Shortly after I went on, er… ‘hiatus’ in 2011, I travelled to Japan to visit my brother who’s been working there for a good three years now at least (I’ll have to check up on him with that, it’s been so long!). It was a two week trip that was unfortunately punctuated by the Tōhoku earthquake but luckily we ended up being nowhere near some of the worst affected areas. I went there with grand plans to use the experience as a means to kick start myself into writing again by giving an in depth look at all of the different foods I’d be trying. Obviously, that never happened. Sorry everyone!
So, to make it up to you, here’s a very belated and condensed summary of places I went to and foods I tried. Japanese cuisine is one of my absolute favourites, so to say that I went there with tunnel vision is a bit of an understatement! I didn’t get to eat everything I wanted but in a country where delicious food is available on pretty much every street you wander down, it’s a fairly minor complaint to come out with.
First stop was Kyoto, featuring a nearly three kilometre walk along Teramachi Dori and the surrounding market streets. Here you’ll find anything from seafood to hand crafted kitchen wares and a rake of Japanese fast food stalls. The variety is incredible, and every stall is in some way unique from the next.
Fried kamaboko (kind of a seafood paste), Kyoto
Plastic/wax food displays outside of most restaurants, Kyoto
Dorayaki pancake machine in Teramachi Dori, Kyoto
Food display, a bit more cute this time! Kyoto
Octopus stuffed with a boiled quail egg on a stick (I'm sure there's a name for it), Kyoto
Kyoto is also famed for the diversity of its food, and it was here I probably tried the biggest range of dishes, from unagi to conveyor sushi and mitarashi dango. The city has such an amazing, old world feel to it, and restaurants are hidden in literally every nook and cranny; half the time it’s impossible to tell what might and might not be one!
Bamboo shoot kushiyaki with yam jelly, Kyoto
Musashi Sushi moving window display, Kyoto
Tuna tartare gunkanmaki in Mushashi Sushi, Kyoto
Mitarashi dango (grilled rice dumplings in a sweet soy sauce) Kyoto
Matcha green tea with rakugan at Kinkaku-ji Tea House
Tamagoyaki (omelette) over unagi and rice at Kaneyo, Kyoto
On a side note, If you haven’t ever had the pleasure of trying katsu curry yet, I urge you to check out your nearest Japanese restaurant and fix that problem. It’s the perfect blend of crispiness and juiciness, which when mixed with Japanese curry and rice becomes the most amazing comfort food. It’s quite probably my favourite dish, so no prizes for guessing which kind of restaurant I was on the lookout for. As luck would have it, our first hostel was a few steps up the road from a little placed called Café Curry Sakakura. Jackpot. For whatever reason, I didn’t take many pictures there but the menu alone just goes to show that if there’s any kind of meat or veg you like, chances are you’ll be able to get it fried up and served with curry.
Katsu curry everything!
The next major city we visited was Osaka. Known as the ‘nation’s kitchen’, it’s home to one of Japan’s most distinctive street foods, takoyaki. We’d already tried some in Kyoto so regrettably I passed up the chance while I was there, but I did instead try some fugu, the notorious puffer fish. This was in Zuboraya, one of many specialist fugu restaurants you’d find in Dōtonbori; the neon lit, night crawling central neighbourhood where eating, drinking, shopping and tourism all come together. If I’d had the money or the time, I probably would have ended up trying every single one of the restaurants there but as it happens, we could only spend a couple of hours exploring. Maybe next time!
Takoyaki street vendor, Osaka
Fugu shabu-shabu in Zuboraya, Osaka
And then came Tokyo. Halfway through our time there, Japan was hit by the Tōhoku earthquake so the city slowed down considerably in the aftermath. Nonetheless, we still got to eat in one or two izakayas, ramen joints and of course, a katsu curry restaurant. It was actually just as we finished having a lunch that the earthquake happened! And even though we had to high tail it outside into the street, we didn’t forget to go back and pay the bill.
Yet more ramen, Tokyo
Last but definitely not least, the highlight of the trip for me was Tsukiji Fish Market. I wasn’t so dedicated that I got up at three in the morning to see the tuna auctions, but I did arrive early enough to experience its legendary organised chaos. Afterwards, we did the only thing one should do; had a sushi breakfast in a nearby restaurant called Tsukiji Sushi Sen. It was the first time I’d ever tasted sea urchin and I only wish it were easier to find in restaurants on this side of the world because it was every bit as delicious as I’d been told. Definitely not your traditional breakfast, but it ranks up there amongst the best I’ve ever had.
Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo
Sushi platter at Tsukiji Sushi Sen, Tokyo