Japan: Culture and cusine: an extraordinary trip to Japan

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Often, distances keep families apart. But just as often journeys taken together strengthen the ties that bind. For several years now, my family’s different schedules and locations around the world has kept us from taking a trip together. But recently my sister and I had both just recently graduated from our East Coast schools and my mother saw this as the perfect opportunity to initiate our first family trip in years. She told us that we would be starting our trip in Kyoto, which is less than four hours away from Nagoya and Tokyo, with both cities accessible via direct flights from Manila through Delta Air Lines. At the same time, there are non-stop routes available from Delta Air Lines that take you to Nagoya and Tokyo from key cities in the United States and Asia. Ensuring that travelers can start the trip on the right foot, Delta Air Lines features Economy Comfort seats with additional legroom and recline. Delta Air Lines even offers flat-bed seats with direct aisle access in Business Class. It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump away through Delta to Tokyo and Nagoya, a convenient train ride away from the lovely, quaint, and culturally rich city of Kyoto.

Kyoto

From the moment we bought our airplane tickets to Japan, my sister and I made it clear to the rest of our family that we had one mission in mind: to eat. We grew up loving all kinds of Japanese food, often making our own shabu-shabu at home or eating uni with nori for breakfast. So naturally, when we found out that we were going to visit our culinary mecca for the first time, we had no other agenda in mind except to explore all kinds of delicious Japanese cuisine.

Luckily for us, we discovered that while the city of Kyoto is best known as a cultural destination boasting a grand total of 17 World Heritage Sites, it is also ideal for a major food trip. This quickly became clear to us, even on our first night, when we decided to casually stroll around Gion, a district of Kyoto famous for its gorgeously anachronistic machiya or townhouses.

My sister was eager to walk the historic streets, anticipating that we would bump into a maiko or geisha, but instead we found ourselves drawn to a little stall selling colorful savory pancakes. It turns out the chefs were busy making okonomiyaki, and so a waitress guided us to the dining area at the back. It was a simple place with small wooden chairs and tables that I am almost tempted to refer to as a “hole-in-the-wall”, except that it was much too clean to qualify for that. We grabbed the large menu that was sitting on the tacurible, and opened it to find… a giant picture of okonomiyaki. Yes, there was only one item on the menu. Though, as soon as our piping hot dish was served, we understood why they didn’t need anything else. Between the six of us, it took little more than five minutes to finish the pancake, so we helped ourselves to another serving.

As fulfilled as we might have been with the okonomiyaki, it was really just our appetizer. Tomorrow, I mused, the full-fledged hunt for authentic Japanese cuisine begins. The first stop on our list was “The Kitchen of Kyoto” – Nishiki Market.

Nishiki was, by far, the most spotless market I had ever seen. It consisted of one long row of pristine stalls selling everything from rainbow-colored pickled products in giant wooden barrels to live eels and abalones atop beds of ice. For foodies such as ourselves, the market was a sensory overload, with tantalizing aromas tickling our nosebuds and attractive visual displays catching our attention everywhere we looked. Every stall introduced something new that we needed to try right away.

Breaking the ice were delicious, newly cooked tokoyaki – or octopus balls – on skewers topped with bonito flakes and Japanese mayonnaise. We enjoyed it so much, we hadn’t even finished our first skewer when we gamely ordered another. Next up, we bought several triangleshaped rice, or onigiri, stuffed with different kinds of filling: tiny fish, salmon, pickles. These served as the companion for the sticks and sticks of seafood we kept ordering at every step. First, a skewer or two of fresh salmon and scallop topped with a hint of lemon juice. Then, another couple of sticks of baby octopus stuffed with quail egg. And my brother’s favorite, lightly breaded and salted freshwater eel on a stick – unagi tempura on the go! To wash it all down, refreshing yuzu or Japanese lemon juice.

Not only did we delight in the never-ending supply of delectable street dishes, we were also treated to various showcases of Japanese creativity. Stalls filled with candies shaped like Lego pieces or Russian Matryoshka dolls brightened up the Nishiki halls. Stores selling chopsticks proudly displayed its wares on the walls, which gave it an uncanny resemblance to Ollivander’s wand shop. Outside the chopsticks shop were tiny sculptures in all shapes and sizes: origami cranes, sushi rolls, and cartoon animals. We later learned these were clever little chopstick holders, meant to prop up your eating utensils during meals. Sword and knife shops, shops selling geta (those wooden sandals that balance on one or two ‘legs’ at the bottom) and tatami mats – there was something for everyone at the Nishiki Market.

