We all know that food and culture go hand in hand, right? Otherwise, why would there be so many foodie shows on Travel Channel? (And...what does Adam Richman's success say about American culture?) So if you're like me and Jen, and you're trying to travel the world, you're going to do as much eating of local cuisine as possible. And if you're someone who's popping into McDonald's while you're in Paris...well...I've got nothing here for you.
[Fun fact: There are no Starbucks in Italy (or at least there weren't when I studied abroad there). Why, you ask? Because Italians take real pride in their caffe. It's that REAL shit too. It's rich and deep, unlike anything you'll get at a Starbucks (and I love Starbucks). Italians are probably bitter toward Starbucks, being like, why did you have to go and make all Americans think "venti" means "jumbo" and "trenta" means "fat fuck?"]
ANYWAY, I'm an omnivore...or as I like to think of myself, a nomnivore. So when Jen and I set off for Paris and Barcelona, I decided I'd go balls to the wall and eat whatever weird shit I could whenever I traveled. I mean, not TOO weird. I draw the line at bugs and all that Andrew Zimmern stuff. But you know, I'll step outside my comfort zone a bit.
Which is easy to say when you're going to Europe. Maybe a little bit scarier when you set off for Asia. But scared was not what I was feeling. Super stoked is more like it. Sushi is the ultimate comfort food for me. (Work stress? Breakups? Nothing a sushi boat can't fix.) So imagine how excited I was to get to the true home of sushi and stuff my face.
It was a rough start, though.
My roommate Rhi and I began our trip to Japan in the northern island of Hokkaido, where the ski resort town of Niseko is. Why, you ask? Because #poorlifechoices. So the thing about Niseko is it's great for skiing. Or at least that's what everyone said. Never having skied before, I had nothing to compare it to. But for eating? Not so much.
The day we arrived, we ended up getting there pretty late in the evening, so I was surviving on a dubious diet of Delta airplane food (frozen lettuce and some inedible mystery meat), gummi bears (Haribo, the pride of Japan), and Chex Mix (kind of like cereal, right?), and the next morning, I was disoriented and starving. Rhi and I went to some weird hipsterish looking cafe that had "Green" in the title, so it seemed like it would have food from farms or something (which of course made ALL THE sense, because who farms in a place where it snows 12 feet a day). I only vaguely remember that meal, but it wasn't good. Rhi and I took our hungry asses skiing that day (much more successful than my go on a bike) and returned to our apartment where I polished off the remainder of the Chex Mix.
NOW. It was the moment I had been waiting for. Sushi, bitches!
Staggering like the ravenous, sleep-deprived zombies that we were, we slipped and slid our way to a nearby sushi spot. But here's where I was going earlier with the thing about Niseko... it's a ski resort town and really not particularly Japanese at all. In fact, I feel like the majority demographic there comprises fresh-out-of-high school Austrialians, taking their "gap year" or whatever, and being all "G'day mate, let's have a shred," or "Oh, your leg is bleeding profusely? Just slap some toilet paper and duct tape on it!" (True story. But in totally charming and sexy accents, of course.) So authentic Japanese food was not to be found. (What do Aussies eat, by the way? Crocodile on the barbie? Tehehe.)
The sushi wasn't great. Not even by American standards. I've had better miso soup on Reisterstown Road, the culinary crossroads of nowhere. I went home and finished off the gummi bears.
Needless to say, I was hungry for pretty much the entire Niseko stint of our trip. An anecdote: The next morning, I met a friend for breakfast at a place that purported to be a French bakery and cafe. I ordered something that, if memory serves, was called the American breakfast. Pretty standard -- eggs, some type of pig, potatoes. My favorite type of pig is bacon (duh). And when my bacon came out looking like a gray slab of rubber, I was like, what. the. fuck.
My friend was like, what's wrong? Um, that looks disgusting. He asked me how I would know if I haven't tried it. (He's British, so, you know...low standards.) As hungry as I was, I couldn't eat it. I gave it to him. And the next morning when Rhi and I returned to the same place, I overheard a child saying to her mom, "Where's my bacon?" And the mother pointed to the gray slab of what looked like a giant eraser, and said, "Right there, honey." To which the brilliant child said, "THAT'S not bacon."
