I’m quite sure food is one of the main reasons a lot of people dream about traveling to Japan. Or at least it seems to be one of the main reasons for the people I know. Maybe I just know weird people, who knows. Or maybe I just know very, very smart people, because Japanese food is amazing. Even their unhealthy “junk food” is quite a bit healthier than, say, fries and deep fried sausages and meatballs (I’m looking at you, Belgium).
First the disclaimers:
- This whole post is just about food. Because I like food. I like talking about food. I like writing about food. I like reading about food. Food. Food food food.
- I do not think Japan is an expensive country when it comes to food. Maybe it is just because I’m a Finn living in Belgium, and neither country is exactly known for affordable food, even if both have their own things that you can get for cheap.
- I didn’t eat any sushi. None. Nada. Zilch. I kept wondering about it, but just never really had the chance. I ate out with friends a few nights, and a few nights I was just so dead after all the walking and new things and awesomeness that actually looking for a certain kind of food was a bit too much to ask. So usually I just chose my food with the super interesting “Google, tell me what’s good near here” or “this place I just randomly stumbled on looks good” techniques.
The first day, as earlier discussed, was not exactly the most energetic of days. I picked my lunch place just based on the fact that there was a queue at around noon and the name was a Finnish word. Was rather European fare, and way less photogenic than Japanese stuff. Still okay, but not what I had expected from my food experiences on my long-awaited Japan trip. It already got me slightly worried what the rest of the trip might have in store for me food-wise, really…
So, in the evening I just kept walking around and around in the neighbourhoods around the hotel, undecided on where to go. There numerous options around, but almost none of them had an English menu outside on the street, so I wasn’t sure what they exactly had to offer. Quite a few, though, in the proper Japanese style, had pictures or even those cute plastic versions of their portions on the outside. Makes life quite a bit easier for a tourist like me who can’t even read the menus.
In the end I just took the risk and walked into a place I had walked by twice already. And got the udon soup pictured above. It was creamy, slightly spicy, there was a lot of it, and it was possibly one of the best things I have eaten in several years. So good, in fact, that I went to the same restaurant again on my second to last night. It was the only place I visited twice on my trip, and even though I didn’t even eat half the things on my list of foods I like to try (yes, I actually wrote down a list…), I still don’t regret that choice.
The breakfast included in my hotel room price was in the onigiri place downstairs. So every morning we got to choose two onigiris from a relatively big menu. There was fish, there was veggie options, there was meaty options, even a cheese one, as well as some seasonal specialties. And the portion included also a few slices of pickled daikon (I think), some Japanese omelet (which is almost too sweet for me), two kinds of salad-like-things, and miso soup with different things in it. I loved the tofu in it, even if I’m not usually a big tofu eater. Sadly other days there was just some kind of seaweed instead of the tofu, but I guess variety is nice as well.
I also noticed that two onigiris was too much for me. I am not very good at eating breakfast anyway, and those things were huge. After two mornings of forcing myself to eat them both I realized it might be smart to just order one. Everyone wins: I was not stuffed any longer and the restaurant saved up one onigiri’s worth in profits.
As I mentioned, I went out to eat my friends who live in Japan. First time with just the guy and me it was some proper “fast food” ramen. It was amazing: you put in the money into a vending machine (with pictures and names of the dishes), and then, once you have shoved in enough coins and made your choice, it gives you a tiny ticket that you can then give in at the desk and then just wait. Minimal human interaction, my kind of a thing! And the spicy chicken ramen was nice, too.
Too bad I had eaten those huge breakfast onigiris only some hours before and thus couldn’t finish the whole bowl of ramen. Felt super guilty about it, somehow. I hate wasting food, and doubt the Japanese are very happy about food waste either. But I rather left some of the broth than risked feeling nauseous for a few hours afterwards because I ate too much.
The not-quite-yakiniku place fare: they served mostly fish and shellfish there.
We also went all together to a place that was sort of like a yakiniku place except with fish. “Niku” means meat, so it was not really a yakiniku place. as it only served seafood. The naming seems somehow complicated to me, and I’m not sure what this fish yaki place was actually called. I didn’t have to know, as I was just following the locals around, what luxury!
