Japan Travelogue Part 5: Food and Drink

Part 5 of several! See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Japan’s culinary reputation may be unparalleled. Tokyo has the most Michelin stars of any city, and I recall hearing it also has the most eateries per capita. I only scratched the surface of what’s on offer, particularly because I’m not a big fan of ramen or beef. But I ditched mostly-vegetarianism for an anything-goes diet, and many things went! This is just a random sampling of stuff I encountered; every meal was an experience.

Cannibalistic sugar-coated potato-fried mozzarella hot dog. Yeah. There was also a rainbow one.

I skipped the Michelin stars and went straight for the street food. I tried at least three different kinds of okonomiyaki, a savory pancake: each region has their own method of preparation. There were so. Many. Fishy. Snacks. I was able to sample quite a few near the Tsukiji Fish Market and bought my favorites.

Please contact me if you ever find these delicious green curry crisps.

Almost every meal was expensive—San Francisco prices!—so eventually I started buying simple breakfasts from the ubiquitous and well-stocked convenience stores. (I never thought I’d give 7-Eleven so much of my money anywhere.) The one thing I ate two nights in a row was Standing Sushi, a Tokyo chain with counter seating standing for a dozen or so, a laminated menu dominated by cheap two-piece nigiri, and several fast-acting chefs. I tried all sorts of sushi varieties I’d never heard of, drank a huge glass of sake, and paid less than twenty bucks.

Bento boxes were also a pretty good deal, great for high-speed train rides, and came jam-packed with mysterious flavors. Every one I bought was beautiful and delicious.

Hoppy Duvel and smoky porter at a cool bar that had one door per chair!

Drinking was different in Japan. Like other Asian countries I’d visited, boring lager beer dominates. There are a few (often foreigner-owned) breweries doing craft beer and more bars stocking it, but it’s pricey and rarely as strong as I’d like. Sake is everywhere, of course, but almost nobody had even heard of the unflitered nigori variety I prefer at home. Japanese whiskey is everywhere, often in club soda highballs on draft. Many bars charge a cover of $5-$10; I wish they’d just enforce a drink minimum or something. As a tourist I’m happy to give them my money, but I want to hop as much as possible.

Golden Gai in Tokyo. Photo credit shiranai on Flickr.

Golden Gai and equivalents like Nonbei Yokocho in Shinjuku, alleyways crammed with microscopic bars and restaurants, are fascinating and a must-try in Japan. Each one is different so I could hardly sum them up. Some second-floor establishments have impossibly narrow and steep staircases. Some places aren’t for tourists—my mistake!—and cater to locals. Like many bars and restaurants in Japan, smoking is often allowed and can get super gross in a small enclosed space.

If you see this sign, GO IN!!!

Everybody has Campari, but not everybody knows what a Negroni is. Weird. I found a few places for craft cocktails, but most were pretentious and overpriced. The exception was Bar Nayuta in Osaka, through a half-size door on the fifth floor of a nondescript building. There’s no menu; just tell them what you like and they’ll make you an incredible cocktail.

Lunch kaiseki with view of the Kamo River

The one big splurge was for kaiseki, Japan’s multi-course haute-cuisine, in Kyoto. Like other fancy food options, going for lunch is much less expensive than dinner. The place I went wasn’t the highest-rated, but there was no wait and my party was alone with river views! I think it was worth it more for the experience anyway. The dishes were certainly exotic and mostly delicious, especially if you like funky fishy flavors!

Roadside market on Kumano Kodo. Cash goes in the box.

I’d been advised to look out for unstaffed stands selling farmers’ products on an honor system, and spotted one while hiking the Kumano Kodo (previous post). It included a cute drawing of the farmers and a selection of mushrooms, kumquats, sour pickled Japanese plums (new favorite!), and tea leaves.

I must also mention the vending machines. I was surprised how few sold snacks, but cold drink machines, well-stocked with canned coffee, were absolutely everywhere. Many also served hot coffee and tea drinks, an impressive novelty, as well as beer, sake, and whiskey-cocktails-in-a-can. My finest moment was ordering hot onigiri (rice balls) from a machine that microwaved them for two minutes before dispensing. Incredible!

I didn’t know that Katsuura, the final stop on my Kumano Kodo trek (previous post), boasts one of the largest fish markets in Japan, serving Kyoto and Osaka with most of their tuna. While I missed the early-morning bidding process, there was still plenty to see at 10AM as workers processed giant fish. Black kites swooped through the interior of the market, grabbing scraps. The tuna sashimi in town was unparalleled, and a tourist-friendly food hall near the market served all manner of preparations.

I left out so many things, but that’s what I have photos of, so that’s what you get for my food experience in Japan!

Japan Travelogue Part 4: Kumano Kodo

Part 4 of several! See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5.

