Must eat Japan
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.
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.
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.
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.