Kyoto

Kyoto is the final stop on my Kansai journey, and one of my absolute favorite places in Japan. Kyoto is truly the cultural capital of Japan, with buildings and temples that are hundreds of years old and rich history around every corner. Kyoto served as the capital of Japan for over a thousand years (until 1869) and was formerly known as Heian-kyo, or “the capital of tranquility and peace.”

A first glimpse of Kyoto- along the canals

A first glimpse of Kyoto- along the canals.

Although Kyoto is only the 8th largest city in Japan, millions of tourists flock to Kyoto to check out its amazing fall foliage, spring hanami, beautiful temples, and more. With over 2000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, Kyoto is one of the best culturally preserved cities in the world.

Kyoto

I began my journey at Yasaka Shrine, a Shinto shrine that draws thousands of people for New Years celebrations and the Gion Matsuri, a world-famous festival and parade. Just inside its gates, you can purchase Japanese street food from a variety of vendors as you make your way to other sites.

Yasaka Shrine Kyoto

Yasaka Shrine

Yasaka Shrine Kyoto

Many people pass through Yasaka Shrine on their way to Maruyama Park, another extremely popular place to view cherry blossoms in the spring and autumn foliage in the fall. The park has dozens of beautiful walkways, ponds, and Japanese gardens, and many people come here to take pictures in kimono or traditional dress.

Maruyama Park

Maruyama Park KyotoMaruyama Park Kyoto

Maruyama Park Kyoto

Maruyama Park is a perfect place to take pictures. Many tourists visit in beautiful kimono, such as this woman.

From Maruyama Park, you can easily walk to other temples or cultural heritage sites in the area. My favorite was the Higashiyama district, one of Kyoto’s best preserved historical areas. Between its narrow lanes, wooden buildings, traditional architecture and hundreds of small shops, you truly feel as if you are in Heian-kyo or the old capital city.

Higashiyama district kyoto

The crowded streets of the Higashiyama district.

Higashiyama district kyoto

The district is based on the lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains, so the walk includes many sets of stairs and inclined walkways. However, the hundreds of traditional shops definitely make up for the physical effort. These souvenir shops, cafes, traditional goods markets, and restaurants have been open for centuries. They continue to sell many local goods- including sweets, fabric crafts, pickles, pottery, and more- today.

Higashiyama district kyoto

Kyoto is famous for its fabric goods, which can be found in many of its traditional shops. These are little plush sushi souvenirs!

Higashiyama district kyoto

Higashiyama district kyoto

A sign for a famous cosmetics company in Japan

When walking through any part of Kyoto, you may also see young women dressed in bright and elaborate kimono, with white makeup and intricate hairstyles. These women are known as geisha, Japanese entertainers who perform traditional arts such as dance and classical music. Geisha are often regarded as one of the most famous cultural symbols of Japan, even though their numbers are severely decreasing. While there used to be over 80,000 geisha in Japan during the early 20th century, today there are less than 2,000.

Kyoto geisha

Kyoto geishaHowever, most of the women you see dressed up on the streets are not true geisha, but tourists who pay anywhere from $100 to $500 to be dressed up, have their photo taken, and walk around. Real geisha are often swarmed by photographers as they leave their homes or entertaining sites, and carry themselves in an extremely sophisticated and professional manner. Many of the “geisha” you see on the streets in Kyoto are laughing, taking silly pictures, or are wearing accessories that aren’t appropriate for the current season. Either way, they still look beautiful!

Kyoto geisha

Kyoto geisha

These girls definitely knew that I was taking their picture.

Kyoto geisha

This girl is a gaijin (foreigner) dressed up. I still could’t resist taking taking her picture.

Gion, a traditional district in Kyoto that originated during the Middle Ages, is one of the most well-known geisha districts in all of Japan. This district may sound familiar; it’s the setting for Arthur Golden’s famous novel Memoirs of a Geisha. The streets, which run along the Shirakawa Canal, have a number of traditional teahouses (called ochaya) and other entertainment venues that geisha still frequent today. We didn’t see any, but it was still an amazing experience to walk along the same streets that I had only read about before.

