On my Eating Tokyo tour there was one elusive food item which assumed a kind of cult status. The herding talents of Sue and Janice were put to the test as group members darted into alleyways, dodged cyclists and dashed across busy streets like highly trained (but hopefully nicer looking) pigs on a kind of truffle hunt for this rare delicacy.
It was the subject of some whispered conversations and surreptitious map searches and gave rise to a little gently competitive one-upmanship as we whizzed around Japan’s capital during cherry blossom (sakura) season for the inaugural Eating More Tokyo tour in March 2019.
By popular demand from previous guests the Eating Tokyo team came up with a second-time-around sampling of the best food this amazing city has to offer, cleverly juxtaposing the concepts of ‘washoku’ and ‘yoshoku’ so we could explore the commingling of eastern and western food ideas in modern Japan.
This theme gave us the opportunity to sample curry rice, which arrived with the British via India to be subtly transformed by local chefs into a rich, delicious comfort food right up there with the best mince on toast. Other meat-based meals included yaki niku (Korean barbecue) with many different cuts of Waygu beef, and the humble (but great) pork cutlet sandwich. The latter made an excellent emergency mid-morning snack for those of us with savoury preferences , when the chocolate focussed café we visited in Kamakura only had sweet things on offer (good coffee though, and giant s’mores with house-made toasted marshmallow and chocolate ganache).
Of course there was also plenty of fish: most memorably the spectacular raw tuna carcass presented for scraping at our table in a noisy casual izakaya. In contrast we also ate exquisite omakase sushi, watching as each piece was created by a master and placed reverently on a shining black platter for each guest. In Kamakura we ordered bowls of the seasonal marine specialty which is like a tiny whitebait. This fish also popped up in other guises during the week, once as tempura, and also lightly fried and dusted with parmesan on a tiny portion of creamy risotto. This last dish was one of thirteen small courses in a fantastic degustation which finished off the week’s eating, at a Nordic-inspired Japanese-owned establishment where the beautiful handmade ceramics enhance the presentation of the food. Attention to detail means these wares are washed by hand and the delicacy of some of the items does add something of an anxiety factor to the whole experience. Note – it pays to keep the dishes on the counter, so it’s very hard to lick the bowls (apologies, ET hosts, we did try to be discreet).
On the tour people keen on cakes and confectionary are well-catered for with stops at cafes and up-and-coming coffee spots where you can even get a flat white along with Japanese renditions of French pastries which (quelle horreur!) French visitors apparently say are even better than those in France. I’ll just diplomatically note there was a fine degree of difference between the choux pastry from Almond Café in Roppongi and those I’ve sampled in Paris. Perhaps the novelty of the assistance dog lying under the table alongside our party impaired my judgement. Along with her harness she was wearing a Holly-Hobby-inspired pink floral onesie with legs in the flouncy frilled bloomer style.
If I hadn’t been so shocked at this attire I might have mentioned that over in trendy Naka Meguro, the with-it dogs shop at Snobbish Babies and go sakura viewing along the canal wearing the latest in tight jeans and hoodie. In case you think these are apparitions induced by drinking too much sake in the daytime, please know we have photos to verify each sighting.
Also included in the programme was a cooking lesson making our lunch with Yukari of Tokyo Cooking Studio. She teaches in her home-based kitchen and provided a great opportunity to learn about and use new ingredients, and have a change from receiving food prepared for us. Her warmth and enthusiasm could unfortunately not overcome the difficulties we faced in trying to make rolled egg omelettes, but we had a lot of fun. And they tasted fine chopped up on top of our chirashi sushi salad bowls. With Yukari we also had a go at making mochi, coloured seasonally pink for sakura season, of course. This is a sweet traditionally made by coating a strawberry in red bean paste then delicately encasing it in a rice flour ‘pastry’. This has a consistency somewhere between play dough and that slime little kids like to throw about. If there is a Japanese version of Women’s Institute our efforts would have been banned from any competition, as unseemly. Luckily we could eat the evidence of our incompetence.
While the food aspect of Eating Tokyo tours has the main emphasis, the overall experience is immersive. Partly because of course food is culture, but also because the group travels around the city largely on foot and using the subway rather than in an anonymised bus. Occasionally taxis are used for more out-of-the way places, but participants need to be fairly fit and nimble. At least there are multiple opportunities to burn calories and refuel.
Because you are on the ground, you get to see plenty of sights, read a lot of interesting ‘English’ signage and can consider oddities such as why so many Tokyo women of a certain age wear beige trench coats. By the way, if you visit and need to fit in with this trend, try the Bingo recycled clothing store in Shibuya. There was a whole rack of these coats when I visited, very lightly worn i.e. like new. You do need to be approximately the size of a 12-year-old to get into them, though.
If you have an itinerary of things you want to do that are not food related then there is a chance in the afternoons during the tour to get away and follow your own path. I also used some days before and after the tour to visit Nippori Fabric Town (heaven for sewing/fabric nuts), a few art galleries and the beautiful Yanaka Cemetery, which has a long avenue of cherry trees – spectacular in full bloom. An unexpected highlight was the Fukagawa Edo Museum where I met Masao, a volunteer guide fluent in English who gave me an individual tour of the exhibits. The museum has several little structures set up like a corner of a township, with each house or room equipped with all the accoutrements of the residents’ occupations. All the exhibits can be handled, although a sign at the entrance warns: “Playing house may be troublesome to other guests.” As you wander around, the lighting and soundtrack backdrop to the scene cycles through from dawn to dusk every 15 minutes, and there’s even the sound of a rainstorm. This place is a gem: while the massive Edo Tokyo museum in Ryogoku is impressive, try Fukagawa for a more engaging, less overwhelming experience without the crowds.
Speaking of crowds, bear in mind that it’s always worth staying alert especially when in the most bustling pressured quarters of Tokyo, like the tourist drawcard of Asakusa. Not for pickpockets or petty crime … you might just see, like I did, a large white pig on a very sturdy leash. I bet he was going to a hanami party – he had a sakura-pink Mohawk hairdo.
To finish, the special food item hunted high and low? A plastic tray of smoked cheese and salami from the Family Mart convenience store. Our Eating Tokyo hosts made the mistake of confessing the delights of this unassuming snack, and the chase was on!
Please note: This article has been freely contributed by a paying guest of Eating Tokyo. No smoked cheese or salami changed hands.