A special, quieter part of my trip was the Kumano Kodo, a set of ancient pilgrimage routes in the Kii Hantō peninsula south of Kyoto/Osaka. Travel required a local train from Osaka and buses. Known for three major destination shrines, the region offers wonderful hiking between mountain villages through dense forests of Japanese cypress. It was also a unique way to see cherry blossoms blanketing the side of a hill instead of lining a city canal.

Cool ferns and Japanese cypress

My first two nights were in Yunomine Onsen, a beautiful village bursting with hot springs. One tub was set up with extra-hot water where foods like eggs and sweet potatoes can be immersed and cooked. To be honest it wasn’t the best soft-boil I’ve had (not hot enough?), but it’s a novelty thing (and supposedly the minerals are good for you).

These look like living things, but they’re mineral deposits from high-quality hot spring water.

I had my first onsen experience here, which became a habit while I was in Japan. The water’s too hot for me to stay in for long, but it seems encouraged to get out, rinse off again with cool water at the seated bathing station, and go back in. Kind of like the ol’ roll-in-the-snow during a winter hot tub session!

Otorii at Kumano Hongū Taisha

The Kumano Hongū Taisha shrine has the largest torii gate in the world at 34 meters (111 feet) tall and 42 meters (139 feet) wide. It’s an incredible sight set amidst a river delta, forested mountains, and a rather unassuming town. I hiked up from the shrine for a distant view of this enormous object.

Go up! for this view of Otorii, the world’s largest torii gate.

Kumano Nachi Taisha was the other major shrine I visited. This was the end of a strenuous hike: 14km/8.7mi, 1260m/4130ft up, 930m/3050ft down! It was a spectacular complex of buildings overlooking the ocean and accompanied by Nachi Falls, Japan’s largest single-drop waterfall.

Nachi no Taki waterfall seen through a stone ornament of Kumano Nachi Taisha
850-year-old Sacred Camphor Tree at Kumano Nachi Taisha

I spent my last night in Katsuura, a fishing town on the west coast of the peninsula. My hotel room had tiny windows with minimal natural light, but supplemented this with a digital window! That was a first.

Katsuura also boasts one of the largest fish markets in Japan, to be detailed in a later post. After a ferry and interacting with terribly confused and polite proprietors, I found myself basically alone in a giant island hotel complex complete with an onsen in a cave overlooking the ocean.

Light was not my friend here, but you gotta see the ocean waves from the outer hot spring pool.

While it’s certainly still a tourist destination, Kumano Kodo was a great way to escape the hustle/bustle of most cities I visited, and it scratched my itch to hike wherever I go. Thanks to Jason for the tip and itinerary!

Japan Travelogue Part 3: More Art

Part 3 of several! See Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5.

I’ll talk about food, nature, and other quirks from my Japan trip in other posts, but this one captures other cool stuff I saw.

I must say I didn’t notice a lot of street art, perhaps because my eye isn’t sufficiently trained. Buildings didn’t often seem to accommodate murals—maybe because they had talking video screens instead!

Osaka street art

Osaka was my favorite of the major cities I visited; it seemed a little grittier than Tokyo and less touristy than Kyoto. I’d even presumptuously call it the San Francisco of Japan. Here I saw some of the most unique art and culture, at least in the major tourist areas (from which I hardly strayed).

Painted humanoid street lights in Osaka

In addition to ubiquitous advertisement screens, LEDs were all over the place. A large, but not particularly fancy club in Osaka had video LEDs wrapping its columns and filling its entry staircase.

Kyoto is known for its artisanal craftsmanship. I wasn’t interested in anything too high-end, so I opted for one of the many monthly flea markets, held on the (beautiful, cherry-blossomed) grounds of a temple. Despite being one of the smaller markets, Tezukuri-Ichi was a maze of stalls filled with unique goods: fine woodwork, jewelry, clothing, ceramics, food, etc. I hit up a popular bakery stand and a fancy pour-over coffee proprietor using cloth filters.

Googly eye crafts at Tezukuri-Ichi market, Hyakumanben Chion-ji Temple, Kyoto

Temples and shrines are everywhere in Japan; I can’t claim to know much about their history or culture. I must admit there was a “seen one seem ’em all” effect where I stopped maying attention to them pretty quickly. One notable exception was Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. Even mobbed with tourists, this gold-leafed marvel set over a tranquil pond was totally worth the visit.

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

One more notable shrine, with the worlds largest torii gate, coming soon in another post!

Japan Travelogue Part 2: Naoshima

Part 2 of several! See Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Naoshima is one of several islands in the Seto Inland Sea with numerous modern art installations and museums. While still dominated by industrial materials refining, this sleepy island was transformed into a tourist destination with the installation of a museum and boutique hotel.

“Pumpkin” by Yayoi Kusama, practically the mascot of the island. Image credit Jean-Marie Hullot on Flickr

With the help of my trusty JR Pass and a ferry, I stayed on the island for two nights (including my birthday!). While many see the island as a day trip, it was worth having a whole day to get a feel for the place.

