Sara’s Adventures in Japan
November 14, 2023
Well, hello there! This is Sara, reporting back in after three weeks in Japan and one week barely conscious with jet lag. Long time, no see.
Before I left, I organized the *$#! out of emails we’d pre-written in anticipation of my trip, and Brittany added more in real time. But I have to say, it was surreal being away from the inbox and your messages that long.
At Brittany’s encouragement/ gentle bullying, I made a bunch of little videos on my travels, including part of my hike on the Nakasendo Way and the glorious vermilion torii gates of the Inari Shrine in Kyoto. You can catch up on those here, if you’d like to see them (and me in frequently makeup-less, unlit glory 😅🔥)
(Also, Brittany is currently on fire on our TikTok and making new stuff every day! Seriously, I’m so impressed with her, go check it out!)
Japan is an incredibly magical place to me. The neon glory of Tokyo, the biggest city in the world. The hot springs and utter peace of Hakone, a mountain hot spring town. The overconfidence of the sacred deer in Nara, the ancient capital.
I’m not kidding, those deer will chase you down and bite your pockets (and your butt) off if they think they can scam or steal food off of you. You do not want to mess with those deer.
If you’d like to learn more about Japan and why it’s so flipping cool, I highly recommend Dr. Mark Ravina’s series on Wondrium, Understanding Japan: A Cultural History. I especially loved the episodes on foodways, theater (Noh and Kabuki), and poetry, but the whole thing is thorough and fascinating. (Also, while you’re over there, if you haven’t already checked out our series The Real History of Dracula, DO IT. Because as far as we’re concerned, November is just October, Part II.)
While I sadly don’t have my own book or show about Japan (yet – there’s still time), there are a few more little tidbits I encountered on my trip that I’d love to tell you about.
I feel like most people know about kimono, a traditional Japanese garment that fits a bit like a robe. But kimono range from the super formal to the super informal, and at that far end of informal are yukata, unlined robes usually made of cotton. Yukata are somewhere between resortwear and a bathrobe. They are super easy to wear and often come in gorgeous bright colors and floral prints. To my utter delight, when you stay in some hotels and inns (especially more traditional ryokan), you’re given a yukata to just lounge around and exist in during your stay.
They’re ridiculously comfortable and beautiful. 10/10, would lounge in one again. (Fun fact: for kimono of all kinds, you’ve got to wear the left side folded over the right side when you wrap it closed – the reverse is reserved specifically for dressing corpses, so you don’t want to slip up on that one! #folklore)
Momiji manjū –
The desserts (ok, fine, all of the food) in Japan is really next level. Part of this is because they use soy in 50,000 different ways, which as a vegetarian who loves to cook, I find endlessly delightful, and I took copious notes. And part of this is because they make stuff like momiji manjū, which I dare you not to be enchanted by.
Momiji manjū is a little confection somewhere between a tiny cake and a cookie, kind of like a madeleine. The best part? They’re shaped like a Japanese maple leaf (momiji), which I find aggressively charming. They’re a local specialty on the island of Itsukushima, (popularly known as Miyajima) so I got to stuff my face with them while I was there. Usually, they’re filled with a sweet red bean paste, which is awesome, but it happened to be chestnut season, so I got to eat those too, and omg. As far as I’m concerned, everything should be stuffed with chestnut paste now (think Nutella but make it chestnuts), especially momiji manjū.
I have a weakness for fancy glassware. When I was in grad school, I thrifted this tiny, intricately etched crystal wine glass and drank everything out of it for years. Dishware? Never really cared. It’s usually white and perfectly circular and perfectly boring. But Japan? Japan’s ceramics game is next level. I was 100% that person who took pictures of everything I ate, but it was 50% for the gorgeous food and 50% for the gorgeous tiny bowls and boxes the food was sitting in. Honestly, maybe 40/ 60. The pieces were so whimsical! Lots of different shapes and sizes, which are probably a nightmare to wash and store but are gorgeous to behold.
So I spent a solid 3 weeks lusting over all the dishes, and then the day before I left, our local guide took us to a kitchen supply street in Osaka called Doguyasuji Arcade. Y’all. I cannot convey the majesty. You can find anything you’d need in a Japanese restaurant kitchen, from fancy chef’s knives to lacquer bowls to every conceivable shape and sized pan. They even sell the plastic food samples you’ll see in restaurant windows and display cabinets used to demo what the food looks like. But my favorite store was, of course, bursting with ceramics, and I do mean bursting. They were stacked on the floor in the aisles, on shelves, and all the way up to the ceiling.
I had to very carefully maneuver myself through the super-crowded space, praying I wouldn’t trip over some bowls on the floor and go crashing to the ground, taking approximately five thousand precious little sake cups down on top of me. But I persevered. And although I found the strength to resist buying an additional suitcase and filling it with plates (did I mention that “kitchen supply” means unbelievably inexpensive? Like, less than $2 per plate?), I did manage to cart home in my backpack a very modest haul of plates, bowls, and even two perfect cobalt blue sake cups.
xxxHolic sake –
I’ve mentioned before my deep and abiding love of xxxHolic, a manga (Japanese comic) series and anime from Clamp, an all-female studio based in Kyoto. It’s a little more obscure than some of Clamp’s other work (like Cardcaptor Sakura), but it’s so brilliant and beautiful and folklore-y, full of witches and yokai (kind of the Japanese version of fae) and meditations of fate and destiny (hitsuzen). Since before we were even dating, my husband Jared and I have collected anything xxxHolic related that we can find. When we were in Tokyo five years ago, we found an absolutely stunning, massive art book tucked away in the back of a cabinet on the 5th floor of a comics store in Akihabara that has been the crown jewel of our collection. This trip, when we were in Kyoto, we went to an absolutely phenomenal museum called the Museum of Traditional Crafts (which frankly deserves its own write-up – there were exhibits of everything from poetry cards to ink block printing to lacquer creation to mask making). The gift shop was full of crafts by local creators, so of course we went to have a look, and there, incongruous among the tasteful jewelry and wrapping cloths (furoshiki), were three solitary bottles of sake in boxes covered with xxxHolic art.
They were the only sake, and the only manga/ anime-related thing in the entire store, and it absolutely felt like fate (hitsuzen) that we found them. So Jared spent the next two weeks hauling them all over Japan, and I’m thrilled to say that they made it home intact.
There are so many more treasures and traditions I could share with you, but honestly I’m still pretty jet lagged and worn down from tearing across Japan like a madwoman for three weeks. (Maybe from being relentlessly harassed by the Nara deer? I’m blaming it on the deer.) But it’s nice to be home in my own space, with a giant cup of tea, and slowly getting back to a routine here.
I hope your October (and first half of November? What is time?!) was full of pumpkins and folklore. It’s good to be back here with you.
Yours in mischief and magic,