Food52 Life

One Simple Act That Can Change How You Travel

February 19, 2016

Of all places in the world, Japan would have a combination vintage furniture store/pour-over coffee shop, I thought to myself, as we stood in front of the window display of Artek stools.

Artek chairs by the Aaltos at Tori in Kanazawa.

It was January in Kanazawa, the capital city of Ishikawa prefecture, and after a several-hours-long walk in spitting snowfall through the city's renowned strolling garden Kenrouken, we were looking to thaw out.

Scenes from Kenrouken, Kanazawa's famous (and, on this day, very cold) garden.

We slipped inside the quiet store, Tori, removing hats and mitten while watching the snow pick up outside; the shop was practically a snowglobe, but furnished with mint-condition teak.

Shop the Story

We ordered coffees and poked around while the young shopkeeper made them, picking up bits and bobs of the past. It was homey, the light was warm, and, somehow, a vintage exhibition catalogue from where my husband works was staring us straight in the face.

Incredulous at the coincidence, we started a long conversation with the barista/shopkeeper Akito, and left the store with a dozen recommendations of other design shops in Kanazawa and Kyoto (our next destination) and a reservation at one of the newest restaurants in town.

It may seem like a once-in-a-trip experience, but this happened everywhere we went, so much so that we made a point to ask just about anyone we encountered—at Airbnbs, ceramics shops, whiskey bars, izakayas—for their recommendations. It's an oft-declared adage, to ask and you shall receive, but it's easy to forget to do so while you're traveling, especially when it feels like everything's already been found and posted on Yelp or blogs or TripAdvisor.

We were rewarded over and over from remembering to use this tiny, seemingly obvious gesture and emerged from under the heap of pre-travel recommendations, shrugging most of them off in pursuit of the ideal: to do as the locals do.

So I encourage you to do the same next time you're somewhere new. And if you find yourself in one of the following Japanese cities, well, we've done some of asking for you (unless, of course, you'd rather get a local's POV instead).

Design in Kanazawa

Yumiko Iihoshi ceramics at Phono.

The list I mentioned earlier, the one that we got from Akito at Tori? It was penned on two or three business cards and involved several Instagram accounts and a Google Map pin-drop on my phone. Kanazawa is renowned for craft and design, so it's not surprising that we encountered high-quality furniture, beautiful objects, and other-worldly ceramics, like Yumiko Iihoshi's, at places like:

  • Phono
  • Gloini
  • SKLO (where we were then punted to other design stores via a gorgeously-designed pocket map)

And that evening during the meal at Plat Home that Akito helped us reserve, we were recommended a morning coffee spot and antiques store as soon as we mentioned having to catch an early-morning train.

Edges and Corners in Tokyo

Tatemichiya, Daikanyama's punk rock izakaya.

By no means has Tokyo been under-explored. What I can tell you is that we passed on fancy dinners, because it just wasn't part of the budget, and it seemed like things were much more interesting nestled in the in-betweens or tucked away in nooks (this is not to say we didn't spend time seeking out sweets and slippers in massive, sparkling department stores.)

Tokyo abounds with dim lighting. Bottom left: Chatei Hatou, a old-school coffee shop in the heart of Shibuya that makes you feel like you are tucked away in the mountains. Bottom right: JBS, a whiskey bar with thousands of jazz, blues, and soul records.

While Tokyo did offer up some of the the most solid suggestions from foreigners, these were also given a stamp of approval from locals. Acquaintances at Blum & Poe Tokyo drove us in the direction of:

  • A 400-year-old shichimi blender Yagenbori, near Senso-ji in the Asakusa neighborhood
  • Exceptional coffee, from the Scandinavian-influenced Fuglen to the elegant kissaten (Japanese-style café) Chatei Hatou (if you've heard of it before, it's mostly likely because the café is a favorite and influence of Blue Bottle's founder, James Freeman)
Intricately etched glasses at Bar Gen Yamamoto.

