Phoenix has become one of the hottest (sometimes quite literally) food cities in the USA. It might not get the press of Portland, Austin, Chicago or NYC - but this trendy city has everything they offer and more. To spend the perfect day downtown, start your morning off with a lunch at the mid-century chic restaurant, Joyride Tacos.
Joyride offers up Mexican inspired food with modern twists. The dishes are all casual classics at a price point that makes it easy to order everything off the menu. My favourite has to be their Mexican street corn and a cold horchata to cool off in the afternoon Phoenix heat.
There's no denying that the design of the restaurant isn't a huge reason for its popularity. The mid-century time period has become so popular as of late, and this place feels like the heart of the movement.
After finishing up your meal, head over to Frances to walk off all those tacos. Frances boutique features hipster styled clothing, shoes, hand crafted accessories, and unique gifts. They always have something totally different that catches my eye. Plus, Arizonan themed items that you can't get anywhere else.
If the heat is getting you down, head over to Lola's Coffee. Lola's offers up some of the best brews in the city with one of the most comfortable atmospheres. A hodgepodge of furniture makes the cafe feel like your grandmother's basement run by some of the best chefs and baristas in the valley. They serve up daily specials as well as daily helpings of hand-roasted coffee.
The back patio is a sanctuary in the middle of downtown where you can sit with your favourite book or laptops and get some much needed "work" done.
Across the street from Lolas is a rose garden selling different varieties of roses from all over the world. Roses grow so well in the heat. They seem to flourish against the never ending sunlight. The caring and knowledgeable staff and will help you choose the right piece for your garden. Despite being snow birds, my parents still take great care and this little flower shop always has a new variety to add to the yard. But, even if you're not in the market for flowers, wandering around this little sanctuary is a delight for the senses.
Next, head over to 7th Avenue to wander along "The Melrose District". Phoenix isn't a pedestrian city. It's mostly built for vehicles. But Melrose is one of those rare blocks where you can park your car and stroll for hours. Along Melrose, you'll find the city's best vintage shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. They also have a few rental bike stations where you grab a bike to cruise up and down at your leisure. It's super useful if you're planning on attempting to hit up a lot of stores but don't want to keep going back and forth to your car.
Retro Ranch is my favourite shop on the strip. The small but wildly eclectic store has everything a vintage lover could ever want. The left side of the shop is dedicated to vivid, antique clothing, lovingly categorized into colours for easy shopping.
On the right side of the store, you can find housewares and furniture from every decade. Walking around it feels more like walking through a museum than a store.
Before heading further down the street, make a stop at Copper Star Coffee. Copper Star serves up some of the best-iced coffee you'll find downtown. With a relaxed atmosphere, friendly waitstaff and a variety of food items to enjoy, there is something for everybody. Their Lavender Chai is my favourite on a hot day.
Melrose is also iconic for having a rotation selection of murals artists and graffiti is painted all across this area - turning it into a living gallery.
At the end of the street, you'll find Zinnias At Melrose. Zinnias is like a mini mall for antiques and collectables. Inside are dozens of different vendors located inside one building. Each one specializing in their own thing, their own styles or own time period. There are expensive items as well as super affordable ones so no matter what your price point, you can find it here.
The old run down laundromat that still stands on Melrose and is one of the most photographed places on the strip - a must-stop location for a great instgram.
If you're looking a bite to eat after all that shopping, there is no better place to spend an evening than at Cibo Pizzareia.
Cibo is set in a restored 1913 bungalow. Inside you'll find refurbished hardwood floors, exposed brick, stained glass windows and a cosy fireplace. Outside you can sit under enormous trees with twinkle lights which create a soft, romantic atmosphere all night long. Their wood fired artisanal pizzas and fresh house made pasta are just right and no matter what you order you can't go wrong.
To finish off the night, head to MELT. Melt is one of the Valley's best ice cream shops. Serving some of the most inventive flavours inside Chinese take away contains they're even topped with a fortune cookie! This place is as hipster as it gets. But with ice creams like, "Captain Crunch", "Cherry Pistachio" and "Mangonada sorbet" you can't help but come by and sample a few flavours on their cheery picnic benches. The perfect end to the perfect day.
Here is the map for anyone interested in hitting up these locations >>
I can't believe it took me two years to write this post. Time flies. Faster than you think. But it's a treat to be able to look back...
