If we've been a little quiet on the blog recently, it's because we just returned from two weeks in Japan! It was an amazing trip: weird and beautiful and wonderful. From the futuristic cityscape and insane bustle of Tokyo, to the serenity of a 1,400-year-old mountaintop Shinto shrine in Kyoto, we loved exploring this endlessly interesting country.
If we had to sum up the two weeks in one word, though, it would be "delicious."
The food we ate throughout Japan was almost universally excellent, like the whole country is just cooking on a higher level, with better ingredients. (And actually it kinda is.) If your stereotype of Japanese cuisine is that it's exacting and made with precision and care, you're right. And it's evident everywhere you go, from hole-in-the-wall ramen shops to finer sushi bars.
We wanted to share with you some of our favorite food experiences from our trip.
So grab your chopsticks and dig in!
Yeah, yeah. This one's a no-brainer.
We love sushi, and we were so excited to try it in Japan! And Japan did not disappoint. We had sushi and sashimi a number of times, and every time it surpassed what we're used to in the U.S. (Also, contrary to our expectations, it was generally cheaper than sushi here at home. In fact, we found eating in Japan in general to be far more affordable than we'd been led to believe.)
By far our most memorable sushi meal of the trip was our first breakfast. Yes, breakfast.
We woke up super early on our first morning in Tokyo (thanks, jet lag!), and got ourselves to the famous Tsukiji fish market, the largest seafood market in the world. The action at the market starts at 5 a.m. every day, and things start winding down by 10 a.m. We arrived around 6 and poked around the Outer Market, and then explored the Inner Market when it opened to visitors at 9. (No, we didn't go to the tuna auction. Even we didn't want to get there early enough for that -- we read that you need to be in line by around 4 a.m.)
While we were there, we did what everyone does: Have the world's freshest sushi for breakfast.
There are tons of small sushi bars in the market. (The most well-known is probably Sushi Dai, which had the most insane line we have ever seen in our lives. Literally, when we walked by at 6:30 a.m., they had already posted a sign saying they were full for the day and weren't allowing anyone else to get in line. Can you imagine?! There were people who were clearly going to be standing in line there for 4 hours.)
We chose a different sushi place based on its line, which we deemed to be long enough (and filled with Japanese people) to mean it was a good place, but short enough that it wouldn't take forever. We later found out the name was Iwasa Sushi.
Our omakase meal there was fantastic: Gorgeous hand-crafted sashimi and sushi rolls, along with an intensely satisfying bowl of clams in a miso broth. It was a wonderful experience, and an unforgettable one -- 7 a.m. sushi!
(Oh, and just FYI, the Tsukiji market is closing and moving to a new location in November 2016. We're sure it'll still be a big tourist draw, but it's sad to think about all these marvelous sushi bars and all the other shops and restaurants that have grown up around the current market in the past century or so. Without anyone coming to the neighborhood for the market, we have no idea what's going to happen to all those places...)
We probably ate ramen noodles more than anything else during our two weeks in Japan. Noodle bars are everywhere (and cheap!), and even bad ramen is still pretty good. Not that we had bad ramen: Everywhere we ended up was very, very tasty.
Our two favorite places were Afuri and Kugatsu-Do, both in Tokyo.
Afuri has a few locations, mostly in the Ebisu neighborhood (although soon to open in Portland, Ore.!). We had lunch at the one in Naka-Meguro. Afuri does a slight spin on traditional Japanese ramen, adding yuzu into the broth for a citrusy kick. We loved it -- it really brightened up the bowl of noodles and added a nice twist to the meaty broth.
Our other favorite was Kugatsu-Do, in the Shibuya neighborhood. We're partial to this place in large part because it was our very first meal in Japan. We arrived at our hotel on a Friday evening, zombie-fied from jet-lag. We stumbled to this tiny place a few blocks from our hotel (our friend Jeff had recommended it). It was a damp and chilly evening, and we were bleary-eyed from our 13-hour flight. But the ramen here was so, so perfect: A rich, silky broth; tender noodles; perfectly cooked eggs and savory pork.
