To try actual real Japanese cuisine or rather cuisines was as interesting and as important of an objective for us as visiting ancient Japanese temples and shrines. We knew some facts about Japanese food, but we had more surprises than we expected.
For one thing it turns out that all the foods that we have at local Japanese restaurants such as sushi, rolls, tempura, yakitori, soba and so on — in Japan these are all different restaurants specializing in each one of those things. One place does sushi, another does tempura, third does something that we’ve never heard of at all.
We didn’t do much research on food before going — we only had one place that was “must visit” on our list. And that’s the place I will start with.
Sushi & Sushi Dai
Sushi Dai is a tiny “hole in the wall” type of restaurant located on the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. As you can guess by the name — the restaurant specializes in sushi and is considered to be the best sushi restaurant in Japan, which in turn makes it the best sushi place in the world. I’m nowhere near being an expert on sushi, so I don’t know if it is true or not, but I can share my own impressions.
Having the reputation that it has this little place has a long long line all the time. It opens at 5am along with the market itself and closes before noon. It is said that the earlier you get there in the morning the faster you’re going to get in. It is also said that if the line is too long one might want to try to get into another famous restaurant a couple of doors down called Daiwa Sushi and see if the line is shorter there.
As I’ve mentioned before we really lucked out with our hotel location. The fish market was a 10-15 minute walk from our hotel, so we didn’t have to take subway or anything else to get there. It also happened so that we were still running on New York time. We set the alarm for 6am just in case, but we managed to wake up at 4am on our own — perfect.
Now I want to mention that I’m not the biggest sushi fan in the world by any stretch of imagination and having sushi for breakfast was even stranger. But our hearts were really set on Sushi Dai, in fact so much that we watched a ton of videos on YouTube about people visiting it. One thing that stands out in all the videos is the fact that somewhere in the middle of the course that you’re getting served you get a thing that is clearly moving on top of your rice. That was making me quite nervous.
Another thing about this place is that from everything I’ve read it seems that majority of people have a really hard time finding it on the fish market. And even if you do you must be able to identify it by a sign which is done in the same style as all other restaurants on the market and obviously it is in Japanese. I had the sign printed out, but by the time we got to Japan I had it committed to memory anyhow. I also looked at a lot of satellite photos and maps of the area. I was just hoping that things would look familiar from non-satellite perspective when we actually get there.
I’m proud to say that we got to the fish market without making a single wrong turn. And not only that, but we also arrived to Sushi Dai inside the fish market without making a single wrong turn either. One thing was obvious — no need to identify the restaurant by the sign. It was the only place with a line and a long one at that. The time on the clock was 5:40am — we did take our sweet time showering and getting dressed.
I would say there were about 10 couples in front of us. The problem is that the restaurant fits about 10 people (not couples) at a time. We took our place in line — which still was in front of Sushi Dai at the time, but soon after the line grew bigger and eventually extended around the corner of the block.
Right in front of us was a couple of older people — a Japanese looking man and a very Russian looking woman. It turns out that they live in LA and he travels on business to Japan very often. And when she comes with him they do a mandatory trip to Sushi Dai. A couple of times per trip if they can.
It took us about an hour and 40 minutes of waiting to get in. This couple went in ahead of us and we got in right after them. We ended up sitting next to them too at sushi bar (there are no tables inside) and we kept getting advice on how to properly eat each thing which was helpful.
We knew what we were going to order before we got there. Our choice was an omakase option — which means that it’s up to the chef to pick the best pieces for us — for ¥3,900 ($52) per person. The course consisted of 10 sushi items selected by chef plus 1 item of our choice at the end. It also included Japanese omelet, spectacular miso soup, hot green tea and one roll, but I’m not sure if it was one of the 10 items or not — I lost count.
The chef keeps making sushi pieces in front of you and keeps serving you piece by piece as he goes. The first piece was fatty tuna. I cannot forget its taste to this point. I never really ate sushi pieces in my life. I rarely order rolls with raw fish. Typically it is somewhat chewy, and I don’t enjoy the texture, nor the taste.
In Sushi Dai we were told to try not to use any soy souse as it kills the taste of the fish. We did as suggested and avoided soy souse except for the things that they said it was OK to use it with. Back to fatty tuna — it basically melted on my tongue. The texture was pleasant and the taste was great. I realized that this type of sushi not only can I eat for breakfast — I’m going to enjoy it too.
