“Why are you guys going to Tokyo?” people asked us. With a baby. In the middle of winter. For 72 hours. Followed by a 5 hour flight back to Chengdu with a baby won’t sleep with approximately 145 Chinese tourists taking his picture and making googly eyes at him behind my head.
For the food, we told everyone.
That flight back to Chengdu was so hellacious it deserves it’s own blog post, but for the food? So, so worth it.
In our former lives, pre-baby, pre-living in the boondocks of China, Chris and I loved dining out. Strip-mall Vietnamese, greasy spoon breakfasts, Michelin-starred restaurants, street food, road food, we loved it all. Instead of giving each other birthday gifts, we used to give each other tasting menus at the best restaurants we could get into/afford. Some people buy clothes with their disposable income, some people go out drinking. Us? We like to eat.
Japan is just a 3.5 hour flight from Chengdu (with a strange 5+ hour return) and we had enough frequent flier miles to get ourselves to Tokyo and back for $40 per person. We don’t know when we’ll be this close to the freshest sushi in the world again, so we cashed in those miles, packed up the baby and went for it.
Had we taken this trip before Will I have no doubt we would have criss-crossed the Tokyo subway system seeking out the best back-alley ramen joints. We would have stood in line for hours to have sushi at the fish market. We would have bellied up to the bar for an omakase tasting menu. We would have spent a fortune on sublime food.
Instead, we spent a relatively modest amount of money on really amazing food and we did it without putting Will through any fancy dinners or annoying any restaurant patrons.
We were strategic. Rather than aiming for specific restaurants or trying to eat the absolute “best” of everything in town, we made a list of “food goals,” things we really wanted to eat on our trip that we could check off, one by one, as we wandered around town. We ate every single thing on our list. We spent no more than $60-$100 a day on food, including drinks and coffee. Rather than gambling on Will’s moods at mealtime, we stopped whenever we saw something that interested us and we ate bento boxes and take-out every night on our hotel bed. We probably didn’t eat the same quality of food we could have eaten if we went without Will, but that wasn’t the point of this trip. We just wanted to eat well and enjoy ourselves, which we did. We left Tokyo very happy and very full.
I’ll do a “Tokyo with baby” post to cover some of the food-with-baby points in more detail so, without further ado, let’s get to the food porn, shall we?
First item on the list: #1. Oysters and Sushi
I’m going to say it: we didn’t eat Tokyo’s best sushi. On the other hand, we ate the best sushi we’ve had in over 2 years. Aside from one quick meal at the fish market, we bought all of our fish in department store “food gardens” and ate all of our sushi on our hotel bed whilst attempting to keep Will from eating the plastic grass dividers. I’ll get to these “food gardens” later but for now just picture a floor of gleaming department store make-up counters; except, instead of cosmetics, every single counter is stocked with food, beautiful, glorious food. We hadn’t planned on having oysters. We hail from D.C., after all, where oysters are kind of a thing around the Chesapeake. No offense to our hometown bivalves, but these ginormous, freshly shucked, lightly dressed beauties had us slurping at the shells and wondering why we even bothered ordering sushi.
Sort of like an octopus-stuffed round pancake topped with bonito flakes, seaweed powder and kewpie mayonaise. If you’ve ever tried them before, you are probably moaning softly now with desire. If you’ve never had them before you might be wondering what about these little snacks would possess us to jaywalk in Japan (the nerve!) just to get to the front of the rapidly forming takoyaki line. Chris and I first tried these little fried balls of wonder in Singapore and we’ve been craving a repeat ever since. These things take serious preparation. We watched an assembly line of 4 people follow approximately 35 steps for each order of octo-balls. It was mesmerizing. We also noticed that the cashier used hand-sanitizer every single time he touched a piece of money. After 2 years in China, it was such a beautiful sight, almost as good as the takoyaki themselves.
Sort of like an omelet, sort of like a stir-fry, mostly a mess of flavors and textures full of noodles and eggs and fermented stuff and, of course, yaki sauce.