Fun side note: At a lot of ramen places (and many other Japanese restaurants), you must place your order by vending machine: You put in your money, punch in what you want, and get a ticket, which you then hand to your server. It makes a lot of sense, because this way the servers never have to handle money. But it can be a little intimidating at first!
Oh wait! Honorable Mention for ramen goes to this amazing no-name place in Omoide Yokocho, which translates as "memory alley" and is this incredible tangle of yakitori restaurants located along this impossibly tiny alleyway. More on yakitori in an upcoming post, but we finished our evening in Omoide Yokocho by sidling up to this ramen place. As restaurants go, this is the closest thing we've even seen to a literal hole in the wall: What you see in this photo is the entire restaurant, facing the alley:
This place served exactly one thing (ramen topped with tempura vegetables) for one price (about $3.25). How can you beat that??
We literally stumbled upon it, saw a line of people and figured we needed to get in that line. (This actually became kind of a guiding principle for us in Japan: "If there are people in line for it, it must be worth trying." It's not a bad way to go about life.)
Unlike sushi and ramen, here's a food we'd never eaten (or even heard of) prior to our trip. But Holy Moses, we're glad we know about it now!
Okonomiyaki are savory Japanese pancakes with cabbage and a variety of other vegetables and meat held together by batter and eggs and browned on a griddle. Then they're topped with pickled ginger, bonito flakes and a savory-sweet okonomiyaki sauce (kind of akin to Worcestershire), and then slathered in Japanese mayonnaise. (The name "okonomiyaki" translates to "as you like it, grilled.")
It's crazy Japanese soul food at its best, and we are obsessed.
We had okonomiyaki twice on our trip. The first was at a place in Tokyo, in the Shinjuku neighborhood, called Rokumonya. Prior to our trip, we had connected with this great guy named Masayoshi, a friend of a friend of ours. Though we'd never met, Masayoshi graciously organized a dinner with us and 5 of his friends. It was so great! At Rokumonya, each table has its own hotplate. The servers slap down the pancakes, which you finish grilling yourself. We had the best time!
The other notable place we had these was in the city of Hiroshima, which is actually the part of the country that specializes in okonomiyaki. The Hiroshima variety tends to have a ton more cabbage and more noodles, and it's presented in thick, distinct layers rather than a mixed-together heap.
We plonked down on a couple stools at a place called Hassei, pointed to what we wanted, and watched the chef go to town.
Clear Broth Soup
Waaaaay at the other end of the indulgence spectrum was this pristine bowl of soup we had in Tokyo's historic Asakusa neighborhood, at a tempura restaurant called Daikokuya. We'd popped in for lunch, and we had a spread of assorted tempura, which was all quite tasty. But the sleeper star of the meal was this soup.
We encountered soup at almost every single meal we had in Japan: Be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, you could almost always count on a small cup of miso soup. Cloudy and savory, it was always yummy, even if the march of miso soups did start to blend together a bit.
But we were floored by this stark, clear soup. It couldn't be simpler: a couple pieces of seafood and vegetables and some herbs floating in a clear broth. (If it's not evident in the photo, that's a black bowl. The soup itself was as clear as water.) But the broth was so full of delicious flavor, it seemed impossible. We drank up every last drop.
So, that's Part 1 of the Best Things We Ate in Japan.
Stay tuned for Part 2, along with some other fun tidbits from our trip!
Top photo: That's us having a traditional kaiseki dinner at a ryokan in Kyoto. Ryokans are these all-inclusive Japanese inns. They're usually very small, and there are hundreds across the country. They specialize in bespoke service and catering to your every whim. We are extremely happy to have tried one out, but to be completely honest, it wasn't our favorite experience. All that hushed pampering -- it just wasn't for us. Maybe we would have enjoyed a different ryokan more than the one we stayed at. Who knows? Anyway, it was a fun and unique experience, but maybe we're just not cut out for it.