Anyone who knows me knows that I am obsessed with Sushi, it is something I crave on a weekly basis (if not more). Having one such craving the other day, rather then just walk down to our local Sushi Rock (which does delicious sushi all the time) we thought we would jump on a bus and head to San Francisco’s Japantown. Japantown is the largest and the oldest enclave of Japanese in USA. Only six square city blocks, at its centre are Japan Centre and the Peace Pagoda, gifted to the city of San Francisco from Osaka in 1957. And my husband thought, the best place in San Francisco to get sushi. It was like stepping back into a small street of Japan – the kimono silks, lucky cat Maneki-Neko and of course the plastic meals in the restaurant windows ready for you to select what you would like to eat. The small plaza even had the beautiful cherry blossom trees Japan is famous for. Definitely the best place to go for anything Japanese – including sushi.
When asked, it is always difficult to say where your favourite place you have traveled is, favourite city, favourite country. To me, it would be like picking a favourite child (not that I have any). Every place I have visited has its own culture, history and cuisine. Not to mention the stories and memories you create in each place you visit that make you look back and smile or even laugh. Japan however, would have to be one of my all time favourite places I have been to and I would go back in a heartbeat. It is truly a beautiful place to visit. From the kind and ever-so helpful people, to the amazing food you can find on every corner, the beautiful architecture and the incredible history. The best place about this country is that anyone could visit there with any number of different ideas of the perfect holiday and every one of those would be met.
When we visited we flew into Osaka, the sister city of San Francisco and straight away caught a train to Kyoto (not the bullet train mind you). Kyoto is what many describe as the cultural heart of Japan. Tokyo has its bright lights, gadgets, karaoke and sushi; Okinawa its beautiful beaches, top diving spots and the incredible Churaumi Aquarium; but Kyoto is a city that embodies what people think of when they want to visit traditional Japan, with hundreds of ways to enjoy the beautiful city and soak it all in – ancient temples, geisha’s and teahouses.
You could spend hours just walking around the streets of Kyoto. The Gion district is particularly attractive with its traditional wooden machiya merchant houses and ryokans – Japanese traditional style inns; only a few metres wide. Apparently, property taxes were once based on the street frontage, so these homes were built with narrow facades and stretched 20metres or more back from the street. Walking the stone paved streets here, you will encounter a geisha in her cumbersome zori sandals and exquisite silk kimono shuffling down the street (usually followed by a very large group of Japanese tourists running after her to have their photo taken). And, they are as beautiful as you imagine they will be.
Kyoto is home to hundreds of centuries-old temples, many of which we visited, where you can wander the ancient hallways and rooms and drink the blessed mountain water. It is also home to some of the best teahouses in Japan. One particular cold day after an early start and long morning of temple-seeing, we escaped the rain and visited Kagizen Yoshifusa – one of Kyoto’s oldest and best-known okashi-ya (sweet shops). A little hard to find (you have to enter the sweet shop through these dark noren curtains, then you find yourself in the shop – but not the teahouse like my trusty Lonely Planet described – its through another set of foreboding noren curtains. Here, you find the peaceful tearoom with its own zen garden where you can sample a nice hot matcha and a sweet, or be adventurous like we were and try the cold kuzukiri (transparent arrowroot noodles) served with a kuro-mitsu (sweet black sugar) dipping sauce. It was surprisingly delicious, I came to love all the Japanese sweets we encountered on our trip. Until one fateful day a delicious cream-filled sweet saw me attacked by a hungry falcon who also enjoys Japanese sweets just as much as me. Perhaps the most lovely thing about Kyoto when we visited was that it was the Cherry Blossom Festival. Beautiful trees in full bloom lined the streets along the canals through the city, lit up at night as tourists wandered through the blossoms. It was by pure luck that we happened to be in Japan when the blossoms were in bloom. The Japanese cherry tree – sakura; blooms at different times throughout Japan, but the blooming period of the most popular kind of sakura – somei-yoshino; is very short and generally between March-May, just when we were visiting that year (much to my husband’s disappointment this time did not also coincide with the Sumo wrestling tournaments – we missed those). I think that was soon forgotten though as the pink and white blossoms fell through the air as we walked down the streets each morning, it was difficult not to take hundreds of photos of the trees alone.
At this point, I didn’t think it could get much more beautiful. Then we headed to Mount Yoshino – famous for its many thousands of sakura trees planted along the mountain sides. Every year hundreds and hundreds of people flock to the mountain for Hanami – viewing the cherry blossoms. Not easy to get to, we caught the train from Nara station, with several train changes on the way. We then caught the Yoshino Ropeway up the steep start of the mountain to the small town which signals the start of your mountain climb. As you walk up Mount Yoshino you pass Yoshino’s famous temples and shrines, many ryokans, restaurants, souvenir shops and a few ice cream shops that sell delicious green tea matcha cones. But it is hard to take your eyes of the mountainside as you make your way to the top – it is completely covered with sakura trees. All planted in four groves at different altitudes. Accounts of Yoshino from 1714 explain that as travelers and pilgrims made their way to the top of the mountain, they would be able to enjoy the lower 1,000 cherry trees at the base, the middle 1,000 on the way, the upper 1,000 toward the top, and the 1,000 in the precincts of the inner shrine at the top. Today, it makes for spectacular viewing.Whilst I would like to fly to Japan tomorrow, I won’t be. But I have my photos and my memories to keep me smiling and laughing (I had a very embarrassing moments in a Japanese onsen I will save for another time). And when I feel I want to revisit Japan and eat some delicious ramen noodles, I’ve always got Japantown just outside my door.