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Alibi's trip report: tokyo-kyoto-siem reap-bkk-luang prabang-chiang mai-bkk

Alibi's trip report: tokyo-kyoto-siem reap-bkk-luang prabang-chiang mai-bkk

Jan 27th, 2006, 10:09 PM
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Alibi's trip report: tokyo-kyoto-siem reap-bkk-luang prabang-chiang mai-bkk

Trip Report: Tokyo-Kyoto-Siem Reap-Bangkok-Luang Prabang-Chiang Mai-Bangkok

My wife, C and I returned two weeks ago from a 29-day trip to Asia. It was our first time, and we loved it. The trip was a wedding present, enabling us to travel and eat in a way that would normally be outside our means. We are in our late thirties, living and working in Brooklyn. I am a poet/professor, and she is a graphic designer.

We spent 6 nights in Tokyo, 4 nights in Kyoto, 4 nights in Siem Reap, 5 nights in Bangkok, 3 nights in Luang Prabang, 4 nights in Chiang Mai, and 2 final nights in Bangkok. Thank you everyone on Fodors for all your helpful tips and information. Here is the Tokyo installment.

Day 1, 12/15, Thursday, New York to Tokyo
Leave JFK on a noon flight, non-stop to Tokyo on Japan Airlines. The flight is uneventful. What stood out most was its length: 14 hours. We flew economy. The plane was crowded. The food was mediocre, though we enjoyed the green and roasted tea, and the miso consome. Luckily C. made some delicious sandwiches at home, which we ate about 3 hours into the journey. We did not get much sleep.

Day 2, 12/16, Friday, Tokyo
We arrived in Tokyo at 4:30 in the afternoon, caught the train into town, transferring to the JR Yamamonte Line, which took us to Ebisu, our home for the next 6 nights. We stayed at the Hotel Excellent Ebisu, a business-class hotel right across the street from Ebisu Station. The hotel itself is nothing to write home about, but we were completely happy with our choice, as the hotel is in the middle of a cool neighborhood, filled with cafes, restaurants, and shops, and has easy access to Daikanyama, Shibuya, Harajuku, Naka-Meguro.

We had dinner the first night with my wife’s friend Minori who lives in Tokyo and designs music videos. Minori was carrying her Chihuahua, Apple, and pushing her tiny bicycle, with wheels the size of Frisbees, that seems to be popular with people under-30 in Japan. Minori took us to a little French place along the Meguro River in Naka Meguro. I was resistant at first, because in Japan I really wanted to eat Japanese food exclusively, but the food was awesome, especially the eggplant dish. Sorry, I don’t know the name of the place; everything was in French and Japanese. We said bye to Minori and walked 15 minutes back to our hotel.

Day 3, 12/17, Saturday

Jet lag was not too bad for us; we forced ourselves to stay awake until midnight the night before, and we woke up fairly alert. We had breakfast at a little café down the block from our hotel, The Mermaid Café. We loved how tasty the pastries were, the simplicity of the café’s design, and the friendliness of the workers. We walked to Shubiya and took a train to Aoyama. We were hoping to go to the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, but sadly it was closed for the holidays. We wandered around, then took a train to Roppongi and had an excellent lunch (tempura, soba noodles, yakitori, gumball soda) at Gonpachi, a restaurant that inspired the setting for a scene in Tarantino’s Kill Bill.

After lunch, we went to the Mori Art Museum and saw a fashion exhibit by Vivienne Westwood. It was really cool to see all these punk rock outfits on mannequins in a super dark room, filled with well-dressed Japanese people. In a way the experience embodied how Tokyo fascinated us: both familiar, yet wholly new--similar from one angle, utterly distinct from another. In general, it was interesting in Tokyo to see how elements of punk rock fashion had been appropriated by Japanese youth—for instance, the outfits and make-up were borrowed, but not the hostility or tattoos.

Also at the Mori, we saw a photography exhibit by Hiroshi Sugimoto. We especially enjoyed his barren, meditative black and white nature photos that reminded us of Mark Rothko. We also admired the photos he snapped at the Museum of Natural History in New York—amazing how realistic they appear. The Mori Museum is very touristy, though not many Westerners. We had a great time; after looking at the art, we enjoyed a tea and hot chocolate on one of the posh sofas with a dynamite, bird’s eye view of the city far below.

