Japanese food has long been one of my favourites – and that was before I even knew just how exceptional it could be. Visiting Japan, I was amazed by the quality, flavour, diversity, and abundance (no adjectives really do it justice) of incredible dishes everywhere in the country – regardless of whether it’s a quick, cheap purchase from the side of the road, or at a classy restaurant!
Before setting off on my travels, I had compiled a mental list of all the delicacies I just knew that I had to try.
And then, we took a trip to Tsukiji Fish Market, where I managed to think up a whole new list of things I had to try (most of which I wasn’t entirely sure what they were – let’s be honest). I present to you what I now know to be kani miso.
It’s hard not to be adventurous when you’re in the middle of Tsukiji (read my post here to read more about the incredible fish market). I was watching a guy cook his kani miso over a grill in a crab shell… before I knew it I had paid 300 Yen and was eating it with a plastic spoon. Kani miso, although not necessarily visually appealing, is absolutely delicious. It is also nice and warm on a cold Tokyo day. It is a Japanese winter specialty, made from the leftover innards of the crab following the removal of all its white meat. This is then cooked to perfection inside the crab shell, and served like so!
We were still feeling a bit daring (especially after the kani miso turned out to be so good), so we decided to snack on some uni (sea urchin). Uni prices are currently on the rise, but at the market the uni was separated by quality – so you could pay more if you wanted something a bit better.
We opted for some uni that was a bit cheaper (although still quite pricey), but it was excellent nonetheless. You eat the yellow uni fresh out of its shell, so it is cold and very fresh. It was so tasty, and unlike any seafood I’d had before.
A meal from my trip that really stood out to me for its absolute simplicity, yet incredible flavour, was this sushi don (a bed of rice served with the sushi ingredients on top) from a restaurant in Tsukiji. A staff member from the restaurant told us their food was “delicious” (people often did their best to speak English to us without asking), so naturally, we had to go in.
I ordered the grilled salmon, which came with salmon roe, pickled ginger, and Japanese omelette atop a bowl of rice (I adopted a huge taste for egg while I was there; the Japanese do eggs amazingly). We shared the table with a lovely, middle-aged Japanese couple. They placed their wasabi in a small soy sauce dish, mixed it with soy sauce, then poured it over top of their food. So we did the same. The dish is so simple – there’s no added spices or herbs, only soy sauce and wasabi – but because the ingredients are so fresh and of the best quality, the flavour is exceptional.
Another of my favourite meals was at Ebisu Yokocho. A yokocho in Japan is an alleyway that is usually jam-packed with restaurants to choose from.
We sat down at the only restaurant we could find with two spare seats – a yakitori bar with ten seats around the chef. Yakitori is skewered meat (traditionally chicken, but also seafood or veggies), cooked over a charcoal fire, and served with tasty sauces. The menu was largely in Japanese, and the two staff members didn’t speak any English, but we got by, pointing at photographs in the menu. We got a grilled fish yakitori set, that came with whole horse mackerel, whole baby octopus, scallops, salmon, and prawns with quail eggs in a pesto sauce. The salmon & quail eggs were by far my favourite (see picture below); the salmon had almost crystallised by grilling. The salmon had also lost a lot of its fat, so the flavour was more intense. The quail eggs stood out to me because they were so tasty, and quail eggs always surprise me when they’re done this well.
Another of my favourite experiences was in Jiyugaoka, where we ate chicken womb, intestines, and beef tongue, yakitori-style – see picture below. I can’t express how delicious it was! The yellow sauce is mustard wasabi, and the red is a thick plum sauce, both of which I loved.
What else do I love about Japanese cuisine? Their drinks – sake, beer, plum wine, highballs, shochu – there’s always something for whatever mood you’re in. Pictured below was a traditional sake drinking at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on New Year’s Day. Kanpai!
