Japan’s culture of cuisine runs deep
Japan is a foodie’s paradise, with countless opportunities for enjoying the local cuisine. photos: Jane Mundy
My big mistake was only staying nine days in Japan, but when a trip is short, you make the most of it. So I arranged a self-guided tour offered by Inside Japan Tours. Why stress when you can be Zen?
Most everything on my culinary bucket list involves a trip to Tokyo, so with that in mind, my customized itinerary included foodie destinations mailed to me in advance — a personalized day-by-day guidebook including a Japan rail pass. No way was I getting stuck with a bunch of strangers on a bus complaining about strange food or weird toilets. Or side trips to the driver’s cousin’s shop for the best deals on carpets.
Instead, there was a sign with my name on it at Narita airport. I breathed a sigh of relief — I would have needed a map just to navigate my way to the minibus that transported me to the Park Hyatt Tokyo.
Yep, I splurged. Ever since watching the movie Lost in Translation, I’ve dreamed of staying there. After checking into this elegant oasis, the mania outside did not beckon. I opened the curtains: lo and behold, there was Mount Fuji, just like in the movies!
I’d read a few good reviews about the hotel’s Japanese restaurant, Kozue. It didn’t disappoint—the finest and freshest local ingredients were served on earthenware works of art. First choice was the sea bream, but my clever server forewarned me: it has big eyes. I chose something less intimidating—perfectly grilled snapper floated on a bed of seaweed. But first, three pieces (any more would be over my daily budget) of chu toro (fatty tuna) accompanied by a little tower of seaweed. With every bite I was rejuvenated.
I sipped a French 75 (champagne and gin) at the New York Bar on the 52nd floor and gazed over lit-up Tokyo. If the drinks weren’t $25 each, I might have stayed longer for Lady Gaga’s impromptu performance — it was all over Twitter the next day. But no time to dally online — my private guide was waiting.
Yuki introduced me to Tokyo’s mind-boggling subway (if I had to navigate my way out I’d still be there). We took the Ginza line to the Asakusa district and Sometaro restaurant, circa 1930. We sat on tatami mats around a low table inset with an electric pan where you make Okonomi-yaki or “as you like it” pancake. I ordered the house favourite, Furusatoten (Yuki said it means “hometown”—this is a working-class, family-style eatery and maybe some customers are homesick). “Besides pork, it has what granny grows in her garden,” Yuki added. “Edible wild plants, cabbage, shiso leaves and Japanese plum.” A squirt of Japanese mayo, soy sauce and a few shakes of nori made the meal complete.
We walked a few blocks to the legendary and labyrinth district of Kappabashi or Kitchen Town, which is to cooking equipment what Tsukiji market is to fish. Apparently some family-run shops here forged steel for samurai swords back in the day. I bought a serious sashimi knife.
This place is great for souvenir shopping, such as lacquered bento boxes and tea sets. And so many stores selling neon plastic food found in restaurant display cases. One specialty shop just sells equipment to make soba noodles, and here is the brush shop (I bought a brush for my keyboard).
You can also get high-quality knives at Tsukiji (pronounced Skee-jee) Market, as well as fish. If it lives in the sea, chances are the creature will wind up here. Fifteen thousand buyers and wholesalers wager for Scottish and Canadian salmon, squirming eels and baskets of alien bivalves.
Tsukiji is a town unto itself — about 60,000 people and thousands of vehicles handle floods of seafood — a traffic cop barely controls the frenzy. Because so many tourists swarmed the market (it was never designed for sightseeing), it was recently deemed dangerous. But if you’re suffering from jet lag and want to watch the auction, go first to the “Fish Information Center” and make a reservation. It starts at 5 a.m., first come first served. And they only accept 120 visitors.
After the fresh fish auction, frozen tuna carcasses weighing up to 200 kg go on the block and then watch master fish carvers at work with their saws and blades.
