Friday, July 7, 2017


It seems like almost every trip I take gets some sort of food-related post. It seems logical to me; we gotta eat when we are on vacation and part of the fun of discovering a new place is diving into the local cuisine. Sometimes these posts are about specific dishes, like key lime pie or gelato or cheese; but other trips require a more comprehensive look at the wonderful bites I ate while on holiday. I've done this in the past with England, Hawaii and New Mexico although let's face it, any place I go is going to be tough to beat English food.

If there was a place dying for an overview post of all the great food available there, it was Japan. Most of what I've eaten in my life traces its origins back through western cuisine or comes from south of the border which is really a melding of European cooking with the new ingredients found in the new world. Japan is a totally different ball game; sure, I've eaten my fair share of sushi in the United States but there are so many amazing and strange flavors and concepts about food in Asia. My list of foods that I wanted to try in Japan was long. I mean really long. And spoiler alert: I didn't do all of them. So in recognition of my long list and what promises to be a long post, let's dispense with a verbose introduction and get right to it.

Convenience Stores

I get it, this is a strange place to start. But our first two meals in Japan were from convenience stores. Yep, of all the wonderful food available in Tokyo, we went to a convenience store for our first two noshes. Lawson Station. 7-11. FamilyMart. Doesn't matter which one you pick, there's some good stuff available on their shelves and in their coolers. 

Triangular sandwiches (always on white bread with the crust cut off). Rice balls. Onogiri (rice wrapped in seaweed with some sort of filling inside). Rice crackers (lots of rice obviously). Soft drinks you have never heard of. Beer. Snacks upon snacks upon snacks to pack into your backpacks for day trips. You probably can't go wrong. Well, maybe other than the salted plum onogiri. Trust me on this but just stay away from the salted plums in general. Not good. 

The photograph above is of my first breakfast in country. A chicken flavored rice ball wrapped around half a hard boiled egg and a very small can of Kirin Fire iced coffee, which honestly I bought because the can was cool but which woke my jet-lagged self up nicely at 6 am on a Sunday morning. I hardly ever drink coffee but the Fire was pretty good. I tried the Suntory Boss Cafe Au Lait the next morning which just about stopped my heart it had so much caffeine. I stayed away from that for the rest of the trip. I kept going back to convenience stores though. Wish our 7-11s were this good. 


Yakitori is simply pieces of meat or vegetables on skewers which are grilled and then dipped in or brushed with some shoyu (soy sauce based) liquid. It's simple and cheap and sometimes is used as a way to cook the parts of the beast (like chicken gizzards) that you just can't sell any other way at a restaurant. The appeal of yakitori was not in the taste of the meat or veg that we'd be eating (although I certainly hoped to get lucky there) but in the location and atmosphere of the joint we'd be eating in.

I'd seen yakitori restaurants on food shows on television before, tight packed bars in tiny alleys with thin open grilles between the customers and the server working the food and beer, and was dying to eat at one. On our first full day in Tokyo, we made our way to a place called Memory Lane (although we didn't know it was called that when we visited) which is about a five foot wide alley literally lined with yakitori place after yakitori place. Most are just open stalls right off the street that you need to squeeze into to get a spot at the counter and order some food but the more deluxe spots have a second floor accessible via a ladder. I'm not kidding.

At just after 5 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, you'll be hard pressed to find a spot at a yakitori restaurant for food in Memory Lane. We got lucky and spotted four people about to leave a bench with their backs to the alley and pounced on them (the seats on the bench, not the people). From there we ordered four of five skewers of food each along with some beer and watched them get cooked in front of us, smoke pouring off them at times after the flames below licked the meat or bacon wrapped onions or mushrooms cooking before us. A quick dip in sauce after being salted and done on the grill and we had our dinner. The chicken thighs were good, the mushrooms were OK and the onions were about the biggest green onions I'd seen in my life. Could have used more cooking. We definitely enjoyed the atmosphere more than the food. That's OK; that's what I came for.

We later discovered Memory Lane is also known as Piss Alley, so named because at one time there were no bathrooms on the street and I guess when you gotta go, you gotta go. That's been fixed now. Try to find more flavor than we did but go here for sure.


If I had a fear about Japanese food, it was that eating sushi there would ruin my taste for sushi back home. We'd watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi before we left home along with some other food documentaries and were afraid we'd eat raw fish so sublime that it would leave us wanting something we couldn't possibly get back home.