Gion kyoto

Gion kyoto

A beautiful lantern in Gion

Gion kyoto

Shirakawa Canal

Gion KyotoAlthough there are thousands of beautiful temples and shrines to see in Kyoto, one final point of interest that I recommend is Fushimi Inari-taisha, a Shinto shrine that is famous for its thousands of torii gates. This shrine has walking trails up a mountain that are flanked by thousands of wooden torii, which are donated by businesses and individuals. This shrine is the most important out of thousands of shrines across Japan dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice.

Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto

Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto

I unfortunately visited Fushimi Inari-taisha in the dark, but the thousands of torii were still breathtaking. I recommend visiting with plenty of daylight left, so you can climb the mountain and enjoy some spectacular views of Kyoto.

Fushimi Inari-taisha KyotoDSC_4762 If I ever return to Japan, I want to spend at least a week more exploring Kyoto. There’s so much to see and do, and yet I barely scratched the surface!

Thanks again for reading, and happy Thanksgiving!

Nara Prefecture

Although I spent most of my time abroad in Tokyo, I had the amazing opportunity to check out other famous cities and areas in the Kansai region of Japan. One of my favorite places to go was Nara, a small prefecture and city about 3 hours away from Tokyo by bullet train. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784, and lends its name to the Nara period.

While the city itself isn’t much to look at, Nara is rich with history, particularly when it comes to temples. There are 8 temples, shrines, and ruins in Nara (known as the Nanto Shichi Dai-ji), which remained powerful even after the capital of Japan moved to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) in 794.

Nara Park Nara Japan

However, my favorite part about Nara was…the deer.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Hi there!

Yes, that’s right. I said deer. According to local folklore, deer in Nara became sacred after one of the four gods of the Kasuga Shrine appeared on a nearby mountain riding a white deer. From then on, the deer were considered to be divine, and killing one was a capital offense punishable by death. Although the deer were stripped of their sacredness after World War II, they’re still considered National Treasures of Japan.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Whutcha doing?

Sika Deer Nara JapanToday, the miniature Shika deer can be found wandering around Nara Park and on some temple grounds. They’re extremely friendly and can be pet (although you might want to wash your hands afterwards).

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

You can also buy stacks of rice crackers from vendors along the road and feed the deer from your hands. Just be careful though- once the deer know you have food, they won’t leave you alone. I was stalked by a deer for a good 15 minutes, and when I wouldn’t keep feeding him, he head-butted me several times.

Sika Deer Nara Japan

This deer knows what’s up. He’s stalking one of the cracker vendors from behind.

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

Sika Deer Nara Japan

Here’s my stalker deer friend literally moments before he head-butted me. Notice the sheer terror in my face.
Don’t worry though, I survived.

The deer are also extremely intelligent and have been known to wait at stoplights before crossing the street. You can even bow to the deer, and some will even bow back! I had an elderly Japanese couple laugh at me when I tried this, but once I walked away, I saw them trying the same exact thing.

Sika Deer Nara JapanSika Deer Nara Japan

Like I mentioned earlier, Nara is home to several important temples and shrines in Japan. I visited Todai-ji, a large Buddhist temple complex. Todai-ji is known for its Great Buddha Hall (Daibutsuden), which was the largest wooden structure in the world until 1998.

Todai-ji Nara Japan TempleDSC_5086

Todai-ji also houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana, which stands at almost 50 feet tall. The statue was completed in 752, has undergone several restorations and repairs since then.Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Guardian of the Great Buddha

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

At the Great Buddha Hall, visitors can see the many statues, purchase ema, and visit a small gift shop with deer paraphernalia.

Todai-ji Nara Japan Temple

Japanese ema (prayer plaques)

Todai-ji Nara Japan TempleNara may not be as exciting as downtown Tokyo, but it still has plenty to do. Check out ancient Japanese history, enjoy a relaxing day in the park, and pet some deer. Just make sure to bring some hand sanitizer, and plenty of money for rice crackers.

