Japan’s Must-Try Foods and Restaurants

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Visiting Japan without sampling their cuisine would be like going to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower. And, speaking of France, Japan has actually overtaken them in number of Michelin-Starred establishments- so that just proves how amazing their cuisine is! We have compiled a list of the best food we tried and the most interesting restaurants we visited. So, in no particular order…

 

Sushi at Tsukiji Market

In the west, when we think of Japanese food, we think sushi. Perhaps this is because it seems to encompass Japanese life and culture in itself; simple yet artful, masterful and full of ritual. Probably one of the best places to eat sushi is at Tsukiji market in Tokyo. The market draws in tourists who watch at 3am as monster tunas, fresh from the ocean, are auctioned to different restaurants. Needless to say, the sushi restaurants next to the market provided the most delicious sushi we ate in Japan. A testament to the freshness of their fish, and also the popularity of the sushi in Tsukiji, is that past 3pm most restaurants have completely run out- so make sure you make it for lunchtime, or even breakfast!

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Moomin Café

If you weren’t aware, The Moomins are fictional characters from children’s books by Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson. They are cute, whimsical and quirky, so it is hardly surprising that Japan goes mad for them. If you too go mad for the adorable trolls, prepare to be impressed. The Moomin Café and Bakery, situated in the Bunkyo area next to the Tokyo Dome, has a variety of Moomin themed food and gifts. BUT the best thing is, that you actually get to sit with a Moomin character while you eat! The characters ‘rotate’ tables, choosing who they want to sit with- so who knows which one you’ll meet!

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Shave Ice in Kyoto 

So, throughout our time in Japan, people kept telling us to try shave ice, and we were really confused what all the fuss was about. It’s just a load of ice with syrup on it, how good can it be?! Turns out, very good. Like, so good. Like, our new favourite desert good. Although most places in Japan serve shave ice, Kyoto is renowned for it. We stumbled into a small restaurant near the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove -mainly to escape the stifling humidity- and ordered our first shave ice. It was exactly what we needed. The ice shavings are so fine that they melt as soon as they touch your tongue, the brown sugar syrup is deliciously sweet and the bean paste adds natural earthy flavours. All in all, it is one of the most refreshing and tasty desserts we have ever eaten. 10/10 would eat again.

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Animal Cafés in Tokyo

Japan is known for its cute and quirky take on everything, including the humble café. And what could be more cute than slurping a mug of matcha tea with a snoozing kitty on your lap? The correct answer is: nothing. So if you fancy cuddling an animal whilst getting your caffeine fix, Tokyo is the place. They have everything from bunny cafés, cat cafés and even hedgehog cafés!

Read more about our trip to some of Tokyo’s animal cafés here.

 Takoyaki in Osaka

 If you make it to Osaka make sure you try takoyaki- my favourite Japanese dish! Although you can find it throughout Japan, Osaka is credited as the birthplace of these little balls of heaven. Takoyaki consists of creamy octopus surrounded by fried batter, served with sweet sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce) and mayonnaise. Go to Dotonbori for the best takoyaki in Osaka and gaze at the vendors’ lightning fast frying skills; gigantic octopus adorn the buildings, and there are queues of people waiting to get their hands on this, the mother of all street food.

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Crêpes in Harajuku

Don’t you hate it when you’re craving a crêpe, but you also fancy vanilla cheesecake? Well Japan -the masters of ingenuity and efficiency- have solved your problem: wrap a slice of cheesecake in a crêpe and drizzle it with chocolate sauce. Needless to say, if you’re craving sugar, head to Harajuku. Stall after stall of sweet, syrupy, chocolaty, sugary goodness will keep you buzzing for hours.

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Find out more about our trip to Harajuku here.

Kobe Beef

A regular steak can cost upwards of £70, but if your budget can stretch to it, try Kobe beef. Failing that, try ‘wagyu’ beef, which can be cheaper. Wagyu is the generic term for Japanese cows which produce high quality, marbled, tender cuts of meat. In other words, Kobe beef is an example of wagyu meat specifically raised in Kobe. It has gained renown worldwide, and this demand has raised the price of Kobe beef substantially. Wagyu meat from other areas of Japan are therefore more likely to be cheaper, but still very good. We actually tried Kobe beef whilst on a cooking class in Kyoto, which was a much more affordable way of trying it. It was potentially the most delicious meat we’ve ever tasted- it literally melted in the mouth. *drooling*

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If this list doesn’t whet your appetite, nothing will. So if you love food, head to Japan and eat and eat and eat- it will be the best decision you ever make!

