Still dazzled by the sparkling streets of Ginza, and clutching a bag of fresh onigiri from one of the magical Japanese 7-Elevens, we stumbled into our hotel room for a 2am entrance to Japan. On a whim, we had purchased a pair of cheap last-minute airline tickets to visit two Japanese friends for the holidays. With minimal time to research or plan, everything about Japan was going to be a surprise. But if our room at the Hotel Sunroute Ginza was any indication, it was going to be a good one. By Japanese standards, the room was luxuriously spacious, packing a double bed, pants press, and fridge into a miniscule space, while still leaving room for both us and our suitcases on the floor. The sophisticated alarm clock radio system built into the wall and bathroom mirror that never fogs were also a nice touch. But the most impressive discovery was the “Washlet” toilet, a combination toilet and spray bidet with a controllable range of speeds and temperatures and a heated toilet seat. Within minutes, we were in love with Japan.
Six short hours later we were rolling our luggage down the sidewalk to the Tokyo train station, hoping that the process of buying a train ticket would be simpler than its reputation. The station was large, but we easily navigated the labyrinth of underground shops and restaurants, finding the telltale green and white JR ticket office one floor above. We presented the smiling saleswoman at the counter with a written copy our desired train routes, which proved to be much more efficient than speaking, and she swiftly handed us a set of tickets and directed us to the next shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano.
Soon, a long, latte-colored train with a bubble dome cockpit pulled in silently, the conductor trained to stop within centimeters of the door markings on the platform. We boarded easily and efficiently, thanks to the numbered cars and lines drawn on the platform telling riders where to form a queue. On board the immaculately clean train, passengers could choose to swivel their seats around to either sit facing each other or in individual forward-facing rows. Drinks and interesting snacks were offered for a fee, and the current and next stops were announced on the loudspeaker in Japanese and English. Rather than being overwhelmed, we found that the entire public transit experience put even the Swiss system to shame.
In Nagano we transferred to a smaller train full of tourists bound for Yudanaka, on their way to see the famous Japanese Snow Monkeys bathe in the thermal waters of the Alps. This was our hope as well, but we had also planned a night in a traditional Japanese ryokan in the tiny town of ShibuOnsen, an onsen village of volcanic thermal baths lying between Yudanaka and Jigokudani Monkey Park. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese style inn found throughout the country, but especially in hot spring resorts. More than just a place to sleep, ryokans give guests the opportunity to experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle and hospitality, usually featuring tatami floors, futon beds, Japanese style baths and local cuisine.
A staff member from Siminoyu ryokan was waiting for us at the Yudanaka train station with a shuttle when we arrived. From the moment we removed our shoes at the door, we were in heaven. Our shoes were placed in a wardrobe next to rows of leather slippers laid out for us to wear around the house. Slipping them on, we shuffled over to a set of couches where a cup of green tea was placed in our hands while the staff intently jotted down our preferred times for dinner and breakfast, and consent to remove our futon mattresses during breakfast. A typical ryokan meal consists of traditional Japanese cuisine known as kaiseki. Kaiseki originally referred to light meals served during a tea ceremony, and today refers to a meal consisting of a number of small, varied dishes featuring seasonal and regional specialties. In order for each dish to be enjoyed at the proper temperature, ryokan encourage guests to be punctual for their meals, so most ryokan ask guests to confirm their meal times in advance.
Next we were shown to our room, which consisted of a hallway, primarily for removing shoes and slippers, a spacious main tatami (bamboo mat) bedroom, a separate (heated) toilet room with a different special set of slippers, and a shower room. In the daytime, the main room contained only a kotatsu, an ingenious contraption made of a low wooden table frame covered by a heavy blanket, upon which a tabletop sits. Underneath is a heat source, formerly a charcoal brazier but now electric, often built into the table itself, as well as a hot water kettle and tea set. During dinner, a staff member moves the kotatsu to the corner and rolls out the futon sleeping mats.
We wanted to maximize our time at the monkey park before the sun set in the late afternoon, so before getting cozy under the kotatsu we went downstairs and caught a shuttle to Jigokudani. A dirt path led us on a beautiful 30 minute walk through the snow-covered forest to the hot springs, where hundreds of fuzzy Japanese macaques were roaming the banks, sitting on pipes warmed by thermal springs, and drinking from the warm pools. This phenomenon is relatively recent. In the early 50’s, the area started developing the land for skiing and installing ski lifts, pushing the monkeys into the nearby towns. They were hungry and cold, and started to eat the farmers’ crops and share the village onsens. To alleviate the problem, the town built them their own private hot springs in the mountains and developed a feeding program to keep them full, warm, and happy. They are now fed raw barley and soybeans three times a day and are the only monkeys in the world who have adopted onsen-bathing as a cultural practice. They are adorably furry, and their mannerisms are extremely human-like, so it’s easy to spend hours watching in fascination as they go about their day. Unfortunately, despite the snow on the ground it was too warm outside for them to bathe while we were there. But our fingers eventually started to go numb, signalling that it was time to return to ShibuOnsen and relax in the human onsens.
