PartnersJuly 1, 2024

Cherry blossoms missed, but pressed sardines found: Japan’s little surprises


Anna Rawhiti-Connell made many Pinterest boards in the lead-up to her Japan trip. None of these things were on them.

My husband and I were too late for the cherry blossoms when we visited Japan last year. We arrived in mid-April, the blossoms already gone from the cities we were visiting, with a long list of things to do that were extremely planned. Over three weeks, we attacked that list. We saw Mt Fuji perfectly unshrouded while sitting in an onsen. We spent a night on Naoshima, one of the art islands, standing awed and open-mouthed in front of a Monet lit only by natural light. We bustled through Shibuya in Tokyo and hustled our way up Mt Inari in Kyoto through torii gates and past hundreds of other people doing the same thing.

Japan, with its efficiency, order and protocol, seems like the perfect place for the less intrepid traveller, one who likes to plan, research and tightly budget. Viewed from New Zealand, there is so much that must be ticked off and not planning everything risks wasting precious holiday time.

One thing we didn’t anticipate was that Japan’s meticulous efficiency and protocol actually allowed us a huge amount of spontaneity during our trip. Understanding the reliable cadence of the railway system became a trusted reflex: knowing that a missed train only meant another was right behind made it easy to decide to go anywhere on a whim. Discovering that any street promised good food changed wrong turns into something serendipitous. Each wrong turn dismantled our preconceptions.

The accidental discovery of Hiroshima as it is today, and clothing with a past

Hiroshima was only known to us through the books we’d read at school. We spent our first day in the city doing what we’d planned to do, respectfully and quietly immersed in the city’s past. We didn’t really have any other plans for our time there. 

We visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum then walked silently across the park and over the Motoyasu River, finding ourselves on Hondori Shopping Street. We didn’t know it was Hondori Shopping Street, just that we’d found a busy pedestrian shopping arcade and urban centre that felt full of life. 

We kept walking and found backstreets, stumbling into a design and clothing store where we bought worn-in cotton t-shirts produced for a family reunion in Minnesota in the ’90s. I bought a beer from the 7-Eleven and sat outside and listened to a DJ playing ‘I am the Black Gold of the Sun’ as it got darker and colder, then slipped into another clothing store to buy a sweatshirt with an eagle emblazoned on its front. I found a secondhand Marni bag and stopped converting yen back into New Zealand dollars. 

The Okonomimura food theme park in Hiroshima (left) and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki at Ganso Henkutsuya (Photos: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

We ate Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki at Ganso Henkutsuya, a small restaurant where the bar sits flush with the grill. A giant pancake filled with pork, squid, shrimp and soba noodles costs about $12 and an umeshu (plum liqueur) highball costs less than a can of Coke.

Dried sardines and sake in Kanazawa

Kanazawa wasn’t on our itinerary; it slipped in via a gentle nudge from a friend. It’s a town located about 275 kilometres northeast of Osaka, and we only decided to go there the night before, boarding the train at Shin-Osaka Station and arriving two hours later in time for lunch. 

Kanazawa is on the coast of the Sea of Japan. Directed by a recommendation from a Kanazawa Loop Bus pamphlet, we made our way to Omicho Market. There, we ate kaisendon — sashimi on hot rice — and plotted our next move using the bus-loop pamphlet. Our only decisions were whether to take the right loop or the left loop bus. 

Pressed and dried sardines paired with sake in Kanazawa (Photo: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

Near the Asano River, we stopped to chat with a man and his dog, Gao. His suggestion to continue walking led us to the Higashi Chaya District, one of Kanazawa’s three well-preserved chaya geisha districts. Higashi Chaya District is quiet, especially at dusk. The streets are lined with old rusty red and umber wooden houses, and there isn’t much signage to tell you what’s inside. We stumbled into a sake tasting where a pairing was made with sardines pressed as flat as flowers between the pages of an old book. 

Higashi Chaya district, Kanazawa (left), and Gao the dog on the banks of the Asano River in Kanazawa (Photos: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

Pizza and wrestling fans in Tokyo

When we first arrived in Tokyo proper we made our way to two of the places on our list, Golden Gai and Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku. Both spots are famous for late-night drinks, but any visit involves an unavoidable element of chance. The bars that line the narrow alleyways are tiny. You peek inside and if it’s full, you move on. If not, you stay. The bar we found ourselves in on our first night—a five-seater in Golden Gai – had an owner who was a wrestling fan and only played music from the ’80s. My husband wrestles. Somewhere on Twitter/X, there’s a tweet from that guy, excited about meeting a famous wrestler from New Zealand.

We returned again to Tokyo after two weeks of travelling through other cities. On our last day in Japan, we spent a few hours eating incredible pizza at Pizza Marumo in Shibuya – wood-fired, drizzled with honey and made by one of the best pizza chefs in the world, pizzaiolo Yuki Motokura. It’s one of those things nobody tells you until you happen upon it or know to look for it: the pizza in Tokyo is superb.

A small bar in Golden Gai and Pizza Marumo, Shibuya (Photo: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

Tsukemen and in the moon in Kyoto

Our time in Kyoto was a whirlwind – only a three-night stay to experience an ancient city that felt crucially different to Tokyo. We moved like clockwork to see all the shrines on our list, and rushed through Nishiki Market, eating crab sticks and buying knives. Exhausted by our last day, I headed up a random flight of stairs, walked through a bridal shop and stumbled into Joe’s Garage, a record store. I picked up a few John Coltrane albums, and we collapsed into a nearby ramen shop opposite Misayama Park. There, I ate tsukemen for the first time. Tsukemen is cold ramen noodles dipped in a hot, flavorful broth with a lot of raw onion, and it’s now the only thing I want to eat after a night out.

Tsukemen in Kyoto (Photo: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

It wasn’t yet summer, so the kawadoko – restaurants built on stilts with outdoor patios lining the Kamo River – were still closed. Disappointed, we wandered away from the river and found an odd nine-storey building with a white staircase promising to take us to the Moon. In the Moon is a rooftop bar facing the river with clear views over Kyoto. We watched the sun set, day turning into night, and decided that chance was a fine thing.

The view across the Kamo River, over Kyoto from rooftop bar In the Moon (Photo: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

In the end, the meticulously crafted itinerary served us well enough, but some of our best memories came from serendipitous encounters in a country where removing friction is part of the cultural fabric. Wrong turns can quickly become very right. None of these experiences were on our list, and aside from the Marni bag which I have zero regrets about, none of them cost very much. Meeting Gao, the Kanazawa dog, and his owner who sent us in the direction of the pressed sardines, cost us nothing at all.