Tokyo Food Tours
Japan had been on our bucket list for a while, but the actual decision to come here was made in the spur of a moment. “I want to go to Japan and eat,” Tony said one afternoon after an uninspired meal. No sooner did he utter these words than I booked us a flight to Tokyo, sushi wonderland and foodie capital for many travelers. After having spent five years in Asia, we considered ourselves relative experts on Asian cuisine. Obviously, all we had to do was walk the capital’s busy streets and fill our bellies with exotic delicacies. Or so we thought.
It turns out that Japan is a whole different kettle of fish. With a population of over 13 million, metropolitan Tokyo seems to have almost as many restaurants, food stalls and izakayas as it has people. Yes, there is such a thing as too many options. What should you have for lunch? A Michelin-starred bento plate or green tea soba noodles? How about yamaimo or fugu? Oh, that’s right – one can make you sick, the other can potentially kill you. Add to that language difficulties and chokingly high prices, and you find yourself in a real tsukemono pickle.
Clearly, Tokyo is one of those cities where advice from local experts can totally make your experience. In order to get an idea of the culinary scene and learn something new in the process, Tony and I took part in four different foodie activities: a food walking tour in Ginza, a home-style cooking class, a sushi workshop at the Tsukiji Fish Market, and a sake tasting.
Food walking tour through Ginza and around
A guided walk is a great way to tap into the local food culture and get an idea of what exists. Our fun Allstar Tokyo Food Tour with Arigato Japan took us through a well selected sampling of Tokyo neighborhoods from the glitz and glam of Ginza to the backstreet retro charm of Yurakucho and Shimbashi. Our food-venture began in Yurakucho where we met up with our expert guide Anne, a spunky Filipina entrepreneur who has called Tokyo home for over 20 years. She quickly introduced us to our fellow food-venturers Sumilu, Garrett, and Sonya before we took off into the night.
Anne immediately filled our heads with exciting eating options as she showed us around lively Gado Shita, a restaurant district built into the arches of elevated railway tracks. Along the way, Anne pointed out a wall of warped, yellowed movie posters that had been collecting there for decades. Yes, the whole world associates Japan with tongue-in-cheek futurism, but they also have a great love for nostalgia.
That nostalgia was also visible in the design of our first stop at a typical Japanese izakaya. We all grabbed a bar stool and sipped sake as we waited with anticipation. The scent of sweet minced meat and flavorful grilled tomato wafted through the air as they delivered our sampler of delicious yakitoris. Anne ordered up a round of highballs eager to ensure we were familiar with one of Japan’s favorite mixed drinks as we savored each bite of shiitake mushroom and crispy chicken neck. Bottoms up, and Anne whisked us away to Ginza, one of Tokyo’s most prestigious neighborhoods.
After we made our way through a narrow alley illuminated by colorful paper lanterns, Anne introduced us to some of Japan’s weird and wonderful vending machines. Even weirder was our discovery of Tom Cruise’s handprint on Nemu no Hiroba, Tokyo’s answer to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. We pushed past modern high-rises and big-name brands, and found ourselves in a high-end fruit and vegetable shop. Our jaws dropped at the sight of $200 melons and $700 matsutake mushrooms. Yikes! For some well-deserved freebies, Anne took us to a luxury department store where she masterfully and unashamedly taught us the art of scoring fancy food samples.
Having worked up those salivary glands in Ginza, Anne delivered us to a packed and popular local restaurant in Shimbashi. While discussing our favorite foods, we feasted on six different dishes. Starting light with a plate of crisp eggplant and cucumber dipped in miso, we eagerly worked our way through a series of tasty treats including delicious gyoza in a fish/yuzu stock, soba noodles with egg, chicken mamba (Japanese fried chicken), udon noodles with a tsuyu dipping sauce, and Japanese pizza with whitebait, nori, sesame seeds, and shiso leaf. Yum! You can’t get more Japanese than that, or can you? One other enticing item on the menu was raw chicken sashimi, but Tony and I were outvoted by the horror-struck majority who just couldn’t stomach it. 😉
We really enjoyed this awesome 3-hour food walking tour with Anne who was a ball of energy and entertained us with culinary and cultural tidbits from start to end. She even had a surprise dessert up her sleeve. Check out her excellent well-deserved reviews on Tripadvisor, and make sure to visit her website at arigatojapan.co.jp/ to find out about her food tours including those in Kyoto and Osaka, as well as prices and contact info.
