Saturday, 21 April 2012

Japan - Tokyo

So much to say about Japan. Fantastic trip. But others far more eloquent and articulate have written much on Japan's culture to the outsider, so I'll say few words on that and concentrate on my highlights and pictures.

But briefly, I found the people disarmingly humble, kind and helpful at every turn, and the service levels and attention to detail are astonishing. The professionalism, from the teenager in 7-11 upwards, is enviable. It makes you realise how shoddy the UK can be sometimes. The transport system is fantastic too.

That there is no tipping in restaurants or commission in shops does cast some perspective upon America's better service reputation also. It isn't better there, it's just incentivised. Japanese people seem to have a pride and respect for their work which is much deeper ingrained.

Muji was certainly a lot more Japanese too:

And so, on to the foodie stuff. Tokyo is such a global city that French and Italian food, not to mention Americana, is everywhere. However most visitors haven't come for the burgers (but more on that another time) and the great thing about Japan is that it's very difficult to eat badly. The food halls of department stores are fantastic insights into the breadth of Japanese food, and good fun. Great for grabbing something cheap for a picnic or train.

To start with, some unidentifiable but fun airline food. If you ever get the opportunity to fly ANA, take it:

Our first night, we ventured into a place in Shibuya which did a sort of shabu shabu, but with chicken hearts, livers and meatballs rather than nice, marbled beef. The ritualism of it all was quite fun though, and the virtuous veggies made us feel a bit better about all the beer:

Hanabi in Nakameguro alongside the river was a cute little spot for lunch, filled with trendies taking a break from the amazing cherry blossom viewing. My kara age was delicious:

Yakitori places are everywhere in Tokyo. You're not really encouraged to linger long, but fill up on chicken skewers, beer and then vacate your seat.

Of course, some of the yakitori spots run a little more adventurous than chicken skewers, such as this one in Shinjuku specialising in parts of the pig:

"Yes I'd rather the lower grade uterus, please..."

The Piglet is obsessed with all things Monocle, and so a trip to their cafe in the Hankyu Men's department store was a mandatory pilgrimage. It's a pleasant enough space, but is lacking that charm and special touch of Omotesando Koffee, whose founder designed it (more on coffee in Japan in another post). The Monocle curry was very tasty though:


So I came to Japan to eat lots of Japanese food, but I like a good Western breakfast. This eggs benedict from Glorious Chain Cafe, a pretty cool establishment run by Diesel, was spot on: 

Maisen in Omotesando came highly recommended as the place for Tokyo's best katsu. As some will know, katsu is one of my favourite Japanese dishes so I was very excited about this one, and not disappointed.

We sat at the bar, which ironically is quite a hushed and formal affair. Maisen take their craft very seriously, and views into the kitchen saw an incredible clean, quiet and serene operation producing quite easily the best katsu cutlets I've ever tasted. The crumbing is so light and gentle, you feel boorish for not eating it with the delicacy of a Victorian high tea.

It's not cheap compared to its peers, but I couldn't recommend it more.

The Japanese are very in tune with their seasons for such an urbanised nation, and having tried to navigate Tokyo's size and labyrinthine streets, I can appreciate their appreciation and willingness to connect to open space, the countryside and the changing of seasons.

I suppose it's a similar thing to the notion and affinity to the England of green, rolling hills, despite an urban dwelling population of 90%. With farmers' markets, better restaurants and food supplements, I think we're getting better at seasonality, but there is still a way to go.

seasonal ice creams

If you're going to Japan, you'd better like beer. Wine is available of course, but unless you fancy paying £30 for a bottle of Jacob's Creek, you should wait for the flight home. Despite some great Japanese beers, the grass is always ever greener and so the craft beer phenomenon made a big impact here. Combined with a love for most things Hawaiian, you'll see a lot by the Kona Brewing Company:

Street food in Japan isn't quite as rowdy and fun as Southeast Asia, possibly as the weather is so changeable. But it's certainly much tidier and better organised - here's some more kara age I bought for a couple of quid to nibble on:

We were curious about Baja, a tiny little Mexican place cum dive bar, just off the Meguro river. Burritos and nachos were great and reasonably priced. No pics of the food I'm afraid, but worth a visit if you fancy something a little different for Tokyo:

The Japanese do love their French and Italian food, which we dutifully avoided until we passed Figaro, a little French spot in Aoyama and nipped in for a cheeky croque monsieur in between meals:

Berry Cafe was a fantastic example of Japanese perfectionism and obsession - the cakes in the place were an absolute work of art - I particularly liked the plum one at the bottom:

Gyoza are another Japanese foodstuff I love. They're sold in most izakayas, which are Japanese pubs ostensibly, doing a pretty borad range of food. But I picked these up in the basement of Tokyu in Shibuya, and they were delicious:

And finally, some more of my ANA food, this time from the flight home. The presentation is fantastic as always:

These are just some highlights from our days in Tokyo. I tried to eat as much Japanese food, but was also very curious about their takes on Western and other Asian food too. So it's all quite mixed.

I'll be writing some other posts about our time outside of Tokyo (including udon otaku and kaiseki dining) as well as posts on the coffee and burger scenes I came across.

Two things which were a challenge - firstly the address system is confusing at first as hardly any streets have names, it's all numbered blocks. So print or screen grab lots of maps. And secondly, people smoke everywhere. Many places have non-smoking areas but some bars we could barely finish our drinks in. Also, watch out for sneaky table charges in bars!


  1. I'm currently planning our first trip to Japan for later in the year... for various reasons, we need to cut our budget.
    Do you have any recommendations on accommodation in Tokyo, Kyoto or anywhere else you visited?

  2. Boring looking business hotels, of which there are many, in good locations is probably my bet. We stayed in Shibuya at the Excel Tokyu which was a great base. Kyoto I would recommend more central than the rail station as you don't need the trains as much! TPT

  3. I went to Japan a couple of years ago and it was my best holiday ever! I didn't go to Tokyo though, (went to Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka and some little onsen towns) and need to plan a trip there asap. Did you also have the feeling that there are far too few fruit/vegetables on Japanese menus?

  4. Absolutely - was pining for fruit, veg and tomatoes especially. The diet change definitely affects one's regularity!

    I get their thing about few ingredients and simplicity, but a small side salad would really help!

  5. This was a fun read! Glad you enjoyed your stay.

    Kavey - business hotels or ryokan are the way to go if you're on a budget. Just remember, they can be small and the staff rarely speak any English. The Toyoko Inn chain is cheaper than most, the website is in English and the locations are very good.

    I agree with what was said about where to stay in Kyoto (go central, not near the station) and the relative lack of vegetables on offer in Japan. Indeed, visiting vegetarians have a tough time here. That said, if you're happy to have bonito flakes/dashi on your salad, you won't be disappointed.

  6. If you have a plan for trip in next month or next time then is the complete solution.