Just past the park exit, an old wooden farmhouse-turned-brewery caught our eye. Leaving our shoes at the door, we took a seat in the cozy dining room next to the heater, alternating between warming our hands and sipping local IPA and whisky until we felt ready for the final descent back down the mountain to ShibuOnsen. When we reached our ryokan we changed into the light yukata (a traditional robe) and thicker overcoat that had been left in our rooms and bravely entered Siminoyu’s private onsen on the 6th floor. There is a particular protocol when using an onsen, involving leaving all clothing behind in the main room, then entering the bathing room and showering using either the showerheads, or, if there is no shower, by dipping a bucket into the bath, pouring the water over your head, and scrubbing. Then you may slip into the hot water with the local townsladies, if you can take the heat. The baths at our ryokan were beautiful, with a large pristine indoor bath and smaller outdoor open-air bath made of stone. It was heavenly, but really hot. At the risk of passing out, we returned to our room to pour a cup of green tea while marveling at the brilliance of the kotatsu.
We made the mistake of changing back into our regular clothes for dinner, only to discover that everyone else was seated in their yukata. Luckily, we were shielded by straw dividers separating the tables, allowing us to eat in our jeans in relative privacy. The kaiseki dinner was a series of 10 courses, generously listed on our menu in both Japanese and English with the correct eating order and protocol explained. Dishes included local specialties such as carp miso soup, a local sashimi plate, a fresh tofu cube, and a hot pot with pork and local mushrooms, accompanied by plum wine and tea.
After dinner, it was time to tour the village onsen. There are nine public onsen, and anyone staying in town receives a large wooden key that opens any of the nine. We changed back into our yukata and selected a padded, brightly colored yukata overcoat from a rack in the lobby. Then we traded our leather slippers for plastic ones and headed out to wander the cobbled streets with the locals, who all take their daily baths in the town onsens. ShibuOnsen is one of the only onsen towns in Japan with many different volcanic water sources. We passed the steaming Mt Shinto on our way to ShibuOnsen from Tokyo, the main source of hot water for our end of the small village and for the monkeys. We began our tour with this water, dipping our feet into a hot public footbath in front of Siminoyu. Then it was on to onsen #6, just a three-minute walk down the street, but fed from a different water source whose minerals are good for the skin; however, the water was almost scalding and we had to sit next to the cold water faucet, turned on full blast, to make it bearable. Just a few minutes further down the road we stopped in onsen #9, which was fed by yet another source that is good for the hair, this one a pleasant temperature but with an interesting greenish-brown hue. Further down was onsen #3. This was the first onsen, over 900 years old, formed by a Buddhist monk who sat here, no doubt to rest his weary legs and tired muscles, in 1300. We ended our night with another dip in our ryokan’s sparkling onsen before settling down in our futons on the tatami floor for what felt like a cross between a glamorous camping trip and a teenage slumber party.
Breakfast was another extravagant affair. Our table was set with a plate containing nine pockets, each filled with a different colorful food, (e.g. red beans, marinated sprouts, teriyake beef, roast salmon) along with a hot pot, poached egg, miso soup, rice, tea and juice. Regrettably, there were no instructions provided this time so we did our best to mimic the tables of Japanese around us. As we worked out way through, each item consumed, on top of rice flavored in a mixture of sauces, left us feeling like we had consumed a small petting zoo.
With stomachs like a Noah’s Ark of cooked meats, we wandered out to tour the town in the daylight. The streets were filled with adorable mochi shops, the wooden baskets of buns steaming on the sidewalk coaxing visitors inside, where glass display cases full of delicate mochi buns filled with sweet red beans or roasted chestnuts lay waiting. In addition to mochi, a basket full of soft-boiled eggs slowly cooked in the hot thermal waters out front of another ryokan. We bought two and carried them in our hands for warmth as snowflakes started to fall. Our last stop was the town origami store, full of intricate paper items, from long-tailed pheasants to two-foot-long beetles. Then it was time to go. A bow and a wave sent us on our way.
We found lunch in the Nagano train station, a beautiful building full of unique shops and restaurants. Japanese train stations are generally destinations in their own right, with beautiful architecture and a multitude of local shopping and eating options, enticing travelers to arrive early for their trains just to explore the station. After collecting a variety of unknown items from the food court, washed down with an espresso, we boarded the hour-long bullet train to Kanazawa.
Located on the Japan Sea on the other side of the Alps, Kanazawa is not on most tourists’ radars, but it should be. Nicknamed the “pearl of Japan” and “Little Kyoto”, due to its similar ambiance, it’s a wonderful, cozy city of about 1.5 million people. The town was spared from destruction during World War II and remains one of the best-preserved castle towns of the Edo Period, along with being considered one of the country’s best places to learn about samurai history. Its other main attractions include the Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazawa Castle, a contemporary art museum, local seafood, and 36 Japanese handicrafts such as laquerware, pottery, kimono design, and gold leaf.