 

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Top 5 Animal Experiences in Japan

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Japanese culture is very animal-centric; from the animal shrines in temples, to the kitsch and cute animae characters plastered on every billboard in Tokyo. It is hardly surprising therefore that Japan is awash with animal experiences to be had: cafes, zoos and even just wild animals roaming the streets!

However, Japan isn’t exactly famous for its animal welfare laws, and we certainly saw some pretty distasteful things in Tokyo’s pet shops. With this in mind, it is important to do some research before attending any animal experience, or you may run the risk of funding something that, in many other countries, would probably be shut down.

And so, here is our definitive ranking of all the animal experiences we took part in:

  1. Harry’s Hedgehog Café (Roppongi Tokyo)

Cons:

The reason this came in fifth is for the fact that, despite hedgehogs being nocturnal, the café is open throughout the day, meaning that the spike balls get petted and played with when they should be asleep. However, the staff do seem mindful to this and will prevent you from petting any hedgehogs that they feel need to rest.

Once inside, the staff teach you how to hold the hedgehogs and you also have the chance to buy some mealworms (¥500/£3.50), which you can feed them with a pair of tweezers.

The hedgehogs are pretty adorable, and it certainly is fun holding them whilst enjoying a cup of tea. The space is quite small and the number of customers is limited, so be sure to reserve your place in advance, as there can often be a queue out the door. The café is open until 2100, so perhaps go as late as possible to prevent disturbing the little prickle monsters.

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  1. Zao Fox Village (Sendai)

Cons:

The main problem we had with this place was the seemingly unnecessary number of foxes they had. It was almost as though they were breeding them for the sake of the attraction, rather than having the best interests of the foxes at heart. Admittedly however, the foxes did seem well looked after and happy.

The village itself is annoyingly tricky to get to. If you want rely on public transportation alone (usually not a problem in Japan), be prepared to get up early and spend 5 hours at the fox village. It is in the middle of nowhere and only 2 buses a day run from Shiraishi station, one at 0800 and one at 1335. If you’re short on time however, consider paying for a taxi at least one-way.

The fox village is made up of three main areas: the hospital, (where they treat injured or sick foxes) the nursery, (where young cubs are placed in a fenced off area next to the main park, to allow them to integrate safely) and the main area (where foxes can roam around freely). These foxes -in all red, white and black varieties- really are beautiful. You can feed them from the feeding tower, and although you are not allowed to touch them as they roam their home, you can pay about ¥200 (£1.50) to have a cuddle with one of the cubs.

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  1. Deer in Nara and Miyajima

The only wild animals to make this list! The towns of Nara and Miyajima are not only famous for their beautiful temples and shrines, but also the wild deer that roam the streets like pedestrians. In Nara you can buy crackers called senbei to feed them, which they go absolutely mad for. Seriously, if they think you have some in your backpack they will not hesitate to follow you down the street. The deer have had this relationship with tourists for so long that they have actually learnt to bow for their food.

In Miyajima however, senbei is not typically sold to tourists. So, the deer are a bit more…desperate. We actually had to help a guy wrestle his rail pass from the jaws of a peckish deer. You have been warned!

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Choosing an ice cream in Nara

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The Miyajima deer like to photobomb…

  1. Cat Café (Nyafe Melange, Shibuya)

Cat cafes have taken the world by storm. You can now find them in London, Manchester and New York…but none of them will be as kitsch and cute as the original Japanese ones. There are plenty of cat cafes across Japan to choose from, and they can really vary in quality, so research is crucial!

We visited ‘Nyafe Melange’ in Shibuya. They have a range of time and price plans, the cheapest being ¥600 (£4) for 30mins. This large loft space is home to 23 cuddly friendly cats that can sit in the main room, or if they want some alone time, there is a separate human-free room for their use only. Overall, it’s exactly what a cat café should be- totally chilled. The cats may come and sit on your lap and play with you, or –because they’re cats- they may choose to ignore you completely. But that’s the risk you take.

