Travel opens up the world for us, introducing us to new cultures, and allowing us to marvel at the metropolises of man. It also allows us to eat new foods, as much food as possible and as frequently as possible, preferably every few hours.
A recent trip to NYC saw Carl and I eating two dinners in one night. First a hole-in-the wall taqueria for some carne asada and tecate prior to going on a self-guided literary pub crawl, followed by an excessive midnight snack at Minetta Tavern for one of the most sought after (and expensive) burgers in the city. I feel a bit gluttonous thinking of instances like these, but then I remind myself that when traveling you’re on your feet all day, so you’ve earned the right to gorge yourself stupid.
Tokyo alone has more Michelin stars than New York and Paris combined, so upon arriving in Japan I knew not only would I eat at new restaurants, I would eat foods I’d never even heard of before and it would be amazing. Since this eating extravaganza I’ve been busily drawing, and have created a gallery to commemorate some of my favorite finds, and some of the country’s most popular dishes. A few entries like sushi and ramen aren’t news to anyone, but most entries you’re likely to stumble upon as you’re wandering through Japan, and I say go for it. You’ll thank me later.
Wagyu Beef: Wagyu is serious business. The Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) will score each cow’s meat on several levels: the yield of meat will grade A-C, and the color, firmness, and amount of fat marbling will score from 1-5, making A5 the highest possible score. “A” meaning the cow’s meat yield is above average, and “5” meaning the beef must be at least 25% marbled fat, decadent as can be. Just for some perspective, the USDA has eight total quality grades, the last three being “utility” beef used in processed foods like hotdogs and dog food.
Bambina in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood served us a plate of tissue thin wagyu, served alongside tomatoes and the pillowiest, fluffiest, egg meringue for dipping. I’d eat this again no hesitation, but we also ordered the beef charcuterie which I’d give a hard-pass to in the future. Since the meat is so gloriously fatty, eating it cold cooked was like eating a stick of butter. A side of citrus butter dipping sauce with the charcuterie didn’t help either.
Sushi: The most famous of the country’s cuisines and one you can find in almost any city outside of Japan, I expected to eat the freshest and most memorable raw fish I’d ever had here. Sadly, this was not to be. We had two sushi meals in Japan, neither of them reaching the stellar barometer as I’d hoped. If anyone has sushi-shaped saucers in their eyes going into Tokyo, I’d highly recommend doing some research on the city’s best sushi houses, making a reservation, and planning on shelling out some big bucks, cause the chances of just stumbling upon some life changing sushi is unlikely.
That’s not to say the experience wasn’t worth it though; I was able to try some sushi styles I’d never had before. Ikura sushi (fish roe), I’ve come to love. The eggs are the size of a pencil eraser, each individual egg exploding with salty and buttery juices. I could eat an entire meal of ikura alone, or maybe topped on rice or toast. On the other side of the sushi spectrum for me is uni sushi (sea urchin). Uni is creamy, briny, and though a delicacy to some, was incredibly off putting to me. It could be that I just ate some low quality uni and have yet to discover it’s potential, but after trialing the stuff several times I think I may be off urchin for a bit. Also, uni is the urchin’s gonads, making me even less likely to seek it out in the future.
Tempura Udon: There’s already a lot to love about udon. Thick noodles in a salty broth: delicious. Thick noodles in a salty broth topped with battered and fried seafood: even better.
Famished after the Meiji Shrine we ducked into a crowded udon restaurant. With no English menu available we relied on Google translate to guide us through the Japanese characters, making sure to avoid what Google translated as “Racoon Dog”. Though the app did have a few blunders, it’s importance cannot be underestimated while traveling abroad; especially since it helped me to order a curry tempura udon. I know lunch isn’t a competition, but I was still the winner that day.
Fun curry side note: Introduced by the British during the Meiji era when India was under colonial rule, curry is widely found throughout the country. If you ever find yourself in Japan craving an interesting rendition of the classic dish, I’d highly recommend “curry bread”, which is deep fried dough stuffed with curry. A “curry donut” if you will.
Tamago Kake Gohan: A straightforward breakfast dish of cooked rice topped with a raw egg. Don’t let the simplicity fool you though; it may be made of the most basic ingredients, but with a little soy sauce it feels oddly decadent. Mixed together it’s creamy, carby, and salty, a combination I found myself craving in the mornings after its introduction to me in Kyoto. This newfound yearning for raw egg surprised me, as just years ago I would have found the notion repellent; however, when you’re wondering how to mix up your morning food routine, consider just putting an egg on it.