I knew from the moment we got engaged that I didn't want a stranger to marry us. The only minister I ever had as a child was busy that one weekend. We thought long and hard about other options but in the end - I knew what I wanted.
My wonderful friend
Maor who is singularly the best speaker, writer and thinker I've ever known. Together, the three of us sat down over a few nights to create a ceremony that reflected our past, present, future, spirituality and love.
I documented it here because it ceaselessly brings me joy to relive those memories. And hopefully, it can serve as a reminder to anyone getting married that your ceremony can be whatever you want it to be. You don't need to read from a specific book (although it's cool if you do), you don't need to recite any specific words. Make your day about your true selves.
The music began to play as people took their seats.
Before the wedding party entered, Dan walked my mother down the aisle to make her feel as special as she truly was that day.
Our prelude music was "The Book of Love" by Magnetic Fields.
Our processional music was "The Ship Song Instrumental" by Nick Cave. It played as the groomsmen and bridesmaids walked down the aisle.
My adorable nephew and niece were picture perfect and took their job so seriously. It was immensely lovely to watch them compose themselves before they stepped out to walk.
I hadn't been nervous all day, but as my entrance song began to play, I remember my legs feeling numb. I looked up at my dad and he squeezed my hand. I smiled, and we stepped out together.
My dad gave Dan the biggest hug before we stepped up to the altar, beside our dear friend, to get married in front of all our favourite people.
My dad gave me one lass kiss on the cheek after he helped raise my veil. Through tearful eyes, I could see how happy he was to see me happy.
Maor: Dear family and friends…. good afternoon. We are gathered here today to witness the marriage of Laura Whelan & Dan Lytwyn. My name is Maor Oz. It is an honour to have been asked to preside at one of the most important events in a couple’s life. Thank you, Laura and Dan.
This ceremony will have many words spoken. In fact, they are the major constituent of this ceremony. There is an order, an organisation, rings, and kisses. But the majority of what this ceremony is, is the use of air, flesh, and finally breath… To create the spirit of this day. The spirit of this day is commitment, and it is with reverence that Laura and Dan have come here to create a master piece of commitment, with us as witnesses, and with words as their material.
Laura and Dan are drawing in breath to the deepest part of their being to extract and create this spirit that you can all bear witness to. I ask of all of you that you listen to the words... The sentences... The shape of their love and commitment... and let them penetrate your ears, that they may enter you and find their way to your mind and heart. Let these words resonate within you that you may move in spirit with Laura and Dan.
I would like to acknowledge that there are some who are not with us today in body. Family, friends, and ancestors who have passed on or are ill. Place your thoughts with this person or persons so that may also bear witness to this union in spirit.
We will now have a reading by Elizabeth Broeke.
Excerpt from From The Bridge Across Forever by Richard Bach
A soul mate is someone who has locks that fit our keys, and keys to fit our locks. When we feel safe enough to open the locks, our truest selves step out, and we can be completely and honestly who we are; we can be loved for who we are and not for who we’re pretending to be. Each unveils the best part of the other. No matter what else goes wrong around us, with that one person, we’re safe in our own paradise. Our soul mate is someone who shares our deepest longings, our sense of direction. When we’re two balloons, and together our direction is up, chances are we’ve found the right person. Our soul mate is the one who makes life come to life.
Excerpt from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, while they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes", said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real, you can't be ugly, except to those who don't understand."
The two of you have come together because you are both deeply committed to each other. Over the years you have challenged and strengthened one another. You have succeeded and grown as unique individuals both powerful in your individuality and powerful in your unity. Your vulnerability in each other has created this and today, you commit to be vulnerable and supportive to one another for your lifetime.
Marriage is an outward and public sign of your personal commitment to be husband and wife. You have created this stunning day as a physical and spiritual manifestation of the joy and beauty you experience between you two. You have done this that we may enter, witness, and add support to your commitment. We all know marriage is more than two people standing up here repeating vows. Part of marriage is finding room for the things of the spirit. So I say to the two of you, continue your search for the good and the beautiful in this life.
Cultivate that flexibility in your marriage that marriage needs to sustain itself. Do this with patience, understanding and a sense of humour. Develop the capacity to forgive and to heal your differences as they arise, day by day. Remember that your love will prevail, as this day bears testament.
