I recently returned from a fantastic trip to Japan, with my wife Erin Yoshimura and my mom. We flew first to Sapporo in the northern island of Hokkaido, where one of my uncles lives, and then traveled to Nemuro, my mom’s hometown on the easternmost tip of Hokkaido, where another uncle lives. Then we flew down to Tokyo for a few days, then Hiroshima, then Kyoto before flying home from Osaka’s Kansai Airport. It was grueling at times — two weeks is a long trip, especially with your mom! — but I really had a great time and it’s given me a lot to think about… and write about.
I’m still sorting out notes from the trip and organizing the zillions of photos. But I did finally finish editing and titling the many videos I shot with my Lumix LX5 camera. Here are 34 short videos with brief descriptions. Feel free to graze through them, or watch them all (they’re on my YouTube channel).
NOTE: I’ve signed up to include ads on some of my videos, including these ones of Japan. If you feel inclined to click on the ads that show up, I get a little bit of coin in return. If you want to get rid of them, just click the “x” in the upper right of each banner ad.
As I write blog posts, I’ll also embed these videos within them. So think of these vids as previews of some of the topics I’ll be covering.
We didn’t have to wait long to get great Japanese food. We got it on our flight on ANA (All Nippon Airways) with kara age fried chicken and soba noodles for dinner, and this breakfast of mushrooms and vegetables with rice and .. yogurt?
I was astounded at the culinary cacophony in the basement food court of Daimaru department store at Sapporo Station. There were so many booths, so many kinds of food and so many people that it was sensory overload. I could stay there all day next time.
I grew up eating natto, or fermented soy beans, and I love it, even though it’s an acquired taste, even for some Japanese. It’s sort of stinky, and very slimy, like, well, like snot.
We had lunch with my Uncle Fumiya and Aunt Mitsuko at a terrific soba noodle restaurant on the 8th floor of the Daimaru department store at Sapporo Station. Erin explains how to eat soba.
We sat and devoured the sampling of manju that we bought a Daimaru department store at the Sapporo train station. Delicious!
In Japanese cities, the major train stations are like shopping malls full of shops and restaurants, and sometimes (like at Sapporo’s main station, near where we stayed) have department stores attached to them. This cute little shop caught our eye at Sapporo Eki (station) because of its exquisite pastries. Its specialty was a Hokkaido potato pastry. We should have bought some but we didn’t….
Even though we may look Japanese, we stick out in Japan and people there can spot us as Gaijin — foreigners — easily. It’s something about how loud we are, or how we fill our space instead of shrinking in it. Culturally, we’re big and American. This poor man on the train outside Sapporo must have though Erin and I were freaks.
It takes almost four hours and two trains to get form Sapporo to Nemuro, my mom’s home town. First we take a regular commuter-style train to Kushiro, the second-largest city in the northern island of Hokkaido. Then we take an hour-and-a-half ride on a one-car, narrow gauge train that runs through great scenery, from farmland to hills to forests to alongside the ocean. Fall has definitely arrived in Hokkaido, although the rest of our trip, especially in Kyoto, was hot and summer-like.
Upon our arrival to Nemuro, we had lunch and later dinner at his house, where unt Eiko had taken te day off her busy schedule to cook like crazy for us. We had an incredible seafood feast that featured the local specialty, Hanasaki Kani (a crab with flavorful meat and a spikey shell, and she served ones with sacs of crunchy eggs inside). There was also shrimp, two kinds of salmon roe, other fish eggs, lots of pickles and traditional side dishes, seaweed (the local kombu, or kelp, is famous throughout Japan), a fabulous macaroni-potato salad, fruits and lots more.
My Uncle Kazuya books the New Harbour Hotel when we visit Nemuro, because it’s right across the street from his house. Erin and I stayed in a top-floor room that was huge by Japanese hotel standards, and had a balcony and a great Japanese-style bath, plus of course the popular Japanese washing toilet that squirts water at your parts. The breakfast buffet wasn’t the best we had during the trip, but it was still our favorite hotel during the entire trip. (We stayed at some much more expensive ones too!)
Our room at the New Harbour Hotel in Nemuro had a small balcony and a terrific view of the town, as dawn lit the sky.
We visited the Buddhist Temple in Nemuro and went to the sanctuary where the ashes of the recently deceased are kept. My grandmother died seven years ago, and my Aunt Noriko died several years ago, but my Uncle Kazuya still has their ashes here. They’ll be moved t the cemetery outside of town when he dies. The memorials are small but very nice, with drawers and pullout ledges to hold items for visitors.
I bet the thousands to come to Nosappu every New Year’s Eve ring this bell at midnight to ring in the new year. Nosappu is the easternmost point in Japan, so it welcomes the new year first. It’s also a monument and museum to the Northern Territories, the disputed islands that were given to Russia at the end of World War II by the allies (even though Russia entered the war against Japan just before Japan’s surrender).
We had a fabulous and fun dinner just a couple of blocks from my Uncle Kazuya and Aunt Eiko’s house in Nemuro, at a sushi restaurant named Hana Maru. We ate at a sister restaurant in Sapporo with my Uncle Fumiya and Aunt Mitsuko, but the original in Nemuro has the same great quality sushi and a moving belt that brings the food to diners. We has something like 36 dishes stacked up by the end of the meal.
