Best Day Trips from Tokyo, Japan

Most first time travelers to Japan never leave the capital of Tokyo. While the big city offers many cool attractions, great nightlife and shopping, the real charm of Japan is in the countryside. Here are some places that are within couple of hours reach and make for great weekend getaways and day trips.

NIKKO

Nikko had been a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries. It is a charming small town near the hills designated a World Heritage Area. When you arrive, there are shops selling local ice creams and cheesecakes right by the train station. Walk about 20 minutes or take the local bus to the temples and shrines entrance.

Walk through oak and cedar forests to see the mythical Shinkyo Bridge. There are a few restaurants near the bridge that offer Japanese set menus.

See one of the largest wood tori gates in Japan and a complex of shrines at Nikko Toshogu Shrine, and the Buddhist temple next door. Toshogu is Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. Plan to walk for couple of hours if you want to see everything.

Nikko National Park also offers scenic landscapes, mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, wild monkeys and hiking trails. It is a spectacular place to see fall colors.

KAMAKURA
Located only an hour drive from Tokyo, Kamakura is home to the second largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan at Kotoku-in Temple.  The statue was cast in 1252 and originally located inside a large temple hall, destroyed and later rebuilt in open air. You can even go inside the statue for a small fee
There are also a dozen other temples in the area, but my favorite place was the Hokoku-ji Temple, a resting place for the samurai. Here, you can stroll through tall bamboo forests and have a cup of tea overlooking peaceful nature. Also, check out the dove shaped peace cookies popular in the area.
Kamakura is located by the sea and has resorts and apartments overlooking sand beaches, as well as boating, sailing, swimming and surfing sites.
HAKONE
Hakone is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, less than one hundred kilometers from Tokyo, approximately 1.5 hours by train.
This is a great place to see Mount Fuji, the sacred volcanic mountain of Japan. Take a boat ride in Lake Ashinoko to catch the best views.
Watch volcanic activity in action on the Hakone Ropeway through Owakudani Boiling Valley. The sulphur has strong odor and can burn your eyes when it’s windy so bring protective covering. There are also a number of open air museums in Hakone. Many people prefer to stay overnight at a ryokan in the area to enjoy the natural hot springs. 

Dinner with Alice in Wonderland

Fancy eating inside a fake train car, ordering off crucifix shaped menus, sitting in a prison cell, served by video game characters, ninjas or maids, or being surrounded by cats – all in the name of dining at a restaurant? Tokyo is perhaps the leading city in the world when it comes to the number of concept restaurants. Locals and visitors fancy themed ambiances, that are more of an amusement park, that also serves food and drinks. In fact, the quality of food at these kind of restaurants is average, but what you go for is the look and feel.

alice restaurants japan

I decided to give it a try and visited “Alice in a labyrinth” or simple “Alice” restaurant in Ginza district of Tokyo. Based on the storybook, Alice in Wonderland, this place is accurately themed when it comes to the decor, outfits, and food. Customers are granted access through a large door, which opens like a page of a book, and led down a rabbit hole corridor adorned with passages from the story. Young waitresses are dressed in blue and white frocks – all known as Alice, while the manager sometimes appears as a Cheshire cat.

alice teacup

Playing cards surround the ceiling and floors, lamps are made out of vintage hats, and we sit in a tea cup shaped booth. Alice comes to our table and greets us. She brings a menu the opens up like a pop-out puzzle book. Items point to themselves saying “Drink me, Eat me!” Yes, there is a potion – non alcoholic soda – you can drink to make yourself bigger or smaller (it’s a gimmick of course).

drink me potion

There is no Alice in Wonderland soundtrack, cartoon or movie running in the background; just an American pop channel. The restaurant suggests “Welcome to the tea party of Alice” but there aren’t any high-tea snacks on the menu. Food options include an assortment of international dishes like salads, pizza, pasta and ice cream.

Focus is mainly on presentation. Characters like Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar, and the White Rabbit make their way on the plates. Everything is made to look cute, but doesn’t taste like restaurant quality food.

alice restaurant tokyo

alice

Even though the concept may seem attractive to kids, it is more popular among young girls. People in their 20’s may come for a date night or a girls night out.

alice2

Alice’s Fantasy Restaurants has branches in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, each with a different name, but similar theme. 8May_Alice_in_Wonderland_Cafe_Restaurant_1

Cooking Teriyaki in Tokyo

Before I even recovered from my 12-hour time change, I headed to a Japanese Cooking Class on my first day in Tokyo (because that’s what I do when I first arrive in a new country). After an intense walk through the crowded Tsukiji Fish Market, where “tuna fish” is more of a prized commodity than food, I arrived at a small place than didn’t look like much of a cooking school from outside.