By 8 a.m. everyone is lining up at the surrounding sushi bars next to eateries filled with workers lunching on pork sandwiches. I downed a honking huge raw oyster at one of many stalls-cum restaurants in the inner market just because it was 6 a.m.
Next up, you’ve got to visit Tokyo’s over-the-top food emporiums in basement department stores. Takashimaya has everything edible, from duvets of custard mousse wrapped in gold leaf to $100 musk melons to the most amazing pickled turnip (free sample, of which there are many).
It seemingly goes on for acres and acres. And you have the too-many-choices (and bank-account-breaking) dilemma: an average food hall carries about 30,000 items. Here is Fauchon (the French gourmet food company), over there are lovely girls flogging Italian brand Dolce grilled tiramisu next to a young Japanese celebrity chef offering slices of foie gras — everyone is here.
It was time to take a break from food.
Harajuku is a pedestrian-only street lined with inexpensive stores selling garish clothing to swarms of teenage girls who look like mobile mannequins dressed as Little Bo Peep walking pigeon-toed.
Although most of the stores on the main strip are tacky and appeal to the under-30 crowd, many bargains in artsy and eclectic shops are found along little side streets. I was shopped out.
I hooked up with my travelling companion and a three-hour ride on the long-nosed bullet train deposited us in Kyoto. Minutes from Kyoto station, the breezy and charming Hyatt Regency Kyoto is perfectly located—next door to the Sanjusangendo Temple and across the street from the Kyoto National Museum (closed Mondays).
And I thought Tokyo was food-crazy. Kyoto elevates food almost to a religion by way of kaiseki cuisine—the ultimate tasting menu. Chefs worldwide come here to study this style of Japanese haute cuisine.
Be prepared to spend several hours and much more yen at a kaiseki restaurant.
The Hyatt steered us in the right direction: we wound through narrow alleys flanked with low-rise cafes and tea rooms — everywhere is hushed — to Sakamoto (seats about 12), where the Michelin-star chef speaks English (his Mom serves, Dad’s in the dishpit.)
We ate fish the size of my thumbnail—and that includes head and tail —in one of the 15 or so courses to come. I devoured the egg of octopus and wisteria flowers. I know that wasting food, particularly in Japan, is a sin but I couldn’t stomach fish-fin tempura and cringed at the sound of bones crunching. My Japanese dining companions ate their plates clean.
Everyone got excited when Mom placed on the table a steaming wooden box balanced on a piece of red-hot charcoal. Bubbling water inside the box contained yuba, or skin of tofu, also called tofu’s “sexy and elegant cousin” and “food of angels”.
Indeed it is: the texture is ethereal. We fished out sheets of yuba, wrapped them around chopsticks (it’s a talent) and dipped them in a sauce of soy, mirin and fresh wasabi.
The second-last course was rice (always) with smoked whitefish, seaweed and microscopic baby eggplant and lastly, citrus fruits: kaiseki only uses fresh seasonal ingredients. And so to bed.
Next morning I met Sumie, my guide for the day, again arranged by Inside Japan. With only a few days in Kyoto there was no time to take public transport. Besides, there are swarms of taxis here with reasonable rates. My driver, wearing immaculate white gloves, had to remind me more than a few times not to open the door myself — either he will open it or it’s automatic — as are many toilet seats.
They say the essence of Japan (besides the food) is experienced once you enter a Shinto shrine.
First stop was Nanzen-ji (the temple where Scarlett Johansson, in Lost in Translation, watches a wedding ceremony after she escapes Tokyo). After years of travel I figured that I would be templed out, but not so. This most famous Zen temple houses the Hojo Rock Garden. Swarms of schoolchildren were also enthralled. “The Japanese come here to relax and dissolve the stress from their jobs,” said Sumie. She explained that 15 rocks were placed in the garden by a monk centuries ago but you can only see 14. “Buddhist teaching means to be satisfied with what you have now.”
