Exploring Tokyo’s Eclectic Food Trail

Monjayaki in Asakusa

By late evening, once the shutters of tourist shops are down, Asakusa resembles a ghost town with deserted alleyways — occasionally lit by an array of yellow lanterns. It’s hard to distinguish one alley from another in the dull street light. It’s harder to stay focussed on the route when there’s so much vying for your attention. Old wooden doorways, painted streets, curios, some more lanterns, and quirky signs call out. It isn’t too difficult to get lost in this carefully preserved time capsule.Β Basil’s Japanese colleague, Ai, ensured we stuck to the track. She had volunteered to be our guide for the evening. It wasn’t our first visit to Asakusa, but it’s different when you have a local to show you around.

Our day had started at 3 a.m. in Incheon Airport, in Seoul, and I was famished by late evening — in Tokyo. A cold winter’s wind had dipped the temperature and I looked forward to eating a warm meal without having to cook it. But, surprises are a prerequisite for good travel and the discerning traveler welcomes it — even on an empty stomach. Our quaint eatery was homely and had a table with a hot plate ready for us. Our chef/host was an elderly Japanese man with an eye for perfection and a good sense of humour.

Kaori, our Japanese friend, was the fourth diner at the table. Shrimps were stir fired on the sizzling hot plate and topped with sauce. Leftovers were mixed with an assortment of colourful veggies. The same method was repeated for other seafood delicacies. There’s no wastage here and our chef was quick to notice the shellfish that I’d tried to hide. His solution was to place it on Basil’s plate.

I had never heard of monjayaki before and didn’t know what to expect. Now, it takes skill and experience to make a crisp monjayaki. Self-confidence will definitely go a long way and quivering hands will do you no good. Fortunately, our chef had no troubles on that front. He stirred a watery batter of eggs and veggies; inverted a bowl of it on the hot plate; and deftly flattened it to a crisp pancake. The pancake was then quickly cut into pieces and shared with everyone.

Making and eating monjayaki is a collaborative effort. You learn from the master and then have to try it for yourself. Ai and Kaori had their turn at recreating our chef’s recipe. They had moderate success and he was reasonably happy with their efforts.

Photo Credit: Ai

Photo Credit: Ai

Basil had to follow suit and it was a bit unnerving with his watchful eyes observing every move. I thought, I’d be able to skip it, but our chef ensured we all worked equally for our meal. My fingers quivered as I stirred the batter and our Japanese friends were quite amused. I may have forgotten to breathe when I turned the bowl on the hot plate. Our chef was quick to assist and flatten the batter. He was smiling. I guess, I did something right after all.

Okonomiyaki at Meiji Shrine

The next morning we head out to explore Tokyo. By afternoon, we had interesting meal options to choose from at the food stall counter of the Meiji Shrine. It was hard to resist okonomiyaki with its savoury sauces and toppings. The best part: we didn’t have to cook it. The pancake is thicker than monjayaki. An assortment of veggies, seafood, and meat (I tried not to guess what it was) is mixed with a thick egg batter. The fried pancake is then topped with sauce, mayonnaise, and fish flakes. One pancake was good enough for the two of us and lasted till our next pit stop in Shibuya.

Desserts in Shibuya

People watching tops the list of activities in Shibuya. And yes, there’s also a popular crossing that everyone tries to get a picture of. There are many cafes that boast of great views and we dropped into one that seemed to have a place to sit. We got lucky and also got a view.

On our first visit to Japan (in 2012), Basil’s colleague had compared Japanese deserts to French pastries. Five years later, judging by Basil’s happiness, I’d have to agree.

Tempura Rice & Yakisoba in Ueno

We reached Ueno by late evening and although there were many eating options — most of them were closing. Ueno has a shopping market, but we were too late to explore it.

It was nearing 9 p.m. and we didn’t have many options. We found a small eatery, quite literally a hole-in-the-wall, at the bend of the street. There were few diners inside and we got the last seat. The hostess of the eatery spoke English (as well as Mandarin) and had a warm smile. Clearly, this restaurant catered to foreign tourists.

I was craving for some tempura (fried shrimp) and was happy to find tempura rice in the menu. Basil ordered Yakisoba (stir-fried buckwheat noodles) and a fried cutlet. We washed it down with sake. For music: we had the subway passing over us and cheerful chatter.

Soba noodles & Tempura Udon in Jimbocho

Jimbocho was our base during our 3-day stay in Tokyo. Back in the day, many years ago, Jimbocho was the residence of Japanese samurai. Today, Jimbocho has all the trappings of a business district (even if its known to be a college town and paradise for book lovers) with its global cuisine restaurants, luxury and business hotels, used bookstores, and even an adult video parlour. By night, the streets around our hotel were desolate and silent. Nichikei Campus (Nihon University College of Economics) was a stone’s throw away from our hotel and we could see some students burning the midnight oil.

On the last night, we scouted the area for eating options and were fascinated by the innovative seating arrangement of this (pic above) restaurant. We placed an order for soba (buckwheat noodles) and tempura udon on the coin operated menu.

We were amazed by the functionality of this restaurant. It made sense for those who don’t mind sharing their table with a stranger. And if you’re travelling with a spouse — you have a choice of a time out — to cut the noise.

