Travel Dates: March 31-April 14, 2017
Konichiwa! Welcome to the final stop on our Honeymundo. To a country that has long been towards the top on our list of places to visit. A country that brought us sushi, Nintendo, Zen, teppanyaki, and sake. Japan has one of the most extraordinary cultures in the world. It’s a place where everything is an art form – cooking, writing, farming, bartending – and anyone who chooses the mindful path is an artist in their trade. Far exceeding our expectations, from its bustling cities to tranquil countryside, we fell in love with this creative wonderland.
Planning our trip here wasn’t easy. When setting out on our world tour, we had hoped to make it to Japan when the cherry blossoms (called “sakura”) were in full effect. Our sakura timing couldn’t be better, but when we started researching the particulars, we learned it was also the most crowded, overbooked, and expensive time of year! I decided it was time to call in the experts, and we found the perfect person in Lauren Scharf, who specializes in exposing people to unique experiences in Japan. Lauren and our super agents at Savanti Travel pulled together an incredible itinerary for us. We can’t recommend them both highly enough.
Accommodations: Ritz Carlton
We begin in one of the coolest cities in the world. Upon arrival, we were surprised with how chilly Japan is in the spring. So what does one do on their cold, rainy first night in Tokyo? Eat ramen of course! So we grabbed a couple umbrellas and walked over to Ippudo. We’ve eaten at the Ippudo in New York and Sydney before, but (OMG, IMHO) ramen is so much better in Japan! With perfectly al dente noodles, balanced savory broth, crispy gyoza, and ice cold beer, I’ve never enjoyed a bowl of ramen as much as this one…granted, the setting may have had some placebo effect.
We spent our days in Tokyo exploring the city. We visited Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest intersections of the world and Japan’s version of Times Square. At peak times, over 1000 people cross the intersection per light change, somehow flowing by and not bumping into one another. We strolled through Tsukiji fish market, the biggest in the world. And we stopped in a 5-story arcade to experience video games on a whole new level – everyone from kids to seniors playing Japanese rhythm games, betting on virtual horse races, or stepping into the VR park on the top floor. Easing my way in, I got my butt kicked at Tekken…while I imagine Linda contemplated if she chose the right partner 🙂
Linda and I had been holding off on haircuts for a while until we reached Tokyo – seeking to avoid a potential mishap in a place like Myanmar or Laos. Well worth the wait, I had one of the best barber experiences of my life, from the creative stylist who loved his craft to the barber chair from the future. I will definitely come back to The Barber on my next trip to Tokyo (and if you end up at the one in Hiroo, ask for my man Teppei Yamasaki).
Having been away for so long, I was stoked to discover one of my friends would be in Tokyo during our trip. Josh always seems to be dialed in wherever he goes, so we had a blast one night hitting up a killer back alley sushi restaurant, a funky little bar called Deep where the owner/bartender/DJ mixes amazing cocktails and music, and an underground dance club playing Japanese trance.
One of our top priorities in Japan was experiencing the cuisine. In Tokyo, we ate at a few premier sushi spots including Masuda and Taku. Both restaurants only sit 5-6 customers at a time and only serve “omikase” meaning the sushi chef presents you a menu of his choice (literally translated to: “I’ll leave it up to you.”). Our favorite was Sushi Masuda, whose master chef trained under Jiro Ono before venturing off to put his own twist on dishes. For after-dinner drinks, we had some of the best cocktails of our lives at Bar Bennfidich, which takes the same artistic approach as the sushi masters: limited seating, no menu, and extraordinary craftsmanship. After a few days in Tokyo, we had OD’d on raw fish and fancy cocktails. It was time to head to the countryside.
Growing up, my big brother Sum and I were greatly influenced by the lessons learned from watching the Karate Kid. Mr. Miyagi was a great source of knowledge and inspiration, and I still find Sum occasionally quoting him on our long talks about life 🙂 I think that’s one of the reasons I fell in love with Sasayuri-Ann, a 200 year-old renovated mountain house, owned and managed by the incredible (Miyagi-like) Tetsuji Matsubayashi. He is one of the most exceptional people we’ve met on our trip around the world – a calm, friendly, wise monk and businessman – I treasured our time with him in the countryside.
Sasayuri-Ann is located in the rolling hills of the Nara prefecture of Japan. It’s pretty far off the beaten path with few locals speaking any English. Imagine scenes from The Last Samurai and you can visualize this picturesque setting. Foggy mountains surround you, rice terraces below, cedar and bamboo forests above. It was a stark contrast to the lights and sounds of Tokyo.
We spent only two days here (too short if you ask me). At dinner, Tetsu-san cooked delicious shabu-shabu over the irori (a sunken fireplace used for heating the home and cooking food). Later Linda and I would take a dip in the natural cyprus wood bath, roll out the futons next to the fire and drift off to sleep.
