One could easily visit Japan, do nothing but eat, and still have an amazing trip. During our stay we managed to not only see some incredible places, but also experience some of the most unique and flavorful cuisine that we have ever had. Trying out all of the food, both familiar and new, was truly an adventure in itself.
The first thing any visitor will notice when searching for food options in Japan is the consistent use of realistic plastic food samples at just about every establishment. We had heard of the concept before, but did not realize how universal it was until we were there. It was not only fascinating to see the attention to detail in each plate, but also very helpful when it came time to order food, since we could point to our exact desired dish when making selections.
Perhaps our favorite meal of the trip was at Manzaratei Pontochoten, where we enjoyed a traditional Kyōto style meal at a small restaurant with prime seating at the counter. From our seats we could see the chefs putting together lovely little dishes, often ladling in broths and sauces from the various large bowls resting on the counter in front of us. Already one of his favorite foods in general, James proclaimed this was the best unagi he has ever had after his very first bite.
We had several bentō boxes while on the trip. They were pretty and convenient to grab while on the go, and also fun to explore what each one had inside.
Rāmen in Tōkyō is of course an absolute must, and we tried out a few different ones while on the trip. Ichiran was our favorite one of all, since not only do they have fantastic rāmen, but the experience of dining at one of the their restaurants was completely new to us. The first step is buying a ticket at a machine at the entrance. Then, each patron is seated in their own individual booth and given a sheet to fill out denoting their preferences on things like noodle firmness, spice level, aromatics, and richness. A small curtain separates the booths from the kitchen, and only the hands of the servers are visible as they place your order in front of you once it’s ready.
Naturally, we were very much looking forward to eating plenty of raw seafood on the trip, and a simple conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Kyōto Station was one of the most satisfying experiences. For around one hundred yen per plate, guests simply pick up what they’d like from the belt, and stack up their dishes for a tally at the end. The fish was incredibly fresh, and we tried a few that we had never eaten before.
Another must for the trip was trying out all of the street food. For this we headed to Nishiki Market in Kyōto – a long strip of vendors selling goods such as fresh seafood, pickled vegetables, and just about any ingredients that a local resident may need for cooking. Among the produce shops there are also several vendors selling hot food ready for eating on the spot. We walked through the entire market starting at one end, and made sure to get a wide variety as we made our way through. The tako tamago (candied baby octopus stuffed with quail egg) was James’ favorite, while the cup of fried chicken was some of the best I’ve ever had.
One of our most memorable meals was at what is locally referred to as Piss Alley in Shinjuku. Contrary to what the name suggests, Piss Alley is a fun narrow street where you can sit in a tiny restaurant and enjoy delicious yakitori under the glow of hanging lanterns. After cramming into one of the restaurants, we ordered a great variety of meats and vegetables that were all lightly seasoned before being grilled to perfection over binchotan (Japanese white coals) right in front of us. We had friends who had just arrived in Japan, and we met up with them to share the experience.
Tonkatsu is a traditional Japanese comfort food. Panko crusted pork cutlets and cabbage salad are served with a small bowl of sesame seeds on the side. We ground up the sesame seeds ourselves, and added our choice of sauce from little pots placed in front of us. The experience was fun and unique, and I brought home a little grinding bowl and sauce pot from a local market to recreate the meal someday.
The variety of snacks found all throughout our trip was insanely impressive. From cat shaped chocolate popsicles, to obscure flavors of Pocky, and the best gummy candies I’ve ever had – there was no shortage of opportunity to try new things.
Overall it’s safe to say that the cuisine in Japan is an adventurous experience. Almost every time we saw something interesting to try, we went for it, and were never disappointed. We were consistently intrigued with how most of the foods used the same types of ingredients that we are accustomed to eating in North America, but used in ways that transformed their flavor profiles.
There are many beautiful sights in the city of Kyōto, which is just a few hours ride on the Shinkansen from Tōkyō. When planning, we aimed for our trip to coincide with the blooming of sakura. Luckily, we arrived right on time, and Kyōto offered a myriad of places to view them.
The wooden lattices and paper dividers in our room at Hotel Kanra create an atmosphere of elegant simplicity reminiscent of the ancient capital. There was even a wooden bathtub made of Japanese cypress that we soaked in each evening we were there.
