To read about the first half of our Japanese Adventure, check out Part 1.
Today we continue with our story of Japan with our exploration of Tokyo and Sapporo! Read on!
Tokyo- Modern Culture Focus
Good morning Tokyo! We arrived after a smooth overnight bus ride across the country to a deserted city streets. The bus was actually pretty nice - there were three rows of individual seats, and each seat had its own curtain for privacy. They reclined farther than airplane seats do, but we were timid to actually put them down all the way since it really cramped the knee space of the people behind us, and we noticed that not many people actually reclined theirs at all. We'll have to look up etiquette for reclining seats. We slept as well as we could and were ready to explore the great big city!
Before I get into all of the details, I'll go ahead and say that Tokyo was not our favorite city. We actually liked Osaka much more! To us, Tokyo is too big and didn't have as much heart and soul as Osaka. It's hard for me to put my finger on it, but Tokyo seemed to lack a certain vibe that we look for in most places. Maybe it's just that we tend to like smaller cities with lots of energy, maybe it's that Tokyo is much more touristy. I'm still not sure. We did enjoy ourselves, but we were surprised that it was not our favorite. Ok, back to the story…
While the city streets were quiet at 6am, the subways were not! We made our way underground to the subway and found hundreds and hundreds of people, all wearing suits with white button down shirts, walking briskly to the trains. No one was talking. Everyone seemed like they were on autopilot, like little business drones. We tried to stay out of the way with our big backpacks as we rode the subway a few stops down to our neighborhood, Shibuya. Thankfully, our apartment was vacant when we arrived and our host let us check in right away, so we didn't have to lug around our stuff all day long! I love when hosts are so accommodating! The apartment was pretty great - a small and very efficient studio on the 8th floor, with a great AC. The only bummer was that, anytime we wanted to go somewhere, we had to walk at least 10 to 15 minutes to get to the subway. Not a problem for us, especially since we like to walk (and it's our only form of exercise right now), but it did get a little annoying to have to add on that time each time we went somewhere. We did find some our favorite Japanese food in our neighborhood, though! I wish I could tell you the names of some of these places, but I can't read Japanese! The best ramen we've had, and possibly our favorite noodle soup dishes ever, are from a local joint in the middle of a sleepy residential area nearby. Jake loved his mushroom and cheese ramen, and I mooned over my creamy broth with a perfectly soft boiled egg, roasted pork, fried chicken, and scallions. Oh and the yuzu! They had little pots of yuzu at each table and I put that addicting, spicy paste on just about everything. We loved it so much we went back the very next day.
Another favorite meal experience of ours was at a small soba restaurant called Fukuyada. I had read a random blog post about the delicious cold soba served on a bamboo mat with a side of mushroom soup and was dying to try it. The blog had warned me - there are no English menus and no one there speaks English, so be prepared to communicate via lots of gesticulating! Thankfully, one of the translations we had saved in Jake's phone is "What do you recommend?", and that came in very handy! We opened the door to the smoke filled restaurant and were greeted cheerfully by a girl at the front. She led us to a table and handed us the menu, which was, of course, in all Japanese. Moments later she returned to take our order. We asked if she spoke English and she smiled brightly but shook her head, "No. Sorry! Just little!" "No problem! One moment!" I said and held up one finger as we retrieved our phones. I showed her a picture of the dish I wanted to try, and she smiled and nodded and made some notes. And then Jake showed her his translated phrase. She pointed to something on the menu and said, "Tempura!" "Hai," Jake said, yes! What she brought out to us was just perfect - the hot mushroom soup with the cold soba noodles was an amazing combination, and Jake's traditional soba with the cold dipping sauce and a side of tempura was light and seasoned well. We devoured every bite. The place is family run, and the grandma was working the register. When she had a quiet moment, she headed to the back of the restaurant near the kitchen, and ultimately near our table. Jake said to her, "Oishi!", or "delicious!" She was so surprised and happy to hear him say it that she beamed the biggest smile, bowed several times, exclaimed "Arigato!", and giggled as she walked into the kitchen to tell her family. I heard her say something that ended in "oishi", and I'd bet it was something along the lines of "Those two Americans just said oishi!" We were the only foreigners in the joint - I'd bet they don't get many Americans in there, let alone people who don't speak Japanese. When we paid her a few minutes later, she thanked us many times and, even though we didn't know what she was saying the whole time, made us feel so welcome and appreciated. It was really a neat experience.