We left the Mori Museum and looked for the Ota Fine Arts Complex that featured the work of young, local artists. We had the Time Out Tokyo Guide, and the map was not very helpful; there were several inaccuracies that were potentially frustrating, but since Tokyo is such a great walking city, and it was all so new to us, we rolled with the process for the most part. Eventually we found the small galleries clustered in two narrow buildings. The vibe in the galleries reminded us a little of Chelsea.

That night we went to dinner with Minori. She took us to one of her favorite sushi places, right near Naka-Meguro station. My wife and I were the only Westerners. The food was delicious. We sat on the floor and feasted, devouring many plates of super fresh sushi, and then had nabe, which involves you cooking your food in a communal, iron hot pot. We were at the restaurant for close to 4 hours. The atmosphere was fun and jovial. The total bill was actually quite reasonable: $50 a person, despite all the food we ate and drank.

After dinner we wandered along the Meguro River for about 20 minutes to Higashiya, a dessert paradise in a refurbished old building. The architecture of the building was gorgeous. The downstairs is a sweets shop, and the upstairs is an upscale tea and desserts bar. The place was very dark and stylish. One neat thing about being in Japan was experiencing first-hand what many Japanese restaurants in America are trying to re-create. At Higashiya, we had an elaborate tea. It was definitely ritualistic, pouring the steaming water into a special pot, maneuvering the tea. At the end, after drinking several cups, each prepared in a slightly different way, our waiter fed us the tea—to eat. It didn’t taste great, but I am glad we tried it. I loved how my glass of water had one single, square ice cube. The place was not crowded; later Minori told us that the woman sitting across from us at a large rectangular, communal table was a Japanese pop star and that several well-known actors were at a table in the corner. Our deserts are hard to describe: a kind of red bean paste, with a jelly-like quality. The technical term may be anmitsu. I wouldn’t describe it as super tasty, but the overall experience of Higashiya—the ritual, the beauty of the presentation, the atmosphere—was a highlight of our trip. Note: there is no English menu, and the staff does not speak English; without Minori, we would have been totally lost. We left Higashiya at 2 a.m. and walked 25 minutes back to our hotel.

Day 4, 12/18, Sunday
We slept until almost noon and then met Minori and her Chihuahua Apple for lunch at an organic restaurant, Brown Rice, in Aoyama. The food was very healthy and fresh and presented beautifully. In general, we loved how much thought and care is devoted to the presentation of Japanese meals; eating becomes not just an aesthetically pleasing experience for your taste buds and nose, but also your eyes and mind. We wandered around the shops in Aoyama and Harajuku. It was a Sunday afternoon and the streets were packed. We were fascinated by Tokyo: the culture, the people, the art and architecture. We loved the wooden slats incorporated into buildings, how clean the city was, and the miniature trash trucks. We passed the goth kids hanging out in front of Yoyogi Park; it is like they have made themselves into cartoon characters. We visited the Meiji Shrine: a nice walk and good to be surrounded by trees. We then walked over to the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art, a jewel-box of a museum with enchanting traditional Japanese prints.

After the print museum we split paths: Minori and C. went to drop off Apple, and then onto Shubiya for some shopping. I went to Shinjuku to attend a Japanese spoken word poetry reading at Ben’s Café. As soon as I got off the train in Shinjuku, I notice a very different vibe in the air; it felt edgier, less friendly. It took a while to find Ben’s Café and I felt truly lost: the lack of traditional addresses in Tokyo, my inability to speak Japanese. The reading was interesting to a degree, but without the language my mind wandered. I left at the intermission to meet Minori and C for dinner at a stylish, new restaurant in Daikanyama. I don’t remember the name; it’s an organic place, on the 2nd floor, and it specializes in shabu-shabu. The food was delicious. We especially enjoyed a beef carpaccio-like dish and the shabu-shabu, with the paper-thin slices of beef cooked in our own hot pot. At a table behind us we noticed the actress who played Go-Go in Kill Bill. Afterwards we hug Minori good-bye and thank her for her hospitality. In the morning, she starts a busy work week, and we will not be seeing her again on this trip.

