10 best foods that we ate in Japan

This blog post was written by Emilee Hall, Jakob Rodriguez and Dylan Knight. They are best friends that went to Japan through a journalism study abroad program by Texas State University – San Marcos.

1. Chunky Chankonabe.

While on a quest to find sumo wrestlers in Tokyo, a small group of students tried this famous soup in Sumida – Yokoami. Chankonabe is a traditional sumo stew that consists of various vegetables and protein. It’s quite delicious, but don’t eat too much if you don’t want to gain any more weight. Traditionally, this meal is used by the wrestlers to “bulk up” so that they can be strong enough to take down their opponents in a match. Some of the students said that they could feel their muscles begin to grow like the Incredible Hulk after finishing the chankonabe (just kidding)!

Photo by Emilee Hall

2. Love that chicken from Tokyo.

I really hope that you read that subtitle in the tune from classic Popeye’s commercials. It was day three of the Japan trip, and I had gone too many days without eating fried chicken (meat that I consume almost every day in America). Morale was low without my fried chicken fix; I was on the hunt for the crispy, flaky, tender goodness. Luckily, in a small restaurant in a fancy corporate business building where my classmates and I toured The Wall Street Journal Japan, I found what my heart was longing for. I had the best, the tastiest fried chicken in all of Tokyo (I’m so dramatic, but please, believe me, this chicken was amazing). I still haven’t stopped thinking about it. The hot chicken sat on top of cold udon noodles. The noodles weren’t my favorite, but the chicken– now, that was a different story. Once you dipped the meat in some warm soy sauce, your tastebuds were practically in heaven. I highly recommend trying fried chicken in Japan.

Photo by Emilee Hall

3. Break me off a piece of that Kit-Kat bar.

If you didn’t know this already about Japan, well, now you do: Japan loves Kit-Kats! Luckily for me, I do too, and there was an abundance of this crispy, chocolaty candy bars! So, I decided to try a few different flavors while traveling in Tokyo and Kyoto: Sake, Matcha, Strawberry Cheesecake, and white chocolate. I immediately knew I was going to like the cheesecake and chocolate flavors because those aren’t too wild for my American tastebuds. I had no idea what the sake and matcha flavored Kit-Kats had in store for me. 

Spoiler alert, they were delicious. Sake was quite interesting because it had a faint taste of alcohol in the coating around the candy. I’m not sure if many people would like that, but the flavor wasn’t bad at all! In fact, it was really good. However, my favorite out of all four of the Japanese Kit-Kat bars had to be the matcha-flavored ones. They were SO DELICIOUS. I thought they were going to be gross, but they were sweet and almost reminded me of vanilla. If you can get your hands on a box of these amazing matcha treats, do so. 

Photo by Emilee Hall

4. Not too hot; not too cold. The perfect tempura.

I don’t know about you, but I love fried foods. Tempura is the Japanese version of deep-fried vegetables and seafood, and it’s mighty delicious. This might have been my all-time favorite meal in Japan. I had shrimp, sweet potatoes, other vegetables. If I’m being completely honest, I’m not quite sure what the names were of the other vegetables I was eating, but they were delicious.

Photo by Emilee Hall

5. Drinking coffee with a twist.

My favorite beverage that I had in Japan was a Cappuccino at the Nissan Crossing in Ginza. Grant Langford and I decided to visit the coffee shop as we shopped in the surrounding area. The barista takes a photo with an iPad and uploads it to a special espresso machine. Next thing we knew, bravo! Our faces on top of our beverage. It did feel a little strange drinking out of a glass that has my face on it though.

Photo by Dylan Knight.

6. Train station ramen noodles

My favorite meal that I ate in Japan was this bowl of (I think) pork ramen. Grant Langford and I found the restaurant as we walked through a train station near Ginza. The menus were entirely in Japanese, with no English counterpart. Grant and I pointed out what we wanted to eat, and hoped for the best. We were not disappointed!

Photo by Dylan Knight.

7. Tentacles from the market.

My strangest, yet favorite snack that I had on the Study Abroad trip was a skewer of Octopi. I shared the dish with other daring classmates in the Tsukiji Outer Market. The meat was chewy and seasoned heavily. I am typically not a fan of seafood, yet do not regret branching out while on this trip. The seafood was sensational. 

