Japan has been on my bucket list for a long long long long time, and I thought this post would be all about how I am so happy to have checked that box with our Winter trip last month. My takeaway however was quite the opposite. After 10 days in Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan has now moved UP my list of desired destinations. There is so much to see, eat, do and take in. So many beautiful stores with (to me) mysterious products so meticulously packaged, hospitable people bowing and calling out welcome through every shop doorway, fascinating neighborhoods with neon lights and tiny alleys, skyscrapers and traditional wooden buildings, tantalizing displays of gorgeous foods in the windows at every turn.
Tokyo is huge – like 8 Manhattans population wise. Get a birds eye view from one of the many towers, skyscrapers or top floor bar/restaurants, and you’ll see it stretch to the horizon in every direction. Even if you diligently hit top tourist spots in a few days, you WILL miss a lot more than you see. I think it’s a good place to go with a theme in mind (samurais! gardens! technology!), and mine of course was FOOD!!
Before we left I started a list of typical Japanese foods to try beyond the usual sushi and miso soup fare. Needless to say my list was greatly expanded…
FOODS TO TRY:
- Okonomiyaki – Japanese savory pancakes with a flour/sweet potato/dashi/egg batter, rough chopped cabbage and vegetables, meat or seafood, topped with bonito flakes, seaweed, Japanese mayonnaise and a thick sweet sauce. Locals cook their own on a hot teppan grill in the center of the table, but first timers are recommended to ask the restaurant to assemble and cook them for you (no shame they’re used to doing it for guests). Monja is the Tokyo style pancake which is chopped a bit thinner.
- Soba – hand made buckwheat noodles served hot or cold with or without broth.
- Yakitori – grilled chicken skewers. There are yakitori restaurants but these are also a delicious street food.
- Tonkatsu – breaded fried pork cutlets, usually served as a meal with miso soup, rice and other sides.
- Mixed katsu – we saw this at a street stall. It’s basically breaded fried mashed potatoes, ground meats, fish cakes, veggies, etc. A great two-bite snack!
- Shabu shabu – Japanese hot pot eaten family style. Can be a homey dish or very elegant and expensive with kobe beef.
- Marinated boiled eggs – these are soaked in the pork broth base for ramen soup and then served as a topping for ramen. I recommend asking for yours half cooked (soft boiled) so it is oozy in your soup.
- Kushiyage restaurants – sit at the bar and watch as individual meats, fish and veggies are breaded in panko, flash fried and served one at a time, each with their own little sauce. You eat whatever comes your way until you are full and then they count your skewers to tabulate your bill.
- Kaiseke restaurants are basically high-end beautiful multi course tasting menus. We didn’t try one, but there are several famous and very fancy ones around town to find!
- Isakaya – like a mixed restaurant that serves a bit of everything
- Japanese sweet potato – this staple veggie shows up in a lot of dishes and side dishes
- Miso soup briny with tiny clams
- Tempura – pretty much anything you can think of is turned into tempura and served with a delicious dipping sauce, often as a street food too. Our favorites were the maitake mushrooms and sliced lotus root.
- Takoyaki – this Japanese fast food specialty is basically balls of fried octopus topped with shaved bonito and mayonnaise served piping hot. Crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside, it’s the ultimate street food/bar snack!
- Raw shrimp sushi – shrimp is usually served cooked at Japanese restaurants in the U.S., but the shrimp is so fresh and sweet in Japan it’s delicious raw.
- Sea urchin – this buttery, briny little sea critter is such a delicacy to me, but seems to be much more prevalent in Japan. If you love it, it’s a great place to get your fix.
- Myoga – this little flower-like vegetable is sometimes called Japanese ginger (although it tastes nothing like ginger). Only the flower is used and is usually sautéed or used as a garnish. Pretty!
- Burdock root – This nutritious root vegetable shows up in all sorts of dishes. It was recommended for us to try cooking them at home – peel, cut into matchsticks, soak, drain, and sauté with carrot, sesame oil, sugar, mirin, sake, soy sauce and sesame seeds. Just need to find a market that carries it!
- Kogomi – these tender little curled up fern fronds are just around in the early spring, and we were lucky to try them.
- Cold sticky rice wrapped in tofu skin – Appease hungry little tourists (and grown ups too) with this grab and go snack!
