5 FAVORITE OBON FESTIVALS

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No one can agree on the origin of the Nebuta Matsuri. However, some believe the nebuta floats were invented by General Sakanoue-no-Tamuramaro in the 800’s, when his army created these gruesome creatures from cloth and bamboo to scare away the enemy. As time passed, the size, shapes, and colors of the lanterns evolved into what’s seen at the present day Aomori Nebuta Matsuri. However, while historians cannot agree on the origins of the festival, no one can argue with the fact it is one of the most memorable and visually impressive festivals in Japan.

Aomori Nebuta Matsuri Festival Float

Colorful floats parade through the night.

 

Locals in Aomori will spend the entire year constructing the enormous nebuta floats. Unlike typical parade floats, the Nebuta Matsuri floats are 15 to 30 feet tall, made of fragile washi paper, hand-designed wire and a bamboo frame. Floats typically depict Japanese gods, historical figures, kabuki actors, and mythological beings. As a finishing touch, hundreds of light bulbs are weaved throughout the floats, illuminating the parade with amazing colors. The Nebuta Matsuri is lit up with every color imaginable. By day the nebuta floats are impressive, but by night they are absolutely breathtaking.

The best part of this festival is not necessarily the intricate floats, nor the taiko drums, dancers, or musicians. It is the audience participation. Onlookers, regardless of their age or ability, are allowed to participate in the festival, dancing around the hand-pulled floats and chanting “rassera,” a nonsensical phrase only seen during the Nebuta Matsuri. Anyone who is wearing a traditional haneto dancing costume is invited to join in the parade. Some costumes are passed from generation to generation, but they can also be purchased throughout the prefecture for 10,000 yen or rented along the processional route during the parades for 4,000 yen.

Aomori Nebuta Festival Colorful Floats

Truly a festival of brilliant colors!

 

There are three types of nebuta floats listed in order of grandeur; the children’s nebuta, the regional nebuta, and the local organization’s nebuta. For the first two days of the festival, from August 2nd to 3rd, only the smaller nebuta, often pulled by children, are paraded throughout the city. Because of their size, it is impractical to showcase the largest nebuta floats for the full seven days. These multistory creations require immense strength to move, and therefore are only displayed from August 4th to 7th.

While it is a festival drawing an average of 3 million people, the Nebuta Matsuri is also a competition. Each year the best floats are recognized, and on the evening of the sixth day, the top three floats are transported to ships in Aomori harbor to cruise along the bay.

However, as a tourist, you do not need to worry about the competition. You can just enjoy the festival food, haunting flute music, dancing, and brilliantly lit floats. Try getting some close-up pictures of the gorgeous, three dimensional nebuta floats. Also, if you are feeling adventuresome, trying renting out a costume and dancing alongside your favorite float. Very few other festivals in Japan allow this level of audience participation.

HIMI, TOYAMA PREFECTURE:A COUNTRY OF THE WATER

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Typhoon #18 is roaring up from the south Pacific toward Himi, the small fishing village on the Sea of Japan where I am staying at Umiakari, an onsen (hot springs) hotel. Waves pound the windswept coast. The fast-moving sky is low and gray. I am supposed to go out on a boat tomorrow to watch the famed fisherman of Himi ply their trade, but we may be grounded by weather.

Few Western tourists come to Himi, although it’s heavily touristed by the Japanese who come for the fish. Perhaps nowhere else in Japan can you get the variety and quality of fresh seafood year round. The Japanese come to eat fish and for the spectacular views over the big water of Toyama Bay to the rugged, snow-capped peaks of the Japanese Alps that rise over 10,000 feet from the narrow coastal plain.

I saw many photos of this magnificent panorama, of which the people of Himi are justifiably proud, but I never got see the scene itself. When I woke during the night, snug in my futon on tatami, I heard rain slashing the windowpanes. The next morning at 4:30 a.m., I padded in yukata and slippers through silent halls to the spring fed pool on a fourth floor terrace. There was an indoor and outdoor pool and both were lined with stone.

