In the late eighties, my aunt took a trip to Japan and got me a pair of round-toed flats with a red flower pattern, and a little buckle to the side. I was nine, and these were the prettiest shoes I had ever owned. This, and the captivating tales she also brought back were likely the sparks that ignited my interest in all things Japanese: it seemed like she had visited another, mysterious planet, and I burned to go there myself some day.
It has taken me a little over twenty years to act upon that desire, twenty years during which I seized every opportunity to learn more about the culture and the people and the food, so I think it’s fair to say this is the single most anticipated trip I’ve ever taken. Part of me worried this might lead to some form of disappointment, but I’m thrilled to report that our trip managed to surpass even my sky-high expectations.
In broad strokes, what we did was this: fly from Paris to Tokyo; stay almost a week in Tokyo, where we swapped apartments with a friend of a friend who lives in the Omotesandō area; go to an onsen a little way north from Tokyo, where we stayed at a ryokan (a traditional inn) and bathed outdoors in the hot springs; spend a day in Osaka; go south to Kōya-san, a small mountain town that is a major holy site for Shingon Buddhism, where we stayed overnight at a temple-inn; stay in Kyoto for a few days, where we rented a little machiya in the Higashiyama area; fly home from Kyoto.
I seem to have spent the entirety of our vacation in a state of permanent elation, excited beyond words to just be there, observing everything and everyone, taking in street and nature and temple scenes, browsing shelves in stores big and small, walking, walking, and walking some more, riding gleaming trains, and eating like I gladly would for the rest of my days.
The one drawback is that it’s a little hard to come down from such a high, and already I am trying to find ways to plot another trip. But in the meantime, I would like to revisit a few highlights with you if you’re keen. Not a day-by-day, bore-you-to-sobs, comprehensive report but rather, as is my preference, a pointillist account of what delighted me most:
~ Stumbling upon a shop that specializes in onigiri (rice balls), zeroing in on the one garnished with tiny sardines and grilled sesame and wrapped in shiso, and calling it breakfast. (See my recipe for onigiri.)
~ Visiting the Shibuya branch of Tokyu Hands, an enormous lifestyle store, and buying all sorts of cute crafty/kitchen things (including the small ceramic grater I was looking for).
~ Spending some time in Kappabashi, Tokyo’s Kitchen Town, an avenue lined with stores that sell utensils, tableware, and other supplies to food professionals — the Tokyo equivalent of Dehillerin and peers. Buying a Japanese mandolin from a francophile Japanese store owner who explained that Japanese chefs like to use French mandolins while French chefs prefer Japanese mandolins — a nice illustration of the Franco-Japanese friendship.
~ Being flattered and amused by how much French is used to name shops, cafés, and goods in Tokyo — often in a slightly misguided manner; thinking it would be worth starting a photoblog a bit like this one to catalog them.
~ Eating splendid meals for next to nothing; Japan is said to be an expensive destination, but it’s certainly not because of the food. Sure, there are many fancy restaurants, but these are not (at all) the ones we sought out, and we rarely spent more than ¥2000 each for a meal (about 16€ or $21) — often a lot less.
~ Eating extraordinary gyoza at Ippudo — thin-skinned, flavorful, and perfectly seared.
~ Going into restaurants that looked good but had no English menu, and getting by on our rudimentary knowledge of kana and culinary vocabulary; managing to have memorable meals that were (more or less) what we thought we’d ordered.
~ Buying a box of ichigo daifuku (strawberry mochi), but not without first having to solemnly promise the lady that they would all be eaten on that same day.
~ Traveling by train and buying ekiben — railway bento — from the platform stands; thinking about the styrofoam sandwiches they sell on European trains and weeping for our civilization.
~ Having lavish dinners with myriads of little dishes served in the privacy of our own tatami-floored room at the ryokan and at the Buddhist temple; after dinner, having the staff whisk away the table and set up futons in its place.
~ Eating traditional Japanese breakfasts and finding I actually like nattō (fermented soybeans).
~ Sharing a container of takoyaki (grilled octopus in a crêpe-like batter, shaped into balls and served with a sweet sauce) in the sun outside the walls of the Osaka castle.
