Japanese Food Tour
Well, I finally made it back to Japan for a bit of fun. Two years ago I did a similar food-oriented trip to Japan with
my friend (and sushi bar owner/chef) Kris. We had a great time but he unfortunately wasn't able to join me this
time. I forgive him since his reasons were valid (getting married in Hawaii and opening up his newest restaurant
within a week of the departure date!). For several months prior to taking this recent trip I tried to round up a
travel partner or two, but alas no one would take me up on it. I'm really not THAT tough to spend time with am I?!
In fact, I do understand (to some degree) why so many didn't take the trip with me. After all, most of them have
children, jobs, mortgages, and spouses that take priority over blowing a couple of weeks and a nice wad of cash
on traveling around a foreign country with nothing more on the agenda than eating, drinking, and watching the
occasional baseball game. Well, we all must sleep in the beds we make don't we? So if I end up sleeping on the
proverbial straw mat in future I guarantee to only blame myself! But, if you are one of those who turned down my
(oh so generous) offer and are struck with a distinct sense of regret after reading about the trip here, then my
friends, you only have yourself to blame!
The trip began when the taxi cab picked me up at my house before dawn on Sunday April 9th. I got a "good luck"
shoe shine in the Delta Crown room and took a smooth, comfortable flight to LAX. I had a layover in L.A. of about
3 hours, which I spent in the Korean Air lounge; a very modest, but satisfactorily comfortable spot. My ticket was
Business Class (thanks to Tee's massive point total with Delta), but occasionally one can get upgraded to First
Class. Unfortunately this Sunday flight is a busy one and I wasn't able to upgrade (boo hoo poor baby, right?).
Truth is, there is very little difference between First and Business Class, and I can't sleep on flights for the most
The flight was smooth and the food particularly good. I really enjoyed the meal of bibimbap (traditional Korean
rice dish) but was surprised they didn't offer either OB beer (the most common beer in Korea) or Kirin. I resigned
myself to drinking a Bud with my dinner. Despite that small glitch it was obvious to me that Korean Air has
stepped up it's game considerably over the years and is now quite an impressive operation (still not JAL!).
I have a strange dislike of movie-watching while flying, so I spent most of the flight reading Michael Medved's
autobiographical book "Right Turns" and listening to Tee's ipod (Nine Horses "Snow Borne Sorrow," Michael Rose
"African Dub," Bloc Party "Silent Alarm," and Robin Guthrie/Harold Budd "Mysterious Skin" Soundtrack).
After landing at Narita Airport (Tokyo) I hopped aboard the NXT (Narita Express Train) and sat back to enjoy the
hour long ride into town. The ride is long but quite pleasant as it runs through some fairly rural areas of Chiba
Prefecture. This particular ride was also pleasant due to the plethora of cherry blossoms visible along the way.
They helped greatly to distract from the constant presence of the unofficial Japanese national tree known as the
I disembarked at Tokyo Station and walked about 5 minutes to the Yaesu Terminal Hotel. Although I've stayed in
this part of Tokyo a couple of times before, this was the first time I had stayed at this particular hotel and had
little idea of what to expect. Despite it's very affordable rate I was impressed immediately by both the quality of
the hotel and it's convenient location. After checking in and placing my bag in the room I walked around the
block to find a place for dinner. I found a crowded yet inviting kushi-yaki place where I enjoyed several skewers of
grilled meat along with a wonderful raw octopus/wasabi dish and cold beer called "Hoppy" (which I've never
heard of before). Once I returned to my room I took a quick shower and collapsed on my bed, falling asleep
The next morning began early in order to get down to the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market for a look around and
a "traditional" sushi breakfast. I've been to Tsukiji a couple of times before and it's become an essential
destination for me when in Tokyo. Tsukiji is the world's largest seafood market and is at the heart of Japan's
massive food service industry. The market itself is a truly overwhelming site, and the surrounding markets and
restaurants a treasure trove of culinary delights. However, only those willing to visit during the active morning
hours (5:30-8:00) will be able to enjoy the fullness of the place.
On this visit I walked (quickly) around the interior market for a while in order to snap a few photos, then walked
to the outer market to have my breakfast. There are several restaurants that are popular for a sushi breakfast and
they all obviously have incredibly fresh fish. I chose to eat at one of the three Sushi Zanmai restaurants located
in the outer market. The breakfast was just as good as I had expected (and why wouldn't it be?), consisting of
Hirame, Tai, Anago, Nama Dako, Engawa, Mirugai, Akagai, Uni, Saba, O-Toro, Chu-Toro, Tamago, and a beautiful
Crab Miso soup. I also had the pleasure of sitting next to and chatting with a great older couple who had visited
the US on several occasions with plans to visit Boston (again) in May.
