Best (and worst) Food in Setouchi, Japan

I am not ashamed to admit that the quality and variety of food factors greatly into my overall impression of a place. As someone that seeks out groceries and restaurants that are as clean and close to the source as possible, I have high expectations when I travel. To be honest, I often find that international destinations actually do have less processed cuisine than use over here in America.

Miyajima street eats

Well my experience in Japan took local food to a whole new level. I had been to Japan once before, exploring the Tohoku Region with CNN. It was there that I realized that Japanese food is not just sushi. However, the sushi still is really good but on this 2 week exploration in Setouchi, I had two very good reasons to push the boundaries of the culinary side of Japan.


Firstly, we were shooting one entire episode just on the best local food and local drinks in the Setouchi region. Secondly, I was pregnant during the entire shoot, which greatly limited my fish intake to those with low levels of mercury (and I hate to say it, a lot of seafood around the world is very high in mercury). So I was ready to dive into noodles, tempura, local game, river fish and various wild looking snacks that I grabbed from street vendors on the way.

You can watch the video to go deep into all the top dishes, restaurants and traditional cuisine of Setouchi. However below, I’m going to recap my personal favorites.

 

Udon Noodles: Thick and Thin

I got quite the education in Japanese noodles. I had no idea how many types of noodles this country could lay claim too! Also, many of the regions in Japan have their own signature noodle. In Setouchi, it was udon. To understand the intricacies of this chewy, satisfying, slurpy noodle, we went to the source: the Nakano Udon School.

Nakano Udon School

 There, classroom style, we learned about udon, from the ingredients to the finished product. Our very entertaining teacher was strict, in a funny way, and she required that after we prepared our noodle dough out of flour, salt and water, we had to wrap it and dance on it to make it soft. Yes, dance. She blasted “YMCA” and other 70s dance hits, all while yelling at us to keep dancing.

I definitely burned off the calories to eat my creation, which we did at the end. After the dancing, we flattened and then folded the noodles so we could cut into long, even strands. Mine weren’t as perfect as hers, but they did taste good!

Hiroshima Udon

We also ate super thick, gelatinous Shinsho-ji Udon at a Gokando, a beautiful garden in the Hiroshima prefecture. The was a whole different style of udon, rolled as thick as 3 straws and placed in a communal hot water pail. From there, we used wide chopsticks to fish out one long noodle strand and place it in our own bowl. There was a selection of delicious toppings, which you can add to your taste. I loved the salts and chilis!

Shinshoji udon

 

Soba Noodles (Handmade by a singing mountain local)

I love all sorts of noodles but I think that Japanese soba noodles are my favorites. I love the buckwheat flour used in them, giving them that earthy flavor and grainy texture. I also usually love the salty broth that they are served in. 

My favorite soba noodle award goes to the lovely woman below, who cooked a lunch feast for us in her home/restaurant in the Iya Valley.

Handmade Soba in Iya valley

Located on the edge of a cliff road, we took off our shoes and walked into what felt like her home (her home actually was attached). She watched us with delight as we ate all the deliciousness that she had prepared for us, including heaps of these soba noodles.

Our dessert? A song! She was a famous singer and unprompted, she stood up and starting singing a ballad in Japanese. Now that is a memorable way to end a meal.

 

Matcha Tea

Matcha tea iyaI drank copious amounts of tea while in Japan–it is served at every meal! But I developed a new love of matcha tea when we tried it at a roadside stop of another tiny mountain town in the Iya Valley. We were welcomed in with song, dance and costume by the proprietor, a spry, smiley older woman that is known for her enthusiasm.

Matcha Green Tea Iya Japan

She showed me how to grind the matcha using a traditional grinder, then she placed heaping spoonfuls in my cup, covering them with hot water.

As I sipped this rich, green liquid, she pointed out the window at the verdant mountainside across the river. That was where the tea leaves of this same matcha were grown. It only made it taste that much better.

 

Tempura

I’d had tempura before in the States so I thought I “knew” tempura. Well, I was wrong. Tempura in Japan is not the thick or greasy style that I’d had before. It is instead, delicately battered and just lightly fried, which only brings out the flavor of whatever delicious vegetable, starch or meat that was lucky enough to be “tempura-ed.” I loved all the tempura vegetables that we tried specifically the lotus, pumpkin and squash.

Tempura Shrimp Onomichi

However, I think my favorite was the tempura shrimp which we enjoyed in Onomichi (see above). The most exotic? Tempura wild deer. It was actually delicious!

