Can you believe that it’s already the start of February? Where has January gone?!
I’d thought I’d kick off the week with a travel recap that I’ve been meaning to complete for the longest time (schoolwork and other external commitments take up so much of my energy, seriously), and that is, my absolutely life-changing nine-day trip to Japan in the December of last year. It was such a sensational experience for my family and I, and not just because we ate extremely well, though that is one major reason. Cultural etiquette and environmental structure in this South Asian country completely take a 180 degree turn from what I see here in America, particular Los Angeles and even my college town of San Luis Obispo.
The Japanese people generally hold this major emphasis on being present, being focused, and being mindful. Rarely do you ever see anyone walking along the sidewalk or across the street while eating or drinking, let alone looking at a cell phone. In addition, when you interact with the locals, they really listen to what you have to say and try their best to help you, even if they cannot answer your questions (for us, that was often). On the first night of our trip, my family and I got lost trying to find our first AirBnB. An old lady who lived nearby, and who didn’t have the best night vision, spent almost half an hour trying to help us navigate our way home. Though we were able to find the house on our own, we were still so amazed and grateful of how much time and effort this woman spent trying to make sure we got home safely.
As for the environment, there are almost little to no public trash cans since there is no litter, unlike here in America where there is at least one recycling bin and trash bin per block. The size of the street blocks are similar to those of New York, as is the structure–tall buildings, minus the air pollution. Personally, I didn’t see as many parking lots as expected, which makes sense, since most people take advantage of the incredibly quick and easy subway stations, trains, buses, taxis, and bicycles. Way to be energy-efficient! My only complaint? It is super cold–I wore three to five layers of clothing every single day!
Most of the notable landmarks are just as breathtaking, if not more, as the travel guides state. You HAVE TO HAVE TO visit all of these places if you visit Japan anytime!
- Kinkakuji Temple. Hands down, this is the most beautiful monument and walk in Kyoto, ever! The entire walk includes the Deer Garden and Zen Buddhist temple that is completely made of gold. The temple looks like a palace for royalty, especially with the reflection from the lake.
- Cat Cafe MoCHA in Shibuya, Japan. Self-serve coffee and tea, as well as ten minutes or more of petting the most adorable cats and watching them play. Oh yeah, and they are strict guidelines and regulations of how these cats and kittens are treated by the staff. Need I say more?
- Harajuku. It’s just the best shopping district of Tokyo! You won’t be able to choose from the wide selection of tech stores, endless amount of restaurants, beautifully high-end malls, and Japanese retail chains. Oh yeah, and the massive intersection is just as crowded yet thrilling as it seems. I really wish I got a good shot of it! Notably, locals present their flamboyant yet stunning and creative attire at the bridge that connects the Harajuku Station and the entrance of the Meiji Shrine. Talk about Halloween inspiration!
- Meiji Shrine. Known as the safe haven for the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, this magnificent shrine of worship consists of both an inner precinct (Naien), which houses the treasures of the actual emperor and empress, and outer precinct (Gaien), which encompasses vivid murals of the emperor and empress’s lives, the National Stadium, the Meiji Memorial Hall, drafts of the Meiji Constitution, and serves as an ideal setting for Shinto weddings.
- Shinjuku. Another hopping area for shopping and eating, Shinjuku is another commercially bustling center in Tokyo that is a must on your travel list. It is closer to the north of Tokyo, and the district is not as obsessed with fashion and youth culture as Harajuku. However, the night life is absolutely beautiful. It’s a great place to have dinner and take an evening stroll!
- The Deer Park in Nara. You get to interact with a bunch of deer who, believe it or not, execute the same cultural etiquette as the Japanese. They bow their heads to you in hopes that you will feed them deer crackers (sold on street carts throughout the park)! It’s so adorable! Be careful–a few of them can get aggressive and will try to consume any other food you bring to the park.
- Hamarikyu Gardens. Surrounded by Tokyo Bay and adjacent to the Shioiri Pond, this park is nothing ordinary. Not only do you encounter a 300 year-old pine tree, but you also encounter a bunch of beautiful little garden trails that emit the most serene energy when you just need to step out into nature. It is the perfect picnic and/or date spot! Did I mention that it has the most incredible little traditional teahouse? You’ll see what I got up to there soon!
