Japan 5,4,3,2,1


After spending two weeks traveling throughout Japan, from Tokyo to Kamakura to Takayama to Kyoto to Nara to Hiroshima to Miyajima and back to Tokyo, it seems nearly impossible to narrow my entire trip into just a few items. I fell in love and this trip reinvigorated how satisfying it can be to travel in a first world foreign country.

I saw my first diabatsu (The Great Buddha Kamakura), summited Mount Misen, and paid my respects at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. There is just too much to tell. A few little words got me so far, but I’ll tell you my favorite – sumimasen (excuse me), here are my top five highlights:

5. The people – Ask a simple question to a shopkeeper, a roadside worker, or your server and in response you’ll receive the shuffle of little feet to immediately help however they can. I’ve never before witnessed a culture react with such immediacy to want to help; and when they couldn’t, because they merely didn’t speak my language or couldn’t understand, they would shuffle along further until they found someone who could. Every day I was mesmerized.

Not only that, but also many locals we met were genuinely interested in learning about us – where we were from, why we were there – and then when we responded that their country was very beautiful and we were having an amazing time, a smile would light up their face and they would bow in gratitude.

Holly would ask me daily, isn’t this the most perfect society? I don’t know that for sure, but I do know the best word to describe the people is simply, humble.

Coming back to Tokyo from Hiroshima it was about a 5 hour journey. We got off the train in Shinagawa, one stop from Tokyo Station. Nearly about to exit the station I all the sudden got a rush of shock, “guys, I left my backpack on the train. It has my passport in it, and I fly out tomorrow!” After a quick panic, I approached the train kiosk expecting the worse. In true Japanese fashion, the attendant told me to get on the next train to Tokyo Station, go to platform 17 and hand over the note I was given. Within 3o minutes, hassle-free I had my backpack and passport back safely in my hands, and I swear it wouldn’t have been this simple anywhere else.

Another example is while visiting busy Ginkakuji Temple (World Cultural Heritage Site), the line of tourists was very backed up. As it turned out, a Japanese woman was bent over a beetle on the sidewalk saying to it, “ hurry up little beetle, they’ll step on you. Shoo, before you get squashed.” I almost drowned a moth in my shower the other day but then thought of that woman and the beetle and decided to let the moth live.

4. The relatives – Holly, my former college roommate’s grandmother was Japanese and she had always vowed to one day see the country her grandmother told her so many stories about. Although her gram passed a few years ago, Holly got in touch with her grandmother’s sister, her only living relative in Japan and someone she had never met or spoken to before.

As one would imagine, leading up to the big meet and greet was very emotional and nerve racking, specifically for Holly. Neither of us knew what to expect. While we waited, we practiced our bows for the introduction, remembering the lower the bow the more respect it shows.

Holly’s great aunt and her husband, both in their late sixties picked us up from Tokyo Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku. Although Holly cried immediately on introduction, we managed broken English and not much chitchat before being shuffled into an immaculate cab to make our way to lunch.

A beautiful surprise, they had reservations at a lovely, high-end Chinese restaurant on the fifty-second floor that overlooked the entire city. More then we ever could have asked for, we dined through a multi-course lunch, using an electronic translator (later in which they wouldn’t let us leave without) to communicate the stories of our lives. Even more, their hospitality was overly generous. Having received our itinerary via email in advance they had provided books and maps on the places we were visiting throughout our travels and even gave a small gift to me too.

Holly and her great aunt showed each other pictures of their families and animals while her uncle and I did our best to make small talk. As the food was served, Holly and I both teased each other in rapid English to just eat and keep smiling, even eat the weird bits, no matter how full we became. We moved on from lunch and it was enjoyable to just be led about the city by locals on our first official day in Tokyo, unaware of the plan ahead.

We stopped off at the Tokyo Metro Government Building Observatory, which provided a breathtaking view of the city.  In the tourist center on the ground floor we were given replica samurai swords to pose with. Then, we walked through one of the huge department stores in Shinjuku, impressed as the escalator wound up and up until we found ourselves on one of the infamous  ‘restaurant floors’. Finally, after enjoying a cup of tea we sadly said goodbye. After such a wonderful and pleasantly unpredictable day I don’t think I could have bowed any lower.

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3. Arashiyama – Cute shops, food variety and World Heritage Tenryuji Temple, what’s not to love? For one thing, it was so darn busy! Then again, how often do you get to experience a forest made solely of bamboo and pet monkey’s while you’re the one encaged?

With the foliage in full effect, Arashiyama in Kyoto’s western region is a major tourist destination. In fact, we didn’t even realize we were holidaying in the busiest time of year. The entire country flocks to places such as this strictly for the pure natural beauty of witnessing the changing of the leaves.