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I washed myself thoroughly, squatting on a plastic stool in front of a chest high spigot that filled shallow plastic tub with warm water that I splashed over my head and body again and again. Squeaky clean, I walked out a steamy glass door into stormy predawn. Rain pelted my face. Wave after wave broke below. Dim lights signaled the curve of the coast. I faced west toward the Continent. The water was very hot, up to my neck, and I was all alone. Wind and rain ruffled the steaming surface of the pool. Water tricked in from a stone shoot and sloshed out over an indentation in the pool’s lip. Water was constantly coming into the pool and going out. I leaned back. The country was a country of water. We had passed river after river, traveling south to Himi along the coast. This was the route the bullet train from Tokyo would run next spring when it opened up this coast and the mountainous interior: the folded land, the further north, the back of the beyond. Hokuriku was rich in hot springs. More of them were here than anywhere else in Japan. The Western Sea tumbled at my feet. The country was a country of water, fresh and salt, snowmelt and thermal. It was country of moving water and fish and restorative bathing. No matter what happened, how difficult things got, there was always the steaming water to slip into. It was so simple and available—the ultimate luxury. I breathed in the steam and squall. My body felt sleek, almost buoyant. The water had a texture to it, a silkiness and substance that with traces of earth and was both vegetal and mineral. It heated my core. The rain that whipped into my face and hair felt lifted from the Sea. It was cool but not cold, and it was delicious to wallow in the molten broth with my face and head cooled by the storm.

LET’S CLIMB MT. FUJI!

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Mt. Fuji is one of Japan’s icons for its perfect shape and snow-capped peak. Many visitors to Japan enjoy the view from the Hakone or Fuji-Goko (five lakes) areas. But have you ever thought of climbing it? Actually, it being a relatively easy climb, everyone from young kids to senior citizens can enjoy the experience. It takes about 6 hours to ascend and 3-4 hours to descend, originating from the 5th Station base point which you can reach by car or bus. When I say “relatively easy”, I do not mean it is not hard. You do not need special mountaineering knowledge or techniques, but you do need average physical strength and endurance.

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Mt. Fuji is 3,776 meters (12,388 feet) high. The climbing season is from the beginning of July to the end of August.

Many climbers start climbing in the afternoon, spend a night at a hut and start climbing again early in the morning to watch the sunrise at the summit. You should ascend slowly and steadily to avoid altitude sickness. You need to bring warm clothes since the average temperature at the summit is approximately 40°F even in the summer. Raingear is also a necessity due to weather changes. Other things you should bring with you are: suitable shoes; a hat; extra clothes for change; a towel; handy food such as chocolate; water; sunblock lotion; and a headlight or torch. (If you are prone to altitude sickness, bottled oxygen will help.)

Mountain huts are very basic and rustic. Some do not have showers. You are usually required to share a room, and there are certain rules you should follow, such as when to have supper and turn the light off. As they are sometimes very crowded, making reservations in advance is recommended.

The best moment is the sunrise. You will feel a sense of accomplishment, and it is a somewhat religious experience. It is no wonder that Mt. Fuji has been an object of local religions, and you may even meet people on pilgrimages in traditional clothes on the way to the summit. Yamanashi Prefecture issues a certificate of climbing to the top of Mt. Fuji for foreign visitors which will commemorate your achievement forever. (For more information about the certificate, send an email to kokusai@pref.yamanashi.lg.jp.)

You can try to conquer the summit of Mt. Fuji for yourself, although some companies offer guided climb tours:

JTB Sunrise Tours:
http://www.japanican.com/tours/tourdetail.aspx?tc=GMT01TYOOF777
IACE Travel:
http://www.iace-asia.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=779&Itemid=49
Whole Earth Nature School:
http://wens.gr.jp/english/03.html

SHOPPING: 6 “Must Have” Souvenirs From Japan

From New Year’s surprises, to matcha flavored munchies, tax-free bargains and more, Japan is a shopper’s paradise! To help create your shopping list, check out our tips for “must have” souvenirs from Japan:

1. Matcha Flavored Snacks

Matcha_Snacks

Matcha is powdered Japanese green tea enjoyed for its bittersweet taste. While matcha is known for its use in tea ceremonies, it is also popular ingredient in snacks, including cookies, biscuits, cakes and chocolates. You may even find your favorite snack from America offering matcha flavored treats in Japan!

