Must eat Ja­pan

Food and Travel (Singapore) - - Con­tents -

Our travel cor­re­spon­dent Michelle Tchea’s gas­tro­nomic ad­ven­ture in Ja­pan will in­spire you to plan a trip to the Land of the Ris­ing Sun

From Tokyo to Fukuoka, Ja­pan is a feast for the senses. Slurp, eat and in­dulge in the coun­try's best eats, from cheap eats to gourmet de­lights, Michelle Tchea has you cov­ered.

Food is ev­ery­where in Ja­pan. Sprawl­ing out on the busy streets of Shin­juku, chil­dren whole­heart­edly clutch their lunch boxes, known af­fec­tion­ately as bento and rush off to school.

Tucked be­hind train sta­tions are tiny hold-in-the-wall eater­ies filled with Ja­panese busi­ness­men in suits, slurp­ing down their morn­ing break­fast of hot noo­dles be­fore tak­ing a deep breath, bow­ing to thank the chef and march­ing off to brave an­other busy day in Tokyo.

But it’s not just the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, Tokyo where food dic­tates the life and pas­sions of the Ja­panese peo­ple.

Ky­oto, the kitchen of the im­pe­rial court is the home of tra­di­tional foods and tech­niques; Osaka, the com­mer­cial hub of work­ing class­men, is now a food haven for food­ies look­ing for old-school Ja­panese food with­out the price-tag; and who could for­get, Fukuoka? Known only as the fifth largest city in Ja­pan, the lesser known city is gain­ing the af­fec­tion and at­ten­tion of trav­el­ers with the highly-rep­utable Miche­lin Guide, award­ing al­most 300 restau­rants the seal of ap­proval.

Take it as you will, food­ies will not leave Ja­pan dis­ap­pointed. Get ready to loosen your belts, dust off your stretch-pants and feel the bulge: this is the ul­ti­mate foodie guide to Ja­pan. Ready, set, eat!

TOKYO: For­get Paris

Over­throw­ing Paris as the city with the most Miche­lin-starred restau­rants is none other than the coun­try’s cap­i­tal, Tokyo. On last count, more than 150 restau­rants in Tokyo have at least one star, with more than 340 restau­rants ob­tain­ing bib gour­mand sta­tus (restau­rants which are un­der 5000Yen or less). For much of the last decade, Tokyo has held this il­lus­tri­ous record, yet, whilst the city cen­ters on ex­cel­lence, stand­ing head and shoul­ders with Paris, Lon­don and even New York when it comes to in­no­va­tion and ‘de­li­cious­ness’, gourmet din­ing doesn’t just con­sume the city with hun­dred­sof-thou­sands of mod­est eater­ies to suit any­one’s bud­get. Al­though there are no real dishes or in­gre­di­ents found unique to the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, Tokyo is still seen as Ja­pan’s epi­cen­ter for culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ences.

On top of the list is Tsuk­iji Mar­ket, known fa­mously as the Achilles heel of ev­ery pro­fes­sional or self-con­fessed foodie in Tokyo, vis­it­ing the early morn­ing fish mar­ket for a mas­sive bowl of fresh sashimi is a rite of pas­sage.

Tourists visit the mar­ket in the wee hours of the morn­ing to wit­ness the fish bid­ding process by some of Ja­pan’s top chefs. Ma­jor food­ies skip the show and head straight to the mar­ket for break­fast at one of the sur­round­ing food stalls for the cities fresh­est catch of the day.

Pop­u­lar stalls with le­gions of fans in­clude, SUSHIZAN­MAI, TSUK­IJI KAGURA and NAKAYA (All lo­cated at Tsuk­iji Mar­ket͙5 Chome-2-1 Tsuk­iji, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0045, Ja­pan). But if you want to avoid the long lines, look out for KA­TOU, which spe­cial­izes in kin­medai, a break­fast of sim­mered fish head in a savoury sauce. Also at Tsuk­iji mar­ket is ODAYASU, a tiny lit­tle shop known only to lo­cal work­ers for juicy oys­ters fried to per­fec­tion in panko crust. If you can’t get to the mar­ket but love fried food, try Wako Tokatsu (www.wakogroup.co.jp/en/), which has a few restau­rants around the city and deep fry’s pork cut­lets to hun­gry lo­cals and tourists to per­fec­tion. In the neigh­bour­hood of Shin­juku train sta­tion is Naka­jima – a bud­get-friendly eatery with set lunch menus at a bar­gain price of just 800 yen, which in­clude fresh sar­dines or the fish of the day, de­li­cious side-dishes con­sist­ing of an eggy-casse­role (Yana­gawa-nabe) and miso soup, rice and pick­led veg­eta­bles. Din­ner is about 5 times the price and a great way to sam­ple a Miche­lin-qual­ity restau­rant with­out break­ing the bank. For those with a lit­tle more flex­i­bil­ity, splurge at one of Tokyo’s finest restau­rant and watch a real Mas­ter chef at work. At Aoy­agi (Ja­pan, ẅ106-0041 Tokyo, Mi­nato, 2 Chome−3−20), Chef Hiro­hisa Koyama brings the very essence of Ja­panese hos­pi­tal­ity to the ta­ble. Al­most like hav­ing a pri­vate chef cre­ate a per­son­al­ized menu, this el­e­gant hide­away in cen­tral Tokyo is one of Ja­pan’s most rec­og­nized and skilled chefs to visit. Snag a bar­gain for lunch and opt for the 15000Yen de­gus­ta­tion.

