Japan. After four trips to this incredible country, I'm still itchy to return for more. It's not just the food - although that alone is worth the trek - but it's also everything else that makes up Japan and its culture: the singular commitment to perfection, the respect for tradition vs the embrace of the new, and the tradition of family-run businesses that have passed on from generation to generation.
This is the final post of my trip to Japan last year, a circular route of over 4,300km that started and ended in Tokyo. After enduring the icy winds of Hakodate, it was a relief to fly back to Tokyo for last minute shopping before our journey home.
Kappabashi Street - Kitchen Town
Kappabashi Street, also known as Kitchen Town is always a mandatory pit-stop in Tokyo. Running for several blocks between Ueno and Asakusa, Kappabashi Dori (dori means street in Japanese) is littered with everything from traditional crockery to restaurant stoves to baking ware and plastic display foods.
Plastic beer steins
Plastic display foods
The plastic display foods look incredibly lifelike and can make for quirky souvenir. The larger ones above aren't cheap though - costing upwards of AU$40.
Plastic gift bags of every size
I always end up in this plastic gift bag shop which has bags in all different lengths and widths - just the thing you need for presenting home-baked gifts.
I could easily spend several hours wandering here although this time we had to race through in about an hour. My favourite purchase this trip was an Iwaki cold drip coffee maker for AU$40.
Giant Japanese rhinoceros beetle outside a kitchenware shop
Rickshaws and mobiles
We walked from Kappabashi Street to Asakusa, bumping into a festival with street food stalls along the way.
Street food skewers
Takoyaki octopus balls
Hot baked potatoes with self-serve butter
If we hadn't been on our way to lunch, I would have loved one of these baked potatoes. I love that even at outdoor festivals, almost everyone is making their food from scratch. Not a frozen nugget in sight!
All dressed up
Even this pug is looking sharp
Nakamise, Sensoji Temple
Crowds on Nakamise, the alley of shops leading to Sensoji Temple
Sensoji Temple is always busy with tourists, but we found too late that our visit coincided with Sanja Matsuri, one of the biggest festivals on the Tokyo holiday calendar with more than 2 million people visiting the temple over the course of the three-day festival. We didn't have time to loiter among the crowds but we did spy a couple of local mikoshi portable shrines in the distance, being brought to the temple for blessing.
We did a whip around the stalls lining Nakamise, the path that leads to Sensoji Temple, which is filled with souvenirs, trinkets and edible gifts.
Ladling batter over red bean paste
The intense concentration by this man in charge of making taiyaki, fish-shaped caked holding sweetened red bean paste, was very impressive.
The finished product: taiyaki or fish-shaped caked with a red bean paste filling
Sukiya open 24 hours
Food definitely doesn't have to be expensive in Japan. We ended up at a Sukiya branch several times throughout the trip. The meals here are super cheap and most outlets are open 24/7.
Rich cheese tondon 490 yen / AU$5.40
Pork on rice with cheese
Gyudon is their usual specialty, a stewed beef dish on rice, but this outlet near Shibuya had tondon, or stewed pork on rice. Adding grated cheese and a raw egg on top lifted this dish to another level.
Curry rice with pork 630 yen / AU$6.95
Japanese curry is hugely popular, although its sweetness does take some getting used to. The curry rice with pork is warm and comforting.
Double portion unagi eel on rice 1180 yen / AU$13
I went with the unagi eel on rice, maxxing out on the double portion which still only set me back AU$13. There are few things finer than the rich and fatty sweetness of eel glazed with soy and rice wine.
Tachi Kui Soba Kimidzuka
Stand-up ramen and soba house near Ikebekuro Station
We stayed near Ikebukero and ate at this noodle house both mornings. You'll have to stand up to eat, but service is fast and prices are super cheap. You can order a bowl of soba noodle soup for less than AU$4.
Most people add on a deep fried side to their noodles, everything from tempura prawns and fish to shredded vegetable fritters.
Soba noodles with pork and nori 350 yen / AU$3.85
Katsudon 400 yen / $AU4.40
Fried pork cutlet with egg on rice
I went with the katsudon one morning, a crumbed and fried pork cutlet on rice with egg and katsudon sauce, a fragrant sauce made from dashi, soy, sugar, sake and mirin.
