How I went to Japan for Sushi but fell in love with fried chicken
Last year in November my friend and business partner Marius (aka Vice) were having a beer and catching up. He mentioned he was thinking about going to Japan to take some photos and I invited myself to join. We decided to kick things up another notch and have an extended layover in Hong Kong before and Singapore after. A few months go by and suddenly I found myself in Japan during the height of picture-perfect cherry-blossom season!
What are my three take-aways from my first trip ever to Asia? If I need to sum up the whole trip I would come up with the following 3 things:
- Hiroshima leaves you absolutely speechless
- I can never eat normal steak again after eating Kobe once (yes, it’s really that good)
and 3. Mustafa is a horder
Does not really make sense without a bit more context, right? I went for 3 weeks in total – so, let’s start at the beginning and see what I did and ate during this whole time in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore!
This post about Japan is the second in a 3-part series about my travels to Asia. Next week will be final one about Singapore.
Pretty much all I learnt about Japan from Western media was wrong – Japan (2 weeks)
We all have our prejudices about people and countries. Some turn out to be more than true, some turn out to be complete bullsh*t. What do you see when you close your eyes and think about Japan? If you could look into my head you would see sushi, Nintendo, karaoke, samurai, temple-like-houses with paper-windows and people that –let’s keep this PG13- do the most odd and weird stuff in their spare time. So how does the real Japan look like? Well, you can of course find all these things there, but they are far less prominent than you think. As soon as you enter Japan you will get a sense of calm and tranquility, even in the capital of Tokyo. The tempo is different and everything is utterly organized. You can feel that people are part of something bigger – a collective whole we simply don’t have in the West. All the weird stuff about Japan that is shown on the media like cafe’s where you can cuddle with strangers, used panties in vending machines and capsule hotels are actually pretty hard to find. You will be struck a lot more by the dedication of the people, cleanliness and just every-day beauty of Japan.
Tokyo – The most organized and polite place in the world
Our awesome hosts Nephi and Tomomi picked us up from the airport and guided us to beautiful Tokyo. Even though Tomomi doesn’t speak that much English she taught me how to make Japanese hot pot, proper gyoza and other tasty authentic treats in her home! Right before we were leaving she got me a bento box so that I can get my homemade lunch delicacies safely to work. This kind of hospitality and experience is something money can’t buy you on a trip. Tomomi, thank you again for all of this!
Tokyo is so ridiculously organized that you are almost encouraged to seek for flaws. Trust me, you’ll have a hard time finding them! All men are walking around in black suits, all women wear beige trench-coats, if it rains there is ONE kind of umbrella everyone uses. Public transport is always on time and even if it’s packed you can hear a pin drop, because no one talks EVER. Did I mention that they have odorless deodorant that smells like literally nothing? Because, hey, why would you ever jump out of the masses with your own personal scent or perfume?
For the ultimate cherry blossom experience we went to Meguro-ku – a long river covered with cherry blossom trees on both sides. All flowers were in full bloom when we arrived. Just perfect timing! We also went to “sky tree”, the municipality building with its observatory deck 45 stories above with its stunning view, sumida river, shibuya, shinjuku, Roppongi, ginza,… . The Tsukiji fish market was a slight disappointment for us. We went out all night and went there first thing in the morning as soon as the metros were running again. Turned out this was already too late. The limited number of tourists eligible for the auction was already long filled.
Turns out I love rice!!?
In the 3 weeks I probably ate more rice than in the last 2 years combined! For some reason I never liked rice, but somehow in Japan it grew on me. The lovely little rice triangles called Onigiri with all their delicious little fillings. From raw fish eggs, to salmon, tuna with mayonnaise, sour plums and grilled eel. Pretty much all of them are delicious and they are quite inexpensive.
If you are trying to survive Japan on a budget you should basically live on 7-eleven and the izakaya budget restaurants like Yoshinoya that are ubiquitous around railway stations. 7-eleven has so many small little convenience treats like pre-packaged ramen bowls, but offers also pretty good deep-fried chicken skewers, tasty junk swimming in soup (Oden) and steamed baos (Chuuka-man). Yoshinoya for example offers really great rice bowls topped with a pile of pork slices and a raw egg yolk. Really good hearty and cheap meal!
Sushi isn’t nearly as big in Japan as we Westerners think… but there’s a lot of fried chicken
Tokyo is known as the proper place to get sushi and sashimi, turns out not many Japanese people actually do. Sushi (maki) and sashimi as we know it is usually only eaten at special occasions, like anniversaries, weddings, graduations, etc. So in the end we went for sushi only once in the 3 weeks time.
Fried chicken is something people would more often associate with Korea, but it’s everywhere in Japan. No 7-eleven would be complete without the rack of fried chicken skewers right next to the counter. Even better, go to one of the many Izakaya’s for some real pub grub. Torikizoku makes just incredible chicken skewers from all parts of the chicken. Grilled chicken filet, thigh, skin, livers, and intestines… If it was on or in a chicken at one point in time, you can get it grilled or fried there!
Osaka – ‘Where the crazy people live’
After Tokyo we took the Shinkansen bullet train and headed to Osaka. We heard from a lot of people I Tokyo that Osaka is where the crazy people live that do not fit into the orderly Tokyo. When we stepped out of the Osaka station we ran straight into a group of teenagers breakdancing and popping to music. Suddenly I realized that I hardly heard any music in Tokyo. Still, at the end of the day Osaka didn’t turn out as crazy as we thought, but the atmosphere is way more relaxed and laid back. One thing Osaka is famous for is it’s ‘amerikamura’ – ‘America town’. Imagine you tell someone Japanese that has never been to America: “Look up America on google and build a neighborhood honoring everything American. You got 7 hours”. Well, that’s pretty much how Amerikamura looks like. The thing I liked most about Osaka was the Kuromon Ichiba market, which is also known as “Osaka’s kitchen”. 600 meters long packed with stores and stalls on both sides, you can a loooot of tasty goodies there!
