At some point this millennia, I plan to finish editing my photos and tell you all about the amazing sights and experiences of my recent trip to Japan… But in the meantime, I thought I’d start with a culinary tour of Honshu.
Food, for me, is such an important part of any holiday. Some might argue the most important part. My waistline would certainly argue as much. Give me good food, nice weather, and decent company (Paul will do) and I’m a happy bunny. So take me to Japan, and I’m ecstatic. I don’t think you’re likely to go anywhere else in the world and find such a wonderful variety of high-quality fare. From street food to haute cuisine, the country delivers memorable taste sensations every meal.
So here’s my run-down of must-try food styles and dishes in the Land of the Rising Sun.
I’ll begin with ramen, one of my absolute favourite dishes. Every region in Japan has its own version of ramen, and frankly I don’t think you can go wrong – whether you’re eating in a tiny six-seat counter bar under a railway arch or paying 4,000JPY atop a skyscraper. In fact, I’d argue the former will be better. Thick meaty broth, noodles, soy, nori (dried seaweed), seasoned egg and spring onions. Simple and heavenly.
Two particularly notable versions from our trip to mention: one in Tokyo and the other Kyoto.
Kamazi in Ginza offers a delicious tonkotsu (pork bone broth) as well as its signature sake kasu noko soba, a rich slightly sour-tasting broth made with sake lees. I heaped extra chāshū (sliced pork) onto my order, not realising it already came with plenty. This is a perpetual problem in Japan – most menus are not translated, or – where they are – only partially so. A kind customer had to help explain the vending machine to us, from which you place your order, and in our confusion we inevitably over-ordered. A tip: most times ramen dishes come with all the trimmings, so only order extra if you’re super hungry. It’s a filling meal. Anyway, I would definitely recommend seeking this place out. It’s not easy to find – hidden away down a side alley – but luckily Paul had had the foresight to order us portable wi-fi from the airport. An absolute godsend, given Japan doesn’t seem to ‘do’ road signs.
Whilst Kamazi was a traditional counter style restaurant, Muraji in Kyoto was a very different experience. Situated on the upper floor of a traditional machiya (old wooden town house) in the Gion district, guests sit at large round communal tables. The furniture is elegant, there are beautiful vases and mid-century lamp shades, and – given the price of food is no more than in the casual joints – it feels excellent value for money. The restaurant specialises in chicken paitan (white soup) broth. It is unctuous, punchy and truly delicious. I would have gone back there every night…but Kyoto has so many other enticing places to try, so one trip had to suffice. It was here though that I learned the term omotenashi, Japenese for “hospitality”. It’s a philosophy that the country embraces and you very quickly come to appreciate. You’ll queue for 30-60 minutes to get a seat, depending on what time you arrive, but trust me: it’s worth the wait.
My new fast-food nibble of choice! Takoyaki (octopus balls) are surprisingly light for a battered snack, yet so moreish and tasty that you find yourself wanting to order them all the time…even when you’ve just had a swanky eight-course meal (not that I, erm, would do something like that).
Made in special iron moulds, the octopus is paired with pickled ginger, onion, and batter scraps, then topped with takoyaki sauce (a bit like Worcestershire sauce) and mayonnaise, and sprinkled with dried bonito flakes and aonori (green seaweed laver). My mouth is watering just thinking about them.
You can buy takoyaki everywhere in Japan. We had some very nice ones from a street stall near Inari station in Kyoto; cheap and sloppy ones in Shibuya; and really fantastic ones in Dōtonbori in Osaka. The Osakan ones – named tako-sen – took the concept to the next level by squishing the battered balls between two large shrimp senbei (crackers). Delicious!
I’m using ‘sushi’ as an umbrella term here for all manner of raw fish dishes. We didn’t end up going to a proper sushi restaurant as such – a combination of time (there are simply too many things to try in Japan!) and funds (they can be eye-wateringly expensive, and we already had a few ‘treats’ pre-booked – see below). However, that’s not to say we didn’t have good sushi whilst we were there – that would be ridiculous! You can’t go to Japan without frequenting one of the kaiten sushi chains (conveyor belt sushi). Nor should you miss purchasing sushi bento boxes for long journeys on the bullet train, grabbing fresh fish from a market, or buying snacks from Japan’s excellent convenience stores. We did all these things.
