Harmony, respect, purity and tranquility: These are the principles that guide Executive Chef and Partner John Sugimura in his craft at PinKU Japanese Street Food in Northeast Minneapolis. Half German and half Japanese, he grew up in the Twin Cities experiencing very little of his Japanese heritage. In part, no doubt, because of the pain surrounding it: His father and grandmother, a skilled cook and restaurateur herself, were incarcerated at Tule Lake internment camp for four and a half years. Every Christmas, three generations of relatives would gather, giving Sugimura a taste (really, an overdose, he says) of Japanese culture — just enough to whet his appetite.
And so Sugimura took it upon himself to learn the ways of his people, deciding for his most recent chapter in life to pursue professional culinary training under master sushi chef Katsuya Uechi. What brought him there was his fascination with how food can bring people together. He experienced that firsthand when he started making sushi for private gigs, afterward bringing the scraps of leftover yellowtail to his father — something that, unbeknownst to him, Sugimura’s grandmother had done back in her restaurant days. This food experience opened up a new opportunity for an open dialogue, allowing the two to connect in ways they really hadn’t before.
Sugimura’s first trip to Japan in 1998 was truly life-changing. He recalls how a hole-in-the-wall dumpling house in Kyoto shifted his perspective: “All of a sudden, every difference was now a celebration,” he says. “I couldn’t have been happier that I was Japanese American, that I was the one who helped my family adopt more Japanese rituals and recipes, that when I made my dad food he would be on the verge of bawling while reflecting back on experiences he literally hadn’t reflect upon for more than 70 years.”
And so he was thrilled to create this eight-day Japan itinerary, with time split between metropolitan Tokyo and traditional Kyoto. “I’m obsessed with Japan — the food, culture, temples, technology, architecture,” Sugimura explains. “Every time I travel to Tokyo and Kyoto, I learn something new about my own culture, values and beliefs. These cities are so important to me because they taught me everything I know about my own culture and brought me enormous self-love, which is very important to living well. I hope that, with the help of these handpicked recommendations, you too fall in love with Japan on your first trip there.”
Arrive midday on a Tuesday at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport via a Delta Air Lines nonstop flight from Minneapolis to help minimize fatigue and jet lag. Take the Keikyu Line to the Shimbashi Station, which is just a short walk from your hotel.
Check in at B Tokyo Shimbashi, which opened late last year, puts you right at the center of the city and is one of the few hotels where you can catch a cab without setting foot outside. Hotel employees speak both Japanese and English, plus there’s a daily breakfast buffet.
Settle in and take a nap. If you’re hungry, head to Torishiki, which takes the art of yakitori (simple grilled meat) to a whole new level. Return to the hotel and rest up for the big day ahead.
Take a cab over to the Tsukiji Fish Market ticket counter at 1 a.m. to wait in line to get your vest that grants you entry into the market. Just 120 vests are given out, divided into two groups (green and yellow). Afterward, head to nearby café Jonathan’s, which serves Japanese and Western cuisine 24 hours a day, for some nourishment while you wait.
At 3:30 a.m., get in line to enter the market for a self-guided tour. Don’t miss the 5:30 a.m. auction, where top international chefs and restaurants outbid each other for the world’s best fish. (I once saw a 600-pound tuna go for $165,000!) Next, move to the outer market for all the fish samples and street food you could ever want. Once you’ve had your fill, retreat to your hotel to rest until early afternoon.
When you’re sufficiently rejuvenated, take a cab to Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. This is where locals and visitors alike come to eat, pray and shop. Marvel at its glory, participate in the incense ritual if you’re so inclined then stroll through the surrounding neighborhood, which is packed with stalls selling everything from food to souvenirs.
If you’re craving a more substantial meal, make your way to the two-level depachika (food hall) at Ginza Mitsukoshi, the city’s longest surviving department store. Eat anything and everything your heart desires, from sushi and noodles to smoothies and pastries.
While you’re in Ginza, take advantage of the world-class shopping at Ginza Six, a luxury shopping mecca that opened last year. Get inspired by the art that surrounds you and pick out some gifts to send back home.
Not quite ready to call it a night? On your walk home, stop at a late-night izakaya to enjoy a craft beer and some people watching.
Grab breakfast then head to the love statue at Shinjuku I-Land Tower, the meeting spot for your immersive, all-day excursion with Japan Panoramic Tours aboard a luxury coach. (Insider tip: Book your ticket at least 21 days in advance.) See the city’s top attractions, meet other tourists and relax in comfort.
If you didn’t satisfy your shopping fix yesterday, return to Ginza. Check out iconic boutique Wako for luxury wares, 100-year-old specialty stationery store Itoya for unique paper goods, the 11-story Uniqlo flagship store for affordable travel basics and the Muji flagship shop in nearby Yurakucho for everything from apparel to home goods. And don’t miss the iconic Japanese experience just outside Wako at Ginza 4-chome intersection.
You can’t leave Tokyo without having the best ramen in town. For dinner, go to Afuri, my personal favorite. Order at least three to enjoy in combination; I recommend the seasonal vegan ramen, the shoyu ramen, the nitamago and the kara-tsuyu tsukemen.
The time has come to leave Tokyo and move on to Kyoto. After grabbing breakfast at one of the many eateries surrounding the hotel, take a cab to Tokyo Station, where you’ll activate your Japan Rail Pass. (Insider tip: Purchase your JR Pass online before your trip.) Book tickets for both your journey to Kyoto and your return to Tokyo, making sure to get a reserved seat both ways. Take a late-morning train so you arrive in Kyoto in early afternoon. Along the way, enjoy views of Mount Fuji and save your appetite for what’s to come. (Insider tip: Even if you’re an adventurer, don’t plan to climb Fuji on your first visit to Japan; it requires too much time, training and recovery, and overshadows the trip.)
