11 Discoveries from Thanksgiving in Japan (Restaurant Suggestions and Travel Tips Included)

I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about my trip to Japan ever since getting back home 10 days ago. I’ve had an overwhelmed feeling of not knowing where to begin, because there is SO much to describe. A lot of what I experienced there also feels abstract—experiences I need to digest slowly over time.

There is a moment on certain trips where you feel your world open up and widen. I had never been anywhere in East Asia (although while I was there, I kept wondering why we refer to it as “the East” when it’s actually West of a lot of people, including me here in California. It was a reminder of the Eurocentric mapping of the world, and how we need to consider that when we think about travel and our place on the earth).

It was my second day in Tokyo, as we walked through the lovely Harajuku neighborhood (my favorite spot in the city), that I felt my world get much, much bigger. That is one of the main points of and takeaways from travel: perspective on the scale of our lives and worries. (I wrote about this a bit a couple of years ago).

Here are some other specific lessons, takeaways and surprises from our 9 days in Japan; included below are some must-try restaurants and my opinion of the best sites to visit.

  1. Food

There is so much to share about food, but the main headline is: PORK! Before this trip, I thought of Japanese food as mostly sushi and ramen. However, during this trip, I discovered the huge role of pork in Japanese cuisine and the variations in cooking it from yakitori (skewers), gyoza (dumplings) and tonkatsu (deep fried).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Must-try restuarants in Tokyo for each of these are:

  • Jomon in the Rappongi neighborhood for skewers
  • Harajuku Gyoza-Ro for dumplings
  • Tonkatsu Tonki in the Meouro neighborhood for fried pork
  1. Beer

It isn’t all sake in Japan. Again, this was a good reminder to me of how stereotypes are formed. We went to several places that were just about meat and beer. And again, it wasn’t the better-known Sapporo that was my favorite, but Asahi draft. So wonderfully dry and delicious. And check out this amazing contraption too:

  1. Fall Foliage

We’ve all heard a lot about the Spring cherry blossom season in Japan, but not so much about fall there, which is spectacular–especially in the temple gardens throughout Kyoto. Many of them are planted with each season in mind.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  1. Persimmons

On our train rides from Tokyo to Kyoto and beyond, I saw my first persimmon tree. I had seen persimmons before, but never the skeletal black tree carrying them in peak season in the fall. We were on the train for 5 hours one day. There were various spots of cloud throughout the trip. The black trees with the bright orange fruit dotting them would pop out of the landscape of rice fields and small towns.

At Mojo Coffee in Harajuku, Tokyo with an amazing moccachino and pistachio croissant (The dough itself had pistachio in it. The filling was chocolate). Sooo good!

A friend of mine who taught English in Japan for a couple of years had written about persimmons with great love, and they have been a source of inspiration for art and poetry for centuries. I found this lovely little haiku book in English in a small used bookstore near the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove just outside of Kyoto City. It was put together by a collective of Japanese and Foreign writers. It felt like finding treasure: Something I could only discover in a small bookstore in a certain area in the world.

  1. Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine

This is a magical place you must see if you travel to Japan. I hadn’t heard of it before, but now it ranks in my mind as one the grandest monuments I’ve seen. We got to Kyoto in the early afternoon and had time to tackle one place that day. The lady at the information stand in the train station near our Airbnb suggested we head there. We got there at around 3pm, which was perfect timing because that meant we were climbing the mystical mountain through dusk and sunset.

You have to do the whole climb and descent if you can. At the base, I was disappointed by just how crowded it was, feeling that the amount of people clogging the temple was taking away from the experience–especially because everyone kept stopping to take pictures of themselves in the red arches. But the higher we went, the fewer people we saw. As we got closer to the top, we were completely alone for long stretches, and that’s when the mystery and spirituality of the place really seeped into my bones.

I especially loved these beautiful, moss-covered, eerie old graveyards that we began to encounter at the top of the hill. You feel the full force of time and history while walking around in them. There was nobody but my husband and I around, and the silence of the forest the shrine weaves through.