Our kaiten experience was at Sushiro, a popular chain with families. So popular, in fact, that we ended up queuing for around 75 minutes. One of those situations where you feel like “I’ve waited this long, so might as well carry on”. You take a ticket from the machine (again, we needed help from friendly patrons) and then wait nervously, hoping you can figure out when they’re calling your number. This particular branch was close to our ryokan in the Shimogyō-ku area of Kyoto. It’s incredibly reasonably priced – most small dishes costing 100-200JPY (around £0.60-1.30) – and as such you can try a wide variety of interesting things. I won’t list all of our many, many plates, but some highlights included: kelp nigiri; sardine and pumpkin tempura; and black mirugai clam. All washed down with shochu cooler (a spirit distilled from wheat or potatoes and mixed with, I assume, lemonade: my drink of choice of the holiday). Would also recommend repeat orders of the eggplant wasabi – yum! There were lowlights too: the herring roe was crystalline and very odd, and I had no idea what the strange and bitter ume hijikilnari was (still don’t – if anyone can enlighten me, please do).
The best nigiri and sashimi we had by far, however, was in Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Sashimi, as you’ll know, is simply very fresh sliced raw fish (often served with shredded daikon radish) – unlike sushi, which is wrapped in vinegar-ed rice. Nigiri is raw fish lain over, rather than contained within, pressed rice. We sampled the best tuna sashimi and salmon nigiri I’ve ever eaten in the outer market (I’m afraid I don’t know the name of the particular stall: there are hundreds of them!). The owners delicately and expertly prepare the fish right in front of you; the large tuna carcasses testament to the popularity of the place.
Whilst I’m talking about the market, I may as well cover some of the other food we sampled there, since it doesn’t neatly fit into another category. Grilled eel slathered in a sticky soy glaze was particularly good; as was the black pig dumpling and nikuman (pork bun). We also had fresh “sushiegg” omelette, made in traditional tin skillets; scallops in miso; clams in citrus; and dried pond fish (like little white bait). The bustling, colourful, loud, vibrant market is a brilliant place to wander and sample, wander and sample, until you’re full to bursting…and then you can have a matcha or black sesame ice-cream to finish off (I can recommend Tomi Sujahta’s Silk Ice).
Nishiki market in Kyoto is similarly great for browsing and nibbling. It’s very different to Tsukiji: more deli-style shops, quieter and more refined, but with lots of great places to buy your food-based souvenirs. Its clichéd, but you have to try their famous mini octopus on a stick, head stuffed with a quail’s egg. Crab sticks; fish cakes; grilled tiger prawns; rice balls in syrup; and wasabi senbei all great. The highlight: black sesame cake with a soy bean curd filling – not dissimilar to M&S’s chocolate puddle pudding. The market is close to Gion and the Kamogawa River, and a perfect way to spend a morning, before hitting more shrines and temples in that fantastic city.
Korean barbeque has become popular in London, so the concept of grilling your own meat at your table is more familiar, and therefore possibly a little less impressive, than it might have been a few years ago. But, even so, the Japanese version can be a lot more down-and-dirty than I’d encountered at home. Smoke filling the room, posters blue-tacked to the walls, waiters haring around with pitchers of beer, grills being cleaned with an unnatural speed between sittings, orders for more intestine being constantly yelled into the air (not that I can speak Japanese, but there was a LOT of intestine arriving at tables!)…
After an early evening spent enjoying really delicious flights of sake at Jam in Gion (the big revelation of the trip, having both previously convinced ourselves we didn’t like the stuff), we walked down the pretty, lantern-flanked Takase canal to Aje Kiyamachi Donguri. Waiting in line for a table (which by now we’d come to accept as standard practice and a sign of good quality food within), we tried to decipher the menu and peer inside to see how the system worked. Basically: order a lot of meat and then attempt not to over- or under-cook it on the dancing flames. When we were seated at a communal bench, it quickly became clear that this simple premise was beyond us. A concerned Japanese couple took pity, and – trying their best not to be condescending – directed us to the correct part of the grill to use for different cuts of beef (tongue, flank, rib) and shared some tetsu-chan (the aforementioned intestine) with Paul. It wasn’t a cheap meal, but a fun experience and one I’d definitely recommend.
