Japan is such a fun country for foodies! Everyone talks about how Tokyo has the most Michelin stars of any city in the world, beating Paris by over a hundred. That’s all well and good, but we were in Tokyo for humbler fare–and it wasn’t hard to be amazed.
Seriously guys, I don’t think we had a bad meal in Tokyo. We had a couple of average ones–by which I mean it didn’t knock our socks off quite like the other meals did. And if it wasn’t necessarily the most orgasmic food experience of our tongues (um, that’s a bit awkward I guess), it was fun, flavorful, creative, or new.
Let me break your hearts by saying: I don’t remember most of the places we ate. When we travel, we specifically avoid places that look too touristy, and in Japan more than anywhere else, it was extremely difficult to figure out what a restaurant was called. Or even a dish. I don’t speak Japanese, and none of my travel companions did. The cool thing about Japan though is they have very visual menus. They love to put models of the dishes in plain view, and the menus are typically in full color so even if you can’t read the words, you can point!
But it may be difficult to eat when you have dietary restrictions. I’m lactose intolerant, and boy, does milk show up in the most random dishes… and of course it’s in nearly every dessert. Good thing they make lactase pills! My friend Pritee does not eat beef. Another cool thing about Tokyo is that most people seem to know at least a little bit of English. You could point to a dish and ask, “Chicken?” and they would shake their heads and say “No, pork, sorry.” The wait staff at every restaurant we went to was wonderful, just nice, friendly people who want you to have a great experience.
For example, we met the sweetest girl named Snoopy (I swear, that was on her name tag) at our first restaurant in Tokyo at a small place in the Roppongi district. She took such pains to explain that there was a little buzzer at the table we could tap when we were ready to order, or if we needed water refills or anything. She showed us where to hang our coats–a common thing in many restaurants. And I don’t think we ever had to hit the buzzer once!
We had some yummy sushi, a savory custard made of eggs, and some clam miso soup. Clam miso should definitely be more of a thing, by the way. The restaurant also had these really cool baskets under the seats, so you had somewhere to put your stuff. Ingenious!
We ate at all kinds of places. We found a gathering of food trucks next to Tsukiji Hongan-ji, the Buddhist temple by the fish market. We ate streetside Japanese crepes. We tried a food court in a mall–really interesting, because it’s a big crowded hall of small separate restaurants. It was definitely a place people came to hang out and have a few drinks after work or late at night.
Another reality of life in Tokyo is that you spend a LOT of time in train stations. There are so many of them, making it incredibly easy to get around (except if you get on the wrong trains). Most larger train stations have restaurants, stores, even whole malls built around them. And the smaller ones typically had at least a vending machine and a food stall or two.
Oh, and speaking of vending machines: Japan has an impressive array! Walking around all day can be exhausting, but if you forgot your water bottle, no worries, just drop a hundred yen coin in a nearby machine for some water, coffee (both hot and cold!) or even a fruity alcoholic beverage. Craving some ice cream? Need a quick ramen fix? Raining outside and forgot your umbrella? There’s a vending machine for all that too! There are even vending machine restaurants!
Those were super cool, and we tried them a few times. Our first one was in Akihabara district–a tiny doorway on a street corner. We noticed it because of the noodle picture above the door, and the row of dishes displayed in the window outside. We eventually figured out that each dish was assigned a number, and there was a grid of these numbers on a panel. Press your number, slip your yen into the slot, and get a ticket. Walk inside, hand the ticket to the gentleman behind the counter, and voila! A meal.
Vending machine meals are cheap, typically at under 800 yen for a dish big enough to satisfy one person (and sometimes even two!). They’re quick, too. At that noodle house in Akihabara, one guy walked in after us, got his food, inhaled it, and was out the door in under 10 minutes. For busy Tokyo professionals, this is the way to go. And such a novel experience!
Finally, breakfasts. All my research claimed the Japanese don’t really eat any. A boiled egg, miso soup, natto (fermented soybean), toast… it seemed like breakfast wasn’t a thing. BUT you guys! On our first morning, we went out to the Shinjuku Station and found the most amazing bakery inside Keio Mall. It’s called the Tap House. Oh my gosh, just remembering those pastries makes me sad and kind of hungry. They had your usual stuff: croissants, Danishes, rolls. But they had their own twist to these baked goods. A pineapple Danish was the most popular, but there was also a sponge cake filled with dark chocolate truffle, a savory spinach square with cream cheese and tomatoes, a chestnut cream croissant, a hotdog in a bread roll…I could go on. We had breakfast there everyday we were Tokyo. Every. Single. Day.
Food is fun in Tokyo. If you’re adventurous, you’ll find new things to try everywhere you look. I’d go back just to eat! But for now, gotta go find some sushi…