Delicious Destination: Japan
November 10-20, 2012
Japan was a somewhat unexpected trip in our travel wish list, but it turned out to be one of the most amazing trips we’ve ever taken. My friend Michelle’s (OMC) husband, Kyle, is a Navy pilot and has been stationed in Japan the last few years. Missing my friend and former roommate, we decided to take a trip to visit and see what Japan has to offer.
OMC and Kyle live outside of Tokyo, but I also wanted to see Hiroshima and Kyoto. Hiroshima, for the historical significance since we also visited Pearl Harbor this year. Kyoto, because I read about its cultural history in So Far From the Bamboo Grove. OMC was a fabulous hostess and tour guide and I don’t know how we would have made it all over the country, much less navigated Tokyo without her. She also checked out The Rough Guide to Japan, which is an excellent guide book. I enjoyed it so much I ordered it from Amazon when we got home.
OMC recommended we purchase a 7 day JR Railpass prior to our arrival, since we would be traveling around the country. The 7 day pass was ~$350/person and was money well spent. We used it so much; I think the JR lost money on us.
The weather forecast predicted highs ranging from the 50s to low 60s. I really struggled with what to pack, as I wanted to look cute but be comfortable at the same time. In the end I decided to wear jeans and tennis shoes, and found a fabulous black fleece cardigan at Nordstrom, which turned out to be the best $40 I’ve ever spent (I just wish it had pockets). I paired the cardigan with light sweaters each day, and also had a light rain jacket and umbrella packed just in case (good thing I did!). In addition to packing for 10 days in a carry-on suitcase, I also brought my trusty backpack, which has so many pockets, and holds so much, it’s like a Mary Poppins bag.
Depart IAH: Saturday—Day 1
The flight was ~14 hours direct from Houston, and Scott and I passed the time on flight by watching movies, reading, watching the first half of Mad Men season 1, and napping.
Tokyo: Sunday—Day 2
Our flight arrived almost an hour early at NRT, which was good thing because it didn’t seem so bad until the last two hours. OMC picked us up and took us to her favorite sushi place, Shin’s. I had the misfortune of developing the “throat tickle” the day before we left for our trip so her friend Brittany graciously met us for dinner with a bottle of Robitussin for me. Dinner at Shin’s was delicious and we sampled the spicy tuna roll, scallops with asparagus, and yellow fin tuna. After getting settled at OMC’s house we were ready to go to bed about 9pm. The 15 hour time change took a few days to get used to, so between that and my coughing I woke up a few times during the night.
Tokyo: Monday—Day 3
Our first full day in Japan started at a leisurely pace. I was very excited for my first shower room experience, which was amazing. All Japanese homes have a “shower room” which is an open room that contains and bathtub and a shower head on a hose. Typically Japanese families bathe together, so this makes it easy to get everyone showered without making a huge mess. My other favorite feature, which is so efficient, is the toilet sink. The top of the toilet tank contains a faucet, and when you flush the toilet, water comes out of the faucet for you to wash your hands and then refills the toilet bowl.
We took the Tokyo metro from Zama going into Tokyo and also got a PASMO card to put money on for our metro fares (we were able to cash out our balance before we left). We spent a lot of time on the subway during our trip, which was a great way to get around and also observe the locals. OMC was able to track the metro schedule on her iphone which helped us know when and where to get places. People do not eat or drink on the metro and phones are on vibrate. People pass the time by napping, reading or using their phones to text, play games, or listen to music. Also across the country subway/train stations not only facilitate transportation but also contain stores, restaurants, and malls to make everything efficient when using public transportation. Most families have one car or no car, so public transportation is a way of life. I always enjoy this on trips, since Houston is not a walking city. However I was informed that Tokyo is Houston-hot in the summer and during those times you really wish you can just get in the car and crank the A/C so you don’t have to walk to and from the train.
Our first stop in Tokyo, was in the Roppongi neighborhood at Jane’s Pearls. Jane is a Japanese-American born in Hawaii, and was so gracious to educate us about pearls. After seeing everything there was to offer, Scott bought me a long strand of traditional pearls and two long strands of small pearls that can all be worn together or separately in a variety of ways. This was the perfect memento to have from our trip so I can think of Japan every time I wear them.
|entrance to Yasukuni Shrine|
Our next stop was to the Yasukuni Shrine and Yūshūkan Japanese war museum. We had some excellent Japanese ramen noodles on the Shrine grounds. The museum was very interesting and some of the things we learned were that when the West came to Japan requesting they open their ports to foreigners, Japan sent ~20 consultants to the US and Europe to learn about Western culture. Also of course one the events leading up to the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor in WWII was the US Oil Embargo and Japan’s view of the Pearl Harbor attack was that we wanted them to do it so we’d have an excuse to enter the war. After the museum we strolled through the shrine’s garden and koi pond.