I'm both disappointed and glad to report that didn't happen. Disappointed because I didn't have sushi in Japan that was so much more delicious than I can get here at home; glad because, well, I still want to enjoy sushi at home. And I still can.

We ate sushi in both Tokyo and Kyoto and had a little sashimi with our casual kaiseki meal on Miyajima Island. We didn't go visit Jiro Ono's place or anything like it because (a) we didn't have reservations and (b) didn't really want to spend close to $300 on one meal of sushi. That's per person, folks. The best sushi we had in Japan was at a spot next to the Doc Marten's store in Kyoto which I don't know the name of but whose sushi is pictured above.

Order a combo in Japan and you'll likely get some sort of presentation like the box shown above. Order individual pieces and you might get it dropped right on the counter where my pickled ginger is. I did a bit of both and ended that night with the best octopus (it had taste and was not rubbery), fatty tuna (so buttery but with some flavor and not just fat), uni or sea urchin (the creamiest ever) and eel (it was totally the crispy crusty edges that made the difference) that I have ever eaten in my life. You won't get grated wasabi to make some soy and wasabi slurry to soak your rice in before shoveling it in your mouth and that's OK.

A high end sushi place definitely stands out as one place that we missed food-wise on this trip. I'm financially richer for skipping it but I don't understand if I'm actually richer as a person for doing that. Perhaps next time. I still had some of the best sushi of my life.


I have to confess I'm not much of a noodles guy. At one time in my life I used to eat a box of spaghetti at a time when I was in grad school but those meals were always all about the sauce which back then usually meant a whole jar of Newman's Own Sockaroni sauce mixed with a healthy amount of full fat sour cream.

So it was with a little trepidation that I so enthusiastically put noodles on my Japan list but they are such a staple that I had to. Noodles in Japan might mean tens of different varieties. It seems like each locality has their own special variant unique to that location. To make things easier for myself I stuck to ramen (which I'll generically classify as thin wheat noodles), soba (which I'll call similar to ramen but made out of buckwheat) and udon (which I'll just call thick noodles and which are shown above).

I gotta tell you, it's still all about the sauce for me, even in Japan, although sauce here might be better called broth which might be made up of a number of different ingredients to meld into something that is delicious. Yep, there are toppings you can get added onto your bowl of noodles like slices of pork or leeks or hard-boiled eggs or tempura pieces of shrimp or whatever else is on the menu. It's still, for me, all about the sauce.

The verdict? For me (and keep in mind I lack a good palate; hit me over the head with flavor please), the rich curry broth with a generous dose of fatty meat scraps and the sesame / spicy miso soybean paste broth were worth dreaming about again. Those represented my udon and ramen experiences respectively but I think I could have switched the noodles in both those dishes and been no worse off. Sure the pork was delicious in the ramen but it's still about the sauce.

If there's one thing to be said in favor of noodles, it's that they are extremely cheap. 1,300 yen (that's less than $12) got me a big dish of udon for me and my girlfriend along with a beer for me. Find some good sauce or broth and I'm good with these any day. But you gotta pick a good sauce.


I thought my food list was pretty comprehensive before I left for Japan. When I got to Kyoto I realized I had forgotten all about gyoza, or Japanese dumplings, when we stumbled across Gyoza Chaochao near the Kama River with a line out the door representing about a 45 minute wait. Gyoza got added to my list right there and then. The take out beers the place offered were helpful with the waiting.

The gyoza I am used to eating here at home are typically filled with pork, chicken or vegetables and I usually keep some ponzu sauce (soy mixed with citrus) on hand for dipping. Gyoza Chaochao turned all my ideas about these dumplings on their head. Mushroom: good. Curry: really good. Pork: OK. Onion: OK. Tomato sauce and mozzarella: interesting. Ginger: amazing.

I'm maybe being a little harsh with my ratings here. All these gyoza were perfectly crispy on one side and soft and well cooked on the other. We ordered them along with some pickled cucumbers that made us order a second dish of them and the table was equipped with four sauces (soy vinegar, miso, chile oil and some kind of spicy paste) to dip them in.

Gyoza Chaochao is a bare bones place. A small bar wrapping the frenetic food prep area with a few wooden tables scattered along the back and side walls. Ordering is quick and ordering seconds is definitely not frowned upon. I think I could have kept popping these things into my mouth along with more beer for a while. I'll say it again: the ginger ones were the best. And I can't believe I think that. They were just out of this world good.