Han no Daidokoro Bettei in Tokyo was more akin to the London versions of Asian barbaque I’d tried, but a really excellent example. A big room on the top floor of a non-descript building in bustling Shibuya, you are greeted out of the lift by a bowing maître d’ and shown to an individual table with a sparkling clean gas grill. There we opted for someone else to do the choosing (and some of the grilling) for us, plumping for the speciality Yamagata set meal. Yonezawa beef from Yamagata prefecture in Northern Japan is considered one of the three best areas for beef in Japan, and home to plenty of herds of wagyū cattle. Starting with creamy samgyetang chicken ginseng soup and yukhoe tartare (spicy raw beef), we then eased in with some tongue, before moving on to three varieties of yamagata (shoulder, rib and cap) with water kimchee, and then the pièce de résistance: top wagyū skirt steak, accompanied by chilled noodles and gyeren-jjim (a Korean style steamed egg custard, which was particularly nice). Another good find.
Before I move on, I want to cheat a bit (again) and mention a final place: Guttsurian, by the port in Hiroshima. Not yakiniku, but rather a seafood barbeque. Paul’s favourite restaurant of the holiday. A complete chance find; Googled in a hurry and quickly booked on our arrival into the city. It’s basically a warehouse shack, where – shoes removed – you sit on sunken benches around a well-stocked bar, served by knowledgeable, hipster waitresses, surrounded by driftwood, shells and fish bone ornamentation. We tucked into yellowtail carpaccio, flounder tempura and tuna sashimi for starters; followed by barbequed (not, thankfully, by us) sea snail, mackerel, whole squid, prawn, and scallops with eringi mushroom; finished with grilled snapper in a butter and herb dressing. Quite possibly the best seafood meal we’ve ever eaten!
I’d never considered myself a lover of tofu. To be fair, I’d never really given it a chance. A couple of encounters with overcooked, rubbery versions had given me an unfair impression of the stuff. So when our ryokan hosts recommended Shoraian in Arashiyama, a kind-of suburb or outer-town of Kyoto, we were initially sceptical. However, their enthusiasm was intriguing and the setting sounded magical, so we decided to give it a go.
It was indeed a lovely location…albeit one that was a little tricky to find. After a full day’s sightseeing, and a quick refresh back at the homestay, we caught a train over and then looked puzzled at our map. Half an hour later, having navigated the bamboo grove, gone up-and-over the public park, and then cut down through the ‘monkey forest’ (disappointingly, no monkeys were spotted), we arrived at the small restaurant beside the river, a little breathless and concerned we might cause offence for having arrived two minutes late. Punctuality is highly valued in Japan. Luckily, we were met with smiles and, having removed our shoes, led into our own private dining room. To Paul’s relief, chairs were provided – unlike in the room next door, where the Japanese guests were seated on the floor.
The restaurant only offers set menus. Our ryokan hosts had chosen for us and we were happy to let them take the lead. And so, a succession of dishes began appearing: 29 Seasons of Tofu, or so Paul nicknamed the menu. In actuality, I think we had around six courses, each prepared in a different style: creamed, gratinated, chilled, steamed, grilled, and boiled. Each dish was beautifully presented, on an array of different crockery, and each with a different accompaniment – a cold seafood salad in one case; goji berries in another; etcetera. I was a convert: tofu, it turns out, is delightful.
