The Temple Rave

I saw Nine Inch Nails last Sunday night at the Greek in Berkeley. (Between Leon Bridges last week and the upcoming King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard show I think I’m asking to be swallowed by the Earth. The Hayward fault runs beneath Cal’s football stadium and the theater. At least I’ll be in my happy place when the worms eat me).

I never owned a NIN album but since I’m alive I know like 6 or 7 songs. Any preoccupation I’ve ever had with Trent Reznor revolved around him renting 10050 Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills — the home where the Manson apostles murdered Sharon Tate and her celebrity friends. The recording studio in the house was called “Le Pig”, a reference to a song on the Beatles’ White Album from which Charles Manson inferred a lot of craziness. The killers smeared the word “pig” in blood on the home’s front door. Downward Spiral and Broken were both recorded at Le Pig. The music video for Gave Up features images of the house and studio. (Not to be extra creepy after I already used the word “serial killer” once in this letter, but the house I used to own here in CA looked similar to that infamous abode before we renovated it).

But I must admit. NIN is in the running for best show I’ve ever seen (n of roughly 200). The gulf between the recorded & live experience is indescribable.

The Greek felt like a rave at a temple. In black t-shirts.

Cousin Camp

Cousin Camp finally happened. This was one of the best things we’ve ever been a part of. I think the 8 cousins (+2 close friends) will have an amazing memory of this week. The kids ranged from 5 to 12 years old.

Schedule

7:30am-9am: Breakfast, making beds, getting dressed

9am: A chess coach would come teach for an hour.

10am-noon: Our boys amazing preschool teacher Jen came and led the kids through thoughtful activities.

Noon-2pm: Lunch break and play

2pm-4pm: Second session with Jen

4pm-6pm: Swimming pool (lots of Blind Man’s Bluff with Fish Out Of Water rules), Nerf battles, badminton, feeding the neighbor’s cat, and games like Throw Throw Burrito and A Fake Artist Goes To New York.

6pm til bedtime: Dinner, play, and music rehearsals for the open mic we went to in town Friday night. [A piano and group vocal cover of Ed Sheeran’s Perfect and a piano cover of Vanessa Carlton’s Thousand Miles]

A few additional notes

  • The theme of the week was communication. Being an active, empathetic listener, looking out for each other, making sure your tone matches what you want to project into the world. Jen is a master teacher and our first call for behavioral questions. She is another hero I try to emulate. Her touch balances firmness and love. Toughness and understanding. An example is when one child hurts another she doesn’t force them to say “sorry” because she knows it’s an empty sentiment when done at gunpoint. Instead, she facilitates a dialogue between the children that surfaces the “why” of the action and the victim can express how they feel. Most of the time, the offender apologizes genuinely because you can see them really perceive the other person’s POV.
  • Dinner was Yinh’s favorite part of the week. She would lead some pretty thoughtful discussions about how we treat each other and act generally. The kids one by one describe the day’s highs and lows and the reasons for that. They are asked to point out which actions other kids did were helpful or considerate. It’s truly awesome to see what kids notice. If anything, it’s a reminder to give them lots of credit. Their observational skills often surprised us to the upside.A moment I want to memorialize in case I read this in 10 years. Maddox thought his treatment was a result of his “reputation” and that was something Yinh really unpacked with him. The gist of it — you don’t need to conform to the expectations of others. It was insanely mature for a 10-year-old best known for bouncing around the room to realize that some of his actions were guided not by what he wanted but by his “reputation” and being freed of that was a moment of unlocking in his eye. And that’s the point. He’s so much more than a boisterous 10-year old and that wildness is a feature not a bug. Maybe some adults could benefit from realizing their reputation doesn’t need to define all aspects of their life. There’s more to existence than expected value or being smart or being able to do X. Maybe allowing yourself multiple identities relieves pressure.
  • Some of the activities:Building boxes that they had to drill together and pain before creating a scene inside. Some kids made things like a labyrinth or pinball machine.

    Bridge building contest like you did in science class

    Kids would each pull an “Angel” card in the morning. The card would give them a trait to be extra mindful of for the day.

    Kids would be expected to clean after every module and by Day 2 they were doing this unprompted. They’d close the pool, put away all the toys, set the table, and take out the garbage.

  • Date nights. That’s what the other parents got to do while the kids were with us all week. They were all sending us pics of the restaurants and bars they were enjoying every night. Yinh and I even fashioned our own dates. We’d play Wingspan every night after the kids went to bed. I have yet to beat her. Grr.

Finally, it’s worth remembering it takes a village. My mother-in-law was a saint, prepping all meals. More than half the kids were her grandkids which made the week extra sweet. Seeing all the plates laid out, all the kids crammed into bedrooms on makeshift sleeping arrangements, and those beautiful in-between moments when the kids scattered all over the backyard, front yard or in various rooms just organizing their own fun. Even the oldest cousin’s bunny, Olaf, had a great time getting love from so many little hands.

Cousin’s Camp Year 1 was a massive success and we can’t wait to do it again next year.

Start Of Summer

Yinh and I have covid this weekend and the timing couldn’t be worse.

Our first inaugural Cousins Camp was supposed to start today.

We were scheduled to have 8 nieces and nephews staying with our kids this week. We hired a teacher and chess coach to guide enrichment programs from 8 until noon every day. The kids would do crafts, write and perform a song, play games, and present/public-speak. Afternoons were left open for play, sports and pool time. 80’s summer kid mode.

Our plan is to rotate this every year at a different family’s home (the other parents are going on mini-vacations without their kids, so this is a win-win for everyone!). We decided to do this because it will be a great series of memories to gift both the children and the parents.

