Happy Thursday! Tiff and Cait are still slacking today, and our friend Alissa, who you may remember for Minneapolis and Tanzania, is here to keep us lazy. Good luck reading this and not shoving your face full of Japanese food today.
Since my trip to Japan, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of ikigai. Hailing from Okinawa, the word has no direct English equivalent, but roughly translates to ‘a reason to get up in the morning.’ It’s a noun that can be used to describe a wide range of things that bring someone satisfaction and happiness: a hobby, a friend, a lover, a profession. After much existential deliberation, I’ve realized that eating is up there on my ikigai list. As a person who thinks about nutrition from 9-5, I also spend a solid chunk of my personal time ruminating about what I’m going to eat next. When I talk about food, my eyes usually get all big and shiny. And given that my belly typically wakes me up instead of my alarm clock, eating literally is my ‘reason to get up in the morning’.
When Cait+Tiff asked me to do a travel post on Japan, I wasn’t sure where to start – everything about the country blew me away – the culture, the shrines, the design, the gardens… where to begin? But in the end, I decided to stay true to my ikigai.
I give you, the 10 most delicious things I ate in Japan:
Tofu ball at Giro Giro Hitoshina
Giro Giro Hitoshina is a kaiseki restaurant that takes a modern, daring spin on the traditional multi-course cuisine. Committed to innovation and affordability (8 courses for $30), the chef hopes to bring kaiseki to a new generation of diners. The entire experience was phenomenal, but this deep-fried tofu ball in red snapper broth was transformative. Said it before, saying it again: best thing I’ve ever eaten.
Location: Nambacho Nishikiyamachidori, Kyoto
Progression of tuna at Sushi Kanesaka
After watching ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’, my mantra this trip was ‘Alissa Dreams of Sushi’, and I ate so much of it I think I did actually dream about it. Kanesaka serves up a 17-course sushi masterpiece, with prices significantly more affordable than Jiro’s joint, particularly during the lunch hour. The highlight was the sequence of tuna nigiri – lean, medium fatty, fatty – all taken from the same delicious fish.
Location: Ginza, Tokyo
Kagari’s tori-paitan ramen
This creamy chicken noodle soup pushes the ramen envelope and is well-worth the 1.5 hour wait. The setting is also delightful – a friendly, wooden ramen shop with only 15 seats located down a small alley off the bustling streets of Ginza.
Location: Ginza, Tokyo
Dinner at Doudou
Run by Satoko Sasaki, a little lady who traded in the hustle-and-bustle of Tokyo for a quieter life in Nara, this restaurant of only 7 seats specializes in Japanese home-style cooking. We feasted on grilled butterfly fish, creamy potato salad, roasted broad beans in the pod, and eggplant. Satoko also offers an introductory sake tasting, featuring sakes from the Nara region. In addition to the fantastic food, the intimate, cozy atmosphere of Doudou led to great conversation with other patrons – a physics professor from Kyoto (who said he visits Nara so he can drink beer without running into students!), a couple from Geneva, a business woman from Tokyo, a young man working in finance – and the chef herself.
Location: Tsubaicho, Nara
Quote from my mom sums it up: ‘Uhhhhhh… This is the best thing I have ever, EVER eaten…… Okiyooki… Okaamaniki… Ookoonoomkia… How do you pronounce it?’ (In case you haven’t tried is, Okonomiyaki is this.)
Location: Sanjo Dori, Nara
Duck meatball in duck yolk
After braving the crowds and rain in Kyoto, all we wanted was something warm to eat and a dry place to rest our weary, water-logged feet. In the geisha district of Gion, we slipped into Wabiya Korekido, famous for yakitori (meat-on-a-stick), just as they were closing up. They graciously let us stay, and it was here that I ate the best meatball of my life. As the menu was all in Japanese, I don’t know much about it, except that it was made of duck and we rolled it around in a duck egg yolk before eating it. Superb.
Location: Gion, Kyoto
Everything is so tasty in Japan that even mini-mart packaged food is ridiculously good. Favorites included: matcha (green tea) cakes, salty litchi juice, chocolate pancakes, and beef jerky.
Location: Family Mart, 7-11, Lawson’s across Japan
Japanese comfort food
Browsing the selections at Kyoto’s Nishiki Market is bound to make anyone ravenous. At first glance, the market seems to be only stalls, but closer inspection reveals a multitude of narrow halls leading to tiny restaurants operating in the back. We saw something looking like tempura and followed the adjacent hall back, hoping to find sustenance. As was the case for about 90% of our meals, we couldn’t read anything on the menu, but at this point in our Japan trip we knew that whatever was put in front of us would be scrumptious. What that ended up being was a giant bowl, filled with savory, slightly glutinous rice and topped with heaps of julienned, deep-fried sweet potatoes and yams. We don’t know what this dish is called but decided it must translate to ‘Japanese comfort food’.
Location: Nishiki Market, Kyoto
I dragged my mom on an izakaya crawl through the Shibuya district of Tokyo. Navigating through the neon lights of the love hotel district, we sampled amazing yakitori and takoyaki, but the best eats were at a place called 35 Steps. Located in a basement 35 steps down, this izakaya is friendly, lively, and utterly delicious. The best was their fried chicken – perfectly crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and doused in a sweet, spicy sauce.
Location: Shibuya, Tokyo
My mom treated me to Kobe beef our last evening in Japan. I have no photos from this meal and I actually can’t remember the name of the restaurant – I blame this on the effects on consuming the most heavenly piece of meat of my life. Kobe beef is sinuously marbled with fat and like eating beef speckled with butter. The restaurant manager told us that he makes routine road trips to Kobe, namesake of this infamous beef, to procure cuts of meat at auction. Cows in Kobe are massaged and fed sake – the belief being that happier cows are tastier cows. This beef ain’t cheap, but worth the yen for the degustation experience.
Location: somewhere in Tokyo (apologies that marbled fatty beef erased all logistic memories of this meal)