As a foodie, a big part of my travels are centered around food. Whenever I’m venturing to a new city, I research the restaurant and the food scene more than I research activities to plan and do. Experiencing the local food scene is my favorite way to explore and connect to a new place. Some of the best memories I have accumulated traveling around the world have revolved around coffee shops and little hideaway restaurants.
Whenever I visit a new place, I want to know where the locals eat. I don’t want chain restaurants, and I don’t want tourist traps. I want to be completely pushed out of my comfort zone.
My wish was completely granted in Japan.
Japan pushed the food envelope in more ways than simply trying something new and unfamiliar. It took the entire eating out experience and turned it on it’s head. The variety and availability just on one block in the city of Tokyo forces you to think about your food. Simply picking a type of cuisine wasn’t narrow enough. You might want ramen, but then you have to ask yourself what type of ramen you want because no two ramen places are the same. One joint might specialize in shellfish based broth while another might focus on burnt broth — yes, burnt, and it’s delicious! And then, of course, you have the sushi scene which is without a doubt the best on the planet. Yes, I said that. I have never had better, fresher sushi than in Japan. It’s everywhere, and it’s available at every price point. Many times, Isla and I would grab a roll for only $3 at the local market as a late evening meal before heading back to our hotel.
The coffee scene is no exception. Yes, Starbucks has a presence, and there are several Japanese coffee chains, but if you look hard enough, you can find some incredible little coffee shops buried in the sea of concrete.
The culture of eating here is also defined by lines. People wait for their food, actually wait in a line for their food. Sometimes 2 plus hours. Lines out of the door and down the block. The first time we did it, I was in disbelief. I had read that people show up at restaurants, get a number, and then wait in line for their meals, but I didn’t understand how much it was a thing. Here in the states, there are typically the restaurants we know that will have a wait on a Friday/Saturday night, but in Tokyo, Japan these lines were happening everyday, lunch and dinner. I quickly learned that if I wanted to eat at a particular restaurant, I needed to be there right when they opened. The people of Tokyo take their food seriously, so waiting in line for an hour for a great bowl of ramen is nothing to them. It’s all part of the experience. We waited in line for sushi for two hours. Two hours. The entire time we were waiting, I was in denial. I couldn’t believe we were waiting this long for sushi on a Sunday afternoon. But so was everyone else.
The approach to food here is different. For starters, you usually order on a screen of some sort, some places even putting your money in the machine before you order and then having your change spit out at the bottom. It’s nothing like the American way of having a server come to your table, taking your order, and then delivering your bill at the end of the meal. Waiters and waitresses are never tipped in Japan, so the level of service is very different to what most Westerners are used to. They are kind, but they aren’t scrambling all over you or rushing you out hoping to get another table in for another round of 20% tips. It was actually quite refreshing. We could linger as long we wanted at a table, and never felt like we needed to exit at any point because the server was ready for us to be on our way. They didn’t stop refilling our water after we paid because the water pitchers were left on the table from the start of the meal. We had paid before we had even sat down, so we were left to savor our food rather than be rushed through it. Even at restaurants where we paid at the end, there was never pressure to be on our way. We would simply take our ticket to the cashier by the door and pay whenever we were ready to head out. You are encouraged to linger over every bite of your food here, and this was something I could get behind. Food should be savored not rushed. It’s something we seem to have forgotten in the States. The food is the event.
The food halls are the best kept secret of the Tokyo food scene. The Food Halls of Tokyo are in a league all on their own. Imagine if Nordstrom and Whole Foods got together and made a food baby. It might come close to a Japanese Food Hall. Nearly every major department store had a enormous food hall spanning multiple floors. They blew my mind. Each food hall was filled with booths with every type of food imaginable. Fish. Vegetables. Fruit. Prepared dishes. French Pastry. Skewers. Chocolates. Ice creams. You could make multiple meals just going from booth to booth. Seriously, if you want to spend an afternoon just wandering food halls and tasting everything imaginable, it’s not a bad way to experience and taste a little bit of everything of the food scene here.
My favorite meal while in Tokyo was at Ginza Kyubey. The sushi was absolutely phenomenal; but watching each piece being handmade made it extra special. What makes Kyubey so special is the experience. It’s a five level restaurant, so most likely you will be lead to your sushi bar by a traditionally dressed Japanese woman up the small elevator. The entire building feels like you’re stepping back in time to the 1930s when the restaurant was founded. We waited in a room that felt like a museum with glass cases filled with Japanese artifacts before we were lead back onto the elevator and lead to our table. After ordering off the pre-set menu, our sushi chef asked if we had any requests or dislikes. He then proceeded to make each piece of sushi for us according to our specifications. Did we like ginger? Lime? Garlic? Each piece was mind-blowing. He would tell us if we should add soy sauce or not depending on how he had seasoned the fish. And wasabi was never on the side. If wasabi was a part of the sushi. it was between the rice and the fish, not on top. It was the most personalized meal I’ve ever had in my life.