The bamboo forest was an absolute must on my top things to see and wow, was it impressive. The bamboo was so tall, and so many shades of green. Although it was crowded with tourists, and the path more of a road then actually being in the center of a forest, it was still very, very cool. In fact, we were approached by Katsura Sunshine, a Canadian TV host to answer some questions for his show.

After leaving the forest we simply wandered about the grounds of the area, embracing the foliage while taking silly snaps of each other against the colorful backdrop and just enjoyed the outdoors. We figured since we still had some daylight left, which was rare this time of year considering it got dark around 3 pm, we took the opportunity to explore Iwatayama Monkey Park further along in the village.

The information provided to us about visiting the monkeys was that it was a steep hike and not recommended in the summer months. Summer aside, wow that was a steep hike and I’m so thankful I had my hiking boots on. Before even reaching the top we discovered wild monkeys in the forest. At the summit, the lookout over Kyoto was stunning. The most interesting part, if you wanted to feed the monkeys you had to enter a cage. Because they were wild and territorial to the area being their natural habitat, the tables turned and we became the subject in the cage. The advantage was there was plenty of staff about, so even when outside admiring the view there were workers to ensure both the monkeys’ and us were safe. They do however have them trained to sit for a photo (whether that’s a good thing I’m still unsure).

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2. Visiting an onsen – I knew traveling by shinkhansen (bullet train) up to the Japanese Alps would be breathtaking as the leaves were changing to vibrant oranges, reds and greens. But on our way out of Tokyo when we passed Mt. Fuji in the distance it topped it all.

mt. fuji

Nestled just a few hours outside of Takayama, a small town outside the Japanese Alps, are a few natural onsens within the mountains themselves. Although this was our sole agenda item for visiting this region, unfortunately with lack of time we had to settle for plan b. We found ourselves bearing all, sitting in an infinity onsen overlooking the snowcapped Alps at Hotel Associa, a five star hotel just on the outskirts of town. Weird circumstances to be in the nude with your friends, yes, but the experience and the view of the snowcapped Alps didn’t even make us look twice.

Of course there is the whole onsen ritual that was an experience in itself before we got to that point. Public bathing is a huge part of the Japanese culture and is a regular ritual for people of all ages. While the baths are split by gender, it’s a fair mix of the young to very old.

There are rules and as a foreigner it’s important out of respect to follow them. Firstly, visible tattoos are a major no no. In fact, you can be evicted from an onsen if one is seen, as it’s very offensive considering they are associated with gangs and the Japanese mafia. We simply covered ours with Band-Aids.

But the first thing we were ‘warned’, or gently reminded of when entering the spa is that to bath in an onsen you’re completely in the nude amongst other guests.  While you are provided a towel, a very small one mind you, I took a deep breath and as they say, when in Rome.  Before entering the actual hot pools, you’re first expected to bath in one of the little stalls lined up outside of the hot springs, small wooden stools are provided and the expectation is you sit and scrub. Once clean, then you soak. This place had about 7 different hot baths to choose from, the water supplied from the local mountains and the natural minerals combined with the hot water made it impossible to not relax. Once done soaking, it’s back to the showers to rinse off before utilizing the hotels amenities such as hairdryers, combs and such.

1. Robot Restaurant & karaoke – From dinosaurs to robots in 30 seconds, described by my travel crew as a trip through fantasyland with lights.

Recently featured on Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown Tokyo days before we landed, Holly had her heart dead set on going to the Robot Restaurant. All we knew in advance was there were robots, flashing lights, go go dancers and some sort of average meal involved.

Earlier that day, Holly, Jaime, Sarah, Amit and I roamed around the crazy, cartooned and decorative neighborhood of Harajuku. This is where the weird and the wild come to shop on Takeshita Street, or what most English speakers refer to as “take a sh#t street.” After devouring crepes it was off to the wacky shops to comb through wigs and playful apparel. At that point it was decided, we would embrace Harajuku culture and go to the Robot Restaurant in character, even Amit. As the only male in a group, we appropriately chose the yellow-hair Kurt Cobain look for him. While the other girls had on bright blue, green and pink wigs, somehow my black and red bobbed wig coupled with my galactic dress and clunky necklace had me labeled Betty Rubble.

While we got some looks while lining up for the show, the evening as a whole is where it really came together. Entering the venue was like walking into a casino times a thousand, millions of neon lights, flashing bulbs and sparkly glowing plastic. The show itself, I can’t even begin to describe – an attack on all your senses in a good way.  Each scene is introduced in Japanese so as an English speaker all you see is chaos, all you hear is music and all you feel is confusion crossed with excitement.