The light was already fading when we arrived early in the afternoon. A taxi dropped us at Murataya ryokan, a humble but charming home in a prime location near the gardens and within walking distance to all other tourist attractions. We took a seat on a cushion in the lobby and were served a cup of lovely green tea from a boiling kettle in the center of the coffee table. The owners, a mother-son team, were extremely hospitable and offered to help us book dinner reservations. We were especially excited to try Kanburi, a winter yellowtail tuna described by the New York Times as the holy grail of seafood, along with the equally famous seasonal snow crab. However, our hosts warned us that this year the crab was abnormally expensive (at least $100 per person), and that they would not be able to recommend a restaurant in good faith, because good value is a moral imperative for them. Instead, they recommended the basement of a nearby department store where phenomenal food halls and grocery stores could be found (this turned out to hold true in all Japanese cities). If we timed it right, we could buy Kanburi, crab, and sushi from the grocer an hour before closing (from 6:30-7:30pm) at a 50% discount off the already reasonable prices. Seeing our eagerness but uncertainty about what to buy, and tempted by the thought of Kanburi himself, our host offered to take us there and show us the ropes.
At 6:30pm, we arrived to find the prices only slightly discounted. This was unacceptable to our guide, so we walked around the store sampling other Japanese delicacies for another 30 minutes, then tried again. A large crowd of Japanese men was now hovering over the fish, waiting for the coveted stickers to appear. Just after 7pm, the chefs distributed the red labels, followed by a slight frenzy as everyone grabbed for their favorite items. We managed to come away with two female snow crabs and enough tuna nigiri of all varieties, including the celebrated Kanburi, to feed a family, all for under $40. Back in our ryokan we lay the spread on our table, changed into our yukatas, and slowly ate our way through the exquisite textures and flavors on the table.
In the morning, we put on our sneakers and set out for a run along the riverbank. Flanked by temples on one side, mountain rising up on the horizon, the ocean behind us, and Japanese golden eagles nesting above us, we felt truly inspired as we ran with the locals down one side and back. Our final destination was Kerokuen Garden, where it was still early enough that the crowds had yet to descend, the gardens for the moment serene. The name Kenrokuen literally means “Garden of the Six Sublimities” because it satisfies all six essential attributes, according to Chinese landscape theory, that make up a perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views. It was not as manicured as some Japanese gardens, but purposely so, creating an aesthetic that blends clean lines and blurred edges. The entire space is covered in a carpet of bright green moss, with water gurgling throughout in streams, pools, and dark teal ponds. One of the most fascinating attractions in the winter is the technique that Kanazawa uses to protect the trees’ branches from snow. A tall pole is attached to the trunk of each tree, and each branch is then tied to the top of the pole, creating a beautiful festive effect.
The glassy green water of a meditative pond lured us in from the entrance when we arrived. Next to the it was a small wooden house, completely unmarked except for an unassuming laminated piece of paper with a picture of a teacup and some lonely shoes outside – the telltale sign of a tea house. We slid open the wood-panel doors and peeked inside. A few women were sitting on low cushions on the tatami mat floor looking out over the pond, so we entered and sat down at a table beside them, enjoying the view out over the water. A few minutes later, a waitress appeared and asked in Japanese if we would like tea, pointing to another picture of a teacup. We nodded enthusiastically. She disappeared and returned holding two heavy ceramic bowls, which she placed in front of us, along with what looked like an apricot. Each bowl was filled with bright green frothy matcha tea and the apricots turned out to be cleverly made of colored sweet bean paste.
On the other side of the garden lay the contemporary crafts museum, showcasing Kanazawa’s 36 traditional crafts – more than any other area of Japan except Kyoto. However, Kanazawa’s craft scene developed in a very different manner, owing their heritage to the remarkable Kaga clan, which ruled the region for some 300 years. Under the reign of Toshiie Maeda, who controlled the region as the first Kaga feudal lord, Kanazawa was slowly transformed from a small village into a thriving castle town. To defend Kanazawa, the Maeda clan encouraged the samurais to focus on arts and craftsmanship instead of fighting. That way, they did not pose a threat to the clan with the highest power, and so were not invaded. As a result, there was actually almost no fighting in Kanazawa for 400 years. Over these 14 generations, the Kaga clan remained powerful and wealthy enough that, with no wars to wage, they were able to pour their resources into the development of the arts, creating an unprecedented feudal art scene. In recognition, in 2009 Kanazawa was added to UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network. These crafts are all on display at the museum, which walked us through the incredible series of steps taken to perfect each piece, giving us a new appreciation for the intricacies of the craft and the high price tags that come along with them.