During the only reservation we did make—at Bar Gen Yamamoto, for cocktails, no shame—we could not deny our love for his glasseware. So we asked where we might find some for ourselves, and were given the key (meaning, vague verbal directions) to glass heaven-on-Earth, Sokichi.

Quiet in Kyoto

On Mount Inari, above the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine.

Kyoto, on the outset, was slightly intimidating. We had no connections there and little definitively planned, but thanks to Akito in Kanazawa (remember him?) and our friends at Blum & Poe, we found solace from the crowds in places like:

  • Shōren-in, a peaceful Buddhist temple at the top of Maruyama Park
  • Books & Things, a small art bookstore located in a machiya (Kyoto-style townhouse) where you remove your shoes and can page through various tomes
  • Gohan-ya Shinkiro, a lovely little "diner" where you get can a large set lunch for around 10 dollars USD. It's housed in a former ochaya (geisha house) in the historical Miyagawacho district
Top: Tatami mats (left) and koi lazily paddling through the garden pond (right) at Shoren-in. Bottom: Sake tasting (left) at Abura cho and Byodoin Temple (right) in Uji.

Tipped off stateside by a trusted source, we headed to Bar Bunkyu, which led us to Nao, a bartender who was more than willing to share his favorite spots with us. He recommended this:

  • Visit the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine (the OG Central Park Gates), which takes you up a mountain covered in thousands of orange Shinto gates
  • Then hop back on the train to Fushimi proper, home to almost 20 sake distilleries. Head for the sake/wine shop Abura cho in the main covered market, where the owner speaks English and you can order a selection to taste right there.
  • We tacked on a side trip down to Uji just in time to see the Byodoin Temple at sunset, a UNESCO world heritage site originally built in 998

Street Food and Friends in Osaka

Osaka is dominated by its food—so much so that it defined our stay there. We had a willing guide who let us trail along like children (and took us to neighboring Kobe for fun), which might be the reason why most of the places we were taken were not recorded by hand or on Instagram. So I'll just let you take a gander at the spread here for fun.

Left: Katsudon (deep-fried pork with egg over rice) in Kobe. Center: Sushi in Kuromon Market. Right: Shoyu ramen at Sodaisho.
Left: Takoyaki (fried octopus balls). Right: Pork dumplings at the legendary Rosyoki in Kobe.

Cozy in Matsumoto

A sliver of Matsumoto, as seen from the central castle.

For one of our last nights in Japan, Matsumoto—a city that feels like a college town in the mountains near Nagano—had a few tricks up its sleeve. One: A thick blanket of snow. Two: Trading favorite bands with a venue owner and bartender.

  • We were steered to a bar and music space called "give me little more" by a new friend we made at Sushi Ten, a sweet little sushi izakaya
  • She also recommended a visit to Parades Gallery
Left: Dinner at Sushi Ten. Right: The lunch menu at The Source.

Masashiro, who works at give me little more, directed us to Nomugi for soba, and we then stumbled across The Source, where the chef knew everyone else we'd already met in town. Figures, right?

I'd love to share more about my trip to Japan—if you're interested more in what we ate, a city we visited, or anything else, drop me a question in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • sharda
  • Cheryl Jean
    Cheryl Jean
  • shofielen
  • Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm
    Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm
I love oysters and unfussy sandwiches.


sharda October 18, 2016
I am also planing my trip to Japan. I really like your post thanks for sharing. This is very helpful for me.
Cheryl J. May 19, 2016
Just saw your wonderful article! I've been to Japan dozens of times and you found things I, somehow, missed! Things for sharing your amazing adventures!
shofielen February 25, 2016
An excellent travelogue - will help greatly for my upcoming trip to Japan - Kanazawa, Matsumoto and Tokyo are all on the itinerary. Looking forward to those ceramics!! And food of course. Thank you Samantha for sharing.
Riddley G. February 19, 2016
So true! And so jealous of your amazing travels.