~ Finding the Japanese people we interacted with to be incredibly helpful and patient, trying their very best to get us where/what we wanted despite our lack of common language. On several occasions, the person whom we’d asked for directions went literally out of his way to accompany us to a place from which he could better show us where to go.
~ Eating melonpan fresh off the baking truck in Osaka — it was parked just outside one of the covered street segments in Shinsaibashi — and spending the rest of the trip sampling other melonpan that failed to reach that level of deliciousness.
~ Taking pictures of ourselves in a purikura, one of those photo sticker booths where Japanese teenaged girls and their friends go all out on the makeup and outfit. The Taito arcade room we went to had an entire floor devoted to them — a floor that was actually off-limits to unaccompanied men.
~ Enjoying the show in restaurants where they cook right in front of you — teppanyaki places, where they cook on a flat griddle and serve okonomiyaki (a garnished omelet) in particular, or Japanese barbecue restaurants where they grill your food (meat, fish, vegetables) on a pile of embers set up just for you in a sand pit that runs the length of the bar.
~ Exploring the Nishiki-dori market in Kyoto, being wowed by the variety of ingredients on offer; going back several times and barely even starting to scratch the surface.
~ Being introduced to tonyu donuts at the Nishiki-dori market in Kyoto — miniature rings of fried batter made with soy milk, crunchy on the outside and not too sweet.
~ Discovering the concept of stuffed pancakes, cooked and sold from street (or subway) stands: two thick pancakes cooked on one side each, a dollop of stuffing plopped on one side before the two pancakes are reunited. Having one garnished with sakura jam and a ball of mochi, and thinking I could probably make something similar with my muffin rings.
~ Falling in love with warabimochi — lightly chewy pieces of mochi covered with kinako (toasted soybean flour) — and buying some every chance we got. (See my recipe for warabimochi.)
~ Having tea served at restaurants without having to ask (or pay) for it; learning to use the personal tea taps at kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurants.
~ Taking advantage of konbini, the ubiquitous 24/7 convenience stores, for late-night snacks and fun purchases.
~ Feeling lucky to be in Kyoto at just the right time to visit the Kōbō-san flea market, held inside the Tōji temple on the 21st of every month; enjoying the crowd, buying delicate tea bowls, and admiring the goods from the very many street food stands.
~ Realizing that we were in Japan during the brief bamboo shoot season. Seeing them sold on every market stall (they’re pricey!) and eating them in all kinds of preparations (boiled, grilled, in tempura, in dumplings, in soups…). Finding there is one proper direction in which to chew them if you don’t want all the fibers stuck in your teeth; being thankful for the wide availability of toothpicks.
~ Realizing that every single department store in Tokyo and Kyoto has a food section on the basement floor that would put Lafayette Gourmet to shame; wishing I could be a nome in a Terry Pratchett novel and live there forever.
~ Meeting up with friends along the way, and sharing home-cooked meals, tea and pastries, and fun dinners out.
~ Visiting the steam locomotive museum in Kyoto, and seeing a group of schoolkids on an outing, eating their ensoku bento, each sitting in his socks on his own little plastic rug and greeting us with enthusiastic hello’s (actually more like “he-ro!”) as we walked by.
~ Eating matcha ice cream on a glorious day in Arashiyama.
~ Finding ourselves completely alone (save for a white cat) in the most beautiful moss garden imaginable at the tiny Gio-ji temple in Arashiyama (Kyoto); deciding it will be my new imaginary destination when I’m trying to quiet my mind at bedtime.
Ressources you may find useful when you plan your own trip:
~ Bento.com for restaurant recommendations across Japan,
~ A list of 40 Tokyo foods you shouldn’t miss,
~ Kyoto Foodie for Kyoto food info and map of recommendations,
~ Maki’s Postcards from Kyoto and Kyoto map,
~ ChubbyHubby’s Kyoto guide,
~ Heidi’s report from her two weeks in Japan (especially if you go as a vegetarian),
~ Japanese Guesthouses for ryokan and temple-inn reservations,
~ VRBO’s Japan section, if you want to rent a house or apartment directly from the owner,
~ APA Hotel, a chain of Japanese hotels that offer reasonable rates,
~ Hyperdia for train route and fare calculations,
~ Tokyo Transfer Guide for Tokyo subway route and fare calculations.