Editor's Picks: The Best Things I Ate in Japan

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[Photographs: Daniel Gritzer]

Last July, I took a weeklong trip to Japan. It was my first time there—a pretty big deal, given my obsession with the Japanese food I've eaten in the United States. But it was also a press trip hosted by a Japanese tourism board, which meant I was beholden to their itinerary. I came home with a handful of recipes I wanted to share and an urgent desire to go back, to experience Japan my way.

This past January, not even six months later, I was once again on a plane to Tokyo, this time with my wife, Kate, on a very belated honeymoon, and a very personal mission to eat everything I could, everywhere we went. In our case, that meant Tokyo and Kyoto, plus a few stops in the prefectures of Fukui and Ishikawa, just to Kyoto's north. It was winter, it was cold, and the fish coming out of those icy waters were at their peak fattiness. I'm not sure there's a better time to be there, cherry blossoms be damned. (Though, of course, the only way to confirm that is to go back again and again, which I'm absolutely planning on doing.)

In our two short weeks in Japan, we covered a lot of ground, but, given the country's sheer breadth of dining options, we barely even scratched the surface. I've lived in New York City most of my life, and I'm still not familiar with most of the 30,000 restaurants here. Tokyo has about 10 times as many.

Yet, even with such limited time to explore, our eating experiences delivered on every hyperbolic assessment of the country's cuisine that I've ever heard. There's a strong argument to be made that Japan is the greatest culinary destination on Earth. Their crappy food is good, their good food is great, and their great food will get your nose and mouth about as close to experiencing enlightenment as possible. On top of that, the Japanese don't just excel at their own food—the best patisseries in Tokyo rival those I've been to in Paris.

So, with all this in mind, here are some (though not even close to all) of the best things I ate while there.

Curry Rice

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There's incredible food in Japan at all price points. Kate and I splurged on a handful of blowout meals—it was our honeymoon, after all—but we ate plenty of great inexpensive food, too. Anyone who tells you that Japan is a prohibitively expensive place to visit just hasn't done their homework.

Take the kare (Japanese curry) pictured above as an example. Well, technically it's katsu kare, because there's a breaded and fried pork cutlet on the plate along with the curry and rice, but regardless, the whole thing cost less than 10 bucks. It was from a restaurant called Kitchen Nankai in Tokyo's Jinbocho neighborhood, which I was tipped off to by Yukari Sakamoto, author of the dining guide Food Sake Tokyo.

I'd been searching for some great Japanese curry because I knew how beloved the dish was there, but the iterations I'd eaten in New York had left me wondering what all the fuss was about. At best, most of it tasted like fairly soulless renditions of British curry, which itself is already somewhat lacking in character. (The similarity shouldn't be a surprise, since the Japanese likely learned of the dish from the British in the late 1800s.)

But this one from Nankai finally gave me a Japanese curry I was eager to dip a spoon into, repeatedly. It had the same basic spice profile of those tame British and Japanese curries that I'm less enticed by—a mix of classic curry components, like coriander, fenugreek, cumin, cinnamon, and more—but with enough depth and heat to break free of being pablum. Gone were those soggy little nubbins of carrot and potato that taste like they come straight from a TV dinner.

Instead, the curry's saturated, dark color promised something much more—a deeper, richer flavor. Exactly how they made their curry sauce is difficult to dissect, but that deep brown color suggests a roux cooked until the flour was well past golden, with a more brooding flavor to match, while warm spices like cinnamon softened those dark, bitter notes. It also had enough actual spiciness to leave your mouth remembering it long after you'd left the restaurant, grabbed an afternoon coffee, and browsed a few of the many bookstores in the area.

Sushi

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Harutaka Sushi, including tuna (top right) and surf clam (bottom right).

One of the things that quickly becomes apparent in Japan is that raw fish is everywhere, and, in most instances, the quality is pretty great—it's extremely fresh when it needs to be; properly aged when that's called for (yes, some raw fish needs to be aged before it hits its peak); and handled with the kind of expertise that delicate seafood demands. It's difficult to have a multicourse meal that doesn't include at least a little sashimi, and this can be true at home as well as in restaurants.

This fact brings into stark relief something I've heard people say for years: Sushi isn't about the fish as much as it's about the rice. Spend even a little time in Japan and this becomes a lot easier to understand. Great fish is plentiful, so what distinguishes one sushi place from the next is only partly about that and more about everything else. And, when it comes to sushi, 90% of everything else is the rice—how it's cooked, how it's seasoned, how it's formed, and more.

