Indagare member and iconic maternity fashion designer Liz Lange recently traveled to Japan with her family including her kids ages 14 and 16 and shares her impressions with Indagare
Indagare superbly planned our trip to Japan, connecting us to their local Japanese touring company whose guides were wonderful. A trip to Japan is often primarily based on Tokyo and Kyoto, but there are other interesting cities that enrich a trip to the country. Hiroshima is worth visiting and can be seen in a day trip from Kyoto. Hakone is also a great day trip or for an overnight in a ryokan. If it hadn’t been the winter months, we would have added on the art island of Naoshima.
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We spent a cumulative four days in the city, and spent much of our time primarily walking around the neighborhoods. We had a guide for two of our days there, and it was useful to have a translator for getting our bearings. The city was very accessible, and we used subways and taxis to get around when we were not walking.
We stayed at the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo, which is located in a relatively new development in Roppongi and adjacent to an upscale mall. The hotel has incredible views and impeccable service. It is further away from the Imperial Palace/Ginza area than some of the other hotels, like the Peninsula, but we did not find the location to be inconvenient.
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Most of Tokyo was destroyed during World War II, so we found exploring the different neighborhoods much more interesting than visiting any of the historic sites or museums. We did enjoy visiting Sensoji Temple, which is huge and touristy, at the end of a pedestrian street lined with little stalls of trinkets and food. The daily, ceremonial opening of the Isetan department store is also not to be missed. Isetan is a must-see even if high-end department stores are not of interest (they funded the Barneys expansion). At the very least, definitely go down to the basement food hall for lunch.
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Ginza is a large and busy area, where many of the high-end stores are clustered. In addition to the global retailers, there are many stores found only in Japan, such as Beams department store, Ships, United Arrows and Journal Standard. Also visit Dover Street Market (which also has a location in London and New York) and The Park-ing Ginza for highly innovative retail concepts. Tokyu Hands is also a very uniquely Japanese department store.
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The Harajuku area is filled with teenagers, including many dressed up in costume (the anime girls there look like Hello Kitty come to life.) It’s just one colorful street lined with little eclectic Japanese stores and candy, cotton candy and cream puff stands.
Nearby is Omotesando, and its surrounding streets and alleys are sophisticated and upscale, with many interesting and architecturally significant buildings. The avenue itself is filled with flagship luxury brands housed in buildings designed by celebrity architects. I liked the Journal Standard’s outpost there as well as visiting the luxury flagships. There are many little cafés and bakeries sprinkled throughout, which is where we found the best dumpling place, Harajuku Gyozaro.
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Within walking distance is Shibuya Crossing, the famous five-way crossing and the busiest pedestrian area in the world. The area is very reminiscent of Times Square but still worth seeing. (This is where the love hotels, pachinko and golden gai bar area are, so I would warn against going late at night.) Akihabara is a great electronics emporium for kids who love video games.
We also visited Kagurazaka, the French-Japanese neighborhood that is largely concentrated along one central street with restaurants, shops and bakeries. The Daikanyama neighborhood has a West Village feel and is home to numerous boutiques and also the tea center, a giant complex. Ueno Park is entertaining for kids with its many museums, a zoo and a large outdoor market.
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For lunch each day, we didn’t plan anything. One day we ate at the food hall of Isetan (Mistsukoshi department store’s food hall is also amazing). Another day, we ate at Harajuko Gyoza in Ometsando. Yakitori is also a good option and the most famous yakitori place is Birdland. Another specialty place is Maisen, famous for tonkatsu, the Japanese version of pork Milanese. Japan’s restaurants are often based around one aspect of Japanese cuisine, so I would recommend having one night each of sushi, teppanyaki, shabu shabu and Western (we had pizza). We had sushi at Kyubey, teppanyaki at Mon Cher Ton Ton and shabu shabu at Seryna and loved it. For pizza, we went to Frey’s Famous, which is next door to the Ritz-Carlton. Tokyo also has incredible Chinese restaurants, the most famous of which is called Fureiko.
After Tokyo we were driven to Hakone on our way to Kyoto. We visited the hot springs, where private springs are available for rent. The Hakone Open Air Musuem, an outdoor sculpture garden, is similar to Storm King in the Hudson Valley and is worth a visit. Also, the Hakone Ropeway, a funicular that takes visitors up a mountain and down other side, offers incredible views of Mt. Fuji
We took the bullet train from Hakone to Kyoto. It is fastest way to get there (a 90-minute train ride and you can reserve the “Green Car” – which is first class). It is worth taking a train in Japan – they truly are like rockets.
Kyoto was not destroyed by the war so there is a better sense of the neighborhoods and old-world Japan. The city is dotted with numerous shrines and temples.
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We stayed at the Four Seasons and loved it, particularly the food, brand-new look and service. The location is removed from the main center, but it didn’t bother us as there is not a lot of action in Kyoto to begin with. It has a great indoor pool and beautiful spa. The Ritz-Carlton is extremely well located, although we thought the lobby was too busy. You could also stay one night in a ryokan, where you sleep in a Japanese-style room on tatami mats and eat traditional Japanese meals, all served by geishas. The two most famous ryokans in Kyoto are across the street from each other: Tarawa and Hiiragaya.
In Kyoto, we had tea with a maiko (a geisha in training), which was arranged by Indagare’s tour operator. Our ceremony lasted an hour and the maiko made us tea and performed songs and dances. The kids were fascinated and eagerly asked her questions about her life and her training. The kids also loved a calligraphy lesson that was arranged by our hotel.
Fushimi Inari are the iconic orange gates that ascend and descend Inari mountain and are worth visiting early in the morning before the crowds arrive. Kimkakuji Temple (the Golden Pavilion) is not to be missed, and neither is Kiymizudera, another massive hilltop temple that offers great views of the city.
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For shopping, the Nishiki Market is a very crowded food market but is a fun experience and is home to the famous knife store, Aritsugu. Some of the best shopping streets are Teramazchi dori, which has small specialty shops that sell tea, bamboo and chopsticks, and Sanio Dorio. Ponto-Cho is a small lively street filled with lots of restaurants, and Gion is interesting as it is where the geishas live.
In Nara, there are many historically significant temples in a large outdoor park area inhabited by many deer. We visited Nara as a day trip from Kyoto with our guide and a driver.
We wanted to take the kids here and took the bullet train from Kyoto, which was an easy hour and a half. The Hiroshima museum was incredibly powerful, very interactive and graphic and the kids learned a lot. It’s well done with videos of people describing their stories from the day of the bomb: August 6, 1945. We had a wonderful, informative guide whose uncle had been killed in Hiroshima so she was able to personalize the tour and really engaged our children.