Tokyo Food DiaryOctober 15, 2016
My commitment to social sharing was tested last month when I took a trip to Northeast Asia, where I took a bunch of photos with my phone. And since content is a little lacking this month, I thought I'd post them here too. I promise to keep these off-topic posts to a minimum.
My first stop was Tokyo, Japan. These photos are organized largely by area.
|I stayed at the ANA InterContinental Tokyo, located a 10-minute walk away from the bustling streets of Roppongi. The concierge helpfully produced a map of "ramen street" for hotel guests. Thus, my first meal off the plane was ramen at Ichiran, a chain famous for its segmented seating and a singular menu of Tonkotsu ramen. My bowl of ramen with an egg cost ¥910; it was delicious, but not really worth making a trip for—good ramen shops can be found everywhere in Tokyo.|
|My travel companion (aka mom) was jet-lagged and kept waking me up at 3AM demanding breakfast (this pattern of behavior would persist for the entire trip). Thankfully Roppongi is known for its active night-life and the even more exciting post-clubbing dining scene. Tsurutontan, known for its tub-sized udon, is open daily from 11AM to 8AM and beloved by night owls (and jet-lagged tourists). I regret not photographing my bowl with a reference object for scale, but take my word that it's enormous (you can even get 2x and 3x the noodles for free).|
|A little out of the way (but still in Roppongi, inside a mall) is HARBS, a Japanese bakery that has expanded internationally. There was a long line to dine in the cafe (on a Sunday afternoon), but no line to get a slice of cake to go. I happily got my cake and ate outside on the terrace, washing it down with some white peach Fanta. The cake is good, but nothing I would recommend standing in line for.|
|And here's the white peach Fanta, a vending machine exclusive, that I mentioned above. It's fizzy sugar water with a hint of peach flavor (but no fruit juice, as noted on the bottle). I loved it. (And before you waste time checking, no, Amazon doesn't carry it. However, for $23.99, you can get a 12-pack of Crush Peach like I just did.)|
|The beauty (or justification) of traveling without a plan is that spontaneity is allowed to flourish. Ueno, home to numerous Buddhist temples, the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, and the National Museum of Nature and Science, wasn't on my radar of places to visit, but I ended up there in search of Gundam models for my brother (btw, r/gunpla is a great resource for those seeking rare models or the best deals). I had packed extra light for my trip (brought just my Longchamp Duffel) and checked two empty suitcases to move as many Gundam sets as I can. While in Ueno, I stopped at Ameya-Yokochō, an open-air market with hundreds of shops. There are excellent candy stores here. 10/10, would recommend.|
Tokyo Skytree + Asakusa
|Tokyo Skytree, the world's tallest tower and second tallest building, sits across the river from the similarly-famous Sensō-ji. I originally planned to visit neither attraction, but early mornings necessitated a busier agenda so I ended up at both. The tower had observatories which require ticket purchases to ascend, but for those who dislike height, there are also plenty of shops on the bottom floors at which you can purchase souvenirs.|
|Annexed to Tokyo Skytree is Tokyo Solamachi, where a massive food court and a jumble of stores can be found.|
|About 20 minutes by foot northwest of Tokyo Skytree is Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple that draws more tourists than believers. Souvenir-lovers must visit the Nakamise-dōri, a 250m-long path lined with shops that leads to the temple. Asakusa Kagetudo, a popular bakery where tourists often line up for an hour to taste one its large sweet buns, used to be found near Nakamise-dōri, but relocated to the west of the temple some time ago. I got there right as it opened (so no line), got one with vanilla ice cream (¥450), and found it just okay. It's not really something I would've stood in a line for (and I generally really like sweet bread).|
Tsukiji Fish Market
|I hadn't planned on visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market, known for its live tuna auctions and sushi breakfast, but given that my mom was operating in a different time zone, I had to entertain her for hours before the rest of Tokyo wakes up. We skipped the live tuna auction and the wholesale areas, but did manage to eat our way through the adjacent market. (Pictured above: I found some tasty onigiri at Onigiri-ya Marutoyo.)|
|And what's a visit to Tsukiji without eating sushi for breakfast. I am fairly certain that most shops there serve excellent sushi, but the original Sushi Zanmai location had no line, so that made it the obvious choice for me.|
|And there were cases of Matsutake just lying around a warehouse near the wholesale area. I thought about buying some to bring home, because they seem like a cool souvenir to give, but I couldn't find people around to give money to. It wasn't until long after I had left the area that the thought "maybe no one would notice that I made off with mushrooms" crossed my mind.|
|Ikebukuro in Toshima is remote relative to where I was staying, but I made the trip for Mutekiya Ramen, considered by some to be the best ramen shop in Tokyo. I even stood in line for about 45 minutes in a light drizzle (it was a Saturday morning) to wait my turn for one of only 18 seats. I ordered their bestseller, the Nikutama-Men (¥1050; above right), but the menu (available in ~5 languages) listed dozens of variety of ramen to choose from. The broth was thick and flavorful (totally up my alley), but I made the mistake of ordering extra noodles (it was free) and couldn't get through more than half the bowl before I gave up. This is easily my second favorite meal of the trip. I was told that lines are most manageable at open and late at night (after 12:30AM).|
