Eating: Tokyo

Ramen noodle shop table set-up (Tokyo, Japan)

A typical set-up at a ramen noodle shop

The food awesomness continued from Korea into Japan.  Actually, it might be more accurate to describe it as: the food awesomeness only got better in Japan.

I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but Jason and I were really not ready for how amazing the food was going to be Korea after 3 months of South American food.  Little did we know, we were just warming up in Korea.  Our tastebuds were in for the greatest time of their lives in Japan.

We only spent four short days in Tokyo, so we had to make sure we were strategic in our food adventures.  Some of the things we had on our list was:

Ramen

Ramen meal (Tokyo, Japan)

Ramen meal with onigiri (rice balls)

Ramen is all the craze lately in Toronto.  In a span of a year, a dozen or so ramen shops popped up and ravenous Torontonians gobbled it down.  I was one of those ravenous Torontonians.

Ramen cook (Tokyo, Japan)

A ramen cook preparing to serve the noodles

Ramen is an cultural icon in Japan.  It’s also an art-form – traditional ramen chefs will argue that the perfect bowl of ramen noodle takes a lot of time and practice to achieve.  The noodles need to be al dente and the broth has to be perfectly seasoned, simmered, and reduced. Then it needs to be quickly slurped up, whilst making as much noise as possible.  That shows the cook that you’re really enjoying his ramen.

Paper bib for ramen (Tokyo, Japan)

Jason sporting a restaurant-supplied bib. Ready for all the ramen slurping!

There’s a method of serving ramen in Tokyo that has been around for 50+ years but has only recently become hugely popular.  I don’t think it’s really caught on in Toronto as I’ve never seen anyone order it (or perhaps I just haven’t been looking out for it).  I first saw it on a TV cooking show – a specific episode featuring ramen in Japan.

Tsukemen with sesame-based broth (Tokyo, Japan)

Tsukemen with sesame-based broth. One of my favourite ramen meals

Known as tsukemen, it’s basically ramen that you dip into broth (as opposed to being served in broth).  First, you choose the type of broth you want.  If you’re lucky, the vending machine will have pictures

Noodle vending machine (Tokyo, Japan)

Ordering noodles via vending machine (with pictures)

If you’re unlucky, then you have to stare at the machine with a glazed-over expression, until the cook notices and comes over to help you out.

Retro noodle vending machine (Tokyo, Japan)

Ordering noodles via vending machine (without pictures)

Then you choose the portion of noodle you want. The sizes will range from a small portion to sometimes, an extra-large portion.

Ramen noodle portions (Tokyo, Japan)

Ramen noodle portions. I ordered the medium the first time and it wasn’t enough 😦

They’re all the same price, so it’s tempting to order the largest portion.  But waste would be frowned upon, so choose wisely.  I made the mistake of ordering too small a portion the first time (It was a medium!) and ended up digging into Jason’s ramen stash.  The next time, I ordered much too large of a portion (XL) and had to waddle uncomfortably out of the ramen shop.  I know, first-world problems.

Tsukemen with all the fixings (Tokyo, Japan)

Tsukemen with all the fixings (and an XL noodle portion!)

I think it’s the perfect way to eat ramen.  The ramen noodles don’t go mushy from sitting in broth.  The broth is thicker (almost like a thin sauce) and much more flavourful.  The noodles are the perfect combination of thick and chewy – an ideal vehicle for the thicker broth.  As you dip the noodle in the broth, the thick broth coats each noodle in its entirety.  Simply perfect.  Once you’ve had it, you might find it difficult to go back to conventional ramen.

Tsukemen (Tokyo, Japan)

Fast-food tsukemen

Soba

Soba noodles in broth & tempura (Tokyo, Japan)

Soba noodles in broth & tempura

Sometimes overlooked by noodle-lovers vying for the hugely popular ramen, this simple and delicious noodle dish deserves a cult following too.  Soba can be served in a hot broth, as pictured above.  Or served on the side for dipping into a hot broth (looks like someone is learning a thing or two from ramen)

Dipping soba noodles into hot broth (Tokyo, Japan)

Dipping soba noodles into hot broth

Or for the indecisive, you can have soba AND a deep-fried oyster fritter over rice.

