“Are you going to Japan? You’ll only get sushi there and it’s really bad”, that was (thankfully) the only cringe worthy “tip” I received just a few days prior to my Japan trip. Thanks to my exposure to Japanese cuisine and Matt Goulding’s Rice, Noodle, Fish – Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture guiding me, I was all set to eat all the sushi and ramen that Japan had to offer. But, what I hadn’t anticipated was that I wouldn’t be repeating a single meal.
I don’t remember exactly when my interest in Japanese cuisine started shaping up; it could be that first taste of sushi with a hit of wasabi eaten at a Mumbai restaurant. Yes, it wasn’t half as good as what I finally ate in Tokyo, but it was still a revelation that something so simple can be so satisfying for the soul. The interest bloomed into a full-fledged love for the culture and food when I read A Strange Weather In Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. The tiny bars where Tsukiko and Sensei would meet were mapped in my brain and I would envisage myself sitting in one, emptying glass after glass of sake with pickles.
On my very first evening in Tokyo, sitting at an Izakaya at the Golden Gai in Shinjuku, glass of sake in hand, I was smiling to myself thinking of that dream. With orange lanterns, few rickety stools and benches, and a stream of salary men, college kids and young couples walking in for cheap tipple and grub, Izakaya – the informal Japanese gastro pubs – form an integral part of Tokyo’s dining and drinking culture. The Izakaya where I sat was managed by all of two people – a young chef who took our orders and served us drinks and a senior chef behind the open kitchen grilling, sautéing and stir frying our food with Zen like focus. I spent the evening drinking sake with unlimited supply of pickled vegetables; the Izakaya staples or Japanese tapas – stir fried mushrooms flavoured with just a bit of soy sauce, yakisoba – stir fried noodles with pork, and grilled prawns made my first and tremendously satisfying meal in Tokyo.
At Golden Gai, the small lanes are packed with bars serving just drinks. With seating space for about 6-8 people, these bars are probably smaller than your smallest Airbnb in Tokyo. You sit close to each other that you eventually end up being friends with strangers and that’s the best part of Golden Gai. As we looked around to find a comfortable place to spend the rest of the evening, we were invited inside a bar and were soon clinking glasses with the locals and tourists. This was only the beginning of our night of bar hop. If Golden Gai was all about drinking with the strangers, Ichiran ramen house familiarized me to dining in solitude (read more about it here). There’s no better way to eat a robust pork-bone broth tonkotsu than to silently ponder over every layer and ingredient that come together to make a perfect bowl of ramen.
While Tokyo saves up to splurge on fashion and technology, Osaka likes to spend on food, drink and having a good time. At a sake bar in Osaka Namba, where we entered as hesitant tourists, we were soon having broken conversations with the staff and fellow diners. Right from being offered food from our fellow diners’ plates to being escorted to the famous crab place nearby, we walked the entire stretch of the Osakan hospitality. But, we took our leave because it was time for kuidaore (ruin ourselves silly with food) in Dotonbori – Osaka’s famous food street. The air got heavier with the aroma of fried meat as we closed in and soon we were standing by a river with restaurants and street-side carts lining its banks. Osaka takes pride in its two culinary creations, Okonomiyaki – cabbage and egg pancakes with an addition of meat or seafood of your picking, drizzled over with mayonnaise and BBQ sauce with bonito flakes fluttering gently on top and Takoyaki – fried gooey fritters with a single chewy nugget of octopus in the centre. Don’t worry about the TripAdvisor ratings, walk-in at practically any restaurant and the food will be equally good. If you still want to play safe, just head to the one with the longest queue.
In Kyoto we got acquainted to its two traditional cuisines, Obanzai ryori – the traditional home style cooking and Shojin ryori – the tofu and rice based vegetarian meal of the Buddhist monks. When the blandness of the latter made us reach out to the nearest pizza place, we found our salvation in shrimp and chicken wasabi gyozas at Chao Chao near Kamogawa river; the snake like long queue here will tell you everything you need to know about the food here. I would sum it up by saying that it was worth risking missing the bus for. We found a bakery selling buttery croissants when we were too tired of eating rice and soup for breakfast and a basement bar that served us unlimited popcorn with our beer. From wasabi soaked octopus at a maid café in Akihabara to a blandish kenchin soup (miso based soup with vegetables and tofu) in Arashiyama, our every meal in Japan was full of surprises. I had come to Japan hoping to eat a lifetime’s worth of sushi and instead I was going back with just one sushi lunch and innumerable other meals to remember.