From the garden we walked to the Higashi Chaya District. A chaya (teahouse) is an exclusive type of restaurant where guests are entertained by geisha who perform song and dance. During the Edo Period, chaya were found in designated entertainment districts, usually just outside the city limits. Kanazawa has three well-preserved chaya districts, but Higashi Chayagai is the largest and most interesting, with beautiful narrow streets of preserved two-story wooden houses from feudal Japan, many of which are now open to the public as tea rooms, restaurants, or craft shops. We toured a few, exploring the beautiful tatami-matted rooms and arrangements of crafts before our appetites got the best of us and we hopped in line at the particularly popular restaurant Jiyuken. The inside was tiny – we were seated at the 8 person counter, across from a small tatami area, and immediately served a glass of iced tea. We ordered the most famous dish on the small menu, the Omerice: soy flavored rice wrapped in a thin egg; upon first glance it looks like a large omelet, but when you break open the shell, a gooey pile of salty rice full of chewy meat bits awaits. It was an interesting hybrid of Western and Japanese, but totally satisfying.
On our way back to the ryokan we wandered through the Omicho Market, a huge fish market known as the “belly of Kanazawa”, ringed by izakayas serving bowls piled high with fresh seafood. Lines of dried fish hung from the ceiling and huge buckets of bright orange fish eggs spilled out from the stalls, but at this time of year, crab was the star of the show. Prices ran anywhere from $100-$300 per crab, depending on the size; luckily, we now knew these were set for tourists – the locals all buy from the department store where fish is fresher and cheaper.
At dusk we wandered into the imperial Kanazawa castle, the former home of the Maeda clan. The original castle was built in the 16th century, but through the years fires have repeatedly destroyed it, so it has been rebuilt several times. The most recent renovations include the re-installment of the castle moat, and this past spring, the reconstructed front gate and rear turret to their exact original specifications. It was surprisingly beautiful, in a completely different style than the typical foreboding turreted Germanic structures we’re accustomed to. Instead, though all of the main elements were still accounted for (huge fortification, etc), the style was ornate and delicate, with significant effort put into making the building appear aesthetically pleasing, beyond any practical purposes.
Finally back at our ryokan, we made a cup of tea while our hosts kindly booked us a table at Plat Home, a modern restaurant serving Japanese-Western fusion cuisine. The small space was only big enough for two communal wooden tables and a chef’s counter. The walls were bare, but the wooden ceilings and soft light created a cozy atmosphere. We were seated at the communal table in a back room that must have been a vault at one time, with stone doors a foot thick, and handed a relatively small tapas menu. The Japanese are incredibly adept at pulling out essential aspects of a culture and not just recreating them, but improving upon them. This is exemplified in the fantastic French, Italian, and myriad other international restaurants across the country, and Plat Home was no exception – quite unexpectedly, we tried some of the best American dishes we’ve ever tasted. One of these was the potato salad. Despite our waiter’s constant suggestion, we were resistant at first. But after many determined attempts we gave in, and sure enough, it blew our minds. They key ingredient, he said, was smoked egg. We also had an outstanding version of fried chicken made with Japanese spices, a Japanese fish and chips with tartar sauce, and a few more traditional Japanese dishes including Kanburi sashimi, noodles, and avocado and tuna sashimi with seaweed. It was a meal for the recordbook, and very reasonably priced.On Christmas morning, we decided to explore the samurai district, as Kanazawa is one of the only cities in Japan to still have a samurai district. Samurai were abolished in the late 19th Century as Japan modernised, but much of their world remains intact here. But first, we were in dire need of coffee. The only shop open at this early hour appeared to be a tiny diner; so, based on our American experience, we set our expectations for weak or instant Folgers coffee. We took a seat at a thin wooden counter with three elderly locals, the oldest man (and closest to us) happily engaged in an animé book. The café owner, a small man in his 70s, sat behind the counter dressed impeccably in a v-neck armless sweater and white collared shirt with perfectly symmetric rolled up sleeves. We ordered two cups of coffee and an omelette, watching in surprise as this delicate man carefully ground the beans, weighed an exact amount of grounds, and brewed us individual cups of coffee in modern chemX coffee sets using a test tube set over a burner. He then carefully set a delicious, smooth cup of coffee in front of us, along with an adorable mini pitcher of cream and a plain egg sandwich on white bread. Once we were taken care of, he walked over to a chair hidden behind a straw screen in the corner of the bar, sat down, and opened a book until the next order came up.
Nagamachi (長町), the samurai district located at the foot of the former Kanazawa Castle, is a fascinating neighborhood to explore and learn more about the samurai culture. The historic atmosphere is well preserved, with the remaining samurai residences lining the narrow lanes and water canals, their mud walls covered in straw to protect them during the winter. One of the main attractions of the district is the centrally located Nomura-ke, a restored samurai residence showcasing the lifestyle and artifacts of the era. We were greeted by an ancient suit of armor displayed in a glass case at the entrance of the tatami-covered home, and instead of swords, the house was decorated with a koi pond, and zen fusuma – or painted rice paper panels – created by the Maeda family’s personal artist.
Following our tour of the beautiful home, we hopped on a bus to the train station. This was our first Japanese bus experience, and we soon discovered that in Japan, you pay when you get off the bus, the fee calculated by the number of stops and displayed on a sign at the front. At the station we caught a bullet train that whisked us to Kyoto in just over two hours, arriving just in time for lunch.
