Two Weeks in Japan

Two Weeks in Japan


After two weeks in Japan, I begrudgingly boarded a 747 - final destination San Francisco. I have to tell you, there are times on trips like this when I get anxious to get home. I miss the little things. For example, being able to cook my own meals, having access to a washing machine, high-powered hair driers. I get tired of rummaging through my suitcase pockets looking for things. But this trip was different. I would have liked to stay longer, visit more places. We touched down in Tokyo on a chilly afternoon and spent the next two weeks bundled up and taking in as much as possible. We eventually made our way by bullet train to Kyoto, then onto Mt. Koyasan before flying back from Osaka.

I thought I'd try to outline some of the highlights of the trip in case you find yourself there. So many of you offered up suggestions, it quickly became clear I'd need another year there to explore all of them. I couldn't be more thankful for your insights, it was a bit overwhelming trying to figure out where to go, what to do, and more importantly, what to skip this time around. Your notes and emails helped immensely in that regard - enabling me to narrow things down. As far as traveling there in winter, it was quite cold, and it rained a lot, and snowed some. That didn't bother me much, it certainly isn't for everybody, traveling in winter, but I'd still go back this time of year. If you don't mind perpetually numb fingers and toes, the misty mornings were magical, and you could see the very first signs of spring in the handful of rogue plum blossom trees that had somehow exploded into full bloom despite snow still falling from the sky.

As far as restaurants go, we ate in many of the vegetarian or macrobiotic cafes in both towns (Tokyo and Kyoto). More often than not, the offerings were simple, fresh, and delicious. Meals were satisfying without being overly filling. Vibrant produce made an appearance at nearly every meal, the food was handled meticulously. Their lettuce absolutely glows on the plate, even in the simplest cafes. Thankfully it seems as if the Japanese have yet to discover bagged lettuce.

Two Weeks in Japan

Tokyo Highlights: Brown Rice Cafe served up the best tempeh I've ever tasted. It was fresh and nutty, didn't need any sauce, marinade, or spices whatsoever. Just a pinch of salt was all. We went back twice. /// Stocked up on snacks and breakfast items at Natural House, just a couple blocks from Brown Rice Cafe. /// A walk around the neighborhood streets of Nakano and a cozy lunch at Govinda's Veg Kitchen with our friend Kurt. /// PURE Cafe (in the same area as Brown Rice Kitchen) /// Meiji-Jingu Shrine in rain so strong the drops were jumping back from the ground. /// Lunch at Macrobiotic Marche (attached to a Macrobiotic cooking school). The cafe is also attached to a little macrobiotic pantry where you can stock up on some fantastic grain blends, miso pastes, seaweeds, seasonings, and the like. /// Stroll along the river to Cow Books in Nakameguro, spotted some really cool lunch trucks parked there as well. (Tokyo Paella & Soup Girl) /// Also in Nakameguro (across and diagonal from Cow Books), I popped into cute cafe drole for a slice of extra-moist banana bread. Then, a few blocks later stumbled on the exquisite mochi treats at Higashiya. They are presented in a beautiful baton box, wrapped, and place in a bag with a mini ice-pack to keep them chilled until you get home. Hard to resist. /// I found myself at the Shinjuku Muji store and the Shinjuki Isetan basement food court more than once. There is a nice grocery store, if that is what you call it, in that food court, and I stocked up on a bunch of Japanese salts and spice blends. And then I bought a six-pack of Pierre Hermé macaroons to take back to Wayne. We don't have those in San Francisco. /// Great photo book store / gallery, Sokyusha, also in Shinjuku. The little gallery was showing some huge, stunning Kohei Yoshiyuki prints - The Pond series. /// Leica store in Ginza. /// I got an email from a reader (thank you Caitlin!) who sent me a link to this article about a chef doing ital soba in Tokyo. The miniscule restaurant is called Asahi, and it is Tokyo's only Rasta-vegan noodle house. Chef Koichi Nakajima is it. It is just him, you, and maybe four or five other diners. He turned out our very best meal in Tokyo, and (at second glance) I think he did it using a couple of deluxe camping stoves. Well worth the effort it took to seek out the tiny, off-the-beaten path location (a couple subway transfers, and a 15 minute walk). I promise to write more about it in more detail later. There's a map on this page. /// Watching a snowstorm from the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower at Tokyo City View in Roppongi. We kept warm in a nearby bookstore with a great photo book selection as well - Tsutaya. Had a cozy lunch at nearby Eat More Greens. /// Organic Show & Earth Garden/Earth Shows with Chika - good company, and lots of interesting heirloom beans, grains, seeds, and arts & crafts for sale.

