After telling my birth story to a dozen women and being met with awe and disbelief, I’ve come to realize how unusual my natural childbirth experience truly was. And I know how easily and quickly my labor and delivery could have turned into the one I had been dreading.
A quick recap of how it all went down: On the morning of Valentine’s Day, I felt a contraction which caused what I thought was my water to start breaking (no one actually figured out when it actually broke because the amniotic sac was still intact at 6 cm dilated). Throughout the day, I had irregular contractions associated with early labor. I went to lunch with my friend, got my nails done (my manicurist asked me how far along I was and I didn't want to tell her that I was already in labor haha), finished packing my hospital bag and spent the remainder of the evening resting at home all while timing my contractions. Steve went to Trader Joe’s to buy salad, cheese, crackers and snacks on his way home from work. Some of that ended up being our romantic Valentine’s dinner since my contractions were getting too strong for me to feel like I could enjoy our dinner reservations.
Around 1:30 am on February 15, my contractions were 3-5 minutes apart and lasting for one minute. At 3 am, we left home and headed to Kaiser Sunset. My husband called our doula who joined us at the hospital. After exams, they determined that I was 2 centimeters dilated and 75% effaced, but they were concerned because our baby’s heart rate was dropping with each contraction. They admitted me, hooked me up to an IV of fluids to see if dehydration was causing it, put me on continuous fetal monitoring and told me that if things hadn’t progressed in a few hours, they would like to induce me.
The dreaded word: induction! They offered me medication to deal with the contraction pain and I rejected it. By 5 am, I was in my delivery room, laboring in whichever way felt comfortable. I used a peanut ball, walked around, ate some snacks. Every fifteen to thirty minutes, someone came in to check how I was doing and offered to administer pain medication. “We have something that could take your pain away,” they said. I turned them down every time, but I could see how tempting it would be and how someone could feel pressured to accept.
At 9 a.m., they did another cervical exam and announced that I was 4 centimeters dilated and in active labor so they would not have to induce me. Thank goodness! Again, I was offered an epidural and I stood my ground. At that point, I knew my midwife was at the hospital and I asked to be transferred to her care. She knew and approved of my birth plan and would not offer me any pain relief. Around 11 a.m., I was given an hour break from the fetal monitor and was able to join my husband for breakfast and take a shower which helped tremendously with the labor pains. At 1 p.m., I was 6 cm dilated and the nurse said I was “halfway there.” The contractions were getting more intense so my husband called our doula and she came to our room. Around 2:30, I felt the ring of fire and the urge to push so my doula led me to the bed. My midwife checked me again and announced I was 10 cm. It was go time! In retrospect, by the time the thought crossed my mind that maybe I actually can’t do this, I was already doing it.
When it was time to push, the frequency of contractions slowed way down. I pushed for about 30 minutes (which is four good pushes) on my hands and knees--a way better position for childbirth than on your back--and our sweet baby boy, Griffin Levi Herman, joined us!
When I tell this story to my friends who have children, they are shocked that I was able to move around and eat. There were many factors that I firmly believe contributed to my being able to have a natural delivery, but I know that my choice of hospital and my midwife were the most important. Because of Kaiser Sunset’s midwife program, they witness intervention-free childbirth on a more regular basis and are less likely to push patients to get epidurals, inductions or C-sections. Even then, they still offered them to me every chance they got. Had I delivered at a different hospital, I’m not so sure the outcome would have been the same.
That being said, there were a few other factors that I attribute to having the unmedicated birth experience I wanted. This is what I did in the nine months (and even a few years) leading up to my labor and delivery:
Pursue and lead a natural lifestyle before becoming pregnant.
If you’re reading this before getting a positive test, then it’s not too late! Making the shift toward a more holistic lifestyle primes your body to have a healthier pregnancy, labor and delivery and your brain to more readily choose a natural approach to childbirth.
Before becoming pregnant, I hadn’t eaten high fructose corn syrup in ten years and didn’t eat foods with food coloring, nitrites, MSG or other artificial additives. Plus I was exercising regularly. The only thing that went out the window with my pregnancy was the paleo diet because I had no desire to eat meat, eggs and vegetables in the first trimester. Once I got my appetite back, I ate salad every day, but I also ate potato chips and cereal. It’s all about balance and moderation. I also walked a lot but some women prefer yoga or other types of exercise.
