December 25, 2015 – January 3, 2016
This past week I had the amazing opportunity to go to Japan with my boyfriend and his family. We spent a total of 8 days in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, and I don’t even know where to start when talking about it. I loved it all, the food the culture, even the subway system.
The flight from LAX to Tokyo was long but made easier with the help of some Nyquil. The whole "skipping" a day while in flight concept was very strange to me, and the first night in Tokyo I woke up at about 3:30 am. Once it was really morning I had my first Japanese breakfast at the hotel which consisted of rice with furiake flakes, miso soup, rice porridge (wasn’t my favorite so I went with the rice bowl), some baked fish and some pickled vegetables. While I do love Japanese food, I had to throw in some hash browns from the buffet because, while they may be untraditional, they’re still delicious.
The layout of Tokyo seems to be similar to the layout of LA; everything is pretty spread out and you have to take public transportation/taxis to other areas. The subway system was so easy to figure out, as all the stops were numbered and the lines color-coded. I was put in charge of getting us where we needed to go, a task I happily took on. After spending the afternoon in the Ginza area we stopped for some udon soup. Even in areas that are crowded everything is so quiet!! It's like everyone talks in whispers on the streets; it's relaxing but also very unlike anywhere in America.
The next morning we took the metro to Shibuya, walked up from the subway and found ourselves in Shibuya Crossing, an area where all the people in the crosswalks go at one time. Hoards of people all get ready to walk at once from all directions, moving every which way. It is the epitome of organized chaos. It was much louder than the area that we were in the day before, Ginza. They had Japanese pop music playing into the streets and even the buses that advertised different bands or products played music as they passed by. After Shibuya we walked to Harajuku station, an area known for trendy fashion. It is hard to describe, but in the area there is a pedestrian street with shops similar to Venice beach or Chinatown but selling furry hair ties, kitschy t-shirts and other tourist items.
I waited in line to get a giant cotton candy that the girls around us were all talking about because I needed to see what the hype was. When we went to get in line they gave us a time card for when to come back! We had to put down a deposit for the cotton candy (everything in Japan is very strategic). I have been amazed by the level of kindness and respect that people have. Absolutely no one litters and I never felt that I should be nervous about my belongings for fear that someone might steal something. Everyone just goes about their own business. I also tried soft serve ice cream topped with potato chips. It sounds weird but it was so good! The ice cream just tasted like milk ice cream with no vanilla so it wasn't overly sweet. I loved it.
For dinner it was back to a small ramen spot we had found the night before. We know we probably should have tried a different place but it was just so good! I had charshu ramen (pork belly ramen) with a creamy broth. We were full but so happy and were still planning on going out and grabbing a drink, but we were exhausted after a long day of walking and all ended up falling asleep. Sometimes you just can’t help it.
One of my top experiences of the trip was the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. It is the world's largest and busiest fish market. You usually have to get there at about 5am because they do the tuna auctions then but those were closed for the holidays. We got there around 9am after a 30-minute metro ride and once again were amazed as soon as we got up to street level. There is an inner fish market where they sell all the wholesale fish. The place is packed with rows and rows of different types of fish and seafood, and not just "ready for sale" seafood. I was most amazed by watching one guy break down a giant whole tuna with a band saw. You had to be careful men on forklifts carrying boxes of fish didn’t hit you! I constantly felt like I was in the way of someone. The outer fish market surrounds the area where all the seafood is sold and consists of rows of little alleys radiating out. Each had various stands with fruit that I didn't recognize for the most part and others had ceramic bowls, chopsticks and different cooking utensils. I was in my version of heaven. There were also small sushi restaurants throughout the alleys. Each restaurant was small with about 12-15 seats at a sushi bar. There were crowds of people waiting outside almost every single one.
We found one that we thought looked good. It also had a reasonable wait so we got in line. We only ended up waiting about 30 minutes because they have it down to a science. When you get to the front of the line you choose what meal you want from a menu and pay there. Then you go in and sit and your sushi is put in front of you. You eat swiftly and then leave so the next person can come in. I ordered a plate with two pieces of toro, two pieces of tuna and 4 pieces of salmon sushi. They sat us at the bar and brought us our food along with some miso soup and green tea. It was such a cool and unique experience and the seafood was so incredibly fresh. I loved watching the sushi chef churn out all the orders.