A great place for hanami (the viewing of sakura) is the Shirakawa Canal in the geisha district of Gion.
The path to Kiyomizu-dera through Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka is absolutely breathtaking. Traditional machiya line the narrow stone lane as it slopes up the hill from one pagoda to another.
Ishibei-koji is a beautifully preserved quiet lane in the Higashiyama district that feels like something out of a painting.
There are said to be over 10,000 torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha.
Nijō-jō is a castle that was built as a residence for the Tokugawa Shoguns when they took trips to see the Imperial Court. We were able to go inside the castle and view the gorgeous wall and ceiling paintings found throughout. The castle is also famous for its nightingale corridors that make gentle chirping sounds as you walk on the wooden floors.
Around the castle are gardens with meticulously composed stones.
The Philosopher’s Walk is a serene path lined with sakura that travels past many temples and shrines.
We were so fortunate to catch the sakura bloom at just the right time, but regardless of the season, Kyōto is wonderful. The city gave us a tranquil experience that was an interesting contrast to the high energy of Tōkyō.
A very important part of our Japan trip was visiting the Tokyo Disney Resort, and Tokyo DisneySea in particular. In our many years of Disney Parks fandom, we have read and heard so much about this park, and after seeing it, we can definitely say that some of the best work Walt Disney Imagineering has ever done lies within DisneySea.
So much of the park is about exploring on foot, rather than boarding ride vehicles. At Explorer’s Landing, there is so much to discover inside the fortress, as well as on the sailing ship docked outside.
We dined at Magellan’s Restaurant, which is part of the experience of Explorer’s Landing. In the center of the restaurant is this large globe that subtly rotates while diners enjoy their meal.
The fortress was built by the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, which is an organization that Imagineering has woven into many stories throughout the Disney Parks.
The story of the S.E.A. continues at Hotel Hightower, where a member of the organization has had a strange mishap with an elevator…
The scope of DisneySea is unimaginable. There is even an entire ocean liner inside of the park. We boarded the ship and had a drink at The Teddy Roosevelt Lounge.
We had so many fun treats at the parks, but the little green dumplings filled with mochi were definitely the cutest.
Mysterious Island is the base of Captain Nemo, and the home port of the Nautilus. It shares similarities with Discoveryland in Disneyland Paris, but it is much more extensive and provides a cohesive story.
James’ favorite ride in the park is Journey to the Center of the Earth, which he puts right up there with the Disneyland mountains.
Taking a relaxing gondola cruise through Mediterranean Harbor is a good way to rest your feet after so many great walkthrough attractions.
Casbah Food Court has many hidden away spots to escape the crowds.
Chandu the tiger is from my favorite attraction in the park, Sinbad’s Storybook Voyage. Its tone lies somewhere between it’s a small world and traditional dark rides. As soon as I saw this little plush I knew I had to bring him back home with me.
We stayed at the Tokyo Disneyland Hotel, which is right outside the gate of Tokyo Disneyland, similar to the Disneyland Hotel at Disneyland Paris.
Of all the troubled Tomorrowlands that we have visited, the Tokyo Disneyland version is the only one that we wouldn’t consider broken. It feels like it still has an identity and is not just a messy stylistic mashup.
James had looked at so many photos of this spot in Tomorrowland while working on various science fiction projects, and he was so excited to finally be there in person.
The exit for Star Tours that leads into the top level of Pan Galactic Pizza Port really feels like you’re in a spaceport and gives this Tomorrowland a sense of place.
Our favorite attraction in Tokyo Disneyland is Monsters, Inc. Ride & Go Seek. This was one of two attractions in the park that were highly recommended, but sadly the other, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt was closed.
The whimsy of the exterior of It’s a Small World flows seamlessly into Queen of Hearts Banquet Hall.
There are adorable homes for all sizes of critters in Grandma Sara’s Kitchen.
Visiting a new Disney park is such a thrill, and it’s always surreal to see slight variations on familiar attractions. Disneyland, USA will always be our favorite park, but Tokyo DisneySea certainly gives it run for its money.
We recently returned from a wonderful two-week long vacation in Japan. Although we have taken a number of international trips, this was our first time visiting a country where the culture and language were unfamiliar to us. Fortunately, everyone that we interacted with was extremely accommodating, and we were able to get by just learning a few Japanese phrases. During our time in Tōkyō, we stayed at the Park Hotel Tokyo in the Shiodome Sio Site in Minato-ku. Above you can see the spectacular view from our room that welcomed us on our very first night.
