Japan, Day Four

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With only two full days in Kyoto, Melody and I knew that we’d have to use our time wisely. I had read that Highashi Honganji was only a fifteen minute walk from Kyoto Station, so we started our day there. A Shin Buddhism temple built in 1602, Higashi Honganji was surprisingly and eerily quiet when we visited. With the place mostly to ourselves, we took our time exploring the huge wooden structure in the morning cold.

Higashi Honganji

Since I’m always after the food, we soon left the temple and took the subway to downtown Kyoto, where we arrived at my favorite destination in the city: Nishiki Market. Spanning several blocks and specializing in local and artisanal foods, the market was filled with sweet wagashi, all kinds of seafood, freshly-cooked snacks and just about every variety of pickled vegetable that you can imagine. People in Kyoto take their pickles seriously, and for good reason. They’re absolutely delicious.

Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market

Melody and I enjoyed a few freshly-cooked fish cakes as a snack while we walked along, as well as the most incredible savory grilled mochi I’ve ever had. (Hey, San Francisco’s Japantown! Step your game up and start selling these!) Each piece of mochi was sprinkled with a different flavor: sesame, ume (pickled plum), nori seaweed, and chili pepper.

Four-Flavor Grilled Mochi

Our next destination was Daitoku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple. On the long walk there, we stopped at a nearby restaurant for lunch. I don’t remember its name, only that the menus were adorably drawn by hand and the interior was decorated with owl statues.

I had the shrimp tempura soba with rice, sunomono and delicious tsukemono.

Lunch near Daitoku-ji

Daitoku-ji is huge, and while it originated as a small monastery in the 1300s, it quickly grew into a large complex of 22 subtemples spread out through 56 acres.




The main temple and a few of the subtemples are open to the public and display Zen design, including gardens and tea ceremony rooms. Every few steps, I noticed a painter quietly tucked into a corner, sketching a subtemple or garden.

After Daitoku-ji, we rushed to make it to our next destination, Fushimi Inari-taisha. Deep in the woods, Fushimi Inari-taisha is the head Shinto shrine of Inari and sits at the base of a mountain. Countless torri, or gates, line the way up the mountain to smaller sub-shrines, and the secluded nature of the area lends the whole place a spooky kind of air. As beautiful as it is, it’s not the kind of place I’d want to get lost in at night.

Fushimi Inari-taisha

Fushimi Inari-taisha

Fushimi Inari-taisha

By the time we left Fushimi Inari-taisha, it was past dusk, and we headed back to Kyoto Station, where we admired the glittery station and its awe-inspiring views.

Kyoto Station

Kyoto Tower

For dinner, we headed to Kokkekokko, a loud, fun restaurant specializing in yakitori and a staff that yells “arigato gozaimasu!” as heartily as I’d ever heard. We started with the chili shrimp and chicken heart yakitori, which was some of the most tender and flavorful heart I’ve tasted.

Chicken Heart and Chili Shrimp Yakitori

Next, we shared a steaming bowl of oden, a warming seasonal dish of boiled eggs, daikon radish, konnyaku, and fish cakes stewed in a light, soy-flavoured dashi broth.


Finally, we had a plate of okonomiyaki, slathered in delicious okonomiyaki sauce and katsuobushi. Technically, this version of okonomiyaki was modanyaki, or “modern yaki,” because the grilled batter included a layer of fried yakisoba noodles.


Before calling it a night, Melody and I visited a local bar, where we had a couple of Suntory whiskey highballs (I had ume plum flavor) and shared a plate of fried potatoes. Not bad for a day’s worth of eating and exploring.

Japan, Day Three

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Our third day in Japan marked my first encounter with Japan’s shinkansen, or bullet train system. After making our reservations on the Tokaido line, Melody and I navigated our way to Shinjuku Station’s shinkansen platform and awaited our train which was to take us south to Kyoto at a whopping 280 kilometers per hour.

Shinjuku Station

For a journey that spans almost a third of Honshu, the ride was surprisingly quick. We enjoyed our bento lunches and admired the view of Mount Fuji and the Japanese countryside as we whizzed by, and arrived at Kyoto Station just two hours and forty-five minutes later. Kyoto Station is a breathtaking building (and Japan’s second-largest station), and we made a note to come back and explore after we’d settled in.

Our hotel, the Rihga Royal Hotel Kyoto, was a five minute bus ride away from the station. After checking in, we left our bags at the hotel and returned to Kyoto Station to catch the subway train to Gion. Famous for being one of the most exclusive geisha districts in Japan, the area houses a wealth of traditional architecture and entertainment. The first thing we saw when we stepped out of the subway station was Minami-za, a grandiose kabuki theater founded in 1610.

