I can’t believe it, but it has been a little over four weeks since we last arrived in Tokyo, tired and weary from a long flight, and I’m not nearly close to sharing all of my stories yet. I still have to write up our outdoor adventures – including a typhoon filled weekend in Hakone, cultural learnings and the nightlife subculture (e.g., the weird, the fantastic, the colorful, the dark). Due to popular photo requests, however, and even though I haven’t knocked off everything on my list yet, this piece will be dedicated to my favorite part of Japan: food.
I’m late to the Anthony Bourdain fanclub, but in the past few months, I began watching episodes of Parts Unknown and No Reservations. I saw the episodes on Tokyo about a month before we arrived, and it sent me into such a frenzy of excitement that I basically didn’t look up any other Japan travel sites except ones that involved chopsticks. I also related to what Tony says about Asians: “Every Asian is a foodie if you consider that a foodie is just a person who understands and appreciates good food.” Or something like that. Once you arrive in a place like Japan, it becomes clear why he was so right.
In Japan, food and its supply chain is treated with such care and attention to detail for ingredients, process, handling and artistry that even the local 7-11s will have some tasty snack that’ll make a shopper turn twice. There’s also an incredible variety of food, beyond the slim versions of ramen and sushi we typically get in the US. There’s yakitori (skewers), bbq, karaage (deep fried meats, like chicken), katsu (breaded and deep fried goodies), oden (winter soul food served in a pot), hot pot, izakaya (tapas), tempura, gyoza (dumplings), curry, cooked seafood, raw seafood, ramen, soba, udon, steak, deserts of all colors and designs, and a wide variety of fusion foods that include halal influences, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, French, Italian, and American to name just a few. Since we’ve arrived a month ago, we haven’t had a bad food once.
I could spend every day writing about the different tastes, unique ingredients, and freshness (the sushi WILL change you) and still not be able to cover even the tiniest sliver of it all. But in one month, I have been busy, and here are my favorites.
The secret I discovered about sushi in Tokyo is that really good sushi can be extremely expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. While there’s plenty of famous michelin star restaurants in Tokyo for raw seafood, you can have some incredible sushi at supermarkets, conveyor belt sushi restaurants, and standing restaurants for a portion of what you’d pay anywhere outside of Japan (especially for the same quality). I also learned that the reason I hadn’t liked certain sushi in the past – aji, clams, octopus, uni – was because it wasn’t fresh. Fresh uni is probably one of the most exciting foods I’ve ever tasted.
Conveyor belt sushi like Sushi-Go-Round below is popular throughout the city for very little per plate (like $1.20-$1.80) for 2 pieces of salmon or tuna nigiri. We had our favorite go-to place in our neighborhood Soshigaya where we’re take bets on how many plates we’d end up finishing.
Stand up sushi bars are popular around the city, though my favorites were the ones we found wandering the outer markets of Tsukiji Fish market, a favorite place for tourists, breakfast and brunches. The inner market opens at 5am for the series fish purchasers, and tourists are allowed into the distribution area at 11am. You can participate in the lottery for tickets to watch the tuna auction (only 60 tourists are allowed, and you have to wear bright yellow vests to be identified). Sadly, as of Oct 6, the market will move to a new location.
Other Tsukiji food goodies include some really spectacular shops where you can see your food being prepared on the grill (or counter) right next to you. Just be aware it is jam packed with tourists, probably the most foreigners we’ve seen in Tokyo so far!
My favorite classy but don’t-break-the-bank sushi place is called Abe Sushi in Roppongi. I never ate more varieties of fish than I did there. It also has some incredible lunch deals from their website. One note: if you plan on sitting down, you absolutely need to make a reservation in advance. Otherwise, they’re French in how they seat people: they keep the reserved spots clear. The only bad reviews I saw on this place were from people who didn’t understand their reservation policies.
Ramen, Soba and Udon
While soba and udon are known to be the noodles of choice in Osaka, Tokyo is where you’d go for ramen, and ramen we went. You will most likely order your ramen, extra toppings, broth flavors, etc, in the vending machine which spits out a ticket that you present to the chef. 5-10 minutes later, a delicious, customized bowl of ramen in some of the most delicious broth you’ll ever eat. The noodles are also perfect. Firm, not too soggy, and flavorful. I soon learned that each ramen shop had its own distinct broth flavor, kind of like grandma’s secret sauce.