8. Hot Dogs in Kamakura

I had no idea that the land of the samurai would have such an iconic and authentically American food. Hanging out just in the store front after a day taking in the sights and wandering into shops in near the marketplace, you can find some beef franks dressed with mustard and ketchup. I had mine with a soda cream float to cool off on a hot day, it had what the menu called “soda” ice cream in it and a lemon-lime carbonated soda.

9. Udon noodles

This entire set –noodles, tea and rice – cost about 1500 Yen ~ $15 in the business district and anyone with us on our excursion will tell you that they probably would have spent 15 more yen on it. Sandwiched between the Tokyo Edelman Public Relations office Tour and The Wall Street Journal bureau tour, we hopped into this small shop with a line out the door so we knew it had to be good. Served in a pork broth, I licked my plate clean.

10. Convenience store food

Being a broke college student in Japan does come with its advantages. As advertised the convenience market and vending machine capital of the world did not disappoint. Between a few late nights out and even later nights writing, this is where the majority of our in between meals and snacks came from to help us power through our days. Pictured below is a picnic I had in Kiba City Park with a small sandwich, chips and Kit-Kats!

Traveling abroad for the young, adventurous and broke

A short reflection of my time in Japan

I have always wanted to travel out of the country, and study abroad seemed like a perfect opportunity for the young, adventurous and broke (thanks, scholarships, parents and grandma for getting me to Japan). I’ve spent too much time scrolling through other college friends study abroad photos online. Natalie went to Italy, Ben went to Spain and London, and Allie went to Germany. I wanted to go somewhere too; somewhere different than all of my friends. “Japan!” I thought to myself. In my head, a switch had turned on. How was I going to get there?

One day in my media writing class, Professor Martinez came in to talk about the first-ever Texas State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication trip to Japan. He mentioned you could take “travel journalism” and “feature writing” as course credits. This was perfect for me. “I get to blog about my time abroad AND make videos of it for grades? Sign me up!”

And I did. After saving up money from my job, snagging a couple of scholarships and using my “puppy dog” eyes on my family, I, finally, had enough funds to travel abroad. I got to spend two weeks in the magical, mysterious lands of Tokyo and Kyoto. Those were the best two weeks of my college career thus far.

I was a bit nervous about traveling with a group of strangers. I consider myself a very friendly, outgoing person, but I still had butterflies. I was going to a completely different country. This meant language barriers, cultural differences, and many other obstacles. I needed these strangers to survive (I’m a bit dramatic, but it’s probably true) whether I wanted to admit it or not. However, these people are not strangers at all to me anymore. In fact, I consider them some of my best friends.

Together, we made it through Japan with smiles no matter what happened. If one of us ran out of yen, we could count on a buddy to spot us some cash until we could find the nearest 7/11 convenience store. If we got lost on a subway, we could always count on somebody to help us get back to our hotel. Jakob and Jon were pretty much Louis and Clark of many of my expeditions. If we couldn’t read a menu, one of us would whip out a phone with the handy-dandy Google Translate app. Wow, I’m so glad I didn’t order the shirako (fish sperm sack).

We had plenty of fun while abroad! One day, Professor Martinez took us to a Japanese baseball game. Let me just say, Japanese baseball fans are WAY more enthusiastic than American baseball fans. It may be hard to believe, but trust me! I really enjoyed the arcades in Tokyo; they had so many games that I have never seen before. Also, I highly recommend doing karaoke if you’re ever in Japan (don’t worry, they have all your favorite English songs). On my last day abroad, I went to Universal Studios Japan where I got to ride so many Japanese, adrenaline-pumping rollercoasters! There are a lot more activities that I enjoyed, but it would take forever to name them all.

My favorite parts of Japan were nature and people. The temples and shrines were beautiful and full of rich history. I loved learning about each one. Traveling through the mountains of Kyoto was also a favorite of mine. I have never seen anything so amazing. The lush, green trees covered the mountainsides– it’s a view that I’ll never forget. I hope that one day, I can go back to see the pink cherry blossoms bloom. The people were the friendliest, most polite people I have ever met. The Japanese people who worked in customer service always had the biggest smiles on their faces, and they loved to try to talk to us. Us, students, knew a little Japanese; most of them knew a little English, and together, we had wholesome, sweet conversations. On the subways, the cable cars were silent (besides the chatter coming from the students). Not once did I get pushed or shoved– even in rush hour. I’ve been to New York City, so this was a shocking experience.

I could go on and on about my time in Japan. Quite honestly, I think my parents are getting tired of me starting most of my sentences with “when I was in Japan…” But that’s okay because I know that if they went on the same SJMC study abroad trip that I went on, they wouldn’t stop talking about it either.