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Living the dream…

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  1. Sahoro Bear Mountain (Shintoku, Hokkaido)

We really wanted to see some bears when we were in Hokkaido. We also really didn’t want a wild one to kill us. So, the only option was to see bears in captivity. Whilst travelling around Hokkaido, we had seen a lot of advertisements for bear parks, such as the Noboribetsu Bear Park, and we were confused why it didn’t appear in our Lonely Planet guide. Just Google image search it and you’ll see why. It’s essentially a small concrete pit with no vegetation or stimulation where at least a dozen bears (who are solitary animals) are crammed in together. They have learned to perform tricks for the food tourists throw at them. It looks pretty grim to say the least.

Bear Mountain (which does appear in the LP Japan guidebook) is a world away from this. 15 hectares of forest house 12 bears. Ponds are stocked with fish; there are trees, grass and plenty of stimulation. Tourists can walk along an elevated walkway, and gaze below at the bears going about their business, as if in the wild. The walkway (which is only 370m long, so takes up a very small amount of the bears’ space) then leads into a room with a glass wall which allows you to watch as the bears frolic in the water together. At the adult price of ¥1836 (£13), it is also half the amount of the terrible Noboribetsu Bear Park. If you can make it to the slightly remote location- we highly recommend it!

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And that’s a wrap! There are about a bazillion other animal experiences in Japan that we simply did not have time to try. Let me know what you think of our list, and if there are any other animal experiences you would recommend!

Hawaii in a Fortnight

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Japan was everything we hoped it would be, and more. It was for this reason we were somewhat apprehensive about leaving the Land of the Rising Sun, which had well and truly stolen our hearts, to visit its Pacific neighbour Hawaii. This cluster of islands slap bang in the middle of the ocean is synonymous with paradise; one can’t hear the word ‘Hawaii’ without conjuring images of white beaches, palm trees and turquoise waters. Even with this in mind, we were still concerned that Japan might be a hard act to follow.
So, first things first, the negatives:

– Now, this one really surprised us, but we found the people to be -generally speaking-less courteous than in Japan. The Japanese are generally known for being very considerate and polite, you could probably punch a stranger in the face and they would apologise to you. In Hawaii however, small island mentality seemed to be rife- integration or ‘living like a local’ is potentially impossible here. It almost felt as if the entire service industry couldn’t have been more done with tourists. But we can’t blame them too much, tourists are everywhere here, and we hold our hands up, we are pretty annoying.

– Hawaii. Is. Expensive. Accommodation prices were almost double that of Tokyo, one of the most notoriously pricey cities in the world. Food was expensive, activities were expensive, and let’s not forget the Brexit effect. But, the silver lining of this was that we got to fully immerse ourselves in free pastimes, namely getting very very sunburnt.
And now, for the positive stuff…

Oahu

We flew into Honolulu on the island of Oahu and stayed in a hostel on Waikki beach for two nights. As most international flights fly into Honolulu, this island is bustling with tourists, especially families and young party animals. Two days of sunbathing was exactly what we needed after two hectic months zooming around Japan…although in hindsight more suntan lotion was required.

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Jasper needs some sunglasses…

Big Island

We then took a 50 minute flight to the island of Hawaii a.k.a ‘Big Island’. We stayed in a cute Airbnb just south of Hilo which, it turns out, is one of the rainiest places in the US. The climate was like that of a rainforest, with lush greenery everywhere and rain that pours heavily for hours and hours at a time.

As well as the rainfall, the Big Island is known for its volcanic activity. Volcanoes National Park is home to the world’s most active volcano, Kilauea. It is constantly spewing lava which runs slowly (and therefore relatively safely) into the sea, hardening as it goes and creating brand new land. It is the earth giving birth. We hiked the lava fields for a couple of hours, which was an experience like no other and a sight to behold. In the thick of it, all you can see is miles and miles of cooled lava, the rain that was pouring down instantly turned to steam on the hot ground, vents of sulphurous gas billowed upwards, and to top it all off, thunder and lightning battled overhead. It was honestly like a real life Mordor.

