Japanese cuisine is so much more than just sushi! From bee larvae to horse intestines I really made the most of my 5 weeks in Japan this summer to try as much delicious and crazy food as I possibly could. It was 10 months ago that I wrote this post getting extremely excited about booking my trip to my dream destination and today, finally, I’d like to share with you some of my most memorable food experiences in this amazing country.
I spent 10 days in the capital at the start of my trip staying in Nui hostel which had such a great bar downstairs that it was tempting never to leave. It was a friendly buzzing place where the local people and travellers could mix.
Unfortunately with the eight hour time difference I was pretty jet lagged for my first few days and so began my obsession with iced coffee:
Iced coffee is simply not a phenomenon here in the UK yet, but in Japan they love it .Coffee boss became my go to pick me up (yes it was the rainbow mafia styling). The caffeine and heaps of added sugar fuelled me on my way.
Coffee in hand I explored the city mainly on foot and one of the most important food spots to try for me was Tsukiji fish market. This market is one of the biggest in the world, I arrived after closing but forklift trucks were still whizzing and beeping around the square. Desperate for a taste of the freshest fish in Japan I made my way to the small eateries surrounding the market area. All of them had queues snaking outside and no wonder because they only seated about 8 people at a time.
After queuing patiently I finally entered the tiny restaurant, you can see by the pictures that decoration was pretty basic but I was treated to the freshest fish I had ever eaten.
This was my choice. A sushi bowl with Ikura (salmon eggs), sea urchin, salmon, crayfish claw and scallops served with tea. The salmon literally melted away on my tongue it was so good! I had never tried sea urchin before but it did not disappoint bringing a fresh flavour of the sea to the dish. Due to the queues outside turn around was quick in the restaurant and I had soon gobbled up all the glistening fish and sticky rice. Leaving the restaurant I couldn’t help but envy those people still queuing, yet to even start their meal.
Tokyo is a city of department stores, the food halls are usually found in the basement and they are just so much better than any I have ever experienced before. They sell E-V-E-R-Y-THING from beautiful sushi sets to, sizzling hot tempura, giant deli salad bars and marinaded fish and tofu. Honestly it was a fest for the eyes, I probably spent about half of my whole trip just walking around these foodie heavens.
In Roppongi hills which is one of the more upmarket areas of Tokyo i found a fruit shop. This shop sold the most perfect fruits. Gigantic rosy apples, perfectly round purple grapes almost the size of golf balls and the infamous square watermelon for the bargain price of $160
Fruit is often given as an expensive gift in Japan and throughout my trip I would see many examples of these mega fruits. I even bought a giant apple in Okinawa which pretty much substituted an entire meal. One of my favourite places in Tokyo and a must see for food lovers was Ueno market. This was a bustling place of stall holders calling out about strange goods, all sorts of dried seaweeds and squids. Huge bowls of my favourite ikura and any type of tea you could wish for.
It was in Ueno that i started to notice the distinct style of Japanese restaurants. In the West we are used to very large restaurants, inviting branding and colourful menus. In Japan however most restaurants are a lot more subtle. Below is a picture of a typical restaurant facade.it’s all very zen and minimalist – as you can imagine a little bit intimidating for a tourist!
My favourite place in Tokyo was the grand palace gardens, it is an oasis of green nestled amongst some of the most strikingly modern architecture in the city. It was a blazing hot day and after walking through the gorgeous grounds I settled in a silent tranquil teahouse over looking the lake.
It felt like you were floating on the water and it was so peaceful. I was served a traditional Japanese rice sweet and some much needed ice cold frothy matcha tea.
I became a bit obsessed with matcha, it tastes a bit like a normal green tea but with out the bitterness, I also appreciated the much less traditional but equally delicious Starbucks version.
One more mention before I move on from Tokyo is their sweets. unlike anything you could find in Europe they are frequently produced using sticky sweet rice starches. I had this super cute chocolate panda filled with a mango mousse.
From the bright lights and busy streets of Tokyo I headed on a plane down to Okinawa, a group of tropical islands to the South. This was a completely different Japan with some very Hawaiian vibes. The islands were barely touched with centres of thick tropical forest bordered by white sand beaches.
