Japanese cuisine offers so much more than your popular sushi and ramen…And almost half the fun in Japan is trying out its various cuisines – burst of flavors and ridiculously pretty presentation! But first, let’s start with some basic etiquette, shall we?
- On entering a restaurant, you are likely to be greeted with a hearty bow and calls of irashaimase (welcome!), signal the number of people and you will be seated promptly if there is space
- You are then handed a hot towel to wipe your hands and face; place the towel (neatly folded) on the side when you’re done (since you may use your hands for sushi and some quick bites, it helps to wipe your fingers as you eat)
- When eating with chopsticks, do not stick them upright in your bowl, and never poke your food. Place the chopsticks parallel to your plate in front of you
- Do not mix your food with the rice (including soy sauce), this is to be eaten separately to balance the strong flavors of the protein, and believe me the Japanese rice tastes so good
- Remember…there is no tipping in Japan, and tea is usually free of charge
- And while most places accept card, cash is still king! [you may get JPY at any of the seven eleven stores]
Ok, so now what shall we eat?
Our top eats:
The best place to sample this fresh fare is at the Tokyo fish market; Tsukiji (read more in this post)
We had the donburi bowl for lunch and the fatty toro was melt-in-your-mouth delicious! Savor the sushi/sashimi with a cup of green tea, and don’t be afraid to pick up the sushi with your hands. Lightly dip the fish side in the soy sauce (never the rice) and enjoy! 🙂
The Japanese word for freshwater Eel, you must try this grilled (and expensive) delicacy served over rice! My personal favorite, the smokiness and umami flavors are so balanced against the fishiness of the eel. Restaurants generally specialize in unagi, as cooking this is akin to an art form; gently cooked over hot coals and brushed with a sweetened sauce. We sampled this in one of the unagi restaurants in the food court of a mall in Shibuya (Tokyo).
Kaiseke is a traditional multi course Japanese dinner, and is almost a meditative art form in its presentation. Considered the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine, this is more of an immersive experience; fresh ingredients (seasonal), hours of preparation, beautiful presentation and the overall traditional setting in a Ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurant). Served in delicate dish-ware, this is a feast for all senses and comes at a steep price tag! (upwards of JPY 10,000 pp)
A Kaiseke meal generally requires reservation (24 hours minimum) and you can ask the hotel/Ryokan for recommendations. Prepare to spend a couple of hours over dinner, and the meal should never be rushed. Also, we guarantee that you will be full by the end of it!
I was lucky enough to sample this twice, once over a work hosted dinner (Tokyo) and another during our detour to Kyoto, considered the home of the Kaiseke cuisine!
The Kyoto meal also featured the famous Kobe beef of Japan that you simply must try! (restaurant Shunai Sasaki)
Kushiage is the Japanese cuisine of deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables. This often includes the seasonal vegetables (there were several that are unique to the region) and a variety of meats and seafood, with both sweet and tangy sauce(s). I sampled this in one of Tokyo’s finest restaurants in the historic Ueno area called Hantei, housed in a beautifully restored century old traditional wooden home. They offer you rounds of skewers with incredible side dishes until you say stop!
And while we’re on the topic of fried, tonkatsu is a deep-fried pork cutlet (also offered in chicken) served with a special sweetened sauce and shredded cabbage. Unlike kushiage, this is typically cheaper (upwards of JPY 1100) and is a popular choice for lunch or a quick dinner. Personally, my favorite is the pork but the hubs likes the Chicken – so take your pick! 🙂 We had this for lunch in Tokyo:
More of the fried you say? tempura is the Japanese form of fried fish, shrimp and vegetables in a very light batter that results in a supremely crispy and fluffy texture – like that’s even possible? yep, one word – Tempura.
Try this at one of the specialized tempura restaurants where you can get boxed lunches with daikon (japanese radish), sliced onions and a light sauce to dip each piece. Yumm!
We had this is Kyoto, located in the Isetan mall (entrance also in Kyoto station) called Tenichi Kyoto Isetan
So this one the Japanese imported from China (gotta give credit when credit is due ;)) BUT they put their own flavors in the mix, and I have to say – this must be our favorite soul food!
Think BIG bowls of noodles (you can get soft, firm or extra firm; wavy or straight) in a fatty meat broth (also offered in soy vegetable broth for those veggie lovers). Don’t forget the Gyoza (pan-fried dumplings) or deep-fried chicken wings (yes, fried!) as an accompaniment!
We scoped out the best Ramen places in Kyoto; home of the famous Ippudo Ramen and our new fave, Kyoto Gogyu (burnt soy sauce ramen)
Izakaya is the Japanese equivalent of “bar food” or better known as pub-eatery. They offer cheap and quick eats with glasses of Japanese beer, sake, or soju. Generally, you’ll also find the yakitori (skewers of grilled chicken and vegetables) food here as well.
Very popular with the office workers (salary men) that generally work late (read close to 11pm) and grab a drink or a bite before they head home. I joined my colleagues for a drink in Tokyo’s Izakaya “under the railway tracks” – rows of tiny hole-in-the-wall joints with people downing glasses of beer, and animated venting sessions (re: work) to blow off some steam! 😉
I got the soju and freshly squeezed grapefruit, with picked eggplant, fried tofu and meat at the Andy’s Shin Hinomoto!
Japanese desserts generally feature the red azuki bean flavors, or the green tea/ matcha flavors with a pounded sticky rice base called mochi. This is the traditional dessert you can find in Kyoto, known as Wagashi. These traditional desserts are beautifully molded and come in gorgeous presentation boxes, making it almost impossible to eat!
In Tokyo, we sampled the Japanese take on western desserts, fluffy crepes and cakes baked to perfection, right amount of sweetness and fresh fruits galore!
Also, don’t forget to stop by one of the department stores (Depato) and pick up from the loads of boxed goodies for your trip back home. The department stores carry the widest (and prettiest) selection of gourmet foods, both savory and sweet. These make excellent gifts and also a great reminder of this incredible culinary journey! ❤
We won’t forget the fluffy buttered toast and eggs that can only be found in Japan, with a side of the french press coffee – always a great start to any day 🙂
And also the different fast food items – burger w/ green tea fanta, anyone? 🙂
Hope you enjoyed reading! xo