We had a different version of this idea in 2020. Boardgame Week. A local parent offered their amazing backyard as a site. I was planning a week of PTO to host 14 kids (I wasn’t charging so it was oversubscribed amongst our parent friends before Yinh finished typing the text message) for 3 hours a day of gaming and then play time.

Covid blew it all up and then last year we traveled all summer so I was so stoked that we were finally going to pull this off. Until yesterday when it became clear we had to cancel because we and some of the guests have covid.

[I’ve had chills, fevers and razor blade throat since Friday night but it’s all been manageable. I took a my 3rd covid test in 3 days and finally tested positive. I was getting nervous that my sickness could somehow be not covid and that I was going to get covid too.]

Anyway, I’ll be back in your inbox sometime in July. I’ll still be around on Twitter a little bit and you can always email me.

Enjoy the start of summer. Summer is for memories. Spread kindness. Make joy a priority for someone else and it will just as easily be your own. A little intention goes a long way. Whoever your they is, they will remember.

Stay groovy!

Kris


Postscript

In a crazy coincidence, I just hung out with the family that rented our house before we leased it (they are tight with our neighbors and visited from the East Coast). Apparently, they did this same camp idea with their family and friends at the house we live in now! They showed us a video of the finale performance the kids put on and pictures throughout the week. The mom couldn’t believe we randomly settled on a similar plan. She’s an artist and said something to the effect of “there’s just something about that house”.

Our house is a 1950s 3/2.5 CA ranch that looks straight outta Boogie Nights. Mirrors, bricks, and cabin interior. Everyone would be piled up on each other. I’m too cheap to put the A/C on. And everyone gets chores. If there were movie props on the premises you’d think I was recreating the commune on Spahn Ranch. Without the sex, drugs, and ya know, murder.

Although you might hear some Brian Wilson in the background.

Bel Air

We are visiting family and went to the Getty Center for the first time. Highly recommend it. Breathtaking location on LA’s westside.

After getting cultured,

we drove through Bel Air. My older kid was hoping to see Lebron and figured this is where the Lakers live since I told him this is where super-rich people have houses.

This is us climbing the hills of opulence in a rented Mustang which definitely did not fit in with the local whips.

The only other time I’ve been to Bel Air was 30 years ago. I entered a mansion with aspirations of going into medicine and left hearing about a thing called “Wall Street”.

Happy President’s Day weekend.

Stay groovy.

The Seeds Of Sports Nostalgia

NFL conference championships are today. I’m sorry but there’s no way they can live up to last weekend’s epic games. The playoffs are the only times I watch football these days. As a NY Giants fan, my interest in the NFL has been an inverse SPY chart for the past decade. But my kids were born in SF and I live in the Bay Area so we’ll be rooting for the Niners in the Battle for California.

Recently, my 8-yr-old, Zak is into watching sports and understanding them. Fanhood is a special form of tribalism with roots that reach back into our childhoods. It’s interesting to be aware that watching the game today can later be a source of deep nostalgia. I care about the game on the off chance that it is exactly that for him.

If your kids like sports it’s a great teaching opportunity too.

This week he and I started making futures-style bets on Warrior players’ stats, for $1 a point. For example, against Minnesota, I bet Steph would score over 27 points. He scored 29, so I won $2.

Since my son got crushed in that game (he took the over on Kuminga scoring 15), he did research before proposing bets on last night’s Nets/Warriors game. Which of course was my secret objective the whole time.

(Steve, you’d be so proud, Zak came back asking about PER since GP II is one of the highest on the Dubs. Zak loves how he plays).

Go enjoy the games, and if you watch with kids, make it spicy!


I wrote about the roots of my own fanhood a couple years ago:

✍🏽 “Sportsball” (2 min read)

Unibrow

I’m going to take you into the holidays with a quick personal story.

I was driving Zak, my 3rd grader, to basketball practice.

Zak: Dad, I learned something today.

Me: What’s that bud?

Zak: I learned I had a unibrow today. XXX told me.

Me: (heart sinks as the vapor of childhood innocence wafts out the car window) Was XX mean about it?

Zak: No. (Nonchantly. Almost surprised I would ask.)

Me: How did it make you feel?

Zak: (a pause that felt like forever to me but was probably only 2 seconds) It feels cool. I have a unibrow and I’m double-jointed so it’s hard for other people to be like me.

Mic drop for mom and dad. You can go to college now, there’s nothing left for us to do kid.

Seriously, this was the opposite of me at his age. I remember feeling bad for blue-eyed kids because they were different. My desire was just to fit in and not get made fun of for eating pita bread.

I don’t actually believe we have anything to do with this kid’s understated confidence. He’s sensitive and sweet. Full of joy. I have another son and know the difference. I know many of you have children that seem like they’re from different planets and can relate to how mysterious these creatures under your same roof are.

I learn a lot from watching Zak. His dominant characteristic is “happy wherever he is”. I seriously try to channel him when I’m anxious. The exchange we had in the car was a proud moment in the face of the tension all parents face — trying to balance prepping these small humans for reality and preserving their innocence.

Still, this is not really a parenting win.

Sometimes it’s just them. And you can learn from them if you take them seriously. It’s a strange privilege to admire your kid. I’m proud of him but that’s a weak description because “being proud” of a gift that comes from nowhere is not the right feeling.

I’m just grateful.

Happy Holidays!

Observations After 40 Weekly Letters

As the year closes, I thought to indulge some observations about writing these weekly Moontower emails.