The hostel owner was super friendly and after a one night of traditional Okinawan liquor,tequila and karaoke I was feeling a little worse for wear.Wandering around the streets of Naha i climbed a couple of floors to a tiny restaurant. I ordered the daily special and was presented with this beautiful dish
Now i’m going to be honest here,I pretty much have no idea what any of this is. However it was probably the best hot meal I had in Japan. The owners did not speak english so I had no help to deciper. However my best guess is that the rice is topped with traditional Okinawan bitter melon, also called goya . It tasted amazing, almost like it had cheese in it but with delicious flavours a bit like juicy minced pork, I think it had pork in? It was so good. To the right is some sort of vegetable omelette topped with a pink sauce that was tangy and sharp. At the top I think an egg and potato salad and some pickles. It was just amazing it all worked together so well in a savoury delight.
From a highlight to a food low, Okinawa was also where i ate me least favourite food. May I present to you: cold soba noodles with a raw egg, spring onions and wall paper paste potato gloop…
Japan, I like to think of myself as open minded with food but this really was awful !
After my stint in the tropical sun I was headed to volunteer on an organic farm, living with a Japanese family in the countryside. It was a really fantastic experience, working all day weeding rice paddies and egoma fields by hand we worked up a very large appetite.
Sami-san, the mother of the family cooked us three meals a day. Since they are largely self sufficient we had delicious home grown vegetables and local tofu much of the time. We were also treated to bee larvae (a delicacy apparently), freshly caught deer steak and horse intestine which were all much appreciated and very tasty.The highlight for me though was watching Tacao-san (the owner of the farm) slaughter 12 chickens and provide us with a feast of Sasami. Sasami, can be very expensive, it is a Japanese delicacy and is essentially raw chicken.
Here is the spread that was laid on, raw: breast fillet, liver., heart and stomach with carrot topper fritters and noodles in a dashi broth. Of course normally I am very conscious of the dangers of raw chicken so getting over this mental hurdle was a bit tricky . However the sasami was honestly delicious. The breast was sliced into thin strips and tasted similar to a very fresh tuna sashimi. The liver tasted just like pate, the stomach and heart were a little less to my taste but it was a meal I will never forget.
After working on the farm I headed towards Kyoto and took a day trip to Nara, which has a park is full of beautiful semi-tame deer
Now where would a post on Japanese cuisine be without sushi? I definitely had my fair share of the stuff whilst in Japan but the most beautifully presented was in Nara, the tradition here is to wrap the mackerel sushi in a leaf and it was served with ice cold noodles and tofu.
Back in Kyoto after a day of geisha spotting I had my first taste of Okonomyaki which is a Japanese savoury pancake stuffed with sweet, salty and scrumptious fillings. The exact make-up differes by region, this is the issen-yosyoku kyoto style okonomyaki. Unfortunately not as pretty as my sushi meal but definitely packed in the taste:
It contained: green onion, egg, dried shrimp, grilled fish paste, dried bonito, beef, ginger, konjak jelly, dried seaweed and a “Japanease sauce” not ashamed to say I ate it all with about 5 minutes and returned the next day for another.
Finally i headed to Osaka, a lively city of nightlife, fast food and a bit of the seedier side of Japanese culture. However they are seriously big on food. Just check out some of the street signs:
Osaka is most famous for its takoyaki, these are fried batter balls with a piece of octopus in the centre, i picked up a batch and sat on a bench watching the hostess girls trying to pick up men on their way home from the office. The balls were boiling hot but had a great smokey taste.
As if I wasnt stuffed already I had to have one more okonomiyaki before leaving Japan, this time Osaka style
God it was good.
Now that concludes my food tour of Japan, so much that I have missed out because of sheer space but these were the highlights for sure. What an amazing country full of beautiful friendly people, where you can find bold fast food and subtle delicacies. I had such a fantastic time and having only really explored the centre i cant wait to return and pick up where i left off. Still on my list to try : , horse steak, shabu shabu and the potentially life threatening pufferfish!