KY­OTO: Tra­di­tion at its best

Ky­oto, known as the city of a thou­sand tem­ples’ oozes tra­di­tion and cul­ture.

Eat­ing out in Ky­oto is per­haps re­li­gious ini­ti­a­tion, of­fer­ing a glimpse into the cul­tural her­itage of Ja­pan’s for­mer cap­i­tal.

Kaiseki is a Ky­oto spe­cialty, de­scribed as a rich culi­nary tra­di­tion em­pha­siz­ing a chef’s tech­nique and labour in pre­par­ing elab­o­rately pre­cise dishes from sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents. A com­mon way for trav­el­ers to en­joy kaiseki is stay­ing at a ryokan (tra­di­tional Ja­panese inn), which can range from bud­get to the glo­ri­ously lux­u­ri­ous, which comes with a Kaiseki din­ner.

The most pop­u­lar Kaiseki ex­pe­ri­ence can be found at Hy­otei (35 Nanzenji Kusagawa­cho, Sakyo Ward, Ky­oto, Ky­oto Pre­fec­ture 606-8437,

Ja­pan), a 3-miche­lin star es­tab­lish­ment lo­cated on the grounds of Nanzenji tem­ple. Chef Ei­ichi Taka­hashi is the 14th gen­er­a­tion of this fam­i­lyrun es­tab­lish­ment and con­tin­ues his tra­di­tion with grace and hon­our for each guest en­ter­ing his restau­rant.

On a sim­i­lar scale, Naka­mura Restau­rant (Ja­pan, ẅ604-8093 Ky­oto Pre­fec­ture, Ky­oto) is an­other op­tion, where the 6th gen­er­a­tion chef and wife duo are well-known for their Ja­panese am­biance and un­ri­valed hos­pi­tal­ity.

Zen Mo­ment

Given the cul­tural sym­bol of Ky­oto, Bud­dhistin­spired diets are also worth seek­ing out when in Ja­pan’s for­mer cap­i­tal. Known as sho­jin­ry­ori, which re­lates to the Bud­dhist monks of Ja­pan, menus are strictly vege­tar­ian and of­ten com­bine spir­i­tual be­liefs in the cook­ing tech­niques. If you love tofu, sho­jin-ry­ori is the way to go, where you will def­i­nitely be ex­posed to one or more tast­ings of the Ky­oto spe­cialty. The prepa­ra­tion of tofu in Ky­oto is highly re­garded as a del­i­cacy in this pre­fec­ture, which can be found in both Nanzenji and Arashiyama dis­tricts of Ky­oto.

For one of the most mem­o­rable din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in Arashiyama, seek out Sho­ra­ian (Sa­gaka­meno­cho, Ukyo-ku, Ky­oto-shi, Ky­oto 616-8386). Con­sid­ered one of the best in the city, the din­ner in­volves a mag­i­cal, yet ethe­real tofu pil­grim­age in­volv­ing a 45 minute walk up a moun­tain to this not-so –typ­i­cal restau­rant. Prices start from 3800Y. For sim­i­lar dishes in the city, try Yud­ofu Sagano (45 Sa­gaten­ryuji Susuki­nob­a­ba­cho, Ukyo Ward, Ky­oto, Ky­oto Pre­fec­ture 616-8385, Ja­pan) or To­suiro (Ja­pan, ẅ607-8167 Ky­oto Pre­fec­ture, Ky­oto).

OSAKA: Old School cool

Gritty, glam, grungy and harsh …Osaka has long been re­garded as the black sheep of the fam­ily. A lit­tle rough around the edges, this sis­ter city is most com­monly com­pared to Tokyo, de­spite its stark com­par­isons. Osaka-nites are con­sid­ered earthy and di­rect when com­pared to the so­phis­ti­ca­tion that is Tokyo, yet the hard­work­ing and fun-lov­ing cap­i­tal of the Kan­sai re­gion of Ja­pan is build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion as a foodie-city in its own right.