Soba noodles in broth & deep fried oyster fritter over rice (Tokyo, Japan)

Soba noodles in broth & deep fried oyster fritter over rice

But my personal favourite is zaru soba, where the soba noodles are served chilled with a dipping sauce.  The dipping sauce is called soba tsuyu, in which you can should mix scallions and wasabi.  It’s especially refreshing during the hot summer months.

Zaru soba meal (Tokyo, Japan)

Chilled (zaru) soba meal

Izakaya

Okay, izakaya isn’t a type of food.  But it IS a type of food experience.  Best described as a Japanese pub, these little establishments serves chilled beer, sake, and (my favourite part) delightful little dishes of food (similar to tapas).

Izakaya (Ebisu district, Tokyo, Japan)

An izakaya in Ebisu district

They’re hugely popular with Japanese businessmen who, after a long day at work, aren’t ready to head back home yet.  The izakaya scene has also become quite popular in Toronto, but sadly, it doesn’t hold a candle to the izakaya experience in Tokyo.

We made out way to Ebisu district – known for its dense population of izakayas – and popped our head through random doorways until we discovered this little locals-only joint.

Locals in an izakaya (Ebisu district, Tokyo, Japan)

Locals in an izakaya in the Ebisu district

No English menus out front and no English writing on the walls – it obviously didn’t cater to tourists.  Yes! Our favourite type of spot.  We managed to score the last available table tucked away near the back and tried to figure out what the locals were ordering.  Luckily, the server handed us a small hand-written English menu after it became clear we didn’t know what we were doing.

Japanese izakaya menu (Tokyo, Japan)

We stared at this Japanese menu for awhile until the server handed us a small English menu

Izakayas are known to serve more adventurous fare, so we ordered chicken heart skewers, duck gizzard skewers, as well as the ‘chef’s choice’ specialty.

An unknown meat skewer (Tokyo, Japan)

An unknown meat skewer that was delicious!

Tofu izakaya dish (Tokyo, Japan)

A tofu dish

Whole mackarel sashimi (Tokyo, Japan)

Whole mackarel sashimi

After polishing off the sake and food, we discovered that we were still hungry, so we settled up and headed out to find another izakaya.  By now, it was a little later in the evening, so normally reserved and polite businessmen had started to take to the streets with song and dance.  It made for pretty good local entertainment.

Sake by the glass (Tokyo, Japan)

Ordering and pouring sake by the glass

We decided to order sake by the glass this time, and I learned about this very cool custom.  When ordered by the glass, sake is poured by the server into a large sake glass that’s placed into a small wooden container.  To show that the establishment is generous with their liquor, the server pours the sake until it overflows the glass and fills the wooden container as well.  As you slowly finish the sake in your glass, you pour the overflow sake from the container into your glass.

Conveyer Belt Sushi

There are few things more magical than sushi that arrives via conveyer belt.  Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration.  But conveyer belt (or kaiten) sushi restaurants ARE a very happy place.  There’s no waiting for the server to come over with a menu, or waiting for the chef to prepare your meal – you just grab whatever you fancy off the moving belt.

Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

We sat right by the chefs station

Or if you’re sushi connoisseurs like us (ha!) and nothing on the conveyer belt does it for you, you can yell out for the sushi chef to make you something à la carte.

Jeanne found us a great little kaiten sushi place called Pintokana in Roppongi district. It was our first night in Tokyo and we went a little crazy…good crazy. I don’t have that many pictures of the sushi we ate because my hands were busy picking up sushi off the belt stuffing sushi in my face.

Sushi at Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

Uni (sea urchin) sushi. One of my faves!

Sushi at Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

I don’t really remember. Cuttlefish sushi?

Sushi at Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

Tuna avocado sushi

Sushi at Pintokana (Tokyo, Japan)

Squid (ika) sushi

Chirashizushi

Chirashizushi is a bowl of rice topped with a variety of sashimi and additional garnishes.  The four of us had chirashizushi for breakfast the morning we had hoped to visit the Tsukiji fish market.  It was closed but this more than made up for that disappointment.

Chirashizushi (Tokyo, Japan)

Jason’s breakfast: Roasted eel over a bed of rice

Chirashizushi (Tokyo, Japan)

Jeanne & Dave’s breakfast: Fatty and lean tuna & fish eggs over a bed of rice

Uni & ikura over rice (Tokyo, Japan)

My breakfast: Uni (sea urchin) & ikura (fish eggs) over rice

And yes, that IS what you think it is – a huge helping of fresh uni (sea urchin) in my breakfast bowl 🙂  This dish probably topped everything else I had eaten in Tokyo.  I think I moaned in ecstasy after every single bite (much to the annoyance of everyone else at the table) 😛  Seriously AH-MAZ-ING.

