I’m convinced it’s nigh impossible to have a bad meal in Japan. And while I may be looking back on my time there with some heavily rose-tinted glasses, the food there is the one thing I remember pretty clearly. Somethings just have an impact. And Japan fucking loves food. It doesn’t matter what itch you’re hoping to scratch – from steaming bowls of fat flavorsome ramen to the most delicately prepared sushi, cream filled pastries to hipster burger joints, Japan has it. And arguably, does a great deal of it better than anywhere else in the world.
As I said. Japan fucking loves food.
I could (and will) be giving some of my recommendations on places to purposefully seek out if you ever find yourself lucky enough to be in Japan, it’s pretty important from the outset to let you know that it’s got a completely different food & drink culture from anywhere else I’ve ever been in the world. The simplest to point out is the lack of “Japanese” restaurants. Now you can get ramen. You can get sushi. You can get tonkatsu. You’ll also find some pretty banging gyoza. What you will find is that these don’t exist under one roof. Restaurants in Japan will specialize in one of these. Remember what I said about finding it hard to have a bad meal in Japan? I suspect this might be why. So if you’re looking for the sushi/curry/gyoza bar of your dreams – I’m sorry, you’re not going to find it here. If you are looking for a sushi, curry or gyoza bar though – well you’re spoiled for choice. It’s also worth noting not to be put off by plastic food in the windows. I know it’s become Western shorthand for tacky holiday food, but in Japan it’s just how they show what they offer. Don’t fear the plastic egg and ramen bowl in the window, instead let it wash over you like a culinary invitation to get well and truly stuffed.
Avoid eating and drinking in the streets here. It’s rude. Street vendors outside of temples are slightly different, but there’s usually benches or an area outside 7/11’s and vending machines for eating/drinking. And yes I said 7/11’s. And yes, I am most definitely recommending you eat there. Prepackaged sandwiches it ain’t. Instead find yourself treated to rice balls stuffed with meat, freshly prepared sushi and my favorite, steamed pork buns. I cannot stress enough how delicious the pork buns are. Eat at least 10. It will still not be enough.
Places to Visit:
Kawaii Monster Cafe
Kawaii Monster Cafe in Tokyo was on my hit list from the very start. Not so much a culinary destination (the food is fine) but more so the giant carousel and dancing monster girls. Designed by Sebastian Masuda -the evil mastermind between boutique 6% Dokidoki and a pioneer in all things kawaii – Kawaii monster is a psychedelic trip set in the belly of a furry purple monster and occupied by spinning cakes, unicorns drinking from milk bottles and of course a giant pink fluffy cat. With themed cafes there’s usually a cover charge for a table but nothing too offensive (I believe for me solo is was 500Y) and I ended up sitting in the afternoon tea room. The rainbow pasta was actually far better than I expected even if it won’t exactly be earning a place in the pantheon of great meals. You go here for the experience. And the dancing kawaii monster girls.
Nicholas Charles Cafe
I came across Nicholas Charles quite by accident and I’m so glad I did because it was easily one of the most magical places I visited on my trip. This entire place is rabbit daft and decorated with all sorts of cute bunny memorabilia. It’s the perfect mash up between French and Japanese, with a bunny themed bakery downstairs and the cafe upstairs. I ended up having a meat and potato stew with bunny rice (honestly it was almost too cute to eat) and a limited edition Little Twin Star parfait. The owner Nicolas can be found outside wearing his orange bunny eared hat and his love of his usagi puffs (cream filled pasties with bunny ears) is utterly infectious. Make time to go here.
Shirahige Cream Puff Factory
A bakery downstairs, a cafe upstairs, the Shirahige Cream Puff store is a MUST visit for any Ghibli fan. The home of the totoro cream puff, the Shirahige bakery is owned by the sister in law of Miyazaki and has become renowned for their sweet little totoro pastries. Set in a residential area this one can be a little trickier to find, but well worth it. The flavors change seasonally but I can happily and enthusiastically recommend going for a strawberry one.
W.P Goldburger is the kind of place you need to seek out. You don’t just slip and accidently fall in to one of Tokyo’s best burger bars. It’s a no fuss little hipster burger bar in Shibuya which delights in pun names (Kevin Bacon burger anyone) and serving your burger with either pepper mash or fries. It’s got a relaxed chilled out vibe, the beers good, the music’s better. The food itself isn’t particularly life changing but the atmosphere is killer and it’s a good a burger as you’ll get anywhere.
I went on a one woman pilgrimage to track down the 7 tiered rainbow ice cream from Daily Chico. Based in Nanako Broadway, this hidden gem is in a basement, tucked away in the back and has a total blink and you’ll miss it type feel. I walked passed it at least twice on my hunt (and quest) to complete the giant ice cream of my dreams. While tricky to find I was actually pretty surprised by how dirt cheap it was, dropping less than 500Y on a giant cone. Flavor wise you’re hit with strawberry, chocolate, coffee, melon, grape, green tea, chocolate and soda. If you manage to finish one of these solo you are a better (wo)man than I.
