After the first few hours of arriving in the city, I didn’t feel like I was there. The Japanese characters greeting me at every signpost in the airport, the train journey through quaint Japanese towns, the taxi ride through Shibuya – it just didn’t seem to register as reality. Was I really here? Was this really Tokyo? Forgive me, while this may sound like the ramblings of someone who had boarded the wrong flight, it was just a case of sleep deprivation and long-awaited excitement after an overnight journey. Plus the fact that I hadn’t eaten in a good few hours – after a few convenience store snacks to keep me going, it was time to explore the city.
Harujuku – animated, extravagant and brimming with contemporary Japanese culture. With so many colourful treasures lining the streets, the food is no exception. The first thing that I noticed was the abundance of sugar-laden snacks which were just as visually intriguing as their surroundings. Every other passer-by seemed to have their hands clasped around crêpes rolled up into cones and bursting with decadent fillings.
When there’s lots of choice, ordering can be tricky for indecisive ones like myself. However, it certainly helps that you are able to visualise what you are about to eat as dozens of model crepes are displayed (there is actually a place in Tokyo that makes all the model food to sell to food vendors and restaurants across the city.) So what are your options? If you’re watching your waistline or not prepared to indulge then step away. A popular choice seems to be whole pieces of cheesecake, fruit, ice cream as well as obscene amounts of whipped cream all wrapped up into a French-style crêpe. I opted for the caramel cheesecake, ice cream and whipped cream. It was so delicious that I didn’t even give a second thought to the amount of sugar and dairy that was impressively compacted into a manageable snack-sized portion.
Another popular snack is the Croquant Chou cream pastries from Zaku Zaku. Is it a doughnut? Is it a pastry? Actually it’s a cream puff but shaped into a long finger. I queued for around 5 minutes as the people in front of me were ordering dozens at a time. The filling is injected into the pastry as it is served which explains the wait time. However, it does give it that freshly-made factor and helps to keep the outside crunchy and chewy before giving way to a sweet, silky custard cream on the inside.
Every attraction around the city is well stocked with street vendors and snack stations to entice hungry visitors which meant I spent most of my days snacking.
A popular choice seems to be the takoyaki (octopus balls). Perhaps it’s the hypnotic way in which the octopus batter is carefully turned over on a hot grill until the balls are formed. Each portion comes with a generous dollop of sauce and dried fish flakes sprinkled on top. Although I had high hopes for these, I found the consistency a little too gooey and the sauce was overwhelming.
It seems wherever you go in the world, each city will have its own version of fried chicken. Tokyo is no exception as they pride themselves on their chicken karaage. This differs from other variations I have tried as the batter is more crispy (less bread-like and crumbly) and also thinner so that it resembles more of a crunchy coating.
Matcha is a key component in Japanese snacks and these tea-infused steamed buns are ideal for green tea lovers.
Being in Shinjuku can feel a bit like wandering around a computer game. And conveniently, there are huge game arcades located everywhere. Nothing quite prepares you for stepping into virtual reality and seeing all the dedicated gamers fight their way through battles and distant lands.
There is also a robot restaurant which is more of a performance venue than a restaurant and features robot fights and dancing girls every night.
However, after ducking down a few side streets, I felt like I had found my place. Dark, narrow alleyways filled with tiny themed bars admitting as little as 5-8 customers at a time. It was here that I stumbled across Nagi in Golden Gai. While most decent ramen restaurants boast queues of at least 2 hours, I only had to queue for around 30 minutes and I soon found out why. The restaurant was up a narrow staircase and was tiny – it could only fit around 8 people inside.
The whole dining process is seamless. You order your ramen from the vending machine (there are only 2 options) and then you can add extras such as eggs, extra pork or seaweed. It will cost you no more than 1000 Yen (around £6) per bowl. You are then presented with a ticket which you hand over to the kitchen so that your meal can be prepared.
When the ramen arrived, it was full to the brim with hot rich broth, pork, a seasoned egg, vegetables and seaweed. I particularly loved the signature-style noodles, a mixture of thick and thin, and tiny dried fish which can be found in the broth.
The Shibuya Crossing is arguably one of the most iconic landmarks in the city with the busy crossing featuring in films, photographs and other visual representations of Tokyo. Beyond the crossing, there are also a large number of restaurants, shops, bars and entertainment outlets.
I still hadn’t had any sushi and with restaurants on every corner, the go-round sushi experience is a popular choice in Japan. Granted, it might not be world-class sushi (you’ll need to go to Tsukiji Fish Market for that), but the conveyor belt restaurants are lots of fun and allow you to pick and choose the dishes you want while watching the chefs handcraft it in front of your eyes.
And with that, my time in Tokyo had come to an end. In just a few days I had been dazzled by the brightest of lights, got lost in the vastness of the city and become a serial snacker. Now it was time to board the shinkansen and head to Kyoto for the next part of my trip.