Foodies visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Takayama in April - less Michelin-star and more hole-in-the-wall
My husband and I will be visiting Japan for 8 nights from April 17 - 25.
I often hate making restaurant bookings when on holiday as I feel it can oftentimes restrict spontaneity -- but is it better to book and plan every meal for Japan? Happy to do that if we'll have a better experience. We're big believers that not all food needs to be fussy MIchelin-star quality, so would love the details of some more regular, reasonably-priced places. We're big fans of ramen, yakitori, okonomayaki, takoyaki, tonkatsu, sushi, etc, and are quite adventurous. We're on a reasonable budget.
Some more background info:
1. Tokyo - Am hopefully eating at Ryogin in Tokyo on the 19th and Sushi Dai at the Fish Market. Apart from that, would love to hear of more reasonably-priced regular eateries. We're staying in Shinjuku but will be happy to explore all over the city.
2. Kyoto - Am reading a lot of advice to not stay in an expensive ryokan, but to save cash by staying somewhere cheaper to save cash for dining out. Agreed? Best area to stay for foodies?
3. Takayama - am trying to confirm a booking for Ryori Ryokan Hanaoka as have heard amazing things about their food. Any other recommendations should this fall through?
Also - just wanting some general advice. Am planning 3 nights in Tokyo, 2 nights in Kyoto, 1 night in Takayama, back to Tokyo for 2 nights. Good plan? I don't want the trip to be too rushed nor too sleepy. We love the occasional temple, but are more likely to be found eating, people-watching and generally soaking up the vibe.
Many thanks in advance for any advice you can offer.
In a country which values formality and manners such as Japan, you will find that reservation are essential, even if you are going to an eatery (or hotel) which is not usually crowded. Unfortunately, I find that this is doubly true for foreign travelers. Even if you call to book 15 minutes in advance of showing up, it would still be more appreciated by the restaurant than if you just showed up unannounced (Think of how you would feel if a guest just "dropped by" your house unannounced, giving you no time to prepare and properly receive him/her).
The timeline skeleton you gave is sound. Tokyo is a great city in which to both start and end your trip to Japan. The following are my recs:
Tokyo: Ramen: Many will steer you towards Ippudo, which is very very good ramen, but I found Ramen Jiro (2-14-11 Mita, in Minato-ku) to be stellar in every respect - a true temple of ramen with hordes of worshippers (translation: expect a queue of up to 1 hr.). Sushi: Sushi Saito is near the U.S. Embassy, and is excellent. My absolute favorite sushi in Tokyo, however, is Sushi Kanesaka (2-Michelin Star) in Ginza. Try the tempura in Japan - it is more delicate and tasty in its homeland than in anywhere else - I recommend Ten Ichi (in Ginza). Outside Tokyo (since you have a total of 5 nights in the area), you may want to do a daytrip to Nikko (excellent yuba, or tofu skin, specialties), and on the way back to the city, stop in the city of Utsunomiya, famous for their gyoza - And, the world's only Japanese monkey waiters are "employed" at Kayabukiya Izakaya near Utsunomiya, if you're so inclined (link: http://gaijinbash.blogspot.com/2010/0...) - People watching: Sunday afternoons in Harajuku.
Kyoto: I am a firm believer in staying at least ONE night in a ryokan while in Japan - it doesn't have to be upscale for you to experience amazing hospitality. The food is usually all home-cooked (and delicious), and spending the night in a ryokan is an experience unique to Japan.
Just to add... if you want to stick to the plan of spending only 1 night in the Takayama area (which is understandable since both Tokyo and Kyoto are great), but you decide you want to experience onsen inn, you can actually do this...
Go from Kyoto to Gero (you'll take Hikari to Nagoya, then change to Hida Wide View), spend the night of onsen in Gero. Next day, you can leave Gero around 10am, go to Takayama, have ~6hrs to take in Takayama, and still leave Takayama in time to get to Tokyo by around 9pm.
One alternative is to do the onsen thing in Takayama itself... and many hotels and ryokans in Takayama do have some level of onsen facilities. But Gero (and those other Japan Alps places I mentioned) are more of the real onsen locales.
Sorry I don't mean to meddle by presenting all these details to you, as planning you own trip is something that you should do and enjoy on your own. I just wanted to illustrate that this kind of thing is feasible.
And I know this isn't a travel forum and I really digressed (sorry!) but the point I meant to make was that you should try to take advantage of being in the Takayama area by staying in the area's onsen inn... because the combination of hot spring, kaiseki dinner and relaxing in futon is the ultimate Japanese experience in my opinion.
I would definitely do a night of a hotel with onsen (hot spring). That doesn't necessarily mean ryokan. In Japan, there are many inns & resort hotels in onsen areas that are large-scale, but you still get similar experiences for the most part as small ryokans. Actually the line between these places and larger ryokans is blurry/non-existent. At any of these places, you can still opt for tatami rooms with futons, elaborate kaiseki either brought to your room or eaten at dining hall, walk around in yukata, and soak in hot springs. The only difference is that, at hotels, there are more facilities, more dining options (like buffet option or no-meal option or western meal option), more varied room types (eg, choice btwn tatami rooms and regular western rooms).
If you're going up to Takayama, you can easily couple that with a stay at an onsen. You can stay 1 night in Takayama and then spend another at a nearby onsen. The ones I really recommend are up about an hour by Alpico bus from Takayama up in the Japan Alps... Hirayu-onsen, Fukuchi-onsen or Oku-Hidaka. I think those places offer the ultimate in terms of the hot spring quality. Hirayu is the easiest of them to get to, because it's right on the main express bus route. If you don't want to venture up into the mountains by bus, then another option is to spend a night at one of the many onsen inns/hotels/ryokans in Gero, which is a big onsen town conveniently right on the way up to Takayama. Most of the places there are within walking distance of the train station.
An ultimate experience would be to book a room with private onsen en-suite. A typical price for such room would be about $400-$500 per night for a couple, including dinner & breakfast. If you opt for that, check with the hotel (when booking) that the en-suite onsen is real onsen (some places have en-suite onsen bath that doesn't use real natural hot spring).
In terms of ramen, really the best place in Kyoto is to just go to this place inside the Kyoto Station building (which is an impressive complex) that's called Ramen Avenue in Japanese... it's a collection of many different ramen shops representing different region of Japan.
Can you do like 1 night Tokyo, 2 nights Kyoto, 1 night onsen, 1 night Takayama, 3 nights Tokyo?
Btw, takoyaki is a bit different between the Kansai version and the Tokyo version. People say Osaka's takoyaki is the real deal but I've found ones in Kanto to be more palatable. Of course, there are also non-regional variations, as well. It's personal taste... I like flavorful ones that are more baked on the outside.
I still think longingly of this place in Takayama. Not fancy, but equal in ingredient quality and cooking to any place I've been.
I always stay in a cheap hotel in Takayama, like the Kyoto guidance you mentioned.
For Kyoto, I don't think it matters so much where you stay as long as it's central; personally I'm a big fan of exploring Pontocho for dinner.