Going to Asia (2/3) – Japan

How I went to Japan for Sushi but fell in love with fried chicken

Last year in November my friend and business partner Marius (aka Vijce) were having a beer and catching up. He mentioned he was thinking about going to Japan to take some photos and I invited myself to join. We decided to kick things up another notch and have an extended layover in Hong Kong before and Singapore after. A few months go by and suddenly I found myself in Japan during the height of the picture-perfect cherry-blossom season!

What are my three takeaways from my first trip ever to Asia? If I need to sum up the whole trip I would come up with the following 3 things:

  1. Hiroshima leaves you absolutely speechless
  2. I can never eat normal steak again after eating Kobe once (yes, it’s really that good)

and 3. Mustafa is a horder

Does not really make sense without a bit more context, right? I went for 3 weeks in total – so, let’s start at the beginning and see what I did and ate during this whole time in Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore!

This post about Japan is the second in a 3-part series about my travels to Asia. Next week will be the final one about Singapore.

Pretty much all I learned about Japan from Western media was wrong – Japan (2 weeks)

We all have our prejudices about people and countries. Some turn out to be more than true, some turn out to be complete bullsh*t. What do you see when you close your eyes and think about Japan? If you could look into my head you would see sushi, Nintendo, karaoke, samurai, temple-like-houses with paper-windows and people that –let’s keep this PG13- do the most odd and weird stuff in their spare time. So how does the real Japan look like? Well, you can, of course, find all these things there, but they are far less prominent than you think. As soon as you enter Japan you will get a sense of calm and tranquility, even in the capital of Tokyo. The tempo is different and everything is utterly organized. You can feel that people are part of something bigger – a collective whole we simply don’t have in the West. All the weird stuff about Japan that is shown on the media like cafe’s where you can cuddle with strangers, used panties in vending machines and capsule hotels are actually pretty hard to find. You will be struck a lot more by the dedication of the people, cleanliness and just every-day beauty of Japan.

Skill, dedication and mastery. No matter which job someone in Japan has, you can recon that they do it with pride and utmost dedication
Japan is just ridiculously clean!
And most of Japan just looks too good to be true

 

Tokyo – The most organized and polite place in the world
Tokyo connection! Nephi (aka Hikkaru-Starr), Vijce and yours truly versus the night in Tokyo. Shot by VIJCE.EHS

Our awesome hosts Nephi and Tomomi picked us up from the airport and guided us to beautiful Tokyo. Even though Tomomi doesn’t speak that much English she taught me how to make Japanese hot pot, proper gyoza and other tasty authentic treats in her home! Right before we were leaving she got me a bento box so that I can get my homemade lunch delicacies safely to work. This kind of hospitality and experience is something money can’t buy you on a trip. Tomomi, thank you again for all of this!

My first real meal in Japan: Sizzling hot broth with sliced meat, seaweed, cabbage and lots of mushrooms!
Homemade gyoza filled with pork and cabbage, made with stupid Western hands and lots of love
Nephi and Tomomi not only allowed us into their home but also let us experience the traditional way of sleeping in Japan – Tatami! Trust me, a mattress on the floor may not look comfy but it really is!

Tokyo is so ridiculously organized that you are almost encouraged to seek for flaws. Trust me, you’ll have a hard time finding them! All men are walking around in black suits, all women wear beige trench-coats, if it rains there is ONE kind of umbrella everyone uses. Public transport is always on time and even if it’s packed you can hear a pin drop, because no one talks EVER. Did I mention that they have odorless deodorant that smells like literally nothing? Because, hey, why would you ever jump out of the masses with your own personal scent or perfume?

Come on, now you are just showing off how organized you are…
Guess, this is what cherry blossom season at Meguro-ku looks like

For the ultimate cherry blossom experience, we went to Meguro-ku – a long river covered with cherry blossom trees on both sides. All the flowers were in full bloom when we arrived. Just perfect timing! We also went to “sky tree”, the municipality building with its observatory deck 45 stories above with its stunning view, Sumida river, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Roppongi, Ginza,… . The Tsukiji fish market was a slight disappointment for us. We went out all night and went there first thing in the morning as soon as the metros were running again. Turned out this was already too late. The limited number of tourists eligible for the auction was already long filled.

Come on, what could be better than to rent a karaoke room just to eat a gigantic half loaf of toast drenched in honey and topped with banana and chocolate sauce?? This Shibuya honey toast was ridiculous!
The immense Tokyo sky tree looks like a giant spaceship ready to launch. You almost get vertigo if you stand at the base and simply look up!
Well, we were too late and couldn’t get into the auction of the Tsukiji fish market. But hey, there’s fish and seafood everywhere!

 

Turns out I love rice!!?

In the 3 weeks, I probably ate more rice than in the last 2 years combined! For some reason I never liked rice, but somehow in Japan, it grew on me. The lovely little rice triangles called Onigiri with all their delicious little fillings. From raw fish eggs to salmon, tuna with mayonnaise, sour plums, and grilled eel. Pretty much all of them are delicious and they are quite inexpensive.

