Apparently I have turned into one of those Japanophiles. Every evening I slip into my yukata, burn aloeswood incense and eat pretty much anything with chopsticks. In 35 years of travel I have yet to love a destination as much as I loved Japan. Now, just another creepy groupie, the haze settles over my eyes as I fall into a trance and answer, "How was your trip?" with all manner of adulations, venerations and punctuations. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why this country affected me so strongly, only to say that it's as if a cottony veil has been lifted from my brow and I see the world differently now. Ya, sounds pretty corny, don't it?
For me, one of the most powerfully striking features of this ancient civilization is the intense reverence they hold for nature and the seasons. This seemed to affect not only aesthetic but also many practical decisions, including even week to week shifts in which foods to eat. To an outsider all of this translated into a palpable feeling of gentleness and presence paired with deep respect. This, along with pride and harmony, seem to define the Japanese consciousness - characteristics which make visiting this far away string of volcanic islands a singularly inspiring experience.
Alright, enough philosophizing about something I know only the tiniest fraction about. It was also vacation! We ate amazing food, saw beautiful places and experienced a massive dose of foreign culture. Here is a sort of travel guide for just the larger cities (I will break out my favorite spots into longer posts very soon - Naoshima Island, Japan Alps & Kitchens of Japan).
For anyone who is curious, this was our route:
Fly into Osaka - Kyoto - Naoshima - Hiroshima - Japan Alps (Takayama - Shirahone Onsen - Matsumoto - Yamanouchi - Obuse) - Tokyo - Hakone - Tokyo - Fly home
Below I cover a few bits and bobs from Kyoto and Tokyo only...
Our first stop. A breathtaking city. Quiet back street wanderings at night after dinner made me really fall in love. Tradition meets modernity is the feel of this place. Also OUR HOTEL was amazing. I would recommend it to anyone: Hotel Kanra. The last day we borrowed their bikes to get around, which we should have done since the beginning - the flat city is perfect for biking. And in Japan you can ride your bike on the sidewalk! We spent four nights in Kyoto, but easily could have spent many more.
We avoided most of the busy sights, which are truly beyond busy here. On our first day we took advantage of jet lag and headed to Fushimi Inari shrine (with the famous orange torii gates) at the butt crack of dawn and had it all to ourselves. The morning fog slowly lifting, we wandered down side trails through bamboo forests and had the entire scene to ourselves for picture taking. Early bird definitely gets the worm in Kyoto. By the time we headed back down the hill hours later the place was jam packed and that sweet mystical calm we had experienced was gone.
Thanks to a trail race, The Mt. Hiei International Trail Run, our friend Joe Grant was running, we had a reason to head up to Mt Hiei, home of the Marathon Monks, where we spent a day wandering around the cedar & bamboo forests, visiting the many temples, and watching runners suck down noodles at aid stations. The winding road heading up to the mountain took us through maple forests, giving us our first glimpse of Japanese maples in the wild...who knew they grew so large?
Kyoto is known for kaiseki, an exquisite multi-course, seasonal meal of many tiny dishes. We decided to eat at the off-shoot of Kikunoi, one of the most famous kaiseki restaurants, called Roan Kikunoi, which is run by one of the brothers. The food was absolutely delicious. It is also a less formal restaurant, with seating mostly at the bar, which I loved because we got to be closer to the chefs. One, who stood in front of us and cut fish all night long, agreed to show us his knives. He explained that each knife used to be the same length, but thanks to daily sharpening on a whetstone, the three knives, each ten years apart, looked radically different.
We had other wonderful food in Kyoto: yakitori, soba, udon...though I will say one of my favorite meals was congee for breakfast in Kyoto Station at Matsuba near the Shinkansen platforms. With a bit of seaweed and a lightly poached egg, it felt like true comfort food. Can't miss it since this is the only meal the famous soba restaurant serves at breakfast time.
From Kyoto we went on to what became my favorite parts of Japan - small islands, countryside and mountains - which I will go into another time. We finished the trip in Tokyo, which was good and bad (in my very subjective, country bumpkin opinion). Good because by the time we got there we were comfortable enough in Japan that we could deal with Tokyo. Bad because compared with where we had just come from it felt like a not very attractive, super overwhelming city. Sorry Tokyo, I'm such a jerk! Extensive bombing and fires during WWII means the city is almost completely modern, which made me miss what is so inspiring in other cities like Paris, Rome, London...
All that being said, we had two stellar experiences there: a very special dinner and a Sumo match. Also a morning spent gaping at Tsukiji Fish Market (maybe the most touristed spot in Japan?? But still amazing. Couldn't help but feel for everyone who is actually conducting business there. Oh, and David Beckham was there that day too, his bodyguard caught me peeking.).
If you are lucky enough to be visiting Japan during a Sumo tournament, plan ahead, get tickets and go. We were able to score a box (a tiny carpeted section with a few cushions on it) on the first floor, and settle in for the whole afternoon. The actual fighting only lasts about 15 seconds, but it's all about the build up! These guys are trying to intimidate each other with their belly slapping and leg stretching, and it just goes on and on. Some get into the theatrics of it and the crowd goes wild. Yes, Japanese people, yelling, hooting and hollering! Such a good time.
Could there be more eating places in Tokyo than there are inhabitants? The sheer amount of choices was pretty overwhelming, so we were thankful that we had one dinner reserved on the recommendation of friends. With just ten seats around a horseshoe shaped bar, Matsu Matsumoto, owned and operated by one badass female chef, felt like a big warm hug. The care and intention that she put into every dish was palpable. And the things we ate! Tiny Sakura Shrimp, Pike Conger Eel, the best miso paste I have ever tasted, which was quite chunky like the soybeans hadn't been pureed at all...and on and on. Also she remembered our friends from a year before, and found the picture she took of their son because she was so taken by him! This is not a restaurant for picky eaters...and she often does not accept foreign reservations because she is ashamed of her English (which was much better than our Japanese). Luckily she let us in!
Like most nights, we drank too much sake, and went to bed full and happy. I took no decent photos of her food but the above shot, from Gora Kadan in Hakone (outside of Tokyo, near Mt Fuji where we spent one blissful night), exemplifies what I love about Japanese cooking - simplicity, care and perfection.
I will stop here, because clearly I could go on and on. This dazed groupie needs to go prune her new Japanese Maple. Someday it is going to be huge.