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From Tokyo to Hiroshima, experiencing the food and culture of Japan

We gazed at the giant bronze Buddha statue of Kamakura, tasted breaded pork called tonkatsu over rice for lunch, and rode a train to Japan's Enoshima island. Its Shinto shrines honoring the water goddess Benzaiten were one uphill climb in the twilight away.

But first, I had to conquer the octopus cracker.

I had no idea what Enoshima's specialty entailed. Only that Japanese translator Junko Takahashi had praised me as an adventurous eater over our three weeks together, and I wasn't about to disappoint her with the truth that I am a picky eater.

As we neared the sidewalk counter to place our orders, Junko asked me a question. Or was it a warning?

"Do you like animals?"

I knew what she meant: Do I like animals like, say, PETA likes animals? The octopus cracker is prepared live in a way that doesn't fly in the United States.

I assured her I'd be fine. Suddenly I was on the sidewalk holding a crispy, smashed octopus, more eager to take pictures of the swirling, purple markings (those would be tentacles) for Instagram than to actually try it.

Eve would love this, I thought.

Friend and Times photographer Eve Edelheit had been with me for nine of 21 days during my reporting trip to Japan last fall, a fellowship paid for by the International Center for Journalists to work on stories about sports, agriculture, autos and education.

But we had to eat. So we did a lot of that, too.

Guided by Junko's suggestions, we set out to experience as much of Japan as possible: the centuries-old temples and shrines interrupting corporate buildings, the memorials and, importantly, the distinctive cuisine of Tokyo and Hiroshima. When Eve returned home, Junko and I kept working and also tasting the local fare of Osaka and Kyoto, an hour's train ride apart.

Virtually half of the Emoji food keyboard — ramen, bento boxes, rice balls, skewered chicken (yakitori), sushi — was in front of us. I needed to forget my food hangups about runny eggs and sushi without comforting cream cheese and just try as much as possible.

Tokyo

A 17-hour plane ride didn't mean Eve got her first night off. I gave her 15 minutes to freshen up after she checked into our economy hotel (APA Villa Hotel Akasaka-Mitsuke) before dinner.

Junko suggested a nice meal at En, a Japanese restaurant on the 42nd floor of the Shiodome City Center overlooking Tokyo's skyscrapers. The word en is linked to fate, used to describe people and situations when something works out and also when it wasn't meant to be. "Good or bad, we are linked by en," Junko said.

The dinner offered nothing but good en. The three of us admired each sharing plate: picture-perfect chunky asparagus chilled on a bed of ice, pinky salmon cakes, beer-battered oysters and a ceramic bowl of roasted, salted ginkgo nuts. I had ordered sashimi (raw fish without rice) at some of Tokyo's traditional pubs, called izakayas, but the raw pieces here were several levels above bar food, served with fresh green wasabi we shredded with a mini grater.

The night wasn't over. We headed for Junko's go-to spot under the Japan Rail and bullet-train tracks for ice-cold Asahi beer and pork dumplings (gyoza). These are usually guilty pleasure foods for health-conscious Junko, but our American zeal for more must have rubbed off on her. We consumed beer and dumplings nearly every day.

"GYOZA!" we'd tell waiters, as if possessed. "Asahi, SUPER DRY!"

The covered alley of small, casual restaurants is a short walk from Ginza's high-end shopping district, where earlier we purchased T-shirts from Japan's version of fast fashion, Uniqlo. We entered the white lantern-lined alley from the sidewalk under the tracks. Off-duty office workers packed teeny, side-by-side restaurants, trains whirring above as they drank. Junko's place was outside of the alley, and the spillover crowd sat on beer crates.

We made plans to meet Junko at 5:45 a.m. the next day to beat the crowds at Tokyo's famous Tsukiji fish market. (Eve would be up anyway because of the brutal dayslong jet lag.)

Tsukiji is a sprawling complex that will be relocated by the end of 2016, well before the 2020 Summer Olympics. The wholesale fish market itself, home of the famous predawn tuna action, is at the center, and tourists here inspect row after row of freshly caught eel, shrimp and squid. Dangerous motorized carts known as "Tsukiji bees" zip around the crowds in narrow, wet aisles to fulfill orders (but you were warned if they hit you).

