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.
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).
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
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:
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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)
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:
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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.