Saying goodbye to obachan is never easy. She pats my face with her soft hands and smiles until her eyes crinkle. We squeeze our hands together, transmitting meaning to each other that extends far beyond words. Jun is going to stay behind in Osaka while Sarah and I continue onwards towards Tokyo. With just a few days left in Japan, we still have much more to eat and things to see. This journey is a segment of a series of Japan travel: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.
Although obachan’s house is in the suburbs of Osaka, I always look forward to passing through the Tennoji Station to get takoyaki. Takoyaki is a round snack made of wheat flour dough and cooked with a piece of octopus (tako) inside. It’s topped with aonori or green laver, and is often paired with Kewpie mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce. A word of caution– your first bite of fresh takoyaki has the heat of liquid hot magma.
Osaka has several excellent takoyaki places, with Yamachan being my personal favorite. I’ve found that takoyaki can differ greatly from place to place; some are doughy while others are pillowy and light. Some are topped with savory sauces while others are just lightly seasoned. For those that don’t prefer octopus so much, you don’t have to worry– the piece of octopus inside is usually so small you will barely notice it. You’ll have to find out exactly what kind of takoyaki person you are by trying one.
The days surrounding shougatsu (New Year’s) is a busy time for Japanese citizens. Most people get this time off and are making plans to travel home to visit friends and family. Despite making reservations the week before at the JR Rail Pass office, the only seats available were in the smoking car. I had my scarf wrapped around my face for most of the 4-hour journey from Osaka to Tokyo. While I could have moved to another car with unreserved seating, it wasn’t a guarantee that Sarah and I would find seats together. The experience wasn’t awful, but not one I would want to have again.
Rather than staying in the Asakusa area again in Tokyo, we decided to stay a bit closer to the action in Shibuya. Shibuya is most famous for having one of the busiest crosswalks in the world. It’s a hip area with nightclubs, urban fashion styles, and plenty of late-night eateries. Our cozy Airbnb apartment off of the Meguro station was just a ride away and served as the perfect landing spot in the area.
With little time to waste, I looked up a few things that were happening that evening through Time Out Tokyo. This is a great cultural resource to find out events, art exhibitions, concerts, and more in major metropolitan cities. I found out there was a ramen exhibition in Ginza featuring the works of artists that had designed their own bowls of ramen with matching spoons. Could there have been a better marriage of my passion for noodles coupled with art? I had to go.
Ginza is a popular area for luxury shopping and international restaurants. The vibe of this place practically screams “date night”, as there are a ton of dessert places, window shopping eye candies, and a decidedly refined air about it. The ramen exhibit was located inside of the Tokyu Plaza Ginza, a megamall with level after level of products and restaurants. It was special to see how each artist interpreted the impact of ramen in their lives. Some associated the noodle with childhood memories, while others saw it as a Japanese cultural pillar.
I had worked up an appetite after seeing all of these beautiful (but empty) ramen bowls, so the only thing that made sense at that point was to have some ramen. We had wandered through Shibuya until coming across a ramen-ya that pulled us in with passion. This was a two-man operation; one man acted as host, waiter, and busser while another worked diligently behind the counter cranking bowls of hot ramen like a factory. The ramen chef worked silently; pouring broth, draining noodles, and prepping toppings while wearing a “no noodles, no life” shirt. I couldn’t agree more.
Although shougatsu had come and gone several days earlier, popular shrines will still have visitors throughout the week. Meiji-Jingu is a famous shrine built in the early 1920’s in honor of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. It’s located right in Shibuya amidst the bustle of the famous Shibuya crossing and is a welcome haven of peace and nature. The grounds are unexpectedly large, complete with a museum in the naien (inner grounds), and a picture gallery in the gaien (outer grounds).
Sarah and I got swallowed up by the crowds as we tried to navigate our way through the temple. Eventually, we broke free and stopped to buy a few omamori, or Japanese lucky charms. These little talismans come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colors, and purposes. They are particularly popular for students that are about to take exams or during the New Year, when the mentality is all about starting anew. I’ve bought a few for myself, including a charm for safe driving to be kept in the car.
Our next destination was the Ghibli Museum located in Mitaka, which is a bit outside of the city center. Studio Ghibli is an animation studio that has created marvelous movies such as Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke. One of their films, Spirited Away even won an Academy Award in 2003. I have an entire drawer at home filled with Studio Ghibli movies that I’ll rewatch over and over. Their director and co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki does a phenomenal job tying themes on the impact humans have over our environments. He celebrates independent female characters and creates beautiful worlds that touch the soul.
