With the volume of new Japanese restaurants opening in London and a major Japanese cultural expo on in the capital this weekend, foodie Victoria Stewart was inspired to head to the source (Image: Victoria Stewart)
For a while, conversations among foodies in London were about which was the better of the two new ramen noodle joints on Dean Street. One had better stock, the other had a bigger menu, apparently. But who really minded? Both were good and equally difficult to get into. The next place you simply had to get a reservation at was Sushi Tetsu, a tiny bar selling what some said was the most authentic nigiri around. Then it was time to try gyoza dumplings made by the Rainbo street food team and a southern Japanese restaurant pop-up hosted by MasterChef winner Tim Anderson in Dalston.
But when an email arrived signalling the arrival of a tofu bar in Kensington last month and another stating that a major Japanese cultural expo was coming to Earls Court this weekend, suddenly everything became clear: Japanese food was trending in London. So I decided to go on a food-spotting mission — in Japan.
Arriving in Tokyo was like being slapped hard. The early morning May heat was unbelievable but nothing had prepared my sister Flora or me for the city’s enormous, bewildering visual feast. Skyscrapers covering every inch of space soared into the clouds; black- suited commuters — some wearing masks — rushed by at alarming speed; neon signs flashed wildly at night and pigtailed schoolgirls giggled as two tall travellers stomped past them.
In Harajuku, famed for its youth and street fashion culture, we gawped at the array of plastic food models in shops along Takeshita street, and at dizzyingly high platform trainers and hair dyed in rainbow colours around fashion-obsessed ginkgo tree-lined boulevard Omotesando.
Even nuttier was the Calico Cat Café in Shinjuku where, after petting kitties for an hour, I unwillingly became an animal magnet, or the hilarious Robot Restaurant nearby where for 5,000 yen (about £32) you can buy a disappointing Bento box with dry noodles and a ticket to see girls dressed as warriors fight each other atop giant robots. Wandering into a karaoke bar where we had planned to spend half an hour at most, we walked out four hours later at 5am — who knew singing Whitney Houston or Spice Girls classics in a booth could be so entertaining?
Food is highly respected — revered even — by most Japanese people, thus there were plenty of new things to fill up on. One lunchtime, we mixed up dollops of chilli and ginger soba noodles from the Ginza branch of Abura Soba, afterwards sampling red bean- filled fish doughnuts from a seller four doors away and marvelling at noodle hot dogs in a Family Mart. Once, at Shibuya metro station, we stopped to snack on takoyaki (octopus dumplings) from the Gindaco chain and I scorched my tongue on the hot dough.
At the two Michelin-starred Ginza Kyubey, also in Ginza, we met owner-chef Yosuke Imada and chef Mr Uchida, who prepared the simplest and loveliest-tasting sushi I have ever eaten, including buttery pieces of tuna belly, sea eel and squares of sweet omelette. It was put together with such delicacy — fish is massaged and rice daintily rolled up underneath it — that we were hypnotised by their every movement.
During dinner on our first evening, we settled down to a superb dinner of tuna tartare and wagu beef at the New York Grill at the Park Hyatt Hotel; the views over the city are giddy-making but unmatched — it is worth visiting just for a cocktail on the top floor if you can. The views from the hotel Ginza Creston in Chuo-ku, Tokyo, where we stayed three days later, were impressive too. Another evening we discovered — and enjoyed, to my surprise — slithery sesame tofu and glasses of cold sake at the izakaya Tsuki no Shizuku (like a Japanese pub) in the same district.
One morning at 6am, we ventured into the depths of Tsukiji fish market, sadly missing the tuna auction but arriving in time to see fishermen cutting up hunks of fish; blood and guys spilled out under our feet. By 9am, we were ready for sea urchin, baby mackerel and snow crab sushi and soothing green tea at nearby Sushi Sei, chased up by fried grasshoppers and sticky sweets bought from the market.
But there was also the Japanese stamp on Western food. We ogled at vast Kobe beef burgers at Burger Mania in the Minato area and latte art at both branches of Streamer Coffee Company. Our guide Masumi whisked us off to try salty Brooklyn-style ribbon-cut potato fries and spiced apple soda at the street food market 246 Common in Omotesando. We travelled headlong into Kyoto by bullet train, passing Mount Fuji, arriving at our capsule hotel Nine Hours. Here we were issued with sleep outfits, a toothbrush, a locker in which to store clothes, and directions to a row of orange sleep pods. It felt like being inside a computer game where everything is white and people move in symmetry.
Later on, we packed in a visit to Niji castle, made a wish by Kiyomizu Temple, and queued up for a refreshing tofu ice cream and tasted tangy pickled bamboo at the sprawling Nishiki market. We ate in the out-of-the-way Men Baka Ichidai restaurant in the Nacagyo area, where an angry chef requested we tie our hair up, wear bibs and sit near the counter to eat his speciality “fire ramen” — green onion oil heated to 360 degrees which sets the ramen alight. Once cooled, it tasted remarkably good.
Japan was a whirlwind of sights, sounds and flavours and I can offer three pieces of advice: book a guide or translator; stay for longer than a week — the six days we spent there were a minute grain of rice in the giant food map that is Japan — and plan in meticulous detail. It is baffling but unforgettable.
Expedia has five nights in Japan from £1,590pp, including three at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, two at the Ginza Creston, Toyko and one at the Rihga Royal Hotel, Kyoto; return flights with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow to Tokyo, departing September 25, 2013, expedia.co.uk
Japan rail pass c.£185, japanrailpass.net
HYPER JAPAN 2013, Friday-Sunday, July 26-28, Earls Court Two, entry from £8, hyperjapan.co.uk
Check out Victoria’s tips and blog and start building your own Japanese story at expediablog.co.uk #TYI (Travel Yourself Interesting)
This article and film were originally published/shown in The Evening Standard