We stopped for morning dessert. Outside the entrance is a row of sweet shops featuring grilled sticky rice in a sweet syrup — follow with green tea. Sumie beckoned me over to a bamboo water feature. She poured a few drops of water into one end and told me to listen at the other end. “In the olden days there was a place in nature like this where water drops into rock and makes this music,” she said.
Next up, the Golden Pavilion, literally covered in gold leaf. And talk about attention to detail: not even a square inch in the gardens are overlooked. A water tap is disguised with a piece of bamboo. A gardener painstakingly prunes individual leaves from branches for the perfect look.
Not to be missed is a walk through the bamboo groves in the Sagano area (if you have time, rent a bike near the train station and cycle through this rural landscape filled with verdant vegetable patches and rice paddies). We stopped for a tofu lunch at another family-run operation. The starter was a plate of pickled bamboo shoot—apparently this is the month when you can eat it raw, fresh from the farmer. Next an elegant dish of cubed cold tofu, chicken and bean curd. Then more fresh bamboo shoots, seaweed and carrot in a clear lukewarm broth followed by a pot of simmering silken tofu. Lastly cold tofu, this time in dashi broth with seaweed and halved red grapes. It was wonderful, but the best was yet to come.
We arrived at the Hoshinoya Royokan, on the banks of the serene Oigawa river, by private boat. This fabulous resort, a renovated 100-year-old hostelry, blends Japanese culture with modern comforts (e.g., automatic toilet seat). Yuri, our gracious, English-speaking host, discussed our “itinerary”: tea ceremony, incense burning ceremony, and another kaiseki dinner.
Yuri showed us to our room. It almost brought tears to my eyes! The furnishings were designed specifically for the resort and for viewing. Even the wallpaper is made by Kyoto craftsmen from hand-printed woodblocks, everything made with natural lighting in mind.
Bundled into yukata (a casual kimono), we waddled over to our private dining room and sipped cool plum wine followed by iced sake garnished with iris leaf. Abalone soup with agar- agar and sea urchin so fresh it barely tastes of the sea. Then tuna sashimi atop a surprising crunchy couscous salad (texturally exquisite) paired with Gewürztraminer Zellenberg.
I asked Chef Ichiro Kubota (he was previously head chef at Michelin-star Umu in London) how blue fin tuna fits into his otherwise local, seasonal and sustainable menu. “Blue fin is Japanese culture,” he explained. “I don’t feel sorry to use tuna but I do feel sorry that people eat sashimi and don’t really appreciate it enough.” That wouldn’t be me.
We had one more night in Tokyo before an early departure home, and decided on something wacky and crazy—a cat (neko) café.
“Please be free to touch and play with our 21 cats but gently,” said the nice lady as she directed us to a locker for our belongings and sinks to wash our hands. “Do not feed or hold cats, just to play.” Two middle-aged women came in with a birthday cake for their favourite feline — each cat has its bio on the wall. A couple in their 20s were playing ‘catch the string” with Chan, a big ginger tom, and another young guy tickled kitty on his lap. Rumour has it rabbit and goat cafes are coming.
As for the café part, we purchased a few beers from the vending machine and found yakitori and sake at a nearby Izakaya. I had an early flight so Inside Japan arranged my last night at the Royal Park Hotel, across the street from the Tokyo City Air Terminal and 60 minutes to Narita airport.
Since returning home I’ve picked up a few habits, like eating salad for breakfast. (No cats.) And I’m determined to make yuba someday. My friends told me I’m calmer, not my usual frenetic self. We’ll see how long that lasts — methinks I need to spend more time in places like Kyoto.
Where to Stay
Park Hyatt Tokyo: tokyo.park.hyatt.com
Hyatt Regency Kyoto: http://kyoto.regency.hyatt.com
Hoshinoya Kyoto: global.hoshinoresort.com
Royal Park Hotel, Tokyo: rph.co.jp/english
Inside Japan Tours: insidejapantours.com