It opens with loud drums. Dancers are on each side of the small room in red or white half-dressed costumes. Before you know it a dinosaur roams to the middle of the floor, then there is a panda riding a cow, more drums, robots, glow sticks, the audience clapping to the beat…you have know idea what’s actually happening but your smiling and laughing…and then its over.

We figured if there was anytime to try the Japanese pastime of karaoke, then after a show such as the Robot Restaurant it’s the next best thing to follow.  The most difficult task at Joysound was negotiating every hour in broken English for an extension on our time in our private room. That’s right, we sang for 3 hours straight, wigs in tact at most times and it was consented as the best night ever. We may have had a few language barriers, be it the alcohol or our lack of Japanese. For example, I said on repeat to the waiter, what felt like every five minutes, our order of 2 wines, 2 beers, 3 shochu then would confirm how much time we had remaining and then in unison we agreed, one more hour! Then again, because we couldn’t master the controls for the machine in Japanese, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance was on repeat nine times in a row.

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In addition to all the above, the food itself is a reason to see Japan and for me my priority on this trip was to consume, and consume I did. If we didn’t’ know what something was on a menu we guessed and crossed our fingers it was tasty. There were some surprises, but due the regularity of pictures accompanying most dishes on the menu it was easy to choose. See my post here for full details!

And finally none of the above would have been as enjoyable with the laughs and smiles of good friends to share it with. 

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Jaime and I have traveled Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa together and vow to visit a new country each year. We’re the ultimate team of planner and navigator and she is my most trusted travel partner.

roeAside for my gratefulness of Jaime’s excellent group steering on this trip, a few highlights have to be when she championed and ate the fresh, salty roe at Tsujiki Fish Market, the not-to-be-eaten but one assumes you are meant to consume everything on the plate dandelion at Kappa Sushi and her ability to sing to Katy Perry in a bright blue wig, followed by an all nighter dancing at Jumanji and eating ramen at 7 am. Then again, there’s nothing like feeling 16 again singing to the Spice Girls while sipping on Zima.

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The most amount of time Holly and I have spent together since we departed as college roommates in 2005 was the two weeks we spent backpacking in Belgium, Holland, Poland and Prague in 2007. I knew that visiting Japan was her top bucket list item and I couldn’t imagine having experienced this amazing trip without her. I cannot fail to mention however her amazing ability to be completely unaware of our surroundings, like when we got off the train in Takayama and she said, “so we’re in Kyoto, right?” Or the time she left for a bottle of wine around the block in her pajamas and an hour and half later pulled up in a cab.deer

She’s also an avid deer lover and I’ve never met anyone so fearless to approach and attempt to hug wild deer as if they were dogs. And lastly, her ability to sleep on trains, in bars, and everywhere else.

sleepin on trains

Thanks girls for an unforgettable adventure!

Kamakura diabatsu

My Japanese Culinary Adventure


Diafuku

Diafuku

When asked the purpose of my recent trip to Japan my reply was simple, “I’m going there to eat.” And it was true. But never would I have anticipated not only the variety, but also the regularity of how often I would consume local foods. From tiny baitfish over rice for lunch to curry katsu for breakfast and never enough diafuku in between, here is a brief, or actually a quite long-winded journey through my Japanese culinary adventure.

After an exhausting journey Holly and I were finally in Tokyo. Forget showers and freshening up, we wanted to hit the town immediately but first we needed to satisfy the grumble in our stomachs. This would be our first attempt at socializing in a new culture so identifying the right place for our first meal was a bit intimidating. We ended up at a small ramen shop in Shinjuku. The options were simple, ramen or ramen and you paid first by vending machine, but of course we didn’t realize that until we asked for the bill.

Shinjuku Ramen

Shinjuku Ramen

There are vending machines on nearly every street corner serving all purposes. We moved hotels the next morning and Holly tried her hand at some vending machine Boss Coffee, sponsored by Tommy Lee Jones of course and it even came out hot. Further along on our trip we even stumbled across a beer vending machine. So cool. After a while we began to spot the machines that were only 100 yen, the cheapest it comes.

Later that evening while waiting for Jaime to arrive, we found a small bar and nibbled on cold, salted edamame and tried our hand at some local Asahi beer and wine.

Edamame

Edamame

Once Jaime arrived we ducked into the first yakitori shop we could find. We ordered the assortment and some sake. The ‘assortment’ didn’t go down so well however, there were some dubious meats and textures on the skewers and we were questioning the plausibility that we were actually eating heart.

