Gastronomic tour of Japan

The place where the journey started and the most experiences and experimentation occurred was Tokyo, so probably best to lead with that.

Tokyo

On our first night in Japan we were taken to a local favourite of some friends now based in Tokyo. Access to the restaurant was through a door that came up to my hips, meaning you entered the room in a bowing pose. Looking back on it, this was entirely appropriate. We did a lot of bowing in Japan, it’s the way to greet someone as well as a sign of respect.

Being our first night, our friends took the opportunity to put our taste-buds and nerves to the test. The restaurant was a traditional Japanese BBQ (yakiniku). We started with a selection of sashimi - plump, impossibly fresh pieces of fish that included tuna, sea bream and mackerel. We also had yakitori (grilled, skewered chicken) and grilled veg such as mushrooms and asparagus. This was just a warm up. Next arrived horse carpaccio and raw chicken. The chicken was a case of mind over matter, it was a struggle to pop it into our mouths as alarm bells were ringing, but once in the texture was surprisingly satisfying. There wasn’t a distinguishable flavour as it was accompanied by a good dollop of wasabi and a splash of soy. I had imagined it would be jelly like and chewy but on the contrary it was almost like raw tuna, but with a bit more meatiness. The horse had a beef-like quality, but was slightly less textured and also heavily seasoned with sweet soy, mayonnaise and wasabi. 

Next up was minced chicken on a stick, sort of like a lamb kofta, but with chicken. Sounds normal, but just to add the twist it was accompanied by a raw egg yolk that we were to dip it into. This was rich and tasty. To round things off we had cold sake, then hot sake, and then some frozen sake for good measure. All in, a pretty impressive first night, and an excellent way to beat jet-lag and introduce ourselves to Japanese fare.

Other Tokyo experiences included ramen (noodles in a salty broth with finely sliced pork, spring onions and bean sprouts). This was a lunch-time favourite throughout the trip. Our first encounter of it was in Tokyo where we ordered it through a vending machine outside the restaurant, then took our ticket inside to sit at the counter and slurp away at our large bowls alongside Japanese businessmen. Of course, all options on the vending machine were in Japanese so we were anticipating the worst, but were successful on this occasion.

Tokyo’s fish market was an extraordinary experience. You take your life in your hands by going there to witness it in full swing at the crack of dawn. We showed up at 5.30am and there were carts upon carts or freshly caught fish hurtling around the market, certainly not stopping for any dawdling tourists. At 6.30am we sat down for a bit of breakfast sushi in the market. It really couldn’t have been any fresher. The man next to us was shown a live prawn, then 30 seconds later is had been de-headed and shelled and was on his plate ready for a soy dipping.

tokyo fish market

Beyond Tokyo

In Nagasaki we discovered gyoza and butaniratoji (omelettes with spring onions and pork). We visited a tiny restaurant that did just these two things, and they did them very well. Gyoza, also known as pot-stickers, are small dumplings filled with minced pork and fried on one side until they are nice and crispy. You can’t just order one plate, this restaurant made them so delicately that you just wanted more and more. It was tricky to eat the omelette with chop sticks, but together with the gyoza and a cold beer, it was a winning combination.

Tempura is in numerous restaurants and is perfectly light and crispy, all the vegetables still have bite to them and meat is thinly sliced and tender. Our best experience of this was in Kyoto in a restaurant called Tebu Saka. We ordered an assortment of vegetables - some of them we recognised and some we didn’t. They were so light and delicate - a far cry from some of the greasy, heavy imitations you get in the UK.

The bullet train speeds you around Japan in no time at all (when you think about the distances being covered) but on a three hour journey, a train picnic is essential. In some kiosks within the train station you can find a sandwich of some sort, but this would be a mistake. There are a number of other take-out food shops that beat the sandwich hands down. For our most successful train picnic we managed to find little plastic boxes of spicy noodles, glass noodles, broccoli in sesame vinaigrette, spinach and egg omelette and seasoned rice balls. Eating this with chop sticks from a wobbly tray table is a challenge, but a good one.

We did make some mistakes. Visiting a dedicated chicken and egg restaurant sounds pretty safe (even though we didn’t know that’s what it was when we walked in). However, in Japan they make use of every last bit of the chicken. We were taking pot luck with our ordering as the menu was in Japanese and suffered skewered cartilage and an unidentifiable stew – best not to ask what was in that one. In another restaurant we managed to order some very nasty textured fish roe that looked like large, pink, veiny fingers. These had to be pushed to one side.

To end on a high, our staple breakfast hit the spot every morning. At the café we went to on the first morning, we were just asked by the waiter “breakfast?”, to which we nodded, and then he rushed into the kitchen. Then a tray containing a thick slab of sweet white toast, a cooled boiled egg and some little pieces of fruit appeared five minutes later. We requested this breakfast every morning after this, wherever we were. I say request, it was more like playing charades each morning – not easy when trying to make them guess ‘boiled egg’. 

plastic food and sashimi