Melanie Jeanne

Japan – The Tastes

Matcha Matcha Matcha

During our travels to Japan this past January  we not only took in the sights and scenes, but we adventured with food. When we travel food is as much a part of our itinerary as anything else. In fact sometimes it is the primary focus of our itinerary. In a culture so vastly different than our own, it was fun (and sometimes scary for me) to be adventurous with food.

Up until our travels we have only been subjected to Americanized Japanese food. Our goal during our trip was to explore as much as possible, taste as much as possible, experience as much as possible and enjoy as much as possible.

When we arrived it was freezing. The snow was falling hard and it was falling sideways. The streets were quiet, but we knew after too many hours in flight and a massive time change, we needed to get out and explore. We bundled up and walked and walked and slid and walked. Our first stop – a bar for Japanese whiskey.

We needed to warm up a whole lot. We ducked into a small bar on the streets of the Shinjuku entertainment district. I did not capture the name, I sure wish I had. We gulped up our whiskey and after warming up, hit the streets to find food. I struggled. Struggled with the change in food culture. Struggled with finding something that made me feel comfortable. Struggled with the lack of folks eating in restaurants. Struggled with no english.

So after my sweet husband asked me multiple times if this would work or that would work, he finally turned over the reins and simply let me pick. I had done enough research pre-trip to know that I wanted to try Tonkatsu (Japanese fried pork cutlet). After many failed attempts at finding just the right spot, we arrived at Katsukura in the Time Square shopping tower. After hours of travel and hours of wandering a warm dish that was raved about was just what we needed. It was the perfect way to start our trip and definitely started our food tour off on the right note. This was the first of my Top 3 Meals in Japan. What a way to start.

On our first full day we realized a few things – 1. the city doesn’t get going until about 10am and 2. No one takes anything “takeaway” (to go). We were on a mission to find a little coffee shop near the Senso-ji Temple, however, we arrived far too early and the little coffee shop was not up and running. Thankfully Starbucks was. We quickly found that not all Starbucks are alike. In Japan the menu is severely condensed and to order we had to point at one of five or so pictured items on the menu. We stuck with the basics; hot coffee, a chocolate cream donut and a pork belly bacon and egg quiche. It hit the spot and fueled us for exploring.

After exploring the temple and walking many side streets on our way to witness sumo wrestling, we stumbled upon the cutest corner coffee shop. Take-away focused. Leaves Coffee was adorable and the warm coffee hit the spot. Leaves Coffee was one of my favorite Pit Stops of our entire trip, maybe because the cups were takeaway. Maybe because we stumbled upon it. Maybe because it is just what we needed when we needed.

After watching a sumo wrestling match for a bit we needed more fuel. Enter our first weird food experience. A little lunch, in a little seemingly dive restaurant with zero english, hard to understand photos and helpful staff playing charades to guide our food selections. Clams seemed a lot like shark. My dish – miso soup and a salmon rice casserole. Think tuna casserole with less canned tuna, noodles and potato chips and more fresh salmon, with salmon roe and rice. It was weird and whacky. I didn’t eat much, but an experience we had.

As the exploring continued I knew I wanted to taste the sweet treats Japan had to offer. Dessert is the way to my heart and I had read enough to know there were delights to be found. Our late afternoon breaks consisted of too many sweets as a result.

First I indulged, by sharing a cream puff with J, from Cozy Corner a bakery in the
Rikugien Garden station. We shared the cream puff while sitting in the serene garden enjoying the fresh snow. Then there was the Starbucks pit stop for caffeinated fuel and a shared cookie while sitting above Shibuya Crossing (the busiest crosswalk in Japan). And finally my sugar shock reached new heights after a visit to Totti’s Candy Factory on Harajuku street where we had to purchase the largest and coolest cotton candy we’ve ever seen.

After a day of walking everywhere, pit stopping for little treats and indulgences, we knew dinner had to be delicious and simple. Enter ramen. Thankfully, I was in touch with an old co-worker who had literally just been to Tokyo the month prior and made an incredible recommendation. Ichiran. I think I can honestly say this was the second of my Top 3 Meals in Japan. It was a charming experience to say the least, with a line about an hour long filled with locals, ordering from a vending machine and sitting in little nooks to eat.

After dinner we walked the streets of Golden Gai, a cute bar district. We made our way to Zoetrope a local whiskey bar for a flight of Japanese whiskey tasting. Ending our evening at Bar Benfiddich which can only be described as one of the coolest secret bars in Japan. There is no signage, there are about six seats and Ben Fiddich himself makes the drinks to taste, there is no menu. It was a worthy experience and a great Pit Stop on our journey.

On to Day 2. We started the day much the same as day 1, with a stop at the nearest Starbucks. Then we immediately traveled to the water front fish market to explore the food stalls. We had an 11:30am reservation at a renowned sushi restaurant, so we were simply walking and wandering nearby to pass time and experience more. J found his first and only taste of melt-in-his mouth wagyu beef and I enjoyed a little sweet treat.

