Family dinner in Ukraine.
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Things I Ate in Ukraine

One of the things I’m most proud of in my culture is the sharing of food. My mom instilled in me the love of cooking and eating and not being afraid to try new flavors. Robert likes to tell the story of the first time he came to my parents’ house for dinner and my mom continued to fill his plate with food every time it was empty. Food is how we show love.

One of the central activities of my visit in Kiev was shopping for, cooking and eating meals as a family. The kitchen in my aunt’s house was the central area where everybody stayed up late talking and joking and of course, gathered for meals, snacks, drinks and nibbles.

My first night, and almost every night following, we had cake. The Roshen brand of cakes in Kiev are so good. My mom bought one once in the states, which was imported from Ukraine, and it just wasn’t the same.

Left to right: “Smetanyk,” a sour cream cake, and “Kyivsky” cake named after the city of Kiev/Kyiv. This cake has two light layers of meringue with hazelnut, chocolate glaze, and a buttercream icing. Easily my favorite cake.

Left to right: “Smetanyk,” a sour cream cake, and “Kyivsky” cake named after the city of Kiev/Kyiv. This cake has two light layers of meringue with hazelnut, chocolate glaze, and a buttercream icing. Easily my favorite cake.

The next day, we went to a membership bulk store called Metro. My mom and I wanted to buy everything! The aisles of tea, chocolate, bread and cookies were amazing!


Obolon brand of beer. I liked the label of the traditional red embroidery. We chose a few beers to try. Slavic beers tend to be high alcohol and very low in price (50 cents).

Obolon brand of beer. I liked the label of the traditional red embroidery. We chose a few beers to try. Slavic beers tend to be high alcohol and very low in price (50 cents).


Bottles of kefir, a fermented milk drink. It has become popular in the states, but again, does not taste as good in the states as it does in Ukraine.

Bottles of kefir, a fermented milk drink. It has become popular in the states, but again, does not taste as good in the states as it does in Ukraine.


Very happy to sample different types of black and rye bread, with and without caraway seeds.

Very happy to sample different types of black and rye bread, with and without caraway seeds.

When we came home, my aunt started preparing the dough to make vareniki, also called pierogis. These are filled dumplings of Eastern European descent. My mom usually made them with mashed potatoes inside. My aunt prepared them with sour cherries. I think I ate a dozen, or at least I wanted to!

Cherry vareniki with a little bit of honey.

Cherry vareniki with a little bit of honey.

The next day, we went to a Roshen factory store. Roshen is a confectioner that is owned by the current president of Ukraine; how interesting is that? It was also previously called the Karl Marx Kiev Confectionery Factory. At any rate, it was like we were all Charlie visiting the Chocolate Factory.

The refrigerated cakes section. The boxes are so pretty. It was tempting to want to try them all.

The refrigerated cakes section. The boxes are so pretty. It was tempting to want to try them all.


My cousins and I next to the cakes and eclairs. Yum.

My cousins and I next to the cakes and eclairs. Yum.


Pink zefir in bulk at Roshen. Zefir is sort of like a marshmallow, but better. It’s made by whipping together fruit puree, egg whites and sugar.

Pink zefir in bulk at Roshen. Zefir is sort of like a marshmallow, but better. It’s made by whipping together fruit puree, egg whites and sugar.


Robert loves orange jelly slices so I made sure he got a bag of these.

Robert loves orange jelly slices so I made sure he got a bag of these.


“Cherry Queen” cake from the Roshen store. It was sort of like a Black Forest cake.

“Cherry Queen” cake from the Roshen store. It was sort of like a Black Forest cake.

For breakfast, my aunt made pancakes called oladi. They are made with kefir in the batter and they get really puffy and doughy as they cook. We usually top them with sour cream and sugar.

Oladi pancakes browning in the pan; my aunt is not afraid of oil!

Oladi pancakes browning in the pan; my aunt is not afraid of oil!