Strawberry Pocky Sticks

I have many food weaknesses. And drink weaknesses for that matter. I suppose some people that know me reasonably well know what some of these are. One of my more obscure weaknesses is for fake strawberry flavor. And so even though Pocky Sticks can be picked up at 7-11 or FamilyMart and so are technically a subset of convenience store food, they get their own category because they are just so freaking good.

Maybe I should start with explaining Pocky Sticks. Think cookies baked into long thin sticks. They are then dipped in either chocolate or chocolate with coconut or green tea flavored icing or whatever it is or the same stuff just in fake strawberry flavor. I love these things. Compared to my other fake strawberry weaknesses like strawberry iced donuts or strawberry Harry and David maltballs (which actually require you to buy the neapolitan flavor which really only has 1/3 strawberry), Pocky Sticks feel almost healthy. I'd buy them all the time if they had them at U.S. 7-11s. And a box is less than $1.50. I brought two boxes back. Yummy!!!

Nishiki Market

Yes, the picture above does indeed show sparrows on a stick. Yes, the little bird sparrow. The same ones we have in the United States. The cutout picture of a sparrow above the actual product helps, right? 

Nishiki Market is not exactly a food. I get that. But in the same spirit that allowed me to put Hilo Farmer's Market in my Hawaii food post, I'm making the same exception for Nishiki Market. 

Walk away from the Kama River in Kyoto and navigate the mostly-gridlike but sometime maze-y covered passages of the city and you might find yourself at Nishiki Market, a five or six block long stretch of food stalls selling cook at home meats and vegetables and other things edible but also featuring an incredible array of foods available for takeout. Head over there at about 10 a.m. and you might find something good to nibble on for a late breakfast or early lunch like we did in our first day in Kyoto. There's some good stuff to be had here. 

Raw fish? Yep? Octopus? Got that too in both large tentacle and baby-with-head-stuffed-with-quail-egg form. Red bean paste buns and sweets? Yes and yes. Pickled everything? Yes, you can find that here. Eggs? For sure. Chicken? Oh yes. Nuts and sweets? Yes and yes. Anything you can think of eating on a stick or with your hands or with chopsticks in Japan (that's important), I think you'll generally get it at Nishiki Market. Even sparrow on a stick. 

My brunch that day? Two kinds of omelettes (I'm chowing down on one with onion and chicken in the top picture of this post). A piece of conger pike eel on stick. Samples of cookie-like things with dried peas and dried broad beans. Some pieces of fried chicken in a cup. About a half a roasted chestnut. Some tuna sashimi on a stick. And a yuzu flavored kudzu starch bun filled with adzuki bean paste. This last thing was amazingly delicious. It was basically a citrus flavored gel wrapped around a sweet bean paste filling. I'm sure if I were to go back to Nishiki Market, I'd mix things up. There's so much to browse and sample here. 


You didn't think I could get out of this post without talking about tofu, or coagulated soy milk pressed into solids (yummy!!!), did you? Forget everything you think you know about this food for a moment. I also understand that the photo above looks a bit unappetizing or exactly what you might expect tofu to look like (the tofu is the whitish mass towards the bottom of the food) but hey, it was dark and this stuff was good.

If there's a place to eat tofu in this world and have it taste good, it's Kyoto. They are supposed to have the best in the world. To make sure we slid all our chips into the center of the table on this one (I mean it's tofu; we need the best chance we can get) we picked what is allegedly the best tofu restaurant in Kyoto and splurged on a multi-course prix fixe meal (or omakase in Japan) at Tousuiro. A walk down a dark alley to a spot with two lighted paper lanterns, push aside the curtain and enter the door, shoes off and you are ready to be seated. We had to take an outdoor seat, which sounds wonderful and it was, except we had to sit on the floor. 200 plus pound late 40s American men sometimes don't do well on the floor.

