Japan: Kicking it in Kanto
Kanto is a diverse region full of surprises
By Paul Shoul
From the fashion conscious youth of Takeshita street in Tokyo, to sitting in a natural spring hot tub on the coast of Chiba awaiting the earliest sunrise in Japan, to drinking snake liquor in the home of a sumo wrestler in Saitama, the Kanto region in central Japan consists of seven prefectures and the greater Tokyo metropolis.
Here are some ideas of what to see, do and eat, and some cool tips for a few overlooked destinations all within two hours of each other by train or car.
There is a poetry to how people move through the seething neon landscape of Tokyo. Thirteen-million busy people rushing to and from work with purpose and grace. You may have to push to get on on a train, but they are not “pushy.” The Japanese are incredibly polite. It is vast, mysterious and begging to be explored.
Cruising on the Sumida River in Tokyo bay on a small traditional Yakatabune ( houseboat ) while eating dinner and drinking endless sake is as good as it sounds. A 2.5 hour trip for about 90.00 USD. Just the chance to see Tokyo rising from the waters of the harbor would have been enough, but the food was fantastic.
Shrimp tempura, sushi, sashimi, shellfish soup, rice marinated whitefish, a savory custard and as much beer wine and sake as you can consume. Yes, we were the only Americans on the boat, but good food and sake are potent translators and the Japanese are incredibly friendly.
By the end of the cruise, it felt like family as we all applauded when the candles were blown out on the cake for an 80th birthday party.
1-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida-ku,
I am not a museum type of guy and would much rather be out on the street, but the exhibits are impressive.
The permanent and special exhibitions depict life in early Tokyo from 1603-1867 during the Edo period. With artifacts, intricate models and life-sized reproductions of home scenes. It is incredibly immersive. You will need a few hours to take it all in. Read a story about the Edo Museum on GoNOMAD.
No that is not a typo. Takeshita street is just across from the train station in the Harajuku section of Tokyo the center of Japanese subculture fashion.
Crowds of uber-cute teenagers dressed to the hilt in fairytale costumes with vixen undertones and hints of mass media icons walk with the river of a crowd down this concrete runway. It’s a street photographer’s dream.
A beautiful and historic complex of temples gardens in the center of Tokyo, this is a popular spot for families and traditional Japanese weddings.
The largest fish market in the world, this is a must see in Tokyo. It is surrounded by a maze of outer markets and winding streets lined with street food stalls and packed with people.
Everything that has anything to do with fish can be found here. The food stalls and sushi counters are incredible. You cannot find fresher seafood anywhere. Remember, Japan is one of the safest countries on the planet. Get lost in the crowd and eat as much as you can.
Where to stay in Tokyo
Address: 4-10-30 Takanawa, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Tel: +81- 3-3440-1111
More like a city than a hotel It is huge with over 4000 rooms.
I love a big hotel that makes it all work. Nice rooms and the breakfast buffet is fantastic, with so many uniquely Japanese offerings with no apologies.
A grill in the center your table, this is a hands-on, hip little restaurant to make the savory pancakes okonomiyaki and monjayaki. Packed with locals and really fun.
B1F denki Bldg, 6-1-20 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032
Shabu Shabu, tempura and sushi made with the finest Black Wagyu and Kobe beef and the freshest fish.
510?Nagaru, Ojikano-cho, Chichibu, Saitama, Japan, 368-0102
Kazuiteru Miyamoto is a gentle giant of a man. His smile and good nature mask the force within that was unleashed during his illustrious career as a sumo wrestler he retired from four years ago.
He is the 12th generation owner of th200-year-oldold renovated traditional Japanese house.
We sat in kura, the bar was originally the store room for the home. The room is adorned with samurai swords and weapons. It is the ultimate sumo man cave, well stocked with an extensive collection of saki and over 50 kinds of homemade ‘Mountain fruit” liquors.
Yes, there was a snake in a bottle and it was strong as hell and delightfully horrible. I loved it.
The main part of the house has six suites that center around an interior cooking and dining area. The rooms each have a private hot spring tub and access to a communal pool.
They are covered in tatami floor mats, in the classic (”Ma”) minimalist style. In “Ma” philosophy, less is more, it is the space between, there is no clutter.
Dinner was truly special. Most ingredients are grown on the family farm. locally caught whitefish were grilled on skewers over charcoal. Cold potato soup, sashimi, snails, rice with three types of mushrooms, tempura, pork belly, oysters, and steamed eggs in dashi broth with pork and shrimp.
Super cool long wooden boats are steered by boatmen on either end who navigate through the rapids in the beautiful Tamayodo Natural park.
This is a soft adventure suitable for children and even the elderly. It was heartwarming to watch as a group helped four people in wheelchairs onto the boat.
2-24-3, Torocho, Kita-ku Saitama-shi, Saitama,331-0804, Japan
The Bonsai Museum in Saitama is the epicenter of the art and well worth a pilgrimage to see its highest expression.
Some of the many delicately crafted miniature trees are hundreds of years old.The process of shaping them is a skill and a meditation.
I met Adam Jones while he was working on one of the trees. Originally from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, he was completing a five-year apprenticeship in Japan to learn the art of Bonsai. As his teacher said to him “ When you are working with the tree and are focused, there is no wind on the lake”
Chichibu Nagatoro Hodosan Shrine, 1828 Nagatoro, Nagatoro-machi, Chichibu-gun, Saitama-ken 369-1305,
1900 years ago during a military operation Prince Yamato-takeru-no-Mikoto and his soldiers were surrounded by fire facing certain death. Legend has it that a pack of dogs came to his rescue fighting the flames with their bodies, they cleared a path for his rescue. The prince built this shrine to honor them.
