Japan: Reading List

Dear fellow travelers,

The knowledge I had about Japan was partly coming from manga, cartoons and movies. But literature is what gave me a deeper understanding of the Japanese culture and spirit. Here is a very concise list of books I suggest you to read to know more about the country and to prepare your trip.

godhatesjapanDouglas Coupland, God Hates Japan. This is the story of Hiro, a Japanese young man born in 1975, that lives his youth when Japan goes through an economic crisis that is going to deeply change society (between the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s). Hiro lives and witnesses the westernization of his generation. He is very critical towards his own compatriots; from his reflections we can see the stereotypes about Japan and the desire of Japanese younger generation to adopt some of the European and American culture and habits, mixing them with the Japanese style. The Amerikamura district in Osaka (literally the «American neighborhood») is just one of the examples of this trend.

murakami colorlessHaruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I’ve read many novels by Murakami and this is the one I’ve read just before leaving for Japan. It’s one of his typical buildungsroman, and deals with the quest for elegance and sophistication of spirit, concepts that are so dear to the Japanese. The novel is about Tsukuru, a typical character from the Murakami universe, lonely, emotional and troubled, who dedicates his life to train stations, becoming one of the most famous engineers for train stations planning and design. Like all his fellow countrymen, he has a genuine veneration for trains, and in particular for the shinkansen, the futuristic high-speed train. What fascinated me most were the descriptions of Japanese train stations: a sort of microcosms of perfect cleanliness, labyrinths with infinite hallways, floors and exits, where floods of people come and go endlessly. I had the occasion of passing through some of them during my visit, in particular Umeda and Namba in Osaka, Shinjuku in Tokyo and the beautiful one in Kyoto, a huge modern cathedral. These stations are impressive: it happened to me to think about Tsukuru while being there.

nothomb fear and tremblingAmélie Nothomb, Fear and Trembling. This is the most shocking book about the Japanese business culture I’ve ever read. The Belgian author, who lived in Japan for years, tells about a newly hired European girl, that has to deal with the crazy Japanese business hierarchy, where the relationships between colleagues have to be extremely formal and every task has to be accomplished respecting several strict rules. She’s unlucky enough to be “punished” for her behavior and, even if she does not always understand why, her managers get her to change her job and push her lower and lower in the hierarchical ladder. It is a very striking portrait of the real working life of Japanese, who are accustomed to extremely long working hours, who all wear the same office “uniform” and fall asleep on the train during their long commuting hours at the end of the day.

confessions of a maskYukio Mishima, Confessions of a MaskA classic from the Japanese literature, this novel is about Kochan, a young Japanese guy living in the 20s, that has to hide his homosexuality wearing a mask to face society. Japanese society is still known for its rigid principles and the cult of auto-discipline. There is no surprise that Kochan ends up seeing himself as an outsider, and will live up with this feeling for his whole life. In Japan, everyone is supposed to conceal his true feelings and only disclose them to a restricted circle made of family members and very close friends. Kochan has the obligation to restrict this circle even more, through his years in the high school and – straight after – in the army and in his efforts of dating a girl. Confessions of a mask is an interesting (but sad) story that will let you discover one of the greatest Japanese novelists.

If you are a movie person rather than a book person, here are our suggestions:

  • Dolls, Takeshi Kitano, 2003
  • Howl’s Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki, 2004
  • Like Father, Like son, Hirokazu Kore’eda, 2013
dolls
Scene from Dolls

Enjoy… and go Eat the Road!

Our Guide to Kyoto: our must-visit and must-do!

Kyoto definitely has something special. I would describe it as some sort of retrò atmosphere. You will feel it while getting lost among the flavors of Nishiki food market, in the narrow streets of Gion district, or while walking in the gardens of the Imperial Palace. The ancient capital is also the home of spirituality, with more than 2.000 temples and shrines, and will offer you the perfect scenario for some unique experiences.

Here are my tips on what to see in Kyoto, and on things you should absolutely do while visiting this fascinating city. I recommend you to spend at least 4 days in this city, as many attractions are far from each other and a balanced pace would make your stay more enjoyable and allow you the time to spoil yourself a little with the pleasures that the city has to offer (food, theater shows, etc).

Visit the Golden and Silver Pavilion. The Kinkaku-ji (better known as Golden Pavilion) as seen through the lake is probably one of the most iconic symbols of Kyoto: this Zen Buddhist temple is one of the most popular buildings in Japan. The Ginkaku-ji, Silver Pavilion, is less striking in terms of view, but its garden is particularly well known and features wooded grounds covered with a variety of mosses and a sand garden. The piles of sand are said to represent Mount Fuji.

Silver Pavilion
The Ginkaku-ji, also known as Silver Pavilion

Take an evening stroll in Gion. Gion is the most famous entertaining district in Kyoto. Here you will find the famous Minamiza Theater, home of Kabuki, but also interesting little places like Café Opal, that defines itself as «the most soulful café in the world», and the Patisserie Gion Sakai, where you can purchase an infinite variety of treats. What really makes Gion famous, though, is its nightlife: the district is full of bars and restaurants, and they come alive at dusk, as the famous lanterns are lit on the teahouses and maiko, or apprentice geisha, can be seen in the streets. If you are lucky enough, you will see one of them!

