Farewell to Japan

A new tradition is emerging for me on the last night before we leave Japan. We usually try to get our gift buying done the last days we are on a trip so we don’t have to lug them around. There were a few sweets that we wanted to get and the only place open late (besides convenience stores) was Donki (Don Quijote). For those who have never been, Donki is somewhere in between a dollar store and Target - taking the best of both worlds. Last year, I bought an extra piece of luggage to carry back my whiskey and this time I got some mochi and Kit Kats. If you ever find yourself needing some random item, check out Donki. There's usually one in every major city.

Our hotel was about a kilometer away from the store and it afforded me the opportunity to see Ginza at night. It was a beautiful, crisp, Friday night and many office workers were stumbling out of restaurants and bars, slightly tipsy. The streets were lit with the neon of Ginza and a lone saxophone player was performing. We’ll leave Japan with many happy memories, eager for the next trip back.

Ramen Street @ Tokyo Station

As our trip was coming to an end, we spent the last day doing a bunch of shopping in and around Tokyo Station. The station itself is massive with shops and restaurants inside. You could spend a full day here and still not see everything. Once we completed our gift buying, it was time to eat and of course, we couldn't leave Japan without having some ramen. Luckily, there is Ramen Street inside Tokyo Station where 8 ramen shops are located. A sign at the entrance to Ramen Street shows you where each shop is and what style of ramen they serve. We wanted to get some good tonkotsu style ramen so decided on Oreshiki Jun.

These shops are designed for fast service so you order outside at a vending machine, then hand your ticket over to the host who finds you a seat when one becomes available. Your food is then brought over and you're expected to eat very quickly and make room for the next person. Quite honestly, the whole process was fairly confusing and unless you can read Japanese it's hard to tell which ramen shop you're ordering from. Unfortunately for us, we ended up going into the wrong line and ordering from another ramen shop that wasn't quite up to par. We quickly ate but left feeling pretty unsatisfied.

Undeterred, I eventually was able to find Oreshiki Jun and we were not disappointed. Great broth, amazing soft boiled eggs (Japan really does this well), melt in your mouth char siu, and noodles that were perfectly made/cooked. All was forgotten after I finished that bowl!

Tsukiji Fish Market and Nigiri Sushi @ Shou

The iconic Tsukiji Fish Market, in its current from, will be closing. Though they keep pushing the date back, we wanted to make sure we got to see it one more time, just in case it changes the next time we return. We didn't tour the inner market this time but instead spent our time in the outer market checking out food stalls and buying some kitchen implements. A must visit is Onigiri-ya Murotoyo. Get the one with a perfectly soft-boiled egg inside which was a favorite of the wife's.

My daughter also wanted some nigiri sushi so we decided to go to a different restaurant than the one we visited the first time. There are two very popular sushi bars in the outer market, Daiwa Zushi and Sushi Dai. I’m sure both are good but given the long waits and hurried nature of dining, we opted to go with an equally well reviewed sushi bar next door, Shou. We still had to wait about 15 minutes but better than an hour or more at the other two. We ended up ordering omakase (12 course for wife and I, 8 course for my daughter). Below are the photos of mine (the difference is the wife received mantis prawn instead of squid). The line up was:

Snapper, Maguro, Hamachi, Spanish Mackerel, Otoro, Aji, Octopus, Scallop, Uni, Baby Scallop, Squid, Anago, Tamago, and lastly a Vegetable Roll

Each piece was expertly made and the quality of the fish was top notch. It's no surprise given their proximity to probably the best fish market in the world. The chef was extremely friendly and gave us background on every piece of fish. It was a great experience in a very casual setting. I'd put their nigiri up against any of the high end omakase restaurants back in San Francisco.

Kabuki and Tonkotsu @ Maisen

We fulfilled a bucket list item for the wife by watching Kabuki at the Kabukiza Theatre in Ginza. Was more interesting than I expected though a little long (almost 4 hours).

As a reward, we had dinner at Maisen Tonkotsu in Shibuya. Yet another Tokyo institution I had to have again. This time, I tried the Tokyo X Pork which I paired with a nice shochu made from soba. The cutlet was juicy and tender on the inside and perfectly crispy on the outside with no heavy greasiness associated with deep fried foods. There was even a special tonkatsu sauce specifically for the Tokyo X! A little thin for me but the taste was sweet and tangy with what I believe was grated apple mixed in. My favorite is still the thick tonkatsu sauce which I ate over the pork, cabbage, and rice! Will be dreaming of this tonkotsu until the next time we come to Tokyo.

Back in Tokyo - CoCo Ichibanya

Back in Tokyo and wanted to grab a quick bite after getting off the train. We decided to hit some “fast food” and luckily there was a CoCo Ichibanya near our hotel. It should be said that Japanese chains are still high quality places. Even the convenience stores have great food.

I ended up getting a chicken burger with soft boiled egg curry. Paired it with some okra and mountain yam. Finally had to order the beef croquette to complete the meal. So comforting on a cold night.

Heading back to Tokyo - Tagoto @ The Cube

We headed back to Tokyo after our time in Kyoto. We'll miss the city, the food, and our friends. Of course we took the shinkansen again (love that JR Pass!).