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Our next and equally amazing experience on Big Island was our snorkel with manta rays. We’ve been excited by the prospect of seeing mantas ever since Jasper dressed as one for Halloween last year. With wing spans of up to 12 feet but no stingers or teeth, they are the gentle giants of the Pacific. We went on a night time snorkelling session where beams of lights are used to attract plankton, and where there is plankton, there’s mantas. We loved every second watching these amazing animals somersaulting in the water- sometimes mere centimetres from us. It will almost definitely be one of the highlights of our entire trip. Unfortunately we weren’t able to take any pictures of the mantas, so here’s a picture of Jasper dressed as one instead.

So realistic.

Kauai

After spending 6 days on Big Island, we flew to the island of Kauai. This island is often considered one of Hawaii’s most beautiful; it is where Lilo and Stitch is set, and where Jurassic Park is filmed. It did not disappoint. It was far less rainy than Big Island, which allowed for more hours sun worshipping on one of Kauai’s many many beautiful beaches. We spent a day hiking the Na Pali coast, one of the most scenic hiking trails in the world. The windy coastline offered unparalleled views of turquoise oceans, lush rainforests and clear skies- paradise, indeed.

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Na Pali Coastline

Another must-see on Kauai is the Waimea canyon. Mark Twain supposedly referred to it as ‘the Grand Canyon of the Pacific’, and needless to say, it is pretty breathtaking. Unlike the desert, red-rock landscape of the Grand Canyon however, Waimea is speckled with greenery and has waterfalls bursting down its vast chasms. Once at the top of the canyon you are presented with ocean views like no other and a glimpse of the edge of the Na Pali coastline. As cliched as it sounds, it honestly feels like you are looking out onto the edge of the world.

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Waimea Canyon

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View of Na Pali Coast from the top of Waimea

And that was our Hawaii trip! Despite our initial apprehensions, we had an amazing time and fell in love with the Hawaiian landscape; from the rainforests, to the beaches, to the ocean, to the volcanos, Hawaii has so much to see outside of the typical glamorous cocktail resort- and, in that respect, Hawaii well exceeded our expectations.

Hokkaido: The Wild Wild North

Hokkaido, the northernmost Japanese island is a mere 5 hour ferry ride from the Russian island of Sakhalin which -perhaps surprisingly- makes Russia Japan’s closest neighbour. This location means that Hokkaido is effectively an extension of Siberia, with temperatures in the winter reaching as low as -20°c and snow that falls too quickly for ski resorts to accurately measure.

However, summer in Hokkaido is a different story. It seems the whole of Tokyo moves to escape the stifling humidity of the south for the ‘cool’ highs of 28°c in the north. We don’t blame them one bit. Exchanging the southern cities where we couldn’t walk around for five minutes without our eyelids sweating for somewhere which occasionally required an extra layer was nothing short of magical.

This northern Siberian island is Japan’s wild child. Unlike the main island of Honshu where you are never far from a town or city, Hokkaido is made up of masses of untamed forests packed with brown bears and surrounded by sulphurous volcanic craters. We originally only gave ourselves a few days to explore Hokkaido but within an hour of stepping off the train station in Sapporo, we knew this wouldn’t cut it. We made the impromptu decision to cancel our Fuji climb, rent a camper van and travel Hokkaido for an entire week. Best decision ever.

Sapporo

Our first stop was Sapporo, which quickly became our favourite Japanese city…and that had nothing to do with the beer festival that happened to be going on at the time. It had such a youthful vibe and its busyness lacked the corporate rush that seems to fuel other Japanese cities. Highlights included the Willy Wonka-esque Sapporo brewery and witnessing a skateboard practice, A Capella group jam, breakdancing session and a rap battle by the fountains in Odori park.


Lake Toya

Next we visited Lake Toya, and, after 5 weeks of rushing about Japan trying to cram in as much as possible, we spent two relaxed days camping on the shore, swimming in the purest water and getting rather sunburnt.

