When I was leaving Tokyo in July 2015 to move back to LA, I thought that I’d visit at least once every year, as I’ve been convinced that Japan is truly, my second home. Living in Tokyo was a major reason why I chose to live in New York City over Los Angeles for the past few years; It’s bustling – there’s something happening around every corner, the food and art scene has been in a constant rush, public transportation actually exists. Since I’ve moved to New York City, I’ve mainly met O’s friends and my brother, Tony’s friends. It’s honestly been a bit lonely sometimes because to this day, I still feel a little culturally out of place. This time, I brought O to meet some of my best friends – some of the characteristics and rituals and mannerisms that could define me a bit more.
4-9-22 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo
First off, Majima-san – my Itoya coworker, has known me too well for these past 5 years and invited me to Toraya, this gorgeous confectioners gallery and cafe. Not sure how she does it, but whenever Majima-san invites me for an outing, it’s always particularly mesmerizing. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who’s so spot-on for what kind of food, drinks, interiors. and experience I love. Toraya, founded back in the 1600s, has been renowned for its gorgeous illustrated wagashi design books from the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) and well known to feudal lords. It blows my mind how the original location in Kyoto was burnt to the ground along with the original Imperial palace and such a place still exists. And who knew wooden restrooms and hallways could smell so earthy and heavenly at the same time.
While we did check out a few ramen restaurants, Afuri was the best – better than Tokyo street/Rokurinsha 六厘舎, better than Kyoto’s burnt miso ramen. Not sure why, but I loved the Yuzu ramen this time more than I had when I lived in Tokyo. Maybe it’s because we were the first that morning.
I don’t know why, but Tokyo Disney Sea makes Disneyland look almost sad and ghetto. Something about the scenery of Tokyo Disney Sea makes me want to go every single time I visit Tokyo. I vividly remember my dad telling me stories of Tokyo Disney Sea when I was growing up. Although I’ve been there 4 times within the past 5 years, I fall in love with it every time – from the entrance, from getting my mickey mouse popcorn bucket filled with various flavored popcorn, to gazing out the ocean, eating curry, and screaming hysterically at random rides. There’s something hilarious about Indiana Jones and Genie speaking Japanese and Mickey Mouse fighting in Japanese.
What I like to call…”Kyoto in Tokyo” and one of my favorite gardens (with a museum) by Kengo Kuma and his associates. This gorgeous minimalist museum with Traditional little tea houses even includes a cafe with wagashi. Everytime I come here, I always feel like I am at peace. But of course, O and every other architect I bring here spends almost more of their time/energy on studying the joinery and details rather than the garden – that’s particularly mindblowing in the fall.
3rd Floor, 1 Chome-6 Jingūmae, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001
Originally, O and I were going to go to an owl cafe, but when he noticed a sign for capybaras along Harajuku’s infamous Takeshita… he insisted we come here instead, just for the capybara. I had no idea that this animal existed nor that rodents could be so relishing with 4 webbed toes at its hind legs and 3 webbed toes at its front legs. Such peaceful creatures.
On the bittersweet side, who knew coming back after 2 years would reveal that 1) My home of over one year is no longer there because of Japan’s disposable housing market, 2) Tokyo metro and J-rail feels and looks cleaner than I’d recall, 3) the majority of my favorite places and coworkers would still be there and 4) To me, truly, these architectural designers are #1 in the world, including my JMA friends.
My favorite type of tofu is now the yuuba. With a burner heating a pot of tofu soup, I’ve learned to use a bamboo stick to pick up layers and layers of tofu skins gradually. Who knew tofu could be served in so many ways. The first time I came to this comforting tofu restaurant was with my Kyoto friend, Rika-chan. Ever since then, it’s been a tradition for me to visit the Kiyomizudera temple and tofu restaurant everytime I come to Kyoto. And of course, end with tofu ice cream – creamy, slightly sweet with subtle flavors of soymilk and tofu.