Decide why you want a natural delivery and write it down for easy reference.
My research about the risks of induction, epidurals and C-sections led me to decide almost immediately that an unmedicated birth was the right choice for me. From that moment on, I wouldn’t even entertain the idea of getting pain medication. I wrote down my personal reasons for not wanting an epidural to keep me focused, but every woman has her own.
These were my reasons:
Hire a doula
I can’t say this enough: I don’t think I would have been able to have a natural delivery without my doula. My doula, Jessica Diggs, gave me advice on how to labor at home before heading to the hospital and what to do once we got there, showed my husband how to be a more effective labor partner, was available to answer any question I had leading up to, during and after my labor and delivery, and was there to support me and give me the confidence I needed to succeed. Doulas are seriously the best.
Don’t go to the hospital too soon
When the ob-gyn told me I was only 2 cm dilated, they said that my labor could still take days. That’s when talks of induction began. As soon as you go to the hospital, you’re on their time and time is money. They want patients in and out so if things aren’t progressing as quickly as they would like, they will try to speed the process up. This is a terrible idea if you are planning to have a natural birth. Stay home for as long as possible, especially if you plan on giving birth at a place that doesn’t let you eat or move around or has high rates of C-section.
Read Mama Natural and Watch The Business of Being Born
These two resources really inspired me to pursue a natural pregnancy and unmedicated labor and delivery, and helped me feel like I could succeed. According to the documentary, the C-section rate in the U.S. has risen 46% since 1996 and in 2005, it was one out of every three births. That’s just crazy, if you ask me!
Have the courage to advocate for yourself
Before going into labor, do your research about the pros and cons of each intervention. Don’t be afraid to ask why they are recommending a certain procedure and if it is actually necessary. If you can’t stand up for yourself and your own well-being, no one else is going to. I’m not refuting that pitocin, epidurals or C-section are medically necessary in some cases, but there is a body of research that shows that these interventions are recommended and administered to many women who don’t need them and at much higher rates in America than in other countries.
I got one every month for the last 4 months of my pregnancy but would have gotten them once a week if I could afford it. Prenatal massage feels amazing, helps keep the baby in a good position, opens up vital space in the body and is incredibly relaxing.
Erase from your mind the idea that labor and delivery are painful
If you have watched How I Met Your Mother, you may remember the episode where Lily and Marshall both eat the same soup which causes Lily to become violently ill. Knowing how it affected Lily, Marshall keeps thinking he will be sick all day. Just by thinking something, you can cause it to happen.
The mind is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used to our advantage or disadvantage. If you spend your entire life hearing stories about how excruciating childbirth is and thinking that it will be unbearable, that’s how it will be for you. When you reframe the way you think about the process, the feelings of labor are intense and purposeful, but they are not painful. The way it feels is completely different from a migraine or a toothache or any other physical pain that seems to be happening for no reason. Contractions are literally bringing a new life into the world.
Each contraction is finite, it has a beginning and an end, and it lasts for only a minute. Then you get a break during which you feel completely normal. The time between my first real contraction and holding my baby was 30 hours. The problem with labor is that all of it is way more intense than anything you’ve ever felt and you don’t know how much worse it’s going to get. For me, the worst of it lasted for a maximum of two hours. But there are laboring, breathing and meditation techniques you can use to cope with these very intense sensations.
Women’s bodies were made to give birth--there are many processes in place to make sure that we are able to do so without pain medication. With the proper preparation, it is possible to have a beautiful, empowering natural childbirth.
After reading dozens of "30 Books to Read Before Turning 30" or "30 Books to Read Before You Die" lists to find one that resonates with me, I have decided to simply create my own. Who else knows my wants and needs better than me? My list of the 30 Best Books to Read Before 30 is partly borrowed from other lists, includes older books that I have been wanting to read for a long time and others that I have just discovered or that were recommended by friends. There is a mix of self-improvement and career books, non-fiction, classics and modern literature. If it suits you, feel free to read along or use my list of best books to read before 30 as inspiration for creating your own reading list.
