Eating In Japan (Japan: Part 3 of 3)

I’ve been thinking about how to structure this post. A day by day accounting of each meal? I sort of already did that in my Japan itinerary post, though without pictures of the food. Just highlighting my favorite meals? But even the not-so-favorite meals are still interesting and memorable. So you’ll get a mix.

First, a few thoughts on my personal approach to eating in Japan.

  1. Eat whatever is put in front of me. Why not? I’m probably not going to be able to ask what it is or ask for something different, so just go for it. This led me to eat a few things that I had never eaten before (raw horse meat, sea urchin), things I typically detest (shrimp), and things I don’t necessarily detest but just don’t… choose to eat because I like almost everything else better (squid, octopus).

2. Don’t be too precious or indecisive. By this I mean, I wasn’t concerned about finding the most authentic Japanese meal/experience or the best sushi or ramen. From everything I’d heard about Japan, it was all going to be good. Quality and service are very important and food is respected. I didn’t want to spend time perseverating over this option or that option. Plus, I don’t speak Japanese, and I wasn’t prepared to get uncomfortable enough to put myself in situations that might have been required in order to find the most authentic experience. So did we end up at a lot of safe, guidebook-recommended, English- and tourist-friendly places? Yes. Was it delicious? Yes. Was it the most authentic experience and the best food I could have had there? Probably not, but I was 100% okay with that.

3. Must haves. These included very fresh sushi (Daiwa sushi, check); conveyor belt sushi (place in Ueno, Tokyo, check); wagyu beef (Otsuko Steak in Kyoto, check); and ramen (multiple checks).

4. Try new things. I ate a lot of things I’d never had before, including the items listed above and most of the street food in Osaka. It also included:

  • Takoyaki: fried dough balls with octopus in them
  • Okonomayaki: savory pancakes containing almost anything – noodles, eggs, meat, sauce, green onion, cabbage, etc.
  • Japanese yam… paste? I don’t know what this stuff is called. We had it the first night in Tokyo at the Shinsuke izakaya with raw tuna. It was at the breakfast buffets in the Matsumoto and Yakushima hotels. And it was in this cold soba noodle dish at the cold soba and tempura restaurant in Matsumoto. It’s white (under the egg here) and had a sticky, pasty consistency and not a ton of flavor. I enjoyed it.fullsizeoutput_ae2d

So, we ate well. We didn’t fuss about it too much. My most memorable food experiences include (in chronological order):