On Process

  • Started in March. 40 weeks in a row
  • Between the weekly email and my website I’ve written 100k words or the equivalent of a 400-page book (there’s an iceberg of notes under that)
  • The email takes about 7 to 8 hours per week 2 of them have taken upwards of 12.
  • About 1/3rd of that time would have been spent doing it anyway as I have been taking lots of notes over the years. The extra step of making it public, while intensive was still incremental, which is why I thought it would be a fun idea in the first place.
  • I started with about 20 weeks worth of ideas in the queue. After writing 40 of these, I now have about 50 in the queue. There’s a lesson about feedback loops in there somewhere. I often don’t consult the queue and just tackle something that I noticed that week.  Usually, the topic occurs to me in a way that unifies some subset of my notes.
  • The time to do this has come away from watching TV and movies, some Friday night activities, some workouts and strolls, and some sleep. Everything has a cost.

On Benefits

  • The coolest benefit has been what one friend emailed me to say he’s enjoyed the “friendship renaissance”. We have many phases in life. A number of people from my days in NYC who I have fell out of touch with now regularly email with me. Sometimes sparked by a Moontower topic. But there’s another effect that I can relate to since I get a lot of letters myself. Reading somebody every week breeds familiarity as well as an implied (or in Moontower’s case, an explicit) invitation to chat. We all know great, thoughtful people who we just fall out of touch with. The letter was a beacon to invite them back into my life even if I didn’t realize that fully when I started this.
  • I have gotten to meet many people both digitally and IRL. There’s a lot of cross-pollination with Twitter conversations so it’s hard to directly attribute, but this year has to, on average, I’ve met 1 in-person per week. And there are more connections online that I have regular chats with. I think the thought of that idea would have exhausted me in the past. Not that I’m shy, just not a social butterfly. But the meetings have been invigorating since they are rooted in a spirit of mutual open-mindedness and helpfulness. I suspect this might not even seem like something remarkable to many of you but for the few to which that may resonate, it’s worth mentioning.
  • It has been a forcing function to get me to write. Something that I have been wanting to do for a long time but required a form of accountability to get started. Your attention is so so appreciated. I’d be privileged if I could help one of you as much you’ve collectively helped me.

On Growth

  • I sent a welcome email to about 110 friends and family when I started in March. 40 people signed up for the first letter. Today, 375 people receive the email. This is an objectively tiny number but it punches so far above its weight. You are a smart, curious group of readers.
  • The growth is partially from word of mouth but mostly from something I’ve written that gets boosted by a highly-followed person. The most popular letters have been the ones in which I explain something technical from my own non-academic point of view.
  • On average, 2 people sign up per day even though it’s super spikey (about a month ago the readership grew by over 30% in a week).

On the Future

  • You can expect more of the same. I see myself as a curator and gatherer who basically takes you with me on my own learning journey. If Moontower had a theme it’s that the world is messy and by sharpening our thinking we can not only get better but be more empathetic. I’d say my pet peeve is the rampant discourse which acts otherwise. Discourse that at its best is flat and stupid, but more often, willfully manipulative.
  • You probably noticed I added the Money Angle section. This was natural since investment topics overlap with my professional domain and I thought it was useful to separate it a) for the benefit of those who find this via #fintwit and b) to spare those of you who might find those topics “too much”.
  • I’ll continue to look to you for input as how I can be helpful or more lucid. I don’t have any proper training or qualification. And while my very first letter addressed pushing past “imposter syndrome”, my opinions about how I present material is pretty loosely held. So don’t feel like you can offend me with criticism.

Sake Tidbits I Learned While in Kyoto

One of the highlights of the past week was spending a few hours with sake apprentice Jorge Navarette. I will do a fuller write up on his awesome story when I compile a guide to Japan based on our trip but I will just say that Jorge is probably the most knowledgable American citizen on the subject of sake. Meeting him was pretty much an accident as we just took a tour where the hotel concierge sent us but he had only been there since July.

But here’s some knowledge you can use today if you like sake or want to get into it.

  • Premium sake is defined by how much the rice is polished down. So a 60% sake has had 40% of its rice polished down before fermentation. Sake must be below 70% to be considered premium.
    • Jumai: “pure rice” typically 60-70% remaining after polish. Large variation in taste.
    • Ginjo: “fragrant” 50-60%
    • Daiginjo: “super fragrant”. Less than 50%. Very smooth, but less variation in taste
  • To give sake shelf life it is pasteurized. In Japan, unpasteurized or “draft” sake is bottled and kept cold. It is known as “nama” sake. While technically you can drink it within 6 months we learned you really want to drink it in less than 30 days. You can find it in the states but it won’t be the same as fresh namasake.
  • Sake is expensive in the US mostly because of taxes and tariffs. A good bottle of sake in Japan need not set you back more than $7.
  • A word on Japanese whiskey. Jorge could trace the boom in popularity and price spike back to a single month in time. ​November 2014. There were 2 reasons at the same time which created a perfect storm:
    1. The rise of international demand for Japanese whiskey in the wake of The Whiskey Bible ranking Yamazaki as number one in the world and ahead of Scottish brands.
    2. A surge in local demand when a documentary about Nikka Distillery’s founder aired in Japan. It told his incredible story full of passion and suffering as he traveled to Scotland to learn the craft during the WW1 era.

Yamazaki 12 went up 6x in price but this was like table whiskey before that! Jorge had been drinking it for over 20 years when it was 25 a bottle.