For dinner, my cousin went down in the cellar to take out a jar of tomato juice and pickles. My aunt and uncle have a farm where they grow a lot of produce and can it for the winter months. We had a simple dinner of potatoes, pickles and bread.

Herbed potatoes with pumpernickel bread and homemade pickles. The small jar has “adjika,” which is a spicy sauce.

Herbed potatoes with pumpernickel bread and homemade pickles. The small jar has “adjika,” which is a spicy sauce.

The following day, we made the hour-long bus ride to the country where my aunt and uncle have a house. It is next door to the house where I grew up. My uncle was there keeping an eye on the property and he met us. Although it had decided to snow lightly, my uncle wanted to have an outdoor barbecue. The small village was so quiet and peaceful, especially with the fragrant smoke of the outdoor fire and light dusting of snow. And the air was so crisp and clean.

My uncle grilling some pork skewers.

My uncle grilling some pork skewers.


Proudly displaying the finished skewers.

Proudly displaying the finished skewers.


The finished dinner. My aunt fed us so well. I think this picture exemplifies a simple, country feast.

The finished dinner. My aunt fed us so well. I think this picture exemplifies a simple, country feast.


This was one of my favorite things I ate: home-canned tomato juice, black bread and a sprinkle of seasoning salt in unrefined sunflower oil. The oil was so thick and had a flavor of its own. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest sunflower oil producers.

This was one of my favorite things I ate: home-canned tomato juice, black bread and a sprinkle of seasoning salt in unrefined sunflower oil. The oil was so thick and had a flavor of its own. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest sunflower oil producers.

Dinner the next night consisted of borscht, the famous Eastern European soup made with beets and cabbage. In addition to the soup, we had vodka, black bread, roe and “salo” pork fat.

Sour cream for the borscht soup, salted fish, vodka, bread, “salo” pork fat, and roe.

Sour cream for the borscht soup, salted fish, vodka, bread, “salo” pork fat, and roe.


Red beet borscht soup with an eggplant dip and a layered crepe dish.

Red beet borscht soup with an eggplant dip and a layered crepe dish.

One of my cousins wakes up so early for work—like 4 a.m.—and returns home around 10 a.m. On her way home, she would pick up some cookies or pastries for us to try. My mom and I had been requesting these walnut shaped cookies called “oreshki.” The next day, she brought these rolled waffle straws and various pastries.

Oreshki cookies filled with boiled sweetened condensed milk (dulce de leche).

Oreshki cookies filled with boiled sweetened condensed milk (dulce de leche).


Rolled wafers with caramel and cream, coffee cakes, poppy seed rolls and cheese muffins.

Rolled wafers with caramel and cream, coffee cakes, poppy seed rolls and cheese muffins.

Our last meal, we (by “we” I mean my aunt; she didn’t let my mom or I help the entire time) made a giant salad and fried potato pancakes called “deruny.” They were so good. When I try to make the oladi or deruny pancakes at home, they never come out very good. I think it’s because I’m scared to use too much oil.

A giant SPACEBA (thank you) to my aunt, uncle and cousins for all the cooking, shopping, chopping and preparing they did during our visit.

Salad and potato pancakes topped with sour cream, of course!

Salad and potato pancakes topped with sour cream, of course!

Homemade vegetarian ramen
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A Ramen Story

In the U.S., ramen is a staple among poor college kids. A buck will get you three or four meals worth of freeze-dried noodles and too-salty seasoning packets.

Ramen in Japan is a different story. You can still buy the instant stuff, but for roughly the same price, you can head to one of a jillion ramen shops for the real thing. Here, ramen is an artform. It’s full of complex flavors created by labor-intensive processes.