The 10th floor of the Kyoto station department store is dedicated entirely to ramen noodles, with around 10 different shops, each featuring ramen from a different region of the country. We carefully studied all the pictures before choosing one, punching our order into a vending machine at the door with some assistance from the waitress. It was only minutes before we were seated at a counter covered in toppings like garlic cloves and a garlic press, ramen seasoning, pickled bean sprouts, and various oils, and huge bowls of heavenly pork fat ramen were placed in front of us. After one bite we vowed to eat every lunch on the 10th floor.
From Kyoto station it was only a ten minute walk to our ryokan, Izuyasu. The wooden building was charming, with a sleek seating area and dining room, and a small number of beautiful guest rooms on the second floor. The rooms were supplied with every possible bathroom amenity, robes, and slippers, and along with the room, guests of the ryokan were granted unlimited access to three private onsens. However, despite all of this, the highlight of our stay was the meals.
Dinner was served at 7pm each night. This gave us some extra time to explore the tiny streets of Kyoto before taking advantage of the onsens and putting on our yukata for Christmas dinner. The matriarch of the ryokan, dressed each evening in a beautiful kimono, welcomed us as we walked into the dining room. We joined an older Japanese couple and father-daughter duo at the long wooden counter under dimmed lights, anticipating the meal to come. We were not disappointed. The chef, who was also the owner of the ryokan, had set up his chopping blocks, knives, burners, pots, pans, and mixing bowls in front of us on a marble slab. A young translator was stationed next to him to explain each of the eight courses as they were cooked and served. Each course was as much art as it was food, the chef taking us through a world of flavors and textures, with dishes like a cube of silky black bean tofu, a bowl of sesame tofu covered in pureed root vegetables, miso soup with fish dumplings, and a 12-inch mountain carved out of ice with sashimi spread around the base. As an accompaniment for the fish dishes, our translator prepared fresh wasabi in the traditional style, using a shark skin stretched taut over a wood block to grate the root, which resulted in a delicate, subtle flavor. The food was paired with a Dassai sake, whose complex, smooth, and almost salty taste has totally changed our notions of sake. After dinner the chef told us the story of the ryokan, which is 200 years old and was passed down to him as the 7th generation of his family to run it, and he hopes his now five-year-old son will continue as the 8th. Noting our awe at this history, he remarked that this is not actually very old compared to the some shops in Kyoto, such as a flower shop that has been running for 45 generations, or around 900 years.
At 7am, we rolled out of bed and took a seat at a table in a private tatami room across the hall, where a sweet older woman began to bring us another endless stream of courses. Breakfast included miso soup, a poached egg, rice, a variety of small pickled dishes, fruit, and tea – another delicious, but heavy start to the day. Because the ryoken experience left us with only one meal per day to explore the culinary landscape of Kyoto, and little room in our bellies, we resolved to walk or run to our sightseeing destinations, hoping that if we ran far enough in the cold weather we would eventually feel hungry and could then stop at a nearby restaurant.
Our first jog took us to Nijo Castle, in the center of the city. Built in 1603, it served as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period. The castle was yet another impressive piece of architecture, set on beautiful manicured grounds with two layers of fortification. Its palace buildings are arguably the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan’s feudal era, for which the castle has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. After touring the gardens and taking in a brief tea at one of the traditional tea houses, we jogged on to the Golden Temple. Despite the clouds, the temple still managed to glow regally, its stunning golden exterior reflected clearly in its large lake.
Then it was on to Ryoanji Temple, the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden, which attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Originally an aristocrat’s villa, the site was converted into a Zen temple in 1450. The garden consists of a rectangular plot of small pebbles surrounded by low walls, with 15 large rocks laid out in small groups on patches of moss. An interesting feature of the garden’s design is that from any vantage point at least one of the rocks is always hidden from the viewer. Along with its origins, the meaning of the garden is also unclear. Some believe that the garden represents a tiger carrying cubs across a pond, or islands in a sea, while others interpret it as a more abstract concept like infinity. Ultimately, because of the mystery behind the garden’s significance, it is left up to each viewer to find their own meaning.
True to our intentions, after the garden we sampled another ramen at the train station before heading back for an afternoon onsen. With some time still remaining before dinner, we wandered to a large shopping arcade by the Nishiki Market, where we had a great time trying on hats while a young sales clerk expertly styled them and gave advice. At 7pm we sat down for our second meal, equally impressive as the first. There was a livelier group of guests than the first night, hailing from the US, Australia, and Russia, and we stayed on long after dinner chatting with the chef and sampling the Japanese sake and whisky selections.
During our stay in Kyoto we limited ourselves to just one or two priorities each day, hesitant not to over plan and become overwhelmed, instead preferring to take recommendations from locals and friends as we went and spend the rest of the time wandering aimlessly. On our second full day we explored the east side of the river, full of small streets lined with little shops and restaurants, and temples galore. Our wanders led us to the impressive Sanmon Gate, the main entrance gate to the grand Chion-in temple, located along the road between Maruyama Park and Shorenin Temple. At 24 meters tall and 50 meters wide, it is the largest wooden gate in Japan and dates back to the early 1600s.
