In April 2022 Greg and Chris traveled to Japan for the first time in 2 ½ years. They spent a week together traveling from Tokyo to Shikoku and many places in between. Chris also spent an additional week traveling in and around Tokyo before Greg arrived. This blog is about both weeks with Chris’s observations from the first week and Greg’s from the second.
Disclaimer: this is a long blog post. To skip to week 2, click here.
Week 1 by Chris
Everything has changed during the pandemic. Some things in small ways, others in large. We were both excited and apprehensive for this trip. How would we find Japan had changed? How had it stayed the same?
Our last trip was in November 2019, so we had a lot to do. Naturally we were there to visit new companies and sample new products. But we also needed to reconnect face-to-face with our existing producers. The numerous Zoom meetings over the last 2 ½ years just didn’t cut it. To that end, I left for Japan a week before Greg. That first week I would spend in and around Tokyo visiting with a number of our existing producers.
Any international travel during the pandemic has been difficult. But travel to Japan, a country that has basically been closed to all foreign visitors for 2 years, would turn out to be on a whole other level. It started with paperwork….so much paperwork. The Japanese government loves its paperwork and put us through a crash course in how to
love tolerate it ourselves. The good thing is that if you follow the rules, check every box, and have everything printed out, it will all work out. Which it did, and we had our business visas (the first time we had to do that!) a week before my departure.
The next difference was upon arrival at the airport in Japan. Usually, we step off the plane with an adrenaline rush that balances out the jetlag. This time we would also have to contend with a long slog at the airport. You see, everyone gets PCR tested upon arrival and you can’t leave the airport until that PCR test comes back negative. This is a long process requiring that pile of paperwork we gathered back in the US, standing in multiple lines and spitting into a tiny test tube. But finally, after three hours, I was free to roam about the country
The first thing you notice is masks…everyone wears a mask 24/7. Outside, inside, on the train, in the hotel, everyone wears a mask. The only time you take your mask off is when you are alone in your hotel room or about to eat or drink. Note that the Japanese government has not mandated mask-wearing…people just do it.
Having made it through the COVID testing gauntlet at Narita, I took the Keisei Skyliner to Ueno (this experience hasn’t changed…including the egg salad sandwich and green tea purchased at a convenience store just before getting on the train) and then walked 5 minutes to my hotel.
First egg salad sandwich of the trip
In talking with people in the following days, multiple reasons were offered for the smaller, earlier crowds. Someone suggested that tourists (even from Japan) weren’t coming to this part of town as much. Also, up until a few weeks ago, izakaya and other restaurants had to close by 9pm and for a long period they weren’t even able to sell alcohol. Perhaps the Japanese had become accustomed to these earlier hours and have not yet adjusted back to being able to stay out late?
On my agenda for Sunday were two completely different experiences. Walking (& eating my way) up and down a traditional Shotengai (shopping street) and going to a Tokyo Giants baseball game at Tokyo Dome. I love a good Shotengai, the more remote and foreigner-free, the better. Yanaka Ginza fit the bill on this summer-like Sunday. Menchi katsu (a patty of minced pork and/or beef with onions coated in panko and deep fried) was crispy on the outside, soft on the inside and nicely spiced. Followed by a street beer, it made for a great mid-day snack. Young families, groups of young women and the occasional couple on a date ambled up and down the street. Other than the omnipresent masks, it seemed “normal”.
