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Eating Japanese - a cry for help

I'll be going to Japan with my husband toward the end of May for 2 weeks. Although we are both adventurous eaters and I am an accomplished cook, I feel utterly overwhelmed by Japanese food. Of course we've eaten our share of sushi and tempura, but I realize that really don't understand Japanese food enough and want to at least have some idea of how to experience it. We'll be staying in Tokyo for about a week, then Osaka (Kyoto and I'm not sure where else yet) for another week. Mostly we'll be with friends or family, so we'll be looked after somewhat. But there will be times when we'll be wandering solo and I'd like to have some kind of quest. Please tell me what to eat and what to look for on my travels.

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  1. A lot of my favorites in Tokyo are listed in here:


    1. Although I'm not a expert in restaurants in Japan, the basements of department stores are really fun to check out. They have ALL kinds of food, already prepared and ready to eat. They also have desserts, baked goods, annything you can possibly imagine. The quality is pretty good, and it gives you a good variety of what japanese food is really about. There are other posts that you can check out- the basements are called "depachika", there are some reccomendations of which department stores are the best.

      1 Reply
      1. re: mmkanzaki

        I have to second this recommendation. It might sound weird to go to a department store to check out the food department but it's really something to see. It's been a couple of years but if I remember right, the prepared foods (bakery, candy, pickles, sashimi etc) are on one level of the basement and the grocery store is on the next one down. Check out both. When we were there, a fishmonger was filleting an enormous tuna with a crowd of onlookers. It's also fun to check out the outrageously expensive (but absolutely flawless) fruit. I believe Takashimaya in Tokyo is the best but any of the large department stores will have them.

      2. If you have time before your trip, you might want to track down a copy of the Lonely Plant Word Food guide on Japan. It's very basic, but does a fair job of covering most areas of Japanese cuisine. It's also small enough that it wouldn't be too burdensome if you wanted to take it with you for reference.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Debbie M

          Actually that might be a good idea. I do have the Lonely Planet Japan - but haven't read through it yet. Might have enough food info there to help me. Thanks for the suggestion.

          And thanks to everyone else too. It's really really stupid - I have this absolute vacuum of knowledge when it comes to Japanese food. I've travelled a lot, know a great deal about European, Middle Eastern, Chinese, North, South and Central American cuisine - but Japan intimidates me. Don't get me wrong - I'll eat it when I see it, but there seems to be so much to learn about that cuisine that I find myself very much overwhelmed. I'll start by reading.

        2. If you want to see what the typical Japanese actually eat, you must try out the noodles, whether ramen, udon, soumen, or soba. If you're going for Soba, try the Kanda area in Tokyo. Cold zarusoba this time of year is great if the heat has you down. Real(however you define it) ramen is harder to get in Tokyo, but there are a good number of fairly good places. Once you go towards Osaka, try out the udon. Also, try out the yakiniku (charcoal grilled meat), which is a modified edition of Korean barbecue. And just like the states, give the bar food a try. If you'd like to start safe, try a western style bar to see how the Japanese add a twist to western favorites, of if you're feeling adventurous, give a traditional izakaya a try.

          2 Replies
          1. re: moki

            There are good-quality soba shops all over Tokyo; I personally don't think it's worth the effort to go to Kanda if one just wants to try soba (especially without a specific restaurant recommendation). And it's not particularly hot yet.

            I'm surprised to hear you say that real ramen is harder to find in Tokyo - ramen shops seem to outnumber soba shops by several times.

            I'm not sure that Korean barbecue would be one of my top recommendations for an introduction to Japanese cuisine. At any rate most newer Korean places (in Tokyo anyway) seem to focus on "modern Korean" rather than just barbecue.

            I'm not sure that going to a Western-style bar would be one of my tips for exploring Japanese cooking. I'd definitely agree with trying out an izakaya, perhaps a modern izakaya even more than a traditional one.

            1. re: Robb S

              I agree on all your points. Soba is a nice lunchtime option where ever you happen to be. And Tokyo is THE center of the ramen universe. Period.

              I would argue that no chowhound worth their weight in salt should consider izakaya "adventurous" and consider not going to one as they, in many ways, represent the modern Japanese dining ethos. Izakaya of some variety, are not to be missed by gourmet visitors to Japan.

          2. Hi Nyleve- I'm assuming you're back; how did it go?

            4 Replies
            1. re: Sushiqueen36

              Aha! Sorry - I didn't check the Japan board when we got home. Oh it was a fantastic trip. And yes, I ate everything I could get my hands on and it was fantastic.

              A few outstanding moments. In Osaka, a ramen place called Ippudo which had just plain fantastic ramen and the best gyoza I've ever had. It's in central Osaka - sorry I don't have an address because I stupidly didn't take notes on this trip. In Tokyo, fantastic sushi for breakfast at the Tsukiji fish market. Just picked a little place at random and it was the best sushi I've ever eaten. Maybe not so fancy but delicious! Stayed overnight in the town of Koyasan at a Buddhist monastery where we had beautiful meals - dinner and breakfast - and were able to be present at the morning prayers. One super-blow-out meal at a place we were taken to by our hosts who live in Tokyo. It was on a very high floor of a building somewhere in Minato-ku (I think) and had a fabulous view and gorgeous food. But I mean gorgeous in the visual sense, mostly. It wasn't really Chow-ish at all and I don't even want to think what it must have cost them.

              I ordered noodles from a vending machine; ate takoyaki at the epicentre in Osaka (yoiks! I didn't like it!); tried these strange wiggly sweets on the street in Kyoto; ate really fantastically interesting wasabi ice cream, had sushi from a conveyer belt (meh); went to some kind of cook-it-yourself place with nephew in Osaka (delicious but not memorable).

              About the depatchikas, enough has been said. But personally - OMG. I have a thousand photos of food and only two or three of temples. I exaggerate, of course, but not much.

              I came home with a suitcase full of odd things, including some super-wonderful knives. More about that in a separate email. Oh and I loved buying those bento boxes to take on the bullet train - they were so beautiful and just spectacular to eat while the countryside whizzed by.

              It was a seriously excellent trip. I can't believe that place. We were there because my husband has an exhibition of his artwork at the gallery in the Canadian embassy in Tokyo (still on until end of August, if anyone is interested!) - but I made it into a food expedition too. Fantastic.

              1. re: Nyleve

                Thanks for the report! Sounds like you really did make the most of your food experiences and I'm sure you have a much better understanding of the variety of Japanese food now! I traveled to Koya-san 2 years ago with a friend and they really do a beautiful job with vegetarian food. The train ride there is also pretty interesting! I envy that you bought knives there- I intended to but didn't do my homework well enough before leaving. I'll look for that post and plan to do that on my next trip.

                1. re: Sushiqueen36

                  It's a sad knife story, actually. So if you don't want to be depressed, don't read my post. They were beautiful knives, though. Were, being the operative word.

                  1. re: Nyleve

                    Too late. Very sad. Do they have any way for you to recover them if they are found?