4 Things That Surprised Me About Theme Parks In Japan

I LOVE thrill rides. I’ve been to many amusement parks in America: Knott’s Berry Farm in California, multiple Six Flags across the nation, both Disney World and Disney Land, and many more parks. So, when I decided to join the Texas State University study abroad trip to Japan for journalism classes, I started making a bucket list of what I wanted to do during my free time in Tokyo and Kyoto. For number three on the list (right after “talk to a sumo wrestler” and “go to a puppy café”), I wrote “ride rollercoasters!!!” Yes– with three exclamation marks.

Towards the end of the trip, I crossed off all of the activities on my list– except for one. All I had left to do was to ride rollercoasters. At one point, I was afraid that I wasn’t going to fulfill my thrill-ride dreams. However, on the very last day, two of my friends that were also a part of the SJMC study abroad trip, Katharine and Dylan, accompanied me to Universal Studios Japan.

We had an absolute blast, but there were many interesting differences between theme parks in Japan compared to those in America. Here are four things that surprised us:

1. Matchy-Matchy

When we walked into the theme park, we were quite shocked at the number of people who had matching clothes. Apparently, it’s a trend to wear coordinating colors, prints, outfits, shoes, etc. with the friends that you go to the park with. Romantic couples matched and large groups of friends and families matched. It was so cool and kawaii (cute). However, Dylan, Katharine and I felt a little embarrassed that we weren’t matching. We felt uncool that we weren’t apart of this fun tradition.

2. Lots of love for America

During our few hours at Universal Studios Japan, we traveled to mini versions of Hollywood, San Francisco, New York and Amity Village (from the movie Jaws) where music from Tom Petty blasted over the park speakers. I guess I wasn’t expecting to see anything about America there. When, in fact, the majority of the park was centered around American towns.

I will admit that seeing a lot of reminders of the U.S. made me feel at home. Seeing hot dogs and hamburgers for the first time in a long time gave me butterflies of excitement in my stomach. Actually being able to read some signs for once in Japan was a little nice, too. However, I’ll admit, eating a hamburger at USJ was not my best choice; it was not that good. I do not recommend this. When in Japan, stick to Japanese food.

3. The employees were extremely friendly

Think of an enthusiastic, young theatre major who just started working at Disney World as Princess Cinderella. Now times that young woman’s energy by two. That’s how nice every employee was at USJ. The custodians smiled and waved and the roller coaster operators high-fived you before and after the ride. Many employees tried to have conversations with us no matter how much or how little English they knew. The employees were so friendly that it made our experience even better.

The reason why I was surprised about the customer service was because of my pasts experiences at amusement parks in America. Lot’s of times, it’s hard to find extremely friendly customer service (besides Disney World and Disney Land). I don’t think I have ever seen a Six Flags teenage ride operater just thrilled to buckle me into my seat belt on a roller coaster, much less a custodian who is eager to say “Hello! I hope you are having a wonderful day!” Obviously, there must be some enthusiastic amusement park employees in America, but I will say that not once did I see a USJ employee with a frown on his or her face.

4. No eating/drinking and walking at the same time.

In America, we don’t think twice about eating/drinking and walking at the same time. It’s natural. We are always eating on the go. For example, on a typical summer day, you might find me with a refreshing lemonade drink in one hand and a delicious corndog in my other hand while I walk down the sidewalks of Austin, Texas. If you saw me doing this, you wouldn’t think anything about it. It’s a pretty normal thing to see, right?

Well, in Japan, my lemonade and corndog scenario is a different story. In Japan, it is extremely frowned upon to eat or drink on the streets while walking. It’s considered rude in Japanese culture. So, if you are thirsty and hungry, and you decide to grab food on the go, you must stop on the side of the street or go inside somewhere to take a bite of your food or a sip of your drink. Even at a theme park, this same rule applied.

We had an amazing day at USJ! Let me know in the comments if my observations about Japanese theme parks shocked you, too, or if they didn’t. Do you think you would like to visit an amusement park in Japan one day?

10 Most Instagrammable Spots in Tokyo

If you’re traveling to Tokyo, one of the main challenges that you’re going to face (besides jet lag, perhaps a language barrier, etc.) will be trying to see all that you can. You’ll be walking a lot, but fear not; Tokyo has a fast, immaculate subway system that’s not difficult to navigate (if I can do it, so can you).