Before/after tofu and ice cream I know it’s always a good idea to swing by Kiyomizu dera aka “Water Temple” – which was and is always particularly beautiful in the fall, not necessarily for their light show nor the swarms of tourists in kimonos, but how gorgeously red and vibrant it stands with bright leaves – naturally and from all angles.
This Shinto shrine of thousands of gorgeous Torii gates is perhaps most infamous. there’s no wonder why it’s featured in so many films, music videos, posters, art in general. This is hands down, a favorite stop that I love walking up in early mornings. While I should’ve truly believed my friend that there isn’t much at the top, O and I hiked to the top.
3-47, Sagatenryuji Susukinobabacho, Ukyo-ku
Kyoto 616-8385 Japan
Although I never like to wait in long lines nor be associated with coffee snobs, I always make time for Arabica Coffee, particularly the one next to the breathtaking Arashiyama river. After I saw Arabica Coffee in a magazine last year, A and I taxied over first thing in the morning and was alright with just a few people in front of us in line; A liked it so much that he went again the next day – and bought a bag of coffee beans to bring back home. Not sure if we were just lucky then going in early in the morning or if it’s gained so much more popular by now, but even after O and I taxied over on a Friday morning, we had to wait a good 30-ish+ minutes in a line full of other coffee enthusiasts/photographers/foreigners around the world. No, they don’t offer seating, but yes you can sit outside and enjoy the gorgeous scenery or you have to rent that space for $10 per hour.
I’m still seriously amused by their consistency in serving superb coffee in such small space with mobs of customers. Something about the coffee beans being brought from high elevations elevates my experience.
I also tell my friends who want to see the Golden pavillion, to visit either by sunrise/early morning or sunset; it’s one of the best things you could do for your soul. O and I arrived shortly before it started raining and the sun set, which created such a heavenly experience.
Since I’ve been particularly fascinated with history and learned more about samurai and imperial history, I fall in love with Nijo castle and am always mesmerized by how sophisticated the Japanese culture has been throughout centuries and how well they preserve their culture. Although photos are prohibited, I well…. accidentally snagged a few.
Kyoto wouldn’t be Kyoto for me without the nostalgic Mister Donut “pon-de-ring” – this very chewy sugar coated donut that’s filled with mochi. Thank God there is one in Kyoto station. I always love to snag one (or two) as soon as I arrive and just before I leave. Something about that texture in donut form…
Our one night stay in our tiny little hotel in Shimogyo-ku was not only traditional and clean, but so serene with the phenomenal view. Who knew sleeping on the floor could be so dreamy. This time I also appreciated Kyoto just as much or more than I had Tokyo. Not sure if it’s because I’ve gotten older, or if it’s because I was so much busier in Tokyo meeting with friends and old coworkers, or if it’s a mix of those and Kyoto’s traditional architecture and general serenity made it so much more peaceful than our lives in New York City.
This week I had the pleasure to meet with Kirk Bairian, Co-founder of No Greater Good Magazine, and take him around Tokyo for the weekend while sharing my experience for his magazine! Thanks again Kirk for entrusting me for the weekend! Excerpt taken from original published post here
My name’s Lillian Lin. I’m a full time Interior Designer.. chef, blogger, and photographer who moved from Los Angeles to Tokyo in May 2014. You can follow up with my latest recipes on TheChefcharette.com and my adventures on my personal blog: Lillianlin.com!
a. What drove you to Tokyo?
Throughout my childhood, I loved cooking, arts and crafts, and architecture.. and I was always mesmerized by Japanese cuisine, art, and culture. I was so keen to learn how to properly assemble a bento box and package gifts so well since I loved preparing meals, baking and shipping cookies for friends… and I also wanted to learn to live more minimally and nourish my own future family well. All the Japanese moms I’ve also met have always excelled in all these hospitality and household managing areas…so I thought I could really learn from them to apply these skills into my life since I’m so passionate about design, hospitality, and building a bright, future family.