You have triumphed with each other, helping one another find healing and seeing the world anew. Continue to lead one another down that way. We all celebrate with you and congratulate the two of you for taking this official step of a legal marriage. The two of you are confirming to each other your genuine love for the other, and also your desire to remain totally committed as life partners.
Pat Jermey will give a reading on the meaning of marriage.
Why Marriage? by Mari Nichols-Haining
Because to the depths of me, I long to love one person, With all my heart, my soul, my mind, my body...
Because I need a forever friend to trust with the intimacies of me, Who won’t hold them against me, Who loves me when I’m unlikable, Who sees the small child in me, and Who looks for the divine potential of me...
Because I need to cuddle in the warmth of the night With someone who thanks God for me, With someone I feel blessed to hold...
Because marriage means opportunity To grow in love in friendship...
Because marriage is a discipline To be added to a list of achievements...
Because marriages do not fail, people fail When they enter into marriage Expecting another to make them whole…
Because, knowing this, I promise myself to take full responsibility For my spiritual, mental and physical wholeness I create me, I take half of the responsibility for my marriage Together we create our marriage...
Because with this understanding The possibilities are limitless.
Lisa will be reading Ruth 1:16-17 in Ukrainian. A translation can be found on the back of your program.
(We were laughing in the photo because Lisa apologized for making a slight mistake in Ukrainian and Ken commented that nobody would have even noticed since no one else spoke Ukrainian.)
А Рут відказала: Не силуй мене, щоб я покинула тебе, щоб я вернулася від тебе, бо куди підеш ти, туди піду й я, а де житимеш ти, там житиму й я. Народ твій буде мій народ, а Бог твій мій Бог. Де помреш ти, там помру й я, і там буду похована. Нехай Господь зробить мені так, і так нехай додасть, і тільки смерть розлучить мене з тобою.
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
Laura & Dan have come to enter into a state of matrimony. They will each give their consent to the other, they will exchange solemn vows, and in token of this, they will each give and receive a ring. I will now ask you to turn to and face the community who are gathered here to support you in this union.
These are the faces of friends and family who have helped you grow into the people you are today and who have helped lead you down this path together. We are your proud makers and keepers and want nothing more than to see you two continue growing and for your powerful relationship to thrive. Take a moment to take in all this love and support that surrounds you on this day.
Laura and Dan, please repeat after me your declaration of commitment to each other.
Dan, you have chosen Laura to be your wife. Will you continue to love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her alone as long as you both shall live?
Maor: Laura, will you take Dan to be your husband? Will you continue to love him, comfort him, and honour him, forsaking all others, being faithful to him alone as long as you both shall live?
In the presence of all your family and friends, please read your solemn vows you have written for each other.
Danny, When I was a little girl, I would stare up at the stars whenever I felt lonely or sad. I wondered if there was anyone out there who would understand me wholly and completely, who would quell the storms and who would be the other half of my heart I always felt like was missing.
I would wish on every star that looked down on me that someday... you would come along. In every moment of darkness, there was a light calling me on. Guiding me home. Guiding me to you. Every breath I took was to keep me on that path. Every tear, every smile, every triumph and every failure.
I remember the day we met, you sat down next to me and smiled. That smile... From the minute I saw that warm smile of yours, my heart melted. I could barely keep eye contact as we spoke. I was so nervous and remember that when I left, I hardly was able to remember what you looked like. I just remembered that smile. I took the long way home and as I walked, I felt as if the stars that had watched me my whole life, were shining above me, brighter than ever before. Our first dates were so much fun. It felt like meeting a long forgotten friend, not a stranger. You felt like that something that had been missing from my life all those years, and I knew I never wanted to be without you again.
You make the days brighter, my laughter stronger, my pain gentler, my smiles wider and my love unending and eternal. You helped me find a part of myself, lost for many years, so deep inside, only your love could find it. Every breath in this world is sweeter because I get to wake up beside you and that handsome smile you greet me with every morning.
I promise to share your joys and comfort you in your sorrows, to be your strength as you are mine.
I promise to nurture your passions as they are a window for others to see the amazing and talented man I see every day. I promise to take on any challenges because I know together there is no mountain we cannot climb (unless it is a literal mountain and then I promise to eat snacks and take pictures of the mountain with you down below).
