Japan is an exquisite country, filled with kind people, impeccable order, and the best dashi broth and fatty tuna I’ve ever eaten. Everything is executed with the utmost attention and care. Each person we met felt like they had been waiting for us, ready to offer a cold towel at the izakaya bar after a hustle through Shinjuku Station, or draw us a bath warmed by fire and fill it with fresh mint.
We began most days with a mochi cake made by a street vendor or an onigiri rice ball from 7-Eleven (no joke). The seaweed comes in a separate package so it’s perfectly flakey when you wrap it around the rice — a perfect reflection of the attention to detail that was pervasive throughout Japan. Our time in Tokyo was underscored by steaming bowls of ramen and incredibly fresh fish outside of Tsujiki Market. My favorite ramen was made with yuzu broth and chi-yu, chicken fat blended with dashi. Though the ramen in Golden Gai, a tiny cluster of speakeasies and noodle shops in Shinjuku, was a close second. Made with sardine broth, the soup is as rich as tonkatsu (pork ramen) but not as heavy, and filled with two types of thick, chewy, perfect egg noodles. Taking in the scenes and smells of Tsujiki Fish Market and enjoying sashimi and steaming miso for breakfast at a six-top counter was pretty unforgettable, as well. Special shoutout to my friend Ilana of Free the Picnic, who basically shaped our entire dining experience in Tokyo.
For a city of 13 million people, we were amazed by how smooth and simple it felt to move about Tokyo. No matter how crowded the train or how long the queue, people always remained calm, quiet, and respectful. And so very punctual. The average delay of the Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train, is less than 60 seconds, and it’s been around for over 50 years.
Our time in bustling Tokyo was complimented by a few days in Kamikochi, the Japanese Alps, where we stayed in a mountain lodge and hiked with monkeys through the beautiful Asuza river valley. We spent most of our waking hours soaking in onsen or reading in our yukata robes, and bookended each day with hearty meals of many tiny courses. Pickled mountain vegetables, sauteed wasabi greens, sesame burdock root, tempura made with puffed rice, fish dumplings. Somehow we always managed to finish it all.
Kamikochi was followed by a week in Kyoto, an incredibly special and beautiful city. The tiny streets twist and turn and are dotted with makers and craftspeople of all kinds — each wholeheartedly dedicated to what they do. Tofu, pottery, soba, paper. By night, the streets grow quiet, the temples light up, and the geisha scurry about to their appointments.
We ended our travels with a few days at Koyasan, a temple complex in the mountains outside of Osaka, followed by a farm stay in rural Kyushu, the southern-most island of Japan. We were welcomed by the loveliest family, Midori-San, Yoshidori-San, Tomo, and “Baba”— the 86-year-old grandmother who tends to her plants each morning. It’s no wonder Japanese women live longer than anyone else in the world. After a few weeks of touring and dining in restaurants, it felt incredibly special to harvest vegetables, sit in someone’s home, and watch them cook. I was mesmerized by Midori’s kitchen — filled with jars of ume-boshi (pickled plum), koji (fermented rice), and doburoku (unfiltered sake).
There is no doubt that Japan is a place you can keep coming back to, and I hope we do. In the meantime, we’ll bask in the gratitude we feel for our experience, sift through our keepsakes, and stock our pantry full of seaweed.