Disclosure: I visited Tokyo on a press trip as part of my work as a freelance journalist. The trip was complimentary, but entirely unrelated to this blog. I’m just writing about it because it was so fab.
You may or may not have noticed that I recently went to Tokyo on a work trip to learn all about Japanese food. Hard life hey… Predictably, it was amazing, and in just a few days we managed to experience a hell of a lot of food, drink, sights and culture. Japan has been on everyone’s ‘must-go’ list for a while now and I have to admit to wondering if it was all hype. But yes, it really is that great.
Rather than write a blog post that could end up as lengthy, messy and nonsensical as the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, I’ve decided to just share a few highlights with you. They’re by no means exhaustive but might give you a few ideas of exactly how much food and drink you can enjoy on a trip to Tokyo.
Eat swanky sushi in Ginza
Ginza is an upmarket area in Tokyo, full of all the designer boutiques and posh bars and restaurants. We spent our first evening in one, sat up at the bar enjoying what they call an omakase menu – basically dishes selected by the chefs. A great way for stepping out of your comfort zone.
Over a few hours we were fed everything sushi from clam and tuna to Anago (conger eel) and chu Toro (tuna belly), all prepared in an almost ritualistic fashion by our skilled chefs. There might have been a language barrier but they still managed to give us various tips on how to eat certain things (do NOT add wasabi if they’ve already done it, it seems to be a cardinal sin), all while we washed it down with sake and beer. A wonderful evening and a great way to experience upmarket sushi.
Visit the ‘Kill Bill’ restaurant for a night of food and craziness
Remember that scene in Kill Bill where badass Uma Thurman fought a billion ninjas in a restaurant? This place is done up to look exactly like it. It’s probably the biggest place in terms of food and drink that we went to in Tokyo and is clearly a tourist draw, but who cares.
You can choose from sushi to noodles as well as all sorts of grilled things from the huge smoky open kitchen in the centre. A gyoza pizza was one of our faves, along with chicken skin yakitori and some chicken liver skewers too. A yuzu mojito was my tipple of choice, though you can have beer if you fancy, and be prepared to join in the spectacular birthday celebrations and general noise and chaos.
Go to a traditional tea ceremony
One of my favourite parts of the trip, if you can do a traditional Japanese tea ceremony you should. We went to a big hotel for ours, being led through the gardens to the peaceful haven where we were led through the whole ritual.
The matcha itself and the intricately made Japanese sweets are a draw in and of themselves, but it’s the whole spectacle – the beauty of it, the tradition and the meaning behind it all – that makes the whole thing wonderful.
Get yourself some Gyoza
I blimin love gyoza so when we visited Harajuku – itself a renowned area for its quirkiness and fashion on the famous Takeshita Street and ice bars, restaurants and shop on Omotesando Avenue. As we browsed I discovered that it’s also the home of Gyozaro, also called Gyoza Lou – a great place for gyoza.
You can’t miss it, there’s a big queue out of the door waiting for these boys. The menu is simple – a few different types of gyoza, steamed and fried, cucumber salad, rice with chicken soup, pickled cabbage, and beansprouts with meat sauce. We ordered one of everything. Then we did exactly the same thing again. Need I say more.
Take a trip to ‘Piss Alley’ for Yakitori and beers
Yes, it’s actually called that, though its other name is also ‘Memory Lane’. Apparently the former is a reference to it as a haven for black market traders in post-war Tokyo rather than any suggestion that it’s the most popular place for a sneaky wee.
It was possibly my favourite place in Tokyo. A tiny narrow street packed with bars that seat no more than around 10 people serving up freshly grilled treats from yakitori including ‘gizzard’, wagyu beef, and pork belly, as well as other things like stingray fin. You don’t stay too long in one place but cruise around, squeezing in to place after place to soak up the hustle, bustle and simple but fabulous food.
Visit the fish market
If you like lie-ins, you might struggle with this one. It was a 3.30am alarm for us to get over to Toyosu, the new fish market that has replaced the famous Tsukiji market. It’s big and possibly slightly less traditional in feel than its predecessor (though I haven’t been, that’s just me imagining) but it’s still epic and awe-inspiring.
You can stand up on the balcony and watch the famous tuna auctions which will outdo any episode of Love Island for drama and entertainment and gives you an idea of where those delicate bits of sushi and sashimi actually come from. Well worth the early start.
