It's so easy to get caught up in our day to day that stepping onto a plane jetting you across the world at a moment's notice can seem like an impossibility. This was my initial thought when an opportunity to go to Tokyo, Japan popped up out of nowhere. No time to over think, we booked our round trip flights and a few days later, we were off on a culinary and cultural adventure.
As happens when you travel halfway across the planet, five days in Tokyo refreshes your perspective and opens up your soul in a way staying at home could never do.
Arriving at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday after a wonderfully buoyant experience in United's Polaris First Class (thanks to the crafty accumulation of points), we headed straight to Omote Sando for a sukiyaki dinner at Zakuro. Like that moment your head hits the pillow after an overnight flight, our first meal was exactly what our tummies needed - a taste of pure Japanese culture and tradition.
Over an array of appetizers including silky smooth tofu and wagyu sashimi, men and women clothed in traditional garb prepared our main course - thinly sliced beef with vegetables simmered on a hot skillet. But this wasn't like your usual 'Korean BBQ' or hot pot served State-side - here the attendants do all the cooking for the guests - the quality is too good to be placed in amateur hands. Each guest gets their own bowl of of egg-based sauce, scooping the meat and vegetables out of the thick broth makes for a burst of umami with every bite and the feeling of having arrived.
For an after dinner drink, 'Golden Gai' is a great area to meander - hundreds of independently owned and teeny-tiny bars line crooked streets. Head into one of these for a shot of Japanese Hibiki or Sake.
The second day was a trip to Gora Kadan in Hakone near Mt. Fuji. Gora Kadan is a gorgeous ryokan known for its 'Onsen' or communal hot baths. It is also known for its serenity, calm and quality. As a guest, you are taken on a journey from the moment you arrive at the ryokan, to the very moment you leave. Rooms are simply furnished, with tatami-matted floors, a strict no-shoes-inside policy and your very own 'yucata' to wear all throughout your stay.
Each room is assigned an attendant and this individual will escort you to your meals and any other spa reservation you may have. Each room also has its own private onsen, but large onsens are available 24 hours a day for men and for women.
Meals at Gora Kadan are another exquisite experience of Japanese culture and tradition. Seated around a low table with space below for your legs, the meals are assembled in courses, with many different displays of small and articulate tastes. Fish is a huge focus, from sashimi to sea bream, seared and fried there is something so fresh and inspired about every dish.
This attention to detail and quality was a theme throughout the trip. Whether at Gora Kadan, or at the simplest soba noodle shop, there is a sense of intention and pride in everything. More so than any culture I have experienced, the Japanese tend to each of their crafts with a true sense of purpose. This embedded attention is exceptional and transportive.
While in Hakone, a trip to Mt. Fuji (weather depedent) and a stroll around the Open Air Museum are other musts. A small sushi joint near the museum is unassuming and will serve up some of the most scrumptious tuna and salmon either as sashimi or atop a bowl of sticky rice.
Back in Tokyo, arrangements were made for dinner at Takazawa Bar - the bar of one of the city's best restaurants. This multi-hour and coursed meal paired by Sommelier extraordinaire Thatcher Baker-Briggs was highlighted by such dishes as their traditional 15 vegetables on a spoon, foie and truffle croquettes and tempura vegetables with a quartet of salts.
The next day was spent strolling around Harajuku, the fashion hub of Tokyo. Throngs of people, many dressed in styles rarely seen elsewhere make for inspired wardrobe selections and fantastic people watching. A quick bowl of ramen or five at Afuri Ramen and of course, the trendy shaved ice dessert from Ice Monster are perfect pick-me-ups.
Other notables are Maisen for Tonkatsu (fried pork) and for those who have seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi (and if you haven't, you must) a trip to Tsukiji, the famous fish market is essential. It can be a bit overwhelming with numbers of stalls and people, but you are not likely to happen upon a bad meal. Segawa, which you can find on google maps will make you the best Tekka Don (sashimi over rice). Get there before 11:00 am if you want to enjoy this delectable dish. It may sound like an early lunch, but you will never forget that Tekka Don.
Tokyo is very large, but it is only one of the many amazing places to visit in Japan. Kyoto and Hiroshima we were told are great places to visit next time - and I can tell you, there most certainly will be a next time. For now though, I plan on revisiting and savoring all of these moments and tastes as they fall back into memories. Nothing is quite like traveling and the thrill of accepting an impromptu invitation so far outstrips the satisfaction of consistency that I would urge everyone to exercise this power we all too often forget we have.