I promise to love you unconditionally and with unwavering warmth and joy. I promise to watch wrestling with you for as long as you're watching. There’s a little kid inside of you that the little girl inside of me has been waiting for her whole life.
I promise to make our house our home and fill it with food to feed your heart as well as your belly. I promise to be your lover, your best friend and your devoted partner for the rest of time as we grow old together.
You are my light, and you’ve shown me more love than I ever thought was possible. There is nowhere in the world that fills me with more comfort than in your arms. There I am home, there I am whole.
Laura, for so long, I had an image of love in my head. An image, out of focus, of a person, some person, I was striving to find. Never for a second did I ever think that that person ever truly existed. Until one fall evening a few years back, I sat next to a stranger on a bench. It was you. A stranger that could have been anyone. But it was you. On a bench that I could have easily passed by. But it was you.
With one look into your eyes, that image of love that I carried for so long came instantly into focus. Laura, you embody everything I had ever hoped to find in another person. You support me in ways I never thought possible.
When I’m impoverished, you enrichen me. When I’m broken, you repair me. When I’m adrift, you steer me. When I’m dark, you illuminate me.
You are the brightest light in my life, steady and vivid amidst a sea of strobes.
When I was a kid, I would often dream about my future. Where I would end up, how I would get there, and who it might be with. And for some time while growing up, part of me started to feel like I was astray. I felt like I had let that kid down, like I had lost a piece of that dream, that I wouldn’t amount to who I aspired to be.
But after you entered my life and we’ve forged a love that’s so miraculous, I feel like that kid is finally proud of me. You’ve unlocked the person in me I always hoped I could be.
Laura, the love I’ve found in you is like nothing I’ve ever thought possible. And it’s on the back of this remarkable unity that I make these promises to you. I promise to never stop listening, to always be receptive, to forever be within reach with an open mind and open heart.
I promise to continue honouring your trust, to never deceive you. I promise to embrace your dreams and passions, because through them your soul shines.
I promise to fight for you, in whatever the world may hurl our way, I will always have your back and defend your spirit. I promise to be that steady bright light that you are to me, never dimming or weakening when you may need it most.
And above all else, I promise to honour you with the love, care, and support you so wholly deserve. These are my promises to you, Laura, my beloved, my equal, my pysanka.
Liam, may I have the rings please?
Dan, Repeat after me...
I give you this ring, as a symbol of our marriage. I pledge to you my love and respect, my laughter and my tears. With all that I am, I honour you.
Laura, Repeat after me...
I give you this ring as a symbol of our marriage. I pledge to you my love and respect, my laughter and my tears. With all that I am, I honour you.
Laura & Dan have given their consent and made their marriage vows to each other. May the happiness you share today be with you always and may every word you have pledged here be a living truth in your lives.
Friends and family, to conclude this ceremony, will the designated witnesses please come forward and sign their names to the certificate of marriage as Sarah Patterson & Joel Swagerman will provide musical accompaniment.
Sarah & Joel sang an acoustic version of one of my favourite songs, "Hysteric" by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, complete with an original last verse which Sarah wrote about our relationship. While we didn't get a recording on the day, we do have a recording from before the wedding.
In the presence of all of your family and friends it is my honour and delight, to declare you henceforth to be husband and wife. You may seal your vows with a kiss.
Family and friends… May I present to you for the first time, Daniel & Laura Whelan Lytwyn.
We walked back out to the music of "Sail Away" by
Our wedding guests threw confetti cones filled with roses and lavender. I smiled more than I ever thought would be possible.
Minutes later, it was all over. Before the reception festivities began, our wedding party and guests gathered on the lawn for a big group photo.
But before we went to greet them Dan and I took a few minutes alone together. We took a deep breath, savouring the moment, taking in every heartbeat, every face, every tear and every smile of those around us. I closed my eyes to give him a kiss, and when I opened them, there he was. My husband. Always and evermore.
While staying in Kyoto, I wanted to find a traditional Japanese Ryokan where we could relax and unwind after a busy week in Tokyo. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that originated from the Edo period when inns were a home for weary travellers. Ryokans were once a fairly inexpensive option, but in recent years some Ryokans have become quite the luxury. So finding one with charm at an affordable price, that was also still available, was somewhat of a challenge. But then I came across Ryokan Shimizu.