  • Our first meal in Japan at Shinsuke Izakaya, obviously. It was our first meal! We each got a beer and we shared a sake. I don’t remember everything we got, but it included sashimi, the Japanese yam stuff I mentioned above, some pickled things. All in small dishes.
  • Daiwa Sushi. We didn’t have a super fancy sushi dinner in Tokyo, which we debated. But this was damn good sushi, worth the wait.
  • The izakaya, Soan Zama, in Matsumoto. As I mentioned in my first Japan post, we were the only customers, and the woman working did not know any English. There must have been at least one other employee cooking, but we never saw that person. We again each had a beer and shared a sake. We asked for something local. Dan ordered cold soba noodles and something else (I don’t remember). I ordered a set chicken dish, which I believe also came with rice, miso soup, and pickled vegetables. The woman watched us eat the whole time, essentially. Occasionally she would busy herself with something else, but mostly just watched us. We tried to just talk to each other normally, but it was tough. Still, the woman was adorable and the service and food so wonderful.
  • Dinner and breakfast at our ryokan, Shirouma-so, in Hakuba. Both were set course meals like I’ll show below for kawa doko. Both included whole fried fish, only one of which I ate the whole thing (head and all). Dinner also included a pot thing for cooking meat. It was clay maybe, and the meat cooked in liquid in a tray over a candle. When the candle was done burning, the meat was ready. We were told, if we wanted, to crack an egg into a bowl we had and dunk the meat in the raw egg before eating it. It was delicious. The meals also had miso soup, rice, and various pickled vegetables. Dinner had tempura vegetables and shrimp also. Breakfast had yogurt and melon and a crepe with a cooked but egg in it.
  • Eating in Osaka. I’ve already talked about takoyaki and okonomayaki, both of which we ate in restaurants in between strolling along the Dotombori canal and Dotombori street at night. The next morning, we went to Kuromon market and saw and ate a ton. There was so much food. The first thing I ate was a sort of meat and egg on a stick (pictured below). Then we got this cucumber salad with octopus in it (I mostly at the cucumber, Dan ate the octopus, but I did have a bite). Dan got this enormous scallop, which was cooked for him in butter over charcoal in its own shell. We ate eel, we ate eel over egg, we ate takoyaki, we ate a peach smoothie. And I’m pretty sure there were a few more things on sticks in there.
  • Kawa doko, eating on platforms above the flowing river, in Kibune. This was a set course meal. Dan and I were starving and both ordered the option with the most things. And beer. The meal included fish, sashimi, pickled vegetables, rice, miso soup, tempura, noodles, and probably other things I am forgetting. So many of our meals were like this in that they involve so many little, beautiful dishes – for the soup, for the rice, for the pickled vegetables, etc. It’s a lovely way to eat.
  • Lunch at the Kagoshima Toppy Hydrofoil port restaurant. Like a few other places we’d eaten (breakfast in the Shinjuku train station in Kyoto, lunch at Subaru Fifth Station on Mt. Fuji before hiking), we ordered via a machine that spits out a ticket, which you then hand to the hostess. In this case, the machine had no English nor pictures. But a poster next to it had pictures and prices, so we were able to figure out which button to push by finding the only one with the specific price of what we wanted. This place is memorable to me because it felt truly diner-like. Not run down, but sort of divey feeling. I loved it. Our ramen was sort of greasy and wonderful. Some of the other patrons were clearly also on their way to Yakushima (where we were departing on the hydrofoil from Kagoshima to) and were sort of hippy hiker-seeming. It just sticks out.

Finally, just a few other food/drink experiences worth mentioning, because I have the pictures:

  • Drink vending machines are everywhere. They have a lot of sugary sodas and coffee. And pocari sweat, a Gatorade-type drink that was really refreshing when we were walking around Kyoto!
  • Our first breakfast in Japan was at a fast food French cafe breakfast place. We got pastries with ham and cheese maybe, in rice flour dough. They were actually kind of delicious. (See above where I talk about not insisting on the most authentic experience.)
  • I did a tiny bit of research to find good coffee in Tokyo and found Nozy Coffee Roastery. I think these lattes were like $7 or $8 each. They were good, though, and much needed after walking a ton (this was the day of 33,000+ steps).
  • We shopped at 7-Eleven a few times (including for fruit and salad when I was really struggling! which they had! they have everything in Japan!), and they must have been running some sort of promotion. Twice, they motioned for Dan to stick his hand in this box and pull out a piece of paper. I forget what he ‘won’ the second time, but the first time was a bag of shrimp-flavored puffed starchy things. Dan ate the bag for breakfast the morning we left Tokyo.
  • Dan got green tea ice cream before we started on the Path of Philosophy in Kyoto when his blood sugar was dipping dangerously low and he was feeling hungry.
  • The food sold by vendors at the Gion festival celebrations in Kyoto was similar to the street food in Osaka. Lots of fried things on sticks. The lines were crazy.
  • Our lunch in Hiroshima. I need to go look up that name and I’ll update this. I had a nice meal of pork, rice, miso soup. The place was really cute and cozy.
  • For breakfast or lunch (timing was weird) in the Kagoshima airport on our way from Yakushima back to Tokyo back to Baltimore, I ordered something without having really ANY IDEA what I was getting. Turns out, it was this ground beef with egg ribbons. That looks like cheddar cheese, but it’s egg. And miso and rice and pickled vegetables of course. And, of course, our on-mountain ‘dinner’ at the Mt. Fuji hut at 3,400 meters. Not the tastiest meal ever, but it was food. Japanese curry (which was a thing), a sausage? patty, sausage links, rice, and pickled vegetables.

