One of the best parts of any trip to Japan is the food. I’m going to share some of my thoughts and some of my friends’ thoughts as well on places to go and favorite foods to try. (The friends I’ve gone to Japan with are sushi chefs and itamae, chefs of fine Japanese cuisine.)
Where to go
~ Fresh Food Markets ~
Fresh food Markets – If you’re in Kyoto don’t miss Nishiki Market, it is fantastic. One of the oldest fish markets in Japan dating back to the 14th century, today not only do the vendors sell fresh fish and produce for locals they also sell all sorts of prepared food and samples of food. Make sure you go hungry. Then just have a blast (depending on how brave you are) trying everything you walk past. The Omicho Fish Market in Kanazawa is also a terrific tourist friendly market.
Aside from the markets in Kyoto and Kanazawa, Fish markets in general are also one of the best places to try your luck when looking for a great sushi restaurant.
And that brings me to..
What to try
~ Sushi & Sashimi ~
Sushi and Sashimi – Obviously, unless you hate fish, you can’t go to Japan and not try authentic Japanese sushi. But be aware that just because you’re in Japan doesn’t mean every sushi restaurant will be better than those you may have tried at home. There are definitely mediocre (and worse) sushi restaurants in Japan. How do you increase your chances of finding a good one? Well you can try reviews on-line but this poses a surprising number of problems, primarily the language barrier. Some of the really good restaurants might not have an English name or even a name written in the Latin script, so unless you can type Kanji characters into your phone, finding reviews can be problematic. If you’re in a bigger city there might be five restaurants in one building or alleyways with no street names which also makes matching reviews with the right restaurant…difficult. (If price is no concern then the Michelin star guide, with precise address listings, is a great resource.). If you have a sushi restaurant that you’ve heard or read about, you should go for it, but if you’re just hoping to try your luck you’ll increase your chances of finding great sushi and sashimi inside or very near local fish markets. Hands down the best sushi I had in Japan was at Omicho Fish Market in Kanazawa and at Nishiki Market in Kyoto.
Where to go
~ Shrines & Temples ~
Shrines and Temples – one of the best places to try different snacks and foods are the pedestrian streets and shop lined walks leading up to some of the big named temples and shrines. My top 3 recommendations and personal favorites are, First the walkway up to Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. Second, also In Kyoto, the street leading up to Kiyomizu-dera temple, where I had the absolute best Onigiri ever. And third, in Tokyo the pedestrian only shop-lined street in front of Senso-ji temple, where I had the most divine mochi.
Which brings me to more must try food and Possibly my two favorite foods in Japan, Onigiri and Mochi.
What to try
~ Onigiri ~
Onigiri – Rice triangles usually wrapped in nori and often with a very small amount of various fillings (such as salmon or spicy fish eggs, etc.). These small little ‘snacks’ were one of the biggest surprises I had my first time in Japan. I remember a coworker offering me one and I thought to myself, a ball of rice…? Nah I’m good. It wasn’t until a few days later I actually tried one and had my mind blown. How could a ball of rice taste so good? They make a great quick breakfast on the go and you can find them everywhere, including most gas stations and convenience stores.
~ Mochi ~
Mochi – glutinous rice flour cakes, there are lots and lots of different types of Mochi, some savory, some sweet and they can all taste very, very different from each other. The kind I love and recommend most is the lightly sweet treat Daifuku. There are also different varieties of Daifuku but these are more like flavor variations. The best of the best is Ichigo Daifuku (Ichigo means strawberry). Soft exquisite perfection. Somehow both chewy and pillowy, this lightly sweet rice flour cake is filled with sweet anko “bean” paste and a ripe strawberry inside. Sometimes I dream of going to Japan just to eat Ichigo Daifuku.
Where To Go & What To Try
~ Bakeries ~
Bakeries – Bakeries? Yes! Japanese bakeries and their pastries are amazing! I love, love, love them. I suppose I should preface this by mentioning if you’re a fan of typical American prepackaged sugary and overly sweet pastries you might be disappointed with this one. Japanese pastries are a perfect balance of flavors. Not too salty, not too sweet, just superb fresh baked perfection.