The base is called dashi. It’s made by boiling aromatics like onions, garlic and ginger with konbu (dried seaweed) and katsuoboshi (dried, smoked fish shavings). Recipes are passed down through generations, refined over hundreds of years. In traditional-style restaurants, chefs are judged on the quality of their dashi. Dashi is subtle, but key to the essence of Japanese food as it serves as the basis for most Japanese recipes. It’s also part of the reason it’s difficult to be a non-fish-eating vegetarian in Japan.

The soup broth is typically made from pork. A thick white stock is made from simmering the bones, fat and meat for several hours. The broth is strained and added to the dashi, creating the core of the soup.

Ramen noodles are fresh, not freeze-dried. They’re made from kansui (an alkaline salt water) or eggs, giving them the durability to rest in a hot broth without disintegrating. They come in a variety of thicknesses, often depending on the region.

The toppings are what really differentiate ramen from region to region and chef to chef. A thin slice of pork is typically placed on top. Miso paste might be added, giving the broth a rich, saltier flavor. Korean chili paste can be added to create a spicy ramen. Ground pork might float in the bowl, adding another layer of flavor and texture. A salad with green onions and bean sprouts tossed in sesame oil is one of my favorite extras.

A soft-boiled egg is often included, although some shops just place a bowl of hard-boiled eggs on the counter. Soy sauce, raw garlic, chili oil and Japanese chili powder (shichimi) are common DIY additions provided by the shops.

Finding a good vegetarian ramen, even in Tokyo, is difficult. Strike good… just finding vegetarian ramen period is tough. The best is at T’s Tantan in Tokyo Station. Even non-vegetarians line up at all hours for their various vegan ramen options. The Ramen Museum in Yokohama also has a few tasty choices. But your corner ramen shop isn’t going to be much help. They take pride in their soup and aren’t really equipped to modify the broth for you.

Fortunately, making authentic-tasting vegetarian Japanese ramen at home is pretty easy. True to form, my recipe uses a homemade dashi and broth with storebought fresh ramen noodles. Outside of Japan, you should be able to find most ingredients at Trader Joe’s/Whole Foods-type stores or a local Asian market. It’s a great meal for these cold winter nights!

Spicy Miso Ramen (Vegetarian)

Dashi

  • 6 cups water
  • 1 tbsp no-chicken bouillon + 1 tsp no-beef bouillon
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 14 grams peeled raw ginger, sliced (thumb-sized piece)
  • 2-3 green onions
  • 3″ x 1″ (8 x 3cm) dried kombu
  • 1 tsp sesame oil

Soup Base

  • 3-4 tbsp miso paste
  • 1 tbsp + 1 tsp sake (mirin can be substituted)
  • 2 tsp soy sauce (full-salt is best)
  • 1/8 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp Korean chili bean paste (Tobanjan)

Seasoning

  • 1 tbsp + 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 clove garlic, grated

Noodles

  • Fresh ramen noodles

Toppings

  • Green onions, sliced for garnish
  • Soft-boiled or poached eggs — 1 per bowl
  • Fried tofu, sliced
  • 1/4 cup small-crumble TVP with enough dashi to cover
  • 1/2 cup corn kernels, pan-fried in butter and salt

Directions

  1. Prepare the toppings before making the soup and noodles. Once the noodles are cooked, you will need to add the soup and toppings right away or the noodles will get soft.
     
  2. Put dashi ingredients in a large pot and let boil for 15 minutes. Strain, then put the broth back in the pot.
     
  3. Add soup base to the dashi and let it simmer at low heat. Push the miso paste through a wire mesh strainer with the boiling dashi to make sure you don’t have large lumps of salty miso paste in your soup.
     
  4. In another pot, add ramen noodles to boiling water. Cook according to the package—about three minutes for fresh noodles.
     
  5. While cooking noodles, add seasonings to the soup and stir.

Assembly

  1. Put TVP into the bottom of each bowl.
  2. Divide noodles into each bowl.
  3. Add soup.
  4. Top with tofu, eggs, corn and green onions.

Serve with a deep soup spoon and chopsticks.