Hooray!

Advertisements

Five Hikes in Japan (aka Japan: Part 2)

While in Japan, we hiked the following:

  1. Mt. Fuji
  2. Shin-Hotaka Ropeway to Kamikochi (Japan Alps)
  3. From the top of the Happo One ski resort chair lifts to Happo Ike pond (Hakuba, Japan Alps)
  4. Kurama to Kibune (outside Kyoto)
  5. Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine (Yakushima)

A few general observations on hiking in Japan:

  • I underestimated the first few. My experience of hiking in Japan now is that it is almost invariably steep and usually involves a lot of stairs or rock scrambling. It was like doing hours of stair stepper. But prettier.

(Okay, to be honest, three of those photos are from the same hike. But seriously – all the hikes had either built stairs like this, rocks-as-stairs or rock scrambling like the last photo, or steps made out of the landscape.)

  • Japan is a small country with a lot of people. The hikes are not very remote and are generally fairly developed/built. And crowded.
  • MontBell seems to be the hiking gear brand of choice for Japanese, though I’m not sure if that’s because they offer rental equipment. Speaking of, it seemed like many people hiking Fuji rented their equipment – from packs to shoes. A good option if you don’t want to carry a pair of hiking shoes and warm clothes all over Japan in the middle of summer for the rest of your trip.
  • While some people were outfitted head to toe in serious hiking gear on each of these hikes… there were also pretty ladies in kimonos and sandals on at least one of them. And everything in between.
  • Japan’s got some pretty cool stuff to see on hikes.

Mt. Fuji

We hiked up Mt. Fuji from the Subaru Fifth Station on the Yoshida Trail. There are four main trails up Mt. Fuji. Yoshida is the most popular. You can begin Yoshida, and I believe the others, further down the mountain. I think most people begin at this or another fifth station, and the Subaru Fifth Station is where most of the tour busses and other public transportation go.

I wrote about getting to the Subaru Fifth Station in my main Japan post. We each packed a day pack (Dan used the top of his Osprey backpack and I used this awesome Sea to Summit sack) and then stuffed our packs (i.e., our luggage) in a somewhat random-seeming pay locker (1000 yen) in one of the buildings. Then we paid 1,000 yen donation to the folks asking for a donation and set off.

It started okay. The trail was relatively flat (even downhill – which ended up seeming unfortunate the following day when we hiked back) and wide for a while. There were a lot of people, but there was a lot of space. Before long, though, we started switchbacks up the mountain along a trail that soon had ropes on either side. It turned out that this would be what the rest of the trail was like.

I estimated it would take us 4-5 hours (max 6) to get to the hut where we would sleep that night. It took us 2.5. We were definitely moving, and more quickly than most people, but it was manageable. We were also willing to be jerks a little bit. Not too long after we started switchbacking, a few things happened to cause some backlogs: the trail narrowed a bit, the trail became very rocky and required some scrambling, and we began passing huts along the trail. At the first backlog, leaving a hut area, I was a bit flummoxed. I was sure it was an anomaly. But no, they got worse. Luckily, Dan and I were able to rock scramble around the crowds (still within the ropes of the trail, but to the sides where no one else was scrambling). We made it to the hut around 4ish, were asked to eat dinner right away, and enjoyed a beer at 3,400 meters looking down at the hikers continuing their way up the trail. This particular hut holds 300 people and was sold out, I believe. After a bit of a fiasco with our sleeping area (one sleeping setup was missing), Dan and I went to bed at 7pm and got a little bit of sleep. At 2am, we got up with the rest of the hikers that intended to make it to the summit by dawn. Using the previous day as my guide, I assumed it would take us less time to get to the summit than I’d originally estimated (1-2 hours), and I was worried about getting to the summit too early and being cold. I was already cold. So we set out around 2:30/2:40, and DAMN, we should have left earlier.