Lake Mashu (Mashu-Ko) in Akan National Park, Japan’s version of Yellowstone in the northern island of Hokkaido, is famous as the clearest lake in the world. It has no feeder rivers or streams — it’s a volcanic crater that is simply filled with water that doesn’t go anywhere. Akan National Park is also home to AInu Village, an outpost of the native people of Japan, the Ainu, where we had lunch and I had a Shika-don, or derr bowl (like a beef bowl).
My Aunt Eiko in Nemuro, in the northern island of Hokkaido, offered us a fancy treat, jelly candy from Kyoto that had a piece of kuri, or chestnut, inside.
A Buddhist priest visits the home of my Uncle Kazuya and Aunt Eiko in Nemuro, Japan every month on the anniversary of the date my Aunt Noriko died (a few years ago, of ALS). He conducts a memorial service and chats a while. We were fortunate to be there for his visit before Uncle Kazuya drove us from Nemuro to the town of Nakashibetsu for our flight to Tokyo.
Upon our arrival in Tokyo, my friend Tetsuo Shiitani was waiting at the hotel to take us out to dinner. We went to Robata Kaba, a favorite drinking spot of Tetsuo’s — he’s a journalist with the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper — and had an incredible feast of seafood hot pot
Erin and I don’t drink, but my friend Tetsuo Shiitani insisted that the dinner we were about to have needed beer, so he got us zero-alcohol Sapporo. It was good!
Erin has seen Meiji Jingu in the spring, with its famous river of colorful irises blooming. In the fall, the irises aren’t there but the park is still beautiful, a huge nature’s retreat in the midst of Tokyo’s busy Harajuku district. We were fortunate enough to see two traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies underway while we were there.
Asakusa in Tokyo is a popular destination for both Japanese and tourists alike for the huge Sensoji Buddhist temple and the bustling bazaar of shops and eateries in front of the temple.
Asakusa is home to the Sensoji Buddhist Temple but it’s also popular because of the huge bazaar of shops and food in front of the temple. Here’s some of the food we had.
Shabu-shabu is a deceptively simple dish — you cook vegetables and thin slices of meat in a hot pot and dip the food in a sauce to eat. But the presentation and quality of beef at Katsura Steakhouse, a very classy restaurant in the shadow of the Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa by Shinagawa Station in Tokyo, was fantastic, and the company — old family friend Mrs. Yanagi and her daughter Hiroko and her husband Tsuyoshi Tanabe — was even better.
I had never had monja before, but Erin loves it. It’s a mash of ingredients and batter that’s cooked up on a tabletop griddle, and it’s delicious even though it looks… well, like vomit. We ad a wonderful dinner with Erin’s friend Yuko Hayakawa at Monkiji, which was pretty close to our hotel in Tokyo’s Shinagawa ward.
I got a chance to cook one of the monja dishes we ordered when we went out to dine with Erin’s friend Yuko Hayakawa. Monkiji wasn’t far from our hotel in Tokyo’s Shinagawa ward.
Okonomiyaki is a working-class dish from the post-war years, when all manner of ingredients were tossed together and grilled up as comfort food. We ate at a famous onokomiyaki restaurant in Hiroshima. Hiroshima-style onokomiyaki is different from Osaka-style, because it uses fried noodles as an ingredient.
We spent a couple of hours at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, a powerful monument to the legacy of the atomic bomb that ended World War II. There’s a museum and a beautiful park with sculptures including one of Sadako, the teenager who died of Leukemia, a side effect of the blast, after the war. There’s also the skeletal Atomic Dome building, which was just below the epicenter of the bomb.
I was fascinated by the trains in Japan, including this Hiroshima streetcar, which took us from the Atomic Bomb Peace Park to Miyajima, where we boarded a ferry to see the Shinto shrine at Ise island.
Kiyomizudera is a spectacular Buddhist Temple set on a hillside overlooking Kyoto, Japan. It’s also a fascinating example of spirituality amped up into a cash-generating industry.
OK, so it’s early — Nov. 3. But the Kyoto Century Hotel decked its halls for Christmas and brought in a Japanese gospel choir to sing in the season as a prelude to a tree-lighting ceremony. It was a rare public display of Christianity for Japan, a country that celebrates Christmas with KFC as the “traditional” holiday meal.
Kyoto is an ancient and deeply spiritual and artistic place, the heart of Japan’s culture. There are 2,000 shrines and temples in Kyoto, including some World Heritage sites. We took an English-language bus tour with tour guide Mariko Shudo of Sunrise Tours, and she took us to several fantastic locales.
We took an afternoon tour bus with an English-speaking guide to Nara, a city outside of Kyoto that’s famous for spiritual sites and friendly — some might say aggressively friendly — deer.
Our final meal in Kyoto before heading to Osaka to catch the long flight home. We had breakfast at a killer ramen shop just around the block from our hotel, with long lines day and night (they open at 5:30 am!).