2. Fukubukuro

Fukubukuro

Visit Japan during the New Year to get your hands on fun grab bags filled with an assortment of store items at a deeply discounted price. You never know what you might get but that’s just the fun of it!

3. Japanese Traditional Goods

Japanese Traditional Goods

There a great deal of goods that positively scream Japan which means that you don’t always have to overthink it when looking for souvenirs. Items such a folding fans, fuurin wind chimes, and sake sets are easy to find in department stores and even 100 yen stores. You can also find great seasonal gifts such a yukata (summer kimono) in department stores such as Uniqlo.

4. Tax Free Souvenirs

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Shopping for the perfect souvenir doesn’t have to be a costly venture. Shop hundreds of stores nationwide that offer purchases free of sales tax! Go ahead and splurge on a little something extra for your loved ones with all the money you’ll save.

5. Plastic Food Replicas

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Surprisingly detailed plastic food replicas are prominently displayed at many Japanese restaurants, making ordering a breeze. These replicas are also available for purchase in areas such as Tokyo’s Kappabashi or Douguyasuji in Osaka. Plastic food themed gifts such as magnets and key chains are also available.

6. Japanese Ceramics

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There are many styles of Japanese pottery and ceramics, available in all price ranges. From rice bowls to tea sets and sake sets, you are sure to find a unique style that will be a treasured gift.

 

Japan Airlines “Japan Explorer Pass”

Travelling within Japan can sometimes require deep pockets, but now foreign visitors can travel domestically at an extremely reasonable rate thanks to Japan Airlines’ “Japan Explorer Pass” which offers year-round travel to 30 cities in Japan Airlines’ domestic network. There is a fixed fee of 10,800 yen (includes tax) per flight for 1-5 domestic flights (also called sectors) by Japan Airlines’ Group sold in one-way flights with a maximum of five flights. For example: Tokyo-Osaka-Fukuoka (2 flights or sectors) = 21,600 yen.

Eligibility for the Japan Explorer Pass:

  • 1. The pass can only be used by non-residents of Japan who arrive and depart by international flights (includes Japanese customers with permanent residences overseas)
  • 2. It is applicable for domestic flights operated by Japan Airlines and Japan Transocean Air.
  • 3. Reservations may not be changed after ticket purchase
  • 4. Non-refundable
  • 5. The ticket must be purchased via Japan Airlines’ websites including the new three overseas English websites for the Americas, the U.K., and Hong Kong
  • 6. The ticket is available for purchase up to 72 hours prior to the scheduled departure time of the domestic flight
  • 7. No restriction on which airline is used to fly to and from Japan

These prices are really a boon to visitors who would like to explore Japan, especially when traveling long distance, such as flying from Tokyo to Kyushu, Okinawa, or Hokkaido.

For more information, please visit here.

Haneda Late Night/Early Morning Bus Service

New convenient transportation for visitors to and from Haneda International Airport in Tokyo during the hours from midnight through early morning when access to trains is difficult is now available thanks to Keikyu (Keihin Kyuko Bus Co., Ltd.) which is offering bus service to and from Haneda to and from Tokyo Metropolitan and Yokohama (includes Shibuya, Shinagawa, Odaiba, Minatomirai, Yokohama, Kawasaki and Kawata areas). All buses depart from and arrive at Haneda Airport International Terminal, and have plenty of baggage storage space even for large suitcases.

For the entire list of origin and destination locations, please visit here.

Boutique Shopping and More in Tokyo’s Jiyugaoka

It’s hard to believe that Jiyugaoka is only ten minutes by train from Shibuya. Walking the calm and sophisticated streets of this leafy residential area, the gaudy neon and Manga inspired mayhem of Shibuya seem a world away.

For the discerning international visitor Jiyugaoka offers a glimpse of an urban Japan rarely seen by other tourists. For Tokyoites, however, this place is no secret and many dream of making a life here. It’s easy to see why as you join young families, dating couples and singles, all out to enjoy the area’s understated, yet creative and classy, shopping and dining scene.

Jiyugaoka is relatively compact and rewards an aimless stroll. Below are some suggestions for spending a half-day in the area.

