In mid-October, fresh off the repositioning cruise from Vancouver to Tokyo, I spent several weeks in Japan. It was my first time in the country, and I was excited to experience a culture that so many of my friends had grown to love. I was worried about travelling as a celiac due to soy sauce having wheat flour, and much of Japanese food using soy sauce as an ingredient. It turns out those worries were not unfounded; even their mayonnaise often has wheat as a thickener, let alone the soups and noodles.
I got sick many times, and after the trip I decided to hire a translator to help me with a gluten-free card that is actually tailored to the names of the foods in the country.
My life generally revolves around food, and mealtime with friends usually touches upon what we will eat during our next dining extravaganza. I’m the kind of person who goes to sleep thinking of what I want to eat first the next day; I’ll be chewing my lunch and dreaming of soup for dinner. Japan was an interesting ride, since much of the beautiful, meticulously prepared food was off limits.
My feeling about food in Japan: on the outside, looking in.
I gazed longingly at the ramen shops and the gyoza.
I pined for the curries and the miso soups.
So instead of eating everything all day long, I focused on the elegance of presentation, the obsession with order and thoughtfulness, and the truly picturesque train rides through the country. I was there in the fall, just before the trees began to change. Perfect for walking, watching, and taking photos.
What to Do in Japan, Explained In Photos
As is the norm here at Legal Nomads, we go big or we go home.
So instead of a series of short photoessays reviewing my time in Japan, or a “what to see in Japan” guide, may I present you with 77 photos from my weeks in the country that represent my views of what is best to experience when you visit this beautiful country.
Asakusa, Tokyo, famous for the Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon. Crowded market streets abound. My friend Amit, in the middle, standing out from the crowd.
Matcha green tea powder, one of the more rewarding DIY tea offerings. Ground up earthy tea, then you add it to hot water, stir, drink. Enjoy. This from one of the many standing sushi dinners I ate while in Tokyo.
One of my favourite Jodi-friendly snacks: black sesame and ground peanuts coating a sweet rice flour ball.
Octopus at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo
View from the floor: fish heads, wet pavement, many boxes of seafood. Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.
As I wandered, this man saw me taking photos and motioned me over to display the fish he was wrapping, a bright orange one with a huge eye. I so enjoyed the loving way that he displayed it for me to capture with my camera.
Slicing tuna at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.
Fresh tuna and salmon sashimi over rice, right at the source.
To arrive in Takayama you have to take an incredibly beautiful train trip through the Japanese alps. The arrival scenery isn’t bad either.
This is Takayama’s mascot, Sarubobo, which translates to “monkey baby” and rolls off the tongue quite well. I may or may not have repeated the word many times during the visit. It’s not just Takayama’s mascot, but Hida Region as a whole, and was a traditional gift from mothers to daughters after marriage.
Tanuki, the goofy looking racoon dog with giant balls that we spotted throughout Japan. More about racoon dogs here.
‘Praying Hand’ houses at the Hida no Sato, a traditional folk village outside of Takayama. The village contains 30 different traditional structures around a tiny lake, built elsewhere in the region during the Edo Period (1603 – 1867) and subsequently relocated when the museum was founded in 1971.
Very confused restauranteurs at a tiny ramen and soba shop near Takayama’s train station. I showed them my celiac card and asked if I could have soup with no soy sauce and just soba noodles. They made a broth of the water used the boil the soba noodles, plus scallions and ginger. They were fairly appalled that I was eating something so bland, but it was one of the few noodle meals that didn’t get me sick. They made their own soba noodles from 100% buckwheat flour, which was a treat.
Beautiful art gallery in Takayama
This lady served miso-brushed rice flour skewers on the side of one of Takayama’s bridges. I loved her posture and elegance. I couldn’t eat the miso due to the wheat, but others with me said they were delicious.
Some of the beautiful Edo period houses in Takayama’s old town. Perfect for a slow wander.
Contrast of colours and lines, Takayama
Old and new as the sun set over Takayama. We only had a short amount of time in this city, but it was a great way to come down off the chaos of Tokyo. We also stayed in a traditional ryokan inn with its own Japanese baths (onsen) on premises, and beds made of tatami mats, futons, and duvets.
I recently wrote a longer post about Kanazawa for the G Adventures blog, one that talks about the city’s history and some of the great museums in town. I truly wanted to linger, with Kanazawa remaining one of my favourite places from the short Japan experience. Here are some of the photos that did not make it to the stand-alone piece. Unsurprisingly they focus on food.
Oysters and fresh seafood to eat on the spot at Omicho market in Kanazawa
I loved the piles of eaten carcasses from hungry marketgoers. I wasn’t the only one drooling over that seafood! This is all from just one morning.
A man stands and watches other vendors at Omicho market.
Fresh herbs at the market. Hard not to buy a cluster and gnaw on them as I wandered.
I always enjoyed trying new sake options but the availability in New York or Montreal pales grossly in comparison to what’s available here, with completely different sakes depending on the region of the country. Beautiful bottles too.
As with Tsukiji, Kanazawa’s market also had wonderful sushi restaurants attached to its building, with reasonable prices.
Gold leaf Hello Kitty from one of the many gold leaf shops around town.
Dusk falling over one of the city’s entertainment districts, the well-preserved Higashi Chayagai, toward the end of my visit
One of the many meticulously prepared bento boxes the others were eating on the long train rides around Japan. Sadly too much wheat for me to partake, but what a beautiful presentation for a meal on the go.
Visiting the A-bomb (Genbaku) dome in its current state, part of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial.
