Nothing outside of Japan can prepare you for what a culinary extravaganza you are about to walk into. The Japanese care a lot of what they eat and even how they eat it – so what you are going to deal with is a complete dining experience, even if you are going to eat at a roadside eatery. I am not much of a fine dining person, so a lot of the experiences are with smaller restaurants, street shacks, and just walking around in the Tsukiji and Nishiki markers. There is also an amazing variety of food to buy, from dried fish to spices and even candy.
One of the first things you see is that it’s not all fish and seafood. A lot of beef and pork are eaten and a little bit of chicken. Overall there is also a huge European influence with enough continental cuisine options to go around. These would be virtually the only options if you are a vegetarian or even just a chicken eater. The quality of food, though, it’s excellent everywhere. In my 8 days there, I did not find one unsatisfactory meal. I even tried a place at the train station – and it was damn good. In general, food can be found on the first basement floor of most malls. A platter of tastings in a nice restaurant was one of the most memorable meals with 19 different bite-sized dishes and a flower on a sponge as a decoration. I took a bite off the sponge before realizing what it was.
There are a few things that define the food scene in Japan and while Sushi is a large part of it, it’s not the only thing. Sushi is available everywhere, from $300 dinners to just local street-side places that can seat 2-3 people and then serve them freshly made Sushi. The small eatery and roadside versions are all fresh and tasty but nothing extravagant that I had imagined. Tuna and Salmon are the most commonly used fish and Salmon Roe adds to this unique flavor. But the magic is in the precision with which Sushi is created and the simple things that enhance the flavor and the experience, a definite must-try.
Beyond Sushi the next thing that caught my eye was Ramen. Most of my memorable meals in Japan involved some form of Ramen. This for me was the Japanese comfort food – much like the Pho in Vietnam, except that the Ramen has a lot of ingredients and seems a lot more complex – which can be good or bad. Some of the best Ramen was served in local shops and could be as cheap as 1000 JPY. It was hard to understand the ingredients, even if the menu was in English, so I just improvised. I was never disappointed. I even ended up at this place in Shinjuku where there was a vending machine-like interface to order just as you enter and then you give the printed slip to the waiter and sit anywhere. The favors were awesome and it was very fragrant and spicy.
A different roadside experiment led be to buy some of the local very colorful sweet or Wagashi. These come in very elegant packaging and the sweets themselves are very bright looking. The taste is mildly sweet and there is a soft interior with a more gelatinous shell. While they were good to try, there is really almost a crazy variety of candy and sweets you can buy off the street in Tokyo – I would highly recommend trying as many as you can manage to eat.
Once you cover the well-knowns, you tread into the truly local territory and try out a bowl of buckwheat noodles in ground beef gravy. These are noodles you will see sucking into their mouth with a slurping sound. This sound is presumed to be a compliment to the chef, so be as loud as you want :). There are some amazingly complex dishes available on roadsides and the simplest of edamame can be delicious.
Finally – fish! Only one thing needs to be said unless absolutely needed, they don’t cook the fish. Eating a bowl of raw tuna and rice was a little overwhelming on the first bite but once you get used to the flavor, it is delicious. Walking around the markets you will find these samples of prawns, squids, and other fish – they are delicious. There is also a range of spices available just anything to make a fish taste any better than freshness!