Sometimes all you need are a couple of days away in the same time zone to recharge. Most Californians take the quick route down to Southern California via Highway 5, but this time around, I wanted to enjoy the scenic route. Here’s my recommended itinerary for a roadtrip to a long weekend in San Diego, Yogurtsoda style.
Day one: Wake up early for the long, beautiful coastal drive down Highway 1. Stop in Carmel to grab a coffee. Putter through Big Sur and take in the vistas. Once you’re in Los Angeles, take a detour away from Highway 1 to Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Long Beach for dinner. The rush hour gridlock will be worth it. Afterwards, finish the drive to San Diego and check in to your hotel. (Make sure to bring Roscoe’s leftovers with you.)
Day two: Head to La Jolla Beach for a lazy beach day and walk along the coast. Eat tacos.
Day three: Drive over to Coronado Beach for gold sand, happy crowds, and lots of ice cream. Eat more tacos.
Day four: Check out early and get on the road back to Northern California. Take the much faster Highway 5 back and save yourself a few hours. Before leaving Southern California, definitely stop at an Iranian grocer and grab a kalbas (mortadella) sandwich and ice cream sandwich for the road.
Part of what makes Japan so special is the traveler’s ability to hop on a train and be transported somewhere entirely different in just one hour. Before we planned this trip, my friend Karen urged us to take a day trip to Hakone, famous for its hot springs and view of Mount Fuji.
After the train ride into town, we hopped off to explore the Hakone Open Air Museum, which features sculptures on its spacious grounds that blend into gorgeous views of the surrounding valley and mountains. The museum also includes a sizable Picasso collection and a relaxing hot spring foot bath for visitors.
Next it was back to Chokoku-no mori train station and a quick chicken katsudon lunch set before stopping at the Hakone Museum of Photography.
This museum, like the previous one, boasted incredible views of the region, and we soaked it all in over matcha tea and cherry blossom wagashi before heading to Koen Shimo station to board the funicular. Are you keeping track of the stations, yet? Hakone does not play when it comes to diverse transportation.
Our next stop was the Hakone Ropeway, an aerial lift connecting us between Sounzan and Togendai via Owakudani. Owakudani literally translates to “Great Boiling Valley.” Sounds relaxing, right? It’s a volcanic valley with active sulphur vents and hot springs and especially kuro-tamago, or “black egg.” The eggs are hard-boiled in the hot springs, turn black, and smell slightly sulphuric. I passed on the black eggs but bought a bag of smoky dried scallops instead. Souvenirs aside, Owakudani was freezing! Note to future travelers: it’s cold up there. Bring a jacket.
For those keeping track, our next mode of transporation was another aerial lift where we reached the dock at Lake Ashi. At Lake Ashi, we boarded a boat to take us to Hakone town. It was so overcast that Mount Fuji was nowhere to be seen, but the lake was stunning.
After a brief stroll through the side streets of Hakone, we boarded a bus which took us to Hayakawa River. Seriously, do the views get progressively more stunning as the day goes on in Hakone or what? After oohing and ahhing at the river, we strolled over to Hakone Yumoto station, where I grabbed us a snack of inari sushi to hold us over for the train ride back to Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, thus completing our Japanese Public Transportation Extravaganza.
We spent our next and last day in Tokyo enjoying some of our favorite foods, among which include department store sushi. No, I’m not joking. The otoro sushi at Kinokuniya’s food hall in Shinjuku may be the best I’ve ever had. This is the sushi dreams are made of. Sublime and perfect, like butter.
Our last meal on this trip was at Ramen Setagaya in Haneda Airport. We paid at the vending machine and ten minutes later sat down to stellar ramen. In the U.S., ramen of this caliber would garner hour-long waits. In Japan, it’s airport food.
I’d previously visited Tsukiji Market with my sister back in 2009, but with the news that the market is slated to relocate in 2016, I had to visit again with Nishan. It was busier this time. Much busier. We navigated the 7 a.m. post-tuna auction crowds until we got to a nondescript sushi restaurant in the middle of the market, and enjoyed some of the freshest sushi the market has to offer. After that, it was time to shop. Preserved scallops, pickled vegetables, sugary mochi, oh my. This was my kind of market.
Afterwards we took the train back to Shinjuku for lunch at Nakajima, Tokyo’s Michelin starred restaurant specializing in sardines. I had the fried sardine lunch set and the pickled greens and radish paired well with the oily fish.
We spent the rest of the day taking it easy in anticipation of what was to come next: Robot Restaurant. Robot Restaurant is a nightmare or a fantastical experience depending on how you look at it. Popularized on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, it’s a dinner show but no one comes for the food. It’s bizarre and epic. You want to see giant metal robots battling it out with lasers? Done. You want to see rainbow rockers flipping into pyramids? Sure. It’s obnoxious, entertaining, and surreal.
The real highlight of the evening, though, was the gigantic bowl of mentaiko udon I had at Tsurutontan after the show. Even at midnight, the line to get in stretched around the corner of the building. One bite of these chewy, hearty noodles and I understood why.
Kamakura is probably the most popular day trip destination outside of Tokyo. An hour-long train ride away, it’s a beach town with relaxed vibes and it’s easy to walk from Kamakura’s central train station to most of the city’s sights. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Japan is second to none when it comes to train travel. After a bento breakfast of fried stuffed tofu and glazed sardines, we were on our way.
Shirasu, or boiled baby sardines, are a Kamakura specialty. After arriving in Kamakura, we stopped at Shamoji to try their shirasu and tuna bowl set.