Even though gyoza is a Chinese dish, we had read about a spot in Harajuku that specializes in these perfect little dumplings, so we were eager to try it. Since we've been traveling, we've realized that every culture has its own version of dumplings - generations all over the world have bonded over little doughy pockets of goodness and it's so fun to see how they're all different! Harajuku Gyozaro is incredibly popular, as evidenced by the line outside, and for good reason - their pork and onion gyoza, either with our without garlic, and either fried or steamed, are delicious! We tried several rounds, in the name of food education of course, and concluded that the steamed ones without garlic are our favorite.
Tokyo was supposed to be our last stop in Japan, in Asia, before heading to South America, so we had planned on having a special dinner to celebrate the completion of Part 2 of our trip. While our plans changed, more on that later, our celebration dinner did not, and we splurged on a perfect evening at Hakushu Teppanyaki to experience Kobe beef. And oh MAN is it an experience! This is, hands down, our favorite meal ever. EVER. Nothing will ever top this steak (sorry Mom!). The whole meal was just fantastic. Hakushu is a small, family run restaurant in Shibuya that is always busy, so we took the advice on Trip Advisor and made a reservation. When we arrived, the mom greeted us and showed us to our seats at the teppan counter. The daughter took our drink order (ice cold Sapporo draft). The dad in the chef coat prepped meat and veggies. And Grandma, well Grandma ran the show and cooked all of the food on each of the three teppan grills! Mom took our order, one 180 gram filet and one 180 sirloin, so we could taste the difference between the cuts of meat - we did a side-by-side beef tasting! We watched the family move gracefully around their galley-like kitchen, the teppan grill on one side and the refrigerators and counters on the other, and paid special attention when Grandma cooked our food. She made us perfectly grilled mushrooms, pumpkin, onions, potatoes, and bean sprouts, which we snacked on as we waited for the main act. The beef was gorgeous, delicately marbled and pink, and we got to watch Dad cut fresh pieces for our meals. My mouth watered from just looking at the raw beef. Grandma cooked it perfectly and put the meat onto two pieces of white bread that lay on the grill in front of us. Then she took the bits of fat she had cut off the meat and made them nice and crispy before serving us those, as well. We savored each bite of this amazing beef - it was so soft, it melted in our mouths! I'm always a sucker for a filet, so of course it was delicious, but the sirloin was a serious competitor for best cut. The meat was not overly fatty, and it was so tender that I probably wouldn't have needed a knife to cut through it. We ate as slowly as we could in order to fully enjoy each piece. When the meat was gone, Grandma took our pieces of now juicy bread and grilled them in butter and garlic before giving them back to us. Now that's what I call dessert! Everything was so, so good, and worth every penny.
The only thing we could have lived without at Hakushu were the annoying Americans at the table behind us. While there were several people in the restaurant, the volume level was quite low - there was no background music and everyone was sitting rather close so there was no need to speak loudly. Suddenly this American couple started talking VERY loudly to another couple at their table, breaking the peaceful murmur. We've noticed this in several places around the world - Americans are LOUD. And quite frankly, it's irritating. No wonder so many people find us annoying. Listening to the woman state in a high pitched valley girl voice, "OMG I love Australia! I'm from San Diego!" made me cringe. I was doubly embarrassed by her volume and lack of awareness - not only were theyAmerican, they were Californian! Now, don't get me wrong. I know I'm loud. I've always been loud. My old blog was called "Noelle, you're too loud!". But I am actively trying to be aware of my surroundings and keep control over the volume of my voice (I'm not always good at it, but I'm sure trying!). And, as we immerse ourselves in different cultures, I want to be sure to not disturb others. Being a loud, obnoxious traveler is a surefire way to annoy people, and oh boy, this couple sure was loud. But even still, the meal was amazing, and we enjoyed poking fun at our fellow travelers to each other on our walk back home.