When you arrive at Kyoto Station, a major Japanese travel hub and one of the country’s largest buildings, you’ll realize why you didn’t want to waste your appetite. Up on the 10th floor is Kyoto Ramen Street, a corridor offering eight different ramen shops representing eight different regional varieties.
Take a cab to APA Hotel Kyoto Gion, your home base for the next few days. It’s all about location, location, location at this hotel, which is within walking distance of major attractions and also boasts a bonus in-house Starbucks.
After you’ve had a chance to get settled, explore the neighborhood. Gion is one of the best known geiko (geisha) districts and is home to restaurants and teahouses that date back several centuries. Consider taking the affordable yet informative Viator Gion Walking Tour by Night to become acquainted with this historical district.
Walk to the Higashiyama District to take in the amazing architecture, let the kids have some hands-on fun, and savor traditional small bites and matcha soft-serve ice cream. And don’t miss the Starbucks located in what was once a traditional teahouse.
Around dusk, take the Viator Rickshaw Tour for a customizable journey through the streets of Kyoto with an affable guide. (Insider intel: Rickshaws can accommodate a maximum of two adults, and tours last from 30 minutes to three hours.)
Take in the wonder that is Kiyomizu-dera Temple, one of the country’s signature UNESCO World Heritage Sites and an absolute must-see. Enjoy the beautiful gardens and the Otowa Waterfall. Have dinner at one of the many traditional cafés near the temple before returning to the hotel.
Rise as early as possible and get your caffeine fix at the in-house Starbucks. Head to the 400-year-old Nishiki Market for the day for hands-on shopping, edible souvenirs, visual displays and cooking demos. When your stomach starts rumbling, get on the wait list for lunch at Sushi Shin, a small sushi bar in the heart of the market.
Once you’re properly nourished, head back into the crowds to shop at Aritsugu for those requisite Japanese knives, Ichihara Heibei Shoten for unique chopsticks and Ochanoko Saisai for custom spice blends. If you’ve worked up an appetite, try nearby Bake Cheese Tart, Chao Chao Gyoza or Ippudo Ramen.
Around dusk, take a walk along the Kamogawa (duck river), which runs throughout Kyoto Prefecture. Afterward, explore Pontocho, a narrow, atmospheric alley packed with restaurants of all sorts, making a mental note of where you’d like to return in the days ahead.
Embark on a half day of sightseeing. Take a bus to Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), one of Japan’s most popular temples, boasting a tea garden, several prayer stations, gift shops and more. (Insider intel: Family legend has it that my ancestor was the architect of the original pavilion back in the 1400s.)
Next, make your way to Sagano Bamboo Forest to walk the paths, take a family rickshaw ride and just get out in the fresh air. Plan plenty of time for picture taking in this natural paradise.
For lunch, head to the Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto, between 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to take advantage of the à-la-carte menu between meal services. There’s an informality during this time, so no sports coat is required, plus it’s typically pretty quiet, meaning the guest-to-staff ratio will be in your favor. Everything here exceeds expectations, from the tempura to the sesame salad.
Kyoto has a wealth of museums, among them Kyoto National Museum, the Japan Kanji Museum & Library, and the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto. Choose one to visit as you make your way back to Pontocho for dinner at one of the many restaurants you eyed yesterday before ultimately retreating to your hotel.
Make your way out for another half day of sightseeing. This time check out Fushimi Inari Taisha, the head shrine of the god Inari that sits at the base of the mountain of the same name. Marvel at the hundreds of orange gates leading to it, visit the many smaller shrines and enjoy some of the area street food.
Next up on the itinerary is UNESCO World Heritage Site Nijo Castle, a preserved fortress boasting interesting history, incredible infrastructure and beautiful gardens right in the heart of Kyoto.
Do any final shopping at Teramachi Street, a covered arcade with shops peddling anything you could want: apparel, accessories, food, games and the like. If you still haven’t found that perfect gift, head to chic Kyoto BAL for stylish souvenirs. Stay for lunch at Café & Meal Muji.
Head back to the hotel to pack up, along the way stopping at any shops or sites that need revisiting. For dinner, return to Pontocho. If you’re craving something different, try Pizza Salvatore Cuomo & Grill for delectable Italian food and excellent river views.
Meet at Starbucks to head to Kyoto Station for your midmorning return train ride to Tokyo. From Tokyo Station, take the Keikyu Line to Haneda Airport for your midafternoon flight back to the States.
If You Go
WHEN TO GO
Late spring (March to May) and late autumn (September to November) are generally the best times to visit Japan, when skies are clear and temperatures are mild. What’s more, the delicate cherry blossoms of spring and the vivid hues of autumn foliage are visually stunning.
WHAT TO PACK
Self-service laundry in Japan is easy but time-consuming: The washer and dryer are combined into one machine that takes upward of three hours per load. The good news is that you can secure the machine with a password to eliminate the threat of theft. To avoid the issue altogether, pack light and plan to hand wash clothes and to supplement along the way. Also, bring or buy a collapsible bag for keepsakes and souvenirs for the plane ride home.
Much has been made of the Japan Rail Pass for tourists. For about $250, you get a pass that grants you access to any JR line in the country for seven days, including several high-speed Shinkansen trains. When navigating the city, I recommend walking or taking a cab; Japan is very safe and using the GPS on your phone is foolproof.
WHAT TO KNOW
Outside Tokyo, Japan is a cash-based society. Many stores simply aren’t equipped to take credit cards and usually have a sign out front on the rare occasion that they do. Also, because everything from one to 500 yen (about $5) is coins, I highly recommend bringing a coin purse. After realizing how often I took mine out, I wasn’t surprise to see them for sale at all the tourist shops.