Let’s head back to Japan for a moment, to talk about one of the highlights of the trip… the food!
From sushi and shabu shabu to ramen and yakitori, our must-eat list was a mile long. Plus, if you add the coffee and craft beer haunts, our sustenance-themed itinerary was pretty aggressive.
While we did manage to eat some amazing things, I will say that from a culinary perspective alone (nothing else!), visiting Japan over the New Years period was a little disappointing. In the Japanese culture, the New Year holiday (or Shogatsu) is a time to spend time with family, embark on your first visit to a shrine (Hatsumode), and take time off work. In Tokyo, this meant that many of the restaurants were closed for the entirety of our visit, so we missed out on most of the recommendations we’d gotten from friends who had been to Japan before. This was by no means a deal breaker, but a little upsetting to me. It just means we need to go back!
I also found the reservation system frustrating, as many restaurants require pre-paid bookings to secure a table. I’m a planner, but do like some flexibility on holiday (you never know what you’re going to run into!) so I didn’t commit to any reservations with a cost attached.
If you want to plan your trip around the food (which we may do next time!), I highly recommend securing at least couple bookings in advance. In our experience, the hotel concierges weren’t very helpful in this space, so just suck up the international calling fees and hope you get an English speaker on the other line!
Here are some of the notable (and mostly amazing!) food experiences we had!
Brett and I discovered Shabu Shabu in San Francisco – the city that instantly converted us into food snobs in our early twenties. We were proud semi-regulars at Happy Shabu Shabu, and took advantage of the all-you-can-eat deals with our equally as poor friends for many a birthday party or random food-centric get-together. Since moving to Chicago and now Auckland, Shabu is a very rare (yes, that’s a food pun) find, so we wanted to eat it as many times as possible in Japan. What’s more satisfying than watching high-quality thinly-sliced beef turn from pink to edible in a simmering pot of broth? Plus pulling out the noodles and various veggies to slurp away at… noms.
After our late-arriving flight, our first night in Tokyo took us to a family-style restaurant where Shabu Shabu happened to be on the menu. Of course we ignored everything else in favour of the hot-pot option, but as it wasn’t their specialty, we were excited for round two.
(Note the traditional seating and lockers for your shoes! There was also an umbrella locker. Japan, you rock.)
Round two was in Shinjuku at one of the many (maybe 10?) Nabe-zo chains. Seriously, there are so many of these that we actually went to the wrong one. But luckily, one we arrived at the correct restaurant 30 minutes late for our booking, they still honoured it and led us to the bubbling brothy goodness right away.
I can’t believe we lasted four days in Tokyo without anything slightly resembling Ramen. What a mistake. We made up for it in Kyoto, getting dinner and a show at the super-famous Fire Ramen. We actually waited in queue for 40 minutes for this noodle heaven. It was a bit touristy, but worth the near frostbite as the flames quickly warmed (read: almost burned off) our faces, and our fingers thawed around our steaming bowls.
Head to @peaksandhops on Instagram to see our reaction as our bowls were literally lit on fire.
Give us all the wagyu beef. YUM. We were super lucky to have two very luxe Teppanyaki experiences – one in Hakone (bonus that we got to wear traditional clothes) and again for our last dinner in Kyoto at Hanasato Gion in the Geisha district.
Far from the “Japanese Steakhouses” in the US or NZ, the real deal chefs don’t make onion volcanos, crack egg roll jokes, or throw shrimp into your mouth (or should I say shirt, more likely). The real treat in Japan is watching the precision in which they slice their high-quality ingredients, explaining the exact region the beef hails from. I mean look at this presentation….
Brett and I had a the most fun date night out in the hip Roppongi district – all centred around when we could get into the ever-popular Joumon izakaya. After slipping out of your shoes, you’re seated at a low stool along the counter perimeter of the grill – the perfect perch to observe the careful preparation of your skewers. And if you’ve made a booking (highly recommend) you’ll be welcomed by this cute note.
Anything you desire, they have in stick form. We ordered a little bit of everything – from zucchini to oozing cheese to chicken and several forms of beef. Brett was even brave enough to try the local delicacy, beef tongue, but can’t say he really enjoyed it.
Obviously we defaulted to Asahi Dry to accompany most meals. But as hunting down craft beer spots is our hobby, we had to taste some of the more rare hoppy delicacies Japan was pouring. Joumon was right around the corner from the BrewDog taphouse, so we had to have some Scottish beer too. We hit up Goodbeer Faucets in Shibuya (Tokyo), plus Craft Man and Bungalow Teramachi in Kyoto.
Green tea ice cream
Oh yum. All the street food vendors will have it. Just try it. Several times. Highly recommend the vanilla swirl option.
We were super excited to get our Blue Bottle coffee fix in Akihabara. We used to be regulars in San Francisco, and I couldn’t wait to sip a New Orleans style iced coffee. We also had to try % Arabica in Kyoto – highly recommend.
But the most unique coffee experience in Japan is definitely the vending machines! The number of combinations is endless, and it sings you a chirpy little song as the robot prepares your brew. We still can’t get the tune out of our heads thanks to the video we took of the process.
I wish I didn’t have to own up to this, but these two sushi fiends didn’t really get our fix. We had sides of sushi at other restaurants, and when we finally were able to go to a dedicated sushi spot in Nara, we had high expectations for the city’s delicacy, Persimmon Leaf Sushi at Tanaka. But the fact it’s made with mackerel (super strong fish, which I didn’t know!) I couldn’t stomach it. We missed our opportunity to explore the fish market in Tokyo because of Christmas closures – just means we’ll have to go back!
We were so desperate for more sushi that we drove straight to &Sushi from the Auckland airport.
Street food is a big deal, especially near the popular shrines. We dabbled – Brett had some chicken on a stick, I had grilled corn (also on a stick) and we couldn’t skip the “authentic” Pizza Dumplings, which were surprisingly delicious. The strange thing about the street food culture is that it’s considered rude to eat on the streets – something that still baffles me. Just make sure you wait to chow down until you’re in the designated awning areas.
Shinjuku’s tiny bars and restaurants
Come hungry to Tokyo’s Shinjuku area and explore the mazes of tiny alleyways home to even tinier bars and restaurants. Omoide Yokocho has tons of little grill stalls, old school carts and izakayas with just a few seats. The smoky smell alone will make your mouth water.
And just nearby is Golden Gai. A series of the littlest themed bars you’ve ever seen. Some are specifically for travelers, while others are locals-only. Just wander in to any you feel like – the bartender will certainly let you know if you’re not welcome!
And I couldn’t end this blog without talking about the crazy amount of themed restaurants in Tokyo. From Robots to Ninjas, theres a dining experience that involves a show. Just remember that most of these spots are much more about the over-the-top experience vs. the food. Robot Restaurant is apparently worth the hype, but it was closed the entire time we were in Tokyo. We tried the overly cute Kawaii Monster Cafe, which was an experience like no other, but the food was nearly inedible.
Are you full yet? We can’t wait to go back to Japan just to fill our bellies with more sushi, ramen and yakitori!