My Japan: Top Ten Food Experiences – Part I


I have finally managed to organize some of my thoughts following our recent trip to Japan, even though my mind is still buzzing with all the excitement. Nothing I can say will do justice to the incredible world of food and drink of Japan, but I will nevertheless attempt to briefly recount ten of our most memorable experiences of the two weeks:

1. Breakfast of champions

Upon arrival in Tokyo, one quickly discovers that in the land of the rising sun, there is actually not a whole lot to do at 6, 7, even 8am; which is why almost all visitors end up at Tsukiji fish market, where a breakfast of the world’s freshest sushi awaits. Alternatively, one can have the world’s freshest sashimi as part of a rice bowl (donburi, or don). Featured above is a particularly over-the-top luxurious version of ikura, toro, and uni (roe, fatty tuna, and sea urchin) don, available for only about 20 dollars at Nakaya, a donburi specialist (prepare to queue!). Perhaps, the ultimate decadent breakfast involves buying a box of freshest uni from a vendor in Tsukiji market, and eating the entire box with a big spoon!

During our time in Kyoto, as we were staying in a traditional Japanese inn (ryokan), we took advantage of the opportunity to start the day right with the traditional Japanese breakfast. It typically consists of grilled fish, pickles, rice, nori, miso soup, tamagoyaki (omelet), vegetables, and tea. While it limits one’s ability to snack during the first couple of hours of exploration, it is an experience not to be missed.


If you are anxious to get the day started, a coffee and a pastry at a French boulangerie, such as Eric Kayser, can also do the trick (I ate my fair share of bichon au citron and miniature yuzu muffins). Or one can opt for a traditional sweet roll (anpan) filled with red bean paste from a Japanese bakery such as Kimuraya, or something else equally delicious.


2. Food markets and street food


If you need a break from structured multi-course meals, noshing in the food markets, such as the fantastic Nishiki market in Kyoto is easy as pie. Dashi-maki (omelet on a stick), oysters, takoyaki (octopus balls), grilled mochi, wagashi, soft matcha ice-cream, you name it. If you run out of ideas, just follow a flock of school girls.


3. Coffee revolution

Japan (and especially Tokyo) is in the middle of a revolution, – a coffee revolution, that is. Exciting choices range from the very traditional kissaten (such as Chatei Hatou) to a coffee stand by the park (Little Nap Coffee Stand); from an artsy syphon bar (Cafe Obscura) to a pop-up coffee shop (Omotesando Koffee).

cafe l'ambre

Two of our favorites were Cafe de l’Ambre in Ginza (Tokyo) and Ogawa Coffee in Kyoto. Cafe de l’Ambre, a serious and classic kissaten, serves only coffee, and has a 30-deep list of single origin aged beans, including offerings like Cuban coffee beans from the 70’s. Ogawa makes simply fantastic espresso-based drinks, and puts the same amount of enthusiasm into one of the hottest trends right now, – latte art:

latte art

4. World’s best French pastries

in my opinion, are to be found in Tokyo. All the top French patissieres (Viron, Henri Charpentier, Hevin, Pierre Herme, etc. ) have long set up shop in Japan. In addition, they are in competition with such Japanese stars as Sadaharu Aoki who have managed to apply immaculate classic technique to traditional Japanese ingredients, such as yuzu, black sesame, matcha, genmaicha, etc.


Most of them have their own stores, but the best places to search for treasures are depachika (the underground levels of department stores, such as Takashimaya, Daimaru, Mitsukoshi, Isetan, etc. dedicated entirely to food.


5. Sushi and sashimi


During the trip, we had sashimi almost daily, as it happens to be a very common course in a progression of any set meal. In addition to that, we went to a dedicated sushi restaurant (sushiya) a total of 5 times (three times to Tokyo Michelin-starred restaurants, once to Daiwazushi at Tsukiji market, and once in Kyoto ( to Izuju, for Kyoto-style pressed mackerel sushi and inari sushi). Even though all of the experiences were extremely enjoyable in their own right, the trip to the 10-seat, 3-Michelin-star Sushi Mizutani left me giddy for hours.


Mizutani-san does not allow photography, as he finds it distracting; however, I found that not being a food paparazza helps one to focus on what’s important: the absolutely incredible fish, the amazing knife skills, and on sharing the fleeting ideal moment with the legendary itamae (sushi chef), considered by many to be one of the world’s best. It was intimidating at first (which is why I always recommend starting a Japanese meal with a beer to take the edge off), but overall I found him to be very approachable and gracious. Nevertheless, it was very humbling to be face-to-face with a true shokunin, – someone who has dedicated his life to relentless pursuit of perfection through his craft.

Naturally, one cannot speak of sushi without mentioning the rice. Mizutani-san is famous for his top-quality, perfectly textured, vinegared shari (rumored to be from the same purveyor as his teacher Jiroo-san). As he himself put it in response to my excited broken Japanese, “If the rice is good, then the sushi is good”.