Menchi katsu and a street beer at Yanaka Ginza
Next stop was about a 45-minute walk through regular (i.e., non-touristy) neighborhoods of city toward Tokyo Dome. I have been fortunate enough to attend two other Giants (technically the Yomiuri Giants…teams in Japan are named after their main corporate sponsor, not the city from which they come) games. Attending a professional baseball game in Japan is like going through the looking glass. The game is pretty much the same, but the fans are on another level. Each team has a cheering section in the bleachers. When it is their team’s turn at bat, the respective cheering section goes into action. They make noise non-stop, alternating between cheers, singing fight songs and banging on noisemakers. The enthusiasm and dedication are impressive. During Corona (as COVID is called colloquially in Japan), some changes have been made. Of course, everyone has their mask on. Also, cheering is no longer allowed. So polite clapping is heard when someone strikes out or has a nice at bat. As you can guess, singing is also a no-no. So, what’s a team’s cheering section to do? Well, the home team has recorded versions of their fight songs played on the loudspeaker. And both teams make more noise with their noisemakers than I thought possible. How long does the ringing in the ears last for those fans in the cheering section
Scenes from a Giants game, including fans waving tiny umbrellas (center)
Luckily the food in Japan hasn’t changed…it is still mind blowing. From humble bowls of ramen to elevated tasting menus, the care and attention of Japanese chefs continues to shine through. Monday night I was fortunate enough to be invited by Hanamaruki to have dinner at Mutsukari in Ginza. Exiting the private elevator leading into the gorgeous, jewel box of a restaurant, we were seated at a bar made of polished wood, directly next to the open kitchen. Each course was presented from the other side of the bar by one of the chefs, with carefully selected sake pairings. The ingredients celebrated the spring season, including fresh bamboo shoot and kinome (the young leaves of the sansho tree). It was a meal to remember.
I also visited Yamaki Jozo, whose organic, traditionally-made soy sauce we are fortunate enough to carry. It was good to see Kitani-san and Hemmi-san after so long. One of the many things that makes meeting at Yamaki Jozo so great is that they have their own restaurant that specializes in tofu and yuba, the skin that forms on the top of soy milk when making tofu (yes, besides soy sauce, Yamaki Jozo also make soy products like tofu and yuba). Dining at this restaurant makes for a delicious education. From yuba as creamy and soft as the freshest buffalo milk mozzarella to yuba sheets used to wrap a deep-fried spring roll, each dish opened my eyes to new ways to create flavor and texture with this ingredient. The local craft beer paired well with everything, too. Oh, and the soft cream (Japan’s name for soft serve ice cream) at Yamaki Jozo was a treat. It was still Sakura season, so they served a soft cream with crunchy Sakura-flavored bits and gold leaf (how fancy!). And their soft cream has tofu whipped in, which gives it a firm yet silky texture.
Visiting Yamaki Jozo
Left: Kitani-san -- Middle: Fancy Soft Cream! -- Right: Chris with Kitani-san & Hemmi-san
The fact that as of April 2022 there were no foreign tourists in Japan (literally…foreign tourists were not allowed to enter from any country) has also changed Japan. Before Covid Japan had prioritized tourism from overseas visitors. Indeed, it had been wildly successful with 32 million visiting in 2019. Naturally this has many consequences. Some spots such as Kyoto were verging on being over touristed. Indeed, Greg and I joke that before Covid, Kyoto seemed to have as many foreigners walking the streets as Japanese people. But now Japan is blissfully (to some, at least…the economic toll of not having tourists has been devastating to many) empty of tourists and seems, as Greg observed soon after arriving, to be more relaxed. It is hard to put into words, exactly, but Japan seems to be just Japan. They are able to focus on day-to-day life, not having to worry about their foreign guests. One small way we experienced this during this trip is that whenever we checked into hotels, the people at the front desk spoke to us in Japanese. During prior trips they have always greeted us in English. Perhaps now they assume we must live here…why else would we be here? It has helped us practice our terrible (but slowly improving!) Japanese. We are quite fortunate to be able to experience Japan during this unique time.
Here are a few other random observations:
Convenience stores – Japanese konbini (convenience stores) are as good as we left them, if not better. The egg salad sandwiches (I am obsessed) in each of the three big chains (7-11, Lawson and Family Mart) are all delicious, if each a bit different. Oh, and many 7-11s in Tokyo have implemented a new cash register system where the customer puts money into a slot and the machine automatically provides the change. Some of you might think this sounds crazy but until you have experienced Japanese convenience stores, you cannot imagine how great they really are.
Safety – Japan is safe. Full stop. Not only do I feel safe in any neighborhood at any time of day or night, but your personal items are also safe. Yes, you can leave your backpack in the car. Or your phone and laptop on the table when you go to use the bathroom while at a café. They will still be there when you return. It continues to blow my American mind.