Experience the authentic Tea Ceremony. Drinking matcha tea is not just a different way of having an afternoon break, it is a proper ritual that deserves its own ceremony. You can get to learn the gestures and meaning of the Japanese Tea Ceremony if you take part to one of the ceremonies organized by places such as Okitsu Club, Camellia, or En. I personally went to En, but in all of these places an English-speaking charming lady will introduce you to the tea ceremony rules and etiquette, and of course you will get to prepare your own cup of green tea. An inspiring experience that you should try, and Kyoto is the right place to do it as the tradition was born exactly in this city.

matcha tea
As I was getting ready to prepare and taste matcha tea during the tea ceremony at En.

Head up to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. This is a temple complex situated on the Eastern part of the city, and was also one of the finalists for the New 7 Wonders of the World. Beneath the main hall of the temple, you will find Otowa waterfall: if you catch and drink the water you may be lucky, as it is said to have wish-granting powers.

Have dinner at Ippudo. A friend suggested me this ramen restaurant, which is actually part of a chain that started in Fukoka, Kyushu, in 1995, and rapidly spread across Japan (and in the rest of the world, Paris and London included!). I had gyoza as starter and then tried the spicy noodles and they were super-tasty! The right reward after a very intense day! If you choose Ippudo for your dinner, make sure you get there early (before 19.30) or be prepared to queue. It is a very popular restaurant!

Get lost in the Nikishi food market. Situated in the city center, Nikishi food market is a labyrinth of narrow streets where you can buy and try a surprising variety of food, from fish to matcha-flavoured biscuits. I love food and lively, colorful places; I could not help falling in love with this market and ended up coming here more than once during my stay in the city. You should do the same and taste anything that inspires you! I personally suggest the little biscuits that look more or less like this:

"Otabe" biscuit, by Bijuu Co.,Ltd.
Otabe” biscuit, by Bijuu Co.,Ltd.

It is basically a cracker that is made of rice flour, sugar, cinnamon and water, which is mixed, then rolled out into a thin sheet before being baked. When the dough is steamed instead of being baked and filled with red bean paste, it turns into a confectionery called nama yatsuhashi. The company Bijuu Co. registered its own version of this biscuit and called it Otabe. Try it and bring a box back with you!

Admire the modern architecture of Kyoto station. Japanese love trains and stations are almost a sacred location for them. Even if you are not taking any train from here, Kyoto station deserves a visit: rebuilt in 1997, it is 70 meters high and 470 meters from east to west. One of the most modern buildings in a city that is mostly famous for its heritage, it also has interesting viewpoints on the 4th and 5th floor, and is the home of many interesting restaurants and stores. I had an okonomiyaki here, and then was lucky enough to see a youth orchestra performing in the station!

Climb up the shrine hill at Fushimi-Inari. Climbing up the hill looks like an infinite walk in a red tunnel, as you move through the 32.000 shrines (torii) of Fushimi-Inari hike. Watch out for the fox statues (kitsune) that you’ll meet near the shrines, sometimes they will hold a key in their mouths, which represented the key to the rice storehouse in ancient times. The higher you climb, the more you’ll make sure you’ll leave the crowd of tourists behind you, but be prepared as this is an almost 5km hike. Totally worth it!

Fushimi Inari

Buy a vintage kimono or yukata. You are traveling to Japan and you absolutely want to bring back a kimono; buying a second-hand one can be a good option, for two reasons: it has a vintage look, and your wallet will surely appreciate. Near the Nikishi market and in the Gion area, watch out for the little kimono shops where, for about 2.000 Yen, you will be able to buy a decent kimono and yukata that would make a good souvenir or present without compromising your travel budget. Plus, trying them on is a lot of fun!

Look up to the amazing bamboo forest of Arashiyama. Fascinating is not enough. Arashiyama has a mystic energy, and you will get mesmerized by it. The bamboo forest is one of the most popular landmarks in the whole country, so don’t get upset if taking a picture with no tourist photobombers will be impossible. Try to get there as early as possible and don’t let the selfie sticks ruin the atmosphere. The secret is simple: just look up at the plants.

Arashiyama

Go to the theater for a Geisha dance show. You have to be lucky and be in town during the right weeks in order to be able to attend a geisha dance. The main shows are Miyako Odori (held daily in April), Kyo Odori (held daily first to third Sunday in April), Kitano Odori (held daily between 15 and 25 April), Kamogawa Odori (held daily between 1 and 24 May), Gion Odori (held daily between 1 and 10 November). I had the chance to participate to a Kamogawa Odori show, and was surprised by the colors, the costumes, and the grace of the dancers. Very peculiar but a must-see attraction if you are in Kyoto at the right time of the year.

I moved around Kyoto with local buses: you can purchase a multi-day pass at the main stations ticket offices. I really suggest buses because they are comfortable and allow you to take a look at the city life while going around.

I hope you’ll find these tips useful! Please comment below if you have other suggestions: they can be helpful if I get the occasion to travel to Kyoto again!

Eat the Road!

Did you know…? 10 Curious Things About Japan

Japan is an extraordinary country and, if you are European like me, sometimes you will probably feel as if you were visiting another planet. In fact, there are so many peculiar things in Japan that it can be extremely difficult to write down a list such as this one. There are plenty of fun and interesting facts about Japan and its culture, I just picked up the 10 that struck me most. Some of these have been part of my day to day during the 15 days I spent there.