Day 5, 12/19, Monday

We woke at 7 a.m. and took the subway to the fish market. Much of the action had finished by the time we arrived, so we wandered around the adjacent aisles, looking for a restaurant to have a sushi breakfast. We went to the place that had the longest line out front, figuring it must be good. The wait was forty-five minutes, but oh so worth it. When we got our place at the sushi bar, we were in heaven, as plate after plate of fresh off the boat fish was delivered to our mouths. Definitely a highlight of our trip

After our sushi breakfast, we went back to the hotel to crash for a while. We rose around 1 in the afternoon, and grabbed some caffeinated beverages at the Mermaid Café. C. decided she wanted to explore the consignment shops and independent clothing boutiques in the area. I took a subway to Asakusa and explored. The original lodging plan for Tokyo was to stay at Ryokan Shigestu in Asakusa. We are so glad that we decided to stay in Ebisu. Not that there is anything wrong with Asakusa; we just love the hip, independent vibe in Naka-Meguro/Ebisu area. The Hotel Excellent was just a place to crash; we didn’t even mind or complain about the strange smell in the bathroom. In hindsight though, we would have gotten the twin room, which is bigger than the double.

In Asakusa, I visit the Kannon Temple and then ducked into an onsen, where two 60 year-old local men and I relaxed in the steaming waters, an excellent respite.

C and I met up and went to a ramen shop, Ko-shu Ramen (the name does not appear in English on the sign), that Minori told us about in Meguro. She told us what major street it was on, what it was across from, what the name was in English and Japanese, and it was still not easy to find. But it was cheap and super delicious. Luckily, Minori wrote down for us in Japanese what we should order: shrimp ramen noodle in salt broth. What set this ramen apart from its American brethren was not just the tasty broth, no, it was the dumplings—they were so smooth and buttery, like they were made out of silk. In my experience, the dumpling wrapper is usually just a barrier, something that my teeth charge through to get to what is inside, but here the dumpling’s exterior added to the experience.

Day 6, 12/20 Tuesday

After a quick bite at the Mermaid, we took the subway to Ueno to visit the Tokyo National Museum. We loved Utamaro’s prints, that depict 12 hours in the life of a courtesan, and the beautiful old scrolls, and intricately designed kimonos in the main building. We also enjoyed the architecture of the newest building, designed by the same architect who did the new MOMA in New York.

We had lunch in Asakusa at a place called Sometaro. We sat on the floor and cooked okonomiyaki on a grill built into our table. Okonomiyaki is like a giant pancake with whatever ingredients you work in. We also had fried noodles, yaki soba. The food was good, not great, but it was a fun experience overall.

We then took a $10 cab to the Edo Tokyo Museum. We really enjoyed this museum; it focuses on the history of Tokyo, its transformation from small backwater town to one of the greatest cities in the world. Highlights included watching a miniature kabuki theater display with a throng of Japanese schoolgirls pressed around me as the path of their tour intersected with me. The exhibit on Tokyo getting bombed during World War II felt especially awkward as I was surrounded by a handful of teenage Japanese boys and wondered if any of them lost relatives.

We took the subway home to Ebisu. C packed it in for the night as she was fighting off a cold, so I went out for sushi by myself, to the yummy place in Naka-Meguro that I ate at three nights earlier. It felt so different being alone, being the only Westerner, not knowing the language. I squeezed into a seat at the sushi bar. Even though the menu had pictures, I felt insecure ordering. I really missed Minori and her insights. I felt like the guy next to me didn’t like me. I’m not sure why. Probably because I was feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious. The funny thing is that when he left, he said warmly “enjoy the rest of your trip”, which was sweet and proved how unreliable perceptions can be sometimes. The food was good, but I can’t say I had a great time.

Afterwards I had the great treat of meeting Melea from the Fodors board. I had been impressed with the thoroughness and tone of her Laos report from months ago, and she had given me the thumbs up on the Hotel Excellent Ebisu. C thought it was a little strange that I was meeting someone from a web board, but I assured her it was perfectly normal, that it would make me a true Fodorita. Melea met me in Ebisu, and we walked to a really cool café that she likes in the direction of Shibuya. The place was packed with stylish Japanese people mostly in their 20’s. We had yummy hot chocolate, and Melea gave me some great tips for Kyoto, Cambodia, and Luang Prabang. She was very kind and sweet.

Day 7, 12/21, Wednesday

Our last day in Tokyo, before a bullet train to Kyoto in the late afternoon. The weather was great, over 50. We had a week full of sun in Tokyo. C went shopping from 11 to 4 hitting many little shops in Ebisu, Daikanyama, and Aoyama. She later raved about a store named Muji. I wandered around Naka-Meguro, snapping photos and enjoying an excellent lunch at a ramen place Minori had pointed out days earlier.