Meetings – business meetings in Japan are one of my favorite things. You’re led into a conference room that almost always has a coffee table and couches or comfy chairs on either side. So instead of a conference room table at ‘regular’ height, you’re sitting much lower and will be taking notes on your lap. After sitting down, you immediately stand up when your hosts walk in. Then you make your introductions and exchange business cards (a very practiced and choreographed interaction). Then you sit back down on those low couches/comfy chairs to start the small talk. There will always be a drink served in cups with saucers. It is almost always green tea but occasionally you’ll get black coffee. Finally, you get to discussing business. When it is all done, you say your goodbyes, there is much bowing and often a group photo is taken. I love the formality and ceremony of Japanese business meetings. It seems important to how business is done between companies and I’m all in.
Trains – I don’t know how many things I have said are ‘my favorite part’ of Japan, but trains are definitely in the top 5. Efficient, fast, clean and, for me, relaxing. Having an ekiben (bento box purchased at a train station for eating on the train) and a green tea or beer (hey, if the workday is done, why not?) while watching the Japanese country or city-side go by is a great way to de-stress. So much better than flying…
Shinkansen arriving at Honjō Waseda Station
People – the people of Japan are friendly and polite. I can’t count the number of interactions I’ve had where people go out of their way to help me. A quick example – after getting off a subway train, I realized I didn’t have enough money on my Suica prepaid transportation card that now resides on my phone. This was my first trip with my Suica card being on my phone (instead of having the physical card) and while it is incredibly convenient to have it on your phone, one thing is a bit difficult: finding the right ticketing machine to charge/add value to your account. You must find a pretty new machine and they can be few and far between. Not finding one, I went to the station attendant and asked in my broken (shattered?) Japanese where I could charge my Suica. The station attendant told me and motioned somewhere behind me. I had no idea what he said but thanked him and turned to go in the direction I thought he indicated. After walking for a while and not finding anything, I heard someone behind me. It was the station attendant, who had come out of his office, run over to get me and took me to the small convenience store kiosk where I could add value to my card. This type of thing (both me being clueless and a Japanese person going out of their way to help me) happens over here on a relatively regular basis.
Before Covid, Chris and I loved taking the red-eye flight into Tokyo, because we would get off the plane, shower in the airport, get some food and by 9am we were at our first meeting. This trip would not be like any past trips because of the entry requirements due to Covid.
Entry into the country was easy-ish, if you were prepared, but it did take me just under five hours from the time the plane landed. They first let all the connecting flight passengers deplane (roughly 2/3 of the plane). The rest of us then took a long walk through different stations to show paperwork and documents. Then you get a PCR test and wait for your result (mine was good = negative). You are now free to go through customs, which feels like a breeze because you’ve just waited a long time in the Covid section.
My next obligation wasn't until a 7pm dinner, so I took my sweet time getting breakfast and traveling to my hotel. It was way too early to check-in to my hotel, so I dropped my luggage and headed back out. Chris had already been here for a week, so we met up at a soup curry place we like.
On my walk to meet him, I felt like I was in another dimension, like a character out of a Haruki Murakami novel. Tokyo was quiet, more subdued and slower than I remember, especially in Ginza which is normally really fast-paced. Yet it was not eerily spooky like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, where he wakes up to a deserted Times Square, but it was striking the difference compared to past trips. When I got to the soup curry shop, the line was only a little shorter than the last time we ate there, and the food was as amazing as always (first major box checked!).
Greg and his first meal this trip - soup curry!
After lunch, we met up with my good friend JJ. He has a small, wonderful California style bakery called Parklet that has been an instant hit. Catching up with an old friend with a glass of wine on a warm spring afternoon was another perfect way start to my trip. Chris and I then checked into our hotel rooms and took a breather before the evening’s business dinner.
Greg and JJ at Parklet in Tokyo
We had quick beer (a TJP tradition) at Hitachino Brewing’s outdoor kiosk on top of Tokyo Station before taking the Yamanote Line to Ebisu. We were meeting Yugeta-san for dinner at Yuuzutsu, a soba restaurant with a twist. It was an omakase soba menu (basically a soba tasting menu). It turned out to be just what I needed to help me settle in on my first night back in Japan. After dinner it was straight to bed for me because jetlag had taken control.