We spent the evening in Shibuya walking around and taking in the sights. One interesting store we visited was, Tokyu Hands, it’s an everything store. A hybrid of Target, Hobby Lobby, and Home Depot all combined into one. They already had their Christmas items on display with the slogan “Happy Party Christmas” instead of the traditional Merry Christmas. Since most Japanese are Buddhist or do not practice religion, Christmas is not celebrated as a religious holiday but as a commercial holiday.
|Tokyu Hands "Happy Party Christmas"|
We stopped in a British pub for a drink before our dinner at a theme restaurant, The Lock Up, which was a rather unique experience. Scott was handcuffed upon entering and we were led to our jail cell for dinner. We weren’t sure of the exact theme, which seemed to be a mix of mental institution/mad scientist/Frankenstein/jeckell&hyde. The drinks on the menu were in a mad scientist theme served in beakers and test tubes. I ordered a drink that had cotton candy with it. We ordered shrimp tempura with fondue, pizza, potstickers, grilled meat, and a few other “tapas” style items to share.
|Scott "Locked Up"|
We walked through the Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest intersection, on our way to the train station, and for a Monday night ~9pm, there were so many people! I cannot even begin to imagine what this must be like on a weekend.
Tokyo: Tuesday—Day 4
OMC surprised us with our lunch being a private sushi lesson @ Shin’s. She knows I love to cook, so it was great to learn something new. Making sushi rolls is much harder than it looks. The key is to move quickly since the rice is so sticky. We first laid the seaweed paper on the bamboo roller, and then formed a ball of rice in our hands; quickly spread it across the seaweed paper, and the left a small border one long side. Next was adding a stripe of wasabi paste using the finger roll method—this also has to be done quickly or one end will be very spicy with too much wasabi and the other end won’t have any. Next place two strips of tuna side by side to form a line and begin using the bamboo matt to roll up the sushi log. Once it has been rolled, you want to press your fingers over the mat to make it more of a rectangular shape. The knife is then dipped in cold water to help make a clean cut, and then quickly wipe the knife clean with a damp towel. While we ate our creations for lunch, Shin then made a sushi “burrito” filled with eggs, crab, and variety of other items which we also tried. He also gave us a gift of a sushi calendar, which I have hanging at my office as a good diversity tidbit.
After our lesson we headed into Tokyo and strolled through the gardens of the Meiji Shrine. Afterwards we walked through the Harajuku main drag and surrounding neighborhood. This was an area with interesting people watching. Some of the girls dress up like dolls and characters. Strolling down the street was a bit of sensory overload, lots of shops and signs with many colors and Japanese characters and people everywhere. We eventually found ourselves walking through a more upscale residential and retail area that wasn’t as crowded. We stopped by a French style café, Café Anniversaire, for dinner. We sat outside, and felt like we on a sidewalk in Paris instead of Tokyo. I enjoyed some champagne, and had some prosciutto and cheese crostini for my dinner. Scott and OMC had a salmon salad sandwich, and a prosciutto salad.
|Sake barrels at Meiji Shrine|
Hiroshima: Wednesday—Day 5
Wednesday morning was an early start since we were going to Hiroshima. We finally began using our JR Rail pass to take the Shinkansen bullet train to Hiroshima. When we arrived at the Hiroshima train station, we took a quick cab ride to our hotel, the ANA Crowne Plaza, which was conveniently located near the A-Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial park and museum. We quickly learned that Asian style beds have very hard mattresses. Historically the Japanese slept on tatami mats, and it’s only been since the war that they began to use western style beds.
After freshening up, we strolled along the river and made our way to see the A-Bomb Dome. This is one of the few structures that survived the Atomic bomb, and this is the only building that was kept, as a reminder of that time. We noticed there were several groups of Japanese school children visiting on a field trip. A group of them, ran up to me and asked if I would answer some questions for their school project. They wanted to know where I was from, what I thought of Hiroshima, my name, and what are popular foods and sports in my country. I was then approached by many more students, and they had a different school project. Their project was asking people to write peace messages. I think I wrote at least 20 peace messages. Afterwards Scott and OMC laughed, because the kids first saw them, but then saw me and my blonde hair and decided to run up to me instead. I had wanted to walk through more of the peace park, but I saw how many school groups were over there waiting on their tour buses, and was worried I’d never make into the museum before it closed, because I’d be writing so many peace messages.
