Hope that you have been enjoying my recent blogs about my travels through Tokyo in August of this year. I thought that I would put together a little blog about what sort of food and meals I enjoyed whilst I was there. I am not a food blogger so don’t expect a review-like read full of ratings and ingredients. Here you will find some images of mouth-watering sushi or curry or beer! Things that I enjoyed. Along with that I will throw in some travel advice that I have learnt over the last three trips to Japan that may come in handy for those considering a journey to Japan.
Let’s start with the most important part first…the beer! Whilst in Japan I quickly noticed just how common drinking ice-cold large cans or bottles of beer is a key part of their dining culture. Crates of 500ml Kirin Draft bottles would dominate even the smallest of eateries and bars. Cans of Asahi could be bought in all of the convenience stores in singles. When taking longer train journies such as the Shinkansen, many salarymen would eat lunch on board and wash it down with a cold beer. They could be purchased from the small kiosk convenience stores right there on the train platform. At a park in Shinjuku on a hot day you could buy a shaved-ice cup or, you guessed it, a tall cold Sapporo beer. My hotel last year had a vending machine at the end of the hall selling beer. The Japanese have been brewing beer probably longer than most cultures and beer festivals and even the rise of craft beer are common in most cities.
In West Shinjuku, not far from the Shinjuku Station and nestled between some of the larger Yodobashi Camera buildings, is Kizuna Shushi. This place is a decent size restaurant with booths, tables and even seating at the sushi bar itself. Some of the nearby sushi places are standing only. You literally stand at the sushi bar and eat and then move along. It is here at the bar that the real magic happens. The sushi chefs make non-stop sushi with generous size cuts of the freshest tuna and salmon and dozens of other ingredients. I managed to visit here twice it was that good. Sushi is becoming fairly universal so you could order just by pointing at the menu or refer to the handy English version of the menu. On both occasions I had serves of fresh sushi. And on the second I splurged a bit and also had some Tempura. Cold beers to wash it down of course.
On a steamy day in Asakusa, within sight of the impressive Senso-Ji Temple, I found a Tonkatsu restaurant. I cannot recall the name of it. A little more than 20 seats with most being at a bar surrounding the cooking area. Lavish servings of crumbed pork cutlet, golden curry and finely sliced cabbage. The three chefs in attendance worked to prepare and present amazingly simple but tasty and fulfilling meals. Watching them prepare their dishes only made me hungrier and each time they finished a plate I wished it was mine to be served next. This meal was incredible – one of my favourites and one that I like to cook myself at home now. By the time I left there was a line of folk waiting to get in and I could completely see why it was worth waiting for.
OK so it should be said that I am mad for Ramen. If I hear of a good Ramen place in Melbourne I have to try it out. And when in Japan, I take every opportunity I can to grab a bowl of the delicious broth with noodles, pork belly and half a boiled egg. A particularly good serve was had at a new looking Ramen restaurant in the area of Shinjuku where Centre Gai is located. Very touristy with lots of Pachinko parlours and mens clubs and bars. But this place served a fantastic bowl of Ramen. A lot of Ramen restaurants actually have vending machines located at the front or even outside the restaurant. You make the selection of what you want – a standard special or build your own, add a cold beer and then feed the right cash into the machine. It will produce tickets that you take inside with you and once seated you hand these to either a host or straight to the chef.
The night I met up with my friend Hitoshi and we spent time shooting street photography around Shinjuku, we ended up stopping in Omoide Yokocho. This was a tiny alley that sat parallel to the train lines running into and out of Shinjuku Station. With dozens of little bars and restaurants along each side with mostly open fronts and only enough seats for a handful of people. The bar that Hitoshi and I stopped at only had 4 or 5 seats and they served Sake and tap beer as well as a range of small street-food style meals. Skewered meats were cooking on a tiny coal BBQ. Fresh salads and a stew made up the remainder of the menu. We left it up to our host – a mostly silent gruff man – to make a selection for us. That was eating like a local. You can read more about that night here.
