Japan 2012

Shimogamo Jinja, Kyoto, Japan

Forgive me please, for a brief diversion from our usual posting of recipes. I recently took two weeks off from cooking and blogging to travel to Japan, my first extended vacation in the nine years or so that I’ve been publishing this site. For those of you who might be interested in a peek at our adventure, I thought I might post a few photos of some of the highlights of the trip. (If you aren’t interested, just ignore, there will be a new recipe soon enough.)

Kenninji Temple, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto, established 1202

First a little background about this trip. Twenty-three years ago, after graduate school, I lived in Kyoto, Japan for almost a year. I was there studying Aikido, a Japanese martial art based on conflict resolution, with the Kyoto University Aikido Club. Kyoto, if you have not been there, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. For almost a 1000 years it was the capital city of Japan, the site of the Imperial Palace, the residence of the emperor. It was one of the few major cities in Japan not bombed extensively by the Allies in World War II, and is home to over 2000 temples and shrines.

Ceiling of one of the halls at Kenninji Temple

Over the years I’ve taken several trips back to Japan, mostly to Tokyo for business. For this trip I promised to take nephew (my sister’s son), 14-year old Austin, to visit Kyoto for his spring break. We were accompanied by my brother Eddie, and my honey Guy. After a week in Kyoto, Eddie and Austin returned home, while Guy and I continued on to Tokyo.

Austin and Eddie enjoying a soba lunch in Gion, Kyoto

Every morning I roused the boys from their slumber and corralled them to breakfast at the hotel, where we enjoyed an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet feast. I’m still astounded by how much the guys ate, especially the Japanese dishes, including fried mackerel, rice with daikon pickles, miso soup, burdock and lotus root, mustard greens with garlic, udon noodles, along with western fare such as fresh baked croissants, muesli cereal, scrambled eggs, and breakfast sausages. But we worked it off, each day walking 8 to 10 miles a day, through hills and valleys and city streets, from one temple to the next.

Buy your ramen tickets first, then get a seat. Shijo-Kawabata-dori, Kyoto.

Here and there we met up with old friends from Kyoto University, who treated us to ramen, okonomiyaki (shredded cabbage pancakes, tastes better than it sounds), and sashimi. I played tour guide the best I could with my limited Japanese, and we had plenty of help from our friends (thanks Kotaro and Gyobu-san!)

That famous Zen rock garden at Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto

By our fifth day of walking, my companions were just about templed-out. I do thank them for indulging me in my temple visiting obsession. When I lived in Kyoto it was right behind the Shimogamo Shrine, one of the oldest, and most peaceful shrines in Japan. Every night I would walk or ride my bike home from Kyoto University, alongside the creek that runs the length of the shrine grounds. In early summer, hundreds of fireflies would light the walkway. There’s something about that place that has entered my bones.

Tanuki statuary in Arashiyama, Kyoto

Do you like samurai movies? Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai is practically required for anyone studying martial arts. I still love catching a random samurai movie on cable, even if it’s in Japanese and I can’t understand a thing. Kyoto, with all of its old architecture and temples and shrines, is the center of samurai film making. Occasionally when I would walk home through Shimogamo, I would encounter some actor fully dressed up in samurai gear, racing down the path on a horse, surrounded by a film crew. My nephew Austin was particularly delighted when we took him to Toei Kyoto Studio Park, a full-on old Japanese town replica, where they still do studio work for samurai flicks.

Toei Kyoto Studio Park and Samurai cinema


So, did we enjoy the kaiseki haute cuisine for which Kyoto is so famous? Uh, no. It was enough for the boys to load up on breakfast, sampling every single thing, and then walk for hours with a short break for lunch. By the time we got back to the hotel each day, we collapsed. That, and even though I can eat Japanese food for every meal for every day for a year without tiring of it, the menfolk in my life cannot. By day five Eddie and Austin couldn’t stop talking about the pizzas and burritos they would have when they got back home. I, on the other hand, feasted on radish pickles and takenoko (bamboo shoots) whenever I got the chance. Kyoto is famous for both.

Elise and Guy next to pickles and takenoko in Teramachi street market in downtown Kyoto

Leaving Kyoto, we made a brief stop in Shizuoka to visit the family of Yuki, a home stay student of Guy’s, who treated us to a lovely homemade lunch (thank you!), and then on to busy Tokyo where we met up with former classmates from Stanford and more Aikido friends from Kyodai.

Ginza, Tokyo

Visiting Nancy Hachisu at her Japanese farmhouse.

The last stop on our trip was to visit my friend Nancy Hachisu, of the Indigo Days blog, and author of the upcoming stunningly beautiful Japanese Farm Food cookbook. Nancy lives about an hour away from Tokyo, in rural Japan, with her husband Tadaaki (a striking Japanese farmer who reminds me of the swordsman in the Seven Samurai), and two of their three sons, Matthew and Andrew. Nancy and her family live in an old Japanese farmhouse, with a Viking range and over a hundred shoji screens for exterior and interior doors. I love this house. It seems to have a spirit all its own, with its support beams that are two hundred years old, tatami mats, and beautiful shoji-screen filtered light.


With Nancy we toured the local markets, got lessons in Japanese cooking from Nancy and Tadaaki, visited a small family-run shoyu (soy sauce) factory and a family-run handmade paper factory, and even a few antique stores. In the evenings, we curled up to sleep the old fashioned way, on futons rolled out onto tatami.

With Nancy in her kitchen.

Well that’s it. I seem to have rambled on. Thank you for your patience. We’re back home now, and a week later I’m finally getting over the jet lag. By the way, I’ve had a sneak peek of Nancy’s book, and it is stellar! A visually stunning book with surprisingly accessible recipes. Keep your eye out for it when it is released this fall.

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Showing 4 of 159 Comments

  • Rose

    Wow! Thanks for taking the time to share your trip stories and especially the pictures. How wonderful!

  • Rachel

    What a lovely trip. Great pictures. Thank you for sharing.

  • Celeste

    Hello, and welcome home. No need to apologize for time away and time off. The recipes posted in your absence were terrific, especially the asparagus soup. Taking time off is a good thing to do, however near or far one travels. Thank you for the stories and photographs. Looking forward to recipes with udon and soba and radish and seeing your friend’s cookbook, Japanese Farm Food.

  • SnoWhite @ Finding Joy in My Kitchen

    What a special trip! Looks like it was a great time – thanks for sharing this journey with us.

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