Minamiza Kabuki Theater

We were getting hungry as we walked along Shijo Dori, the primary street running through Gion, so we stopped at a takoyaki stand and bought a box of made-to-order takoyaki.


Takoyaki are battered octopus balls, an Osaka region specialty. Topped with pickled ginger, green onion, okonomiyaki sauce, ponzu, mayonnaise, nori, and katsuobushi (fish shavings), they’re one of my favorite Japanese snacks. I was first introduced to them back in college, when I had the good fortune to have a roommate from Osaka and a roommate from Tokyo (boy, did I eat some good Japanese food that year). I’d since tried to find good ones in California, but to no avail. These takoyaki in Gion satisfied the craving I’d been having for years.

Melody and I finished our snack before heading into the Yasaka Shrine, which sits at the end of Shijo Dori.

Yasaka Shrine

Built in 656, this Shinto shrine was mostly deserted when we visited, but it was nighttime and I imagine the crowds flock here during the day. After exploring, we headed back towards Shijo Dori in search of dinner. I was in search of an okonomiyaki restaurant, and we found what we were looking for at Issen Yoshoku. This restaurant serves okonomiyaki and only okonomiyaki.

Meaning “as you like it,” okonomiyaki is my other favorite Osaka region specialty food. This savory pancake is made up of made of flour, grated yam, dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage, and usually contains other ingredients such as green onion, octopus, squid, meat and shrimp. The final product is generally served topped with okonomiyaki sauce, nori flakes, katsuobushi, Japanese mayonnaise, and pickled ginger.


The version at Issen Yoshoku was slightly different than traditional okonomiyaki; it was more like an omelet, but tasty nonetheless. Service was pretty curt at Issen Yoshoku, but it was totally worth it for the restaurant’s kitsch: wooden blocks depicting explicit scenes of people in compromising positions adorn the walls, and life-size mannequins of geishas are seated at every table.

Our first evening in Kyoto lived up to everything I’d hoped it would and I was excited to explore the city during the daytime. We headed back to our hotel to map out the next day’s excursions and get some much-needed rest.

Japan, Day Two

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On the eleven hour flight from San Francisco to Narita, I got deep into reading The Story of Sushi, a narrative of a sushi school in California interspersed with the science of fish and the history of sushi as it developed in Japan. A good deal of the book focuses on Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market, the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. Ever since learning about the market on Anthony Bourdain’s “A Cook’s Tour,” I’d been wanting to visit.

Melody and I woke up at five in the morning to get on the train to Tsukiji, which was too late to view the daily tuna auction, but early enough that the jonai shijo, or inner market, was still bustling.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market

I remain convinced that every type of seafood on earth was on sale at this market. Vendors displayed gorgeous, deep red chunks of tuna, glistening black and orange caviar, all kinds of seaweed, and shellfish galore. Tsukiji spans the size of 43 football fields, and after a couple hours of exploring the market, we had only scratched the surface. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Back on the train, I mapped out the best route to get to Senso-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. Built in 645, it was destroyed in the air raids of World War II, like so many of Tokyo’s historical structures. It was later rebuilt and is now a symbol of rebirth and peace.

The temple’s entrance is the Kaminarimon or “Thunder Gate.” This imposing structure features a massive paper lantern dramatically painted in red and black to represent thunderclouds and lightning. Beyond the Kaminarimon is Nakamise-dori, a long street lined with shops, followed by the Hozomon, or “Treasure House Gate,” which is the entrance to the inner complex. Within that gate is a huge five-story pagoda and the main hall. It was easy to get lost here because of its sheer size.





Melody and I were famished after exploring Senso-ji, so we stopped at Ueno Station for a quick lunch of udon noodles. If there’s one thing I learned in Japan, it’s that Japanese train stations boast incredibly good dining options. If only we had the same in the United States.

The udon restaurant offered about twenty different kinds of udon soup, and I went for the fried tofu udon with a side of squash and shredded onion tempoura.

Fried Tofu Udon

Squash and Shredded Onion Tempura

Back in Shinjuku, we explored the huge Takashiyama Times Square, which to my delight, included a multi-story Kinokuniya store. So many Japanese cookbooks! Before heading back to our hotel, we picked up some gyoza and sushi from Takashiyama’s food court.



The gyoza was crispy and full of oniony flavor, and the sushi was ridiculously fresh, especially the scallop nigiri.

