TOKYO — Totoro is staring at me with “Don’t eat me!” eyes. He’s a cream puff, sat next to his sibling adorned with a little pink fondant hat and filled with matcha green tea mousse.
The Studio Ghibli cartoon character that’s the star of Tokyo’s famous Shirohige’s Cream Puff Factory is almost too cute to eat. Almost.
I chomp into Totoro’s side and, well, he’s delicious. Just like everything else I’m eating in Japan.
The wildly fresh sashimi, the perfectly crispy tempura and katsu, and the ramen and the soba wading in rich pork broth — Japan is a foodie’s dream come true.
I’m spending a month in this beautiful country, with an empty stomach and a JR Rail pass in hand, ready to venture into bustling cities, remote mountainsides overlooking Mount Fuji, and storybook villages. Every day is a culinary experience with some eats I’ve carefully planned and others I’ve stumbled upon by chance — neither are disappointing.
Japanese cuisine is incredibly regional — the signature dishes I’m dining on in Tokyo disappear from menus as I travel further west and are replaced with even more bounty from the likes of Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Hiroshima.
Above: It doesn't take Carmen Chai long to get into the spirit of Japanese cuisine, which consists mostly of nutritious, farm-fresh ingredients.
It’s absolutely true that Tokyo is wacky and cool and futuristic. In between visiting robot cafés that induce sensory overload and shopping in the colourful Harajuku district, I willingly gorge on sushi and sashimi. Conveyor belt sushi restaurants range from rustic hole-in-the-wall hideaways to high-tech joints where your plates are ordered on an iPad and are flung across the conveyor belt, pausing right at your table. There isn’t a chef or waiter in sight after I’m seated by a hostess yet I leave incredibly well fed and impeccably served.
For a birthday treat, I even indulge in an omakase, which means it’s the chef’s choice, handing free reign to the sushi chef to prepare a progressive meal based on the freshest cuts of sashimi that day.
He feeds me akami, a slice of ruby red tuna sashimi, then a portion of chutoro, a marbled, less lean slice of tuna, and finally, otoro, the fattiest, most indulgent part, the tuna belly. My eyes are closed, savouring each morsel, delicately dressed with wasabi and a touch of soya sauce. I’m in heaven. It’s an intimate moment really — diners sit in bar stools facing the chef, sharing his culinary flair and love for his ingredients. In return, he watches their reaction to his offerings, bite by bite. There are exchanges of smiles, laughter and many nods of appreciation — the food and experience are unforgettable.
Trusting his judgment wholeheartedly, I even dive into my first-ever bite of uni, or sea urchin. Ignore the naysayers — when it’s fresh and prepared right, it’s genuinely delectable, smooth and creamy.
I’ll admit, I’ve joined long lines outside of restaurants in Tokyo, rubbing shoulders with locals, without knowing what precisely I’m queuing for. This is a practical move that has never steered me wrong: TripAdvisor and Zagat are great, but the best review of all is seeing a steady stream of local patrons waiting 30 minutes up to an hour for a bowl of udon noodles, a katsu pork cutlet or an unagi eel teriyaki bowl.
My favourite coincidental find? Tsukemen, a dish also known as dipping ramen noodles, which throngs of people have been lining up for outside of my hotel all week. These noodle bars are no frills — when I get to the front of the queue, I’m met with a vending machine. My options are “ramen” or “dipping noodles” paired with either a Coke or an Asahi beer. After I feed in my yen, the machine spits out a coin that is handed over to the bar. Within minutes, I’m greeted with a plate of thick, cold ramen noodles with a chewy bite and a heaping bowl of gravy-like pork belly broth, topped with ground pork, scallions, and seaweed. The broth is intentionally salty, and spicy, designed for the cold noodles to soak up the sauce.
Above: The playful Japanese like to form their food in the shape of cartoon characters, left, but it's the country's famed Kobe beef that most visitors like to sample.
Instructions on the table show newbies, like me, to dip the noodles one mouthful at a time into the broth and, specifically, slurp, slurp, slurp.
The noodle cravings resurface in Kyoto, as I’m run off my feet, clocking as many kilometres as a marathoner to take in all of the sights. The former capital of Japan is packed with stunning Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and imperial palaces.
It’s also known as the soba noodle hotspot of Japan. Because of its colder winters and being so far away from the coast, Kyoto swaps out fresh seafood for the likes of preserved fish, meat and vegetables. Tofu, soba, sake and matcha are also the shining stars of this part of Japan.
Hourai soba is a warm and light noodle soup — it’s paired with toppings like shrimp, sesame seeds, shiitake mushrooms, radishes and eggs. With five layers of buckwheat noodles to get through, I top each plate with a combination of the ingredients and bathe the noodles in a light broth.
The traditional dish is satisfying, giving me the energy I need to continue my lookout for the elusive geisha, who allegedly still walk through the city’s Gion district.
Our final stop is a strategically-planned respite in Takayama, tucked away in Japan’s mountainside and just a 90-minute ride northeast from Tokyo on the Shinkansen bullet train. The quaint town is known for a few things: its narrow cobblestone streets steeped in history and lined with wooden merchants’ houses dating back to the 1600s, and its ryokans dotted along the tranquil Miyagawa River.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese guesthouse, and it’s a bucket list experience for anyone travelling to Japan.
My room features the iconic tatami mattress and shoji, which are wooden sliding doors. Yuri, my matronly hostess, lets me pick out my yukata, a casual summer kimono, which I’ll wear during my stay. There is a rainbow of stunning colours, but I opt for a floral pattern in shades of rose matched with a grey obi, or sash that ties around my waist.
Yuri isn’t shy — before I even think of how I’ll put the elaborate kimono on, she quickly removes my t-shirt, dresses me in my yukata, and pulls and ties the garment together until it’s cinched my waist and fits perfectly.
Just in time for dinner.
Another great pleasure of staying at a ryokan is the kaiseki, a traditional multi-course dinner that showcases a collection of techniques and ingredients native to the region.
Above: Sampling all the different cuisine Japan has to offer usually takes more than one trip to this fascinating country where food is a religion.
It’s a masterpiece: the meal starts with a series of intricate dishes, some in porcelain and others on a slab of oak or in miniature baskets — little silver, red and pink gem-coloured bites of sashimi, local river fish deep-fried and skewered on a bed of leaves, gently salted spoonfuls of edamame and white corn.
Takayama’s proximity to Hida is another happy coincidence to celebrate as the main course arrives. Hida, just 20 minutes away, is a quiet farmeing community known for one thing really: incredible wagyu beef.
Japanese beef cattle are raised for at least 14 months in green pastures and pristine waters in the Gifu region. The result? Intense and beautiful marbling that’s world renowned.
Thin slices of Hida beef arrive at my table with squash, scallions and mushrooms, ready for tableside grilling. The beef is cooked in front of us, the marbled fat coating the vegetables. I can cut the beef with a spoon — and I’m not surprised that it melts in mouth. It’s the appropriate final meal in Japan before I head back to Tokyo to fly home.
My ryokan hosts know how to wrap up a perfect day in Takayama. With my belly full, I head back to my suite to find my private outdoor onsen — or hot spring bath — all set up for my return. It’s serene — a white pebble path leading to the water, and covered in lush foliage for privacy.
The yukata comes off as I dip my toes into the warm water. It’s divine against the cool evening breeze, relaxing my overworked body and my sore feet as I unwind.
And before I’ve even left, I’ve decided I must come back. It turns out, I have an insatiable appetite for Japan.