Following on from the earlier posts relating to our 2006 Japanese holiday (Earth Celebration and Rising Monkey III: The Snoozening), here's guest writer The Belated Birthday Girl to tell you about the current state of food and drink in Japan. Links to restaurant sites, maps etc are provided where available - if you need any of the Japanese sites translating into English, Babelfish may be of some use. But only some.
For me, one of the main pleasures of travelling is eating, and in Japan there is always plenty of excellent food to be had. The trickiest thing about writing about it is deciding which places to leave out - there were many other great meals we had. But I've decided to take my lead from Spank's list of 10 places where we slept - only I couldn't quite limit myself to that, so here are 10-plus-1 places where we ate.
1. Ghibli Museum
Straw Hat Café, Mitaka (English site)
Obviously our main reason for being at the Ghibli Museum wasn't to eat, but the café sounded delightful, so we made a point of having lunch there. And it was well worth the hour or so we had to queue up: admittedly, the queuing was made more enjoyable by the selection of Japanese picture books for browsing while you wait. When we got into the café, the food - all fresh, and mostly organic - was excellent: Spank had a chicken pasta salad, and my vegetable soup had some of the tastiest vegetables in it I can remember having, ever. And to drink we had to have something cold - not just because of the hot weather, but because the drinking straws at the café are real straw! So we both had a nice cooling iced tea. If you go to the Ghibli museum, don't skip the café.
If you are in Omotesando, maybe to window shop in the designer stores or check out the swish Omotesando Hills mall, how do you decide where to eat? Well, one of the Japanese friends we were there with approached a total stranger in the street for a recommendation. I don't know what kind of thing she said we were looking for, but I do know the recommendation was a good one. Okeya-no-Suzutaro is beautifully atmospheric - one of those places where you have to remove your shoes on the way in. It is a kind of upmarket izakaya, with a more interesting than usual menu. And being there with Japanese friends meant our choices were not limited to what little I could read myself. We had a variety of excellent dishes: some sublime tofu, asparagus and aubergine, tuna cheeks, a hibachi-type grill with a selection of fish (including some fish fin, some sweet sardines, and some squid), and also some meaty dishes, including stewed black pork and ground pork on fresh ginger stems. And even with rice on top and beers all round it was ridiculously cheap, totalling only 11,100 yen for 4 people. I'd never have found this place without the recommendation, but I'm very glad we were taken there.
3. Hibiki, Ginza Green, Ginza
One of the things which makes choosing restaurants in Japan slightly daunting is that you can rarely see inside them. Very often they will be several floors up. There are entire buildings with floors of restaurants. Ginza Green is one of those buildings. By the door at street level were the signs for the ten restaurants over eleven floors plus basement, showing what they looked like, and with menu samples, but there is still an element of luck in choosing. Happily, we were very lucky in our choice. The rather swish-looking Hibiki, on the 10th and 11th floors, does a fixed price buffet lunch, for only 1,000 yen, including iced tea with and coffee after. Now, all-you-can-eat buffets may have you thinking of tired food which has sat around too long, or boring selections of greasy noodles, but Hibiki was nothing like that. There was a terrific variety of dishes, largely fish and vegetable based, but some meat based, and you could see the chefs busying away making more fresh the whole time. And there was a selection of attractive Japanese crockery to put your dishes on. Fantastic value and excellent food, and a beautiful place, too - I'd love to have a proper evening meal there (more of that delicious tofu), when it would cost a bit more. But the lunch is incredible, especially for 1,000 yen.
