One “Free” Day

20130824-115922.jpgMy family vacations as a child consisted of being stuck on an Asian tour bus, driving hours on end. I felt bad for these tour guides because it was their job to drone on to a sleeping and snoring audience. The overarching theme of these tours was quantity, not quality – how many famous monuments, statues, buildings, and parks can you see in one week? At each destination, we’d all shuffle off the bus, follow the guide as he waved his little flag, and keep an eye on our watches to ensure we would return to the bus within the allotted time. Morning calls were always at an indecent hour and exacerbated by re-packing day in and day out because we stayed at a different hotel virtually every night. Sadly, there is not even one piece of information – not one factoid I can remember from any of these trips! And what was the absolute worst was the food. Meals consisted of what must have been the cheapest group meal the tour company could negotiate – a very, very sad version of “Chinese food.”

Food is very important to me, and I’ve always been very particular about food (I feel bad for my mom for (still) having to put up with such a picky child all these years!). My yelp profile tagline reads “I plan my day around food” for a reason. It’s not mere sustenance, but an enjoyable experience, an extracurricular activity even. For me, EVERY MEAL COUNTS. If I have a bad meal, it means I wasted one of my most precious resources – tummy space. So maybe it’s a reaction from eating poorly on vacations that when I now plan trips, I’m very keen on researching and seeking out delicious eats wherever I go.

Thanks to advance preparation, I have had some awesome, once-in-a-lifetime experiences:

  • I met chef Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison when the lunch set was half of what it is now.
  • I stole Tyler Florence away from the kitchen during the first couple weeks of WayFare Tavern’s opening.
  • I taste-tested beef noodle soup made by Eddie Huang himself at Baohaus.
  • And I’ll never forget the Momofuku Fried Chicken Lunch where 6 of us gorged on a fried chicken feast (feeds up to 8 according to their website, by the way), and basked in all our fatty glory before each of us paid a longer-than-usual visit to the loo.

And thanks to Google, food bloggers, Yelp, Instagram, Anthony Bourdain and the plethora of other social media documenting the ever-evolving food scenes around the world, my odds of having a bad meal can be shaved to nearly none. Having gastronomic indulgences can be sought out, planned, and duly executed. As long as you do your homework.

Well, that’s pretty counter-intuitive for what should be a “vacation.” The essence of a vacation is to steal away from your everyday life, to expose your senses to the foreign, to immerse yourself in a world that is not your own, and relish in it. Sometimes all the research, all the planning, can take away from that very purpose and the sense of exploration and discovery.

So, on a recent business trip to Tokyo, Japan, I let loose and just decided to go with my intuition. Other than any pre-existing and latent knowledge, I went without creating a list of must-try places and without any master plan in hand. I wanted to go with the flow and see where the wind took me. I only knew that my hotel was located by Tokyo Main station and I would have barely a day to myself to explore.

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Thanks to jet lag, I woke up super early and ended up on a 2-hour walk around the entire perimeter of the Imperial palace and gardens. I meandered into a random side street and perused a small, local grocery shop before I finally made it back to Tokyo station where some of the restaurants had finally opened. Inside Tokyo station I discovered a “Ramen Alley” with about six of seven ramen shops. I ended up eating at two of the ramen shops that day; the first one as my breakfast, and the second as my lunch. Breakfast was a perfect simple and light option; and I really hit a home run with my second one. It was a chicken-based broth, and it was like chicken soup on steroids! It was so delicious and I am so thankful Japan’s ramenyas have bar seats for single diners so that no other customer had to witness me devouring my bowl. As a mid-morning snack, I tried a “stand-up” sushi bar where the prices start at about $0.75 per nigiri piece. This is super cheap, especially for Japan. The quality of the fish was average to above-average, but much better than anything you’d get in the States for that kind of price.

I’m sure I could have found out about all of these places before my trip, and I’m sure I missed out on THE BEST (fill in the blank) that I was oh-so-close to, but it was really fun to just discover things on my own. I may not know the name of the ramen shop, and I might not ever find it again, but it was an experience all my own.

The truth is, I’ll never stop researching or bookmarking places to eat because that’s just not in my nature. And I have to admit, on my last day, I finished work earlier than expected and went to try a shabu shabu place my friend had Instagram’d. And I did go back try the sushi restaurant I hadn’t been able to try on a previous trip. But I think every vacation deserves one ‘free’ day where nothing is planned, to explore and discover something for yourself, not just because some food celebrity raves about it. And then you’ll have a truly special memory, not just something that’s been checked off your list.

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Special thanks to our dear friend, guest blogger, and honorary fourth teaspoon, Jennifer W. of San Francisco, for sharing her urban living, budgeting, and traveling tips! Auditor by day, city dweller by night and avid Warriors fan on the side, Silicon Valley native Jennifer is a Berkeley grad who is reveling in all that the Financial District has to offer. Check out her other post here!

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