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I’m staying in the Kansai area for next weeks Travel Tuesday, so make sure to keep an eye out! Until then, thanks for reading and enjoy!

Japanese Kaiseki

I’m a firm believer that food is art. In Japan, this is particularly evident in kaiseki ryori, a traditional multi-course dinner where each plate is as delicious on the eyes as it is on the tongue. Kaiseki meals are generally served at ryokan, traditional Japanese inns, and are as finely prepared as those you might find on tasting menus in haute cuisine.

Kaiseki are made with fresh ingredients, and each course is served as soon as it is prepared in order to maintain its freshness and integrity. There is usually a prescribed order of courses, however, the different types of ingredients in each dish depend on the season and location of the kaiseki,

I tried kaiseki in a ryokan in Kyoto, and had a chance to experience just how beautiful this meal could be. Kaiseki are often described as a meal in harmony with nature, with both the expert flavors and beautiful presentation of the food reflecting the shapes, textures, and seasons found in the environment. The plates and dishes are a reflection of nature as well, with different colors and shapes complimenting each course.

Because I tried kaiseki in November, many of my courses were decorated for fall and included dishes appropriate for colder weather. Keep reading to see exactly what I tried, and how each course traditionally progresses throughout the meal.

The menu

The menu

1. Shokuzen-shu (alcohol) and Sakizuke (bite-sized appetizer, similar to a French amuse-bouche)

Kaiseki usually begin with a small glass of sake or alcohol, with a selection of bite-sized appetizers. Mine included both sweet and savory elements, and were decorated with maple leaves.

Kaiseki usually begin with a small glass of sake or alcohol, usually locally made (lower right)

Sakizuke

Sakizuke

2. Hassun (a second course of bite-sized appetizers, usually seasonally themed)

DSC_55493. Soup

The soup course is usually a clear broth, with vegetables, seafood, or in my case, tofu.

The soup course is usually a clear broth, with vegetables, seafood, or in my case, tofu.

4. Sashimi

A selection of thinly sliced raw fish, served on a bed of daikon (radish). Also served with shoya (soy sauce) and wasabi

A selection of thinly sliced raw fish, served on a bed of daikon (radish). Also served with shoya (soy sauce) and wasabi

5. Shiizakana (a substantial dish)

Shiizakana is often one of the larger courses of the meal. At my kaiseki, we had shabu shabu, or meat and vegetables simmered in broth.

Shiizakana is often one of the larger courses of the meal. At my kaiseki, we had shabu shabu, or meat and vegetables simmered in broth.

Each guest had their own personal stove to cook the shabu shabu in!

Each guest had their own personal stove to cook the shabu shabu in!

6. Yakimono (grilled dish)

Grilled fish, usually from a local source

Grilled fish, usually from a local source

7. Nimono (boiled dish

Simmered vegetables

Simmered vegetables

8. Agemono (deep fried dish)

The deep fried dish is usually a selection of tempura, including fish and vegetables. It's generally served towards the end of the meal.

The deep fried dish is usually a selection of tempura, including fish and vegetables. It’s generally served towards the end of the meal.

DSC_56319. Mushimono (steamed dish)

Kaiseki often offer chawanmushi for the steamed dish, a savory egg custard with fish stock, and bites of mushrooms, chicken, and seafood. It's served in a teacup-sized lidded dish and eaten with a spoon.

Kaiseki often offer chawanmushi for the steamed dish, a savory egg custard with fish stock, and bites of mushrooms, chicken, and seafood. It’s served in a teacup-sized lidded dish and eaten with a spoon.

DSC_561710. Sunomono (vinegar dish)

Seafood and vegetables served in a vinegar-based sauce. This was probably my least favorite dish.

Seafood and vegetables served in a vinegar-based sauce. This was probably my least favorite dish.

11. Gohan (rice dish)

Rice with seasonal ingredients. This course was also cooked in individual pots at our seats.

Rice with seasonal ingredients. This course was also cooked in individual pots at our seats.

11. Mizumono (dessert)

Dessert at kaiseki are typically light, and consist of a small confection or fruit. We were served a fruit jelly.