Sake

Sake

One of Tokyo’s must do’s is to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market. If you’re not brave enough to attempt being one of the 120 they allow in at 5 am to witness the live tuna auction, you can wander the outside market before tasting sushi caught fresh that very day. We made it to the market a bit late, but that didn’t stop us from trying a range of the days finest in one of the small ten seat sushi bars adjacent. It was a bit of gamble on how we split the serves however. After Holly and I popped a small orange fish roe ball into our mouths as a test and both declared it awful, we dared Jaime and she took one for the team and ate the whopping whole thing. Yuck! Holly also had bad luck with a rubbery white fish that took about 5 minutes to chew and swallow, followed by onion sushi that left her breath less than desirable. Somehow I lucked out with fresh salmon, unagi and other varieties.

We then spent the afternoon walking around Hama Rikyu Gardens and had our first traditional tea ceremony experience in Matsu-no-ochaya teahouse. After taking our shoes off before entering the wooden building, we read the directions provided carefully, remembering to bow after being served. Cross-legged on the tatami mats, we overlooked the beautiful lake, a bit hung over yet the whole experience including drinking the green tea in three big gulps made me feel very zen.

Following on we visited Senso-ji Shrine, one of my favorite spots of the trip and fumbled in the dark in Asakusa to find a highly recommended tempura restaurant, as this area of Tokyo is known for its tempura. Lightly fried, not overly greasy prawns accompanied by rice, cabbage and of course some wine, we had our first meal on traditional tatami mats while studying our Lonely Planet books on how to spend the evening.

We ended up at Popeye’s, a craft beer lover’s haven, which houses over 120 beers on tap. Yes, all on tap! It was quite impressive, as the craft beer scene in Japan is growing and I tried everything from Japanese stouts, porters, IBAs and winter ale to my first pumpkin beer of the year, albeit it was Rogues.

Popeyes' craft beer bar

Popeye’s

The next day while on a day trip to Kamakura, a small town an hour outside of Tokyo, we lunched at recommended Bowls Café. Cheap and clean with affordably priced donburi lunch specials, I started with octopus and miso soup before divulging into my rice bowl topped with fresh raw tuna. But boy did Holly get a surprise. What looked like little bean sprouts on the top of her rice bowl was far from her assumption. At closer look, each individual little white stem actually seemed to have tiny eyes! Yes, she was served a heaping amount of the local delicacy baitfish atop her rice. We all took a few bites but unfortunately no one could get the whole dish down.

On my personal list of dining adventures was to visit one of the izakaya’s housed under the Yamanote Station tracks. We met up with Crystal, former Mountbatten alumni and colleague of Jaime who is currently living in Tokyo. She took us to Andy’s Izakaya, a traditional Japanese pub full of salary men, cigarette smoke and a surplus of food. We ordered enough to share and it seemed as if it wouldn’t stop coming; tempura, scallops, mushrooms, udon and it went on. Crystal also introduced us to shochu; similar to vodka, it’s a clear distilled liquor fermented from potatoes typically mixed with cold green tea.

We were off to colorful Harjuku by mid-day the next afternoon and hadn’t even had a snack. Luckily busy Takeshita Street is lined with crepe shops from sweet to savory and it was the perfect treat to hold us over until dinner.

Angel Hearts crepes, Harajuku

Angel Hearts crepes, Harajuku

Nestled in the basement of Tokyo Station is Ramen Street, with shop after shop of ramen establishments. Although I was a bit unimpressed, we stopped for lunch the next morning for some traditional ramen.

Ramen Street, ramen

Ramen Street, ramen

Later on that day after exploring the grounds of the Imperial Palace we stopped at Jonathan’s, a small diner to regroup for the evening. Jaime had some Fanta, and it was green!

Green Fanta

Green Fanta

That evening was a highlight. We met up with Crystal again in the Ebisu neighborhood. Slowly walking down the street she had us quickly duck into what just looked like a simple storefront. Once inside the food hall it was a bazaar of little stalls, one after the other with a maximum of 6 seats at each, specializing in a different dish. It was called Ebisu Yokocho. We found a small little place where we could cook  meat over the grill in the center of the table. On the menu was everything from pig tongue to heart to loin and neck however we kept it simple with some chorizo, skirt, pork and salads. It was delicious and somewhere we never would have stumbled across without the help of our expat friend.

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The next morning we made the five hour journey to Takayama, a small town in the Japanese Alps who specialize in two amazing things to consume: hida beef and sake. Hida is one of the best grades of beef from the Hida District and can be served as steak, yakiniku, sukiyaki, or shabu shabu. It’s absolutely delicious. Takayama’s old town is lined with sake breweries and you can actually taste the difference of the quality, as the regions cool climate makes it ideal. We stopped in Niki Shuzo Sake Brewery and tried everything from the local favorite to a seasonal specialty.