We walked from the fish market to our lunch reservation. I believe this was the meal J was most excited for. A true sushi experience in Japan. I, on the other hand, was nervous. It was an experience all right. Dish by dish we watched incredibly talented sushi chefs prepare one item at a time. Sushi in Japan, for me at least, was nothing like sushi in America. The chef prepared each dish to taste, meaning there is no need to add additional seasoning or soy. Everything is fresh. There are no masked flavors or mixed concoctions. No mayos and no cream cheeses. For me this was my most difficult meal as the flavors and textures were not what I am used to. For J this was an incredible experience and a delight. This was why he wanted to experience Japan so badly, such a change in culture and preparation.

After lunch we made our way to Disneyland Tokyo. No food was eaten, but fun was had. For dinner we sold out. We ate Shake Shack in the lobby of our hotel. We had an early morning wake-up call on day 3 to head to Kyoto and didn’t want to get to bed late.

Day 3 – Kyoto. Breakfast on day 3 looked a lot more like lunch. Another lesson learned in Japan, not much sweet food is eaten at any meal. In fact, all meals feel coursed and savory. Since we were starting our day with a 2 hour train ride to Kyoto, we grabbed take-away food in the only station market that was open. I ended up with a half bologna, half egg salad sandwich on the softest white bread. It was delicious and hit the spot.

Kyoto was like stepping back in time. The streets were all cobblestone and the buildings were all beautifully historic. After dropping our bags at our Ryokan, we knew we needed coffee. Arabica had popped up in multiple blogs and searches, therefore we had to start there. So cute, charming and delicious. In Kyoto food was not our focus as much as exploring as much as possible as quickly as possible. We had roughly 24 hours to truly experience Kyoto’s charm and our priorities for the day shifted from food to culture.

My first snack on our very chilly and snow drifted day in Kyoto was the most delicious vanilla soft serve I have ever had. Purchased from a little snack shack directly across the street from the Golden Palace. The golden flakes a nod to the palace’s beautiful color. Though I was freezing this snack was my favorite Pit Stop by far. I loved the creaminess and novelty of the soft serve.

We walked and explored and waited far too long to eat. By the time lunch was top of mind both of us may have been getting a tad hangry. We were walking the streets ready to cave and grab food from the nearest 7-Eleven (they are far more catered to eating and food in Japan than here in the states) when we  stumbled upon Steak & Wine Nikuya Ginjiro and took a chance. We both enjoyed the roast beef donburi. It was the only lunch menu item so selection was limited to portion size. The dish was surprisingly delicious. What a treat to stumble upon. A warm rice dish with meat, egg and cream. Simple and warming on the cold snowy day.

For the remainder of the day food was not a priority. We wandered and saw everything we could. Dinner became another meal we failed to think about and plan for until we were both too hungry. Our priority prior to dinner was to check into our Ryokan – Gion Hatanaka, get settled and freshen up. Dinner ended up being at a local pub. Yet another failed meal primarily because of my food struggles and fears.

Day 4. Food was not our friend on this day. We experienced a traditional Japanese breakfast served in our ryokan room. The meal was interesting and unique, another cultural experience that added to our journey, but not really fulfilling or our vibe.

It was our mission on this day to eat at food stalls, try bites here and there and truly release any need to control our dining experience. We had limited time in Kyoto and we wanted to spend it seeing more culture and the remaining sites on our list.

We explored more temples and shrines, found as many food stalls as we could and purchased multiple different bites to snack on. Culturally the food was so unique, a bite or two satisfied my curiosity and J ate the rest. I settled on an egg salad sandwich from the food hall we found in the basement of the local department store.

Prior to making our way back to our ryokan to pick up our bags and travel back to Tokyo for our final night and day, we stopped in at a saki bar to literally warm up. Warm saki on a cold day = amazing. We selected our saki and the sweet saki cups we drank out of. It was a quiet bar tucked into a small building at the base of a shrine, top notch.

Once we arrived back in Tokyo we dropped our bags in our room and headed out for our final dinner in the city. We found a local tempura restaurant 30 minutes prior to close and sat at the bar for our coursed tempura dinner. Tempura had been on J’s list and it was a lucky and delicious find. We received picture menus and picture directions on how to eat and season our tempura. What a lovely final dinner.

Day 5 – our final day. We ate McDonalds for breakfast and it was glorious. A small taste of home. Fresh orange juice, familiar flavors, simply yummy. We had one mission for our final few hours, find a gyoza restaurant. By this point we had eaten everything on our list once. Ramen. Sushi. Tempura. Sweets. A traditional Japanese breakfast. Now it was time to enjoy gyoza. I love it, I was craving it, it was our mission.

J was incredible at researching and finding a local gyoza gem. As with our best meals in Japan, there was a line out the door and locals were indulging too. I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt, this was my third favorite meal of my Top 3 Meals in Japan. Harajuku Gyozaro was incredible. It was simple and delicious and the best way to close out our travels.

We never ate a bite of matcha, but as the first line of the blog implies, it was everywhere. Additionally, if we never eat sweet red beans again, I will be okay. I’d love to travel back some day, but in the mean time I am exploring Arizona to see where I can find the best tonkatsu, ramen and gyoza.

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