On our last night in Tokyo we went to a restaurant in Rappongi called Robataya. It was a dinner based around an experience. We walked into a u-shaped table with 25-seats (we took up the majority of the restaurant, which was starting to be a trend for us in Japan.) It was Robatayaki cuisine where the food is cooked on small grills in front of you. The ingredients are all on the inner circle with the chefs behind. They cooked the food then doled out portions on long paddles. We started with sashimi, then came the vegetable portions of mushrooms, grilled peppers and grilled asparagus. Next we each got skewers of amazing, melt-in-your-mouth Kobe beef followed by scallops and a whole grilled snapper fish. We had another great dinner and were too full to do anything else so we called it a somewhat early night since we had to be up quite early for our train to Osaka.
I think Osaka was my favorite city. Every city was amazing and had their own amazing experiences to go with them but overall I loved Osaka the most. Once we had settled into the Ritz Carlton Osaka, a beautiful place in and of itself, we decided the Asahi brewery tour and ramen museum would be perfect. Unfortunately when we asked the concierge for directions, she checked and informed us that like many tourist spots as well as restaurants, both were closed for the New Year holiday.
By dinnertime I was ready for some sushi. We again consulted with the concierge, a very nice, hospitable, Japanese girl who spoke great English. She recommended a place called Hanazakura just a short cab ride away so we took off with our map in hand. We were dropped off at a small building with a slider door and a small sign in Japanese above the door. When we walked in we found a 10- person sushi bar and two other small tables. The sushi chef was the only other person there; he got our drinks, readied the sushi counter and expertly made the sushi. He said he has been making sushi for over 30 years. The menu was simple; no crazy rolls like they have in America - simply fresh, delicious fish. You could call it sushi lover’s intuition, but I just knew this was going to be great. My boyfriend Aaron saw my wide-eyed expression and nervously reminded me not to order with my eyes and end up with more than I could possibly eat. I didn’t necessarily heed his advice but did start slower with my ordering instead of asking for all the fish they had, which is what I wanted to do. I had fantastic, beautifully marbled toro (fatty tuna belly), easily the best toro I've ever had. Then I ordered a few pieces of blue fin tuna, which looked so different (in a good way) from the cuts I have typically found anywhere in the US. Another winner. Then I had salmon sushi, my usual go-to, followed by eel. After finishing up with my first round I ordered more toro, blue fin tuna and decided to try the torched salmon. The chef added some salt to the top and told us not to dip it in soy sauce, just enjoy it on its own. Well he was right, not that I doubted him, and it melted in my mouth. While you can gather that the food moments were already my favorite part of the trip, this one stood out as an amazing experience. It was the sushi experience I was hoping to have while in Japan, and everything lived up to my expectations. We even took the rest of the crew back the next night because we didn’t want them to miss out on such a great meal (and the kind person that I am, "took one for the team" and was able to have all the great sushi all over again).
That night we went to an area called Dotonbori, which I would compare to Times Square but with locals walking around and not just tourists. It was filled with billboards and light up signs with tons of restaurants and bars along one main canal with little bridges. The canals with streets along each side reminded me a lot of Amsterdam. We played some arcade games and went to various bars including one specializing in sake. The sake we had was dry and went down very smoothly. We decided to call it a night, but not before stopping at the convenience store around the corner from the hotel and picking up some snacks. The snack food is much better in Japan. We got cheesy, crunchy ramen noodle-looking snacks, cheesy chicken nuggets, warm fried rice balls in plastic packaging, panda bear cookies filled with chocolate, matcha tea cookies and an assortment of other late-night snack foods.
The next day was New Years Eve and we decided to go to the top of the Umeda Sky building, floating garden observatory, which had an amazing view of Osaka. Since it was New Years Eve there weren’t as many people as there typically would be so we didn’t have to wait in any lines and the view was even more serene with so few people around. We hung out at the top for a while and had a drink. We found a place that was actually open near the Osaka train station that had really good ramen so we ate there. In Japan New Year’s is the time that everyone leaves the cities and spends time with their families. Not much is open and it is even quieter than usual. We spent New Year’s Eve in Dotonbori as recommended by our friend the hotel concierge. After walking around for a while we found an outdoor bar that looked similar to a shanty booth with just one guy rocking a bucket hat behind the counter. We stood on the street and talked and drank some Asahi beer. Our bartender brought us Tazukuri, dried sardines cooked in soy sauce, which he told us was a traditional Japanese food eaten on New Years and meant to symbolize an abundant harvest. I am not going to lie. I don’t love sardines, but it was very nice of him and it wouldn’t hurt to have an abundant harvest so I ate them. We decided to try some takoyaki (battered octopus balls topped with sauces and bonito flakes) then swing by our favorite Japanese mini-mart chain and grab some cheesy chicken nuggets (perfect after a few beers) and canned Asahi since the open-container laws are quite lax. We walked to one of the main bridges in the center of Dotonbori and ate, drank and talked. A little while later we looked up and there was a sea of people surrounding us. We just happened to wind up in the right spot where everyone was going to celebrate midnight. There was no big countdown or ball drop but many people would hype up the crowds and then jump from the bridge into the water in funny costumes. It was a very interesting concept, not one that I will soon forget.
