Last month I was lucky enough to head to Japan for work, to speak at a WordPress conference in Tokyo. Though it was my first time in Tokyo, it wasn’t my first trip to Japan.
Almost 20 years ago, I headed to Japan with my high school choir (yep! I sang regularly for about 15 years). The trip with my choir wasn’t random — we had sent the choir a few times over the past decade or so, and our sister city was always ready to welcome us. The experience was surreal — singing at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on national television, signing autographs, sliding down a mountain on a sled, eating lots of interesting food that was new for a teenager who was used to pizza, Chinese, and Mexican food (yes, even California has changed).
This time I was glad to go back as an adult with fewer performances expected of me (just 2 this time), and with mature taste buds ready for anything Japan could throw at me. I looked forward to the bitter, the pickled, the textures, and the smells which I’m now interested in and excited about which I couldn’t appreciate when I was younger. I think part of this is not being exposed, but I think mainly due to our taste buds maturing and our desire for stronger & more complex flavors.
So I was ready for Japan.
Here are 20 of my Japan moments — if you’re following me on Instagram you’ll have seen a few of them, but not all!
I narrowly missed a typhoon hitting Tokyo (filed under: definitely not on my Life List), and one of the days it was close, it was crazy windy and rainy. This was a sunrise from my hotel room, which thanks to jet lag I woke up in time to see!
My first meal in Tokyo, and a memorable one. I sat in a busy restaurant full of Japanese and ordered one of my favorite dishes, tendon (a shrimp tempura rice bowl).
I was doing some last-minute edits to my presentation so I needed some caffeine to keep me going and grabbed a “Starbucks Discoveries Milano Espresso” coffee drink, which struck me since Starbucks isn’t actually present in any way, shape, or form in Italy. Needless to say it wasn’t bad, and it got me through some jet lag. I continued to be struck by the sheer number of similar coffee drinks in vending machines and markets all over Tokyo — it appears the Japanese love their coffee!
At the speakers dinner I was struck by the pan-fried dumplings, gyoza, (at a Chinese restaurant) and the “wings” which were attached to them. So good!
I had had yakitori, grilled chicken, several times, but loved eating Kushiyaki, all things grilled & skewered, in a back alley in Tokyo. I went to a similar restaurant in NYC last year and I think this is a great way to have a meal. We were squeezed into a tiny place up against the counter and had our backs against the wall, it was that small. The whole restaurant had to get up to let the people sitting at the back get out. And I loved the lemon sour drink which was really refreshing (did I mention I love lemons?) I believe it can often be alcoholic but this one wasn’t.
Speaking of alcohol, we went to a sake bar where there were these huge bottles of sake (3 liters, perhaps?) and look at all the bottles in the fridge behind them! I had my first taste of jellyfish (verdict: quite good!) and some other sashimi with it. I really enjoy sake, cold or hot.
One of the many back alleys of Tokyo, this one was full of tiny restaurants like the one I mentioned above.
I saw this mobile meal on the back of a bike but unfortunately couldn’t find the owner. I wanted to know the story behind it — bringing lunch to a loved one? Was it his own meal, and why couldn’t he get somewhere on the bike to sit and eat? Mysteries.
Did you know that matcha tea can be alcoholic, too? I drank this at a tiny bar after the conference, and though I enjoyed having the opportunity to drink it, I didn’t order it again. I’m not a huge fan of matcha, but if you are, you’d probably love the drink. It’s mixed with shochu, a sort of Japanese vodka, a distilled spirit but very light.
My awesome colleague Naoko and I trapped in an underground/metro mirror.
I actually had a really excellent Vietnamese meal while I was there (I miss pho so much living in Italy!!) and it gave me a strong reminder why Vietnam is high up on my to-visit list.
I loved this brunch-ish meal — you could pick the various side dishes and it was a great way to experiment with the flavors. I cleaned every scrap of this.
If there’s one thing I’ve never really been tempted to recreate at home, it’s sushi. Not because I don’t like it (I do! I so love it!) but because it seemed like a lot of work and skill needed to get not only the rice perfect but also the cut of fish. My colleague invited me over for homemade sushi and I had a lot of fun piling on ingredients and eating temaki cones I had “made” myself. She also gave me a few tips for recreating it at home, so we’ll see. :)
Japanese pharmacies are really another world entirely. So many lights, so many colors, so many signs, so many stimuli! I couldn’t spend long in one but took some photos and video to remember the absolute stimuli chaos that they are.
Japan was quite humid and hot during September, which was a great extension of the summer I thought I’d left behind.
One thing which struck me was certain streets and alleys of Tokyo were quiet and sedate, and one street over you’d have this explosion of neon lights, people, and sounds. The first day I had taken the sedate street, and after I discovered this one, I always walked down it to see what was happening.
I didn’t see or expect to see many women in traditional Japanese dress in Tokyo, but I was happy to accompany one such woman on the escalator in a shopping center.
While eating that Sunday “brunch” with colleagues above, I noticed the light was coming in so beautifully on this woman eating with her friend.
On my last night, after a full day of presenting & hanging out with the local community at dinner, I decided to treat myself to a last drink with a beautiful view, and headed to get a Moscow Mule (new favorite drink! loved that they used the traditional copper cup) at a bar on the 45th floor with a great outlook on the city. Pro tip: get as high as you can to overlook the city at least once during your trip.
Departure meant of course espresso but I decided to give a nod to the entire trip by having a little bit of sake, too.
Have you been to Tokyo and/or Japan? Do any of these pictures bring back memories or make you want to visit?