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Sep 30, 2012 07:16 AM

Tokyo, Kyoto, Koyasan, Osaka, Yokohama - Quick report

Hello all hounds,

I'm back from Japan, both happy with memories and sad for leaving such an amazing country and such kind and interesting people... and of course the food... how will I go on without the ramen, without the udon, without the sushi ?

I will make in-depth reviews with pictures of each place I've been for my blog (in french) and will translate a bunch of them for Chowhound. But since it will take a bit of time, I decided to do a quick overall review to thank everyone who's helped me tremendously in choosing the restaurants, and hopefully help future Japanese travelers as well.

So here goes...


Daisan Harumi
High quality sushi. Amazing experience, everything was very good to amazing. The presentation of a few pieces of sushi were a bit sloppy, our chef was Nagayama-san's assistant, so maybe that wouldn't have happened if the master himself would have been handling our sushi, don't know.
The cost for 2 was 35,260¥, so considerably less than at any Michelin-starred sushi place.
All the dinnerware created by the chef himself was superb.

Daiwa Sushi
The consensus on Chowhound seems to be to go to whichever has the shortest line between Daiwa and Sushi Dai, so I was a bit perplex when I saw about 30 people waiting for Sushi Dai, and none for Daiwa...
Disappointing experience, most of the sushi didn't seem much better than at any other place for twice as cheap, I felt rushed, the chef would just keep putting things in front of me without waiting for me to finish them (he actually started out by putting 2 different pieces of sushi in front of me). The toro was amazing I have to admit, but the uni was too much for me to handle in the morning (I actually thought "Maybe I just don't like uni", but then I had the one at Daisan Harumi which was the perfect balance of iodine and fatty taste).
I wanted my "Tsukiji breakfast", now I know why everyone on Chowhound recommends to go elsewhere...

Also disappointing. Why is this a tourist destination ? The market is incredible, but I really felt bad for all the people working there to witness all these bearded white guys with their belly hanging and a blank stare in their eyes that made the fish seem like it was still alive, backpacks and bottles of water, guidebooks on one hand and iPhone on the other...
I felt even worse for identifying with those bearded white guys myself...

Sushi elsewhere
People have said it, I will say it, sushi in Japan is just not the same... Going back to France is like going from fresh to frozen, from garden to supermarket...
Anywhere I grabbed a bento, or a few makis to go, it was twice as good as the top expensive places in France... damn...

Great little traditional restaurant with all the women in their kimonos. The chawanmushi was nice, and I'm happy I experienced it there, but for the price it was a bit underwhelming, slightly bland.
I had the "Take" unagi. You canno't choose the size, just the quality of the fish. There are around 10 different quality grades, and the menu even states that if you want to spend the big buck you can ask for higher quality that is not on the menu. The Take is second to last (the last one being served in a bowl instead of a lacquer box I thought I should at least experience the proper means of transportation). The fish was incredibly soft, sweet, slightly bitter and the rice was seasoned nicely and complimented the fish perfectly. I did feel that I got bored after a while, although the portion is not huge, but that is not the fault of the restaurant.

Best Soba I've had. The place is really charming, the perfect "wabi sabi", mixing clean contemporary lines with a genuine, traditional even rustic feel. I also felt the tempura was a notch better than in other places.

Great chicken with leeks, nice mushrooms stuffed with meatballs and nice livers, very disappointing chicken skin (chewy) and chicken wings (same skin)... and no really point in the chicken sashimi, soft but bland.

In my opinion not worth it. I mean if you end up there you will have a nice meal, but I've had better tempura in most soba and udon places, and if it wasn't better it was at least as good.

This is hard to sum up quickly. If I look at particular dishes, they were the best I've had in my life, if I look at the overall experience, I don't feel it is any better than other great restaurants I've been to, and aside from the "4 tables only dining room" I didn't feel anything particularly special about this place. A few dishes were actually a bit disappointing (at this level of course).

Great tsukemen. Nice thick tonkotsu stock, good atmosphere (Michael Jackson in the speakers !).

Great as well ! The tsuke-soba are perfectly al dente, and the stock is spiked up with some spices. The miso-kakuni (pork belly marinated in miso and cooked slowly (please tell me if I'm wrong)) was also spectacular, although it was served cold and I think I would have prefered it slightly warm.