Dessert at kaiseki are typically light, and consist of a small confection or fruit. We were served a fruit jelly.

 Because of the quality and number of dishes, kaiseki can get pretty expensive. At kaiseki with as many as 20 courses, the set can cost up to $500 per person.

However, you can typically find kaiseki lunch sets or bentos for a heavily discounted price, with the only exception that the dishes all come at the same time, rather than course by course. You can also get the kaiseki experience by staying at a ryokan (like I did), where the course meal is often included in the cost of your stay.

Thanks for reading once again, and I hope I made you hungry!

Halloween in Japan, Japanese Ghost Stories, and Tales of Yokai

Happy Halloween everyone!

It’s October 31st here in the states, and all I can think about is what I was doing a year ago in Tokyo. Now, Halloween in Japan isn’t really a holiday- it doesn’t have any religious background like it does in the US, nor is it widely celebrated. In the past, it’s mostly been an excuse for foreigners to dress up in costumes and go out drinking, rather than allow children to trick-or-treat.

Japanese girls trick-or-treating in my hometown in Tokyo

Japanese girls trick-or-treating in my hometown in Tokyo

However, thanks to the influence of American popular culture, Halloween is starting to grow significantly in popularity. Today, many stores put up decorations, sell Halloween treats, and host themed parties. Although you still won’t see pumpkin carving or widespread trick-or-treating, it’s turning from an obscure western holiday into a fun day for youth.

My halloween costume, maid cafe girl! It'll be making a comeback this year, so keep an eye out!

My halloween costume, maid cafe girl! It’ll be making a comeback this year, so keep an eye out!

In honor of Halloween, I want to share some of Japan’s most obscure ghost stories and folklore. Most of Japan’s mythology focuses around supernatural monsters called yokai, which is made up of the kanji characters for “bewitching” and “apparition.” Yokai can be terrifying and malevolent or simply mischievous, and can appear human or have animal characteristics. Just make sure to read this post with the lights on, as I’m not sure you’ll be able to sleep tonight otherwise.

1.    Aka Manto

Watch out for this creepy dude next time you're in the bathroom.

Watch out for this creepy dude next time you’re in the bathroom.

Aka Manto is a malicious spirit that haunts public toilets. If you are sitting on the toilet, a mysterious voice will ask you if you want red or blue paper. If you answer red, he will slice you apart until your clothes are stained red. If you answer blue, he will strangle you until your face turns blue. Definitely don’t ask for yellow paper, as he will force your head into the toilet. If you try to trick him by asking for another color, Aka Manto will drag you into the underworld. The only smart way to respond is no paper.

2.    Gashadokuro

Are these terrifying or what?!

Are these terrifying or what?!

Gashadokuro are giant skeletons that roam around Japan, also known as “starving skeletons.” If they see any humans, they will attempt to bite off their heads. These creatures are formed from bones of people who have died of starvation, and the only way to detect them is hearing a bell-like ringing in your ears. Gashadokuro often target people when they are alone, and roam around after midnight.

3.    Kuchisake-onna

NOPE

NOPE

Kuchisake-onna, or the slit-mouthed woman, is a lady who was viciously mutilated and murdered by her jealous husband. She returned to this world as a malevolent spirit, and appears to children walking alone at night as a woman wearing a surgical mask. Kuchisake-onna will stop the children and ask, “Am I pretty?” If the child responds no, the woman will kill the child with a pair of scissors. If the child answers yes, the woman will take off the surgical mask to reveal that her mouth is slit from ear to ear. Kuchisake-onna will then ask, “How about now?” If the child answers no, they will be cut in half, and if they answer yes, the woman will slit their mouths like hers. It’s impossible to run away or escape from her, as she will just reappear in front of you

4.    Teke Teke

DOUBLE NOPE

DOUBLE NOPE

Teke Teke is the ghost of a young schoolgirl who fell onto a railway and was cut in half by a train. She too returned as a vengeful spirit, and haunts train stations, railways and schools. Teke Teke carries a scythe or saw and drags herself around using her hands or elbows. Her dragging torso creates a scratching sound, “teke teke,” which gives her her name. If Teke Teke encounters anyone at night, she will slice him or her in half at the torso.