I'll admit that I haven't eaten a lot of tofu in my life. In fact, most of it has probably been in soups from Chinese and Japanese restaurants. I'll also admit that the tofu we had in Tousuiro was delicious. It came in dish after dish of tofu-focused plates. In most cases (and I think this was the key here) it was mixed or flavored with other components. The tofu with garfish shown in the photograph above was really flavorful but the best was the pea tofu and corn tofu that came with my very first dish. The texture of most all of the tofu we ate that night was like a farmer's cheese - creamy and chewy with a course texture but soft. I'm not sure if all tofu in Japan tasted this way but if it did, I'd eat it a lot more. Worth a small splurge on this one, although I'd pass on the sitting on the floor thing. Ironically, that cost extra.

French Pastries

Before we left for Japan, we met an incredible number of people who had been to Japan and got lots of advice about what to do and where to eat. One of the strangest pieces of advice we got was that we had to eat some French pastries for breakfast because somehow I guess the Japanese love the French and French food. There was no way I was going to eat French food in Japan. No way!

Sometimes things just don't work out the way you thought because there we were our last morning in Kyoto getting some French pastries to go in the Sizuya bakery near our hotel before we boarded the shinkansen (or bullet train) for Hiroshima. That was the third morning in a row we had eaten at Sizuya. No way, huh? Nice resolve!

So what's good? Well, the yellow iced donut looking things in the picture above are filled with cantaloupe melon flavored cream and they are good. The things to the right and below of the donuts (not the hot dog-looking thing; the yellowish oval looking things next to it) are some sort of warmish croque monsieurs and they are incredible. Ham, cheese, bread and some sort of not solid but not runny béchamel sauce on the top. Three mornings in a row I ate these before heading out sightseeing. Don't pass this up.

Sake, it seemed, was destined to be my great disappointment in Japanese food and drink. I had these visions of getting an introduction to sake, or what is sometimes called rice wine even thought it's brewed like beer, before heading to Japan and then really indulging in the stuff when I got there. I thought I'd be hanging out in sake bars with the locals discovering everything there is to know about the stuff.

Too bad I don't like it. I tried. I had sake at a Japanese restaurant in D.C. before I left home and my mom even bought me a couple of bottles to practice with. But it was the sweet sake that I bought at sumo my first day in Tokyo that killed almost all my appetite for discovery here. I guess the sweetness was OK but when I got down towards the bottom of the can there was a lumpy texture like rice pudding. No thanks.

But if there's one thing in life I can be persistent about it's alcohol and being in Kyoto, where they have brewed sake for centuries in the Fushimi section of town, I had to give it one more shot. So after a day of exploring temples in Nara, we hopped off the JR Line and made our way towards the Gekkeikan brewery, a place with 380 years (!!) of sake brewing history in hopes of finding some local sake joint.

We didn't find what we were looking for. But we did find a makeshift stall outside the brewery set up for after work Friday happy hour, although we ended up being the only ones there. Some pointing and holding up fingers got me through three cups of sake, two number ones and one number three if I'm remembering it correctly. Now this could be the worst sake in Japan for all I know but to me it tasted good and it was some smooth drinking. No sweetness, no alcohol flavor that you can get sometimes with sake and a taste of roasted chocolate on the last cup I drank redeemed my sake quest in Japan. Back to beer after that though. You can never go wrong with beer.


One of the things that is really important to me when I'm traveling abroad (or at home for that matter) is to seek out local food specialties. In the west of Japan, okonomiyaki or a Japanese pancake (what in America we'd call a crepe) is apparently the thing to get so we made it a point to seek one of these out when in Hiroshima, which is about as west as we got while still being in anything resembling an urban center. Lucky for us, there's a district in Hiroshima where you can pretty much get nothing but okonomiyaki.

If there's theater in food preparation in Japan, it's probably to be found in a high end sushi joint, where you can watch the sushi master delicately craft each piece of nigiri from the most carefully prepared fresh fish and the perfect amount of sticky rice, maybe a little wasabi and a sublime wash of soy. If there's budget theater in food preparation, it's got to be okonomiyaki.

I don't even know how to describe the process of constructing one of these things so I'll just launch into it. It all starts with a circle of pancake batter spread on a flattop grill followed by a sprinkling of seasoning or maybe some herbs. And that's about as normal as it gets.

Next up? Cabbage. And when I say cabbage I mean about a half a head of cabbage. Get ready to eat because this thing is going to fill you up for hours. After the cabbage comes the bean sprouts and then some cobwebby looking things that I'm mostly sure weren't actual cobwebs but I couldn't be positive. Add some peanuts, what appeared to be crumbled rice cakes and top with a few strips of bacon or maybe pork belly. What you have at this point is a close to Mount Fuji sized mound of food cooking away on the grill top. See above if you need help.

