In Japan it’s almost impossible to have a bad meal. Food is so highly respected – revered even – by most Japanese people, that you can find great food everywhere. Even in convenience stores – we had some incredibly tasty and fresh chicken karaage from a Seven-Eleven. I’ve had lots of different and interesting meals in Japan, but I love discovering the Japanese staples you know so well (sushi, ramen, tempura, etc) that take it up to a whole new level from what you’re used to at home. These are my Top Ten must do Japanese favourites:
Sashimi & Sushi
I probably don’t need to tell you what sushi is. You can find shops selling sushi in just about every shopping street and shopping centre in Australia. Sashimi is different to sushi in that it is fresh raw meat or fish that is sliced into thin pieces (without the rice or seaweed). It can be beef or even chicken, but the most popular sashimi is seafood, which is everything from tuna and salmon to squid and scallops.
Where to try it: Tsukiji Fish market, Tokyo
Fish is integral to Japanese cuisine, so it’s no surprise that Tokyo has the best and biggest fish market in the world. And that means the best sashimi and sushi. Next to the market are narrow streets lined with tiny restaurants that are very popular with locals and tourists alike. And the most popular time to visit (and eat) is breakfast time. My daughter Jasmine and I lined up for over half an hour, but it was worth every minute. It was hands down the best sashimi I’d ever eaten. And Jasmine agreed. How can just a simple slice of raw fish taste so different – as in so much better? I have no idea.
You order while you wait in line…
…then somehow half an hour later when you get inside the server knows exactly what you ordered.
Gyoza, which are also known as ‘pot stickers’, originated in China (where they are called jiaozi). They are typically filled with pork, nira chives, green onion, cabbage, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil.
Where to try it: Harajuku Gyoza-ro, Tokyo
‘The best gyoza EVER!’ That seemed to be the general consensus on Trip Advisor, so we had to try it out. And it sure is popular. We arrived at 11.30 in the morning and a long line had already formed. Gyōza are the only thing on the menu here – you can have them sui (boiled) or yaki (pan-fried). We tried both and they simply melted in your mouth because they were so tender and juicy.
What is it: Ramen is everywhere in Japan. There are four main styles of ramen, which are made of either miso (fermented soybeans), pork bone, soy sauce and simple salt.
Where to try it: Ramen Alley, Sapporo
The northern Japanese island of Hokkaido is famous for its ramen and Ramen Alley in Sapporo is the place to have it. You could smell the miso and soy two blocks away and you could hear the slurping one block away. The alleyway is merely a metre wide where some twenty-odd tiny ramen restaurants jostle for business. And when I say tiny, I mean tiny – most of them only hold up to eight people. I dined with a Japanese fellow that I’d met at my hotel and he ordered for me. I had no idea what he’d ordered me, but it was deliciously hot and spicy – which was nice because it was -15 degrees outside and it helped thaw my ears out.
The entrance to Ramen Alley.
Not much room to swing a cat.
Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes)
What is it: Okonomiyaki are a spicy pancake filled with different ingredients such as pork and cabbage and then topped with dried seaweed, fish flakes, and mayonnaise.
Where to try it: Okonomiyaki Sometaro, Asakusa, Tokyo
I have had some wonderful okonomiyaki cooked at street stalls around Japan, but at Okonomiyaki Sometaro you get to cook it yourself. You simply make a selection from the menu (which comes with handy pictures of the food) then all the ingredients are brought to the table in a bowl. The waitress showed us how to oil the grill, mix the batter and make the okonomiyaki then left us to cook. And it tasted delicious – although a lot of that obviously had to do with my expert cooking skills.
Tucked down a side street the ancient building stood out amongst the nearby modern office buildings.
Jasmine was an accomplished flipper.
What is it: Yakitori are grilled chicken skewers made from different parts of the chicken, including the breasts, thighs, skin, liver and other innards. They are usually cooked over charcoal.
Where to try it: Piss Alley, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. That’s how we chose one of the many tiny yakitori restaurants in Piss Alley (real name: Omoide Yokocho). Although I’m guessing that it’s hard to choose a bad one we had plates full of delectably succulent chicken bits on sticks. Jasmine’s favourite was the chicken balls (no, not that type of balls – chicken mince balls), while I loved the chicken skin and breast and livers and…oh, and I loved them all so much that we ordered a second helping.