Guides to Visiting Japan

My wife and I went to Japan in September 2019 to celebrate our 10 year anniversary. We spent 10 days there and it was a trip of a lifetime. Japan can feel like an alternate universe if you are visiting from the US. While many Japanese speak English, they are hesitant to practice it since it will not be perfect. This kind of attitude embodies something I noticed in Japan…something I have almost certainly insensitively labeled ‘samurai culture’. Whatever Japanese people do, they do well. Like shockingly well. You think the best whiskey comes from Scotland. Try again. The best pizza comes from Italy? You haven’t been to Seirinkan in Tokyo. And you have heard of wagyu beef, right?

Shopping, normcore fashion, hipness, history, culture, landscapes. Off the charts. And the counterforces of uniformity, collectiveness, and an aging populace can all be seen as well — the pachinko parlors are the most depressing (and loud) casinos I’ve ever been in.

Some of the the fun oddities were the abundance and tiny size of what feels like a bar or restaurant per capita. I seriously can’t understand how economics works in Japan. How are there so many sushi spots that seat 4 people, or sake bars stacked 6 levels up in what look like office buildings. There are so many nooks and crannies, everywhere you go feels like at least as deep as the Big Apple. Amazing food in the train stations, baked goods I enjoyed as much as Parisian patisseries, and vending machines with Walmart-wide variety (though there is no Diet Coke anywhere — you can find a Coke Zero in McDonald’s if you’re desperate).

As Bill Murray said, “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”

Here’s our personal guides to Japan:

  • Japan is expensive but there is no need to tip.
  • You’ll want to carry yen but it’s straightforward to get cash at ATMs and despite warnings from others we had no trouble using credit cards in most places.
  • The Green Japan Rail passes were worth it. The cars were not crowded and comfortable. It’s best to get them in the mail in advance.
  • We rented Ninja wi-fi hotspots and picked up/dropped off at the airport. The experience is simple and the hotspot worked well almost everywhere although a bit patchy on the shinkansen.
  • You can use luggage forwarding services from hotel to hotel even in different cities. Bellhops will organize the transport of your luggage on the trains. Very handy if you want to explore on travel days and have your luggage be at your hotel when you arrive.

Our Itinerary

Friday night to Monday morning: Tokyo. We lucked out and overlapped with one of the great sumo tourneys held each year in Tokyo. Highly recommend sumo, Shibuya, the fish market, Harajuku, and just getting your 20k steps a day all over this expansive city.

Monday: Shinkansen train to Hiroshima where we caught a Carps baseball game then caught the ferry to spend the night on Miyajima Island

Tuesday: Toured the island and the ropeway before heading back to Hiroshima to visit the Peace Museum. Shinkansen to Kyoto at night. We used a guide named Naoko. Reach out if you want her info.

Wed: Shinkansen from Kyoto to Kobe to explore the city. On the way back to Kyoto in the evening made a pit stop in Osaka with a good friend. Hashigo is the Japanese word for basically bar-hopping. We bounced around Osaka, hitting bars and food stops before finding ourselves buying rounds of highballs for a wide array of partygoers.  After an expensive cab ride at 2am we found ourselves back at our hotel in Kyoto

Thursday to Sunday: Exploring Kyoto. We used a great guide named Toby who has lived in Kyoto his whole life, speaks great English, and is very well educated. He was an amazing guide to take us through the shrines and explain the history. If you are going to Kyoto you will want to see my separate post here.

Our friends’ guides who helped us plan the trip:

Eve

Hi! This is the info I have from my Japan trip. I went in 2015 so some of it might be dated but I thought the best travel site for any info on Japan (esp the Kyoto and surrounding areas) was this:

https://www.insidekyoto.com/

.

It looks like since then the guy has done other cities as well (Tokyo).

This was also a good reference for trip planning: https://www.japan-guide.com/

And for traveling around this was great too:

http://www.hyperdia.com/

But Google maps has really gotten better in the past 5 years (I’ve noticed it’s accuracy more when I use it for international travel trips). Might want to download hyperdia as a cross-check/back up though.

Here are some general comments though from memory:

    • SKIP OSAKA. It’s super close to Kyoto too, but not worth a detour. Just do Kyoto, Kobe, and Miyajima.
    • There is so much to see within and right outside Kyoto, like Nara and Fushimi Inari. Kyoto is charming and more authentic and quaint and quiet vs Tokyo.
    • Kobe is an easy day trip. Definitely go for authentic Kobe beef. You can do a lunch there and head back to Kyoto, or stay and check out this beautiful park at the top. All around Japan there are these great parks you need to take cable cars up to. and this is one of them in Kobe (but not a must do): https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g14127419-d1656566-Reviews-Kobe_Nunobiki_Herb_Gardens-Chuo_Kobe_Hyogo_Prefecture_Kinki.html
    • Loved Miyajima. Huge oysters there but don’t make a mistake of waiting to eat there at end of day! Everything closed early evening and we missed out! We ended up getting oysters in Hiroshima before taking the train back to Kyoto. I was very sad. We saw huge ones everywhere for sale at the various food stalls in town. So first thing you should do is eat lunch there, then see the famous shrine at the beach, then go up via cable car to the top of the mountain for a hike. The island is small, you can see it in a day as long as you start early. Not much to see in Hiroshima unless you really want to see the memorial stuff. we just passed thru on the way to Miyajima and back.
    • Love Hakune! we stayed at a nice hotel there. The area is more prone to quakes tho, FYI. So you’ll prob feel tremors here and there while staying there but nothing to be alarmed about
    • There is an outlet near Hakune. Do not go, total waste of time. We only went because we needed to pass thru to catch a bus, so unless you need to do the same, don’t make an effort
    • Mt Fuji is hard to see, it’s mostly cloudy at the top so don’t be disappointed if you dont see it. We did see it eventually but most of the time from what I hear it’s not easy to see entirely naked without clouds. Lake Kawaguchiko is nice if you have time to go around there (you can see Mt Fuji from there) but not a must do
    • The Japan Rail pass works w the airport bullet trains so def get it!