 

Shabu-shabu

What a perfect meal! Shabu-shabu is also known as hot pot. It is when a large pot of lightly seasoned broth is served boiling with various raw vegetables, starches and meats. The meat is usually very thinly sliced beef to make for quick cooking. Not only does everything taste so flavorful, it is prepared exactly as you like it! And I love that it felt relatively light since no oil is used!

Shabu Shabu JapanWe enjoyed Shabu shabu feast up in the mountains of the Iya Valley, at our kominka. A local woman prepared so many dishes, in addition to the shabu, all from locally grown, raised and hunted sources. I never wanted to stop eating!

Shabu Shabu Japan

 

 

Kobe Beef

Of course this beef has international acclaim but I have to say, it lives up to the hype. I enjoy a good steak every now and then, but the grass fed, tenderly aged kobe beef is a totally different dish.

We went to Kobe Misono, the restaurant that launched the worldwide chain known as “Benihana.” It was fun because we were able to watch the expertly trained chefs prepare and cook the kobe beef right in front of us. What was impressive was how little was need to transform these perfectly cooked morsels into some of the best meaty bites I’d ever have. Just a little salt, a drop of oil, a sear on all the sides and done. Pop that in your mouth and you’ll know why kobe beef has such a big fanclub.

kobe beef kobe misono

 

Arima Cider Teppo Water

Arima Cider Teppo Water

In the hot spring town of Arima, everything revolves around the legendary hot springs. Not only do you soak in these therapeutic waters, but you can DRINK them too! Grab a bottle of the Arima Cider, made from the local hot spring water, and you’ll feel like a kid again with that bubble gum flavor! I don’t love soda but I did love this drink!

 

Favorite Meal: Kaiseki at Ryokan Kurashiki

There wasn’t one dish that I loved here–it was all of them. The whole 4 hours of this tasting menu experience was made memorable by the exquisite service and talented chefs behind each bite. I shouldn’t be surprised, the Ryokan Kurashiki is known to be one of the most luxurious ryokans in Setouchi! There was no detail overlooked.

Ryokan Kurashiki Kaiseki

The menu is seasonal and since it was late fall, early winter, we enjoyed root vegetables and wild game, as well as locally caught fish. The presentation of each course was mind-blowing. Tiny personal grills allowed us to grill our own meat, individual shabu hot pots and ornate bites displayed in fruits. There was even a wasabi root on the table with a grater so we could grate our own fresh wasabi!

 

….Dishes that I did NOT love:

Just for fun, I wanted to include a few things that I tried that I did not love so much. Every culture is bound to have food that you don’t like (see you later, France’s foie gras) and there are many American dishes that I despise too. But in Japan the list was short. Here are a few.

Kakiwai Miyajima

Fermented Oysters

Miyajima is known for having fresh oysters and you see them in every style. While I don’t go crazy over an oyster, I don’t mind them. However, I found out that I do not like them fermented. We went to a lovely coffeehouse overlooking the slope down to the sea on this magical isle. It was there that I tried their signature fermented oyster. Not only was the visual not appetizing to me, I did not enjoy the taste. I ate it to be polite and of course, for the camera, but to be honest, I did not go back for another bite. Those I was with did like it a lot so clearly it was just a matter of taste.

 

Salt Ice Cream with Red Bean

Salt Ice Cream Red Bean Paste Japan

Ice cream is everything to me so I had to try the popular salt ice cream with red bean paste when we stopped at one of Japan’s roadside food marts (they are incredible by the way!). So the verdict? It definitely looks better than it tastes. This soft serve ice cream is extremely salty–so much so that it was hard to swallow. The slightly sweet red bean paste had little flavor and was an odd textural combo with the ice cream. I didn’t despise it but I definitely didn’t see the appeal, particularly with how much sodium must be in each lick!

 

Calpis Water

Don’t be fooled, this is not water. This opaque, white drink is actually made with milk and lactic acid, so it is fermented milk water. It has a strange, slightly fizzy feel on your tongue and the flavor was not enjoyable in my opinion. I prefer the green teas or sparkling waters that I found at the food marts instead!

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Have you tried any of these before? Tell me what you thought!