Crumbed chicken fillet
Apparently katsudon is often eaten by students the day before a major exams because the verb "katsu" means "to win" or "be victorious".
Entrance to Yakiton
While in Tokyo, I caught up with long lapsed food blogger and ex-Sydneysider Yas. He took me to Yakiton, a tiny kushiyaki joint in the back streets of Shinjuku.
Seating and coloured drawings, including the location of the bonjiri (rooster pic at 10 o'clock)
Kushiyaki refers to meat and vegetables on skewers. It's the kind of joint you unwind with friends over snacks and a couple of beers. Yakiton had a huge menu with all kinds of offal on the menu - I couldn't have been more excited.
Aji fried horse mackerel and raw cabbage with miso
We ate half the menu, crunching on crumbed aji horse mackerel and raw sweet cabbage leaves served with an addictive miso dip.
Pork neck with leek and pork tongue skewers
A sticky glaze was brushed liberally over hunks of pork neck interspersed with young leeks and slices of pork tongue cooked so they maintained their juiciness.
Fried potato with tomato sauce
We laughingly ordered the fried potato, but even these were good - hand-cut wedges fried so there was a contrast between the crunchy surface and its fluffy middle.
Tsukune meatballs and bonjiri chicken hip
We thoughtfully chew on tsukune meatball skewers as well as bonjiri, translated here as chicken hip but known by others as chicken butt. These hips don't lie. They're fattylicious.
I love the crunch of chicken giblets. These were grilled simply with salt and pepper over charcoal.
Pork heart and chicken large intestine
Pork hearts had a gentle chew and the chicken large intestine was springy in texture.
Nankotsu vocal cords
We finished up with chicken thighs and nankotsu vocal cords, the latter were kinda crunchy like cartilage.
Chicken thigh skewers
Takano Fruit Parlour
Fruit sandwiches and fruit parfaits
We rolled onto dessert. I'd always lusted after the fruit sandwiches on Yas's Instagram feed, so he took me to Takano Fruit Parlour. Takano started as a premium fruit shop in 1885; today it's like walking into Tiffany & Co. The Shinjuku store spreads over three floors with high end luxury fruit baskets and spreads for sale.
The Fruit Parlour on the 5th floor is a dine-in dessert house. They have an all-you-can-eat fruit buffet which sounds like a glorious concept we should adapt in Australia as well. The buffet had closed by the time we arrived so we ordered a la carte.
Musk melon parfait 1,944 yen / AU$21.40
The price of the musk melon parfait almost made me weep - AU$21.40 - but it's a sobering reminder of how much Australians take the affordability of fruit for granted.
This musk melon was supremely sweet though, each segment offering a juicy mouthful of perfection.
Mixed fruit parfait 1,296 yen / AU$14.25
The mixed fruit parfait had a little bit of everything, including dragon fruit, pineapple and mango. Considering that most dessert menus in Western restaurant feature heavily on chocolate and dense desserts, the abundance of fruit felt so refreshing.
Fruit sandwich 1,080 yen / AU$11.90
But I was most excited by the fruit sandwiches. Fluffy white bread sandwiched with cream and fruit. It's like a pavlova in sandwich-form. This is a wicked idea I definitely intend to recreate!
PABLO at Shinjuku Station
Since I was passing through Shinjuku Station to get back to my hotel, I stopped at PABLO to get their famous baked cheese tart takeaway. The Japanese seem to have an obsession with light and fluffy cheesecakes.
Fresh baked cheese tart 741 yen / AU$8.15
The tart sustained a slight crack via the journey home which made me glad I didn't opt for the "rare" tart which is deliberately undercooked for a gooier texture.
The pastry base was noticeably thicker than other tarts we've had, but the filling was luscious yet light and airy.
Our final day was spent in Harajuku. The four-storey Daiso here was the only disappointment, with a much smaller range of crockery than we remembered.
