Mention the word Japan, and an indescribable giddiness comes over me. Suddenly I am consumed by thoughts of wandering down curious alleyways, sniffing out my next bite to eat, and laughing wildly at the hilarious cartoon drawing displayed throughout the country. Then, I dream of noodles.
There was a moment in time where I thought I wouldn't be going back to Japan after my December 2013 trip, but the stars aligned and I made my way back to the country I adore. My friend Sarah and I struck up a conversation on the plane ride with an energetic entrepreneuress, Avi. She was going on a food pilgrimage in search of Japanese food unicorns to strengthen her taste repertoire and instill it back into her SF Food Tour business, Avital Tours. It is evident, that Japan is a place of great food, from winding street markets, to traditional Kaiseki experiences at Ryokans (traditional hot bath and meal hospitality). On this trip, I focused on trekking into uncharted territory on my food map. Ah yes, and eating noodles every day.
Day 0 (Late Evening)
I had made plans to meet with a local friend for dinner only a few hours after my flight touched down. We managed to check in and meet her near our hostel in Asakusa for our first meal. Sarah and I were undoubtedly bleary eyed with the appetite of ravenous lions. The past few months I had been propping Japanese food on a golden pedestal every time Sarah and I talked about the trip. This was going to be the moment of truth. My friend Akira took us into a nondescript tower building to a popular izakaya with enclosed dining rooms. Regretfully, I was too travel-dazed to snap a picture of this meal, but it consisted of an eclectic salad with slivers of fresh hamachi, yakisoba. I paired this meal with a strawberry flavored Suntory whisky highball. It was odd, and I'll leave it at that.
It was 5:30am and I had never felt more alive. Sarah was sleeping peacefully in the bunk bed below and I was on Yelp searching for a spot to eat...immediately. I ninja'd my way down the bunk bed ladder and began rummaging through my belongings in the darkness. Luckily Sarah woke up and couldn't think of a better thing to do at this ungodly hour than to search for food with me. That was true friendship. We ducked into a 24 hour udon and soba restaurant and had healthy bowls of curry udon (me) and kitsune soba (her) in the back table near the kitchen opening. This is my favorite dining spot...free live cooking show. Morning commuters and elderly locals efficiently ordered, slurped, and paid. All was well in the world.
Sarah and I then headed over to the Tsukiji market to see if we could catch a glimpse inside of the real fish marketplace. Being there again felt like I had never left Japan. Every konbu stand and octopus tentacle looked friendly and familiar. We wound our way into the market, weaving around the long lines of people waiting for bowls of ikura-uni dons, chirashi, and even ramen. I fell into a dreamy state, stopping often to inhale deeply and smile knowingly at the patrons waiting in line. As we continued to forage onward, I became entranced by tamagoyaki carefully being prepared, poured, and skillfully rolled with chopsticks, then popped on a stick. It smelled sweet and savory, and I had to have one.
We stopped at the Namiyoke Inari Shrine. This is easily my favorite shrine for its beautifully painted wooden dragon heads, location in Tsukiji, and its purpose of bringing bountiful catch upon the harbor. Much to my delight, the gates to the marketplace were open and Sarah and I began gingerly walking in. Energetic men wearing black galoshes zipped around us in their speedy vehicles, calling out to each other. They carry white Styrofoam boxes-- treasures of the fresh catch. Unfortunately our time was cut short because we had to catch a train for Hakone. We were able to squeeze in a visit to the enormous Sensoji temple and were granted promising omikujis (fortunes), which is always a good sign.
We rode with our JR Rail passes from Tokyo to the Odawara station. From there, I highly recommend buying the Hakone Free Pass, which you can get for 4000 yen and will allow you to do a lot of fun activities in the area for 48 hours. It is well worth it, even if you don't get to do everything the pass allows. Most people need to hop on the bus from the Odawara station-- be warned, the road up the mountain is steep and windy (but at least the Hakone pass covers the fare). Our ryokan was situated towards the mountain summit, and I started feeling nauseous 40 minutes into our 1+ hour ride. But, as soon as I got off the bus and took a smell of the crisp mountain air, I felt invigorated. Fuji-San stood prominently before us, silently plotting it's next volcanic eruption. Simply magnificent. Getting here was worth every penny, windy bus ride, and 6am wake-up.
Shortly after, we checked into LodgeFujimien and continued to gape at Fuji-San, sincerely awestruck by it's massive presence. This mini 24 hour trip was, is, and will always be about this beloved strata volcano. We rode the ropeway to the Odakuwani stop and ate a perplexing snack of eggs and ice cream dyed black by the sulfur. Curiously enough, nothing tasted like sulfur. Steamy, stinky, sulfuric mist rose from the cracks of the mountain. Black egg cartoons were prevalent everywhere, especially ones with muscular limbs. That image made no sense, but that is also why I love Japan.
Sarah and I made our way back to the Lodge in time to don our robes and await the lovely kaiseki (traditional multi-course) meal before us. I couldn't help but feel like a giant playing in a toddler's dollhouse as I lifted the tiny hand-painted vessels to reveal the mini courses inside. Everything was meticulously crafted, arranged, and tasted unfamiliar but inviting. It was like hugging someone else's grandma. With full bellies, we struggled to stay awake through the dessert. After a much needed nap, we visited the onsen, adjusted to the scorching water temperatures, and sighed with contentment. There aren't many other moments that can top a day with mesmerizing sights, new experiences, and a warm place to rest.
Another onsen visit and delightfully diverse breakfast buffet spread... these ryokans take no shortcuts around relaxation. We used our Hakone Free Pass for a ferry ride across Lake Ashi and strolled through town plotting our next meal. I stood outside on the ferry deck, listened to music, and took deep breaths of the fresh air. This was an impossibly beautiful day. The bus ride back down didn't seem so windy anymore, and we found ourselves transported back into the hustle and bustle of the Odawara station. Two bowls of udon later, we were back on the train en route to Kyoto.
This particular Kyoto trip cannot be remembered without distinct feelings of fondness for our hostel, Oki's Inn. It is run by the friendliest, most accommodating souls, and they even have cats. We stayed in a tatami room on the second floor that overlooked a narrow shopping arcade. It poured rain on this particular evening, so we borrowed umbrellas as we ventured out in search of dinner. Which meant more noodles, and more specifically, ramen.
And as all good meals go, this meal was followed by deep sleep. Bonus points for cozy futons, the soft pitter-patter of rain, and cats chasing each other in the rafters.