Fellow food lovers, I think you need to move Japan to the top of your travel bucket list. A few weeks ago, my mom and I took a two week trip there, eating our way through Tokyo, Kyoto and Nagoya. Today I’m sharing a recap of our first week in Tokyo! So basically a smorgasbord of noodles and raw fish.
A few details. We stayed in Ginza, one of the upscale business/shopping neighborhoods, which was close to the fish market, Imperial Palace, and Tokyo Station, so it was super convenient. You could also stay north of there near Ueno Park or west near Meji Shrine and be closer to the shrines and museums (and still have tons of great eating choices). Despite the language barrier, everyone is super nice and helpful, and will literally stop what they’re doing to help you if you look lost. If you’re going, I highly recommend spending some time learning how the train/subway system works – once you understand it, it’s pretty easy. Also, download a Tokyo map on the maps.me app which you can use without wifi, since it’s really hard to find wifi without a password there and there’s no street names, so it would be confusing without guided directions.
If you’re looking for tours, we booked ours through Context, which pairs you with a professor or some other expert in the field, so you’re able to learn about the historical and cultural context of what you’re seeing. Highly recommend!
Back to the important stuff: the food. Japanese food, opposed to other Asian cuisines I’ve tried, has much more subtle flavors and is big on textures. Toning back the spice, fat and other big flavors allows you to taste all the different ingredients and appreciate subtleties, like the creamy texture of fresh tofu, the bite in buckwheat noodles, the fattiness of a slice of raw belly tuna. What I loved most is the attention to detail. People spend their whole lives perfecting one type of food, and you can tell! Whenever you get a chance to sit near the bar and watch chefs do their thing – do it! It’s fascinating to watch (and seriously gave me a cooking inferiority complex)
After a loooooong flight and getting lost on our way into the city, we were understandably spent. So we just settled into the hotel and walked a few blocks to the Tokyo train station for dinner at “Ramen Street.” The train stations are packed with some of the best, reasonably-priced food, so if you’re looking for a bite to eat and don’t know where to go, head to the nearest train station.
Ramen Street is a narrow hallway in the lower floor of one of the biggest train stations, packed with 10 of the best ramen shops in Tokyo. It can be a little confusing to navigate (look for the poster guide in the back) and check out this guide before going. We chose Rokurinsha, which is the most famous shop in Ramen St. (and has the longest lines). They serve thick, chewy noodles, tsukemen-style (i.e. with a dipping broth). You’re supposed to take the noodles, dip them into the thick broth and slurp them up. Then it was back to the hotel to catch up on sleep (err sit in the bathtub Skyping with my husband at 3 am because I was wide-friggin’ awake from jetlag).
Our first day in Tokyo was a rainy one, which was actually kinda nice because I didn’t feel so bad taking it slow (but also kinda sucked because I ruined my favorite new shoes, and I also learned my rain jacket is actually more like a light sprinkle jacket). We spent the morning touring Tsujiki fish market, which is the largest fish market in the world. If you’re interested in local food, the outer markets are really fun to explore and get a peek at the foreign (to me!) ingredients used in Japanese cooking.
After touring the market, we stopped for a sushi lunch. The highlight was the fatty tuna. In Japan, fatty tuna is the most prized (and expensive). Y’all, compared to the lean tuna we get in the states, fatty tuna is everything. It literally melts in your mouth. I also discovered that I actually like uni, aka sea urchin! I tried it once before in Chile and HATED it, but gave it a try in Japan and I’m now obsessed. See, sometimes it’s worth it to try foods you used to hate. The raw shrimp was also perfect and sweet, and I loved the smoky flavor on the torched sushi, which was just barely charred over a super-hot, gas stove flame.
At this point I was pretty soaked thanks to aforementioned failure of a rain jacket (but at least it’s cute?). It was so bad a very nice, older, Japanese man shared his umbrella with me – everyone is SO nice and hospitable in Japan. We spent the rest of the afternoon at Mitsukoshi Ginza, one of the major department stores. The department stores in Japan are new level. You must go to the basement and check out the food department where there are dozens of counters selling literally everything – fancy bento boxes, sushi, interesting salads, macaroons, chocolates, rice balls, cakes – it’s sensory overload! Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures, but we picked up a few things to take back to the hotel for dinner.
We spent the morning on an architect-led walking tour of Meji Shrine and two neighborhoods, Omotesando and Roppongi, learning all about modern Japanese architecture. Meji shrine was so serene – minus the tourists I could have sat there all day, listening to the birds. The neighborhoods we explored were both upscale, shopping neighborhoods, lined with all the famous luxury brands. It was neat to see how the buildings were designed as basically an extension of the brand.
We ended our tour in Roppongi Hills, a massive commercial/residential development, where we enjoyed a mother’s day lunch at Sakana Rokuzo. I went with a set plate that had red snapper prepared four different ways.
After lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon touring Nezu Museum, which may have been my favorite museum we visited, mostly because the setting was so gorgeous. It shows a private collection premodern Japanese art, but it’s really well curated and they only show a certain number of pieces at a time, so you won’t get overwhelmed. The garden was definitely the highlight though!
For dinner, my mom was tapped out, so I wandered off to Tokyo Ramen St. again for more ramen. This time I hit up Oreshiki Jun for Tokyo’s best tonkotsu ramen….I think? Now that I’m looking at the pictures I might have wound up somewhere else. Oh well, my meal was delish!
Started the day off with a nice, long run to Hibiya Park, one of the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace. Running is one of my favorite ways to explore new cities and I snuck off a few mornings to get a quick jog in the nearby gardens.