Instead of thumbing through paper brochures and scrolling through #Japan on Instagram, I’ve made a guide of the 10 most Instagrammable spots that you must see in Tokyo.

1. Tokyo Tower

France may have the Eiffel Tower, but Japan has the Tokyo Tower, and it is just as picture worthy! The structure was built in 1957 and its top level is 250 meters above sea level. You can take a picture from the bottom of the tower to capture the jaw-dropping height and the eye-capturing colors or you can snap photos from the inside of the main deck or the top deck. Inside, you can see for miles into the beautiful sites of Tokyo.  For admission pricing, click here.

2. The Giant Sky Wheel – Palette Town

Forget about the London Eye because for only $10, you can take a ride with your pals on a gigantic sky wheel. This attraction was Japan’s largest Ferris wheel when it was first built. Here, you can capture a beautiful view of Tokyo from one of the multicolored carts. If you’re wanting your Instagram trip pictures to give off a fun and carefree vibe, come here. Also in this area. there is a live music venue and a go-kart track — not to mention a lot of shops!

3. Akihabara

Akihabara is pretty much the anime capital of the world. Not to mention, there’s so much technology and arcades around. You will be able to find all of your favorite anime, video game and superhero characters in this location. You could get lost in this buzzing hub of electronics and anime culture for hours. It truly is a fun place. Walk the colorful streets or adventure into the neon lights of the arcades.

Tip: Whatever you do, do not spend too much money on the “claw machines” in the arcades, because no matter how many times you try, you will not win the Pikachu plushie. Trust me.

4. Tsukiji Outer Market

Tsukiji Outer Market is a big market featuring various vendors from food to souvenirs to more food. There is a lot of raw fish in this area. Locals come here for fresh meat and produce. Take a stroll through the market and try some tender wagyu beef. It is a special type of Japanese beef that will immediately melt in your mouth!

5. Meiji Shrine

The Meiji Shrine is perfect for a beautiful, peaceful walk. This shrine dedicates itself to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken. From the entrances, it will be about a 10-minute walk to get to the main complex of the shrine. On the short walk, enjoy the birds chirping in the tranquil forest trees and stop to take a picture of the historical, magical entrance gates.

Tip: Be respectful and do not take pictures in the part of the shrine where people are praying. If you would like to make a prayer, there is a special ritual you have to do which involves throwing a coin into the donation box, bowing twice, clapping twice, praying and bowing when you have finished.

6. Takeshita Street

For the full experience of the kawaii (cute) culture of Japan, Takeshita Street is a must-see experience. Shop along this street for the cutest stuffed animals and Japanese fashion. You can knock out most of your souvenir shopping here, too, since this street has so many places with small gifts. Along the street sides, you will find colorful boutiques, restaurants and vendors. All of the quirky businesses make for great photo opportunities.

Tip: This is a very crowded place. Try to avoid going on weekends.

7. Shinjuku

This part of Tokyo is perfect for experiencing night life in the city. This ward in Tokyo is often compared to New York City’s Times Square because of the buzzing neon lights of commercial advertisements and the amount of people in the area. Go here at night and karaoke with your best buds– you won’t regret it!

Tip: Most bars close at midnight. The subways also close at this time. So, plan accordingly.

8. Animal Cafés

Missing your furry friend back at home? No worries! Japan has many animal cafes you can visit that feature dogs, cats and owls — oh my! Tokyo has an overwhelming population, and because of limited space in apartments and lack of parks for animals, there are not a lot of pet owners. However, this culture does love animals so they have many animal cafes. For example, you pay a small fee such as ¥800 yen (about $8 USD), and you can hang out with the animals of your choice for 30 minutes.

9. Ginza

If you love to shop, stop by the Ginza district of Tokyo. This is a great location for upscale shopping and fine dining. You could capture a perfect #foodie picture for your Instagram here. Definitely bring your walking shoes. It seems like the shops never end!

Tip: Many department stores offer tax exemption for tourists. Make sure to bring your passport just in case!

10. Ryogoku in Sumida

Ryogoku is the spot to go to if you have ever wanted to see a real-life sumo wrestler. If you linger long enough outside of the Ryōgoku Kokugikan, you’ll see many of these tall, broad men decked out in kimonos as they casually walk inside the sporting arena. Luckily enough, when I went with a group of my friends, we got to see at least five wrestlers.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to approach one because they are usually very nice. However, be very respectful when you want to talk to sumos. These are busy men, and if they take time out of their day to greet you, that’s truly special. Make sure to say doomo arigato and bow.