#4. French Pastries, Batards, and Baguettes
The best French bread in the world may no longer be made in France. Instead I think you might find it in Tokyo. We sampled many, many flaky pastries and crusty-on-the-outside-chewy-on-the-inside breads, all were delicious. Even the mini chocolate croissants from a generic pastry shop in the bottom of a shopping center were better than all but a handful of the best croissants I’ve ever had.
The best bread we had though remains, sadly, unpictured. We were wondering, lost, through a small, everyday neighborhood when I spied a basket of bread outside a door with no windows. We pulled back the heavy sliding door and found ourselves in a tiny, tiny bakery. The room was not even 3 meters across, with just four customers inside we all barely had room to turn around. But that bread. The crust shattered as we tore into it, the inside was warm and downy. Instead of tasting like styrofoam like French-style breads do here, it tasted like wheat and yeast and salt and mineral water. It was some of the best bread I’ve ever had.
I’ve wandered many streets in many places, but that moment, in that beautiful, quiet little neighborhood, was one of the best. I had Chris by my side, Will asleep on my chest and fresh pastries in my hands. The sun was sinking low in the afternoon sky and the air was cold but that bread kept us warm and happy.
#5. Soba with Tempura
On our first day down to the fish market we took note of the long winding line in front of this stall. 3, slightly grumpy, elderly people run the place and there is a big sign in English that says “No Tempura without Soba” or something to that effect. Why you would want tempura without the amazing noodle soup served up at this stall, I have no idea. The broth was heavenly.
(Photo by Chris!)
To beat the lines for noodles and curry, head over to the fish market around 8-9am. By then all of the workers in the area will have already had their breakfast and most of the tourists will still be lined up for sushi. There are a few stools at the counter in front of the stall but there are also a few “standing-room only” counters perched upon styrofoam boxes and shipping crates. Even at this make-shift counter, the sanitation is immaculate. A spotless white rag sits next to a container of chopsticks for you to mop up your drips and spills before bringing your bowl back to the main counter.
After sharing a bowl of soba noodles, (photo above by Chris again!) we wandered down a few stalls to try a ramen place written up in the New York Times a few years ago. What can I say? It was delicious. Ramen comes in many, many forms though and so one style was really not enough for us. We especially love the Sapporo style ramen we used to get in D.C. The noodles are thick, yellow, and chewy and the broth is so rich and opaque you can’t see anything in the bowl but the par-boiled egg floating on top. We weren’t able to get our Sapporo style ramen until we got to the airport. Just as well. It may have been airport food but it was the best airport food I’ve ever had.
#7 Bento boxes, grilled fish, meat on a stick, tempura, Japanese pickles…
Knowing our son was likely going to lose his cool somewhere in the range of 6:30pm, we decided to go all out at the big “food garden” near our hotel on our last night in Tokyo. What you see pictured above isn’t even everything we ate that night. The grilled fish was incredible. The tempura actually tasted like something other than grease-which is how you usually get it in the States.
Fried food to-go is normally horrible but this tempura was still delicious and flavorful, even cold. I don’t usually even like meatballs but the little ones pictured above were so flavorful and so tender. They were also so light! I’ve never had a meatball that tasted so…fluffy and soft? Is that a weird way to describe a meatball? In any case, delicious. We had better bento boxes other nights but the pickles in this one were still lovely. Japanese pickles are amazing in every way.
This wasn’t on our original list, but after seeing a six-foot long roll of this German-style cake baking on our first night in town, I had to try it. Baumkuchen are big in Japan. You find them everywhere from Starbucks to the fanciest dessert counters. It’s basically just cake but there is something to the texture that is especially addicting. They can also be things of great beauty. I saw some of these circular cakes nearly a foot in diameter with hundreds of delicate little rings running from the very inside to the lightly frosted edges. You can read more about them here.
Longest blog post ever right? Next up: bringing baby to Tokyo and those magical “food gardens” I keep talking about…