Although this Ryokan doesn't serve the fancy, traditional dinners to your room that others feature, Shimizu offers up every other aspect of a traditional Ryokan with the best service and hospitality I've received anywhere in the world. Ryokan Shimizu was located about a 15-minute walk from the train station, which would have been a lovely little walk but unfortunately, when we arrived it was pouring rain, so we spent most of the journey running for shelter.
When we finally arrived, we were greeted by the friendliest Japanese owners who welcomed us into their establishment. They gave us two glasses of cold, Genmaicha tea in a ceramic glass to welcome us in. Already we felt right at home.
On the wall, as you entered, there was a mural of cards, letters and photos from fellow travellers expressing their gratitude and love of their stay.
The entrance to the Ryokan was complete with small cubby holes for your outdoor shoes and a fresh pair of slippers to put on once entering the house. We immiedately threw our wet shoes into the cubby and slipped into the comfy slippers.
The lobby of the Ryokan was complete with a small sofa where you could admire the Zen garden just outside the window. There was also a large area for pouring water and tea should you need a refreshment while sitting downstairs and reading any of their large selection of books on Kyoto. Once settled, a kind gentleman took our bags and we headed upstairs to our room.
All the rooms in the ryokan were built with tatami flooring and sliding doors, traditional in all classic Japanese houses. Tatami mats are made using rice straws and covered with woven, soft rush. They are tough to clean but are gentle yet firm to stand or lie on. When you open the door, you immediately can smell their soft, earthy scent. Like bamboo and sandalwood permeating the air.
Japanese style futons are synonymous with Ryokans and might seem strange to Westerners. Theses are light, quilted mattresses laid out on the floor. Usually, there is one per person, slightly larger than a single bed would be. The mattresses are thin enough to allow them to be moveable so they can be put away during the day to allow for more room in the home. For many westerners, these might be very hard to get used to but compared to the hard style of Japanese beds we experience in Tokyo, these were actually much nicer to sleep on and roomier too!
In addition to the large living/bedroom room, there was a private bathroom (complete with private bathtub), a large closet for our luggage and extra bedding, a fridge, tiny TV (local Japanese stations only) and a beautiful wooden table with floral mats to sit on. A small tea set was provided along with supplies for making tea right in the comfort of our room. We were wet and cold from the rain and made a pot of hot tea immediately. After so many busy days in Tokyo, we were dying for a break. We made the tea, went out to a local convenience store for some snacks and spent the rest of the day inside. I had a big nap, read my book and studying the binder left for us by the Ryokan. Inside were laminated pages of maps to the big attractions right from the hotel, the best places to eat and drink, places to do laundry and more. It was like having a local tour guide right there to give you all the advice you'd ever need. It was so lovingly created and made a difference in our experience of Kyoto.
The Ryokan also provided us with yukatas to wear while we were at home. A yukata is a light, cotton kimono, generally made for everyday use. They were very comfortable and nice to relax in a while lying in bed. Made the whole experience feel very authentic.
One of the best parts of this Ryokan was their private, on-site, onsen. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring and bathing facility. Since Japan sits on top of volcanically active grounds, the water underneath the earth is almost always hot, providing a natural spring. Many large, public onsens are found all over Japan, but for anyone who is new to experiencing an onsen, a private one is much simpler and less awkward. Onsen water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content. To use an onsen, both in public and private, requires you to follow several etiquette rules. These were expertly explained to us by our lovely hosts as well as detailed on a laminated sheet of paper inside the private onsen. The first step is to make sure you wash your body before entering the water. Bathing stations are located right beside the onsen, you sit on stools and turn on the faucets and use their plastic or wooden buckets to clean your body. Swimsuits are not allowed, this may be particularily awkward in public for some and requires a bit of courage. There are small towels to place over your private parts for modesty, but they are pretty small. Hence why a private onsen might be a little more comfortable to use. Once clean you can step into the bath. Each day, our Ryokan added different types of aromatic baths scents, seasonal fruits, flowers or hot spring minerals. It was immensely relaxing. We had the entire place to ourselves for an entire two hours. The perfect way to unwind after a long day.
Every morning we would wake up from a cosy slumber. Adjusting to the futons took about a day, but there was certainly lots of room to stretch out.
Our room had a view down to the garden and front yard patio. There were several tables and chairs set up so you could enjoy a cup of coffee, a bit of lunch or even just sit and read in the shade of the beautiful garden.