 

xo

Kelley

torii gate

Top 5 Adventures in Setouchi, Japan

Japan might be synonymous with gardens, temples, sushi and cherry blossoms, but did you also realize that it is home to a wild variety of adventures? I spent 2 weeks exploring the Setouchi Region in Southwest Japan, which is famous for its breathtaking landscapes so it’s no surprise that outdoor adventures are plentiful here. I had no idea that Japan looked like this! We explored beaches and coasts, clear waters, rugged mountains, sweeping valleys and iconic cities throughout this region, and it is the adventures that stand out to me most. Here is a list of my favorite experiences throughout the region. Note that since Setouchi is all about the Seto Inland Sea, each of these experiences have to do with water in some way.

  1. Kayak the Floating Gate

torii gate

 

You’ve probably seen images of this incredible gate, the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine. Itsukushima is a Shinto Shrine and World Heritage Site, and I think it is a marvel unto itself. Built to honor the gods of the sea, it has been a popular place of worship for sea travels ever since the Edo period. This outdoor shrine is located on the shores of the sacred Miyajima Island, constructed near and even in the water. But this particular torii gate might be one of Japan’s most iconic images. The gate is built right on the water so during high tide, when the water surrounds it, it appears to be floating. High tide is the perfect time to see it up close, by kayaking!

Itsukushima Shrine

We rented kayaks from a small shop, right in the center of town. They helped us bring the kayaks out to the shore and provided a guide to help us paddle and navigate the two-seater kayaks. It was helpful to have help paddling since I had to stop a few times to take photos! I couldn’t believe how stunning the gate was as we passed through it. The vermillion color, the ornate carvings and the striking backdrop is even more tremendous when you experience it on the water. I will cherish the photos I took of this kayak adventure forever.

 

2. Fly in a Seaplane

Setouchi Seaplanes flight seaplane

The Seto Inland Sea is home to thousands of islands and it is probably the most dramatic part of this entire region. To take in the breadth of the sea as well as the beauty of the terrain, a seaplane gives you an incomparable perspective.

Setouchi Seaplanes

I couldn’t recommend Setouchi Seaplanes more. This company has an ultra hip, ultra modern checkin counter and lounge, complete with complimentary drinks and snacks. Check out their cute selection of souvenirs from their gift shop.

From there, you are guided onto the dock for a quick security check and then onto the seaplane. With one seat on either side, and 3 rows behind the pilots, our group of 6 had plenty of room. There are two amphibious aircraft available and I was excited that we flew in the bright red and green “L’ala Rossa.” As we took off from the water, it was exhilarating to see the islands, roads, and bridges get smaller and smaller. What I didn’t expect was how photogenic the landscape would be from this angle. I was captivated by the glittering sea, the uninhabited islands and the miniscule speeding boats as are we soared for 50 minutes. The pilots pointed out highlights along the route and I felt the entire service was very professional and the planes were very well maintained. Let’s not forget, it definitely pumps the adrenaline too!

 

3. Bike the Shimanami Kaido

Shimanami Kaido Biking

With over 37 miles of paved bike paths, it is no wonder that cyclist flock to Setouchi for their biking vacations. Not only are the paths very well constructed, they are extremely scenic as well! We picked up our bike at our homebase, the Hotel Cycle in Onomichi, and from there we biked along the coastal paths. This allowed us to stop at beaches, admire water views, cross some of Setouchi’s many architectural bridges and hop from island to island. We biked to Ikuchijima Island to explore the vivid Kosanji Temple. And if you are hungry, check out the delicious tempura restaurants in town!  

 

4. Cruise the Oboke Gorge

Oboke Gorge Iya Valley Boat

Yet another water adventure can be found away from the Seto Sea, up in the mountains of the Iya Valley on Tokushima Island. Surrounded by what seems to be endless, wooded peaks, this region is already spectacular. But try experiencing it by boat.

Oboke Gorge Iya Valley

We embarked on a sightseeing boat to explore the Oboke Gorge, a crystal clear part of the Yoshinaro River. The cruise was very relaxed and peaceful. It was such a lovely way take in the fresh air and surrounding nature of the Iya Valley. Plus the water is so clear, you are can see wild koi fish splashing about under the hull.

 

5. Cross the Kazura Bridge

Kazura Bridge Iya Valley

You wouldn’t expect a bridge to be an adventure, but this one is! The Kazura Bridge is a hanging rope bridge that spans 50 feet above a river. It is thought to have been built by the samurai that lived in these mountains, who chose to built it out of vines and ropes so they could cut it down in case they were being trailed by attackers.

