Japan also is also a mecca for “foodies”. Sarah and I met an energetic entrepreneuress named Avi, who was embarking on a food pilgrimage of sorts to strengthen her taste repertoire. Her experiences abroad would open up a new perspective for her food tour business, Avital Tours. I too was on a food crusade of sorts; I wanted to dig deeper into Japanese cuisine and try new variations of udon, okonomiyaki, and yakitori.
Day 0 (Late Evening)
I had made plans to meet with my friend Akira, who I had met during her exchange program to my university several years ago. She works at the D47 Museum in Shibuya and is highly knowledgeable, as the museum is devoted to showcasing past and present artifacts to all 47 of Japan’s prefectures. Sarah and I met her for dinner shortly after we had touched down, and like bleary-eyed rabbits, we followed Akira through the winding streets of Tokyo into a nondescript tower that held our izakaya destination. Izakayas are generally late-night eateries or gastropubs. The interior may range from casual to high-end settings, but there is always the promise of a good snack and drinks. I tried a strawberry flavored Suntory whiskey highball that I had found a bit strange, but still enjoyable.
Lodging: Fujimien (now closed), Hakone
I never mind the period of time travel adjustment when visiting Japan, because I always know there will be something delicious to eat in Tokyo when I wake up at an ungodly hour. With true friendship, Sarah rose with me and we set out in Asakusa to search for a warm meal. We ducked into a 24-hour udon and soba restaurant and had heaping bowls of curry udon (me) and kitsune soba (her) with a prime view of the kitchen preparation.
Curry udon is a popular and hearty dish in Japan, but not frequently seen in the US. The broth itself is a curry roux and the glutinous udon noodles do a great job of attaching itself to the broth so you get a mouthful of flavor every time. Kitsune soba is made with buckwheat noodles in a traditional dashi stock made of katsuoboshi (dried bonito flakes) and kombu (seaweed). The dish is topped with sweet slices of aburaage (deep-fried tofu) making for a light, yet comforting soup.
If you are exploring Tokyo during the early morning, you can always head over to the Tsukiji market to see the hustle and bustle of the fish vendors shuttling their goods to restaurants all over the city and beyond. For those hoping to catch the tuna auction, set an alarm (or don’t sleep) to line up at 3:00am. Visitors are limited to 120 per day on a first come, first-serve basis (learn more here).
Tsukiji is brimming with life in the morning; marketplace vendors will beckon you to visit their stalls of kombu, fresh tako (octopus), and tamagoyaki (grilled omelet on a skewer). Throw all notions of traditional breakfast to the wind and enjoy a bowl of ikura-uni don (salmon roe and sea urchin), chirashi (mixed fresh fish), and even ramen.
After Tsukiji, Sarah and I ventured back to the Asakusa towards our hostel. Fortunately for us, the oldest temple in Tokyo emerged along the walk back so we stopped for a quick visit. Sensoji is easily recognizable for its enormous red lantern in the front gates and abundance of shops lining the walkway to the main hall.
In front of the main hall, we were both granted promising omikuji’s. Omikuji’s are typically found at Buddhist or Shinto shrines. Simply donate a small amount (~¥200), shake the omikuji box until one stick comes out, locate the corresponding numbered box, and reveal your fortune inside. If you happen to get an undesirable fate, tie it on the nearby tree to secure your bad luck to it. If you get a good fortune, you can keep it or tie it on a tree to strengthen the positive effect.
After picking up our belongings at the hostel, we used our JR passes to ride from Tokyo to Odawara. We were on our merry way to stay the evening in Hakone and get a better view of Fujisan— Japan’s beloved iconic mountain and active volcano. If you plan on visiting Hakone, I highly recommend buying the Hakone Free Pass for about ¥4500. This will allow you to take several modes of transportation (ropeway, ferry, buses) within the area for 48 hours– well worth it!