30 Books to Read Before 30
Legend: Read | Reading | Tried to Read and Gave Up
1. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
3. You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers
4. The Vegetarian by Han Kang
5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
6. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
7. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
8. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
9. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
10. Zero to One by Peter Thiel
11. How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen
12. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
13. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
14. Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephan Chbosky
15. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
16. The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
17. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
18. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
19. Instructions to the Cook by Bernard Glassman and Rick Fields
20. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
21. Daytripper by Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba
22. 7 Tattoos by Peter Trachtenberg
23. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens
24. Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
25. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
26. The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss
27. The $100 Startup by Chris Gillebeau
28. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
29. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
30. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
What's on your 30 Before 30 Reading List? If you've read any of my picks for the best books to read before 30 list, let me know what you think in the comments!
Japan in 8 Days
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
In November 2016, my husband and I found a Black Friday flight deal to Tokyo from LAX on Singapore Airlines for under $500 round trip and we couldn't resist. We then had to wait the nine months to our travel day and managed to get pregnant along the way. Luckily for us, Japan is the perfect destination for a babymoon. In recent months, many of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances have been planning their own trips to this amazing country and have asked me for advice on where to go, what to eat and what to do. Japan has been my favorite country to visit so reminiscing about my time there was a special treat. My husband and I spent eight nights in Japan, split between Tokyo, Hakone and Kyoto in September 2017 and loved every minute of it. The following is our itinerary with specific information on the restaurants we enjoyed and the accommodations we stayed in plus tips on what I wish I had known before my trip.
TOKYO: DAYS 1-4
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Tokyo is a beautiful, fast-paced city with incredibly friendly people and food so delicious, you’ll be daydreaming about it long after you’ve returned home. With a variety of activities, whether it be drinking at the numerous bars within walking distance or strolling around a garden, Tokyo is the perfect travel destination for everyone.
“If you go to Tokyo, I think it becomes very obvious that there’s this almost seamless mixture of pop culture and Japanese traditional culture. ”
WHERE TO STAY IN TOKYO
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Hotel accommodations in Tokyo are generally very expensive, and let’s be honest, you’re only going to return to your room to sleep. Your best bet is to book an AirBnB in the Shinjuku, Shibuya or Roppongi neighborhoods so you’re close to all the action. We paid $100 per night for our studio in Shinjuku compared to $200-$600 hotel rooms.
If you sign up and book with this link, you’ll get $40 off your first trip.
AirBnB offers the best value for price, especially since
there are many options in each neighborhood with great amenities.
GETTING AROUND JAPAN
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The public transportation system in Japan is incredible. We were able to easily take the train from the Tokyo Narita station to our AirBnB, walk and take the subway to get around the city and take the shinkansen to Hakone, Kyoto, Himeji and back to Tokyo. It’s very intuitive and easy.
The most important rule to remember when taking public transportation in Tokyo and Japan is that Google Maps is your friend! Just enter your destination and Google Maps will give you step-by-step walking and subway directions to get you there. The majority of the time, we were able to walk to where we needed to go and took the subway when we got tired. And if you happen to miss a train, another one will be there in a couple of minutes!
If you plan to visit other major cities and want to take the shinkansen speed train, make sure to buy a JR Pass before you leave as you cannot buy it within the country and need to activate it when you arrive. The JR Pass gives you access to the JR line trains within the city as well as the shinkansen. There is a distinction between the JR lines and Metro (we took the Metro for most of our stay in Tokyo because that’s what went to where we needed to go and we had to buy separate tickets for those trains once we got to the station.)
If you would like to read more about the different train and subway options, how to buy tickets, how to get around the stations and more, I found this resource on Tripzilla to be useful.
One final note: many of the exits and entrances to the subway have A LOT of stairs (as I remember huffing and puffing at 16 weeks pregnant), so keep that in mind if you’re traveling with a stroller.
TOKYO: DAYS 1 AND 2
Tokyo is a city of mesmerizing contradiction, the epitome of technology and the quintessence of natural beauty. At no other time is this duality more evident than your first two days.
