japan… where to begin? david and i had an amazing trip and ate some wonderful food while exploring the country (via two cities, three smaller towns and two islands), which was covered in beautiful cherry blossom and in a celebratory mood.
tokyo was our start and end point – a few days at either end of the trip gave us plenty of time to explore the city, but to be honest i’d have liked even more time, as this was a city i really enjoyed getting to know.
my impression is that it is a city of neighbourhoods, each of which has its own character and each of which deserves to be explored in more detail when you have time to do it justice. inevitably we hit the obvious spots but also found some quieter spaces.
the green spaces within the city can be small, beautiful and surrounded by sky scrapers - this interplay between concrete, glass and cherry blossom was most noticeable in the hama rikyu gardens, which is also bound by the sumida-gawa (river), which provided an interesting route up to asakusa in the north east of the city, not least as the river banks were lined with more blossom trees as well as several of tokyo’s iconic buildings including the new tokyo sky tree - or large, hidden and canopied by trees which almost disguise the heavy hum of tokyo traffic and conceal temples, shrines and other quiet, more contemplative spaces - meiji-jingu, a shinto shrine has this “hidden” feeling.
the parks were very much in use as local residents enjoyed the cherry blossom. ueno park was just one place where we saw avenues of trees covered in blossom under which groups sat, on blue tarpaulins, enjoying an evening picnic - food featured in varying amounts, depending whether it was a family group or just “salarymen” in their dark suits, with the former focussing on food and the latter on beer! sadly none of the groups were having karaoke parties, which i’d read about before our trip.
the food we ate in tokyo was very varied and two special meals were thanks to a new friend, gen, who is a tokyoite and was very generous with his advice and hospitality. in fact, he was responsible for our first and last meals in tokyo.
we started at adan, an izakaya near our hotel, which was just next to the wonderful orange and white tokyo tower. this local bar, with a hawaiian soundtrack thanks to the owner’s wife’s penchant for hula, was recommended by gen and was a great place to try a home-style japanese food, with an okinawan flavour. we ate beautifully fresh sashimi, a seasonal speciality soup with a sort of floating egg omelette which was mixed with lotus root (this was the seasonal ingredient and reminded me a bit of potatoes), a braised pork dish with fiery mustard on the side plus an okinawan speciality of tofu with goya – goya is a type of bitter melon and something i struggled to eat much of, thankfully david gamefully ate most of it! we also learnt a bit about sochu and tried two different types – a sweet potato version which is served with hot water and a sugar cane version which we had on the rocks. i’m not sure i’ll be ordering either that often but i did prefer them to the sake i tried at another point during the trip!
our next memorable meal was at bird land, a small yakitori (chicken served on skewers) restaurant in ginza, was the source of a truly memorable meal. this tiny basement restaurant, which has 1 michelin star, is all about different cuts of grilled chicken, served on skewers. we stumbled into this (having said that, it’s tricky to find – if you’re hunting it down you need exit c6 from the ginza subway station) and managed to get a seat without a reservation (unusual apparently) and were soon tucking into our 14 course menu, 9 of which were yakitori! many parts of the chicken made an appearance – breast was served rare with wasabi (eating rare chicken is such a no-no in the uk, this felt quite daring even though i know it’s very common in japan), thighs with leeks is apparently quite a classic combination, i loved the rare and flavour-packed liver and was fine with the heart, skin and neck skewers but was less keen on the chewy gizzards! the chicken was interspersed with a few non-meat dishes – also skewered were some gingko berries which reminded me of chestnuts with their soft texture and slightly sweet flavour; incredibly delicious grilled mushrooms, a green salad and an incredible dish of fresh tofu with teeny tiny tomatoes – the tofu was very reminiscent of buffalo mozzarella, but obviously with a soy tang to the rich creaminess. we finished with a bowl of rice which had been topped with a mix of chicken and lightly scrambled egg plus the obligatory bowl of stock (in place of miso) and pickles.
korean barbecue is something which has apparently been adopted with enthusiasm in japan and we had the chance to enjoy this when we returned to japan at the end of our trip, with friends brad and june. this was a local restaurant in meguro which, i have to confess, is the part of town which i have chosen for my imaginary tokyo pad (it has a nice neighbourhood feel with a creative vibe which was reflected in the fabulous arty claska hotel which we stayed at). the meal was wonderfully simple, not least as june acted as bbq-chef and just kept piling the slices of different cuts of chicken, pork and beef onto the hot grill in the middle of our table, and very delicious – well worth searching out of you are a meat-fan!
our final night, which was courtesy of gen who shared the meal with us, was a meal in a private house, which is owned by someone who also runs a large restaurant in roponggi serving similar food – taiwanese hot pot. the intimacy of the setting made this very special and it was wonderful to be looked after by our host who assembled the dish in front of us, topping it up with different ingredients at regular stages. it started with the thin slices of pork and beef (large amounts of both!) being lightly fried in the large bowl which was on a heater in the middle of the table. this was removed, broth added and then the meat was returned, along with other flavourings including some vegetables. a bowl of this was presented to each of us, with instructions to dip the beef in one of the two sauces we had – one bowl contained an egg yolk to which we added fermented miso plus other bits such as salty garlic paste; the other was a mix of soy and vinegar plus herbs – before eating it. the hot pot was then topped up with dumplings (minced chicken in some cases, others were wrapped and more similar to gyoza), seafood (prawns and crab claws) as well as vegetables (spinach, mushrooms). glass noodles were then added. finally the stock was used to make a soba noodle soup, which we all struggled to eat more than the smallest bowl of! plus there was pudding. oof! what a way to end!