Vegan cuisine connoisseur and fellow travel lover, Jenné Claiborne, has just returned from Japan and is eager to share some tips. Here are the top 5 favorite things she did during her 2-week trip to Kyoto and Tokyo.
By Jenné Claiborne
I fell in love with Japan while visiting in the winter of 2015. I had been dreaming of traveling there for years, and my experience was even more special than I could have imagined. Though I don’t speak the language, the people were hospitable, courteous, and friendly. I ate some of the most delicious and interesting food in the world. I was delighted by the culture, excited by the energy, and enchanted by the ancient history and traditions that coexist with modern life.
If you decided to head to Japan, make sure you don't miss out on these 5 activities and foods:
1. Visit Kyoto
Though I didn’t have the opportunity to visit every popular city in Japan, I’m sure that Kyoto deserves its place at the top of my list for must-do things in “the Land of the Rising Sun”. There is a Japanese old world charm here that blends almost seamlessly with our modern culture. I find the juxtaposition of iPhones, kimonos, Starbucks, and ancient shrines exciting and humbling at the same time. Wherever you go traditional Japanese and Buddhist culture are there. In Kyoto make sure to visit Nishiki market, plenty of temples (my favorite was Tenryu-ji in Arashiyama), buy lots uji matcha tea, and get lost in the Gion and Higashiyama neighborhoods. Kyoto is easy to navigate by foot, bike, and bus. The city is incredibly beautiful and interesting, so take the time to savor every moment there.
2. Eat plenty of mochi
Luckily mochi, a traditional pounded rice cake, is available throughout Japan. This treat, which is often served with a sweet red bean filling or some other sweet goodness, has been around for ages and it’s one of my favorite foods! The best mochi I had in Japan was at Mochikiya in Kyoto’s Nishiki market. This little restaurant serves grilled mochi to passersby, or you could enjoy a full mochi meal at one of their tables. I also loved the fresh mochi in Tokyo from Asadaya.
Eat as much mochi as you can when you’re there.
3. Experience Shojin Ryori Cuisine
Perhaps my most interesting and exciting meal in Japan was the shojin ryori––vegan Buddhist temple cuisine––I ate at Shigetsu in Kyoto. The restaurant is located on the grounds of the majestic Tenryu-ji temple right under the Ashiyama mountain in Kyoto. In shojin ryori (and much of Japanese cooking) balance of flavors is key. On your meal tray you’ll find something sweet, sour, bitter, salty, light, and hot. Though I couldn’t tell you what half of the dishes on my plate were, the pickles, mochi, and greens with a creamy miso sauce were my favorites. Each dish is served on a very small bowl or plate, and there is a ton of food. 30,000 yen may seem like a lot of money for lunch, but the experience and quality of food is well worth the price.
4. Attend a tea ceremony
Next to shojin ryori a tea ceremony is the next best traditional activity you must treat yourself to. Camellia is located in a 100 year old Geisha ryokan on one of the town’s most beautiful streets. When you enter the building you feel like you’re transported back in time.
For hundreds of years green tea, which came to Japan by way of China, has held a very special place in the culture. The best green tea, uji matcha, comes from the Kyoto region, so going to a tea ceremony here is extra special. In this sacred ceremony you’ll get to observe and try out the crucial steps it takes to get from tea powder to heavenly elixir. I made sure to bring home lots of uji matcha so I can attempt my own ceremonies back in NYC.
5. Go to a Tokyo observatory to experience the vast city from afar
Tokyo is the largest city in the entire world, and it certainly feels like it when you are there. I live in New York City, and compared to Tokyo the Big Apple feels like a small village. The city seems to extend in all directions forever, and I couldn’t get my bearings; not until I visited the Metropolitan Government Building Observatory and saw the city from high in the sky. Make sure to visit on a clear day so you can catch a glimpse of Mt.Fuji. I went on a clear evening and watched the sun set behind the mountain, an experience I’ll never forget.