  • Konbini are the typical convenience stores in Japan; FamilyMart, Lawson and 7-Eleven are the most well-known chains. They are open 24/7 and therefore can save your life if you are hungry at night, if you realize you forgot your toothbrush, but also if you need any type of service, such as booking an hotel, sending a parcel, withdrawing cash at an ATM machine, or accessing the internet. The Japanese can also pay their bills here. If you are walking around in big cities, you will literally find a Konbini at every corner, but they are also present in rural areas.
  • There is only one thing in Japan that can save your life more than a Konbini: the drink vending machines that you will find everywhere, in subways, train stations, bus stations, schools, offices, public parks, next to any type of shop. Here you will find a varied selection of bottled and canned drinks: among them, water, sodas, teas, and sport drinks. This can be handy if you are walking around the city on a very hot day!
  • While visiting Okunoin cemetery in Koyasan, but also in other temples, I noticed that several Buddha statues wore red bibs. These represent offers to dead children: their mother leave them on the statues to bring them luck in the afterlife.
  • During my trip I took a lot of trains, on long distances but also to move around in big cities. Well, I was fascinated and shocked at the same time by the number of people who fall asleep on the train. First of all, because they fall asleep and completely leave their personal belongings in thrall to pickpockets (but apparently no one would steal your phone in Japan, while this behavior would not be safe at all in European or US cities, hence my reaction). Then, because I realized that this is often the consequence to a very simple thing: the average Japanese who lives in the outskirts of the city and commutes every day lives a very tiring life. The Japanese have a long working hours culture; if you add another 2 hours of commuting (or more) per day, you would quickly realize that surrendering to sleepiness while on the train is a necessary hack in order to gain more sleeping time.
  • Another peculiarity, on Japanese metro trains, is the existence of the so-called “Women Only” passenger cars. These were created in order to protect women from random gropers that would take advantage of full train passenger cars to let their hands slip here and there. During peak hours, only women can access these carriages. You can recognize them from the pink signs on the platforms and on the car.
  • While walking around, you will be seeing some weird places who look like the slot machine rooms in Vegas. These places are very noisy (some kind of video-game music is played inside, and the volume is pumped up) and full of flashing lights: they are Pachinko parlors. Pachinko is the typical mechanical arcade game in Japan, and it is also a gambling device (hence the parallel with slot machines). In Pachinko parlors, you will see rows of humans sitting in front of machines, as if they were hypnotized by the game (and, partly, by the music and the lights).
Pachinko
Pachinko parlor, Osaka
  • People often use surgical masks to walk in the street, but also when they are inside. You will see this everywhere, starting from the airport to the shopping areas, or inside the metro or any office. This is mainly due to hygienic reasons: Japanese people do not want to breathe their germs all over the place when they are sick. But surgical masks are also a protection against hay fever, and this is the reason why they are even more common during the spring.
  • On a sad note, I recently read scaring stats about karoshi: this word indicates suicide for too much work. As previously mentioned, the Japanese tend to work very long hours, and the corporate life is very strict and full of hierarchical rules. This is why karoshi has become a reality: as people drown in work, their life becomes mix of stress and anxiety, and they end up seeking the extreme relief in suicide. More than 200 people loose their life this way in Japan, every year. As work-life balance is more and more valued in the Western culture nowadays, these stats are very scaring.
  • Most of the restaurants in Japan display plastic replicas of their available dishes. The replicas are generally exposed in a window near their entrance. This will help you getting an idea of what is on the menu: it is indeed helpful for tourists who don’t speak Japanese. In case you don’t find the replicas, don’t freak out: it is very likely that the menu will have pictures. You just need to point your finger at the dish that inspires you most!
Gion, Restaurant
Food replicas in Gion, Tokyo
  • One of the things I noticed while walking around in Japan is that girls tend to walk with their feet pointed inwards, which I found weird. In Japan, this is considered a nice way to walk for women, as this is how you should normally walk while you are wearing a kimono or yukata (which is basically the home version of a kimono). Besides that, the pigeon toe (the common way to describe this way of walking) can also be a consequence of sitting in seiza since the childhood. In fact, this position requires folding one’s legs underneath one’s thighs, while resting the buttocks on the heels, constantly weighting on them and pushing the toes inwards.

I am sure you will notice these things if you are traveling to Japan. If you have already been, I am would like to know which curious things surprised you most!

Japan: My Trip in 30 Photos

Hi dear travelers!

