10:30am – King of Gyudon Time
At our hotel in Minowa Station my husband and I enquired about a decent neighbourhood eatery for gyudon—a bowl of sliced beef and onions boiled in a sweet and spicy soup, laid on a bed of rice. It is one of Japan’s more filling meat-and-rice combos. Following the instructions given to us we reached Matsuya, across the road from Minowa station at the corner of Showa Dori Street.
The establishment accepts orders through a vending machine, which essentially means that you punch in your order, deposit money into the slot and collect the ticket that pops out. On handing my ticket to a server, I was informed that the gyudon, which at Matsuya is called gyumeshi, came with miso soup. Apart from the gyumeshi, meals on offer include a variety of set menus with beef and pork belly. Perhaps everyone’s first meal in Japan feels like the best ever, but there’s no denying that this meaty rice concoction warmed my soul and senses like none other.
Matsuya has outlets across the country; just look out for its characteristic logo with blue letters on yellow background (www.matsuyafoods.co.jp; gyumeshi from JPY240/`136; set meals from JPY590/`340).
12:30pm – A Combini Lunch
By the time we descended from the free observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government—the best way to take in a cityscape from a vantage point—it was time for lunch. To help maximize our limited time in the Japanese capital, a takeaway lunch of tuna and egg salad sandwiches from Lawson, a popular convenient store chain, did the job.
The food here is surprisingly fresh and reasonably priced. The sandwiches have a distinct crunch (of the lettuce), and include fillings such as tuna or egg salad, katsu (fried pork cutlets), ham and cheese. I remembered from an episode I’d seen on television that celebrity-chef Anthony Bourdain includes the egg salad sandwich at Lawson as one of his favourite things to eat in the country. Another popular dish at Lawson’s is onigiri, sticky rice pyramids enclosing meat or seafood and wrapped with a crisp sheet of seaweed.
The store’s hot counter serves sizzling, juicy yakitori (deep fried meat), and I couldn’t resist ordering chicken gizzards and legs, as well as steamed meat buns. Armed with these—as well as Meiji caramel pudding, Calbee potato crisps and a few cans of Santori highball, the best whiskey soda premix in the country—we headed to Yoyogi Park near Harajuku for a picnic lunch. (www.lawson.co.jp; egg salad sandwich JPY232/`132; onigiri JPY129/`74; yakitori from JPY100/`57.)
2pm – Of Sakes and Wines
A few minutes’ walk away from Yoyogi Park is the Meiji Shrine. The Japanese love for sake is evident in the assembly of sake-filled “decoration barrels” called kazaridaru on the path to the shrine. Around the kazaridaru lie barrels of wine, which were gifts to the Emperor Meiji from some of the finest wineries in Bourgogne, France and around the world. The benches along the path are an ideal spot for a snack break, and washing down an egg salad sandwich with a can of highball at a quaint park is an experience that will stay with you forever. Be warned, however, that though not illegal, it is sometimes considered impolite to drink alcohol in public.
4pm – Feeling Fried
Takeshita-dori, a hipster neighbourhood in Harajuku, has everything from high street to international designer brands and is a good place for window shopping. One thing Indians and Japanese have in common is their love for all things potato, and nestled in the midst of Takeshita-dori is Calbee Plus, a store that not only stocks every flavour the chips brand has to offer, but also sells freshly fried bespoke packs of chips. Choose from plain options, or add chocolate coating, salt, pepper, cheese, chicken, maple syrup, butter, shrimp, purple potato, wasabi or tofu. The salesgirl suggested a chocolate-coated potato chip parfait, but we chose to go with a pack of the wasabi and shrimp ones instead (www.calbee.co.jp; a pack of chips from JPY200/`114)
6pm – Pop-Up Shop
During our exploration of Harajuku, a local told us about the roaring popularity of the Danish brand Flying Tiger, which stocks everything from stationery to soft toys. We decided to go looking for it but on the way came across an impossibly long queue leading to Chicago’s iconic gourmet popcorn brand, Garrett. Curious about the manic popularity of a popcorn shop, we joined the line. Forty-five minutes later, we entered the store, and were enveloped by the heady aroma of caramel and butter. We’d had ample time to decide between varieties such as cheese corn, caramel crisp, mild salted, plain, almond caramel crisp, cashew caramel crisp and the popular Chicago mix (cheese and caramel), and finally settled for the cashew caramel crisp.