|I wandered over to Harajuku to people-watch and for photo-ops at the Rilakkuma Cafe. I found out a few hours before my attempt that the cafe had a rotating theme. And sure enough, it was now an Osomatsu-san Cafe. (Insert disappointed face emoji here.)|
|Undeterred, I proceeded to Takeshita Dori (about 300 feet away from the Osomatsu-san Cafe) to soak up all the youthful energy that permeate this area. I didn't do much browsing of clothes in Tokyo, but figured this was my chance to read Japan's fashion barometer. There were lots of clothes of fast fashion quality (more Forever 21 than Zara), and other than some stores that obviously cater to Lolita fashion, there was nothing particularly surprising to be found here. There were no more people rocking crazy tall platforms here than anywhere else in Tokyo.|
|On Takeshita Dori, I decided to stand in the longest line I could find without knowing exactly what I was queuing up for. It turns out for ¥250 and 30 minutes of your life, you too can try a croquant chou (a cream puff with crunchy bits on the outside; it's served at room temperature) at ZakuZaku. I wouldn't do it again. The anticipation was steamrolled by immediate disappointment.|
|Pedestrian scrambles at Shibuya are world-class/legendary and not to be missed. If you are in the area and hungry, you may want to check out Uobei Sushi, which is inexpensive and a somewhat novel conveyor belt sushi experience. Most dishes are about ¥100 and there are some seriously quirky concepts being tested here (like hamburger sushi and salmon/fried chicken sushi). It goes without saying that they don't use the highest quality fish, but the food here is more than adequate.|
|And a food court inhabited by beautiful pastry shops recently (September 2016) opened in ShinQs, a mall just outside Shibuya station. It's a feast for the eyes.|
|Tokyo Station Ichibangai is a massive underground shopping area connected to JR Tokyo Station. Even if you are not in transit, this shopping area is an attraction all on its own. I especially enjoyed the food shops and also "Character Street," where famous Japanese exports like Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma have stores that peddle themed wares.|
|A quaint little tonkatsu shop off the beaten path in Shirokane is Daigo. It's not a place to specifically seek out, but the friendly staff and delicious fried food are reasons to stop in if you find yourself in this area.|
|I was feeling a little under the weather for the first part of my trip, and Pocari Sweat (I've always liked it better than other sports drinks, but it's expensive everywhere except in Japan) got me through long days. (In the background is Meiji Gakuin University, which has a beautiful campus.)|
|As will become apparent over the course of my trip, trying to find food outside of convenience stores before 10AM is challenging. I found a Komoro Soba (a chain of noodle shops) in Gotanda and, being a lover of chain restaurants, walked in without hesitation. All of this food cost just ¥530 and it was honestly better than good. (And it provides an essential service; some locations open around 6AM.)|
|If you like unique flavors of Kit Kat, you'll love duty-free shops at Narita. I browsed a number of grocery stores and convenience stores while in Tokyo, but they all stock more or less the same variety of snacks. I personally think you'll be fine to save souvenir-shopping for the last-minute.|
|My favorite meal in Tokyo was McDonald's on my second to last day in Japan (I spent the rest of the trip looking for McDonald's with short lines). I had meant to pay it a visit sooner, but lines spilled out of every McDonald's I found (even during off-peak hours). Shaka Shaka Chicken (¥150)—a piece of fried chicken fillet sold with your choice of red pepper or cheese seasoning that you unload into the paper bag and then shake vigorously—is simple but so delicious. McDonald's tested this concept on nuggets and fries in select US markets two years ago, but a nationwide rollout never happened.|
|KFC, on the other hand, was disappointing. I went for breakfast one morning, ordered the sandwich pictured above, and was disappointed by the lukewarm chicken that was served. I meant to revisit for lunch, but never got the chance. Will probably have to go back next year just to give it a fair shake.|
|I don't know why (okay, it's clearly crippling immaturity) but every time I get in a taxi and see this illustrated guide of prohibited behavior in taxis, I lol.|
• I got by on T-mobile's free (but slow) international data plan, but anyone with standards for internet speed should rent a pocket Wi-fi at the airport.
• I successfully navigated everywhere using Google Maps alone, but did download the Tokyo MetroMan and Tokyo Subway apps when I was waiting at the gate for my flight.
• I highly recommend buying one of these 24-, 48-, or 72-hour Tokyo Subway Tickets (¥800, ¥1200, and ¥1500 respectively; unlimited rides within the stated time period) available only at the airport and through select vendors.
• Tokyo is a fairly tourist-friendly city. English speakers should have no trouble navigating the subway system or ordering at restaurants (vending machines are common even in small establishments). I can't say that my broken Japanese helped me in any way, but the fact that I can read Chinese helped tremendously.
• Pack walking shoes and dress in layers.
• The exchange rate when I visited was around 1 USD to 100 Yen; the Yen has since plummeted to like 1 USD to 104 Yen.