This blog isn’t really just about food but about culture and food. I recently went on a business trip to Tokyo for my day job but did get a little bit of time at the weekend and evenings during the week to experience the quite unique atmosphere. Japanese culture seems so different from anything we are used to in the UK. Tokyo seems to be its own particular brand of Japanese. The pace of life here is manic, a sort of work hard, play hard culture. Like London but more extreme. Tokyo is a weird mix of everything modern combined with traditional Japanese ways of service and quality. In this week I realised that Japan has so much of what I feel we are losing in English culture: great service and respect.
On the Sunday I arrived, I spent some time with a colleague visiting the Senso-ji temple, famous for its red Kaminarimon Gate and its myriad of fascinating stalls selling souvenirs and food. The temple was beautiful and the whole area was thronging with Tokyo inhabitants enjoying the atmosphere. In my travels that day, I noticed that people leave umbrellas outside shops and there are vending machines on the streets. In the UK you could quite easily expect an umbrella to be stolen and vending machines to be vandalised but not here. I found some beautifully decorated chopsticks to take home.
The same day as the temple visit, I hadn’t long been in my hotel when I got invited to an early dinner by some other colleagues. There was a diverse selection of small restaurants close to the hotel which was in the Shimbashi district of Tokyo and we ended up in a traditional Japanese restaurant. We were invited to take our shoes off and put them in a locker before going to floor level seating that had a recess for your legs. Until this visit, my limited experience of Japanese food led me to believe it consisted of sushi and tempura. Dinner was something of a revelation therefore. We started with a selection of salads. Leaves with a sesame dressing, little green beans that you open and just eat the contents. I thought I was supposed to eat them whole but was soon put right on this! Main courses including a whole grilled fish, Pacific Coast Saury, seasoned chicken and pork cooked on skewers, sweetcorn cooked on a skillet served sizzling to the table with a knob of butter. We also had a tofu dish which was absolutely delicious and some beautifully seasoned beef plus a very nice noodle and beansprout dish. All in all it reminded me a bit of some Chinese food but subtly different in its seasoning.
Breakfast was so different from what I am used to in Western hotels. The hotel had two options, a Japanese plate and a Western plate. Western plate wasn’t really like a Western breakfast although it did include an omelette and bacon. I decided to opt for the Japanese option. It was cooked to order by a chef and was exquisitely presented. A cooked salmon fillet, some sticky rice, baked nonu (a kind of firm milk like pudding/omelette), miso soup, some pickles and a sort of chilli dipping sauce. It was presented to me, each element in a different bowl and it was almost a work of art. I was glad the rice was sticky, it made life easy as I was still getting used to using chopsticks for everything! Eating the salmon fillet was a bit of a challenge but somehow I managed!
One lunchtime we went out for a quick bite to eat. This was the ultimate express lunch. We selected what we wanted to eat by pressing a button on a vending machine, paid by cash, which generated a ticket. The ticket was then handed over to the chef who prepared my lunch in probably about 2-3 minutes. Noodle soup, rice dishes, all sorts of options were available.
On this particular day I opted for noodle soup and it was absolutely delicious, very filling and cost about £2.50. I was pleasantly surprised during my week in Japan by the cost of eating out, it seemed much lower than London. Somehow I thought it would be more expensive as I had heard that Tokyo was a very expensive city but I think there is such a culture of eating out, especially in the evening after work that the market can only support a certain price with so many competing restaurants. I am sure there are some very high end Japanese restaurants, that are expensive but generally it is very well priced by UK standards.
Another evening we went out to a teppenyaki restaurant. Until then I had only ever been to one high end teppenyaki restaurant in London before. In that restaurant, the chef cooked at our table on a central griddle as we sat round. This was slightly different as it was partially cooked by the chef in the kitchen then brought to our table to finish off on the grill that formed the center of the table. There were gas burners located under the table to keep the grill hot. My favourite dish was probably the noodle dish which was served complete with an egg on top and some chopped chilli, absolutely delicious. Like in China and India, sharing food with friends is very much the norm and I really like this style of eating. Omelettes or pancakes are commonly cooked this way and also meat with vegetables.
Tokyo clearly has a lot of people living on their own during the week. Convenience stores sell single portion packs of things. Everything from ham to even a single egg in a box. So for all those times when you have felt like you just needed ‘one egg’ and didn’t want to buy 6, Tokyo would be the place for you :-).
The strangest things I saw during my week were the toilets. Traditional Japanese toilet where it was flush to the floor (no way I’m using that was my reaction!)
and a very high tech toilet with all kinds of buttons and gizmos, including, curiously a ‘flushing sound’ option. Clearly for those moments when you want to pretend you have been to the toilet!
On our last night in Tokyo we decided to visit the Tokyo Tower. This is Tokyo’s second tallest tower (tallest is the Skytree) that dates back to the late 1950s. You could say it now lives in the shadow of the taller Skytree Tower and it probably gets less visitors now that is not the tallest tower. However, I prefer its more traditional design which bears a passing resemblence to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and is equally beautiful.
You can take an elevator to the highest viewing point and it costs roughly £7. A bargain when you compare it to similar London attractions.
There are souvenir shops and places to eat, which are mostly food court style but there is one Japanese restaurant on the edge of the food court that does very nice food and I had a katsu curry there. Breaded pork served with the Japanese katsu curry sauce and served with rice. This dish can also be found with breaded chicken. I definitely would like to try cooking this soon, an interesting twist on the theme of curry. I enjoyed the contrast between the crunchy breadcrumbs and the curry sauce.
I loved my glimpse of this crazy city and Japanese culture. Would I recommend a visit? Yes, without hesitation. Tokyo is fascinating and well worth the long 12 hour flight and the cost. A destination to put on your bucket list and to save up for. I really want to re-visit but on a holiday so I can have time to explore the fascinating sights of Tokyo a bit more. I would also like to travel to one of Japan’s more traditional cities, Kyoto as most Japanese I met told me that to experience ‘real Japan’ this is an essential place to visit.