Inside the market, wholesalers carefully carve their catches. Outside, vendors sell pottery, knives and snacks to tourists. Small restaurants within an inner ring serve fresh sushi from the market yards away — even for breakfast.

As a rule, any place with a line is worth a shot. Junko led us to Iwasa Sushi, which has 14 seats around the counter. The staff welcomed our cameras as one chef prepared our meal and another nonchalantly snapped the necks of a bucket of prawns.

The woman who owns the restaurant has been there 20 years. Misae Iwata said men dominate Tsukiji, but her restaurant does well because "with my experience, I choose the very good fish." The secret is in the eyes.

About 2,900 yen, or $25, bought us six pieces of sushi and eight pieces of nigiri (thinly sliced fish pressed over rice). There were fatty tuna, whitefish and shrimp and rolls of thick beads of orange salmon roe, each served on a green bamboo leaf. The stripped-down pieces were accompanied only by a swipe of wasabi on the rice cushion. No cream cheese or tempura or other American-pleasing nonsense. We didn't miss them.

Junko, a fixer and producer for journalists, showed us the basics of how to get by in Japan's manners-enforced society, and we tried not to embarrass her. We bowed after interviews instead of shaking hands. We muttered arigatou for thank you and ohayou gozaimasu (like oh-hi-yo go-zy-mas) for good morning. We didn't eat or drink on the subway, considered tacky, and there weren't any trash cans on the sidewalk for on-the-go waste. (Junko said it's normal to hold on to trash until you get home.) Importantly, she stressed we should not leave our chopsticks upright in rice, because that's a funeral gesture.

Eve and I tried to squeeze in as many Tokyo memories as we could before taking a bullet train to Hiroshima for another story. We spent an hour being silly in a private karaoke room (Big Echo is everywhere), singing Beyoncé and Lady Gaga and taking instant-print pictures with my Fujifilm Instax, a Japanese throwback camera and wedding present from Eve.

We didn't see a good place for a nightcap near our hotel in Akasaka-Mitsuke, a business district, so I Googled and found a rum bar with good reviews on Time Out Tokyo in Nishi-Azabu. I was nervous about being out a few miles from our hotel with no Junko, no way of communicating with a Japanese taxi driver and no idea how to find this dive bar, Tafia.

"Come on," Eve said. "It's our last night in Tokyo together."

Tafia was intimate and warm with just a couple of tables, a couch and direct access to the Japanese owner, Tchié Tato, making drinks behind the bar for a few regulars. She had collected rum from trips all around the Caribbean and, through one of her friends who knew English, offered us drinks based on what we liked. When we mentioned wishing we could go to Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan known for its seafood, Tato disappeared. She came back with pickled fish to share from a recent trip.

You can't say no. We didn't.

Hiroshima

We tried to forget the noise of Tokyo on the five-hour bullet-train ride west to Hiroshima. We ate bento boxes on the Shinkansen and began to prepare emotionally for what was ahead.

Eve and I walked through Hiroshima's somber Peace Memorial Park, home to dozens of scattered monuments to victims of the Aug. 6, 1945, atomic bomb blast. We saw a haunting floodlight hit the night sky from outside the A-Bomb Dome, the preserved brick skeleton of the only building not leveled that day, along the Motoyasu River. We later returned to the park for the Children's Peace Monument inspired by Sadako Sasaki, a girl who believed folding origami paper cranes could cure her leukemia from the bomb's radiation. It didn't, but that doesn't stop students around the world sending paper cranes to her sculpture.

Our eyes welled, and Eve strongly considered getting a $30 paper crane tattoo. But the beauty of Hiroshima is that you do more than just mourn. No one shamed us for being American. The city was as eager to show us how far it had come as it was to remind us of what must never happen again.

There are normal hotels, a museum, love hotels (yes, what you are thinking), schools and restaurants and shopping centers. We slurped ramen for dinner at the chain restaurant Ippudo and stopped in izakayas for more gyoza and sashimi near our hotel, the extremely affordable Mitsui Garden. Each morning started with a breakfast buffet that offered panoramic views of the city surrounded by mountains and morning clouds through floor-length windows.

