“The journey itself is my home” – Matsuo Bashō
Since I can remember, Japan has been at the forefront of my culinary curiosity. The precision, the grace, the beauty…and yet the simplicity of its cuisine. In Japan, food and drink are as much a ritual as the tori gates, the geishas, and the quirky and colorful makeup of this amazing country. My edible adventure with Topdeck Travel encompassed two weeks of awe-inspiring traditions, eccentric eats, and a journey into mouth-watering excellence.
Tokyo – Dining with Robots, Drinking With Danger
As the world’s greatest food city and a hub for innovation, Tokyo’s food scene is absolutely stellar. From Michelin star dining (over 200!) to savory street food and themed restaurants, Tokyo is a global culinary center. And if you like dining with robots, look no further than the infamous Robot Restaurant, located in the Kabukicho red-light district. Imbibe in sushi and sake, amidst fighting pandas, fire-breathing dragons, flying monkeys, and lots of neon. Grab your glow stick and GO!
To further add to your buzz, stumble down to the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku and cozy up in one of their TINY themed bars (really tiny…like six seats tiny). In the maze of narrow streets, I came upon a punk rock horror themed bar – think Black Sabbath meets Pulp Fiction. Furnished with masks, chainsaws, and the gratuitous Chuckie doll, I quickly ordered up a Shochu soda, Japan’s favorite distilled spirit. Move over sake, this spirit warrants multiple orders in broken Japanese.
Takayama – Brewing up Tradition
For a complete change of pace, make your way to beautiful Takayama, in the mountainous Gifu prefecture. This place is absolutely breathtaking, with an unparalleled atmosphere dating back to the Edo period. Stroll along the Sanmachi Suji historic district, lined with wooden merchants’ houses and rows of sake breweries. Yes, I had arrived. As the birthplace of sake, visitors have unlimited options of some of the best premium sake in Japan. A sugidama, or cedar ball, hangs outside of a sake brewery to indicate new sake has been made.
Just as traditional in Takayama is the mouth-watering hida beef, raised in the local Gifu prefecture. Make sure to salivate over this first-class Japanese beef, which rivals Kobe or Matsuzaka beef. Classified with the A/B rank and the 5/4/3 grade, the beef is best enjoyed quickly seared, with plenty of local sake. Family owned and operated, we cozied up at a local restaurant, grilling our meat table side, cross legged on tatami…and loving every minute.
The next morning, we awoke to snow, eagerly running outside to play (and then quickly back to enjoy our gorgeous Japanese breakfast and warm ryokan). Breakfast was followed by a trip to the local farmers market, where stalls of fresh produce, tasty sweets, and friendly dogs welcomed me home. There is nothing better than walking the stalls of a new country, immersed in the color of their seasonal bounty. Full of flavor and history, Takayama is a must stop steeped in tradition.
Kyoto – Slurping Ramen, Sipping Tea
In Kyoto, nothing is more traditional than a tea ceremony (or chanoyu). These ceremonies can range from the minimalist to the extravagant, from six hours to one hour. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, the ceremony is based on four principles – harmony (with people and nature), respect (for others), purity (of heart and mind), and tranquility. Each movement is choreographed precisely, a ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green tea with traditional Japanese sweets to balance the bitter taste of the matcha. To signify enjoyment, guests should sip their last taste loudly. I gladly obliged…
Just as traditional in Kyoto is a bowl of steamy hot ramen. Try Ramen Alley, otherwise known as Kyoto Ramen Koji. Located on the 10th floor of Kyoto Station, there are several varieties of traditional ramen – from miso ramen to tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen to shoyu (soy sauce) ramen and shio (salt) ramen. Have fun using the vending machines, where pictures are your saving grace. Or perhaps opt for udon, served hot or cold with grated daikon radish, adding a slightly spicy sweetness.
Once your nice and full, make sure to stop by Arashiyama Iwatayama Monkey Park, where guests can feed the adorable (and LOUD) Japanese macaque monkeys.
Stay tuned for Part II of my journey into the Land of the Rising Sun…
Taste. Trek. Travel.