5.    Akaname

Go home Japan, you're drunk.

Go home Japan, you’re drunk.

Akaname quite literally means “filth licker,” and is a yokai that personifies the fear of using a dark bathroom late at night. Akaname comes out late at night to lick up the filth and dirt in bathrooms that untidy owners leave behind.

 6.    Toire no Hanako-san

Another bathroom ghost. I'm beginning to see a trend here…Why are toilets such terrifying places?!

Another bathroom ghost. I’m beginning to see a trend here…Why are toilets such terrifying places?!

Toire no Hanako-san is similar to the western urban legend of Bloody Mary, and haunts Japanese school restrooms. If someone goes to the third stall in the girls’ bathroom on the third floor, knocks three times, and asks, “Are you there, Hanako-san?” a voice will answer “I’m here.” If you go into the stall, there will be a small girl in a red skirt. Hanako-san is typically benign and will usually just vanish, but if you’re unlucky enough, she might just pull you into the toilet and kill you. Calling her name is often used as a rite of courage or hazing ritual in schools.

Pretty creepy, right? If this isn’t scary enough for you and you need a little more terror in your life, check out this great article on the 10 most haunted spots in Japan. But in the meantime, happy Halloween, and be careful tonight! You never know what sort of monster you might run into.

Mount Takao

Although Tokyo offers a dizzying array of activities for any weather or season, it’s also nice to get away from the concrete jungle and explore a little bit of nature. I often feel this way in Boston, where I currently live; although the city is amazing, the changing leaves remind me just how much I’m missing out on beyond the skyline.

Last November, I decided to leave the sprawling streets of Tokyo and check out some rural scenery at Mount Takao, a peak at the edge of the Kanto Mountains. Now, I know mountains. I spent most of my childhood hiking in the Adirondacks, a mountain range in upstate New York. The paths on those peaks are dirt and rock, and offer little besides nature and a view at the top. Although you’ll probably run into a few other hikers or families on the trail, Adirondack hikes are largely private. With this in mind, I thought I knew exactly what I was getting into.

Fun fact: Mount Takao is often called Takao-san, using the suffix “san” that is used to address people (for example, Mr. Smith would be Smith-san in Japanese). In Japan, all living things are believed to have a soul or spirit. By using ‘san,’ Takao becomes personified, as the mountain definitely has a spirit of its own.

Fun fact: Mount Takao is often called Takao-san, using the suffix “san” that is used to address people (for example, Mr. Smith would be Smith-san in Japanese). In Japan, all living things are believed to have a soul or spirit. By using ‘san,’ Takao becomes personified, as the mountain definitely has a spirit of its own.

Boy was I wrong.

Mount Takao is located about an hour away from central Tokyo by train, making it a popular destination for both families and tourists. On weekends, particularly in the fall, Takao-San is also extremely crowded, as the mountain offers one of Tokyo’s best autumn foliage sites. I went in the beginning of November, and saw just how popular this nature retreat was.

Heading with other hikers from the train station to the base of the mountain

Heading with other hikers from the train station to the base of the mountain

DSC_2967While I wasn’t able to get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, Mount Takao offers six different hiking trails, a cable car and chairlift for the athletically challenged, beautiful foliage, and stunning views of both Tokyo and Mount Fuji on a clear day. We decided to take the most popular trail, with a conveniently paved path up the mountain.

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A map of all the different trails Takao-san offers. I took the most popular one (light red) but other trails offer views of a suspension bridge, a waterfall, and a panoramic ridge.

A map of all the different trails Takao-san offers. I took the most popular one (light red) but other trails offer views of a suspension bridge, a waterfall, and a panoramic ridge.

After a short yet extremely steep hike to the halfway point (which can be avoided by taking a cable car ride), the ascent to the summit only takes 45 minutes. However, with so many attractions, you can spend hours exploring the mountain before reaching the peak.