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Sushi from Kyubey. The shrimp on the left was still twitching when they served it, while the tuna at right was about as fatty as it gets.

Two back-to-back sushi meals in Tokyo underscored just how important shari (another word for seasoned sushi rice) is, and the extent to which it can change your perception of the toppings. Kate and I have both eaten our share of high-end sushi in New York, but given that Tokyo is the world capital of the stuff, we needed to calibrate our taste buds to those standards. That meant splurging at a couple of the city's most highly regarded places—in our case, Harutaka, a small spot run by a former apprentice of Jiro Ono, and Kyubey, a larger, older establishment. Both of these restaurants are in Ginza.

Each meal followed a typical omakase (chef's choice) progression, with a succession of small appetizers (cooked octopus, blowfish milt, and more at Harutaka, and a light, flavorful seaweed salad at Kyubey), followed by individual pieces of sushi chosen by the chef. Each piece was dabbed with wasabi and brushed with its own nikiri, a soy-based sauce that's more delicate and slightly sweeter than soy alone, then set down alone to be eaten before the next one was presented. Neither restaurant felt rushed, but one doesn't allow the food to linger. While you can request it, there is no additional soy sauce or wasabi offered for dipping. Each piece comes as its own complete and perfect package.

At Harutaka, the rice had a strong vinegary tang that made each mouthful bracing, yet still balanced, while the individual grains had a distinct bite, just barely holding together and then dispersing quickly but gently in the mouth. At Kyubey, we noticed a more assertive wasabi kick on each piece, with the rice less overtly sour, stickier, and packed more tightly. If money were no object, one could have a lot of fun visiting these and other elite sushi temples, going deep on the finer points of the rice until you'd settled on the style that appealed most.

Yakitori

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Kate and I had our first date at a yakitori restaurant in New York City, so hitting at least one great yakitori spot in Japan was a must for us. Our chance came while we were in Kyoto. We had asked Yoko, the wonderful proprietor at Mitsuki, the ryokan where we stayed (highly recommended!), if she thought we could get a reservation at Hitomi, a yakitori restaurant not far away. Despite her doubts, she managed to score one for us for that night.

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Yakitori, for those who don't know, is grilled skewered chicken, and, while that may sound mundane, the Japanese have taken it to unbelievable heights. Most Western guides to breaking down a chicken stop at about eight pieces, plus a few odds and ends, like the liver, heart, gizzard, and neck. Yakitori menus present you with a page full of distinct chicken offerings that reflect a radically more advanced level of chicken butchery. You can get just the knee cartilage. You can get one of several muscles from the thigh, each prized for its particular taste and texture qualities. You can eat the skin and the deboned neck muscles, the breastbone, the oyster, and the tail. It makes you realize that most of us don't have any idea how to really break down, and get the most out of, a bird.

At Hitomi, the lone yakitori master worked over an impressively small grill right in front of us, the lump oak charcoal called binchotan glowing bright orange and white. He turned out skewered bits for everyone in the restaurant with an effortless dance, shifting pieces around the grill to various heat zones he'd created to get just the right amount of char and doneness on each—some were clustered on the grate, others suspended spit-style by their skewers.

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One of my favorite bites: chicken ovary, which included the eggs in various degrees of development. Most were tiny, just specks of yolk smaller than peas; a few were larger, but still more delicate and creamy than the yolks that come from laid eggs, with a profound chicken-y essence...probably because there were still parts of the chicken attached. Granted, they're not the prettiest to look at, but if you can get past any aversion to the sight, the taste is more than reward enough.

Fake Espresso Drinks

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Black truffle and caramel.

Of course, Japan is famous for its teas, but it has a well-established coffee culture, too. We had some great coffee there, no doubt, but far more memorable were two fake espresso-style drinks.

The first was a playful dessert at Den, run by the impish chef Zaiyu Hasegawa, who humorously riffs on a classic kaiseki multicourse meal. Out comes a coffee cup, complete with a cute Starbucks-like logo. By all appearances, the mug contains a cappuccino. Instead, under that cap of foam is a dark caramel infused with black truffles, earthy and bitter enough to evoke the taste of coffee, but deeper and richer.

Less cheffy, but equally enjoyable, was a sweet potato latte served from a stand in the new market building at Tsukiji. Thick and frothy, the drink is nothing more than a puréed base of intensely sweet Japanese sweet potatoes and milk. In the January chill, it was just about perfection.

Endless Ramen

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Two bowls of ramen (spicy and not) at Afuri in Tokyo.

