I knew I was going to love Kyoto as soon as I booked our ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) months before. It was pouring when Anthony and I arrived at Kyoto Station. The station opened in 1997 and commemorated Kyoto’s 1,200th anniversary (yes, the city is that old). After a few minutes of hoping the rain would die down, we gave up and purchased an umbrella — one of those cute transparent umbrellas that you can find all over Japan. Huddled under the umbrella, we comically ran through the streets and along an overpass for about ten minutes until we reached our ryokan, Kikokuso.


Kikokuso was everything I had hoped our ryokan would be. There are only four guest rooms, and a charming little family runs everything. We were given a tour of the ryokan, during which we learned about Japan’s intricate shoe customs. We used three different slippers — one pair for the lobby; another pair for the dining room and upstairs; and a third pair for the bathroom.

Our courtyard with a koi pond

We were led over a small bridge past a lovely courtyard with a koi pond, then taken upstairs to our room. A sliding door opened up to a large tatami mat room, with a low table set up in the middle. As soon as we settled in, we were given oshibori and served two types of tea (chilled and hot) and azuki sweets that were ornately wrapped like little origami purses. A large sliding door opened up to a balcony with a table and chairs, overlooking the courtyard below. It was perfect.

Welcome tea and azuki cakes

The best part about staying at a ryokan is the meals you’ll have there. All ryokans provide breakfast, and most also offer dinner. Since I knew the meals would be fantastic at Kikokuso, I scheduled us to eat all our breakfasts and dinners there. The telephone in our room rang when we could come down to the dining room for dinner. Our first dinner was an elaborate kaiseki meal. What a treat to be served an 8-course dinner in our own private dining room! During our first course, which included the most amazing sashimi I’ve ever had, I started crying! Yes, the sashimi made me cry. Some things make you so grateful to be alive, as well as depressed because you know you’ll eventually have to leave. I knew I’d cry in Kyoto, but I really thought it’d be on our last day — not within our first hour. Fortunately, Anthony is used to me being emotional about food.

8-course dinner in a private tatami room
Crying over sashimi
For our 7th course: miso soup and rice topped with pickled vegetables and shoyu

When we returned to our room after dinner, we noticed that our hosts had put away the table in the middle of our room, set up mattresses on the tatami floor, and refilled our hot water and tea leaves. We were telephoned again when our onsen (hot spring bath) was ready. We changed into the dark blue yukata robes hanging in the closet. A yukata is a summer kimono, which should be wrapped with the left side over the right side (apparently doing the reverse is for funerals) and secured with an obi sash.

Matching  yukata

Down in the onsen, we first washed our bodies thoroughly using a hand-held shower head, tiny stools, and wooden buckets. It’s crucial to be completely soap-free before entering an onsen, otherwise you’ll contaminate it. Anthony and I slowly entered the bath, which was designed with rock walls on two sides, and sat in the hot water for about half an hour. It wasn’t as relaxing as we wanted it to be (Anthony hates hot tubs, and I only like hot tubs because of the jets, which don’t exist in the onsen), but we appreciated the custom.

Ready for our steam bath
Ready for bed

The next morning, we were too excited, as usual, and woke up before our scheduled breakfast at 8 am. Fortunately, our tea was still hot from last night and we still had some azuki cakes from Tokyo, so we lounged on the balcony and planned out our day.

Perfect morning

We were called down to breakfast in a different private dining room, with a view of the garden. The kaiseki breakfast consisted of tamagoyaki (egg omelette), tofu, pickled vegetables, rice, miso soup, and lots of tea.

Good morning, Kyoto!

13631515_10209267187653281_3512906340135824646_nI could have spent our entire time in Kyoto at our ryokan, but eventually it was time to head out and do some exploring. It was still raining, so the ryokan called a cab that took us to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. This Zen Buddhist Temple was originally a retirement villa of a powerful shogun (military dictator). Kinkaku-ji was burned down numerous times throughout its history — twice during the Onin War in the 1400s and once in 1950 when it was set on fire by a suicidal monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955. The name “kinkaku” is derived from the gold leaf that covers the pavilion. Kinkaku-ji is set in a lush strolling garden and extends over a pond that reflects the building. The main reason we went to Kinkaku-ji was because Anthony had built a Metal Earth model of the pavilion and needed a photo with it, but the the setting was so stunning that I was just as excited to be there. It was still raining, but the rain somehow made everything feel even more sacred.

13567472_10209261002578658_8190132945295295249_nAfter Kinkaku-ji, we took another cab to Kiyomizu, a Buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple juts out over the hillside and offers stunning views of the city. From above, Kyoto is a lot like Florence — a traditional, culturally-significant city surrounded by mountains. The popular expression “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” is the Japanese equivalent of the English expression “to take the plunge.” This refers to an old tradition that if one survives the 13 m jump off the cliff, one’s wish will be granted. 234 jumps were recorded and, of those, 85.4% survived. The practice is now prohibited.