Onigiri – I think there probably wasn’t a single day in which I didn’t eat at least 1 onigiri rice triangle from one of the convenience stores that are simply everywhere

If you are trying to survive Japan on a budget you should basically live on 7-eleven and the izakaya budget restaurants like Yoshinoya that are ubiquitous around railway stations. 7-eleven has so many small little convenience treats like pre-packaged ramen bowls, but offers also pretty good deep-fried chicken skewers, tasty junk swimming in soup (Oden) and steamed baos (Chuuka-man). Yoshinoya, for example, offers really great rice bowls topped with a pile of pork slices and a raw egg yolk. Really good hearty and cheap meal!

Yoshinoya rice bowl with sliced meat, raw egg yolk and lots of pickled ginger. Sets you back about €2.50…
Tokyo nights are long! Another rice bowl from Yoshinoya, at 05:32 am

 

Sushi isn’t nearly as big in Japan as we Westerners think… but there’s a lot of fried chicken

Tokyo is known as the proper place to get sushi and sashimi, turns out not many Japanese people actually do. Sushi (maki) and sashimi as we know it is usually only eaten on special occasions, like anniversaries, weddings, graduations, etc. So, in the end, we went for sushi only once in the 3 weeks time.

A big plate of sushi only made seconds earlier by some very skilled hands
Squid sashimi with raw egg yolk. I never thought that I would like raw egg yolks so much! You can put them on pretty much everything for that extra boost of creaminess!

Fried chicken is something people would more often associate with Korea, but it’s everywhere in Japan. No 7-eleven would be complete without the rack of fried chicken skewers right next to the counter. Even better, go to one of the many Izakayas for some real pub grub. Torikizoku makes just incredible chicken skewers from all parts of the chicken. Grilled chicken filet, thigh, skin, livers, and intestines… If it was on or in a chicken at one point in time, you can get it grilled or fried there!

 

Osaka – ‘Where the crazy people live’
How could your day possibly suck when you walk through “Osaka’s kitchen” in the morning?

After Tokyo, we took the Shinkansen bullet train and headed to Osaka. We heard from a lot of people in Tokyo that Osaka is where the crazy people live that do not fit into the orderly Tokyo. When we stepped out of the Osaka station we ran straight into a group of teenagers breakdancing and popping to music. Suddenly I realized that I hardly heard any music in Tokyo. Still, at the end of the day Osaka didn’t turn out as crazy as we thought, but the atmosphere is way more relaxed and laid back. One thing Osaka is famous for is it’s ‘amerikamura’ – ‘America town’. Imagine you tell someone Japanese that has never been to America: “Look up America on google and build a neighborhood honoring everything American. You got 7 hours”. Well, that’s pretty much how Amerikamura looks like. The thing I liked most about Osaka was the Kuromon Ichiba market, which is also known as “Osaka’s kitchen”. 600 meters long packed with stores and stalls on both sides, you can a loooot of tasty goodies there!

Mini octopus on a stick! Sorry little guy, but as you are cooked already anyway… let’s dig in! To be honest chomping on the head was a bit hard even for me!
You can get a lot of gigantic snow crab legs in Osaka
Spicy tender Kobe beef on a stick
Pureed squid with corn on a stick…

 

Kyoto – The cultural center of Japan – with monkeys

We tried to avoid as many temples as possible on our travels in Tokyo and Osaka because we heard that Kyoto is just packed with temples. Nothing is more true, given Kyoto has about 2000 temples and shrines. One of the most impressive ones was the golden temple, in particular, because we arrived just at sunset, which made it even more beautiful.

Kinkaku-ji the golden temple. Sun just starting to settle, letting the golden temple shine even more!
Quite different was the inari shrine with hundreds or red arches going all the way up the hill

After all the different temples and shrines we went through the bamboo forest with is gigantic tall trees and afterwards, hang out with some monkeys in the Iwatayama monkey park.

Just a monkey admiring a fish in a pond. Business as usual in the Iwatayama monkey park
We met an awesome photographer called Colin in Hong Kong. He took pictures from all his travels around the world and sold them as postcards. His picture of the Kyoto bamboo forest turned out way nicer than the ones I took

 

Hiroshima – A place that left me absolutely speechless

You all obviously have heard about Hiroshima and the fact that America dropped the A-bomb on this harbor city in the 2nd world war killing so many innocent people.  Even though I heard of Hiroshima before my Japanese colleague really urged me to visit then place when I told her I was going to Japan. I’m really grateful that I followed her advice.

One of the very few buildings actually surviving the atomic blast in 1945. The bomb exploded 600 meters above exactly this building. The blast wave destroyed everything around it, except this one building

We went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which tells you all the horrors of the bomb and its consequences on the countless lives of people in cruel detail. Nothing is sugarcoated in here. I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures in the museum. The atmosphere was just too intense and I was primarily occupied with holding tears back. When I was walking out of the museum I was speechless. I had literally no words to describe what I felt at that moment. I was simply just sad and speechless about the inhumanity and suffering caused.