If this site is to be believed, there are more than 20,000 ramen restaurants in the greater Tokyo area. It'd take about 20 years to visit them all, and that's if you ate ramen—and only ramen—every single day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Kate and I had a lot less time to work with.

On our first day in Tokyo, we ended up at Afuri, a small chain that was recommended to us by multiple friends. Afuri specializes in a chicken-based broth that's spiked with yuzu, a floral, zesty Japanese citrus fruit. The bowls did not disappoint: both rich and delicate, with a bright citrus fragrance that lifted up all those umami base notes—something I'd never experienced in ramen before. If you live in Portland, Oregon, you're in luck, because Afuri recently opened its first US location there.

Another bowl of ramen worth writing about is the tsukemen (dipping ramen) at Fuunji in Shinjuku, famous for its bonito-spiked chicken broth. When we got there late one night, shortly before closing, a line snaked out the door, up some stairs, and down the street. Luckily, it moved quickly. This was a ramen that left my head spinning—I couldn't decide if it was the greatest thing I'd ever eaten or the worst. Sitting at the counter over my bowl of impossibly thick and creamy broth, in which an intense smell of concentrated chicken broth and rendered fat intertwined with a smoky, fishy pungency, courtesy of the heaping tablespoons of dried-bonito powder stirred into each serving, I began muttering deliriously about how humans were never meant to experience so much flavor at once. This is unnatural, I stammered. I feel like I just tasted God. It was a beauty. A terrible, terrible beauty.

Unagi

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One way to get away from the circuit of restaurants visited by tourists is to consult Tabelog, an absolutely terribly designed ratings website used heavily in Japan. There's nothing user-friendly about it, and if you don't read Japanese, it's that much more impenetrable. But I'm stubborn and driven when it comes to food, so I spent countless hours clicking around the app's map, looking at the rating of each restaurant I selected.

I quickly learned an interesting thing: Within the context of a star-based rating system, the Japanese idea of what is "good" does not align with ours at all. Here, absolutely shitty restaurants routinely get four- and five-star ratings on Yelp. It's shocking what people think qualifies as good. On Tabelog, you will literally never find a venue with five stars. Five stars is like the Platonic ideal—one aspires to it, but it cannot possibly exist. No, on Tabelog, even a four-star rating is rare. A restaurant with one of those is exceptional. Pretty much anything above three and a half is pretty damned great, and anything above three is still very good.

So you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled on Obana, an unagi (freshwater eel) restaurant, in an out-of-the-way neighborhood, with a rating that hit the four-star mark. Kate and I made our way there one afternoon, lined up with others on the quiet residential street outside the restaurant, and waited for them to lift the gate.

Inside, we found a picturesque garden and the beautiful old restaurant building, which apparently has been in operation since the early 1800s. The seating was all on the tatami-mat floor—really difficult if you're not used to sitting like that for extended periods.

The eel, meanwhile, was exceptional. The fillets came in a single layer on a bed of rice in a simple lacquer box. Gone was the muddiness of so many freshwater fish (word of the day: geosmin), and gone, too, was the overly heavy shellacking of sweet, soy-based unagi sauce. Instead, there was just enough to add some richness to the mild-flavored fish without overwhelming it. As is the case with a lot of Japanese food, the experience was about texture just as much as flavor, if not more so. This eel was fatty and rich, with a gelatinous layer under the skin, yet delicately tender and refined.

If only I could have been so refined when I stood up at the end of the meal. I stumbled onto my dead-numb feet, narrowly avoided crashing onto a neighboring table, and then, in an attempt to nonchalantly recover and walk normally, nearly decapitated myself on the room's low wooden ceiling beams.

Wasabi Soba

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Fast-forward to our time in Fukui Prefecture on the Sea of Japan, a short distance north of Kyoto. Kate and I were visiting our friend Ai, whom I'd recently met in New York. Ai had offered to take us around Echizen, the town where she lives, and for lunch we stopped at her favorite soba place—no small thing in a region famous for its soba (buckwheat) production.

What we ate was the local specialty, wasabi soba. Out came a large plate piled with cold soba noodles, which, Ai told us, were made from 100% buckwheat, with no wheat flour added to make the dough more workable—a point of pride for the kitchen. Underneath was a ladleful of a chilled dashi- and soy-based dipping broth, and, on top, a hefty dollop of nose-clearing homemade pickled wasabi—from actual wasabi root, not the reconstituted green horseradish paste that's more common stateside. Once the bowl was stirred together, each bite was both cooling and incendiary.