All I know for sure is that the small appetizer fish cakes and little whole fish were good, the sashimi was good, the kimchi was good, the clams were good, and even the slightly scary looking (and sounding) crab brain were good. Funnily enough, I feel like the crab brain (which are most likely not actual brains but some other grey goop from the crab with some spices and served in the crab’s shell) were actually the best part of the whole thing, and the ebi or the shrimp was something that disappointed me the most. The shrimp were fresh instead of the cooked ones we usually get on sushi here in Europe, and for some reason I prefer the taste and texture of that cooked stuff over the raw ones. Not sure if the texture put me off or if the taste was just so different, but I realized I might not be able to appreciate the fresh ebi the way I should. And that crab brain is better than it sounds.
Mori Art Museum had a Moomin-themed exhibition. I didn’t go see the actual exhibition (as it would have doubled the price of the ticket), but I did stop at the café that had a Moomin-themed menu because of the exhibition. I needed a little pick-me-up at that point anyway, so I ordered the biggest dessert set on the whole darn menu. The cup of tea it came with was minuscule and sort of sad, really, but everything else was good. There was some cake, some choc croissants, some sort of green tea pudding and fresh berries. A lot of variety.
I was almost giggling madly half the time I was there, and for completely different reasons than all the Moomin-crazy Japanese people there. I was giggling at how excited everyone was to be there, the country is so Moomin-crazy it is simply adorable. And they were just giggling at their Moomin-themed portions and taking pictures of everything. A bit like, uhh, me…
The only Japanese food I have actually cooked quite often at home and yet have never had the chance to try even in a Japanese restaurant in Europe was okonomiyaki. So one evening I just decided that I will check where there might be a relatively good okonomiyaki place near to me.
And then got my friend as my company and general guide, as he knew how everything works. He went for a basic okonomiyaki without anything much extra, whereas I couldn’t resist the temptation of trying out the slightly weird sounding cheese and pork okonomiyaki. It was good. Of course it was good. Why wouldn’t it have been good. Except that it might have been bad for my body, but it was so good for my soul!
The best part, however, was the realization that the version I have made several times at home might not actually be all too far off from the real deal, even if my version is based on a vegetarian cookbook recipe. No bonito flakes (or pork and cheese), but otherwise relatively close to the version I ate, I think. Hooray!
After I had been taught by my expert friend how to use the hot plate, I dared to venture to a hot plate place on my own for very late lunch the next day. But as I had just eaten okonomiyaki, I wanted to try something else. So I tried yakisoba. With kimchi. Kimchi, of course, is Korean, but I love the stuff, so I usually seized my chance to have some.
And the yakisoba of this place was very good and very fatty and kept me going until surprisingly late in the evening, even if the portion wasn’t as huge as some other portions I had in Japan. And the personnel of the restaurant seemed to actually have fun at work, too, which was something I didn’t see that much in Japan. They mostly didn’t look miserable, either, but having too much fun at work might possibly be frowned upon, I think.
I had browsed through so many lists of “how to eat cheap in Japan” that I couldn’t avoid seeing a mention of Yoshinoya, and there was one about two blocks from the hotel. So I figured I’ll give it a go. Went in very late in the evening, no one else was there, ordered a beef and onion bowl with extra (raw) egg, sat down, poured myself a glass of water… and already got my portion of food. It was definitely the fastest food I ate on the whole trip. And also the worst.
Yoshinoya is a big fast food chain, and it shows. Everything is very efficient, but also very bland. I wouldn’t say the food was bad, as it beats most fast food chains in Europe easily when it comes to price and portion size, but it was still very much a disappointment. Sure, it was cheap, it was filling, and there was a lot of it. But that’s not all that I want from my food. But if that’s enough for you, I recommend testing Yoshinoya out. They seem to be almost everywhere.
The Japanese love fried chicken. Apparently KFC is practically an institution there around the end of the year. My first foray into the fried chicken world, however, was at Kirin City, a sort of pub chain of the big Japanese beer brand. And I was dumb enough to order all three kinds of their fried chicken. One was with yuzu salt, one with their secret recipe, and one with parmesan and black pepper. And then I ate them all. Knowing I had also ordered more food. I am not very smart.
The so-called “main dish” was beef with onions, potatoes, wasabi and some sort of soy dressing. All of which were good, but I was already full after the chicken, so I had to sort of fight myself to be able to finish everything. I have learned the “thou shalt not waste food” mantra way too well, I think.
