It has been a while since my last post. Christmas and New Year's Eve has passed by while we were on holidays in Japan and Taiwan - but let me tell you, it was a trip to remember. Japan has long since been a place that I have wanted to go - ever since I was a little kid, watching Dragon Ball, reading manga and playing the original Street Fighter on the Nintendo. I have always been fascinated with the culture and from my teen years onwards, I have been infatuated with their food. So when we moved to Australia, we thought hey, if we are going to have a chance to visit some more Asian countries, Japan better be one of our first.
We will have individual posts for the places and the restaurants we visited but this is to give a birds eye view of our impressions from our visit to one of the most impressive countries we have ever been to.
Those who have been to Japan know it as a place that is abundant in history, culture, and food. If you want temples, serenity, and diversity from your everyday life, Japan has it. From temples to monkeys, to shrines, to areas as rich as Ginza and as vibrant as Shinjuku and Shibuya, there is no reason not to get lost in the city and just take it all in. The pictures below will give a glimpse of what we saw.
Temples, shrines, and history. Though there were more in Kyoto, Tokyo did not have a shortage either.
The streets of Japan are so different from what I have seen anywhere else that I have been to. So many advertisements and so much going on. It made finding specific restaurants very hard at times but it was a feast for the eyes.
Metro stations, TRA's, JR, Shinkansen, Japan has their transportation system down pat. It made travelling around the country a synch! Kind of.
The Tsukiji fish market is world famous and rightfully so. We were there at 4am in the morning to lineup for Sushi Dai but sticking around afterwards to explore the market was a blast.
We even saw a Geisha! Janice was very excited about this.
If you wanted to catch a glimpse of nature in Japan, you could too.
Japan is the birth place of sushi and many other great eats and boy, do they know how to do it right. We both love food and we have been lucky enough to have lived in and visited places with amazing and diverse cuisine but if we had to choose one type of cuisine, it would be Japanese. With that bias in mind, read on, but we can say safely that we had some of the best meals of our lives on this trip.
Top 10 Restaurants we visited
1/ Sushi Iwa (Tokyo) - We have had some great sushi in Vancouver, San Fran and New York but nothing came close to this. Sushi Iwa was our version of transcendent sushi. Each piece was perfectly crafted and the flavors melded together harmoniously. Compared to Shiro's and Sushi Yasuda, Sushi Iwa was on a different level and have set the bar for our future sushi meals. We are so screwed. Luckily we can't afford to eat at this level too often yet I suppose ($200+ USD per person). While not considered to be the pinnacle of sushi in Japan, Sushi Iwa does an amazing job... to the point where I cannot imagine it could be much better than this.
2/ Sushi Dai (Tokyo) - Waited 3 hours and had to line up at 4am in the morning for this but this was surprisingly delicious. Located in the Tsukiji Market, this restaurant is famous amongst tourists all over the world (as evidenced by their extraordinary lineups at such an ungodly hour). Honestly, this was better sushi than at Shiro's in Seattle and we thought that was amazing. All for $39 USD per head. Just... be prepared to be freezing and grumpy at 4am in the morning.
3/ Yamamoto Menzo (Kyoto) - Kyoto is known for its culture and food. Yamamoto Menzo is a perfect example of that. We went on Christmas day only to find that the restaurant was closed but we were lucky enough to fit it into our schedule before we left. Trying to be clever, we arrived at 10:50am hoping to beat out any line... well we were outsmarted... by about 30 people. We were in the queue for over an hour before we got in and it was freezing that day. Maybe it was cold or maybe it was the hunger, but this bowl of udon was the best that I have ever had. The broth was so flavorful and the noodles perfectly cooked. Paired with the amazing chicken tempura and you have an outstanding meal for about $15 USD per person. Honestly worth the hype and the wait and we drool everytime we see the photos again.
4/ Shorain (Kyoto) - When I heard that we could experience gourmet tofu in Kyoto, I originally thought, gourmet tofu... what is that? But we were so glad we went. We were given two warnings about this restaurant: 1) it would be hard to find and 2) it will exceed any tofu you've ever eaten. The second warning was enough for us to go. We settled for the $46 per person meal for lunch and... wow. I'll leave it at that.
5/ Yoroniku (Tokyo) - Our quest for food in Japan was not only for sushi, udon, or tofu. It was also for great beef. I have always been a fan of steak and when we read the reviews for Yoroniku, we realized that we had an opportunity to try an example of Japan's outstanding variety. On the day that we wanted to go, the only open reservation was at 10:35pm ... So we accepted! The room was smoke filled but holy mother of cow, that beef was amazing. The beef slices were so thin and fatty, the cook called it "silk". This restaurant might rank as my second favorite restaurant on our whole trip but Janice is more of a fish lover :)
6/ Okakita (Kyoto) - On Christmas day, we wanted to visit Yamamoto Menzo for their much talked about udon so we lined up in the queue. We only found out later that we had lined up not for Yamamoto Menzo, but for a mysterious restaurant next door called Okakita. While we were disappointed that the restaurant we wanted to was closed, we thought, what the heck, if it has this long a lineup, the food must be good. It was. This place specializes in udon and they do it masterfully. The broth was so pure and "refreshing" (weird word to describe udon broth but in this case, it was true). The udon was so smooth, light, and of perfect texture - it was clearly freshly made in house. This udon shop has been in business for many years and their experience shows through. Okakita and Yamamoto Menzo are both in a class of their own. Yamamoto Menzo was just outright incredible but in more of a casual, every day style while Okakita was more refined and classic. Both were fantastic and would blow every udon shop out of the water in Vancouver.