Standing on the Kazura Bridge

Now it is a picturesque tourist destination for it’s Iya Valley views but also for the bragging rights of crossing it. I am not going to lie, I was a little scared when I stepped on it. I had not expected the vines to be so far apart, making me very aware of the 50 foot drop between each step. The bridge also sways with movement and with the wind, so hold on!

 

The best way to understand these adventures is to see them!

Check out my Adventure video where I dive into all these Setouchi experiences and even more that I didn’t mention! 

Kelley Ferro Los Angeles Travel & Adventure

Speaking at the LA Travel & Adventure Show: Where to Go NOW!

This past weekend travel lovers descended on Downtown Los Angeles for two days of world exploring without leaving the convention center. The Los Angeles Travel & Adventure Show attracted hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of attendees, the show was bustling and energy levels were high. I totally can understand it–I get excited when I’m planning my next trip too!

 

Both Saturday and Sunday offered a full schedule of speakers, and each gave compelling and useful travel advice based on their own expertise. I enjoyed learning how to better take advantage of my travel points from Brian Kelly of The Points Guy, and of course, learning about travel trends from Pauline Frommer. Other notable speakers were Rick Steves, Samantha Brown and good friends Juliana Broste, Sarah Dandashy and Angel Castellanos.

I was very honored to be asked to lead a session of my own and I was eager to share the top destinations to visit now. Over the past 10 years, I’ve been able to experience many so many incredible, life-changing places all over our world, many of which I’d love to return too. But recounting my favorite experiences wouldn’t be helpful since I find that to be so subjective. My impression of a city would be affected if it were rainy, if I was tired, if my travel companion was cranky, if we were hangry, if we didn’t have a guide… and none of those situations are the fault of the destination! So instead, I took a step back and looked analytically at the 69 countries and hundreds of cities that have impacted me and determined where I think the average traveler should visit SOON.

Certain places are enduring and there’s less of a rush to see them right now. But some may be drastically changed in the next few years and discussed ten locations and types of trips that I think are important to take within the next year or two.

Here I’ll give you a few highlights of where I recommend and why. Note: this presentation was given at the LOS ANGELES Travel & Adventure show so it is focused on the LA based traveler.

 

  1. Eco Friendly Safari

Singita Castleton South AfricaWhy? Your dollars can go to wildlife conservation, land preservation and community development in safari destinations.

 

How? You need to do your research to find camps, lodges and tour operators that are sustainable, responsible and give back to the community.

 

Suggestion: Check out “Africa’s Finest” listing here.

 

  1. EgyptEgypt Giza Camel

Why? The definition of “life changing” and it is safer now than it has been in recent years. The State Department has it at a Leve 2 and it is recommened to “exercise caution.”

 

How? Go with a trusted tour operator.

 

Suggestion: I went with Abercrombie & Kent and not only are they very luxurious, they employ over 300 local Egyptians so their ground operations are on point! They will keep you safe and their guides are excellent.

Watch this video to see why I loved the local guides and traveling with Abercrombie & Kent. 

 

  1. China

Suzhou China Wanjing Garden

Why? With the largest population in the world, China has and will have an ever increasing global impact. Also, with better travel infrastructure, it is now easier to see places outside of the well known, touristy spots.

 

How? Fly to Shanghai for the modern side of China. Get adjusted to the time change, then hop on a 30 minute bullet train to Suzhou for a transporting experience back in time. Suzhou was the capital of culture thousands of years ago and this well preserved, canal city is the ancient China that you imagine.

Check out what Suzhou really looks like in this video!

 

  1. Japan

Itsukushima Shrine Setouchi Japan

Why? With the 2020 Summer Olympics on the horizon, there’s a palpable energy in the country that is about to put itself on display.

 

How? Fly to Tokyo then take a high speed train to see the countryside. I’d suggest going South to the Setouchi region if you want to taste great food (soba, sake & kobe beef), sleep in ancient farmhouses and experience old Japan by visiting their well preserved historical towns like Kurashiki. There’s also so many water adventures, beaches and bike paths!

 

  1. Croatia

Brac Croatia Boats

Why? It is still on the kuna, the local Croatian currency, but this is expected to change by 2020. With rolling hills, incredible islands, historical cities and breathtaking coastline, this truly is some of the best of Europe on a budget!

 

How? I’d recommend looking into Istria, the region that borders Italy if you like food and wine. If you are interested in the beaches and coastal cities, small ship cruises and even charters are a wonderful way to experience Croatia.

