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How to explore Japanese food?

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My wife and I are spending 12 days in Japan later this month: 4 full days each in Tokyo and Kyoto, and a side trip to Takayama and Kanazawa. I have been briefly to Tokyo once, and my wife has never been to Japan.

We are hoping to eat excellent sushi, beef and ramen, but it is clear from reading message boards that there is much more we should be looking for in order to have an adventurous and delicious sampling of local food. We have booked a few meals in advance, but are happy mostly to make last-minute decisions based on what we are in the mood for (and thus perhaps concentrate on 'very good' rather than 'the best' based on what we can get in to). We are willing to pay a fair amount, but don't require a meal to be expensive in order to enjoy it :) My question is: what are the styles of cuisine and dining experience that you would recommend we seek out, beyond the Western favorites I mention above?

So far we have booked Sushi Sawada for lunch; we are staying (and eating) at Wanosato Ryokan in Takayama one night; and we have booked Hana Kitcho in Kyoto. I have had Wagyu at John Howie in Bellevue and found it too much concentrated fat for my taste in steak form; from reading it seems that we might prefer shabu style if we are going to seek out a meal of Wagyu, but we have not yet booked any.

Thanks for any advice! We leave on May 19th and I will post a report when we get back!

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  1. Soba, Tempura, Kappo/Kaiseki in all its forms, French-Japanese, Italian-Japanese, various styles of Izakaya, Tonkatsu, Japanese sweets, I'd split beef into steakhouse and yakiniku, Okonomiyaki, pancakes, flavored popcorn, max brenner chocolate (just kidding about those last three), and countless others.

    The cuisine goes both wide (in terms of sub-types of restaurants and other eateries) and deep within each sub-type.

    eta: re-reading about your wagyu experience (which believe me will pale compared to what is served in the high end steakhouses here, or rather you will pale), you might want to try a yakiniku or yaki-horumon place instead. Shabu shabu... I dunno, seems like a misunderstanding of meat.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Gargle

      haha Gargle, I was just gonna say, they would spend all their time in a line if they went for the last three you listed there.

      A good donburi or kushiage would also make or some good eating, methinks.

      1. re: Tokyoite

        And that's before getting into yakitori or various regional specials.

        Also, in case the OP drinks, the drinking culture is almost as diverse. Whisky bars, classic cocktails, modern cocktails, craft beers, shochu (although usually in an Izakaya setting), wine, expensive wine, natural wine, you name it. I've even seen that a sherry specialist opened recently but haven't been yet.

        eta: I assume the OP is coming from the US and is going to be fairly jet lagged. My recommendation would be to go for high energy, fun, late evening meal the first night rather than a long formal one.

    2. Oh the true recipe to explore Japanese food is to go out and eat trying new challenging food : like unagi(eel), anpan, matcha, sukiyaki, new clams never heard before ... discovery works great, no need to heavily pre-select your choice, they are so many fine food outthere. For exemple, try shabu shabu, then after go for a drink, that's common line dinners in Tokyo... and strangely, you often end up drinking with still smelly fingers, that you appreciate as much.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Ninisix

        On the flight in buy duty free liquor. Makes a nice gift or drink it yourself. I think Japan allows 2 bottles.

        Long distance train stations have regional food bento boxes with stations having their own specialities.

        I visited Tskiji fish market in Tokyo years ago. Not set up for tourists, it's a working auction/market and the only place I found where English was not spoken. Very interesting though. I wish I had checked out the cutlery stores nearby.

        While some places are shockingly expensive you can get a bowl of great ramen pretty cheap. I even had some decent vending machine sushi.

        Not sure how credit cards are accepted nowadays, you mostly need cash I think.

      2. Hi misard,

        How was your experience at Wanosato?

        Did you do the kaiseki set or the shabushabu?

        I'm trying to decide whether to choose the wagyu shabu meal or the kaiseki set which includes a small portion of Hida beef. I'd love to get feedback from your experience at Wanosato to help me decide which they do better. We'll be eating lots of kaiseki meals but it would be our only one in the Gifu region which I understand is strong for it's Hida beef and mountain vegetables. I can't decide which to chose; we only have one meal at Wanosato, though I plan on visiting Yamatake-Shōten in town for Hida beef.

        Any input you (or anyone else!) could offer would be really helpful and appreciated!

        Thanks so much!!

        PS - we'll be Tokyo-bound in only 4 days!!!

        3 Replies
        1. re: OliverB

          The stay at Wanosato was one of the highlights of an excellent trip. We had the kaiseki; but I was not actually aware there were choices, and we were not asked. We were very happy with it, and I would say it was better than the meal we had at Hana Kitcho, though Wanosato was our first kaiseki which may have skewed the enjoyment due to its novelty.

          We were the only guests on our one night at Wanosata, and the staff were extremely friendly and accommodating of our lack of Japanese. The landlady spent 15 minutes chatting with us (in Japanese) during dinner, and she was friendly and welcoming even though we could understand only snatches of her meaning. One of the staff members had excellent English, and he made sure we were well taken care of.

          1. re: misard

            Thanks so much for the feedback!

            I believe you always have the option of kaiseki vs shabushabu/sukiyaki at any ryokan stay, especially for multiple overnights. Sounds great though and unless we're entirely sick of doing the multi-course kaiseki thing (probably won't happen until Kyoto!) we'll opt for it at Wanosato. Did you get to enjoy a good sampling of Hida beef as part of the set course?

            Can't wait for our trip... 2.5 days and counting!!!!

            1. re: OliverB

              I'm sorry I don't have notes handy (I thought I did) but my recollection is of a small but excellent piece of beef, as you would hope. Have fun!