There’s really no end of things to explore in New York City, but insiders know it takes some digging to uncover what’s hidden beneath the city’s surface. Citywide events like Open House New York and Jane’s Walk make urban exploration attainable to the masses. They feed our never ending curiosity by giving us access to sites and experts that would normally be out of reach.
Jane’s Walk is named for Jane Jacobs: journalist, author, activist and all-around local legend. She fought tirelessly to protect the authenticity of New York City neighborhoods. Jane was a pioneer in promoting diversity and supporting local economies. Tides Canada initiated Jane’s Walk to promote her ideas. The Municipal Art Society of New York organizes the event locally in New York City, and has done an amazing job shepherding its growth. One weekend a year, they offer a number of free walking tours led by local citizens.
On the most recent Jane’s Walks event, we joined licensed New York City tour guide Robert Brenner on a tour of Canal Street. Most people associate Canal Street with Chinatown, but locals know it’s a major thoroughfare that cuts through Lower Manhattan. Robert kicked off the tour with a cold open about the street’s sordid past, then led us on a walking tour of some of the city’s most amazing landmarks.
Robert’s tour included picturesque (read: Instagram-friendly) corners, as well as juxtapositions of the old and the new. The variety of architectural styles we came across in this short walk would thrill any urban architecture fan. As with all good tours, he included personal anecdotes and associations to long-forgotten landmarks. Robert also helped all of us cement our insider status by showing us a secret passageway in Chinatown. (We’ll be sure to show that one off the next time we have friends or family visiting.) He gives you homework too: he pointed out several places to explore later.
True lovers of New York City aren’t afraid of its grittier side. There are so many stories lurking in its cracks and crevices, and walking tours of the city are a great way to discover them. The Municipal Art Society of New York offers tours throughout the year hosted by historians, professors, and other qualified guides. Whether you’re a visitor looking for an in-depth tour, or a local looking to learn more about your neighborhood, their website is a great place to start. And Robert Brenner, our guide for this walk, hosts multiple tours, including one on Gritty Old Times Square. You can learn more about him and seek out his services here.
What secrets will you uncover?
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A meal at Aux Epices
When you move to New York City, you dream of having a neighborhood joint like Aux Epices. It’s a tiny space that’s easy to miss, but still manages to channel a ton of charm. They don’t advertise, it’s strictly word-of-mouth. Owner-operators Mei and Marc are the Malaysian and French couple behind the eatery, and the marriage of their cultures is reflected in their food. Located on Baxter Street right off Canal Street, where Chinatown and Little Italy meet, Aux Epices offers the kind of fusion fare that perfectly highlights the melting pot that thrives in New York City.
It might not come as too much of a surprise to learn that I was kind of a weird kid. For a portion of my youth, my family would drive down to Singapore where we’d meet up with extended family members and venture on a vacation together. Riding high on the success of a couple of short cruises to Indonesia, the adults tossed around Disneyland as an ambitious follow-up. I remember thinking to myself, “But Disneyland sounds so boring, it’s just going to be a bunch of kids running around.”
Did I mention? I was seven at the time.
I continued to feel the same way about circuses and amusement parks. But as I matured it was only a matter of time before I was drawn into the fantastical landscape conjured up in books like Water for Elephants and Night Circus. The allure of discovering oddities and meeting eccentric characters seemed infinitely charming. And the sense that it was fleeting, terminally impermanent, only added to its mystical quality.
Macy’s seems to have capitalized on that very same magic when it selected the Carnival theme for this year’s Macy’s Flower Show. At its flagship store in Midtown Manhattan, the retail behemoth treats its visitors to a spring festival every year that takes place independent of the weather forecast. In fashionable tradition, talented floral designers put together awe-inspiring installations and arrangements throughout its grounds. (Which, by the way, is about 1.1 million square feet!)
In addition to the impressive floral designs, the Macy’s Flower Show also anchors several fun events throughout the store. Visitors can learn how to make bouquets or attend a special cooking event. Don’t miss this year’s GODIVA event, where Chef Thierry Muret will create a chocolate sculpture while spectators enjoy a live jazz performance. All the Macy’s Flower Show events can be found here.