While I was studying architecture at USC, I was accepted a job opportunity to design this rooftop cafe in Ginza for Itoya, this stationery company I was interning for in their LA office. Itoya invited me to come, move to Tokyo as soon as possible, so I had to fly in a week after graduating and start working on this project immediately…Hahah It was an INSANE transition, since I had to move out of my apartment,say goodbye to all my friends within a week, start learning Japanese quickly since hardly anybody in the office spoke English, and I was completely financially broke… but I believed it was an amazing opportunity I couldn’t miss and that it was worth immersing myself in this culture that excels in all areas I wanted to grow…Although it’s still been a difficult journey, I’m very thankful that I came and am at this point today, because the experience of working and living here has definitely honed all the hospitality, design, and woman skills I wanted to hone.
b. What’s been the hardest aspect of Japanese culture to adapt to? The easiest?
I think the hardest aspect of Japanese culture is the communication barrier…not necessarily speaking and listening to the language (which is difficult), but more-so understanding, accepting, and committing to Japanese standards. I think Japanese expectations are generally exponentially higher and stricter than American/European standards… Particularly, the Japanese working environment is very unique, strict, traditional, and usually not flexible. I’ve been working here for almost two years and although I’m very used to constant bowing and speaking like this Japanese…secretary, it’s still a very physically, mentally difficult environment to adapt to.The easiest is figuring out things to do and what to eat, whether you’re by yourself or with friends. Japan comes up with some of the craziest, strangest, and most fun activities that are easily accessible all over the country so my friends and I never get bored. The food and restaurant standards are so high that you don’t need to Yelp or check with people for food recommendations. You can easily walk into a random place and find something at least decent to eat… People even waited 2 hours for the Taco Bell here since it tastes exponentially better than the ones in America haha.
c. We know the Japanese aren’t exactly famous for their love of human interaction. Do you find this to be true, and is it affecting you at all?
Hahah oh yes… I actually didn’t know this about Japan until I settled in. But I was totally creeped out when I walked into a ramen restaurant with my senpai (professional mentor) and couldn’t see him nor the person serving food to me. I was sitting on a small stool, facing a counter, and there was a wooden board in front of me and against my sides… I watched the board in front slightly lift and hands pop out with my ramen…and had to talk to my senpai by listening through the wooden boards between us. It was SO weird and awkward to me. I eventually started feeling really uncomfortable and depressed since I went months without a hug/handshake…so my friend convinced me to buy this Duffy stuffed animal at Tokyo Disneyland so I had “someone” to hug and sleep with at night. And I seriously spent my only $40 in my wallet then on this stuffed animal for unlimited hugs and more loving nights…
d. I’ve been reading a lot of Japanese fiction lately (cough Murakami cough), and it seems that there’s always this aspect of… surrealism, or sense of magic that pervades everyday life. Do you think this is just the vestiges of ancient Japanese mysticism, or a vehicle of escape from the soul-crushing banality of the salary-man life? Or both? Or should I just stop reading so much Murakami?
I’ve actually never finished reading a Murakami book… oops…. hahah, so I’m not sure if I understand your question. But I think there is a strange aspect of surrealism here because it’s so crowded here and a lot of us still tend to feel extremely lonely and troubled to express our feelings and ideas…especially with all this high technology and little human interaction and . It’s hard to explain but even though I keep myself preoccupied with work and friends, I definitely feel it.. Especially when I’m squished commuting in trains to work, or when I hike, run, visit parks, shrines… explore and travel through Japan by myself.
e. Best food? Best coffee?
Food-wise, I am a huge sucker for izakayas. They’re basically these small, cozy, loud and lively Japanese gastropubs that serve a variety of yakitori (chicken skewers) and other traditional Japanese comfort food and drinks. My local friends and coworkers typically go to these after work or any evening and spend hours in them having a blast. Sometimes we’ll also order nomihoudai, a 2 hour all you can drink option. For something more upscale and intimate, I like Kachou in Ginza – my last CEO surprised me by treating me and my friends to a private dinner here for my last night at my first job. The interior and food presentation is absolutely stunning with gorgeous fine wallpaper, napkins, floral arrangements, and shoji screens.