Foodies, be warned: come prepared with an empty stomach and a curious mind. This is one marketplace that can satiate anyone, from the most fastidious food critics to the street-savvy diner. Truly the best place to start your culinary journey through Kyoto.

The next day we spent going around some of the most popular sites in Kyoto, including Kinkaku-ji or the Golden Pavilion Temple; Ryoan-ji, a Zen temple featuring one of the most famous rock gardens in the world; and my favorite, Fushimi Inari Taisha. Fushimi Inari is a shrine with pathways lined by hundreds of boldly colored orange arches, most famous for being featured in the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha”. We took that as our cue to run back and forth along the path like little Chiyo did. It was a good way to burn off all the calories from our non-stop food fest. We were loving our beautiful Japanese surroundings so much, we didn’t mind all the walking we were doing. But soon enough, we were eager to get back to exploring the oft-overshadowed aspects of Kyoto, namely, its culinary gems.

Our friendly hotel concierge pointed us towards the Kiyomizu Gozo station then told us to walk upriver. The Pontocho district, as it is called, is a long and narrow street flanked by restaurants on either side. One row of restaurants is built right beside the river bank, and those willing to pay extra can enjoy their meal on outdoor wooden patios facing the calm waters. The alley was paved with cobblestone, colorful lanterns hung beside the restaurant doors, women ambled by in traditional attire on their way to teahouses, and windows displayed realistic sculptures of the special dishes of the house. The street was so photogenic, my brother was having a field day on his Hipstamatic app.

We walked up and down the street a few times, both confused by the smorgasbord of eateries and amused by the ambience of the alley. Finally, my dad made an executive decision and steered us all into a restaurant. We had the freshest vegetables of all kinds, grilled to perfection and paired with equally delectable grilled meats. There were different kinds of leaves, apart from the usual lettuce served in Manila-based Korean restaurants. An array of sauces also accompanied our meal, and we delightfully experimented with the various permutations of our food. My dad had made a good choice. It was the perfect kind of meal to cap off our stay in Kyoto.

Nara

Upon our arrival in Kyoto, my family bought the Kansai Thru Pass, which enabled us to have access to several cities by hopping on trains. We had used the pass once before, when we were exploring the different UNESCO Heritage Sites in the city. Now, we were going to use it to travel to the Nara Prefecture.

The six of us tag-teamed our way through the train system: some of us helping to navigate the route, others giving the heads up when our stop was coming up, and the rest pointing out the direction to the next transfer. All in all, not only was it cost efficient, it was also a comfortable ride and not too difficult to get from one place to another. Soon enough, we found ourselves right smack in the middle of the tourist destinations in Nara.

Nara was once the capital city of Japan, which left behind some pretty stellar sights for us to see. The sites of interest are all clustered around Nara Park, famous also for its four-legged inhabitants. I am talking about their spotted deer. Everywhere you looked, there were deer. They were casually resting on the grass, pestering students to feed them, or crossing the road. Amused by the deer, my dad walked up to a stall to buy them some biscuits. Amazingly enough, the deer knew not to eat the biscuits from the stall (which they could have easily reached had they wanted to), but the moment that money exchanged hands between the vendor and dad, here they came! They surrounded him swiftly, like a well-trained SWAT team around its target, and began prodding him and nipping at him for some food. We couldn’t help but laugh as the deer frantically followed my dad wherever he went. And just as soon as they arrived, they were gone when the last crumb was dispatched. Well played, deer. Well played.

After the cloud of deer dispersed, we all headed down towards the biggest attraction in Nara. We passed first through a large gated entryway shaped like a pagoda, where we noticed two massive wooden statues standing ominously on either side. Their steely glares and rippling muscles made clear to any visitor that their vigilance would ensure that no evildoers would ever get past them. The gateway led to a beautifully manicured garden fronting the Todai-ji Temple.