Peace Memorial museum was a very moving experience, just thinking about what happened that August day and the days that followed. I didn’t feel guilty as an American, but more just sad that such a devastating event had to occur. I’m sure that at the time it wasn’t an easy decision to make, and that there weren’t any good options. The museum had models of the city before and after the bomb. We learned that that the two of the reasons why Hiroshima was a target was that it was a military stronghold, but more importantly, there were not any American POWs in Hiroshima. Also there were no air raids on Hiroshima, so that it would be easier to see the full impact of the bomb. The museum had letters from Albert Einstein written to US government with his hypothesis of what the impact would be. Also on display were many letters written over the years by the mayors of Hiroshima to various governments asking them to stop nuclear testing and remember what happened to Hiroshima. On display were many artifacts, stories, and testimonials of what happened that day. One photo was a man’s shadow that had been preserved on the sidewalk, a watch that stopped ticking at the exact moment, among other things. It was expected that nothing would grow there for 75 years, but the next spring despite everything being charred and black, the plants started to sprout again as if nothing happened and it provided a renewed sense of hope. However it was sad to read about the birth defects that resulted and the large increase of cases of children with leukemia in the years that followed.
Afterwards we had dinner at Ristorante Mario, which was across from the museum and recommended by the guide book. We had seen quite few Italian restaurants so far in Japan, and decided to give it a try. One thing that was interesting is that everyone there was Japanese. Usually at home the owner of the Italian restaurant has some Italian ancestry, but that was obviously not the case here. However, the food was very delicious, and surprisingly authentic despite our location. We all started with the Caprese salad, which consisted of arugula, heirloom cherry tomatoes, and ricotta cheese with balsamic vinaigrette. For my entrée I had fettuccini pasta with prosciutto, and a cream sauce, followed by a dessert plate of a sorbet and chocolate tart. I also had some prosecco with the meal.
It was quite chilly and windy that evening so we decided to spend our evening at the hotel bar instead of walking around the city. I had the most delicious and beautiful tea presentation. I ordered the chamomile tea, which was brought to me in a clear glass tea pot, which had chamomile flowers floating in the tea. In addition a base with a tea light was provided to keep the tea warm.
Miyajima Island & Fukuoka: Thursday—Day 6
This was one my favorite days on the trip and the main activities were so different from each other that it felt like two days. We started our morning by using our fabulous JR Rail Pass to travel to Miyajima and then took the JR Ferry to Miyajima Island (shrine Island). The ferry ride over had a beautiful view of the floating O-Torii. Upon arrival we made our way to the Itsukushima-jinja shrine. We made our way through the shrine along the water enjoying the view of the beautiful fall foliage along the way. After taking a few token tourist photos, we then made our way into the hills to see the Daisho-in Buddhist temple. The walk through the hills was amazing; taking in nature, seeing more beautiful fall colored leaves, and the view of the water from up high. The temple was my favorite event of the day. The sights and sounds were so unique. As I entered the property I was greeted with a cup of tea. The temple grounds were full of garden paths and several caves that were each their own little shrine. Afterwards we made our way down the hill and had some delicious street food of chicken, beef, and pork.
|Floating O-torii at Itsukushima-jinja shrine|
|hillside path to Daisho-in Buddhist temple|
|Daisho-in Buddhist temple|
|Daisho-in Buddhist temple|
|Daisho-in Buddhist temple|
|Daisho-in Buddhist temple|
|Daisho-in Buddhist temple|
|yummy street food|
After Miyajima Island we used our JR Rail Pass to take the train to Fukuoka and attend a sumo tournament. Sumo was much slower than I was expecting. They spend more time in their prep routine trying to intimidate each other than actually wrestling. The prep for each match was several minutes and the match itself was 30 seconds to a minute.