I went to the one in Shibuya that has all the "specialty" ramens. Had the black one with sardine stock, and little pieces of pork (fat ?) in the middle, everything peppery black. It sounds too intense but it wasn't, everything is nicely balanced out and you actually don't feel the sardines that much. Although I have definitely become a ramen lover and enjoyed each bowl of my trip, this is probably the one I gulped in with the most enthusiasm !

In the Tokyo Bldg. in Chiyoda, this Udon place specializes in humongous bowls of udon. I decided to try a curiosity "Udon Carbonara" just for the hell of it. It was de li cious ! The stock was nice and creamy, with huge chunks of ham, snow peas, lotus root chips and... some parmigiano reggiano. The udon itself was thick and chewy as it should be.
Mrs. Yeti's more classical stock with pieces of wagyu beef was also one of the dishes she preferred throughout the trip.

Tanta Bocca
After almost 3 weeks of Japanese food, we decided it was not too blasphemous to enter this italian place after our long walk of the day... We waited about 15 minutes with two lovely japanese women to be seated. The food is simple italian, cheap, the simple salad appetizer had a japanese flare but the pasta dish of tomato sauce and crab was purely italian, and it was all good. And then... it happened... I am known around me for being a Tiramisu snob, I claim shamelessly that no Tiramisu has ever matched the one I make (when I triumph over it, because it is an easily fallible beast). I've had some good tiramisu in restaurants, but I've never had one that had the right cream to ladyfingers ratio, the right proportion and texture, and the right amount of of coffee soaked in the biscuits... And I, who live in a country right next to Italy, must travel to Japan to a restaurant full of Japanese chefs to find it ?
I forfeit.
Of course I could find a few minor flaws (as I said, I am a tiramisu nazi), but I will not play this game because Tanta Bocca's tiramisu still deserves my utmost respect.


Yamamoto Menzo
Great Udon, very long noodles (to cut with a small plastic utensil they give you), rich and smoky stock (which is fine if you get the cold udon to dip in the stock, but if you get the hot bowl of soup, the smokiness of the katsuobushi is a bit overpowering). And perfect chicken tempura, juicy as hell in the inside and heavenly crispy on the outside.

In Arashiyama not far from the Tenryu Ji temple, we ended up in this Kushiage place. I didn't plan on having kushiage this trip so I was happy to stumble upon this place. Everything was very good, so much more than just fried food with a few very intricate pieces (a piece of salmon, with salmon roe, mustard, cream and yuzu for instance). Other places looked more "touristic" so this quiet little restaurant, with a very friendly young chef was a real find !

Café du Monde
At Kyoto station... What ? I'm sorry ? No beignets ?? No f-ing beignets? ?? But on your napkins it says "Café au lait & Beignets - from New Orleans" !!
The biggest rip-of ! A disgusting sandwich in a franchise of the best beignet place in the world...

Obanzai Na-No-Hana
Very good pork belly donburi in a quiet clean restaurant. I wouldn't make this a destination, but if you are in the neighborhood it is a good option, near Nishiki.

Hiiragiya Ryokan
*breathing in..... breathing out....* pause... silence... just a minute, I need a little time... I need to let myself back into my body, to focus... the ryokan experience at Hiiragiya was incredible, I was in another time, another place, another planet, another body, I was in a book narrated by a voice I did not understand, I was in my mother's womb...
Since this is a food site, I must say that the kaiseki dinner, if you consider taste alone, was just good, but the ceremony, the colors, the textures, the whole experience was worth it.
I know kaiseki is an acquired taste, and maybe I don't have it, it was also a bit hard to salivate in front of the japanese breakfast (although the same dishes at lunch would have been perfect). But who cares, this day and night at Hiiragiya will be engraved in me forever.


Fukuchi in
A part from the fact that Koyasan is very touristic and that the whole experience was a bit disappointing and less "spiritual" than we had expected (when the first thing they show you in the Buddhist temple where you will be spending the night, is the gift shop...well... you don't feel very zen...), the shojin ryori was actually quite good. Still not my favorite food of the trip, but I felt that although everything was vegan, they tried hard to bring different flavors and textures to the meal, and it worked.
Again, the breakfast... a bit hard for a gaijin...