Japan Travel Recommendations

General

  • we used DK Eyewitness Travel guide for Japan and found it useful. It’s higher level, but covers all you the items you can do probably anyway.
  • Japanese observe the more traditional meal times, meaning lunch is served from like 11:30AM to 3PM, sometimes more limited and dinner usually starts at 5:30 to like 6 PM. In between it is sometimes difficult to find a good place to eat. However, Japan also offers a lot of tea/coffee houses, which serve their traditional sweets. So all day breakfast or lunch, no no.
  • Don’t eat at restaurants, where you see only white people ;-).

Language: It is sometimes difficult to communicate, but they will always make a great effort to get you what you need. A lot of people have voice translation apps on their phone. We ate at restaurants, where nobody really understood English and still found our way around, other customers will help you too.

Train – https://www.jrpass.comOrder your train voucher online and exchange it for the actual pass once in Japan. The pass doesn’t allow you to travel on the fastest train though (fastest means less stops). It’s very convenient and saves you money. Recommend the green pass. It’s a little more comfortable and less crowded during rush hour. It is recommended to make seat reservation head of time if you need to travel during rush hours. Otherwise, just go to the train station to get your seat reservation. Everything is well organized and people stand in line before boarding. Be at the tracks a little ahead of time, the train doesn’t stop for long and sometimes trains come one after one. We once jumped into the wrong train, since it was there already, but 1 min ahead of our scheduled train. It was the fastest train that is not part of the pass. We didn’t have to pay anything, and just got off at the next train station to change to our train.Btw/ the train schedule on google is not reliable, better to use JR’s website or ask concierge.

Luggage ForwardingWhen you travel between cities/hotels, you can take advantage of luggage forwarding, if you want to do day tours on your own and don’t want to log along all your luggage. You just need to plan ahead a bit, since they require you to give them the luggage at least one day before your preferred luggage arrival time. The hotel concierge can help you with this. When they say your luggage will arrive by certain date/time, it will be there, most likely ahead of time. Costs vary depending on the destination but are usually about $15-$30 per luggage. We found this very convenient and used a few time.

Pocket WifiSome people recommend to get a pocket Wifi, so that you get unlimited data in Japan and use the pocket Wifi to connect your phones. We have T-Mobile and an international data plan and never had issues. In the trains they also provide free Wifi. Within the city and to find general direction it is good to have a data plan to make use of Google’s direction. Howard, for example, use a pocket Wifi and was very surprised about the speed and also the convenience to receive and to send it back to the company.

Kabuki TheatreIf you are interested in seeing a traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre, check with your concierge for tickets. The good theatre companies are easily booked out.

Ryokan (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ryokan_(inn))We recommend that you try out the traditional Japanese Inn. I probably wouldn’t stay in a Ryokan the whole trip, but two nights its worth it. We stayed at two different one, for one we gave a recommendation below, which was in Arima Onsen, its close to Kobe.

Tokyo

Hotel Hotel Chinzanso TokyoIt’s a little away from the hustle and bustle, but still close to subway and easy to get around. The hotel (former Four Season) has its own huge garden (one could probably say little park) and pagoda. Has a couple good restaurants.

Wiki: “For over six centuries, the land surrounding Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo has been home to wild camellias. It was featured in a wood block print by the ukiyoe artist Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858). The current name of the garden “Chinzanso” was given by Yamagata Aritomo (1838-1922), an influential member of a group of elderly statesmen known as the Genrō in the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishō (1912–26) eras. In 1918, reflecting the will of Yamagata, the property was assigned to Baron Fujita Heitaro. Though the garden was destroyed during World War II, reconstruction began in 1948 under the direction of Ogawa Eiichi, the founder of the company now known as Fujita Kankō, whose vision of “building a green oasis in Tokyo” included the transportation of more than 10,000 trees.[3]On November 11, 1952, a grand opening ceremony for the new Chinzanso garden and reception center took place. On January 1, 2013, after 20 years of operation as a Four Seasons, the hotel was integrated with Chinzanso reception center and renamed “Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo.”

Activities/Sightseeing

We were there for cherry blossom so we visited Ueno park. Senso-ji temple and Ginza are staples. Meiji Shrine is the most important Shinto shrine in Tokyo.

Imperial PalaceNaturally one of the must-sees in Tokyo. Get the audio guide on your phone, they have an app, which can also be used at different sites

Kabuki theatre – https://www.kabukiweb.net/theatres/kabukiza/information/index.htmlIf you are interested in this type of art, highly recommend. We watched a small section. We just finished our city tour and decided to see if they have some availability, so we got a cheap standing tickets. We think that’s enough to get an idea.

Tokyo Cruise Asakusa PierNice tour on the Sumida river and gives somewhat a good overview. At the finish point, we visited the Hama-rikyu gardens.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Formerly the largest fish market in the world. However, the tuna auction has moved to a new location and can only be observed from the second floor through glasses. We didn’t go. If that is the interest, it could still worth a trip.