Iwakuni & Kyoto: Friday—Day 7
We started our day with a quick trip to Iwakuni, to see the Iwakuni bridge. The bridges construction mimics a stone skipping across the water and makes it easy to cross during a flood.
|fall leaves at Iwakuni|
Then we were on our way to Kyoto, which turned out to be our favorite city on the trip. Our hotel, the New Miyako Hotel was conveniently located across the street from the train station. After checking in we purchased a city bus day pass and rode over to see Kiyomizu-dera. Afterwards we went to the Gion district, walked around, and then strolled down the lovely Pontocho alley. Pontocho is lined with restaurants and bars, and OMC took us a fabulous place for dinner called Issian Pontocho. Our waitress, Alex, is a high school student, but her English was so American she had to be from the US and we found out grew up in Los Angeles until she was 9, at which time her parents decided to move back to Japan. Our dinner consisted of several courses that were cooked on a large hot stone on our table. We had shrimp, scallops, chicken thighs and necks, pork, beef, and veggies. All the pieces were small and could be easily eaten with chop sticks.
Kyoto in the Rain: Saturday—Day 8
Our second day in Kyoto was very unique not only in the places that we visited but also the weather, which turned out to be very rainy. Had I been at home in Houston I would have spent the day napping on the couch, but I had to be a good tourist and see everything Kyoto had to offer, rain or shine. Also OMC’s friend, Julie, had been in Tokyo for work and she met us in Kyoto that morning.
We started our sightseeing by walking through the thousands of Torii gates at Fushimi-Inari. The rain was more of misty sprinkle and we felt prepared with our rain jackets and umbrellas. During the torii gate walk we thought about what a cool date spot this would be, but wondered if the Japanese viewed it that way since the walk was technically a shrine.
Next we made our way to the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum and Brewery. The rain was a little stronger but not enough to slow us down. A few times we looked like super tourists as we kept checking our maps trying to find it. Even though the sake museum exhibits had Japanese captions, we were able to get the gist of the history and process of sake making. At the end we had the opportunity to sample two kinds of sake and some plum wine. I’m not a sake fan, but I did like the plum wine. Fortunately Spec’s carries their products so we can enjoy some at home.
Afterwards we hopped on the city bus to make our way over to Jonan-gu shrine and gardens. We debated whether or not to change our plans to an indoor activity, but decided since we were already wet we might as well keep going. We did not know what wet was at this time. As we walked, the rain began pouring. We were soaked and since there weren’t any tourists out and about due to the weather, there were no cabs in sight. As we approached the gardens, we said they better be the most beautiful gardens we’ve seen, and thankfully they were which made the rain worth it. In an attempt to escape the monsoon we eventually found a taxi to take us to local subway station.
When we got back to the hotel, Scott and I changed into dry clothes and then had a very late lunch at the hotel restaurant. I knew if I took a nap, I’d be ruined for the day so I had to keep moving. This was our opportunity to have a date night on the trip. I was determined to have some Kobe beef, especially since we were so close to the town of Kobe. Our Google searches found two places in the Gion district with rave reviews, Grill Miyata and Hafuu. We decided on Grill Miyata, as it sounded like a delicious hole in the wall, where a Mr. Miyagi type man would cook us a fabulous meal, and tell us about Japan. The bloggers all said it would be difficult to find, but we did our research, walked down the street and found it right away only to find out it was closed. Neighboring business gave us the impression it was closed for good. So that meant plan B, dinner at Hafuu.
At this point we couldn’t use our iphones map app since we had no wifi, but I thought I had recalled it being located along the river. After walking around with no luck, we decided to wander through Gion’s main streets. I spotted an iphone store and knew they would have internet on a display ipad. I walked in and asked if anyone spoke English, and attempted to tell the store clerks about our restaurant search. Miraculously they found the website, address, and map for Hafuu on their ipad. However their attempts to draw a map with only lines for streets and no words really had me worried. So I asked them to write the name and address in Japanese so we could give it to a cab driver. We found a cab, and I showed the driver the address card and our wordless map. He seemed a little unsure, and I thought for sure we would end up driving in a circle only to get out where we started. He began driving and turned occasionally where I thought the map might have directed. One of the final turns was down a quiet dark street, he stopped the cab to ask a man closing up shop if he knew where the restaurant was (no man in the US would ever dare stop to ask directions…I couldn’t believe it). The stranger indicated it was just a little further down the street and within seconds we had finally arrived at our destination.