The only respite from the seemingly endless stream of soy curd was a stunning wagyū course, marbled with fat and truly melt-in-your-mouth awesome. Amusingly, when we told the waitress how much we’d enjoyed the beef, she could only wax lyrical about the side of charred spring onion. Go figure. Our only two slight gripes: the pacing of courses often felt hurried – an observation not unique to this restaurant (we learned that the flow of a meal can be quite regimented in Japan) – and the dessert was sub-par (again, not unusual – whilst sweets are treated with a reverence normally reserved for jewellery, desserts – even in the swankiest of places – are often only a simple sorbet).
I must also mention our Shuboku (temple lodging) meal in Koyasan. Spending a night in Eko-in, one of 117 temples atop Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture, was a fantastic experience. The centre of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism, the mountain complex is a peaceful haven and a welcome retreat from bustling city life. Having completed our afternoon meditation, and kneeling on tatami mats in our room, a young Buddhist monk brought in the dinner tray, laden with all sorts of vegetarian delights. As in Shoraian, a bowl of tofu – still steaming over an open bunsen flame – formed part of the fare. Much simpler, admittedly, than our earlier offerings, but taken as a whole – with the accompanying pickles, rice, watermelon, seaweed soup, noodles, and blossom syrup – it was a unique and tasty meal. At Eko-in they specialise in goma-dofu (sesame tofu) and kouya-dofu (dried tofu). This is shōjin ryōri, traditional temple food, rooted in Buddhist mental training and with a complete focus on conveying a sense of the seasons using the five different methods, tastes and colours of cookery. If you’re debating whether to include a trip to Mount Koya in your itinerary, I would insist you hesitate no longer!
I’d been looking forward to trying okonomiyaki – a type of Japanese savoury pancake – but we waited until we reached Osaka, knowing the Kansai region is particularly famous for it. Having met up with Masa (an old university friend now living just outside of the city) and being reminded – quickly – that he’s a living embodiment of the ‘kuidaore’ philosophy (roughly translated as “eat until you drop”), we set out to find the best pancake we could. Kuidaore is particularly associated with Dōtonbori street food culture, and we were happy to have him as our guide around the mad, neon district.
The area is lined with restaurants and street stalls, each boasting giant plaster cast advertisements – crabs, blowfish, scary-looking sushi masters, dragons, cows: you name it. As well as educating us regarding what to buy in Lawson’s (one of the country’s main chain of convenience stores) – try the surume (dried, shredded squid), pickles, any of the many otsumani (snacks like crackers and dried fish to be consumed whilst drinking alcohol) and the best value sake – he also took us to four(!) food joints and a rooftop bar. I’ve already mentioned the tako-sen stall; and the others are touched on below. But we’re focusing here on pancakes.
Mizuno is one of the most popular okonomiyaki restaurants in the city, meaning – yep, you guessed it – another long queue. Luckily it died down quickly, but the wait did give me opportunity to have a mooch around the area, taking photos. The restaurant is small, casual and bustling. Like most of the places we went to, ninety-odd per cent of customers were Japanese; a sign that always gave me comfort. Kansai pancake batter is made from flour, dashi (an umami cooking stock), eggs and shredded cabbage, to which other fillings are added. The pancakes are then topped with dried bonito, aonori, mayo, and seven-spice (an accompaniment I sought out at Lawson’s later, to bring home with us). We chose to share three pancakes: one with yams and pork loin; one with scallop, shrimp and squid; and one fairly plain but heaped with spring onion. As they were cooked on the hot plate at our table, I wondered how on earth we would manage to eat them all (let alone go on to other places afterwards), but okonomiyaki is actually very light and not filling at all. What it is though is absolutely scrumptious!
One of the many, many reasons that I’m incredibly lucky to be with Paul, is that he likes experimenting in the kitchen, and he’s already taught himself to make a pretty spot-on version of Kansai okonomiyaki since our return. [Insert love heart emoji].
We also tried Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki at Kishibe on Miyajima Island – read above and insert fried soba noodles. A little one-woman operation, the tiny cafe isn’t much to look at, but provided a perfect pre-sunset snack.
We’ve already established that the Japanese like their grilled red meat. They’re also rather partial to a chicken skewer. Despite our best efforts, however, I don’t think we sampled especially good yakitori on our trip…but it was still fun trying.