I went to the JR office in Ebisu Station to buy our train tickets. This turned out to be a major hassle as the guy (turns out he was more of a bozo) insisted that my credit card was not working, and that the problem was with my card. This set off an hour of confusion, with me trying to find an international pay phone that took coins. Eventually I got through to my credit card company; they assured me my card was fine. Later I returned to the JR office and bought my tickets with the exact same credit card, hassle-free.

C and I met. She was in a very good mood from all her shopping. We went to a French café, where she enjoyed a scrumptious pancake. We were again amazed at how aesthetically pleasing the restaurants in Tokyo are. On the blonde wooden table, there was a simple beige ceramic bowl with a single branch with cranberries in it. It was minimal, elegant, and classy. We really loved Tokyo. 6 nights was just enough to scratch the surface. We grabbed our bags from the lobby of Hotel Excellent Ebisu and walked to Ebisu station. The sun was setting, next stop Kyoto.

alibi13 is offline  
Jan 27th, 2006, 11:02 PM
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Great report! I really enjoyed it. It was so smooth for me (a Japanese)to read. Is it poet/prof's writing ;-) Ebisu is a area I'm not very familiar with. I've been there only a few times, a long time ago when I had to meet friends. I'm more on Western side of Tokyo (Shinjuku, etc) but your description of it interests me. Maybe I will go take a look next time I'm back in Tokyo tha'ts in 1 month.

An-mitsu was a very particular dessert, wasn't it? I can understand many Westerners don't really like it. I like An (red bean paste) but not much Mitsu (syrup - honey) and I don't like the jello in it.

It seems you ate mostly at hip restaurants (thanks to Minori?). I wonder if you found the food expensive there, except okonomi-yaki place(that's usually inexpensive) and the other you ate/drank a lot for 5000 yen.

Very promising start ! Looking forward to Kyoto part.
kappa is offline  
Jan 27th, 2006, 11:29 PM
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Great report! I know I dished the Excellent Ebisu, but it seems to have served you well. Tokyo is really fun, isn't it!?

Looking forward to reading the rest!
KimJapan is offline  
Jan 28th, 2006, 05:41 AM
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Hi Kappa,

Some of the restaurants might be called hip, but we didn't feel a pressure to dress any special way. And I was surprised at how relatively cheap meals were. The sushi feast with nabe was $50 each. The sushi breakfast was $40 each; we went for the chef's choice. The shabu-shabu place was $35 each. The ramen meals were $10 each. What makes Tokyo dining more affordable is the absence of additional tax and tip, which adds 25% to a meal in New York. So an $80 sushi meal in Tokyo is equiavalent to $62 meal (pre-tip in New York: $6 for tax, $12 for tip.)

Hi Kim, and thanks for your help at various points in planning my trip to Japan. You answered various questions along the way that helped a lot. The Hotel Excellent Ebisu did work out, but you were right: the rooms were nothing special. And like I mentioned, one of the bathrooms had an odd smell. We probably should've complained, but we were so happy there somehow. We weren't in the room much, and we loved the location.

One thing we could've used was a map of Tokyo. We were amazed at how few maps there were. The Time Out map was not very guide and definitely not comprehensive; our neighborhood was discussed, but there was no map. That was a funny thing we noticed about our trip. In Chiang Mai there were maps everywhere. Kyoto was flush with free maps. But in Tokyo there were none, and in Luang Prabang you had to pay a dollar for a halfway decent map, (emphasis on the halfway); the map provided by our hotel there covered about a block and looked like it had been written in 7 seconds by a bored five-year old.
alibi13 is offline  
Jan 28th, 2006, 06:02 AM
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Yes, tips and tax are the killers in USA and maybe especially in NYC.
kappa is offline  
Jan 28th, 2006, 06:21 AM
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We leave for Thailand and Cambodia next week so I am looking forward to reading the rest of your report!