A conveniently paved trail for the first half of our hike. I even saw girls walking this in flats and wedge sandals....not sure how they fared once the trail got really steep!

A conveniently paved trail for the first half of our hike. I even saw girls walking this in flats and wedge sandals….not sure how they fared once the trail got really steep!

DSC_3024DSC_3011Halfway up the mountain, visitors first encounter a rest stop near the cable car platform, complete with vendors selling traditional Japanese street food. Here, you can see some of the first views of Tokyo.

The halfway point. Here, people can get on and off the cable cars and chairlifts that will take you to the base of the mountain.

The halfway point. Here, people can get on and off the cable cars and chairlifts that will take you to the base of the mountain.

A vendor sells dango, a type of Japanese dumpling on a stick

A vendor sells dango, a type of Japanese dumpling on a stick

A view of the sprawling city of Tokyo. Can you believe how large it is?

A view of the sprawling city of Tokyo. Can you believe how large it is?

DSC_3034If you’re traveling with small children or just want a fun afternoon, Takao-san tourists can also visit a monkey park just beyond the rest area for only a few hundred yen (under $5 USD). Here, you can see dozens of different monkeys at play, get up close with trainers, and still enjoy stunning views of the countryside.

How cute is that?!

How cute is that?!

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DSC_3141There are also several nature trails in the park, with beautifully cultivated plants and a variety of wild flora and fauna.

A few beautiful flowers I found on the nature trails in the monkey park

A few beautiful flowers I found on the nature trails in the monkey park

DSC_3219DSC_3175While the monkey park is great for visitors with small children, the main attraction of Mount Takao is Yakuōin Yūkiji, a Buddhist temple located towards the peak. Takao-san has been a center of worship for over 1200 years, after Emperor Shomu ordered the temple to be built in 744 AD. Here, visitors can pray to both Buddhist and Shinto mountain gods for good fortune and prosperity.

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This was built in 744 AD...can you imagine carrying all that wood up by hand, with no paths?

This was built in 744 AD…can you imagine carrying all that wood up by hand, with no paths?

DSC_3267DSC_3277

Tengu, guardian spirits of the mountain and temple

Tengu, guardian spirits of the mountain and temple

Standing at 599 m, the peak of Mount Takao offers stunning views of Tokyo, the surrounding mountain countryside, and even Mount Fuji on a clear day. By the time I reached the peak, Fuji-san was hidden behind afternoon haze, but we still enjoyed the summit.

It's official, we reached the summit. Yahoo!

It’s official, we reached the summit. Yahoo!

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Feeling a bit peckish after your climb? Not to worry- Mount Takao is also famous for its soba noodles. We went to a small restaurant directly on the peak, and enjoyed a bowl of noodles and beer to commemorate our climb.

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A few noodle restaurants right before the peak

A few restaurants right before the peak

Refreshing sake that we purchased from a vendor on our way down. I wouldn't recommend drinking too many of these before hiking though.

Refreshing sake that we purchased from a vendor on our way down. I wouldn’t recommend drinking too many of these before hiking though.

If you’re looking to get away from the concrete jungle of Tokyo, enjoy beautiful views, or check out Japanese history and culture, Takao-san is great for all ages. Just don’t expect to get away from the crowds of the city on weekends, as many Japanese families and tourists have the same exact idea. Either way, it’s a great day trip and an amazing chance to smell fresh air, see the changing leaves, and enjoy a few treats along the way.

Celebratory ice cream, of course

Celebratory ice cream, of course

 Mount Takao is a little bit different from other hikes and mountains (such as those in the Adirondacks in New York). Do you think you’d enjoy this type of climb? Thanks for reading, and be sure to let me know!

You can just barely see it, but Mount Fuji is creeping in the haze!

You can just barely see it, but Mount Fuji is creeping in the haze!

Japanese Street Food

If you haven’t noticed already, food is everywhere in Japan. You can’t walk down the street without passing a ramen shop, konbini, or sushi-ya. However, one of my favorite parts of eating in Tokyo was the street food culture, found in festivals, public parks, and around major tourist destinations. Food vendors travel from place to place with traditional decorative stalls, and offer everything from chocolate covered bananas to squid on a stick.