 

Suggestion: I also thoroughly recommend a bike tour as the landscape is stunning by bike!

Watch my bike tour experience in Croatia with VBT.

 

  1. Mediterranean Cruise

Viking Star Monaco Cruise

Why? You can see some of Europe’s most famous locations on a budget! It’s great for multi-generational travel too–from children to grandparents!

 

How? Look into the itineraries and be mindful of the distance between ports. If you want to maximize your time on land, opt for itineraries that have shorter travel distances.


Suggestion: If you want some exceptional cruise lines in the Med, check out: MSC Cruises, Viking Ocean, Crystal Cruises and Silversea.

 

I recently sailed on the Viking Star and had a fantastic time! You can see the ship and our ports here.

 

  1. Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu Sunrise

Why? This world wonder is NOT overrated. It is beyond belief to see it in person, and up until recently, there were very little restrictions. Now, new regulations actually allow in 2000 more visitors per day so this iconic location might change…

How? Fly into Cusco and enjoy this vibrant city and its history as you get used to the altitude. Get up EARLY to take the first bus up to the site. You won’t regret exploring without the hordes of tourists and your photos will be better too!

Suggestion: Hike up the peak across from Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu for a unique vantage point on the city.

See how we explored Machu Picchu & our Shaman experience here.

 

  1. Mexico

Zihuatanejo La Ropa Beach

Why? It is a quick flight for us LA folks and it is a world away!

Plus, in light of the recent earthquakes, Mexico City is depending on tourism income to help rebuild the city. Spend your travel dollars to impact change! And your money will go far since now there are deep discounts at many high end hotels.

 

How? Check out Mexico City and a plan a trip outside of the very hot summer season. Need a beach getaway? Check out Zihuatanejo or Sayulita for laidback, bohemian vibes and more authenticity than some of Mexico’s more famous beach towns. Zihua even has a direct airport!

You can take a peek at Zihua in this local guide video that I made!

 

  1. The Immersion Trip

Maui Road to Hana Coco Glen's

Why? This one is the easiest to put off as it is less about checking off an itinerary and more about finding a local community and staying put. The goal of this trip is to LIVE in a place, versus just seeing it.

How? Use Airbnb or a similar home rental site to book a home for at least a week. Go to local markets to pick up food to cook, establish a routine based on where the locals go and talk to people!

Suggestion: Hawaii is a great option for an immersion trip. As a US state it offers so many little comforts like same currency, cell phone service and Uber. Also, it is one of my favorite tropical destinations in the world, and for the West Coast, it is not too far!

 

  1. The Road Trip

Joshua Tree Cowboy Town

Why? It is too easy not to take this trip! Weekends are perfect for a quick getaway–even a day trip!

For those based in LA, we have way too many amazing options not to take advantage.

 

How? In LA, you can go to beach towns along the coast, camp in the desert, ski in the mountains and hike in hills, all within a couple hours or less. If you don’t feel like driving, check out Amtrak to see nearby stops and enjoy a car-free escape.

Another idea is to rent a JUCY Campervan and drive to any scenic destination you’d like! We took ours to Big Sur, California. See the Big Sur Road Trip experience here. 

***

Where do you want to go now? I’d love to hear where has caught your eye. Leave comments below.

 

Happy Travels,

Kelley

48 hours in Tokyo: Unexpected Eats in the City’s Trendiest Neighborhoods

 

Tokyo is a massive city and if you only have 48 hours, you aren’t going to see all of it. The city can be overwhelming with its sky high buildings, intimidating language and maze of concrete. But you can crack this Japanese edamame pod, you just need to start small. My best advice? Instead of trying to criss cross the city like a pinball, stick to one or two neighboring areas and DIG IN.

 

On my first trip to Tokyo, I did not follow my own advice. When I boarded my return flight to California, I carried a mental snapshots of standout locations (Asakusa, the top of the Park Hyatt, the Shibuya Crossing) but I had trekked across the city in my limited time to get these, which meant that my most prominent memory was navigating the metro system. The metro is super efficient and clean, but they aren’t always easy during rush hours, those cars will be packed so tightly, you’ll think sardines have a room life.

MoCHA cat cafe

For my second trip, I did it right. Harajuku and Omotesando are two iconic Tokyo neighborhoods that seem to be on the pulse of the city’s modern culture. They also are scenic, walkable and have a slew of fantastic shops and restaurants. And in two days, you will have time to wander the pedestrian friendly streets, check out some notable hotspots, snap photos of Japanese fashion and maybe even pet a cat or two.