Where to find Bakeries..? Lots of places, most conveniently if you’re traveling you can find them at almost all the larger train stations. Train stations in Japan are another great place to try food and not just bakeries.
Which brings me to
Where To Go & What To Try
~ Ekiben ~
Ekiben – Bento boxes at train stations – If You’re traveling by train from Kyoto or Tokyo it’s really fun to purchase a packaged bento box for the train ride. Maybe not the highest caliber of food in Japan but still very tasty, this is more about the experience itself. Both Kyoto and Tokyo have special entire ekiben stores. There are so many choices all packaged in these pretty boxes, some simple, some outlandishly fancy. Ekibenya Matsuri in Tokyo station is probably the most famous and popular ekiben store. It may be crowded but I had a blast walking around picking out my bento boxes from all the different options. And the checkout line was so organized it moved really fast. Having a picnic of sorts on the train was super enjoyable and made the time fly.
Speaking of bento boxes brings me to…
What To Try
~ Kaiseki ~
!Kaiseki! – Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese multi-course meal of the Chef’s choosing, usually highlighting seasonal ingredients. Artfully arranged on beautiful tiny dishes, the presentation is so spectacular, sometimes it’s so pretty you almost don’t want to eat it….almost 🙂
Depending on the restaurant or ryokan (inns which often include a kaiseki meal with the stay) you may be served the dishes one at a time in a very specific order, or all the delightful little dishes at the same time. The portion size of each dish is small as you’re meant to focus on the individual subtle variations in flavor. Taken as a whole the kaiseki meal should include all the tastes: bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami. So your pallet is not left with any cravings. Except maybe for more kaiseki 🙂
Kaiseki dinners can sometimes be on the expensive side, but you can often find great deals on kaiseki lunches. Did you know some places even have kaiseki breakfast. My favorite breakfast ever!
What To Try
Ok, not exactly a food, but all the same,
~ Matcha Tea ~
Matcha tea – Even if you’re not very fond of tea you should give matcha in Japan a try. It’s very different from regular tea. Matcha is a finely ground powder that comes from specially grown and prepared green tea leaves. It is whisked into hot water instead of steeped. As such, instead of being removed like regular tea, leaving only flavored water behind, it is actually consumed with each sip, creating a full-bodied richness that you don’t get with brewed tea. Aside from traditionally prepared matcha you will probably find a lot of modern variations. My favorite is the matcha latte. I never thought any beverage could rival my morning espresso latte until I tried the thick caffeine filled matcha latte, so divine!
Where to find matcha of the highest grade? – Japanese tea houses.
Where To Go
~ Japanese Tea Houses ~
Japanese tea houses are a must visit. They range from traditional, where they may even host Japanese tea ceremonies – to modern, with chilled matcha served in champagne glasses. There are tea houses (especially in Kyoto) that include Kimono rentals for their tea ceremonies and then there are tea houses like Sakurai Tea House in Tokyo that serves original tea liquors and fancy tea cocktails and even has matcha beer. All tea houses will serve some form of green tea, and possibly other teas as well, but green tea is really what is to be expected and they will probably serve some form of wagashi, a Japanese treat, with the tea. They may even have several varieties of green tea available, just to mention a few, sencha, matcha, tencha, gyokuro, and the list goes on. In fact the exact differences between green tea varieties gets incredibly specific and elaborate, but just to give you an idea, the most basic differences between all green teas has to do with whether the leaves were grown in shade and if so for exactly how long; the age of the leaves used, buds or full grown, perhaps a combination and if so the exact ratio of the combination and whether parts of the leaf are removed in the preparation such as the veins or stems.
Honestly, aside from matcha, which I loved, I really couldn’t tell the difference myself, but some of my friends said they definitely could. Give it a try, find a tea house with a green tea tasting and see what you think!
Featured Image at Top: Woodcut print by Kitao Shigemasa, 1772 – 1776 from Library of Congress on Unsplash