Metro Home & Entertaining: The Road Less Traveled
It’s been awhile. 🙂
The Road Less Traveled
There is more to cherry blossom season in Japan
words and photographs by jar concengco
(Directory of links at the bottom)
Japan’s multifaceted culture and subcultures offer something for everyone. And with a little planning and research, you can satisfy exactly what you’re craving for in Japan.
Here are three places in Japan (in or near Tokyo) that you can explore on your next trip:
There are plenty of posh, five-star hotels around Tokyo, but if you want to feel how it is for a local, consider staying at an Airbnb tucked in a residential area in Nakameguro, a quieter area of Tokyo.
Here runs the Meguro River, lined with cherry blossoms (come in early April in time for the Cherry Blossom Festival celebrated in the streets along the river).
Start your journey at Daikanyama T-Site, a complex filled with books, magazines and movies. Marvel at the architecture or spend hours perusing through an extensive collection of books, DVDs, and music. The Ivy Place restaurant in the complex serves an eclectic, international menu. It gets full quickly so be sure to make a reservation.
A five-minute walk from T-Site leads you to Kyu Asakura, a hundred-year-old house that gives you a glimpse of how locals lived in the Taisho era.
General admission costs only Y100 (more or less $1USD) with access to a self-tour inside the house and the beautifully manicured garden.
If you’re more into the arts, visit Sato Sakura Museum of Art, about a 10-minute walk north from the Nakameguro station.
The small building is an intimate home of large-scale paintings by Japanese Nihonga artists. This is a great consolation if you’ve missed the height of cherry blossom season in the area.
For a casual dinner, go to Chano-Ma, situated on the sixth floor of the skinny Kangyo building on the banks of the river. You can rest your weary legs on comfortable white beds while eating a bowl full of soba or a curry rice meal. The place turns into a lounge-club in the later hours of the night.
If you want more of an experience for dinner, go to the award-winning restaurant Beard. It’s cozy and the space is mostly a brick walled kitchen. French-trained chef Shin Harakawa effortlessly cooks your meal in front of you while the only server waits on the ten or so diners.
Order the Omi rump steak (so flavorful and tender), the chicory salad with gorgonzola and pecan (a great starter, but may be too bitter for some people), and the roasted lamb with green onion and lemon (cooked to perfection).
Although the quieter pace of life in Nakameguro is quite enjoyable, some might yearn for a little more action. The Airbnb is a five-minute walk to the Nakameguro Train Station. Shibuya is two stops away, making it easy to jump right in the city frenzy.
Or go straight to Omotesando station. Take the A5 exit, walk towards the corner, and you’ll come across the Aoyama Flower Market.
Go towards the back of the flower store and you’ll discover a teahouse lushly decorated with plants from floor to ceiling.
They serve great salads, pasta dishes, and French toast. Sorry, coffee lovers, they serve absolutely no coffee on their menu.
A five-minute walk along the tree-lined street is Omotesando Hills, a premium shopping complex designed by famed Japanese architect Tadao Ando.
About 45 minutes south of Tokyo by train is the port city of Yokohama, the largest city in Japan in terms of population.
We stayed at the Intercontinental Yokohama Grand Hotel; its architecture resembles a yacht under sail. Your room will most likely face Minato Mirai (“port of the future”) and its Cosmo Clock Ferris Wheel.
The hotel has a direct connection to Queen’s Square mall for dining and shopping options. Across the street is Cosmo World, a theme park that has small rides similar to that of the local fairs.
Walk a couple of blocks down to the CupNoodles Museum where you can see the history of how the most popular college student meal came to be. You’ll also learn about the creator of instant ramen, Momofuku Ando, and get to make your own personalized cup of noodles as a souvenir.
Further down the bay, you’ll see a recently opened boutique mall called Marine & Walk Yokohama. The Fred Segal store is worth the visit.
The works of plant stylist Satoshi Kawamoto are available for purchase, adding an urban garden ambience to the atmosphere. Most of the stores close at 7 p.m. so make sure you give yourself enough time.
Nearby is the Akarenga Brick House, formerly a warehouse for cargo in the early 1900s. Renovated as independent stores and restaurants in the 1990s, they are now popular with locals and tourists.
Hakone is a scenic mountain region one-and-a-half hours away from Tokyo. It features the still waters of Lake Ashi and a slower paced lifestyle. On clear days, Mt. Fuji is visible in most parts of Hakone, providing a majestic backdrop.
Hakone is well known for its natural mineral water that flow from hot springs, making it a perfect place to have an onsen experience. Many resorts in the area offer communal onsen that follow strict rules (usually, men and women are segregated and tattoos are a no-no). If you prefer, there are some resorts that have a private onsen in the room.
In the northern part of Hakone is a boutique hotel called Hakone Highland Hotel, sprawled over five hectares surrounded by nature. The hotel provides you with a comfortable pair of Crocs and binoculars so that you can fully explore their property.
In the back, a stream runs through a small forest of a variety of cherry blossoms, and the chirping of birds fill the air.
In the evening, you must try La Forêt, the hotel’s superb French restaurant that incorporates Japanese techniques and seasonal ingredients.
The chef’s special prix fixe menu includes the freshest North Sea octopus, snow crab coulis, and local beef that is wood grilled in the hotel’s very own firewood stove.
Like something a little less French? Book a table at Itoh Nobu (of the empire by famed chef Nobu Matsuhisa), which is a high-end teppanyakistyle restaurant that serves premium beef from Japan and US.
For shopping fanatics, take a 20-30 minute bus ride to Gotemba Premium Outlets. Imagine shopping tax free at your favorite brands like Issey Miyake, Prada and Balenciaga, with Mt. Fuji as your view.
Get up close and personal with Hakone’s history and nature by hiking on the old Tokaido Road.
This road was used to link Tokyo to Kyoto back in the Edo Period (with Hakone as an important checkpoint). Parts of the road are preserved with its original stone pavement.
A great route is to hike from Hakone Machi to one of the oldest teahouses in Hakone, The Amazake Chaya.
The teahouse is almost primitive with dirt flooring, wooden stumps for chairs and tables, and the smell of burning wood in the air.
You can almost imagine travelers and messengers centuries ago stopping by for a refreshing cup of amazake (a piping hot, non-alcoholic, sweet beverage made of fermented rice wine) together with a plate of Chikara-Mochi (a soft, sweet dessert made of glutinous rice toasted in charcoal and tossed in young soy powder).
Hakone also offers some unique attractions such as the Hakone Open Air Museum. Showcasing sculptures against the mountain range of Hakone, this museum can easily keep you for half a day.
There’s a substantial Picasso exhibit you shouldn’t miss. Kids will love the artsy playgrounds sprinkled around the area. If you’re feet get a bit tired, sit down and have a foot soak (with Hakone’s spring waters) free with admission.
The best way to see Hakone is to use all the available modes of transportation. Make sure you take the Hakone Tozan Train (tozan means “mountain climbing”) to see a different perspective of the mountain ranges.
You can also take the ropeway, which rides above the volcanic valley of Ōwakudani.
Lastly, take the cruise on Lake Ashi (on an albeit misplaced pirate ship). It’s about a 30-minute ride from Hakone-Machi to Tokaido Dock.
Sato Sakura Museum:
Marine & Walk Yokohama:
Hakone Highland Hotel:
Hakone Open Air Museum:
A video of our trip:
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