Soba is another Takayama specialty, specifically when hida beef is added to it. Kyoyo is a lovely, dark restaurant with friendly staff from a local family. I ordered the hida soba of course while Jaime tried the cold soba (buckwheat noodles dipped in broth). To start I ordered houba miso, a local delicacy of miso with shitake and leek grilled on a magnolia leaf. We followed it with some tofu topped with miso and finally crab legs grilled by the owner’s mother right in front of us.

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During the day we couldn’t stop snacking. Every roadside stand we passed one of us would rush for fried hida beef dough balls, pork buns or croquettes. Our final meal in Takayama was at Tengu, a small ten seat curry restaurant and that’s is all they serve. The hida beef curry melted in my mouth like butter. There was no fat and just the right amount of spice. I’m still thinking about it.

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Slurp, slurp, snot, snot, slurp. The louder you slurp or burb, the more appreciative of how good the meal is. This is what I listened to while sat in a small udon shop in Kyoto’s Higashiyama neighborhood sampling prawn tempura udon. As we continued to walk throughout the day we were constantly surrounded by food. Jaime snatched up takoyaki, or  fried octopus balls while Holly grabbed some candied fruit.

That evening at Finlandia Bar the girls tried some local cocktails while I learned to appreciate different Japanese beers. They didn’t serve Red Bull, but they did Red Bear, vodka flavored to taste just like Red Bull. Jaime had the waiter serve up his favorite concoction which consisted of a wasabi liquor yet was quite refreshing with ginger ale.  The dimly lit bar was a great place to stop off in Gion, Kyoto’s geisha district and the bartender was very friendly and spoke excellent English, recommending to Jaime which Japanese whisky to try next and offered us some dinner suggestions.

Red Bear Vodka

Red Bear Vodka

After meeting the brew master of Pabst Blue Ribbon China at an Irish pub, he recommended the best sushi restaurant in Kyoto, Kappa Sushi by Mayuzumi Group. Located in our favorite Kyoto neighborhood of Pontocho, it had been days since we’ve actually had sushi. How was that possible? We ordered from an extensive menu of fresh fish, each to our own taste. The fatty tuna was praised and I have to agree it was by far the best I’ve ever had. Yet, when Holly and I ordered the mozuku seaweed with vinegar it was far from what we expected. Slimy, snot like texture of green ooze we both slurped it up, laughing as it dribbled from our mouths. I must admit it did taste good though.

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At this point we felt oddly healthy, yet bloated. We blamed it on all the salt we consumed daily.

On a day trip to Nara we feared the end of our trip was approaching and still had some food items on our agenda we’ve yet to try.  I finally got myself the green tea ice cream all the kids were eating. After a day of petting wild deer and visiting temples we desperately scouted for a place to eat gyoza, or Japanese dumplings. Finally we found a small diner-like eatery where we each got our own personal large serve of gyoza, kimchi, spring rolls and noodles.

Curry katsu for breakfast wasn’t initially what I was craving the next morning but boy oh boy was it tasty. Fried pork cutlets in a brown gravy sauce over rice, it was awesome. Holly had croquettes for the 5th day in a row.

We moved on to Hiroshima and as part of our daily tradition stocked up on diafuku for the journey, a Japanese sweet of red bean in a doughy round rice cake. After arriving we scouted out an okonomiyaki eatery – a savory egg and noodle pancake. We stumbled upon an okonmiyaki food hall, with little stalls next to stalls all grilling the dish either with Chinese or udon noodles fresh in front of you while you waited. The serves were enormous but somehow we ended up eating it all.

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That night we took the ferry over to the quiet, serene island of Miyajima. We stayed at a lovely guesthouse that served us an amazing 8-course meal, while tranquil music played in the background. This was our Thanksgiving feast. Fresh oysters, sashimi, fried fish, soup, and green tea ice cream for dessert…it went on.

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Before leaving we stopped off for more oysters, a delicacy in Hiroshima where we ate them fried in curry after they were cooked fresh on the street corner. Accompanied by a local Miyajima beer it was the perfect way to end our last stop on our culinary journey.

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One thing we never go to try though was blowfish. Interestingly we learned that the majority of people who die of its poison aren’t at restaurants but from inexperienced cooks at home.

blowfish

Blowfish

It’s been less then fours days since I’ve returned from Japan and nearly dinnertime. Luckily for me a new Japanese restaurant recently opened up down the street and I just ordered some curry katsu to satisfy my cravings.