That's when the protein (in my case shrimp) and the noodles come out. They get cooked alongside the cabbage etc. mountain after it is flipped (so the pancake is now on top of the whole assemblage). Eventually, and pretty quickly by the way, the whole thing is going to come together as a single ensemble. But not before an egg is added to the mix for some extra nourishment. Look, there's always room for eggs, right? Oh, and some sweet and umami okonomiyaki sauce on top to round out the flavors. I mean, what's an okonomiyaki without okonmiyaki sauce?

As a mid-day meal, this experience was pretty intense. Once it gets to your table you are presented with some chopsticks and something that looks like a trowel that you would use to spread grout to cut the whole thing. All the ingredients meld together to create a meal unlike anything I have ever had before. Hot, sweet, earthy, eggy, filling and satisfying. This was also perhaps the most memorable meal from an experiential standpoint we had in Japan. And yes, I ate the whole thing and gained a few pounds.

Japanese Curry

If there's a meal I crave now that I'm back home in the United States, it's Japanese curry. There are two ironies here: (1) This is truly an adopted food as opposed to being a native dish; curry apparently made it's way east to Japan from India courtesy of the British. And (2) we ate our lone meal of Japanese curry at a fast food restaurant, the available-almost-everywhere-and-sometimes-even-24-hours-per-day CoCo Curry. Yes, you read that right: I crave Japanese fast food.

Not only is Japanese curry delicious, it also defies the attractive food is the tastiest food axiom that honestly I kind of just made up. This is one ugly plate: a circular dish with a flattened semicircle of white rice in a half moon shape on one side and the other flooded with brown curry gravy. Add some toppings for some more taste and texture but honestly I think the chunks of meat and veg you can choose as extras make it less pleasing to the eye. But, it tasty.

At CoCo, your meal is totally customizable. Start with the sauce (I went with beef curry) and then the quantity of rice (I stuck to the standard 300 grams). Next choice? Spice level. I went with 3, which was perfect for me and I love spicy food; you can go up to 10 if you want and I can't imagine how painful that would be. Grab some toppings (fried chicken, corn and potatoes for me although the potatoes turned out to be potato salad on the side) and you are ready to go. Quick and hearty with a great curry flavor with heat that builds as you eat. I could go for some of this stuff right now. If I ever go back to Japan, I'm eating two or three meals at CoCo.


We splurged twice for food in Japan. Once on tofu and once on eel. Our destination for our eel meal was the almost 200 year old family run restaurant Nodaiwa, which we found close to the Tokyo Tower after learning how to handle a katana for an hour or so (but that's another story).

Nodaiwa looks and feels like it's a couple of centuries old. The decor is traditional and intricate and formal and the presentation of the dishes matches the building's appeal. We had a quick sit in the lobby of the place while we waited for our table to free up and we smelled and watched. After ordering, we were presented with several dishes: a bed of rice in a beautiful lacquered wooden box with two side dishes of pickled things and a small cup of eel liver soup. You read that last part right.

While the eel liver soup disappointed on flavor a bit (it was watery and I didn't dare eat the two livers at the bottom of the cup), the eel which was lovingly coated with sweet eel sauce that had seeped just a bit into the rice below. Nodaiwa apparently only cooks wild caught eel and apparently the discerning diner can tell the difference. I guess I'm not experienced enough here but it tasted pretty darned good to me. There was a smoky barbecued flavor beneath the sauce that I found very satisfying. Not Japanese curry, but probably worth the splurge. I'd recommend checking this place out.

And just like that we are done with Japanese food for this post.

Wow that was long. I'm not sure I've explored more different foods ever on a trip. And yes, as I stated earlier in this post, we actually didn't cover everything on my list. Missing? Some sort of food at an izakaya and a kaiseki meal, neither of which are foods but are instead types of restaurants or meals.

Izakaya are basically Japanese pubs, places to drink sake and beer that also happen to serve bites of food. Kaiseki are elaborate multi-course (like a dozen or more) meals prepared in a specific sequence using local and seasonal ingredients. We sort of had a casual kaiseki (meaning all the food is there but delivered at one time) at our hotel on Miyajima Island but I'm not counting that as checking the box. Something to go back for next time. As well as plenty of CoCo Curry.

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