Two Weeks in Japan

Kyoto Highlights: After a week in Tokyo we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. /// Dinner in Gion at Yamafuku with our friends Aaron and Yuko - tip: bring your favorite Japanese speaking friend. In addition to many other things, a few highlights of this meal included a whole, small roasted eggplant with a double miso slathered crust, and sesame silken tofu. /// A friend gave us four tiny pastries when we arrived. The petite ginger-crusted cakes were made to look like baked sweet potatoes. I'm still trying to figure out how they are made, the cake inside the crust seemed like some sort of mochi cake, but I'm not exactly sure. It was our favorite pastry of the trip. /// An early morning walk through thousands of orange temple gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. /// The Golden Pavillion. /// The Bamboo Forest. /// Cozy, tasty set lunch at Biotei back near our hotel. /// Shopping at Angers. /// Knife shopping at Aritsugu in the Nishiki market. /// Best ever daily drip coffees around the big round counter at Inoda. /// Philosopher's Stroll. /// Soba noodle soup topped with egg and yuba skins and chopped green onions at Kyoto Ukiya on the ground floor of The Kyoto Museum. /// Most special meal in Kyoto was a shojin-ryori lunch at Shigetsu adjacent to the Tenryu-ji temple, near the Bamboo Forest.

Koyasan: We took the subway to a train, to another train, and then a cable car up the side of a mountain to get to UNESCO World Heritage site Koyasan. There are a few dozen monasteries visitors can stay at, but no hotels - we booked our stay through Japanese Guest Houses and stayed two tranquil nights. We spent most of our time walking around the town and temples - and enjoying the temple meals. You are invited (encouraged) to observe the early morning chanting with the monks, I imagine a rare opportunity for many including myself. And our misty forest stroll through the Okunoin Cemetery to the Lantern Hall was otherworldly. /// There is a fantastic little cafe (Bon On Shya International Cafe) on the main road in Koyasan where a couple, Veronique and Takeshi, serve espresso drinks as well as a lunch set each day.

I recognize writing about our trip in a list like this is quite this reductive, but I wanted to keep it to a somewhat reasonable length. I look forward to getting into more detail about some of the places we visited in the coming weeks/months. I'll likely post more pictures to my Flickr stream over the coming weeks as well. I shot the photos in this post the morning we visited Meiji-Jingu Shrine near Harajuku Station. Wayne took the two shots of me, one of them I'm a little damp from the rain, and trying to keep my camera dry using my hand (not particularly effective).

I hope this is a good start for those of you who think you might want to visit Japan. We definitely thought of it as an "introductory" visit, and can't wait to go back.

 
 
 
 
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Your Comments


This just makes me want to go back to Japan even more. I loved it there. Thanks for sharing your pictures and adventures!

 

Erin
March 15, 2009

I am incredibly jealous! It sounds like a wonderful trip and I can't wait to see what recipes you come up with from your Japanese cache.

 

Looks like you had a fantastic trip - good for you! Love the pictures too!

 

Trish
March 15, 2009

Oh...my husband went this summer and enjoyed it immensely. We mostly eat Japanese when we 'eat out' which is not that often anymore. However, it occurs to me then that perhaps I might ask you this question here and now...do you have a recipe for Ebi Sunomono? I sooooo want to learn to make that at home. Email me if you post something akin to that....thanks. Love the blog...great photos

 

Rebecca
March 15, 2009

Your photos are beautiful. I'd go to Japan just to walk down that road:)

 

Ricki
March 15, 2009

What an amazing trip. I've had a Japanese penpal since I was a kid (that's a long time, believe me!) and she's invited me many times. . . your photos motivate me to keep saving so I can finally get there!