4. Sushi Dining Gyosai Tei, Niigata (map)
Niigata is famous in Japan for the quality of its rice, and the quality of its fresh seafood. This makes sushi - and sake - a bit of a thing there. So when we saw a very appealing looking sushi bar in the Furumachi shopping arcade, it seemed the thing to do. And I have to say, it was another good choice. Although the place was practically empty - it was a little early in the evening, perhaps - the staff were friendly, and the sushi was excellent. We chose two sets: the cheapest one, and the next one up in price, and we mixed and matched between the two. Among the sushi we had in the sets were obvious ones such as salmon and tuna, but also scallops, sweet shrimp, and ark shell. The cheaper set came with the cucumber maki, the middle priced one with the tuna maki. All were excellent. And as sake was a local speciality, I asked for some local sake, which was very tasty indeed - my only regret is that I didn't ask what the make was. It was obviously a proudly Niigata sushi bar, with a wall-chart following the progress of the local footy team Albirex: unfortunately they weren't doing too well - although at the moment of writing they seem to be in mid-table obscurity. But it was a lovely place for excellent sushi and sake, and makes me wish the Albirex well for the future. Gambatte!
By the way, in case you ever feel daunted by traditional sushi bars in Japan, here's a handy video with some facts and etiquette to help you out.
5. Matsuhama, Ogi,
Being a small island in the Japan Sea off the coast of Niigata, Sado is also famous for its fresh fish. Although being there for the Earth Celebration meant a lot of eating on the hoof with food from the festival stalls - very well, too, I might add - we did also find time to lunch at one of the restaurants in Ogi town which specialised in fish. Matsuhama was clearly a locals' restaurant, serving excellent little set lunches. I caused some confusion asking for the grilled fish set lunch, as would be a common request in many restaurants, because they had three different grilled fish set lunches that day: one was mackerel, one was neck of a large fish the name of which I have forgotten, and the third was another fish which I've forgotten the name of, even though that's what I went for. Spank chose the "hire katsu", as he's fond of a bit of katsu, even though at first I wasn't sure what "hire" was, although I thought it was fish of some sort. Turned out, it is fin, and it was apparently very good. My grilled fish was also excellent - if only I could tell you which fish it was! This place was included on the lists of restaurants handed out by the tourist information at the EC centre, and is worth checking out if you have time for a sit-down spot of lunch.
6. Sky J, JR Tower, Sapporo
The JR Tower hotel has two restaurants up on the 35th floor: one Japanese, and one identified as French. We decided, for a change, to try the French one, Sky J. The first thing to note is that one obvious reason to go here is for the stunning views over Sapporo - although our room had an almost identical view from just a few floors lower, so we maybe weren't quite as blown away by it as we would otherwise have been. The second thing to mention is that the food is worth the trip alone, even without the view. Although described as French, it is very much a fusion restaurant, using Japanese ingredients with French nouvelle cuisine style. There was only a set menu in Sky J: for 4,500 yen you get 5 courses - appetisers, soup, fish, meat and dessert or cheese. We caused much consternation because I did not want the meat, so, for balance, Spank decided to forgo the fish, but the staff were insistent we had 5 courses. In the end we agreed to have both the dessert and cheese courses. We were most amused by their inability to let us have only 4 courses, since we were paying for 5, but as it turned out, they were probably right, as the courses were very nouvelle cuisine in size, as well as style.
the 5 courses we had worked out just fine. And all the food was
fabulous: the appetiser of sea bass carpaccio, the potato or sweet
potato soup (one hot, one cold), the hamachi, the lamb, the tofu
pudding and the cheese fondant - everything was delicious,
interesting and beautifully presented. A meal like that would
probably cost twice the amount we paid for it if we had it in London.
On top of the meal, we also had a bottle of the local Kokachi Kiyomi
wine, which was more than drinkable. And afterwards we hung around
for a couple of cocktails. So even if for some bizarre reason you
don't want to experience the fabulous meal, you can still enjoy the
view with a drink or two in the bar.