Whiskey Tour Suntory – close to Tokyo. Very popular. Reserve ahead of time. https://www.suntory.com/factory/yamazaki/https://www.suntory.com/factory/hakushu/

Restaurants

We didn’t visit that many restaurants in Tokyo, however, it has a lot of Micheline star rated places, so that makes it easier, the difficult part is to get reservations, since it’s a competitive sport to get a dinner place at good restaurants. Throughout Japan you have also simpler places, even at train stations, which are really good for our standards. Most ramen places have a vending machine, which has the name or picture of each dish. you order and pay there, walk in, give people the ticket, sit down and they deliver the food to you. We are huge noodle/ramen fans. Tried many different ramen places/brands at different cities with a little research online. We were not disappointed. What surprised us is that Japanese eat ramen with rice! That was interesting to us but we can totally understand considering the importance of rice in Japanese diet.

Zoroku Sushi Hiroo, 4 – 2 – 48 Minamiazabu, Minato-ku Tokyo, 03-6721-7255 (+81-3-6721-7255) , Chef Name : Okajima.

SF’s Hashiri Sushi’s restaurant manager, Ken Matsuura, made a reservation for us at this sushi place. Chef Okajima is the brother of the sushi Chef Tokunori at Hashiri. Its only a sushi bar, reservation required. Its in a nicer residential neighborhood. Easy to access via subway. Sushi was excellent, lots of fishes we never or rarely see here. He uses mainly seasonal fishes. We had to ask him to stop “feeding” us, we couldn’t eat anymore. His female assistant sushi chef speaks(very rare to see a woman in this male dominated industry) English, so that helped. But there is really no need to talk much, since there is not really a menu, you just sit down and decide what sake to drink. We recommend not to go just with one bottle, but with different craft recommended by them, this way you can taste different ones throughout the evening. They have a good selection.

Hashiri Ebisu/Daikanyama, 2F Digital Gate Building, 3 – 5 – 7 Ebisuminami, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 03-5724-3770 (+81-3-5724-3770), Chef Name : Kokubo & NoharaHashiri has also a Tokyo restaurant, the original, but we had to cancel our reservation there, bec/ our plans changed. Should be pretty good.

Here are a couple more recommendation from Ken Matsuura

Kuroiwa – Kaiseki Ebisu (Tokyo)

Ju Ju – Yakiniku – Nishiazabu (Tokyo)

Imafuku – Sukiyaki Hiroo (Tokyo)Kokoro Mai – Rice Kaiseki – Hiroo (Tokyo)Nihonshu Stand Moto in Shinjuku Great spot for rare and exciting sake and tsumami.Tsunahachi – Tempura restaurant – Shinjuku (Tokyo)Suzu Sushi restaurant – Tameike sannou (Tokyo)Sushi Ono – Sushi – Ebisu (Tokyo)Toritama Shirokane – YakitoriMoe Roppongi – YakitoriChugoku Hanten – Roppongi Great Chinese restaurant for shanghai crab Doteno Iseya – Tempura donburi – Yoshiwara (Tokyo)Isen – Tonkatsu – Akihabara (Tokyo)

Fuji Mountain

A day tour or overnight stay at Fuji Mt is recommended. In town you can stay at a traditional Ryokan, but reservations are really advised. We changed our plans last minute to catch cherry blossom at other parts of the country, so we canceled our reservation there. We had plans for Shuhoukaku Kogetsu (https://www.kogetu.com), since one can sit in the hot tub, look over the lake and see the mountain at the other side. Mid-week reservations are more available.

Takayama

A charming mountain town west of Tokyo. Well preserved Edo period streets and houses, escaped the WWII bombing. Famous for its matsuri festival and Hida wagyu beef. (Hida-gyu is raised for 14 months, almost twice as long as wagyu beef). The wagyu beef is more reasonably priced compared with other major cities and absolutely delicious. Try it with mountain vegetable dishes and local sakes. Also highly recommend the freshly hand cut soba noodles with raw mountain yam puree. It is not common and we certainly have not found it anywhere here.

KanazawaThe birth place of samurai culture. Have a well preserved geisha district, since it escaped WWII bombing. Nagamachi Samurai Quareter retains its earthenwalled streets. Nomura house is one of the most beautiful and best preserved samurai houses. Higashi Pleasure District is full of atmosphere with old-fashioned street lamps and wooden windows.

Kenroku-en garden, another one of the “famous three” gardens.

It is also famous for gold leaves production. It supplies more than 98% of Japan’s needs.

Hakuichi Higashiyama – gold leaf store/ice cream in the Higashi Pleasure District

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Hakuichi+Higashiyama/@36.5723398,136.6664916,15z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x70f11d77388c67f!8m2!3d36.5723398!4d136.6664916

The ice cream here is covered with a large sheet of gold leaf. Super decadent. Gold leaf souvenirs sold here are very beautiful, you can also buy eatable gold leaf items, like coffee or tea with tine gold leaves.

Also recommend a sweet shop in that area. Some of the shops are hundreds of years old. Great traditional macha tea with a sweet.

The area is also famous for pottery making. Truly beautiful.

Kyoto

Activities/Sightseeing

Many things to see and do. Can easily spend a week here.

Kinkaku-ji – the famous golden pavilion

Ryoan-ji Temple

Famous for its rock garden. A composition of white gravels and 15 stones is considered to be the ultimate expression of zen Buddhism. Only 14 of the 15 stones can be seen from any angle.

Higashiyama and Kiyomizu-dera Temple https://www.kiyomizudera.or.jp/en/A charming and unspoiled district with stone paved roads and lanes. Kiyomizu is a UNESCO World Heritage site and famous for its wood only construction, the entire temple is built on wooden legs on a hill. Traditionally they don’t use nails or screws, but I guess now they do.

Nijo Castle

Known for its ornate interiors and so called nightingale floors.