Most of our trip was spent in the central parts of Tōkyō-to, and even though we were in the metropolis for many days, we still only explored a small amount of its numerous wards. There is much to discover in the area around Shinjuku Station, which has a number of interesting skyscrapers. Our favorite is the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower.
A full size head of Godzilla stands over Toho Cinemas Shinjuku.
Even though we saw Shinjuku during daylight hours, we knew we had to go back at night to see it lit up. The multitude of lightboxes filling the streets would make Las Vegas jealous.
One of the best tucked away spots in the area is Omoide Yokocho, also known as Piss Alley. This tight, atmospheric alley is packed with tiny restaurants and great street food.
Throughout Tōkyō, we saw many ads for the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics. We took a walk around Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which will be one of the venues, and was originally built for the 1964 summer games.
There are many buildings throughout Tōkyō that are quite distinctive, such as the Humax Pavillion and the Nakagin Capsule Tower.
Tsukiji Market, known for its tuna auctions and many seafood vendors, is one of many outdoor markets that we walked through during our trip.
There is certainly no shortage of massive shopping districts in Tōkyō, with Ginza being the most upscale.
Traditional structures, like the Kabuki-za are sprinkled throughout even the most modern districts.
The gardens of the Imperial Palace were closed on the day that we visited, but it is still a very pleasant walk around the palace’s moat.
We were in Japan during peak cherry blossom season, which was truly wonderful. Though most of our sakura viewing was done in Kyōtō, we did find great stretches to walk under cherry blossoms around the Imperial Palace.
The Sensō-ji Buddhist temple and the adjacent Asakusa Shinto shrine are part of a large cluster of sacred buildings with a surrounding market in the Asakusa district.
Tsukiji Hongan-ji is another Buddhist temple that was designed to look much more like something you would see in South Asia.
Beautiful houseboats line up at the docks on the Kanda River, waiting to take tourists on excursions.
There are many ‘cafés’ in Shibuya-ku where you can pay to sit with cute animals. We spent some time with some new kitty friends, and we even got to hold owls!
We took so many trains on this trip, which was very easy with our Japan Railways passes. Our most interesting train experience was certainly traveling at 270 km/h on the Shinkansen from Tōkyō Station to Kyōtō.
On our last day in Tōkyō we caught a glimpse of Mount Fuji from our hotel window bidding us farewell. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing more photos from our adventures in the land of the rising sun.
As we move from project to project in our home, we have been focusing primarily on the spaces that are most exposed to guests. A while ago, we completed the guest room, and now we have just put the finishing touches on the guest bathroom. This was quite a large project, considering how small the room actually is, and our first concepts for it date back to before we even closed escrow.
As you can see in these images, this bathroom was quite hideous when we bought the house. The only thing that we considered keeping was the bathtub, but ultimately we replaced it because it wasn’t in great condition.
We knew that we wanted colored tile halfway up the wall, similar to the bathroom in our old apartment. After visiting several tile stores in Los Angeles County, we ended up going with this lotus flower accent tile that we had seen before we even had the keys to the house. We went with a dark green bullnose cap and a sage green subway tile that’s reminiscent of our kitchen cabinets, giving the bathroom a sense of cohesion with the rest of the house.
For the floor tile, I have always loved the look of small marble hexagons, and how well they juxtapose with subway tile. Removing the vanity and replacing it with a pedestal gave us much more floor space to make the room feel less cramped.
In order to have some storage space, we designed this cabinet that spans the length of the wall, and had it custom built by Martin Cabinet Designs. The layout of the cabinet allows for a decorative mirror to hang in the center, and I especially love the rounded corner shelves that give us space to put up decorative bathroom items.
When it came time to pick out the shower door, we went with a frameless textured glass that would allow more light into the shower than a framed one.
Porcelain cross handles in the shower are another element inspired by our apartment bathroom.
After all of the construction and cabinet installation was done, it was time to pick out the accessories. We selected items that would not only provide the needed functionality, but would also make sense visually for the space. The bathtub caddy has become a favorite for relaxing in the whirlpool tub with a book and glass of wine.
Though I have no idea what this bathroom possibly looked like in 1931 when our home was built, I certainly feel that we have done the space justice with our recent changes.