Once inside the park, snowflakes started to fall as we toured the ancient wooden temples, making it feel particularly spiritual. As if that weren’t enough, near the Chion-in temple, we discovered a crowd gathering around a large bell. Slowly, a line of monks took their places. Each monk then took a turn ringing the bell – a complex process of thrusting a huge wooden log over his body while falling backwards, in order to hit the bell with enough momentum to make the desired “gong” sound. A coach critiqued each monk’s technique while another stern-faced monk clocked their time. This was apparently the practice session for the traditional New Year’s Eve ringing of the bell at midnight on December 31, when Buddhist temples all over Japan ring their bells a total of 108 times to symbolize the 108 human sins, and for Japanese citizens are absolved of the 108 worldly desires regarding sense and feeling. The bell is rung 107 times on 31st and once past midnight.
For lunch, we warmed up with big bowls of thick noodles in curry sauce at Okaru, a tiny unmarked udon restaurant hidden behind a curtain, recommended to us by a local friend. Aterwards, we stopped around the corner for dessert at the 300-year-old Kagizen Yoshifusa Tearoom, a traditional sweets shop in the heart of Gion. We ordered the famous kuzukiri, a bowl of clear noodles served in ice water, to be dipped in shorghum syrup using chopsticks and slurped down, along with a plate of square mochi cubes covered in toasted soybean powder and shorghum syrup.
Wandering back through the main shopping streets and arcades, we discovered Chicago, one of the best thrift stores we’d ever been to. The brands that tend to grab attention in the USA are apparently not as popular in Japan, allowing us to sift through entire racks of brand new Colombia and Northface fleeces and jackets, priced at next to nothing. For pennies, we also walked away with other treasures such as a cashmere Burberry scarf and authentic hand-knit Icelandic sweater. Thrilled with ourselves, we headed to dinner at Chisou Inayesa, where our friend Tomoka had made a reservation. Now accustomed to leaving our shoes at the door, we padded in socks up the stairs to a tatami room. The restaurant raised their own chickens and thus served specialties such as raw chicken sashimi and Chicken Sukiyaki. We opted for the sukiyaki, which became the centerpiece of the table as it was served in a large steaming clay pot, along with sides of tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelette) and a special noodle soup. Everything was delicious and the atmosphere festive as we listened to the rowdy sounds of clinking sake glasses, yells, and laughter coming from the local businesses holding their annual christmas parties downstairs.
After dinner we met Tomoka’s mother, who guided us to her friend’s bar. As is traditional in Kyoto style bars, from the outside it was an unmarked doorway at the end of a tiny alleyway. Inside, there was a small bar with eight seats and a tatami seating area, just big enough for four, that had been reserved for us, allowing us to catch a glimpse into traditional Japanese society. The owner quickly brought us sake and plum wine and a collection of small dishes made up of pickled vegetables, marinated beef, radish soup, tofu, culminating with a bowl of homemade sake ice cream. These local bars are where groups of friends gather after work to gossip about the day and catch up on the town news. Kyoto is really a small and close-knit community – for example, the radishes in our soup were grown by a farmer who was seated at the bar with his wife, while a famous local songwriter wrote lyrics about the bar as we drank.
One of the highlights of any Kyoto trip is a visit to the Fushimi Inari shrine, an ancient Shinto shrine that predates the capital’s move to Kyoto in 794. On our final day in Kyoto we got up early and jogged over, arriving before the masses descended. Fushimi Inari is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates, outlining a network of trails that lead through the forest of the sacred Mount Inari, which belongs to the shrine grounds. The torii gates along the trail are actually donations by individuals and companies, with the donator’s name and date of donation inscribed on the back of each one. Along the trail there are also multiple smaller shrines with stacks of miniature torii gates that were donated by visitors who could not afford the larger ones. Fushimi Inari is the most important of several thousand shrines dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be Inari’s messengers, so many a fox statue can also be found throughout the grounds, along with a few restaurants offering local dishes such as Inari Sushi and Kitsune Udon (“Fox Udon”), both featuring pieces of aburaage (fried tofu), said to be a favorite food of foxes.On the way home we stopped to refuel at Walden Woods, a sparkling new coffee shop where two hip young women behind the bar were serving excellent matcha and espresso lattes. We sipped them in the upstairs loft, which had been converted to a pure white stadium seating area lined with glowing lanterns, before heading to our third ramen lunch in a row, deciding this time to venture beyond the train station to Gogyo Ramen, next to the Nishiki market. Gogyo’s secret weapon is kogashi (“burned”) ramen. For each bowl, a couple ladles of lard are heated in a wok and then ignited, filling the kitchen with billowing fire and smoke. The charred residue is then tipped over the noodles, giving the thick soup — seasoned with either shoyu or miso — a deep black hue and a rich, smoky flavor, surpassing all of our wildest expectations.