 

Julia
March 15, 2009

Sounds absolutely wonderful, I really hope I'll get to go some day. I've been eating my way through all of the lovely Japanese cafes, restaurants and bakeries in Düsseldorf lately, so I can't even imagine what sampling the real deal would be like...

And I was wondering what camera you were using? The pictures are all gorgeous, they have this depth to them that I mainly associate with analogue cameras. I can't figure out what camera you're holding, so it would be lovely if you could put this camera nerd out of her misery. ;)

HS: Thanks Julia! It's my medium-format Fuji. But I shot some digital on the trip as well.

 

christie
March 15, 2009

i love these photos above. beautiful.

HS: Thanks Christie!

 

Jennifer
March 15, 2009

Great post! You make me homesick for Japan. (I lived there for six years, from mid-20s to early 30s, and feel like I "grew up" there.)

And I love that you went to Govinda's in my very first neighborhood in Tokyo! Are there still as many cats running around Nakano as I remember?

HS: Definitely some cats still around Jennifer :)

 

skye
March 15, 2009

It sounds like you had a wonderful trip! I'm very excited to get your Tokyo tips as we're moving there next month after a long time in a small town in the mountains.
Too bad it was so rainy - there's usually a bit less rain and more snow that time of year..

 

Emily
March 15, 2009

I think the most wonderful thing about traveling is experiencing another culture and the food that brings the people together. How amazing that you were able to spend 2 weeks in Japan. I can't wait to see the recipes that come our way.

 

CW
March 15, 2009

A few years ago I took a group of students to Japan, and we visited the Meiji-Jingu Shrine as well. I remember being fascinated by the workers meticulously raking the gravel road (your second picture). Thanks for reminding me of it!

 

Trish in MO
March 15, 2009

You are so fortunate to be able to travel like that..you know this, right?! Thank you for sharing with us. It's the only way I'd ever get there: vicariously through others. And your photos and recipes add such a lovely touch to it all!

I will settle in with some tea and nut-and-seed-biscottis for the journey as you detail out your trip in the coming weeks!

HS: Thanks Trish, I do feel very fortunate.

 

Melissa Gutierrez
March 15, 2009

Oh do send pictures of cherry blossoms!

 

Meg
March 15, 2009

I love the photos! Food sounds amazing. I'm envious of your trip to a nice country! I wanted more info on weird toilets.

 

Sasutan
March 16, 2009

The camping stove you describe is very standard in homes in Japan. Most Japanese homes come with only a two burner gas stove - which I associate with a what you'd cook with in a caravan. Deluxe versions have a small slide out fish grill in the middle.
Small kitchens need small appliances....

 

Gourmet Chick
March 16, 2009

Looking forward to hearing more about your trip and the amazing meals you had there. I love Japan and am very keen for a return trip there.

 

Hayley
March 16, 2009

Sounds like you had an amazing experience. I would love to go someday. Thanks for sharing your travels with us!

 

siri
March 16, 2009

Heidi-

I'm thrilled you got the chance to go to Koya-san! We spent part of our honeymoon there for a couple of nights and still talk about the breakfast and 6AM chanting! The cemetery stroll was particularly memorable- we were there in the peak humidity of September and received a few hundred misquote bites, but I loved taking photos of the shrines and all of the little hats and cloaks that people had made for the buddhas. Hope you had good lighting when you were in there- it was absolutely fantastic for us!

-Siri

 

Crystal
March 16, 2009

Sounds like a great trip. Definitely somewhere I'd love to go in the future. Thanks for the highlights on food too!

 

liannallama
March 16, 2009

ah! 4 years ago we were celebrating St. Patrick's day in the Tokyo train station where I insisted we had to go to the Irish pub, LOL! I'm still sentimental about the mediocre fish & chips and the black & tan that they called "half-half" which was really mixed up Harp and Guiness instead of layered!