Not every meal was as fantastic as these that I have described, I assure you. The biggest bummer of our Tokyo stop was our experience at an udon place in Shinjuku. Shinjuku is pretty incredible at night - neon signs light the place up brighter than Las Vegas, people are everywhere, a giant Godzilla replica stands menacingly behind a hotel. It's a busy, bustling place! But our impression was, "eh, it's cool." I think we were spoiled with the electricity of Osaka and the lights of Dotonbori to be blown away by Shinjuku, but it was still neat. We took the metro over there not just to see the lights, but also to have dinner at an udon place that was supposed to be similar to Marugame in Kyoto - fresh, handmade udon and a giant tempura bar. Considering Marugame gave us one of our favorite meals, we were really excited to try to recreate it in Tokyo. We were terribly let down! We arrived at 8:30, no knowing that the place closed at 9:00, and the guy who took our noodle order didn't mention it to us. We both ordered udon with egg in it, like a Japanese carbonara, and moved on to where the plethora of tempura was supposed to be. The tempura bar had a few lingering pieces left since it was near closing, and it all looked a little sad. We picked up the pieces that looked decent enough and went to pay. We put on happy faces and dug into our meals at our table. We each took a big bite into our tempura to find that it was ice cold. It must have been sitting there for hours because it seemed like it had been in the fridge. And my udon didn't actually have any egg in it. I went back to the noodle chef and asked if there was egg in my bowl, he laughed at me, said yes, and I went back to my seat. It was certainly not the experience we had hoped for. When we left the place, Jake and I shared the same feeling, "We got Vietnamed!" It wasn't quite a scam, but it wasn't exactly honest. Bummer. We tried to salvage the evening by heading to a well-reviewed whiskey bar, Zoetrope, to see why there's such a fuss about Japanese whiskey. It took awhile to find the place as it was not well marked on our directions that Zoetrope is on the 3rd floor of a random building. But we finally found the elevator. And, in the theme of the night, the bar was closed. Ugh! After that, we headed home.
But I certainly wasn't leaving Japan without getting some kind of booze tasting in! In the name of wine education, I insisted that we taste some sake at Meishu Center, a sake bar that has over 300 bottles of sake and pours flights and tastings. I know very little about sake, just enough to pass the Sommelier Level 1 exam two years ago, and I only ever really drink the crappy stuff. So I was pretty excited to taste different quality levels side by side and find out if I could taste the difference. We walked into Meishu on a rainy evening and looked around. The bar had a few standing tables and a counter, and the room was lined with open refrigerated shelves stocked with sake bottles. Guests would take a look at the available bottles, grab the ones they wanted, and bring them to the counter for the server to pour. We could try any bottle they had! Considering the bottles are only good for 10-14 days after opening them, I assumed they must go through inventory pretty quickly to allow people to taste anything they want. Since my knowledge of the beverage was limited, and no one spoke English, Jake showed the server a translated phrase I had saved on his phone, "I am learning about wine. I would like to taste different qualities of sake ranging from sweet to dry." The server picked out three bottles for us an poured. We tried the Ishimotoshuzu Junmaiginjo (50% rice polishing ratio), Sekaiito Daiginjo (35% rice polishing ratio), and the unfiltered Ishiishuzo Junmaiginjo (60% rice polishing ratio). My favorite of the three, surprisingly, was the most expensive one that he poured, the Sekaiito of Daiginjo quality with a light, floral flavor. But there was still one more quality level above this one, and since we were in the land of sake I sought out a bottle of junmai daiginjo to try. Knowing nothing about regions or producers, I grabbed a blue bottle of Nakatanishuzo (35% rice polishing ratio) from Nara that looked pretty and had the quality designation I was looking for, the highest one called Junmaidaiginjo, and got one last taste. Perhaps I'm biased towards my own pick, but it turned out to be my favorite of the night - smooth, light, slightly floral, dry. YUM! I could definitely have more of that! While I wished that I could have conversed with the server and learned more from him about the production of sake, what the popular bottles are, the differences in regions, etc, we had a great time learning by tasting. Besides, I can learn about these things on the internet later.