Our last temple of the trip was Kiyomizudera, the most visited temple in Kytoto and one of the most celebrated temples in Japan. Founded in 780, it was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites in 1994, and although it is currently under construction, there are still many reasons to make the trip. Part of the allure is in the approach along the steep and busy lanes of the cobbled pedestrian-only Higashiyama District, filled with young Japanese women modeling kimonos and shops and restaurants full of souvenirs. However, Kiyomizudera is also known for its wooden stage that juts out from the main hall, offering stunning views of Kyoto and the surrounding hills. Another main attraction is the Otowa Waterfall, located just under the viewing deck. Its waters are divided into three separate streams, each said to have a different benefit: longevity, success at school and a fortunate love life, and visitors come to drink from them using cups attached to long poles.
From the heights of Kiyomizudera we descended back down the long hill into the city to culminate the night with one of Japan’s specialties, its wagyu (Japanese Beef). Raised on a special diet including beer and sake, and usually massaged to prevent muscle cramps, it is particularly fatty, tasty, and expensive, and for our final dinner in Kyoto, we had reserved a seat at the counter of Hafuu Honten, a well-known wagyu restaurant in the center of the city. Tucked away from hustle and bustle in a residential area close to the Imperial Palace, the restaurant is a mixture of traditional and contemporary, with wooden walls and beautiful art and light fixtures. Customers can either watch the chefs cook at the counter, or be seated in the back dining room at regular tables. We took a seat at counter to admire the chefs’ work on this indulgent meat, opting to share a tasting menu of various cuts of Wagyu. First came a thinly sliced brisket with salt-based sauce that melted on the tongue. Then a sashimi wagyu that was equally delectable. And lastly, a sirloin steak, beautifully cooked to a medium rare, with a crispy surface that gave way to a juicy, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth interior.
The only thing that could add to the night was a nightcap of Japanese whisky, so we ended the night at Cordon Noir, a dimly lit wooden bar with a long oak counter and overwhelming selection of whiskies. Three separate menus were needed to list all the whiskies, one for American, one for Japanese, and one for Scottish, each with the story behind the distillery written out. As with everything else, we soon discovered that the Japanese have perfected the art of whisky making, which sent us on a wild hunt for a bottle to bring home. After being told by nearly every store that Yamazaki, our favorite, was sold out across the country, we got lucky at an unassuming grocery store basement and came away with one bottle of 12 year aged Yamazaki.
Just before New Years, we headed back to Tokyo to celebrate with our friend Yuka. The New Year holiday is the biggest holiday of the year in Japan, and the traditional activity on January 1st is to visit a shrine. Kyoto therefore becomes very crowded, and we were happy to be getting on a train in the other direction. My ears popped the entire way as our shinkansen reached an astounding speed of 320 kilometers per hour. We slept for most of the journey, but as we neared Tokyo, we passed through Fuji and by sheer luck, caught a perfect, clear view of Mt Fuji, its iconic white streaks rising unmistakably above the skyline.
Stepping off the train was like swimming the wrong way through a huge school of fish, exactly matching the image of Japanese subways I’d originally anticipated. But once we emerged from the shinkansen area into the regular subway station, it was again calm and pleasant. We took a subway to the Akasaka-Mitsuke neighborhood where we were staying an APA hotel, a chain found around all the major cities. The hotel was overpriced for the holiday, but the location was a convenient base from which to contemplate the physical sprawl of Tokyo. The city of 13.7 million people has no discernible center, sprawling endlessly, with clusters of skyscrapers located miles apart and cozy neighborhoods scattered in between. Luckily, Yuka had offered to be our tour guide for most of our stay, but she wasn’t arriving until tomorrow, so we ventured out on our own for dinner. We soon found a traditional izakaya run by a mother and her two sons, who gave us a seat at the bar and kindly placed an English menu in front of us, as advertised on the sign outside. But when we gave the waiter our order, it turned out that nobody in the restaurant actually spoke English, so they didn’t know what the menu said. We all found this hilarious, and each order set off a new round of giggles, followed by a hurried search through a food guide book for pictures and translations of each item. Every dish still ended up being a surprise, but all were delicious.
In the morning, we lined up early for brunch at the Aoyama Flower Market Teahouse, a beautiful teahouse set inside a flower market at the Omotesando subway station. Plants were potted and draped everywhere in the dining room, filling the air with the smell of fresh-cut flowers and offering a lovely respite the bustling city. We ordered the hot honey lemonade and flower french toast, a crusty but very tasty version of our usual french toast, made from a baguette and decorated in fresh flowers, fruit and ice cream. Only the lack of coffee forced us to give up our seats when we were done, sending us back out into the city. But before we could go far, we stumbled upon Qu’il Fait Bon, a bakery tucked down a small side street and featuring an impressive display of decadent cakes and a steady flow of seemingly in-the-know customers. Despite having just eaten, we came away with three large slices of amazing looking cake in flavors like strawberries and cream, matcha green tea crust filled with rice pudding and persimmons, and a very dense cheesecake. We decided to save them for New Year’s Eve.