And this over-ordering of food was something I did so many times during this trip that I started to think I might never learn from my mistakes. Which I sort of confirmed very soon afterwards…
I may have over-estimated my appetite at an izakaya.
So, umm. I went to an izakaya a day or two later. An old-school izakaya, again near the hotel, where the interior was still similar to “the good old days”, the owner was an old man who may have been tasting their sake a bit as well, people were smoking inside, and everyone was drinking more than eating, even though they were also eating quite a lot. I’m not sure I have ever heard Japanese peopel being so loud as they were in there. And I loved it, even if I usually get annoyed with the cacophony of many people talking and tobacco smoke everywhere. Somehow all of it made it seem more like I was suddenly in an izakaya from 50 years ago.
The mistake of this evening, however, was telling the owner “omakase (chef’s choice), 5 from this list”. Said list included, as far as I could tell based on some help from Google Translate, the yakitoris and other smaller izakaya things. Well, as it turns out, his “omakase” included rather big portions. I got some fried cheese, fried tofu, fried little fish, fried potato croquettes, and fish and vegetable tempura. I think two of these would have been enough for one person. And I still ate all 5. And had a beer to wash them down. After that I had to get out because I wasn’t sure if I was going to be sick from over-eating or not… Couldn’t even have any sake, even though I had planned to have some as dessert.
What I learned from this, though: ALWAYS order only one or maybe a few things at a time. Japanese portion sizes are no joke.
A proper yakiniku with meat, some yakitori stuff and more fried chicken.
The last evening we had made proper yakiniku plans with my friends. We ate some beef tongue, which I had never eaten before. Nor any other kind of tongue. So that was an interesting experience for me.
After grilling are first set of meats, we decided to change places as the service in the yakiniku place was atrocious. There was only one person working there as far as I could see, and he seemed to serve everyone but us rather well, so we figured we will go see what else the food court we were in had to offer.
We walked around a bit, getting lost on the way as well (as it was a big and relatively confusing place) before we ended up choosing a chicken place with several yakitori options, some side dishes (such as salads, so exotic!), and, of course, fried chicken.
I enjoyed everything here actually more than in the yakiniku place. Well, all but the chicken knees on a stick. The only actually Japanese person in our entourage was the only one who liked those. Wrong kind of crunchy for us Europeans. But the other parts of the chicken on a stick that I tasted were amazing, as was the umeboshi (or pickled plum) chicken meatball skewer. And the fried chicken, even if by that time I was already bursting from the seams. Even the tomato and avocado salad tasted really good, but that may have had something to do with the fact that it was the only proper salad I ate on the whole trip. I start missing salads and fresh fruit after a week, usually, so no wonder this salad made me so happy.
That being said, even the junk food in Japan is mostly healthier than what I cook or eat at home most of the time. I could really learn a few things from them. Well, actually I could learn a lot of things from the Japanese, but especially incorporating more vegetables (and less cream, cheese and butter) into my diet.
I actually lost weight on this trip, even if I drank a lot of beer and ate a lot of food… but then again, I also walked a lot, and the food was healthier than what I usually eat. So no wonder, really.
And why yes, this post was mostly just an excuse to talk about food and post food pictures. But I did warn you in the beginning, so it is only your own fault if you read through all of this thinking “why am I reading this?”
Next phase is pondering a bit what I’d still want to see and try in Japan, and then I’ll move to new places in my ramblings (such as Rotterdam and Canada).
I decided to divide my Japan experiences into three parts:
- the overview (this one right here)
- the food
- the things I found especially interesting or surprising, and what I still want to see and experience in Japan
So in this particular post I will just explain briefly (yeah, right) why I wanted to visit Japan in the first place, and the relatively broad strokes of what I actually did there. It will, most likely, be the longest of the three Japan posts. Even though I haven’t written the other two yet. And I’ve been known to get a bit overly excited about food from time to time (shush you people who know me and are about to yell “you mean always!”). And even if I didn’t even manage to get out of Tokyo on this trip, so there are quite a few things I still want to experience in Japan, like, you know, EVERYWHERE ELSE. Not to mention a few more things in Tokyo as well.
But onwards to the actual post!