We walked down the pathway accompanied by hundreds of Japanese schoolchildren, admiring the architecture of the temple. I mused over how its two rows of roofs gave it the semblance of a Samurai in his battle helmet while pictures were being snapped all around. Inside the temple, an enormous Buddha whose head nearly grazed the ceiling sat in a lotus position greeting all the guests who walked in. To his left and right were smaller Buddha figures, all ornately carved and decorated. At a column towards the back, rows of schoolchildren patiently stood in line. It turns out that they were waiting for their turn to crawl through a small hole at the bottom of the pillar for good luck. As we walked past, a particularly chubby boy was being helped through so he wouldn’t miss out on all the fun.

When we got our fill of Buddhas and statues, we made our way back outside, taking advantage of the good weather to snap a couple more shots on the lawn. “Bar none, my favorite temple in Japan so far,”my brother shared.

It being about noon, we decided to take a break and grab a bite in one of the small eateries near the temple. I, on the other hand, believed I deserved a treat. Now, if there is one other thing that earns Japan plus points in my book, it is the ubiquity of green tea. Green tea mochi, green tea ice cream, green tea KitKat…you name it, they have it. And what better way to refresh on a sunny day than a green tea snow cone? Content with my cool dessert, we went on our way.

Kofuku-ji Temple was our last stop before heading back to the train station. It’s an impressive five-story pagoda, which is said to be the symbol of the ancient city of Nara. Unfortunately, the surrounding structures around it were under construction, so we opted instead to entertain ourselves and document our visit with a series of jumping pictures. Our mission done, we headed back to the train station to make our way to Osaka.

Osaka

I have to be very honest about Osaka. Though I suppose after reading this account of our trip to Japan, you wouldn’t really be surprised. The most memorable part of this city for me was their ramen. Yes, you got that right. Their ramen. We had heard about Ippudo from some of our friends and my sister and I had even tried the ramen at their New York franchise. The shop was also conveniently located just a block or so away from our hotel.

Ippudo was full when we arrived, so we were told we had to wait about 15 to 20 minutes (which is nothing considering that the New York branch average waiting time is between one to two hours.) We wandered the street and found a bookstore to check out. It contained nothing but manga and graphic novels. Rows and rows of it. In fact, five floors of it. There were people of all kinds inside the store reading – business men, students, children. It was a snapshot of Japanese culture and an extremely curious sight for a visitor such as myself.

By the time we headed down, we were being shown our table inside. The restaurant was surprisingly laid back. Large tables with tabletops that looked like the cross-section of a giant tree sat various groups together, and quirky red and black décor livened up the place. We were given a menu for us to choose, not only the kind of toppings that we wanted, but also the firmess of our noodles and spiciness of the soup. I chose a typical chashu meal, while my brother’s girlfriend chose the highest level of spice, which I would put roughly at the level of having an atomic bomb in your mouth. (She really enjoyed it though.)

This meal was testament to the fact that Japan would rank as the number one country where I was best fed compared to anywhere else around the world. The broth was terrific, unlike any other that I’ve tasted. It was complemented perfectly by the tender strips of pork, black sesame sauce, scallions and soft boiled egg. Oh and did I mention the gyoza? Tiny little bite-sized delights that were crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside. What a way to make an impression, Osaka.

Later that night, my sister insisted that we check out Dotonbori to see the nightlife. We walked from the ramen place down the street to the bridge where colors of all kinds jumped out at us. There was a fluorescent runner crossing the finish line, a giant crab, and most spectacularly, a elliptical yellow ferris wheel mounted on top of a building. It was vibrant and bustling, with its display of lavish outfits and people hurriedly walking from one direction to another. It reminded me a little of Times Square in New York, another excellent destination best travelled with Delta Air Lines. We walked a little more, taking all the sounds and images of the busy city center, until the rains drove us home.

Our stay in Osaka was a little short lived, but enjoyable nonetheless. It was a good segueway for us as we were making our way back to Manila, what with the transition from the quiet cities of Kyoto and Nara, to the on-the-go pace of Osaka. And though parting is such sweet sorrow for a place as lovely as Japan, flying to the United States and other parts of Asia with Delta Air Lines always promises to be a luxurious and relaxing experience. Before leaving for the airport though, we did decide on a last hurrah. For the first time in a week, we went back to eat in the same restaurant. Manila can wait just a few more minutes. For now, Ippudo beckons. And boy, was it worth it.

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