And, let’s not forget the impeccable presentation of food. I love all the unique dishes that your food is served in, like this appetiser below in Kyoto. It was tofu, carrot, bean (if you can read Japanese, the menu is in the photo – I hope I got the ingredients right). Also, Japanese cuisine, like much of Japanese culture, is very focused on the present season, so seasonal ingredients are always very important.
Also, ramen. Ordering ramen from a vending machine at a restaurant will never get old. Nor will eating ramen on a day that you are freezing to death!! Pictured below was an excellent roast pork ramen in Shibuya, served with complimentary iced oolong tea (another of my favourite things about dining in Japan – you are almost always given complimentary tea).
One of my favourite dining experiences in Japan was in this small, specialist tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) restaurant close to Akihabara in Tokyo (even closer to Guitar Street, which if you’re a muso, I highly recommend going to). That’s another thing – in Japan, many restaurants specialise in just one dish, and do variations of the dish to suit you. I took this photo after I’d started eating (apologies, I was starving!).
We were given sesame seeds which we crushed in a Japanese mortar & pestle (I think called suribachi? – it’s the bottom right dish in the photo), then poured the tonkatsu sauce over it. The crushed sesame gave a very fresh, unique flavour to the sauce, which you simply don’t get from whole sesame seeds. Dip your tonkatsu in the sauce, and eat with rice and pickles. This restaurant was lovely, and the staff were very accomodating to our lack of Japanese (which made it difficult ordering on their vending machine)!
One of our favourite places to eat was an okonomiyaki restaurant in Kyoto. I think the restaurant goes by the name of Nishikiwarai. It’s in downtown Kyoto, not far from Ponto-cho (so an ideal place to go before you find some cool bars). We had excellent gyoza here, see picture below!
We also had okonomiyaki (translating literally to “grilled as you like it”, yaki meaning grilled) which is originally from Osaka. Okonomiyaki is a bit like pizza in Japan. It’s a savoury pancake, typically made from lots of cabbage, your choice of meat (or have it vegetarian) or seafood, and smothered in delicious okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise (this was given to us in a bottle to put on ourselves), and topped with Katsuoboshi (Bonito flakes).
Okonomiyaki is typically served on a hot plate like the photo above if you’re seated at the bar, but most tables have an in-built hot plate that keeps your pancake heated as you slowly eat it. For this reason, I think okonomiyaki restaurants are ideal for winter, because they can get pretty warm! This dish was one of our favourites (although not really the healthiest) – we had it a few times in both Kyoto and Osaka!!
Takoyaki is another dish that has come out of Osaka (you can find takoyaki on almost every downtown Osaka corner), although it’s also easy to get your hands on in Kyoto. They’re doughy balls cooked in specially shaped pans, filled with pieces of octopus, tempura scraps, and topped with that all-important takoyaki sauce.
We got this for lunch in Americamura, Osaka, from a place that had 5 seats around the kitchen area. I think it was the cheapest meal we’d eaten (less than $5NZD) – but it was probably one of the best.
The food scene in Japan is so exciting and so diverse. There’s always something that you haven’t tried (like this bread dessert below. Has anyone tried it?? I’m super curious). We loved all the food we ate, and no matter where you go, the chef and staff will always take pride in what they make. You are always guaranteed good service, and most likely you are guaranteed an experience too. Especially in smaller restaurants and bars, it’s very easy to strike up a conversation with other patrons and the staff. We even walked out of a gyoza restaurant in Osaka with the manager’s business card!
My foodie experience in Japan has inspired me – I’ve made two new year resolutions: learn how to roll sushi, and eat more seafood. Of course, I’m also pretty sad to have left; eating out in New Zealand is tricky (although it is improving); you’re never guaranteed good food. It can be easy to spend lots of money in NZ to get something that you only kind of like, and can probably cook better yourself.
The only foodie thing that I won’t miss about Japan? These vending machine black coffees. I drank them to stay alive/semi-warm, but I think I’ll stick to my home espresso, thanks.