Beautiful photos and I hope you got to see a few cherry blossoms in Ueno park while you were there! My favorite food of the whole trip was the warm and tasty ramen we ate nearly every day to warm our cold, rain-soaked souls!

 

Janelle
March 16, 2009

Thanks for sharing Heidi! It is interesting, because I have almost the exact same picture of the man sweeping the gravel at Meiji-Jingu shrine (quite a skill, if you ask me!). We visited in December and had such a wonderful time. Would love to go to Kyoto next time.

HS: Yes, Kyoto is amazing. I wish we had more time there.

 

Katie in Berkeley
March 16, 2009

I LOVED Koyasan and I still dream of that lovely cafe run by that wonderful couple. I'm so glad you made it there.

HS: There really were fantastic. Such a special place.

 

Lish
March 16, 2009

The camera! It looks like a Mamiya 7... or some other kind of medium format rangefinder. Is it?

HS: That day I had my medium-format Fuji with me.

 

I'm so glad that I warned you that the weather would be like that of Ohio. Hopefully you took warm clothing and gloves.

From 1966 to 1968 I was stationed in Tachikawa (about an hour west of Tokyo by train). And every opportunity I got I hopped on the train to travel all over Japan. It's been 40 years and I still have dreams about those two years. Some day I'll go back on an extended photography expedition.

When are you going back? :-)

Terry Thomas...
the photographer
Atlanta, Georgia USA
www.TerryThomasPhotos.com

 

Courtney
March 16, 2009

I have the "Eat More Greens" cookbook and love it--exciting that you went there! This post makes me so homesick for Japan :-( I can't wait til I'm there next so I can try out your suggestions. I always get overwhelmed by Tokyo so this is a great new guide!

HS: You have to go to Asahi when you are in Tokyo, it was such good, simply prepared food.

 

Sara
March 16, 2009

Japan is a lovely country! We're living on a base near Hiroshima right now and love it!

Next time you visit Japan, be sure to see the floating Torii at Miyajima and Peace Park in Hiroshima (within 30 minutes of each other by train).

 

Marianne
March 16, 2009

Japan is definitely on my "to see" list, so I really appreciate your recap. One day I'll get there.

 

Dawn
March 16, 2009

Heidi,
Hearing your account of your visit brings me back to the 2 weeks I spent in Japan in 2004. I went with my then boyfriend (now husband) and his parents. It was, and still is, a trip of a lifetime!
I fell in love with the culture and the food, and would love to go back!

 

Monkey Madness
March 16, 2009

If you watched any Japanese TV during your trip, you couldn't have missed the way that they cover local restaurants. There are different shows, but the format usually consists of one or two presenters going to a regional restaurant and trying out their specialties. As most of the sound is clearly praise for the food, you don't need to speak Japanese to follow the presenters. What really stands out is the focus on fresh, carefully prepared and well presented food. A restaurant might specialise in tofu skin or soba noodles, but the care that they take really comes through, and it is touching what lengths the Japanese will go to, in order to really appreciate the labours and skills of the chefs.

 

Kitchen M
March 16, 2009

Glad you enjoyed your trip!
Unlike California or San Francisco, every season in Japan is very different and unique. If you plan to go there again, I would recommend choosing different season: even late March or early April is great for cherry blossom and Kyoto in the fall is absolutely beautiful. :)

 

melocoton
March 17, 2009

Wow.
I'm an admirer of your recipes and photos, but it's also sooo interesting to read about visitors' accounts of Japan, having grown up in Tokyo until I was a teenager.

Also as a meat eater, I don't know any of the eateries you mention! ;o

I miss the seasonality of food (just dug up bamboo shoots in late spring, etc) in Japan as I live in London and supermarkets here seem to stock same vegitables all year around.

 

viv
March 17, 2009

what a great review, i have been researching for a trip to japan but was finding it hard to find vegetarian restaurants, this is a great post. thanks so much. great blog in general, just discovered it today and already tagged a gazillion recipes :)

 

rbam
March 17, 2009

Nice photos! I love this country, and I love that you post recipes that have ingredients I can find here now and then! If you ever come back and decide to do more of Kansai or head north to Tohoku I have lots of suggestions.