Here is a gallery from my trip to Japan. Hope you’ll like it! 😊

Osaka Castle
Osaka Castle
Dōtonbori, Ōsaka
Dōtonbori, Ōsaka
Dōtonbori, Ōsaka
Dōtonbori, Ōsaka
Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle
Kōyasan
Kōyasan
Kōyasan
Kōyasan
Onsen Fukuchi in, Kōyasan
Onsen Fukuchi in, Kōyasan
Fukuchi in, Kōyasan
Fukuchi in, Kōyasan
Dinner at Fukuchi in, Kōyasan
Dinner at Fukuchi in, Kōyasan
Guest slippers, Fukuchi in, Kōyasan
Guest slippers, Fukuchi in, Kōyasan
Okunoin cemetery
Okunoin cemetery
Tōdai-ji, Nara
Tōdai-ji, Nara
Nara Park
Nara Park
Ramen
Ramen
Food market, Kyōto
Food market, Kyōto
Food Market, Kyōto
Food Market, Kyōto
Arashiyama, Kyōto
Arashiyama, Kyōto
Arashiyama, Kyōto
Arashiyama, Kyōto
Golden Pavillion, Kyōto
Golden Pavillion, Kyōto
Bookshop in Kyōto
Bookshop in Kyōto
Fujimi Inari, Kyōto
Fujimi Inari, Kyōto
Okonomyaki in Kyōto
Okonomyaki in Kyōto
Gallery in Kyōto
Gallery in Kyōto
Roppongi, Tokyo
Roppongi, Tokyo
Asakusa, Tokyo
Asakusa, Tokyo
Akihabara, Tokyo
Akihabara, Tokyo
Fish market, Tokyo
Fish market, Tokyo
Tokyo skyline from the Park Hyatt
Tokyo skyline from the Park Hyatt
Shibuya crossing, Tokyo
Shibuya crossing, Tokyo
Tokyo Fish Market
Tokyo Fish Market

For more photos, follow our Instagram account @eat_the_road !

And go Eat The Road! 😊

My Japan tour: The itinerary

Hi fellow travelers!

It’s still Elena here and, as I have told you in our previous post, I am taking over Eat The Road for a while in order to tell you everything about the 2 wonderful weeks that I have spent in Japan last May. When I prepared my itinerary for this trip, I knew I wanted to spend some days in Kyoto and Tokyo, two must-visit cities, and that, given time constraints, I would not be able to travel outside Honshu, the biggest island of the Japanese archipelago. But I found out that there are many interesting things that you can visit in the Kansai region. I also knew I wanted to spend at least one night in a traditional accommodation (temple or ryokan) and test the onsen. I discovered that I could do both things and also experience some spiritual ceremony in the region of Mount Koya.

The itinerary that I will illustrate in this post will allow you to see as many things as possible during 2 weeks time, experience a diversity of landscapes and historical sites (mountains, urban, outskirts, temples, castles), take a lot of trains – which is also a key experience in Japan, given their obsession with trains -, and have the occasion to slow down the pace, do some shopping, taste good food and relax.

Day 1: Osaka. We arrived in the morning in Osaka and decided to leave our luggage at the airport and to go and explore the city even if we were super-tired as we couldn’t fall asleep on the flight. We decided to visit Osaka to experience another big and modern city apart from Tokyo. Osaka is normally known as «Japan’s kitchen» and the term kuidaore, which means «ruining yourself through the extravagance of food» is often associated with this city and its variety of good restaurants. Our hotel was near Nanba station, but we decided to visit the Osaka Castle and the Umeda Sky building (not far from the Osaka station) in the afternoon, before collapsing in our beds at 8pm.

Day 2: Himeji Castle, Kobe and Dotonbori. We definitely felt better on our Day 2. We took the train and traveled westward in order to visit Himeji Castle, the largest and most visited castle in Japan. This impressive white construction dates to 1333. On our way back to Osaka, we decided to stop in Kobe for lunch and a walk on the harbor. In the evening, we finally had time to explore Dotonbori district, get hypnotized by its lights, and take a picture with the famous Glico Man, an enormous candy-ad with an athlete that runs and smile and changes colors from time to time. After visiting Amerikamura, the most modern part of the city, we had dinner at a very fun place, Zauo. Here, if you seat on the tables which are on a sort of boat, you can catch your fish and decide how to have it cooked. We thought it was good fun: if you are planning to go, I recommend you to book in advance and specify that you want a table on the boat. After dinner I met with an Italian friend who has been living in Japan for almost 10 years. He took me to an izakaya (Japanese pub) where I tried umeshu, a cherry liquor. I found it so good that I decided to bring home a bottle at the end of my trip.

Himeji Castle
Himeji Castle

Day 3/4: Koyasan. On our 3rd day, we took the Nankai Koya Line from Nanba to Gokurakubashi, and then the Koyasan cablecar (ask about the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket to optimize the costs of your trip if you are visiting this region from Kansai). This was one of the best part of our holiday: during these two days, we visited the numerous temples of the region, as Koyasan is the center of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect which was introduced to Japan in 805 by Kobo Daishi. The Okunoin cemetery, with his hundreds graves and statues, is very evocative, especially as it is surrounded by some sort of permanent fog. We spent the night at the Fukuchi In, one of the temples of the region which has been converted into a travelers’ lodge. If you try one of these accommodations, you will sleep in traditional Japanese rooms, test Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, relax in the onsen or in the common spaces with view on the gardens. And, if you feel like, you will be invited for a session of prayers and meditation in the morning. It’s an experience I would definitely recommend!

Day 5: Nara. Deer, deer, deer. These lovely animals will probably photobomb most of your pictures as you will visit the park in Nara; you will be surprised as you start touring the park but at some point you will realize they are just part of the environment. They are not aggressive at all, actually they are nice and friendly and you will be able to take selfies with them and pet them, but if you decide to buy the cookies and feed them… well, be prepared to be followed by curious and hungry deer 😉 The deer are a nice add-on for a city that really deserves a visit: it is an ancient capital, and here you will be able to visit the Tōdai-ji temple complex, and be surprised by the size of Daibutsu Buddha. We stopped here while heading back from Koyasan on our way to Kyoto and spent the night at a cheap hotel called Toyoko Inn, which was very basic and served a Japanes style breakfast (you may want to go get a cappuccino and some cookies instead, I did as I am not accustomed to eat vegetables for breakfast), but overall the hotel is all clean and new and good value for money. You can also visit Nara with a return trip from Kyoto, if you prefer; it takes less than one hour to travel between the two cities (by train, of course!).