Home-style Japanese cooking class
One of our coolest and most authentic experiences in Tokyo was our cooking class with Mayuko’s Little Kitchen. Mayuko, whose mission is to teach Japanese culture through cooking, hosted this culinary session in her private apartment which she shares with her sister. It was immediately obvious this class was not just designed to learn about home cooking or the do’s and don’ts of Japanese table manners, but to actually get a glimpse of how real Tokyoites live. As we entered Mayuko’s flat, Tony and I slipped on house shoes and gathered around the large kitchen table along with curious foodies Kevin from California, Karen and Rich from New York, and Jonni from Scotland.
The focus of the cooking class was to create a typical everyday meal. If you think that just means sushi, think again. On the menu: hand-made pork gyoza, cucumber salad, squash with red bean, and miso soup. While we sipped barley tea and nibbled on rice crackers, Mayuko gave us an introduction to the classic Japanese seasonings including sake, mirin and miso. She also explained some of the more exotic ingredients such as shiso leaves, dried kelp, and bonito flakes. As we put on our aprons, Mayuko passed out our cutting boards, knives, and graters, and then the chopping, shredding and mashing began.
Tony and Rich cut up cucumbers for the salad while Jonni, Kevin and Karen chopped chives, leek and cabbage for the gyoza filling. I wandered around taking photos. But it wasn’t long before Mayuko put me to work grating ginger into a bowl of minced pork. Once everything was cubed, sliced and rasped, we set the vegetable miso soup on the stove to simmer adding fried tofu, mustard spinach and shimeji mushrooms. Then the tricky part began. Mayuko showed us how to transform dumpling wrappers into perfectly folded gyoza. Excuse me, I didn’t sign up for origami. 😉 Luckily, it was easier than it looked.
Next, we arranged the gyoza into flower-like patterns in a pan and left them to steam on the stove top. While we waited for the dumplings, Mayuko had us set the table. But only for a minute or so. When she saw us slapping our dishes on the table like hungry animals, she immediately intervened. Japan is big on food presentation and arranging dishes in an almost Zen-like fashion. Clearly, we were not ready. We first had to practice piling squash and cucumber-seaweed salad into little bowls before we could organize them clockwise on each place mat. To complete our lunch menu, we added crisp savory gyoza, a hearty miso vegetable soup, a gyoza dipping sauce, and a bowl of rice. And then we all dug in. Yum!
Tony and I absolutely loved this cooking class. Mayuko, whose mom was a cooking teacher, had obviously inherited her gift of connecting to people through food. She was super sweet and knowledgeable and provided all of us with an intimate cultural cooking experience and a set of fantastic recipes. For us, this was especially valuable since we did some of our own cooking during our stay in Tokyo. For other opinions on Mayuko’s Little Kitchen, check out her rave reviews on Tripadvisor, and visit her at www.mayukoslittlekitchen.com to find out more about her other classes, prices and contact info.
Sushi workshop at Tsukiji Fish Market
It is no secret that Tony and I both love sushi. During our time in Tokyo, we set up two budgets, one for sushi and one for everything else. You can only guess which one was larger. It was clear from the start that we wanted to learn the process from fish to sushi, so we signed up for a sushi making class with InsiderWorkshops. And what better place than right in the heart of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market.
Our guide Hayashi started the tour with a stroll through the outer market, a busy area full of seafood restaurants and stores near the Tsukiji market hall. Outside a little tuna shop, he briefly introduced us to our sushi chef Morita who was out and about shopping for our workshop. After picking up Canadian bluefin tuna, we continued pushing through the crowds taking in the sweet smell of fried squid and eyeing all the tempting sea creatures on skewers.
Then we entered the inner sanctum of the Tsukiji Fish Market. As we made our way across the ramshackle hall, we outmaneuvered forklifts barreling down upon us and dodged shellacked puffers dangling from the ceiling. Stalls and Styrofoam boxes full of colorful fish, octopus, sea urchins, snails, and muscles lined the narrow walkways. We stopped to watch fishmongers slice apart a 50-kg tuna worth thousands of dollars. Then we chose our own, more modest catch for the sushi class, a live yellow jack and red sea bream. Seconds later, we witnessed the ikejime method of “killing fish alive”, considered the most humane method of killing the fish while preserving its freshness.
