In the dense city of Tokyo, look up and down when hungry. Some of the best restaurants are in busy stations, department stores and high-rises.
Looking at commuters on the impressive Shinkansen (colloquially known in English as the bullet train) devouring their bento boxes, it is easy to arrive at the frenetic Tokyo Station hungry and slightly overwhelmed.
Fellow food lovers from Colombia, Singapore and I met gregarious chef Yukari Matsushita at the famed Hachiko canine statue at Shibuya Station, otherwise known as Shibuya Scramble, the busiest intersection in the world.
A Cooking Class
At the local supermarket, Yukari explained and purchased ingredients, then walked us home for a cooking class. She shared insights into how the Japanese live and eat and dispelled many myths:
“Japanese cuisine is more than just sushi. The origin of produce is of great importance, as is seasonality. Cherry blossoms, with their short season, signify the fragility of life, so we preserve them in salt to enjoy at other times. I make my own umami by making my own miso.”
We mastered home-style dishes like oyakodon (braised chicken and onion cooked with eggs in dashi), shrimp and lotus-root sandwiches served with sansho pepper, clam soup with tomato and eggs, whilst sipping yuzu sake.
The Japanese love their sweets, usually of a bean paste base, like the strawberry daifuku we created to eat with our (obligatory, not my favourite) matcha tea.
A Gourmet Shopping Spree
After sharing the fruits of our labour, we headed to the shopping precincts to stock up on essentials to recreate these dishes back home.
First stop Kappabashi Street (ignoring a Ramen Street and a Gyoza Street), next stop Asakusa Nakamise Street for knives, an essential, expensive detour.
The famed former fish market in Tsukiji moved to a new location in Toyosu in April 2019, where the eye-opening early-morning tuna auction takes place.
The old site is surrounded by quaint streets that offer the tastes of Edo (the old name of the capital).
It is here that you still get the freshest fish and seafood straight from that morning’s market. A must in Tokyo is an Edo-style sushi experience, when one is served each piece individually (fresh fish, conger eel, scallop, lobster and roe), at a counter. Stick with the rules.
Finesse And A Nightcap
The ultimate treat was at two-Michelin-starred L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Roppongi Hills, an upmarket area of shops, museums and galleries.
Dining at the counter in the sophisticated, stylish red-and-black interiors, we witnessed perfection and dedication.
Chef Kenichiro Sekiya is the second Japanese chef in 50 years to win the oldest, most prestigious chefs’ competition, the Taittinger Prix Culinaire.
When asked what, other than finesse, is common to French and Japanese cuisine, Chef Sekiya said, “The French have more ingredients. Their food is more complicated, but both are based on the use of good produce and technique.”
His sakura (cherry blossom) dessert paid fitting homage to the end of the season.
A memorable meal calls for a nightcap. Looking up, in glitzy Ginza, we discovered the Doulton whisky bar, opened in 1967 by owner Rikiya Kokuzawa’s father.
We sipped superb Japanese whiskies, being peppered with interesting information via Google Translate on our phones.
Traditional And Contemporary Design
The ethos of this streamlined, efficient capital is showcased in a kaiseki meal – many courses of small components, contents unified with their containers with exquisite detail, to create overall harmony.
The Japanese have a penchant for juxtaposing traditional and contemporary design, architecture and cutting-edge technology.
While single-offering, speciality restaurants are the norm, the standard of food everywhere is excellent, even in chains. Japanese chefs spend their entire life perfecting one dish or craft.
It is not in their culture to be the best; they simply master what they have set out to do. In a city with 230 Michelin-starred restaurants, more than any other city, this humility is demonstrated with discreet signage, no stars on display.
Looking back on cuisine reflecting the culture, from casual okonomiyaki (cabbage pancake) and takoyaki (batter-fried octopus balls) to single stand-out ingredients like Kobe beef and white strawberries, my takeaway from this captivating culinary experience would be “wabi-sabi”.
It is the term used to describe the appreciation of things as they are, the beauty of imperfection, the connection between history and nature.
Getting Around: Buy your Japan Rail Pass before leaving. It covers most bullet trains, local trains, buses, and ferries.
Currency: 1 ZAR is equivalent to 7,62 Yen
Hands-Free Travel: Send your luggage on from your hotel or the local convenience store to your next hotel, making train travel hassle-free.
Local Phrases: Start your meal with itadakimasu (I gratefully receive), and end with gochisousama deshita (thank you for the feast).
SAA flies to Hong Kong daily from Johannesburg. From there, catch a connecting flight to Tokyo with codeshare partner Japan Airlines.
Words by: Jenny Handley