Snacks

This little piece of perfection is called tamagoyaki.  It’s a type of grilled egg that’s slightly sweet and savoury.  Sprinkle a few drops of soy sauce on it to bring out the flavour.  The version pictured below is probably the best I’ve ever tasted.  Fluffy, tasty and hot off the grill.

Tamagoyaki (sweet & savoury grilled egg) near Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

The best version of tamagoyaki I’ve ever had. It was melt in your mouth.

The Japanese are constantly on the go.  So it’s not surprise to see that a lot of their food is designed to be mobile.  Onigiri (rice balls) are small but filling and designed so that you can eat them neatly with one hand.  They’re available everywhere in Tokyo (e.g. convenience stores, food stalls, vending machines).

Onigiri (Tsukiji Fish market, Tokyo, Japan)

I LOVED onigiri (rice ball). Every chance I got, I would pick one up. (which is pretty easy to do when they’re available everywhere)

Traditional Sushi

Of course I have to end off my post on food in Tokyo with a classic.

Platter of sushi (Akasaka district, Tokyo, Japan)

Platter of sushi

I hate to admit it but sushi in Japan really IS better – the fish is fresher and of better quality, there’s more variety, and the fish to rice ratio is perfect.  Our last night in Tokyo was spent gorging on excellent sushi.

Sushi restaurant in Akasaka district (Tokyo, Japan)

Sushi restaurant in Akasaka district

Toro sushi (Tokyo, Japan)

Toro (fatty tuna) sushi

And there you have it – Japan takes the win!  Hands down, Japan has offered us the best food experience in our travels so far.  Let’s see what Southeast Asia will bring to the (dining) table.

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Tokyo, Japan: Worth Breaking My Travel Rule

Edo-Tokyo Museum, Tokyo, Japan

Traditional Japanese dress exhibit in Edo-Tokyo Museum

It’s been about 8 years since my last visit to Japan.  I normally don’t like visiting the same place twice – it’s actually a travel rule of mine.  Why go to the same place, when there are so many places left in the world to discover?

Shinjuku district, Tokyo, Japan

Jason walking down one of Tokyo’s typical streets at night – aglow with neon signs from every angle.

But once we arrived in Japan, I was definitely happy that I broke that rule.  Besides, there were good reasons: 1) Jason had never been to Japan  2) Technically, I’m not visiting the same place twice.  I visited Nagoya and Kyoto in 2005 – this time we’ll be in Tokyo.  3) Japan is pretty awesome.

Some small examples of Japan’s awesomeness:

Efficiency

Soap, faucet, dryer - all in one (Tokyo, Japan)

Soap, faucet, dryer – all in one!

The Japanese know how to get things done – and done well.  Even small things like this public bathroom sink.  Soap dispenser on the left side, water faucet in the middle, and hand dryer on the right.  Just think of all the wasted steps we take from the sink to the hand dryer in Canada!

Ordering soba noodles (Akasaka district, Tokyo, Japan)

A soba noodle restaurant that allows you to order via a vending machine out front.

There are so many restaurants in Tokyo where you order through a vending machine up front, hand your order tickets to the chef, and voila! a quick and delicious bowl of noodles.  Right there, you’ve eliminated the need for a server and a cashier.  The cook doesn’t need to handle the money, so he can concentrate on quickly dishing out your lunch.  Genius!

Transportation

Tokyo's metro system (Tokyo, Japan)

One of Tokyo’s metro stations – safety gates and signs indicating when a train is arriving.

Safe, clean, fast, and expansive.  Tokyo’s metro system will get you almost anywhere, in no time flat, without any hassle.  Safety barriers at most stations will make sure you arrive in one piece.  It’s a little on the pricey side (minimum fare is about $1.70/ride compared to Seoul’s $0.90/ride but still nowhere near Toronto’s extortionate $3/ride) but you definitely get what you pay for (unlike the TTC in Toronto).

Courtesy

Even if YOU bumped into someone else on the subway, they will most likely bow and apologize.  And I thought Canadians overused “I’m sorry”.  Joking aside, it was a refreshing change to be around polite and courteous people after 3 months of being pushed out of the way in South America.