I’ve been interested in Japan since I was maybe 14. Because that was depressingly long ago, I do not actually quite remember when I really got into the whole anime and manga thing, because that’s where it really started. It might have been because of Pokémon on Finnish tv, or it might have already been before, which would mean I watched Pokémon just because it was the first proper anime series on Finnish television channels. I mean, of course my generation (and a few other generations, I think) grew up watching the Moomins, which technically counts as an anime, as it was made in Japan, even if the subject matter is from Finland. But for Finns it never really counted as anime. It is just the Moomins, the thing based on those Tove Jansson books and comics. More the books though, the comics have way more grown-up humour in them. It was also something I didn’t really like as a kid, but only learned to appreciate once I got older.
So I have been into a bunch of Japanese things since forever ago: I still simply adore Final Fantasy VI, it is my favourite game ever, even if VII comes a close second. But it was the first Final Fantasy I played, and I have this theory that everyone loves the one they played first the best. I was also definitely not even nearly university age yet when I joined the university’s anime club just to be able to borrow their anime VHS tapes and CDs to watch series that were not on Finnish television. Especially since said selection was not very good, even when anime was the big new thing. There is only so much Dragonball a girl can watch before it gets so repetitive it is not worth it anymore. And of course I was lucky enough to have a few guys in the same class who were really into the manga and anime stuff and had a bit more disposable income at their use, so I could read the manga they bought. We were like the Japanese nerd block of the class, me and these two guys. Technically our class was so small that our block was a third of the class, which is rather funny. Small school, it was.
So what started from games, anime and manga slowly turned into a general interest in the country, the culture, the language, the food. In the university I even studied some Japanese, but quickly realized I wasn’t much good at it. Too bad I was not quick enough to realize I should also maybe not continue going to the lectures, so I kept going for two years even if I barely passed the exam after the first half a year. Not sure why the teacher didn’t kick me out. Nor am I sure why this one guy kept pairing up with me in class, even if his level of Japanese got to way higher level than mine rather fast. Then again, he also had a better incentive: he has now been married to a Japanese woman for quite a few years. I was just there because “languages are fun, right?” Turns out they can also be devilishly difficult.
So that’s why Japan. It was possibly my first dream destination ever. A place I really wanted to visit ever since I was in my teens, but just never before really had the chance. So no wonder I jumped at the chance to go when I realized I could get rather cheap flights, and could also combine it with a visit to a friend who moved there a little while ago. Ah, them Japanese women, they get men to do all kinds of crazy things. And I can’t really blame the men, either, because the country is only slightly more amazing than the people.
So what did I actually do?
Short version: I did what I do on all my trips. I went to the zoo, ate a lot of foods I cannot find near home, walked around and took pictures of relatively random things, and visited some museums, especially ones to do with nature and/or science-y stuff.
The longer version will be a lot longer, so brace yourselves.
I flew from Brussels via Helsinki, as Finnair offered some VERY affordable prices for my flights. I also, as a native Finn, know Helsinki airport relatively well, so I knew it woulf be an easy connection for me. Except that I had actually never flown outside the EU area from there, so it was still a bit exciting to go through that extra layer of security, and see parts of the airport I had never seen before. Actually this trip was only my second trip outside the EU/Schengen area since I was a tiny kid, and the first one was Curaçao in October 2018 (might post something about that some time, too, who knows), so it is only less than a year ago I had to deal with the whole “fill this paper and show your passport everywhere” thing. And the next trip like that will be Toronto, still this month. I’ve been and will be busy, it seems.
So, anyway, I arrived at 9 AM local time, after traveling for some 20+ hours. As you can imagine, I was really not at my best, since I didn’t get any sleep on the plane. Did see 3 movies, however, so at least made a dent on my “need to see these movies” list, if nothing else. Positive thinking and all that jazz. I got to my hotel around noon, but could only get into my room closer to 3 PM, so I had to entertain myself somehow in nearby areas while feeling like I might fall asleep aaany moment. Luckily everything was new and exciting, so that (and some coffee) kept me going for a few hours while I just explored the area near the hotel. Then I finally got my room and could have a few hour nap, hooray! And then it was time to go for a bit longer walk to see the Chiyoda park, which, of course, was mostly closed up, as it was very late in the evening. Still a rather impressive place, that one, even if I never managed to actually get in there during the day to see the “proper” sights, such as the Imperial Palace and the shrines and museums.