If you want to visit this museum, you will need to buy tickets a few weeks to a month in advance. I found mine on Voyagin a week and a half before. Sadly, I had encountered several people at the museum entrance who were unaware of this procedure and had traveled all the way to Mitaka only to be disappointed. The presence of Studio Ghibli is felt all along the walk from the Mitaka train station to the museum. There are plenty of gift shops along the way selling Totoro (their mascot) and character merchandise, which only fueled my excitement for the museum. The Ghibli Museum is a work of art in itself and has been meticulously designed by Hayao Miyazaki himself.
Upon entry, guests are greeted by a charming stained glass door. It feels as though no detail has been overlooked! Every room walks you through a unique experience from character development to a whimsical Catbus (from My Neighbor Totoro) room for kids to play in. It becomes evident that Miyazaki has devoted his life to the creation of these characters. Judging by the diversity of visitors inside of this museum, Studio Ghibli’s work is clearly appreciated all over the world.
As the sky began changing from bright blue to reddish-orange, Sarah and I left the museum to wander around Mitaka. A caught the deep scent of a savory smell of sizzling meat, cooking somewhere nearby. It wasn’t long until I uncovered a crowd of people gathered around an open yakitori restaurant. Yakitori is skewered chicken, traditionally cooked over a charcoal grill. This particular place had a few surly looking chefs so I had to work up my courage to order a stick of liver yakitori. I’m glad I did, because this was the best piece of liver I have ever had and it’s haunted me ever since.
Sarah and I continued to wander through Mitaka, poking our heads into the Totoro souvenir shops in search of the best gifts. As the last bit of daylight disappeared from the horizon, we ducked into an izakaya that had a constant stream of guests going in and out of it. We each ordered a beer and settled in for an assortment of small plates. One of my personal favorites (though pungent), is shiokara, or salted fermented squid. Visiting an izakaya is a great way to try a variety of dishes while chatting with friends– especially late-night.
Lodging: Catching ZZZ’s on the plane home
With only half a day left in Japan, Sarah and I woke early to make the most of our time in the city. We visited the lovely Shinjuku Gyoen, also known as the Shinjuku National Garden. The Naitō family originally lived in this park during the Edo period. The expansive grounds make it a prime location for joggers, painters, and even groups of photography students. With frozen hands and noses, we stopped into the traditional tea house for a hot drink and a piece of cake. It was easy to forget we were buried in the center of Tokyo in this serene setting.
Of the countless bowls of noodles I had eaten during this trip, there was still one more that I had not tried– tsukemen. Tsukemen are known as dipping noodles and are served separately from the broth at hot or room temperature. I had learned about these noodles in an episode of Mind of a Chef where Chef David Chang had visited Rokurinsha for a massive bowl of tsukemen. The image of these thick noodles remained a fixture in my mind long before the trip and was finally materializing into reality. This ramen-ya is one of many located on Ramen Street underneath the Tokyo Station. Come prepared to stand in a queue.
While I could probably ramble on talking about my love for the tsukemen at Rokurinsha, I will leave you simply with the fact that every bowl of tsukemen I’ve eaten since then has paled in comparison. This was a magnificent meal– one that has left a deep impression on the way I view ramen. With full bellies and my quest for noodles finally (somewhat) satiated, we visited the Ebisu station to explore what it had to offer.
This station is just a short walk from Yebisu Garden Place, which is home to a variety of international restaurants, including Chef Joel Robuchon’s La Robuchon Boutique. If you are in need of a solid cream puff, this is the place. The Sapporo and Ebisu beer museum can also be found here, making this a fun spot for any beer aficionado or foodie. For those that are already feeling full, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography has an impressive collection of exhibits throughout the year.
The only thing left on the itinerary at this point was to take our final train to the airport to begin our next chapter back home. I was pleased with myself; I had set out on this trip to try new foods, expand my ramen palate, and experience new activities such as staying at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). I had reversed my status as a tourist and had become a tour guide of sorts for my friend Sarah. I got to learn a little more about the nuances, secrets, and treasure of this wonderful country called Japan. With all things taken into account, I’d call this trip a success.
Don’t Burn Your Tongue: Takoyaki at Yamachan, Osaka
Get The Inside Scoop: Time Out Tokyo
Explore Miyazaki’s World: Ghibli Museum, Tokyo
Late Night Nosh: Izakaya
Tsukemen Ramen to Remember: Rokurinsha, Tokyo