Traffic at Tsukiji Market
Fish for sale at Tsukiji Market
Sliced Tuna inside Tsukiji Market
Tsukiji Tai (Snapper)
|Kimura-san and Ono-san
Great couple I met at breakfast
|Uni! Uni! Uni!
(My personal favorite)
As is becoming my tradition, I made my way from Tsukiji on foot through Ginza and toward the Tokyo Station
area. It's a great walk, and because it's a time of day before the shops are open it makes for a unique (somewhat
eerie) way to see an area that is world famous for it's high-end shopping and hectic nightlife. As I had a few more
hours before my scheduled train ride to Kyoto, I decided to continue walking well west of the area of my hotel.
Just as the surge of morning commuters were appearing from the mouths of various train and subway stations, I
detected a small, empty park bench somewhat elevated and removed from the very busy intersection at which I
As a bit of a side note, being able to find a place to sit in a public area is a very rare thing in Japan. It's a
unabashed concept there to require people looking for a place to sit to seek out a business (restaurant, café, pub,
etc.) in order to do so. The idea being that it generates business (which it most certainly does). This is a concept
that can drive foreigners crazy until one has either retained enough geographical knowledge over time to know
where one might specifically go to have a sit-down, or until one resigns themselves to the idea that this is Japan
and not one's home country (When in Rome...).
As I approached the bench I was overwhelmed with just how peaceful and beautiful this little area was; and only a
matter of a few yards from the typical circus that is the morning commute in Tokyo! I sat on this bench and took
in the rarefied tranquility for about 45 minutes. As I did I discovered through perusing my map of Tokyo that this
area is the well known 'Hibiya Park.' While literally thousands of people rushed about a mere 100 feet over my
right shoulder, I saw only one other person on any of the several benches in that section of the park, and it was a
caucasion guy! It made a distinct impression on me, and had me thinking about how differently a visitor perceives
a place in comparison to a local. Then again, we Westerners are probably more inclined to take a few minutes on a
park bench, while the typical Japanese might start to feel a twinge of guilt knowing there is business that should
be getting done!
The view from my Hibiya Park bench
|Morning commuters at the intersection just
a few yards from the Hibiya Park bench
Before boarding my train for Kyoto I had planned on going by a seated massage place that used to be just across
the street from Tokyo Station's main entrance, but found it was no longer there. Instead I went to a foot massage
place just across from my hotel. When I entered to find the place dark I assumed I had read the business hours
wrong, but soon a young girl of about 20 came out from the back rubbing the sleep from her eyes. As I initially
spoke to her I became confused, thinking that either my Japanese was a lot worse than I had known it to be or
that this girl was still a long way from being fully awake. I soon realized that she was a foreigner. Turns out she
was Mongolian, and her Japanese was limited to basically what was required for her job. After she had prepared
the facilities for the massage, I was only left with about 45 minutes before my train departed. It turned out that
this was perhaps a good thing because it was one of the worst foot massage I've ever had. How do you mess up a
foot massage anyway?! Well, this was perhaps an ominous sign of things to come given that a few days later my
legs and feet would be so burnt out I would hardly be able to walk even a couple of blocks (more on this later)!
I ended up making my train in plenty of time, making sure to purchase a Japan Times newspaper and an
"ekiben" bento box lunch before boarding. The Shinkansen (Bullet Train) takes about 2 1/2 hours to reach Kyoto
from Tokyo and is a wonderful way to see the country. For those who have never been in Japan before, a couple
of hours on the Shinkansen is one of the best ways of gaining an authentic general impression of the country.
The ride is smooth and comfortable (especially on the "Green Car" with reserved seats; which I highly
recommend), and exposes the passenger to views of beautiful farm land, industrial areas, lush mountainous
regions, highways, country roads, and seashore, as well as towns and cities of various size.
