Foodie travel in Japan: what we have learnt
While neither of us professes to be an expert on Japan, to know the hottest izakaya in Tokyo or the best place for unagi in Osaka, we have in the course of our travels learnt a few things. Usually by trial and error but nonetheless, we thought we would share a few things (nine in total) that we have either deduced in the course of our travels or wished someone had told us.
1) DON'T SWEAT IT. How many restaurants do you think there are in Tokyo? Take this number and multiply it by about 5,000. There are restaurants in every other building, on more than one floor, inside the train stations, on the platforms, crammed into every nook and cranny of the city. And Tokyo is no exception. With so, so many restaurants on offer, all of them serving up an incredibly high standard of food, there is simply no point in obsessing over finding the best ramen or worrying whether you have chosen the crispest tempura joint. This is the route to madness and chances are you will never manage to find half of them. Yes, plan a few places, take up a few recommendations but equally give yourself time to stick your head round some curtains and see what you happen across.
2) GET PORTABLE WIFI. Yes, there are free connections but hiring a portable device for your trip is 110% worth it. The address system is impenetrable and, without damning the map reading skills of a nation, the directions we were given were at times very hit and miss.
3) EAT EVERYTHING. Some of the best dishes we stuck our chopsticks in weren't what we thought we would like. Yes, the tempura and soba we knew we would like were outstanding. But some of the best things were the shiokara (fermented fish), the shishamo (pregnant fish), and the offally, offally good but unlikely bits of intestines we chowed down on. We didn't think we would like it, but given the portions are small and the prices inexpensive, it was always worth giving it a go. Carve out a morning to graze your way around the food hall at a department store. The one exception was red bean paste. Avoid this like the plague.
4) GO BUDGET. High end is good. Multi-course tasting menus have their place but some of the best bits were essentially beer snacks. Well thought out, carefully crafted beer food but simple, inexpensive eats nonetheless. Don't order a beer without something to go with it. A lesson for life.
5) THERE IS MORE THAN TUNA. When the tuna is that good, and it really is amazing, it is tempting to stick to it for every plate of sushi and sashimi. Try the squid, the surf clams, the white-fleshed fish that aren't common to the UK. And make sure to try the tuna tataki.
6) LEARN TO SLURP YOUR NOODLES. You will feel left out if you haven't picked up this essential Japanese skill.
7) DON'T BE SCARED OFF BY THE KANJI. We encountered a lot of places where the menu was only in Japanese. Don't let this deter you. With a little bit of understanding about what you might get and generous use of the phrase "omakase" (literally Chef's choice), it is perfectly possible to get by. You may end up with the gaijin food but try some pointing and references to some izakaya classics (obviously only works in an izakaya) and you will likely be well fed.
8) NIHONGO GA HANASEMASUKA. Without stating the obvious, trying to pick up a little pidgin Japanese goes a long way and will get you brownie points that can then be exchanged for delicious food. This is not Paris, throw in a few "arigato"s and a couple of "onegaishimasu"s and you will be richly rewarded.
9) SIT AT THE COUNTER. You can see what's on offer. You can point. It has the most atmosphere. The staff might be charmed by your ability to use chopsticks and to drink copious amounts of sake and take you under their wing. Trust us, it works.