Dining in Tokyo

Dining in Tokyo

In an attempt to savour authentic Japanese cuisine, stuart forster heads out to Japan and gives you tips on where to eat, what to eat, and when to pl

Dining in Tokyo

In an attempt to savour authentic Japanese cuisine,  stuart forster heads out to Japan and gives you tips on where to eat, what to eat, and when to plan your trip to this island country.

Nothing gets cooked into a stereotype quite like the characteristics of national cuisines. We’ve all heard over-egged reports of British food’s blandness and the spiciness of Indian fare.

Fortunately, travelling allows us to get our teeth into typecasts and find out how things really are. It allows us to establish for ourselves whether raw fish really does dominate menus in Japan.

Thanks to globalisation, we can all locate a decent Japanese restaurant not far from our homes. However, for authenticity and sensory experiences, nothing beats sampling sushi, sashimi and sake in downtown Tokyo.

Surely, hunting out a Japanese restaurant hidden discretely in its native habitat, the high-rise, neon-lit towers of Shibuya and Shinjuku satisfy the curiosity in any travelling food lover’s soul.

Many restaurants in the Japanese capital city retain simple facades. Others are located an elevator ride and several stories above sidewalks bustling with shoppers, suited office workers and shock-haired youth.

In many countries, eating out is as much about being seen at the right address as it is the food served. But in Tokyo, dining out is usually a low key affair; at least to the eyes of a gaijin — meaning ‘outsider’, a term applied generically to foreigners in Japan — accustomed to seeing diners sat behind plate glass windows and displayed like sales exhibits to people passing outside.

Locals might slip into chic restaurants behind wooden doorways that a gaijin would barely register. Other highly regarded eateries are also low-key, with only a neatly displayed menu card and a small sign to mark their presence.

Some foreigners new to Japanese cuisine find the experience of dining out challenging. Trying to use chopsticks might prove embarrassing, and attempting to pronounce the names of dishes might prove tricky. Instead of worrying, embrace the experience, as the cultural experience of dining in Japan provides a subtle insight into the islands’ development.

Japan developed in isolation during the Edo Period, which began with Tokugawa Ieyasu’s accession to the Shogunate, in 1603, and ended in 1867. During that time, meat was rarely eaten. Rice was the staple foodstuff and all ingredients were grown domestically, or caught from the sea or rivers. The origins of sushi date from this period and attempts to keep raw fish fresh by packing it in rice. Decisions taken by the first Tokugawa Shogun still influence the experience of diners in Japan.

Cut off from the rest of the world, the Japanese had to make the best of what they had. Little fuel was available for cooking. Consequently, the ingredients were cut small and spent little time in the pan. Only seasonal vegetables were available, so recipes changed throughout the year. This seasonality is still evident.

“We enjoy the seasons and we want to see how beautiful the seasons are in our food. We cook lightly and keep the natural aromas,” explains Kaori Aruga, a Japanese intercultural trainer.

Striking similarity

Unable to import raw materials or goods from abroad, and constantly at the mercy of nature — with threats coming from the weather, earthquakes and volcanic activity — the trend towards minimalism gained strength. This manifested itself in both the development of architecture and in preparation and serving of food. “Presentation is very important to us,” says Kaori.

This focus on presentation and the Japanese penchant for visual communication is a godsend for any foreigner struggling with the language. Many restaurant menus show photographs of the dishes offered. In areas popular with tourists, you might see models of dishes on display in front windows and pointing is often enough to successfully order food.

When the food arrives, you might be surprised by the degree to which the dish served resembles the photograph on the menu.

There’s little scope for anyone to re-enact the angry complaints of Michael Douglas’s character Bill Foster in the 1993 movie Falling Down; during the scene at the Whammyburger fast food outlet, Foster complains about the food he’s served looking unappetising and unlike the picture on the board from which he ordered.

The attention to detail shown during the preparation of food in Japan means that you might even wonder if the photo of the food you receive was taken from the dish set down in front of you.

Look out for restaurants with open kitchens where you can sit and watch the chefs lovingly go about their business, reminiscent of artistes carefully completing art works. After a few meals in Tokyo, you’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that the Japanese say you eat first with your eyes and then with your mouth.
Travelling to Tokyo is an eye opening experience for any food lover with a taste for urban adventure.

Further information:

* Find out more about travel to Japan at www. jnto.co.uk.

* If you’re planning a trip to Tokyo and want to find restaurant details, take a look at the English language website www.bento.com/tokyofood.html, which provides insights into Japanese food and drink.

* If you simply want to browse Tokyo’s restaurants, head to districts such as Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Ginza, Roppongi and Aoyama.

*Look out for the restaurants and noodle bars in the area around Tsukiji Fish Market, some of which offer great value for money. The market’s origins can be traced back to around the time of Edo’s (the previous name for Tokyo) foundation by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. He permitted fishermen who supplied his castle to sell their surplus in the area and, in time, it developed into the famous market. Head to Tsukiji Station.

Useful Japanese terms:

 Gochisou sama deshita — Thank you for the tasty food.

* Itadakimasu — A term of thanks for the good food served.

* Irassaimase! — An enthusiastic shout of welcome that can be heard in many restaurants.
* Kampai! — Cheers!

Try these:

* Sake — Cups or flasks of rice wine are seen as the perfect accompaniment to many dishes. There are various grades, brands and flavours. Ask which best suits the dish of your choice.

* Soba — For a relatively inexpensive but filling form of food, look out for the large bowls of noodles served in many restaurants.

*Sukiyaki — Sometimes known as a steamboat. Seasonal vegetables and Chinese cabbage are boiled in a stock along with fish, tofu or slices of meat.

*Udon — These white noodles are popular in the west of Japan, and are usually thicker than soba.

When to go:

* Springtime is a popular season to visit Tokyo. The temperature is pleasant and you can enjoy the cherry blossom season.

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