I know what you're thinking, "I thought you said Osaka was your Food Focus and Tokyo was your Modern Culture Focus?!" Well, food IS modern culture! But I get your point - we did do things that did not revolve around eating! Like checking out the lights of the various neighborhoods at night, and watching hundreds of people walking around the famous Shibuya Crossing. Shibuya Crossing is right outside the giant Shibuya metro station and at the base of the Shibuya shopping and entertainment district, and it's ALWAYS crowded! It's amazing how many people gather on the sidewalks waiting for the streetlights to change - where the heck are they all going? Even in the rain it was packed. We did some people watching, snapped some photos of the chaotic foot traffic, and then walked across it a few times just to join in the traffic!
Shibuya was a pretty fun neighborhood, too! What shopping is to the people of Hong Kong, arcades and karaoke joints are to the people of Japan! Arcades were everywhere, and we would always hear them before we could see them. Each time the door opened, a wave of electronic dings and pings would flood into the street. The lights inside were so bright it was impossible to walk by and not peek through the window. The karaoke places were a bit harder to pick out, but just as abundant. These places were HUGE - several stories of large buildings were devoted to private karaoke rooms where people could sing their hearts out and pay by the half hour. Considering I love karaoke, especially private room karaoke where I can sing as much as I want without having to tip the DJ, I was pretty excited about this. Jake and I decided that the two of us would immerse ourselves in the teen culture and have a Sunday Funday - we grabbed a few beers from the local market and headed out for some arcade games and an hour of singing our heads off! The games were hard considering we don't speak a lick of Japanese and none of the instructions came in English, but we loved running around the arcade for awhile. We really had a blast in our private karaoke room that could hold about 12 people! We sang along to all the hits of Taylor Swift, Justin Beiber, One Direction, Journey…it was awesome. The TV screen with the lyrics was showing video of random places behind the words - there were generic beach scenes, buildings of New York City, the Golden Gate Bridge, and then Colorado Boulevard in Old Town Pasadena! WHAT?? I went crazy with excitement when I saw Old Town pop up on the screen! How random is that? I wonder how many people actually know where that is, or what that is!
One thing we did notice during our time in Tokyo was the crazy fashion of the younger generation. There seem to be two main groups of fashion ideas - the grungy look complete with ankle length sweaters, platform sneakers, and beanies perched on their heads, and the little girl look complete with ruffled socks with heels, frilly and incredibly short dresses, and purses that looked like stuffed animals. We decided that we had some serious people watching to do and took the malls to see what shopping in Japan was all about. First stop, Shibuya 109 - 10 floors of little shops that encircle the escalator. We wandered all 10 floors to see what the trends were and quickly noticed that everything was the same - all of the stores seemed to sell the same two looks we'd seen on the street. Next we headed over to Tokyo Plaza Omotesando Harajuku, where the sidewalks are about 12 feet wide and crammed with shoppers, and found more of the same. I was in a shopping mood (which rarely happens because I kind of hate shopping) and was eager to buy a new outfit, so we headed to the always familiar and predictable H&M. In every country we've been to, we've seen H&M, and if every H&M window I've seen something I wanted. And bingo! I walked out with a dress, a skirt, and a top! Good thing I stopped there, because nothing else would have fit in my backpack!
We couldn't leave Tokyo without checking out the giant Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world. Because it's so busy and has become such a popular tourist destination, the market only allows visitors during certain times. We did not go to the famous tuna auction as only 60 people are allowed in at each of the two times and we would have had to get there by 4am, but we did check out the inner market when we were allowed in at 9am. The place is HUGE and there are thousands of vendors prepping literal tons and tons of fish to be sold. I couldn't believe how much product there was, and of all kinds from tiny sardines to giant swordfish, cheap seaweed to crazy expensive caviar. Basically anything you could have wanted to eat from the ocean was available. It was amazing and kind of sad at the same time - I couldn't help but think, "This can't be sustainable." The sheer volume of food being pulled from the ocean was so big, and that happens daily! I almost felt bad for eating seafood. Almost. Another bummer was the amount of styrofoam waste - all of the fishy products are stored in big styrofoam coolers that are then thrown out afterward. There was a pile of those coolers, about the size of a small house, outside near the parking lot. Despite those two concerning things, the fish market was pretty cool to see.