Despite it being the middle of October there were flowers out all over the garden. Yellow, pink and red flowers dotted the bright green grass, and large leafed plants peaked out from along the walls. Hidden in the backyard were different ceramic sculptures of the racoon dog, "Tanuki ". He is a full-bellied Japanese prankster god based off a wild canine native to Japan. After a famous ceramic maker had given several sculptures of the Tanuki to the emperor, who displayed them all over his castle, these figures become popular with the public and having one in your garden likened you to the Emperor himself.
In the front of our Ryokan is purification fountain complete with flowers and ladles to cleanse your hands before coming into the Ryokan. Although doing this isn't necessary, it's a sign of respect for the household if you do so. Plus, it always smelled fantastic.
Our favourite thing to do was visit the local bakery in the morning, find a coffee shop and bring our goodies back to the Ryokan to enjoy outside, the sun beating down on our face, watching locals pass by on their bikes on their way to work.
We were heartbroken when it was time to say goodbye to this place. It was BY FAR the best place we stayed while in Japan. In addition to feeling like we experienced a piece of Japan's history while staying here, it was also the most comfortable place we stayed with the sweetest hosts. They had taken our picture before we left and we put it up on the wall with the other smiling faces, a small memento for them to remember us by. I really hope we return. I can't wait to see them again.
Ryokan Shimizu 644 Kagiya-cho, Shichijo dori Wakamiya agaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8317, Japan
It seemed as soon as we arrived in Tokyo, it was time to leave and continue on our journey through Japan. We were incredibly sad to leave, there were so many things we had yet to do and see but it was time, and we knew we would come back one day. So with luggage in tow, we headed off to the last of our Tokyo destinations; Tokyo Station. Tokyo Station, located beside the Imperial Palace, is where you'll get on the high-speed Shinkansen trains but the busy station also sees well over 3,000 inner city trains every day. Despite this overwhelming number, it is only the fifth-busiest station in Eastern Japan.
Tokyo Station was opened in 1914 as a means to connect Tokyo to the Tōkaidō Main Line and to the Nippon Railway. Back in 1914, only four platforms were serving two electric trains and two non-electric. The current design of the building reminds people a lot of the train station in Amsterdam. But the original design did draw this same comparison. Originally, the roof tops were domed with intricate designs on the interior. After the war had destroyed much of Tokyo, as well as the station, the roofs had to be rebuilt and were designed with a slanted style you now see today, which is what draws the reference to Amsterdam.
In addition to being a railway station, Tokyo Station is also an excellent place to shop, explore and dine any time of the day. "Kitchen Street" is a maze of restaurants serving up Japanese style meals and some of the best ramen in town. The lines here for the most famous ramen shops can stretch around the station so be prepared to wait or come at off hours. For shopping, you have to check out "Characters Street". This long passageway is filled with shops selling toys based off famous Japanese characters like Hello Kitty, One Piece, Domo-kun or Pokemon.
But we didn't have much time to shop or eat; we had a train to catch. But the one thing we had to do before we left - we had to find ourselves something to eat on the train. Luckily for us, pre-packaged train meals is what Japan is KNOWN for! These are called Ekibens. "Ekiben" are a bento box, sold on trains and in train stations throughout Japan. Eating one of these ekibens is a necessary part of your Japanese travel experience. Each one is wrapped in intricately designed paper and shiny cellophane. The different colours and designs each vying for your attention, calling out to be bought.
"Ekibenya Matsuri" is the most popular shop in the station here you'll find over 170 different varieties of ekibens. Years and years ago, train stations all over the various regions in Japan, had their regional specialities, showcasing local produce, that was only available in that location. It meant that even if you didn't have time to try all the local foods while visiting, you could always try them out them on the way home with these portable dinners. One of the most engaging bentos sold here is the "train bento" which is in the shape of Japanese train. They are enjoyed by children and adults alike and contains all the same great foods as are options in any other bento. It's not just a "kids meal" of chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes. Oh no, children here eat just what the adults eat - no complaints here. Another one of their highlighted dishes is the "Beef Tsukudani" which is beef cooked in sweetened soy sauce and served on a bed of rice. Everything is cooked fresh so you won't find any day old meals here.
