The diversity of food in Japan is almost overwhelming. Ramen, noodles, curry, sushi, barbecue…the list goes on. But not only do you have these different meals, you also have various interpretations of them dependent on which prefecture you’re in. A testament to Japan’s culinary diversity was evident during my recent holiday when after three weeks of eating like a pig I still wasn’t sick of yakitori or onigiri (rice balls). Suffice to say it’s also delicious as hell, and arguably one of the best destinations for a food holiday.
Unquestionably the thing we ate the most, ramen in Japan, unsurprisingly, delivered the goods. Greeted with crisp temperatures upon landing at 7pm following a nine-hour flight, it’s safe to say we were ready for a good meal, and a hearty bowl of ramen in downtown Shibuya provided a tremendously satisfying dining experience. When I reflect on all the ramen I’ve eaten in my life this bowl wouldn’t make the top 10 but given the circumstances and the context it was perfect.
Ramen is a wholesome meal that contains soup, noodles, meat, vegetables, egg and sometimes more. But at the core of any good ramen is the broth, which takes hours to prepare. Tonkotsu (pork bone) is the most common ramen broth, while soy (shoyu), salt (shio) and miso soups are popular flavour variants. Additionally, there is also a proliferation of regional interpretations.
The pinnacle ramen of our trip was difficult to adjudicate, so I’m going to recommend two bowls in Tokyo. Nagi Ramen is a compact bar in Golden Gai that specialises in a unique broth made from niboshi (dried baby sardines). After ordering via a vending machine you take your seat at the wooden bar, rubbing elbows as you squeeze onto a barstool. Even if you are reclusive, this bowl of ramen makes the whole experience worth it. The soup is like drinking the Pacific Ocean, such is the saltiness of the broth, but it’s a completely welcome taste that has you slurping in delight. The depth of flavour is incredible; boasting a strong smoky umami taste that had us rushing back for another mouthful. Served with slices of tender chashu (rolled pork belly), a soft-boiled egg, dried seaweed, strands of bamboo and spring onion, this bowl also included some of the best noodles I’ve ever sampled. These dense and chewy noodles grasped the delectably flavourful broth with every slurp.
The other standout ramen was Kagari in Ginza, located underground in a train station. This tiny restaurant only seats eight people and you’re guaranteed to run into a queue, but it’s completely worth it for the tori paitan soba – a ridiculously creamy chicken broth served with tender slices of chicken, bamboo and an array of eye-catching vegetables. The soup is otherworldly. It’s like a liquefied chicken that spent its entire life bathing in cream – truly one of the best meals of my life.
Tip: If the restaurant has a vending machine in which you order from it’s usually a reliable indicator of quality or at least popularity.
Sushi & sashimi
Raw fish is quintessential Japanese cuisine, so it should come as no surprise to learn the country vaunts the largest fishing industry on the planet. Japan’s commercial fishing industry is worth $14 billion and the country itself annually consumes 7.5 billion tons of seafood, which roughly amounts to 10 per cent of the entire world’s catch. So, suffice to say seafood is important to the Japanese, and when you taste it it’s easy to see why.
If you’ve been living under a rock, sushi is a Japanese dish prepared with vinegared rice and a variety of seafood and vegetables. While it’s a seemingly simple dish comprised of basic components, training to be a sushi chef can take more than 10 years. This caper demands expert knife skills, the ability to cut and clean seafood appropriately and most importantly, the capacity to consistently produce sushi rice, for it’s the rice that’s crucial to the overall taste of the sushi. The training itself is extremely arduous and requires immense dedication, which is why the title of sushi chef (itamae) is so prestigious in Japan.
During our trip, we were lucky enough to dine at the crème de la crème of sushi restaurants. Jiro Ono was the most revered itamae ever and has since handed over his legacy to his two sons, Takashi and Yoshikazu. After booking months in advance, we were able to secure a reservation at Takashi Ono’s Sukiya-bashi Jiro in Roppongi, Tokyo. Dining at this Michelin-starred restaurant was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Takashi was training two sushi chefs throughout our meal and was understandably blunt with them. This was completely understandable, as the industry demands nothing short of excellence, but it did make the setting quite tense and it almost felt like you couldn’t move in the risk of upsetting Takashi, who would pull you into line when your etiquette wasn’t on point. Personally, this wasn’t too off-putting as I was anticipating a similar experience, but I understand how someone could walk away from Sukiya-bashi Jiro displeased. Regardless, the sushi was exquisite, and Takashi explained every piece and the best way to eat it. We sampled several cuts of tuna (differing in fat content), uni (sea urchin) and prawns that we were told died just moments before consumption, such was the freshness of the produce. The set meal was then topped with tamagoyaki, which is a Japanese-style omelette that’s extremely sweet. All-in-all this was an incredible dining experience filled with tremendous produce and typically extravagant service.