If you try it, leave a note in the comments and let me know what you think!

My collection of Japanese craft beer from the BeerTengoku free beer contest.
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Free Beer!

Last month, the guys over at BeerTengoku ran a contest offering free Japanese craft beer for simply connecting with them via the blog and various social media sites. Much to my surprise, I received an e-mail last week letting me know I was the winner of the contest!

BeerTengoku is easily the go-to English-language site for the burgeoning craft beer scene in Japan. It’s run by ex-pats who noticed the lack of information available in English and they’ve filled the gap admirably, featuring beer reviews, interviews with craft brewers and details about events all over the country.

My prize arrived last night and featured a great selection of six beers from breweries all over Japan. Once they’ve been enjoyed, I’ll make notes over at the Beer Journal. Here’s the lineup:

  • House IPA by Tamamura Honten Sake Brewery, Nagano Prefecture

  • Stout by North Island Beer, Hokkaido Prefecture

  • IPA by North Island Beer, Hokkaido Prefecture

  • Smoke & Fire Habanero Stout by Baird Beer, Shizuoka Prefecture

  • Red Ale by Iwate Kura Beer, Iwate Prefecture

  • Imperial Red Ale by Ise Kadoya Brewery, Mie Prefecture

Fireworks and floats at the Chichibu Night Festival in Chichibu, Saitama
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Chichibu Night Festival

Tradition trumping modernity brings me great joy. For more than 300 years, the Chichibu Yomatsuri (Night Festival) has been held annually on December 2 and 3. It doesn’t matter if those days fall on the weekend or, as they were this year, Wednesday and Thursday.

The midweek schedule didn’t stop visitors flocking from Tokyo and beyond out to the small town in the foothills of the Okuchichibu Mountains. The festival is considered one of Japan’s three great float festivals alongside those in the cultural titans of Kyoto and Nara.

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The best part about night festivals is that they start around dinner time, so it’s a great excuse to pig out on festival food. There’s a lot of festival standards, but each town also has its own unique festival foods. In Chichibu, we saw a variety of dumpling soups and omusoba, which is an egg omelette wrapped around yakisoba noodles and topped with a sunny-side-up egg, ketchup and mayonaisse. It was kind of amazing.

December 3 is the main day of the festival. The parade features floats carried from Chichibu Shrine to the city hall where they’re displayed and used as stages for kabuki performances.

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The float parade is lively with a group of young people leading the way with chants of “Ho-ryai!” (“Hooray!”). The massive float follows behind, performers waving lanterns on the stage built into the front and others hanging from the top, at least 20-feet above the ground.

Read an interesting perspective on the building of the floats at Sonic-Yoshi

The ornate floats, called “yatai,” are built using Japanese elm wood and weigh as much as 20 tons. They move slowly through the streets until they reach the intersection near Ohanabatake Station. Here they perform a ceremonial turning of the float called nonoji-mawashi, or “Turning in the Shape of No.” In this case, “no” is the character .

The danger is palpable; the gasps from the crowd audible. It takes a dozen people using long wooden pillars to lift the end of the float enough that someone can crawl underneath and rearrange the direction of the wheels. Dozens more push the behemoth into its -shaped turn.  All the while, the float lists, leans and wobbles like a disaster waiting to happen.

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Before, during and after the parade, the sky lights up with hundreds of fireworks. Hanabi (firework viewing) is usually a summertime event, so the show in Chichibu is unique in December. It also gave us an opportunity to try out the “Fireworks” setting on our camera, capturing some fun shots.

I find myself running out of superlatives for the things we’re so fortunate to experience in Japan. Chichibu is one of our favorite places in Japan (see here and here and here) and it just received another tick in the plus column.

Video: Chichibu Night Festival

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Miyajima

We started our day before the day itself got underway, arriving at the Miyajimaguchi Pier ferry terminal just as the sun began to rise over Itsukushima Island. The ferry set sail right on schedule, carrying us through the morning mist hovering atop Hiroshima Bay.

