Japan is wonderful. The people are friendly. The landscape is beautiful. The food fantastic. The history fascinating. The culture captivating. In the past year I have had the good fortune to visit several times. As I traveled in large cities and out in the heartland, I jotted down some tips to help when you travel to Japan.
I once asked a good friend who was born in Tokyo but has lived in Los Angeles most of her life what was the first food she ate when she visited her parents. She didn't hesitate a moment. "Eel!" she said with a big smile. "Grilled fresh water eel."
In Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles I had eaten eel before. I enjoyed it but I usually ordered ramen or sushi. Only when I ordered eel in Japan did I understand what she meant. The sweet-salty glaze perfectly compliments the tender, fragrant, delicate charred meat. Now, when I return to Japan, when I am asked what I want to eat, I say, "Eel!"
Tokyo was built on a swamp. Today in the area surrounding Tokyo and Narita, there are still swampy lands rich with aquatic life, including, of course, lots of fresh water eels.
A culinary specialty in Narita at restaurants like , the fresh water eels are kept live in barrels and filleted to cook on fiery hot natural gas or charcoal braziers (Surugaya uses bintochan, high temperature charcoal).
You can't miss the eel restaurants, many of which have their grills facing the sidewalk. The smoke from the charcoal braziers floats across the street enticing diners. Served on freshly steamed rice, with a side course of pickles and clear soup, unagi is addictively delicious.
Temple Naritisan and walk the expansive, well-landscaped grounds.
Take a moment to purify yourself with smoke from the brazier at the entrance and do your ablutions at the temizusha with bamboo ladles and fresh water. If you are going to visit Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines on your trip, which you should do, buy a goshuin, to carry with you. At each temple and shrine, you pay a modest fee to have a monk stamp and inscribe your goshuin with beautiful calligraphy.
Allow time to walk around the grounds and inside the temple. The quiet of the park is refreshing and calming.
Japan has a very well developed public transportation system. Within the cities there are comfortable buses and subways. Taxis are available but expensive. Uber operates in Japan, but the rates are the same as taxis although that might change, so check.
Don’t be shy. Accept them happily and ask to be shown how to wear the separate garments that are worn together. Yukata and kimonos are very comfortable. They do not have pockets so be prepared to carry a small bag (usually provided) with your phone, money and ID.
Bringing a Ziploc-style sealable container from home might seem overly-fastidious, but if you have ordered a fried chicken plate (karaage) in a restaurant at Narita or Haneda International Airport and they do not have take-away boxes, secure the food in your own plastic container. You will be ever so happy when you are snacking at 35,000 feet and everyone else has many hours to go before they eat again.