 

Day 1: Harajuku

 

Harajuku is synonymous with the wild, often cartoonish, street fashions of Tokyo and Takeshita Street is the epicenter of it all. It is a shiny, bubble gum pink, cute overload — just people watching makes it worth the visit. Wander through the out-of-this-galaxy shops and pick up some unique gifts for friends at home.

Takeshita Street

Forgo the more gimmicky crepe and rainbow colored ice cream shops to indulge in the very popular Japanese trend right now: pancakes. These aren’t just any pancakes—they come in every shape, size, color and flavor. Go to Gram, on a side street just off of Takeshita. Don’t bank on sitting right away, they only serve 20 every time, starting at 11am, 3pm and 6pm. I came at 11:30am and was able to get a reservation for 3:30pm. Nothing like a mid-afternoon snack of pancakes! More on that later..

Gram Pancakes

While on Takeshita, you can experience another famous Japanese trend: the cat cafe. Cat Cafe MoCha is one of the highest rated with very clean facilities and well taken care of kitties. You leave bags and shoes in lockers at the front and head in with your cameras. The whimsical decor looks straight out of Wonderland, but I was too distracted by the orange, grey, brown and black fluffy patrons sauntering by. The cats here are VERY used to people and are not too interested in having you pet them, unless you catch them asleep. I did notice that if you have treats, you instantly become their best friends. As they charge by the 15 minute interval, make sure to check your watch every now and then.MoCHA Cat Cafe Tokyo

 

Since pancakes will be today’s dessert, have a solid lunch to start. I opted for The Great Burger, a vintage Americana style burger joint, located on some winding streets in between Harajuku and neighboring Omotesando. Their homemade milkshakes are simple and just right, while their 35+ options for burgers will definitely make choosing hard. There are plenty of other options, including vegetarian friendly meals, but if you eat meat, do yourself a favor and get one of their perfectly crafted patties.

Great Burger Tokyo

Dessert time! Gram’s signature pancakes here are not what you’d expect.  The originals are served in threes, and they are thick, almost souffle like quality. The airy softness of the cake jiggles as they are presented in front of you, topped with a mound of butter and sidled with a carafe of maple syrup and healthy helping of whipped cream. The restaurant was very quiet because everyone was too absorbed in each melt-in-your-mouth bite —or they were busy Instagramming their plates. I managed to do both at the same time.

Gram Pancakes Tokyo

Shops in the area stay open until late so work off your delicious day with retail therapy. Personally, I found Kiddyland to be a fun, uniquely Tokyo spot that was perfect for gifts for all the nieces and nephews in my life. Each of the 5 floors was dedicated to different Japanese characters and popular animated figures. Don’t miss the Hello Kitty and Star Wars sections.

Keio Plaza Tokyo

For a comfortable stay, I chose the Keio Plaza, a large hotel located right near a metro station just a few stops from Harajuku. Though it might not have the most character as a boutique, the rates are good and the views from the upper level rooms are jawdropping. Plus, the restaurants inside are quite impressive!

 

Day 2: Omotesando

 

If you are taking the Metro, get off in Omotesando for breakfast at Bills Pancakes. This Australian eatery is located many floors up in the Tokyu Plaza Omotesando. Though very popular, it’s worth the wait for the fresh green juice, the melt in your mouth omelettes and the caramelized banana pancakes. Actually, every single thing that went by looks too good so don’t worry about what you order. For a kick, their flat whites are a must though.

Bills Pancakes Tokyo

After, head over to Cat Street where you won’t actually find any cats but you will find a lot of trendy stores, both international and local boutiques. The alleys twist and turn, but don’t worry, just get lost. There’s an adorable mom & pop artisanal store or a high end clothing shop around every corner.

Gong Cha Tokyo

While here, grab an iconic bubble tea at Gong Cha. Schoolchildren and fashionable elite all congregate here for cups of the sweet, caffeinated teas. I loved that they are completely customizable, down to the amount of ice, type of milk and sweet level.

Mmmozza Tokyo

After, nearby Mmmozza is a sliver of an Italian panini shop whipping up delicious mozzarella and prosciutto sandwiches on freshly made bread. Certainly a different flavor profile than most Japanese cuisine, it’s a tasty change and won’t hold you up on your day of exploring.