Street food stalls near a temple in Kyoto

Street food stalls near a temple in Kyoto

Like American street fare (i.e. funnel cakes and deep fried Oreos), Japanese street food tends to be pretty unhealthy. But who’s worrying about calories?! Certainly not me. Here’s a few of the most popular and delicious foods I tried, from temples and shrines in Kamakura to festivals in Minato-ku.

1.    Takoyaki

DSC_1427Aka, the food of the gods. Takoyaki are little balls of pancake batter, filled with vegetables and chunks of octopus. Vendors make these delicious treats in a pan with half-dome indentations, and use metal chopsticks to form their round shape. They’re served drizzled with takoyaki sauce (like Worcestershire sauce), Japanese mayo (which is sweet and nothing like American mayo), dried seaweed, and katsuobushi (dried fish flakes).

takoyaki asakusa Japan Japanese food tradition culture

A takoyaki stall in Asakusa. Isn’t that octopus cute??

DSC_0436 Takoyaki are extremely popular at festivals, but they can be found at konbini and supermarkets too! Just don’t expect them to have the same delicious ooey gooeyness as the piping hot ones served in a takoyaki shop or in a fair.

okonomiyaki takoyaki Osaka dotonbori Japan food

Making takoyaki. This was at a restaurant in Osaka in the Dōtonbori, which is a street famous for its many takoyaki, ramen, and okonomiyaki restaurants.

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 2.    Yakisoba

Traditional yakisoba, from a festival in Minato-ku, Tokyo.

Traditional yakisoba, from a festival in Minato-ku, Tokyo.

Fried soba noodles with vegetables, usually served with dried seaweed and pickled ginger. It’s like a Japanese version of chow mein, and extremely satisfying.

Yakisoba can also come with a variety of different toppings. Here, I have a super delicious fried egg.

Yakisoba can also come with a variety of different toppings. Here, I have a super delicious fried egg.

 3.    Yakitori

Nom nom nom. This is beef, from a yakitori stall in Kyoto.

Nom nom nom. This is beef, from a yakitori stall in Kyoto.

Grilled meat (usually chicken) served on a stick. It’s easy to eat with one hand, and it’s a super popular drinking food. While there are entire bars and restaurants dedicated to serving yakitori, it’s a common staple in festivals as well.

 4.    Taiyaki

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Murasaki imo (purple sweet potato) filling

Murasaki imo (purple sweet potato) filling

A fish-shaped pancake with a sweet filling inside. Taiyaki are probably my favorite street food, as the possibilities for fillings are basically endless. I enjoyed taiyaki with chestnuts, chocolate crème, custard, red bean paste, purple sweet potato, and even ice cream. If you’re not into sweets, some taiyaki even come with a molten center of cheese.

This taiyaki from Kyoto had custard inside!

This taiyaki from Kyoto had custard inside!

 5.    Kakigori

Ichigo (strawberry) kakigori

Ichigo (strawberry) kakigori

Japanese snow cones, or shaved ice with syrup. This is a particular favorite at summer festivals.

 6.    Wataame

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Cotton candy! Unline the wataame I had, cotton candy usually comes prepackaged in brightly decorated bags. It’s the most popular with children, as the bags are decorated with characters from their favorite animes and TV shows.

 7.    Dango

DSC_2881A Japanese dumpling on a stick made from mochiko (rice flour). It’s similar to mochi, and is often served with a savory sweet and salty sauce. While dango are eaten year round, the type and variety of dango often depends on the seasons.

Dango stall in Kamakura

Dango stall in Kamakura

 8.    Jaga Bata

DSC_1670A grilled potato, served with butter. Sounds simple, but it’s incredibly delicious.

 9.    Dorayaki

DSC_3863Two sweet pancakes with a filling of azuki (red bean paste). They’re super delicious served warm, especially with a dollop of ice cream in the middle.