At Tsukiji Cooking School, everyone had to take their shoes off outside the door and put on slippers, as the local tradition dictates. There was a tiny kitchen where the chef and her two assistants were prepping our recipes. In the middle of the room was a dining table and chairs. We were given an apron, hand fan and printed recipes. Our instructor did not speak much English, but she had a translator.Tsukiji cooking class

During the 2-hour class, we learned to make miso soup, chicken teriyaki, spinach salad and Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) – all from scratch! Although I consider myself to be a savvy chef, there were things I had not known about, especially because I never cooked Japanese before.

This Miso soup had very strong flavors. We first made a broth using whole seaweed and dried fish skeletons.

We made a delicious dressing of freshly ground roasted red sesame seeds with soy sauce, dashi, and lots of sugar, to flavor local greens that tasted sort of like spinach but crispier.

spinach salad with sesame

Okonomiyaki was fairly easy to prepare as most of the work involved only chopping. It is a savory dough full of vegetables, topped with sauce, mayo and seaweed. Apparently, there are parties around this dish where everyone sits around and grills their own pancakes.

Okonomiyaki

Here are a few things I learned about Japanese cooking –

  1. Japanese chefs cook with chopsticks. It was actually not that difficult and more practical, since the “spatula chopsticks” are much longer than the eating sort.
  2. There are different kinds of seaweed, each with its own purpose. Depending on the texture and flavor, some are better suited for dashi (broth), others for toppings.
  3. None of the recipes call for salt or pepper. In fact, there are no seasonings, spices or herbs added to the dishes we prepared.
  4. Soy and sugar always find their place in most dishes. Contrasting flavors add enough seasoning to satisfy Japanese palates.
  5. Teriyaki is a sauce added at the end, not a marinade. Common myth we have in the West since we tend to grill our meats.
  6. You taste food with your eyes first. I was fascinated by how much time and effort the chefs put into making each component on the plate look perfect. Presentation is definitely very important.
The smell of seaweed remained on my hands the rest of the day, but I surely learned a lot at the Tsukiji Cooking Class. Once I returned to Atlanta, I tried all of the recipes and a few more.

Chicken Teriyaki Recipe (authentic Japanese style)

Ingredients:
2 large pieces Boneless Skinless Chicken Thighs
1 tablespoon Vegetable or Canola Oil
1 1/2 tablespoon Dark Soy Sauce
1 1/2 tablespoon Mirin (rice cooking wine)
3 tablespoon Sake
1 tablespoon Sugar
2 tablespoon Green Onions, sliced
Directions:
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Place the chicken in the skillet and remove excess grease using a paper towel. Cook for 8-10 minutes until golden brown on both sides.
chicken teriyaki recipe
Combine the soy sauce, Mirin, sake and sugar in a small mixing bowl. Pour the sauce over the chicken, cooking on low heat with a lid on. Flip the chicken few times so that it absorbs the sauce thoroughly.  When the sauce is thick and well coated, remove from heat and travel to a plate. Slice the chicken into bite size pieces. Garnish with green onions and more sauce, if needed.
chicken teriyaki

Know Your Japanese Hotel Etiquettes

Ryokan is a traditional Japanese style hotel or inn, with its own customs that guests must follow. These are mostly found in the countryside or small towns all over Japan. If you choose to stay at a ryokan, which may be your only choice of lodging in some locations, then you need to know few things beforehand.

Room Charge – Most ryokans charge per person, not by room. So you can get a single room and pay $100 or a shared room and pay $200. This is because the room charges include breakfast and dinner as well. Many hotels are small with 5-12 rooms, therefore during peak season, sharing is encouraged. Additionally, there is a bathing tax of 150 Yen per night per person, whether or not you use the bath during your stay. There is no tipping for bellboy or housekeeper.

Slippers – It takes a day or two getting use to the slipper change traditions of Japan. Just like entering a Japanese home, the hotel guest are requested to take off their shoes, and instead putting on slippers at the entrance. These are not to be worn in the bathroom or sleeping areas. When you enter your room, you will find a separate pair of slippers for the bathroom. Only bare feet and socks are allowed on the tatami areas where guests will sit and sleep on the floor.