- First night in Tokyo! My family and I finally arrived in the Shinjuku train station to get some late-night grub. While my family had sushi, I ordered some vegetable curry with lots of white rice at the place next door. Starved to death, I basically inhaled this in minutes! It was seriously so delicious. Fun fact: it’s not customary (and respectful, for the matter) to mix the rice and curry completely together. So, for the most part, I took a bite of each separately.
- Ah, waking up in a comfy mattress on the floor in our Shinjuku-based Airbnb could not have been a better way to start off the first full day in Japan! Steamed kabocha squash, of course, could not have been a better second step in the day. Perfectly plain yet creamy and slightly sweet, I pretty much ate kabocha squash so often during this trip!
- Now I know this doesn’t look like much, and that’s because this is the teeniest tiniest piece of the BEST stone-roasted Japanese sweet potato in the world! Creamy, sweet, piping hot, flavorful, hearty, and satisfying, my sister and I practically hunted down the same Japanese sweet potato street carts for the rest of the trip. Seriously.
- Mentioned before, my family and I visited the Hamarikyu Gardens and enjoyed some traditional matcha tea and treats! I ordered the Japanese yam bun, which consisted of a sweet purple yam filling with a rice-based dough. Hands down, this is my favorite tea accompaniment of all time! Though it was so small, it was incredibly satisfying both in sweetness and texture.
- While exploring the shopping center of Shinjuku, I found this amazing restaurant called Cosme Kitchen Adaptation, which also had its own beauty and health foods store! I remember feeling pretty dizzy from walking so much (and probably from low blood sugar levels), so this meal was a serious life-saver! I got a take-out box of “taco-style” brown rice with a little bit of soy meat, peanuts, tomato seasoning, mint leaves, cabbage, Romaine, tomatoes, avocado, and a sour miso dressing. On the side, I also ordered a cacao banana smoothie for the perfectly sweet refresher. The meal was so nice, but I wish there were enough seats for me to dine-in!
- At most Japanese supermarkets and grocery shops, you can find boxes of pre-cooked vegetables, meats, grains, and sometimes fruits. One of my favorites was this medley of soy-marinaded green beans, carrots, parsnips, mushrooms, kabocha squash, and tofu that I enjoyed after lunch just because I was so darn hungry. Hey, if you didn’t eat for nearly seven hours straight, you wouldn’t blame me!
- Craving something really fresh and healthy, I went to a restaurant called Salad Stop and customized my own salad, which was loaded with spinach, red and green cabbage, cucumbers, tofu, kabocha squash, green and red bell peppers, and a sweet and creamy Japanese miso dressing! Such a perfectly refreshing meal. What I love about this place is that you can also create your own wraps, which are completely stuffed with a salad of its own!
- Taste-testing all kinds of sweet potato varieties the second morning was so exciting! I basically ran out of my bedroom after getting dressed to warm up the Murasaki and Annoimo sweet potatoes for breakfast! As shown, the Murasaki sweet potatoes are white-fleshed and covered in a dark reddish-pinkish skin, whereas the Annoimo sweet potatoes have a thick brown skin and golden, crumbly fresh. No surprise, the Murasaki sweet potatoes were flawless–vanilla cakey with a warming satiation. To my near dismay, the Annoimo sweet potatoes resembled more of a starchy custard that had almost a “yolky” texture and sweet egg flavor. Really interesting, but I enjoyed it just as much!
- Can I ever get tired of sweet potatoes? Most certainly NOT. When I saw a sweet potato vendor at a little street food market and dance competition that was next to a Japanese history museum (not too memorable, so I did not mention it). These Annoimo sweet potato wedges tasted incredible–nothing extraordinary, but can you really go wrong with sweet potato fries?
