On The Road

A Japan Itinerary That Hits All the Must-See Spots

Jewelry designer Maya Brenner and her foodie boyfriend did all the legwork for you.

By: Laurel Pantin

The only not-fun thing about traveling is planning. Maybe some people like that process—researching, whittling down your options, making an itinerary—but we’re the sort that just wants to gooo! Nowww!

So when someone whose taste we trust, like jewelry designer Maya Brenner and her restaurateur boyfriend Dustin Lancaster, offered to share their kid-friendly trip to Tokyo and Kyoto, we were all too ready to accept.

If you’re planning your own trip to Japan, read the below for where to stay, what to see, eat, and do—and of course, where to shop.

“‘Where do you guys want to go on spring break? We each get to name two places. Go.’ That was the question my boyfriend Dustin and I posed to my 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. We hadn’t traveled out of the country together in years and learned the hard way last spring break that not having something to do for those two weeks wasn’t an option. There were some usual suspects that made the cut—Paris and Hawaii—but the only constant that made all four of our lists was Japan.

“I’m not sure if it was the allure of the refined and somewhat mysterious culture, the endless Instagram shots of incredible cuisine, or maybe the opportunity to catch the sakura (cherry blossoms) in full effect. I guess it was a bit of everything combined, but regardless, we had our destination, and the research and planning were in full effect. We bought our tickets, booked our hotel accommodations and connected with a personal concierge service to help steer us in the right direction.

“The latter is highly recommended, by the way, as it’s not easy to traverse the country if you don’t speak the language. Not only did Japan exceed our expectations, which were astronomically high already, but it was transformative emotionally and beyond. So much so that my son asked when we got back if he could go to college there. How’s that for a trip?”

“Harajuku is an area known for fashion-forward youth, shopping, and the Totti Candy factory that had cotton candy bigger than our heads.”

“One of the best meals we had in Japan was at Robataya, which translates roughly to ‘fireside cooking’. No menu—just fresh ingredients cooked in front of you and served on long wooden paddles (to straddle the flame). Lively and fun with lots of yelling in Japanese, including when Dustin was invited to make homemade mochi for our dessert.”

“Tsukiji Fish market (featured in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi) was wall-to-wall with all types of seafood, including some we had never heard of or seen before. A chef was our guide, and afterwards we went to his restaurant for a sushi-making lesson and a delicious lunch prepared with the fish he had just purchased that morning.”

“Bullet train (super clean, fast, and efficient) to Kyoto, which, unlike the fast pace of modern Tokyo, feels more like the Japan we imagine with its lush gardens, shrines, traditional architecture and women dressed in Kimonos.”

“Dinner with geishas was like nothing I had experienced before. Through an interpreter, we spent the evening eating, drinking and playing games with them. We were able to ask them questions, which fascinated us all since nothing even similar to the Geisha lifestyle exists in our culture.”

“Kinkaku-ji is known as the Golden Pavilion, which is a Buddhist temple in Kyoto and considered one of the most beautiful in Japan.”

“Nara has some of the most important and oldest shrines but also has 1,200 deer that roam the area and will bow to you for ‘deer cookies.’ Viewing the temples with the deer prancing around is magical.”

“On to the Izu resort area, where we stayed at the Asaba Ryokan. For 24 hours, we submerged ourselves in a traditional Japanese experience of quiet tatami matted rooms, natural hot spring baths, and wore yukata (soft cotton kimonos). We slept and ate all together in one room.”

“Back to Tokyo for one night, where our elegant Four Season’s bathroom overlooked the train and subway tracks. Strange but cool at the same time!”

“Did some final shopping where it was required to wear a face cover to avoid smearing makeup or hair products on the clothing! Oh, and remember to always remove your shoes before entering a dressing room.”

“The one word that comes to mind when thinking about the food in Japan is ‘precious.’ And not in any kind of negative way, like it’s sometimes used here in the States. But truly the time, effort, beauty and pride in preparing each meal is breathtaking.”

“Sayonara!”

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