Sanjusangen-do Temple

The longest wooden structure in the world. Its name derives from the 33 spaces between the building’s pillars.Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine Senbontorii – https://matcha-jp.com/en/284Impressive shrine with thousands of red torri gates. Its worth to walk all the way up the hill, the first part is full of tourist and further up it gets quieter and still pretty impressive. The round walk is about 1.5 to 2hr

Bamboo walk – very beautiful.

Gion DistrictFormer entertainment district and now has tons of restaurants.

Tea ceremony

Recommend to try it. It does not take long but a great experience. Kyoto is where the tea ceremony was developed.

Kamishichiken Kabuki https://traditionalkyoto.com/traditional-areas/kamishichiken/Kamishichiken, pronounced locally as Kamihichiken, is a district of northwest Kyoto, Japan. It is the oldest hanamachi in Kyoto, and is located just east of the Kitano Tenman-gū Shrine. The name Kamishichiken literally means “Seven Upper Houses.” It is the most authentic way to experience it. There are restaurants that provide geisha performance with dinner. But those are more commercial and designed for tourists.

Nishiki Market

The best place to try and shop for food items. We tried and found many interesting and delicious snacks and food items. We bought a variety of dehydrated vegetable and fruit crisps, including cherry tomato (our favorite, perfect texture-crisp but not too dry, with great flavor of tomato still!), shitake mushrooms, bitter melon, red chili pepper, lemon, pineapple, etc. We also tried a fermented black soy bean tea that is supposed to be good for detox and digestion. Never heard about it before. Like it a lot and even brought some home. The quality and variety here are much better than those in Osaka we feel.

RestaurantsKobe Beef Steak Mouriya Gion – https://www.mouriya.co.jp/gionWe didn’t had much luck with getting into any really good restaurants, this one was ok, but one can do probably better. Reservations ahead required. Our hotel had real trouble to make reservations for us.Blowfish restaurant Guenpin – https://www.tettiri.com/multilingual/en/The restaurant is right at the entrance of the Gion district. Very reasonable priced, but reservation required.

Kara-Kusa Curry (curry dishes)We went there for lunch, since it was close to our hotel. They only offer a couple different curry dishes. Was really good!

Google Map:

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Kara-Kusa+Curry/@35.0024582,135.7615117,3a,75y,90t/data=!3m8!1e2!3m6!1sAF1QipMWYnvHj54HiZLFoE9f2AvMgqcKdYD4r5xNzdRJ!2e10!3e12!6shttps:%2F%2Flh5.googleusercontent.com%2Fp%2FAF1QipMWYnvHj54HiZLFoE9f2AvMgqcKdYD4r5xNzdRJ%3Dw114-h86-k-no!7i4032!8i3024!4m19!1m13!2m12!1scurry!3m6!1scurry!2zSG90ZWwgTmlra28gUHJpbmNlc3MgS3lvdG8sIO-8lu-8k–8kCBUYWthaGFzaGljaMWNLCBTaGltb2d5xY0ta3UsIEt5xY10by1zaGksIEt5xY10by1mdSA2MDAtODA5NiwgSmFwYW4!3s0x6001089820c1eb3d:0x1f30991ae3944209!4m2!1d135.7607782!2d35.0004694!5m3!5m2!4m1!1i2!3m4!1s0x60010899e750ffff:0xe4c3e4e96a0e904b!8m2!3d35.0024582!4d135.7615117

Nara – close to Oaska 1.5 hr by train

Nara is also known as the city of peace. We did a day tour to Nara and visited the Nara Park, which had free roaming/wild deer’s, which are “messengers of gods”. The park also more than 3000 lantern at the Kasuga Shrine, very unique and picturesque. Most famous temple is probably the Todai-ji Temple – world heritage site.

Arima – A cute Spa/Onsen Town near Kobe 20min inland by train.

Hotel

Tocen Goshoboh (Ryokan) – http://goshoboh.com/A night or two is enough to relax in this old spa town. The Inn is one of the oldest in Japan. Excellent food and spa option.

Osaka

The Osaka castle deserves a visit. Also Dotonburi. It is full of shops and eateries.

Heimeji castle Considered to be the most beautiful castle in Japan by many. We definitely agree.

OkayamaOkayama Castle & Korakuen Garden – https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5701.htmlFine example of Japanese Garden with some rare birds. One of “famous three” gardens of Japan.

Kurashiki

Has a charming Bikan historial area.

Hiroshima

Activities/Sightseeing

Hiroshima Peace Memorial – http://hpmmuseum.jp/?lang=engVery good, pretty moving actually bec. of all the personal stories.

Miyajima

Visit Itsukushima Shrine and the Floating Torii. A UNESCO World Heritage site. Recommend to be there to see both high tide and low tide. You can climb the mountain in between.

Restaurant Oyster Ship Kanawa – https://www.kanawa.co.jp/All about oysters, very good.

Hi – below is a pretty comprehensive list. Some of the best restaurant and food experiences are not very kid friendly but you can always try and of course, if you want you can do a date night. In bold are my top recs below.

These restaurants will all allow kids. Highly recommend Tofuya Ukai and Tanya

These places may not be as kid friendly – but you can try. MUST DO Sushi Kanesaka AND Tempura Ginya. If you don’t do Sushi Kanesaka, do Sushi Masuda above.

Lunch (from above listSushi Masuda and Tofu Ukai we have done for lunch as well). Recommend Zauo as pretty fun/unique, Okonomiyaki and a ramen experience anywhere. Also great are ANY bakery in Tokyo – they are all over and best breads of all kinds.