Below is the traditional pork bone broth ramen from the famous Ichiran Ramen.
Fusion ramen is also a thing in Tokyo. At first, when I saw Chinese and other Western restaurants, I was really skeptical. I have never had a good experience at a fusion restaurant before. Instead of mixing good elements of two cultures, it dilutes both and then adds weirdness. This is not true for what I ate in Tokyo. We accidentally ordered a “hot and sour soup” ramen at a restaurant in our neighborhood, and it was delicious. The hot and sour soup broth, notoriously difficult to perfect (it’s actually my family’s standard for assessing how good a Chinese restaurant is), was exactly on point and traditional. But then, it had these deliciously cooked ramen noodles. I expected it to be weird, but 5 minutes later, and poof, the bowl was empty. If you’re into Sichuan food Couki Ramen is authentic, Sichuan-burning-your-mouth, and has a number of traditional side dishes that are worth piling up on. Finally, the famous Bassanova ramen in Setagaya did not disappoint us with their green curry ramen. We were lucky to go at 1:30pm on a Thursday, so there wasn’t a line. Better yet, it was close to the Shirohige’s Cream Puff factory where we would go to devour Totoro cream puffs after.
Soba and udon, severed with tempura, were very popular and extremely inexpensive ($3-$6 per bowl) at the train station (we often went to Hakesoba) or mountain town restaurants. There was soba everywhere in Hakone, which I found quite romantic for some reason. Also a note about Tokyo subways: like Parisian subways, the food there is incredible; instead of the smell of baking croissants, it’s the smell of fried katsu. Pure bliss.
Izakaya, Tempura, Gyoza, Karaage, and other Deep Fried Goodies
The many ways to skin (and fry) a chicken and its various parts: in small pieces deep fried (karaage), on skewers with some sauce (yakitori), and breaded then fried. In Japan, because the supply chain and farming methods are generally cleaner than the US, you can afford to cook the chicken (and even pork in some cases) a little on the rarer side. Yum and yum. Our favorite katsu place is a tiny little take-away hole-in-the-wall in Soshigaya called Saboten Soshigaya. The cute older woman running the place always runs out to greet us, even though we don’t know how to speak a word to her (and vice versa).
By now, I’ve learned that every country has some form of dumpling. Except probably London. But then again, they’re not known to have added much to the world’s culinary traditions (they’ve “canonized” them instead *haha*). In Spain, we saw empanadas; in Italy, ravioli; in Germany, potato dumplings; and in Japan, there are gyoza. One of our favorite gyoza joints was in Harajuku called Gyoza-ro, where the line is long, the food has not seen inflation in the last 40 years, the staff is a bit sassy (the first sass we encountered in Japan), and the gyoza flaming warm coming off the deep fryer just in front of you.
If you’re new to the city and want a traditional Japanese Izakaya joint with some English speakers, go to Andy’s Shinomoto in Ginza. We were lucky to be able to meet some friends there our first week in, and it was fantastic, especially on a Friday night when folks get out of work. The city comes alive and you can feel the stress just evaporating like the 1 Liter beers on all the tables. They’re famous for their crab legs, but everything from deep fried octopus to sushi to noodles were delicious.
For an off-the-beaten path but unforgettable culinary experience, try Isaka Ya Ism in Shimokitazawa. Take your shoes off, sit at the bar in front of the flaming stoves and grills, and just order what the chef tells you: house-made tofu, oden, grilled mackerel, sashimi of the day to name just a few. The waiters pour wine like sake, until it overflows from the cup (a few photos below). Stop by Hagare nearby after for a nightcap at unreal prices for organic wine and new beers.
If you’re in Harajuku, instead of trying a burger, either go to Gyoza or try Okonomiyaki at Yai Yai Harajuku. Watch as the chef cooks the pancake, omelette-like dish in front of you and just mouth water (politely).