At other times if I was on the go or didn’t feel like having a formal meal, I would call in to a Family Mart. These convenience stores are everywhere. There was even one located on the ground floor of my hotel. The convenience stores in Japan are incredible and stock a wide range of goods. From fresh meals ready to be microwaved, to sandwiches made with the softest of breads whose crusts have been cut off. Drinks, alcohol, stationary, magazines and even a range of hot food depending on the size of the store. I would drop into one of these stores if I felt like a simple meal or just something I could eat on the train. Or, late at night when I didn’t feel like spending time in a bar to unwind, I would grab a couple of drinks and some rice cakes as a snack to eat in my room. The other great thing about these stores is that they often have ATM that I was able to use to access bank account and have it dispense Yen.
And then last but not least there is the coffee situation in Japan. Japan has an extremely weird coffee culture. Vending machines all throughout Japan will sell coffee in a can! Yes! Boss Coffee was my first and probably last test of this product. It wasn’t bad, it was just wrong. Especially for a boy from Melbourne where coffee is a fine art. Then there are cafe’s where you can get coffee and cake or a sandwich. Doutor was a franchise of such cafe’s that seemed to be pretty common to come across. They serve a broad range of hot and cold caffeine and can even make a decent Latte but they call it a Cafe Au Late from memory. You may also be surprised to see that all such cafe’s have a smoking room. Starbucks are also fairly common and they have the same premium decor and feel as most Starbucks. Reliably decent coffee. The hipster cafe culture has been slowly growing in Japan over recent years and you can find places that know what they are doing. But finding them and finding them open are two big challenges.
Finally, I will leave you with some travel advice taken directly from my blog My Japan Travel Guide. The guide can be found here and covers a range of information relating to travel in Japan. Transport, money, safety and of course food. In particular I had this to say about food:
I found that eating in Japan is quite cheap – obviously I travel alone. Many large department stores will have a cafeteria type restaurant where you can grab full size and cheap meals. I can get away with a hot meal and a drink for around AU $10. They also often have great little shopping markets – usually underground – that sell all sorts of local treats. Make a picnic and go to a gyoen (park) or a sky garden at the top of a skyscraper. I also found it useful to sometimes visit a convenience store – 7-Eleven, Lawsons Family Store to buy some snacks for the road. The convenience stores in Japan are seriously fancy and stock a huge range of goods.
Also, you will quickly notice the vending machines everywhere. Everywhere! Your hotel will probably have them in the hallway selling beer! Usually these only dispense cold drinks but you can come across some that have food snacks too. I even found one in Hiroshima that had these clear bottles with a brown liquid and a long silver fish inside it. Local treat apparently! And there will be beer. Yes beer. Beer in vending machines. Beer in the convenience stores. Beer festivals in summer. Beer museums. Don’t be surprised if you see people sipping a cold one on a long commute train in the afternoon. Very civilised.
Avoid touristy restaurants if you can and head a couple of streets away from the main streets to find cheap and friendly places to eat. Or, avoid the ground floor restaurants and check out the floor guide of a building as there will usually be a better and cheaper restaurant a couple of floors up. Ramen and Sushi restaurants are usually open 24/7 and are very cheap. A lot of restaurants have English menus if you ask. But half the fun can be ordering something you have no idea about. But I encourage you to eat like a local and don’t be dissuaded if there is no English menu. Most places have pictures of each dish. I suggest you point and be brave. Some restaurants will have a vending machine at the front. You select the dish you want to have, put in the required amount and grab the printed ticket. You do this for each dish, extra and or drink. Then take the tickets inside and hand them to the host.
Also, there are no bins on the streets of Japan. Some of the bigger vending machine areas will have recycle bins for bottles. But not many. Regardless, you will not find a cleaner country. I don’t know how they do it. So every day I kept a plastic shopping bag in my backpack to tuck away my food and drink wrappers until the end of the day.