We almost missed sunrise. The trail up the mountain was SO crowded that we were literally in a traffic jam the whole way up. Sunrise was at 4:40, and we literally got there at 4:35 and raced to a spot where we could see. It was infuriating. The trail was narrower, so we couldn’t be jerks and go around anymore (though we did a bit early on – then we started getting chastised). Sometimes it narrowed to single-file from two, causing further backups. It was like step forward. Wait two minutes. Step forward. Wait two minutes. The sky started lightening around 3:15 or 3:30. It was pretty. But.

Thank goodness we made it for sunrise. It was really beautiful. I’m pretty sure that makes the whole experience worth it. And our hike around the rim of Mt Fuji was also really nice. We got to walk through a snow field and see the shadow of Mt. Fuji projected on the valley below it.

Then we were ready to go down. It was about 6am. We were among a crowd of hundreds of people trying to enter the trail (while some others were still coming UP the trail). By 7am, we had gone two switchbacks (maybe 100 yards). It was like that until we got back almost to our hut where the trail finally split off and there was a separate down trail that was even less pretty than the up trail, but was at least wide. Still steep, though, and mostly gravelly.

We made it all the way down by 9:30, and we were ready to be finished. I’m very glad for the experience, but I don’t think I’d ever do it again. At least not on a Saturday in July. (For the record, we were warned that it would be crowded; I just never imagined.)

 

Shin-Hotaka Ropeway to Kamikochi

This hike started from the top of the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway. I’d read in our Lonely Planet guidebook that you could hike this either direction, but that Kamikochi to the Shin Hotaka was very steep. We’d just hiked Mt. Fuji and just the timing and bus schedules made this direction more manageable. There was no information in the main Shin Hotaka observation deck building about hiking, nor were there clear signs upon exiting the building onto trails. We saw a couple going one direction, which seemed to be the only direction to go, and tried to ask if it was the way to Kamikochi. They told us that no, hiking to Kamikochi was ‘very hard mountain’ and that they thought it was ‘impossible from here.’ It was hard to know whether they actually meant impossible (like, that was the wrong direction), or it was just known to be a difficult hike. So we returned to the building to ask and got a sorta map written on the back of a receipt by the store clerk. We  determined that had been the right trail and set out. But all the signs were in Japanese until we got to a mountain hut.

So, the Japan Alps do have a good network of huts that allow for multi-day hiking trips. We were strongly advised to fill out a form in a small cabin before setting out regarding our intended itinerary or face a 50,000 yen fine, which we did. But we were only going for the day, of course. The trail was pretty steep uphill until we got to the only hut on our route, where we stopped to eat snacks. Then we continued on, and the rest of the trail was pretty steep downhill (many of it actual steps) into the Kamikochi valley. I think it took us about 3 hours total? This was the least developed of the hikes that we did, but it was still fairly developed. We passed a few people along the trail, but not many, so it was also the least crowded. We were trailing a trio of American guys that we then later saw in the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima – see, small country.

Kamikochi was beautiful. It’s not really a town (at least what we could see). There’s a bridge on the south end, where we arrived, and then another bridge about half a mile north on the north end that crosses the river. On the side of the river we arrived on, that half mile is dotted with several ryokans (one of which had a public onsen that closed at 3pm and we arrived at 2:45, sadly, so we didn’t go). We walked to the north end and crossed over. That side had a couple restaurants/stores and the bus terminal. I think that’s all there is.

Hike to Happo Ike

I believe ike means pond. This hike is from the top of the Happo One ski resort chair lifts (a gondola and two chair lifts) to a pond. The trail continues further to the summit (dake) of Mt. Karamatsudake, but we didn’t have the energy or time for that – we wanted to get back to our Hakuba ryokan and relax! Also, the clouds were rolling in and we didn’t want to get caught in a storm. I was less worried about hiking in the rain and more worried that the lifts would stop operating in a thunderstorm and we wouldn’t be able to get back down in a timely fashion.