A bit squishy.
A bit yummy.
What is it: It is a beloved Japanese dish consisting of buckwheat noodles served with hot sauce or soy sauce-flavoured broth.
Where to try it: Sobatei Aburaya, Nagano
Nagano is famous for its Soba noodles and the surrounding highlands are perfectly suited for growing buckwheat, which is then ground and mixed with fresh, clean water from Nagano’s many mountains. We knew Sobatei Aburaya must have been good because the place was packed at 11.30 in the morning and most of the customers were local Japanese. I had the tempura soba and, although I was very full before I’d made it to the end, it was so tasty that I finished the lot.
Hurry up and take the photo – I’m hungry.
What is it: Tempura is actually a classical Portuguese dish, which was brought to and popularised by Japan. It consists of seafood or vegetables that have been battered and deep fried.
Where to try it: Funabashiya, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Funabashiya is a famous tempura restaurant in Tokyo that has been around for over 100 years. I was not only lucky enough to get in (it’s ridiculously popular), I got to sit at the counter, so that I could watch the chef preparing and cooking the tempura. The tempura was perfect – crunchy outside, soft inside, and without a single trace of oil.
What is it: Teppanyaki translates literally to ‘grilling on an iron plate’. In traditional Japanese cuisine, Teppanyaki style cooking is used for meats such as steak and seafood, as well as fried noodles and rice.
Where to try it: Teppanyaki Bisai, Okayama
I’ve done the teppanyaki thing quite a lot in Australia and not only is the freshly cooked food delicious it’s quite the show as the chef performs tricks with kitchen utensils. But at the restaurant in the penthouse of the Hotel Granvia the teppanyaki went to a whole new level. First of all, it was the best wagyu beef I’d ever tasted – so tender that it really did ‘melt’ in your mouth. And the attention to detail by the chef was spectacular, while his skills with a knife would even put the world’s best surgeons to shame.
Jingisukan (Japanese BBQ)
What is it: Jingisukan (or Genghis Khan) Japanese grilled mutton dish prepared on a convex metal skillet or other grill. The dish is supposedly named because, in prewar Japan, lamb was widely thought to be the meat of choice among Mongolian soldiers, and the dome-shaped skillet is meant to represent the soldiers’ helmets that they used to cook their food.
Where to try it: Sapporo Brewery, Sapporo
Ready. Set. Go! At the Sapporo Brewery you pay around $40 and you have exactly 100 minutes to eat and drink as much as much as you can. The drink is large mugs of frothy Sapporo beer (brewed on the premises unlike imported Sapporo beer which is brewed in Tokyo), and the food is marinated meat (mutton) and vegetables, including onions, cabbage, kabocha (Japanese squash, like pumpkin) and bean sprouts. When you sit down you are given a large plastic bag to put your jackets, hats and gloves in (it was -15 degrees outside), so that at least some of your clothes don’t stink from the over a hundred tables all with their own smokey grills. You are then given a big bib and they bring out the raw meat and vegetables (and beer of course) and then set the timer. I went with a Japanese fellow that I met in my hotel and he knocked back his first large mug of beer in less than 10 minutes. He told me that if he drank six beers his food would be free. I must say, he was very good at it, too. Rather impressively he could eat, drink AND smoke all at the same time.
Inside the Sapporo brewery
It tasted better than it looked!
What is it: Kaiseki or kaiseki-ryōri is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner.
Where to try it: Yudanaka Seifuso, Yudanaka
Most ryokans (traditional Japanese Inns) serve up a kaiseki feast. It it either served in your room, in a shared dining room or, which was the case at Yudanaka Seifuso ryokan, in our very own private dining room. It was Jasmine’s first kaiseki and I didn’t tell her how many ‘courses’ we were likely to have. Not surprisingly Jasmine was very surprised when we walked in and saw all the dishes (15 all up) set out on the table. The meal, which was meticulously prepared and exquisitely served, featured many from the list above including, sashimi, gyoza, tempura, soba noodles and yakitori. The entire meal was simply amazing and we both waddled out with very full stomachs.
A veritable feast – for only two.