Tokyo Disneyland Trip Report – Part 1

This trip report picks up where our Japan Trip Report left off.  I’ve separated the two because some people were more interested in one topic or another.  If you missed any of the Japan Trip Report and want to catch up then click on the corresponding number (1, 2, 3, or 4) that you missed.

The train ride from Tokyo to Maihama Station is quiet and serene compared to the routes in Tokyo.  Zipping in and out of tunnels eventually finds riders closer to the ocean and away from the skyscrapers.  While I enjoyed the ride, and it certainly was more serene than Tokyo’s Chuo Line, my mood was far from peaceful.  At the beginning of the trip Tokyo Disneyland was far from my mind.  I didn’t really let myself think about it until the day we were going to the resort and, after a morning at Tsujiki Market, I was more than eager to get into a Disney Park.

We exited the station and headed for Tokyo Disneyland Hotel, our lodging for the next few nights.  Later that evening we were headed to Tokyo DisneySea with a park ticket that lets guests enter after 6 PM.  We had plenty of time to check-in and explore the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel, a marvel in its own right.  Here’s a few photos of the exterior and a review will be coming shortly.

Tokyo Disneyland Hotel Mickey

TDL sunset from station and hotel

While Tokyo Disneyland is a quick walk away from the hotel, DisneySea was 2 stops away on the Tokyo Disneyland monorail line.  That station was right outside of the hotel gates and we went that way a few minutes before 6.  The sun was beginning to set and was quite beautiful on the water.

Exiting the station is a bit of a blur as we all took off at full speed and headed for DisneySea’s entrance.  The next thing I remembered was being inside of the park, checking out this view…

TDS inside boat volcano

I’d seen pictures of Tokyo DisneySea many times.  Much of my original inspiration for going to Japan was based on those photos.  Seeing it in person felt like a culmination of a long journey.  While it literally was the culmination of our trip, this was a destination I’d been planning to go to for 5+ years.  Standing along the fence and soaking in this view brought on a well of emotions that I wasn’t ready for.  That memory will be one of my favorites for the rest of my life.

Eventually I collected myself, snapped a few lousy photos and we started a quick walk through of DisneySea.  The plan for the night was to just walk around and soak in the atmosphere, rides weren’t much of a priority.  The after 6 PM ticket costs around $40 and I’d pay that much to just walk around DisneySea without the attractions.

TDS water view ToT Castle

The sun had mostly set and blue hour was coming in.  We walked along the right side of Mediterranean Harbor towards Mysterious Island.  The park has plenty of wow moments and entering Mysterious Island is another one of those.

Mysterious Island TDS

The kinetic energy in that area is phenomenal.  So are the colors, mostly pastels, that look rich and emboldened.  A little steampunk, a lot Jules Verne, and a completely immersive area that is one of the best theme park lands in the world.  More on that later.

Mermaid Lagoon Volcano blue sky water TDS

We continued our walk through Mermaid Lagoon and to the Arabian Coast.  My first time in DisneySea had me completely enveloped with the volcano.  My photos were mostly centered around the icon and rightfully so. I knew there were other topics worthy of my focus but I couldn’t help but look at the mountain looming in the distance.

New York Deli facade TDS

We realized that we were very hungry at this point and doubled back to the American Waterfront for the New York Deli.  We went for the Mile High Sandwich and were not disappointed by the height!  After dinner we went to Mediterranean Harbor to watch Fantasmic!

One of the underappreciated aspects of Tokyo Disney Resorts is how the custom is to sit for shows.  Instead of standing in a packed mess to watch a parade or show, the sitting and standing areas are well-organized.  It’s one of those things that I didn’t know I cared about until I actually experienced it.

Dragon light fantasmic TDS

Fantasmic! at Tokyo DisneySea is fairly different from what we’re accustomed to stateside.  Being in the Harbor, Fantasmic! has a circle theater.  The show does well, playing to all sides.  The front of the house is the entrance of the park but seeing it from a different angle isn’t much of a hindrance.  I thoroughly enjoyed the show and recommend seeing it even if you have seen the other versions.

Mediterranean Harbor light blur TDS

We spent some time in that area after the show and were blown away .  It was very easy to forget that we were in a theme park while walking in different lands.  If Mysterious Island earns points for a phenomenal, cohesive area.  Mediterranean Harbor, American Waterfront, Arabian Coast for their beautiful scenes accompanied by intricate details.

Steamship flowers night TDS

I’d like to do a land-by-land guide of Tokyo DisneySea if there is interest in it.  Each of the ports-of-call are worthy of their own post.  If you’d enjoy that then let me know in the comments.

Melissa and I had shared a sandwich so it was time for our second dinner of the night.  You know, in the name of research!  We decided to eat inside of a volcano, a dangerous but incredible endeavor.  I’ve already reviewed Vulcania, probably my favorite counter-service spot we tried at DisneySea.  The restaurant is undeniably cool, full of detail, reasonably priced and serves good food.

We decided to go for our only attraction of the night at that point, Journey to the Center of the Earth.  This attraction is a dark-ride roller coaster hybrid and seen as DisneySea’s flagship attraction.  It did not disappoint.  The ride takes you further and further inside of the mountain until eventually we stumble upon something we shouldn’t see and the cart races away.  Journey to the Center of the Earth is a blast and worthy of its prime location.

Mysterious Island water TDS

I split off shortly and took as many photos as I could.  The park was fairly empty at this point so security was a little faster in getting people out.  Still, I was relatively happy with the shots I ended up with.  Here are a few of them.

Mysterious Island night from stairs TDS

TDS night mermaid light bridge volcanao

Arabian Coast TDS

Mysterious Island bridge TDS

If you hadn’t noticed, we didn’t really do much in our four hours in the park.  I honestly wouldn’t have changed a thing except for maybe only having one bigger meal instead of the two smaller.  DisneySea was jaw-dropping and a perfect place to just explore.  Not that there aren’t great attractions, there are.  But even without those, DisneySea is like a museum.  A case study in how to make a beautiful, detailed and enveloping land.

We went back to the hotel knowing full well that we had four days of this resort left.  Eager to get up, we went to bed shortly after getting back to the hotel.

Monsters Inc Ride and go seek building TDL

The next morning started off bright and early.  Tokyo Disneyland Hotel (as well as other on-site Disney hotels) guests get into the parks 15 minutes earlier than all other park goers.  This doesn’t sound like much but it does help you get in front of the lines.  We went straight for Monsters, Inc. Ride & Go Seek!

This attraction is an interactive dark ride that takes guests through the story of Monsters, Inc.  The interactive aspect comes from each guest getting a flashlight and then shining that on monsters to make them appear from out of the dark.  This is a wonderful dark ride that is both futuristic and fun.  The animatronics throughout the attraction are impressive and the story is told well.

Unfortunately, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt was closed while we were there.  This was a big disappointment as that attraction is unique to Tokyo Disneyland and considered one of the best in the world.  That’s the way it goes though, we look forward to riding it when we return!  I bring it up here because we would have started (and recommend starting the day) at that attraction.

We went and got in line for Space Mountain after Monsters, Inc. but the attraction shut down as we were in the queue.  This isn’t the norm and we were handed extra FastPasses for our trouble so it wasn’t a big deal.  Space Mountain came back on-line later in the day.

Tokyo Disneyland was set to begin their 35th Anniversary Celebration two days after we left.  I was a little bummed when this was announced, as we’d already booked our vacation.  While I’m not much of a parade person, I was eager to see Tokyo Disneyland’s acclaimed parades.  There was no daytime parade on the schedule for our week there.

After Space Mountain we noticed many people sitting on the curbs, waiting for a show.  We walked around in confusion for a few minutes before I finally asked a cast member what was happening.  She told us that the new daytime parade was debuting that morning in about half an hour!  We found a nice spot to sit in Frontierland and waited.

Blowing kiss flower girl Dream Up TDL

Minnie Dream Up TDL

This new parade is called Dreaming Up and is a hoot.  The floats and costumes are over the top fun and the whole parade is very charming.  Tokyo Disney Resort does not do shows or parades small.  They go for grand and in this parade they nailed it.  I’ll have a full review later on.

Dream Up elephant girl TDL

After enjoying the parade, we made the short walk over to Splash Mountain and enjoyed the ride via the single rider line.  While the wait times were relatively low for the day, we still saved quite a bit of time using single-rider when available.  This also led to fun interactions in the log as we were all seated with Japanese families, many of whom had never ridden Splash Mountain.

Splash Mountain rafts TDL

Tokyo Disneyland’s Splash Mountain has a mini-land with it that includes a snack stand, a counter-service restaurant and some short, nice paths.  This makes it a nice place to linger and enjoy the scenery.

The whole park just feels slightly different from Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, parks I’ve grown accustomed to.  This isn’t in a bad way, in fact I think I preferred it, but there is just something different about the park.  The walkways are a bit wider, the park doesn’t seem to be in as big of a hurry, the fandom is slightly more character based.  Even with those things listed, there’s something a little different that is hard to identify.

Lantern water whell TDL

Next we used our extra FastPass at Big Thunder Mountain and enjoyed a Pork Rice Roll, which was one of Melissa’s favorite snacks of the trip.  We walked right on to Pirates of the Caribbean without any wait.  Both Pirates and Big Thunder Mountain are similar to the classics stateside.  Tokyo Disneyland’s ride collection is essentially a greatest hits collection pulled from Disneyland and Magic Kingdom.  Pirates is pulled from Disneyland.  Splash Mountain is pulled from Magic Kingdom.  Big Thunder is a little bit of both.  There’s a small New Orleans Square around Pirates of the Caribbean that is beautiful to walk around and a perfect home to the attraction.

At that point, our FastPass window (paper fastpasses like in Disneyland and not Disney World) for Monsters, Inc. was up.  We had gotten one first thing in the morning, as we knew we’d want to ride it a couple of times.

Mike shutting lights Monsters Inc Ride and Seek TDL

Another mark in the positive for Tokyo Disneyland is how well the rides are maintained.  This is especially evident in the dark rides as the lighting is just right and the animatronics are all working.  I don’t know if they allocate more in the budget for maintenance or simply care more about running efficiently but I was very impressed.

Sulley sewer Monsters Inc ride seek TDL

We walked right on to Star Tours after our second ride through Monstropolis.  At this point, we were wondering why the lines were so short and the crowds were very dispersed.  The rumors of Tokyo Disneyland being overcrowded were greatly exaggerated.  More importantly though, we went during low crowd season and the park was running at full capacity.  For example, Star Tours was loading all of the flight simulators even though the line was less than five minutes.  Disneyland and Disney World don’t do that anymore as a way to cut costs.  It’s one of my biggest frustrations with the way Disney runs their parks but in Tokyo it was completely different.