7. Kitanofuji, Sapporo
Kitanofuji is the name of a former Sumo wrestler from Hokkaido who reached the top rank of Yokozuna, and won 10 tournaments between 1967 and 1972, before retiring in 1974. After retirement, it seems he opened a restaurant, also called Kitanofuji, specialising in chanko nabe, the hearty stew sumo wrestlers eat to keep their bulk up. Seeing that Kitanofuji (the restaurant) served a seafood version, I decided I had to go there and try it. There is a small sumo ring at the entrance to the restaurant, which is very atmospheric with traditional chanting music playing in the background and your food served to you in little private rooms. You have a burner at your table, you choose your nabe (they do have other food, but the nabe was why we were there), and it all gets stewed up together at your table, with the waitress adding the different ingredients - vegetables, various fish, crab legs, tofu, mochi, and (annoyingly, for me) a piece of pork, finishing up with noodles. It's lots of fun, and the food is very tasty, although there was far too much in the bowl for the two of us to finish. On our visit, it was a bit quiet - I think maybe we went a little late in the evening - but I can imagine it would be great fun when it is busy, and it was pretty good even on a quiet night. If you've ever fancied trying chanko nabe, this is a good place to give it a go.
8. Okadaya, Toyako
Onsen (URL is just for the shop, as far as I can tell)
The guide books won't tell you much about where to eat in Toyako Onsen, suggesting, if they say anything at all, that you eat in your hotel or ryokan. Which is a pity, as we found decent places with no trouble at all. Admittedly, in these resort towns your options in the evenings are limited, but there are always decent lunch options.
The first place we
tried was a terrific place. Okadaya specialises in scallops, and as
I am partial to scallops, that got it off to a good start. It has
them cooked in all sorts of ways. I had a delicious scallop curry:
Japanese style curry sauce with juicy, succulent scallops in. And
Spank had the scallop tempura udon, which I have to admit had tempted
me, too, but the lure of scallops and curry together was
irresistible. If for some reason you don't want scallops (why?),
there were other dishes, leaning heavily on the traditional Hokkaido
foods. The place itself was charming, the price low (8oo yen for the
scallop curry), and the people friendly - they gave me some free
postcards of Toyako Onsen after I'd complimented them on the
delicious food. If I had to recommend only one place in Toyako
Onsen, this would be it.
9. Ippei, Toyako Onsen
But luckily I don't have to recommend only one, as this yakitori house was a great place for dinner in the evening. Although it is part of a chain, it feels just like a friendly local place, with cool music, a lovely atmosphere and great food. Spank had skewers of beef and chicken, while I had my favourites of agedashi dofu and ko-ebi - although the ko-ebi (which means "small shrimps") were hardly the tiny things normally served. We both chose to accompany with chips - Hokkaido is known for growing potatoes, remember, so that's my justification - which came dressed in delicious butter (again, a Hokkaido speciality). It was all quite delicious. This place was handily located for getting down to the lake to see the fireworks, too.
10. Kafe Restaurant Boyotei, Toyako Onsen
I'm going to mention one more Toyako Onsen lunch spot, just because there is so little in the way of recommendations in the guidebooks. This is the kind of Japanese lunch restaurant which serves Japanese versions of Western food. The place is all dark wood, leather sofas and pretty table lamps, with tea sets and other Western stylings. And the food includes such "Western" dishes as "gratin" and "omu-rice" - the former like a kind of macaroni cheese, and the latter an omelette stuffed with rice. The food was satisfying and tasty, although at a total of 4,500 yen (for two meals with a couple of coffees each) a little pricey for lunch in Japan. Still, that's what you get for eating exotic Western fayre, I guess, and it is a nice enough place to sit and eat lunch and drink coffee that you don't really mind.
10 + 1. Wakamatsu Honten, Narita
Finally, I couldn't fail to mention our final evening meal of the trip, served in our room at our ryokan in Narita city. The food you get at ryokan can range from basic but decent to a fabulous feast, and this was certainly the latter. On our booking, we had put me down as vegetarian with fish, so for a couple of dishes I had a seafood alternative to Spank's meat dishes. Everything was wonderfully presented, as these meals often are. We had a vast range of sashimi, vegetables, grilled fish, unagi (grilled, barbecued eel) - which is a speciality in Narita - tofu, all manner of goodies. It looked beautiful (see picture at top of the page), tasted delicious, and was, indeed, a feast. The ryokan also serves lunch to non-residents. We didn't get to try that, but our meal in our room was a terrific last dinner of the holiday.