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Remembering Anthony Bourdain Through His Travels in Japan

Retrace the beloved travel show host’s steps through Osaka, Hokkaido, Tokyo and Okinawa.

By 10 min read

Earlier this month, the news of Anthony Bourdain’s untimely death created a media frenzy and left fans around the world in a state of visceral shock. Through his bestselling books and the documentary shows he hosted on the Travel Channel and CNN, Bourdain had become an icon. He was the patron saint of food-loving travelers and like many people who may be  reading this, he felt a special connection with Japan. That connection ran so deep that he once wrote he’d “pick Tokyo in a second” if he had to live in one city for the rest of his life.

The tragic nature of Bourdain’s death — he took his own life at the age of 61 — serves as a sad reminder that the surface glimpses we see of people often belie hidden reservoirs of pain. You don’t have to be a celebrity to have an off-camera life, as it were. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy in this day and age for a person’s death to be exploited, too. Thanks to YouTube personality Logan Paul, this whole year actually started off with another media frenzy surrounding Japan’s misunderstood “suicide forest.”

One way Bourdain’s life might have touched the lives of Japanophiles is through the previous episodes of his two shows, No Reservations and Parts Unknown, where he visited places like Osaka, Hokkaido, Tokyo, Okinawa, Ishikawa, and Tochigi. If you go back and watch those old episodes, the individual who inspired such a boundless sense of adventure and discovery in other travelers lives on — even if the memory of him is at times tinged with melancholy now.

Though Bourdain may be gone, it’s still possible to commune with his creative spirit by following in the footsteps of his travels in Japan and having one’s eyes opened to new aspects of Japanese culture and cuisine. In some ways, that seems like a more fitting tribute, anyway, to his lifelong curiosity about this country and others. Rather than dwelling on the circumstances of his death and the depression he may have suffered (if you or someone you know is in need of a lifeline, please read our article on suicide prevention in Japan), the information below seeks to celebrate Bourdain’s life and love of Japan by retracing the path of his experiences in four places here.

1. Bourdain enters “the nation’s kitchen” in Osaka

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The gate to Osaka's Dotonbori district.

In addition to providing highly distilled doses of food culture, the episodes of Bourdain’s two travel shows often use well-known tourist landmarks for establishing shots before venturing off the beaten path into the proverbial “parts unknown.” So it is that his No Reservations episode on Osaka — which he calls “the culinary heart of Japan” — begins in Dotonbori.

The first place Bourdain eats at is Gosakudon, a sushi sports bar where he witnesses hardcore baseball fans cheering on the local Hanshin Tigers team with dedicated chants for each player. Equating the Tigers to the Boston Red Sox, he talks about their long-standing rivalry with Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants, who are themselves comparable to the New York Yankees.

In the company of a manzai (two-man comedy) team, Bourdain next consumes takoyaki (octopus dumplings) at Pizza Ball House. Together, their quest for kuidadore (bankrupting oneself with food) leads them to Jiyuken, where they eat curry-mixed rice topped with raw egg.

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The original branch of Kani Doraku in Osaka.

At Daruma, they burn their mouths on kushikatsu (deep-fried meat and vegetable skewers). Bourdain confronts his fear of clowns at Kuidadore Taro; they then visit the original Kani Doraku, a seafood franchise known for its mechanical red crab sign. The epic food crawl and crash course on Osaka cuisine ends with okonomiyaki (savory cabbage pancakes).

After that, the episode detours to Nagano, where Bourdain undergoes a water purification ritual on Mt. Ontake and visits the Kiso Forest, whose sacred cypress trees are used in the ritual rebuilding of Ise Shrine. Before venturing back to Osaka, he joins a family home meal and cemetery visit as part of the Obon Festival.

Toward the end, Bourdain eats horumonyaki (griddle-seared cow and pig organs) near Tsutenkaku Tower. The episode comes full circle with him taking in a Tigers game at Hanshin Koshien Stadium.

2. Bourdain visits “Japan’s last frontier” in Hokkaido

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Inside the Sapporo Beer Garden.

The No Reservations episode on Hokkaido was actually filmed just a few weeks before the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The episode starts out in the Sapporo Beer Garden, where Bourdain chows down on jingisukan (“Genghis Khan”), a grilled lamb dish cooked up at the table on a big, round skillet.

Following that, he heads over to the neon-lit district of Susukino, which is where the ice sculptures at the Sapporo Snow Festival are displayed every year. On Susukino’s Ramen Yokocho alley, Bourdain eats Sapporo’s signature miso ramen at a shop called Aji no Karyu.

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Bourdain's signature on the wall of a ramen shop in Sapporo.

Elsewhere in Sapporo, Bourdain visits the city’s Central Wholesale Market where he dines on uni ikura don — a rice bowl topped with sea urchin and salmon roe — at a restaurant called Wakakoma. That probably sounds a whole lot more appetizing than fish sperm sacs,  however, Bourdain was never one to back down from an eating challenge, and indeed, it’s shirako (fish sperm sacs) that he later wolfs down at an izakaya dubbed Torimatsu in Niseko.

Described by Bourdain as “a snow-covered dream,” Niseko, of course, brings skiing. It also brings handmade buckwheat noodles at Rakuichi Soba.

