Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two observations from my most recent trip.
It pains me to admit that but it’s true. I’ve been guilty of hubristically proclaiming that it’s nearly impossible to get a bad meal in Japan. And while I will say that your chances of finding good food are higher than many other countries, it doesn’t hurt to do a little research beforehand. Here are a few things I’ve learned.
- Don’t order offal—bizarrely called “hormone” in Japan (the misuse of the word is actually derived from the Japanese term horu-mono or discarded goods) unless you know for a fact that the chef has the chops to do it right. Offal is tricky to cook right and when it’s done wrong… Lord have mercy! Fingers crossed you are good at politely spitting the contents of your mouth into your napkin.
- Major train stations, large office buildings, and the top levels of department stores usually have a great selection of restaurants, especially for lunch.
- Japanese restaurants that have established branches in the States have reached that level of success for good reason. They’re delicious! We reluctantly went to Ippudo in Kyoto (I say reluctantly because even though I love Ippudo in Manhattan, I hesitate to eat at a restaurant that I can visit in the US), but it turned out to be one of the best bowls of ramen we had while in Japan. They even had killer free add-ons that they don’t offer in their New York branch—pickled bean sprouts, fresh garlic that you crush tableside, and a sesame seed mill for diners who enjoy the taste of fresh toasted sesame seeds. (See photo above)
- Go to restaurants that specialize in just one thing. If you want good udon don’t go to a soba place. Have a thing for tonkatsu? Find a katsu restaurant. Ramen stock takes serious nurturing and knowledge to get just right, don’t order it at a restaurant that’s got a million other menu items and expect anything spectacular (come to think of it, this works for the States too!).
- Street level, basement, 2nd floor, 23rd floor—in Japan it doesn’t matter. Don’t shy away from a restaurant just because you have to take a tiny elevator, or walk up a dark flight of stairs to get to it.
If all else fails pop me a note. I may just have a couple fabulous spots I’d be willing to share with you.