Tokyo Bento is another trendy place to buy your bento box and ultimately where I bought my bento from. I take these things so seriously, and poor Dan had to walk all over the station with me as I looked for the supreme bento. I settled on Tokyo Bento since their meals looked to be the most traditional and definitely the most attractive. I didn't know much about it when I bought it but what I do know now makes me happy that it was the one I chose.
Tokyo Bento serves boxes of food made by gourmet restaurants from all over Tokyo. For only 1,650 yen ($16) you can get a gourmet meal on the go. Inside this one little box is a sampler-like platter of signature dishes from Tokyo's best chefs.
In addition to bento shops, there are also plenty of convenience stores, cafeteria style quick service shops and fancy desserts stands where you can buy a sweet treat enjoy after your lunch.
The one dessert I was sure to pick up when leaving the station was a box of Tokyo Bananas. Inside the beautifully designed box were 12 individually wrapped sponge cakes filled with banana cream. Perfect for sharing with family and friends when I got home. Tokyo Banana is one of the most popular souvenirs sold here and first went on sale in 1991. There are various flavours; Maple Banana, Banana Shake, Caramel, Banana Pudding and Tree Chocolate Banana but I stuck with the original. I also bought a box of Ginza Strawberry, cakes shaped like strawberries similar to the bananas, but wasn't a good and the original.
We stood on the platform for a few minutes before our train arrived. People from all over seemed to be queuing up to get onto the trains. Old friends met up for a vacation, families set goodbye as their loved ones were headed home, and tourists like us were ready to set out for new adventures.
Shinkansen Trains are the most popular way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto, and on to Osaka from there. The trip lasts about 2.5 hours and costs about 13,500 yen depending on where you sit and if you get a reservation in advance (there is a slight charge for this, but it's small and very much recommended).
These trains run at speeds of up to 320 km/h and arrive/depart precisely on time, every hour of every day. No mucking about, this is train travel at its finest. The cars are very comfortable, even in the economy class. After arriving at the station and getting ready to depart for the next destination, employees comes and change the direction of the seats, so they are always facing forward. A service, someone like me who gets sick easily when travelling backwards, really appreciates.
With our reserved tickets in hand, we made our way to the numbered seats where we were situated. We quickly put our bags away and get comfortable. Unlike many other train cars, the seats are incredibly roomy. They are usually in rows of 3x2 but the "green cars" (basically the business class) all come 2x2 and provide slightly wider and cosy seats. But we thought the economy was splendid, and we wouldn't need any more space than we had. We had been worried about our luggage fitting in the overhead area, but they fit fine, and if our luggage had been any bigger, we could have easily set it in front of our feet with ample room to sit down. All in all, this was the best train car I'd ever had the pleasure of travelling and we hadn't even left the station.
Throughout the journey, the announcements for the upcoming station were made in both English, Korean and Japanese so it was easy to know when to get off. The train cars were generally fairly quiet and surprisingly smooth for how fast we were travelling. Watching the urban sprawl of Tokyo disappear and transform into countryside vistas was an enthralling thing to watch unfolding out my window.
After we go on our way, it was time to dig into my bento box. Unwrapping the bright vermillion box was like opening up a colourful jewellery box. Inside were neatly organised sections dedicated to each separate piece of cuisine. There was Uokyu’s Salmon Kasuzuke (pickled fish in sake lees), Tsukiji Sushi Tama Aoki’s special omelette, and Nihonbashi Daimasu’s braised vegetables. It was accompanied with a few pieces of pickled ginger and some other unidentified substances, all of which tasted amazing. The Japanese eat with their eyes first and never was this more clear than when eating a Tokyo Bento. I also grabbed an onigiri and some other Japanse drinks and snacks to enjoy throughout the rest of the journey.
All shinkansen are equipped with multiple toilets. The train toilets I'm used to are pretty basic and sometimes pretty gross. But these - of course - are spacious, clean and very modern. Older trains might still have Japanese style toilets, but the Shinkansen has western style toilets with a large sink and mirror located outside. The toilets have all the same bells and whistles as they do in the rest of Japan and it's almost too comfortable....
After a few hours, we pulled into Kyoto Station at the exact time, almost to the second, as listed on our ticket. There isn't much time to exit the train once arriving at your station, we had read this before, and we were ready at the door with our luggage to exit as soon as the train pulled into the platform. During our journey, the rain had crept up on Kyoto's skies, and once we exited the station, it was coming down hard. Although we could have taken a taxi (and we should have), it seemed so expensive for how close we felt we were to our hotel. So we set out, umbrellas in hand, to face the rain and race off down the old streets of Kyoto.
