The title seems apt as I furiously tap away on the keyboard, sitting in the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) bound for Kyoto. From Japan’s modern bustling capital city Tokyo, to its more laidback but crammed-in-every-corner-with-culture ancient capital, Kyoto. I find myself distracted, as I type. The scenery outside, acres and acres of cherry blossoms, rivers aimlessly meandering by, and oh wait.. is that Mount Fuji? Please excuse me as I pause to gape in wonder.
A week in Tokyo and the country is no longer as alien as it seemed earlier. The subway is my ally, as is Google Map (which tends to be inaccurate here sometimes) helping me explore crevices of this crazy metropolis, some (rightfully) on the tourist trail, and some (thankfully) off it. For a country where English is unapologetically not very commonly spoken or understood, it is not difficult to get around in Japan. Hand gestures, speaking slowly and not in sentences and maps make the world a smaller place.
I couldn’t attempt to put all my experiences this week in this one post. It would be impossible. But maybe, just maybe, I could limit it to food and give you a glimpse of what I have been upto. So here goes.. each one of these an experience, each highly recommended with my stamp:
5 Things You Must Eat in Tokyo
Lucky enough (or rather smart enough) to be staying in a hotel in Shinkuju area, if yakitori is what you seek, head to the ‘Yakitori Lane’ just off Shinkuju station. Do not pay heed to the naysayers, this is neither seedy nor overrated. I have since had plenty of yakitori in much grander envoins, the food doesn’t even compare. We randomly selected one of the places in the lane, which seemed to be popular with locals and tourists alike and where an English menu was available. These places are tiny, with 4-5 tables (usually upstairs) and are crowded with ‘salaried men’ who come here for a couple of drinks after work. The chicken yakitori outshone the pork version and the fried rice was absolutely divine.
The lesser known, yakinuki should be the one food experience you should NOT miss, and save up to splurge on. Much like a Korean barbeque, the meats are grilled on your table. The meats at Jojoen Yakinuki were the star of the show. We were lucky enough to be hosted by a Japanese friend who ordered on our behalf and asked us to ‘trust her’. We needn’t have worried. The ox tongue literally melted in the mouth and the marinated beef was beyond delicious as were the clams. I did draw the line at beef intestines, though.
This one deserves a post of its own so I will keep it for another day. But safe to say, what you have been eating as ramen barely scratches the surface. There are many varieties of ramen, each drastically different from the other. The one I decided to hunt out on a cold rainy day, is called Fuunji Ramen and usually has a waiting line around the block. Thankfully the rain kept (most) people home and we only had to wait for 15 minutes. You buy your order ticket, sit on a table facing the chefs, and are served your soba noodles cold, with a hot, mean dipping sauce on the side. Eat and please make way for the people standing behind you in line. The broth? Oh so good. Salty, murky and full of pork flavor.
My journey with Japanese food started with tempura, similar as it is to fritters or even our own pakoda. However, having sampled much greater variety of Japanese food over the years, tempura does not feature high on my list anymore. However, the experience of a tempura lunch is something you should seek out. Looking for the place took me a while, especially as there were no English signages but I recognized it from a photo I saw on Tripadvisor. After you placed your order, and settled on the counter facing the chef, he got busy preparing your food, which he placed one by one in front of you, waiting for you to finish each piece first. Always a fan of prawns, I was surprised with how much I loved Eel Tempura. Smooth, delicate and delicious meat, perfectly contrasting with the crunch of the tempura flakes.
5) Oh and Sushi too
Sushi is perhaps the most popular Japanese dish outside of the country. But here, with the variety in front of you, it almost becomes an afterthought. Almost, I say, because when you do get around to trying some sushi, it blows you away and obliterates memory of any sushi you may have eaten anywhere in the world. You won’t find maki rolls too often, sushi here usually refers to Nigiri. I went for the English-friendly conveyor belt Ginza Sushi, well aware that it may be inferior to the best in town (far far below the $300 experience at Jiro), but came away amazed at just how delicious it was. The avocado and tuna sushi begged for a reorder and the tuna mince with spring onions and chilly oil still gives me sleepless nights.
Now, you know what’s been keeping me busy this week? And this was just about the food. Wait till I start about the sakura (cherry blossoms)….