Kyoto, a Glimpse into the Past

Japan_Kyoto_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4610 Even though Tokyo and Kyoto have the exact same letters, the two beautiful cities really differ in aesthetics. If Tokyo is where all things new and trailblazing filter out of Japan and into the western world, then Kyoto is where the preservation of an old Japan remains as the most important element of the city. With over 400 shrines, temples and pagodas inside Kyoto city limits, it’s simple to find where the priorities lie.

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Japan_Kyoto_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4723Seiji and Kyoko, Japan is full of friendly people

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As you can imagine, that is primarily what we did whilst visiting the area. Being said, Japan always throws a couple twists which in this case took formation into naturalized deer that literally bow when asking for rice crackers surrounded by UNESCO world heritage sites in the city of Nara. Another is yuba, the fried tofu ‘skin’ snack that seriously took us out of dangerous threat levels of hangriness. As a traveler, it is always nice to see both the old, new, and uncharted; after Tokyo, Kyoto, and Ito it was great to have found all three. Japan_Kyoto_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4826

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Japan_Kyoto_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4989 However, the food also made quite an impression. Ramen, the first meal one should always have in Japan because it is so steeped in the flavors of traditional cuisine but still has the ability to expand into something new. Sublime pork broth with slowly cooked eggs, tender cuts of pork with a few bonito flakes and seaweed makes for a perfect meal. Jellied mochis stuffed with red beans and matcha sitting side by side with chocolate croissants that taste like home. What’s fascinating about Japan’s food is the confidence in simplicity. Tonki, the 70-year-old tonkatsu restaurant in Tokyo makes one item: breaded pork. The line is always out the door and it doesn’t matter how long the wait is, customers always stay. The simple menu brings critics and public alike. There is no way to mask flavors in sauces, foams, and reductions. That kind of cuisine is found everywhere is Japan; where bowls of sticky rice with an array of perfectly sliced pieces of fish ranging from iridescent white to almost crimson in shade exclude sauces or crispy toppings. Yet it is one of the best bowls of food I’ve ever had. Japanese cuisine can teach chefs, home cooks and everyone in between that less is more. But less, in this case, is definitely a good thing.Japan_Kyoto_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5189

 

Japan_Kyoto_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5002Todaiji temple, the largest wooden structure in the world

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 The harmony between food and onsen, mountains and temples, counter-culture and traditionalism are in the details of what makes Japan so special. What lies underneath, the honor and pride of the people and their openness to Westerners and new experiences is what makes Japan a wonderful place to visit.

Ito Escapade

In the Izu peninsula, just south of Tokyo with its expressive neighborhoods filled with busy people, lies Ito, where it only takes one onsen to bring you back down to heightened normalcy. An onsen is a natural hot spring and fun fact: Japan has the most in the world. Some seaside towns, Ito for example, sell ‘onsen passes’ to visit multiple throughout the town with different features like co-ed onsens or waterfalls cascading into the spring (sounds really hard I know).  Japan_Ito_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4600
After Tokyo, Simon and I were ready to enjoy another part of Japan, and Ito made it very easy. During the day we visited a natural reserve near Ito, including riding to the top of a volcano on a chair lift and crossing a 200 ft suspension bridge above the Pacfiic ocean. Needless to say, the adventurous spirit of the Pennisula can turn anyone into a badass.

Japan_Ito_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4579The view from the top of Ohmuro Volcano

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Japan_Ito_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4563Not a very uplifting ticket!

Japan_Ito_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4540The eastern side of the Pacific Ocean

We stayed at a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese hotel with tatami mats and three all-natural onsens inside. The remarkable element of ryokan is something found in almost every aspect of Japanese culture: simplicity with intention. To the common eye, the room looked so bare, without a TV or a bed, it didn’t seem worth the price, yet we were so satisfied with our stay and the peace the ryokan contained.

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Peace, love, ryokan

 

The Land of the Rising Sun

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It took us 13 hours on a non-stop flight from Washington D.C. but finally, the trip has begun! And what better way to start it than in Tokyo, a city of more than 13 million people, modern machines, and eccentric fashion. Tokyo is of course also known for its food and for the copious amounts of fish that pass through Tsukiji Market, the largest fish and seafood market in the world. It was at this market also where we had our first encounter with real sushi and other seafood delicacies.

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You need only look around you while walking through Takeshita Street in Harajuku district or through Akihabara “Electric Town” to be reminded that you are very far from the West. Neon signs are everywhere to be found, panchinko parlors (slot machines) are in every corner and some people’s wardrobes are, let’s say, highly unconventional.

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But however crazy things get in Tokyo, the city still remains attached to its roots and traditions. We were fortunate to visit one of the most important shrines in the city, Meiji Shrine, during its summer festival where hundreds of people wearing traditional costumes partake in elaborated Yosakoi choreographies, and to our incredulous eyes, an event called: Battle of the Udon! Let me explain this last part in more detail because it’s important, imagine 50 different stalls all selling a different type of udon (noodle) bowl and each stall with people yelling and trying to make you try their recipe! So good!

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Praying tablets

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Every person we have talked to has been extremely nice and we enjoyed the hospitality of our AirBnB hostess, Yu, when she invited us to a BBQ she was having. It was great to be able to spend some time with locals, to drink sake with them, and to teach them how to do a power hour.

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View from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatory

Finally, the food, mmm, the food! From ramen at a place that could only fit 8 people at once, to sushi, to udon, and tonkatsu (breaded pork) at Tonki—a place that only serves one dish and has been doing it since 1940—the food has been amazing. Fortunately for our waistline, it’s all been very balanced and healthy, and I can only expect that, as we explore this beautiful country more, it’ll get even better.

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Japan_Tokyo_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4354The Gretzky never lies!

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Japan_Tokyo_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4366Tsukemen (dipping noodles): It’s ramen with a twist!

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Japanese dedication

Coming up, the small seaside town Ito, filled with onsens and fresh seafood, to Kyoto the shrine capital of Japan.