After that a couple of other fishes followed which were all great. Than we were served sea urchin (uni) which most people say is pretty disgusting in U.S. It was not bad at all. And somewhere soon after my nemesis has arrived. I saw the chef put some rice into his hand, then a piece of something on top of it, then a hard slap and then he lands it right in front of me on the table. And what do you know? The moving part was no an illusion. It sure is alive.
Good thing I knew this was coming, because if I were not prepared there is a good chance I would lose everything I ate before it. But now I was set on trying it. Not for the taste, but for the experience.
I grabbed it with my hand and stuffed it into my mouth. I didn’t feel any movement, but this thing was like rubber which would squirt out some nasty tasting juice at each bite. I declare it by far the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten. But I was ecstatic nevertheless about the fact that I did not chicken out and went through with it. I was really proud of myself for that. Although I don’t think I will try it ever again. I repeat, ever again.
After that we had a piece filled with roe, but that’s not a thing you can scare us with. In fact it was much more delicious than the one sold in Russian stores — it was not salty at all. I think it ended up being Alena’s favorite piece.
Either way by the time I ate my last piece I was full. I could eat no more. Alena felt about the same. Overall it was most definitely worth it. The food was great, the soup was great, the tea was great. Even the rice that they use was great. This is the experience that should not be skipped whether you are passionate about sushi or not.
Our chef was great — very friendly and helpful — had no problem explaining to us, dumb tourists, what was what and how it should be eaten and so on. Also most people did not use chopsticks and just used their hand. We did the same.
I have to mention that when we got to the market Daiwa Sushi had no line and you could just come in. When we came out the line to Sushi Dai has gotten even longer. At this point Daiwa Sushi also had a pretty sizable line, but this one consisted mostly of European looking people. Sushi Dai line had mostly Japanese people, but a good number of patient westerners as well.
On a bit of side note — this past weekend we went with Maruks to a local sushi place in Brooklyn. It was supposed to be a good place. Alena and I ordered the same sushi pieces that we ate in Japan to see if there really is a difference. Were we astonished or what by that difference. Local sushi hardly compares. The fish was chewy with a nasty after taste. The rice was stale or something. The only way I could eat these was covering them with ginger and wasabi and dipping them fully into soy souse. So basically quite the opposite of what one is supposed to do.
I think I could have been a big sushi fan as well if I had regular access to Sushi Dai though.
One of the amazing experiences of our trip was a traditional Japanese multi-course dinner at Nishiyama Ryokan in Kyoto. We scheduled it to fall on the eve of November 23rd — our 5th wedding anniversary and it definitely made this date memorable.
There were 12 different courses served to us. I can’t really recall all of it — a lot of seafood prepared in different ways, a lot of vegetables, a pair of soups. Not everything was to my taste, but a lot of things were quite delicious. There was some boiling soup prepared right on our table and we were served by a woman in traditional Japanese attire. We also wore kimonos for the dinner which added to the whole experience.
I would not do this every night, and I probably wouldn’t do it for the food, but the experience itself was really great. We ordered 2 bottles of hot sake which made things even better.
In the morning we were served a traditional Japanese breakfast which was not any less interesting than the dinner with more boiling stuff on our table. During the breakfast time the dinning room was full of people, but during the dinner we were the only people there so it made it feel like it was our private special evening. It was great.
Not much to say on this topic. As I’ve mentioned before breakfast was included in our hotels for free because of our Diamond VIP status. Both places had a large buffet with a selection of American and Japanese dishes. It was a great way to save time and money and we ate breakfast in our hotels every morning with 2 exceptions — Sushi Dai and traditional Japanese breakfast at our Kyoto ryokan.
Okonomiyaki is dish that originates from the western part of Japan. There are 2 distinct styles — one that is popular in Osaka and another that is popular in Hiroshima. I heard about okonomiyaki before and I’ve read about it and we definitely wanted to try it.
Okonomiyaki is kind of a Japanese omelet. It is made with some special batter and cabbage. You can have it loaded with a lot of different things — ours came with pork and squid. It is often prepared right on your table, which has a grill built in.
We asked our chef to make it for us as we had no idea how to make it ourselves. We picked a completely random place that we ran into in some food-court maze in Umeda district of Osaka. I liked it quite a bit, but Alena found it to be just OK. Worth a try anyhow.