- Maitake mushrooms – the name means “dance,” I think because they’re so good you want to do a jig. Yeah!
- Oden – Vegetables and fish cakes poached in a soy and fish stock.
- Yakiniku restaurants – Order thin slices of beef and pork to cook yourself on a little grill in the middle of the table.
- Pickles – Do not miss trying the myriad Japanese pickles you’ll find all over!! Each vegetable is different – salty, briny, savory and deliciously fun to explore.
- Sparkling cold sake – Slightly sweet, moderately bubbly and such a refreshing accompaniment to Japanese foods.
- The Shin-Marunouchi Building near Tokyo Station (accessible underground from the station) has more than 65 restaurants. Seriously… Even crazier is that this is apparently not that unusual for Tokyo! It’s great for hungry sight seers as there is literally something for everyone… You can just wander the floors and pop in anywhere that looks good to you (based on the pictures – there is very little translation). We spontaneously had one of our best meals of the week at Teppan Yaki Ten Honmaru with a beautiful view of Tokyo station from our table. http://www.marunouchi.com/e/shoplist/shinmaru/gourmet.html
- Fish for your own dinner at Zuao Restaurant which has several branches around Tokyo. Grab a fishing pole and catch fish from your table, which are then prepared to order. http://www.zauo.com/en/shop/
- Seryna Shabu Shabu – Set in the tippy top of a skyscraper overlooking Tokyo this elegant spot offers gorgeous Japanese beef for you to cook in boiling broth at your table. A splurge but delicious. Ask for a seat by the window! http://www.seryna.co.jp/en/seryna/shinjuku/ Shinjuki
- Ramen is practically a religion among enthusiasts. Here is a great Tokyo ramen blog: http://www.ramenadventures.com – and a Mill Valley blogger just published the “Simply Ramen” cookbook which includes a recommended ramen tour of Tokyo: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01BVGSSN2/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?ie=UTF8&btkr=1 We enjoyed the ramen Kyushu in Harajuku http://kyushujangara.co.jp, and our well traveled friend recommended Afuri in Harajuku and also Gogyo http://www.ramendining-gogyo.com in Minato
- Namiki Yabu Soba – If you’re touring around Asakusa duck behind a little sliding screen door to find tatami mats, saki from a barrel in the corner, best soba you’ll probably ever eat and not a lot else. Amazing hand made soba noodles are served in a delicious smoky broth – you choose the topping like duck and meatballs, tempura, etc. There’s no website but here’s a good article about the restaurant: https://www.ambassadors-japan.com/en/tokyodailylife/363/ Asakusa
- Tatsukichi – Sit at the bar of this upscale kushiyagi restaurant and watch the chefs prepare bitesized morsels on a stick for you to be paired with individual sauces. http://www.shinjuku-tatsukichi.com Shinjuku
- Aoyama Flower Market TEA HOUSE – Tucked behind a beautiful florist is an ethereal tea room serving elaborate desserts, floral teas and cocktails. http://www.afm-teahouse.com – Omotesando and Aoyama Street intersection just outside Omotesando station
- Tanagokoro Tea Room – This zen spot resides on the third floor above the Tanagokoro charcoal store. Hushed birdsong soothes as you sip delicate teas, mindfully nibble tiny sweets and gaze out the window at bustling Ginza shoppers below. http://www.Tanagokoro.com Ginza
- Ramble through the super narrow streets of Golden Gai or Omoide Yokocho (aka “Memory Lane”) in Shinjuku, each jammed with teensy restaurants and bars. Shimmy in for a little saki and a small plate of yakitori fresh from the wee grill.
- Food Halls – Like Harrod’s on Japanese steroids, these gorgeous basement food halls feature every international and Japanese luxury food you can think of and many you have never heard of, plus bountiful grocery stores, takeaway sushi, bakeries, sweet shops and more and more and more… You can literally get lost in the gourmet fray.
