I just got back from: Tokyo, Japan, where I spent a week. I lived in Tokyo for 6 months in 2014, and I returned to revisit the city with a fresh perspective.
Where I Stayed: I stayed with friends in Kichijoji, which is a wealthy neighborhood thirty minutes from Shibuya by train. Kichijoji is a popular neighborhood for families and young professionals, built around the famous ‘Inokashira Koen’ (Inokashira Park). During the gorgeous ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom) season, this park fills with young couples and ‘hanami’ (spring picnic) parties. Since public drinking laws are lax in Japan, most people bring beer or cider to the park and drink a lot of it. Although Kichijoji is inspiring enough with her majestic park, my host took my trip to the next level by treating me to an overnight outing at an ‘onsen’ (natural hot-springs spa) in the mountains of Niigata. Satoyama-Jujo is a top-100 hospitality destination in a country full of jaw-dropping places to stay. The minimalist architecture, organic food, and modern accommodations did not disappoint.
Best Thing I Ate: Before I visited Japan, I never tasted food that had an emotional effect on me. However, my host has impeccable taste in, and perhaps an obsession with, food. So I was not surprised when, during our 12-course meal at Satoyama-Jujo, I felt tears coming to my eyes. The best thing I ate, among other delicate and well-preserved delights, was a carrot tart. About the size of my thumb, this morsel provided a blissful 10 seconds representing all things natural and sweet. As for the carrot paste, how could something directly from the earth feel so luxurious and comforting? How could the granular texture of the biscuit base so perfectly complement the carrot?
Best Thing I Drank: Good Japanese shōchū is a spiritual experience. The best way I can describe this libation is as a form of holy water. Distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or brown sugar, the best varieties of this beverage are deceptively smooth. At the Satoyama-Jujo, we enjoyed several quality bottles of shōchū, which had the most delightful hints of melon, oak, and other delicate spices.
Best Hangout Spot: My favorite neighborhood in Tokyo is probably Shimokitazawa. Full of world-class cafes and clothing stores, it is less overrun than the famous Harajuku neighborhood in neighboring Shibuya. One of my favorite bars is in Shimokitazawa. Japanese beer, like other Japanese food and drink, is made with great precision and care. The Japanese craft beer scene has only recently become popular, in the face of giant national brands that can be found in any convenience store. Head to ‘Ushitora,’ just 5 minutes from the Shimokitazawa train station, for a multi-level craft-beer experience with lots of charm.
Most Inspiring Things I Saw: Taking on a big mountain tunnel, as we traveled from Tokyo to the mountains of Niigata, was a breathtaking transition. As we entered, the roads and the countryside were steel-like and clear. When we came out on the other side, we experienced a snowstorm and everything was white. From crisp Tokyo to the snowy mountains in just a few hours, I got a better sense of how diverse the natural environment is in Japan.
Trip Highlights: It is a soul-affirming experience to take some time, create some distance, and come back to something or someone you once knew so well. Maybe you feel like places seem smaller, maybe you recall memories with higher definition, or maybe you feel closure on a chapter that you felt you left open. A city can be a mirror, and it will reflect to you your internal struggle as you make your decisions and turns. Coming back to Tokyo with a clearer mind and a more open heart, she rewarded me with a reflection of all the cleanliness and beauty that I once knew in Japan.