Tetsu-san is a Shugendo monk. This ancient Japanese religion originated in the mountains and is focused on finding harmony with nature. Each morning and evening, we joined Tetsu-san for prayers and meditation. We also took a long hike with him to the Akare Waterfalls, where ninjas first learned their skills. They would scale slick rocks to develop agility, sit for hours next to thundering waterfalls to finely tune their hearing, and meditate in freezing water to separate mind from body.
Sasayuri-Ann was an extraordinary experience I’ll never forget…and a place I hope to return to someday.
“Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home. Understand?” – Mr. Miyagi
Accommodations: St Regis
Several friends told us Kyoto was their favorite spot in Japan, and it’s well known as being a top location for viewing sakura. Given that sakura only bloom for two weeks each year, and we were planning to visit Kyoto at that time, the entire city was sold out! No big deal, though, as Osaka is just a 20 minute train ride away. Staying in Osaka also gave us the opportunity to explore a new city and try some of the best food of our entire trip.
Kyoto has an extremely rich history. Once the capital of Japan (from 794-1868 AD), it’s filled with Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, imperial palaces and gardens. We particularly enjoyed Fushimi Inari Shrine with its thousands of orange (or, vermillion if you want to be fancy) torii gates and the Philosopher’s Path, a picturesque stone path along a narrow canal lined with cherry trees – i.e. the perfect place to experience and photograph sakura. Even with a gazillion tourists crowding around us, we loved the beauty and history of this city.
While we spent our days in Kyoto, our evenings in Osaka were dedicated to food and drinks…activities we excel at 🙂 One night, we ended up having one of the best meals of our entire trip at a small teppanyaki restaurant called Kobegyu Steak Ken. Like the top sushi restaurants, this place has very limited seating to ensure each customer has an awesome experience. Ken and his wife serve the most amazing grilled meats (their Kobe is the best steak I’ve ever had), veggies, garlic-fried rice – all gracefully prepared before you – in a feast for the stomach and eyes.
Ready to get off the beaten path, we took a couple trains and ferries to Shodoshima, a small island in Japan known for its soy sauce and olive trees. Here we met one of the best guides of our entire trip, Sean Brecht of Discover Shikoku. Sean was born in Guam, lived in Texas, and has spent much of his life in Japan. He’s fluent in Japanese and passionate about the culture. He’s also a professional photographer, which gave me a chance to pick up some new tips! That first day we drove around the island, checking out a sake brewery, soy sauce factory, art installations, and rice terraces. In the evening, we stayed at a peaceful ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn…not to be confused with Shoryuken). Here we took a dip in the onsen (a natural hot springs bath), donned our yukatas (a casual summer kimono), and ate kaiseki (a traditional multi-course dinner). Lovely as this all sounds, I must admit that at this point, we were so tired of cold fish with soy sauce…which was pretty much the entirety of the meal!
The following day, after a short ferry ride, we arrived in Takamatsu, a large port city on the island of Shikoku. We spent the next couple days exploring the island with Sean. We rode the local trains, visited hilltop temples, ate delicious warm udon noodles (which the area is famous for), and strolled through the extraordinary Ritsurin Garden. On our final night, we had one of the best meals of our entire trip. At a tiny little restaurant called Hachi, the owner/chef/sommelier Ryo Yamada treated us to an omikase meal of mouth-watering Japanese tapas paired with French wines.
On our final day in Japan and final day of our honeymundo, we had one of the best experiences of the trip. After several days of rain and clouds, the sky opened up to abundant sunshine. We woke up, decoded a confusing ferry schedule in the local paper, and hopped on a boat to the nearby island of Teshima.
Teshima is a rural island known for its incredible art installations. Less touristy than its popular neighbor Naoshima, it has a tranquility and charm that’s difficult to match anywhere in the world. Upon arrival, we rented a couple e-bikes and set off to explore the island. After spending so much time in planes, trains, boats and automobiles, we loved the freedom we felt from those bikes. We spent the day cruising around the island, down sakura lined roads, along the coastline, under bright blue skies. The highlight for me was the Teshima Art Museum. As we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, I’ve grabbed one online and included their vivid description below:
“The museum, which resembles a water droplet at the moment of landing. Structurally, the building consists of a concrete shell, devoid of pillars, coving a space 40 by 60 meters and with a maximum height of 4.5 meters. Two oval openings in the shell allow wind, sounds, and light of the world outside into this organic space where nature and architecture intimately interconnect. In the interior space, water continuously springs from the ground in a day long motion. This setting, in which nature, art and architecture come together with such limitless harmony, conjures an infinite array of impressions with the passage of seasons and the flow of time.”
As we close out our adventure and head back to the US, I’m thinking about some of the life-long memories and lessons we’ll take with us. Leaving Japan, I’m reminded of a quote by Pablo Picasso, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Perhaps the solution to that problem can be found in this country that turns everything into an art form. Personally, I hope to bring that kind of mindfulness and presence to my work, marriage, and everyday tasks when we return. I hope you too will seek to make your travels, your trade, your relationships, and your life a work of art.