Kyoto – The cultural center of Japan – with monkeys
We tried to avoid as many temples as possible on our travels in Tokyo and Osaka, because we heard that Kyoto is just packed with temples. Nothing is more true, given Kyoto has about 2000 temples and shrines. One of the most impressive ones was the golden temple, in particular because we arrived just at sunset, which made it even more beautiful.
After all the different temples and shrines we went through the bamboo forest with is gigantic tall trees and afterwards hang out with some monkeys in the Iwatayama monkey park.
Hiroshima – A place that left me absolutely speechless
You all obviously have heard about Hiroshima and the fact that American dropped the A-bomb on this harbor city in the 2nd world war killing so many innocent people. Even though I heard of Hiroshima before my Japanese colleague really urged me to visit then place when I told her I was going to Japan. I’m really grateful that I followed her advice.
We went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which tells you all the horrors of the bomb and its consequences on the countless lives of people in cruel detail. Nothing is sugarcoated in here. I couldn’t bring myself to take pictures in the museum. The atmosphere was just too intense and I was primarily occupied with holding tears back. When I was walking out of the museum I was speechless. I had literally no words to describe what I felt in that moment. I was simply just sad and speechless about the inhumanity and suffering caused.
The further you go from the museum and the memorial park the more lively the city becomes again. Despite its history Hiroshima is a modern city with lots to offer. From great adversity comes great growth and dedication!
One culinary highlight Hiroshima is known for is its Okonomiyaki Hiroshima style. Japanese savoury pancake layered with level after level of delicious toppings.
If you ever end up in Japan, please go to Hiroshima. This was the most tense and memorable experience of my whole trip to Asia.
Nara – Welcome to Japan’s version of a Bambi forest
After the quite depressing day in Hiroshima we went to Nara – A town known for its hundreds of deer freely roaming around the temples and city. The deer are regarded as holy and are seen as the guardians of the city and the country. So eating deer is strictly a no-go in Japan!
We tried to get to higher ground and see the sunset from the nearby hill. On the way there we met a really cool guy called Yudai who showed us around and took us to the very top of the hill. The view was just amazing and we arrived just at sunset.
Afterwards we hang out with Yudai, went out for delicious chicken and a few beers at Torikizoku, before I showed him the ropes beating him in Mario kart (video at the bottom of the post!!).
Kobe – Turns out Kobe beef is more than worth its extranormous price
You probably all have heard of Kobe beef by now. It’s that super expensive beef that is supposedly oh so tasty. I’m always quite skeptical if I hear hypes like this, without anyone being actually able to back it up.
On one of those rainy days we decided to head to Kobe – the capital of beef. After taking the cable to the top of the mountain into the middle of nowhere and looking at a herb garden we headed for town and settled on the restaurant Ishida for dinner. It’s a chain that specializes in the preparation of Kobe beef, so why not give that a go. Without a reservation we headed to the restaurant and had to wait for a bit to get seated. A few minutes in a chef came from outside with an umbrella and asked us to follow him. Turned out that the restaurant we visited was fully booked, so the chef escorted us to another location which was only 200 meters away. Once we arrived we choose for their selected sirloin and tenderloin menu.
Turns out beef gets grated from A1 to A5 with the latter being the really best. On top of that rating you also have the BSM score which stands for Beef Structural Marbling, which determines how big or small the fat marbling within the meat is. 12 is the highest score. The meat we chose was A5 with BSM 10-12, so pretty much as high as it can possible get on the scale.
It was the best beef I’ve ever had – by a long shot! Sometimes people tell you that meat is melt-in-your-mouth tender. I thought that I had tender beef in the past. Turns out I did not…
This steak was actually so tender that you could just squish it your tongue against the roof of your mouth, instead of chewing it.
I wasted a lot of money in arcade halls, but ultimately beat a Japanese guy in Mario Kart!
Have you ever seen those Youtube videos with Japanese kids playing video games like they are possessed by the devil? That is actually a thing in Japan. I’ve seen kids play virtual drums, guitars, pianos and all kinds of robot-fighting games like they are literally insane! If all these skills would go to good use, we would probably be all running in space by now – but that’s a different topic. Every major city in Japan has a number of slot venues and arcade halls. Throw in one of those 100 Yen coins are you are good to go! Next to all the classics like Tekken and Street fighter they got really cool other stuff with a lot of arcade version of popular Nintendo titles. We played a 3D horror shooter game that made us almost pee our pants!
And while there are tons of Japanese guys that basically live in arcade halls, turns out not all Asians have perfect video game skills. I was able to beat Yudai in Mario Kart! Though it was really close, we got the whole thing on tape!
Take that Japan! That’s our German way of saying: Don’t mess with Germany and our curry wurst!
That’s all for now folks! Hope you enjoyed this quite extensive travel log of my time in Japan. Next week will be the final post of this 3-part series with my experiences in Singapore. (Yes, it will include the stereotypical picture of me in the infinity pool on top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel).
Let me know in the comments below what fun stuff I missed in Japan and what your favorite thing to eat was there! Subscribe to the newsletter to not miss the next post on Singapore!