Tempura in Japanese restaurants is completely different from what we get in ours. If here it is overly greasy and feels extremely unhealthy in Japan it is very light and quite delicious. We ordered a 10 piece tempura course in one of the restaurants near our hotel and came away pretty happy with our dinner.
Interesting thing about 95% of Japanese restaurants is the fact that they all have plastic replicas of their dishes displayed in the windows — be it an upscale place or a simple corner place to grab a bite. We as tourist definitely found it very much to our liking — otherwise we would have no idea what to order.
Tonkatsu or at least I think it was Tonkatsu is a Japanese pork cutlet. We weren’t sure what to do with dinner for our first night in Osaka so we went to one of the huge malls at Osaka Station City and picked out a meal by looking at the plastic dishes. It turned out to be very very good.
I was familiar with the term bento box before I came to Japan. It’s yet another type of thing that you can order in pretty much any Japanese restaurant in New York. There are different types of bento boxes, but each one consists of many sections filled with different types of food.
It is common to see bento box kiosks on JR stations especially in Shinkansen sections. We bought a pair of these for our trip on a bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka. I think the total for a pair was somewhere around ¥2,000 or so which comes out to $27.
And for the last, but not least I left Kobe Beef. Anyone who even remotely likes steaks have probably heard of Kobe beef. There are a lot of urban legends floating around about it — these are special cows that are feed with beer and massaged all day long or something along those lines. I’m quite sure that those things are not true, but it sure is famous.
Now while most of the food in Japan is moderately priced and very comparable to prices of decent restaurants in New York, Kobe beef places in Japan are extremely expensive. In fact they are so expensive that we were considering for 6 nights weather we should visit one or not.
And even if you do want to visit one — they don’t seem to be easy to find. And when you do find them or somebody recommends you go to one you still better make your own research and make sure that in fact they do serve Kobe beef. After doing a bit of research we found a place right across the street from our Hilton hotel in Osaka — a place called Rio.
Now because the price was so high we decided that we’ll just go up to them and ask if we can share a meal and to our surprise they had no problems with that. So we made a reservation for Friday night and we kept it.
My biggest fear was that I’m going to get disappointed. Our dinner in the end came out to ¥15,000 which is roughly $210. And that is for a single portion. So back to my biggest fear — I was thinking that it would really suck to pay so much money for a steak that I wouldn’t be able to tell apart from something that would get served in a local Hibachi place in Brooklyn.
Kobe beef is often served in a teppanyaki style dinner (I always knew this process as hibachi, so I’m not really sure what the difference is). They started with different appetizers, vegetables and so on. They gave us two plates and split everything for us, so we didn’t feel bad at all about splitting a single meal. They made us feel comfortable.
Kobe beef was weighted on a scale in front of us to be exactly 150 grams (as it states in the menu). It turned out to be a bigger piece than we expected. I guess the reason is that it has a lot of fat in it. If you look at the meat you can tell that it looks different. A couple of strands of meat, a couple of strands of fat — like marble.
When the meat was cooked and given to us — oh, wow! All the worries about it being “usual” were instantly gone. Had I known all along that it would be as it was we would go to this dinner without the slightest hesitation. The meat just melts away with a slight press of the tongue. I think it was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.
The closest thing that I can compare it to is a shish-kebab from a Uzbek restaurant. If you were to take a piece of fat that they typically put on the skewers and a piece of meat and merge them into a single piece you would get something somewhat similar. The fat becomes non-nasty and the meat becomes super soft.
We were so happy we decided not to miss this opportunity and go. So not only did Japan ruin sushi for us it ruined steaks as well. How am I supposed to enjoy steak after that? And luckily for us one full course was enough food for 2 of us that we didn’t walk away hungry at all — we were quite satisfied.
What a rich country Japan is. So many things to try, so different from the ones we know. There are many more things that we didn’t have the chance to try in our time there, but I think we did good. Lots of memories, lots of great impressions that will stay with us for a long time.
However I will add that I was very happy to eat a good old American hamburger upon getting back home. I guess you need time to get used to the tastes of things that are so foreign to us.
P.S. A lot of photographs are going to be from iPhone, since we don’t have pictures of all our meals taken with D700.