When I was leaving Tokyo in July 2015 to move back to LA, I thought that I’d visit at least once every year, as I’ve been convinced that Japan is truly, my second home. Living in Tokyo was a major reason why I chose to live in New York City over Los Angeles for the past few years; It’s bustling – there’s something happening around every corner, the food and art scene has been in a constant rush, public transportation actually exists. Since I’ve moved to New York City, I’ve mainly met O’s friends and my brother, Tony’s friends. It’s honestly been a bit lonely sometimes because to this day, I still feel a little culturally out of place. This time, I brought O to meet some of my best friends – some of the characteristics and rituals and mannerisms that could define me a bit more.
4-9-22 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo
First off, Majima-san – my Itoya coworker, has known me too well for these past 5 years and invited me to Toraya, this gorgeous confectioners gallery and cafe. Not sure how she does it, but whenever Majima-san invites me for an outing, it’s always particularly mesmerizing. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who’s so spot-on for what kind of food, drinks, interiors. and experience I love. Toraya, founded back in the 1600s, has been renowned for its gorgeous illustrated wagashi design books from the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) and well known to feudal lords. It blows my mind how the original location in Kyoto was burnt to the ground along with the original Imperial palace and such a place still exists. And who knew wooden restrooms and hallways could smell so earthy and heavenly at the same time.
While we did check out a few ramen restaurants, Afuri was the best – better than Tokyo street/Rokurinsha 六厘舎, better than Kyoto’s burnt miso ramen. Not sure why, but I loved the Yuzu ramen this time more than I had when I lived in Tokyo. Maybe it’s because we were the first that morning.
I don’t know why, but Tokyo Disney Sea makes Disneyland look almost sad and ghetto. Something about the scenery of Tokyo Disney Sea makes me want to go every single time I visit Tokyo. I vividly remember my dad telling me stories of Tokyo Disney Sea when I was growing up. Although I’ve been there 4 times within the past 5 years, I fall in love with it every time – from the entrance, from getting my mickey mouse popcorn bucket filled with various flavored popcorn, to gazing out the ocean, eating curry, and screaming hysterically at random rides. There’s something hilarious about Indiana Jones and Genie speaking Japanese and Mickey Mouse fighting in Japanese.
What I like to call…”Kyoto in Tokyo” and one of my favorite gardens (with a museum) by Kengo Kuma and his associates. This gorgeous minimalist museum with Traditional little tea houses even includes a cafe with wagashi. Everytime I come here, I always feel like I am at peace. But of course, O and every other architect I bring here spends almost more of their time/energy on studying the joinery and details rather than the garden – that’s particularly mindblowing in the fall.
3rd Floor, 1 Chome-6 Jingūmae, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001
Originally, O and I were going to go to an owl cafe, but when he noticed a sign for capybaras along Harajuku’s infamous Takeshita… he insisted we come here instead, just for the capybara. I had no idea that this animal existed nor that rodents could be so relishing with 4 webbed toes at its hind legs and 3 webbed toes at its front legs. Such peaceful creatures.
On the bittersweet side, who knew coming back after 2 years would reveal that 1) My home of over one year is no longer there because of Japan’s disposable housing market, 2) Tokyo metro and J-rail feels and looks cleaner than I’d recall, 3) the majority of my favorite places and coworkers would still be there and 4) To me, truly, these architectural designers are #1 in the world, including my JMA friends.
My favorite type of tofu is now the yuuba. With a burner heating a pot of tofu soup, I’ve learned to use a bamboo stick to pick up layers and layers of tofu skins gradually. Who knew tofu could be served in so many ways. The first time I came to this comforting tofu restaurant was with my Kyoto friend, Rika-chan. Ever since then, it’s been a tradition for me to visit the Kiyomizudera temple and tofu restaurant everytime I come to Kyoto. And of course, end with tofu ice cream – creamy, slightly sweet with subtle flavors of soymilk and tofu.
Before/after tofu and ice cream I know it’s always a good idea to swing by Kiyomizu dera aka “Water Temple” – which was and is always particularly beautiful in the fall, not necessarily for their light show nor the swarms of tourists in kimonos, but how gorgeously red and vibrant it stands with bright leaves – naturally and from all angles.
This Shinto shrine of thousands of gorgeous Torii gates is perhaps most infamous. there’s no wonder why it’s featured in so many films, music videos, posters, art in general. This is hands down, a favorite stop that I love walking up in early mornings. While I should’ve truly believed my friend that there isn’t much at the top, O and I hiked to the top.
3-47, Sagatenryuji Susukinobabacho, Ukyo-ku
Kyoto 616-8385 Japan
Although I never like to wait in long lines nor be associated with coffee snobs, I always make time for Arabica Coffee, particularly the one next to the breathtaking Arashiyama river. After I saw Arabica Coffee in a magazine last year, A and I taxied over first thing in the morning and was alright with just a few people in front of us in line; A liked it so much that he went again the next day – and bought a bag of coffee beans to bring back home. Not sure if we were just lucky then going in early in the morning or if it’s gained so much more popular by now, but even after O and I taxied over on a Friday morning, we had to wait a good 30-ish+ minutes in a line full of other coffee enthusiasts/photographers/foreigners around the world. No, they don’t offer seating, but yes you can sit outside and enjoy the gorgeous scenery or you have to rent that space for $10 per hour.
I’m still seriously amused by their consistency in serving superb coffee in such small space with mobs of customers. Something about the coffee beans being brought from high elevations elevates my experience.
I also tell my friends who want to see the Golden pavillion, to visit either by sunrise/early morning or sunset; it’s one of the best things you could do for your soul. O and I arrived shortly before it started raining and the sun set, which created such a heavenly experience.
Since I’ve been particularly fascinated with history and learned more about samurai and imperial history, I fall in love with Nijo castle and am always mesmerized by how sophisticated the Japanese culture has been throughout centuries and how well they preserve their culture. Although photos are prohibited, I well…. accidentally snagged a few.
Kyoto wouldn’t be Kyoto for me without the nostalgic Mister Donut “pon-de-ring” – this very chewy sugar coated donut that’s filled with mochi. Thank God there is one in Kyoto station. I always love to snag one (or two) as soon as I arrive and just before I leave. Something about that texture in donut form…
Our one night stay in our tiny little hotel in Shimogyo-ku was not only traditional and clean, but so serene with the phenomenal view. Who knew sleeping on the floor could be so dreamy. This time I also appreciated Kyoto just as much or more than I had Tokyo. Not sure if it’s because I’ve gotten older, or if it’s because I was so much busier in Tokyo meeting with friends and old coworkers, or if it’s a mix of those and Kyoto’s traditional architecture and general serenity made it so much more peaceful than our lives in New York City.