Still on a hunt for coffee, we explored the endless winding streets of Harajuku, near Shibuya, finding success just before reaching the overwhelming Takeshita Dori street. This avenue is constantly packed shoulder to shoulder with Japanese young thangs and curious tourists. Harajuku is known to be the landmark of many Japanese subcultures, the best known of which is the Kawaii culture. This trend is characterized by the abusive use of cute images by young girls, as demonstrated by the many shops selling clothes with cats, strawberry-shaped pins, or hats with teddy bear ears. It was quite a job to plow through, but the people watching was incredible. With a lot of force, we finally fought our way to the end, then headed back to the hotel to wait for Yuka.
For dinner, Yuka introduced us to traditional chicken yakitori (kebabs) at a tiny restaurant hidden away in the electrifying hub of Shinjuku. We ordered the sampler platter and were brought an array of six different kebabs, each featuring a different part of the chicken: hips, wings, thighs, gizzards, liver, and skin. We chased the skewers with a bowl of chicken and rice porridge, then had to leave to make our karaoke reservation at a nearby entertainment center. Karaoke originated in Japan, is somewhat of a national pastime, so there are many centers around the city that rent private karaoke rooms. Our room came with a TV, song guide, microphones, and bonus tambourines. Along with drinks, an interesting tradition in the karaoke rooms is to order dessert toast, made of a half loaf of bread stood on its end and stuffed with honey, bananas, chocolate, and whipped cream, or something equivalently decadent. With all the peices in place, we toasted our glasses, dug in our spoons, picked up our microphones, and sang at the top of our lungs until midnight.
New years eve day began with a trip to the Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district for breakfast. As is typical in Japanese department stores, the basement was an expansive food hall serving every specialty imaginable. And on this particular morning, many shops were serving special traditional New Years foods, for which Tokyo locals had queued up in lines around the store to await their debut. We walked around the snaking lines, happy to settle for the regular foods, dropping delicious treats from each stall into our basket for an eventual picnic breakfast. Our first stop was the Dominique Ansel Bakery. This is a relatively new outpost of the famous New York bakery that invented the popular cronut, a gluttonous hybrid of a croissant and a donut. None of us had ever tried a real cronut, so we bought one filled with matcha cream and strawberry jam to have for breakfast. The cashier proudly told us that there was a one-month wait for the same item in New York, but luckily for us, Tokyo is the easiest place in the world to find an authentic cronut. Then it was on to curry-filled buns, sticky pastries, mochi balls filled with red bean, sushi triangles, and coffee. We took our goods up to the 9th floor and spread them out on a table in a mouth-watering feast.
By late morning a cold rain had started to fall, so we headed down the block to another department store with a cozy wooden tea room camouflaged behind a curtain in one corner. A plum tree, signaling good fortune, grew from the middle of the floor. We ordered frothy matcha and popped rice green tea, and watched in awe as each customer’s tea was expertly prepared with its own special and unique ritual, the tea master shaking, whisking, blending, and pouring to perfection. We spent another hour exploring the crafts section of the store before heading out in search of the obligatory New Years Eve soba noodles.
Eating toshikoshi soba (yearend buckwheat noodles) is an integral part of New Year’s Eve in most parts of the country. The word “toshikoshi” means “to climb or jump from the old year to the new”. The longer the noodle, the better the fortune. We ordered a mixture of hot and cold noodles, fried eel spine, and, bravely, a platter of fried pufferfish (fugu), a Japanese delicacy whose liver, ovaries and other organs that contain a neurotoxin 1,000 times more powerful than potassium cyanide. Despite the restaurant’s special license to serve the fish, given to chefs upon passing a special test taken after at least three years of training in proper fugu preparation, we were still very nervous to take the first bite. The reaction happens quickly though, so we watched Yuka take a bite and when she seemed OK, we dug in.
From Ginza we caught a subway to Asakusa to visit one of Tokyo’s most colorful and popular temples, the Buddhist temple Sensōji. It is also the oldest, completed in 645. Nakamise, a popular shopping street filled with souvenirs and traditional foods leads from the outer gate to the temple’s second gate. We stopped at a small shop to try Taiyaki, an ancient Japanese dessert in the form of a fish-shaped cake. The dough is similar to a pancake and inside is stuffed with sweet red beans.
On our way out of the temple we passed a woman holding an owl outside a cafe. It turned out to be one of Tokyo’s many animal cafes, a growing fad in the city due to the tiny size of most Tokyo apartments, which have led residents to turn to animal cafes as alternatives to pets, ranging from goats, to pugs, to reptiles, to owls, to cats, to bunnies. For research sake, we went in. It was difficult to see the animals cooped up in such a small space and tethered to one spot, although in reality I’m not sure it’s much different than any large captive bird. While it was interesting to see, and the owls were incredibly beautiful, we felt so bad for them that we had to leave. We had one last bowl of ramen for dinner at Ippodu Ramen, a well-known chain serving a solid bowl of ramen and delicious gyoza (pork dumplings), then headed back to the hotel to ring in the new year.