We hardly had time to take in the sights as we stumbled along the rain-soaked cobblestone streets. The glowing light of our Ryokan (a Japanese Inn) in the distance was a welcome site to our soaking wet clothes. I have another blog all about our wonderful experience at the Ryokan so for more information of a traditional Japanse Ryokan - check it out!
After settling in and having a nap, we had to head back out for dinner. Feeling a little overwhelmed in this new city, we decided on eating at "Coco Curry House" (a chain we'd eaten at before in Tokyo). The map in hand, we headed back out on the rainy street of Kyoto.
There is nothing better for a cold, rainy day that a warm bowl of Coco Curry. Japanese curry is a thing onto itself. It's not like Thai, Indian or English curry; it's something totally unique. At Coco Curry House you can completely customise your meal. Choose your curry base flavour, meat, veggies, toppings and the level of spiciness. Every dish is unique and customised to you. I ordered mine with pork curry served on rice, with a chicken cutlet, mushrooms, cheese and garlic bits. Pretty spicy as I needed the heat to help warm me up from the inside out. Served on the side were these crunchy, sour pickles which helped cut the creamy and heavy nature of the curry, so you didn't feel as full afterwards. After finishing off our curries, we headed back out into the night. Kyoto already felt like a different city despite only really being able to explore in the dark, cold rain. It was quiet. It felt aged. And more than anything, it already felt more laid back. We seemed to be the only ones rushing.
We went in search of a sweet treat and some Asahi Super Dry (both with and without alcohol) to enjoy in the comfort of our cosy hotel room. It was the ideal way to end a lovely relaxing day. Head on our pillows, I couldn't wait to get to sleep and start our exploration of Kyoto.
Our time in Tokyo felt unending and yet so short. We saw and experienced so much. Every day was go, go, go. But before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to our lovely hotel room, our wonderful district and friendly neighbours. The Blue Jays were in the playoffs while we were in Japan and Dan, being the diehard fan he is, wanted to watch the games live. We both woke up super early to catch the game from the comfort of out hotel room, watching the sun sweep in through the window as we saw Tokyo wake up for the last time.
Dan continued to watch in the lobby, and I took the portable internet to listen on the radio while I wandered around Akihabara for the last time. I always try to do this at least one early morning when I'm visiting a new city. Seeing the streets silent, in the dim light of the morning is a unique way of exploring and I never miss out.
Before leaving for the day I searched out a coffee shop that was open early and sat with my book on Kyoto. I enjoyed my morning coffee, watching people coming in and out on their way to work. The fast paced nature of Toyko never more present than in the morning as commuters rushed to get their breakfast in as fast as humanly possible.
Walking along the streets of Akihabara in the morning compared to at night is literally night and day. In the morning there is barely a soul to be seen. Gone are the little girls dressed in maid costumes and geeking out otaku nerds. The neon lights and loud nosies from the arcades have all been turned off and there is a eerie emptyness to the streets. All that's left are a few street cleaners and one weirdo (me) walking along the sidewalk.
Most stores along this street don't even open until 10 am, so you have a long time to explore in silence before things start up again. Without anyone running into me, I had the chance to sit and stare at some of the buildings. Admiring the designs or being bewildered by them. Coffee in hand, I was in my element. Feeling like an explorer of a long forgotten city. I decided to do some shopping at Don Quijote (at they're open 27/7) since the store was a ghost town and the best time to shop with ease.
I took my time to walk up and down all the hidden side streets, studying up all the vending machines on each corner. For the most part, the only items I found inside were coffees and sodas, but I did manage to come across the machine below selling what I can only assume are cans of beans? Or perhaps a very thick soup? I wasn't quite sure and too scared to try it out.
Looking back on the past few days I tried to write down or make lists of every memorable moment that took place. It was a whirlwind week that surpassed all my expectations. When we were first booking our hotels, we had no idea how massive Tokyo really could be but also how accessible it was. We picked Akihabara as our home base since we felt it would be the perfect mix of "location" and the "scene". Although we loved this area, throughout our travels we discovered so many other small little districts we would have enjoyed staying in more but overall Akihabara was the perfect place to start off when first uncovering all those secrets Tokyo has to offer.