Snacks

Chip aisle in 7-11 store (Tokyo, Japan)

Chip aisle in a 7-11 store

Japan is the world leader of snacks.  The variety and volume is astounding.  I personally cannot get enough of chips and I can spend 10 minutes standing in front of the chip aisle just trying to select something new to try – wasabi-flavoured chips, seaweed puffs, ramen-flavoured crisps, shrimp crackers.  The world is my oyster. Oh! Oyster-flavoured chips are pretty delish too.

Details

Hair ties supplied with your ramen meal (Tokyo, Japan)

The perfect accompaniment to any ramen meal

I’ve been to my fair share of ramen noodle houses in Toronto.  And some of them are really good – rivaling some of the ones we’ve had here in Tokyo.  But I’ve never been to a ramen noodle house that provides hair ties.  No more strands of long hair falling into my face while I slurp up tasty, soupy ramen!

Jeanne and Dave had planned to spend 4 days in Tokyo, after our two weeks with family in Korea.  It would’ve been a nice, romantic way to end their 3 weeks of travel in Asia.  That is, until Jason and I decided to invite ourselves along at the last minute. 🙂

Akasaka district, Tokyo, Japan

Checking out the local restaurant in our neighbourhood (Akasaka district)

We ended staying in a roomy apartment in the Akasaka district.  It’s a pretty great area: full of excellent restaurants and shops, right next to the entertainment district Roppongi, and close to several metro lines.

The awesome thing about travelling with Jeanne and Dave is that Dave is an excellent vacation planner.  Jason and I were not in the habit of planning since we’ve been travelling for so long and taking our time at each place we visited.  Usually, our planning goes like this: “So what do you want to do today?”

So it was pretty great to have Dave plan out our 4 days in Tokyo.  Four days isn’t a lot of time to see a city that’s larger than life, so planning our time there became a lot more important.

What’s a visit to Japan without taking in a Sumo wrestling match?

Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo (National Sumo stadium)

Checkin’ out the gun show Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo

The best seats in the house are on the bottom level.  This area is split into sections and Sumo fans sit on seat cushions directly on the floor.  They’re fairly big cushions so they’re not as uncomfortable as you’d think.  They also serve as ways for fans to express disappointment.  We were told by Jeanne’s friend who lives in Tokyo that when fans are unhappy with a ruling or outcome, they throw their seat cushion onto the ring/judge/wrestler.  Technically, it’s prohibited but people still do it anyway.

Inside the Sumo Stadium (Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo)

Inside the Sumo Stadium (Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo)

It was our first time at a Sumo match and we didn’t really know what to expect.  The only thing we knew about Sumo are the stereotypes of fat men pushing each other.  A Sumo tournament starts early in the afternoon with the more junior competitors vying for the sparse crowd’s attention.  It builds up over the next 4-5 hours until the top division of wrestlers make their appearance – with much fanfare.

Makuuchi division, Grand Sumo Tournament, September 26, 2013

The top wrestlers (makuuchi division) come out with huge fanfare for the final round of competitions of the night.

The top division (called makuuchi) are the best wrestlers of the country  and receive the most attention from the (now) packed arena.   The top of this group is the yokozuna.

A Makuuchi bout, Grand Sumo Tournament, September 26, 2013

Two wrestlers from the Makuuchi division about to square off.

The most exciting bout of the night (IMO) was that between the yokozuna and the wrestler who ranked just under him (ozeki).  You’ll have to view the video below to see what happens.  Let’s just say seat cushions flew.

Tokyo can be a pretty chaotic city.  With over 13 million people living in the Tokyo prefecture, some peace and quiet can be pretty hard to come by.  Luckily, Tokyo has its fair share of giant parks.  Once inside, it’s hard to imagine you’re still in Tokyo.  We visited Shinjuku Gyeon (or Shinjuku park) – one of Tokyo’s largest and most popular parks.  Inside, amongst forested areas,  there’s a traditional Japanese landscape garden, a sprawling English landscape garden, and a formal French garden.

Shinjuku Gyeon, Tokyo, Japan

Dave and Jeanne posing in the traditional Japanese landscape garden

Shinjuku Gyeon, Tokyo, Japan

Perfectly manicured trees next to the Taiwan Pavillion

Shinjuku Gyeon, Tokyo, Japan

Lots of artists throughout the park trying to capture the tranquility on canvas

We also visited the Meiji Shrine (adjacent to another popular park – Yoyogi park).