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Sunrise over Hiroshima Bay and Miyajima

As we approach, the inspiration for the island’s popular nickname—Miyajima (Shrine Island)—emerges through the mist. First, the Great Torii, glowing in orange lacquer, appears just beyond the water’s edge. Then, the sprawling complex of Itsukushima Shrine and the five-tiered pagoda comes into view. It’s picture perfect.

The Great Torii of Miyajima appears in the morning mist

The Great Torii of Miyajima appears in the morning mist

The Great Torii and Itsukushima Shrine are both listed among UNESCO’s World Heritage properties, and for good reason. The Great Torii is in its eighth iteration, this one standing since 1875. Built from 500 year old camphor tree, the 16-ton gate rises nearly 55-feet into the air. Perhaps most impressively, it stands directly atop stones on the seabed instead of being buried into the ground. The weight of the wood and seven tons of fist-sized rocks hand-set in the roof keep the torii planted in place.

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We arrived early enough to be able to spend an hour or so walking around the torii with only a thin crowd joining us. At low tide, you can walk all the way through the gate, the seabed just firm enough from the dried mud and seaweed. We snapped photos from every angle imaginable. We offered to take photos for strangers who offered the same in kind. A quiet and peaceful morning in a tranquil place.

In fact, we arrived so early that none of the shops on Miyajima’s shopping street had opened yet. Around 9 a.m., we finally spotted a cafe propping its doors and stopped in for coffee. Continuing down the street, we tried some of Miyajima’s famous maple leaf cakes and spotted one of the island’s novelties: the world’s largest rice scoop. A Korean dance group set up near the ferry terminal, the rhythmic beat of their drums audible all over the island.

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As the crowd thickened, swarming in every 20 minutes via the ferry, we sought higher ground. The Uguisuhodo Nature Walk trail climbs steadily into the heart of the island, finally meeting up with the Miyajima Ropeway station. The cable cars graze the treetops on their way to the top of Mt. Misen.

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Mt. Misen’s Observatory offers panoramic views of Hiroshima Bay and the surrounding islands. Temples and shrines dating back to the 9th century sit just below the mountain’s summit, full with tales of miracles circulating around Daisho-in Temple’s founding monk, Kobo Daishi.

One of the most popular attractions is Kiezu-no-hi or The Eternal Flame. It is said to have been lit by Daishi himself in 806 AD and continues to burn to this day. Water boiled in a tea kettle over the flame is thought to hold magical healing powers. The flame itself was used as the pilot light for the Peace Flame that burns in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park.

While the torii and the shrines are the main draw, Miyajima might be just as famous for its wild deer. After living with generations of tourists, the deer are mostly docile and don’t really care about the thousands of people walking through their home. However, when feeding time comes, they turn into quite a nuisance, digging into bags or just swiping things out of people’s hands. As we watched the sunset, a deer with a cataract came up and snagged our map of the island out of our bag. He chewed it and swallowed it down, his creepy cloudy-white eye staring at us the whole time.

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Miyajima Firewalking Ceremony

In a moment of travel serendipity, we happened to land on Miyajima on the day of Daigan-ji Temple’s Hiwatari-shiki or Firewalking Ceremony. The ceremony is only held twice a year, once in April and once in November.

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The temple’s monks go through an hour-long ceremony, building a towering bonfire fueled by thousands of wooden stakes—offerings left throughout the year by worshippers. They smooth the coals several times over with long bamboo poles as the flames rise and fall. Purifying salt is thrown over the flames and pine branches laid at either end of the inferno. There’s chanting, a conch-shell horn and a lot of theatrics.

As they near the end, one of the monks begins an intricate final dedication, writing Japanese characters in the air with his arm. Suddenly, as the fire returns to its peak, the monks run through one by one. With the drawn out ceremony, the haste of the climax is almost shocking.

