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New Year's in Japan (Tokyo & Kyoto)... lots of questions

Greetings all. I have greatly enjoyed all the posts from chowhounds on Japan.

I am planning my first trip to Japan this New Year's and am very excited to experience the food, architecture and design of this wonderful country. My husband and I are quite adventurous eaters and have with regular occurence enjoyed some splendid izakaya & sushi in our home city of San Diego and nearby LA.

We are flying out the day after Christmas and return on 4th January.

> Would you recommend spending an equal # of days in Kyoto and Tokyo? Currently we have 5 nights in Tokyo and 3 in Kyoto.

> With the New Year's holiday, I presume many restaurants may be closed. But am hopeful that there will be many that remain open. Do you have any advice on this point based off your experiences in Japan at this time? Any advice on dining out during this holiday week and sightseeing (shrines, museums, et al), regarding closures, is much appreciated.

> We love local, seasonal, simple foods and flavors. I imagine we will do at least one formal night out, but any tips on smaller authentic restaurants, street food, noodle shops, et al, and overall, undiscovered places, are much appreciated.

> Any tips on markets? Must experience sake shops? Shops for ingredients, knives, etc?

THANK YOU in advance. I appreciate all your suggestions!

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  1. So, you've got a lot of planning and research to do.

    Most of the specifics you are asking for (street food, noodles, knives, authentic restaurants, etc.) have been covered on the board. You'll want to dig deep with the search function. It's better to do that and post your eating plan than rely on the board to provide you with a full dining itinerary. I strongly recommend that for the special meal and a few other dinners, you research the restaurant's schedule and, if possible through a Japanese speaking source, book a reservation. Most good restaurants do close down around that time, particularly closer to the New Year's holiday. So I would suggest planning your formal meal as close to your arrival as possible. Chain restaurants are pretty steadily open the whole time though. And between the 1st and the 4th, you won't have any choice really. Nothing will be open. And the chains that do stay open are usually the low end ones. Sorry, it's just like that. You might want to look into Kaikaiya, a foreigner friendly place in Shibuya that is recommended here sometimes. They may be open during this time. The online English magazine Metropolis may have further information on what's open.

    Tsukiji is still open most of that time up until the holiday though. You won't be alone as foreign tourists if you go, but it's still worth it. A highlight for you will surely be the depachika (department store food emporium), which are at their pinnacle of greatness that time of year. I'm in Tokyo every New Year's and I go to one nearly every day. New Year's is considered a family holiday in Japan and depachika become the focal point for big meal and gift shopping. I recommend hitting up several of the major ones in Tokyo- Isetan, the two in Ikebukuro, Takashimaya, Tokyu, etc. I have no idea about Kyoto's big depachika, but the Hankyu in Osaka is tremendous and akin to a modern bazaar. I can only imagine what it's like around that time of year. Perhaps a detour to consider.

    On New Year's Eve, which has increasingly become a time of public revelry in really just central Tokyo, you can consider making your way to a shrine. It will be crowded, but culturally interesting and you'll get a chance to down some complimentary amazake (sweet unfiltered sake).

    7 Replies
    1. re: Silverjay

      Kyoto's depachika aren't really that big. Takashimaya and Daimaru are good, and they actually have some different stores so you have to go to both to get everything you want (or at least I do...). I still love Nishiki Market, but it has really changed over the last 15 years. There are a lot more "new" stores selling typical tourist stuff (socks with Japanese prints, etc.) rather than the traditional foods and goods. I know it's not necessarily a bad thing, but it just makes me feel sad whenever I walk through there.

      Hankyu at Umeda is huge, but also incredibly difficult to manuever around when it's crowded (which is almost always). I prefer Sogo at Shinsaibashi--it's much more spacious, but I think Hankyu has more stuff.

      1. re: prasantrin

        The veg, fish, fish and poultry markets and purveyors are closed around new years, so for the most part it is almost impossible to have really great food around that time. I don't think Kaikaya is open over the new year holiday.

        1. re: prasantrin

          That's interesting, I was just visiting Nishiki Market last month, and I was pleased to see all the new shops - there was a big new noodle shop, and a very nice-looking pottery shop among others. It looks like the market seems to have perked up a bit compared to a few years ago, and there are certainly plenty of traditional shops still in business.

        2. re: Silverjay

          I can confirm that Tsukiji is closed 12/28 and 1/1-1/4. 12/31 is an optional day for vendors. Most likely, closed.