After arriving at the airport, collecting your luggage, taking the train and checking in to your AirBnB, kick off the trip right with a visit to the Robot Restaurant in the Shinjuku neighborhood. Is it touristy? Yes. Will you be delusionally tired? Of course. Will it all be worth it? You bet. If anything, this show only gets better the more tired/drugged/drunk you are. None of it makes any sense and you will repeatedly scream, “WHAT IS GOING ON?!” to the Australian tourists next to you and laugh maniacally for two hours straight. You will delight in the ridiculousness of it all. It’s glorious.
After the show, you can get dinner, drink or sleep. The following day is a lot more mellow. If you’re staying in the Shinjuku neighborhood like we did, I would recommend a walking tour of sorts for your second day in Tokyo, starting at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and ending at the Meiji Shrine. While you’re at the garden, you can buy a matcha tea to rest and enjoy your surroundings.
Because I was pregnant, we made a point to visit the Mother and Child Forest in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and it was so special. From the garden, you can either make a stop at Shibuya Crossing if you’re up for it or go straight to Meiji Shrine. If you decide to swing by Shibuya Crossing, there are two ways to experience it and I would recommend you try both--first, cross the street as a pedestrian and second, head up to the second floor of the Starbucks for a bird’s eye view of the chaos. For our trip, we saved Shibuya Crossing for another day and instead walked through the residential area and the towering forest that leads to the Meiji Shrine. Make sure to wash your hands and face at the fountain at the entrance before entering. Once inside, you’ll see a section for purchasing souvenirs and prayer boards and across the walkway, you’ll find the shrine. For more details on how to pray at a Shinto shrine, read this article. We loved writing what we are grateful for on the Shinto Prayer Board (Ema) and hanging it up with the others. It was fun seeing the prayer boards in all the different languages swaying in the wind with one another.
When you’re looking for a place to eat lunch, the choices of delicious restaurants are plentiful. After visiting the Meiji Shrine, we walked to Fuunji for ramen. You wait in line, order at the machine (a regular ramen is more than enough for one person--don’t make the mistake of order a super ramen like we did). With bellies full of noodles and pork, we took the subway back to our AirBnB to take a nap before heading out for an amazing tempura dinner at Tsunahachi Shinjuku.
10 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT FOOD IN JAPAN
10 Things to Know About Food in Japan
Quite a few aspects of Japanese dining surprised me and I wish I had known these at the beginning of my trip rather than toward the end.
TOKYO: DAY 3
When my husband and I took our trip, our third day in Tokyo was by far the most tiring. Our first stop of day three was the Tsukiji Fish Market for a sushi breakfast (we took the subway). While the tuna auctions, inner market and wholesale operations of the market moved to Toyosu in October 2018, the outer market, with all of the wonderful food stalls and sushi joints, is still there for the public to enjoy.
We wandered the stalls and stuffed our mouths with mochi filled with custard and topped with strawberry and dipped into a sushi restaurant for my husband to get his fill of his favorite food--they brought me a bowl of miso soup to enjoy with him. For more tips on what and how to eat your way through Tsukiji Market, check out this article.
After taking in a feast for the senses, we walked with full bellies to The Imperial Palace East Garden. This was by far the most impressive garden we experienced on our trip and it is well worth the sore calves and aching arches. Admission is free and we spent about two hours exploring the grounds.
Even though my legs were dead, I thought it would be a great idea if we walked to Ginza to visit a stationery store called Itoya. Ginza was very fancy, like the Rodeo Drive of Tokyo, but I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to see it. I would however suggest a stop at Tokyo Tower instead and I wish we had done that ourselves. Itoya was a quick stop and then we took the Ginza Line to have lunch at Tonkatsu Maisen in Aoyama. We were starved and exhausted but I wish we had spent more time in that neighborhood than in Ginza. It’s a trendy part of town with cute boutiques and cafes--there’s a Dominique Ansel bakery and luxury brands and second hand shops abound. Koffee Mameya has great reviews.
