Last week, I returned from my first trip to Japan.
While there, I dined on everything from tempura to ramen to chicken sashimi (yes, I ate raw chicken and loved it). I literally ate my way through Tokyo and Kyoto. Even though I didn't feast in any of the highest end restaurants, the food I ate was the best of my life. Not to sound like an Alexander Hamilton-esque traitor, but if you ask me, eating in Japan in better than eating in the U.S. from street food to formal dining. Want to know why?
Here's my list of the top 10 reasons why I loved eating in Japan.
1. The Freshness Of The Food
Everyone I've talked to about eating in Japan always mentions the freshness of the food. I'll put it this way - the shrimp I ate at Mikawa were still wriggling around when they were beheaded, cleaned and tempura fried by our chef. We ate them only seconds later. Followed by their heads a minute later. And this eye for fresh product holds true for everything from sushi to Kobe beef to fresh soba noodles made from recipes that are hundreds and hundreds of years old. When I'm often asked about the secret to cooking great food, I always reply that your ingredients are more than fifty percent of the battle. You're only as good as your product. And when you have great product, you need to do little to it to make it taste amazing (note how Japanese flavors tend to be subtle).
While we're on the topic of freshness, the Japanese also eat very seasonally. This ensures that you're eating product at the peak of its quality. Everywhere we ate had seasonal additions to its menu. My favorite summer treat? Horse Mackerel. In the fall? Matsutake Mushrooms. I've heard that there's even a word in Japanese that refers to food that's at the peak of its seasonality.
3. No Napkins
The Japanese do not use napkins. Rather, at the beginning of meals, you are presented with a warm towel to wipe your hands. You keep this towel for use throughout your meal in place of a napkin. Simply fold it up and keep it nearby. Not only is wiping your hands at the beginning of a meal more sanitary, but eliminating the use of paper napkins reduces carbon emissions and landfill waste (think of how many paper napkins the U.S. disposes of each year).
4. Counter Dining
It's everywhere in Japan and accounts for most of the seating in restaurants. Yes, tatami rooms are available for bigger parties, but I much prefer sitting close to the action. Why is counter dining better? Proximity to food is a big lure. Not only do you get to witness the preparation of your food, but you also get to eat it right after it's been prepared. No sitting in the window waiting for your server to deliver it to your table. If you've ever sat at a sushi bar, then you know what I'm talking about. Also, it allows restaurants to make maximum use of minimal space (hello Tokyo).
5. Restaurants Specialize
Every restaurant where we ate specialized in one kind of cuisine. These specialties included tempura, sushi, shabu-shabu, ramen, soba, tofu, kaiseki and yakitori to name a few. Having a small menu and focusing on one technique enables the restaurants to master it. Hence, great food without the great price. You'll also find that many successful restaurants have "branches." This focus enables them to franchise without losing quality.
6. Small Restaurants, But Tons of Them
If you walk down a street in downtown Kyoto, you'll be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of restaurants, occupying many floors, stacked above each other like Legos. Keeping the restaurants small keeps the overhead low and allows the chefs freedom to cook their cuisine. In turn, this opens up a huge marketplace of variety that benefits the consumer. I always prefer eating in small restaurants.
7. The Street Food Kicks Ass
Forget about McDonald's (though the Japanese do seem to have an affinity for KFC). You can eat a lot and eat well for under $10 in Japan. Instead of greasy burgers and fries, think of huge bowls of Ramen filled with freshly made, chewy noodles and delicately roasted pieces of pork belly. Or imagine the best sushi you've ever had in your life - and tons of it - for under $20.
8. Course Dining or Bring On The Omakase!
Omakase basically means chef's choice. Almost everywhere we ate offered coursed out meals at a fixed price or meal sets that included several options. I much prefer this method of ordering - "Give me the best you've got and a lot of it." I find ordering to be disruptive to the social experience of dining and always find that the chefs know their food better than you do, especially if it's your first time in their establishment. It also adds an air of mystery and adventure to dining. Sure, you might end up with some chicken sashimi, but you might also discover that it's delicious. What's on the menu? Just trust me.
I know, they take time to master, but there are reasons why using chopsticks - and wooden spoons - instead of metal is better. You see, metal has a taste and often reacts to food, distorting the flavor. Wood does not - it's much more neutral. Also, keep in mind that Japanese food is often designed to be eaten with chopsticks. And if the dish is soup, a spoon always appears (a wooden one, of course).
Alright, you knew it was coming. Sushi is one of my favorite things to eat in the whole wide world. While I live in Los Angeles which I believe has the best sushi in the U.S., it's better in Japan. And cheaper. We ate at Sushi Dai by the fish market in Tokyo. The meal was mind-blowing. We ate omakase (see pictures below) and added on toro, snapper and other items. It was by far the best sushi I'd ever tasted and the final bill was only around $35 per person including drinks (here this meal would have been no less than $100).
Here's my photo gallery of our meal at Sushi Dai:
Tsukiji Fish Market
Located in a row of barracks, in Building 6 in the 3rd alley (just past the mailbox); it's the 3rd shop on the right, Tsukiji