I often think back to this meal. as one of the best meals of my life if not the BEST. The chef was an artist, and the rice was his canvas. He created each piece with such precision and passion that inspired me to want to pay more attention to my own cooking back home. Putting so much attention to detail came forth in every bite, so much so that I can almost taste it weeks later.
We had sushi many more times while on our trip, but this place was the pinnacle. As I said earlier, we frequently picked up $3 rolls from the grocery store, and all of it was delicious, but the experience and taste of Kyubey was the quintessential sushi experience in Tokyo. You would be remiss if you ventured into this city without giving it a try.
Truthfully, I hadn’t had much ramen in my life before this trip. In my mind, it was just the packets you can pick up for a $1 in the store, but wow was I blown away by this bowl of noodle goodness. What blew my mind more than anything was the variety of ramen options available. I wasn’t kidding when I said you had to think about your choices. There are so many different types of ramen, you could spend a month just exploring the ramen scene; and even better: despite its cheap price point, it is far from a simple or cheap tasting dish. There is so much flavor in the humble bowls of broth and noodles that I had to stop myself from slurping every ounce of broth.
My Two favorite Ramen places:
Ginza Noodles – specializes in clam based broth; however I ordered the soba noodles, which were chicken-based, and it was phenomenal. There was so much flavor in the broth, the noodles, the accompaniments. I can only imagine what the clam broth tasted like. This place had a long line out of the door for lunch as it was in the popular shopping district of Ginza. I would highly recommend getting there right when it opens if you’re in the area. Also it’s one of the places where you pay and order from the machine in order to get a ticket to then get in line to get a seat. It was a little confusing at first, and no one really spoke English in the restaurant, but after a few rounds of pointing, we figured it out. Ginza is a high-end shopping district, but Ginza Noodles is a small unassuming hole in the wall, so don’t be alarmed by the outside when you stumble upon it. The food is amazing.
Gogyo Ramen is the home of the burnt miso ramen. It’s mouthwatering. Seriously mouthwatering. I met a friend here, and we were both amazed at the flavor intensity in this bowl of noodle goodness. It was so good, I feel bad my husband never got to taste it. In fact, I feel bad for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of slurping down a bowl of Gogyo Ramen. The egg was cooked to perfection and the noodles were the perfect consistency, but the true star is the broth. The dark, rich broth is full of flavor, not a burnt flavor, but just enough past the point of no return that you add a whole other level of flavor, almost like when you brown butter or roast a marshmallow. It adds that extra richness to the broth that other places don’t quite have. This is not where you would go for a light bowl of ramen, this one is heavier and richer, but completely worth the indulgence. The atmosphere is also fun in this ramen joint, and the bathrooms are a little something special. They also have incredible fried chicken and dumplings. We sampled both, and nothing disappointed. Next time I’m in Tokyo, this will be high on my list of restaurants to revisit. Do yourself a favor and give this place a try!
TSUKIJI FISH MARKET
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s without a doubt one of the highlights of Tokyo. If you’ve watched any travel show or food documentary about Tokyo, you’ve most likely seen it in action. It’s rows and rows and rows of some of the strangest food items you may ever see in your life. If you’re one for adventure and enjoy tasting new things, this place is for you. We sampled eel, salmon, and scallops that were marinated and grilled on a stick right in front of us. While not the most adventurous choice, it was delicious. There were several stands for tamagoyaki (egg omelet) which is very popular to eat on it’s own on a stick. And countless stands of items we couldn’t quite identify. We’ve been to several food markets around the world, but this one was by far the most adventurous and different one we sampled through.
Have you been to a Japanese Grill in the States where they cook for you at your table? Yeah…well in Japan, there is a grill at your table, but you do the cooking. They bring big platters of beef, veggies, whatever you order, and you are given the sauce and the condiments to make your own BBQ. We went to a Japanese BBQ restaurant that specializes in Wagyu beef, a specialized breed of Japanese cows. It’s better than any filet mignon I’ve ever tasted in my life. The meat is so tender, yet so full of flavor and fat, it just melts in your mouth. I had never had it before, and Samuel kept insisting that we find a good place for a BBQ. I couldn’t understand why he was so eager to cook his own dinner, but after I tasted the first piece of beef off the grill, I completely understood why. Mouthwatering and full of flavor, all of the sauces and condiments seemed irrelevant. A dash of salt was all the meat needed for a perfect bite. Even if you aren’t a big meat eater, you will appreciate the small tender slices of this specialized Japanese cow.
I’m now looking out for restaurants here in the States that serve Wagyu beef because I want to know if I can recreate that moment in Japan. If I happen to find a place, I’ll keep everyone posted.
This is just a small sample of everything we got to try. I barely scratched the surface in the 8 days I was there, but I had countless culinary experiences that I will remember and recount forever. The food in Japan is in one word extraordinary. It’s a must visit destination for every foodie who is looking for a culinary adventure. It pushed me out of my comfort zone more than any other destination has done in recent years, and I’m so glad for everything I tasted along the way.
My 2 year old even approved, and if a toddler gives her thumbs up on anything, you’re good to go. Happy eating on your travels!
More to come:
Next up: The Coffee of Japan.