Once the flames die down and only the hot coal remains, visitors are invited to partake in the ceremony. The line wrapped around the temple as tourists passed over the coals one by one.

Video: Miyajima’s Firewalking Ceremony

Vegetarian okonomiyaki at Nagata-ya in Hiroshima. Nagata-ya is one of the most popular shops in town and offers several vegetarian-friendly options—a rarity in Japan. The highlight was slivers of fried garlic sprinkled on top.
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Things We Eat: Hiroshima Edition

“I’m not sure I can eat any more okonomiyaki.”

If you spend more than a few days visiting Hiroshima, this phrase might come out of your mouth as well. Every street has at least one shop featuring the city’s popular version of this quintessential Japanese food.

In case you’re not familiar, okonomiyaki is a savory pancake, made with a combination of batter, eggs, cabbage and other fillings, then topped with a sweet and salty sauce. Every region does it a little differently. In Osaka, all of the ingredients are mixed together, creating a solid slab of tastiness. In Tokyo, monjayaki is king, combining the ingredients with a runny, cheesy batter that is fried directly onto the griddle, then peeled off with a spatula.

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In Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, the batter is poured into a thin crepe, then the filling is placed on top. An egg is cracked onto the griddle, its yolk broken and cooked thin to create another “crepe” that goes on top. It’s more like a big sandwich than the Osaka version.

The kicker is the soba or udon noodles that are added to the filling, creating a carb-loaded meal that will keep you going for hours. While the original version was more of a snack, the modern version evolved in the post-World War II era as a way to combine cheap ingredients into a nutritionally-dense meal.

Momiji-manju

While the maple leaf-shaped cake known as momiji-manju can be found all over Japan, its origins are in Hiroshima, specifically the southern island of Miyajima. The cakes were created in the early-1900s in honor of the island’s famous maple leaf viewing festivals.

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We hadn’t even left Hiroshima Station when we came across our first momiji-manju. A shop inside the station sold a breaded, deep-fried version that was sinful and delicious. While they were originally made by hand, they’re now abundant throughout the city thanks to the complex automated baking and wrapping machines, many of which are on display in the Miyajama shops.

Hiroshima Sweets, Treats and Eats

There’s more to Hiroshima’s food scene than just okonomiyaki and momiji. Check out the gallery below for some of the other awesome sweets, treats and eats from the week.

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Nikkō

Thanks to the university choosing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its founding by canceling Friday classes, we were gifted an extra-long weekend and made a trip to Nikkō. Located in Tochigi Prefecture, about three hours north of Kawagoe via local trains, Nikkō is a popular destination for viewing koyo, or “fall colors” thanks to its high elevations around picturesque Lake Chūzenji.

Day 1: Kanmangafuchi Abyss

We arrived Thursday afternoon amidst a light but steady drizzle. We caught a local bus to our ryokan, the Turtle Inn, alongside the Daiya River. After dropping our bags, we took a short walk to Kanmangafuchi Abyss, an ancient gorge formed by the eruption of Mount Nantai.

Along the way, we saw the beginnings of fall in Stone Park before arriving to a line of 70 stone Jizo statues. Known as “Bake Jizo” or “Ghost Jizo”, the Buddhist statue is believed to be the protector of children, especially those who pass away before their parents. The statues are a common sight in Japan, usually clad in knitted hats and bibs that are often provided by the grieving parents.

After our short hike, we went to Bell, a small, family-run cafe that features yuba—Nikkō’s local speciality—in a large set meal. Yuba is the skin that forms on the top of boiled soy milk and takes on the flavors of the surrounding ingredients much like tofu. Their delicious “Monk’s Diet” set featured six different vegetarian preparations of yuba.

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Day 2: Senjogahara Hike

We were met with a misty rain on the morning of our second day as well. We boarded the bus for the hour-plus ride out past the north end of Lake Chūzenji. As we wound through the curvy mountain roads, the sky began to clear up, turning into a cool but pleasant day.

