One could easily visit Japan, do nothing but eat, and still have an amazing trip. During our stay we managed to not only see some incredible places, but also experience some of the most unique and flavorful cuisine that we have ever had. Trying out all of the food, both familiar and new, was truly an adventure in itself.
The first thing any visitor will notice when searching for food options in Japan is the consistent use of realistic plastic food samples at just about every establishment. We had heard of the concept before, but did not realize how universal it was until we were there. It was not only fascinating to see the attention to detail in each plate, but also very helpful when it came time to order food, since we could point to our exact desired dish when making selections.
Perhaps our favorite meal of the trip was at Manzaratei Pontochoten, where we enjoyed a traditional Kyōto style meal at a small restaurant with prime seating at the counter. From our seats we could see the chefs putting together lovely little dishes, often ladling in broths and sauces from the various large bowls resting on the counter in front of us. Already one of his favorite foods in general, James proclaimed this was the best unagi he has ever had after his very first bite.
We had several bentō boxes while on the trip. They were pretty and convenient to grab while on the go, and also fun to explore what each one had inside.
Rāmen in Tōkyō is of course an absolute must, and we tried out a few different ones while on the trip. Ichiran was our favorite one of all, since not only do they have fantastic rāmen, but the experience of dining at one of the their restaurants was completely new to us. The first step is buying a ticket at a machine at the entrance. Then, each patron is seated in their own individual booth and given a sheet to fill out denoting their preferences on things like noodle firmness, spice level, aromatics, and richness. A small curtain separates the booths from the kitchen, and only the hands of the servers are visible as they place your order in front of you once it’s ready.
Naturally, we were very much looking forward to eating plenty of raw seafood on the trip, and a simple conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Kyōto Station was one of the most satisfying experiences. For around one hundred yen per plate, guests simply pick up what they’d like from the belt, and stack up their dishes for a tally at the end. The fish was incredibly fresh, and we tried a few that we had never eaten before.
Another must for the trip was trying out all of the street food. For this we headed to Nishiki Market in Kyōto – a long strip of vendors selling goods such as fresh seafood, pickled vegetables, and just about any ingredients that a local resident may need for cooking. Among the produce shops there are also several vendors selling hot food ready for eating on the spot. We walked through the entire market starting at one end, and made sure to get a wide variety as we made our way through. The tako tamago (candied baby octopus stuffed with quail egg) was James’ favorite, while the cup of fried chicken was some of the best I’ve ever had.
One of our most memorable meals was at what is locally referred to as Piss Alley in Shinjuku. Contrary to what the name suggests, Piss Alley is a fun narrow street where you can sit in a tiny restaurant and enjoy delicious yakitori under the glow of hanging lanterns. After cramming into one of the restaurants, we ordered a great variety of meats and vegetables that were all lightly seasoned before being grilled to perfection over binchotan (Japanese white coals) right in front of us. We had friends who had just arrived in Japan, and we met up with them to share the experience.
Tonkatsu is a traditional Japanese comfort food. Panko crusted pork cutlets and cabbage salad are served with a small bowl of sesame seeds on the side. We ground up the sesame seeds ourselves, and added our choice of sauce from little pots placed in front of us. The experience was fun and unique, and I brought home a little grinding bowl and sauce pot from a local market to recreate the meal someday.
The variety of snacks found all throughout our trip was insanely impressive. From cat shaped chocolate popsicles, to obscure flavors of Pocky, and the best gummy candies I’ve ever had – there was no shortage of opportunity to try new things.
Overall it’s safe to say that the cuisine in Japan is an adventurous experience. Almost every time we saw something interesting to try, we went for it, and were never disappointed. We were consistently intrigued with how most of the foods used the same types of ingredients that we are accustomed to eating in North America, but used in ways that transformed their flavor profiles.
There are many beautiful sights in the city of Kyōto, which is just a few hours ride on the Shinkansen from Tōkyō. When planning, we aimed for our trip to coincide with the blooming of sakura. Luckily, we arrived right on time, and Kyōto offered a myriad of places to view them.
The wooden lattices and paper dividers in our room at Hotel Kanra create an atmosphere of elegant simplicity reminiscent of the ancient capital. There was even a wooden bathtub made of Japanese cypress that we soaked in each evening we were there.
A great place for hanami (the viewing of sakura) is the Shirakawa Canal in the geisha district of Gion.
The path to Kiyomizu-dera through Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka is absolutely breathtaking. Traditional machiya line the narrow stone lane as it slopes up the hill from one pagoda to another.
Ishibei-koji is a beautifully preserved quiet lane in the Higashiyama district that feels like something out of a painting.
There are said to be over 10,000 torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha.
Nijō-jō is a castle that was built as a residence for the Tokugawa Shoguns when they took trips to see the Imperial Court. We were able to go inside the castle and view the gorgeous wall and ceiling paintings found throughout. The castle is also famous for its nightingale corridors that make gentle chirping sounds as you walk on the wooden floors.
Around the castle are gardens with meticulously composed stones.
The Philosopher’s Walk is a serene path lined with sakura that travels past many temples and shrines.
We were so fortunate to catch the sakura bloom at just the right time, but regardless of the season, Kyōto is wonderful. The city gave us a tranquil experience that was an interesting contrast to the high energy of Tōkyō.