In August, I purchased a flight from JFK to Haneda for $388RT with a short layover in Beijing. Because Air China shifted my departure time by a few hours, I was able to renegotiate my itinerary to include 2 days in Beijing.
After parking my car in my usual Queens street spot, I slept the majority of the flight to China using a neck pillow and ear plugs. I ate two surprisingly good meals on the plane.
I landed in Beijing around 7pm. It was dark and cold. Immediately I noticed a thick smog inside the airport. Beijing’s sky is dense smog. I arrived on a high smog day. I rode the subway to my hostel. This was just minutes from Tiananmen Square. The Beijing subway operates in loops. It’s punctual. The trains seem to come through every 3 minutes.
In the dimly lit lounge of the hostel, I quickly met a group of travelers from Belgium, Russia, and Korea. All of them spoke English, one went to Virginia Tech. I found out I couldn’t use my Android phone for anything on the internet. Not even wifi. This added a slight hindrance to my plans. In China, you can use VPN to skirt their connectivity restrictions, but it’s easier if you set that up in advance. I decided to make do with GPS and my phone. I couldn’t preload the Beijing city maps because Google doesn’t allow this.
Later that night and a couple Tsingtaos in, I ended up with a group of British guys studying Mandarin in Wuhan (Central China) on a weekend holiday. We discussed Trump and Korean liquors and went to a German techno show in a cab while they gave me some quick Mandarin pointers. After fighting through a rowdy throng of 20 yr old Beijing club-heads, I was pushed away by the bouncer because I didn’t have a ticket. I gave up on the music event and I ate street food and tried haggling with the cabbies. My first interactions in Chinese were a struggle. I was able to order a soupy pork noodle dish, but my efforts to haggle with a Beijing cabbie were ill-fated. I ended up walking 7 miles in Beijing in the dark to my hostel with limited directional advice. It was a surreal experience to wander Beijing at night fresh off the plane from New York. The city is normally packed with bodies during the day. But at 3 am there was no one. The occasional construction worker and shop was preparing the next day’s baked goods.
The next morning I went searching for a Church which I found but missed their Mass. Finding information without wifi OR data is pretty tough. This was the one whole day I had in Beijing so I walked as much as possible. I explored several popular areas in Beijing.
They do a ton of things well in China. They have non-purchase grocery store exit. In China and Japan they have cell phone key rings to help one-hand grip the phone and allow it to be propped up for video viewing. Subway stations have clear and numbered exit maps allowing you to get out at an advantageous exit. Subway directional maps on the platforms give the next stop and the final stop of the train leaving the platform. I found this immensely helpful for identifying the right train. I found the Chinese far more friendly and outgoing than in Europe. Public talking and expression is common and acceptable on subways and on the streets. I also noticed their food is heavily spiced. A strong contrast to Japanese fare, which is simple in flavor. Almost everyone in Beijing is Chinese. It’s not a mix of cultures like in NYC. Seeing foreigners is maybe 1/2000. It was odd seeing other white people occasionally walking around there, almost like seeing a ghost. I felt like we had something in common, though we really didn’t.
The Chinese are expressive. They are more gritty and tough than the Japanese from my cursory view.
The next morning I flew directly to Tokyo. I first grabbed a pocket wifi which allowed me a constant internet connection for my entire time in the country. From Tokyo, I took the Shinkansen bullet train to Osaka in the south. Osaka is known for its food. The moment I arrived, around 8pm, I met a group of young travelers on their way to karaoke. I joined. We shared travel tales and sang Katy Perry songs. The next day I visited Osaka’s famous Castle, the Dotonbori market area, and ate Michelin-starred soba noodles. For dinner I went with a guy who works at Google in NYC (across from Chelsea Market’s Los Tacos #1 which he had never tried) from the hostel for a chef’s sushi tasting. The next day I packed up and went to the famous Endo Sushi at the Osaka Fish Market for a breakfast of fresh fish from the day’s catch. The Japanese are peaceful. They are happy people. The food is incredible. Omakase sushi in Osaka was dope and super cheap. They are respectful. They constantly bow to each other. When you walk into a restaurant, the whole staff briefly stops and welcomes you. Osaka is dubbed on many travel sites as a “blue-collar” city not worth visiting. I disagree. Osaka may have less luxury accommodations and cuisine than Tokyo. However, it is worth a visit. Out of the three cities I visited, I felt Osaka best represented the uniquely Japanese way of life. Kyoto was a bit more touristy, and Tokyo had a more international vibe.
From Osaka, I went on a noodle chase. The #1 cheap eats in Japan according to Tabelog wasn’t far off my route, so I tried grabbing lunch. The shop was closed and Google Translate (which came in handy many times) translated the sign on their door that they had temporarily closed for vacation. Poor timing. I went to Nara where friendly deer let you feed them. The deer are said to be sacred spirits inhabiting the Temple grounds in Nara. Instead of the #1 noodles I got Yakitori, a meal where every part of the chicken is skewered and roasted. This introduced me to some interesting new flavors like chicken heart. Overall, I wouldn’t rate yakitori amongst my favorite meals, but it was one of my most unique.
That night I went to Kyoto. I explored the temples of Kyoto for which the city is known. I was disappointed with Kyoto. The city had the most westerners, the longest lines, and the least interesting food of the trip. Everything was dead at night.