 

For a sweet treat, Dominique Ansel’s bakery is just a few twisty turns away! The chocolate chip cookies or legendary Cronuts will out a smile on your face.  

Fuerza Bruta Wa!

Bonus: For a wild night, head to Fuerza Bruta Wa! Though not in either neighborhood, this new artistic spectacle-meets-show-meets interactive play art is sure to awe. You might get wet but you won’t be bored for a second of this non-stop performance. To understand more about what Fuerza Bruta Wa is like, take a look at my video here or below!

 

Tokyo is always changing but this eating guide should make sure you dine well and enjoy the experience! Don’t worry, in a few months, there will be more trendy spots to try out!

 

US Japan Seminar Japan Embassy Tohoku

SPEAKER: Japan – U.S. Tourism Seminar on Tōhoku

Japan has always fascinated for its mix ancient history and cutting-edge modernism. It has such a defined unique culture and sense of tradition.  I was very fortunate to be able to travel to the Tōhoku region of Japan in April of 2016 for an assignment. This was my first trip to Japan and I was hired by CNN Asia to host a video that focused on some of the main highlights of this Northeast region of Japan. (Check out my CNN Video of Japan here!) 

This June, I was able to relive this dream trip and share it with all the attendees at the Japan-U.S. Tourism Seminar. I flew to D.C. for this event, which was sponsored by the Embassy of Japan and the Japan National Tourism Organization.

The evening was focused on bringing awareness about the state of tourism in Japan and to share more of this dynamic country with an audience of 300 US journalists. When I first arrived, I was in awe of the tranquil yet grand residence of the Japanese Ambassador, the setting for this wonderful night of celebrating Japan.

I was asked to speak on my experience in Tōhoku; detailing where I visited, what we covered on our shoot and my impressions of the region. Since I spent 6 days, from before dawn to way after dusk, I managed to see a lot in almost all of the 6 prefectures of the region.

After our host, H.E. Kenichiro Sasae, the Ambassador of Japan to the US, welcomed us all into his home, the guests mingled and interacted with the Japanese food, drink and travel products that were on display.

My presentation came at the middle of the event, and it was such a pleasure to explain what it was like to experience Japan for the first time through the Tōhoku region. I spoke about 5 key themes that we covered throughout the visit: Landscape, Arts, Traditions and Pastimes and Cuisine. I told the stories of meeting the locals and experiencing each of these as not only an American, but as a female traveler as well as a travel blogger. I had some funny stories to relate regarding the competitive eating of Wanco-Soba or trying to paint a Kokeshi doll with a master craftswoman. I also detailed the experience on the stunning Sanriku Coast and at Ginzan-onsen, a hot spring town.

Curious? Check out my full presentation here (don’t worry, it is mostly photos and bullet points!)

We also heard from the esteemed individuals such as Mr. Ryoichi Matsuyama, the president of the Japan National Tourist Office, as well as Mr. Hiromi Tagawa, the chairman of the JATA and Mr. Keith Kirkham, the Incoming Minister Counselor for Commercial Affairs at the US Embassy Japan.

Overall, I met wonderful representatives of Japan and talented journalists in the DC travel community. We later visited a party at the National Geographic headquarters, which rounded out this impactful 2 days in DC. It still is such an honor to be an “ambassador” of sorts for this incredible country and the stunning region of Tōhoku.

Have you been to Tōhoku? If so, leave me a note!

xo Kelley
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Behind the Scenes: On set with CNN in Tohoku, Japan

CNN

Just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Japan, a country that has been on my bucket list ever since I could remember. I worked with CNN crew in Japan where we filmed a 60 second travel feature on an incredible region of Japan: Tohoku. Tohoku is located in the Northern part of Japan and consists of 6 prefectures: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi & Yamagata.

We spent one week exploring the rugged landscape, tasting the traditional foods, admiring the local samurai culture at Kakunodate, and marveling at the cherry blossoms. We even had the chance to meet talented artisans perpetuating traditional Tohoku crafts such as Japanese ironware (Nanbu-Tekki) and Kokeshi Dolls.

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This one minute video captures the spirit of the place, but know that it just touches the surface of all the beauty, history and culture in this “treasure land” of a region. I can’t wait to go back. Watch it now. 

Thanks to Japan National Tourist Organization and the CNN crew for such an incredible shoot & video!