If you don’t know, Tokyo Disney Resort isn’t owned by Disney but rather Oriental Land Company.  Disney is a partner and has some creative control but OLC is the owner.  I know people defend the Disney company like their favorite sports team, but TDR is great partially because it isn’t owned by current-day Disney.  There is no cost-cutting that I could tell in that park but it’s a regular thing in Disney run parks.  TDR wasn’t overloaded with IP’s because there isn’t much need for corporate synergy.  Basically everything that rubs me the wrong about the current state of Disney’s theme parks, Tokyo Disney Resort does the opposite.  I don’t mean to overstate this but I kept thinking, as we walked around the park, “If Bob Iger was forced to do a few regular days at these parks and compare them to the parks stateside then things would be run very differently.”  The customer service at Tokyo Disney Resort was incredible.

Castle water weeping tree TDL

We got a FastPass for the up and running Space Mountain and then headed back towards the castle, which we had breezed by for most of the morning.  The castle is more or less a replica of Magic Kingdom’s although the hub is different.  There’s wide open spaces in the hub but no bridges or water throughout it.  The pavement changes texture several times so that the foreground doesn’t look too stale in front of the castle.  While we didn’t go to TDL on a high crowd day, it’s easy to tell that the park is geared up for high crowds.

Wall Castle flowers TDL

We strode around the area for a few minutes before our lunch reservation.  We had accomplished quite a bit that morning and were quite hungry and excited to slow down a little bit in the afternoon.  That’s where we’ll pick up in the next installment!

Thank you for reading and let us know if you have any questions or thoughts!  You can do that below in the comments.  If you enjoy what you’re reading please subscribe to the blog and like our social media pages, all of which you can find on the right side of this page.  Have a great day!

– Andrew

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News and Rumors Roundup – May 2018

It has a been a few months since our last Disney Parks update so we’ll catch up on the news and rumors of note.  Frankly, I’ve left a few items off the list because I didn’t have much of an opinion on them.  If there’s news you have heard of interest, please drop a note in the comments and I’d be happy to add it to the post.  I will give a brief synopsis of whatever rumor or news there is and then add my thoughts along with it.  Let’s get to it.

Rumor:  Indiana Jones/South America to replace DinoLand USA in Animal Kingdom.

We’ll start with this since I briefly addressed it in our latest post.  As noted, this is strictly just a rumor at this point.  Even with the addition of Pandora, Animal Kingdom is still in need of more attractions.  This rumor has an Indiana Jones attraction (think Disneyland or Tokyo Disneyland) replacing Dinosaur and a remodel of Dino-Rama (the carnival area) to fit either Indy or South America.

I don’t think the broad idea has a great chance of happening.  Replacing a whole land is a big task and Animal Kingdom just received a new land.  Mix that in with Dinosaur still being a popular ride that is well received and I’m not sure this makes a ton of sense.  But, I could see a re-skinning of Dino-Rama in the works.

Primeval Whirl AK

This is an ugly area that was designed on the cheap.  I’m especially partial to the whole area being transformed into a South America region where a variety of attractions would fit.  This could add in some much-needed greenery and live animals to the area.  Tokyo DisneySea has a South/Central America area land named Lost River Delta.  The area is beautiful and home to a wide variety of entertainment.  Something like this would work wonderfully in Animal Kingdom.

All in all, I think DinoLand will slowly be turned into something else over the next decade.  If there weren’t so many projects in the works at Disney World this could be on the forefront but money is allocated elsewhere at the moment.  I’m excited for this to change but think it will take a few years.

News:  Festival of Fantasy Dragon Catches on Fire

Magic Kingdom’s daytime parade, Festival of Fantasy, suffered a malfunction last weekend.  The Maleficent Dragon that breathes fire caught on fire and has been temporarily(?) removed from the parade until the float can be diagnosed and fixed. Thankfully, no one was hurt.  It remains to be seen if the dragon will breathe fire when it returns to the parade.

This is really unfortunate for one of the better daytime parades Disney has created.  The Maleficent float was one of my favorites from the parade and losing it for however long is a major blow.  Safety comes first, and I think it could be quite a while before we see the dragon breathe fire.  In fact, I would not be surprised if the effect is shut off for good.  I hope it doesn’t come to that but time will tell.

Rumor: New hotels coming to Walt Disney World

Some filed permits and rumors have led to a belief that there will be a few new resorts at Disney World in the near future.  The rumor revolves around 2 locations – a DVC resort at Fort Wilderness and a hotel at the entrance of Epcot.

I’m in favor of both of these projects and think both are likely.  The Epcot location would be incredibly popular and Disney could charge whatever price they wanted to for rooms there.  Hotels inside of theme parks is becoming more a popular trend and one that is pretty cool if done in good taste.

Epcot SSE front

Adding a DVC resort at or near Fort Wilderness seems fairly inevitable.  The area is charming and worthy of exploration, a resort there would draw more crowds.  While one could argue that adding a resort to that area could lessen the charm, I think this would make the area even more enjoyable with a boon of new experiences.  As long as the resort is kept in theme instead of generic rooms, which is a recent Disney trend, then the resort is good by me.

Over the next few years, Disney’s hotels will be at capacity as Star Wars Land and other areas open.  Adding to that hotel capacity only makes sense for Disney, both financially and logistically.  I’m for the company adding hotels so that the current prices don’t shoot through the roof even more than they already are.

News: Epcot’s Japan to add Signature Dining

While the details are pretty sparse so far, the Japan Pavilion is set to add another dining location.  The restaurant will be run by Mitsukoshi USA, the company that runs the other Japan Pavilions restaurants.  I’m hopeful that this restaurant will be a quality addition to World Showcase.  Again, not many details are known but we’ll be sure to update you when we do know more.

Pagoda and SSE Epcot night

News: Hard ticket Pixar Pier opening event set for June 22nd

Pixar Pier in California Adventure is set to open on June 23rd but the day before the area will open with a special ticketed event.  For the low price of $299 (Ha!) guests can enter Pixar Pier a day before everyone else.  This also includes food and parking, as well as a few other items.  This also includes park entry.  Still, the cost is way more than I’d pay.  Here’s more information on the event.

I have to think that Disney is testing out this idea before next year’s Star Wars Land openings.  If this proves to be popular than I could see a number of events coming that are similar to this.  I’m slightly against hard-ticket events, especially when they seem to conflict on what should be offered to people who just buy a regular park ticket.  It’s hard to argue too much with this, since the Pixar Pier opening date was known well in advance.  Still, they could have just opened this land earlier for guests instead of trying to make a quick buck off of it.  Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm right now but it isn’t a huge deal.

via Disney Parks Blog

That concludes this edition of news and rumors.  What do you think of these items?  Let us know in the comments!  If you enjoy what you’re reading here on Wandering in Disney please subscribe to the blog and like our Facebook page.  You can find both of those on the right side of this page.  Thank you for reading, we really appreciate it!

– Andrew

What Makes A Good Theme Park Land?

One of my favorite aspects of theme parks are the way they’re crafted to tell stories.  In the best theme parks, each attraction, land and park tells a story.  Of course, the attraction stories are more specific and the land’s and park’s story is more broad.  All of these stories should feed off each other to make a cohesive park.

Primeval Whirl AK

Animal Kingdom is one of the best examples of this.  While the park was partially made to showcase animals, it actually tells the story of exploration, conservation, and adventure.  Other theme park attractions take on passive experiences, sending guests through stories to watch.  Animal Kingdom makes a point of putting you in the experience, not a passive observer but an actual participant.  Whether it’s exploring a new planet, Pandora, or adventuring on a safari, all of Animal Kingdom is letting you be the star of the story.  That’s why simply adding a ride based off an animal movie (Jungle Book, Lion King, ect.) might not work and why adding a land that isn’t really about animals (Pandora) can work.

This subtle idea is how both the park and attractions within the park were conceived.  All of the lands are built to back up that idea, adding a back story to how you got to this experience.  In Pandora, there’s a travel agency that gives tours of the island.  Eventually that lands guests in the climactic experience of riding a banshee.  In Africa and Asia, guests have stumbled upon old villages that have reverence for animals, both mythical and real.  Discovery Island is exactly what it sounds like, guests have discovered this area and that’s where the park’s adventure begins.

Prayer flags AK MJT

DinoLand USA fits the park’s idea, as well.  The area is an excavation and research site where dinosaur bones have been found.  There has been a roadside carnival to attract guests as a tourist destination.  A research facility houses the Dinosaur ride that sends guests back in time to retrieve a dino.  The story is there, it fits the park’s active participant idea, there are great details that enhance the story and it ties back into animals.  But, if you have been to this park then you know one of these things is not like the other.  DinoLand, specifically Chester & Hester’s, is not an enjoyable or good land despite it executing the story.

Earlier today I was reading a Disney message board, a fairly dangerous activity.  The topic du jour was a juicy rumor about an Indiana Jones area replacing DinoLand.  I’m not going to address the Indy rumor until there’s more evidence of it coming to pass.  A different blog post for a different day.  What I was surprised about was the number of people who defended DinoLand.  Many of them reasoned that the story was executed well and fun to follow, making it a good land.

Bike Asia AK

I guess this is the part of the post where I should say that everyone is entitled to think whatever they want.  If you think DinoLand is a great land then that’s your prerogative.  The point here isn’t to pick on DinoLand specifically but instead pointing out that the story alone doesn’t make a land a good idea.

As I’ve already stated, DinoLand does execute its story and theme correctly.  The problem is that it’s an eye sore that doesn’t fit in an otherwise gorgeous park.  While I love themed lands and story telling, there needs to be a common sense approach to the aesthetic of an entire park.  Going from lush plant life to the concrete jungle that is DinoLand is too stark of a contrast to enjoy.

More importantly though, the land has a good story but it doesn’t belong in a theme park.  While there are exceptions, people go to theme parks to do something that they couldn’t easily experience otherwise.  People want to go to lands that they see in movies.  Going on a safari or a small village in Africa isn’t easily accessible.  Sailing through the World’s most famous rivers or going back to the wild west is appealing because we can’t do it AND the aesthetic isn’t off-putting.  These lands have to be somewhere that people actually want to go.  At the very least, they need to be a place that is fun and aesthetically pleasing.