Our ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) was perched on top of a mountain summit. As we climbed altitudes, I saw houses and stores less frequently and lovely trees in its place. It only took one step off of the bus to smell the difference in the crisp air and feel instantly invigorated. Fujisan proudly stood in the background, silently plotting his next volcanic eruption.
At this point, it felt like two days had already gone by when in fact only 9 hours had lapsed. I knew I only had a few more hours left in me before my sleep deprivation would send me into a catatonic state. Like the little engines that could, Sarah and I pressed on and rode the ropeway to the Odakuwani stop. Here, we found a perplexing snack of ebony eggs and slate-colored ice cream dyed by the sulfur. Despite the strange appearances, nothing we ate tasted off at all (even the black ice cream was really just plain vanilla). All around us, steamy, stinky, sulfuric mist rose from the cracks of the mountain.
As if the day couldn’t feel any longer, there were still two more goals we needed to accomplish– savor our kaiseki (traditional Japanese multi-course) meal and relax in the onsen (hot springs bath). Much to my delight, the kaiseki meal came out in small waves, beginning with a delicate soup in a tiny ceramic bowl paired with a wooden spoon. Small plates and followed one by one, carefully arranged into the right position each time it was set on the table. The menu included smelt fish, pickled radishes, sashimi, grilled sardine with egg yolk sauce, and even a mini hot pot. While each item appeared deceptively small, I ended up being quite full because of the many choices in front of me. If you are interested in partaking in a kaiseki dinner, make sure your reservation includes “half board”, which means dinner and breakfast.
Another reason one visits a ryokan is to make abundant use of the onsen. Some people soak multiple times per day; in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Think of your stay as a rejuvenating one, where you treat your body gently and eat well. Ryokans can be found all over Japan, but I would recommend visiting one that is quietly nestled in nature so you can truly enjoy the sense of calm and relaxation.
It could have been that we were completely drained from our “marathon” day the day before, or the idyllic setting in Hakone, or the splendid meal the night before, but I had slept like a rock. The morning sun brought in another day full of adventure, and this time we set out to explore Lake Ashi via ferry boat by using our Hakone Free Pass. Lake Ashi is a crater lake that sits at the base of Hakone. A lovely red gate marks the entrance to the Hakone Shrine, that has been visited by many important people (including shogun and samurai) over time. This was an impossibly beautiful day, particularly on the windy ferry deck where I buried my face in my scarf for warmth and listened to music as we glided across the lake.
Hakone is a wonderful place to enjoy a spot of nature, as it is filled with short walking trails and quiet shops to browse through. Sarah and I rode the bus back down the mountain and went straight into the busy Odawara station where we slurped two bowls of udon (mine topped with ikura or salmon roe and a poached egg). From here, Kyoto was roughly a 3-hour train ride away– the perfect amount of time to settle in with a music playlist, an easy read, and a nap.
By the time we arrived in Kyoto, the sky had already turned deep blue with the faintest glimmers of the sun fading away quickly. Oki’s Inn was tucked in a small shopping arcade off of the Higashiyama station. We were greeted warmly by Taka and Yuka, a husband and wife duo who took great care of running the inn in the most hospitable way. They even had several cats running playfully throughout the traditional space, making themselves known to the guests whenever they pleased. Staying in a traditional Japanese guest house on tatami floors was a nice contrast to the Western-style establishments we had been staying in.
A light rain had begun to fall at this point, creating a cozy atmosphere inside of the inn. For dinner, we ate rich bowls of tonokotsu ramen (for me) and shoyu ramen (for Sarah) at a tiny ramen-ya (ramen restaurant) down the road. Slipping into the warm futon at night was sheer heaven, accompanied by the soft pitter-patter of rain lulling me into a deep sleep.
Learn about Japan: D47 Museum, Tokyo
Eat Chirashi: Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo
Seek your Fortune via Omikuji: Sensoji, Tokyo
Travel by Ferry, Ropeway, and Bus: Hakone Free Pass, Hakone
Relax and Rejuvenate: Ryokan in Hakone