In the morning, we visited Toshogu Shrine, this gorgeous shrine and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the middle of Ueno Park. My pictures do it zero justice. I was obsessed with the hundreds of stone lanterns leading the way up to the shrine. Nearby in the park, there’s a few other small temples worth exploring.
After doing a little shopping, we grabbed lunch at Chabara, a must-do for my fellow foodies! Chabara is this modern warehouse under the train tracks that’s filled with a crazy variety of local foods. Even though I didn’t know what everything was, it was fun to explore. If my suitcase wasn’t already so close to the weight limit, I would have come back with dozens of jars of yuzu jelly, fermented tomato paste, miso, thick brown sauces, and pickles that I’d have no idea what to do with!
There’s a few different restaurants inside, including one that makes vegetarian Buddhist cuisine, but we went with the sake bar (but didn’t get sake because somehow I went to Japan and didn’t try sake). Everything on the menu was made with sake or sake lees, the leftover grain from sake production.
After lunch, we took a tour of Akihabra, the “geek” area of Japan where you can shop for all the things you need for anime, manga and video games. It was another Context tour, so it was actually pretty interesting to actually learn about the culture behind it rather than just enjoying the flashy colors and bright lights.
For dinner, we just went to a shopping complex next door to our hotel and got gyoza. I may catch some flack on this, but steamed dumplings > fried dumplings.
Today we took a day trip out to Kamakura, one of the historic capitols of Japans. There’s tons of temples to see and town to explore, so if you take a trip, be sure to get an early train. We started off at Hase to see the Great Buddha and Hasedera, a temple overlooking the sea.
Then we took the train back to downtown Kamakura. We visited the shrine there, which despite being one of the more important Shinto shrines, was just OK and overwhelmingly packed with tourists, so you could definitely skip. But the there’s a ton of places to eat downtown, including Bowls cafe, where we went for lunch. They had a nice mix of western and Japanese foods, including some really tastly looking pasta and pizza made with Japanese ingredients. But they specialize in healthy donburi (rice) bowls. I was pretty tempted by the smoked salmon and avocado bowl, but it seemed too much like something I make at home (and post on the blog). So, I went with the donburi topped with local veggies, a pork and miso sauce and a big thing of fried tofu. It came with this awesome, citrusy, olive-oil laden octopus salad.
After lunch, we took the train back to the station on the outskirts of Kamakura where there’s six major temples. We only hit up two of them that were closest to the train station, but they were worth lingering at. The first was Tokeiji temple, a feminist temple (y’all know I had some prayers to say there) and sanctuary for abused women. The next was Engaku-ji, a temple complex that’s considered the second most important zen temple. There were dozens of pretty buildings worth exploring.
Back in Tokyo, we went out for yakitori in Piss Alley. No worries, there was no piss to be found. It was named such because it was where men used to go relieve themselves after having a bit too much to drink. Now it smells like delicious, grilled skewers of chicken, not urine. You can get any part of the chicken grilled, but we went with mixed skewers that came with basic stuff (breast, thigh, etc) to more unique (skin, liver, etc). On the side, we got grilled eggplant and leek skewers.
If you’re a museum person, definitely spend a day exploring the museums around Ueno Park. We spent the morning on a tour of the Tokyo National Museum led by an artist and art professor. I really got to appreciate the art on a different level by understanding it’s historical context, so highly recommend this tour if you go! This is where I learned about the concept of wabi-sabi I wrote about in last weeks post on finding beauty in imperfection.
After our tour, we went to Sasa-no-Yuki, a tofu restaurant that serves all tofu dishes based on temple cuisine. They make their tofu fresh every morning using water from their own well. The flavors were really light, but you could taste the freshness of the tofu.
After lunch, we went to the Imperial Palace, where the emperor of Japan lives. You can only see the palace with a special pass, but the gardens are worth checking out and you can see ruins of the old castle.
Dinner was one of the absolute best meals of the trip. Tsujihan is a tiny restaurant that makes only kaisen don (seafood donburi bowls). There’s three choices, and the only difference is how much fish you get and if you want the more expensive cuts, so we went for the fully loaded bowl. They serve your bowl of perfectly cooked rice topped with a mix of fresh, raw seafood – squid, salmon, tuna, sea bream, salmon roe, and my new favorite, uni. It’s served with slices of raw tuna in this delicious sauce (which after reading reviews, you’re supposed to eat two with your rice and save two for your soup). First eat your seafood with rice, then after you’re done with your seafood and just have some leftover rice, ask for dashi and they will fill up your bowl with the most flavorful seafood broth that you eat with your other two fish slices. Be warned: there is a line, so get there early.
Last day in Tokyo! We spent it Asakusa, one of the few neighborhoods in Tokyo that wasn’t destroyed in WWII, and Senso-ji temple. The street leading up to Senso-ji is lined with shops selling souvenirs and sweets, which was fun to explore (and taste!). The nearby neighborhoods are filled with great shopping, especially nearby Kappabashi Street, which is this long street that almost exclusively sells kitchenware – ceramics, fancy chopsticks, knives, pots, etc.
After our tour, we ate lunch at Sometaro for okonomiyaki, these savory Japanese pancakes you cook yourself at the table then top with lots of delicious sauces and garnishes. We choose one filled with squid, shrimp, pork and cabbage and got an order of mixed vegetables to cook at the table as well. It’s basically like a DIY Japanese steakhouse (but not crappy food). There’s usually a line for this one too, but it moved pretty quickly and we made some Canadian and Malaysian friends!
After spending the rest of the afternoon shopping, we just got a quick, stand-up counter sushi dinner near our hotel. It’s kinda a fun way to eat!
The next morning we headed out to Kyoto – stay tuned for a recap of that part of the trip next week!
What kind of food do you most want to try in Japan?