The further you go from the museum and the memorial park the more lively the city becomes again. Despite its history, Hiroshima is a modern city with lots to offer. From great adversity comes great growth and dedication!

One culinary highlight Hiroshima is known for is its Okonomiyaki Hiroshima style. Japanese savory pancake layered with level after level of delicious toppings.

An okonomiyaki Hiroshima style we found in Okonomi-mura –The Okonomiyaki-village

If you ever end up in Japan, please go to Hiroshima. This was the most tense and memorable experience of my whole trip to Asia.

 

Nara – Welcome to Japan’s version of a Bambi forest

After the quite depressing day in Hiroshima, we went to Nara – A town known for its hundreds of deer freely roaming around the temples and city. The deer are regarded as holy and are seen as the guardians of the city and the country. So eating deer is strictly a no-go in Japan!

When you walk through Nara park it looks like the Japanese take on Disney’s Bambi. Deer freely walking in and around the temples is something that looks just too surreal

We tried to get to higher ground and see the sunset from the nearby hill. On the way there we met a really cool guy called Yudai who showed us around and took us to the very top of the hill. The view was just amazing and we arrived just at sunset.

Myself, Yudai and Marius above the Nara sunset
Oh yeah, it was Easter Sunday when we were in Nara and met Yudai!

Afterwards, we hang out with Yudai, went out for delicious chicken and a few beers at Torikizoku, before I showed him the ropes beating him in Mario kart (video at the bottom of the post!!).

 

Kobe – Turns out Kobe beef is more than worth its extraneous price

You probably all have heard of Kobe beef by now. It’s that super expensive beef that is supposed oh so tasty. I’m always quite skeptical if I hear hypes like this, without anyone being actually able to back it up.

Ehm, I heard you got steak somewhere here?

On one of those rainy days, we decided to head to Kobe – the capital of beef. After taking the cable to the top of the mountain into the middle of nowhere and looking at a herb garden we headed for town and settled on the restaurant Ishida for dinner. It’s a chain that specializes in the preparation of Kobe beef, so why not give that a go. Without a reservation, we headed to the restaurant and had to wait for a bit to get seated. A few minutes in a chef came from outside with an umbrella and asked us to follow him. Turned out that the restaurant we visited was fully booked, so the chef escorted us to another location which was only 200 meters away. Once we arrived we choose for their selected sirloin and tenderloin menu.

Someone knows what he’s doing!
Appetizer tasting menu to get your taste buds moving!

Turns out beef gets grated from A1 to A5 with the latter being the really best. On top of that rating, you also have the BSM score which stands for Beef Structural Marbling, which determines how big or small the fat marbling within the meat is. 12 is the highest score. The meat we chose was A5 with BSM 10-12, so pretty much as high as it can possible get on the scale.

It was the best beef I’ve ever had – by a long shot! Sometimes people tell you that meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender. I thought that I had tender beef in the past. Turns out I did not…

This steak was actually so tender that you could just squish it your tongue against the roof of your mouth, instead of chewing it.

The only downside of the menu was the solid ice cream and the bad coffee. Can we agree that you leave that to the Italians the next time?
Damage? 34,020 Yen for 2 people, which is around €300. If you ask me – totally worth it!

 

I wasted a lot of money in arcade halls, but ultimately beat a Japanese guy in Mario Kart!
Ever tried to vacuum ghosts?

Have you ever seen those Youtube videos with Japanese kids playing video games like they are possessed by the devil? That is actually a thing in Japan. I’ve seen kids play virtual drums, guitars, pianos and all kinds of robot-fighting games like they are literally insane! If all these skills would go to good use, we would probably be all running in space by now – but that’s a different topic. Every major city in Japan has a number of slot venues and arcade halls. Throw in one of those 100 Yen coins are you are good to go! Next to all the classics like Tekken and Street Fighter, they got really cool other stuff with a lot of arcade version of popular Nintendo titles. We played a 3D horror shooter game that made us almost pee our pants!

 

Packed with people, smoking allowed, vending machines everywhere, you can even try to win ramen soup from crane games. Why ever go home?

And while there are tons of Japanese guys that basically live in arcade halls, turns out not all Asians have perfect video game skills. I was able to beat Yudai in Mario Kart! Though it was really close, we got the whole thing on tape!

Take that Japan! That’s our German way of saying: Don’t mess with Germany and our currywurst!

Actually, this Japanese take on German “Curry-wurst” we found was pretty good haha!

 

That’s all for now folks! Hope you enjoyed this quite extensive travel log of my time in Japan. Next week will be the final post of this 3-part series with my experiences in Singapore. (Yes, it will include the stereotypical picture of me in the infinity pool on top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel).

Let me know in the comments below what fun stuff I missed in Japan and what your favorite thing to eat was there! Subscribe to the newsletter to not miss the next post on Singapore!

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