Omakase dinner at soba restaurant with Yugeta-san
The next morning, we agreed to take it easy since the only plans we had were to get to Osaka, check into our hotel and travel over to Kobe for dinner at my Japanese “parents” house. When I told Yoko (my "mom") we were coming to Japan, I was not sure if she would be open to us visiting (due to Covid).
But she let me know that they were very excited to see us. I had not seen them since 2019 when they stayed with me in San Francisco that summer. Naturally we had so many questions about how they have fared in the pandemic. But when Tom (my "dad") met us at Tanigami station, he was exactly the same energetic person. Perhaps even more so because the occasion made him excited.
Tom and Yoko
When we arrived at their house, Yoko looked wonderful, warm and welcoming as usual. Me being me, it was straight to the kitchen to see how I could help with the night’s dinner. What took both of us by surprise was the view from their kitchen window – everything, including the cherry trees, was in blossom. They said it just happened, which made it even more special.
In bloom at Tom & Yoko's
It took Yoko a minute or two to realize other people were in her kitchen, but like usual Chris and I were both put to work and then the conversation flowed. The night flew by!
Yoko showing Greg how it's done
I can’t tell you how many times I pinched myself - the conversation, the jokes, the serious talk and the wonderful food and drink all made me realize how special these people are to me. It was the kind of moment when you realize you are all meant to be together.
We left their house shortly after 10pm to go back to Osaka. Generally, we would have stayed over but we had business meetings starting early the next morning.
Before heading out for this first day of work, I took advantage of the hotel’s sento (public bath). Whether it be an onsen or a sento, they are must for me when I travel to Japan, so we almost always book hotels with them. I looked around my hotel room for a robe to wear down to the bath and found one in the top drawer next to the bed. As I ventured down to the sento, I was thinking, “I am a pro at this…” But mid-way through my soak, I realized everyone had their own towels! Fudge, mine is in my room, but where? Embarrassed and naked I had to call the front desk and my Nihongo (Japanese) was not good enough to explain my predicament, so after I fumbled my words the person on the other end started speaking English. Embarrassed and ashamed, I was brought a towel…first “Gaijin moment” of the trip. When I went back to my room, in the drawer below where I found the robe there was the towel staring back at me.
The first work stop of the trip was to Murakami Shoten, our sugar producer. We had reached out to ask if they had any other products we might be able to bring aboard, plus I wanted to taste the difference between the different islands in Okinawa. My wish was granted, and we tasted sugar from each of the 8 Okinawan islands that produce sugar. It was amazing to taste how different each one was. But what really stood out is the flavor of the sugar we have been importing from Hateruma Island. It is far and away the best.
Tasting Okinawan brown sugars
After that visit to Murakami Shoten, we ventured westward deep into the mountains in central Okayama Prefecture to visit Kohno brewery. Kohno-san, whom we had already ‘met’ once during the pandemic via Zoom, was a gracious and entertaining host. Having taken over his family business, Kohno-san has been focusing on the quality of his koji, as that is an important component for the flavor of all of his products. We toured the facility and tasted through his whole product line. Let’s just say that Kohno-san makes amazing akasu and miso. Stay tuned…
After Kohno, we went to a small tourist town on the north shore of the Seto Inland Sea, an area famous for octopus (tako in Japanese). For dinner that night we were the only customers at a restaurant that specializes in all preparations of tako. While I loved the documentary, “My Octopus Teacher,” truthfully, I love eating tako even more. I had never had a dinner featuring the whole octopus. This is one of the reasons why I love Japanese culture and cuisine, because they have enormous respect and gratitude for the food they eat. You eat everything and everything is prepared impeccably. It is the way you pay respect to the animal. The chef was so skilled and explained to us the difference between the male and female octopus and how to tell them apart. Our first bite was a raw pulsing piece of tako, so pure in every way. Then we had delicate sashimi, then lightly cooked and of course fried. Everything was just outstanding.