Shop

There are a wealth of fashion boutiques and home-ware stores here that offer astute shoppers the chance to move away from high-street lines and find something unique. Many collections and pieces balance elements of European and Japanese design.

Jiyugaoka boutique

You’ll want to explore the many unique shops of Jiyugaoka.

Watashi no Heya and Quatre Saisons – Located on Sunset Street, these popular stores have collections of home-ware accessories, tending towards a clean, organic sensibility.

Popeye Camera – Enthusiasts will love this store just north of the station, which sells trinkets with which to deck out your camera along with frames and albums to display your Japan pics. There’s also a delightful collection of vintage cameras.

Luz – A smart little shopping center for Japanese fashion on Suzukake Street which attracts a younger crowd who want urban style without losing sophistication.

Jiyugaoka Department Store – Next to the train station (central exit) this department store harks back to an older era (and an older clientele). It’s an interesting local attraction without being a tourist trap, and a great place for authentic souvenirs.

Eat Cake

Jiyugaoka Cake Shop

Refuel for more exploration with sweets and a coffee.

The Japanese obsession with cake is astonishing given how slim everyone is. (Where does it all go?). Jiyugaoka has an abundance of French inspired boulangerie (French Bakeries) for you to drool over. A local favorite is Pais S’eveille on Hilo Street which sells an exquisite range of cakes, cookies and jams. For a more low-brow experience (yes, Jiyugaoka is capable) Sweets Forrest on Green Street has a whole floor of treats for you to enjoy.

Meet The Locals

Green Street Jiyugaoka

Green Street in Jiyugaoka is a great place to meet the locals.

Green Street, so named for the row of trees running down the center, is one of Jiyugaoka’s main thoroughfares. On the pedestrianized stretch south-east of the train station you’ll meet many locals, visitors and the occasional old-timer hanging out on benches beneath said trees. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a break with your purchase from the boulangerie and watch some beautiful people rocking the latest in tasteful Japan fashion.

Go To Temple

Joshin Temple Jiyugaoka Tokyo

Joshin Temple: A traditional treasure in modern Jiyugaoka.

Follow Green Street west out of town and you’ll arrive at Joshin Temple, also known as Kuhonbutsu. The temple is a mystery. The mystery being how a place so staggeringly beautiful and peaceful, surrounded by some thirty million people, could be so little visited. Founded in 1678, it’s a large complex of amazing buildings, Buddhas, gates and bells, hidden in an area of woodland. People spend days chasing around Kyoto for experiences like this. And it’s free! I almost feel guilty for writing about it.

Dine Al fresco

Jiyugaoka, Tokyo outdoor dining

Al Fresco dining opportunities abound in leafy Jiyugaoka.

Opportunities to dine Al fresco in crowded Japan are limited so take advantage of the charming options in Jiyugaoka to round off your visit. One of the nicest terraces belongs to the Rakeru restaurant on Hillside Street. Surrounded by greenery it offers privacy, peace and fresh air. Although it’s a chain restaurant it’s one of the best places to try an ‘only in Japan’ combination of omelet and rice. Otherwise known as omuraisu!

Treat Yourself to a Hakone Weekend Getaway

Hakone is a gorgeous mountainous area in the Kanagawa Prefecture of Japan. Officially classified as a Geopark by UNESCO, Hakone is famous throughout Japan for its sulfur hot springs, Shinto shrines, and black eggs hard boiled in sulfur. Hakone is just a short train ride from Tokyo, as a result it has become a luxurious tourist town that couples traditional Japanese grace with extravagance and comfort.

Getting There

Odakyu Hakone Romance Car is by far the easiest and most luxurious way to travel to Hakone from Tokyo. This sleek train is shaped like a shinkansen bullet train, with vast windows, and comfortable seating, offering a scenic tour of the countryside. With a top speed of 145 km/h, the Romance Car will get you into Hakone in about an hour and a half.