But if your spouse/travel partner is tall — you may have a problem there.

But when the food comes out, there’s no complaining and no worries of prying eyes or stealth chopsticks. Barring slurping sounds, it’s a great way to enjoy your meal privately — knowing that you’re not alone.

26 responses to “Exploring Tokyo’s Eclectic Food Trail

  1. This was such a delicious post to read, Cheryl! Sounds like a foodie adventure right from the start. Creating the monjayaki must have been pretty exciting and the chef must have been very encouraging. Haha, you weren’t able to skip it and maybe you were the best the chef has seen a long while πŸ™‚

    I love eating yakisoba. It may sound plain but when cooked right it is such a simple, delicious thing to eat. Always good to go with another dish. As for okonomiyaki, a lot of Japanese eateries in the food courts sell it here in Australia and I always find the savoury sauces too salty for my liking. But I do love the Japanese pancake πŸ™‚

    • I’ve been really late with my posting, Mabel. πŸ™‚ This wasn’t a well planned trip (we’re getting into the habit of this), but it worked out fine. I never thought we’d visit Tokyo again. The experience was very different from our first trip. We tried to do touristy stuff because we didn’t have time. It’s fun to try different foods. We get variations of these in Seoul too. But the flavours are very different. I think you wrote a post on dumplings around the world. πŸ™‚ It’s interesting how food evolves with geography. Hope you’re doing well. Have a great week!

      • Couldn’t tell that it wasn’t well planned! It does seem like it went quite smoothly lol. Yes, I wrote a post on dumplings a while back. It was lovely reading how you and Basil tried local food. Sometimes you just have to experience the tourist things as they can be fun πŸ™‚

      • Its on my cards, wondering if you have something where the travel will be on budget……I believe Japan is expensive

      • Hmm..Try visiting during the down season. Although, Sakura (cherry blossom) and Koyo (autumn leaves) is the best time to visit Japan. Else, book well in advance if you want to explore during these seasons. Hostels may seem like a good idea, if you want to save on hotel stay. Travel in Japan is quite convenient. The country has amazing train connectivity. Eating can be cheap if you eat at convenience stores (Lawsons, 7eleven, etc..) Most hostels will have a kitchen and you can heat your own ramyon (noodles) or ready-to-eat meals. Let me direct you to someone who may have a better idea about Japan. You could get more information on Celia’s blog https://celiaintokyo.wordpress.com. Hope this helps! πŸ™‚

  2. It’s always interesting when you have a local to show around. You can be sure that touristy places will be skipped and you will get to uncover the city in the best possible manner. I really can’t comment much on food since my preferences are differently oriented but looks like you guys had a great fun!

    • I agree! It’s fun and you don’t have to worry about getting lost. πŸ™‚ I’d love to turn vegetarian. It would be a challenge whilst travelling. Thanks for stopping by. Have a great week, Arvind.

      • I agree, Cheryl. Vegetarianism during travel is a challenge when the whole world is not. Thankfully, vegan is now opening new options. I have found other ways to work around this challenge. πŸ™‚

      • My vegetarian friends carry instant meals on their travels. But I also feel many tourist places are more accommodating to vegetarians/vegans. Some tours also inquire about meal preferences before a trip. πŸ™‚

      • I also have done this on my recent trip abroad. But that was just this trip. Generally, when I’m traveling alone, I’m okay with skipping meals or surviving on whatever is available. Vegan has certainly opened up a few options but it is not widely available even in popular cities in East Asia. In the US, it is easily available because the concept is very popular. Luckily, fruits are available easily in Asian countries. I have never taken a food tour when I traveled out of India, Cheryl.

  3. Mmm yaki soba and zaru soba are one of my all time favorites but not so much okonomiake.

    By far, hands down, my absolute favorite food in Tokyo during the five years I lived there, was the amazing sushi and sashimi at Tsukiji market, the worlds largest fish market. Only problem is you have to wake up at about four a.m. to go there and that is where you eat your breakfast!

    Ben

    • Hi Ben! It’s good to hear from you. πŸ™‚ We had very few days in Tokyo and I wish we could have visited Tsukiji Market. I’ve heard a lot about it. Sadly, I’m not such a big fan of sushi or sashimi. 😦
      Cheryl

  4. Yum!!! Life is weird this way, but a month or so ago, I heard about okonomiyaki for the first time and vowed to get to the restaurant in Houston that is serving it. Then I read about it again somewhere and then again, and now again here in your post. I have yet to try it, but it sounds absolutely delicious! So many of these dishes here sound good, and I love seeing your faces as you studied the technique and the food!

    • I’m amazed! It’s interesting how food travels across the world and we’re so connected despite being geographically disconnected. I remember watching a documentary on the food trail/evolution of noodles to pasta! You would have to visit Tokyo to compare okonomiyaki. πŸ™‚

  5. I was right there with you, my hand shaking too. I hate being watched over when I cook. I’m loving this exploration of yours into the little eateries of Tokyo – so different from the craziness that can be this city. The soba, the tempura, the monjayaki all look so delicious.

    • I’m always like that. πŸ™‚ I find it hard to concentrate when someone’s supervising me. Tokyo has so many hidden spots. I was surprised to see so many different aspects of the city in 3 days. πŸ™‚

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