Tokyo tribute

This post is a tribute to the quiet courage and strength of the Japanese people as they endure one of the worst natural disasters in modern history. Some of you may remember the story of 12-year-old Japanese girl Sadako Sasaki who developed radiation sickness following the bombing of Hiroshima. She set out to fold 1,000 paper cranes in the belief that, according to Japanese folklore, anyone who folds so many cranes will be granted a wish by a crane. Sadako simply wanted to live. She folded 644 cranes with the support of her family and community but died before she could reach 1,000. Her classmates folded the remaining 356 cranes and they were buried with her. Well it seems that those tiny paper birds are working their magic again. Mesa Creative Arts has launched a 1,000 paper cranes community recovery project to raise funds for Japan following the recent earthquake and tsunami. Their website can be accessed here.

Tokyo is an amazing city, absolutely buzzing with life, and below are some photos of my recent food journey through its many street stalls and restaurants. Let it be a tribute not only to Japanese food, but to the strength and beauty of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Sushi just doesn’t get much fresher than Sushi Dai (which we discovered after waiting 1.5 hours in the freezing cold air at 5.30 am to get two seats inside this 13-seat restaurant at Tokyo Fish Markets). Well worth the wait.

This was still moving when it was served to us. Oh yep, definitely fresh!

I think this was mackerel, but I may be wrong. To be honest, the rest of the morning was a blur. Having 13 pieces of sushi for breakfast is suprisingly filling! Food coma set in pretty much the minute we left the restaurant, so forgive my hazy recollections.

Sperm sacs of cod fish. Yes, you read right. I wasn’t game enough to try it, but my partner-in-crime sure did. Apparently the sacs are ‘creamy’ and similar to fish roe. But what would I know? 🙂

If there’s one thing I learnt from our trip, it was this: never underestimate how much you can squeeze into small spaces! Japanese hotel rooms (and bathrooms) are notoriously tiny, and our hostel bathroom was no different. Similarly, each bento box compartment might seem ludicrously small, but you’d be amazed at how much junk can fit in each little trunk! Bento boxes are everywhere in Tokyo, and for good reason! They make the perfect lunch 🙂

To the unobservant eye, these appear to be obese marshmallows. But no, they’re ‘icecream mochi’ sold at a store called Mochi Cream which we found at Akihabara train station. And what a discovery! Creamy innards contained within a delicate rice flour skin. If there’s any reason to be eating icecream in 5 degree weather, this is it. Get the apple pie flavour, nothing else compares.

Mister Donut (above) is Tokyo’s answer to Krispy Kreme, and well worth a visit. There are many different styles to choose from, and each one is a sugary, fairy-light delight. The ones in the bottom row (shaped almost like flowers) are surprisingly chewy but also delicious.

In case you needed more convincing 🙂

There’s a reason why the best things in life are unexpected!  We had been aching to try unagi (grilled eel) for the entire trip, and then stumbled upon a cute little eel restaurant tucked away in a side street on our second-last day. When I say ‘eel restaurant’ I literally mean that eel is the ONLY thing they served. Big portions, small portions, with/without rice, but eel was their specialty. And you can see why!

Who said Tokyo was expensive?  This dinner cost 500 yen (around AUD$6) and was enormously filling. Scallop rice with a warm fish stew. Yum!

Let this picture serve as a reminder that neither your age nor your height should ever come between you and a good burger. This was a Japanese chain called ‘Mos Burger’ where we had breakfast on two days. Now having a burger for breakfast is something I would never do in Sydney (I don’t even have them for lunch) but these burgers were surprisingly light and healthy.  You can choose to have rice instead of bread as the outside of your burger, and the rice patties were actually very tasty! They were sort of like glorified rice balls, only squashed to resemble bread buns.

This rice burger contained almost-caramelised strips of carrot and something else (burdock I think). Again with the hazy recollections. Anyway, it was a good burger 🙂

This was at a buffet restaurant chain called ‘Sweets Paradise’. The concept? A 90-minute feeding frenzy, where you grab as many slices of cake as you can fit onto your plate. There’s also a small savoury section serving noodles and rice, tucked at the back. The catch? You’re only there for 90 minutes (although I think that’s quite a long time) and to avoid food wastage the restaurant asks that you choose wisely and only put on your plate what you can actually finish. To be honest, the cakes weren’t amazing; I think the Japanese are better at making Japanese sweets than they are at recreating Western-style desserts. But there were always some good ones; with over 30 cakes to choose from, there are always bound to be some gems!

Trying a bit of everything.

At a ninja restaurant in Akasaka. When I say ‘ninja’ I literally mean that a ninja greets you at the front of the restaurant and escorts you to your table via a series of trapdoors and dark corridors and drawbridges. All private rooms are essentially underground caves lit by small lanterns. The dishes are all unique and interesting (like the bowl of vapours above) but not tastebud-tantalising. You’d go more for the gimmick of eating in a cave, and having a ninja do card tricks at your table.
Bonsai tree dessert at the Ninja Restaurant Akasaka. Every part was edible 🙂

Cake counter at a foodhall in Tokyo, think it was called “South Court”. Is it just me, or is the bottom row very Adriano-Zumbo-esque?
Sparkly macaron that our Japanese friend bought for us from South Court. Gotta love food bling.
A very healthy breakfast at Japanese restaurant chain Denny’s. Stew with spinach, broccoli and enoki mushrooms. I love enoki mushrooms, they look like little old men wearing berets 🙂

This photo was taken by one of my partners-in-crime and is a shot of a melted soy rice cracker on a stick. Probably not the most elegant or mouth-watering food description you’ve ever heard (the phrase ‘on-a-stick’ tends to have that effect) but it was definitely tasty. And so Japanese. This was the first of many snacks we tried at the markets leading up to the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa. The markets are absolutely unmissable (unless it’s raining, in which case they should be avoided like the plague if you don’t want an umbrella in your eye).

Soft, sweet red bean paste filling, surrounded by a crunchy golden cloud of fried tempura batter. Served hot. Heaven on a cold winter’s morning!
A fried manju. Sweet crispy pink shell, with a soft flaky red bean filling. I couldn’t start any cold Tokyo morning without it. I literally had my 100 yen coin ready in my palm to give to the stall-owner as soon as we hit the markets after leaving our hostel. The best 100 yen you’ll ever spend!
The fried manju stall aka home away from home. Don’t laugh.
Cold soba noodles, dusted with golden flakes of tempura batter. There’s something incredibly satisfying about gathering a bundle of soba noodles in your chopsticks and plunging them headfirst into the cold, salty dipping sauce. Second-best meal in Tokyo. This was at the hot springs in Odaiba.
Sushi we made in sushi-making class at the Tokyo Sushi Academy! Don’t be deceived, the raw fish was sliced by someone else. Ours was simply an assembly job (ie arrange the rice so it doesn’t completely fall off the fish).
Aaaannd the winner is … some random little ramen shop near Senso-ji Temple. This was literally my favourite meal of the entire trip. Perhaps because we paid for our meal by inserting coins into the vending machine at the front of the restaurant (although that was the case with many restaurants we tried). Or maybe it was the sheer simplicity of the meal itself. Burning-hot stone pot. Rice, fried egg, pork chunks, soy sauce and a slab of butter … all mixed by you, at the table.  The best part is the crispy rice bits which burn at the bottom of the stone pot. Again, brilliant on a cold winter’s day. Or any day really …

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