After the tako dinner, we went to seaside resort hotel with an onsen (hot spring). Our favorite type of hotel in Japan! This hotel resort was one of those stuck in a time warp. It seemed like nothing had changed since it opened decades ago. The paint on the walls had that cigarette smoke coating like so many homes in the US back in the 70s and 80s. It was a time capsule of an era long gone, but apparently not forgotten. Yet, what was more perplexing, was that it was probably the largest hotel room in Japan that I had ever stayed in. It even had a lounge room with a well-worn faux-leather couch and a window facing the sea. That absolutely breath-taking view of the Seto Inland Sea and Great Seto Bridge was mesmerizing, making you forget all about the quirks of the hotel. That night Chris, Takehiro and I ventured to down to the hotel’s onsen to relax. Chris retired early, while Takehiro and I continued our soak, gazing out at the sea and talking about kids and life in general…not a bad night at all.
Room with a view
The next day started with an early morning onsen (I brought my own towel this time) and then breakfast with Chen-san, who is part of the export division at Wadaman. She is originally from Taiwan. Her family used to vacation often in Japan and she fell in love with it and now calls it home. I had never really been able to spend time getting to know her until this trip. It was wonderful getting to know someone who you work with so often. As I always say, it is all about relationships…
Speaking of which, one of the best things about what we do is getting to travel to Japan and meeting incredible producers of artisanal products. This is part of the process for bringing in every product that we stock. During the pandemic, this has not been possible. We did bring in a couple new products like our Yamasei Organic Karashi Mustard Powder with the help of our exporter and sesame producer extraordinaire, Takehiro Wada of Wadaman. The product arrived, and sales have been good, but something has just not been right…something has been missing.
On this trip, we finally got to visit Yamasei in person. It felt so good to visit them. It was the personal connection that we needed, the smells of the factory, the pulse of workers, location of the factory, hearing the history of the company, everything…basically the human connection.
We were blown away just by pulling up to the factory where there was a field of mustard flowers in full bloom! Also, probably the coolest thing yet in all of our factory tours was that they had little cubbies of work shoes for us to wear with OUR NAMES on them in Katakana. A small gesture perhaps, but it made us feel super special. At one point on the tour, we entered another room and were greeted by a monstrous machine emanating a massive racket. This was a "pounding machine" with 16 metal fists pounding the paste into a powder.
Yamasei with mustard field in full bloom
Truthfully, it took longer to get to and from the factory than our meeting lasted, but the experience was truly worth every second. And Takehiro (who used to live in the area) took us to a few of his favorite Sanuki udon shops. Amazing!
From there on the drive back to Osaka, Takehiro brought up a place called “Jeans Street” in the town of Kojima, that sells Japanese denim. We stopped at what usually would be a busy shopping district, but on a Tuesday during a pandemic it was a ghost town. But there was truth in advertising, “Jeans Street” had denim everything and everywhere. And my wife was quite happy with the denim dress I brought back for her…bonus points for me.
Jeans Street in Kojima
Dinner that night was what Chris has since started calling our “visit to Mount Olympus to dine with the gods” – in this case, some of the gods of Japanese food producers – Iio-san of Iio Jozo, Doi-san of Konbu Doi and Tsujita-san of Yamatsu Tsujita. We were running a bit late due to our multiple stops to eat bowls of udon and our time on “Jeans Street”, so there was no time to stop at the hotel to change into nicer clothes and refresh. But when Tsujita-san showed up, it became clear we didn’t have anything to worry about…he was dressed in a t-shirt and sweats! The dinner that night, at Michelin starred restaurant Mitsuya, was equal parts delicious, enlightening, and entertaining. The food at this Kappo restaurant was impressive. The restaurant had only 8 seats, all at a counter facing the chef. The chef and his two assistants cooked everything right in front of you. The breadth and depth of the chef’s skill was on display in every dish. The enlightening part came when Doi-san gave me a private katsuobushi lesson on the differences between arabushi and karebushi. As described in our Katsuobushi Journey blog post, the small pieces of paper where Doi-san wrote his lesson are now treasured by us.
Doi-san (center) teaching Greg about katsuobushi while Iio-san (left) looks on
Finally, the entertainment portion of the night. It turns out that Iio-san has quite the comedic chops, having quite a witty back and forth with Tsujita-san, who himself is hilarious. It was also Tsujita-san’s birthday, so we enjoyed singing him happy birthday. We left the restaurant with our bellies full, minds expanded and jaws hurting from laughing so much.