Again, this trail was super rocky and pretty steep. Partly, this was the route we took up. On the way down, we took a slightly different route that had more built boardwalks and steps that made it easier. The views of Hakuba and the valley and the surrounding mountains were beautiful. And we saw (and walked through!) snow fields! For the top half of the hike we were primarily in clouds, including at the pond, which made it look very misty and dreamy.

I think we got to the top of the lifts around 1 and were back to the lifts by… 2:30? So this wasn’t a super-long hike. But it was really pretty. And made us sorta feel like we earned our onsen :-).

Kibune to Kurama

I don’t have a lot to say about this one. Read this for more information, better pictures, and a generally more positive perspective. (Note: we did this in the opposite direction of that description, as we wanted to eat above the river before starting.) As I mentioned in a previous post, the heat and humidity while we were in Kyoto killed my soul a little bit, and getting out of the city in the mountains a little bit didn’t help. At all. Plus, it was a Saturday, and this is a common excursion from Kyoto for tourists and Kyoto residents alike. It wasn’t crowded like Mt. Fuji by any means, but it wasn’t remote at all and we were hiking with many other people. This is the hike that many women in kimonos were hiking! With slow, short steps, as their strides were limited by their outfits. They looked wonderful with their perfect makeup and nicely done hair, while I was sweating like crazy and a little grumpy. It’s almost not even right to call this a hike. It was more like a stair climb to a summit and then a stair climb down, via a temple. We only took one picture.

However. On a day that is not 95+ degrees F with 95% humidity, I can see where this would be a really lovely outing, with or without the crowds.

fullsizeoutput_ade1

Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine

This is one of several popular hikes on Yakushima. The other we strongly considered was a full-day hike to Jomon Sugi, the oldest and largest cedar on the island, estimated to be 3,000-7,000 years old (!!). However, this was the last full day of our trip, and we were staying in a fancy hotel, and we wanted some time to relax, unwind, and enjoy ourselves. So we opted for Shiratani Unsuikyo, which offers three different loops of varying lengths. We essentially did all three, except for portion of the shortest one that didn’t overlap with the other two. I estimate that it was about five miles total??

To get there, you drive up a very windy, often one-lane road with very beautiful views of the valley and the town of Miyanoura on the coast below. We passed a family of monkeys on the side of the road! (We’d also seen monkeys in Kamikochi walking along the bank of the river.) The parking lot was full when we got there, but there they let us park on the side because we had an itty-bitty rental car. Others had to park further down the mountain road and walk up. It cost 500 yen (or maybe 300?) per person to enter.

The path started with boardwalk and steps, but once we veered off onto the longer loops, we found ourselves in what felt like very deep, very misty forest. We passed several very old cedars, all of which had signs marking them and observation platforms (usually with a bench) for sitting and admiring. There are also several large ‘second generation’ cedars in which a seed germinates in the stump of an older cedar. In a few places, there were signs describing how the forest has been cleared and replanted to some extent, and that all of the cedars in a particular area are from a ‘mother cedar’ in the area.

It poured on us at one point and was generally just wet and misty, so a lot of my photos have the film of mist over them. Apologies. We were able to hike to a rock summit with a really nice view of the valley. It was cloudy so pictures don’t do it justice, but it was a nice panoramic view. We had planned to eat lunch up there, but no food was allowed (understandable since it’s a popular hike and it would probably get too crowded having people hang out up there too long), so we ended up having to eat our hotel-boxed lunches (rice, fish, and orange slices) off the side of the trail soon after.

So that’s my experience of hiking in Japan. I would love to do more, especially multi-day hikes, in the Alps. We saw such cool stuff everywhere though, despite my grumbling about crowds and heat. Super awesome experience!