Omoide-Yokocho in Shinjuku, Tokyo, is well-known for its skewers. So much so, that when we rocked up at 8pm on a standard Wednesday evening, most of the tiny bars on the ramshackle street were already sold out of chicken (people eat earlier in Japan and the alley attracts a big post-work crowd). After sating our hunger with some asparagus and enokitake mushroom skewers at a crammed bar, we finally managed to find somewhere selling butterflied chicken wing skewers and crunchy chicken skin, with edamame and green chilli peppers. As I say, nothing to write home about, but the trip to the alley was fun. IF, that is, you have the patience to deal with Shinjuku station. The station is the world’s busiest transport hub (check the Gusiness Book of Records, if you don’t believe me), with 36 platforms serving over 3.5million people a day and over 200 (yes, 200!!) exits. Important to keep your cool. We may have got a tiny bit tetchy with one another that night.
We also tried chicken liver yakitori at Torikizoku on Kiyamachi-Dori in Kyoto, a casual joint where we also ordered spicy cod innards, and pickled cucumber, washed down with some rather strong shochu high-balls.
But probably the best we tried, unsurprisingly, were from a street vendor in Dōtonbori. Tender morsels slathered in plenty of spicy salt: yum.
I’m not going to pretend the gyoza we had in Japan were mind-blowing either. Maybe it’s because I had too high expectations; maybe it’s because there’s simply not a way to make gyoza extraordinary. Don’t get me wrong: they were good. Just don’t expect anything all that different to your standard Wagamama fare. Still, they had to be ticked-off during the visit.
My recommendation would be Harajuku Gyouzarou, located on a side street off the plush Omotesando in Tokyo. Worth going there just for their crunchy, punchy miso cucumber..and their grilled vegetable gyoza are tasty too. But the place felt, unusually for the trip, like it was mostly full of tourists rather than locals.
Chao Chao Kawaramachi in Kyoto is similarly recommended in practically every guidebook you’ll read. It may be because it was late (they almost didn’t let us in, as they were shutting up) and we were tired after a full-on day of sightseeing. It may be because the Japanese youths on the next table were quite obviously and unsubtly taking the piss out of the white folk. But, again, the dumplings – steamed and grilled varieties – were nice without being special.
I will, however, unashamedly rave – and shout from the rooftops – about the traditional multi-course, seasonal Japanese kaiseki dinner we had on the trip.
Paul and I joined six other guests at petite Jiki Miyaki for the epic feast, positioning ourselves on our allocated counter stools right in front of the head chef, Takatomo Izumi. We’d been told to expect a potentially cool welcome, with many kaiseki restaurants actively discouraging tourist trade. It was true that booking (any) restaurants had proved somewhat tricky – mainly due to the language barrier – but we’d again enlisted the help of our ryokan hosts, so had got in without a problem. And Izumi was anything but cold: he was friendly and informative, explaining each dish in both Japanese, for our six companions, and English for us. When we asked for clarifications, he was more than happy to try to assist, even whipping out his iPad at one point to show us the process of vacuum-extracting nerves from tuna.
Modern kaiseki draws on a number of traditional Japanese haute cuisines, most commonly: imperial court cuisine (yūsoku ryōri), from the 9th century Heian period; Buddhist temple cuisine (shōjin ryōri, which I’ve discussed above), from the 12th century Kamakura period; samurai cuisine of warrior households (honzen ryōri), from the 14th century Muromachi period; and tea ceremony cuisine (cha kaiseki), from the 15th century Higashiyama period. I can’t pretend to know whether or how what we ate that night fit into those traditions, but the meal certainly felt like it paid homage to orthodox styles and etiquette. From the way each course was elegantly prepared and presented on a different, specially chosen, earthenware plate or cut-glass bowl; to the way we were asked on arrival to choose our own sake cup from a presentational box.