The wait was worth it. (www.garrettpopcorn.com; small tub starts from JPY290/`165.)
8pm – On the Sushi Train
For dinner, we decided to explore the bustling neighbourhood of Shinjuku, a stop away. As we came out of the west exit of Shinjuku Station, a kaitenzushi, or conveyer belt sushi establishment caught our attention. At Ganso Zushi, plates carrying 60 types of sushi roll past diners who can pick whatever looks good. Besides the standard menu, there are special dishes such as a magurozukushi set (JPY600/`345) that combines fatty underbelly, medium-fatty, and lean portions of tuna with egg.
After a few rounds, we saw a neighbouring couple placing their orders directly with the chef across a tiny window at a corner. We followed suit, and after a few hand gestures towards our neighbours’ plates, we had our own plates of crimson-coloured tuna gloriously sprawled on beds of sticky rice. We soon learnt that there were more than a few off-the-menu options, such as fried octopus and scallops. After we were finished, an attendant stacked up our plates to calculate the damage. (www.gansozushi.com; JPY125-500/`70-285.)
9:30am – Ekiben To Go
We checked out of our hotel and headed to Ueno Station for the 2hr 40min journey on the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. Before boarding, we picked up ekiben, special bento boxes or combo meals sold at train stations, which are essentially combo meals. Many stations take pride in offering special ekiben featuring locally grown ingredients, and aesthetically pleasing packaging with designs to represent the region in question. I selected a salmon slice with an assortment of other dishes, such as kinpira gobou (burdock root and carrot stir fry, sprinkled with white sesame seeds), mushroom and agedashi tofu, an egg roll, pickled vegetables, and sausage. My husband picked one with a shrimp tempura, tender chicken, sour pickled plum, root vegetable stew, and an onigiri stuffed with mystery meat (approx. JPY700/`400 per box).
1:30pm – First Ramen
On reaching Kyoto, we left our bags in a storage locker at the train station, and went looking for the local Ippudo, a popular international ramen chain. The outlet is barely a four-minute walk from Exit 18 of Karasuma Station, on the Hankyu Kyoto Line. With its origins in Fukuoka, Ippudo’s simple but high quality ramens and broths are legendary around the world. When we finally got a seat after a 45-minute wait, we were surprised to be handed an English menu, a rarity in Japan.
Ippudo has just four ramen variations to choose from, and a couple of starters. I ordered the familiar akamaru tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen with extra charsu (meat) and was treated to one of the best noodle bowls I’ve ever had. The tender pork slipped right off the bone as I nudged and poked strategically with a chopstick. (www.ippudo.com; a bowl of ramen from JPY800/`456.)
4:30pm – Two to Dango
We worked up an appetite with a breezy walk around the Toji Temple and gardens, and decided to stop at the nearest mart to try the much hyped and ubiquitous matcha ice cream and the dango, sweet and chewy rice dumplings served on a stick or in a box, which originated in a Kyoto teahouse called Kamo Mitarashi. The Mitarashi dango is traditionally served in a skewer with five pieces. Some say the top represents a head; the next two, arms; and the last two, legs. I loved the sweet chewy texture so much that I had it every day for the rest of my stay (JPY 150/`85).
6pm – Tempura Time
After collecting our bags from Kyoto Station to board our train to Hakata station to reach Fukuoka, we stopped for a quick meal at a tempura speciality restaurant called Ginza Hageten. The portion sizes are so large that we were advised to order just one plate of tendon, which is a bed of sticky rice with tempuras of shrimp, fish, chicken, a selection of vegetables, and an egg served with a salty-sweet sauce, miso soup, pickles, and a salad (www.hageten.com; JPY1,080/`615).