Dining at Tonkatsu Maison was one of the most memorable dining experiences we had in Japan. Upon arrival, you wait in line and when you get to the front, they seat you. If you are taken upstairs, it is tatami-style so be prepared to take your shoes off. The extensive menu is divided into cuts of pork and a variety of breeds. For example, you can order the belly of a Japanese black pig nurtured with care by Hayai Okita of the Okita-Kurobuta Ranch. Or the loin of a pig who was raised on a diet of green tea. We absolutely loved the care that went into the husbandry of these pigs and their preparation--it was a beautiful example of the respect Japanese people have for the animals and their land. These cuts of meat were simply prepared and served with rice, cabbage and sauce. It was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had and my husband and I still talk about it over two years later.
After you’ve had lunch, you can either make your way to Shibuya Crossing if you haven’t visited yet or return to your AirBnB to rest. In the evening of day three, we walked to Isetan in Shinjuku for souvenir shopping, although most of it was out of our budget. I did buy some Paul and Joe lipstick for myself and my friend for her birthday. Once we had window-shopped up an appetite, we headed to the depachika (food court) downstairs which is a food-lover’s delight. The beef fried rice and pork gyoza we tried were exceptional, but you can find any dish you’re craving plus tons of beautiful options for sweets and gifts to take back home.
TOKYO: DAY 4
Our view from Girandole restaurant at the Park Hyatt.
You can still have your “Lost in Translation” moment without shelling out $500 per night to stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Before checking out of your AirBnB, head over to the hotel's 41st floor for a lavish breakfast buffet at Girandole restaurant.
For a $38 per person splurge--and considering the fact that you’ve been eating breakfast in convenience stores up until now, it’s justifiable--you can enjoy a spread of Western and Japanese dishes with a spectacular view. Please don’t waste your hard-earned dollars on the “Healthy Balance Breakfast” as all of what’s included in this package (and much, much more) is available in the regular buffet. The meal was delicious and it was fun seeing Tokyo from a different perspective.
With full bellies, make your way back to your accommodations, pack up your luggage and get yourself to the train station, because you’re going to Hakone!
For specific directions on how to get from Tokyo to Hakone, check out this post on the Japan Rail Pass website. The estimated travel time is 2 hours, which includes travel time to and from the train station. Our route was to take the Yamanote Line to Shinagawa Station, then hop on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Odawara Station. We then took the Hakone Tozan bus, which stops at every ryokan on its way up the hill. Depending on which neighborhood you’re staying in Tokyo, your route will be different.
HAKONE: DAYS 4 and 5
Made famous as the residence of Mt. Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan, Hakone is a resort town where locals and tourists alike can let down their hair, relax and enjoy nature and the hot springs. Here you’ll find trees--so many trees!--the Haya River, waterfalls and regional delicacies, such as fried seafood dumplings and a huge variety of sweet and savory foods made with bean paste.
The train to Hakone will stop in Odawara and from there, you will need to take the bus to your specific onsen ryokan. On our trip in 2017, we stayed at Kinnotake Tonosawa, which we were able to pay for using our Chase Sapphire Reserve points. Otherwise, it comes out to over $600 per couple per night (breakfast is included, but the traditional kaiseki dinner is an extra charge which you can book once you arrive).
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM A STAY AT AN ONSEN RYOKAN
What to Expect from a Stay at an Onsen Ryokan
Staying at a ryokan (type of traditional Japanese inn that typically features tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata) and enjoying the onsen (hot springs) is a quintessential experience on any trip to Japan. It's definitely not cheap, as these resorts are luxurious, but it's worth the splurge for one night.
We arrived at Kinnotake Tonosawa at noon, a bit early for check-in, but the staff welcomed us, took our luggage and guided us to sit on comfortable chairs overlooking the forest. We were presented with menus and got to choose a non-alcoholic beverage and snack--we opted for iced teas and sweet mochi. Since our room wasn’t ready yet, we took the bus back down to the Hakone Yumoto Station to explore the shops, try some local cuisine and enjoy the beautiful nature all around us. Because this shopping area is only half a mile long, you can see it all in a couple of hours, either when you first arrive or before you leave Hakone.
