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Barely 25 years ago, only about 3 million travellers went to Japan. Leaving their visitors in awe of their ancient temples, snow-capped mountains, and impressive skyscrapers. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Japan was the 34th most visited country on earth.
Years passed and in March 2011, the Fukushima nuclear disaster hit, and foreign arrivals were greatly affected. But since 2013 started, annual arrivals rose by over 20 million. This made Japan the decade’s fastest-growing major destination.
The UNWTO estimated that over 28 million overseas travellers stayed in the country in 2017. This is a 334 percent rise since 2010. Suddenly, Japan became the 12th most visited country on the planet.
Aside from its jaw-dropping scenic views and colorful history, visitors discovered that Japan is also a foodie and shop-a-holics haven. If you and members of your family are both, then read on and discover what’s in store for you.
So first up: the foodie.
Kunisaki and Beppu, Kyushu Island
Kunisaki and Beppu, the two small coastal towns found on the eastern edge of Kyushu island, have become popular for their quaint streets. Their onsen (hot springs) are also well-known for their use of steaming seafood, noodles, and veggies.
In the region of Oita for instance, dango-jiru is a simple yet satisfying dish of thick wheat noodles that are kneaded and cooked with sliced onions, shitake mushrooms, carrots and miso soup.
It also has a counterpart dish known as yaseuma which has the same noodles used in dango-jiro but is instead covered in sweetened kinako flour, which comes from finely grounded roasted soybeans.
This dish has been a local fave since the Heian Period (794-1195). People enjoy this as snacks or desserts and are great when paired with green tea or coffee.
For tourists craving for homemade noodles, Kaya-no-ki is an awesome find. It is located opposite the amazing Fuki-ji Temple on the Kunisaki Peninsula. In here you’ll be able to enjoy beautifully crafted noodles which are mixed with the freshest ingredients sourced from the local farmers. In nearby Beppu the famous onmen can be found.
This is a warm soba noodle dish that comes in small to extra-large sizes. The noodles are made from soba buckwheat flour and have an al dente texture. This mouth-watering dish comes with clear broth topped with slices of well-seasoned beef, kimchi, boiled egg, and sesame seed.
Kawagoe, Honshu Island
For those who are pressed for time, Kawagoe is the place to go since it’s just half an hour northwest of Tokyo. If you’re not careful you can easily be distracted by its old-world architecture and temples right from the Edo-era. You might need to shake yourself a bit to get back on track for your original mission: food crawl.
So the Yakitori or grilled chicken skewers is a common dish throughout Japan. But the best of the best is the Toraya which is run by a husband-and-wife team. So the husband cooks the yakitori over charcoal right before your eyes, while the wife offers the customers with drink and other snacks while engaging everyone in great conversation.
After savoring chicken skewers with red, spicy paste, food lovers can now dig into the Kawagoe delicacy: sweet potato. Everything from imo (sweet potato) beer to jelly to ice cream, the sweet potato has been part of their culinary tradition for the past 240 years.
There’s a bakery named Kameya which produces delicious sweet potato soft cakes that literally melts in your mouth. There’s also the Toyodo snack and candy store where you can have the imosenbei.
These are baked, crispy slices of sweet potato that are so delicious, you’ll keep coming back for more.
Kiso Fukushima, Honshu Island
Kiso Fukushima is known to lure both local and foreign travelers for its ancient architecture, mountain views, and amazing culinary traditions. The Nagano prefecture is found deep in the mountains and a long way from the ocean.
And so the mountain setting plus the harsh winter climate makes it difficult to grow rice. Thus, the diet of the people in here are much different compared to the rest of Japan. Instead of rice, soba buckwheat has been their staple food.
And until now, some of the best and most delectable handmade soba noodle dishes can be found here.
One of its most famous varieties is the nishin soba, which is a fortifying combination of noodles that are topped with dried, marinated herring. The famous Kurumaya restaurant is the go-to-place in central Kiso Fukushima.
And for those who are visiting the gorgeous Kaida Kogen highland area which happens to be nearby, better head to Matsuba. In here, the food is superb and the people are very accommodating.
Aside from soba, there are other local specialties you can truly enjoy such as the prized iwana fish. This is served grilled with some sprinkling of salt. There’s also the warming winter fave, the hoba miso soup, which is beef and veggies grilled on the leaf of the hoba tree.
If you’re one of the daring foodies though, there’s raw horse meat which can be eaten with soy sauce and garlic.
Now that your tummies are filled, you now have the energy for some shopping galore.
Shibuya in Tokyo is a one-stop destination for foodies, shop-a-holics and the wandering feet. Even before you can step out of the Shibuya Station, passengers already encounter endless underground shopping options.
Just past the chaos of the Shibuya Crossing, you can find cheap, trendy finds in the underground mall of Shibuya 109 and gadgets, homeware goods, stationery and more, can be found at the 8-storey building of Tokyu Hands.
Shinjuku is basically every shop-a-holics dream destination. There are endless racks one street after another, and the occasional Uniqlo and H&M in every corner. You have to be careful not to max out your credit cards.
Admittedly, the number of shops and stalls can be a bit overwhelming. But give yourself some time and you are guaranteed you get the best buys and bargains in the neighborhood. Also drop by Isetan, which is Tokyo’s biggest department in the area.
Now, if what you’re looking for are luxury items at the lowest price imaginable, then Ginza is the place for you. That Gucci bag you thought you’d never be able to afford, or that Dior sandals you’ve been dying to have, are here- they’re all here.
Daikanyama is definitely one of those places your whole family will enjoy. It’s a quaint neighborhood right in the heart of Tokyo. It has a New York hipster millennial vibe mixed with some high-end Western and Japanese brands.
They also have local art galleries and curated souvenir shops which you’ll want to revisit time and again. There’s an awesome lineup of shops like Journey, Tsutaya Books, and Okura.
There are also cafes like the Ivy Place and Le Cordon Bleu’s La Boutique Cafe. When you’re in Daikanyama, you and your family will never run out of things to do and discover.
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