Noboribetsu 

The onsen town of Noboribetsu had been on our hit list ever since it featured in a BBC series about Japan (this is the second time I’ve mentioned this series, but seriously, it was amazing). It is a small town built in the midst of some serious volcanic activity. Jigoku-Dani, or ‘Hell Valley’ is the most notable area: a vast expanse of steaming craters, bubbling water and sulphur stained rocks. We visited a local onsen (Japanese bathouse) which uses the same volcanic water for people to soak in. Imagine the Prefect’s bathroom in Hogwarts but with more naked Japanese people, more eggy fumes and fewer ghosts.


Furano

We then visited the small town of Furano which, in the summer months hosts fields and fields of flowers planted in colourful strips. It seems here even the most humble farmhouse has at least a small patch of lavender or sunflowers in their front garden. Whilst in Furano we also stumbled across a beautiful mountain onsen, and bathed in this mixed gender (!!) pool. Even though algae got into places algae should never get into, it was one of our favourite onsen we’ve been to; our embarrassed averted gazes were met by pine trees and waterfalls (well, mine were at least, Jasper can see bugger all without his glasses).

Bear Mountain

Next was a trip to ‘Bear Mountain’. As mentioned, Hokkaido is home to a large number of brown bears. They are far more aggressive than their reclusive black cousins residing in Honshū, and Japanese hikers are encouraged to wear bear bells to scare them away. Bears are extraordinary creatures and we really wanted to see one, but in the wild? Maybe not. Bear Mountain is like a cross between Jurassic Park and a safari. 15 hectares of woodland surrounded by the heaviest duty fences you’ve ever seen is the home of 12 brown bears. A large bridges runs through part of the park so you can watch the bears without fear of having your face ripped to shreds. There is also an area where you can watch behind glass as they play in the water. Seeing them so close confirmed our feelings of apprehension of stumbling across one in the wild. I don’t think we fully appreciated just how big they are, and that one bat of their gigantic paw would certainly knock you out cold. It really is a conundrum how something so terrifying can be so adorable!

See where Bear Mountain ranked on our ‘Top 5 Animal Experiences in Japan’!


Lake Akan

One last trip we took before heading excitedly back to Sapporo, was to Lake Akan in the east. Unfortunately is was more of a whistle stop tour as it was pissing it down and really cold (it was probably only like 22°c, but that feels sub-Arctic to us now). We visited ‘Suna yu’ a lakeside area where you can dig your own onsen! If you dig into the sand, hot water rises up and you’ve got your own foot spa.

Ainu Village

We then ‘hot-footed’ it to a nearby Ainu village. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido who have a rich culture and history, which is totally different from Japanese culture and is slowly being lost. The village showcased traditional arts, music and food of the Ainu people. In our opinion, a trip to Hokkaido isn’t complete without paying a visit to one of the (unfortunately) few Ainu villages still in operation. And try the frozen salmon sashimi- it’s delicious!

And that was our Hokkaido trip! It was one of our favourite weeks in Japan, and we are already dreaming of when we can make it back there. Everything about the island resonated with us: the people, the culture, the landscape, the food! Sayonara Hokkaido- but hopefully not for long!

A Week in Kansai

After our work-away we were itching to explore more of Japan. We headed to an Airbnb in Osaka; our base for the week while we explored Japan’s beautiful Kansai region. We’ve had such a jam-packed week, we’ve not had time (or internet capabilities) to update the blog, so here’s a day-by-day run down of our Kansai exploration…

Sunday Night – Dotonbori


Dotonbori is a street in Osaka famous for delicious street food. And on an unrelated note, it is now one of our most favourite places in Japan. It’s like a Japanese Venice, built around a lantern-lit, jazz boat-infused canal, surrounded by buzzing neon lights. The streets are full of vendors selling Osaka’s regional dish, ‘takoyaki’ (fried octopus dumplings), which are to die for. It is worth going to Dotonbori just for them!

Monday – Kyoto

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One of the things on our Japan ‘to-do’ list was to take part in a Japanese cooking class, and Kyoto -home of the traditional- seemed like the perfect place. We were taught by a man called Taro in his home kitchen. He was hugely knowledgable and informative and as a result, we came away inspired….as well as finding out why our miso soup always tastes so bad. Perhaps the main event of the class however, was learning about and eating Kobe beef. There is a reason a steak will set you back £70, because it is the most delicious meat on the planet. Fact.