  1. Google Translate

This might seem like a weird one, but wherever we went, we kept seeing examples of the obvious failings of what was clearly the use of Google Translate (or similar internet applications). Something was clearly getting lost in the literal translation from Japanese characters to English… I found this fascinating (and admittedly, hilarious).

  1. Interesting finds

Locks on the train for luggage:

In so many of the shops we went into, books were used as props for the clothes. I found this very interesting.

Dried/jerkied fish things:

(I was not brave enough to try any of these)

  1. Coffee

I don’t have much to say here except to share how big coffee is in Japan, and that it’s worth trying all the small coffee shops. Two favorites in Tokyo: Mojo Coffee and Turret Coffee near the famous Tsukiji Fish market.

The name is inspired by the turrets used to transport huge crates of fish in the huge market:

  1. Rice Pound Cake

This amazing rice pound cake was one of my favorite things on the trip, not too sweet and the perfect texture. We tried it first in the small onsen (hot springs) town of Kinosaki, and it was amazing. (Also it was the best one we had on the trip because it was a small bakery, not a prepackaged cake. So I was really reminded of how nothing can replace fresh baked goods!)

  1. The Path of Philosophy

I loved the story behind the name of the Path of Philosophy. It is so called because a Kyoto philosophy professor took the walk every single day to contemplate the world, universe, and our place in it.

My favorite thing about the path was finding this little storefront managed by a man in his seventies who informed us that all the cakes they offered were made by his wife that day.

When I’m travelling, what always strikes me the most are the different lives going on at the same time as mine, in different places. People I’ve never heard about or think of. I’m always delighted to meet these strangers. It feels like they’re from a parallel universe (something I’m writing a longer essay about, actually).

Like this woman in her sixties who owns a small bar in the Golden Gai of Tokyo. She is an artist by day, has two sons, and you can see her imprint all over the bar with posters and various installations. I loved her green-and-purple-dyed hair, and I sat there imagining what her life was and is, while people from San Francisco talked loudly around me. She was leaning against the bar listening (she did speak English), smoking, and reading this book.

  1. Long Potatoes

This was something we saw a sign for on the very first night there at a random festival we came across. The pictures on the stands were basically of crispy brown fries cut really long. We were headed to dinner so we didn’t try any. For the rest of the week, my husband was searching for them everywhere, desperate to try them because of this episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. Gladwell describes the difference between the fries we now know, cooked in vegetable oil, and the fries McDonald’s used to make, cooked in animal fat. On our very last day, in our very last hour in Tokyo, we finally stumbled on a stand that sold “long potatoes.”

I can attest that Gladwell is absolutely right. You haven’t tried fries until you’ve tried them cooked in lard. (Everything in moderation, right?) Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, both crunchy and melting in your mouth.

Asakusa Shrine, Tokyo. Sharing this photo because I love how this panorama came out.
Advertisements

Gail Simmons & Curtis Stone on Falling in Love With Food

I really love what feels like a new trend in Los Angeles of having so many live talks and conversations happening all the time. It’s not just the usual book signings in bookstores anymore, though those are always great. There are now several groups organizing events across the city (usually related to a new book release) from ALOUD to Live Talks LA to the Los Angeles Times Ideas Exchange to Maria Shriver’s Architects of Change Live. One of my “to live deliberately” goals is to attend as many interesting in talks as possible (cost-and-schedule-permitting), and I hope to share more and more of them on this blog. (Like last week’s post about Jennifer Egan’s conversation with Marisa Silver at the Los Angeles Public Library’s main branch downtown).

I attended a talk featuring Top Chef judge Gail Simmons in conversation with LA Times columnist Patt Morrison in Beverly Hills on Sunday evening. Simmons has a new cookbook out, “Bringing It Home,” with recipes she developed based on the notes she gathered over the last few years while she travelled and tasted the world.

The theme of the night was, of course, food, but they touched on so many interesting facets that surround this basic human need.

Food and Memory

“We love food that has stories.” Morrison said early on in the discussion, and Simmions agreed.

