Finding culture and food on the “All Star Food Tour.” One problem all travellers can relate to in a foreign country is finding a place to eat at. It’s exciting to imagine getting up close and personal with the culture through taste, but then some questions rise unbidden. What to order? Where to go? That place looks popular, it’s practically spilling with locals, but what if there’s no English menu? What if there’s some kind of taboo in dining etiquette you don’t know about, and might accidentally trigger? Before you know it, you’re heading to the closest McDonald’s to alleviate yourself from these thoughts, all the while getting the sense that you just missed a great opportunity to get to know the country.
All Star Food Tour
Those visiting Japan will face such dilemmas more than others. As a local student, I was fortunate enough to have had my hand held by more knowledgeable friends through my introduction to Tokyo’s vast sea of bars and restaurants, (and even then I hesitate to explore unfamiliar territories) but I know many do not have the same luck. Recently, though, I’ve had the opportunity to join Arigato Japan for their All Star Food Tour of Yurakucho, Ginza, and Shimbashi, three distinctive areas known for their large population of local salarymen – and consequently the competitiveness of their cuisine. Simply put, I wish I knew of this tour when I first came to Japan; it serves both as an introductory course on all the important aspects of Japanese food culture you should be aware of, while letting you experience exceptional menus which have risen above the rest, so you know which to show off to friends the next time you visit.
The tour took us both front- and backstage of the ultimate Tokyo dinner scene, walking our small group of five through alleyways and under train tracks for an inclusive look into the hidden spots locals frequent, as well as stopping over at more recognisable, big-name eateries and shopping spots like the Depachika of Mitsukoshi Department Store. It was conducted entirely on foot, and this helped highlight how the three areas have history and culture that intermingle even today despite each of their distinctive images. Walking tours also tend to let individual travellers take their time to breathe in the atmosphere and take in the sights around them, so I definitely took this chance to find the perfect angle for the perfect snapshot and gawk at Ginza’s Christmas lights, while we kept moving at an amicable pace. I’m not exactly one for exercise but was pleasantly surprised to find that travelling three areas was not quite a stretch I’d first made it out to be. Our guide, Anne, made sure that there were plenty of sites to point out and stops to be made between meals to keep us awed. Tip for future All Star Food Tour visitors; do remember to ask her about the connection between Osaka and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Hidden food wonders on the All Star Food Tour — photo by Hanna Takeuchi
We start off with Yurakucho, and a few minutes walk from the station finds us under a brick tunnel. Already it’s the sort of place I would be nervous if alone. The stalls are separated by nothing more than semi-transparent sheets to keep out the cold, the glow from the lamps clouded by the smoke from the cooking. All of it gives a sense of ambiance, of “the good old days”. The jumble of shops looks cluttered, but their owners call out to each other and customers as old friends would. We didn’t stop here for a meal, though; the All Star Food Tour showcases the best of the best, the first of which we found at a kushiyaki place sheltered in a nondescript building a few steps away.
The restaurant was a small place with both table and counter seats, separated by a wooden partition. The sense of closeness in the tiny space, along with the posh jazz music flowing in the background, gives a more private atmosphere than what you would expect from a yakitoriplace, commonly a meal for the masses. It’s definitely the kind of place I wouldn’t go without a friend who is very familiar with it, for which I was immensely grateful for the tour guide. Trains ran by right across the windows, adding to the sense that this is, indeed, a secret hideaway only known to a handful.
The food they served was the perfect entrée to the night. You get a selection of various skewered meats and vegetables, all seasoned simply but separately to present you with an array of flavours, from the crunchy, slightly spicy tebasaki chicken wing to the tanginess of sun-dried tomatoes mellowed by cheese. For drinks, their umeshu or plum wine comes highly recommended. The rich fruitiness washes down easily and complements the food, and is a treat for anyone who has never tried it before.
After making our way out of the shop and down a very obscure, narrow alleyway lined entirely by the welcoming lights and sounds of the old izakayas here, we step out from this jolly camaraderie and suddenly into the high-end neighbourhood of Ginza.
It really was just like that; one moment we were avoiding small puddles formed in the uneven asphalt ground and ducking under large paper lanterns, and the next we found ourselves on immaculately tiled pavements surrounded by glimmering glass windows of polished cafes and retail stores. The difference was so jarring, I wouldn’t have believed we were in the same town had we not walked there with our own legs.
Amidst the flashing neon lights and displays of the Ginza buildings, there was much to explore – and buy, if you have the cash to spare! – here in the shopping heart of Tokyo. The aforementioned Depachika, for example, has everything from fruit vinegar to chocolates to obento – all of which are of the best quality Japan has to offer, making them perfect souvenirs for loved ones back home. The tour took ample time circling the stores here; and don’t worry if you’re not too sure about loosening the purse strings – there are plenty of delicious free samples and pretty packaging to entertain you!
Our next stop filled us up with several dishes as the main course of the night. An izakaya overlooking a major road in Ginza, run by farm to table restaurant group. The food served here mainly uses organic food grown at the restaurant’s own farm in the Miyazaki prefecture. There were already groups of men and women, presumably drinking after work, laughing and conversing loudly over modern music at tables farther in, and the yukata (traditional cotton kimono) clad waitresses chimed in time with each other to greet newcomers and to serve up orders, creating a merry, casual atmosphere.
They had several specialties here, most of which were from the autumn/winter menu and used ingredients which were in season. I feel, however, particular mention should go to their award-winning chicken nanban in tartar sauce. Fried lightly so that the batter remained crunchy but the meat inside still unbelievably tender and juicy, I enjoyed sinking my teeth into this delicacy so much I may or may not have taken one extra than my portion. The waitresses also surprised us with a cute, tailor-made “dessert plate” at the end, showing that it was small things like these that really made the Japanese spirit of omotenashi (warm and want-for-nothing customer service) shine.
Filled up with all the various dishes they had to offer, we headed over to the last eatery our tour would stop at for a light dessert – a small taiyaki place, run by a jolly lady who greeted all her customers with a mischievous grin.
For those unfamiliar with this famous delicacy, taiyaki are fish shaped cakes with fillings normally made right there and then. Usually, you are given a choice of what you would like to fill the inside of your fish, such as custard or red bean paste. I personally always go for the red bean; the subdued sweetness, in my opinion, fits the chewy exterior better, and there are very few things better than having such a freshly baked, warm treat in your hands on chillier nights.
It was around here that I finally realised we had somehow transitioned into the Shinbashi area, where our tour would inevitably end. A common flocking point for nearby workers, we burned some calories off by walking around the area, chewing on our taiyaki.
In the underground floors of a shopping plaza, we discovered unorthodox bars designed like baseball – a much loved sport in Japan – fields, old game arcades and older men still frequenting in their work suits, and izakayas loudly promoting dishes local to the Kumamoto prefecture, which had suffered a devastating earthquake earlier this year. Outside, pachinko parlors and karaoke bars had lit up their neon flashboards, and young women in costumes and uniforms called to passersby in search of customers.
Admiring this teeming nightlife in a place which can hardly be called a tourist spot, our tour ended, our stomachs happily full and our minds – and cameras – overflowing with images of Tokyo straight from a local’s perspective.
All in all, the All Star Food Tour showed us a Japan hidden to most visitors.