Tohoku Japan Ginzan Onsen

The Five Places You Need to See in Tohoku

Before coming to Japan I hadn’t heard of the Tohoku Region and now I’ve been completely charmed by this pastoral, natural part of northern Japan. This is the antithesis of the bright lights and hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and that’s what makes it special. Many retreat up North to enjoy farm fresh foods, breathtaking natural beauty and to take step back into Japan’s traditional roots.

1. Spend a morning at Hirosaki Castle

Though not quite a castle in the “fairytale” sense of the word, the Hirosaki Castle is a lovely Japanese style building, with ornate roof details and impressive silhouette. However, the real reason you visit is for the vast park that surrounds it. We happened to be fortunate enough to be visiting in the spring, when the cherry blossoms were at the height of their bloom. It felt like walking through a sea of pink, every different hue, with delicate petals floating in the breeze. The cherry blossoms created avenues of flowers, and I meandered over bridges that crossed the series of pleasant canals.  Everywhere I turned was worthy of a photo–especially when I got to the viewpoint of the majestic snow capped mountain in the distance.

My Recommendation: Go there early (like 7am) if you want more flowers than people in your photos. Also, next time I go, I am bringing a picnic so I can waste an afternoon under one of the swaying sakura trees.

2. Eat Wanko-Soba

Wanco Soba

Tohoku is famous for its buckwheat noodle, soba. I tasted it in tea, in ice cream and in many variations of the noodle form. However, the best soba experience that I had was Wanko-Soba in Morioka. Here, diners are encouraged not only to eat soba but to eat as much as they can and as fast as they can. An average lunch can turn competitive as the waitresses serve you soba in small “mouthful” sized dishes. The waitresses tower over you, shouting encouragement as you slurp, refilling as fast as you can eat. Of course the other options were delicious as well–I really enjoyed their tuna sashimi and pickled vegetables. But if you plan to nab the record, don’t waste stomach space. You are going to need it since you’ll need to eat over one hundred bowls! Slurp!

My Recommendation: Bring a competitive friend and have a soba eating contest!

3. Stroll through a Samurai Village

Kakunodate

Kakunodate

Tohoku is known for it’s storied Samurai culture and to get as close as you can to it today, visit Kakunodate, a well preserved Samurai town. There is one completely original house dating back 200 years and it’s still in the ownership of its original Samurai family line. There’s another home that also has a museum, just a few steps down. The museum has an impressive display of Samurai gear, with intimidating swords and helmets. Even just wandering down the streets, stopping for an ice cream  and to admire this organized village, makes for a picturesque visit.

My Recommendation: Earlier is better to avoid the crowds!

4. Commune with Nature

Sanriku Fukkuo

The rugged coastline of Tohoku blew me away. It looked like the Mediterranean coast or even New Zealand–but it certainly did not look like Japan. The Sanriku Fukko National Park stretches along a pristine part of the coast, with three steep trails that allow you to walk through old forests and view the majestic cliffs. There are three lookouts with views, number 2 being the best.
My Recommendation: If you want a good workout, hike all the way down to the beach to get up close with the bright blue waters.

5. Visit Teapot Workshop Iwachu Nambu Tekki

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I hadn’t paid much attention to teapots until now. Tea is an extremely important part of Japanese culture and here at the factory, you can witness how some of the finest traditional teapots are made by hand. You can step inside the workshop, watching the craftsman painstaking create the signature dots that cover these iron pots. Each teapot takes about 2 weeks to create so it’s no wonder that they aren’t cheap. I toured the museum but was most taken by the gallery where their finest work is on display. Neon colors and even Hello Kitty tastefully grace some of the newer models of this old brand.

My Recommendation: Visit the workshop first to understand the intense labor and dedication needed to create each teapot. Then go to the shop and buy one for yourself!

BONUS TIP: GINZAN ONSEN

Ginzan

Ginzan-Onsen is a hot spring town, built lining a central spring. Stay at one of the handful of traditional style hotels, from boutique to more contemporary, each with their own onsen experience. The postcard worthy town has charming pedestrian bridges, boutique shops and several eateries. But the real reason to come here is to soak in the geo-thermal waters. I didn’t realize how therapeutic it could be until I tried it for myself. After a few minutes in the healing waters, I felt renewed from the inside out.

My Recommendation: Check out Ginzanso if you want large tatami style rooms with your own private onsen on your deck.  

For more recommendations, leave me a comment! Be sure to tune in to CNN on May 18th to watch the full video of my Tohoku experience!