“Food is very personal,” she said. “Food memory is a very powerful thing.” Most of her recipes are based on stories of family–especially her mother–and travel, often the two combined. She shared one story of a recipe based on Lee’s Diner on Main Street in Gloucester where she goes every year with her husband’s family.

And a few days after the talk, she shared this lovely banana and cardamom upside-down cake recipe on morning TV. The recipe was inspired by her mom, and how she always had banana bread in the house– but Simmons added her own touches (sour cream, cardamom) based on her experience with recipes and ingredients. I can’t wait to try it!

Food and Fear

After a general intro about the cookbook, one of the first things Morrison asked about was all the “pickiness” surrounding food today (of which I’ve been guilty of myself at some points, I have to admit), such as the gluten-free trend.

Simmons nodded knowingly.”Food phobia,” she said. “Food is yes very powerful, but also very scary. There are a lot of cultural issues that weigh into food…” especially related to body image. That drives a lot of the problems people have with food. At the same time, Simmons made clear that there are real cases when people do really need to be careful with what they eat. “There are also very serious autoimmune disease that are on the rise,” she said, listing celiac disease as an example, and the increase of children with severe peanut allergies as another. These, she said, are a real problems we should be concerned with.

“It’s sometimes hard to differentiate between the two,” she added, saying that in general there needs to be a balance.

“In my life, I was always taught that food is a great pleasure and a great privilege, and it’s a great luxury to be having the food we’re eating now.”

When Morrison asked her later in the evening what her “guilty pleasures” were, Simmons said,

“I try not to feel guilty about food…

Sure, there are some foods that she can’t resist the call to have (salt and vinegar chips, for example), so she may need to temper herself around them, but to her the idea of guilt shouldn’t exist.

Food and Politics

Simmons invited her friend and fellow Top Chef judge, Chef Curtis Stone, to join her on stage midway through the talk. One topic that was clearly important to both of them was food distribution, or the lack thereof.

“I think at large that the culinary world is very interested in helping,” Stone said, describing how most chefs are involved in their cities’ efforts to feed those who do not have enough to eat. But he stressed that “Food distribution is a political issue.”

Simmons agreed emphatically. “We are in a moment when access is the issue, and it’s not an issue of not having enough food in the country to feed people. It’s an issue of distribution. It’s on the political level, congress, lawmakers… I don’t think food banks are the solutions– they’re a band-aid that we definitely need.”

Food and Cooking

A topic that kept coming up through the night is how the link between food and cooking broke in our country for a while as people got busier and were no longer able to spend hours following a complicated recipe and making a perfect dish (though that’s fun sometimes, it is unsustainable on a daily basis). Morrison said that even looking at some photos in cookbooks can be intimidating to many and lead them to processed, quick foods.

“For me, it should be less about being perfect, and more about being holistic and fun,” Simmons said. “It should be something that gives you pleasure, and not something that gives you anxiety.”

There’s been a revival recently in people turning back to kitchens, with shows like Top Chef being a part of that. There’s also been an expansion in what we’re eating. “Our tastes in America swing all over the place, and that’s the beauty of living in a country with so many cultural influences and varied histories.” Simmons said, noting that diversity in taste and palates is an important feature in her cookbook.

I especially loved what she had to say about the joy of making your own meal:

“The best part is it comes together in an hour or less, and you can make something that people can enjoy. And that’s magical.”

She had specific tips to help people make it more convenient to cook. Being organizing is essential: thinking about the week ahead, planning recipes, discovering simple and interesting things, cooking in large batches, buying the right ingredients for the week, (and being conscious about not wasting food by matching meals to your own or your family’s schedule). She added that if cooking can be a family activity, that helps a lot as well. It becomes something for everyone to do together in the evenings, and brings people together, rather than being a chore for one person.

Stone chimed in, “If you fall back in love with food, that’s the important part.”

I really liked Stone’s closing thought about cookbooks themselves being a gift that keeps on giving. First you enjoy receiving them, then enjoy reading them through, and then you keep enjoying them as you try new recipes and make ones you love over and over again. That’s definitely something I’m going to keep in mind when giving gifts, especially with the holiday season ahead.