My favorite coffee shop was this coffee kiosk called Omotesando Koffee; it was this 3×3 meter cube coffee kiosk tucked away in a 60 year old traditional Japanese house in Omotesando. It was always an obstacle to get to since it’s tucked away in a neighborhood, but that was part of the fun of it. Eventually you’d step into this mysterious wooden cube with delicately arranged lights and paper bags…and finally reach the counter and order from this ridiculously good looking, pleasant Japanese gentleman – barista – owner. He made the best macchiato and even small cheesecake cubes. It was like…this coffee ritual experience I enjoyed by myself on weekends. But since it sadly closed at the end of 2015, I’ve been searching for the next best coffee in Tokyo.
f. I’m in town for one night – where are you taking me? Let’s get wild.
First, we’ll eat an early dinner at an izakaya and nomihoudai (all you can drink) with a Japanese set course menu for 2 hours, run through Harajuku’s Takeshita and Shibuya’s crossing, blast through the arcades, karaoke and bar hop in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai / micro-sized pubs, take kawaii purikura photobooth pictures that filter us to make our faces look thinner and eyes look ginormous, club 11PM – 5AM in Roppongi, and eat ramen for breakfast and green tea ice cream waffles in Lawson’s until you really have to leave… You can sleep on the airplane.
I’ve promised myself I won’t leave Japan with any lingering bitterness. And after last year’s excruciating 8-hour Fuji-san climb through hail for a cloudy sunrise, I couldn’t look at a Mt. Fuji postcard without flashbacks of misery and disappointment. Thus, this year I forced myself to re-climb it.
Difficulty breathing through the night and a pain through the legs, up the ass for days is still, an understatement of how painful the Mount Fuji climb is (quoted by experienced climber friend) Nonetheless, between July and August, thousands of individuals from all over the world compete to reach the summit by sunrise. The sunrise on Fuji-san’s summit is truly, a sensational hit/miss- unpredictably cloudy/clear. Furthermore, after you celebrate whatever glory and that victory ramen breakfast on this summit, you realize, “F- I’m only halfway done, I still have to shuffle all the way back 4-5 hours down the steepest trail with dead ankles.”
This explains the Japanese proverb: A wise man will climb Mt Fuji once; a fool will climb Mt. Fuji twice.
After being teased for my second attempt, I still agreed to re-conquer it in July with my work-out partner / Swedish friend, Carl-Ray. And yes, after compromising on this safe and efficient strategy, we killed the memory of my first bitter experience with this sensational victory.
1) Physically prepare: We built up cardio by hiking together and regularly running several kilometers together at night (I ran at least 120 km each month) 24 hrs prior to the climb, don’t drink / smoke/ run, but sleep as much as possible.
2) Choose your partner/team wisely: We agreed to climb as a pair because we were comfortable with each other’s schedule and pace; A bigger team/joining a tour would stall us (more bathroom breaks, more wasted time, etc) There are plenty of opportunities to befriend other awesome individual climbers, so we climbed parts with them as well.
3) Coordinate in packing: Both of us carried waterproof backpacks and bags, proper clothes, and several 100 yen coins for bathroom/water/emergency food. I carried our oxygen can, extra headlamp/batteries, heat packs, clif bars, medication for altitude sickness, and skincare while he carried our space blanket, gauze, 2L water, energy drinks, and my DSLR. (I highly recommend each individual to carry their own space blanket and oxygen can)
4) Regularly check the weather and NOT go during heavy rain/typhoon: Climbing during rain/hail last year was not only difficult and miserable, but extremely dangerous. This time, we regularly checked the Fuji live cam for the weather at http://www.fujigoko.tv/
5) Plan for emergencies: Fill out safety forms and emergency contact information; both of us brought our ID cards and 2 cell phones. We also promised to not leave each other behind, no matter how anxious we are to reach the summit by sunrise.
6) Organize transportation: I reserved and purchased bus tickets online @ http://highway-buses.jp/fuji/ to leave Shinjuku station by 3:30 PM and arrive Mount Fuji’s 5th station by 5:30-6:30PM. (If you plan to rest halfway at a hut, you should leave Shinjuku station by 10 AM and start climbing by noon-1 PM) Carl-Ray purchased our return tickets to Shinjuku station at the central bus ticket booth after we finished our climb.
