Confession — I really liked Japan but I didn't LOVE (with capital letters) Japan. Sometimes, you go to a place and think, "Wow, I LOVE it here," and there's a feeling associated with that thought that's hard to capture into words.
Despite finding so many things fascinating about the cities I visited in Japan, I didn't have that LOVE feeling like I had in some other places I've been, BUT I did really enjoy my time in Japan and am SO glad I got to go. This was a big bucket list trip for me, and it was great.
All that said, what I did LOVE (with capital letters) about Japan was the FOOD! Wow, let's talk about the food. I went to Japan with very high food expectations since I am a "foodie" for lack of a better word and Japanese cuisine is easily in my top three. I'm happy to report that not only did Japan not disappoint, it exceeded my already high expectations. I honestly can't recall going to a place, eating as many different types of foods as I did in Japan, and loving pretty much everything I ate. I really hope to return to Japan to explore more of the country outside of the cities, but also to just keep on eating all the food. It was so good. Japan food for the win.
So what did I eat that I loved so much? Here's a rundown of my favorite foods I ate in Japan, which was almost everything...
Sushi and Sashimi
My very first meal in Japan may have been my favorite, though most of the meals that followed were also amazing so it's hard to say definitively what's my favorite, but this first meal is way up there. It was also one of my more expensive meals but very much worth it. The lunch prix fixe at Washoku Souten at The Prince Gallery hotel was the freshest sushi I had the entire trip and was very beautifully presented. Of the sushi and sashimi dishes I ate during my time in Japan, this was easily my favorite. I also enjoyed a great salmon sashimi lunch at Uogashi Senryo Kioicho.
Generally speaking, I'm not a huge ramen person but I do appreciate a good bowl now and then. The Shiromaru Classic ramen I ate at Ippudo Ropongi did not disappoint. In fact, it was so warm and comforting that it felt like the food equivalent of a nice, big hug. I also liked that it didn't feel super heavy and had a little bit of a spicy kick. And yes, I'm aware Ippudo is in New York, no I haven't been there yet, and yes I plan to go :)
Okonomiyaki and Negiyaki
I LOVE (there are those capital letters again) a good okonomiyaki. My first time trying this savory Japanese vegetable pancake was at a food festival in New York, and I've been hooked ever since. I knew while I was in Osaka that I could not leave that city without getting my hands on some good okonomiyaki. Thank goodness for Google, because within minutes I was able to find a place that got rave reviews and was only minutes away from me: Ajinoya. The line outside indicated that I wasn't the only one who had chosen Ajinoya at 2 pm on a Tuesday but fortunately the line moved very quickly. We ended up ordering a pork okonomiyaki and trying the shrimp negiyaki. Both were so filling and so good!
If I had to pick a noodle I love the most, it would absolutely be udon. I love how chewy and dense these noodles are, though it's definitely not something I indulge in regularly. But, when in Japan, right? While waiting at the Kyoto station for the Shinkansen train to Tokyo, I decided to try a bowl of udon noodles with beef and vegetables in a curry sauce at this random station restaurant (which I now know is called Hararyokaku — Google Image + my savvy food research skills + my memory for the win!). I went into the meal thinking this would probably be the weakest dish so far because it was a diner-type place in a train station (I didn't know any better), but it was so well flavored with the right amount of spice. I was blown away. Well done, Hararyokaku!
Kara-age aka Japanese Fried Chicken and Gyoza
Sorry, the American South, but I found the best fried chicken and it resides at Chao Chao Sanjo Kiyamachi in Kyoto, Japan. Chao Chao Is a restaurant that's actually popular for its gyoza, and it does have very good gyoza. I loved the shrimp and onion gyoza the most (more than the chao chao gyoza), but I think it's their fried chicken, known as kara-age in Japan, that truly shines. Similar to Korean fried chicken, this had a slightly sweet, tangy taste with the perfect crunch to it and minimal grease. After trying it and declaring the dish one of the best fried chickens I've ever had, my mom reminded me that 20 minutes before I had been so resistant to even ordering it, saying "it's just chicken." Well, I take that back. It was so much more than just chicken.
One thing that was recommended to me by multiple people who knew I was going to Tokyo was Omoide Yokocho, otherwise known as Memory Lane. This is a concentration of small eating holes jammed into tiny alleyways not too far from the heart of Shinjuku. When we got there we didn't know where to eat, so we walked around a bit and came across one place that had mostly Japanese people in it (maybe 5-6 since these places are small). Two men got up just as we walked by so we decided to snag their seats. We then asked the nice woman next to us which yakitori (grilled skewers) is good and ordered everything she suggested – chicken meatballs, pig cheek, chicken and leeks, chicken skin and quail eggs. Overall, everything was excellent. My favorite was the pig cheek and my least favorite were the quail eggs, but that's mostly because I dislike yolk. Otherwise, the flavor of everything was amazing.
Gyudon and More Gyoza
While in Japan, my mom and I took a cooking class with a very funny, quirky and skilled woman named Yuka Mazda. And we loved it (and her!). With Yuka's class you can choose what dish you want to make in her home, so we decided to go with gyudon (beef bowl), pork gyoza, sticky rice and miso soup. The class consisted of nine of us who took turns attempting to make gyoza properly while learning how to cook some phenomenal gyudon. It turned out to be such an amazing, relatively easy and flavorful dish, and we all enjoyed matcha tea and Japanese sweets at the end. Many thanks to Yuka for the cooking lesson!
I have grown to be quite attached to matcha over the last few years. I blame Starbucks, mostly. Their matcha lattes (unsweetened because FYI the Starbucks matcha powder is already sweetened!) make me so happy and have replaced chai lattes as my favorite Starbucks drink. So, while in Japan, I knew I had to try matcha in its various forms. I tried matcha tea (bitter, sort of like the tea version of an espresso shot, I imagine), matcha ice cream (good), matcha latte (so good!) and a matcha cookie (kind of amazing).
Other: French Food, Paninis and Pancakes
It may seem like all I ate was Japanese food, but I actually had a few non-Japanese dishes, including one of the best paninis I've ever eaten (sorry, Italy). I also had a pretty fabulous pancake at Matsunosuke NY, but the non-Japanese meal that stands out the most was at the beautiful La Maison Kioi at the Classic House at Akasaka. This was another pseudo-splurge (unintentional – our server thought I ordered the prix-fixe meal when I didn't, but I just went with it), but it was so, so worth it. To start, I ate smoked swordfish with seasonal fruits and basil, followed by a gorgonzola and mozzarella omelette with orange honey (who even thinks of these amazing combinations?), lobster poele and, lastly, chocolate mousse. Man, I miss that meal.
So, that's the rundown of the best foods I ate in Japan. My stomach misses you, Japan, and awaits the day when we'll be reunited.
Have you ever been to Japan? Did you LOVE the food as much as I did? ☺️