Macy’s has occupied its Herald Square location on 34th Street since 1902, and the building has been a National Historic Landmark since 1978. The Macy’s Flower Show is a great time to get reacquainted with a slice of New York City history which, when we’re not shopping for shoes, we often take for granted.
The population of Midtown Manhattan is largely made up of two demographics: the people who work there, and the out-of-towners. So when it comes to food, chains that offer the professionals something quick-and-easy and are simultaneously recognizable to visitors tend to win out. But venture just a little bit off the beaten path, and you’ll be rewarded.
May we suggest Bibble & Sip, a quaint, family-run bakery that offers great French-style pastries with Asian flair. An example of this happy marriage can be found in their wildly popular cream puffs. The pastries come in flavors like vanilla, matcha and black sesame, and have crunchy exteriors to contrast the gooey interiors. You’ll also find interesting combinations like their Pistachio Cake with matcha white chocolate mousse and raspberry gelee. Our personal favorite? The banana bread infused with earl grey. Coffee fans also shouldn’t miss the specialty matcha jasmine and lavender lattes.
Oh, and the alpaca theme throughout the store is pretty darn cute, too.
In case you missed it, I kicked off Part One of our Kyoto travel guide here. Kyoto’s a really fun place to visit, especially in the fall. Picking up where I left off, here are some of my other must-see destinations:
Arashiyama has several worthy attractions, but it’s located away from central Kyoto. It was actually easiest for us to hop on a bus, though the train might be a more convenient option for others. Since it was further out, we made sure to get an early start. We dropped by the Arashiyama train station to check out the Kimono Forest (which is accessible all the time so you’re not limited by opening hours) then we headed to the Iwatayama Monkey Park.
Now, I’m a big fan of animals in general so the Iwatayama Monkey Park was a no-brainer. I recall reading about the fantastic view but the only thing in my head was “Monkeys! Monkeys! Monkeys!”, which is why I didn’t entirely put it together that the park is situated at the top of a mountain. And you have to CLIMB said mountain to get there. (yama, which is Japanese for mountain, probably should have also given it away).
My parents made the wise decision to opt out. And note that if anyone in your party does the same, there is the option to take a nice boat ride on Oi River to pass the time. The rest of us trekked up there, cursing when we came across a sign that indicated we weren’t even at the halfway point. But we made it, and we were rewarded with a visit with macaque monkeys that took apple slices and peanuts out of our hands. They were manipulative little creatures, making whiny noises that kept us going back for more apples.
We probably spent way more time there than we should have, so by the time we made it to the Bamboo Forest, it was crowded. We slowly made our way through, and consistently struggled to capture pictures without heads or arms or selfie sticks in them. So if you’d really like to have the Bamboo Forest to yourself, you might want to create an itinerary that starts here. We suspect it can be very ethereal when it’s quiet.
Right by the Bamboo Forest you’ll find Tenriyu-ji, which is… *drumroll* another temple. Tenriyu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a lovely pond and garden, but once again, the crowds can detract from the experience here. The highlight at this site is the painting of the Cloud Dragon on the ceiling of the Hatto. It was painted by the renowned nihonga artist Kayama Matazo in 1997. The Cloud Dragon is rendered in the happo nirami style, so that the dragon appears to be looking directly at the viewer from wherever he or she is located in the Hatto. You have to pay a separate admission fee just to see this, so I’d personally choose that over the paying admission to see the buildings which offer nothing remarkable. Just be sure to check on the available viewing times. (No pictures allowed, but you can see it here.)
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I’m not going to lie, this one was a painful loss for us. We had read about an amazing unagi restaurant, Unagiya Hirokawa, which we anticipated would be busy. Psshhht, we wait for food all the time in New York City, amirite? Well, when we got there, the wait was THREE HOURS. And shortly after we got there, they shut the line down completely.
Well, even though we could smell the deliciousness, we gave up after noticing the line hadn’t budged hardly at all in a half hour. So we marched down the street to an Udon restaurant. (Udon is a safe bet when you’re not sure how good the restaurant is going to be: if you stick to the basics, it’s pretty hard to mess up.) My best friend actually managed to successfully visit Unagiya Hirokawa by standing in line an hour before open, while she and a friend took turns walking through the Bamboo Forest. So if you’re keen on visiting this restaurant, then that’s the winning game plan.