- Two words: Vegan. Ramen. Yes, yes, and did I mention YES?! This wonderful Shinjuku-based hole-in-the-wall ramen shop called Noodle Stand Tokyo served only one vegan option, but it is stellar. What I love about this place is that you can see the chefs create the dish right in front of you and know exactly what’s in your food–heck, they don’t use MSG! Made with soy-milk, miso paste, peanuts, brown sugar, coconut oil, stalks, soy meat, lime, sprouts, coriander, a ginger rose, and low carb noodles, my ramen was devoured in a heartbeat. Oh yeah, and the noodles don’t taste like those low carb shirataki noodles you’ve probably tried. WAYYYYYYY more smooth and doughy, so this was a 10/10!
- Sweet dreams are made of…coconut and dates? Well, at Kippy’s Coco Cream, all I dreamt of that night was the bowl of ramen I ate as well as this bowl of ice cream that is completely made from coconut cream and dates! The two scoops I ordered were the coffee and vanilla date ice cream, and I garnished everything with cacao nibs, goji berries, and a vegan chocolate shell. I mean, everything is better with lots of chocolate, right? The scoops were quite tiny, but they were still incredibly satisfying for their texture and flavor. Kippy’s also has a shop in Venice, so I might plan on visiting that one someday!
- Yakitori was a MUST on our food bucket list for Japan. My family and I found this marvelously traditional Japanese yakitori restaurant that emitted a crazy amount of smoke every time someone opened the entrance doors. We were seated at a cozy table and dug into our orders right when they came out! I gobbled up a bunch of nori and dulse, Japanese eggplant, cold extra firm tofu, and yakitori-style mushrooms, nuts, shishito peppers, and mini green peppers! Everything was actually REALLY filling. Then again, I did eat a lifetime’s supply of dulse. Makes sense.
- Last day in Tokyo and first day in Kyoto, here I come! I fueled up with some steamed kabocha squash for a light yet satisfying first part of breakfast. I know it looks plain and all, but really, kabocha squash is just so utterly fabulous! For my second part of breakfast, I had a few slices of some Japanese sesame sweet potato baguette bread. Not healthy, I know, but the white crunchy, fluffy, and glutinous carbs were so worth it.
- Post-train ride lunch consisted of a plethora of food: tempura soba onion rolls wrapped in Nori, soy vegetable rolls with pickled vegetables and daikon, and some of my mother’s mushroom soba noodle soup! This was a very nice balance of super clean and fresh food with indulgent, fatty, and comfort meals. The tempura rolls were incredibly salty, so it was nice to have a palette cleanser in the soy rolls.
- Tired and cold from the day, I was delighted to sit down to a warming and homemade Christmas dinner made by no other than my mother. A bowl of curried broccoli and mushrooms with miso soup were the perfect pair for this dinner! For dessert, I went extremely healthy and simple with a ginormous Fuji apple. To be quite honest, however, I think this was the BEST Fuji apple I have ever tasted in my life. So juicy, crisp, fresh, and congested with flavors!
- A sweet morning rise calls for some suhhhhh-weet potatoes–Japanese variety, of course! I gobbled up two deliciously steamed Japanese sweet potatoes in total for breakfast. Super filling and comforting!
- Right before hopping on the train to Nara, we visited a little rice ball bakery that sold all kinds of flavored mochi. I will NEVER EVER forget how magical this red bean mochi tasted! Such a creamy, sweet, and fun little snack to enjoy before the Deer Park! I’ve been missing these bad boys ever since I left Kyoto!
- Yet another stone-roasted sweet potato makes an appearance! This one was devoured from another Murasaki sweet potato cart, but it was a little more dry and crumbly than the first sweet potato I tried. Still super tasty and delicious–too delicious that deer started following me for a bite!
- Guys. I NEED TO NEED TO talk about this soft serve. It’s not just any dairy free soft serve. No, not at all. It is COMPLETELY made from silken tofu, organic soy milk, and oligosaccharides, which are polysaccharides naturally found in plants! I had to order a cone of the original vanilla soft serve and black sesame soft serve. Both flavors were really creamy and tasted perfectly sweet and mild, but not too rich or indulgent. What makes it even MORE extraordinary is its ability to stick to the cone even when you flip it upside down. Witness magic down below!