Lovely deer in Nara

Days 6 to 9: Kyoto. Kyoto has been the Imperial capital of Japan for more than a thousand years. We chose to spend 4 days in this city, as there were many things to see (and most of them are outside the city center) and many experiences to make (tea ceremony, geisha show, kabuki theater) that we didn’t want to be in a rush. One of the upcoming posts will be about the things to do in Kyoto, make sure you read it! I still want to dedicate a special mention to the Airbnb flat that we booked, this one. Nice location close to the river and to several bus stops, in a quite residential area literally 2 steps away from Gion district. Plus, it was very cozy.

Days 10 to 14: Tokyo. If Japan is another planet… well, Tokyo perfectly embodies its role of the capital of an alternative universe. Skycrapers, colors, lights and sounds: I really would not know where to start from to describe this living and enormous city. I will dedicate one of the upcoming articles to share more details about what to do in Tokyo. I stayed near Shinjuku station, but you should really pick up your preferred location depending on what you love most: crowds, restaurants and lights or quiet neighborhoods.

And that’s a wrap for now! Stay tuned for the upcoming articles about Kyoto and Tokyo. And if you are already dreaming to visit Japan (as much as I dream that I can go back and have another taste of this amazing country), be ready to Eat the Road!

 

My Japan Tour

Dear fellow travelers,

It’s Elena here, and I will share with you the memories of my recent trip to Japan! I spent 2 weeks in Japan last May; I went there with my mom. I have always been fascinated by this country and, like many 80’s kids, grew up with their anime and the myth of the futuristic technologies coming from Japan.

In this article, you will find an overview of some practical information that you have to take into account if you are planning a trip to Japan.

When to go there and how to move around

The high season is between the end of March and mid-May. August is also a peak season for tourists, but I suggest you to go in the Spring in order to avoid the humid, hot temperatures of the summer. If you want to see the cherry blossoms (the famous sakura), the wisest choice is going there at the end of March. This site will give you an idea of the 2016 blossoming season, but the perfect moment really depends on the weather, so you also have to count on a bit of luck. The first week of May is the Golden Week in Japan, so many Japanese will be on holidays and touristic sites will possibly be overbooked because of local travelers.

img_4549
Banners oustide Ryōgoku Kokugikan, the Sumo Stadium in Tokyo

I booked my flights in advance (beginning of December) and took two direct flights with Airfrance (I flew to Kansai airport – which is in between Osaka and Kyoto – and flew back from Tokyo Haneda, although most international flights depart from Narita). Several companies travel to Japan so you only have to monitor the prices and choose the most convenient flight combination.

If you already started gathering information about Japan, you have probably heard about the Japan Rail Pass. The main way to travel around in Japan is by train, and JR Railways (one of the several companies that operate train services across the country) allows the non-Japan residents to travel with no limits on its trains with this forfait. The pass can only be bought outside of Japan. Therefore, you have to buy it before your trip and you will get it delivered to your home address within a few days. The earliest you can buy it it’s 3 months before your arrival in Japan and there are several websites where you can order it. Be careful, though. The JR pass for 7 days costs about 230 €, while the one for 21 days costs about 470 € (for second class seats): it’s only worth buying this pass if you are exploiting it fully and you have at least two long distance trips (for instance, if you are traveling by train from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, it is worth it, otherwise you may have to think twice before buying the pass). I used HyperDia to look for the trains I wanted to take during my trip, and added their prices together. It turned out that for me it would be more convenient to buy a 2 days pass for the Kansai region, another regional pass to visit Koyasan, and buy single tickets and bus/metro cards for the remaining days (I will go into more details about my itinerary later). So, my advice is: arm yourself with patience and a calculator and discover if buying the famous Japan Rail Pass is convenient or not for your trip.

With regards to the perfect duration of a tour in Japan, I personally spent 2 weeks there and I would say that I was able to see everything I wanted to see and also slow down the pace as I arrived in the two cities where I got to stay for longer (Kyoto and Tokyo, obviously). 10 days can also be sufficient to visit these 2 cities and maybe Nara, while 7 days would be a stretch. If you are lucky enough and have the chance to spend even more time in Japan, a 20 days trip would allow you to see something different and travel outside from the most visited paths, to see places such as Okinawa or Hokkaido.

It is normally suggested that you buy a travel insurance if you are traveling to Japan: in case you get sick or have an accident, this way you will be sure that hospitals will take care of you. In fact, they are normally leery of treating patients who are not inscribed to the national health insurance system. Make sure you always carry a proof of this insurance with you. Lonely Planet suggests World Nomads travel insurance, which also covers the costs of flight and hotel bookings cancellations, lost luggage, etc.

What to put you in your luggage?