What to Do

  • Hakone Jinja Shrine is a grand, traditional Japanese Shinto shrine with a vivid red tori gates nestled nearby in the waters of Lake Ashi.
  • Lake Ashi is a 19 km crater lake next to the Hakone Jinja Shrine. On a good day, you can see Mt. Fuji from any of the ferry cruises. If you can, try to get to Lake Ashi early in the morning; the sunrise over the lake, mountains, and nearby shrine is absolutely breathtaking.
  • The Hakone Open-Air Museum is the first and largest open air museum in Japan. With an interactive, 70,000 square meter sculpture garden and works from Picasso, Henry Moore, and Churyo Sato, the Hakone Open-Air Museum is a great place to spend the afternoon.
  • The Great Boiling Valley (Owakudani) is a volcanic valley with sulfur hot springs. It is famous for their kurotamago (black eggs) that are hard-boiled inside the sulfur springs.
Hakone Lake Ashi and Mount Fuji

Lake Ashi with Mount Fuji in the background.

Hot Springs

The Tenzan Tohjikyo hot springs have natural cave formation baths to provide an unique experience for foreigners.

Hakone Hotel Kowakien has both a water park for those that prefer wearing bathing suits and a traditional hot springs for those going au natural. The traditional side has Dead Sea style salt baths with different temperatures and concentrations, while the outdoor section has waterslides and rapid pools.

Hakone Kamon is a more simple and traditional onsen bath house, famous for their indoor and outdoor baths, including baths in large ceramic pots called Tsubo Baths.

Hakone Yuryo has public and private bath rooms for families or couples that wish to bathe together.

Hakone Yuryo Hot Springs

The Hakone Yuryo Hot Springs offer visitors an enticing bath.

What to Eat

Try kinmedai (a local white meat fish with golden eyes) sushi caught from Sagami Bay and kamaboko fish cakes. Eat fresh soba at the Hatsuhana soba shop along the Haya River. Most shops use the crystal-clear river water to cook soba and tofu.

Munch on the mountain brownies in Sagamiya. These freshly made Hakone brownies are popular among tourists.

Try a black egg, kurotamago, from the sulfur springs. Mottled black on the outside and normal on the inside, according to Japanese legend, these eggs will prolong your life by seven years. But the legend cautions not to eat more than 2 1/2 eggs at a time!

Where to Stay

Hakone Ichinoyu Honkan is a gorgeous Japanese styled ryokan luxury hotel with a long established history in the area. With public and private bathrooms, extensive facilities, and a famous beauty salon, Ichinoyu is the essence of tradition and elegance.

Gora Kadan is the former summer villa of the Japanese imperial family. Famous for its luxury, architecture and onsen for promoting smooth skin and good health, the Gora Kadan is a tourist favorite.

Taiseikan is a traditional Japanese ryokan nestled in the river valley. Meals are brought to your room and the outdoor onsen hot springs provides an excellent view of the valley.

Fujiya Hotel is a magnificent and historic Victorian style hotel that blends Western and Japanese styles, creating an area of comfort for visitors.

5 Ways to Indulge Kyoto-style

Kyoto, located in the Kinki region of Japan, is arguably the country’s most beautiful and historic city. With much of its original architecture still intact, Kyoto is a place like no other, where history and modernity are naturally integrated with each other, boasting over several thousand religious places while at the same time being a major metropolitan hub of Japan. A luxury vacation in this unique city is a must while in Japan, and these five activities will help you get started planning it.

1)   Stay at a Luxury Ryokan (Japanese Inn)

Kyoto Luxury Rokan

A Kyoto getaway  begins with accommodation. There is no better way to appreciate and immerse yourself in the city than to stay at a ryokan, or Japanese style inn. Visitors indulge in luxury of all senses at these inns which feature traditional Japanese rooms with futons and tatami, views of beautiful Japanese gardens, Japanese baths and delicious kaiseki meals – traditional Japanese multi-course cuisine. Shiraume Ryokan, situated in the heart of Kyoto’s most historic Gion district, is one such example. Shiraume, which began as a teahouse in the Meiji period, is a world famous ryokan known for its hospitality. The inn sits alongside the scenic Shirakawa stream, whose banks transform into cascades of red, white and pink blossoms in the spring. More information on Shiraume Ryokan can be found here.