- As our lunch-dinner meal–wait, do people call it “linner” or “dunch”?–my family and I visited a mall in Kyoto where we found this wonderful shabu-shabu restaurant with a buffet loaded with vegetables, side dishes, desserts, rice, curries, soup, beverages, and so much more. Can you say DREAM restaurant? I pretty much ate my bodyweight in Japanese mushroom curry, raw lettuce, carrots, cabbage, tofu, Enoki mushrooms, and Japanese sweet potato slices that I cooked in a plain broth. Nothing could have hit the spot any better than this!
- Just so I wouldn’t wake up ravenous in the middle of the night, I did end up whipping up a quick and easy but light dinner of raw greens and a bowl of shirataki noodles sauteed in miso paste, water, and some green onions. Pretty tasty, if you ask me!
- Annoimo sweet potatoes and kabocha squash were the perfect pairing for my last morning in Kyoto. No surprises here, just pure orangey-gold gorgeousness.
- Once we arrived in Roppongi-Tokyo, we were so starved from skipping lunch on the train ride that I ran to this amazing place called Falafel Brothers Tokyo, which is literally across the street from our hotel. This custom-made salad consisted of six falafels, Japanese sweet potato, celery, mushrooms, onions, almonds, walnuts, spinach, cabbage, half a cup’s worth of tahini (half Thai sweet chili tahini and half regular tahini), and two hearty scoops of hummus! Of course, behind I ordered a bowl of gloriously flavorful and spicy curry pumpkin soup. Everything tasted so yummy that my sisters even ate more than half of the soup as well! The salad was absolutely divine, though a bit heavier and complex than any ordinary salad.
- Vegan sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market? YES. FREAKING. PLEASE. I enjoyed fermented vegetable rolls, cucumber rolls, and three plates of inari sushi (other two unpictured), which is essentiall bean-curd skins stuffed with white rice! Believe it or not, it was pretty challenging for me to find vegan sushi around Japan overall, but I was delighted to come across this spot that had some of the most splendid veggie sushi!
- Nothing can describe how excited I a to describe the most incredibly epic, tasty, fun, healthy yet hearty, and creative early dinner I enjoyed at Trueberry Cafe! My main entree consisted of these thick vegetable salad rolls filled with carrots, avocado, cucumber, radish, pickled beets, and vegan Parmesan cheese with a sour plum sauce, bed of mixed greens, and a side of tomato soup! Everything tasted so light, refreshing, yet so flavorful and aromatic. BUT, my dessert was probably the star of the show. The cafe’s famous raw X-mas special parfait just had to be enjoyed. This beautiful delicacy was made of frozen bananas, matcha powder, and spirulina powder, and the toppings were fresh banana, shredded coconut, cacao nibs, goji berries, and coconut cream! Again, this tasted stunningly refreshing but incredibly sweet and filling. What’s incredible is that similarly to Noodle Stand Tokyo, I saw the chefs create the meals right in front of me, so I knew exactly what went into my food!
- Surprise surprise, I started off my fifth day in Tokyo with a pound of roasted Murasaki sweet potato! Sweet, chilled, yet soft and hearty. I think this was probably my last sweet potato of the trip too!
- Strangely enough, I started to crave coffee while the rest of my family enjoyed their breakfast at this incredible brunch spot, Eggcellent. My order was a plain latte with almond milk, and I added one brown sugar cube to alleviate the bitterness of the coffee. It tasted lovely, but it didn’t convince to love coffee enough and integrate it as part of my regular diet.
- While walking around the same mall in Roppongi, we stopped by this gorgeous health foods spot called Elle Cafe, where I spent almost a fortune of yen on gourmet vegan and gluten free cookies made with the most wholesome ingredients that are free of white sugar and are low carb! My sisters and I tried the oatmeal garbanzo cookies and pumpkin (kabocha) cookies. The oatmeal garbanzo cookies tasted slightly nutty from the garbanzo bean flour, and perfectly crisp and sweet like a shortbread cookie with chocolate chips. Alternatively, the pumpkin cookies were a bit savory with a prominent pumpkin flavor and biscuit texture. Both were absolutely addictive and the boxes were gone within two days. Honestly though, they would have disappeared within minutes if I didn’t practice self-control.