English-language maps are located all over town featuring useful guides to get the most out of a Nikkō visit. We chose the 6.3km hiking course from Yutaki Falls through the Senjogahara Marshlands ending at Ryuzu Falls. The course begins at the massive Yutaki Falls where those traveling by car stop before continuing on to the Yumoto Hot Springs.

After snapping a few pictures, we ventured out onto the trail, which mostly consists of newly-built boardwalks that keep your feet out of the muck while protecting the natural habitat from the thousands of daily visitors. The crowds thinned considerably as we moved away from the falls. The scenery is beautiful as it evolves from dense forest to the open plains of Senjogahara Marshlands. The scenery is framed by the nearby mountain range, anchored by Mt. Nantai, Nikkō’s answer to Mt. Fuji. We ended at Shobugahama Beach on the north shore of Lake Chūzenji before catching a bus back to the city.

That night, we headed toward the city center to find dinner. Although it was a Friday night, many of the restaurants were closed despite the streets crawling with tourists. While looking at cheap Ukiyo-e prints, we bumped into a couple from San Francisco who were looking for a nearby vegetarian restaurant (among those already closed for the night). We chatted for awhile and gave them directions to the place we ate the night before.

As we popped in and out of the other restaurants trying to find a vegetarian-friendly meal, we ran into them again. They’d been doing the same, showing their vegetarian travel card to every shop owner before being turned away due to the fish broth, or fish chunks or fish fish. This time they stuck with us and together we tried to find a place to eat. Thanks to TripAdvisor, we finally arrived at Maruhide Shokudo.

The hostess invited us into the small restaurant and started going through the menu with us in Japanese with a little bit of English. With a few modifications, we came up with a pretty good selection of food, including a teriyaki yuba burger—sort of like shredded roast beef—and yuba-filled potato and soy croquettes. We shared travel stories (they’d lived in Hong Kong and Sydney for short periods) and enjoyed the great meal with new friends.

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Day 3: World Heritage Shrines and Temples

For our last day, we stayed in town to visit the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Shrines and Temples of Nikkō. Two Shinto shrines (Futarasan Shrine and Tōshō-gū) and one Buddhist temple (Rinnō-ji) make up the complex along with the large cedar forest surrounding the area.

Not unlike the shrines and temples in Kyoto, the Nikkō complex requires a ticket to get in. For 1,300 yen, you get a ticket to Tōshō-gū and entrance to the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu was the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan for more than 200 years while laying the groundwork for the Japanese imperialism era of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Unfortunately, both Tōshō-gū and Futarasan are undergoing major restoration work. Coupled with the large Saturday crowd, the shrines were a little disappointing, but it was still easy to see why they’re an important part of Japan’s history.

The most complete artifact of the complex had to be the Five-Storied Pagoda, originally built in 1650, destroyed by fire and then rebuilt in 1818. It uses a unique center pillar called a shinbashira for support which has long been thought to be the reason pagodas perform well in earthquakes. Over the past 1,400 years, only two pagodas have collapsed in earthquakes.

After a self-guided tour and a short coffee stop, we set out for another walking tour. The Takino’o Path heads up into the cedar forest, visiting some unique shrines and natural sights. It was a great way to escape the crowds at the shrines and enjoy one last bit of peace and quiet before heading back into the city.

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Visiting Nikkō

Nikkō is a popular day trip for tourists as it’s less than two hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen. The All-Nikkō Pass can be reserved online and provide a great discount on train and bus fare.

We stayed near the shrine area and while we enjoyed our ryokan, we probably would choose something in the Lake Chūzenji area next time. If the natural sights and hiking are your thing, I’d recommend the same. If you’re more into shopping, eating and the shrines, staying closer to the station is a better option. The bus between the areas takes about an hour and costs anywhere from 1,000-1,500 yen each way.