Gion is most famously known as the geisha district of Kyoto, though that’s largely due to the fact that you’ll find amazing machiyas (traditional wooden townhouses), chayas (teahouses) and exclusive restaurants here. While we hoped for (and were granted!) a geisha sighting, we didn’t seek out entertainment or dining options for direct access. We instead enjoyed the neighborhood and its charms, visiting right before dusk so that we could experience how a completely different vibe emerges once it gets dark.
We completed a self-guided walking tour based on this article from Inside Kyoto. The article provides historical details that truly bring the neighborhood to life. Hanami-koji-dori is Gion’s most famous street. This is where you’ll find Ichiriki Chaya, an exclusive teahouse with a storied background and invitation-only access. East of Hanami-koji-dori’s southern end, we visited the Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine which was one of the more intimate and captivating shrines from our trip. We also made sure to visit Shimbashi-dori, which is a scenic alley along the Shirakawa canal that also features a touching memorial to the late poet Isamu Yoshii.
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Sushi at Izuju
Izuju has been around for a hundred years and is conveniently located near the entrance of Yasaka Shrine in Gion. It serves some of the best Kyoto-style sushi, which is borne of an inventive spirit. Kyoto is landlocked, so in the olden days they had to find creative ways of making sushi using cured fish, or fish that did not spoil too quickly. One of the best examples of this is sabazushi, or pickled mackerel on sushi rice. The sushi is wrapped in kelp then cut into individual pieces. And Izuju is one of best places to enjoy it.
We visited Kiyomizu-dera Temple towards the end of our trip, and my family’s initial response was, “Another temple??” Well, if you only visit one temple in Kyoto, this should be it. Located in Southern Higashiyama, the temple has history that spans over 1200 years. According to lore, the Otowa Waterfall at the center of the temple was revealed to a monk in a dream. A warrior came across the monk and was so moved by his teachings that he built a temple and named it Kiyomizu, meaning “pure water,” after the clarity of the waterfall. Visitors can catch each of the three streams of pure water with ladles and pray for purification and for their wishes to come true.
My sister-in-law loves extracting recommendations from locals, and one suggested an evening visit. We were lucky to have listened to that advice, because Kiyomizu-dera Temple is beautifully illuminated for night viewings. On our first visit we stood at the entrance right before 5:00 pm and when the lights went on, the crowd collectively exclaimed. Our twilight romp was short since the crowds were heavy. The mob was not unlike the kind you find at Rockefeller Center around Christmas, so it took us a while to get to the main viewing point. But with the building and the foliage lit up, the wait was well worth it.
But we came back during the day and enjoyed a more leisurely visit, which allowed us to visit the Love Stone and Tainai meguri. The Love Stone claims that if you can walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed, then your romantic wishes will be granted. Tainai meguri is the sanctified area beneath Zuigu-do Hall which represents “a return to the womb of the great merciful mother.” Visitors are required to keep their left hands free so that when they are plunged into complete darkness they can use it to follow a beaded wooden rail. At some point you’ll come across a large stone, and according to temple guide, “when you find a light in the dark you will realize you are newborn again”. Spin the stone and make a wish.
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Coffee and dessert at Yatsuhashi Cream Puff
There’s only one way in and out of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, so one is hardly surprised to find that the road is lined with shops looking to capitalize on the massive foot traffic. One of those shops is Yatsuhashi Cream Puff, where you’ll find matcha and vanilla cream puffs. The choux pastry is light and fluffy, and the delicate dessert pairs perfectly with a cup of warm coffee on a cool fall day.
As I mentioned in a previous post, my family is an oddity in that we have vastly different interests. While we knew that there were several treasures that we had to experience in Kyoto, we also left large swaths of time open so that each of us could spend some time pursuing personal interests.