As we walked around, we tried different types of cookies, surimi seafood dumplings which I originally thought were made out of potato and sweet adzuki bean buns. It was a great way to hold us over until our kaiseki dinner. We headed back to our resort a little after 3 p.m. to check in and get situated.
Back at the hotel, we picked out our yukata (a traditional summer kimono) and were led to our room. Our guide showed us how to wear our yukata and provided us with slippers to wear around the resort. We were then left to enjoy the incredible private hot spring bath on our balcony, big enough for two adults to fit comfortably. After the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, it was so refreshing to unwind, soak our tired feet in the therapeutic waters and take some time to slow down.
Before we knew it, it was time for dinner. No need to worry about what to wear--it is customary to wear your yukata and slippers to the dining room.
According to CNN Travel:
While kaiseki meals can vary, there are usually some standard courses served and
Our seasonal menu for the evening included an appetizer of lotus root terrine with pumpkin soup; a simmered dish of Largehead hairtail fish, rolled egg, wax gourd, oyster mushroom and yuzu; a selection of sashimi; Yakimono course of Japanese beef accompanied with an earthenware grill; Hanmono course of eel and steamed rice; Hassun course of grilled eggplant with fig, sesame vinegar and perilla; and dessert of mango ice cream, pudding and white peach. Everything about this meal, from the hospitality to presentation to taste, was impeccable.
Following dinner is more relaxation and sleep. You'll awaken to the sound of the river and birds chirping, dress up in your yukata then head back to the dining room for breakfast. For us, breakfast was a combination of Western and Japanese dishes, such as a salad to start, followed by a soup with bread for dipping, then scrambled eggs with a side of fish and potatoes. Breakfast was finished off with fruit.
Once breakfast has been thoroughly enjoyed and you’ve packed, it’s time to head back to the Hakone Yumoto Station to start your shinkansen journey to Kyoto. If you didn't get a chance to explore the shops, this is your chance to do so.
A NOTE ABOUT TRYING TO SEE MT. FUJI
One of the main reasons why I wanted to add a stop in Hakone was to be able to see Mt. Fuji. There is a really cool-sounding circuit of cable cars and gondola to see the mountains. The trouble was that we visited in September, which is tsunami season. The skies were overcast and it rained a lot, there was no visibility of Mt. Fuji that day and we basically wasted a whole day and a lot of money to get only halfway there. It is an expensive and time-consuming journey, one that is probably not worth it for most people. On any given day, the chance of seeing Mt. Fuji is around 20%. If you are okay with the time and financial commitment, have an extra day to dedicate to this adventure and you are going on a sunny day/season, then it might make sense. Otherwise, I would highly recommend skipping a sojourn to Mt. Fuji and make your way straight to Kyoto from Hakone.
KYOTO: days 5-8
Whenever I talk to anyone about their trip to Kyoto, the sentiment I hear expressed the most often is, "I wish I had spent more time in Kyoto." That is exactly how I felt, as well.
Kyoto holds its wonders close to its chest and slowly reveals its beauty the deeper you dig. You could spend an entire day in one tiny section of the city and still feel like there's more to uncover. Unfortunately for me, I learned this too late--after I had wasted a day trying to see Mt. Fuji. Don't make the same mistakes I did and make sure you dedicate at least two full days to exploring the treasures Kyoto has tucked away in its alleyways.
DAY 1 in Kyoto
If all goes well and you've arrived at the Kyoto train station around 2 p.m. from Hakone, head to your lodging and check-in. To get to Kyoto from your ryokan in Hakone, you'll need to get yourself back to Odawara station, then hop on the Tokaido-Sanyo shinkansen to Kyoto Station. For our stay in Kyoto, we booked a room at the Hotel Granvia which is adjacent to the station (or right above it? I never could figure it out). I loved staying here because it's easy to get to from the train (and I knew we would be hopping on and off the train a lot in the next three days), there are great restaurants both inside the hotel and within walking distance, and it was affordable.
Once you've checked in, take a bus to eat at any of the restaurants on this Inside Kyoto list of best restaurants and spend the evening leisurely wandering around wherever you decide to have dinner.