DinoLand doesn’t complete those objectives.  What should be an easy task (who doesn’t want to go see dinosaurs?) was turned into an over-zealous back story simply because no one actually likes how roadside carnivals look.  In other words, a big back story with details can’t overcome an ugly land.  This is part of the reason A Bug’s Land is about to be put under.  There isn’t a big interest in being the size of a bug and seeing the world from that perspective.

Big rocks Pandora AK

This is one of the biggest reasons why I’m tentative about Toy Story Land.  While getting shrunk down to toy-size and visiting Andy’s backyard certainly fits the movie, it’s not something that excites me.  I’ve been in backyards many times in my life, I haven’t been to the Cadillac Mountains, Africa, Diagon Alley or a number of more interesting theme park land ideas.  Maybe I just don’t want to be shrunk down from my normal size?

Building and executing a theme park is hard and that’s an understatement.  The point of this post isn’t too ridicule some lands that I perceive to be bad.  Despite DinoLand, Animal Kingdom is my favorite Disney World park.  Instead, the goal is to show that there are a number of factors that go into making a land good or great.  Some people solely focus on attractions.  Some focus simply on how good the theme and back story is.  And, of course, some just take into account how the land looks.  In reality, a theme park land has to have all of those things plus more.

Tree of Life buffalo AK

What are your thoughts on what makes a good theme park land?  Let us know in the comments.  Thank you for reading Wandering in Disney, if you enjoy our content then please subscribe to the blog and like our social media accounts.  You can do both of those things on the right side of this page.  Have a wonderful day!

– Andrew

Japan Trip Report – Part 4

If you missed parts 1, 2, or 3 of this trip report then click on the corresponding number to catch up! 

Fuji from Shinkansen

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”  This is a nice thought but hardly ever true.  With all due respect to Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson, he clearly didn’t have to sit on an airplane for 10 hours, stay in the Beijing Airport for 16 hours and then sit in another plane for 4 hours just to get to Japan.  I mean, maybe he did but seeing how he died in 1882 I highly doubt it.  When talking about travel, especially via plane, I hardly ever get excited about the actual travel relative to the destination.

The Shinkansen (Japan’s bullet train) is an exception.  While all trains are likely more comfortable than airplanes, Shinkansen’s take this to a new level.  With leg room to spare and plenty of room for luggage, the journey across Japan is beautiful and enjoyable.

We took the bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo and immediately wished we had gone on the Shinkansen at least one other time.  There was the convenience and precision that the Shinkansen offered.  Departing and arriving precisely on time is a hallmark of the Japanese train systems and our Shinkansen met those expectations.  As I already mentioned, the seats are comfortable and perfect for napping or just looking out the window.

On this certain day it was very clear and we were able to see the water on the right side of the train (again, traveling from Kyoto to Tokyo) and villages along the way.  Eventually we had a wonderful view of Mt. Fuji on the left side of the train.  We felt as if we’d seen a good portion of Japan and still made great time, arriving in Tokyo less than 3 hours after our departure.

Fuji with window

Melissa and I had an open seat next to us and a few incredibly kind Japanese ladies sat by us.  The first lady shared about her daughter living in the U.S.  The other asked us about our trip thus far and was very accommodating as we went to the other side of the train to get a view of Mt. Fuji.  We don’t speak Japanese but they did their best to make conversation in English.  While I’m sure it seemed like nothing to them, the conversations are something I look back on fondly.  The people of Japan are eager to share their country and, at least in our experience, they do it in a humble and charming way.

It may sound silly but I think the Shinkansen would land in one of my top 10 things to do in Japan.  Frankly, we just don’t have a train system of this quality in America and I loved seeing the country through this route.  As I’ve mentioned in previous installments, we bought the Japan Rail Pass ahead of time and that covered our travel on the Shinkansen.  I would absolutely recommend the same to anyone who is going to Japan.

We arrived in Tokyo by late afternoon and found our Airbnb with relative ease.  Without many plans for the night, we settled on a sushi restaurant in Shinjuku for dinner.  Tokyo has a train loop (the Yamanote Line) that goes around the city.  This line has 29 stations and trains going both directions.  Tokyo, Ueno, Shinjuku and Shibuya are a few of the major stations along the way but each stop feels gigantic compared to a typical big city.

Tokyo is larger than life.  Sky scrapers reside at every station, as well as outside of the main loop.  Some stops feel historic, a look at the past in a futuristic city.  More often though, the stops feel like a sensory overload.  Neon lights, gigantic department stores, niche cafes and an incredible sense of fashion make it feel as if you just woke up from a 300 year nap and this is the future.  The experience is disorienting, jaw-dropping and bordering on absurd.  It’s also beautiful.

Shinjuku street

We had dinner at Himawari Zushi Shintoshin.  This was a conveyor belt sushi restaurant that was ridiculously good.  I will probably never eat this much sushi in one sitting again and our meal still ended up being around $30.  The eel in a sort of teriyaki sauce was one of the best items I ate our whole trip.  I would definitely recommend this place if you are not wanting to break the bank on good sushi.

Shinjuku street

After dinner we walked around Shinjuku, trying to get a grasp on the city.  It didn’t work.  We spent a good portion of our time in Tokyo around Shinjuku and I still don’t understand where things were.  That didn’t make it less enjoyable.  We stopped by an arcade so Mackenzie could play some claw machines (I guess she loves them?) and we did this strange Guitar Hero-esque drum game.

The amount of restaurants and shops in this area were incredible and the neon made for a stark contrast to our experiences in Kyoto.  There was almost a bit of culture shock, going from one city to another.  As I’ve said, Kyoto is now my favorite city I’ve ever been in.  Anything that followed it would feel like a letdown… Except for Tokyo.  Don’t get me wrong, I far prefer Kyoto to Tokyo.  But, Tokyo was just as astounding as Kyoto in a completely different way.

Uniqlo Shinjuku night

We stumbled upon a 5(!) story Uniqlo and did some shopping there before calling it a night.  While we could have planned something a little more for the night, it was nice to just wander around for an evening.  I’ve since read about a free observation deck in Shinjuku that I wish we’d done but there’s always next time!

The next morning we left our Airbnb, near the Otsuka Station, and headed in the opposite direction as the previous night.  We planned to spend our morning in Ueno at the Tokyo National Museum.  We ended up leaving something at our rental and had to go back so we didn’t do the museum.  I still enjoyed the area, as it felt more historic.  There were some beautiful cherry blossoms and buildings.  The whole area felt more like a park rather than the big skyscrapers.  I’d like to spend more time in this area.

Tokyo National Museum fountain

We eventually ended up back in Shinjuku and got moderately lost looking for a few stores.  Still, there was plenty of shopping no matter how lost we got.  We ate lunch in the same area as the previous night, this time at a place that served a few different options.  It was good and at a decent price.  If this trip had been in America I think we’d have spent at least double on food.  Our sit-down meals were never over $20/person until we got to Tokyo Disney Resort and most were around $10/person.

We shopped for a while and saw more of Shinjuku.  While the area was definitely huge, there were several area to escape the crowds and enjoy the beauty.  Here’s a few photos.

pink flowers lantern alley tokyo

Tokyo cool building

Tokyo Shinjuku Godzilla

Next on our itinerary was the Robot Restaurant.  If you have never heard of this very popular tourist destination, here’s a quick rundown:  There are robots that go down a small runway which is surrounded on both sides by the crowd.  There is no restaurant, but there is popcorn and drinks.  It’s insane.

Robot looking at me Robot restaurant

The show is, without a doubt, a tourist trap.  Among all of the things we did in Japan, this had the highest rate of tourists involved.  Robot Restaurant is catered to tourists and, at times, panders to them.

Of course, the places that become tourist traps generally become that for a reason – they are/were worth going to.  Over the last few years, Robot Restaurant has garnered a ton of attention and it deserves it.  The show is insane and unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  There were three acts in the show.  First was a ton of dancing with some robots and large animals, along with drummers.  The second act showcased a strange story of robots taking over the world but the animals stopped them.  The climactic moment came when a character, who resembled a ninja turtle, stuffed a rock inside of a giant snake’s mouth, the snake spit it at the lead robot, killing it and saving the planet.  That was my take anyway.  The third act was basically 3 parts – Darth Maul doing a crazy light show, a Michael Jackson tribute featuring robots, and then a weird cover of Uptown Funk with a bunch of other stuff going on.

Robots and drummers

I think you’ll read that last paragraph and will immediately decide if the Robot Restaurant is for you or not.  The show does what it sets out to do.  It’s zany fun that is fairly self-aware.  I actually think it may have stumbled into being a good summary of the crazier Tokyo neighborhoods.  While the Robot Restaurant is certainly over the top compared to Tokyo, both overwhelm the senses and aim to make you lose inhibitions.  It’s also a show that you wouldn’t work anywhere else in the world.  It’s like the Japanese take on Las Vegas.

Robot Restaurant green lights

I’m not sure that I’d recommend Robot Restaurant though.  The price is high and some of the robots and costumes are a little worn down.  It’s not the most comfortable experience and, again, it’s a very a touristy thing to do.  In that same vein, I don’t regret going at all and would happily go back.  The show is both delightfully weird and a headache.  Trust your instincts here, if it sounds like a fun then it will be.  Likewise, if it sounds like a nightmare then don’t go.  If you’re on the fence, I’d probably recommend it because there’s a bird riding on a bird.

Bird on bird

After the show, we walked around Shinjuku before heading to Shibuya.  That evening kicked off a nice slew of sunsets for the week.

Sunset Tokyo

We headed to Shibuya around 6 and spent the rest of the evening there.  It certainly matched, if not surpassed, Shinjuku’s craziness.  The buildings were even bigger.  There’s a 9-story Tower Records.  I didn’t know Tower Records was still around but there was a 9-story one there!  More on topic with this blog, there was a 3-story Disney store with quite a bit of home decor that Melissa loved.

The shopping in Shinjuku and Shibuya was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  I don’t love to go shopping but it seemed like a must-do here.  Frankly, it was hard to not just go in every store but on limited time we had to be a bit picky.  While most stores were quite expensive, there was no shortage of places to go.  We had a fun time to just walking through stores.

We ate sushi again that night, this time at a Japan chain called Genki Sushi.  While I liked the previous night’s better, this was even cheaper than that and still far exceeds what I’ve had stateside.  It probably goes without saying but the biggest city in the world has no shortage of good restaurants.

Shibuya crossing

After dinner, we spent some time at Shibuya Crossing, the World’s busiest intersection.  There’s a Starbucks on one corner of the crossing and has a good view of the area.  After a little watching it was time to go for it.  At this point in the night, it wasn’t quite as busy as when we had crossed earlier.  Going across once wasn’t quite the thrill I was seeking.  That’s when I decided to go for it – The Full Diamond.