Another port of call on our journey was the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, which is one of the largest wholesale markets for fresh, frozen, and processed seafood in the world. If you arrive early enough you can witness the lucrative tuna auctions, but even if you’re not willing to abide by a 4am start there’s still plenty of wonderful sashimi and sushi on offer, including whale.
Memory Lane (Omoide Yokocho) is a series of tiny alleys in Shinjuku filled with restaurants the size of broom closets. These meat saunas typically host eight to 10 people scrunched together, while a chef slaves over a piping hot charcoal grill. Yakitori publicans will tell you this type of dining is all about the charcoal, which smokes and flavours the skewered meats and vegetables. Typically, a menu will contain chicken thighs, wings, meatballs, gizzards as well as vegetables like leek and onion that are cooked fresh to order. The kicker is a finger-licking teriyaki-like sauce that is deliciously sweet and tangy. The beauty of this type of dining is that it’s perfect bar food for socialising; a few casual drinks and a stick or two is Japan at it’s best, which is why restaurants will often be filled with businessmen in suits following a day in the office.
The highlight of our Piss Alley, as it’s known locally, experience was a bar that specialises in pork skewers (yakiton). Before grilling the sticks, the chef boiled the skewers in a rich pork and red miso broth. This soup bubbled away in a large wok throughout the night, as the chef marinated sticks to satisfy demand. We sampled all sorts of succulent pork cuts (including leek wrapped in bacon) that were lightly charred on the exterior yet still juicy inside, but the best skewer of the night was surprisingly tomato. I came to learn that Japanese tomatoes are some of the best in the world, but even with that knowledge in hand, I didn’t expect a mere tomato to deliver a “food moment”, where I was literally paralyzed in awe. Bursting with flavour is such a food cliché, but this stick of tomato literally exploded in my mouth, having absorbed the properties of the delicious pork broth. Japanese tomatoes are incredibly juicy, so when you pierce the skin of this skewer the acidic liquid stuns you like someone pouring a bucket of ice-water over your head – refreshingly cutting through the rich pork soup.
Tip: To fully appreciate the atmosphere of Memory Lane go at night time, which is when it comes alive.
Using an iron griddle to cook, teppanyaki typically comprises steak, chicken, shrimp, seafood and/or vegetables. The alluring aspect of this type of dining is the fact the food is usually prepared in front of you – entertainment and a meal all in one!
The drawcard of our teppanyaki experience was Kobe beef, which we sampled in the city of Kobe. Fittingly, we derived that a restaurant known as “Steakland” was the ideal place to indulge ourselves. The experience didn’t disappoint, for this was undoubtedly the best beef I have eaten. The flavour of the beef, its tenderness and its well-marbled texture resulted in a heavenly mouthful of protein fit for a king. This meat is recognised as a delicacy all over the world and comes from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle specifically raised in the Hyogo prefecture. Our steak set was also served with rice, scallops, shrimp, sautéed greens and of course, crispy garlic chips. But obviously this was all about the beef, and you truly savoured each and every mouthful.
We went all-out for our sukiyaki experience, and several hundreds of dollars later we didn’t regret it for a second. This dish is prepared in the nabemono (hot pot) style and consists of thinly sliced beef and vegetables, traditionally cooked at the table. These ingredients are simmered in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar and mirin. Once cooked, the ingredients are dipped in a bowl of raw, beaten eggs before being consumed.
We travelled to Mie to dine at Wadakin – a restaurant that can only be described as a beef hotel. Wadakin has five or six levels filled with private dining rooms steeped in tradition where you sample Matsusaka beef, one of the “three big beefs” in Japan (the others are Kobe and Yonezawa). This beef is so revered because it has a high fat-to-meat ratio and it must meet strict standards to be sold under the Matsusaka name. We invested in one of the set meals that included beef-centric appetisers, vegetables, beef rice, beef soup, dessert and of course, Matsusaka beef cooked sukiyaki-style. The vegetables and the beef rice alone were epic, but the sukiyaki meat was exquisite. The ethereal beef literally disintegrated upon landing in your mouth, but not before your pupils dilate to the size of the moon. I doubt I will experience a meal as satisfying as this in my life, not only for the quality of produce but also the equally excellent service.
