All right gang, after a glorious two weeks, I’ve made it back from Japan. Thanks again to everybody who contributed. It made a daunting task feel much easier. I made a mess of this thread by starting it before I really had time to post, but specific resto reports will be below, eventually. Before I get to all that, I wanted to do a run-down of my general thoughts on my three destinations: Niseko, Tokyo, and Kyoto.
Niseko: Skiing Japow was the impetus for this trip, but honestly I tried to keep my expectations low, if only so I wouldn’t be bummed if I wasn’t skiing knee-deep powder every run for 5 days. Lolz, it snowed five days straight, crowds were minimal (rarely any lift lines beyond a minute,) and the onsen was hot, and I was skiing knee-deep powder for 5 days. There was so much powder; it was surreal. My buddy and I (both of whom average probably 12-20 days a year skiing out west) deemed this our best trip ever. So ya, go ski powder in Japan. It’s insane.
A great part about Niseko United was that the place doesn’t feel corporate at all, perhaps because it is a merging of four separate resorts all with their own identity. On-mountain beers cost like three dollars and a wonderful soba with shrimp tempura ran about $7.50. That alone made the experience so much better. Imagine the vibes of Alta but with much, much better food.
Hirafu (the main town area close to the mountain) is overrun by Americans, French, and Australians but there are still some hidden gems to be found. Reservations are a must, which is kind of a bummer in a ski town when you want to play things by ear. Still, prices were fair and the food, for a mountain town catering to people content to eat mediocre food, was damn good after a day of skiing.
Tokyo: Woof, what a city. I think if anything I was surprised by how manageable Tokyo felt—probably a combination of Google Maps, Google translate, and a decent amount of past time spent in Asian megalopolises. At the same time, I found it incredibly helpful to have my meals planned out, simply because there are so many restaurants that my feeble mind couldn’t possibly decide on a spot in the moment. By having destination restaurants (whether that be a ramen spot or a baller kaiseki spot) I could explore a different neighborhood leisurely, rather than running calculus in my mind to figure out which line I should park myself in.
I found my enjoyment of Tokyo to be neighborhood-centric, which makes sense given its massive size. I didn’t care much for Shinjuku, Shibuya was better but hectic, Roppongi (where I stayed for one night) felt like the mediocre part of any given massive city. We stayed 4 nights in Ebisu, and I loved it there. A two minute walk led us into a maze of restaurants and bars, all of which felt targeted to hip, young Tokyoites. The bars were wonderful (Bar Trench, Bar Urushi, and Buri, which is a stand-up cheap sake bar and yakitori spot) and there was a medley of well-priced but delicious restaurant options (the steak sando spot @jc_eats recommended, Afuri ramen, numerous gyoza spots, yakiniku spots, fruit-sando spots, etc.) Truly the only issue I could find with Ebisu is that the hotel situation is rather bleak. The first designer boutique hotel that opens there will make a fortune.
Also, from the Ebisu home base, we were walking distance to Daikanyama and Nakameguro, which were these tranquil little pocket neighborhoods skirting the Meguro river. Said trio of neighborhoods felt quite residential, while still maintaining a density that LA could only dream of. Each day, we would walk to a different spot to grab coffee, wander the river, and inevitably end up at the Dainkanyama T-site, which houses the Tsutaya bookstore, which has to be one of the coolest book/design shops on earth. Highly recommend. Also, thank you @J_L because I’m pretty sure you mentioned Daikanyama as a place you liked, and then with some targeted research based upon that, I ended up in Ebisu.
Kyoto: I understand why you all insisted that as a first-timer to Japan, I’d be doing something wrong if I didn’t end up in Kyoto. Walking along the river and canals at night (particularly the Philosopher’s Path on the way to Monk) was surreal and peaceful and felt quintessentially Japan. The temples were stunning, albeit crowded. (I seriously can’t imagine how overwhelming they would be in peak tourist season.) Also, the architecture and the sheer age of everything was wonderful. The history of the city is inseparable from it, in a way that feels rather unique. We ate wonderfully in Kyoto—I understand how the nuance of the cuisine could be a deterrent but I took it as part of a challenge. Lol a life goal would be to get my tongue so finely attuned that I can taste every nuance in their cooking!
Also, I had the most gracious restaurant experience of my life in Kyoto. Long story short, and this story may be elaborated upon in the forthcoming report, I totally messed up my reservation time. They sat me TWO HOURS LATE rather than taking my 900 dollar deposit. I was utterly floored. Thinking back, I’m still floored.
What a trip.
Here’s a bad photo of a good sunset on the way in to Haneda.