I took my Mom shopping, which I don’t get to do as much as I’d like to anymore, while my Dad went exploring side streets for a local hardware store. My older brother found his way to the Manga Museum while my sister-in-law fed her addiction for vintage kimonos. And after an afternoon of shopping on the charming Sanjo-dori, a few of us landed at Paul, a French patisserie that my younger brother and sister-in-law frequented when they lived in London. I strongly feel that even if you’re traveling solo, while one’s instinct would be to pack as many sights in as possible, personalizing your trip will give you a more memorable experience.
We continue to learn how to travel as a family, but maintaining flexibility is just one of the insights I’ve gained over the years. Another thing I’ve learned: while our schedules were flexible, our bodies were not. There was a cacophony of groans heard as we struggled to get up after dining on tatami mats. Bad knees run in the family.
We visited several other attractions, but I’ve culled the list to highlight the ones I found most enjoyable. If you’re making a visit to Kyoto, I’d be happy to offer additional information on these sites and others. We can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Start a dialogue on Kyoto, on traveling abroad, or on family — we’re always happy to hear from you.
Travel seems to be a universal love. Exploring other locales and cultures is inarguably intoxicating. But it’s not a universal pursuit. Many people find themselves restricted by time, money and responsibilities, in any number of combinations. I started traveling while I was in college, and it often required sacrifices in time and comfort to accommodate a minuscule budget. To see as much of the world as I could, I sat through timeshare presentations and slept on trains. And my adventures in lodging have included a middle-of-the-night flooding and relocation to a different hotel (and I confess to using this term rather liberally here).
But the challenges pale in comparison to the experiences and the memories. So despite such calamities as missed connections and lost luggage, I book the next flight and carry on. Justin and I have eased up on our travel schedule recently because our 17-year-old cat, Chloe, can no longer be left unsupervised. But with our families being dispersed all over the map, we still find the need to travel, though we now take turns so that someone is home with Chloe at all times. My recent turn with the compass came in the form of a family trip to Kyoto.
I’ve always been an obsessive planner when it comes to travel, although the tools have improved vastly from my early days. My friends and I used to lug around heavy guide books and giant maps, and today all we need is a smartphone and a good data connection. (In that regard, I can’t recommend Project Fi for eligible Android users enough — my access in Japan was seamless. And no data roaming charges!) We started with Google Maps, where my brother created a personalized map, threw on all the points of interest in Kyoto then shared it with the family. I then started a Google Sheet (Google’s version of Excel), also shared it with everyone, and started plotting out our itinerary using the map as a tool to determine which landmarks were within close proximity of each other.
Google Maps also provided detailed routes to and from our lodging to our destinations, which made it easy to come up with realistic travel time frames. We researched public transportation ahead of time and noted details such as how much the fare was, and that in Kyoto you should board a bus from the rear. Certain things still had to be discovered, such as using the machine at the front of the bus to get exact change for your fare.
Once we had a bare-bones itinerary together, I went to work on dining options. On a previous trip to Turkey we found ourselves dining at very touristy locales out of convenience, which is not dissimilar to eating around Times Square. Quelle horreur. I was determined to right that wrong this time around, so I researched dining guides and food blogs to find some popular dining options, then threw them all on the same Google Map. I also stalked Instagram by location and noted interesting food I might want to try. Reaching out on social media produced some great recommendations. After reviewing the choices, I realized there were a few restaurants that required reservations, so I contacted my MasterCard concierge. If you go this route, it took a few days for them to communicate with their Japan desk, so plan accordingly.
Here are the items from our trip itinerary that I highly recommend on a visit to Kyoto:
We made Nishiki Market a lunch destination, with the full intention of snacking on a variety of foods as we made our way through the extensive market. Nishiki Market is five blocks long, and if you intend to walk the entire stretch I recommend starting at the Takakura-dori entrance and moving east so that at the end of your trip you land on Teramachi-dori. (More on that later.) At Kyoto’s Nishiki Market you’ll find any number of specialties such as soy milk doughnuts and soy milk ice cream, grilled octopus stuffed with egg, the fluffiest tamago wrapped around oyster, a variety of fish cakes… the list is endless. Try as much as your stomach will allow.
