Japan!

I finally made it to Japan this year, and I'm SO sorry I waited so long.  Although maybe I'm not. Maybe a younger version of myself wouldn't have fully appreciated it.  Maybe I wouldn't have indulged as much on all the delicious food.  Or maybe I would have gotten into a lot more trouble. Regardless, I'm so glad I finally made it and was able to demystify this previously mysterious country.  I now understand why people are fascinated with Japan.  Much of it feels like a big contradiction, like the following pairs of words: chaotic and calm....confusing and orderly...conservative and wild....deep-fried and healthy...and my personal favorite...Asia and clean and polite.  OK that last one was a 1:2 contradiction.
Crepe?
I purposely waited to go to Japan because I knew I would want and need at least 2 weeks. Sadly, that wasn't even possible (thanks again, US vacation time).  We spent 4 nights in Tokyo, 1 night in Hakone, 3 nights in Kyoto, and 1 night in Osaka.  I will never finish this blog post if I describe all the incredible sights and smells, so will focus on the food.  But I do want to give a generous nod to the amazing greenery that finds its way into every nook of every city.  The fact that I can be transformed from being claustrophobic amidst Harajuku into completely at peace in the Meiji Shrine within minutes is just plain confusing.  And Tokyo's Shinjuku Gyoen Garden is just the most beautiful place ever.  As if perfectly manicured gardens and tea pavilions were not enough, there is classical musical playing throughout the park at the perfect pitch and decibel while a soothing voice kindly reminds patrons that the park will soon be closing! What?!
 Have I gone to heaven?
And then there's the food. Oh, where do I begin?

TOKYO:

Ichiran Ramen chain might not be the best most authentic ramen, but it's way better than anything I've ever had outside of Japan.  The single stall seating it also a nice touch for when you just want to slurp your noodles without having to talk to anyone or come up for air.

Sushi at Tsukiji Market is obviously a must.  While we did not go to the tuna auction, we did go early in the morning and got to see some of the remaining cuts of fish.  Outside the market are endless stalls all claiming to have the freshest sushi.  Of course there are the popular tourist stalls with incredibly long waits, but I'm willing to bet most places are comparable.  We ended up going to a small sushi bar that seemed like it had the perfect amount of people and ambiance, and it did not disappoint.

This amazing uni gave me the food giggles
Perfectly cooked eel
Sushi at what's considered a pretty average restaurant = STILL AWESOME
Also, this steamed egg lollipop thing was just delightful.

I feel like more foods should come on sticks
One very pleasant surprise meal we had was at the tempura restaurant Tsunahachi in Shinjuku.  A set meal comes with ~6 pieces of tempura, rice, soup and pickles.  They batter and fry each piece right before it goes on a plate, ensuring it's light and airy.

Perfectly fried prawns
And then there's udon.  Udon is not anywhere near my favorite type of noodle, but I did become hooked after Japan. Our first udon was at Mentsu-Dan, also in Shinjuku.  Actually very close to Tsunahachi, which makes for a perfect food tour.  Anyways, this cafeteria style restaurant served up fresh and chewy udon, and you get to pick your own toppings.

Yakitori is also a must in Japan, and is a great snack in between meals.

Finally, one of my favorites, soba noodles.  This local soba joint outside the imperial palace near Tokyo station was an awesome find.  The noodles can come hot or cold, although I tend to prefer cold for the texture. And the raw egg, while a little weird, did add a nice smooth velvety texture.  This was one of those order-at-the-vending-machine-eat-while-standing-up places.  Efficient and delicious.

One of my favorite things about Asia in general is the variety of snacks (and often whole meals) at fast food shops and convenience stores.  I'm always fascinated by what's available and intrigued that most of it actually looks and tastes good.



HAKONE:

On our way to Kyoto, we stopped at the hot spring town of Hakone for one night to indulge in a ryokan and try a traditional kaiseki meal. While the kaiseki meal was good, none of the courses (and there were like 18 of them) really wowed me, and most actually looked better than they tasted.



KYOTO:

As completely expected, I loved the beautiful city of Kyoto.  Being there did make me feel like I was stepping back in time, if only for a brief moment.  The temples and shrines that dot the city, almost one on every block, are nice reminders of a simpler way of life. However, the food tasted anything but simple.  One night we had dinner at Nishitomiya Croquette Store, specializing in those signature crunchy fried snacks.


Based on a friend's recommendation, we went to Yamamato Menzou for some wait-worthy udon. Now I am not big on waiting in lines for anything, and Matt absolutely despises it.  But upon arriving, we both knew that were were fully committed to these noodles and there was no turning back.  The wait was a little over an hour, BUT (going back to how orderly and polite Japan is) the servers make sure that you are as comfortable as possible in that line... whether that means bringing umbrellas for the sun or tea to quench your thirst.



I love breakfast in Asia because anything goes.  Just throw an egg on anything and it's immediately breakfast.  Japan is no different.  Sushi for breakfast? Yes please.  How about a bowl of meat over rice with a side of miso soup? Sounds delightful. We discovered that fast food places are the perfect breakfast fix.  Cheap + filling + delicious = efficient.


OSAKA: 

Just like Lima, Osaka was an accidental food find on the way out of the country.  During the 24 hours we stayed there, I was amazed by how much of a foodie culture Osaka was.  So what happens if you're filled to the brim after a week in Japan and have to prioritize?  There are 2 things that must be eaten in Osaka...okonomiyaki and takoyaki. I'm sad to say that after nearly an hour of googling, I could still not find the name of the restaurant we had this insane okonomiyaki close to Shinsaibashi street.

As for takoyaki, there are places on every corner and most are delicious.  We tried this sampler at Takoyaki Wanaka Sennichimae.  Be careful as they are super hot and gooey.  I especially loved the ones with mayo and sweet brown sauce.

A few things I learned from eating in Japan: 
1. Food is far more diverse than I ever imagined
2. Some things look better than they taste
3. Vending machines are really the way of the past, present, and future
4. Don't scoff at those noodle cutters, they are in fact necessary at times
5. Respect the devotion to tradition and perfection
6. Go hungry, leave happy

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