Both, my favorite and dumbest thing I’ve ever done included going all the way around this crossing instead of just going on the diagonal crosswalk.  Like a baseball diamond, I would start at home and go to first, second, third and back home in the span of one walk sign.  Before you judge me too much, I’ve always had an affinity for crazy crosswalks.  Okay, that makes judging me even more permissible.

No one else in the group joined me on this quest.  They watched from the sidelines as the stop hand turned into the walking man.  I made it through the first and second crosswalk with relative ease and by the third I felt pretty good.  Right around then I noticed the countdown starting so I upped my pace and made it home with seconds to spare.  My only regret is not throwing in a diagonal cross at the end.  I’m thinking a figure eight next time.  Still, that night a legend was made.  That legend was me and I hope none of you are reading this.  Exhausted after my feat, we went back and went to bed.

Welcome to Tsujiki sign

The next morning we set out for the Tsujiki Fish Market.  The roughly 20 minute walk from the nearest station was quite pleasant and a little more reminiscent of the city’s were used to.  Eventually we ended up at the market.

While we weren’t ambitious enough to show up for the legendary 3 AM tuna auction, the market was still very impressive.  This was like Pike Place Market in Seattle except twice the size.  We sampled a good amount of food and wandered through the shops there.  Melissa and I had some of the best seafood we’ve ever tasted and thoroughly enjoyed the area.

Oyster Tsujiki

Although slightly out-of-the-way, the fish market was well worth our time and something I’d revisit on a longer trip to Tokyo.

After that we went back to our Airbnb to grab our bags and then headed towards Tokyo Disney Resort.  The route there from Tokyo was fairly easy.  There is a transfer in Tokyo Station and then the resort is a few quick stops away.  We’ll pick up there in the next trip report.

Tokyo was both wonderful and confusing.  I left wanting to stay longer but also knowing that I enjoyed Kyoto far more.  In retrospect, I wish we had planned a few more actual things to do in Tokyo.  Walking through Shinjuku and Shibuya was fun but it felt like that was nearly all we did.  Admittedly, most of my planning went into Kyoto and Tokyo Disney Resort.  I should have made more concrete plans for Tokyo.  Still, we had a great time and I look forward to going back.

 

This is the close of our non-Disney aspects of the trip so I’ll leave you with one final thought.  Go to Japan.  There are many other areas I want to visit but, just condensing this down to Kyoto and Tokyo, I can’t think of a person who wouldn’t enjoy the trip.  Kyoto is historic and beautiful, a peaceful place to find oneself and admire historic sites.  Tokyo is huge and futuristic.  There’s no shortage of things to do and the traveling is easy and convenient.  We’re just a month removed from our trip and are very eager to go back.

TDL station and hotel

Thank you for reading and let us know if you have any questions or thoughts!  You can do that below in the comments.  If you enjoy what you’re reading please subscribe to the blog and like our social media pages, all of which you can find on the right side of this page.  Have a great day!

– Andrew

Vulcania Review

Vulcania is a counter-service restaurant in Tokyo DisneySea’s Mysterious Island.  The restaurant is inside of the park icon, Mount Prometheus.  Vulcania serves Chinese food from roughly $8-$15.  We recently had dinner at Vulcania and this review will cover that experience.

Mysterious Island is one of the many incredible lands in Tokyo DisneySea.  Inspired by Jules Verne’s novel of the same name, the land (port of call in DisneySea speak) is houses several rides and restaurants.  The land, although set in the 19th century, takes a view into the future and mixes a bit of steampunk with ingenuity.  From a simple perspective, Mysterious Island is incredibly colorful and has a great kinetic energy.

Vulcania sign TDS

Vulcania’s back story, in short, is that it is a mess hall for Captain Nemo’s men.  Captain Nemo has his submarine docked outside the doors of Vulcania in Mysterious Island.  The mess hall was carved out of the mountain and doubles as a goethermal station.  In the seating area it feels as if the mountain is coming to life as the lights flicker and plenty of sounds are heard.

As far as themed counter-service restaurants I’ve been in, this takes the cake.  That’s not a surprise as DisneySea is the mecca of themed areas but Vulcania takes it a step above any other counter-service restaurant in the park.

Vulcania seating TDS

Vulcania has a buffeteria-style ordering system where guests get in line and pick out items as they go.  Many counter-service restaurants at Tokyo Disney Resort have this same set-up and it’s very convenient, especially for foreigners.  It’s nice to be able to see what you’re ordering and easy to point to the items you want.

Another common Japanese custom is the ‘set meal’.  This is essentially a combo meal where a side item or two and a drink is added to the entrée.  You’ll encounter the set meals and nearly every restaurant in Japan.  They are great to share or just have by yourself if you are hungry.  On this certain night Melissa and I shared a set meal at Vulcania.

Vulcania offers a few different Chinese food entrees including Prawns in Chili Sauce, Tofu, Fried Chicken and Sweet and Sour Pork.  There’s also fried rice and dipping noodles offered.

As I said, we went with the set meal that included Sweet and Sour Pork, fried rice, Dim Sum and a drink.  We’ll take the items one-by-one.

Sweet and sour chicken Vulcania TDS

The Sweet and Sour Pork was juicy and flavorful.  I liked the sauce which gave the dish a sweet taste with a slight spice.  The pork was tender and delicious.  This was one of the better counter-service entrees I’d had.

Vulcania fried rice TDS

The fried rice was, likewise, very good although less memorable.  Cashews added into the fried rice was a nice touch and the egg had more flavor than your typical fried rice.  While there was no meat in the fried rice, the dish was still filling.

Vulcania Dim Sum TDS

The dim sum may have been the highlight of the meal.  All three of the items above were filled with meat (among other things).  My favorite of the three was the one on the top left of the photo.  This had sausage inside and the dough on the outside was juicy.  I’d recommend all of these items to anyone who dines at Vulcania.

As for value, we had the set meal for 1,700 yen (roughly $16).  Melissa and I shared it, and while we weren’t that hungry, it was plenty of food.  If you just go for an entrée instead of the set meal then the cost will be under $10 per dish.  I thought the prices were pretty standard for a counter-service meal.  When factoring in the quality of the food (high) and the environment I think Vulcania is a good value.

Vulcania ordering area

All in all, I would absolutely recommend Vulcania.  The environment of the restaurant is one of the best I’ve been in, regardless of counter-service or table-service.  Along with that, the quality of the food is quite high and delicious.  Honestly, passing up a chance to eat inside of a volcano (and not die while doing it) would be a bad choice.  Vulcania is one of the best counter-service restaurants out there.

Overall Rating – 10/10

Do you have any thoughts or questions about Vulcania?  Let us know in the comments!  If you enjoy what you’re reading here on Wandering in Disney please subscribe to the blog and like our Facebook page.  You can find both of those on the right side of this page.  Thank you for reading, we really appreciate it!

– Andrew

Japan Trip Report – Part 3

If you missed part 1 or 2 of the trip report then click on the corresponding number to catch up!

After an incredible day and a half in Kyoto, I was wondering how it would get any better.  We woke up pretty early the next morning and had quite a full itinerary.  We traveled to Kyoto Station and then caught a bus to the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji).  Our day was filled with sites on the eastern side of Kyoto, along the Higashiyama Mountains.  While not the fastest route, the transportation to the Silver Pavilion was easy to use and convenient.

Silver Pavilion sand working

The Silver Pavilion is less of a relative of Kyoto’s famed Golden Pavilion than the name would suggest.  The layouts of the two pavilions are similar but the buildings are gardens are very different.  If you come to the Silver Pavilion looking for the flash and pizzazz (do people still say pizzazz?) you may end up disappointed.  Having said that, I preferred the Silver Pavilion.

Silver Pavilion side tree

We arrived there close to opening and I would recommend others do the same.  Not only did we encounter less of a crowd than usual but the Silver Pavilion’s contemplative nature lends itself to being an early morning stop.  The temple, founded in the 1400’s, has some of the most beautiful grounds in Kyoto.  On top of that, the main building (which isn’t silver) is beautiful and unassuming.

The Silver Pavilion is somewhat unique due to it being built into the mountain.  There’s a path that runs up the hill a little ways that has great views of both the Silver Pavilion and Kyoto.  That may have been my favorite aspect of the temple.  Over the course of about 3 days, we visited 8 different temples.  The Silver Pavilion is likely my second favorite (I reserve the right to change my mind) with its unassuming beauty and detailed grounds.  If you are looking for a contemplative or spiritual experience, like I discussed in part 2, the Silver Pavilion certainly fits that description.  I do think the experience would be somewhat dampened by crowds though so I recommend visiting in the morning or right before close.  Here’s a few more photos of this UNESECO World Heritage Site.

Silver Pavilion purple and blur

Sand garden Silver Pavilion

White pink flower Silver Pavilion

Silver Pavilion stairs

Silver Pavilion pond reflection wider

From one beautiful, thoughtful experience to another, we walked down the road from Ginkaku-ji to the Philosopher’s Path.  We stopped for a grilled rice ball along the way and it was delicious.

The Philosopher’s Path is a walking path along a canal.  There are stones that travelers (or locals) walk on.  The path got its name because a famous Japanese philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, walked along the path daily on his way to Kyoto University.  The path runs about 2 kilometers long and is lined by beautiful flowers and cherry trees.  There are many temples that are a short and easy diversion away from the path, making it even more worth your while.  Unlike some of Kyoto’s grand sites, the Philosopher’s Path is relatively unmarked.  While walking along a canal hardly sounds like a top destination, Philosopher’s Path is just that.

Philosopher's Path cherry blossoms clear

Much like the Silver Pavilion, this path is quiet and contemplative.  That morning was full of beautiful and peaceful moments for me.  Kyoto is a spiritual city and the Silver Pavilion and Philosopher’s Path certainly offer serene places to think and admire beauty.

Philosopher's Path pink branch

Another similarity to the Silver Pavilion is that this place gets crowded later in the day.  Walking it in the morning was certainly peaceful and I feel as if you’d miss out on something going later in the day.  Walking the path around sunset or at dusk would be wonderful, as well.

Honen-in sand drawings

Along the way, we stopped at a free temple named Honen-In.  While much smaller than other temples we visited, Honen-In was worth a stop and had some interesting elements.  It’s also a great escape from crowds.  I loved the sand drawings, seen above.

two flowers water leaf

Honen-In Temple won’t make any best of lists, nor should it.  But the temple is worth a 20 minute diversion from Philosopher’s Path and is free.  The grounds are interesting and fairly unique.