View from Kiyomizu

Below the temple is the historic Higashiyama District, my favorite area in Kyoto. We noticed dozens of Japanese women renting kimonos from nearby shops and taking photo shoots at different landmarks. It’s surprising that this trend hasn’t caught on in America yet.

Rented kimonos

Throughout the neighborhood, touristy shops line the major streets, while side streets have quaint roads, wooden homes, and soothing streams. It’s impossible to walk through without being tempted by all the soft serve vendors and mochi samples. One store offered samples for every single product they sold. We rewarded their generous sample policy by buying a box of mochi strips.

Obligatory matcha and black sesame soft serve
Proof we’re in geisha town

When we felt overwhelmed by all the shops, we stepped into a calm tea house and spontaneously ordered an afternoon tea. We’ve had afternoon teas in quite a few places now — New York, London, Toronto, Honolulu — so I was grateful that this afternoon tea was unique, offering Japanese tea-centric pastries.

I love those roasted tea cream puffs

On our way back to Kikokuso, we decided to stop by Kyoto Tower for a view of the city. While observatory decks in New York are expensive and usually require advanced tickets, the view from the top of Kyoto Tower was cheap and easily accessible last-minute. The tower is the tallest in the city, which isn’t saying much, considering the rest of Kyoto is fairly short. It was built in the ’60s and is supposed to look like a candle. The tower can withstand earthquakes and typhoons. After buying a few more snacks from a nearby shop, we made our way home, just in time for dinner!

13567249_10209264154057443_1754538025559719729_nDinner that night was shabu-shabu, a Japanese hot pot dish of thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled in water, cooked at the table by the diner. The term is an onomatopoeia, based on the sound emitted when the ingredients are stirred in the cooking pot. Our host cooked the first batch for us, showing us how to properly create the dashi (broth) using kelp, and in what order to add each ingredient. She mixed in tofu, cabbage, seaweed, and three different types of mushrooms. We were able to try two different dipping sauces: ponzu and sesame seed. It was the best shabu-shabu I’ve had!

Watching our host make shabu-shabu for us
I want to live with this woman forever

After another onsen and wonderful night on our tatami floor mattresses, our last meal at the ryokan was a kaiseki breakfast the next morning, this time with grilled salmon and hard-boiled eggs. When it was time to leave, I had a hard time saying good-bye to our hosts and leaving the dreamlike world of Kikokuso. After such personalized, lavish, multi-course meals served with such care, eating in restaurants with actual menus, surrounded by random strangers felt so pedestrian. I’m not sure why Paris and Venice are known as honeymoon cities; when it comes to intimacy and romance, staying in a ryokan in Kyoto takes the (mochi) cake! Next stop: Nara!

Our last meal at Kikokuso. How’s that for a breakfast?

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Before your trip, look online to see what your ryokan looks like. Japanese addresses are pretty tricky, so you want to have a good idea of what to look out for.
  2. Staying at a ryokan (a good one, at least) will be pricey. Just suck it up and pay. These places are the equivalents of five-star hotels, plus they will include some of the best meals of your life.
  3. Don’t forget to eat Kyoto’s specialties: tea, kaiseki, and tofu.
  4. Since meals at ryokans are scheduled, always have snacks handy, just in case you get hungry before your scheduled breakfast.
  5. Rent a kimono and take photos at temples or shrines, especially if the weather is nice. The only reason I didn’t rent one and force Anthony to be my fashion photographer was because it was pretty hot when we were there and I didn’t want to sweat all over it. But it sure would have been nice to have those photos.



12009648_10206961723738124_8251336980384777698_nEngland has never been on my “Need to Visit” list. It’s due to the same reason that Australia and Canada have never been on my list, either — what’s the point of traveling to a place if they speak the same language, and the culture is so similar to yours? Nevertheless, we were in Western Europe, and my mom’s sister lives in England, so we decided to swing by after Paris.

We caught the Eurostar from Gare du Nord to Ashford International. It was a shaky ride, but it was a satisfying shake because we could feel how fast our train was going. After spending the past two weeks on our own, it was a nice change to see a familiar face waiting for us at the station. We piled into my aunt’s little Audi sports car and started our long drive home. Even the drive felt like I was still in the U.S., despite noticing the steering wheel on the right side. Speeding through the English countryside (and I mean speeding — my aunt constantly drives 30 mph over the limit) reminded me of Americans’ love affair with cars, and made me long for Italy’s well-connected Trenitalia train system again.

Though my aunt had spent the past few decades living in London, she recently moved out of her apartment and bought a second home in the beachfront community of Brighton — “Hove, actually”. Hove residents tend to distinguish themselves from larger Brighton because Hove is fancier, but both communities have that same relaxed seaside feel.

It was cold in England, and my summer dresses that had worked so well in Italy were insufficient for the overcast, blustery days here. Our guest room had huge windows, and we woke up every morning to the loud squawks of seagulls. After our tiny Airbnb in Paris, my aunt’s modern, well-furnished home felt so luxurious to us.

