“The heavier the head of rice, the deeper it bows” is a well-loved Japanese proverb that serves as a metaphor for humility, a virtue held dear by the people of this island nation. And if it’s a humbling experience you’re after, the food in Japan – whether it’s at a sushi counter, in a bento box at the metro or at a ramen noodle bar – over-delivers every time.
Here, you’ll find every possible food you’ve ever craved (or didn’t even know you craved), each one prepared with precision, care and skill. But with so many styles of food, both modern and some as ancient as the temples of Kyoto, it’s hard to know where to begin the adventure. But start you must. So here’s a simple guide on what to look for and where to stop along the way.
Begin your food journey here. A traditional Japanese breakfast is a meal in its own and likely different from any other you’ll ever experience. The best introduction is just a couple blocks from Tokyo Station at The Restaurant by Aman. Apart from the fact that you can see Mount Fuji from just about every table, it’s easy to see why it has received numerous accolades.
Breakfast consists of a tray of foods that make up a complete meal, and the idea is that you start with the miso soup of fermented soy beans and dashi to ‘warm the gut and get your digestive system going’. Then there’s the tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) with steamed hakumai (white rice), perfectly grilled salmon and various sides such as tofu and nori seaweed, not forgetting the tsukemono (pickled vegetables).
The added bonus is that you get to escape the bustle of Tokyo street life in the coolly postmodern interiors bordering a soaring lobby dominated by a zen rock garden and 30-metre-high architectural feature resembling the interior of a washi-paper lantern. What more could one ask for?
The Restaurant by Aman, Otemachi Tower, 1-5-6 Otemachi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
Noriyuki Hamada, the first Japanese chef to win the coveted Bocuse d’Or world chef championship in France, has developed a new culinary style called Nippon, a French-inspired take on Japanese fine dining that is quickly gaining momentum. And where better to try it than at his restaurant at Hoshinoya Tokyo.
Located in the basement of the ryokan (a traditional inn) in the heart of the CBD, it’s a silent, cavernous space of rough plastered walls with private tatami-matted dining rooms, which was once upon a time the site of an Edo palace.
It’s a serene environment, a refined Japanese aesthetic, that extends to the nine-course tasting menu with beguiling titles such as ‘Warmth of the Earth’ and ‘Precious Little Things’.
The amuse-bouche sets the bar high with tiny fishcakes enrobed in black seaweed and skewered onto food picks reforged from spikes that reinforced the pillars of the feudal mansion that once stood here; with it comes a paper-thin savoury tuile biscuit made from crushed fishbones webbed with golden grilled Parmesan.
Hoshinoya Tokyo, 1-9-1 Otemachi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
No visit to Tokyo is complete without a visit to a noodle bar. Ichiran in Shibuya is a crazy, fabulous chain filled with both locals and tourists. And it serves Hakata-style tonkotsu – a pork bone broth of dreams.
Place your order at the door via a vending machine (there are photographs of each dish), take the ticket to your seat and slide it under a roller blind that separates the kitchen from your counter seat.
Every bowl is said to contain a universe, and this universe happens to be a celestial symphony of tender noodles, roast pork, farm fresh green onion, spicy red sauce, spongy mushrooms and egg. In the style of Hakata ramen from Fukuoka Prefecture, you have the choice of noodle firmness, level of spiciness, richness and flavour.
The best kind of street food comes in the form of a noodle, be it soba, udon or ramen. You need a good-luck talisman to find a little hole in the wall, hidden in the glorious village of Arashiyama, serving bowls of noodles on the street.
To reach it, cross the bridge over the jade waters of the Hozu River, then take a slight uphill path along the main drag (the station will be on your right) and it’s just there, about 700m on the left from the bridge and station. Here, you can order udon, thick wheat-flour noodles that are slippery but sturdy and optimal for slurping from the hot broth. Or you can go for the soba, buckwheat noodles that require speedy gulping as they lose their texture fast, served with tempura vegetables, pork or egg.
Possibly the best bowl of noodles you’ll find in Japan. (If you find it, cross the street for a matcha ice cream served in a cone for dessert.)
* For more culinary inspiration, follow Gourmet editor Bernadette Le Roux on Instagram
Read the full story in the January issue of House & Garden magazine