At the workshop kitchen, we were joined by American sushi-philes Kathy and Gerry, as well as the company’s founder Tsubasa who assisted in translating for chef Morita. First course of action was to scale and wash everything we had bought in the market: the bream, jack, bonito, flounder, horse mackerel, and scallops. As a starter, Morita – who worked as a chef in Milan for three years – whipped up a finger-licking yellow jack carpaccio sprinkled with olive oil, black pepper, and ponzu sauce. OMG! Then we actually had to do some work.
Gerry shelled the scallops, I grated fresh wasabi (yes, wasabi doesn’t naturally come in sachets), and Tony practiced his filleting skills with the professional help of Morita. It quickly became apparent that you don’t become a sushi chef in a day. After we watched Morita skillfully carve up the rest of the seafood, he instructed us in the art of assembling sushi. Let’s just say it involved a lot of squeezing rice just the right way to make the perfect shape. What followed was an eating frenzy. We stuffed ourselves with tasty fish head soup, seared bonito with ponzu sauce and shekwasha (citrus fruit), and enough mouthwatering sushi to feed a baseball team.
We quite enjoyed the Tsukiji Sushi InsiderWorkshop. Although making sushi wasn’t completely new to us, we did learn a few valuable tricks. In addition, we had a lot of fun with our sushi chef Morita who was absolutely hilarious. Even though he spoke very little English, his passion came through in everything he did. We thought he really deserved his on TV show. Make sure to read InsiderWorkshops’ excellent reviews on Tripadvisor and visit them at http://insiderworkshops.com/ for more information about their tours.
Note: The market tour is scheduled before 10 AM when the wholesale market is open to buyers but closed to tourists – at least officially. Many guides have a “special arrangement” with the market guards to bypass the no-tourists-before-10 rule, but there is no guarantee that visitors will be admitted. Having said that, most tours do manage to slip by, but be prepared for your guide to do some haggling.
Sake tasting in Minato
Sake seems to be everywhere in Tokyo. The famous Japanese rice wine is served in restaurants, izakayas, street fairs and market places. There are sake festivals and sake tastings at every turn. Strolling the streets of Tokyo, Tony and I quickly realized we didn’t know a thing about the national drink of Japan. To get an idea of what sake was all about and how to judge it, we decided to do some sake sampling at the Meishu Center, an English-speaking sake bar in the Minato neighborhood close to Zojo-ji Temple and Tokyo Tower.
When we first walked into the Meishu Center, it was a little intimidating. The bar offers around 200 kinds of sake from 50 breweries all over Japan. Luckily, our sake sommelier Chris helped us pick six different sakes ranging from fruity to smooth to dry. While we sipped back and forth between glasses, Chris explained the bottle labels pointing out alcohol content, rice polishing ratio, and type of rice used in the fermentation. In the end, what determines sake quality and price is the age of the sake, the labor costs, and the percentage of polished rice used in the production. For sake newbies like us, these differences were not immediately obvious. So, of course, we had to keep drinking and tasting until every drop was gone.
What we really liked about the Meishu Center was that they had English literature explaining everything related to sake. This means you can just walk in, pick your own sake or have a sommelier suggest a combo, read up on it or ask questions. It’s a great setup with English-language support at reasonable prices. Glasses of sake range from US$2 to US$12 with a small discount given for a combo of three glasses.
Check out the Meishu Center’s website http://nihonshu.com/ for their contact info and their 6-step guide of how to sample sake at their bar. If you do plan on a bit of sightseeing afterwards, remember that sake has a slightly higher alcohol content than wine – you’ll definitely feel it.
We thought our food and drink tours in Tokyo were fantastic. While they complement each other very well, any one of these tours on their own can serve as a great intro to Tokyo’s culinary scene. This is especially important for visitors who only have a day or two in the city. Consider this – it may just take you a whole day to find that one specialty you’ve wanted to try. So sometimes it’s just best to let the experts do the work for you. We certainly did again after our wonderful experiences with our food tours in Lisbon and Rome. Domo arigato for an amazing food-venture!