Philosopher's Path white blossoms

Back to Philosopher’s Path.  There are only so many words I can use to describe this place.  Beautiful, Gorgeous, etc.  I guess that just means it’s time for a photo dump.

Philosopher's Path pink flowers cool bridge

Pink flower Philosopher's Path

Philosopher's Path pink flower

There are also some cafes, shops, and crepe stands along the path.  We stopped for a crepe towards the end of the path and really enjoyed it.  There was a bride and groom getting photos toward the end of the path, as well.  You can see them at the bottom of this photo.

Philosopher's Path branch cherry blossom background

In some areas, when the wind blew, the blossoms would come off the tree like snow.  Standing inside one of these ‘mini-storms’ was another memorable moment from that morning.  Philosopher’s Path was easily one of my favorite parts of our trip.

After we made our way through the path, we ended up at Eikan-do Zenrin-ji Temple.  This temple was similar to Daikaku-ji Temple on our previous day.  We walked around the temple, with complimentary tea(!), on the wooden platforms that showcased the temples intricate gardens and detailed paintings.  Perhaps my favorite part of Eikan-do Zenrin-ji was a stairwell that led to a little lookout.  The artwork throughout the temple was gorgeous.

Eikan-do Zenrin-ji down staircase

Eikan-do Zenrin-ji wooden walkway was quite large for being temple grounds.  Like the Silver Pavilion, this temple is built into the mountainside and changes elevation.

Nearly all of the temples we went to had a natural feel to them.  Even though they were man-made, they felt like part of Kyoto’s natural beauty.  Maybe that’s because they’re so ancient.  Maybe this has to do with the earthy tones and wonderful gardens within them.  I think those aspects, along with Kyoto’s subtle yet beautiful architecture gave that natural feel.

Eikan-do Zenrin-ji sand

Eikan-do Zenrin-ji is absolutely worth a stop.  The grounds around the temple are quite beautiful, as well.  There’s a path up to a little pagoda that overlooks the city.  There’s also a pond down below the temple that is beautiful.

Eikan-do Kenrin-ji pond front

There were so many temples lining the path we walked that day, it was somewhat staggering.  The weather was not in our favor that day or else we probably would have stopped at more.  By the afternoon, the rain had become pretty steady and we were getting fairly wet.  This, by no means, made the day any less memorable.  We probably just would have done a little more if the weather had been nice.

After Eikan-do Zenrin-ji, we took a short walk to Nanzen-ji Temple.  The grounds were free here and visitors could pay to go inside some of the temple’s grand buildings.  We elected not to go in any of the buildings, though I wish we would have in hindsight.

Nannenji Temple

Even so, Nanzen-ji was quite memorable.  While the day, so far, had been marked by understated beauty, Nanzen-ji showcased massive halls.  The buildings were grand and beautiful.  There was still some of the understated beauty in the side buildings.  Most notably though, Nanzen-ji had an aqueduct!

Nanzen-ji under aqueduct

You can walk under, around, and on this aqueduct.  This was undoubtedly a highlight of Nanzen-ji.  The temple was founded in the 13th century but the aqueduct was built in the late 1800’s.

Nanzen-ji aqueduct down middle

The aqueduct led to a few different paths that we didn’t follow for very far.  I thoroughly enjoyed walking on top of it though.

All in all, I wish we had spent more time in Nanzen-ji.  I think, after spending a day at temples with smaller grounds, Nanzen-ji offered so much to do that I was slightly overwhelmed in deciding what to do.  Going back, I’d like to follow a few more paths and would go inside of a few buildings.  Nanzen-ji Temple if very large and extravagant.  I’d recommend going and having a bit of a game plan before you do.

Cherry blossoms roof Nanzen-ji

From there we headed to Kiyomizu-dera Temple.  The rain had affected our plans a little at this point and we were trying to simplify our route without as many diversions.  In hindsight, this wasn’t the best idea and I regret it a tiny bit.  Knowing full well that we were tired and soaked, I’m not sure how much we would have enjoyed seeing a few more places.  Of course I’m sitting at home now, seeing the sun outside and missing Kyoto something fierce so a few extra sites sounds great!

Initially our plan was to get to Kiyomizu-dera at sunset.  We got there at the right time but it was very rainy so there was no color in the sky.  In fact, the color in the sky throughout the whole day was lacking.  Just another excuse to go back!

Before arriving at Kiyomizu-dera, we once again walked through the streets of the Higashiyama District and they were completely packed.  It was a stark contrast to what we saw just two days earlier and less enjoyable.  My advice would be to wander around this area after 6 because the architecture and shops are beautiful.

Kiyomizu-dera statue

Kiyomizu-dera offered close to the same experience during the day as we had at the nighttime illumination.  One extra section and a pagoda were open during the day but that was the main difference.  Still, this was narrowly my favorite temple in Kyoto and I was happy to be back there a second time.  If you missed part 2 of the trip report, I have more thoughts on the temple there.  Here’s a few more photos!

Kiyomizu-dera skyline rain

Pagoda main hall background Kiyomizu-dera

Kiyomizu-dera gong

The temple was far more crowded during the day, even though it was almost closing time, than at the illumination.  The experience wasn’t quite as enthralling but was well worth our time.

Thoroughly drenched at this point, we headed back to Inari for dinner.  We went to a ramen restaurant and had a warm and comforting meal.  I believe Melissa said this was her favorite ramen restaurant of the trip.  It was probably my favorite, as well.

We had planned to go to Fushimi Inari after dinner.  We bundled up and walked to the entrance of the shrine and stopped for a bathroom.  As we were waiting outside, the rain seemed to grow even stronger and we took that as a sign that it was time to call it a night, coming back for an early morning hike.

Fushimi Inari entrance

We made the right call that night, as we went back to the house and relaxed for a few hours before going to bed.  Our trip was completely packed from morning to night each day and we were all getting a little tired.  I wouldn’t have changed our itineraries hardly at all but the little bit of extra rest was beneficial.

The next morning, we were up early for Fushimi Inari.  It was check out day but we decided to leave our bags and come back to pick them up after our hike up the shrine.  This was the right move.  I’m not usually a morning person but I was feeling very good on this particularly morning, I think because of my excitement for Fushimi Inari.

This shrine is made up of a few grand buildings at the bottom of Mount Inari followed by thousands of torii gates straddling pathways up the mountain.  This website explains the meaning behind Fushimi Inari concisely and better than I can.  If you don’t feel like clicking, Inari is the Shinto god of rice.  This shrine is the ‘most important’ of all the shrines dedicated to him.  There are many fox sculptures throughout the mountainside, thought to be Inari’s messengers.

Fushimi Inari dog fence

Guests start at the bottom of the mountain and make their way to the top, and are free to turn around at any time.  The torii gates lead all the way up to the summit and back down.  There are thought to be roughly 10,000 torii gates across the mountain and most were donated from the years 1600-1800 A.D.  There are many other paths throughout the mountain, I could spend a full day there exploring the whole mountain.

Fushimi Inari curve

Fushimi Inari was mind-blowing.  From the quiet nature of the hike to the mystery that the torii gates add, the hike was a breathtaking and beautiful experience.  Just the thought of all of these torii gates being placed up and down the mountain is mesmerizing.

Fushimi Inari hill

There are mini-shrines and stopping points throughout the hike up to the summit.  People buy mini torii gates and place them at some of these locations in hopes of good fortune.

Fushimi Inari green shrine stop

A little over halfway up the mountain there is a great lookout over Kyoto.

Fushimi Inari view

The large torii gate near the center of the above photo is where our journey began.  The hike up the mountain takes a while but isn’t very aggressive.  There are a couple of steep parts, notably right before the summit, but the hike is mostly moderate.

Fushimi Inari mini gates and rocks

At the summit, there is a larger shrine with more of the mini torii gates and fox statues.

Fushimi Inari statue mini gates

I’ve written quite a bit about spiritual and contemplative experiences in Kyoto.  Fushimi Inari was absolutely one of those experiences.  Between the mystery, awe and physicality, Fushimi Inari is unforgettable.  This was likely my favorite place in Kyoto, and that’s saying a lot!

Fushimi Inari two lanterns wheelbarrow

Fushimi Inari gate and stop

The hike took around 3 hours to complete but the experience is up to you.  There is a small loop that only takes about 20 minutes to complete at the bottom of the mountain and there are many more paths to walk if you want to spend the whole day there.  I’d recommend at least going to the summit.  Fushimi Inari has no entrance fee.

Fushimi Inari dog

We made it back down the mountain and went to check out of our Airbnb.  The location of the Airbnb was nice, especially on this day.  After I showered and we packed, it was time to leave.  I’d stay at this particular house again and would be happy to share details if anyone is interested in more information.

We went back to Kyoto Station, dropped off our bags and hopped on a bus going to the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji).  Like the bus to the Silver Pavilion, the ride took a while but was easy to figure out.  Before long we arrived at the Golden Pavilion.

Gold Pavilion water zoom in

The Golden Pavilion is one of Kyoto’s major tourist attractions and, frankly, it felt that way.  While many of the temples we visited were contemplative with narrow paths and beautiful gardens, the Golden Pavilion had wider paths that were packed with people.

Gold Pavilion wide with water

That’s not to say Kinkaku-ji isn’t beautiful, it surely is.  This is more of the jaw-dropping beauty like Toji’s pagoda and Nanzenji’s grand halls.  The pavilion is covered in gold leaf and is framed beautifully by the water and mountains.

Gold Pavilion side water

The pond and gardens are wonderfully maintained and articulate.  The whole area is beautiful and is centered around that pavilion, rightfully so.  This temple was not one of my favorites but I completely understand why it’s one of Kyoto’s main tourist attractions.  Unfortunately, this means that there are hordes of people visiting.

Leaves red blossom Gold Pavilion

Even with my slightly negative review of the Golden Pavilion, you should absolutely go if you visit Kyoto.  The gold is stunning and the architecture of the building is very interesting.  There’s just a flash at the Golden Pavilion that the others don’t have, I think this makes the temple less subtle which is unfortunate.

We ate lunch down the street from the Golden Pavilion and then headed back to Kyoto Station.  Just like almost all of our train experiences, we caught the Shinkansen (bullet train) without any problem.  We’ll pick up on that experience in the next trip report!