I would recommend eating gyoza at Chaochao Sanjo-Kiyamachi or tempura at Tendon Makino Kyoto then taking a stroll across the river to the Gion neighborhood. This is the perfect opportunity to explore the plethora of shops along Shijo Dori to find souvenirs. If you're traveling in July, be sure to stop by the Yasaka Shrine for the Gion Matsuri festival, the most famous festival in all of Japan, to experience the float processions and food stands. Depending on the time, you can also make your way to Kiyomizu-dera Temple--usually it closes at 6 p.m. but on certain days in spring, summer and fall, the temple stays open until 9 p.m. for illumination.
Our first night in Kyoto looked much different than this. We stumbled into our hotel room close to 8 p.m., starving, and headed upstairs to the on-site restaurant. There, we enjoyed an incredible view of the city and a pumpkin soup so delicious, I still daydream about it. The soup actually came as part of my husband's meal and I asked them for my own bowl--that's how good it was. Then we slept.
DAY 2 in kyoto
One of the most beautiful and culturally rich parts of Kyoto is the Arashiyama neighborhood. This is where you'll find the famed bamboo grove, the Tenryuji Temple, and other wonderful food and natural experiences. The best way to experience most of it is with a food tour of the area with Japan Wonder Travel.
Our guide met us at the train station and led us through the town to a variety of food stalls, shrines, temples and restaurants, answered all of our questions and gave us insider tips on where to eat and what to see in the rest of Kyoto. I don't want to give away too many details of where we went because my description won't give the day justice--suffice it to say that I think everyone who wants an authentic experience with a local should book this tour.
If you have time and energy after your tour, make the trek up the hill to the Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama. This was on my list of places I wanted to see on our trip, but didn't have energy leftover in my pregnant state to make it.
Our food tour of Arashiyama ended around 3 p.m. and because the bites are small and I was always hungry, by the time we took the bus back toward our hotel, I wanted dinner. We walked from the Karasuma Gojo bus stop to Ginjo Ramen Kubota which came highly recommended by our tour guide. To order food, you simply wait in line, place your order on the vending machine and give your ticket to one of the chefs when you sit down. The broth of this ramen was so thick, rich and flavorful, tasting as though it had been simmering for hours. It was the best ramen we had in Japan.
You can spend the rest of the night doing whatever you choose, whether that's bar hopping, exploring Nishiki Market, or sleeping. I'm sure you can guess what we did.
DAY 3 in Kyoto: Day Trip from Kyoto
You've explored the shrines and temples and have eaten all the food so your third day in Kyoto is the perfect launching point for a day trip (or overnight trip depending on how much extra time you have and how far you'd like to go). On our third day, we ate breakfast at the buffet in our hotel, which was amazing by the way, then took a 45-minute train to Himeji Castle and were able to get back to Kyoto by dinner time.
One of my coworkers, who has 10 days in Japan, wants to fit in an overnight trip to Hiroshima, which is definitely doable because the fastest shinkansen train ride is less than two hours. If you want to go this route, I would recommend checking out of your hotel, heading to Hiroshima in the morning, staying the night then returning to Kyoto the next day. Here is a sample itinerary for a day trip to Hiroshima.
There are so many options for day trips based on your personal interests. Check out this article on JR Pass's website for a selection of day trips.
On our last night in Kyoto, we ate gyoza and went souvenir shopping on Shijo Dori (my recommended itinerary for the first night). If you already did this, take your time to explore a different part of the city or check other items off of your bucket list. If you have the time and energy, make sure you stop by Fushimi Inari Taisha before leaving Kyoto. We were planning on visiting this shrine the morning of our eighth day, but wanted to save our energy. Not seeing those famous torii gates is one of my two regrets of this trip, the other one being not going to the monkey park. We're already planning our return to do and see everything we missed the last time we were in Kyoto.
DAY 8: Kyoto to Tokyo Disneysea
The last day of our eight day, eight night trip to Japan was by far my favorite because we went to Tokyo DisneySea! We skipped on the Fushimi Inari Taisha to save our energy for Disney because I was pregnant and easily exhausted.