          1. re: Silverjay

            To clarify, will the main depachika be open the whole time during the New Year period or just during the days leading up to Jan 1st? I'll also be in Tokyo during this time.

            1. re: jcccf

              As I mentioned elsewhere in this thread, in recent years department stores (in Tokyo at least) are taking shorter vacations. So while some may close Jan 1-5, others may close Jan 1-3 and a few on only January first.

              Depachika are the retail food floors in the basements of department stores, and restaurant floors are often on the top floors - both will be of interest to you at this time of year..

            2. re: Silverjay

              are most shops in kappabashi dori closed in this time to? and how busy does disney world get?

            3. Let me preface this by staying I have never actually been to Japan, but it has been an integral part of my life since childhood. Add to that that I did extensive in-depth research on Japan about a decade ago for a screenplay. I hate cultural inaccuracies in any writer's works! So, with that said, if it is at all possible to reschedule your trip to Japan, you'll have a much better experience. I'm not sure about 2008, but I do know that ten years ago things like kabuki, noh, bunraku, and even Disneyland closed for New Years. So if rescheduling is at all possible, you'll get to see and do all the things that may well not be available for New Years. Whatever you decide, hope it all works out and you have a wonderful time!

              2 Replies
              1. re: Caroline1

                I would echo Caroline's suggestion of rescheduling the trip. It's going to be needlessly difficult to find good chowing opportunities when everything's closed for the holidays (not only the restaurants are closed, but the bulk of the food supply chain). You'll be forced to find some creative outlets for low-brow eating (like at chains or convenience stores) or overpriced hotel dining, while the rest of the country is eating at home. Now, if you can weasel an invitation to join a family for traditional osechi and other new year's goodies, that might be a viable option. Or maybe find a group of expats who might take you in for their versions of holiday eats. However, if eating is not your priority, then it is possible to enjoy all the cultural aspects of new year's in Japan.

                On a side note, I find it more revealing to know that Caroline has never actually been to Japan, or was that mistyped?

                1. re: E Eto

                  No. Not mistyped. Never actually been there. But hey, I know a few astronomers who know an awful lot about the moon and the planets, and they've never been to any of them either. The advantage to armchair travel is that the transportation is free!

                  On the other hand, you could say I've been to Japan many times through friends. One girlfriend was from Tokyo, her father had been the emperor's physician, she had citations for her calligraphy, she taught me how to cook a few dishes, and we once approximated chanoyu, if you can call it that without a tea house. She was very homesick. Another girlfriend was also from a well-placed family, we used to have tea together and she would play her koto for me. My best friend is nisei. My dad visited Japan several times following WWII and brought me many gifts, from Japanese hit 78rpm records to carved ivory, cloisonnee and even a netsuke. I've been very very blessed. You can travel in many ways, not just on a plane. '-)

              2. As others here have mentioned, most restaurants are closed the first few days of the year. However, recently department stores in Tokyo have been taking shorter holidays, and some are even open from January 2, so I'd suggest checking for restaurants located in department stores, many of which are very good. Of course you should call first to make sure they actually are open.... I think Lumine Est in Shinjuku is open from the 2nd, and they have a few nice places to choose from.

                1. I want to thank everyone for your very helpful comments. Unfortunately this is the only week of year I have off to take from my small business, but I am hoping that the inconveniences of traveling during this time will be outweighed by some of the special aspects being in Japan at this time will bring. It is never possible to experience everything in one trip, so our wish is for a handful of meaningful experiences that pave the way and inspire future trips.

                  It sounds like we should be prepared to hit the ground running when we land on the 27th for our first 3 nights, which will be in Tokyo. I am glad we have two mornings when Tsukiji is open.

                  Understanding that much is in fact closed from Jan 1 - Jan 4; do you feel we will be more successful in Kyoto or Tokyo on evening of Jan 2nd? (We will be in Kyoto evenings of 30, 31st and Jan 1st.)

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: relishtaste

                    I'd guess that there would be many more options in Tokyo.

                    1. re: relishtaste

                      Yes. Hit the ground running. You should be alright the first few days. Food will be good because competition is high since a lot of people dine out at this time with friends and colleagues for end of the year get-togethers. I agree with Robb to make your way back to Tokyo or maybe consider Osaka, which is close to Kyoto. But in Tokyo, the parts of town that attract young people will have the most options- Shibuya, Shinjuku, maybe Harajuku, Ikebukuro. Don't expect good Japanese food really and don't eat sushi/sashimi at this time. Check out department stores per Robb's suggestion or maybe investigate large international hotels or the areas around them. An area like the Shiba/ Hammatsucho area might still have a lot of stuff open.