2)   Stroll in Gion in a Kimono

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You can travel back in time in Kyoto by walking into the Gion district. Apart from the plethora of traditional architecture and greenery, Gion was and still is famed for its geisha, female entertainers trained in classical Japanese arts. You can further immerse yourself by exploring Gion while dressed up in kimono, stylized traditional Japanese clothes which came to prominence during the Heian period, which are worn today during special occasions such as weddings and coming of age ceremonies. Information on rentals can be found here.

3)   Participate in a Tea Ceremony

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An excellent way to relax and get in touch with your spiritual side is by participating in a Japanese tea ceremony, called sado. Known as the Way of Tea in Japan, sado is an art form, with heavy influence from practices of Zen Buddhism. The art was further refined by legendary tea master Sen no Rikyu. Powdered matcha, green tea, is used in ceremonies and is accompanied by wagashi, Japanese sweets. An authentic tea ceremony can be experienced at En, details here.

4)   Indulge in Kyoryori

Kyoryori Kaiseki Cuisine

Kyoryori, or Kyoto cuisine, is one of the most refined in all of Japan. It is food not only to be eaten but to be enjoyed by all five senses. This is not surprising, as Kyoto was the emperor’s home for over a millennium. Kyoto cuisine is often considered to be the pinnacle of kaiseki dining. Only the freshest, in-season ingredients are used, and special attention is paid to the dishware which brings out the most appealing aspects of the food. All authentic kyoryori is enjoyed in a multi-course meal served at a ryotei, or traditional Japanese restaurant. This article from Time introduces a couple of places where this special cuisine can be enjoyed.

5)   Souvenirs from Yojiya

Yojiya Kyoto

No trip is complete without unique souvenirs. When in Kyoto, visit the shop of local favorite makeup brand, Yojiya, a Kyoto-based cosmetic company founded in 1904. Yojiya is known for their non-powder oil blotting paper, which gives smoother skin and allows for the easier application of makeup. Other products include lipstick blotting paper and compact soap sheets. Look them up here.

photo credit: _Wookie via photopin cc
photo credit: LOWSPEED via photopin cc

The True Sapporo Ramen Experience

I love ramen. Not the instant stuff served in Styrofoam cups, but the fresh noodles served in a bowl of rich soup stock topped with fresh vegetables and slices of pork. I try to eat it several times a month at the various authentic ramen shops across Honolulu. However, as many say, you can only get real New York style pizza in NYC, I believe you can only get real ramen in Japan. And the northern city of Sapporo is the place to get that authentic ramen taste. So during my recent trip to Japan, I made the arduous trek to Hokkaido to eat miso butter ramen.

My Tokyo-born travel buddy, Yoshi, who I met in college in the US, decided to do the ramen travel trip with me. Having him around made it easier to travel to northern Japan as the further away you get from the major tourist cities, the less English you’ll find. Since it would take an entire day to reach Sapporo by train, we opted to take a domestic flight from Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. From there we hopped on the JR Line that took us straight to Sapporo Station in the center of town. The entire trip took us a little over three hours or so. In late Spring 2016, the new Hokkaido Shinkansen High-Speed Rail service will begin and its said it will take under five hours to get to Sapporo. However, flying is much quicker if you don’t have much time.

Banraiken Second Stage Sapporo Ramen

Once we got into Sapporo, we headed straight to Ramen Yokocho, or Ramen Alley in the Susukino District. The easily found alleyway, lit by a garish street sign, is a mecca for ramen lovers around the world. More an enclosed hallway, Ramen Yokocho boasts about a dozen small restaurants that seat no more than a few customers at a time. Christmas tree lights hang from the ceiling and lanterns illuminate large picture menus of sumptuous bowls of ramen for sale. A looped recording of a charumera, a horn-like instrument once played by ramen pushcart vendors in the old days, echoed throughout the narrow alleyway.

With many different varieties to choose from, it was tough to pick the right place to eat. Most places seemed to have the same picture of the same bowl of soup, but Yoshi said they were all very different as the toppings varied from local seafood to pork. He was also undecided so we kept aimlessly wandering around staring at menu after menu. We finally chose a restaurant because the pictures showed huge slices of pork atop bowls of their ramen so we slipped inside Banraiken Second Stage Restaurant.