Tuesday – Universal Studios Japan

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So, we had no idea Japan even had a Univeral Studios Theme park, let alone that it was just 25mins from our base in Osaka. PLUS, in 2014 the park opened a Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is a big deal. It goes without saying that this was an awesome day, and it was worth queuing for an hour in 35 degree heat just to hear Hagrid dubbed in Japanese.

Wednesday – Nara and Kyoto (again)

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Nara is mainly famous for two things: Its great bronze Diabutsu (Buddha statue), and the copious amounts of wild deer roaming the streets. For centuries, the deer have been considered sacred, which is why their numbers have blossomed, with a little help from friendly food-offering tourists. They are very tame…some would say too tame, as they will not hesitate to try and undo your backpack if they suspect it’s harbouring treats. In fact, they have become so accustomed to being fed by tourists that they have learnt to bow for their food!

(See where Nara’s deer ranked on our ‘Top 5 Animal Experiences in Japan’!)

After this we headed back to Kyoto to see the famous Fushimi-Inari. As the beautiful red toriis (shrine gates) criss-cross up a 4km mountain hike, we chose to do this in the slightly cooler afternoon sun, and we were so glad we did! It was far less busy, and the sunset light scorched off the red gates.

Thursday – Kyoto (one last time)

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There is too much to see in Kyoto! We certainly couldn’t leave without seeing the Arashiyama bamboo grove, which was every bit as stunning as the tour guide photos, although very very busy. After this, we headed to Gion, Kyoto’s geisha district, to take part in a traditional tea ceremony. It was a perfect way to experience the Japanese idea of ‘zen’, whilst enjoying a foamy cup of green tea!

Friday – Umeda

Friday was a bit of a chill day, spent trailing the many many shops in Umeda. We also visited the Umeda Sky Tower: 40 storeys high and considered one of the top 20 buildings in the world, the views were insane!

Saturday- Harie

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On Saturday we explored the small village of Harie which has gained recognition since appearing on a BBC documentary about Japan. Harie is special because of its amazing mountain spring water system. Homes throughout Harie have ‘kabatas’ which are private taps drilled straight into the spring underground. The above picture shows one villager’s kabata, complete with a tank for keeping vegetables cool, and a large pool filled with carp who help clean the dishes!

And that was a breif(ish) run down of our Kansai tour! Next stop: Hiroshima and Shikoku island.

Cats Rule The Town: Reykjavik is the City of Cats.

Did you know that Reykjavik is the city of cats? Because we did not. Imagine then our delight when, within hours of arriving in the city, we saw cats everywhere. We saw cats on walls, rolling on the pavements, crossing the streets, hanging outside Hallgrímskirkja. Like, imagine a bunch of cats just lounging outside of St Paul’s cathedral or something, it just doesn’t really happen anywhere else. We were already falling in love with this otherworld city, and as self-acclaimed ‘cat people’, the constant feline presence tipped the scales from love, to full on infatuation and obsession.

Why are there so many cats though? After chatting to some locals, we discovered that the dog laws in Reykjavik are crazy strict. Until the 80s, it was illegal to own a dog in Reykjavik. Nowadays, you can get a dog, but owners must pay for a licence, get residential approval and adhere to rules about leashing, chipping and vaccinations. Cats, however, can be owned free of charge. With this in mind, it’s far easier for people to get their four-legged fix in feline form (try saying that when you’ve had too much Brennivín!).

But let me explain what’s SO charming about the cats in Reykjavik. These cats aren’t the dirty skinny strays of Rome or Istanbul, they are chubby, friendly, collared pets. And, let me tell you, there is something really surprising and whimsical about seeing peoples’ pets wandering around the streets like pedestrians. It is something that seemingly would only happen in Iceland, and really sums up the country well. For, only in a country so safe and welcoming would creatures known for their skittish, fickle and untrustworthy ways, happily wander the streets and let total strangers pet them.

So, if you are a cat lover, Reykjavik is the place for you! Be sure to wander the residential areas for maximum cat coverage and, if you are serious about seeing the cat population, we would recommend avoiding the depths of winter, as they tend to stay indoors more. And we don’t blame them!

.:. Jo & Jasper .:.