Dinner with the gods
Iio-san, Doi-san, Greg, Takehiro, Chef Matsumura-san, Tsujita-san and Chris
Later in the week we made the quick trip from Osaka to Kyoto to visit Uneno. As with “my Japanese parents” Tom and Yoko, I feel a deep connection with Motofusa and Yoshiko Uneno. They feel like family because we share the same ethos about the world and life in general. They are true stewards to the earth, recognizing what needs to change for us to prosper as humans and their deep connection to dashi culture. Even though Motofusa speaks almost no English, we have always connected through food. When he talks about food, and dashi in particular, I understand exactly what he is saying without completely understanding what he is saying in Japanese…it is a connection. Yoshiko is so vibrant and full of joy. It’s impossible not to rub off on you and her English gets better every time we see her.
On all of our trips to Japan, we have always visited Uneno-san and each time we walk away with a ton of knowledge and as better people, and this time was no different. Before arriving, we asked if they would explain the difference between arabushi (non-fermented) and karebushi (fermented) katsuobushi and how to use them. Over the course of an hour at their shop’s beautiful kitchen, Uneno-san had us taste our way through dashi made with different types of katsuobushi. As always, this was incredibly helpful in expanding our dashi culture knowledge.
Learning about katsuobushi from Uneno-san
Naturally we were also there for business, so Uneno-san showed us all the new products they developed during the pandemic. The changed environment brought on by the pandemic heightened their belief that most Japanese do not cook the old traditional ways and in fact most Japanese believe that eating out is better for you. So, for many in Japan cooking at home has become somewhat of an afterthought. Knowing this they started to develop healthy, natural, sustainable ways people could use their products such as all natural instant dashi packs and other products. Of course, even during this period of development and experimentation, they have never strayed from their commitment to use only natural ingredients. They are just so thoughtful.
Of course, we shared a meal together - bento boxes from their own bento shop, which they opened during the pandemic. It was hands down the best bento I have ever eaten, and the flavors were so clean. But perhaps the best part about lunch was meeting their adorable dog, Katsuo, who came from Tasmania!
SESAME: Where do we start? This was our second time dining at this unique restaurant/art gallery. Owned and operated by Takehiro’s uncle, Taizo Wada, who used to run the original Wadaman factory which coincidentally used to be located next to his house. Takehiro, Chris and I arrived early for lunch on our final full day in Japan. We were meeting a couple of the Wadaman managers and Takehiro’s wife Mayuko. Taizo-san was outside and greeted us by handing us tiny sponges and a bucket of water. We were immediately put to work scrubbing a giant stone in the courtyard of his house. Boy, did I feel like I was in the Karate Kid…but yet it was actually very meditative and as we worked on, he explained this beautifully smooth, almost heart shaped stone was six thousand years old.
Working for our lunch
After we paid our dues scrubbing the stone, we took time to look around this courtyard. Taizo-san is a major art collector and there was amazing art everywhere around you. What blew me away was this courtyard is actually his front lawn, open to the public yet nothing gets stolen or vandalized.
As you walk into the house, there is even more mind-blowing art everywhere. From sculptures to paintings, photographs to kinetic pieces, there was barely room to walk around (I’m not even exaggerating!). Seriously, you could spend the whole afternoon looking at Taizo-san’s art. His taste in art is also so incredibly varied, but it seemed to have a personality of its own, like a witty sarcastic bent on daily life, political issues, etc.
Modern art at Sesame restaurant
This was even more evident in the day’s meal. At the table everyone’s place setting, silverware, and glasses were different. They were all little works of art. Some were even hard to eat with, but they sure looked cool. The meal itself, prepared by Taizo-san’s wife, was like a lovely world blend of flavors examined underneath a Japanese microscope. What a wonderful last meal in Japan before heading to the airport to return to San Francisco.
Postprandial photo at Sesame restaurant
Before the pandemic we had been traveling to Japan two or three times per year. So, you can imagine just how much we were looking forward to this first trip back. Yes, there were parts of the trip that were a bit odd thanks to the pandemic. But the most important part was that we were able to meet back up with our amazing Japanese producers and reconnect after so long. We had missed that so much.
Lastly (and most importantly), want to give a heartfelt thank you to everyone who made our first trip back so amazing, especially Takehiro, Chen-san and Ishibashi-san of Wadaman. Arigatou Gozaimashita!