So by the time Rhi and I got to Tokyo, I was hungry, disillusioned, and frankly, I was defeated. Look, I obviously wouldn't have a travel blog with Jen if I didn't love traveling, and I wouldn't spend all my money on it either. But the truth is, sometimes traveling isn't always shits and giggles. Sometimes it really kicks your ass. And the day we traveled from Hokkaido to Tokyo was one of those days. It was a two-hour bus ride to the airport in Sapporo. A two-hour flight from Sapporo to Tokyo Narita. A two-hour train ride from Narita into the city itself. Basically it was like getting from the UWS to Hoboken. And when we got off the train, I took one look at the Metro map and said fuck it, we're taking a cab to the Airbnb apartment where we're staying.
Long story short (I'll get into it in a later entry), the apartment was a hole, it was on what felt like the outer edge of Tokyo (not that I really have any true idea of where we were), and we couldn't find it on a map in order to find a nearby restaurant. Rhi's leg was busted, the clinics were closed for the day, and I was having some personal issues. And this is how I came to spend an entire meal sobbing in a Japanese restaurant without a transliterated menu in sight. #Firstworldproblems indeed. Luckily, Japanese people are unfailingly kind, and the concerned-looking waitress pantomimed the menu items for us until we ended up with some chicken and a ball of rice. And then some yummy sesame ice cream.
Happily, the next day, Rhi and I solved our many problems (shitty apartment, language barrier, bleeding leg, etc.), and here is where the culinary wonder that is Tokyo redeemed all of Japan for me (even the Australian colony part of Japan).
Behold, the highlights (both good and bad, but mostly good. Very good.)...
Izakaya + Yakitori
You might be familiar with yakitori because it's actually something you can get around here. In fact, it's something most cultures have. It's meat on a stick. Chicken, usually. Rhi and I had ours at an izakaya, which is a Japanese-style pub. I read in my trusty Lonely Planet book that they also skewer pretty much every other part of the chicken, but we only had chicken breast (at least I think). It came served over rice, veggies, and an egg, and it was one of the better meals we had in Niseko. We also had it during a stop on the bus ride to the airport, because they have little yakitori counters everywhere. Those were actually disgusting, but hey, win some, lose some. It seems I didn't take a picture. Probably because they are just like...kabobs.
Luckily, I have LP to tell me that these are "tender pork cutlets breaded and deep-fried with a side of cabbage." OK, I *think* I ate this at the National Kabuki Theater, just in sandwich form, but I can't really be sure. It was all they were serving during the four-hour play so... I dunno what to tell you, I was hungry, and I told you, I'd try anything.
OK, now THIS shit, I really don't understand how it hasn't made its way over here. This is DELICIOUS. Along with a friend who lives outside of Tokyo, Rhi and I spent probably an hour and a half tracking down an okonomiyaki joint that LP spoke highly of. We were about to give up when a friendly couple walking by knew where we were talking about and took us to it. And I am SO glad we didn't give up. It was small and casual, but traditional. We removed our shoes upon entering, and sat on pillows around a table that had a grill in the center of it.
How to describe okonomiyaki? I guess it's like crepes, but thicker and savory. The pancake doesn't wrap around what's inside; rather, you mix all the ingredients together, pour that baby out on the grill, let it cook for you a few minutes, then go to town. They're topped with bonito flakes, seaweed, mayo (the Japanese have a weird mayo thing), and Worcestershire sauce. DE-LISH.
I mean seriously. If I can't find an okonomiyaki restaurant around here soon... Rhi and I went to a cat cafe and Tokyo, and I swore I'd open the first American cat cafe. That dream has since failed (thank you, New York and San Fran), so maybe my destiny is in okonomiyaki stardom.
Someone asked me recently if breakfast was really weird in Japan. I think typically the Japanese will eat sushi and noodles for breakfast, stuff Americans would consider dinner, but no, for the most part, it wasn't weird. In fact, there were Denny's EVERYWHERE in Tokyo (Grand Slam, y'all!). One morning, Rhi and I had fabulous ricotta banana pancakes. Really, breakfast was pretty standard.