Highlights: awabi (abalone), torigai (cockle clam), anago (saltwater eel), and, surprisingly, ika (squid), whose sublime soft and creamy flesh has nothing in common with the squid in the United States. By the way, just in case you have never seen real wasabi root, here is what it looks like:


6. Tofu: it is not just for vegetarians anymore

Besides the incredible vegetables, Kyoto’s other claim to fame in the food world is tofu, which comes from a combination of centuries of experience from Buddhist monks and great mountain spring water. After eating at places like Okutan, Sosoan and Shoraian (currently considered the #1 tofu restaurant in Japan), it is fair to say that Kyoto has elevated tofu-making to an art. It is interesting to note that many tofu-centric restaurants are not vegetarian, as that connection primarily exists in the Western world (the only exception is shojin-ryori, – Buddhist monks’ ascetic and beautiful cuisine). At a place like Shoraian, tofu is not a bland block of protein, but an incredible handmade ingredient showcased in a tofu kaiseki which may include chilled sesame tofu, yuba (tofu skin), yudofu (hot pot), agedashi tofu, etc.




…To Be Continued…

Be on the lookout for Part II of this post coming in the next couple of days!

P.S. Since this is a food & wine blog, I will not be talking about the amazing soccer-playing humanoid robot ASIMO at Miraikan, Tokyo’s Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. I will not mention the 1,000-year old Zen rock garden, or Kinkaku-ji,Temple of the Golden Pavillion, whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf.


Nor will I describe our hike in Kamakura, culminating at the biggest outdoor Buddha statue in Japan, or a boat trip down mountain river Hozo from Kameoka to Arashiyama, or the Thousand Torii (Gates) at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. I will completely leave out stories of playing with the world’s cutest cats at Nekorobi, a cat cafe in Tokyo, and of gliding in a cable car from the top of a volcanic mountain to the lakeshore, while gazing at Fuji-san (Mount Fuji) in stunning Hakone…some things should be left to imagination.




I have been lurking on the Chowhound France boards in anticipation of our upcoming eating and drinking trip in early April. In general, things seldom get very heated (partly because CH boards are heavily moderated); however, a recent Parisian restaurant thread got a little intense. The bone of contention, of all things, was vegetarian menu offerings: their sheer availability, excitement-worthiness, and overall chef attitudes towards vegetarians.

People eat vegetarian for a number of reasons, and have very different expectations of a worthy meal. If we were to put all socio-political agendas aside for a moment, and just focused on balance, flavor intensity, texture, etc., we would see that relatively few chefs cater to discerning vegetarians. For them, it is not enough for the meal to be meat-free, organic, local, sustainable, etc. They are looking for overall execution quality, inventiveness, and the kind of deliciousness that would excite vegetarians and omnivores alike.

I have found that in general, ethnic restaurants do a much better job turning out great vegetarian dishes. The most recent example was our experience with modern and traditional Japanese cuisine in the East Village involving yuba.

Yuba is tofu skin which forms during the process of making tofu and is obtained by skimming the top of the curding vat as the soymilk cools down. Yuba is ubiquitous in Japan and China, and is served as sashimi, enjoyed fresh in a rice bowl, used like nori or spring roll skin (for example, as a wrapper for Cantonese dim sum); it can also be deep-fried, dried for later use, etc.  Its texture and appearance run the whole spectrum from “old shriveled linen” to custard, such as in homestyle fresh yuba, which is supposed to give one’s complexion a satiny quality, according to Japanese grandmothers:

The eponymous restaurant in East Village does a fantastic job showcasing this fascinating ingredient; it was amazing to observe the chef produce such a wide range of experiences for a discerning foodie, starting with yuba sashimi and uni (sea urchin) with yuba, where it appears to be silky, creamy and almost milky, not unlike fresh silken tofu.






Other delectable variations were grilled miso yuba and yuba roll, and our favorite turned out to be layered yuba pouch with slow-braised yuba with mixed mushrooms. Here, it was rich and luxurious, with an amazing juxtaposition of sweetness and earthiness.

Besides the eponymous Yuba, we have discovered a whole “Yubaland” in the East Village (Cocoron, Sobaya, etc.). This is the kind of eating experience that is sure to excite any foodie, vegetarian or not. It sends even a lazy amateur chef like myself to the Japanese grocery store Hana here in DC, and then running to the kitchen. This time, the owners of Hana were out of yuba 😦 , but still provided me with plenty inspiration to put together a fun impromptu meal.

  • Assorted Japanese pickles (pickled plums, sesame pickled cucumbers, and eggplant)
  • Udon noodles with braised enoki mushrooms, nori, scallions, and miso grilled tofu in a dashi broth
  • Green Tea flavored Mochi Ice-Cream bonbons
I cannot wait for my tofu skins order to come in next week!