Travels

Japan Highlights

Torimikura Chaya

In the late eighties, my aunt took a trip to Japan and got me a pair of round-toed flats with a red flower pattern, and a little buckle to the side. I was nine, and these were the prettiest shoes I had ever owned. This, and the captivating tales she also brought back were likely the sparks that ignited my interest in all things Japanese: it seemed like she had visited another, mysterious planet, and I burned to go there myself some day.

It has taken me a little over twenty years to act upon that desire, twenty years during which I seized every opportunity to learn more about the culture and the people and the food, so I think it’s fair to say this is the single most anticipated trip I’ve ever taken. Part of me worried this might lead to some form of disappointment, but I’m thrilled to report that our trip managed to surpass even my sky-high expectations.

In broad strokes, what we did was this: fly from Paris to Tokyo; stay almost a week in Tokyo, where we swapped apartments with a friend of a friend who lives in the Omotesandō area; go to an onsen a little way north from Tokyo, where we stayed at a ryokan (a traditional inn) and bathed outdoors in the hot springs; spend a day in Osaka; go south to Kōya-san, a small mountain town that is a major holy site for Shingon Buddhism, where we stayed overnight at a temple-inn; stay in Kyoto for a few days, where we rented a little machiya in the Higashiyama area; fly home from Kyoto.

I seem to have spent the entirety of our vacation in a state of permanent elation, excited beyond words to just be there, observing everything and everyone, taking in street and nature and temple scenes, browsing shelves in stores big and small, walking, walking, and walking some more, riding gleaming trains, and eating like I gladly would for the rest of my days.

The one drawback is that it’s a little hard to come down from such a high, and already I am trying to find ways to plot another trip. But in the meantime, I would like to revisit a few highlights with you if you’re keen. Not a day-by-day, bore-you-to-sobs, comprehensive report but rather, as is my preference, a pointillist account of what delighted me most:

Edokko Sushi
Edokko Sushi in Kanda (Tokyo)

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Croatia Highlights

Vrnik

My body has been back from our Croatian getaway for a few days, but my spirit is still very much there, on a deserted pebble beach, reading in the late afternoon light, twiddling my toes, and examining the possibility of going back in for one last dip.

My mind refuses to believe that, in the morning, we will not be feeding part of our breakfast to the wild kittens that roam everywhere; that our toughest decision today will not be whether to watch the sun set from the balcony of our hotel room or from a seaside terrace; and that, unfair as it may be, figs do not grow on trees around here.

So, in an effort to come to terms with the fact that our paradisal vacation is officially over, I have listed a few highlights below. Allow me to take this opportunity to thank the readers who generously responded to my call for Croatia recommendations — the list, collated and slipped into our guidebook, proved immensely helpful, as always.

And now, for the highlights, also illustrated by this set of photo from our trip:

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Croatia Recommendations

Korčula
An alleyway in the old city of Korčula, photographed by Tona & Yo

Maxence and I are about to leave for a vacation in Croatia; the plan is to drive down the Dalmatian coast from Split to Dubrovnik, and chill for a few days on the island of Korčula.

If you’ve been to Croatia before and have food or drink recommendations to share — specialties we should try, restaurants we must visit, ingredients we can bring back — I would very much like to hear them!

On Hotel Breakfasts, and How Not to Have Them

Much has been written about plane food and its associated plights, but I don’t think enough ink has been devoted to the matter of hotel breakfasts. And as I get ready to embark on my book tour, the subject is very much on my mind.

Breakfast is, to me, the most intimate meal of the day, the one that you eat barefoot and in your pajamas, the one that eases the transition from your helpless, sleeping self to the person you are in the daytime and to the outside world. What you eat then says a lot about you: I have it on authority that Brillat-Savarin meant to write “You are what you eat for breakfast” (“Dis-moi ce que tu manges au petit déjeuner, je te dirai ce que tu es”) but the maxim had to be edited for space.

If you feel the same way, I’m sure you’ll agree that breakfast poses a serious challenge when you travel for work. Hotel breakfasts, even in nice hotels, make me want to cry — remember, we’re all children at breakfast — as I stand by the buffet, trying to identify the least unappealing items and more importantly, the most nutritious, so I won’t feel faint an hour later.

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Amsterdam Highlights

Stroopwafel

Our trip started in the most inauspicious of ways.

We could have taken the time, as we usually do, to drop by the bakery on our way to the Gare du Nord, where a train was to take us to Amsterdam in just! four! hours!, but no. Instead, we chose to get ten extra minutes of sleep, and thus found ourselves on the Thalys train at lunchtime, pushed towards the voiture-bar — the car where they sell drinks and snacks — by the complaint of our stomachs.

Now, train food is not supposed to be good, I am aware of that. But one expects it to be edible at least, and the styrofoam sandwiches we bought, which we were forced to order by the ludicrous name of ciabatta poulet, did not resemble anything anyone in their right mind would want to ingest: the one bite I took was the most revolting thing I have ever tasted. So yes, we love the Northern European high-speed train network, but we shall remember to pack our own lunch next time.

The prettier side of the coin, however, was that we arrived in Amsterdam in urgent need of nourishment, and that is a happy state to be in when you’re visiting a city, for hunger is the best of compasses. As soon as we’d dropped off our bags, we went back out again and happened upon a bright and cheerful café called Lunchroom Klavertje 4.

The various types of ham, cheese, and crudités in the refrigerated case bode well, so we sat down and ordered these opulent open-face sandwiches: a pistolet (Belgian-style white roll) with warm ham, Brie, and mustard sauce for Maxence, and for me, two slices of whole wheat bread groaning under a mound of huttenkaas (cottage cheese, which makes such perfect linguistic sense I’m tickled pink).

What this opening lunch hinted, and what subsequent meals confirmed, is that there is excellent food to be found in Amsterdam, food that is sparklingly fresh, prepared with care, and gently priced.

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