                      You'll have a great time and will experience sensory overload I'm sure. Tokyo looks amazing this time of year.

                    2. Yes, Jan 1-4th is a bad period for foodies. But I did have a unique experience on the New Year Day about two years ago in Yokohama, the second most populous city in Japan, which is just 1 hour drive from Tokyo. A tour guide recommended us this small family restaurant that opened on New Year Day and served a new year kaiseki, which was like a 2-3 hours feast. The family was perhaps the most courteous people I have met. I am attaching the name card, but do make an advanced reservation if you are interested.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: FourSeasons

                        Hi FourSeasons,
                        You wrote this a year back, but I am interested to check this Yokohama place out while im in Tokyo over NewYear's. It sounds spectacular from the way you described it. How do I access the place? Many thanks!

                        1. re: eaterri

                          Hi eaterri:

                          The meal was arranged by our guide when we had a private tour to Yokohama. I guess you can reserve through your concierge; the name card was attached above.

                          1. re: FourSeasons

                            Hi FourSeasons,
                            I will attempt to make a reservation. Many thanks again!

                      2. Just like everybody mentioned, your chance of eating out and shopping will be before Jan 1. Then the next 4 days everything, including shops and restaurants are closed. The only places open will be electronic stores, online cafe, and 7-11 and convenience stores.
                        I think it's great that you are staying in Tokyo first as you can do a lot of dining and shopping before New Year.

                        I think it may be better if you save the last 4 days in Kyoto and focus on sight seeing. Shrine-visiting, as suggested by others, is definitely an experience, and there are plenty for you to visit in Kyoto. There are also a lot of parks and gardening, as well as Buddhist-influenced architecture that you can visit. Of course some of these and their attached stores may also be closed too, but you can at least view from the outside and take a lot of pictures.

                        If you are staying in a hotel, ask them to see if there are any local restaurants that will offer osechi (Japanese New Year meal) ahead of time, and reserve immediately if available. As Four Seasons suggested, there should be something open for New Year meal, though I don't have any specifics (my family always eats in during New Year). Another option is to get one of those prepared osechi at the depachika before New Year Day. Again, the popular stores will also need reservation for their osechi ahead of time. Then you can enjoy your Japanese New Year meal at a park (if weather permits) or in the hotel.

                        Hope you have a great trip!

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: kobetobiko

                          Hi relishtaste,

                          I found this link which show which temples will be opened or closed during New Year (note: it's for 2007-2008, but the dates should still apply).

                          Also, if you are staying in a ryokan, then it is likely that they will prepare osechi for you during New Year, and you don't have to search for food outside!

                          1. re: kobetobiko

                            kobetobiko -- your link fell off. can you please repost?

                          2. re: kobetobiko

                            That's funny, I would recommend the exact opposite schedule - heading back to Tokyo for the later part of the trip. It may be different in provincial cities like Kyoto and Kobe, but in recent years Tokyo has many more places that are open early in the year - still not everywhere, but way more than just convenience stores.

                            For example, this year the restaurants in Lumine Est department store in Shinjuku station (formerly known as "My City") will be closed on Dec. 31, but they'll be open until 8pm on January 1, then back to regular hours starting January 2. Some recommendations there include the excellent tempura restaurant Tsunahachi Rin (http://www.bento.com/rev/1995.html ), good yakitori and oysters at Maimon (a sister shop of Megu in New York; 03-5367-9199), and Okinawan food at Nabi To Kamado (03-5379-1070). Be sure to reserve though.

                            I randomly called one large, non-department-store restaurant in a busy part of town - the excellent upscale izakaya Daidaiya in Shinjuku (http://www.bento.com/rev/0322.html ). They will be taking a short, one-day holiday on January first, but are open again from January 2. I'm sure there will be many other places open - that was just the first one I tried.

                            Add to that the hundreds of hotel restaurants, plus family restaurants, and there's no need to starve over the holidays in Tokyo, and no need to live on osechi-ryori, although it's probably still worth a try.

                            1. re: Robb S

                              If you do decide to stay in Kyoto, the excellent yakitori shop Kokkekokko (http://bento.com/kansai/rev/7040.html ) will be open from January 2. They're located in Isetan (a Tokyo-based department store), so surely the twenty or thirty other restaurants inside Isetan will also be open. Demand will be high though, so be sure to plan and book ahead of time.