The shirasu were so clean tasting with a light, smooth texture. Topped with a drizzle of ginger and soy, they were perfect alongside the fresh tuna, miso soup, pickles, and housemade tofu okara. We sat at the bar, slupring our shirasu while chatting with the charismatic and friendly chef, who shared with us that he’d road tripped through California in the 1970s. Our meal at Shamoji was one of our favorites in Japan, and we happily continued on our way to our next stop: Kotoku-in.
Kotoku-in, or the Great Buddha of Kamakura, is one of Japan’s most recognizable icons and it’s so large that you can even go inside the cavernous base. Kotoku-in was built the eleventh century and he’s seen a lot. At one time, the Great Buddha was gilded. There are still traces of gold leaf near the statue’s ears.
A sign near the entrance reads “Stranger, whosoever thou art and whatsoever be thy creed, when thou enterest this sanctuary remember thou treadest upon ground hallowed by the worship of ages. This is the Temple of Bhudda (sic) and the gate of the eternal, and should therefore be entered with reverence.”
Afterwards we explored more of Kamakura’s idyllic streets, stopping to sample tako sembei, or freshly cooked octopus crackers.
Next we made our way to Hase-dera, a Buddhist temple with gorgeous gardens and an impressive view of the coastline.
Behold the Japanese iteration of my blog’s namesake. Not-too-sweet yogurt beverage flecked with bits of pleasantly chewy coconut gel? Yes, please!
We made our way back to Tokyo as dusk was setting in and stopped at Shibuya Crossing to visit one of my favorite places: the Hachiko statue! Hachiko is basically the greatest dog of all time and I love Tokyo for dedicating a statue to this loyal furry dude.
Nishan and I spent the rest of the evening in Shinjuku and exploring the nightlife before stopping for dinner at 35 Steps Bistro. Tucked 35 steps below ground level in a converted parking garage, I wasn’t sure about this place at first. I’m glad I listened to Nishan though, because it ended up being outstanding.
We started with a house salad and tuna tartare, and next came the flame seared mackerel. This mackerel was melt-in-your-mouth tender and charred just right. And the freshness? No contest.
My favorite dish, though, was the mentaiko udon. I might go so far as to say this is among the top ten things I’ve ever tasted, period. Wonderfully chewy udon clinging to a salty-seafoody mentaiko butter sauce, topped with chopped kimchi and nori. You’d think the flavors might clash, but no. It was as if all of my favorite flavors joined forces in perfect, inimitable harmony.
It’s hard to say anything could top that udon. It’s been ten months and I still think about it.
I first visited Japan in 2009 with my sister, where we spent nearly two weeks traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto on the shinkansen train. This time, I was returning to Tokyo with Nishan, and I was just as excited to eat my way through Japan as the last time.
After our plane landed at Narita and we checked in to our hotel in Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku district, we took the train to Tokyo Station. If you know anything about Tokyo’s subway and train stations, you know that they’re practically cities within cities, complete with top-notch restaurants, shops, and amenities. I can literally spend a whole day in these train stations and not get bored. Tokyo Station includes a number of themed underground “streets,” including Ramen Street.
Yes, you read that right. Ramen Street. It’s just as incredible as it sounds.
The tsukemen at Rokurinsha on Ramen Street is supposed to be among Tokyo’s best so we stood in the long line, awaiting our turn to be seated at the counter for a huge bowl of noodles to slurp and an accompanying bowl of dipping sauce. And oh, that ramen egg. Perfect glorious egg of perfection, how I love thee. How I love your jewel-like yolk, your delightfully soy-seasoned exterior. I wish I could replicate you.
Suffice to say that the tsukemen was well worth the wait, even if I was too full to finish my bowl of noodles.
We spent the rest of the evening exploring Tokyo Station before heading back to our hotel to call it a night. The next morning, we took the train to Tokyo Tower and explored the neighborhood before arriving at Tofuya Ukai for a kaiseki tofu-themed meal. To be honest, Tofuya Ukai’s gardens practically stole the show before the meal had even begun.
We started with the cuttlefish stuffed with rice, and topped with a seasonally appropriate cherry blossom.
Next came my favorite course: tofu coated with miso and served alongside a piece of rolled omelet.
We were also treated to a serving of assorted sashimi. Next came a plate of simmered pork and potato — a nod to the chilly, drizzling weather outside.
After that came the vinegared octopus, chilled pea soup, and bamboo shoot shrimp.
Our next course was tofu in seasoned soy milk, which looked incredibly unassuming, but topped with an accompanying preserved seaweed, it made the dish hearty and umami-laden.
We were next presented with a tray of vinegared rice with salmon roe and wild plants. This was another one of my favorite courses at Tofuya Ukai.
Our last course was a dessert of soy milk pudding and sweet azuki beans. Everything at Tofuya Ukai was presented so beautifully, so seasonally, that this meal became one of our most memorable in Japan. Entrenched in its lush garden, you’d think we were in the Japanese countryside instead of central Tokyo.
Back in the bustling streets, Nishan and I took the train to explore Nakameguro District before heading back to Shinjuku to visit one of my favorite places in all of Japan: the Takashimaya food hall. The basement levels of Japan’s department stores are dedicated to all manners of perfectly presented food, and I try to visit as many as I can during each trip. The baked goods, wagashi, sashimi, and homestyle Japanese cuisines here are some of the best I’ve ever had.
For dinner, we headed to Roppongi to meet with Nishan’s friend and former colleague Jumpei. We had an omakase sushi meal at Seizan, and it was one of my favorite meals during this trip. (Listen, I know I’m saying that about half of the meals in Tokyo so far, but come on. It’s Tokyo. Everything tastes amazing.)