Soba Custards

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Another highlight of our day in Echizen: these soba custards at Kura Soba Kodo. I loved them so much that one of the first things I did when I got home was to get my hands on some soba-cha (toasted buckwheat grains, typically used to make tea), infuse them in heavy cream, and then create a recipe based on that. You can read more about this dessert and find the recipe here, but the short version is that they're nutty and woodsy, with a chestnut-like flavor that pairs incredibly well with the cream and eggs in the custard. I could eat these forever.

Sperm, Sperm, Sperm, Sperm

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Clockwise from top left: seared blowfish milt at Harutaka in Tokyo; grilled blowfish milt (with some blowfish meat) at Ichinomatsu in Fukui; fried codfish milt at Flatt's in Noto; and poached codfish-milt soup at Den in Tokyo.

Upon arriving in Japan in January, we quickly learned that we were there during peak sperm season. Sorry, I'm just being honest—almost everywhere we went, fish milt was on the menu, usually from either cod or blowfish. The codfish milt comes in smaller, frilly sacs with a brain-like shape, while blowfish milt is larger, smoother, and firmer, allowing cooks to slice smaller portions off for cooking.

We ate it raw with ponzu sauce, simmered in soup, breaded and deep-fried, and grilled. And it is incredible stuff, with a mild flavor and a silky, creamy texture. It's difficult to pick a favorite because the milt lends itself so well to so many cooking techniques, but two opposites stand out. One was deep-fried codfish milt at Flatt's, a ryokan on the Noto Peninsula. It came covered in a feathery shell of crispy panko bread crumbs, with the warm, creamy milt within. This stood in stark contrast to the same codfish milt (photo below, in the "raw fish" section) served raw with scallions and ponzu sauce at the Kanazawa fish market—a milt that was chilled and slippery, meant to be slurped up with chopsticks.

The only real shame was coming home to a country that doesn't have any appreciation for the stuff. We should all be eating fish milt whenever it's available. Plus, you know, it's probably high in protein...or something.

Tempura

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During my July press trip to Japan, I managed to sneak off one night in Tokyo to have a high-end tempura dinner at Fukamachi. It was wonderful, but I left with one regret: I had seen a bunch of people order a fritter of uni (sea urchin) wrapped in a shiso leaf, and, though I wanted one desperately, I was too loopy from jet lag to work up the effort to ask for it.

I made up for that misstep on a more recent meal at Tempura Kondo in Ginza. Kate and I spotted that same lightly battered and fried shiso-uni number, and we jumped on it. It did not disappoint. The batter was barely there, just a gentle crackle under my teeth, and broke through to the herbal shiso and briny, iodine-y punch of uni, just warmed through but retaining the satiny, creamy texture of raw urchin.

Endless Raw Fish

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As I mentioned above, there's no shortage of excellent raw fish in Japan. It comes one way or another in most multicourse meals. But if there's a memory that lingers most for me, it's walking through the large fish market in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture. The streets outside were pelted with alternating deluges of hail and sleet, and the cold wind blew through the market arcade. Fishmongers lining the pathways sold hulking crabs, oysters, arrays of sea urchin, whole fish, and more, much of it brought straight in from the Sea of Japan each morning, and available to either take home or eat right on the spot.

With stiff, numbed fingers, we pointed at massive whole shrimp, little ivory twirls of raw cod milt, oysters, and more, then ate them standing, with cold beers and splashes of condiments like ponzu, soy sauce, and lemon juice. Just us, the most pristine seafood, and the winter storms blowing in off the sea where it came from.

A Humble Sweet Potato

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It's easy to celebrate the obvious stuff—the bowls of ramen, full of broth that's simmered and reduced for hours on end; the practiced movements of sushi chefs; and the best seafood in the world, prepared more thoughtfully than anywhere else. But it's important not to let them overshadow the small things, which are sometimes just as great.

One afternoon while wandering around Tokyo, we saw an old man roasting Japanese sweet potatoes over wood embers on the back of his truck. We didn't know much about yaki-imo, these roasted sweet potatoes commonly sold as a street food, but the smell of the wood fire and our love of sweet potatoes—particularly the delicately sweet, yellow-fleshed Japanese ones called satsuma-imo—were enough to convince us to hand over a couple bucks for one.

It's impossible to describe just how perfect a whole, plain sweet potato can be, but this one wanted for nothing—not salt, not butter, nothing. The potato's flesh was soft as custard and tasted like it had begun to caramelize in the heat. A whiff of smoke infused every bite.

As with so much of Japanese food, the brilliance of the potato was in its restraint. That old man had likely been roasting sweet potatoes his whole life, and knew damn well not to mess with a good thing.