At the end of your culinary journey, you should arrive at Teramachi-dori, which runs perpendicular to Nishiki Market. Teramachi-dori is a shopping arcade that offers an eclectic mix of stores. If you can find it, B-Side Label is an awesome sticker shop that also sells pins, posters and postcards with fun, quirky designs. Walk off your lunch checking out the hat shops, beauty stores and other specialty trading posts.
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A kaiseki dinner at Kinmata
Kinmata is a 200-year-old family-run ryokan, or a traditional Japanese inn. You can make reservations just to dine here, and you have the option of tatami seating (on the floor) or table seating. While it definitely qualifies as a splurge, the dining experience was impeccable. We went with a six-course kaiseki dinner, and each dish was presented by the 8th generation family owner (who, interestingly enough, recently returned to Kyoto after living in New York City for several years). Each course was described with immaculate detail, with seasonal ingredients carefully highlighted.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
Inari is the god of rice, and is seen as the patron of business. Fushimi Inari-taisha is the biggest Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, and his messenger, the fox. The shrine is made up of thousands of torii gates, and each one is donated by a Japanese business. The gates wind through the hills of Inariyama, and visiting the shrine requires some hiking. The trail spans approximately two and a half miles, but the incline makes it a challenge. There are several stopping points and a decent viewing point midway, which is as far as I got. (By most accounts there isn’t much to see beyond that point, so it just depends on how much you love torii gates, hiking, or both.) My parents found an earlier stopping point, then simply enjoyed the shrines and statues at the base of the mountain.
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Unagi Don at Nezameya
Nezameya is a restaurant that was established in 1540 and was said to have been given its name by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a pre-eminent samurai warrior who had enjoyed a cup of tea there. Today it’s well known for its unagi don. Any location this close to a tourist attraction has to turn its tables quickly, so patrons are expected to order one dish each and encouraged not to linger. Nezameya was closed on the day of our visit (which can happen at random, unfortunately) so we popped into another restaurant along the shrine’s exit. We abated our disappointment with some goodies from the street food vendors.
Kinkaku-ji Temple, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Kinkaku-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple, and its defining feature is that the exterior of its top two floors is completely covered in gold leaf. The building was home to a shogun from the Muromachi period (1368-1394) but it was converted to a temple by his son upon his death, in accordance with his wishes. Though the Muromachi period was marked by excess, the gold was actually symbolic. It’s meant to ward off negative feelings towards death. Kinkaku-ji is a stunning structure that extends over a pond where its mirror image is cast. The site is a must-see for many, so come early to get a chance at a somewhat unobstructed view.
Ryoan-ji Temple, or the Peaceful Dragon Temple
There is a cluster of temples located in close proximity to Kinkaku-ji, so you could make a day of visiting each one. But keep in mind that each temple has its own admission fee, which can add up. I was fortunate to receive advice that Ryoan-ji was special, so we decided to make that our only other stop. (There are many temples and shrines in Kyoto, and it’s entirely a personal decision as to how many to visit — my family was pretty templed-out by the end of the trip so we weren’t too disappointed about leaving these out. And if we come back, there are still some things to see!)
Ryoan-ji is known for its rock garden, which is considered one of the premier examples of kare-sansui, or dry landscaping. Fifteen rocks of different sizes are carefully arranged in groups amidst the raked pebbles, which symbolize flowing elements such as rivers and creeks. The stones, which in turn symbolize islands or bridges, are carefully arranged so that one can only see no more than fourteen of the fifteen at once from any angle. The zen garden features a clean and simple aesthetic that inspires meditative thinking.
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Lunch at Ajiro
Following all that contemplation, it seems only fitting to enjoy vegetarian fare at Michelin-starred Ajiro. Shojin ryori is a type of cooking commonly practiced by monks. Shojin is a Buddhist term that refers to asceticism in pursuit of enlightenment. Chef Yoshitaka Senoo worked in the kitchen of one of the Myoshinji Hanazono temples prior to opening Ajiro. The meals change with the seasons but each dish employs creative use of Kyoto’s specialty: tofu. There were silken chunks of sesame tofu, soft pieces of yuba, and chewy pieces of wheat gluten that could easily have passed for meat. Note that reservations are required.
Kyoto is pretty magical, so there are few more must-sees. Here’s Part Two of this series!