So basically it was a day of “walk around, have a nap, walk around more” with some food (and coffee) sprinkled here and there to keep me going, and that actually meant I got to the rhythm of the local time zone rather fast, since I was so dead tired in the evening that I went to sleep at the “normal” Japanese time, even if it was only afternoon at that point in Belgium. Getting back to the usual rhythm back home was a completely different matter. Not sure I’m still completely over the time zone difference, even if it has been over two weeks already. Then again, now I go to bed early and get up early, so cannot really complain! (Usually I’m a lazy bugger, since I do not need to actually get up at 7 or 8 in the morning for work. Which also means I often still work late in the evening.)
The rest are not in any particular order, but just a general list what I did and some pictures. Just a general “this is what I did” for those who are interested. If you are not interested in the actual blabber, at least some of the pictures are nice.
Akihabara, the nerd central, was the obvious place to be, because of course I had to see what it was all about. Turns out it is more interesting if you are really into (nerdy) shopping, which. As I have mentioned before, I’m not really that into shopping in general. Doesn’t mean I didn’t find some interesting things to buy, but I did decide against the maid cafes and such in the end, as they seemed to be a bit overpriced. I think I would have paid for only novelty value and nothing much else. I also opted against visiting any animal cafes in the end, even if I originally had planned to visit at least one or two. I figured I won’t know for sure which ones treat their animals well and which ones do not. So I decided not support any of them rather than make the mistake of giving my money to someone who just abuses the animals for the money. Instead I can just go to the cat cafe in Bruges, where the cats are up for adoption, and where there are (hopefully) some rules about how and when you can touch the cats.
I also saw the Senso-ji Temple, together with probably hundreds of other tourists, and got the Best Fortune from there (which I assume not all tourists get, as my friend said he got the Worst Fortune last time)! It said it is good for me to travel in the spring and summer, and oh boy, it seems like I knew this already, with all the trips I have already been on or have planned!
And then there was the zoo. I have to say that the zoo was quite the disappointment. The enclosures were mostly rather small, and quite a few of the animals seemed rather stressed out. (Not only a Japan issue, have been to a few European zoos with similar issues.) And I can’t blame the poor animals, as I noticed quite a few of them had nowhere to go away from the hordes of gawping humans (me included). I feel like the most relaxed animals I saw on the whole visit were the giant pandas. Even if they are so popular I had to queue for some 20 or 25 minutes to even see them. So many people want to see them there is simply no time to stop and take pictures, so the queue keeps moving all the time. There were people whose only job seemed to be to keep the queue moving so that others can also have their maybe 1 minute glimpse of the pandas. Insane stuff. No wonder I was the only obvious Westerner in the queue.
It was also the European Parliamentary election for Finns living abroad while I was in Tokyo, or the so called “pre-voting season”. That meant that if I wanted to vote, I had to actually get my lazy butt to the Finnish Embassy in Tokyo. Which I did, I’m a good citizen that way, and got rewarded for it, too, as there was the most amazing small park nearby. It was possibly the most calm place I was in on the whole trip (hotel room excluded), as it was so much out of the way for your average tourist, and most locals were at work. It was so green, so beautiful, so full of life. I saw (or mostly heard) tons of birds, of course, but also a huge toad. The thing was probably the size of my face. Then again, I was not surprised by anything after seeing the previous day what size the Japanese Giant Salamanders can grow to… that’s the stuff of nightmares for anyone who doesn’t like the thought of something swimming with them in the water.
The embassy was also relatively near to Roppongi Hills, the super fancy (and expensive) area with big hotels and such, but also the Mori Art Museum, which I figured sounded interesting enough for me to check out. Well, as it turns out, the museum entrance ticket also included another, smaller exhibition and the city view in addition to the main exhibition. The smaller exhibition at that moment was about how Pixar movies are made. Score! It was a rather hands-on experience, and rather interesting. And the view was not half bad, either. I also liked the actual art exhibition with works from relatively young Japanese artists (born in the 70s or 80s). Some of the works were more traditional than others, some were new and interesting in surprising ways, and some were downright creepy.