Most cats ignored or ran away from us in Japan; this one tolerated our existence for the walk up to a temple.

Staying at the Benesse House boutique hotel is hundreds of dollars per night, so for a “mere” hundred dollars a night I stayed at a humble guest house. (As with all accommodations on this cherry-blossom-season trip, I reserved far in advance.) This was my only traditional Japanese sleeping experience: tatami mats, futons, sliding doors, etc. It was cool to have the experience, though literally paper-thin walls aren’t great when other tourists are sharing the building. Nevertheless, I knew I was supporting a member of the local community instead of some hoity-toity art empire.

At the Honmura gift/ticket shop, an LED piece by a familiar name, Leo Villareal!

Speaking of which, that tension was apparent to me on the island. No doubt Naoshima’s art benefits locals who set up lodging and/or dining establishments. Demand is high—it can be hard to find an open and available place to eat! But there seems to be a clear bifurcation between the “official” installations on the island and the work of its locals. The island has ports on both sides; the Miyanoura port is far more built up, has most of the art, and has a mainland ferry terminal to match. The Honmura port, where I stayed, has far less infrastructure and a smaller passenger boat for access. This added to the us/them vibe.

Incredible flower garden outside Chichu Art Museum, an homage to Monet’s

The Chichu Art Museum was the one “proper” museum I visited. $18.50 seemed rather steep for an experience that only took an hour; it would make more sense to offer admission to multiple / all of the small museums scattered around the island for that sort of fee. The museum itself, housed mostly underground to avoid spoiling the natural landscape, is truly an artwork of itself. Tadao Ando’s cement block design plays with lines, perspective, and light in all sorts of cool ways. Just walking through it is an experience.

Chichu’s least impressive art was definitely the Monet! It was protected by surprisingly-reflective glass/acrylic that hampered my perception of the colors. Impressionism is super important and all that, but I’m much more in it for the modern art, where the museum really delivered. James Turrell‘s pieces were most interesting by far, not surprisingly because they all deal with my favorite medium, light! Turrell’s done some really cool stuff throughout his career, and the three works displayed here offer a solid summation of his evolution.

Particularly glorious mistranslation near Chichu

I also explored the Art House Project, seemingly the only official destination on the Honmura side of the island, more reasonably priced at $10 for at least an hour’s worth. This is a collection of residential homes converted to house modern works of art. You basically wander tiny streets to find these nondescript installations. They varied in style and all were worth checking out. James Turrell brought it again with Backside of the Moon, which I won’t spoil for you, but suffice to say it plays on the way our eyes adjust in darkness.

Koi pond outside Naoshima Bath “I♥︎湯”

I’ll discuss bathhouses elsewhere in this series, but Naoshima’s was by far the artiest. Naoshima Bath “I♥︎湯” (I Heart Yu, where Yu means “hot water” in Japanese) is by Shinro Ohtake. It’s a pop-art/collage spectacle: there are the big details like an elephant overseeing the baths, a translucent rainbow ceiling, and colorful mosaic works on all surfaces. Little details like art on the water tap handles, video screens in the changing room tables, and painted toilet complete the experience.

Photos prohibited inside; I snuck this one in the private bathroom.

While it was rather overpriced, making for an air of exclusivity I didn’t like, Naoshima offered a modern art experience unlike anything else I know of. It can be done as a day trip if you’re staying in a nearby town/city like Okayama, but a full day was a more relaxing way to experience more of the art. I didn’t see all of it, and nearby islands offer even more installations. Go!

This Is Happening!

After almost 5 years making office buildings more efficient and enjoyable at Comfy, I’m leaving to make art full-time. This is incredibly liberating, scary, and exciting! I don’t know exactly what I’ll be doing, but I’d like to explore some combination of:

  • Small / wearable LED objects
  • 3d-printed fine art with LEDs
  • Large-scale LED art installations
  • Writing
  • Music
  • Self-care
  • Software consulting to pay the bills?

This has been a long time coming. I’ve been fascinated with LEDs at least since I made my own 5×7 dot-matrix LED display when I was a kid. I’ve been tinkering with RGB LEDs most of my adult life and “formally” shown art pieces starting with BigPOV at Burning Man 2013. It was always a side thing, happening outside of work, but I realized I needed more time and energy to focus on it.

I plan to take some “time somewhat off” to start, pursuing projects that interest me but also leaving lots of time for self-care. That’s something I still struggle to do for myself and I’d like to build a habit of it. Eventually I’ll hunker down and try to figure out how to make money doing what I love.

I really liked some of the stuff I read in The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield. (Thanks to Jason for the tip.) He frames making art as a sort of glorious slog. Show up each day, do the work, endure rejection, and if you’re persistent, the muse will find you and help you do incredible things.

Anyway, I don’t have a lot to show you now other than my existing portfolio of work. But a lot more is coming soon. Sign up for my low-traffic newsletter to hear about it.