                              1. re: Robb S

                                LOL, perhaps we gave the impression that the streets were just tumbleweed blowing around. It's good to know that places are open. This is a development from the past... Tsukiji is still closed those first few days though. Might be a good chance to try meat, nabe, or yakitori as you suggest.

                                1. re: Silverjay

                                  Yes, it is a very recent development. The trains are pretty empty, but Shinjuku is hopping. Local neighborhoods are very quiet, and I imagine business districts like Shimbashi and Marunouchi are also.

                                  1. re: Robb S

                                    I remember two years ago, taking some visiting friends to the Kanda/Jimbocho business area for a quick lunch and marveling at how empty it was.

                                    1. re: lost squirrel

                                      The Maisen in Omotesando is open regular hours throughout. When I inquired about this, the manager said that with the most pained smile I've seen in a long time...

                            2. Here's an idea from the gaijin who has never been to Japan. E Eto brought it up,, but in the context of joing a Japanese family for usechi, if invited, but you can "do it yourself."

                              It's a very long tradition for the women of the house not to cook at all over New Year, so they either prepare usechi ryouri at home or buy from a shop (currently available in a variety of sources from 7-Eleven to high end department stores such as Mitsukoshi).

                              Often packed in three tiered lacquer "jubako" boxes, it's made up of "lucky food" to feed the family (you tell them how many people when ordering) over the three days of New Years. But don't expect a lacquer jubako box from 7-Eleven. Likely it will be styrofoam or cardboard. The upscale department stores can be pretty pricey, but may come in a genuine jubako box, which will make a nice souvenir. Here are some pictures of the offerings at Takashimaya: http://tinyurl.com/69z7j8

                              If your room has a refrigerator in it, you could order osechi and "go native." You can take some of it along for a picnic while you're out and about. And it will be authentic Japanese food presented in a manner you can rarely experience in a restaurant. You'd have to order it soon after you arrive, then pick it up.

                              What do you guys who live in Japan think? Will it work well for them?

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Caroline1

                                The option was mentioned in my post above as well

                                1. re: kobetobiko

                                  I truly apologize! From the time logs, I must have been in the composition phase of my post, and had several phone calls, then posted without refreshing to see if anything new had been added. My goof! Sorry.

                              2. Have the hotels you are staying at do the research for you if shops are open are not. My birthday is January 3rd and I always have a hard time finding places to eat in Tokyo that early in the year.

                                My husband is a fishmonger and was a former buyer at Tsukiji Market. On a visit to Kyoto we were at a friend's restaurant and he said that the Kyoto fish market took very few holidays throughout the year. He said that as so many ryokan in the area needed the fresh fish from the market so that they are open more days than the Tokyo market.

                                As a result, call and see if you can get reservations at ryokan for meals as they usually stay open. One in Kyoto that I love is Seiwasou. The website is in English and Chef Takenaka speaks English. If he is not too busy he may come and explain some of the food to you.


                                For tempura in Kyoto, Tenki is great. Chef Ishikawa is a third generation tempura chef.


                                If you go to either of them, tell them Yukari sent you.

                                1. No matter if you are in Kyoto or Tokyo on New Year's Eve, do venture to your local temple at midnight to see everyone going to make their well wishes for the new year. Loads of fun, and most temples have small food stalls set up, and a fun festival like ambience. In Tokyo I like Monzennakacho's temple. On the Tozai line it is exit number one. And, on this evening trains run all night long.

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: Yukari

                                    Don't forget about cuddling up to a warm cup of amazake, which they give out at shrines on New Year's- not sure about temples.

                                    1. re: Silverjay

                                      Ah yes, New Year's in Japan...I'm having trouble finding a good place myself, have just called several places, all closed. Perhaps Robb and Yukari both have the right idea - dinner at Daidaiya and then a visit to the local shrine!

                                      1. re: tokyodrinkingglass

                                        We've ordered and coordinated a feast of seafood and culinary specialty delights from all over Japan to be delivered to my in-laws to supplement all the foods we usually prepare ourselves. I can't imagine anyone going out to dine at a proper or good restaurant on New Year's, but after home dinners, I've hit up late night grease spots and snacky/ izayakaya type deals to augment the amazake. I think there are also food and beer vendors in Hibiya Park if people are interested in a countdown scene.