Ramen: Carl loves ramen, and I love Carl, so it was only inevitable that we’d find ourselves eating this more than once. While not the most unusual dish, the means of obtaining some of our ramen were rather unusual. For instance, I’ve never ordered a hot meal from a machine.
Shimokitazawa, the ridiculously trendy neighborhood run by attractive hipsters, sold us ramen via a vending machine. The process of ordering is simple. Find a ramen machine, click the respective buttons per your ramen preferences (Oil base or salt base? Tender noodle or firm?), insert money, then machine prints ticket. Actual human interaction only takes place when you hand your ticket over and your ramen is brought you. It’s almost eerie how silent this process is, but I love food and hate interaction with strangers; this obviously worked quite well for me.
Okonomiyaki: Immediately upon landing in Tokyo we were interviewed by a Japanese camera crew. No exaggeration. In the airport we were stopped by a suited man and asked a series of mundane questions, translated by a young woman at his side. Cameras were in our faces as we answered the ever-so-interesting question of “What are you most excited to do here?”. Answer: “Eat”. Next Question: “Eat what?”. Answer: “Okonomiyaki”. Our answer pleased him, and he made us promise to go to Osaka and eat the city’s famed okonomiyaki. We promised, but we would have promised to donate our kidneys to him if it meant getting the friggin’ mic out of our faces after a 13 hour plane ride.
I’d only ever had this dish once before, but eating it mattered to me. A savory pancake filled with anything you want, a pancake that will make you scoff at breakfast pancakes forevermore. Our okonomiyaki restaurant of choice was a former geisha house, snuggled in between an otherwise modern street chock full of love hotels. A true relic of the past with sliding doors and tatami mats, intimate and whimsical, foreign yet homey. None of the staff spoke English, but our server was unbelievably accommodating, treating us like guests in his home. Hosting us, not just serving us.
After ordering, the okonomiyaki ingredients were brought to the table for cooking (the table’s surface was a grill). Carl and our host stirred together bowls full of batter, seafood, beef, cabbage and onion, then dumped out the contents as we watched the contents fry. The result was pure magic. We ate some amazing eats abroad, possibly even some tastier eats, but no dining experience came close to cooking pancakes in an old geisha house, shoes off while eating.
Hoba Miso: One of the more foreign dishes to us — hoba miso — is food (usually meat or leeks) grilled with miso paste on a magnolia leaf then served alongside rice. Takayama is famous for this dish, and like several other meals in Japan the ingredients were brought to our table uncooked, to be grilled in front of us on a small clay stove called a shichirin. Our version was leek based, crunchy morsels swimming in a salty-sweet miso paste. Steaming hot and truly unique in flavor, I’d like to thank our Shirakawa-go tourguide Orito for insisting that we not leave the region without ordering this dish. So Orito, wherever you are, my stomach thanks you for this experience.
Cremia: Now I know Cremia isn’t a traditional choice, or one that you’ll find in the tiniest of towns, but this isn’t just a soft serve. It’s too smooth and too creamy to fall into that roadside drive-through category. The flavor is like the freshest egg whites combined with the freshest cream, twisted into a buttery and flakey cone. We came to Cremia in Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku neighborhood on a Friday night, and immediately knew it would be good based on the line of stylish and drunk kids lined up outside. Did not disappoint. My second trip to this stuff happened on arguably my least favorite day of our whole Japan trip.
Kyoto’s Gion, the former Geisha district, is one of the most tourist filled areas of the city due to its romanticized past. Gion’s streets were also the most congested I’ve seen in Japan; jammed entirely with westerners filtering in and out of junk shops that lined the once historic streets, and Japanese tourists wearing rented kimonos and wobbling in geta shoes they’d clearly never donned, stumbling and tripping in the wooden footware. After a three block walk taking 20+ minutes due to the crowds, we made an emergency Cremia stop. Well, a knock-off Cremia, as the frozen treat wasn’t as good as the real thing, but it was still better than any soft serve I’d had in the states. It had that same egg whitey flavor that I’d loved, and was enough to save me from my claustrophobic anxieties. A cone that can temporarily save you. No better dessert than that.