Before calling it a night, Melody and I decided to visit a local izakaya, or Japanese-style bar. We settled on Ice, a tiny but busy izakaya where the hosts didn’t speak a word of English, the menus were entirely in Japanese, and we happily got by with a combination of pointing and pantomime. We devoured a spicy dish of konnyaku and bamboo shoots with our Asahi beers.

Spicy Konnyaku and Bamboo Shoots

I know a lot of people aren’t crazy about konnyaku for its textural feel, but this was one of the best konnyaku dishes I’ve ever had. Slightly browned on the outside, the chewy konnyaku had fully absorbed the dish’s spicy heat.

Back at our hotel, we packed our bags in preparation for the next leg of our trip: Kyoto. The next morning would be an early one, and we needed rest to catch our bullet train on time.

Japan, Day One

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I’m warning you now: this is going to be an epically long post. It hasn’t even been a month since I’ve returned from Japan but I’m already missing it. I spent a week between Tokyo and Kyoto with my sister Melody in December and only wish that I had a few extra weeks to spare. The food, the style, the ridiculously efficient transportation system – I loved it all.

We arrived at Narita International Airport on a Friday evening and after getting our bearings straight, hopped on the Narita Express train, which took us to Shinjuku Station in Tokyo in under two hours. In Shinjuku, we checked into Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku, which would be our home for the next three nights. I loved this hotel. Sure, the rooms are tiny, (what do you expect, it’s Tokyo!) but the service was impeccable and the details were perfect, right down to the freshly-starched pajamas and the high-tech toilets (more on Japanese toilets later). After getting settled in, we had a light dinner of onigiri and seaweed salad and called it a night.

The next morning, we had breakfast at Blegrace, one of Tokyo’s ubiquitous French-style bakeries. Melody had the green bean bread, while I had a hot dog bun covered with cheese and seaweed.

Hot Dog Bun

It doesn’t look very French, I know. And it’s not very breakfasty. But who cares, it was delicious.

Afterwards, we took the train to Harajuku to explore Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Built in 1920, the shrine is expansive and made up primarily of Japanese cypress and copper. The original building was destroyed during the Tokyo air raids of World War II and was rebuilt in the 1950s.

Meiji Jingu

Meiji Jingu

Meiji Jingu

Meiji Jingu

We left the quiet sanctuary of Meiji Jingu and next explored the neighborhood streets, people-watched and checked out the craziness that is Harajuku.


We soon got back on the train and took the Yamanote line to Shibuya, where we found Hachiko!


What’s the story behind Hachiko? Read this. (Be forewarned, it’s a tear-jerker.)

We crossed the infamous Shibuya Crossing and took in the music-blaring, super-busy, advertisement-heavy neighborhood. Shibuya is full of huge advertisements, often featuring American celebrities, like this one:

Tommy Lee Jones for Suntory "Boss Coffee"

Why yes, that is Tommy Lee Jones for Suntory “Boss” Coffee.

After Shibuya, we got on the metro and took the subway to Ginza Station. Do you like shopping? Do you like fashion? Go to Ginza then, it will blow you away. Chock-full of department stores and boutiques that put their American counterparts to shame, Ginza was like walking into an alternate universe: droves and droves of perfectly-dressed people taking a weekend stroll. And I mean perfectly dressed. Ginza is, after all, arguably the most luxurious shopping district in the world.


But enough about the clothes, let’s talk about the food! American department stores, please take note: Japanese department stores have food courts. And I’m not talking about some paltry excuse for a sandwich shop or McDonald’s. Japanese department stores typically have one or two of the basement floors dedicated entirely to gourmet food, from bento, to sushi, to pickles, to pastries, to tea, and the list goes on. I felt like I was in heaven wandering the food halls of Matsuya, Daimaru, Takashimaya and Mitsukoshi.

Mitsukoshi Food Garden

Daimaru Food Court

After a quick snack of gyoza at Mitsukoshi’s food court, and a walk around Ginza, we headed back to Shinjuku for dinner.


In Shinjuku, we had dinner at Santouku, a busy ramen joint just a few blocks from our hotel. I opted for the shoyu ramen.

Shoyu Ramen

The ramen broth was super rich and the noodles had a fresh, firm texture to them that I’ve never had in California. Dinner was hearty, and Melody and I decided to walk it off by exploring the side streets of Shinjuku.


We covered a lot of ground for our first day in Japan (and a jet lagged one at that). Exhausted, we headed back to our hotel for a good night’s rest so that we could be ready for an early start the next morning.