I’m going to be lazy and simply list the 12 courses, to give you an idea of what you can expect:
- aged squid;
- seaweed soup with sea bream;
- grunt sashimi (a type of ray-finned fish) with sea urchin, Japanese ginger, soy and wasabi;
- aged tuna sashimi with fresh seaweed;
- sesame tofu;
- congee eel nigiri style over sticky rice with jellied Japanese peppercorns;
- Spanish mackerel from Beijing with potato sauce and dried onion;
- crab two ways with an egg sauce and yuba (bean curd skin);
- white asparagus in rice cracker batter with grated fish roe;
- prawn in a shrimp reduction with a radish pudding;
- ‘taste of seasons’ rice three ways with miso soup, pickles, Japanese baby sardines, and tea; and
- mango with wine jelly
After the final course, Izumi conducted a mini matcha tea ceremony, presenting the frothy green drink with a sweet bean macaroon. It was fascinating to watch. But as much as I’d hoped to get accustomed to tea on the trip – mainly so I could justify buying a nice teapot and other paraphernalia – my taste buds remain resolutely opposed to the stuff. It in no way diminished the overall experience though: the meal was absolutely superb.
It felt rude to take photos during the experience, so I have instead posted a shot of us with Izumi.
I also want to give a special shout-out to the cocktail bar, L’Esca Moteur, which we were lucky enough to stumble into after the meal. We’ve since learned that the owner – Christophe Rossi – has won various mixology awards and his speakeasy-style bar is considered one of the coolest in Japan. And he seems to have managed to pull together the nicest team of bar staff you could hope for. The place is amazing – tiny, dark and covered in artfully-placed bric-a-brac, with the entrance to the toilet disguised as a bookshelf: very Alice in Wonderland. I had a Shiso Sour (Kinobi gin, Shiso liquer, lemon and egg white) and a Twisted Pepper (gin, lychee liquer, sansho pepper, yuzu bitter and lime); Paul a Remedy No.86 (whisky, maraschino liquer, blood orange, campari, vanilla syrup, lavender bitter, and absinthe rince) and a Smoky Old Fashioned (see photo below). All four cocktails were superlative. Seek it out! I promise you’ll thank me.
10. Katsu curry
No trip to Japan would be complete without a katsu curry. Be under no illusion, though, this is the least ‘Japanese’ of all Japanese dishes. In his bid to modernise the country and lead the way in terms of development, Emperor Meiji (1867-1912) encouraged Western influence, and the nation transformed during this period from an isolationist feudal state to a capitalist world power. And at the same time adopted the bread-crumbed escalope.
There are two main types of katsu: tonkatsu (pork) and torikatsu (chicken). Both are deep fried in panko breadcrumbs, served with a sweet curry sauce and accompanied – usually – by shredded cabbage, tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and rice. We shared the dish at Yuryo in Hakone (alongside some cold soba dipping noodles). It was perfectly pleasant, without being special. But there’s something about katsu that lingers in the memory…and, I have to admit, it was one of the first dishes we chose to recreate back in England. There’s a reason it’s so popular on both sides of the world.
Other notable mentions
It didn’t make it onto my ‘Top 10’ list, but a honourable mention must go to the traditional Japanese breakfast, the best version of which I sampled in our ryokan in Hakone. I’ve got to admit, we tended to crave a western breakfast most days (your ubiquitous Starbucks croissant or the like), but I’m glad we also tried the alternative. The Hakone spread consisted of: omeboshi (pickled plum – supposedly one a day will keep you healthy, according to the Japanese); tori soboro (minced chicken); onsen tamasgo (runny, only-just-cooked egg boiled in natural spring water with a vinaigrette served over rice – really nice!); kuki wakame seaweed; sakura (cherry blossom) pickles with soy; grilled mackerel; and miso soup. Pretty darn good.
I have to also mention the truly fabulous croquant chou (crispy cream puffs made fresh as you wait and injected with creamy custard, topped with almonds) at ZakuZaku on Takeshita Dōri, Tokyo. Divine! Right, that’s it. I could go on, but most of you probably stopped reading after ramen. And I need to go learn how to cook okonomiyaki. 🙂