So, we went to Japan.
K’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary (50 years!!!) and took the entire family on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the land where their ancestors came from. We were a ragtag group of four adults, two kids (ages 8 and 12) and two seniors over age 70 and the weather was wicked hot and humid, but we trekked through one of the planet’s most crowded cities to see museums, temples, historic sites, shopping and, most importantly, to eat.
I’ll save the rest of the adventures for another space and just focus on the food.
For us, the journey to Tokyo entailed an 11 hour plane trip with a 14 hour (ahead) time difference. That meant we were stupid tired upon our arrival and as we stumbled around the area surrounding our hotel looking for a place to eat, we quickly realized that finding a restaurant with an English-language menu was going to be a big challenge. Our options were either a nearby TGI Fridays, eating a protein bar in the hotel room or the hotel’s massive food court. We chose food court. But lest you think we were relegated to fast food, this…
…is what “food court” food in Japan looks like. Yes, that is a made-from-scratch okonomiyaki “pancake” with shrimp, veggies and some katsuobushi (dried tuna flakes) on top. There was also a shop featuring carefully crafted takoyaki — fried octopus fritters — and those were damn tasty as well as fascinating to watch being made.
On day one, we toured the Ueno Zoo and the Tokyo National Museum until we were all too starving to continue. We stopped at a local restaurant (the name of which I, regrettably, did not record) where we were instructed to remove our shoes and pad over to our sunken wooden booth. It was steamy outside, so the perfect lunch was, of course, cold soba in broth with a little hot veggie and shrimp tempura action.
Tokyo Tip: If you don’t read Japanese characters and speak Japanese, you will have a more difficult time finding a place to eat. Approximately one in every 25 restaurants has an English menu available, sometimes it’s not evident and you have to ask. Adventurous eaters though we are, we weren’t comfortable simply pointing at characters on a page to order without knowing what it was or how much it cost.
Fortunately, Katsukura (a restaurant specializing in tonkatsu — fried pork cutlets) had an English menu. So we got delicious, crispy, juicy fried pork and crisp cabbage with a special sweet/sour sauce. K ordered pork from a special crossbred pig called a Toen and that little piggy produced the best damn pork any of us have ever eaten.
The next day, we had an ill-fated trip to Mt. Fuji. It was a rough bus tour and the mountain was fogged in so no one could see anything. We did, however, enjoy a traditional Japanese lunch at a hotel near the base of the mountain. Fresh, raw tuna, chicken katsu (fried chicken), shrimp with some wonderful crispy coating and udon made the afternoon a little better.
I also used my mad traveler’s Japanese skillz (plus pantomime) to purchase a pint of Mt. Fuji cherries from a tiny produce shop run by a woman who spoke no English. I *love* cherries and these were unlike any I’ve eaten before — sweet, mild and soft.
Then, the big one. The 50th anniversary celebration dinner. We set the whole family circus down at Robataya in Roppongi for a spectacular supper. The chefs were superb entertainers and masters of their craft. Everything was grilled to perfection and passed over the counter to us using heavy wooden boards that looked a bit like pizza peels.
From left to right, top to bottom:
* A chef passing us our grilled fish that literally melted in our mouths
* Grilled beef skewers that were so rich it was like eating butter (but in the best, meaty way)
* A perfect bite of flash fired tuna
* Marinated mushrooms
* Grilled asparagus
* Succulent eggplant (not at all slimy or bitter — I don’t know how they did it!)
* A fresh grilled giant prawn — so fresh, they caught it from the tank right in front of us
* Grilled abalone
* Crispy grilled rice cake
* Surprise chef selfie I found on my camera
* Fresh pounded mochi (sweet rice flour dessert)
* And a few perfect bites of fruit to round out the meal
The chefs pulled out a photo book of all the celebrities that have dined there and treated our 8-year-old niece just like a princess. In fact, our meal at this restaurant was the highlight of her trip. Highly recommended! As for the price? If you have to ask, you can’t afford it (yeah…that kind of place).
This ^ is Maimon. It was so good (and had an English menu), we went there twice. On the top left is a homemade green pea tofu with one sweet little shrimp. On fire is tuna quickly grilled over straw right at the table. To paraphrase someone marveling over the meal — danger and dinner, together at last. And it was so, so delicious. The freshest fish with a unique smoky flavor. Straw grilling is clearly the way to go. We also had swordfish with a sweet miso caramel, grilled chicken and tuna cooked on a sizzling hot rock with the most delectable leek sauce. Maimon has locations in the U.S., so if you happen across one, we highly recommend you check it out.
Tokyo Tip: If you’re going to Japan and don’t speak Japanese, at the very least learn travelers Japanese. And don’t forget to learn the word for water — “mizu.” You’ll almost always need to ask for it if you want it at a restaurant.
Despite what you may read in guide books, people able to speak more than a few words of English were pretty tough to find, even in the service industry. Learning a few key words and phrases will go a long way in making everyone’s experience easier.
Before we left Minneapolis, John Ng and Lina Goh of Zen Box Izakaya kindly gave us some tips on how to find the best ramen in Tokyo. It just so happened to be across the street from our hotel … tucked under a grey cement parking garage. It took a little persistence to find this “ramen alley,” but are we ever glad we stuck with it! Shodei Keisuke was a small, efficient place with a rock star chef. You ordered from an automated machine in the front, got a ticket, brought it in and in no time, your fantastic ramen was in front of you.
K got a deeply flavored black miso ramen made with seven types of miso and edible bamboo ash. I got a lighter bowl with tender pork and yuzu. No surprise, both were amazing.
We have no idea what the Powerful Meat Fair is, but we were deeply disappointed to miss it.
For our final dinner in Tokyo, we stuck close to our hotel at Wasyoku Sake En. We sat at the kitchen bar to watch the excitement and were delighted by plate after little plate of goodness.
From left to right, top to bottom:
* Fresh, homemade tofu. This was like the silkiest fresh mozzarella or smoothest ricotta you’ve ever had. But it was tofu. This has ruined pre-made tofu for me forever and I would give just about anything to recreate this kind of tofu at home.
* Fresh corn tempura with little corn silk crackers. The crackers were weird at first, but grew on us. And crispy, light little corn fritters — how can you go wrong with that?
* Tuna and avocado
* Japanese sweet potato okonomiyaki
* Chicken meatballs
* Grilled pork. The simplest, most tender pieces of pork perfection ever.
Tokyo Tip: Your hotel room may be small, your beds may be hard as plywood, beer is not always served cold, people can (and do) still smoke in restaurants, the subway/train system will be confusing at first, but you will master it. You will face challenges, but you should absolutely still visit Tokyo. The food is fabulous, the people are friendly, everything runs efficiently, the subway stations play adorable music when the train is ready to leave and you will find amazing adventures around every turn.
Arigato for the memories, Tokyo!