Next I took the bullet train to Tokyo. The bullet trains turns a 6 hour drive into a 2.5 hour commute. This day it was nearly empty. On the way I saw Fuji by day in perfect weather. Mt. Fuji is a lonely peak watching in snowy majesty over the Japanese hillsides. There is a mystical and peaceful energy emanating from the mountain. Even now back home I somehow miss it.
Upon arrival in Tokyo I checked out Jiro’s restaurant in Ginza, a posh neighborhood. I decided to visit Jiro’s sushi restaurant in Tokyo to see the outside. There is only a small window looking in at a closet. The restaurant is only 8 seats and sits in the quiet hallway of the basement of a skyscraper. The place and it’s owner, Jiro, have gotten very popular from the Netflix documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. President Obama ate there. Through that small view of the closet tonight I took a quick glimpse. I saw Jiro, an old man, preparing his chef’s apron for the evening’s diners. He was alone. He didn’t see me. He quietly hunched over in his old age and grabbed his chef’s apron. What an honor to catch a glimpse of such a hardworking and dedicated world famous chef who rarely leaves his small kitchen doing his silent chores. This must be one of my top lifetime travel moments.
I found and attended an international meetup for English speakers in Tokyo where I met all kinds of interesting folks. I went to the famous Tsukiji Fish market and waited in line for two hours for Sushi Dai. I explored Yoyogi Park, Tokyo’s main park. I visited and bathed in a traditional Japanese onsen. I was surprised by Burger Mania, a great American style burger in Tokyo. I went with an Indonesian investment banker to the top club “Womb”. First and foremost, I spent time walking around and enjoying the fresh insights that come from cultural immersion. I reveled in the Japanese language and way of life. Their quiet enthusiasm is more cheerful than the Swedish, yet far less expressive than the Chinese. The city is clean and quiet. People seem happy, walking the streets with smiles.
The next day I had two separate Michelin star meals for lunch and went to an arcade. The meals were at Tsuta Ramen and Nakajima Sardines in Tokyo
I commonly get asked what my favorite food was. This is tough because I think a meal takes place within the context of many factors like hunger, personal preference, ambiance, etc. But the most impressive meal I ate was the ramen noodle bowl at Tsuta in Tokyo. This place I had to wait arrive at 7:30am to get a ticket. They are strict on their rules. They can be. The place was recognized by Michelin along with several international culinary publications. Everything about this bowl of noodles was perfect. The Broth had unctuous miso, truffle, and meat flavors. The noodles are fresh rolled and cut. They have just the right bite: soft but also chewy. One can taste the freshly ground wheat. The pork is perfectly executed with rich flavorful fat. Everything about this bowl was incredible. The steam from the bowl instantly placed me into ramen ecstasy. I did nothing until I finished the large portion.
I also loved the burger I had at Burger Mania in Hiroo, Tokyo. Many other ground beef presentations in Japan were oniony and different than the American variety. Burger Mania captures the American burger taste. Excellent Maillard crisp cooked to proper medium redness. The bun is soft and chewy, one of my favorite anywhere. The bacon is thick-cut Japanese style. The burger is juicy, buttery, and just salty enough. It was just what I needed on my 8th day of loading up on traditional Japanese food.
The sushi in Japan was excellent. It was fresh, the rice was sweet and sticky. But I wouldn’t say it was my favorite. I’ve come to believe there is a limit to the flavor levels of raw fish served as just raw fish. If you want outstanding sushi you have to pay $100+ at a place that manipulates their fish with extensive marinades and using time-intensive tenderizing techniques. Even the freshest sushi in Tokyo and Osaka did not match my experience at Tadokoro in San Diego. However, Tadokoro is much more expensive. I suppose it’s apples and oranges. Sitting and eating sushi in the a Japanese setting was a calming and enlightening experience. The Japanese enjoy their ingredients more than us Americans. Yes, Americans will really savor an amazingly charred steak with au jus. But we don’t come to appreciate fresh raw ingredients in the way the Japanese respect their fish and it’s preparation. They have another level of respect for food and its sources that comes across on their faces as they enjoy the local produce, fish, poultry, and beef.
The food in Japan is high quality across the board. From convenience stores to moderate-priced cuisine, everything I had was outstandingly executed. The Japanese take their food seriously. With this being said, this makes rating one place over another a difficult affair. Many meals have similar elements (rice, cabbage, miso soup) as a matter of course.
I get asked a lot how I have the nerve to go on my own. I relish the opportunity to have 10 days to my thoughts. I believe traveling with others can be great, but it can fetter you to the beliefs and routines of your home and the relationships, customs, and other ongoing obligations, whether explicitly or not, that I believe should be left behind. My favorite philosopher, Martin Heidegger, believed travel was a unique opportunity to break down our interpretation of the world in a “violent” yet constructive way.
Many people also indirectly ask about the cost of such a trip. For the flight & other transportation, a lavish amount of quality food and drink, and top-rated hostel accommodations for 10 nights was about $1,900. Similar trips online seem to cost people $3,000-$4,000-pp. Japan is not a cheap country, but it can be visited at a reasonable cost.
Immersing myself in Asia was a beautiful experience. I didn’t go into the trip to get anything “out of it”, but to experience what I do here in the US on vacation (food travel and digging into local young person activities) in a Chinese and Japanese environment. Much of my time was spent wandering the streets, eating the best food, and navigation Japan’s incredible public transit network.
A full writeup on the restaurants from this trip is on my Yelp page.