On New Year’s Day the only restaurant open was the one at the Ritz Carlton, which was fine because we had an amazing four-course meal there. It also came after a great football win by the University of Alabama over Michigan State, sending Alabama to the National Championship, so I was a happy camper. My boyfriend’s family, who are Michigan State fans, were not as overjoyed after a 38-0 shutout but they put it aside as we enjoyed our meal.
The next day we took the train to Kyoto for a day-trip. We took a cab to Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple with picturesque orange and gold gates (that look like buildings themselves) surrounding it. Within the temple there are many shrines including one dedicated to love and “good-matches” and talismans that could be purchased. Since it was the day after New Year’s the site was especially popular and that also meant that we got to see many people dressed in traditional kimonos going to celebrate and to pray. Down the hill from the temple was a winding street filled with small shops selling mostly tourist items but also beautiful ceramics and chopsticks. If I had it my way I would have taken home a suitcase filled with just ceramics, they were all so beautiful. There was also plenty of street food so we snacked on green tea ice cream, steamed buns, cucumbers on sticks, and crepes filled with ice cream. Afterward we took a taxi to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion Temple, one of the most popular buildings in Japan. If there had been no one else there it would have been very serene, a golden temple in the middle of a lake. We walked around the Nishiki food market and then decided to take the train back to Osaka. Unfortunately our timing wasn’t great since it was rush hour and the trains were packed.
When we got back to Osaka we went to the udon soup restaurant we had found the night before. I had the most amazing crab udon. It was not a traditional broth; instead it was creamy and was almost like crab bisque with the addition of huge pieces of crab and noodles. Since we were full we forged on and decided to try karaoke on our last night. We were unsure of how it would be so we only bought 30 minutes worth. We were directed to our own little private room and taught how to select English songs. We ended up staying for 2 ½ hours singing in all our off-key glory. It resembled the karaoke scene from Lost in Translation. It was a little tough getting up for our flight in the morning but we made it. We flew from Osaka to Tokyo and from Tokyo back to Los Angeles.
A few other random things I loved about Japan:
The vending machines. There are vending machines everywhere; on the streets, in the subway stations, next to bars. It makes it so convenient when you are thirsty and you turn around and a vending machine is right next to you! The vending machines have things other than just your standard drinks though; I even bought a hot bottled caramel macchiato from one and a hot royal milk tea.
I know this is weird but the toilets in Japan are cool. They are all high tech with various buttons, they are all automated, the seats are heated and they also have bidets with them. Even public restrooms are clean. Also, if you are a nervous pee-er you can hit a button that gives you a flushing sound for 30 seconds.
How clean everything was. No one littered. There weren’t many trashcans around on the street but still everyone just carried their trash with them. I even watched a man stop and take a newspaper and cup out of the trash and move it to the recycling bin.
The quality of food. People don’t really eat on the go because it is considered an unsafe food practice. It makes so much sense and is another reason why there isn’t trash everywhere. I didn’t see anyone eating on the trains or in the streets other than in certain areas where they were actually serving street food and even then there was usually some seating around. There are also restaurants everywhere; some of the best noodle places are in the basements of department stores!
Never tipping. You pay what you owe and that is that. There is no question whether or not you adequately tipped someone and I since I hate doing the math this helped me out quite a bit. It also helps that Japan has been deemed as having some of the best service in the world.
Japan was never at the top of my list to visit but I am so glad that I had the opportunity. I fell in love with the country, the culture and the food and would love to go back sometime in the future. If you haven’t been, I definitely recommend it.
All photos are my own. Kylie Mazon 2015/2016.