This past May I went back to Japan for the first time in three years. That's a long time for me considering that fact that I had been going every year since I was an infant and also lived there for two and half years. I had some important things to take care so it was a necessary trip. Not sure why I hadn't been in so long but boy was it a great visit/trip! It was lovely to catch up with old friends and also stay with friends who are basically like family.
Additionally at the weather in late May was perfect. Daytime temperatures in the high 70s, nights were a little cooler, sunshine abounded and the humidity was low. I've always recommended that people visit in the spring or fall given that the cherry blossom viewing and fall colors are breathtaking sights but those periods are often crowded and more costly so off season or shoulder season like the end of May into June before the monsoon season was a welcomed balance.
Other that what I needed to do the rest of my time was basically spent eating. No. kidding. Every street and corner in the cities presents itself with awe inspiring pastries, enticing Japanese bites or beautifully thought out meals. I rarely eat Japanese food when I go out to eat unless I have a specific craving.
Growing up my mother and I always had a mental list of things we wanted to eat while we were in Japan and somehow, in the end, we'd neglect or miss one thing. This time though I repeated all my favorites which I'll talk about later as well as trying some new places. The family I stayed with also cooked delicious dinners and I contributed as much as I could. I also made, per their request, chili con carne with rice. I very much trust the Japanese palate. If someone I know loves food and recommends a restaurant (almost regardless of the cuisine), I'll go. The family friend I was staying with is one of the top people I go to for recommendations in Kansai and Tokyo even.
The Kansai region, referring to Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe mostly, can bring you the most delightful and elegant sweets to such satisfying and delectable and easy eats. Do want a slice of cake from a famous bakery or savory cabbage package smothered with a salty-sweet sauce and garnished with seaweed and bonito flakes? Along with everything in between, you'll find some of the most delicious and pocket friendly meals to be in the category of "B-Q gourmet" or B-grade food. This includes but isn't limited to okonomiyaki (the savory pancake I mentioned earlier), takoyaki or flour-based balls filled with octopus and topped with a savory sauce, seaweed, bonito flakes and sometimes green onion and ramen. Kansai is particularly famous for takoyaki and for okonomiyaki the Kansai style is a less thick, straightforward preparation while the Hiroshima style has many more toppings. I always make sure to have both takoyaki and okonomyaki when I'm in Japan. These can also be fun to make at home for a dinner party.
I never feigned interest in visiting Suntory Distillery in my 20s when I visited then lived in Japan but after getting into whiskey and scotch and knowing how amazing Japanese whisky is, I decided it was best to finally visit it! If you take the train to or from Osaka and Kyoto you'll see the grand distillery in the foothills. The JR (Japan Railways) stop for the distillery is called Yamasaki and then its less than a 10 minute walk. According to my family friend the whole distillery used to be free for visitors to see. When you book a tour (https://whisky.suntory.com/en/na/distilleries/) there's two types now, free and another for about $10. Don't make the same mistake I did. I'll have to go back just to see the whisky making process.
The building with the tasting counter, gift shop and whisky library is spacious and warm. The historical aspect of the company is fascinating. Whisky making, much like sake or other productions of alcohol requires clean water. So the location of the distillery is extremely important. The distillery is located between two mountains where three rivers meet thus having some of Japan's softest water.
The founder, Shintaro Torii, invested his family fortune to create Suntory and wanted to make a whisky better than that of Scotland. He was determined to make a Japanese whisky. Established in 1923, the Yamasaki distillery was the first distillery for Suntory. The area surrounding the distillery is tranquil and green. I enjoyed a couple tastes while sitting outdoors. I highly recommend visiting Yamazaki if you visit Kansai. I bought a nice bottle of single malt whisky from the gift shop to add to 12 year Yamazaki.
To summarize, when in Kansai try sweets and green tea in Kyoto, walk through the Nishiki market in Kyoto, eat okonomiyaki and takoyaki in Osaka, get tempura anywhere and if you're wanting Western sweets get your fix in Kobe, try udon which is from nearby Shikoku island but Kansai has many great options and visit the Yamasaki distillery.
Have you been to Japan? If not, are you eager to visit? Where was your favorite place in Japan?