Around 8 a.m., we filled up on our hotel's breakfast buffet, checked out and headed down to the train station to take the Tokaido-Sanyo shinkansen to Tokyo and the Keiyo line to Mahaima Station, a trip that took about 3 hours. For an incredibly seamless and easy check-in and theme park experience, book a hotel room that's located along the monorail. We stayed at the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel because it has good reviews and it was affordable compared to the other options. Be forewarned though that the beds are quite small; my husband and I had to sleep on separate beds because we couldn't fit on one together. Having a whole bed to yourself is not the worst problem to have.
Upon arriving at the Mahaima Station, you walk with your luggage to an area where all of the hotels have check-in services. Here, you can check-in to your hotel, receive your room number and keys, leave your bags to be taken to your room and head straight to the park. This totally blew my mind! I was planning on spending an extra hour at the very least going to the hotel, leaving our bags there then going back to the park entrance. But this setup was so unexpectedly wonderful. From the get-go, Tokyo Disney wants to make sure you have a pleasant experience.
Now, you may be debating whether to go to Tokyo Disneyland or DisneySea or you might think it's not worth your time at all. Let me stop you right there--Tokyo DisneySea was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and YOU NEED TO GO. It's a totally unique park with attractions you won't find at any other Disney Park in the world and it's where Imagineers go to have their wildest ideas realized. Even if you don't care about Disney, or perhaps especially if you don't care about Disney, this park is for you. Everything about it is so perfect and beautiful. The attention-to-detail in the decor is on another level; even the benches fit the theme of whatever world you're in.
These are the details you'll find in Mysterious Island where the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth attractions are located.
The food is cheap and delicious. My husband got a three course lunch with salad, chicken cacciatore with squid ink risotto and dessert plus a drink for $12. All snacks are between $2-4. It's not crowded. The rides are in Japanese which is especially fun if you've ever wanted to be yelled at in Japanese by the Finding Nemo crew in 3D. They have the best merchandise. Everyone who goes together wears matching outfits and it's so heartwarming. HAVE I CONVINCED YOU?!
The mosaic work on the exterior of Mermaid Lagoon was just breathtaking. I stared at it for 30 minutes before going underground to discover the wonders that awaited me.
Tokyo DisneySea's version of Venice was almost as pretty as actual Venice.
If you need a little more convincing, read this article about 10 Reasons Why Tokyo DisneySea is the Best Theme Park. Check out all the incredible foodstuffs you can put into your mouth hole. These are all the reasons why Tokyo DisneySea is the best park. I am obsessed with it and can't wait to go back and you need to go too if you're going to Tokyo. THE END. THANK YOU AND GOODBYE.
TRAVEL DAY TO AIRPORT AND RETURN FLIGHT HOME
This is technically the ninth day in Japan but I don't consider it to be an actual day because all you're doing is having an okay breakfast at the hotel buffet (if you want a better meal, splurge for the more expensive buffet), checking out and taking the Airport Limousine Bus to the airport for your return flight home. Book your seat on the bus ahead of time and head down to the loading area in front of your hotel to board. I hope this itinerary helps you have the best possible time in Japan! This has been one of my favorite countries to visit because the food is delicious, the people are so welcoming, and there is natural beauty at every turn. If you've traveled to Japan, let me know what your most memorable experience has been in the comments below.
It's been quite a crazy journey that's taken about two years to resolve, but my blog is back and hacker-free! Until recently, my blog had been my safe space where I could write about and share whatever I want. But for the past two years, my focus has had to shift from writing and photography, to security, site cleanup and figuring out my next steps. Not having this outlet has been stressful and I've felt like a big chunk of myself was missing.
With my site being hacked, it forced me to think about what I really want to write about. Time and time again, I found myself thinking, "I really wish I had my blog so I could share this new recipe or restaurant I love, to share this travel itinerary that my friends keep asking me about, to share my journey through sustainable living and/or the insanity that is motherhood." These four topics--good food, adventure, sustainability and motherhood--are the pillars of what I am and always have been and always will be incredibly passionate about.
Now that I'm back, I'm ready to dive head first into these things that feed my soul. There's so much in store and I'm excited to share it with you!
Christina is a Los Angeles-based writer, photographer and marketing maven.