~Dana in Aomori

 

colleen
March 17, 2009

heidi,
I'm going to Japan in 5 wks with my husband and mother-in-law - her first time back since she left 38 yrs ago! I was so excited to get all the suggestions from readers, and I really appreciate you sharing your experience in return. Tempeh is the one thing my husband's avoids eating after one failed cooking attempt, so hopefully I could get him to try it there. Thanks again!

 

Sasha
March 17, 2009

I'm off to Tokyo for two weeks at the beginning of April! Tough question - what is the ONE thing that you would say is a do-not-miss? :-)

Thanks Heidi!!

 

Sarah Williams
March 17, 2009

The best yudofu I ever had was in a little restaurant beside a river in Kyoto. Outside it was freezing, rainy, bone-chilling; but the yudofu, so simple and flavorful, made us forget the weather. I hope we will see a yudofu recipe!

 

Maiko Fukazu
March 18, 2009

Wow!
I was really surprised that so many people are interested in Japan! (I am Japanese and a kind of chef by the way.) I took around my British friend in Tokyo and Kyoto(plus Himeji and some other places) last two weeks. We went to Meiji-jingu too. It's like a coincidence. We might have met somewhere in Tokyo or Kyoto...I got the coldest day and the first snow in this winter in Tokyo. It was freezing, yes...

I love your website with lots of pretty photos and good recipes.

Some people are saying that will visit to Japan soon? PLEASE ask me any questions about Japan, it would be great if I can communicate with others. Of course I can give you any Japanese recipes;-)

 

david massaka
March 18, 2009

wow, what a trip, ive never been to japan before but i have to admit that it would have been a trip from my lifetime

 

Katie
March 18, 2009

Thanks for the list of good-food places. I potentially have 6 months in Tokyo in my future - if this works out, I'll definitely be referring to your list.

 

Caitlin
March 18, 2009

I'm so glad you liked the restaurant and Japan!

I'm hoping to go home (to Kobe) soon and hopefully will make a trip to Tokyo as well.

Your photos also seem to somehow capture a some of the Japanese essence.

 

Mauri Mollan
March 18, 2009

Fresh, simple, delicious and not overfilling, I think you said of some of your Japanese meals. These seem to be worthy food goals in general. Some great foods are complex in their preparation however and I love them too. Excellent trip report and you could have stayed longer. This says it all.

 

amanda
March 19, 2009

i love pierre herme

 

Whitney
March 19, 2009

Awww, reading this made me kind of ache for Japan. I, too, loved Fushimi Inari shrine-- it was one of my favorite things I saw in the 2 years I lived in Japan.

 

thepinkpeppercorn
March 20, 2009

Oh wow, oh wow, wow!! LOVE the photos, and fantastic info too! Now I can no longer postpone the inevitable...I can't wait! Thanks :)

 

Kelsey
March 20, 2009

Ah! This post is cool! I'm going on a study-tour to Japan in May, and I'm having a hard time picking out cute, little places to explore when I'm there. ♥

 

remie
March 21, 2009

Hello,
First time to visit your great website. I am from Tokyo and read your article. I am glad that you enjoyed staying here.
Many kinds of things are here in Tokyo. You will never be bored.

 

Hey great post!

Love the pictures.

Keep em coming!

 

RickO
March 22, 2009

Great post. I lived in Japan from January 1991 thru September 1992, and these snippets from your travel diary remind me how much I enjoyed my stay and how much I want to go back.

 

puutoolay
March 23, 2009

In my country,Burma, Everything is very dirty. When I saw your photos, I want to escape from the junta of my country. May you be happy throughout your life.

 

Jennifer
March 25, 2009

I am part Japanese and I had the amazing opportunity to visit Japan for a month when I was 5. More than 20 years later, I still remember everything and it is still my favorite trip EVER. We stayed with family and friends and got to see and do a lot of things that were off the beaten path. I'm glad you had a wonderful trip and had a lot of great food. There's nothing like having rice and noodles for breakfast instead of the quintessential American cereal or oatmeal!