We walked into Hafuu and had the option to sit at a table in the dining room or have counter service. We opted for the counter so we could see the action in the kitchen. We ordered the Kobe beef dinner set which came with several courses, at this point a month later I don’t remember much except they were all yummy but the Kobe beef was the star attraction. Only two cuts were offered, the sirloin and tenderloin, we ordered one of each and they split both on our plates so we could sample both. By far the most heavenly tasting steak I’ve ever had with the exception of Killen’s Kobe beef which is a very close tie. We had a nice chat the Hafuu owner, who told us he briefly attended college in Florida for a year and then returned to Japan. He and his wife own two Hafuu locations, and their other location is the one on trip advisor, etc and wondered how we found their “local” location. We told them about our story. At the end of the meal, the owner called a cab for us, and he and his wife escorted us outside to make sure the driver knew where to take us.
Kyoto: Sunday—Day 9
Luckily for us the weather cleared up for our last day of sightseeing in Kyoto. We purchased a Kyoto sightseeing pass which gave us unlimited on/off privileges on the city buses and Kyoto subway for the day. This was a full day as we made it to five temples, which was great so I could enjoy all my nature walks.
|Ryoanji Garden of Infinite Learning|
We had some time to kill before catching our train back to Tokyo, so we ventured to Pontocho in Gion and first stopped at the Stardust Club, which was teeny tiny, dark, full of smoke, and the walls were covered with Jazz/Blues posters. We stayed for a drink and then went down the street to try another bar Fly Me to the Moon. This bar was also teeny tiny, but had a massive drink menu. As a rule everyone had to order a drink, I guess this was the seat fee.
Finally it was time to go, so we made our way to Kyoto station, and grabbed some “gas station snacks” for dinner. I had some pretz to snack on and Scott purchased pretz and chu-hi.
Oddly, one of my favorite Japan experiences was on the train ride home. On the local train from Tokyo to Zama, a group of drunken 25 year old Japanese guys entered our subway car. They had a box of pizza, and upon seeing us started yelling “Oh Shit!”. Apparently drunk is the same everywhere. We had a good laugh, and they sat with us talking to us in English and wanting to share their pizza. One guy had an app on his phone that he typed in Japanese and it translated to English so he could communicate with us.
Tokyo: Monday—Day 10
After getting back to Tokyo late the night before, we had a late start to our day. We were also a man down as someone had too many Chu-His the night before.
We started the day with lunch on the base. At this point we needed a break from eating Japanese food and wanted something more comforting. I had Mexican food, pork carnitas tacos, which were very tasty.
After lunch we made our way to Yokohama, and our first stop was the Cup Noodles Museum. This was a fun experience to learn about the creation of ramen noodles and industry history. It was also another example of how the Japanese think about what best for the group instead of the individual, as the ramen noodle inventor eventually disclosed his patent, in order for the industry to make better products. Next we went to Landmark Tower observatory, to the view of Yokohama lit up at night. Then we strolled through Yokohama’s China Town. At first glance I thought it looked just like everything else, but after taking a closer look, I noticed that the torii gates were red and more ornate than the traditional Japanese torii gates.
Finally we were hungry and ready for dinner; our first few restaurant attempts were unsuccessful as many restaurants were closed on Mondays. We ended up at a quaint Spanish restaurant named Primero. Of course the staff was Japanese, but our waiter actually spoke more Spanish than English! I was delighted by this as I could actually communicate and practice my Spanish. Surprisingly the rest of group spoke very little Spanish, so I had the chance to play “tour guide” and translate the menu, plus order more drinks as needed. Everything we ordered was very tasty, and compared to tapas I’ve had in Spain or at other Spanish restaurants in the US, surprisingly authentic. I kept my order simple with sangria, queso manchego (manchego cheese),jamon de serrano (Serrano ham), and gambas al ajillo (shrimp w/ garlic). OMC ordered a bacon wrapped plantain concoction that she was fabulous, maybe I’ll try to duplicate it at home one of these days.
Tokyo & Houston: Tuesday—Day 11
Our last day was bittersweet, I was wishing I had extended our trip through Thanksgiving so we could stay longer, but it was time to go home. Kyle treated us to base tour and showed us some F-18s. Then he and OMC escorted us to the train station so we could catch the Narita Express to the airport (our JR Railpass covered the Narita Express too!).
One thing that surprised me about the airport was that we didn’t have to take off our shoes when we went through airport security. On the flight home we watched the second half of Mad Men season 1, did some reading, napping, and 11 hours later we were back in Houston.
We were glad to be home sleeping in our own bed but regularly think of our trip and continue to observe and discuss cultural differences and ways we could benefit from Japanese customs. Hopefully we can go back to Japan and continue to see more of the beautiful country.