7) Plan a climbing schedule: Our plan was to climb to the summit from Friday 9:30 P.M to Saturday 4:20 A.M to avoid the heaviest crowds along Yoshida trail. Since 8-9th station takes significantly longer, and the 9th station-summit sometimes requires 3 seconds for one step, we quickened our pace to beat the crowds to make it by sunrise. From 6:30 AM to 10:00 AM, we descended back to 5th station.
Because of unpredictable crowds and our anxiety to successfully reach the summit before sunrise, we began climbing up earlier than intended: 6:30 PM. By 8 PM, my head began pounding with a headache/altitude sickness and I fell behind in the dark, so Carl-Ray took my backpack. After I took some extra strength ibuprofen, I healed and we continued up as quickly as possible with few breaks.
Climbing Fuji-san was generally pleasant underneath millions of quiet stars, until we climbed from the 8th to 9th station by around midnight. This is not only the longest stretch, steepest, with thinner air, but by then we were really fatigued. Since we struggled through it impatiently and deliriously, we slightly cut the trail and lineup of climbers to the 9th station, and semi-unconsciously entered through the white torii gate as we reached the summit at a whopping record: 2:30 AM (2 hours early)
Reaching the summit was our Titanic moment. It was dark, freezing, windy, and only 4 other seemingly dead climbers were at the summit – completely silent, mummified tightly in space blankets. Carl-Ray and I collapsed at the front/edge of the cliff and desperately covered ourselves in as many clothes we could find (literally boxers on his head and socks on his ears, heattech and hats down my bra, all heat packs madly ripped apart against our bodies..no pictures, hah) We huddled ourselves in one space blanket while uncontrollably shaking and confessing to each other that we might not be conscious by sunrise…As I curled up in fetal position on a wooden plank, I even plead last words that I want all my friends back home to know I love them terribly. We fell into a state of delirium… and woke up at around 4:15 AM with the sound of paparazzi of at least 100 climbers behind us with cameras.
And then this happened:
We gazed out to the distance, breathless in silence. It feels unreal to stand at the very edge of a 3776m high cliff. It’s like you’re floating in the middle of a beautiful 360 painting that’s changing in hues and saturation… a panoramic of several famous Japanese sansui paintings.
I’m sure that as the sun rose, several individuals also visualized a new dream they wanted to fulfill in life. After Carl-Ray asked me where Tokyo was, I realized my dream was to find out where my home was. I actually felt lonely and confused with scattered Holden Caulfield thoughts. I’m tempted to say my home is LA because I terribly miss my friends and want to cook, bake, and photograph in an actual kitchen for them. Yet I fear that if I call LA my home, I’ll struggle with major reverse culture shock and my friends will move on to other states. After being so distant from my remaining family, I actually also don’t feel that I have a family to go back to anymore; it tears me that family members discourage me from returning to them because they believe I’m meant to do “greater things” afar… and after listening to the heartbreaking cries of my over-worked/under-compensated Japanese friends, my heart also sinks at the idea of leaving them.
But I also fear that if I call Tokyo my home, I’ll never finish this cookbook, forget how to hug, and die as an exhausted, unmarried, child-less woman. As my European friends here also ask me to move on to Europe with them, I fear that if I call Europe my home, Vienna’s Opera House won’t be worth drawing in my sketchbook anymore and a galette won’t be heartwarming to bake anymore.
I hugged Carl-Ray and realized that I should stop being such an anxious ‘what if’ / control freak and simply cherish my present moments. Carl-Ray is returning to his home in Sweden soon… I’ll eventually find my way to my home…wherever that beautiful place is. Although I struggle with this loneliness and distance, I’m incredibly thankful to be able to communicate with friends abroad- I love these opportunities of exchanging postcards, paintings, cookies, and films with friends wherever I’m at – may it be the summit of Mount Fuji, for the second time.