Entrance to Calbee+ at Harajuku
But we perked ourselves up with a visit to Calbee+, a shop that offers all your favourite Calbee snacks as well as soft serves and freshly made chips - together if you prefer!
Freshly fried potato crisps
Hokkaido soft serve with ROYCE chocolate 280 yen / AU$3.10
Potato chips with double cheese 230 yen / AU$2.55
You can get a Hokkaido soft serve (so creamy!) drizzled with ROYCE chocolate and garnished with a potato chip or go savoury with freshly made potato chips with cheese. They also do a maple syrup and cream cheese combo that straddles both sweet and savoury. You can choose between thin and flat or thick and ruffled chips too. We watched them use a machine to slice fresh potatoes before they were transferred to the deep fryer.
Potato chips with ROYCE chocolate and Hokkaido soft serve 410 yen / AU$4.50
I went with the easy-to-eat potato chips drizzled with ROYCE chocolate sauce and a mini cup of Hokkaido soft serve for dipping. Chips and ice cream with chocolate are a thing, trust me. Don't deny it til you try it!
Marion Crepes stand at Harajuku
And you can't leave Harajuku with eating a crepe. We usually eat at Angel Crepes but this time we ate at its competitor directly across from it, Marion Crepes.
Plastic crepe display menu
This is where Japanese plastic display food is invaluable - a visual menu that transcends all languages and a numbering system that makes ordering super easy.
Crepes ready to go
Like all Japanese workers we saw, the staff here were a picture of polite and friendly efficiency, working non-stop with constant smiles on their faces.
One worker made crepes constantly, each one uniform in size and height.
Prepping two strawberry cheesecake crepes at the same time
Watching them assemble the crepes was impressive too. Look at those giant blobs of cream!
Strawberry cheesecake Melba 540 yen / AU$5.95
I had the strawberry cheesecake Melba, a wedge of cheesecake offering two desserts in one. Add strawberry ice cream, fresh strawberries and strawberry syrup and you've got one helluva sweet street snack as you watch the crowds go by.
Katsusando from Maisen 421 yen / AU$4.60
We ran out of time to have lunch at Maisen but had just enough time to grab a takeaway katsusando or pork cutlet sandwich from their restaurant in Shibuya.
We'd raced back to our hotel, grabbed our bags and got back onto the train again to the airport with minutes to spare. We were flushed with heat and our pulses were racing, but as we unpacked our Maisen boxes and opened the plastic wrapping, the world felt a little calmer as we paused to admire the simple beauty of crumbed pork in fluffy white bread.
We relished that sandwich as our train hurtled toward Narita Airport, mournfully savouring each mouthful as we headed closer to home. Japan - we will back soon.
<< Read the first Japan 2015 post: Toyama black ramen and firefly squid
Japan 2015: Toyama > Kanazawa > Nagano > Kyoto > Nara > Osaka > Kobe > Kagoshima > Hakata > Hiroshima and Miyajima Island > Sapporo > Otaru > Hakodate > Tokyo
1-16-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Tel: +81 (03) 6434 0439
2-21-1 Shibuya, Shibuya Hikarie, 6th floor, Tokyo, Japan
Tel: +81 (03) 3486 2365
Open daily 11am-11pm
Shibuya Jingumae 1-16-15, Junes Building, Takeshita-dori, Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan
Tel: +81 (03) 3401 7297
Open daily 10.30am-8pm (from 10am Sat and Sun)
Metro Shokudogai B2F, 1-1-2, NIshi-shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 160-0023, Japan
Tel: +81 (03) 5381 0826
Also at Shibuya and Akihabara in Tokyo
Tachi Kui Soba Kimidzuka 立喰いそば 君塚
Ikebukero West Side, Ikebukero Station
Sugiyama Building, Street level,
Toshima, Tokyo, 170-0014, Japan
Tel: +81 (03) 3982 4419
Takano Fruit Parlour
3-26-11 Shinjuku, Takano 5th floor, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
Tel: +81 (03) 5368 5147
3-17-17 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Tel: +81 (03) 3352 0080
Open daily 5pm-12 midnight (Sat from 4pm, Sun and national holidays 4pm-11pm)
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1/18/2016 12:56:00 am