Waiting to board the shinkansen to Kyoto
|My ekiben lunch and oolong tea
accompany me on the train to Kyoto
Upon arriving in Kyoto I made my way to the Kyoto Central Inn. This is a lower end hotel, but very conveniently
located in the heart of Kyoto (at Kawaramachi-dori and Shijo). I dropped my bag and headed out to snap a few
photos of the quickly depleting cherry blossoms (sakura). The first part of April is a great time to be in Japan. The
temperature is near perfect and the sakura are in bloom. I arrived in Kyoto only about four or five days too late to
experience the fullness of the blossoms, and thanks to some strong wind and moderate rain, I found the trees
only about half full. However, it's surprising just how beautiful the cherry trees still remain even when only half
I walked through some areas with which I'm particularly familiar only to find that a couple of old haunts were no
longer there. The old McDonald's at Kawaramachi and Shijo that I had known for over 20 years is now a
pharmacy (at which I bought an umbrella), and a small pub I used to frequent nearby has been demolished and a
new building is being erected in it's place. The most heartbreaking example was when I discovered that our old
friend Teddy's place (called simply "Teddy's") was no longer in business. Tee and I have many memories of time
spent in this cozy, funky little drinking spot on the 7th floor of Sanjo's Empire Building. I had even helped Teddy
with building some of the interior space back in 1990 when it first opened. Although I knew Teddy had sold the
place a few years back, I came to find out that the club had only closed in February of this year. My only
consolation is that I had the chance to show the place to my friend Kris when we were in Kyoto a couple of years
back. A good memory; having a cold beer in the late afternoon as we sat at the big windows overlooking the
After walking back to my hotel I took a shower and nap, knowing it was going to be a late night.
|Cherry blossom filled playground
|Front entrance of restaurant
|Restaurant sake display
That night I had a specific plan in mind. I first took a cab to the Brighton Hotel in the north-central part of
town. The Brighton is an upmarket hotel at which I taught English to the staff when I lived in Kyoto during the
summer of 1990. I had told myself on several occasions back then that "someday I'll come to this hotel as a
customer and have a drink at that beautiful bar." Well, I've been back to Kyoto many times since and still had
not followed through on that lingering thought. So this was the time to check that little "errand" off of the list. I
entered the hotel to find that it looked EXACTLY the same as it had 16 years ago; beautifully sparse and
spacious, with all elements of the lobby (entrance, front desk, lobby chairs, etc.) located right where they
always had been. I walked up the once familiar stairs to the second floor and into the hotel's Moonshine Bar.
The Moonshine Bar is a fairly typical upscale hotel bar for Japan, with dark wood, low lighting, plush leather
chairs, vast display of bottled spirits, and impeccably groomed staff. In keeping with the old world feel of the
place I ordered a martini (Bombay Sapphire). I love drinking martinis when outside of Utah because Utah law
restricts the amount of alcohol in each drink and makes it impossible to get a proper martini (it's also
impossible to get a proper Long Island ice tea or cosmopolitan for that matter).
The Japanese almost never drink without some type of food or snack. While small portions of nuts or chips (of a
sort) are always served along side most any drink order, it never hurts to order a bit of something extra. I
therefore took advantage of a fairly tempting snack menu and ordered what turned out to be a wonderful apple
and Camembert cheese plate.
Finishing up my martini, apples and cheese, I took a cab to the Westin Miyako Hotel on the eastern side of town.
Tee and I often stay at Starwood Hotels and I was curious to check out this relatively new Kyoto property. In all
honesty I was pretty disappointed. Although it's located in a fairly interesting area, the hotel is quite vast and
empty, lacking any real character. It took me a long time to locate the bar, having to wander down a seemingly
endless maze of empty, underutilized hallways. I had fully expected the bar to have an impressive view, given the
hotel's location well above the Kyoto valley in the foothills of the city's eastern mountains. However, despite
being able to take a seat in what was undoubtedly the best seat in the place, with large windows at my front
(facing west) and to my right (facing north), I was a little shocked that a very large portion of the view to the west
(which should be the prime view) was blocked by an extraordinarily ugly neighboring building. My
disappointment was assuaged a bit when the waiter told me it was Happy Hour and that drinks were half priced.
I again took advantage of the low lit, lounge like atmosphere and ordered "Cuba Libre" (rum and Coke). After a
couple of drinks I was ready once again to move along.
|A bartender at the Moonshine Bar
(Brighton Hotel) makes my Bombay
|A view of the disappointing
(and nearly empty) Moon Light
Bar at the Westin Hotel Kyoto
I had really been looking forward to my next destination, and it didn't disappoint. At this point in the evening I
was ready for my full-fledged dinner, and so I headed straight to one of my very favorite spots in all of Kyoto,
the restaurant Okariba. Okariba is a very unique restaurant for both Japanese and foreigners alike. The
restaurant is run by "Master" Aoki, who specializes in barbecued wild boar along with some VERY unique side
dishes. I've eaten at Okariba many times and have known Aoki-san for several years. Like Tsukiji in Tokyo, it's
become a required destination for me when in Kyoto.