Bon On Shya
The best coffee I had in Japan (although I didn't drink much coffee there...) in this nice open space, where Takeshi, a young musician, sells beautiful ceramics of two friends of his (and serves the coffee in it as well). I didn't eat there, and I doubt it's anything special, but I also doubt that it is bad, and the place is well worth a visit !


Okonomyiaki place (I'm posting a picture, please if you know the name and place of the restaurant, let me know... thanks)
People waiting in line, good idea. After 45 minutes wait (you have to register your name on a list as soon as you arrive), we had an excellent negiyaki with marinated beef and garlic and a pork okonomyiaki. My negiyaki was slightly burned, and if I hadn't seen the cook a number of times scraping of burned parts to add a little batter, and if I hadn't seen a weird look on one of the waitresses when she saw the burned pancake in front of me, I would have thought nothing of it, because it was still delicious... but these little clues led me to think they may not treat gaijins with the same respect as locals, and it's a bit sad...

Again, line = good.
Great Takoyaki, the best of the trip, with tender octopus and tasty dough. You add your own sauce/mayo/katsuobushi in the back, and you pay the old fella in advance while queuing.
Witnessing the cooks at work is like watching a magic show.


I feel a bit muddled about this one. First I had the only dish that I could actually not eat in Japan... the server discribed it as "the inside of the bone" marinated with ume. So I thought, great bone marrow with some acidic marinade, that sounds like my thing. But it was actually not marrow, but cartilage (?), and the marinade was not only sour but also had like a rotten taste to it (sorry if I'm offending anyone...). I just couldn't.
Then I had pork sashimi, which is actually very briefly cooked in boiling water (so I will not be able to proudly scare of my grandmother with this dish), very tender, buttery, with a cooked ham taste which worked brilliantly with the japanese shoyu and wasabi. The grilled pork was a bit too greasy, and when I asked if the sausages were "japanese" the (otherwise very friendly) server said yes and brought me very good sausages that had nothing japanese about them in my opinion.
Although I had a bunch of stuff, with sake... 3240¥ felt a bit expensive.

Some place in Chinatown
Tacky tacky Chinatown... The restaurant was ok... I knew Chinatown doesn't have great reputation for food, but I was still expecting something noticeably better than what I get in France. Better it was, but nothing special. Good mapo dofu (but greasy) and not too bad dim sum. I'm sure I can find as good in Paris (as I am sure I will never find japanese food as good as I've had during my trip).

That's it, mainly, apart from a few places not really worth mentioning. The only bad experiences we've had with food in japan was when we tried cafés to get desserts, and everything seemed out of a box. The rest was the best food journey of my life, and a lot of it is thanks to all of you who've helped me.
So again thank you very much.

As I said, I will come back with more in-depth reviews of some of the places, but in the meantime if you have some questions please don't hesitate to ask, I will do my best to answer them.

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  1. The okonomiyaki place is Fukutaro.

    1 Reply
    1. >The cost for 2 was 35,260¥, so considerably less than at any Michelin-starred sushi place.
      I think Mizutani is cheaper than that.

      >Tsukiji Also disappointing. Why is this a tourist destination ?
      I totally agree.

      Love their tempura.

      There are significant differences between their ordinary branches, their honten, and their three "premium" branches.

      >Tanta Bocca
      I love that place! It's run by a meat company, so their steaks (A5-grade wagyu) are good value.

      >Some place in Chinatown
      There are lots of mediocre restaurants there and a few good ones - it's probably worth doing a little bit of advance research....

      Great report - thanks!

      4 Replies
      1. re: Robb S

        Glad to hear you decided to do Hiiragiya (instead of economizing on the Annex). It is, as you said, a special experience to be remembered forever. My reaction to the kaiseki dinner was similar to yours; I have decided I just do not love the kaiseki food experience. I did enjoy the japanese breakfast, but really more as a novelty than as a great meal.

        1. re: fishskis

          Yes we agree, did you end up deciding if you will be returning to Hiiragiya or trying another ryokan ?

        2. re: Robb S

          Two Japanese friends brought us to the Chinatown restaurant which they already knew... which doesn't mean anything except that I couldn't do research for that meal.

          I'm glad we agree on so many points, your book (and website) was a great help for introducing me to japanese food ! Thank you.