7/ Katsukura (Kyoto) - Tonkatsu in Japan is a very popular dish which involves certain cuts of pork, deep fried with a light breaded batter and served with sauce, rice, and thinly shredded cabbage. Doesn't sound like much but if you find good tonkatsu, you'll be craving it again and again. Katsukura is a place we visited at the Kyoto station one evening and it blew us away. I had the premium cut of pork tenderloin but it wasn't just the meat that was impressive. It was the crusty layer which was light, crispy, and deliciously tasty as well. We also made our own sauce by grinding sesame seeds to give the sauce a beautifully fragrant smell. I am drooling just thinking about this. Yet another, "best meal we have ever had" in Japan. This is a chain restaurant but don't let the stigma of the restaurant's ownership structure fool you - it serves great tonkatsu.
8/ Daisan Harumi (Tokyo) - On the evening of our first night in Tokyo, I booked a reservation for Daisan Harumi. Reading up on reviews, Daisan Harumi was not in the class of Jiro's, Saito's, or Sawada but it was still on another level compared to most restaurants you could find in North America. When we finally found the restaurant, we had just survived over 15 hours of travel and we were sleep deprived. Still, we were excited to try high level sushi in Japan for the first time. How did we find it? Well... it was good but not outstanding. No where near Sushi Iwa's level unfortunately. It was better than anything you could find in Vancouver and Melbourne for sure but at $185 per person, it should be. Sushi Yasuda in New York was more impressive to us honestly... It was a great experience regardless but I think this was a bit of a disappointment for us.
9/ Keiseki at Ohanobo (Kyoto) - When we stayed at our ryokan in Kyoto, we opted to stay in for dinner one night. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn with all your basic amenities but also with those traditional Japanese qualities to it. The ryokan served a traditional keiseki meal right in your own room so we thought, great food, traditional setting, and all in our own room? Score. We were served over 10 varieties of foods with an abundance of different flavors including thin and extremely fatty slices of kobe beef, yutofu, different varities of sashimi, and other items that I am unsure about but loved the flavor. Safe to say that we were absolutely stuffed after the meal. Definitely a must do in Japan is to have a keiseki meal and we were glad that we got a chance to do it here.
10/ Sushi Midori (Tokyo) - One night, we were wandering around the neighborhood close to our hotel when we noticed a queue that was longer than usual. It turned out that it was for a sushi restaurant (part of a chain) that had been receiving rave reviews on Trip Advisor so we originally thought, oh well, it's probably just tourist hype. The lineup was easily 2 hours long and we weren't about to wait in line on a freezing cold night for sushi that was not in the higher class (we had unknowingly become sushi snobs). On New Year's Eve however, we were looking for dinner and thought we had run out of luck as most restaurants and establishments close in Japan early for NYE as it is a traditional, family oriented holiday and not the party-party one that North America and the rest of the world is known for. We got lucky that evening as we waited in line for only 5 minutes that night. For $30 per person, we feasted until we were ready to roll over. The quality was fantastic for the price we paid too. Sure it was not Sushi Yasuda level but it was not far off of what you could get at Sushi Sam's in San Francisco or Shiro's in Seattle. Definitely worth going to!
Honorable Mentions: Wako Tonkatsu, Udon-tei, Ippudo Ramen, Rokurinsha Ramen
What are things we have learned about this amazing country?
1/ How polite people are - Honestly, we have heard about how people in this country conduct themselves and even then, we were amazed how polite and courteous most people are. On our first night in Tokyo, we asked the taxi driver where Daisan Harumi was. He not only took us to our location but got out of the car, walked around the street with us and pointed us in the right direction - all without speaking any english. When we went to Sushi Iwa, a lone diner poured us several glasses of aged, premium sake because he wanted to welcome us to his country and to see what this beautiful country has to offer. We loved Japan and the people are a huge aspect why.
2/ Bikes are left unlocked - We saw many bicycles in Tokyo as this is a common form of transportation. But what surprised us is that the vast majority were left unlocked. Think what would happen in Vancouver or Melbourne if someone left their bike unlocked. They would almost certainly have to find a different form of transportation home! People seemed very trusting and honest here.
3/ Rimowa luggages are everywhere - Not normally is this a strange observation but when any Rimowa luggage over 25 inches is worth over $800 you would understand why we were so surprised. Japanese people love to travel in style and would happily pay the premium for a very nice suitcase!
4/ Garbage bins, where are they? - You walk around the city, eating snacks to keep up your energy and then you wonder, "Where can I throw away my garbage?" It was not easy to find a garbage bin at times but what is amazing is how clean the streets of Tokyo are despite having rubbish bins hidden away! Shibuya is chalk full of people as one of the busiest intersections in the world and yet the streets look clean. How do they keep this up?
5/ Calming sounds in the train stations - When you start taking the metro in Tokyo or the train from Kyoto station, you may notice a hymn or the sound of birds chirping. No, that isn't a huge bird in the metro station (at 10pm at night). Janice is convinced that this is by design to serve as a calming mechanism or as a guidance for people who are visually impaired. My mind was blown. Having a hard time proving this theory through Google search though?
6/ We love the shinkansen - 300km per hour in a ride that feels smoother than a car being driven on a straight road with no traffic and zero road imperfections. Who would not love this? Then I thought, Formula 1 drivers drive this fast around curves on a race track...
7/ I want a Japanese toilet seat installed in my future house - It warms your butt as you sit on it on a cold cold day. Enough said.
8/ We love Japan - To the person who poured us sake that evening at Sushi Iwa, we do love your country. The food, the people, the culture, everything. We will definitely be back.