Gold Pavilion blocked by blossoms

Kyoto quickly became my favorite city in the world on this trip and there isn’t a close second.  There are the top tourist attractions – to me the Silver & Golden Pavilions, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Fushimi Inari and the Monkey Park.  We didn’t hit all of the highlights either.  Beyond the highlights there is an incredible depth of things to see and do.  All of the temples and shrines are gorgeous and have character that most tourist destinations don’t.  If that’s not enough, the city’s layout is gorgeous with the Kamo River running through and the mountains surrounding it.  We spent three full days in Kyoto but barely scratched the surface of things to do.  If anyone is interested in Kyoto, I would absolutely recommend going.  I know that we’ll be going back before long.  If you have any questions about the city then let me know in the comments!

Thank you for reading and let us know if you have any questions or thoughts!  You can do that below in the comments.  If you enjoy what you’re reading please subscribe to the blog and like our social media pages, all of which you can find on the right side of this page.  Have a great day!

– Andrew

Ranking the Counter-Service Restaurants We’ve Eaten At – Walt Disney World

We’re going to complete a series!  Wandering in Disney has seen many series fall by the wayside in its existence.  The ranking of food is always a priority though so we soldier on.  Today marks the end of ranking (basically) all of the restaurants we’ve been to in Disneyland and Walt Disney World.  We started in Disneyland with both counter-service and table-service locations and then moved on to table-service restaurants in Disney World.

Saulti Canteen mouse Pandora AK

As with the Disney World table-service post, the list of restaurants include the four parks, Disney Springs, and the resort hotels.  We’ve only listed one Disney Springs location as the changing lineup and focus on table-service there have us behind the times.  Along with that, I didn’t include every single place I’ve eaten because some have changed menus or it’s simply been too long.  I’ve also left off snack places, these locations have to serve an entrée.

Disney World’s counter-service has more quantity than quality, in my opinion.  While there are definitely some good options, there aren’t as many stand outs as the much smaller Disneyland.  I do like most of the places on this list but don’t love many.  While the counter-service scene has slowly improved at Disney World, I do think there’s still plenty more room for improvement.

Sunshine Seasons sign

In these rankings I will try to balance all of the factors – value, quality of food, atmosphere, etc.  To be honest, I rely more heavily on the quality of food than other factors because most restaurants tend to have a similar price range and counter-service places usually don’t excel in atmosphere.  I will also dock a location a few spots if the menu is really small.  We have reviews of some of these locations, click on the restaurant’s name to read the review.  Let’s get to the rankings!

24. Fairfax Fare (Hollywood Studios) – If you are eating a counter-service meal at Hollywood Studios then something has gone wrong.  Avoid it at all costs, especially this place.

23. Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe (Magic Kingdom) – This place has a super cool alien named Sonny Eclipse who performs music.  Grab something to drink and enjoy that because the rest of Cosmic Ray’s (food especially) is not enjoyable.

22. Lotus Blossom Cafe (Epcot) – This place seems somewhat divisive as I’ve read plenty of positive reviews.  I haven’t enjoyed our food here, as it seemed bland and overpriced.

21. PizzeRizzo (Hollywood Studios) – Once in a blue moon I believe we all need to have some pretty bad pizza.  It’s all the better when lightly themed to the Muppets.  This place isn’t very good though.

PizzeRizzo facade

20. Everything Pop Food Court (Pop Century Resort) – This food court has plenty of options and we tried a few.  It was okay but nothing that excites me.

19. La Cantina de San Angel (Epcot) – An underwhelming quick Mexican spot.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by anything here but I wouldn’t recommend it.  A few more adventurous items on the menu would be helpful for La Cantina.  Order Chips & Guacamole or Salsa and sitting by the water is a nice way to spend an afternoon though.

18. Yak & Yeti – Local Food Cafes (Animal Kingdom) – Decent Asian food but there are many better options at Animal Kingdom.

17. Sleepy Hollow Refreshments (Magic Kingdom) – Some pretty good waffles sandwiches along with a few other savory or sweet treats.  If not for a small menu this would probably rank higher.  We usually stop here at least once on a Disney World vacation.  All of the places from here on are pretty good options.

16. Boardwalk Bakery (Boardwalk) – Some of the best sweets in Disney World are offered here.  We loved the Salmon Sandwich here but it was taken off the menu and we’re just lukewarm on the other sandwich offerings.

15. Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe (Magic Kingdom) – While the Mexican food here is hardly authentic, it is fairly good and at decent prices.  I enjoy the fajita platter and like that Pecos Bill’s has a toppings bar.  This rivals Columbia Harbor House for Magic Kingdom’s 2nd best counter-service option, depending on your mood.

Pecos Bill fajita platter

14. Landscape of Flavors (Art of Animation) – One of the better food courts in Disney World.  Landscape of Flavors has many offerings and the few we tried were all pretty solid.

13. Contempo Cafe (Contemporary Resort) – Contempo Cafe serves sandwiches and flatbreads, as well as a few other entrees.  We’ve always liked the food but have never loved it.  It’s a nice and convenient lunch or dinner break from Magic Kingdom though.  Also, the Peanut Butter Pie is one of the best counter-service desserts at Disney World.

12. Columbia Harbor House (Magic Kingdom) – Columbia Harbor House continues to surprise us.  I always think the seafood won’t taste fresh or will be overly greasy.  Sometimes its greasy but I do think the salmon is a good, fairly cheap and healthy option.

Columbia Harbor House salmon

11. Capt. Cook’s (Polynesian Resort) – Captain Cook’s has an interesting menu and pretty good food.  The offerings are loosely Hawaiian or Polynesian inspired.  Sitting out on the deck, overlooking the Poly’s pool is great at dinner time.  Bonus point to Capt. Cook’s for serving Tonga Toast at breakfast.

10. Kringla Bakeri Og Cafe (Epcot) – This bakery in the Norway Pavilion has some of my favorite desserts in Disney World and has a good and interesting selection of sandwiches.  At least go for dessert, but lunch or dinner here is a good option.

9. Cookes of Dublin (Disney Springs) – Cookes of Dublin serves Irish food at reasonable prices.  The fish and chips were especially notable here and I like the variety of the menu.

8. Harambe Market (Animal Kingdom) – While the entrees are somewhat limited, I love the authentic feel as well as the food I’ve had here.  The beef gyro is quite good and the drink menu is more interesting than your typical counter-service fare.

Harambe Market Meat sign AK

7. Katsura Grill (Epcot) – Katsura Grill serves teriyaki, udon and sometimes ramen.  While the food isn’t exceptional, I do think it’s tasty and offers a decent value.  The star of Katsura Grill is the outside seating though.  A beautiful, tranquil garden that overlooks the rest of Epcot is a serene experience for a theme park.

6. Pepper Market (Coronado Springs Resort) – Disney World’s best food court serves a large assortment of food and we’ve yet to have anything we don’t like.  This is one of the best parts of staying at Coronado Springs.  This would probably rank higher if it weren’t for the inconvenient (if you aren’t staying there) location.

5. Tangierine Cafe (Epcot) – I mean this as a compliment – I don’t know what’s better the food or the smell.  Tangierine Cafe draws you in with that smell and the food lives up to the hype.  Delicious Moroccan food.

4. Sunshine Seasons (Epcot) – Maybe I spoke too soon on that ‘best food court’ thing.  Sunshine Seasons makes an argument for that title all the while being affordable and and more convenient.  Sunshine Seasons might have the most diverse offerings in Disney World and the desserts are great too.

3. Flame Tree Barbecue (Animal Kingdom) – Flame Tree Barbecue has legitimately good barbecue food in a beautiful setting.  The prices are quite high or this would probably be in the top spot.  Order one of the platters and then share with someone.  Get the Mandarin Orange Lemonade, you won’t regret it.

Flame Tree entree

2. Satu’li Canteen (Animal Kingdom) – One of Disney World’s newest counter-service locations is one of the best.  The food is healthier than your usual theme park fare and is offered at a great value.  The atmosphere keeps this from the number 1 spot (eat outside if it’s not too hot) but the food is probably my favorite of all counter-service spots considering the price.

Saulti Canteen chicken Pandora AK

1. Be Our Guest Restaurant (Magic Kingdom) – Be Our Guest offers counter-service fare for lunch and is well worth getting a reservation for.  First of all, the restaurant is beautiful.  Along with that, the food (salads, sandwiches and a few hearty entrees) is good and not outrageously priced.  Don’t go for breakfast or dinner, go to Be Our Guest for lunch.

BoG braised pork

Those are my rankings of Disney World counter-service restaurants.  We’ll be adding to the list soon.  What would you add or change?  Let us know in the comments!  If you enjoy what you’re reading here on Wandering in Disney please subscribe to the blog and like our Facebook page.  You can find both of those on the right side of this page.  Thank you for reading, we really appreciate it!

– Andrew

FastPass+ Guide to Disney’s Hollywood Studios

I find that FastPasses are the biggest source of frustration to first-time or infrequent park goers. Many people don’t know what they are, how to use them, or what to use them on. With this in mind, I’m going to write a guide to each U.S. park on when and where to use FastPasses.

We started this series with Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  If you are unfamiliar with FastPass+, check out that post for a more detailed description on what it is and how to use it.

ToT sunset DHS

Is the FastPass+ System Different in Hollywood Studios?

The short answer here is yes.  Why would I ask that question in this blog post if it wasn’t?  It’d be a real waste of time to ask that question and then just say no.

At Hollywood Studios, FastPasses are divided into two different groups – Tier 1 and 2.  Tier 1 is supposedly the marquee attractions while Tier 2 are generally less popular attractions.  When reserving FastPasses ahead of time, guests can select one attraction from Tier 1 and two selections from Tier 2.  If you are at Hollywood Studios and have completed your FastPasses then you can reserve a FastPass from either group, assuming they are available.

Fozzie

With Toy Story Land coming on-line in June, the FastPass structure is changing.  The three attractions in Toy Story Land will be Tier 1 and the rest of the park’s attractions will be Tier 2.  If you prefer that written in bullet point form, here you go!

Tier 1

  • Slinky Dog Dash
  • Alien Swirling
  • Toy Story Mania

Tier 2

  • Fantasmic!
  • Beauty and the Beast – Live on Stage
  • Rock n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith
  • Disney Junior – Live on Stage
  • Voyage of the Little Mermaid
  • Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular
  • Star Tours: The Adventure Continues
  • For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing Along Celebration
  • MuppetVision 3D
  • Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

One last note about Hollywood Studios before the rankings… This park is going through a big change right now and the FastPass situation may be pretty fluid, meaning some attractions may be leaving or will not have FastPass availability.  I will try to keep this post updated as the park changes.

