I’ve come to appreciate, during my travels, that signing up for a food tour in a new place pays back dividends. The guide takes you to all sorts of wonderful hidden-away spots, explains the whole food scene and generally equips you with enough know-how to go solo afterwards. So when I got to Tokyo I signed up for two food tours, in different areas with different specialities on offer.
I turned out to be the only participant for the first tour, so Yokio and I got to be best friends after several bottles of sake –
But we started with a very special fish – blow fish or puffer fish sashimi –
I remember reading an article years ago about Japanese businessmen who pay a fortune and risk death just to eat raw puffer fish served by a beautiful geisha. It sounded like a sort of Japanese roulette. But Yokio assured me that none of his clients had died (yet) from the puffer fish, so that was reassuring.
Using chopsticks, we had to add spice, spring onion and daikon radish to each piece and then roll it up, which required a fair amount of dexterity –
– it was chewy and succulent – but for me the highlight of this restaurant was the drink they served with it –
– it’s sake with a flambé of dried roasted puffer fish fin – and it smelt and tasted divine. The fin was removed before drinking, but I kept picking it up for a quick sniff.
Stop number two was an Izakaya – which is a traditional Japanese pub – and this one had been family owned for several generations –
We tried Hoppy, which dates back to after the war, when people were too poor to afford beer. They drank an alcohol-free beer substitute and shoved a whole load of cheap alcohol into the glass first, topping it up with the Hoppy.
I’m not really a beer drinker, so it tasted fine to me, but I’m sure real ale fans wouldn’t approve.
The last stop on our tour was a very well-known restaurant, which serves dojo loach – a Tokyo speciality. It was a beautiful traditional place which has been there for over 200 years, with tatami mats on the floor and waitresses in old fashioned outfits.
Our waitress knelt beside our little table to cook the Dozeu Nabe for us. It has sake, soy sauce bonito soup and Japanese leek along with the loach – and of course we had to have more sake to go with it –
You should always have cold sake, not hot, I’ve been told several times now. They heat up the poor quality stuff, and save the best to serve chilled.
We staggered out and tottered down to the subway, and both agreed that it had been a great evening – as far as we could remember.
The second food tour took in an area called Golden Gai, which is a small area of six narrow lanes which is packed with over 200 tiny bars and restaurants- some are so small that you can only fit five people inside.
Our guide took us into a bar for a drink and it was like travelling down a birth canal –
We started our food tasting with skewers – or yakitori – in a restaurant that had the cutest wash basins ever –
and the yakitori weren’t bad either .
Then it was on to the next place for ramen. You should always slurp in Japan when you eat noodles in soup – a bit like wine tasting, they believe the flavour improves if you take air in with the broth. There are four main types of ramen in Japan, and this one was tonkotsu , or pork bone broth – delicious and filling.
But not so filling that there wasn’t room for sushi afterwards – my absolute favourite over here. This was posh sushi – you can tell because the wasabi is added to the sushi, rather than mixed in with the soy sauce. The tuna sushi was amazing, but the octopus was surprisingly good too.
We had more sake, and I learnt that you must never pour your own sake – your neighbour must pour yours and you must pour theirs – just to add an extra complication to the event.
I was also pleased to learn that it’s quite acceptable to eat sushi with your fingers, you don’t have to use chopsticks. And real experts put it in their mouth upside down, to allow the full flavour of the fish to linger on their tongue.
So then I was ready – upskilled and keen to try out the local food scene by myself. I had yuzu flavoured mochi, which was very good –
But decided against the candy floss, which was large enough to conceal a medium-sized child –
And my greatest achievement was going into a restaurant in a spa town and ordering a bowl of the most wonderful seafood, served with rice and seaweed and lots of tiny little pots of random nibbly bits –
I was very proud of myself – if there was an exam in Japanese eating, I feel sure I’d get a top grade now.