Streamer Coffee Company
Steamer coffee company changed my life. Okay…okay, I’m being hyperbolic but sweet baby jesus this is still the best coffee I have ever drank in my life. I went for a seasonal blueberry latte and I’m not sure I can quite begin how to express how delicious this was. I mean, all of their coffee is great. Like solid 10/10 amazing kind of great. My local (I had a local) was in Harajuku and was less than 10 minutes from the flat I was staying in and was one of the few places I managed to get repeat visits in while I was away.
Good Town Doughnuts
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, Japan has got you homie. Go here. Eat everything. Blood orange, maple bacon and smile mango were all big time favorites for me. It’s got these weird kitschy Americana vibe going on which I love and the doughnuts are incredible. I would quite have happily got well acquinted with a 6 pack of these beauties.
But you really should eat:
It would be difficult to list everywhere I went to as more often than naught, the sign on the door was in Japanease. During my time there I made it my mission to almost go on a one woman culinary emoji of Japan and that I did. There’s a few things you MUST try out.)
Takoyaki – octopus chunks in batter with ginger, takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise. I really sold it there didn’t I? One of Japan’s most popular street foods, you can’t visit without trying it at least once. If you are limiting to just eating it once, do so in Osaka. It’s kind of their specialty.
Shaved Ice – I ended up in a small tea house is Naritaya Asakusa that did shaved ice and really, this was partially to tick off another emoji off the list. It’s light, you get to chose your flavour and really could be shared between 2.
“Melon” sweet bread at Kagetsudo – Based at Naritaya Asaksa, Kagetsudo bakery is known for their melon sweet bread. No, it doesn’t taste like melon, instead being a delightfully sweet and moreish bread. Heads up, you’re going to be waiting in a pretty long line for this. Don’t worry, it’s worth it.
Taiyaki – Taiyaki is a fish based cake that’s often filled with red bean paste. I was over in the Spring so managed to opt for a sakura flavored one, though sweet potato and green tea are pretty popular flavours too.
Tonkatsu – Breaded deep fried pork cutlet, what’s not to love right? Some of the best tonkatsu places worth checking out are in train stations (yes really) and are served with unlimited cabbage and rice. And yes, the pork is still pink. Go with it.
Crepes in Harajuku – Filled crepes have become almost synonymous with Saturday in Harajuku. Cheap and with a variety of fillings both savory and sweet, these are among the most instagramable treats in Tokyo. Angel Crepes was my destination of choice and I was all about the peach melba.
Bento boxes – If you are riding a bullet train (which you should) make sure to pick up a bento box in the station for the journey. They are filled with loads of tasty little treats from pickles to octopus. Honestly, they put our store bought lunches to shame (yes, even you M&S….even you.)
Sushi – Anywhere. Eat sushi anywhere. From convener belt sushi to specialty restaurants, hell, even from the 7/11, it’s better here than anywhere else in the world. Do do your research first though as you can drop some serious $$$ if you end up in the wrong (or right depending how you look at it) place. You are in Japan. Eat sushi any and every chance you can. Drink with plum wine. Be happier than you’ve ever been in your life.
Dango (or mochi on a stick) – This tri-coloured sweet treat is probably more recognizable as an emoji than anything you’ll have seen in a restaurant. Easy enough to find from street vendors, this sweet, chewy confection is best enjoyed near any of the big temples or while viewing cherry blossoms.
Curry – Find a curry house. One with a que outside is usually a good sign. Eat the food. Die happy. One of my favorite nights in Tokyo was spent sitting reading Carrie Brownstein with a curry and an amaretto. It’s one of those moments that is so perfectly seared in to my brain. The food was great and the night was pretty magical. The real takeaway from this is Japan in general is pretty magical.
Ramen – I had the best ramen of my life in a small bar in Kyoto. I’d got caught in the rain, was feeling a little bit down that I was travelling this amazing place myself and felt a little bit lonely (English, contrary to popular belief, is not widely spoken everywhere.) So I ended up in this bar, where I had to order by pointing (despite my best efforts and trying to read and pronounce, a Scottish accent doesn’t lend itself to Japanease funnily enough.) There was some weird reality show on TV, I had a small glass and a large beer and everything just felt still and safe and like it was going to be okay. The transformative power of good ramen folks.
I feel like I’ve barely even begun to list every place you can and should go, or share some of the weird and wonderful stories I have from Japan. There was the iziyaka where I drank red wine and ate dumplings and spoke in broken English/Japanese with a hair stylist, jeweler and nail artist. We talked about fashion, anime and Scotland and got a little bit drunk. The chef who slipped extra slides of sushi on to my plate when he found out I was from Scotland. Or what about the odd ice cream flavors from the cat theme park? Or the day spent petting deers followed by eel and rice and doughnuts from Floresta? Or the Hello Kitty parfait in the tea rooms? Or the sweet store with the hidden pick n mix room?
Honestly, Japan is life changing. It is one of the most incredible places I have ever been and while I’ve got my recommendations, and I truly hope you do take some of them, half of the magic is discovering it for yourself. There’s so much I still want to see, do and more importantly EAT there. How I ended up there may not have been ideal, but I’m so so glad I went, and I really hope you get a chance to go to. You will come back changed.