Camp Wocka-Wocka

Tier 1 FastPass Rankings for Hollywood Studios

Tier 1 isn’t all that hard to figure out and I’ve already covered it in my Toy Story Land strategy post.  Between the three Toy Story Land attractions, I believe that Slinky Dog Dash will be the most popular for at least the first year.  After that, it’s a bit of a toss up but I expect Toy Story Mania to be the most popular in the long run.  Here’s the quick rankings!

 

Toy Story Mania EtchASketch

3. Alien Swirling Saucers – I’m not very excited about this attraction and can’t really justify using a FastPass on it.  The only way I’d use one here is if you can’t get a FastPass for the other two attractions in Tier 1.

2. Toy Story Mania – While it doesn’t have the long lines that it used to have, I expect a renewed interest in Toy Story Mania once Toy Story Land opens.

1. Slinky Dog Dash – This new family-friendly coaster will have excruciating wait times when it opens.  If you don’t get a FastPass for it then go straight to it at opening.

Tier 2 FastPass+ Strategy and Rankings

To be perfectly honest, there are a few attractions on this Group B list that I haven’t even tried.  As usual, let’s start with the shows.

Disney Junior – Live on Stage is the attraction I’ve yet to experience.  Being a show for little kids, I’m guessing there isn’t much of a wait time.  Disney Junior isn’t worth a FastPass.

The same goes for many of the shows on this list.  Beauty and the Beast – Live on Stage, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! (these shows must be exciting due to their excessive exclamation points), MuppetVision 3D, Voyage of the Little Mermaid, and the Frozen Sing-Along all are shows with varying degrees of popularity.  With that being said, if you show up 15 minutes before showtime to any of these then you will probably get in.

Indy getting punch Dhs stunt show

Fantasmic! may be a different story as the show can be very popular on busy days.  While I don’t necessarily think it’s worth a FastPass, if you have an extra one after you completed the first 3 or 4 and Fantasmic! has some availability then go ahead an book it.  If you don’t end up getting a FastPass for it then go to the 2nd showing of Fantasmic! (if available) or show up about half an hour before the first showing.

That leaves 3 attractions which is exactly the amount of FastPasses a guest can reserve from Group B.  Star Tours, Rock n’ Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror are left on our list of possibilities and you should absolutely be choosing 2 of these 3 to fill out your initial 3 FastPasses.

Star Tours queue DHS

Ultimately, I think Rock n’ Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror are the right ones to FastPass.  Star Tours can generate long waits but the other 2 attractions are usually a little higher.

Here’s my ranking for the Tier 2 attractions:

10.  Disney Junior – Live on Stage – There isn’t much of a wait at all here, judging by usual wait times for the attraction.

9.  MuppetVision 3D – The show isn’t very popular, there are a ton of showtimes, the theater is pretty large, and the queue is really fun compared to every other queue in this park.

8.  Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular – A pretty fun show and a good option for a FastPass after your initial 3 are used.

7.  Voyage of the Little Mermaid – At this point with all of these shows, I’m just putting things higher on the list because they have less seating.  That’s why this is 4th.

6.  For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing Along Celebration – It’s my least favorite show on this list but it’s still somewhat popular.

5. Beauty and the Beast – Live on Stage – This show is a little more popular strictly because if it’s location next to Tower of Terror and Rock n’ Roller Coaster.  I still don’t think it’s worth a FastPass though.

4. Fantasmic! – If there’s a show to FastPass then this is it.  Still, you can get by without it easily.

3.  Star Tours: The Adventure Continues – A very fun attraction and an easy choice for a FastPass.

2.  Twilight Zone Tower of Terror – Possibly the best attraction at Walt Disney World.  FastPass+ this and ride it at park opening, as well.  Unless you hate falling at rapid speeds like I do.

1. Rock n’ Roller Coaster – Definitely not my favorite ride but the line can be somewhat slow moving and long.  Avoiding that is important and that puts it first on the Tier 2 list.

Echo Lake night DHS

As you’ll notice, there are six attractions on this list that aren’t shows.  You can FastPass three of those and possibly get a FastPass for another show or attraction once you’ve completed your original three.  That’s why Hollywood Studios is seen as a half-day park.  Soon it will be better and will have way more attractions to offer.

What do you think of my rankings for FastPass+ in the Studios?  Do you have any tips that you would add?  Let me know in the comments.  If you enjoy our content then please like our social media pages and subscribe to the blog.  You can do both of those things on the right side of this page. Thank you for reading!

– Andrew

Toy Story Land FastPass+ and Touring Strategy

A couple of months ago, we found out the opening date for Walt Disney World’s Toy Story Land will be June 30th.  With the summer fast approaching and the FastPass system announced for the new land, and the rest of Hollywood Studios, it’s time to break down our strategy.  In the next week I plan to update the entire Hollywood Studios FastPass+ guide but this post will focus almost entirely on Toy Story Land.

Toy Story Land will consist of 3 attractions.  Two of those will be new – Alien Swirling Saucers and Slink Dog Dash.  The third attraction will be Toy Story Mania, a mainstay attraction for over a decade.  Alien Swirling Saucers is, in essence, a spinner ride.  If you have been to California Adventure and rode Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree then you are very familiar with the ride system.  Slinky Dog Dash is a family friendly roller coaster that will sprawl across the land.

TSMM DHS

While Hollywood Studios has always been a tiered FastPass+ system, those tiers have been shaken up with Toy Story Land coming on-line.  All three attractions in the land will be tier 1, meaning that guests can only reserve one of those attractions ahead of time.  The attractions with FastPass through the rest of the park will be tier 2 and guests can reserve 2 of those.  This has become the norm for Walt Disney World when a new land opens as the same system was implemented when Pandora opened and continues to this day in Animal Kingdom.  I don’t have a problem with this system and would prefer it to everyone just trying to snag 3 Toy Story Land FastPasses.  This helps spread the crowds out and gives families a chance to avoid lines in at least one of the attractions.

This brings up the question of which attraction to FastPass if you have the pick of all three.  I would, without a doubt, put Slinky Dog Dash on the top of that list.  Through the next year (at least) the roller coaster will prove to be Toy Story Land’s most popular attraction.  While I don’t think it will be as good of an attraction as Toy Story Mania, it is new and that wins out.  It doesn’t really matter what time of day you can get a FastPass for it.  Naturally, I’d look for earlier in the day so that later you may have FastPasses free but that’s not really that big of a deal.

If Slinky Dog Dash doesn’t have any FastPass availability I would probably recommend the Alien Swirling Saucers over Toy Story Mania for FastPass but it’s close.  While I don’t think the attraction is a very exciting addition, it is new and Toy Story Mania’s queue is inside in the air conditioning.  I’m not sure if the same will be said for all of Alien Swirling Saucers queue.

Any way you cut it, there will be some waiting in line at Toy Story Land.  If this area is a priority to you then I recommend getting to Hollywood Studios half an hour before opening and going straight for whatever new attraction you didn’t get a FastPass for.  If coasters are your thing then head straight to Slinky Dog Dash, regardless of if you have a FastPass for it or not.  Two rides never hurt anyone.  Spend the morning trying to get all of the attractions in and exploring the land.  Hollywood Studios, even with the addition of a new land, doesn’t fill up an entire day so you have ample time to spend wandering around Andy’s backyard.  

I would head back to Toy Story Land again after dark.  The best chance to re-ride an attraction with minimal wait times will be right before closing.  At dusk or after one of Hollywood Studios nighttime shows, head back to the new land to explore a little more.  This may be an opportune time to ride Toy Story Mania, as we’ve had good success with wait times at night.  Of course, that was before the new land opened.

In the first few months of Toy Story Land opening, the park hours are typically 8 AM to 10:30 PM.  There are Extra Magic Hours all morning from 7 until 8 and evening Magic Hours on Friday’s from 10:30 until 12:30.  Swinging over for the evening Magic Hours would probably be a good idea, again if this land is a priority, but I would avoid doing a full Hollywood Studios day on Fridays.  I would recommend taking advantage of the Extra Magic Hours in the morning, as well.  This isn’t because it will give you a great advantage over other park goers but at least the lines won’t be extremely long once you get in Hollywood Studios.

In a nutshell, FastPass Slinky Dog Dash, hustle to Alien Swirling Saucers and Toy Story Mania at park opening, and go to the land early in the morning and late in the evening.  While the land will be very crowded over the next year, this will help you avoid some of the longer waits and busier crowd times.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming Toy Story Land?  Let us know in the comments, along with any questions you might have.  Thank you for reading Wandering in Disney.  If you enjoy our content please subscribe to the blog (via WordPress or email) and like our social media pages.  You can find all of those things on the right side of this page.  Have a great day!

Japan Trip Report – Part 2

If you missed part 1 of this trip report, you can catch up by clicking here.

Kyoto is a hard city to describe.  As we were planning I thought of it as a historic city, full of contemplative temples and shrines.  That was certainly accurate but my brain had mostly stopped there in expectations.  Even with those minimal expectations, Kyoto was the aspect of the trip that I was probably most excited for (that and DisneySea).  While Universal Studios Japan was fun and Osaka Castle understated yet beautiful, I was eager to get to Kyoto.

Kyoto Tower

We took the train from Osaka to Kyoto without much issue.  The train stations and train lines were very easy to figure out, even for foreigners such as ourselves.  Using Google Maps and then following train station signs never led us astray.  We opted for an Airbnb in Kyoto as the hotel prices were quite high during Sakura (Cherry Blossom) season.  Our rental was about a 10 minute walk away from the JR Inari Station.  We purposefully picked that location because we knew Fushimi Inari (one of Kyoto’s most famous shrines) would be a priority for us.  I have no regrets on where we stayed and that would be in one of my top 3 areas to stay in Kyoto.  It is arguably the cheapest area when looking for house rentals.

Our only real mishap of the trip was finding our first Airbnb.  I put the wrong address into my phone and ended up about 10 minutes past our destination.  We were hungry and hauling a bunch of luggage so it felt like a bigger deal than it actually was.  I messaged our Airbnb host and she graciously responded with new directions for us.  After about a half hour detour, we found where we were staying and happily dropped off the suitcases that we had dragged behind us all day.  I find it funny that our biggest issue of the trip wasn’t the language barrier, traveling across the world or anything health wise.  Instead, it was me looking in the wrong spot of the Airbnb app (completely in English) for the address.  Feel free to judge me!