Japanese slippers

Room – The floor of the major sections of the Japanese room is typically covered with tatami (Japanese floor mat). Japanese rooms are described for size according to the number of tatami. The usual sizes are 6, 8, 10, etc. During the day, the tatami section is used for a multipurpose way as a living and dining room, and at night, as a sleeping room.traditional Japanese hotel room

It is funny to walk into one’s room for the first time and to see nothing but a table and low seats or cushions on the floor. There is a tv, phone, air conditioner,refrigerator and tea set, but you will find no bed in the room. Instead there will be thick padded blankets and mats called futons stored in the closet. You can layer the futons if you need additional padding. The pillow at Japanese inns is hard and beady, something westerners may not like. Bring your own pillow if you need extra comfort. Sometimes you will need to make your own bed, other times the chambermaid will make it while you are out for dinner.

futon in Japanese hotel

Yukata – Yukata is a light cotton kimono used at home for relaxation, and these days worn by young ladies at summer festivals. Yucatas are provided by the hotel for all guests to wear in the evenings. Both men and women wear yucata (gown) with belt, and tanzen (a padded jacket to wear over). Always, the left side of the yucata goes over the right. If you wear it incorrectly, a staff member will point it out to you.

couple wearing yucata

Baths – Very few hotels have private toilets or baths attached to the rooms. There are onsens – hot spring bath houses for the guests, and sometimes even locals for a charge.  These are separated by men (look for blue flag) and women (red flag). When you enter the onsen, leave your slippers at the door. Individual bins are provided for clothes and personal items. You must go in the bathing area complete naked. No swimwear is allowed. Here you squat onto a low stool to bathe with a tumbler or shower. Once you are clean, you can soak in the hot springs (still naked) along with the other guests. Soap, shampoo and conditioner is provided. Hair dryers are available. Generally, the towels are very small washcloth size, so  bring your own towel if you need a bigger one.

Japanese onsenJapanese onsen bath house

Iron chef Morimoto

Yesterday, my friend Michael treated me to an amazing lunch at Morimoto, located at the Chelsea Market in New York City.  It is owned by Masaharu Morimoto, best known as the third Iron Chef on the Japanese TV cooking show Iron Chef, and an Iron Chef on its spinoff, Iron Chef America. Morimoto is known for upscale Japanese fusion cuisine, fresh sushi and a unique presentation style.

The restaurant had a very upbeat and modern atmosphere, with contemporary style decor. I can see it as a happening place in the evenings and late nights. There is a huge bar downstairs with sleek lighting and a wall made entirely of lit bottles. Even the bathroom are worth a visit to. The stalls have a three dimensional affect making you feel like you are outdoors in the midst of autumn.

We ordered non alcoholic beverage – ginger lemonade that came cocktail style. It was quite flavorful, but a little too sweet. A shot of tequila with it would make a perfect evening drink.

Our waiter highly recommended a toro tartar for appetizer. It was carved on a wooden board, served with caviar in a bowl of ice. It came with a variety of condiments (wasabi, soy beans, etc) some of which I could not recognize, but went well together.  The toro simply melted in my mouth.

Michael ordered the roasted black cod bento box. It came with miso soup, mixed greens, tempura and sushi.

I had the buri bop rice bowl. It was an interesting combination of raw yellowtail, steamed rice, raw egg, carrots and  seaweed, served in a hot stone bowl. The waiter mixed all the ingredients and cooked the fish on the side of the hot bowl, topping it with a soy ginger sauce. The table side preperation was unexpected. I liked the delicate flavors of each of the componenets of the dish.

For dessert, we were served a fruity panna cotta that was light and had strong tropical flavors (passion fruit I think). It was delicious! Morimoto has a number of traditional Japanese dishes on its menu, but also remains true to it’s fusion reputation. Along with sushi, rice bowls you will also find buffalo mozzarella, carpaccio and steaks.

Morimoto
88 10th Avenue
New York, NY 10011
(212) 989-9993

Neighborhood fundraiser for Japan

The connection between people knows no geographic or cultural boundaries. An Indian couple, Durrain and Navaz Porbandarwala organized a fundraiser for victims of the Japan earthquake, in their neighborhood in Kennesaw, Georgia. Durrain, who is a cooking instructor, prepared a scrumptious dinner with the help of her neighbors. They put out flyers, invited friends and held the event at their subdivision Clubhouse on a Saturday evening.  

50 people attended and over $800 was raised. All proceeds will go to American Red Cross towards Japan relief fund.

It is impressive to see how people come together for a greater cause. It’s a small drop in the bucket but we all have to do our part in order to make an impact in this world. Imagine if each neighborhood around the world was to organize a similar dinner fundraiser, how much aid we would generate for the unfortunate Tsunami victims. Even if you are unable to make a financial contribution, do take out a few minutes to send your prayers and loving thoughts to these families.

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