Bars: Highly recommend a Magic Bar, The Whisky Library Bar (and surrounding are) and also the bar in the Ritz Roppongi or Park Hyatt (further out) for views)

Magic Bar Ginza Jyuniji – https://tabelog.com/en/tokyo/A1301/A130103/13028147/[tabelog.com] we actually take the older kids there, they love it

Bar High Five in Ginza – cool innovative cocktails

The Whisky Library Bar

Park Hyatt

Jus de Peche in Roppongi for elegant drinks in a relaxed setting. (Eoyang)

Bar Zingaro

Trump Room

Gen Yamamoto

to do: MUST DO Harajuku w Meiji shrine

Super fun to do Oedo Onsen with the kids

Daikanyama is great for boutique shopping, cafes, restaurants

Harajuku – a must for kids – great people watching and there is a squishy store called Mushi which kids our age were totally into. You can do that and Meiji shrine as they are next to each other and then walk around Omotesando for shopping

Tsukiji market

Meiji jingu/harajuku

Asakusa/akihabara

Ginza

Kidzania

Cup Noodle Museum/Yokohama

Thomas Land for Tai

http://tokyo-joypolis.com/ indoor amusement park for K

Tokyo Edo Museum

Kyoto: In Kyoto, I really liked Wakuden**, although it’s also fun to just go eat at one of the amazing izakaya on Nijo-doori. Check out the Hakuhodo honten (make up brushes, not the ad agency!).

Omen noodles for lunch

Nanzen-Ji – this is the one that does the tea ceremony tea (abridged and just mostly serving you the tea)

Ryoan-Ji – famous zen garden

Kiyomizu-dera

Ginkaku-ji – beautiful views and temple

IF you have time Kinkaku-ji (golden temple)

Nijo-Jo – samurai castle

And a side trip to Nara just to see Todai-Ji and the big buddha – spectacular

Shopping street (leading up to Kiyomizu dera and also the other famous one)

Maps and more…

These Google maps were very helpful when we were in Japan. They divide attractions by category (“ramen”, “bars”, etc). They correspond to many of the recommendations in the above guides.

The places we went on our anniversary trip (Map)

TF’s amazing guide to Tokyo (Map)

The map we compiled based on everyone’s recs when we planned the trip (Map)

A 37-page guide to Japan incl maps, attractions, and specific instructions (pdf)

Our own experience in Kyoto (Link)

Recap of my trip to Kyoto

Kyoto, being the former capital of Japan (capital is defined by where the emperor lived, although we learned the emperor was just a figurehead. Before the modern era, the shogun ruled) as you can probably tell is a magical mix of history and youth. It’s a city of education and many universities and the home of the majority of Japan’s Nobel winners. Here’s my annotated Google map to help.
  • Attractions we did
    • Fushimi Inari Shrine. It’s a pretty amazing shrine. We hiked up to the lookout about halfway up the mountain. If you want to go further up the mountain it’s a circular route and the gates thin out quite a bit so we thought the main lookout halfway up was adequate. Fyi this was the inspiration for the orange Gates exhibit that came to the states about 10 years ago
    • Sanjusangendo Temple. Home to 1001 human sized statues. This is in central Kyoto and quite a sight in person. You aren’t allowed to take photos so it’s disappointing that you can see it if you Google image it.
    • The bamboo forest in western Kyoto. It’s a bit of a trek (over 30 min cab ride from the center of the city) but it’s a beautiful, lush area and I’ve never seen a bamboo forest. There’s also a monkey park in that area but we didn’t make it. We did see some monkeys at Fushimi though.
    • I recommend tackling a number of historic sites with the guide we used. He speaks great English and lived in Kyoto his whole life. Well educated, incredibly kind. He brought handouts and even some thoughtful gifts. Just outstanding tour. Nijo Castle, and the last remaining tea house from Edo period, and several significant temples. A wealth of info, super-high yielding. Reach out to me if you want his contact info. 
    • Many friends highly recommended Kinkakuji. It’s the Golden Pavilion temple. We didn’t make it there ourselves. 

  • Nightlife
    • Walk through Gion (geisha district) at night. There are a few special historic streets and the area by the river is quiet and beautiful. For a dark, sexy bar check out Bar Aoi. Just the quiet, old streets are worth the trip at night.
    • For a more energetic scene, definitely see Pontocho Alley. We became well versed in the Japanese practice of hashigo (bar hopping). From restaurants to sake and dart bars this place is teeming with action and life. No particular place stood out, but def check out the areas by the river. The alley is along an awesome creek as well. The water really defined this city for me.
  • Dining
    •  You have to try the souffled pancakes at The Happy Pancake in the equally awesome Shinkygoku shopping area. Get the original pancake and also the matcha one. I’m not a huge matcha fan and found it better than the original. We also had this style pancake in Tokyo at Flipper. So good, nothing like it stateside.
    • Amazing pasta:  Trattoria Macedonia Yuki It’s small, you’ll need a reservation
    • Great ramen and even better karaage chicken at Ramen No Bonbo.
    • Dinner at Hafuu where we had well-priced, terrific wagyu and memorably special beef sandwiches.
  • Personal recommendations
    •   The Kamogawa river that runs through the center of the city feels like the main artery. We picked up a bunch of sushi, sake and baked goods from a supermarket and had a picnic on its bank. At the very least, walk across the river on its magnificent stones, many of which are shaped like animals. While walking on the bank we got a beautiful glimpse into locals living and leisure. Runners, bikers, picnickers, people just playing in the water and even a Pop Warner level American-style football practice!
    • And here the top recommendation esp if you like sake in any way. Book a tour at Matsui Sake Brewery. Ask for Jorge Navarette. I wrote about this briefly in my weekly email. You can learn his story in person. It’s worth it. It was one of my favorite things about the trip to Japan.