On the ta­ble we have flour-based foods, more com­monly found on ev­ery street cor­ner around the city. Okonomiyaki is a gi­ant pan­cake com­bin­ing meat, seafood, veg­eta­bles be­fore be­ing smoth­ered in a thick gravy-like sauce; Takoy­aki is the an­swer to ev­ery night-revel­ers hunger pains, with these bite-size oc­to­pus­filled donuts be­ing a quick meal for un­der 300 Yen; Kushikatsu is fa­mous in the area and now found ev­ery­where in Ja­pan, but no one does it bet­ter than the in­ven­tor Restau­rant Daruma (2-11-17 Tsu­ru­mibashi, Nishi­nari Ward, Osaka, Osaka Pre­fec­ture 557-0031, Ja­pan). Any visit to Osaka would be amiss if kaiten-sushi and in­stant ra­men noo­dles were not sam­pled given they were both in­vented in the city. De­spite its cool rep­u­ta­tion, qual­ity is def­i­nitely not com­pro­mised in Osaka when it comes to food.

Osaka spe­cial­ties

For some­thing truly Osakan – look out for Kappo-style din­ing, which orig­i­nated in Osaka more than 100 years ago and in­volves the chef pre­par­ing food at the counter for a small num­ber of cus­tomers. A kappo chef trains for more than 15 years and on top of the list for this din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is Oi­matsu kita­gawa (Ja­pan, ẅ530-0047 Osaka Pre­fec­ture, Osaka).

Re­cently re­warded a one Miche­lin star, this slightly hid­den restau­rant is un­pre­ten­tious yet fo­cused on the whole cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence. If you can’t snag a seat at Oi­matsu Kita­gawa or sim­ply can’t af­ford it, try splurg­ing on an­other Osaka restau­rant, Ki­gawa (Ja­pan, ẅ542-0071 Osaka Pre­fec­ture, Osaka). The restau­rant is tiny, even by Ja­panese stan­dards and is well and truly a hid­den gem. Tucked be­hind an al­ley, the restau­rant re­mains hid­den un­less you’re in the know. An ex­trav­a­gant Ja­panese din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is per­haps the only way to de­scribe a 20-course tast­ing menu that awaits you.

Kashi­waya (2-5-18 Sen­riya­man­ishi, Suita, Osaka Pre­fec­ture 565-0851, Ja­pan) is one of the best restau­rants you can visit right now in Osaka. The three-Miche­lin star restau­rant is on the out­skirts of Osaka but worth the visit. De­scribed as Suki-ya style (Ja­panese tea cer­e­mony eat­ing) ex­pect tatami mats, shoji pa­per screens and Ja­panese hos­pi­tal­ity at its best. The menu is con­tem­po­rary and highly worth ev­ery penny. Chef Hideaki Mat­suo re­ally shines at his fam­ily’s restau­rant which dates back to 1868.

Other hon­ourable men­tions in Osaka, which are low-key but great food ex­pe­ri­ences are Jiyuken (Ja­pan, ẅ542-0076 Osaka Pre­fec­ture, Osaka) Curry Rice in Osaka – com­fort food at its best; Takoy­aki at Mizuno (Ja­pan, ẅ5420071 Osaka Pre­fec­ture, Osaka, Chuo Ward, Do­ton­bori, 1 Chome−4−15) where hot and cheer­ful eats burst in your mouth for a fla­vor ex­plo­sion and Omoni (3-3-2 Mo­modani, Ikunoku, Osaka), a big gour­mande restau­rant is your one-stop-shop for a great okonomiyaki. Un­like the rest of Ja­pan, Osaka is not the place to seek out ra­men, but Udon. Restau­rant Mimiu (Orig­i­nal Hon­machi 4-6-4, Chuo-ku, Osaka Ja­pan. Down­town 5-1-18 Nanba, Chuo Ward, Osaka, Osaka Pre­fec­ture 542-0076, Ja­pan) cre­ates Umami in its care­fully crafted pots of sim­mered fish stock, known as dashi be­fore be­ing filled with fresh veg­eta­bles and hand­pulled udon noo­dles.

FUKUOKA

Known for its de­li­cious, yet pun­gently fra­grant ra­men of slow-cooked pork bones, Fukuoka may not seem like a culi­nary haven. Yet, like most cities of Ja­pan, a com­bi­na­tion of hid­den gems, street food and Miche­lin-rated restau­rants make it a food par­adise… just wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered.

Known as the fifth largest city of Ja­pan, Fukuoka doesn’t have any stand­out tourism at­trac­tions, but what it does have is ac­cess to some of Ja­pan’s best seafood, given the lo­ca­tion to clean, pris­tine waters. Al­though it doesn’t boast a com­mer­cial tourist fish mar­ket like Tokyo’s Tsuk­iji Mar­ket, nor does it have it have a rich cul­ture of Edo-pe­riod restau­rants like in Ky­oto, Fukuoka has been touted as a culi­nary city which lo­cals don’t re­ally want you to know about it.