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 10.    Hotate Bata Yaki

DSC_1669Scallops grilled in their shell with butter. These are insanely delicious if you’re willing to splurge a little on street food.

And finally…

11. Ika Yaki.

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You thought I was lying about the squid on a stick, didn’t you? Here it is. A whole squid, skewered, grilled, and basted with a sweet barbeque-like sauce.

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Yes, it has a face. Yes, I ate the face.

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And yes, it was delicious and I would do it again.

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How do these foods compare to the cuisine you find at festivals in your country? Thanks for reading, and I hope I got you ready for lunch!

Ueno

Two weeks ago I took you to Asakusa, a traditional Japanese district in the northeast reaches of Tokyo. Today, I’m heading to Ueno, a nearby district that showcases some of Tokyo’s best points of interest.

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Ueno is home to a wide variety of activities and is a particularly appealing destination for tourists. This district is home to a huge park, ponds, a zoo, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, a major concert hall, and many well-known museums, all within walking distance. Whether you’re looking for a nice nature walk or want to learn more about Japanese culture, Ueno definitely has something for everyone.

Walking in Ueno Park

Walking in Ueno Park

DSC_0550My favorite part about this district was Ueno Park, Japan’s first and most popular public park. Ueno Park surrounds Shinobazu Pond, a small body of water with extensive lotus beds and marshlands. As you walk along the shoreline, you can see many varieties of birds that have taken shelter in the marshlands, as well as carp, turtles, and other wildlife. Ueno Park is also home to a huge population of feral cats, who you can see slinking around under the trees.

Shinonazu Pond

Shinonazu Pond

Huge carp in the pond

Huge carp in the pond

One of the many feral cats that call Ueno home

One of the many feral cats that call Ueno home

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Check out how mossy these turtles are!

Check out how mossy these turtles are!

DSC_0579Although I didn’t get a chance to see them, Ueno also has over 800 sakura trees. From the end of March to early May, thousands of people flock to Ueno park for hanami (flower viewing) to see the beautiful cherry blossoms throughout the walking paths.

Thousands of people in Ueno for the flower viewing, or hanami

Thousands of people in Ueno for the flower viewing, or hanami

Vendors along the walking trails in Ueno offer a variety of street foods during hanami

Vendors along the walking trails in Ueno offer a variety of street foods during hanami

The park itself is also home to several Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, one of which sits on an island in the middle of the pond. At the temple, visitors cleanse themselves with water, purchase incense to burn, find out their fortunes, or even leave prayers behind in hope that they’ll be answered. I’ll cover some of these practices more in another post about religion, but until then, enjoy some of the pictures from that area.

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Before entering the temple grounds, guests purify their hands and mouth using water provided in a small fountain

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Visitors can purchase sticks of incense to burn while they pray.

Visitors can purchase sticks of incense to burn while they pray.

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Japanese ema (Shinto prayer plaues). Visitors purchase an ema and write a prayer on it, then hang them up at the shrine where the gods can receive them

Japanese ema (Shinto prayer plaques). Visitors purchase an ema and write a prayer on it, then hang them up at the shrine where the gods can receive them

DSC_0525If you’re in the mood for more nature, Ueno is also home to Japan’s oldest zoo, which opened in 1882. For around $6 visitors can see over 2500 animals and 450 species, including giant pandas, giraffes, hippos, tigers, elephants, and more. Ueno Zoo is definitely a popular spot for families, but I think that no one is ever too old to enjoy a zoo. I know I did.

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This monkey was not pleased to be photographed.

This monkey was not pleased to be photographed.

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This guy…

Ueno also showcases a dozen different museums, including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Nature and Science, the National Museum of Western Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, and the Shitamachi Museum. It’s a great place to visit to learn more about Japanese art, or even the history and culture of Tokyo.

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DSC_6571DSC_6164It’s easy to make a full day of travel out of Ueno’s attractions, but before you leave, make sure you try one of Ueno’s specialties: panda pan. It’s a great way to leave Ueno on a sweet note, especially after a full day of walking.

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What was your favorite part of Ueno? Thanks for reading, and let me know in the comments below!