The art in Mori was a good reminder that it is not just teamLAB that does new and interesting things, and that you don’t always have to go as hi-tech as teamLAB does to make things interactive and curious. That being said, the visit to teamLAB Borderless was definitely one of the highlights of my trip, even if it included a lot of queuing. Not quite as much fun alone as it might have been with some company. Especially as it turned out I had already seen one of the things I queued for an hour for in Helsinki last year after only 5 mins of queueing… Still an amazing experience, and the setting in Borderless was very different than in Helsinki, as the Amos Rex Museum had not been basically built for just that exhibition the same way as Borderless has been. What I enjoyed about Helsinki, though, was the significantly smaller amount of people. Smaller space, and not as many things to see, but also more possibilites to actually see them instead of a group of 30 people taking pictures in front of everything that was even a tiny bit interesting.
But if you ever have a chance to go see any teamLAB thing anywhere, I’d definitely recommend it. I’ve now seen their stuff twice in different countries, and I actually keep an eye out on their changing exhibitions, hoping one would happen somewhere closer to home at some point.
I also visited Intermediatheque, a free museum in the KITTE shopping centre, right next to the Tokyo Station. (Where the express trains to Narita airport leave from, if you can find the right entrance and platform without panicking, at least. No, I will not admit to anything. Nope. No siree!) Interesting place to visit for an hour or two, but sadly no photography allowed. You can see similar things also in the Museum of Nature and Science, if you wish to pay a bit for the joy of being able to take pictures of the things you see. Not the same, of course, but close enough.
And if you are not that into the whole nature and science thing, there are a bunch of art museums in Uena park, and of course the zoo with the pandas. My Ueno Park museum spree included only the Museum of Nature and Science, and the National Museum of Western Art. Where they wanted to make double sure I wanted to see WESTERN art when selling me the ticket, it seemed… The museum itself is rather small, but it has some big names, such as Picasso, Degas, Renoir, and Rodin, among others. Well worth the entrance fee, especially since I bought myself a Grutto Pass, which meant some things were for free (like the zoo) and others a bit cheaper (like most of the art museums). I’m not sure I got my money’s worth from it in the end, but that’s just because my trip was only 8 full days, and some of those days I didn’t visit any museums or anything else where I could have benefitted from the pass. It is valid for a month or so, though, so if you love your museums and plan to spend a longer time in Tokyo, it is definitely something worth checking out.
The Japanese girlfriend of my friend especially recommended Miraikan, or the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. And it was rather interesting, even if I feel like parts of it were a tiny bit dated by now. Might be it was brand new and fancy a few years ago, but now some things from there were already relatively mainstream. Or maybe I just read too many science news, who knows.
There were robots, there were deep sea crabs, and a bunch of interactive things. My favourite part was the movie, however, which I had to pay 300 yen for, on top of the entrance ticket. That’s less than 3 euros for a 30 min movie directed by the same guy who did the original Grudge movie, so I ain’t gonna complain. It was an interesting experience, with a lot of 3D popup effects and playing with the curved dome of the viewing hall. There were also some kids in the showing, and I’m not sure if it felt scary to them, as I was slightly creeped out a few times by the combination of music and weird things happening. But at least no one burst out crying as far as I could tell. No world-shatteringly good plot in that one, but it used its possibilities really well, I think.
The big Gundam statue is also near Miraikan and teamLAB Borderless, so you can easily combine these three things into one day, as I did. And maybe you will be as lucky as I am, and accidentally stumble on the Gundam light show just as it is starting without actually even knowing that there is a light show. I just had very good timing, it seems, and it cheered me up quite a lot, as I was getting rather grumpy due to aching feet and back after all that standing around and queuing in Miraikan and teamLAB Borderless. As someone who works from home, the sheer amount of walking and standing and steps everywhere was slightly surprising. Did me good, though, until it didn’t. But resting a day is not an option when there is only a limited time to see as many things as possible! Half a day is fine, though, and I did do that just to make sure I can still walk by the time I get home.
And that was it, really. Those were the main things I did during my trip, this time around. Of course there was a bunch of food, but as I said, that will deserve its own post, and there was some shopping for small stuff such as stickers, decorative tape, and of course books, because I always buy books. I just assume that is not really interesting to anyone but me, so I’ll save you from it all. Even if said decorative tapes included Final Fantasy and Gudetama tapes. Gudetama is the best.
Next step: Food. But not today. Need to make sure I have fed myself with some good food before I can discuss Japanese food, because even the worst meal I had on the whole trip was better than quite a few things I have eaten in Belgium.