The Genbaku dome, built in April 1915 and destroyed by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
Graves next to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Japan’s commemorative rubber stamp from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. These stamps are collectable at many different spots in the country, often at train stations and important sights (like here and Mount Fuji). I have a notebook full of them.
The Hiroshima Peace Park, as seen from the museum.
Hiroshima style okonomiyaki (a Japanese pancake), being made on a flat griddle.
The almost-finished product. Sadly batter-filled, and not safe for me to eat. Looked delicious.
Just in case there were any questions: you take a ferry to visit Miyajima, a tiny island off of Hiroshima with its very photographed tori gate, Itsukushima Shrine.
Also prevalent on Miyajima: deer. Lots and lots of deer. And they like to eat paper. You’ve been warned — keep those Japan rail passes tucked away or else risk losing them.
Itsukushima Shrine as seen through a statue along the way.
Also famous on Miyajima: grilled oysters. This one with eel on top, adding to the terribly delicious decadence.
Roasted chestnuts to continue the food crawl.
One of many grills filled with fresh oysters on Miyajima. I ate well.
A family walks toward the floating tori gate (not so floating since the tide was out, however!)
The floating shrine itself, but at low tide. It was actually really interesting to be able to walk right up to it, seeing the coins people threw for good luck embedded in the barnacles at the base of the shrine.
Many schoolkids were drawing portraits of the famous shrine from all sides. Far better talent than me — I can’t draw at all.
Peering over the many students drawing on the island.
We also happened on a wedding ceremony at the temple. The bride is the woman in the Wataboshi (conical white hat).
Sake barrels are often displayed near a Shinto shrine. They are called kazaridaru (“decoration barrels”) — so they’re not full of sake. But they are lovely to look at.
Beautiful full moon rising over Kyoto
Wooden plaques at Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto’s famous ‘orange gates’.
Fushimi Inari shrine, known — and rightly so — for its thousands of bright orange tori gates, which stand astride a series of trails on Mount Inari.
Candles on the walk up the trails of Fushimi Inari shrine.
Fushimi Inari in black and white.
The hike up the mountain took several hours, with my favourite section where the tori gates split into two parts. Easy to take many more hours to get lost along the way, with tiny restaurants splintering off from the main trail and great views of the city below.
Fushimi Inari shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, and in Shinto belief, foxes are Inari’s messengers. There are many fox statues dotting the trail up the mountain.
On the way down, a stop at a temple where we were rewarded with a spectacular rainbow to cap off the day.
Kinkakuji, Kyoto’s famous golden pavillion, shining against the water.
Kinkakuji’s top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf, and though it was built as the retirement home for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, it has burned down many times. This version was rebuilt in 1955.
Kyoto station was home to a very packed conveyor belt sushi restaurant (kaiten-zushi), which was reasonable in price and very convenient. Drooling.
Kyoto also home to some very colourful ramen, which I could not eat.
On the walk up to Kiyomizudera (“Pure Water Temple”), which sits above Kyoto and was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. It was PACKED with people, but quite a fun trek up to the top, jostling between the student groups and many selfie sticks.
View of Kiyomizudera from the opposite side of the woods.
I never found these again but they were memorable: pine needle rice flour sweet dumplings, topped with a red bean paste. Found at a tiny shack next to the bamboo groves. Tastes that you would never put together but worked very well.
Arashiyama’s famous bamboo groves, just outside of Kyoto.
Bamboo as close as I can go.
The golden hour in Kyoto.
Fuji was my birthday mountain for 2014. I have been climbing mountains on my birthday for many years running, documenting a few of them here (the mishap of Mount Rinjani for my 30th, for example). I was unable to climb on my actual birthday this year because I was presenting at a conference, so Fuji was my “delayed birthday mountain.”
Sitting at 3776 meters, it is Japan’s highest (and arguably most famous) mountain. Since we were there after the summer hiking season, the top of the mountain was off limits. Instead, we climbed from the bottom to Hill Station 5, which took about 5 hours. From the top, a beautiful view of white thick clouds and distant peaks, the foliage already in full swing for the impending autumn season.
Fuji peaking through the clouds, as taken from my room in Kawaguchiko.
These trees made me miss home.
ARE WE THERE YET?
Many steps to the top.
Easily my favourite leaf of all, a stunning coral colour, silhouetted against the grey rock.
View from Station 5, clouds rolling in.
Another from the station itself, with tops of the cars visible at the bottom. We took a bus down, the last one of the day at 3:15pm.
After a hike of the mountain, some sake to enjoy the satisfying end to the day.
* * *
If you’re still alive, thus concludes what should be considered an epically long photoessay even by Legal Nomads standards. The closest I came was 41 photos from the Mekong markets, and even then people were like “ARE YOU SERIOUS YOUR EYES MUST BE BLURRY.”
This is the last post I’ll put up from Vietnam, as I am about to head to New Zealand on 1 January for the next few months.
Wishing everyone a happy new year and may your 2015 be great. Thank you for reading, commenting, and participating in Legal Nomads. I’m grateful for each and every one of you.
p.s. several people have asked about the photos. Yes. they are taken with a camera, no iPhone. No, I don’t edit in Lightroom or Photoshop, but I do crop and straighten using the free Picasa tool. Camera is an Olympus E-P3 camera, with an excellent 20mm “pancake” Panasonic f/1.7 lens.
A reminder that the time I spent in Japan after my trans-Pacific cruise was as a Wanderer in Residence for G Adventures, and part and parcel of my long-term brand ambassadorship with the company. Costs and expenses were covered by them on this Discover Japan trip.