          1. re: Rio Yeti

            Very glad to hear that! Thanks!

        3. Really enjoyed reading your report! :-)

          1 Reply
          1. Udon Carbonara!!

            That brought back memories. I had that dish once at a small old family run place in Kamakura one day. Dashi and cream and and egg with kraft parmesan on top of handmade giant thick udon - SO WEIRD! Your experience sounds a great deal better than mine.

            4 Replies
            1. re: lost squirrel

              The dish I had is weird conceptually, but really familiar when you eat it. Of course it is not carbonara, and of course it is not japanese, but they managed to balance the ingredients well and create something I gulped to the last drop.

              And to be fair, the parmesan was also probably kraft (definitely not fresh), but since there was little of it, it just came out occasionally in the spoon to remind me of what I was eating, without overpowering everything.

              Here is a picture :

              1. re: Rio Yeti

                Yes, it is true, kaiseki is difficult, it is complex, but it is definitely worth trying. .. Without kaiseki  ould be like a world without Schopenhauer, without beauty, or similar in France to a world without 'season of cheese'.. just joking, but kaiseki is a kind of philosophy, the way to eat it should be considered as a way to rest !! I do enjoy kaiseki, season feel very predominant.. from it, I learned one of my favorite idiom 'ichi go ichi e', the one moment the one encounter.. In food, it is especially true, you can be moved at specific times, and you do know you will remember them. I was moved by Sushi Sukiyabashi Jiro, by the Soba Hosokawa, and by cha-kaiseki Tsujitome.. So, I am curious as to what your kaiseki was at Ijiriya ? You ve paid a fortune, so I assume it is deluxe kaiseki ?

                The sushis, yes are good, good, good.. Sushi one star Iwa (before moving), sushi Ichi, suhsi Mizutani lunch are affordable and under 20,000.-yens per person.

                In fact, your story about Koya-san, and the monks showing you the window shop made me laugh !! Sorry... The temple auberge, yes, happily have comfort and modern rooms. In general, at onsen with some gift shop inside, clients will stay overnight and wont leave that onsen. But i hope you did visit okunoin, did you ?

                Yes, chawan mushi actually do not have much contrasted taste. Chawan mushi of Nodaiwa are made from 'unagi' and 'fukahire', and usually, there is no sauce to go with the ingredients. The rice 'unaju' and the pudding work well together in my opinion.

                The set tempura + udon, was it your favorite menu of your trip ?

                1. re: Ninisix

                  Yes I don't regret trying Kaiseki at all. I can't really compare the kaiseki I had with others (since I had only one), so it's hard for me to know if it was deluxe or not. The best I can do is come back here when the post about that meal will be up on my blog and show you the pictures, and you'll tell me !

                  Yes we did visit Okunoin, and it was amazing. I don't regret Koyasan, because of Okunoin and also because I bought three beautiful little bowls made by a local ceramist, it was a fun trip, just not the "zen experience" I was hoping for...

                  The chawanmushi was brought to me as an appetizer, before the unaju, so I didn't get to experience them together. I loved the unagi inside, however the fukahire was kind of disappointing, and frankly I don't see the point... knowing that eating sharkfin isn't the most ecofriendly thing to do, I will probably won't do it again as it didn't strike me as being worth it.

                  It's impossible for me to say which was my favorite food of the trip. Really... I did love the udon+tempura, but also loved the soba+tempura, and also Nagi and Suzuran... and of course Takazawa (even though I'm not 100%) and Daisan Harumi... However I think that even more than sushi, or tempura, what I will miss the most are the noodle dishes (including, udon, soba and ramen).

                  1. re: Rio Yeti

                    In fact, 'kukahire' is added to remove the smell, so the mild taste will not remove the taste of 'inagi'. 

                    Hope to hear from your report on your kaiseki meal soon.. 

            2. I love Tsukiji, I buy cheap knives there(been using the same 3000yen bunmei) for 10 years now, load on dried ingredients to make dashi/tsukemono, and cheap bottled Hiraoka Yuzu juice to sneak back into the US.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Shirang

                What you are describing sounds more like the outer-market which I thought was quite fun. It's the inner market that I feel shouldn't have evolved into a tourist attraction.