Food!  While we anticipated a late lunch, time had kind of gotten away from us.  We went back to Kyoto Station and ate at one of the restaurants in ‘Ramen Street’.  If our trip had been a bit longer this is a place I would have happily visited again.  On the 10th floor of Kyoto Station there are nine different ramen restaurants all lined up next to each other.  Each place specializes in ramen from different areas of Japan.  All of them looked good and were pretty cheap.  Frankly, I don’t remember the restaurant’s name that we ended up at (I was too hungry) but we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

DSC_6277

We explored the beautiful and modern Kyoto Station for a few minutes after dinner.  The station has 15 floors with numerous shops and restaurants throughout the complex.  On one of the higher floors there is a sky bridge with sweeping views of the station and central Kyoto.

Kyoto Station

The afternoon and evening had been a bit rainy and we decided to use that to our advantage.  Most tourist attractions tend to clear out with a little rain (Disney Parks included) and Kyoto’s temples were no exception.  We decided to walk from Kyoto Station to Kiyomizu-dera Temple.  This was about a half an hour walk.  Taking the subway is a quicker route but we were interested in seeing the city and saving a little money here and there.  The walk was pleasant, aside from a little rain and cold that got to us.  Darin impulsively bought an umbrella that made the rest of us Seattleites make fun of him for the rest of the trip.

Kamo River

The Kamo River runs throughout Kyoto and, much like the rest of the city, is unassuming but has beautiful banks and color.

Before arriving at Kiyomizu-dera, travelers find themselves in the Higashiyama District.  This district is full of narrow streets and wonderful shops and restaurants.  The architecture is gorgeous.  We went back a few days later and the streets were completely swarmed but, on this evening, the rain had relatively cleared them out.  Not only were temples and famous sights gorgeous in Kyoto, but there were plenty of districts that were wonderful to walk around.  I wish we had more time to explore all of those districts.  This was one of my favorites.

Even though I was enjoying myself I was getting slightly impatient solely because I had turned a corner and got a peek of what was ahead.  Kiyomizu-dera was one of the temples I was most excited to visit and it certainly did not disappoint.  During cherry blossom season several temples have a nighttime illumination and that’s what we arrived for.  There were some gorgeous cherry blossoms in the front of the grounds but, being first time visitors, they couldn’t outshine the temple’s buildings and paths.  Here’s some photos.

Kiyomizu-dera stairs

Kiyomizu-dera bell kyoto view

Kiyomizu-dera pagoda

Kiyomizu-dera gravel

Kiyomizu-dera was founded in the 700’s and is a Uniseco World Heritage Site.  This temple offered a greater variety of things to do than any other temple we visited.  The buildings and grounds were at such a large-scale that it’s hard to not be stunned.  The beautiful views of Kyoto and the grand red buildings are what stood out most to me but someone else could go and have different, equally justifiable, favorite parts.

Kiyomizu-dera temple inside

The temple is currently under some construction but I would still highly recommend it.  I would also recommend the nighttime illumination as the crowds were lessened and we missed out on very little of the temple’s offerings.

Kiyomizu-dera Kyoto view

While not my absolute favorite site in Kyoto, Kiyomizu-dera would crack the top 5 and is a must-do.  As we left, I didn’t know how anything would top that experience.  It was one of the grandest places I’d ever visited and, without a doubt, the most historic.  I would have been okay if this was the  trip’s peak, Kiyomizu-dera is that astounding.

Gion street

We walked back through the Higashiyama District, which was virtually empty at this point.  After the long walk back to Kyoto Station, we decided to head back to our house.  We quickly contemplated a stop at Fushimi Inari but were pretty tired.

The next morning we slept in a little later, around 9, and then went off to Western Kyoto.  The trip to the Arashiyama District, which holds many of Western Kyoto’s highlights, was very simple with a change of trains at Kyoto Station.

Daikaku-ji cherry blossom

The first stop on our itinerary was Daikaku-ji Temple.  Wooden platforms led guests around the tranquil and incredibly detailed grounds.  Daikaku-ji’s highlight, for me, was the beautiful landscaping and the artwork inside of the buildings.  I was very tentative in taking photos here because I thought I saw a sign that said it wasn’t allowed.  Turns out you can take photos, just not of any direct places of worship.  Trust me though, the inside of some of these buildings are incredible.

Daikaku-ji flowers

In hindsight, we should have explored Daikaku-ji a little further.  There are free areas that we kind of neglected, only going inside the temple.  I would recommend this temple as the architecture and detail it lets guests in on is very different from the Silver and Gold Pavilions.  I would go as far as to say Daikaku-ji was the most unique of the temples we visited, offering a very spiritual and/or contemplative experience.  While other temples had a wow moment, these grounds were just gorgeous to walk around and soak in.

I should say that I am not Buddhist.  That certainly doesn’t preclude individuals with different beliefs from having a spiritual experience at a temple.  While they are a place to worship for Buddhists, they are also a place of prayer, reflection and wherever else the mind goes for anyone that steps foot there.  While some temples and shrines were simply sites for me to see, others brought on those beautiful experiences.  I think Daikaku-ji, and its quiet nature, is a perfect place for that.

percussion Bamboo Grove

Part of the reason we didn’t spend as long as Daikaku-ji is because of a packed plan for the day.  Next on the list is Kyoto’s famous Bamboo Grove.  The walk to the grove was beautiful, as we entered the Arashiyama District.  Upon arriving at the walls of bamboo, we were met by this guy playing some beautiful music on whatever instrument this is.  I love music and work in it for a living, and I had no clue what he was playing.  Upon further investigation, it is called a Hang or handpan.  The music was beautiful and peaceful.

In this same area, we met a man who sold prints of his artwork.  All of the prints were of sites around Kyoto.  We bought several and conversed with him.  He found out that we were from Seattle, which excited him as Ichiro Suzuki grew up in his hometown.  He was kind and his artwork was beautiful.

Bamboo grove house creek

The Bamboo Grove itself was spectacular and extremely crowded.  If we had gone early in the day or after sunset I think the experience would have been pretty different.  As is, I’m happy we saw the Bamboo Grove but it won’t be a priority for me to do when we return to Kyoto.

Bamboo grove top of path

I would recommend it to first-time guests travelers though.  The Bamboo Grove is one of the more famous Kyoto landmarks and different experiences stand out to others.  There is no doubt that the Bamboo Grove is stunning.

We left the Bamboo Grove before long and walked toward the heart of the Arashiyama District.  This, again, was filled with food and shops galore.  We were walking along on this crowded street and all of a sudden turned a corner and were met with this view.

River bridge Arashiyama

It was spectacular and surprising.  I’m not sure how the area hid this river so well but it was a complete shock when we saw it.  We were taken aback and decided to soak in the view a little, having lunch right here.  The meal was decent but what I’ll remember is staring at this through all of lunch.  We roamed around the river a little more after lunch.  Here’s a few photos.

River dam Arashiyama

Boat up close Arashiyama

Cherry blossoms Arashiyama

After a few minutes of sitting along the river we moved on to our next destination – the Iwatayama Monkey Park.  After a cheap fee and fairly aggressive, albeit short, hike up part of Mount Arashiyama, we arrived at the park.

Monkey staring in background

Monkey on rope

Monkey kid sign

Monkeys!  Everywhere I looked and stepped there were monkeys.  These are Japanese Macaque monkeys and there were probably a hundred of them at this park.  Guests can feed them or just wander around in all of their glory.  The park also offers gorgeous views of Kyoto.  This is seemingly just an extension of the beautiful Bamboo Grove and Arashiyama District.  Even if the hike itself didn’t lead to a barrel of monkeys (I’m sorry for that pun) I’d still consider doing it, as the area is gorgeous and the views were wonderful.  Of course, we don’t have to make that decision!  Naturally, we want monkeys.

Monkey post

This isn’t what we are used to in America and is far from a zoo atmosphere.  While there’s no sense of danger (not just here, but in all of Japan) it does feel like more of a cultural experience and that you are out in the wild.

Monkey on top of tree and mountains

Monkey on roof city

Iwatayama Monkey Park was a spectacular experience and one of my favorites in Kyoto.  I highly recommend it.

white Blossoms Arashiyama

We hiked down the hill and, after a brief mix-up on what station to go to, headed back to Kyoto Station.  After arriving there we decided to wait a little while on dinner and head to a different nighttime illumination, this time at Toji Temple.  This was about a 20 minute walk from Kyoto Station, through central Kyoto.

Toji was another place that surprised me.  It was on our list of things to do but not super high on that list.  After reading a little blurb about it being one of the best places to view cherry blossoms earlier that day, we decided to go and check it out.  Whatever I read certainly wasn’t lying.

Toji side building blossoms

Toji Temple is centered around a 5-story pagoda and is the tallest wooden tower in Japan.  Toji was founded in 796 and the halls are filled with incredible statues.  Nighttime illuminations only helped the views, as the area was well-lit.  That said, it was hard to escape some of those bright lights when taking photos.  Here are a few that I liked.

Toji water reflection wide

Cherry blossom close Toji night

Toji ground bush

Blurred flower Pagoda door Toji

Unlike Daikaku-ji, Toji Temple was more of a wow factor.  I was blown away by the pagoda and the history here.  Of all the temples we visited, Toji had some of the smaller grounds but it certainly packed a punch.  If you go during Sakura season, I would recommend the nighttime illumination.  The colors are gorgeous and I didn’t feel like the buildings were diminished at all because of it being nighttime.

Blossom blurred pagoda

It probably goes without saying that it’s astounding to find a place like this in the middle of a city.  We were walking through what seemed like a modern street, full of up to date apartments and homes and then all of a sudden there was this temple founded over 1200 years ago right in front of us.

We headed back to Kyoto Station and searched for a sushi restaurant.  We had looked for the exact same spot the night before and gave up after a long search.  This time we had a better idea and found it.  Unfortunately, the wait was over an hour so we grabbed some sushi to go and ate it upstairs in the station.  We also had some pie because pie is delicious no matter where you are.  Sushi is also delicious but far more so in Japan.

Fushimi Inari curve night

The night ended with a quick loop around Fushimi Inari.  There are many paths at this place, a mountain lined with torii gates that I’ll explain more next installment, but we just took the shortest and first loop.  At night, this shrine has a somewhat spooky but cool vibe.  I’m glad we did the shrine both at night and day and ultimately went all the way up the mountain on a different day.  It had gotten pretty late and we were all tired.

Fushimi Inari night ground

As we finally got back to our house, I couldn’t really fathom the day we just had.  We visited five different places, all of which gave a different emotion and all equally impressive for different reasons.  It’s always odd to know that you are experiencing one of the best days of your life as it’s happening but I knew pretty early on that day.  The moment we turned that corner in Arashiyama and saw the river, Kyoto became my favorite city in the world.  While the trip kept getting better and better, this day will always be one of my favorites.  We’ll pick up the next morning in our next installment!

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– Andrew