At this point in our original itinerary we were supposed to make our way to Cartagena, Cololmbia, to begin our South American adventure! We had planned on spending a 10 hour layover in Los Angeles at my parent's house on September 28, just enough time to pop in real quick, say hello, take a shower, do some laundry, and get back on the road. Instead, we changed things up - when we arrived in Tokyo we spent a few hours working at Urth Café (the same one they have in LA), and I read some messages and Facebook posts from my extended family Gubba's (my grandpa) upcoming 90th birthday party and family reunion. I realized Jake and I were going to be the only missing relatives. I realized how desperately I wanted to go to the party and spend time with my grandpa. I realized that I was all of a sudden crying over my latte. I asked Jake, through my sniffles, if there was anything we would do to change our plans. Within an hour, with the help of my parents, we rearranged our schedule - we added four more days to Japan, and booked flights that allowed us to spend four full days in Los Angeles, attend the fiesta, and see my whole family before heading off to Colombia! YAY!! So what did we do with the additional four days in Japan? We headed north to Hokkaido!
Hokkaido is one of the northernmost regions of Japan, a separate island, and is the home of Sapporo, where we spent four lovely days walking around, eating, and drinking the well-known beer of the same name. We arrived at 7pm and were greeted by our wonderful host, Hokuto, at the Sapporo Train Station - he offered to pick us up so we wouldn't have to navigate the tram system in a new city in the dark! Nice guy! As we drove around the city, Jake and I stared out the windows at all of the twinkle lights that hung on buildings and the Sapporo TV Tower, and all of the people all bundled up - Fall had certainly arrived in Sapporo! The chill in the air actually felt like home at Christmastime - it was cold, wet, and breezy. It's no wonder, then, that for the next few days I had Christmas songs stuck in my head!
Since it was dark and cold when we got to the apartment, Jake and I decided to grab some fast food for dinner at the recommendation of Hokuto. We popped next door to Sukiya Gyodo, a place that kind of looked like a Yoshinoya with pictures of bowls of beef. We had no idea what to order, so, in our normal fashion, we asked our waitress what she recommended. She giggled as she tried to speak in English and happily pointed at a couple pictures on the menu. To this day, I still have no idea what we ate, but it was warm, filling, and quite delicious! It was so good, actually, that we went back again another night when the weather was just too nasty to venture into town!
Don't worry, we didn't just eat fast food the whole time. We actually had some really incredible food experiences in Sapporo, starting with the Autumn Food Festival! Spanning four blocks in Odori Park in the center of town, beneath the sparkling Sapporo TV Tower, were about 100 food stands and bars selling Hokkaido's most famous foods and spirits. After thoroughly investigating each stand, we decided to try some of the flavors that were born in Hokkaido, miso broth ramen and curry soup ramen. Both were super tasty and salty! I even got to try Hokkaido red wine (thanks Global Warming, for making it possible for Japan to ripen red grapes). At first sip, it wasn't so bad - jammy, dry, slightly acidic. I was pleasantly surprised! Unfortunately it went downhill from there, and by the last sip I was happy to be done with it. Who knows, maybe Japan is the up and coming region to watch for in 20 years! The beer, however, was great! At the festival, we tried Asahi Black, the dark lager, after having such a great experience at the Sapporo Factory with the Sapporo Black. We're noticing a trend in our travels - we like dark beers! Prior to leaving for this trip, neither of us enjoyed stouts or dark lagers, and now we seek them out! See? We're expanding our culinary palate! The Sapporo Factory had a few other great beers, too -the Five Star was quite tasty, and we enjoyed sipping out afternoon beers in the gigantic, smoke filled restaurant at the factory.