But another morning, we started our day bright and early at the Tsukiji Fish Market and decided we'd get some street food on the way back. The first cart we saw was a guy making weird dough balls, but it was cold and they looked hot, so we went with it. (Warm balls LOL.) I now know these are called tako-yaki...or maybe they are only called that when they are made with octopus, but ours came with a tasty center of squid. More adventurous by the day, you guys. Squid for breakfast. And yes, that's more mayo on top, and nori (seaweed) flakes as well.
Another morning after visiting the Shinto shrine, Meiji-jingu, we stopped in the shopping district Harajuku, made famous by Gwen Stefani's shitty perfume. We stopped there because, while Tokyo hasn't jumped on the food truck bandwagon yet, Harajuku is big into crepes as street food. NOMS AHOY.
So I have a confession to make. Before this trip, I don't think I really knew that ramen was anything other than the dry, packaged stuff that you live off of when you've graduated from NYU with a ton of student debt and a salary that is not what was promised when you got your fancy degree. Little did I know how amazing ramen could really be.
Rhi and I found a tiny place -- it probably sat 10 people, tops -- where you go in, put your money into a vending machine, choose what you want, and it prints out a ticket that you give to the cooks behind the counter. I learned how to ask for a recommendation in Japanese, and the cook pointed to the one that was his favorite. I had no idea what was in it, but we went with it. A solid choice. He informed us in broken English that the broth was made from anchovies, and as you can see, there were al dente noodles, seaweed, a half-boiled egg, onions, and I think four different kinds of meat. I do not know what all the meat was, but it was amazing. Sitting here, writing about this, my mouth is watering.
Again, can we get more of this in the States please? Like, now?
What, did you think I forgot? Sushi is the main event here, and don't you forget it. Rhi and I had sushi three times on our trip, and our last night was the best. Again, we spent an hour or so trying to track the place down.
No joke, this was the best meal of my life. The BEST. New York, Paris, Barcelona, hell, even Baltimore. All these cities have wonderful food. But right now my meal at Kyubey tops the list. Kyubey takes up three floors in one of the Ginza high rises. Each room seats probably around 16 people or so, and there is a chef for every four people. Again, you remove your shoes and sit on pillows. Our chef spoke little English, but he was super friendly and went out of his way to make sure we liked everything.
We each opted for the 12-piece sampler, which included 12 pieces of sushi, handcrafted in front of us one at a time, a salad, soup, and some other snacks in between courses (I took a picture of each and every one, but I'll spare you today). Like we did when we got ramen, we let the chef choose for us, no holds barred. Most pieces were nigiri; only one course was maki, and every bite gave a new meaning to the phrase "taste explosion." There was no dipping in soy sauce (unless the chef told you to); everything was prepared just as it was meant to be eaten. I was giddy. Everything tasted so bright and fresh, and I giggled every time I tried something because I couldn't believe how good it was. A Japanese lady on the other side of Rhi kept watching me and laughing over how happy it made me.
And when I say everything was fresh, it was FRESH. I shit you not, one of Rhi's pieces (a clam I think) was still moving. We lost our shit, so the chef just brushed more sauce on it. Ain't no problem a little sauce can't fix. And champ that she is, Rhi ate it.
The chef also brought out the crawfish alive and killed them in front of us. I have posthumously named mine Oberyn. Several minutes later, he delivered the fried head along with a fried eel spine. The spine wasn't a big deal. It tasted like a potato chip. But me, I prefer my food to not really look like the animal it came from so the head presented a bit of a challenge. Once, several years ago, I cried in Little Italy because the shrimp heads were still on and I had no idea how I was going to eat my food with them looking at me like that. Jen even beheaded my crawfish for me in Barcelona when we had paella. But this meal wasn't cheap, and if Rhi could eat a clam that was waving to her, I could eat a fried head. So we did the same thing we did when we go to the pool and the water is too cold to dunk your head in.
And so goes the best meal of my life. The one that ruined me for American sushi forever.
Sadly, it was followed up by a lackluster hotel breakfast buffet before we departed for the States. Nothing looked appealing, so I got some potatoes and a couple of hard-boiled eggs. And when I squeezed the egg to crack the shell, raw egg exploded all over my hands. Because SURE, uncooked eggs make total sense at a breakfast buffet.
Thanks, Tokyo, for the reminder that no matter how many sushi treasures I conquer, you'll never stop finding ways to kick my ass.