One of the main elements of our new living room is the fireplace and built-in housing for the television. This multi-faceted project took a long time to complete, and ended up including some DIY work on our parts that we weren’t initially planning for.
The original fireplace was very bare, and lacked presence. The brick face was broken in a few spots, and the remnants of carpeting were stuck to the bottom edge. Overall it was unappealing and needed a change.
We knew that we wanted to be able to cover up our television when it was not in use, as well as house all of our electronic devices inside of a media cabinet. Once we determined the color of the tile and how the doors would open, we started designing the entire piece. James created this concept art, and we worked with Martin Cabinet Designs to figure out the specifics of mounting the television and running the cables. They then had the difficult task of building the cabinetry over the existing broken fireplace.
The level of detail they added was exactly what we were looking for, and it came out perfectly in both design and function. It instantly became a part of the room, enabling us to easily forget that it ever wasn’t there at all.
With the carpentry done, we thought that we would be hiring contractors to tile over the brick, but because it was such a small job, we decided to do the tiling ourselves.
This was our first time ever using mortar, but it was easy enough to apply to the brick. First we had to smooth out the surface, which was especially difficult around the pieces of carpet that were stuck to the bottom.
For the tile itself we went with 3 inch square tiles from Fireclay Tile in Kelp, which has a lovely variety in shading, and a subtle shattered look. We used 1/4 inch spacers, which gave us plenty of leeway if our tile placement wasn’t entirely even.
Having to use a wet saw was one of my biggest hesitations, as they can certainly be intimidating, and proper safety precautions are very important. Once I got the hang of it, it cut very cleanly and made the whole project go smoothly.
After setting all of the tiles and allowing the mortar to dry it was time for the grout. We picked a white grout to let the green of the tile really stand out.
We were relieved to get a clean edge around the bottom, and the bullnose tiles around the rim of the hearth give it a softer look in comparison to the sharp brick edge that was there before.
Once it was all dry and finished, we placed a new fireplace screen that better matched the iron detailing in our living and dining rooms, and added a couple of plants to the hearth. Another home design project successfully checked off our list.
Along with rice, beans, and tortillas – tamales are one of the staple foods I grew up with. The types of tamales have varied widely, from meaty to spicy to sweet, and each one is as delicious as the next. One of the most commonly known is the Mexican style tamale, traditionally made with masa, meat stuffing, and sauce. They’re also fairly simple to make, especially when you have a lazy weekend day to spare.
For these tamales I decided on chicken with a salsa verde, which compliment each other perfectly.
Ingredients (makes 40 tamales): 1 whole chicken, 3 lbs tamale masa, salsa verde (recipe to follow), 40 corn husks, salt to taste.
Before making the chicken and sauce, soak corn husks in warm water and let sit for several minutes.
Then place chicken cut into eight pieces in a large pot with enough water to just cover the chicken and boil with 3 tablespoons of salt. Cook the chicken thoroughly, then remove from water and let cool – reserving water.
For the salsa verde: 20 tomatillos, 6 serrano chiles, 1/2 large onion, 4 garlic cloves, 2 green bell peppers, 1 large bunch cilantro, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 2 all spice, salt and pepper to taste.
Place all of the ingredients in a pot with no more than 1/2 cup of water and simmer until tomatillos are cooked through and soft. Put everything in a blender and puree until smooth.
Shred the cooled chicken, and put in a bowl. Spoon salsa verde over chicken, and mix to coat thoroughly.
Pour masa into bowl of a stand mixer, and gradually add the reserved chicken water with the mixer on medium speed. Mix until any lumps are dissolved, and mixture is smooth.
Cut aluminum foil sheets into roughly 10″ x 10″ squares. To assemble tamales place a husk on a sheet of foil, followed by a thin layer of masa. Use the back of a spoon to spread the masa onto the corn husk, as if you were thickly spreading cream cheese onto a bagel. Then spoon chicken down the middle.
Roll the corn husk to enclose the filling, then wrap the foil tightly around the raw tamale. Place them all in a pot, with about 2 cups of water on the bottom – the steam will do the cooking. Bring to a simmer and let cook or about 50 minutes, covered.
Serve with extra salsa verde and cheese on the side. Tamales also freeze very well, making for easy meals throughout the week.