Two Weeks in Japan

Two Weeks in Japan Recipe

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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Comments

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.

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

david massaka

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;-)

Maiko Fukazu

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!

Sarah Williams

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!!

Sasha

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!

colleen

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

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 :)

viv

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.

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. :)

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.

Monkey Madness

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!

Dawn

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

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).

Sara

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.

Courtney

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

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.

Lish

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.

Katie in Berkeley

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.

Janelle

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!

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