Get yourself to a 7-Eleven for all the snacks
Yes, I’m aware 7-Eleven is a US thing too, but I imagine the American versions don’t have quite the array of crazy snacks you can find in the ones in Tokyo. Everything from dried fish snacks to pre-made noodle and rice dishes and edamame beans sealed in foil packets. But it was the confectionery that got me – chocolate, biscuits, sweets and my favourite, dorayaki or filled pancakes. Needless to say, any spare space in my case was filled courtesy of 7-Eleven.
Try a traditional kaiten sushi joint
You know those conveyor belts at Yo! Sushi? They’re inspired by traditional kaiten sushi joints in Japan. The one we popped into had conveyor belts along the side of all the tables and touch screens to order. It wasn’t anywhere near the quality of the sushi we’d enjoyed in Ginza, but the price tag was considerably lower. It’s definitely something to try for a quick lunch – especially the fried chicken.
Get Okonomiyaki in Shinjuku
I’d heard a LOT about Okonomiyaki before we found somewhere in Shibuya (home of the busiest intersection in the world – you know, that one from Fast and Furious and Lost in Translation). While in Tokyo I asked a few people about where our love of Japanese cuisine comes from and a few said it’s about the experience. Well, Okonomiyaki certainly fits the bill.
Imagine a frittata/pancake hybrid and you might get an idea of what Okonomiyaki is like, but it’s far more than what you’re imagining. Huddle round the table complete with its built-in hotplate and order your choice of Okonomiyaki. The waitress or waiter will arrive, stir the mixture of flour, eggs, dashi, shredded cabbage and other ingredients from meat to fish and onion or veg vigorously and then pile it on the hot metal ready to cook, along with a timer and strict instructions of when to turn it.
Once cooked, it’s topped with Okonomiyaki sauce (a bit like Worcester sauce though thicker), Japanese mayo, pickled ginger, seaweed and bonito flakes and voila, there you have it. As someone who eats eggs most days and loves an omelette or frittata, this was the dish for me. A slightly runnier version is Monjayaki, which is kept looser thanks to extra dashi so it never quite sets. We ate ours with tiny tools a bit like wallpaper scrapers that were just right for getting it off the hotplate. Oh, and just in case all of that wasn’t enough we tried some Yakisoba noodles too. Because, you know, Tokyo.
Get a drink in Golden Gai
Golden Gai is another popular area of Tokyo, but more of a drinking neighbourhood than Piss Alley. In a similar way, you squeeze into small bars where you can choose anything from whisky and gin to plum wine and myriad other weird and wonderful drinks. Quite touristy again, but an experience unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere.
Visit a Japanese service station
Bored of the M&S, KFC, McDonald’s and Costa outlets in UK service stations? This is about as far from that as you can get. Our stop at a motorway services en route to a sake distillery revealed a whole array of food that reminds you just how unimaginative and mass-produced most service station food in Britain is.
From melon bread and other baked delights to corn dogs, udon noodles and sushi, there’s all sorts on offer. Given it was 10am and we’d been up since 3.30am visiting the fish market (see above) most of us opted for ramen. You might want to learn from my mistake though and not go for an incredibly spicy szechuan version at that time in the morning. Your body won’t like you for it.
Get late-night ramen after a night out
On the subject of ramen, thanks to Tokyo it’s my new favourite end-of-a-night-drinking food. Forget kebabs, forget fast food, or toast when you get home. What you need is a hearty bowl of broth full of noodles, charsui pork, chilli and spring onion. We ordered on a machine then sat in little booths, where the ramen appeared through a curtain and you were left to enjoy it alone, without interruption from your fellow drunken wannabe popstars fresh out of karaoke.
No, tendon isn’t a weird part of the body that probably makes you gag a bit if you thought you were about to eat it. It’s actually a bowl of rice piled high with tempura veg or fish. We opted for huge selections that included aubergine, eel, prawn, squid and white fish. A bit full-on for a morning snack but worth a try. Just make sure you’re hungry.
Have cocktails in Ebisu
We made a fleeting visit to the quieter neighbourhood of Ebisu where we tried some high-end cocktails at the lovely bar Triad. Along with the owners other bars, Bar Tram and Bar Trench, Triad even gets a mention by World’s Best Bars.
It’s got a lovely cocktail menu as well as a massive selection of high-end spirits and a balcony perfect for catching your breath away from the craziness of some of the other parts of Tokyo.
And there you have it. Far from exhaustive, and mainly focused on food and drink, but hopefully a starting point if you’re planning a trip to Tokyo and a bit of inspiration if you’re not. I cannot emphasise enough what a wonderful place this city is if you love food and drink and culture, as well as a damn good time. Go. You won’t regret it.