Where to stay in Saitama:
Address: 2-5-1, Naka-cho, Urawa-ku, Saitama-shi, Saitama 330-0062
A mid-sized hotel. Comfortable and clean.
15-1 Komuro, Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture
An illuminating dining experience. From the vodka, noodles and soup, to the final dessert of ice cream everything is made from locally grown sweet potatoes.
547, Yorii, Yorii-cho, Osato-gun, Saitama
This is a fantastic restaurant located in a traditional inn on the banks of the Arakawa river.
Specializing in the locally caught Ayu fresh water trout caught only where the water is fresh and clean, braised in sweet saki. This was one of my favorite meals in japan.
The gardens are spectacular and the atmosphere of a private room, sitting at a traditional low table with a beautiful view of the river and having the local Ayu no Yado cuisine finished at your table was incredible.
Choshi city in Chiba prefecture is located on the eastern coast of Japan on the Boso peninsula. It is the go to spot to catch the first sunrise of the new year. A rice growing area, and port town with a large fishing fleet, this area is also blessed with the perfect conditions and location for soy sauce production.
Villa “Umi To Mori”
10292-1, Inubosaki, Choshi-shi, Chiba-ken, 288-0012
Sitting in the hot spring tub overlooking the ocean from my room at UMI to Mori, a traditional Osen Ryokan ( Japanese style inn) I relaxed into the good life. A slight rain was falling. The sounds of waves crashing. This was what I had hoped to find in Japan.
A spectacular spa and hotel with traditional rooms and a top notch restaurant specializing in local seafood caught from the boats that harbor close by in Tokawa village in Choshi City.
From Choshi station we jumped on the small Choshi Electric Railway. With only 10 stations and traveling a total of 6.4 KM in 20 minutes, it is great ride through farm country and small towns. At the last station we departed to tour the Yamasa Soy Sauce factory.
Founded in 1645, the cool summers, warm winters and high humidity made it perfect for the fermentation of soybeans.
Huge vats in gigantic storage rooms ferment to produce their signature shoyo. It is said that there are over 300 flavor profiles to be found in their sauce.
If you are a foodie, a behind the scene look at how shoyo is made is a dream come true. The vats are never cleaned, within them live the bacteria necessary for the fermentation of the next batch, similar to sourdough bread starter.
Ever have shoyo ice cream?, Neither had I. It is a savory sweet concoction served after the factory tour. Really good.
Katori City, Chiba prefecture:
Only about 50 Minutes from Narita airport by train, Katori city is a step back in time in Japanese history. The area around the banks of the Onogawa River known as “ Historical street “has original merchant houses and traditional buildings often used as backdrops for television shows.
Ino Tadataka was a cartographer who made the first maps of Japan based on actual surveys he personally conducted. If you are a history buff, this museum has the tools he used, descriptions of the arduous journey he made around the country, his notes and the final results of his work.
If nothing else, take this boat ride on the river. A slow ride through the middle of this historic town, there is something totally revealing and relaxing to float under railroad bridges and overpasses. The Japanese-only boat guides are dressed in traditional hats and clothing and just the sound of their voices is soothing and educational even if you can’t understand a word of what they are saying.
Narita airport is the main international hub for the Tokyo area. It is about 37 miles from downtown Tokyo station. Most travelers either move on to the city, or wait in the airport to connect with other flights. But the airplane crews that pass through or spend the night flock to Narita city to eat and drink. Only 10 minutes by train from the airport it is also home to the 1000 year old Naritasan Shinshoji Buddhist temple, a pilgrimage for many japanese.
Free guides are available to explain the history and philosophy of the temple and walk you through the many ancient temples and gardens. It is a beautiful and calm place.
If you have a six hour layover or more, the airport offers free guides and a series of reasonably priced local mini tours via the Narita Transit program. They guarantee you will arrive back in time for your next flight.
Omotesando Street leading to the entrance to the temple is lined with shops offering local specialties like Saki, azuki bean jelly (yokan) and bright crisp cucumber pickles on a stick ( tsukemono), for 100 yen. (.85 USD)Inevitably as you walk along the street, you will be drawn in by the enticing aroma of smoky grills dripping with sweet sake,shoyu and the local specialty, Unagi, (eels).
I visited the two main Unagi restaurants Kawatoyo and Surugaya, both with wide open kitchens and grills right on the street. Chefs deftly dispatch live eels, securing their heads with a spike they are skinned and skewered.
At Surugaya they use Choso Choso charcoal only. It burns extraordinarily hot and clean.
Their tradition of cooking goes back hundreds of years.
Fresh eels are cooked three times. First is a base grilling with no seasoning. Then they are steamed, dipped in a sauce of local shimosa shoyo, premium local sake, mirin and sugar and finally grilled again to a delicious crisp dark glossy finish.
Neatly arranged on rice and served with a simple dashi mushroom soup, pickled carrot and daikon radish, this incredible dish is as much of a pilgrimage for the Japanese as the temple.
Where to stay in Chiba prefecture:
Address: 10292-1, Inubosaki, Choshi-shi, Chiba
Tel: +81- 479-21-6300
456 Kosuge Narita, Chiba, Japan 286-0127
Tel: +81- 476-33-1121
8499, Kobatake-shinmachi, ,
Choshi City, Chiba Prefecture
359 Nakamachi, Narita City
533-9 Hanazaki-cho, Narita City.
839-34, Hanazaki-cho, Narita City
789-2, i Sawara, Katori City, Chiba
How to get there:
I flew from Boston, MA. to Tokyo on Japan Airlines flight #7 (Boeing Dreamliner 787-9.) The food was great, and the staff were fantastic. There is a good selection of current movies and free drinks. With Japanese-style toilets, too! Try the Hakutsru Sake.
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.