The next day, my aunt drove us to Oxford to see her alma mater. It was a harrowing journey — over three hours long and intermittently stuck in traffic. Living in New York has spoiled me; every time I’m in a car now, I remember why I absolutely hate driving. We finally reached town and had lunch at The Trout with my aunt’s college friend, a lovely eccentric woman who made us laugh throughout our meal of pork belly, scallops, and black pudding. The Trout, nestled on the riverbanks of the Thames, was once a meeting place for former kings and has inspired TV shows like “Inspector Morse”.11755922_10206556812495596_6490062082373144395_nAfter lunch, we toured the campus. The University of Oxford is the world’s second-oldest surviving university, and operates the largest university press in the world. We climbed to the top of Christ Church for a view of town, then walked through the dining hall that was used in the “Harry Potter” movies. The dining hall is grand, with framed portraits of university presidents and dark wood paneling. What really impressed me is that students here are still served their meals — no standing in line and paying at a cash register like plebians!

Oxford dining hall
Oxford dining hall

12002234_10206960292422342_3952349405939112772_nWe watched some punting, which means propelling a boat by pushing against the river bed with a pole. My aunt told us that, traditionally, Cambridge punters stand on the till and punt with the open end forward, while Oxford punters stand inside the boat and punt with the till forward. Thus, the till end is often known as the “Cambridge End,” and the other as the “Oxford End”. After enjoying our first afternoon tea in England, we drove back home and watched some “Inspector Morse”.

Our first afternoon tea in England
Our first afternoon tea in England

On our second day, we took the train to London, which was a much more pleasant journey than sitting in a car. While Paris was a mix of stuffy Upper East Side architecture mixed with Brooklyn cool, London felt like midtown Manhattan, with classical buildings and a constant stream of construction of strange-looking skyscrapers. The new skyscrapers coming up are actually more interesting in London than in Manhattan, but no one can top Manhattan’s skyline.

London skyline
London skyline
City Hall is a funny buildilng
City Hall is a funny buildilng

My aunt did the obligatory touristy things with us: Millennium Bridge, Tate Modern, Borough Market, and Tower Bridge. Much to Anthony’s delight, Madame Tussauds was hosting a special Star Wars exhibit, so we had to visit. We met up with his college friend from Berkeley and breezed past the 12-year-old girls drooling over One Direction wax figures. It was worth it to see Anthony’s glee as he took pictures with R2-D2 and Luke Skywalker.

Millennium Bridge
Millennium Bridge
Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge
my Star Wars nerd
My Star Wars nerd

The next day, we returned to London on our own. I had already purchased tickets for us to ride the London Eye, the giant ferris wheel on the South Bank of the Thames. The pods are huge — each can carry about 25 people. It was about a 30-minute ride and provided spectacular views of the city, including its brown river. Does anyone know why the Thames is so brown? It looks like hundreds of people pooped in it.

Huge pods
Huge pods
London's poop river
London’s poop river

We met up with Anthony’s friends again. Roaming around London with them was probably my favorite part of our England trip. We had too many Whittard tea samples at Covent Garden, and explored the British Museum. The tiny, distinct neighborhoods crammed against each other once again reminded me of New York.

A mural in London
A mural in London
Adorable Japanese school group in the British Museum
Adorable Japanese school group in the British Museum

After saying good-bye to Anthony’s friends, we went to the Sanderson Hotel for our afternoon tea. I chose this place because it had a Mad Hatter’s theme, and if you’re going to have tea in London, you need to go all out. Everything was delightful. The menu was hidden inside a vintage book; the napkin ring contained a riddle; and the dishware was covered in quirky designs. We were presented a three-tier tray of whimsical treats, such as a “Drink Me” potion bottle and meringue mushrooms.

Afternoon tea menu
Afternoon tea menu
Our afternoon tea
Our afternoon tea
“Drink Me” potion
Matcha white chocolate mousse in an edible chocolate teacup
Matcha white chocolate mousse in an edible chocolate teacup

After roaming around Soho and Picadilly Square, we caught a double-decker bus back to Victoria Station. Despite being eager to return to Milan the next day, I wouldn’t have minded one more day to explore Brighton, or maybe try London’s famous Duck & Waffle restaurant.

Our time in England felt like we had just discovered a new section of New York City. I was ready to return to a place where the culture shock would hit me a little harder. Ciao, Milano!

View from the London Eye
View from the London Eye

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Ride one of those red double-decker buses in London. Not just tourists ride them — though, you’ll certainly look like a tourist if you sit in the front row with your camera clicking away, like us. The buses are pretty convenient and provide great views of the city.
  2. Unless you’re running out of ideas, don’t waste your time with the Tate Modern. I expected it to be like MoMA, but it was much smaller and didn’t have a very interesting collection, at least when we were there. On the bright side, it is free, so I imagine it’d be a good place to escape the cold in the winter.
  3. If you’re traveling with your lover, tell everyone it’s your anniversary. This is a trick I learned years ago. Whenever I make hotel reservations or book a table at a fancy restaurant, I inform them that we are celebrating a special occasion (it’s not a lie! Every day is a celebration!). This is how we’ve gotten upgraded to a king suite in Portland’s Monaco Hotel and how we’ve been given free desserts at numerous restaurants.