That Tuesday, Nov. 3, was the national holiday Culture Day. The city's idyllic Shukkeien garden was alive with women in kimonos walking tourists through tea ceremonies, and families feeding orange and gold koi in a pond. Even here, with chrysanthemums for sale as tall as my waist, it was impossible not to think about the bomb. Small signs told us how the garden was leveled and how survivors of the initial blast sought safety but died before getting care.

Culture Day also meant there was time to see Miyajima Island, reachable via an hour's ride on the street car (only 260 yen) and a ferry that was covered by my two-week Japan Rail Pass. As we approached the island, we saw the famous orange Torii gate protruding from the water at the entrance of the Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that appears to float on top of the bay at high tide.

The mountainous island was covered by a forest, with maple leaves in peak fall hues of red, orange, yellow and green. Junko had advised us not to pet the wild deer roaming the island, which are accustomed to tourist handouts but unafraid to knock antlers over food. As the island's shops closed at sunset, we picked up souvenirs of painted chopsticks, printed handkerchiefs (a Japanese purse staple) and talismans for good fortune from the shrine.

Before we could leave Hiroshima, we had to try its signature spin on okonomiyaki, a noodle pancake prepared on a grill and layered with cabbage, vegetables, seafood, green onions and a savory brown sauce, then topped with a fried egg. We wandered through a covered shopping arcade to a building with several floors dedicated to restaurants serving okonomiyaki. Wearing our matching Paris/London/Tokyo/St. Pete T-shirts, we tried to finish a plate-sized portion of the pancake and asked the chef to take our picture with the Instax. The camera never failed to break the ice with non-English speakers.

We wanted to close Eve's part of the trip with one last sake, and we figured it would be easy enough to order without Junko. But when we asked for "sake" at one bar, we got Coke. After trying out different pronunciations and pointing, the server brought hot tea in a glass tumbler. We moved on to another izakaya down the street. "Kanpai!" we said, clinking glasses of sake.

Osaka, Kyoto

An interview at the American consulate in Osaka gave Junko and me the perfect excuse to keep eating. Junko's home city, the country's first capital, was formerly known as the Nation's Kitchen for its role as a major economic hub to the capital in what is now Tokyo in the 17th to 19th centuries.

At night, we went to Osaka's Dotonbori street, the city's canalside answer to Times Square or the Vegas Strip, except tighter, and with giant crab and octopus structures protruding above restaurants. The local staple is takoyaki, or griddled balls of octopus bits topped with a kind of barbecue sauce and then dried bonito flakes that wisp on a paper plate. Our dinner that night was a mishmash of takoyaki, streetside scallops cooked in the shell with soy sauce and butter, and five or six pieces of sushi plucked from a conveyor belt. (If that sounds like a lot, the South Korean tourist sitting beside me had a stack of about 14 sushi plates.)

Our base for the weekend was not party-ready Osaka but Kyoto, where I felt the closest to Japan's imperial past. November is busy, but Junko found us a spacious double room near the train station (Hotel Keihan Kyoto) and a store that sells green tea-flavored ice cream. (Another specialty, check.)

Here, the focus was less on food and more on culture and tradition.

We had stopped in temples tucked between corporate buildings and bars in Tokyo and Osaka, but Kyoto's places were more striking and isolated against prime autumn foliage. Two stood out the most: Kiyomizudera, a towering Buddhist temple complex with a main hall built on 139 wooden pillars over a mountain slope, and the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkakuji, a gorgeous two-story yellow Zen temple overlooking a reflecting pond.

I wanted to remember the latter especially, so I bought a special notebook depicting it for collecting temple stamps. For 300 to 500 yen, a monk at each temple will provide the unique red stamp and black-ink calligraphy of sites around the country to keep in your notebook.

A 10-minute bus ride brought us from Kinkakuji to the relaxing Zen rock garden at Ryoanji, where 15 rocks seem to be arranged randomly until you realize one is missing from every angle. With my shoes off, and the trickle of light rain, I started to feel rested and ready for my last week abroad.