The best food we had in Sapporo was, hands down, the sushi. Rumor has it that Hokkaido gets some of the best fish in the world, so we made sure to try a lot of it! First, we headed to the JR Tower near the Sapporo Station for highly rated conveyor belt sushi at Nemuro Hanamaru. The place was packed and the sushi that passed by our eyes looked so delicious! Unlike Osaka, there were no English menus, so unless we recognized something (like salmon), or knew the word for what we wanted already (like shiro maguro), we had no idea what we were eating! It was an adventure grabbing little dishes off the belt and tasting the mystery fish! We couldn’t resist the French fries making their way around the tables - and they turned out to be some of the best fries I've had! We did kick our sushi game up several notches with an amazing lunch at Kinzushi, the #2 spot on Trip Advisor. We couldn't make it all the way to Japan and not go to a proper sushi restaurant. When we walked in to the tiny restaurant, we felt like we were in a movie - all 3 men at the sushi counter stopped and turned to stare at us, the three chefs held their knives and fish in midair as they stared, time seemed to stop as everyone took in the two out of place white people who just walked through the door! We smiled, said hello, and I held up two fingers. Time resumed and we were shown to a table and swiftly handed menus and hot matcha tea. The menu, of course, was all in Japanese. And the servers and chefs, of course, spoke little to no English. Which was all totally fine because I didn't want to pick my fish anyway! I was super excited about omakase, "chef's choice", and we asked for 12 pieces each. The works of art that were presented to us minutes later were simply stunning. Such perfectly fresh, perfectly colored, perfectly plated pieces of fish - I didn't want to eat them because they looked so gorgeous and delicious! With one bite both Jake and I could instantly notice the difference between conveyor belt sushi and top of the line sushi - the conveyor belt cheap stuff is good and amazing for the value, but this stuff, this was INCREDIBLE. It's the best sushi I have ever had. It's probably the best sushi I will ever have. I even liked, no loved, the ikura (salmon roe), something I've always been too afraid to try. The chefs and servers were so nice to us and did their best to explain everything we ate (although I have no idea what half of it was), and we had a lovely time.
The only thing that didn't work out quite as we had hopped was hiking. Hokkaido supposedly has an amazing national park and we were on the island at the perfect time to catch the fall colors on all of the trees, which, according to the picture we saw, would have been incredible. By the way I'm telling this story you can probably guess that we didn't make it to the park. But it wasn't for lack of trying! Our host had told us that the park was just a two hour drive from Sapporo, so we planned on picking up a rental car at 8am, arriving at the park by 10:30, spending most of the day hiking, and returning to Sapporo before 10pm - it was going to be a great day! We found a car rental place and reserved a car to pick up a few days later. Our hiking routes were set and we even had snacks and lunch for the trail ready to go. The night before the hike we thought about picking up the car so we could just take off in the morning, but it was pouring down rain and so we decided against it. In the morning, Jake double checked the information about the drive - the info we had received was wrong. The park wasn't just a two hour drive, it was more like three to four hours! Oh great, so we weren't going to arrive until after noon, and then we'd have to turn around to get the car back by 6pm, not enough time to do the full trail we had hoped to do. We decided to go for it anyway, so off we went at 7:30am to the rental place to pick up the car. When we were just blocks away, I realized that I forgot our passports, and without them we couldn't rent the car! To get them and return to the rental place would have taken another hour, meaning we wouldn't get to the park until closer to 2pm! The passports were the nail in the coffin on our day of hiking in the national park. It just wasn't going to be worth the time, effort, or money to get all the way there. Oh well. Something to come back for.
We did get to do a little hiking, though, on the local Mount Moiwa, just walking distance from our apartment! It was a nice climb up the mountain and through the woods, underneath old ski chairs and down winter ski slopes. In our research about the hike, we read that most, if not all, hikers on the mountain will say hello, and it's good manners to greet everyone you pass. The post joked that, if we find ourselves passing groups of school children, we'll end up saying "Konichiwa" 50 times in about 2 minutes! Sure enough, we did pass a large group of 3rd graders making their way up to the top and we said hello to just about each one! After we offered to take their picture at the top, with all of their chaperones, they said "Thank you" in English and "Bye bye!". The kids here are, in a word, adorable. All in all, we ended up having a lovely day hiking, and it was probably better that we didn't get up to the national park - the terrain was muddy enough at Mount Moiwa from all the rain, and my sneakers were pretty slippery! I have a feeling the trails in the north would have been even more muddy and cold, and we wouldn't have enjoyed the actual walk as much, or run into those cute kids!
To repeat what I told you at the beginning of my Japan posts - Japan is AMAZING. From the food, to the people, to the sights, the whole country was just awesome. We loved every second of our visit there and bring it up often in conversation. Few places have really stayed with us as much as Japan, the only other one coming to mind being Switzerland. It's a definite contender for favorite destination of the whole trip, and we really cannot wait to get back to Japan in the future!