Eight years ago, I’ve spent one wonderful year working in Japan and very often I am thinking about returning one day for a real travel experience. There are many stories that I hope will be able to tell here about Japan and my love for Asia in general. I am not the only one sharing this passion.
Scott Haas decided to go even further: he set up a company organizing tours to Japan on a regular basis for anyone interested to get the best of this country. Scott is usually a very busy author – writing a lot about food and travel – but he has a lot to do especially now, when his book, Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant is about to be released (5 February is the date and soon I promise to reveal some of the secrets here).
However, he took a bit of time for us and explained the concept of his tours and gave a couple of advice about what you need to know before boarding the plane to Japan!
A country that will always call you back
How did you get the idea of organizing the tours?
From the moment I first arrived in Japan nine years ago, I knew that I would want to return with family and friends: To show them the astonishing array of architecture; taste the deep, rare, seasonal, and vegetarian and oceanic driven cuisine; and savor the complexity of a nation that is a true hybrid of East and West. From that point, I realized, with each visit, that I was learning something new: I was changing. My personality and outlook on life were changing as a direct result of exposure to Japan. Specifically, I began to recognize the power of the group in comparison to the needs and desires of the individual; the importance of silence; the force of nature; and, the critical impact of consensus building rather than confrontation. These recognitions led me to want to bring people over who would benefit from my passion for Japan, my expertise in explaining what is there, and the opportunity to see things and go places that break the stereotypes. I wanted to take guests to Japan and show them what writers about the country see and experience.
Tours for people who appreciate and can afford luxury digs
What is the target group of your tours?
The target group is people who appreciate and can afford luxury digs and whose openness about life informs how they spend their time. Both high and low experience seekers: Whether it’s a hole in the wall jazz and beer joint in a back alley of Tokyo or a fancy ryokan (inn) in the countryside, the tours are designed for people who not only love food, but want to develop relationships with the people who produce and prepare it. The tours are for a maximum of six people at any time.
Recommendations for tourists and backpackers
What are the most interesting places you recommend to a tourist interested to see the best of Japan in 10 days?
In 10 days, it’s best to visit Tokyo, Kyoto, and one other place in a natural setting. Outside of the cities, staying at a ryokan is a wonderful chance to slow down and, as one property owner puts it: “To return to nothingness.” Take it slow, shed your clothes and bathe and wear a yukata (robe) for a few days, eat simply–mountain vegetables and local chicken or fish, and accept with gratitude what life has given you. For me, ryokans are the perfect holiday, and when balanced with the magical commotion of Tokyo and the intellectual depth of Kyoto make an important facet of a great triumvirate.
What is your advice for a trip to Japan?
My advice is very pragmatic: Buy a few new pairs of socks; take business cards; learn to use chopsticks; pick up language tapes and learn a few words–if you only learn one word, make it sumimasen (excuse me); practice smiling; bring gifts if you are visiting friends or people you expect to have as friends; and, take plenty of cash–credit cards are not as widely accepted here as in the West.
How easy is to backpack in Japan?
Backpacking is easy. But finding places to stay is not so easy! Reserve rooms in advance whenever possible.
On the road with chef Boulud
Can you share a funny experience that you went through during your trip?
Probably the funniest experience I ever had in Japan was on my first trip when I went with Chef Daniel Boulud: It was his first trip also, and with his chefs and cooks we often stayed up all night, going from one restaurant and bar to the next. At a yakitori (grilled chicken) place, Daniel took all our shoes and hid them around the restaurant! Later that same night we all sang kaorake. And, finally, we ended the night at New York Grill: The setting for “Lost in Translation.” It wasn’t knee-slapping funny, but it was very sweet and amusing as well as deeply memorable.Photo: Scott Haas at Ryokan Beniya Mikayu