8:30am – Snack Station
When we reached Fukuoka’s Hakata station, we were surprised at its sheer size. Housing more than 200 stores, selling everything from fashion to food products, it was a mini-city. While looking for our exit, we chanced upon a brightly lit supermarket called Deitos located near the Chikushi Exit. The store offered a wide range of products, from clothing to souvenirs, and also stocked sweet bread with pastry cream from Hattendo, an iconic 80-year-old shop located in Ippin Dori Street. But I chanced upon the tastiest snack of all at a counter stocked with fried meats. Strips of karikari chicken skin which are coated with a crunchy batter and wonderfully chewy. Perfect for munchies (www.jrhakatacity.com; JPY120/`68).
11am – Iron Pan Chefs
After a walk to the nearby Tochoji and Jotenji temples, we visited Tetsunabe, a home-style joint recommended to us for its delicious gyoza. Gyoza, or dumplings, originated in China, and the commercial port of Fukuoka was where the dish was first introduced to Japan. Tetsunabe (iron pan) gyoza with all kinds of fillings are most common in Fukuoka, and are considered some of the best in Japan. Not far from Hakata Station, Tetsunabe is also an ideal place for people-watching, as it is located at a busy junction (JPY470/`268 for a pan of eight gyozas).
2:30pm – Super Bowls at the Ramen Stadium
Hakata Canal City, Japan’s largest mall, has five floors loaded with multiplex cinemas, hotels, an amusement park, and an abundance of overhanging vegetation. Our motive in visiting this commercial urban monstrosity was to experience the top-floor Ramen Stadium. Like a food court, Ramen Stadium comprises eight restaurants, each boasting a different flavour or style of ramen from Japan. Each has a machine at its entrance, where you place your order and wait for your turn (the dish names are in Japanese). We made our selections and were soon assigned a corner stool. Fukuoka’s noodles are distinguished by their thinness. A typical bowl of noodle soup is usually topped with a couple of slices of meat, mushrooms, spring onions, pickled red ginger, and seaweed. For gastronomes keen on extra seasoning, toasted sesame seeds, garlic, and a couple of sauces are an arm’s length away.
The noodles were firm, the broth mild and seaweed-flavoured, and the egg when separated from its middle revealed a golden belly. And yes, the pork was tender and delicious too. (canalcity.co.jp; ramen bowls from JPY690/`392.)
6pm – Moveable Feasts
We had to try Fukuoka’s famous yatai, small mobile restaurants complete with built-in benches, that specialise in tonkotsu ramen and sticks of yakitori which can be washed down with a beer or Japanese whiskey. My husband and I squeezed into one such makeshift stall with our back to the Naka River, separated from the rest
of Fukuoka by just a plastic curtain. We shared this intimate setting with 10 other diners, mostly locals, around
a U-shaped counter.
The by-now familiar aroma of tonkotsu wafted from the bare-bones kitchen behind the counter. As the sunlight faded, the dozen neighbouring yatai filled up quickly. The background score for the evening was slurping, considered a sign of appreciation in Japanese culture (meal for two approx. JPY1,500/`855).
9pm – Departure
We returned to Hakata Station to catch the Shinkansen back to Tokyo, but we had a few hours to kill before boarding our train. So, we walked into one of the many izakayas, a Japanese tavern or pub where locals go to socialise, drink copious amounts of alcohol, and eat good food. We ordered nihonshu (sake), salted squid guts, octopus with wasabi, and yakitori. While the yakitori was delicious as usual, the salted, pungent squid guts are an acquired taste (meal for two with sake approx. JPY1,200/`683).
The best way to dive into the Japan experience, even before exiting Narita Airport, is by dipping in to 9H, a unique shower rental service and sleeping pod hotel in Terminal 2. The hour-long shower service (JPY1,000/`570) may seem a bit excessive, but the experience will leave you altered. Futuristic and minimalist in design, this washroom is equipped with hot rain showers, towels, shampoos, and body soaps to help you wring out your flying fatigue and get you charged for the day ahead (ninehours.co.jp).