In Shiraoi, Bourdain visits the Ainu Museum and eats ohaw, a traditional Ainu savory soup,  as well as salmon jerky. In Noboribetsu, Bourdain eats robatayaki (Japanese fireside cooking) at Takinoya Ryokan. The episode ends with him sipping sake in an onsen (hot springs bath).

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Soup curry at Okushiba Shoten.

A deleted scene from this episode shows Bourdain learning about one of Japan’s absolute best fusion foods, namely: soup curry. Through the new millennium, the soup curry phenomenon has spread outward from Sapporo to other parts of Japan. The place where Bourdain eats soup curry, Okushiba Shoten, has a couple of branches in Hachioji, Tokyo.

3. Bourdain covers Tokyo — his favorite city — twice

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People lining up outside the Budokan arena for an event.

Bourdain begins his first tour of Japan’s capital for No Reservations at Sarashina-Horii, a restaurant that will be celebrating its 230th anniversary of soba-making next year. In Shibuya, he sips a fancy “Claudia” cocktail at Bar Ishinohana. The famous martial arts and concert arena Nippon Budokan is where he tries his hand at wielding a bamboo kendo sword.

Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto appears in this episode at Restaurant Morimoto XEX. He serves Bourdain a three-course monk fish meal, including “Kentucky fried monkfish.” Known for its tataki (half-cooked, half-raw chicken), Toriki is the yakitori joint in Shinagawa where Bourdain eats skewerless, fresh-killed chicken off an electric grill.

From Tokyo Station, Bourdain takes the shinkansen train to Kyoto, where he learns ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arrangement) at Rokkakudo Temple. Later, he and Morimoto eat kaiseki ryouri (a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) and play drinking games with geisha at Hiiragiya Ryokan.

Robot Restaurant

The episode ends back in Shibuya, with Bourdain talking about the detail-oriented beauty of Japanese culture at Bar Piano on Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkards Alley). In a deleted scene from this episode, Bourdain sits down at the counter of Michelin 3-star sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro.

Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode on Tokyo sees him visiting a number of spots in Shinjuku that are sure to be on the checklist for many tourists. There’s the Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel, Robot Restaurant, the red-light district of Kabukicho and the dive bar alleys of Golden Gai (where Bourdain drinks at Bar Albatross).

Japanese local steet food at Omoide Yokocho, Shinjuku.

One of the more interesting people Bourdain encounters in his travels here in Japan is Naomichi Yasuda, a sushi chef with roots in karate who founded a popular, high-end restaurant in New York. The episode shows Yasuda picking up fresh fish in the morning at Tsukiji Fish Market and then serving it to Bourdain at Sushi Bar Yasuda.

Bourdain also sets off “in search of the city’s dark, extreme and bizarrely fetishistic underside.” This entails hanging out with a metal band called Merging Moon, meeting Toshio Maeda — a pornographic manga artist known as the “tentacle master” — and dining with a dominatrix and shibari (Japanese rope bondage) practitioner at Daitoryo on Ueno‘s bustling market street of Ameyoko.

4. Bourdain adds fights to the food in Okinawa

Since it’s where karate originated, a good chunk of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode on Okinawa is devoted to karate and other fighting forms. At the beginning of the episode, Bourdain takes in some togyu (Okinawan bull sumo) matches, joining the ring of spectators at Ishikawa Dome as they sit and watch the bulls in each match lock horns until one animal backs down. He later observes students at a karate dojo toughening up their knuckles and toes.

A brief sparring session with the dojo’s legendary master, Tetsuhiro Hokama, gives a vivid demonstration of the open-handed kyusho karate technique, whereby pressure points on the human body can be used to bring even a larger opponent down. Toward the end of the episode, Bourdain takes a ferry to Kume Island, where he observes and participates in tegumi, the Okinawan wrestling style that involves wrapping your hands in an opponent’s belt with the objective of wrangling your opponent down onto his or her back in the sand.

The food highlights of this episode are a big bowl of Okinawa soba (pork belly or rib noodle soup) at Nishmachi Soba and a big mound of taco rice at the original taco rice restaurant, King Tacos, in the Kunigami District.

In Naha, Bourdain samples a wide array of dishes, including tofuyo (fermented bean curd) at Urizen, sea grapes at the Makishi Public Market, and — my personal favorite — yagi sashimi (raw goat meat) at Dojo Bar. At Dojo Bar, he also drinks habushu (Okinawan snake sake) from a jar with a habu snake preserved inside it.

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A plate of yagi sashimi (raw goat meat).

After tasting all these exotic dishes, Bourdain still professes an avowed love for the Japanese convenience store chain Lawson. “What is it exactly about this place,” he asks the camera, “that’s got it’s tentacles so deep into my heart and my soul?” The ultimate guilty pleasure for him at Lawson is its egg salad sandwiches, which he calls, “pillows of love.”

It’s that kind of humor that helped make Anthony Bourdain such a beloved figure to expats and travelers around the world. Though his end was tragic, he leaves behind a legacy of adventurous travels and will be missed.

Were you an Anthony Bourdain fan? Have you been to any of the places he visited in Japan? Share your own tributes to the late great chef and travel host in the comments.

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