You will choose your clothes with an eye on the meteo forecast and depending on the time of the year that you have chosen for your trip. Do not forget to bring your JR pass with you if you have purchased it in advance. The power plug is basically like the one used in the US, although the voltage is different. You can check this site to see if you will need an adaptor.

akihabara shop
Anime and gadget shop in Akihabara, Tokyo

Last but not least, you may want to rent a smartphone during your trip, or buy a Japanese SIM to use it for the duration of your trip. In fact, I found it particularly useful to have the 3G activated everywhere during my trip, in order to regularly check Google Maps, especially in big cities (the streets have no names and everything is written in Japanese!). As an alternative (which is what I did), always book AirBnb accommodations that provide «pocket wifi». With this device, you will basically carry your own wifi network with you, and will have connection available everywhere.

Well.. you have everything you need. Don’t miss the upcoming post about the itinerary, and be ready to Eat the Road!

Kakósúpa. Icelandic Cocoa Soup

Dear fellow travelers,

As the name of our blog suggests, we really love eating and tasting new flavours during our trips all around the world. So we would love to share with you some of our discoveries in the kitchen 😋

While reading The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir I came across the Kakósúpa, or literally “cocoa soup”, a typical Icelandic dish for cold days. In the book, young Lobbi helps his father decipher his dead mother’s recipe book in order to bring back to life the delicious moment of family intimacy around this soup.

So, here is the traditional recipe. You’ll need:

  • 2 tbsp of cocoa powder
  • 2 1/2 tbsp of sugar
  • 1 tbsp of cinnamon
  • 250ml of water
  • 500ml of milk
  • 2 tbsp of cornstarch (or potato starch) (or more to make it denser)
  • few drops of vanilla extract
  • a pinch of salt
  • whipped cream
  • crisp bread or plain cookies

Mix cocoa and sugar together and heat the water in a cooking pot. Slowly add the cocoa mix while stirring in order to avoid clumps. Let it simmer for 5 minutes.

cacao

Mix the cornstarch with cold water till it’s completely dissolved. I added two tablespoons of cornstarch to have a medium thickness, but if you like to have a pudding you can add more cornstarch.

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Add the milk and the cornstarch mix to the cocoa mix. While stirring add the vanilla extract, 1 tablespoon of cinnamon and a pinch of salt and wait until it reaches the right thickness.

giphy

stirringsoup

 

 

 

Serve it hot with whipped cream and crumbled crisp bread.

Enjoy and eat…the road! 😋

Iceland: Reading List

Hi fellow travelers,

Besides traveling, we love reading. We think that books and stories are a very important part or our travel experiences, as they help us understanding the culture of the country we are going to visit. This is the reason why we will try to give you some suggestions about what to read before, during or after your trips.

Let’s start with what we read while we were preparing our trip to Iceland, of course!

reykjavik nights inridasonArnaldur Indriðason, Reykjavík Nights. Indriðason is a well-known crime fiction writer, he was born in the Icelandic capital in 1961, and his books are now translated in several languages. Reykjavík Nights was published in 2012, and, as all (good) crime fiction novels, will keep you in suspense until the end. In fact, there are two mysteries to get solved: while a homeless man is found drowned, a young woman disappears. The portrait of a cold, violent Reykjavík is the perfect scenario for the plot, offering us a different vision of the city, as desperate lives get lost in alcool and delinquency. Erlendur Sveinnson, the police commissioner that is in charge of the investigation, also has his dark sides. As a reader, you will want to know more about him and his past: you can discover more about him in the other novels written by Indriðason between 1997 and now. Erlendur’s crime stories are now a classic of Nordic police fiction.

letter from helga Bergsveinn Birgisson, Reply to a Letter From Helga. We bought this book at the Paris book fair, as we were preparing our trip to Iceland and the cover of the French edition (by Zulma) looked great. The story is about Bjarni, an aged Icelandic shepherd who is writing a letter to Helga, his lover of a lifetime, the only woman for whom he ever had passionate feelings. Bjarni’s long monologue, besides the central point of his love for Helga, explores the reality that surrounds him: his time is divided into rams farming, fishing, going through long winters. There are some things, in this book, that we may never be able to fully understand: extreme solitude, the fact that you may get to know only a few persons in your whole life, how is winter when snowstorms are so massive that you could hardly leave your home. Getting to know Bjarni through what he is writing in his letter to Helga will help you getting to know outlands Icelanders.

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Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Sumarljós og svo kemur nóttin (litterally: Summer Light and Then Comes the Night). Stefánsson is one of the most famous contemporary Icelandic writers and this is a novel he wrote in 2005. The book is a «story full of other stories»: set in a small Icelandic town, it covers the most emotional events that happened to some inhabitants. The idea behind this novel is that «sometimes, in small places, reality becomes bigger». We are not accustomed to think that a car passing by could be the most remarkable event of the day, but in a little town where there are only 400 human beings, every single detail counts. There is space, of course, for some particularly extravagant characters, my favorite probably being the mailwoman who likes to read every single postcard that passes through her hands and, therefore, knew everything about everyone. If you won’t be able to find this book in your language, don’t worry: Stefánsson more recent books have been translated in English.

the greenhouse

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, The GreenhouseAuður Ava Ólafsdóttir is an Icelandic novelist whose first book was published in 1998. Nowadays, she is published in about 15 countries. The book is about Lobbi, a young redhead boy that leaves Iceland after his mother’s death, to follow a passion that they had in common: look after plants and flowers. Among the main characters are the flowers he brings from Iceland to the famous rose garden he had admired since his childhood, a special species of rose, with eight petals. This book is extremely evocative, peaceful and reassuring. Lobbi’s clumsy narrative is rich of anecdotes and memories from his life in Iceland: his mother’s illegible recipe book with the typical cocoa soup, the lava field where her mother’s car crashed, the night spent with Anna in the greenhouse…

If you are a movie person rather than a book person, here are our suggestions:

  • 101 Reykjavík, Baltasar Kormákur, 2000
  • Nói albínói, Dagur Kári, 2003
  • Rams, Grímur Hákonarson, 2015
rams_1
Scene from Rams

Enjoy! And… Eat the road!