Thanks for posting!

eurotraveller is offline  
Jan 28th, 2006, 07:58 AM
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I forgot to say it's good to know you enjoyed sento-onsen. It's not for everybody and especially when you are a foreign visitor. Was that your adventurous side? Even in Asakusa, the most traditional area of Tokyo, not many of them exist, I think. How did you find it? Also was it a real onsen (natural thermal water bath) or sento (literally pay to bathe - a bath house) usually with artificially heated water?
kappa is offline  
Jan 28th, 2006, 08:14 AM
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alibi, excellent report. do you know the name of the sushi bar that you went to twice in naka-meguro? when in japan, i try to eat sushi at least once a day, sometimes twice. always looking for new places to try.

btw, mealea also gave me a great restaurant tip called ukai toriyama. its outside the city but it was great.
kuranosuke is offline  
Jan 28th, 2006, 08:40 AM
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Great report, don't you just love Tokyo? We'll be back there in a few weeks and just can't wait. Sounds like you had a good time. Looking forward to the rest of your report as we have almost the same itinerary as you.
When are you going back?
hawaiiantraveler is offline  
Jan 28th, 2006, 08:50 AM
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Great report, keep it coming!
Kathie is online now  
Jan 28th, 2006, 10:53 AM
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I love the amount of details in your report. Loojking forward to Kyoto - that's where we are thinking of going.
travelgirl2 is offline  
Jan 28th, 2006, 06:25 PM
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wonderful report...look forward to more...and can't wait to see what you like about bkk.. if anything
rhkkmk is offline  
Jan 29th, 2006, 09:00 AM
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alibi, I have been saying how we are in need of some fresh Japan reports on the board and here is one. I know how much time it takes to write the reports - thank you so much for taking the time.

It is so cool that you met up w/Mealea. Maybe we will get to do so also since my daughter and I are staying in Ebisu again at the Westin in April.

A Japanese chihuahua named Apple...I had a vision of that the entire time I read the report.

I am printing out your report to take w/me. Esp. appreciate the dining info.

I found that the best way to get around Tokyo for us was to have a good subway/train map of the entire city, then have maps or narrative access info printed from the web (when they are available) of where the place is in realation to the subway/train stops. Like you, we still had a hard time finding some places though.
emd is offline  
Jan 29th, 2006, 08:54 PM
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Kappa, the place i went to in Asakusa may have been a senso and not an onsen. I'm not sure. I didn't ask if the water was naturally thermal or artificially heated. It cost like $7 to visit. It was the opposite of fancy. I read about it in Time Out.

Emd, Meeting up with Melea was great. She has so much travel wisdom and is very generous. I bet the Westin in Ebisu is great. I stopped into the one in Kyoto and was quite impressed.

Kuranosuke, I do not know the name of the place I ate sushi twice. It is along the river. It is a white building, with a blue awning. It is partially under a bridge, and has a blue and white Asahi sign. (I have a picture of the place.) To get there, we exited the metro station and crossed the street and went bac a block and turned to the right I think. It is within 30 seconds of the Naka-Meguro metro station. If you give your e-mail address, I'll try to send a photo of the place.
alibi13 is offline  
Jan 30th, 2006, 06:04 AM
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always looking a good sushi bar. [email protected]. domo.
kuranosuke is offline  
Jan 30th, 2006, 10:56 AM
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Great initial report! Of all the trip reports I've read, yours comes the closest to mirroring what I would like to do (museums, temples/shrines, and eating being my priorities).

We went to the Ota Ukiyo-E museum last time and loved it! Apparently the installation changes every month so its very rare to see the same thing more than once. We're going back to Japan at the end of March and I'm hoping we can make it to the Edo Tokyo museum then, especially now after hearing your good words.
fastnbulbous is offline  
Jan 30th, 2006, 06:26 PM
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alibi13, thanks for the great report. I'm looking forward to the shinkansen trip and Kyoto.
mrwunrfl is offline  
Jan 30th, 2006, 10:17 PM
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alibi, take a sick day from work and give us some more of your post before you forget it. We need it.
emd is offline  
Jan 31st, 2006, 01:44 PM
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hawaiiantraveler is offline  
Jan 31st, 2006, 02:08 PM
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I'm loving your report. It brought back wonderful memories of our trip to Japan 2 years ago. We ate sushi at least once per day and I was amazed at how fresh it was, much better than anything I've ever had here in NYC, and much cheaper. We ate for much less money than you did in Japan but I didn't write down any of the names of the restaurants we went to. I won't make that mistake again.

Looking forward to the rest of your report, I've been to all of the places and going back to Bangkok in May. It's always nice to read what other people think and get different perspectives.
laurieco is online now  

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