One of my favourite styles of Japanese cuisine, tempura consists of seafood and vegetables that have been battered and deep-fried. The batter is extremely light and is made using cold water, wheat flour and, sometimes, baking soda/powder. It is then eaten with sea salt and/or tentsuyu sauce, which is a rough mixture of dashi, mirin and shoyu.
I suppose the appeal of tempura is that it’s lighter than traditionally fried foods and therefore you don’t feel as guilty whilst consuming. The light tentsuyu sauce is also the perfect accompaniment.
We were lucky enough to sample tempura in Osaka, feasting on prawns, white fish, eggplant, pumpkin, mushrooms and renkon (lotus root). Oishii!
When I think of an authentic Japanese meal I think of kaiseki, which is a traditional multi-course dinner that emphasises seasonal ingredients. This type of dining accentuates colours and particularly appeals to the sense of sight. So much so that dishes are often garnished with leaves and flowers to resemble natural plants. You are likely to find kaiseki at a resort, where it is often served in your room.
There are vast interpretations of kaiseki, but typically it involves an appetiser, sashimi, a simmered dish (often prepared at the table), a grilled dish, a steamed dish and a dessert. Although individually the dishes appear meagre in stature the entire meal amounts to a considerable feast.
Travelling through various onsen resorts around Mount Fuji we were lucky enough to sample several kaiseki dinners. The pick was well off the beaten track in Azuma, Nagiso where we were treated to local produce, and most notably horse intestines marinated in miso. Once you come to grips with the foreign texture it was delicious and packed with flavour. The duck hot pot at Hotel Fuki no Mori was also divine.
Japan’s equivalent of barbecue, yakiniku translates to English as “grilled meat”. This type of cooking refers to small pieces of meat and vegetables cooked on a griddle over a flame of charcoals. Traditionally, a restaurant provides the diner with the raw ingredients and the customer will cook it to their liking. Once cooked the meat is eaten with tare, which is a sweetened version of soy sauce often mixed with saki, mirin, sugar and garlic. The origins of yakiniku are a sensitive topic amongst Japanese and Korean people, as it is very similar to Korean barbecue.
Japanese street food isn’t hard to find and is another reason why the country is such a brilliant destination for a food holiday. Japan has festivals for everything and anything, and when they celebrate it typically involves food. At these stalls you are likely to find takoyaki (fried balls of batter filled with octopus and spring onions), okonomiyaki (savoury pancake topped with a combination of mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce), taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes filled with red bean paste or custard), yakisoba (fried noodles with meat and vegetables) and various skewers of meat or vegetables.
My pick of the bunch was okonomiyaki, mainly because the sauce toppings were on point and paired beautifully with the savoury pancake mixture. Okonomiyaki batter is typically prepared with eggs, meat/seafood, vegetables and cheese before being thrown on to a griddle.
Given the nation’s penchant for sweets, it’s not surprising that Japan produces some wonderful fruit. In terms of popularity, strawberries are the most prominent fruit in the land of the rising sun, and this is particularly evident in their desserts. In fact, Japan is the seventh largest producer of strawberries in the world and it’s quite common to see them gifted as presents, with premium strawberries costing several hundred yen.
Nashi (Japanese pear) and ume (Japanese plum) are other fruits grown throughout the country, but the standout is melon, and specifically the muskmelon. Like strawberries, melons are quite luxurious in Japan and can be sold for more than 10,000 yen! Not too dissimilar from cantaloupe, these melons boast a light green flesh and are deliciously sweet. You can find reasonably priced muskmelon in supermarkets, but our homerun melon arrived after our sukiyaki lunch in Mie – topping off what was already a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Granted pizza and pasta don’t hail from Japan, but the people are certainly obsessed with Italian cuisine. Green, white and red flags are littered throughout the streets of Japan, such is the overwhelming abundance of restaurants. I haven’t been able to decipher the origins of this connection but the combination of produce (especially vegetables) and the culturally ingrained appetite for hard-work and excellence ideally positions Japan to create wonderful Italian cuisine.
On a recommendation from David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious”, we visited Seirinkan on one of our first nights in Tokyo. Here you find a fanatical chef who’s obsessed with the Beatles and a menu limited to Margherita and marinara pizzas. Upon embarking on this trip, I anticipated some wonderful food experiences, but never did I envision eating the best pizza of my life. Using the aforementioned Japanese tomatoes and locally sourced mozzarella cheese, Seirinkan produces a tantalising pie. The critical factor of these pizzas is the dough, which has a remarkable light bubbly texture while still maintaining a crisp crunch.