 

Iceland: Our Itinerary Part 2

Dear fellow travelers,

in our latest post we showed you the first part of our itinerary. Let’s move on to the rest of our trip.

Day 7: East Fjörds, Höfn. From Egilsstaðir we reached the East Fjörds. We headed first to Seyðisfjörður, a nice and original town at the feet of the mountains with many concept stores, artists workshops and the cutest little blue church. We continued to Mjóifjörður, an almost inhabited fjord (the village counts only 42 inhabitants!), that you can reach through a gravel road with a breathtaking view. At the end of the road there’s a surprise: an abandoned rusty fish boat lies on the shore. We fell in love with this place! We then followed the Hringvegur till Höfn, a small town on the harbor, where we tasted the typical humar, delicious king prawns: very good but also expensive!

We stayed at Marina Guesthouse, a clean and nice apartment with shared bathroom, kitchen and common room, that we booked on AirBnB.

Day 8: Jökulsárlón, Skaftafell, Sólheimasandur, Vík í Mýrdal. From Höfn we headed to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, probably one of the most iconic landscapes of Iceland. We had booked a tour in advance with Ice Lagoon Adventure Tours , a 1-hour boat trip in the glacier lagoon for 9.500 ISK (a bit expensive but totally worth it!). The guide explained us all about the lagoon and gave us plenty of information, we really recommend it!

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Jökulsárlón

We then visited the Skaftafell National Park, hiking to see the beautiful Svartifoss, a work of art of nature.

Following the Hringvegur we then arrived to Vík í Mýrdal, a beautiful little town with a red and white church on top of the hill, also known for its sea stacks along the shore. Before resting at our accommodation, we went past the village and ventured to Sólheimasandur, a beach where lies an abandoned american DC plane, that crashed during the 70s. If you are coming from Vík as we were, you need to follow the Hringvegur towards Selfoss, then, once past the Mýrdalsjökulsvegur on your right, you need to pay attention to a closed gravel road on you left: it is the path to the wrecked DC plane. It’s more or less a 40 minutes walk from there… very windy but totally worth it once you arrive!

Sólheimasandur plane crash
Sólheimasandur plane crash

While in Vík, we spent the night in a beautiful AirBnB that we really want to recommend you: Martina & Jon Bed and Breakfast is located close to Vík, with a wonderful view on the valley. They were very welcoming and the breakfast was amazing! 😋

Day 9: Golden Circle, Grindavík. The following day we visited the most touristic part of the island, the so called Golden Circle, that includes the famous Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall and Þingvellir National Park, where lies a rift valley that marks the boundary between the North-American and Eurasian tectonic plates. We travelled then towards Grindavík, where we visited the geothermal site of Krýsuvík, and then stayed at a guesthouse.

Geysir
Geysir

Day 10: Blue Lagoon, Reykjiavík. Early in the morning we headed to the famous Blue Lagoon near Grindavík. The structure is more sophisticated than the one in Mývatn, but it’s also extremely touristic. The water was warm and milky as in the photos you can see everywhere. We booked the entrance in advance on the official website and we suggest you to do so since there are many people during summer and you risk queuing for a long time or not finding a place at all. We booked the standard formula with just the entrance to the lagoon and the silica mud mask, but there are several upgrades proposed. It was a nice and relaxing experience, especially at the end of the trip and we enjoyed it!

We then traveled back to Reykjiavík where we finally left our dear Dacia Duster, completely covered in mud and dust 😄

Once in Reykjiavík we went whale watching. We took a tour with Whale Safari that we booked online, but there are several companies proposing the same tour leaving from Reykjiavík harbour. Unfortunately we didn’t have the chance to spot any whale during the 3-hour tour, but we saw Icelandic dolphins!

Day 11: Reykjiavík and back home. Our last morning in Iceland was spent strolling in the city centre, buying postcards and looking for local street art. We ate lunch at Gló, the most popular healthy food restaurant in the capital, that offers organic products, vegetarian and vegan meals.

Laugavegur, Reykjavík
Laugavegur, Reykjavík

Then, sadly, it was time to head to Keflavík for our flight back home.

We already dream to go back to Iceland…Eating the Road again! 😊

Iceland: Our Itinerary Part 1

Hi fellow travelers!

In our previous post, we wrote about how to get to Iceland, how to move around and what to put in your luggage. Now it’s time to tell you about the details of the itinerary we followed. If you are organizing a roadtrip to Iceland, this is the most interesting and most delicate part of your planning at the same time. When we prepared our itinerary, we knew we wanted to follow the Hringvegur (also known as Route 1) as a base start (Sigur Rós inspired us), and then travel around the island. We also knew that, due to our time and budget constraints, we could not stay in Iceland for 2 full weeks, so we would not be able to visit every single bit of Iceland. We did our research, and we cut out our itinerary the Highlands (the central part of the island) and, unfortunately, also the western fjords, the twisted coastline that you can see on the north-west of the country. In fact, although fascinating, these are also the areas where it is more difficult to move around. Also, as we needed to leave something out, we now have an excuse to go back to Iceland again!

