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.
We recently returned from a wonderful two-week long vacation in Japan. Although we have taken a number of international trips, this was our first time visiting a country where the culture and language were unfamiliar to us. Fortunately, everyone that we interacted with was extremely accommodating, and we were able to get by just learning a few Japanese phrases. During our time in Tōkyō, we stayed at the Park Hotel Tokyo in the Shiodome Sio Site in Minato-ku. Above you can see the spectacular view from our room that welcomed us on our very first night.
Most of our trip was spent in the central parts of Tōkyō-to, and even though we were in the metropolis for many days, we still only explored a small amount of its numerous wards. There is much to discover in the area around Shinjuku Station, which has a number of interesting skyscrapers. Our favorite is the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower.
A full size head of Godzilla stands over Toho Cinemas Shinjuku.
Even though we saw Shinjuku during daylight hours, we knew we had to go back at night to see it lit up. The multitude of lightboxes filling the streets would make Las Vegas jealous.
One of the best tucked away spots in the area is Omoide Yokocho, also known as Piss Alley. This tight, atmospheric alley is packed with tiny restaurants and great street food.
Throughout Tōkyō, we saw many ads for the upcoming 2020 Summer Olympics. We took a walk around Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which will be one of the venues, and was originally built for the 1964 summer games.
There are many buildings throughout Tōkyō that are quite distinctive, such as the Humax Pavillion and the Nakagin Capsule Tower.
Tsukiji Market, known for its tuna auctions and many seafood vendors, is one of many outdoor markets that we walked through during our trip.
There is certainly no shortage of massive shopping districts in Tōkyō, with Ginza being the most upscale.
Traditional structures, like the Kabuki-za are sprinkled throughout even the most modern districts.
The gardens of the Imperial Palace were closed on the day that we visited, but it is still a very pleasant walk around the palace’s moat.
We were in Japan during peak cherry blossom season, which was truly wonderful. Though most of our sakura viewing was done in Kyōtō, we did find great stretches to walk under cherry blossoms around the Imperial Palace.
The Sensō-ji Buddhist temple and the adjacent Asakusa Shinto shrine are part of a large cluster of sacred buildings with a surrounding market in the Asakusa district.
Tsukiji Hongan-ji is another Buddhist temple that was designed to look much more like something you would see in South Asia.
Beautiful houseboats line up at the docks on the Kanda River, waiting to take tourists on excursions.
There are many ‘cafés’ in Shibuya-ku where you can pay to sit with cute animals. We spent some time with some new kitty friends, and we even got to hold owls!
We took so many trains on this trip, which was very easy with our Japan Railways passes. Our most interesting train experience was certainly traveling at 270 km/h on the Shinkansen from Tōkyō Station to Kyōtō.
On our last day in Tōkyō we caught a glimpse of Mount Fuji from our hotel window bidding us farewell. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing more photos from our adventures in the land of the rising sun.