Three weeks in Japan is the recharge I needed to remember the thrill of exploring a foreign country. After enduring eight months of the mundanity of day to day life in small-town Korea, my initial excitement of living abroad had simmered; Japan has revived the enthusiasm. Once again, I am reminded of the joy of curiosity and discovery. True, I spent a month in Japan last spring, but this trip we had the pleasure of seeing new parts of the country, revisiting some of our favorite places, and showing off a place we love to someone who had never been before: Joey’s mom, Pam.
We started our vacation with a week in Okinawa, one of Japan’s southern islands, before popping up to meet Pam in Tokyo. We spent a few nights escaping the city in a quiet town at the base of Mount Fuji before our final nights in the city, meeting up with a friend from Portland. In each place, Japan greeted us with its cleanliness, efficiency, kind people, and superb cuisine.
I love experiencing countries and cultures through food; it is one of the best parts of travel. When it comes to all things food, Japan delivers. Is it a cliché to never eat a bad meal in Japan? I feel like it should be. Of course, you can find amazing traditional Japanese foods on every corner and down every alley—cheap, giant bowls of ramen with handmade noodles from ten-stool shops; fresh sashimi or conveyer belt sushi, depending on your mood; okinomiyaki, karaage, and yakitori galore—but in a country full of people who take great pride in excelling at their craft, you can also find a lot incredible food that does not immediately come to mind when one thinks of Japanese food.
One such dish: Taco Rice, an Okinawan specialty merging taco flavors with the Japanese staple food, white rice. And how about bread and pastries? The bakery game here is on point. As I write this I am sitting in a coffee shop in Tokyo enjoying a freshly baked sourdough cardamom roll. Tiny local bread shops pump out some quality treats that are impossible to choose from (the solution is therefore to go nuts and get one of each). I have also heard that Tokyo has some unrivaled pizzerias, but I will have to way for my next trip to find out for myself. The point is that no matter what you put in your mouth here, it is going to be good.
One of my favorite ways to experience a culture’s food is to take a cooking class. I have made phanaeng curry in Thailand and kimchi in Korea; this trip, we took a sushi making class in Okinawa and (my favorite) a ramen making class in Tokyo. I value meeting and supporting local people, especially when traveling, and have found that booking these classes through AirBnb’s “experiences” option typically provides a unique, authentic, and reasonably priced option that checks both of those boxes.
Our ramen class was in a beautiful, private cooking studio run by a Japanese woman, Yukari, who had worked in kitchens in San Francisco before moving back to Tokyo. Pam, Joey, and I were joined by a 4th student and together prepared a scrumptious lunch of chicken, salt, and yuzu ramen and pan-fried gyoza. We chatted with Yukari about Japanese and American culture as we stuffed dumplings and rolled out noodles; she peppered the conversation with tips, both cooking and travel related.
Our few hours spent in Yukari’s kitchen reinforced a common thread that has been woven throughout all of the traveling I have done: people make the experience. It is individuals who color my experiences in major ways, no matter where I am or what I am doing, both for better and for worse. The abundance of goodwill brought upon me by people in Japan—from the gentleman sitting next to us at an all Japanese restaurant who used his minimal English to intervene and order for us, to the man who chased us down two blocks to give us back the sunglasses we forgot—underlines the value of good people.
I am honestly so sad to leave Japan to return to my final three months in Korea. In my head, there is absolutely no contest as to which country I prefer. However, I am trying to bottle some of the curiosity and excitement that was reignited here to inspire me to make the most of the final stretch. Ultimately, Korea is a place that, after April, I will likely never return to; however, the experience of teaching there has given me the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time in Japan, a country I didn’t know I loved until I arrived and one I hope to return to one day.