Instead of doing bento on the train, we had time to grab lunch at Kyoto station. The station itself is massive. Imagine a large shopping mall attached to one of the busiest train exchanges in Japan. There were too many high quality restaurants to choose from so we just ended up going to a place that had a little of everything. Tagoto @ The Cube (the big department store in the station) mainly has soba but pairs it with other dishes. On the 11th floor of the building, it overlooks the Kyoto station below for an amazing view. We got one with unagi rice and another with sabazushi which is an older style of sushi with pickled mackerel wrapped in kombu. It was a simple and quick meal which was delicious. We boarded the train happy and satisfied for the ride back to Tokyo!

Nara Park - Deer - Maguro Koya

The main reason for our trip to Japan was for my daughter to see her favorite animal - DEERS! Nara Park was on her wish list for a while because it's where hundreds (maybe thousands?) of deer are allowed to roam free with no fear. We took the one hour train from Kyoto and made our way to the park. All the iconography in the city are deer related, including street signs, buses, and even manhole covers!

Once you enter the park, you are immediately swarmed by deer looking for you to feed them deer crackers (can be purchased from vendors throughout the park for 150 yen). It went from cute petting zoo to aggressive head butting quite quickly! For those who plan to take small kids, just be aware that these are wild animals and many are not docile. I was butted quite often when I had crackers in my hand and even nipped a couple of times. The deer will leave you alone if you don't have crackers so if you don't want the attention, just don't have any in your hand. With all that said, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience for us to be so close to the deer.

Aside from the deer, a big highlight of the park is the huge Buddha statue at the Todai-ji Temple. The temple itself is huge and beautiful. The large statue of the Buddha is a site to behold. Be sure to walk all the way around and see the statue from all angles.

On the way back to the train station, we stopped by a tuna restaurant called Maguro Koya. It's tucked in a side alley and looks completely unassuming from the outside. Inside, is no different with a simple setup for the husband and wife establishment. As the name suggests, they serve mainly tuna and it does not disappoint. We got meal sets of maguro, chutoro, and otoro. No fancy presentations, just sliced supremely high quality tuna served with miso soup and rice. If you are a tuna sashimi fan, this place will exceed expectations.

Breakfast at Komeda's Coffee

We're heading to Nara Park today and stopped at Komeda's Coffee for breakfast. Another favorite of ours for the egg salad sandwich. Have not been able to find an egg salad sandwich in the US that is as fluffy and delicate. Plus the fresh baked bread is outstanding. Perfectly toasted!

Izakaya - Kurakura

We are big fans of izakaya style restaurants and luckily got a great recommendation. Kurakura is a favorite of locals in downtown Kyoto. We came just as they opened and was able to get a table. Good thing because minutes later the place was packed with office workers coming in for happy hour. They had an extensive sake selection and our waitress was very helpful in choosing two different ones for us.

Next up, some grilled items. Two types of peppers (hot and mild), squid legs, and sweet onions. Each came with their own sauce and were delicious.

We then ordered some steamed enoki mushrooms cooked in butter with an egg inside. Simple and amazing. We followed that with yakitori, fresh tofu, chicken wings, anago wrapped in yuba, and chicken gizzards/kidneys. All perfectly cooked and just the right portion size as to not fill you up.

We ended the meal with omakase sashimi and yaki onigiri with fish roe on the inside. The quality of the sashimi was superb. Probably the same quality as most of the high end sushi restaurants in the Bay Area but in a neighborhood joint.

My daughter loves watching Miyazaki movies and there's a dish in one of her movies that she absolutely loves. It's fried aji but unfortunately aji wasn't available. We showed our waitress the image below and she was able to have the chef whip up an alternative - fried kisu. It was also amazing - two filets and the center bone portion fried up to perfection! The mayo that came with it was a great pairing.

Can't say enough about this place. The vibe is so authentic, the staff are so friendly and helpful (spoke great English!), and of course the food and drink are off the charts. This is now on the permanent list of places to hit when we're back in Kyoto.

Back to Yamazaki

Being in Kyoto, we were only a quick train ride away from the Yamazaki Distillery. Of course I had to return to get some whisky but this time I took the family. No kids allowed on the tour so we just went through the museum and walked the public grounds. You can see my post from last time for info on the tour.

We ended up in the tasting room where I got a chance to try 6 amazing pours, 4 of which are only available at the distillery. It should be noted that some of these bottles are thousands of dollars, but the pours were remarkably affordable. Each glass is a good amount more than a half pour and all 6 came to about $60. Too bad you are limited to 3 pours per person but it’s not a bar so far enough.

Here’s the lineup:

12 Year Sherry Cask - Light with a subtle sweetness, like fruits.

17 Year Sherry Cask - Bold with deeper sweetness, like preserves or jams.

18 Year Hakushu - Peaty but very refined. I’m usually not a fan of peaty whisky but I’d be happy with this.

12 Year Mizunara - A different taste than standard Yamazaki 12. The Mizunara wood gives it a more fragrant flavor though very subtle.

17 Year Mizunara - In my previous post I said this was the best whisky I ever had. Trying it again doesn’t change my mind (yet). Deeper flavor from the Mizunara that I have yet to encounter from traditional whisky. Completely smooth and rich.

25 Year Yamazaki - This was the highlight, not surprisingly. If you love 18 Year Yamazaki, this takes it to another level. So smooth, deep flavor, dark chocolate with almost no sweetness. Smoke but no peat. Can’t say enough about this.