Naturally whenever I travel I spend a lot of time researching restaurant recommendations for the local area. I’ll be honest, 60% of my holidays are planned around food… OK who am I kidding, 90% food, 10% tourist attractions that we can fit in in between meal times.
With a week in Japan in the lead up to a friends wedding back in Australia, what better place for some amazing food adventures.
We started our trip with 5 days in Tokyo and armed with my long list of foods to try and google maps of restaurant locations, we were ready.
Lunch on day one found us in the area near Shinjuku station formerly known as Piss alley, due to locals previously being well known to urinate there, but now a little less offensively known as Memory Lane. Nowadays this is a series of tiny laneways full with small eateries only big enough to sit six at the bench over looking the galley kitchen. We chose one at random and pulled up two stools. You had a choice of meat or vegetables to be cooked on a skewer over an open flame grill. We played it safe with chicken and peppers/ capsicums, but the choices were quite diverse with chicken skin, and various animal inners. We had sat next to two locals who were really interested in where we were from and insisted on buying us some dishes to try as a gift. They ordered us some tofu and something else which could have been chicken or fish, we are not really sure, but it tasted good.
Lunch on day two found us again in a very busy laneway in more traditional Tokyo, famous for its cats. Vendors lined the streets selling everything deep fried. Every vendor was packed, so we picked one at random again and joined the end of the line. We had no idea what they were selling as everything was in Japanese, so we just studied closely what everyone else was buying and decided to trust their taste buds. After a lot of pointing we had our fried surprise in a bag, picked up a draft beer from the next stand, pulled up an up turned crate like everyone else and watched the world go by. I still have no idea what we ate, but one had a creamy fishy filling which was really nice and the other a potato like filling, but was cold, which was definitely not as good.
Queuing for food here is like nothing I’ve seen before. They have the patience of saints, and will wait for hours at the right places. There’s no putting your name down and coming back later when they call you, you just join the queue and wait. Bearing this in mind and wanting to head to a recommended ramen place that was renown for a long wait (due to popularity I hoped), we anticipated our stomachs and arrived when we had only a faint rumbling. Rokurunisha was part of Ramen Street which is amidst the labyrinth of passageways, shops, and restaurants that can be found underneath Tokyo Station. I immediately knew we had found the place as, of course, it had the biggest line. They passed the menu down the line so you could decide what you wanted, and then when you get to the front of the queue you are asked to enter your order into a vending machine and are given a ticket. Not exactly a fine dining experience, but an experience non the less. Here the noodles were served cold in a separate bowl and just warm up as you add them to the steaming ramen hot broth. The broth was so creamy and flavoursome, and the noodles delicious, although I personally would have preferred them warm. We had our first lost in translation problem here when the beer Roger ordered turned out to be an extra portion of pork. An easy mistake to make :).
After a long day visiting Mount Fuji we settled for trying another restaurant in the warren of Tokyo Station. Sushi was the order of the day and we managed to get a seat at the bench overlooking the kitchen (always the best seats in the house at any restaurant in my opinion). All of the fresh fish is laid out in front of you and you can watch the chefs prepare your dishes. We both chose a selection of sushi and were asked if we wanted wasabi or not before they prepared it, which was perfect for my delicate taste buds. The range of fish we were presented with was amazing and the ratio of fish to rice showcased what sushi is really about (the fish that is and not a mound of rice). They even have specific soy sauce for both sushi and sashimi.
Day 4 and we found ourselves in the Ginza area and it was lunch time, so we thought for ease we would head to Mitsukoshi Department Store 11th Floor food court and see what took our fancy (nearly every department store had a high quality food court, and you will definitely not find a McDonald’s here). It was a bit late in terms of Japanese lunchtime standards and so there were no queues and we found hidden in one corner an Okonomiyaki restaurant. Okonomiyaki are Japanese pancakes made primarily with cabbage. We weren’t overly hungry so did not go for the full set lunch menu and each just ordered a single pancake, me the pork and Roger the squid. Every table has its only griddle plate which your food is served on, or in some places where you can cook the pancakes yourself. Luckily this place cooked ours for us, as we weren’t really entirely sure of the process and as I watched the chef preparing ours I couldn’t believe how much cabbage he mounted on the grill. This was hands down the best dish we had tried and we even went to a second Okonomiyaki restaurant in Kyoto just to make sure.
The Japanese seem to love their sweet shops and with Mothers Day coming up, they were heaving. We decided to have a try and again followed the crowd, watching what was the most popular items, as we had no clue. What we bought turned out to be Mochi, a Japanese rice cake. It has a very doughy consistency and the centre tasted to me like peas or beans. It was not particularly sweet and not my favourite food, however Roger really enjoyed them and hunted them down again in Kyoto.
With only 1 full day and 2 nights in Kyoto we had a lot of eating to pack into this short time, but we were up for it.
The first night did not get off to the best start. It was raining heavily and we found the restaurant we were looking for, Gogyo and joined the line, not realising that here you actually do put your name down and wait. So after wasting 15 minutes we realised our error and prepared ourselves for the remainder of what was a long and wet wait and hoped that my recommendation was worth it. The specialty dish here is burnt miso ramen. When it arrived it was not the nicest looking thing I have ever eaten with the burnt bits floating in the broth, but I would not let this put me off. Donning our bibs (as ramen is a messy eating experience) we started slurping. The louder you slurp, supposedly the better the food is, although I really do need to work on my slurping and chopstick technique when it comes to noodles. Here the noodles were served in the broth and it was piping hot. The burnt miso taste was amazing, but possibly not everyones cup of tea. Roger had ordered the burnt soy sauce ramen which was not quite as bitter as mine, but we both thoroughly enjoyed this dinner and was worth the wait.
Another specialty I had read about was Octopus balls and on our way to one of the hundred temples we visited, we found a small cafe serving up just these. Even though we had just watched the lady cook them in front of us we jumped straight in and they nearly burnt a hole straight through our mouths they were that hot (temperature wise that was, not spicy). However once we had the feeling back and we had recovered enough to try a second these were actually really nice. They had sauce in the centre and were not as chewy as I had expected and when eaten with the raw ginger were delicious.
With are mouths still a bit burnt and the sun blazing we jumped at the chance for ice cream. Green tea ice cream was pretty much the only flavour of choice where we were and a flavour I have never tried before. It was not too sweet and so really refreshing and lets face it the colour was amazing.
On our last night we decided to just wander in the general direction of our accommodation and see if we could find somewhere for a quick drink. Bars and pubs did not seem to be that popular here, or we were looking in the wrong places, however I noticed a tiny place with a window covered by bottles and thought we could be onto something. On closer inspection this turned out to be a tapas wine bar (Tsk Bar) run by a local serving an amazing selection of international dishes all made in front of you in the tiny bar/ kitchen. We luckily got a space at the bar and quickly made friends with the barman Shozo. On the bar they had a small lazy Susan showcasing their red wine and had a cabinet full to the brim with white wine (I was instantly at home). Shozo kept offering us bar snacks and giving us various dishes to try to guess what they were. This was a fantastic evening to top off a great holiday, but the hangover on the overnight flight to Sydney was less than desirable.
We are both in dire need of a serious detox now and to get back into training, but it was well worth it.
So if you’re heading off to Japan anytime soon, drop me a message and I’ll share some more of my recommendations.