We calculated that 11 days were enough to drive around the island, seeing everything we wanted to see and spoil ourselves with some (not so) guilty pleasures, such as hot springs and curious food tasting. With regards to the accomodations, we planned to sleep in a different town every night, in order to make the most out of our time. We excluded the camping option because of the unpredictable and cold weather and for all the material needed (that would take lots of space!). Therefore we choose guesthouses and AirBnB accomodations, and most of the times we shared 4-beds rooms with our two friends. Sometimes we were luckier and got bigger apartments. We will try to share as much as possible the details about where we slept, but of course we encourage you to choose on the basis of your preferences and budget. The only thing we recommend (again!) is to book your accomodations months in advance, especially if you are traveling during the summer. And, if you are camping, do it only on authorized sites.

We drove clockwise, mainly because we had read that it is suggested to travel North first, for August roadtrips, as daylight hours tend to reduce as days go by.

So… here is what we did, day by day.

Day 1: Reykjavík. On our first day in Iceland, we arrived in the capital and visited it with no rush. It is a small city and everything is within a short walking distance. You will surely enjoy the view from Hallgrímskirkja, the colorful Laugavegur (the main street), the kaleidoscopic interiors of the ultra-modern Harpa theatre, and the adventurous atmosphere evocated by the Sun Voyager, which is basically the modern sculpture of a viking boat. You can also enjoy the nightlife of the city, eat an hot dog at the famous Bæjarins Beztu kiosk, near the harbor, visit the curious Phallological Museum or enjoy a beer at Reykjavík’s oldest pub, the Prikid.

Reykjiavík from the Hallgrímskirkja
Reykjiavík: view from the Hallgrímskirkja

We booked a flat on AirBnb for our first night in Reykjavík, and would recommend you to do the same. You will have a vast choice of apartments and will be able to find a suitable accomodation. The apartment that we chose was close to the fascinating Tjörning lake and the bus station where buses to and from Keflavík airport arrive.

Day 2: Snæfellsnes, Ólafsvík. On day 2, we got our Dacia Duster and properly started our trip! As we got the car, we were all very excited because it represented the real kick-off of our adventure. As we had decided to spend two days on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, we started driving North and visited Arnastrapi, Hellnar, Djupalon and the national park of Snæfellsjökull, before heading to Ólafsvík, where we spent the night.

Ólafsvík is a fishing town of about 1,000 inhabitants, with a modern, geometric church, a football ground, and a little waterfall. We had dinner and slept at the Við Hafið Guesthouse, which we would recommend as everything was clean and new.

Day 3: Snæfellsnes, Stykkishólmur. Our tour of the Snæfellsnes peninsula continued on day 3. The highlight of the day was certainly our visit to Kirkjufellsfoss, a small waterfall near an iconic pointy mountain. In the afternoon, we visited the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum, where we learned about shark fishing and also tasted the famous kæstur hákarl (treated shark), a national dish that consists of a sleeper shark which has been cured with a particular fermentation process and hung to dry for four to five months. We warn you: it smells of ammonia and the taste is very… weird. It can be tasted with bread or with the local distilled beverage, Brennivín. You will be given a very tiny bite, but, despite the taste, it’s worth trying it because it’s an authentic Icelandic experience!

In Stykkishólmur, another small town with a lovely harbor, we slept at the Harbour Hostel, which is characterized by a particularly vintage style.

Djúpalónssandur
Djúpalónssandur

Day 4: Hvítserkur, Blönduós. On day 4 we started driving North, towards the Vatnsnes peninsula. Here, we visited Hvítserkur, a 15m basalt stack that looks like a troll that emerges from the sea. The black sand beach that you will walk on to reach it is very photogenic 😀

We slept in Blönduós, booked an apartment at Kiljan Guesthouse. The apartment was big and good value for money. We were positively surprised.

Hvítserkur

Day 5: Akureyri, Myvatn. On day 5 we did a quick stop-over in Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, and then started driving towards the Myvatn region, an amazing (can we say it again? amazing) place where you can find all the most beautiful things that Icelandic nature can offer. We could also visit Grjótagjá, a tiny lava cave with a thermal spring inside, which became famous as the location for Jon Snow and Ygritte’s first romantic encounter in Game of Thrones’ third season.

In the evening, we enjoyed the thermal baths of Myvatn hot springs, a less expensive and less touristic version of the Blue Lagoon that we definitely recommend. We slept at Vogahraun Guesthouse, which has cozy common areas.

Day 6: Myvatn, Egilsstaðir. Hverfjall (also known as Hverfell) breathtaking tephra cone, Dimmuborgir lava field and Hverir geothermal mud pools were the highlights of the morning on our Day 6, while in the afternoon we headed back on the Route 1 to drive to Egilsstaðir. Before getting to this small town, we also had the occasion to visit the spectacular Goðafoss waterfall.

In Egilsstaðir we spent the night in the spacious Sámur Bóndi Apartment.

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Hverfjall

Our road trip goes on… Stay tuned for the second part of the itinerary!

And go Eat the Road! 😉