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, Japan (Shibuya district)

Entering the main area of the Meiji Shrine

Water basin in front of the Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, Japan

It’s customary to wash your hands and mouth before entering the Meiji Shrine. Apparently, there’s a very specific way to do it. But I don’t think any of us knew how to.

We were even lucky enough to see a traditional Shinto wedding procession.  It was beautiful to watch.

Traditional Shinto wedding, Meiji Shrine (Tokyo, Japan)

Traditional Shinto wedding processions. Very solemn and beautiful affair.

We followed that with some shopping time in popular shopping districts: Shibuya and Harajuku.  All the Harajuku girls must’ve been in school, I spotted only a few and I couldn’t take any pictures quick enough – they must’ve been rushing off to class.

Crowded shopping streets of Shibuya district (Tokyo, Japan)

Shopping in the very popular and crowded Shibuya district

Harajuku shopping district (Tokyo, Japan)

Where are the Harajuku girls??

Shibuya is also home to the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world.  We settled into one of the window seats in Starbucks, which gives you a great birdseye view of the intersection.  It was kinda nuts.  During particularly busy crossings, it doesn’t even look like an intersection anymore – more like an outdoor concert!

Shibuya Crossing (Tokyo, Japan)

View of the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world (Shibuya Crossing)

We wanted to visit the Tsukiji fish market one morning to have fresh sushi for breakfast.  Apparently, you can pick out fresh fish at the market and get one of the nearby food stalls to prepare it for your breakfast.  Sushi = breakfast of champions!

We went to sleep with visions of sushi dancing in our heads, but when we arrived at the fish market the next day, we were sadly greeted with an empty market.

Inside the Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

Inside the Tsukiji fish market when it was closed. Only one lonely employee was doing some overtime to finish up some work…must have been goofing off the day before.

They were closed for a national holiday and we had to fly out of Tokyo later that day.  Our dreams of fresh sushi for breakfast were dashed!  We stood in the front of the fish market for awhile, lamenting our fate when a kind security guard noticed our sad little group.  He told us about a smaller market nearby that was still open.

Smaller fish market just a few blocks down from Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

The smaller fish market just a few blocks down from Tsukiji. It was still packed with many stalls of delicious-looking seafood.

A little disappointed that Tsukiji was closed, but happy that we would still be able to have fresh fish for breakfast, we started whetting our appetite with free sashimi samples as we staked out a good breakfast restaurant.

Sashimi samples near Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

Some stalls even gave away free sashimi samples! yum! (or sketchy?)

We decided on this restarant pictured below (we really appreciated menus with pictures in Tokyo) and excitedly ordered four bowls of fresh sashimi over a bowl of rice.

A restaurant that served sashimi over rice near Tsukiji fish market (Tokyo, Japan)

Our breakfast restaurant that served fresh sashimi over rice.

Perfect bowls of fresh sashimi over a bed of rice arrived and as we dug in, no further words were exchanged until every bowl was licked clean.  It was everything we had hoped it would be…and more.

Sashimi over rice for breakfast (Tokyo, Japan)

A perfect bowl of sashimi over rice = breakfast of champions!

Even though Jason and I invited ourselves along to Tokyo, we DID spend a little time apart to give Jeanne and Dave some time alone (I’m sure Jeanne can only take her little brother for so long..haha)

Shinjuku Gyeon (Taiwan Pavillion) Tokyo, Japan

Little brother and big sister hamming it up in front of the Taiwan Pavillion in Shinjuku park

Jason and I checked out the Edo-Tokyo Museum.  It was really interesting to learn about the history of Tokyo and how it grew from the its origins as the little fishing village of Edo.

Traditional dress exhibit (Edo-Tokyo Museum)

Traditional dress exhibit at the Edo-Tokyo Museum

Strolled along the Sumida river banks by moonlight.

Tokyo Skytree and the Asahi Beer Hall all lit up at night next to the Sumida River (Tokyo, Japan)

Tokyo Skytree and the Asahi Beer Hall all lit up at night next to the Sumida River

And ate a lot more ramen, soba, and sushi 🙂

Tempura and soba noodle soup (Tokyo, Japan)

Tempura and soba noodle soup

It was a quick and wonderful four days in Tokyo.  We would definitely want to come back one day.  I can’t wait to break my travel rule again.