I love food.
I’m not going to lie, eating in Japan may have been the thing I was most looking forward to about this trip. But it wasn’t always easy to find food during our travels.
Our main hurdle was, unsurprisingly, the language. Most restaurants had no English signage, so finding places that had been suggested to us was especially difficult. We learned to ask for a detailed map and picture of wherever we were headed, that way we could walk the streets comparing the sites to our pamphlets like one of those memorization guessing games. Addresses in Japan are often not chronological, so a street number alone rarely helped. If we didn’t have a specific place in mind, we’d peer through windows trying to figure out what a particular eatery served. And the ordeal wasn’t over once we sat down – we still had to order.
Luckily for us, many places had picture menus – so even if we didn’t know what we were ordering, we knew what it looked like! And a good few restaurants had plastic replicas on display of the food on their menu (like the photo at the top of this post, taken at a place that specialized in ice cream).
In the end, we had many triumphs (and a few epic failures) in our various food quests. As for the winners?
Crab in Kinosaki
While our onsen experience in Kinosaki turned out to be a bit of a bust, one thing we definitely enjoyed was the dinner at our ryokan that first night. Perched right on the Sea of Japan, we showed up in town during snow crab season. We were served massive, juicy crab legs both steamed and cooked in broth with noodles. While I’m used to eating crab in the states served with a side of melted butter for dipping, nothing additional was brought out with the crab in Kinosaki. And nothing additional was needed. It was the some of the sweetest meat I’ve ever tasted.
Sushi Feast at Kyubey
We knew Tokyo was the place to try world-class sushi, so almost immediately upon our arrival we started doing research on the best places we might be able to get in. We settled on Kyubey, a short walk from our hotel in Ginza, and were not disappointed.
While in most sushi restaurants in the US you are served one or several large rolls of sushi at a time, at Kyubey (and every other sushi place we went to in Japan) you sit at the bar and watch the chef as he prepares one piece at a time. The skill with which he cut and prepared the food was fascinating. The entire experience felt much more like a dinner show than simply a fancy meal.
We wound up in Kyubey for nearly an hour and a half (that’s a very long dinner by Japanese standards), and feasted on nigiri, maki, and sashimi, as well as courses of pregnant squid (pictured in the gallery above), and grilled fish. The highlight of the meal was probably when the chef presented us with two giant prawns… that were still alive. He killed them, skinned them, and then served them within three minutes and right in front of us. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.
Sweet Crepes at Takeshita-dori
We noticed crepe stalls on nearly every block of the pop-culture bazaar that is Takeshita-dori. In front of every one stood long lines of locals waiting for a sweet treat. These crepes were filled with just about any sweet item you can think of – from creams and sauces of all types, to every fruit at the market, to cookies or even cheesecake – then rolled a bit like a bursting burrito and served with lots of napkins. We got ours with ice cream, strawberries, and chocolate sauce. It may not have been Japanese in the sense that it did not originate in the country, but it was clear the locals loved it – and so did we.
Yakitori in Kyoto
After a particularly long day of sightseeing, we found ourselves too exhausted to tackle the challenge of dinner on our own. So we appealed to the lady at the front desk of our hotel for suggestions. She sweetly recommended a yakitori place nearby, and even phoned the restaurant ahead to let us know we were coming.
When we arrived, the waiter smiled at us widely and said “hotel?” He worked very hard to work with our poor language skills and served us a delicious meal of many different types of chicken skewers. We found this meal to be much heartier than many of the rice and noodle-based staples of Japanese cuisines, and loved it all the more for that.
Like we were going to travel halfway around the world and not try it? We actually made a special day-trip to Kobe just to sample their famous meat. Much like the sushi, it was prepared on a grill at a bar directly in front of us. While it still didn’t come cheap, it was less expensive than trying it anywhere else – and yes, the beef really does melt in your mouth.
And then there were the failures…
I was actually surprised how much food in Japan I was unable to stomach. I’ve always been a very good eater, and have rarely felt picky before. But towards the end of the trip, the often slimy textures and salty tastes really started to get to me. Japanese breakfasts were particularly difficult for me to get used to, as I just couldn’t handle the strong tasting fishes often served in the morning.
Pictured in the gallery above is a box of Takoyaki we tried at a temple market. These balls were made up of octopus and batter, and the combination of the chewy octopus and slimy batter was just a little much for me to handle. I can’t tell you exactly what the other confection is in the gallery, just that it was served to us as part of our second dinner in Kinosaki. It is literally the only food in my entire life that has grossed me out based on looks alone. It was the only thing in Japan I didn’t at least try.
While (almost) everything listed above was incredible, I’m saving my favorite meal for a ‘best of’ post that will make its way onto this blog shortly. In the meantime, anyone out there have a favorite Japanese eat?