If you go to Japan, do yourself a favor and find wagyu. It’s available almost everywhere – the grocery store, cozy restaurants, fancy restaurants, and thank goodness it is, because there is nothing like this in the world. I had some chance to try some A5 wagyu at a fancy restaurant, and the beef was so incredible, they served one course raw. It wasn’t tartare; it was a large slice of marinated raw beef, and the moment it hit my mouth it melted and I felt a similar essence of bliss as I had felt eating panna cotte in Bologna. I wasn’t allowed to take a photo of it because it was one of those places where you get really interesting things (nothing inhumane unless you’re a vegetarian), but it’s not clear if they’re allowed to serve those interesting things to you. So I also won’t list the name of the restaurant, but I’ll just say it was in Roppongi and there is definitely a secret menu. I very supportive of vegans and vegetarians, having been a vegetarian for 4 years in college, but this was one of those nights I generally felt bad for them.
I don’t know how curry made it to Japan, and I don’t care. I just care that it’s here, and the Japanese have done amazing things with it…like they do with everything they touch. The neighborhood a few miles north of us in Tokyo, Shimo-kitazawa, is known for curries, ridiculously hip and expensive coffee, and consignment stores. We stood in line for a while at Sama Curry (2 photos on the right below), and it did not disappoint even if it nearly burned the roof of our mouths off.
Once again, the Japanese touch doesn’t just end with other Asian cuisine, they’re also amazing at western food. I read in a travel article that Tokyo does French food second only to the French. You see fancy, white linen table-clothed French restaurants in every ward of Tokyo and at least 1-2 patisseries every few blocks. Italian is also big here, and I once went to a wine bar in our neighborhood after having eaten; it was a mistake to eat beforehand because I spent the next hour oogling at the chef cooking pasta.
After the wagyu experience, my Company got himself into a frenzy about eating a Japanese burger with craft beers, so we stopped at the craft beer and burger place in our neighborhood. Twice.
We had several splurges on fancy dinners in Tokyo including on izakaya, sushi, wagyu (yakuniki), and the place below at our hotel in Hakone, Le Trianon. While eating western food wasn’t exactly on the top of our list, our hotel was in a remote part of Hakone on Lake Ashi which meant we were a captive audience for the delicious and fancy (yes, my Company ordered wagyu, again, and this time in Western portions).
I don’t know why the desserts in Japan are so freakin’ cute, but they are. They’re also less sweet tasting. I take some mischievous glee in the idea that creamy puffs of pastry and donuts are made into the shapes of cute animals only to be eaten: so dark, so funny. Not pictured here are green tea ice cream, mochi, and lots of other cakes, pies, and red bean filled pastries. My only complaint – and this is a small one – is that it’s quite expensive to find good chocolate here.
I know what you’re thinking, “With all those delicious, affordable options just outside your door, why the hell would you cook?!” Also, for some who have known me during the last 6 years, cooking is not at the top of my relaxation activities list. I was also really bad at it. There’s a few reasons for this:
- Groceries markets are hilariously fun. One time, we walked in on a full-on fish auction happening, and they were handing out free sashimi tastings like the sausage lady at Costco.
- You really feel more settled into the community when you shop for food. We love the whole process of looking through every aisle, thinking of recipes, finding really curious ingredients, and then trying it at home. Also, the entire check-out process is so Japanese and civilized, I sometimes went to socialize.
- I feel like a culinary genius in Japan. I am not actually a culinary genius. The ingredients and sauces are just so good that it’s pretty easy to whip something up that tastes amazing. Everything is also in perfectly prepared proportions: the meat is already cut, the sauces are perfect and easy to find, and the ingredients are fresh which meant we could make a meal in <30 minutes.
Here’s some of our typical dishes at home: grilled meats, fishes, and a variety of fall vegetables like eggplant, peppers, and every kind of mushroom imaginable. We finally learned how to use a Japanese stove to grill fish (after polling Facebook).
We also made hot pot and noodles, and I looked forward to every morning where I’d eat fresh bread and drink a cup of newly roasted coffee from our local roaster. Tokyo has treated us so well in so many ways, fed us, opened our eyes to its culture through tastes, smells and textures, and left us happy and full as we fell into our food-coma slumbers.