- As a quick little accompaniment while my dad and sister and I stopped at a restaurant in Shibuya to charge our phones, I drank the loveliest rose tea. The color was so vibrant and nothing could have been more hydrating!
- Could not have been more excited to walk to Mr. Farmer Roppongi, a wholesome macrobiotic restaurant within a short distance of my hotel, for a healthy yet deliciously flavorsome spread of a brown rice and quinoa mix, sauteed cherry tomatoes, parsley, onions, sauteed kale, tofu, and a warming green curry of eggplant, broccoli, and mixed beans with the thickest coconut milk I have ever tried. I absolutely adored this meal, and I would have loved to try all of their dishes on their vegan menu!
- Last official meal in Roppongi, Tokyo consisted of…….Indian food? No surprise, right? I found this incredible little Indian hole-in-the-wall restaurant and enjoyed the most amazing vegetable curry, a salad of potatoes, onions, carrots, cucumber, and cabbage, and a perfectly circular piece of chapati! Everything tasted so delightful and the chapati tasted even better when dipped into the curry sauce.
TIPS FOR TRAVELING TO JAPAN
- Try your best to learn some Japanese. Very few individuals speak English, and even those who work at the train station or areas where tourists are more abundant have a limited knowledge of English. You don’t have to learn full-on sentences to converse, but do gain an understanding on how to ask for directions, about food, greetings, etc.
- If you’re lost, ask someone and point to an address. Say you are lost and no one around you speaks English, which trust me, will be a very common situation. Fortunately, locals tend to be incredibly sweet and willing to help you out. Since communication will be difficult from the language barrier, simply record the name/address of where you need to go, tap someone on the shoulder, and point to your destination. Try to use hand motions to gauge where to turn, and the locals will naturally go along with directing you that way.
- Pack food ONLY if necessary. The Japanese rarely snack, but if you’re like me and you will run into troubles when finding meals that cater towards your dietary needs, then packing some filling snacks, such as fruit, pre-roasted sweet potatoes, trail mix, or bento boxes, will save the day. However, you will usually find some good options to eat–I know for a fact that I ate incredibly well on this trip!
- Limit time on electronics. As it’s considered disrespectful to walk around while on your phone, so is being glued to it constantly. Presence and focus are extremely important in the Japanese culture, especially when with friends or in historically and religiously prominent settings. If you can’t help but capture how exquisite something looks, snap one or two pictures, put the camera or phone away, and just enjoy the moment. You’ll have plenty of alone time at the end of the day to recap.
- Dress modestly. The winter weather made it really easy for me to snuggle in sweaters, jeans, and long-sleeved shirts, but overall, most of the Japanese don’t really expose a lot of bare skin, with the exception of considerably short skirts worn by some locals. Spring and summer weather may permit lighter clothing, but be respectful and wear modest clothing since there are quite a lot of older people around. Sorry, high-waisted shorts. You’ll have to wait another time.
- Embrace the culture. Don’t do anything that will make it even more obvious that you are tourist. Try to observe how people speak, move, walk, act, eat, or pretty much do anything! The locals actually respond positively when seeing you try to adapt to their culture, even if you’re not perfect at it. Besides, isn’t it way more respectful to see someone try to embrace your cultural principles rather than shun them out of fear or embarrassment?
- Despite Japan being one of the safest countries in the world, be careful. Just like any other country, there are rotten apples. People lie. People cheat. People steal. People are just mean overall. With that being said, Japan still boasts an extremely low crime rate as well as extremely sincere and kind-hearted people, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to find any lost belongings and arrive home safely. But of course, you can never be too safe. Always remember to hold onto your essentials and be wary if you’re walking alone at night in a remote and suspicious area.
Hope you enjoyed this travel recap! Have you ever been to Japan? What are some recommendations/advice that you have when traveling?