Chef Kazuyoshi Uchibayashi sang out “Irrashaimase!” in a terse, rather aloof tone as we sat at his tiny L-shaped counter. He placed small water glasses in front of us and quietly stared at us, waiting for us to place our order. There was no small talk or other pleasantries and his face blankly waited for us to place our orders. I squirmed uncomfortably, and after a few seconds of staring at the pictures on his Japanese-only menu, I pointed at a dish. And with a curt “hai,” chef Uchibayashi, whose name was written on a certificate seen on the back wall of the store, began to prepare my first authentic black soy miso butter ramen.

Preparing Soy Miso Butter Ramen

With steam and smoke filling the restaurant, Uchibayashi began to move like an octopus in his tiny kitchen. One-hand woking bean sprouts over a gas flame; another grilling the sumptuous pork over hot coals, all the while keeping an eye on his boiling noodles. He warmed empty soup bowls with hot water, then ladled broth and other ingredients into them. He used no timers or measuring cups, as his precise eye was all he needed. He then pulled the fresh noodles from the boiling water and violently shook them over the sink to drain them.

And as quickly as we had ordered, Uchibayashi placed steaming hot bowls of ramen soup in front of us. My senses were overloaded as the steam fogged my eyeglasses and the smell of the broth overwhelmed me. The large pork loin still sizzled from the grill. Gooey, bright orange boiled egg yolks swam along side bamboo shoots and dumplings.

But as I dipped my spoon into the soup and took my first taste…I was…well…not impressed! I couldn’t taste anything. The flavors seemed so bland and needed something…more salt, chili paste, soy sauce…something…because the soup had no flavor.

Then all of a sudden, the Japanese umami kicked in and I began to taste the complex balance of flavors Chef Uchibayashi had created in his simple bowl of ramen. It was as if my tastes buds had been reborn and I could understand the essence of his ramen.

Soy Miso Butter Ramen

Growing up in American, my palate is accustomed to gobs of ketchup, glasses of sugary soda, and overwhelmingly salty food. My taste buds are used to immediate gratification. Yet Japanese pride themselves on having an expanded palate and acclaim dishes that blend and balance flavors with each other. Most declare American food to be too bold and Uchibayashi’s soup was clearly a masterpiece in subtleties.

Uchibayashi forced me to taste each ingredient in his ramen and how they affected my difference senses. My mouth filled with the earthy taste of the grass-fed pork. The miso coated my tongue as the savory broth clung to the al dente noodles. I tasted the many hours it took him to create this magical bowl of what I thought was a flavor-less soup.

We noisily slurped our noodles but sat in silence, as we were both overwhelmed with Uchibayashi’s ramen. The chef looked on but also said little as he washed his pots and prepared for another order soon to arrive. Although the bowls were large, we managed to finish the soup and left little behind.

Afterwards, Yoshi translated for me and I asked Chef about his ramen. Uchibayashi, wearing a blue bandana tightly across his forehead, said all of his ingredients were locally sourced in Hokkaido. His vegetables were from a local farm and he purchased his pork from one rancher in Hokkaido because of the particular way the pigs were raised. He tried using imported goods but they failed to extract the flavors he expected from them. He claimed the Japanese ingredients to be superior and he chose to use nothing less. Yet he said his broth wasn’t perfected, although he’s been working on it for most of his adult life.

I asked him how he separates himself from the other shops across the alleyway. He didn’t care much for my question, as it appeared he wasn’t in any competition as his ramen stood on its own. He said other shops have a good product but sometimes the fancier toppings like fresh scallops and shrimp mask the taste of their inferior broths. The broth is what makes his soup better.

He also said he had several apprentices go off and open their own ramen shops but they were not copies of his recipe, as everyone strives to make ramen in their own, unique way.

Uchibayashi bowed politely to us as we paid our bill and as we left his tiny shop, we noticed his faded black tee shirt said in Japanese, “If you’re a real man, shut up and eat ramen.” I chuckled after Yoshi translated that phrase, as I now understood the true taste of ramen. And like that slice of NYC pizza, I would just have to come back to Hokkaido get the real stuff.

by Marco Garcia

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