Start­ing with ra­men, Fukuoka is def­i­nitely a cut above the rest. Home to two of Ja­pan’s most fa­mous ra­men chains, Ichi­ran and Ip­pudo, which now have out­posts in New York and Aus­tralia, ra­men al­most comes to life with each slurp. Rich, thick and fra­grant – this is fast­food at its best for lo­cals. Out­side of ra­men be sure to look for Yatai’s around the city. Al­most like Fukuoka’s an­swer to food trucks, when the sun goes down, wit­ness hard-work­ing home chefs push carts around the city be­fore set­ting up pop-up restau­rants around the city.

With 2 three-star restau­rants, 8 two-star eater­ies and 33 one-star des­ti­na­tions to visit in Fukuoka re­gion, Kyushu is­land is slowly gain­ing the recog­ni­tion it right­fully de­serves in the culi­nary world. Not only that, but the chefs get a voice, pro­mot­ing both their lo­cal cuisines, un­ri­valed tal­ents in the kitchen and hard work. “I am thank­ful be­cause, through this Miche­lin Guide, my motto of “Edo-style tem­pura” may be known not only to peo­ple in Fukuoka but also in neigh­bor­ing pre­fec­tures,” says Chef Takayoshi Tanaka of 2 Miche­lin-starred Restau­rant Tem­pura Tenko (2 810 0022, 2 Chome-4-26 Yakuin, Chuo Ward, Fukuoka, Fukuoka Pre­fec­ture 810-0022, Ja­pan).

The best of the best

For­get the highly pub­li­cized and very ex­pen­sive Jiro in Tokyo. If you are in Fukuoka, be sure to pop your head into the small, well hid­den sushi restau­rant, Gy­oten (Ja­pan, ẅ810-0014 Fukuoka Pre­fec­ture, Fukuoka) by Chef Kenji Gy­oten

Just a five minute walk from Yakuin train sta­tion, and you find your­self in sushi heaven. The clas­sic seren­ity of wait­ing to en­ter the 10-seat restau­rant is al­most un­nerv­ing for a foodie. Led by a very young chef, lo­cals praise his tech­nique, claim­ing that his style is al­most rem­i­nis­cent of a 60 year sushi chef. Al­low the chef to ed­u­cate you with sushi, sashimi and other bite-sized pieces of de­li­cious­ness. “I am very hon­ored to re­ceive such a won­der­ful prize. On this oc­ca­sion, I re­mem­ber the pos­i­tive spirit that I started with and will con­tinue to make ef­fort to fur­ther pro­mote Kyushu’s sushi cul­ture,” says Chef Kenji.

A visit will set you back about 18,000 Yen, but you re­ceive an in­ti­mate din­ner with the star chef.

If you want to live life, you must eat fugu when in Fukuoka. Com­monly known as the poi­sonous fish when pre­pared in­cor­rectly, only the most highly trained chefs can serve one of the most highly sort out fish dishes in Ja­pan. Blow fish is quite a del­i­cacy in Fukuoka and at Hakata Izumi (Ja­pan, ẅ810-8680 Fukuoka Pre­fec­ture, Fukuoka, Chuo Ward, Ten­jin, 2 Chome−5−35), you can ex­pe­ri­ence the mas­tery

be­hind pre­par­ing a truly unique ingredient. More than just blow­fish, you ex­pe­ri­ence the en­tire Ja­panese tra­di­tion and cul­ture with wait­resses dressed in ki­monos. “I am very happy to re­ceive two stars in the Miche­lin Guide, as I feel that the ef­forts that we made for this restau­rant have been un­der­stood,” says Chef Nao­hiro.

Cheat­ing death at the din­ner ta­ble start at 10,000Yen how­ever, you can get away with a sim­pler but just as tasty ex­pe­ri­ence at lunch for only 3500 to 5000Yen. Must book at least 5 days in ad­vance.

For lovers of fried food, you re­ally must visit Tem­pura Tenko in Fukuoka. Home to the area’s best tem­pura, ex­pect noth­ing less than crispy, del­i­cate bat­ter and ul­tra-fresh in­gre­di­ents dipped in bub­bly hot oil with a steamy bowl of rice. De­scribed as a ‘des­ti­na­tion for Edo pe­riod tem­pura’, Tem­pura Tenko is an ex­pe­ri­ence found only in Ja­pan. Chef Takayoshi hand fries small batches of tem­pura made to or­der. Highly rec­om­mended dishes in­clude sea urchin with seaweed and man­ganji small sweet green pep­pers (known as shishito) served with rock salt from the An­des.

Lunch starts at 3500Y with din­ner over 7000Y.

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