I was very pleased, although not particularly surprised, when Master Aoki greeted me like an old friend as I
entered the restaurant. He immediately took out a large bottle of some of his best sake (a dai ginjo) and
poured me a large glass which he generously let overflow into the "catch bowl" beneath the glass (this is a
common and traditional way of drinking/serving sake). After catching up with Aoki-san for a few minutes I was
served a healthy portion of beautifully grilled pork with shredded cabbage. It took me all of about five minutes
to finish it off! He then served me a somewhat delicate dish of half frozen pre-seared beef slices topped with a
handful of spring onion. This was served along with the most interesting portion of the meal. Another of
Aoki-san's specialties (and one he knows I've always liked) is a serving of a portion of candied locusts alongside
a portion of bee larvae. Sounds strange? It is. It's strange for Japanese as well, but I must admit I like it. In fact
I think it makes for a terrific little dish to accompany sake at the end of a meal. If you never try it you'll never
I drank a bit more and chatted to a few of the other lingering customers before heading home. Or so I thought.
|With Master Aoki and another
Okariba's Master Aoki at his grill
|Okariba's famous grilled wild boar. You can
see my sake glass w/"catch bowl" on the right
|Cold beef slices with spring
onions. Candied crickets and
bee larvae portions at top right
I was feeling warm and happy as I hopped into a cab at Okariba and headed back to my hotel. But, after having
traveled only about two thirds of the way I felt the need to seek more "warmth" and "happiness," so I alighted at
an intersection in an area I know to have a number of late night clubs. "Clubs" is a bit of an odd word to use in
reference to certain types of drinking establishments in Japan. Japan has thousands upon thousands of places
to socialize and enjoy a drink. There are Western style "pubs" and "bars," often with live music and lots of draft
beer. There are izakaya, which are sort of Japanese style pubs that emphasize food as well as drink. There are
dance clubs/discos that are often no different from dance clubs in London or New York. There are also small
"snack" bars where there exist almost no snacks, but which cater mostly to a wealthier male clientele who pay
for wildly overpriced scotch/whiskey (mostly) because the drinks come with beautiful and extremely attentive
hostesses who sit with them, constantly refill their drinks, light their cigarettes, compliment them endlessly,
laugh at their jokes, rub their legs, and whisper seductively in their ears. I suppose I can see the appeal! In
addition to all of these exists probably the most common type of drinking establishment, that being a very small
bar that (normally) occupies one of many similar tiny niches within a multi storied building. These businesses
typically have a "theme" or play a particular type of music in order to differentiate themselves from the often
hundreds of other similar businesses that may well exist in the neighborhood or perhaps even on the same
street. In fact, most Americans would be stunned by the number of these type of bars that fill any given side
street in Japan. It's not surprising to see a smallish building of maybe 5 or 6 floors having 20, 30, or more
drinking establishments contained within. If there is one thing the Japanese love to spend their time on, other
than work, it is without a doubt eating and drinking! I dare say that it serves as the single most important
aspect of the domestic economy, and I'm fairly sure that anyone who has had the opportunity to see Japan for
themselves would not argue.
So, as I exited the cab and headed down a nondescript side street I heard the distinct (and very common) sound
of reggae music coming from a basement club. I stepped in and ended up spending a couple of very fun hours
talking and laughing with a great bunch of "kids" at Bar Heat. They were a fun group that kept me entertained
such that I started to lose track of time. We had talked quite a bit about reggae music and eventually they
introduced me to another small bar on the second floor of a building across the street that specialized in
reggae. The name of this place is called Red Nesta. The folks at Red Nesta were also a great bunch, and before I
left they had given me several recommendations as to what Japanese reggae CDs and DVDs to purchase while
I left Red Nesta at about 3:30 in the morning (most of these types of places close at about 5:00am) and made
the 1/2 mile walk back to my hotel along Kawaramachi-dori feeling grateful, happy, and humble for being
blessed with such a great first day of my trip; an auspicious start that could only portend a great couple of
weeks to come. I'm not a religious guy, but I do believe in prayer, and I was compelled to say a small prayer of
gratitude (one of many said throughout my trip) as I made my way home for the night.
My new friends at Bar Heat
|Saying 'hi' on Kawaramachi-dori,