Kamakura, Enoshima

I spent the last week in Tokyo to close any remaining reporting holes and start writing. At night, I met up with Junko. We scoped the bizarre and kawaii (cute) fashions of wear-whatever-you-want Harajuku. (The clothing was too small, so I bought cat and panda socks.) In Shinjuku, we wandered another hidden alley teeming with packed, closet-sized restaurants in Omoide Yokacho (Memory Lane), not far from the metro station. We chose Isuzu (No. 53 on a map), a narrow place with a half-dozen counter seats and a table in the back. I wanted a bowl of the stew promoted on the sidewalk.

What is it? I asked. "Hmm," Junko said. "Beef — how do you say it — guts?"

The "guts" were chewy but not as offensive as chicken liver, the only thing I spit out.

This brings us back to day 19, the easy day trip from Tokyo to Kamakura and Enoshima. In Kamakura, we watched as parents brought their children ages 3, 5 and 7 in formal kimonos to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine for blessings from Shinto priests.

Back on the street in seaside Enoshima, the chef tossed a couple of flour-coated octopi onto the hot surface of a large grill press and closed the top with a hand crank. After a couple of minutes, he unwound the lid, sliced the paper-thin cracker in half with scissors and slid the pieces into bags.

Could I really finish an octopus cracker? I nibbled, avoiding the obvious purple parts. Even the bites I expected to be salty carried a strong fishy taste. I was taking a long time, and Junko said really, it's okay to stop.

Halfway through the cracker, I resigned. She teased me, saying the phrase for wasting with regret, mottainai. Then she ate the remaining half, and up the mountain we went.

Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the International Center for Journalists. Japanese translator Junko Takahashi and Times photographer Eve Edelheit contributed to this report. Contact Katie Sanders at ksanders@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8037. Follow @KatieLSanders.

When in Japan ...

• When you want to shake hands, a slight bow from the waist will do instead.

• Men and women wear suits, dresses and casual wear, but it also is common to see kimonos, one of the world's most recognizable traditional garments, particularly in Kyoto. Young people in Tokyo's trendy Harajuku, Shinjuku and Shibuya wards wear more adventurous fashion.

• Many restaurants and hotels require you to leave your shoes at the door. Pack shoes that are easy to remove, and wear socks or tights.

• Japan's metro trains are infamously crowded. Avoid morning and afternoon rush.

• You can eat reasonably. A sit-down lunch could cost between 1,200 and 1,800 yen ($10 to $15), and a multiple-dish dinner at a midrange restaurant is about 4,200 ($37). Street food is usually under 600 yen ($5.25), and you can get a pint of domestic beer for 500 yen ($4.39).

• Visit the beautiful Zen rock garden of Ryoanji, a place of quiet contemplation and reflection. One adult ticket is 500 yen, or $4.39, from March to November. (www.ryoanji.jp/smph/eng)

• Purchase the Japan Rail Pass ahead of time if you plan to cover a lot of ground using the Shinkansen bullet train or Japan Rail outside of Tokyo. Prices vary from a seven-day pass for $247 to a 21-day pass for $505. (japan-rail-pass.com)

• Try a night of unwinding in a traditional Japanese inn, called a ryokan, with a floor of tatami mats and a futon mattress. I stayed in Ryokan Kamogawa near the Asakusa Shrine for 17,400 yen, or about $150.

• Japanese Kabuki is a dramatic acting tradition performed by famous all-male casts in gorgeous theaters, often with plays about Japan's ancient days and leaders. Day-of tickets are sometimes available. The same could not be said for the popular Takarazuka Revue of all-female acting troupes, which also perform in Tokyo, when I was there. (kageki.hankyu.co.jp/english)

.IF YOU GO

Japan

Several airlines, including All Nippon, American, Delta and United, offer connecting service from Tampa International Airport to Narita International Airport in the Tokyo area. Travel time varies, generally from about 17 to 19 hours. There is a choice of public transportation from the airport to metropolitan Tokyo, including trains, taxis and limousine buses.

From Tokyo to Hiroshima, experiencing the food and culture of Japan 03/17/16 [Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2016 10:44am]
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