Knowing the history, it was difficult to conjure up an image of what modern-day Hiroshima would look like, though I think we were both surprised by how metropolitan it was.

Walking up to the Peace Memorial is a sobering experience; you turn the corner off of a modern city street and approach the Atomic Bomb dome – frozen in time and a constant reminder of the horrific consequences of war, while simultaneously serving as an international symbol of peace. The museum was also heartbreaking and definitely worth a trip.

We continued south on an afternoon train to Miyajima. In the morning we took a quick ferry ride to Itsukushima, a small island in Hiroshima Bay known for it’s giant Grand Torii Gate and fairly aggressive free-roaming deer.

We wandered along the beach and through the small streets, dodging deer headbutts and intermittent downpours. For lunch, we had okonomiyaki, a famous Japanese pancake.

After a jam-packed week and a half of travel, we moved into the slower-paced finish to our Japanese adventures. Next up: to the hot springs!

Deer Kyoto…

Real talk: snuggling furry animals is one of our favorite pastimes. (Note: I’m sorry if my husband has aggressively snuggled your dog. It’s an overload of love and he sometimes struggles with personal boundaries.)

When we read up on Nara Park and heard there would be deer roaming around freely, we knew we needed to check it out. Nara is a quick train ride away from Osaka, which made for the perfect day trip on the way to Kyoto.

Stepping off the train, we walked toward the park and were quickly surrounded by deer. They’re surprisingly aggressive; we received quite a few head-butts and we witnessed several children getting knocked off their feet. It was an extremely entertaining way to spend the afternoon. We also went to the Kofukuji Buddhist Temple, which is worth a view if you go to Nara.

Our first impression upon our arrival in Kyoto was how freezing it was. Throughout our few days in Kyoto, I acquired two pairs of gloves, two hats and a scarf…and there were evenings when I ventured out wearing two pairs of pants and two sweaters. I know we complain about the lack of heat in Wellington, but we were quite unprepared for this frigid weather!

Kyoto is well known for Udon, thick noodles made of wheat flour, so we made sure to have some on our first night. We made our way to the Gion district and even spotted a few geishas scurrying into a house. The Yasaka Shrine is illuminated once it turns dark, so we ended our first, chilly evening there.

The next day we strolled through the Nishiki Market, where the streets are lined with vendors selling fish, spices, meat, and all sorts of other street food. We walked to the Ginkakuji Temple, an absolute must-see if you go to Kyoto. The Zen temple is surrounded by lush greenery and stunning views. We ended the evening with a traditional samurai dinner. The food was nothing to write home about, but Dmitriy got to swing around a samurai sword, so it seemed to be worth it.

On our last day in Kyoto, we visited the Nijo Castle, which served as the home to the shogun in the 1600s. The interior is filled with intricate details, murals and gold fixtures; the exterior has a plum grove and a cherry blossom garden.

Note to self: next time, wear matching socks.

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We went to the Kyoto International Manga Museum, which was pretty crazy. The grounds of the museum were covered with huge groups of people reading their new purchases. The museum itself was also quite crowded, the walls lined with engrossed readers.

Our final stop was to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, and home to thousands of Torii gates. There are long trails leading around the grounds, lined with one Torii gate after another. While chaotic at times, particularly near the entrance, the higher you climb, the calmer things are. We didn’t have enough time to make it all the way around the shrine (it takes 2-3 hours), but you should at least go halfway up, where you’ll see some spectacular views over the city.

The history and presence of Kyoto left a lasting impression. While Osaka seemed to embody the crazy, eclectic neon nighttime persona of Japan, Kyoto was its learned, sometimes somber, sophisticated uncle.

With the help of our handy Japan Rail train pass, we were off to Hiroshima!

Osaka it to me, baby.

We’ve been dreaming about going to Japan for years now, so there was a lot of anticipation leading up to this trip. In the hopes of catching some cherry blossoms, we planned a trip at the end of March/beginning of April.

I can only describe stepping off of the plane and into Osaka as a breath of fresh air; while we loved Seoul, the pristine environment and organization was a welcome change after a weekend of (fun) chaos.

We explored Dotonbori, strolling past the famous massive mechanical crab, countless food vendors and tons of tourists. The streets were lively and the people were friendly. We ate some yakitori and stumbled into a sushi bar in an alley off of the main strip.

After venturing back into Dotonbori for breakfast the next day, we worked our way to Osaka Castle Park for our first glimpse of cherry blossoms. It was still quite cold, but the few blossoms we saw delighted us.

We ate ramen at Zundo-ya, which was, hands down, the best ramen we’ve ever consumed. After demonstrating an embarrassing lack of control where we could not stop eating, the food coma was real.

Something that needs to be discussed: Japan’s toilet game is ON POINT. Between the heated seat, high-tech bidets and privacy music, my bathroom expectations have been forever changed.

Osaka was probably our favorite place we visited on this trip, perhaps because it was where we first set foot in Japan or perhaps just because it was fabulous. We found the Japanese to be so friendly, going out of their way to offer directions or help. Osaka itself was bustling in the most spectacular way; the streets were pristine and there were vending machines with peeled apples, hot coffee and ice cream. Do you really need anything else in life?