- Tokyu Food Show – http://www.tokyu-dept.co.jp/toyoko/foodshow/moving_foodeshow.html/ Shibuya
- Isetan – http://isetan.mistore.jp/store/shinjuku/index.html Shinjuku
- Here’s a link to a good article about other stores to visit: http://www.saveur.com/tokyo-japan-department-basement-foodtokyo
- Street food walking tour – One of the most interesting, delicious and memorable days of our trip was spent wandering street food stalls in the Sunamachi area near Ginza with a local guide to decode the many unfamiliar offerings for us. https://www.govoyagin.com/activities/japan-tokyo-foodrink-tour-sunamachi-ginza/2826
Tokyo is an endless retail adventure. You can spend days weaving through ultra elegant department stores, family run housewares and ceramics shops near the fish market, or the underground retail labyrinth in any subway station. There are the most amazingly colorful sweet shops, tea purveyors with little cakes or green tea ice creams, and even the myriad beauty products at the corner drugstore are fascinating. The kids were also delighted by the 100yen ($1) stores, not to mention the awesome vending machines with hot drinks and snacks…
Here are a few of our favorite finds:
- Masahisa Cutlery – offers a wide array of beautiful hand-forged knives and other cutlery. This family business has been making knives for centuries. http://www.tsukiji-masahisa.jp Tsujiki
- Loft – An amazing multi-level store full of whimsical items for the home. The ground floor is devoted to stationary and crafts, and is a great resource for gifts and non-touristy souvenirs. http://www.loft.co.jp/shop_list/detail.php?shop_id=189 Shibuya
- Kyukyodo – This epic Japanese paper store has been in business since 1633! kyukyodo.co.jp Ginza
- Akomeya – I am in LOVE with this gorgeous Japanese rice and specialty foods store that’s like a high-end Japanese Williams-Sonoma meets Dean & Deluca. It’s not large but it’s beautiful and totally worth seeking out in a little alley in Ginza. Don’t neglect to go upstairs for ceramics and kitchen goods. There is also a little café in the back. http://www.akomeya.jp Ginza
- Itoya – many floors of stationary, paper, crafts, sleek office supplies and more with a café at the top. http://www.ito-ya.co.jp Ginza
- Tsutaya Books at the Daikanyama T-Site has been called “One of the 20 most beautiful bookstores in the world.” Three connected architecturally beautiful buildings include a gorgeous book-lined library/lounge/cafe with luxurious leather couches and full bar made out of stacked books. Spend a rainy afternoon perusing vintage magazines, cookbooks, art tomes, videos, English language titles and a whole section on cars and motorcycles. The complex and neighborhood are full of great little boutiques including a Leica camera store and Okura, a store featuring clothing dyed in pure indigo, and made from Japanese paper. http://real.tsite.jp/daikanyama/english/ Shibuya (a bit of a walk from the station – Naka-Meguro station is much closer)
- Shopping Streets
- Meiji Dori Street – Walk from Shibuya Station up to Omotesando
- Harajuku – Walk down Takeshita Dori starting at Yoyogi park for lots of cheap trendy little shops, but keep going for more interesting little boutiques as it crosses Meiji Dori and winds its way back to Omotesando.
- Nakamise dori – This busy street leading up to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa full of little souvenirs, chopsticks, fans, kimonos, and more. Go early to beat the crowds.
- We got SUICA cards and took the subway everywhere. It’s really not hard to figure out even though people warn you it’s complicated. If you have kids, take your passports to the ticket window for discounted SUICA cards for them. SUICA cards are also good for buses and Japan Rail, plus you can buy awesome stuff from the vending machines with them!!
- Ninja wifi – http://ninjawifi.com/en/ We rented this router for the week so we could all plug into the wifi from anywhere around town and didn’t have to use data on our phones. Super easy pick up and drop off points at the airport, and it was a major convenience!
- 7/11 banks – Although you can use credit cards to pay for most things, many Japanese banks and ATMs do not take U.S. bank/credit cards to get cash. Bring some cash, and plan to take money out at 7/11 (randomly they are all over Tokyo).
- Drink lots of water – Japanese food is SALTY!
- Many Japanese words do not translate perfectly into English, especially as there are levels of formality in the language and culture that are unfamiliar to us. Here are a few short words that were useful along the way:
- Konnichiwa – hello, good day
- Konbowa – good evening
- Ohayou (sounds like Ohio)/gozaimasu – good morning/formal
- Arrigato/gozaimasu – thank you/formal
- Irasshaimase – welcome/can I help you (what shopkeepers say when you enter)
- Suimasen – excuse me/sorry
- Siyonara – goodbye
- Oishi So! – DELICIOUS!!!!!