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A non-guide to snacking in Tokyo and Kyoto

It's hard to go hungry in Japanese cities. Everywhere you go, there seems to be an endless array of things to eat just around the corner. From the convenience stores (more on this later) dotting every block, to the kiosks and food stands that specialise in one food item (eg. croquettes or curry doughnuts). This is not even taking into account the numerous izakayas and restaurants whose presence seem to rival those of the convenience stores.

Soy Doughnut

Soy doughnut from Kyo-Ine in Arashiyama, a shop/cafe specialising tofu and desserts. They were sold from a little kiosk off the the side of the main shop, and I think that they were made from soy milk and tofu skin. They were crisp, delicate, and delicious.

But what truly surprised me, more so than the abundance of food and snack options, is the quality of most of these offerings. Forget the stale doughnuts and soggy meat pies you get at a 7 Eleven in Australia; in Japan, each branch carries an assortment of food items which will not look out of place at an upmarket food hall, with most refrigerated to-go items delivered fresh throughout the day. Aside from the omni-present onigiri (seasoned Japanese rice balls), ready-to-heat meals like curry rice, and sandwiches, each branch carries a wide array of fresh, made-on-the-day chilled desserts such as parfait with sweetened red bean, mochi balls and green tea cream, Japanese-style cheesecake, creme caramel and mango pudding. All were better than anything I could find at any supermarket in Australia. (I tried them all, you can trust me). It was akin to dying and going to snack-heaven.

Yaki-dango- grilled Japanese rice-flour sweet dumpling, which I bought at a stall on the way out of Fushimi-Inari shrine. The sauce is a lightly sweetened soy sauce, brushed on after the dumpling has been grilled over charcoal, to order (of course).

As far as creating your own snack-destiny goes, there were places which we went to as part of an itinerary, and there were those which we had no initial plans of visiting, but which, due to some research and free time, we were able to encounter. The latter were my favourites, because even though they were not unknown, they were to me, and it truly did feel like finding hidden treasure.

The ideal 'hidden treasure' for a snack enthusiast should be well-reviewed, but not so well-known or significant enough that every food blogger from every part of the world has posted about it on Instagram, like Harajuku's crispy cream puffs at Croquant Chou Zaku Zaku, which yes, was absolutely delicious, but which also came about as no surprise.

Naniwaya Sohonten Shopfront
Naniwaya Sohonten storefront

Fortunately, Naniwaya Sohonten, located in Roppongi/Azabu-juban, offered just that. Naniwaya Sohonten looks a typical neighbourhood lunch cafe, where locals and office workers alike could drop in to either eat in or take away home-style cooking for quite affordable prices. However, this little, homely looking neighbourhood cafe holds a little (albeit quite well-known) secret: they have been making taiyaki (Japansese fish-shaped sweet pastry with sweetened red bean filling) since 1909. To this day, they still make each dessert to order, and they start off with a batter and a special iron (think a hand-held sandwich press in the shape of a fish), to which they add 8-hour cooked sweetened red bean paste that is made daily. The result is a crisp, thin batter enclosing a slightly sweet, gooey center. I'd advise you to eat it while it's hot, but I know that like me, you wouldn't have it any other way.

Although it doesn't qualify as a 'snack' per se, one of the highlights of our trip was a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji market, at a 12-seater sushi 'bar' called Sushi Yamazaki, located between the more popular Daiwa and Sushi Dai. We weren't prepared to queue for 4 hours at either, so did our research and came up with an alternative option. We weren't disappointed. Upon entering the narrow establishment, I saw 3 chefs behind the counter (yep- that's 3 chefs to 12 customers), and I knew that we've hit jackpot.

Each one of our order is hand-shaped right in front of our eyes, and all of them were of very high quality, however, the highlight for us came in the form of our chef's recommendation, in the form of a common fish which I never would have thought in a million years would make a great nigiri.

Sardine. Yes, that humble, common, low-grade smelly fish you find canned in supermarket aisles. Except that it was not. In season and therefore very fresh (the only way it can be served raw, as it spoils very quickly), our chef expertly prepared the whole sardine right there and then for us, a task which involved not only slicing the small fish into precise fillets, but also the painstaking removal the needle-like pin-bones, each stubbornly lodged in the flesh, without mangling the fish. A cut is then made down the centre of each slice, which would hold *just* the right amount of shoyu, finished with a dab of thinly sliced spring onions, finely grated ginger, old enough to provide a bite, but not old enough to turn stringy and overpower the delicate taste of the fish.

And dear reader, delicate is the best word I could come up with, but please know that it does not do the fish any justice. The flesh, devoid of its numerous tiny bones, falls apart with the lightest bite, and the flavour is mild, but incredibly well-balanced, and the seasoning just right. Everything about that single piece of nigiri- the rice, the fish, the ginger, the shoyu- everything was in perfect harmony, as if each element was made and meant for each other. Which, of course, they were.

Fresh sea urchin, dressed simply in shoyu. Sea urchin was coincidentally in peak season when I was there. I've had it before, but this one, hands down, beat them all.

With Japan coming in number 1 on Traveller's list of Top 10 best destinations of the decade, I do hope that you will make your way there, if you haven't already, soon. And when you do, have a set of itineraries with you, but do keep an open mind and an open schedule; Japan, from my experience so far, is a place best explored by neighbourhood. Bring a huge appetite (you would need it), and an adventurous palate (you would also need it). I would wish you good snacking/eating karma, but knowing Japan, this could be the one thing you won't need.


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