When it comes to quirky cred, nowhere beats Japan. As soon as you clear airport security, you’ll discover the kind of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ wackiness that will keep you wide-eyed throughout your stay. Japanese food is no less fun. Cutesy presentation, crazy combinations (a soba-topped hot dog, anyone?), and everything from a vending machine: you won’t be bored by the eating options here. Of course, there are heavy-hitters such as the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo you’ll want to see (and eating super-fresh sashimi for breakfast at its stalls is a must), but some of the best Japanese eating experiences will happen unexpectedly, simply stumbled upon as you make your way around. Ahead are a few such experiences.
Watch mochi masters at work
There are loads of classic sweets that are worthy of your time in Japan, but mochi, those chewy little rice cakes dusted in soybean powder, is particularly thrilling to watch being made. Basically, sticky rice called ‘mochigome’ gets pounded with a giant mallet by one person while another folds the mixture by hand. It happens at a lightning pace, and it’s hard not to fear for the fingers of the person mixing! The fastest mochi-maker in Japan is said to be in Nara, which is the small village near Kyoto famous for its deer. Skill, speed and high stakes – a lot goes into these pastel-coloured cakes.
Slurp somen noodles from a slide
Noodles are ritual in Japanese food culture, eaten in every season and at most meals. They also hold symbolism, with one well-known example being the slurping of ramen on New Year’s Eve for good luck. Another Japanese tradition is the game of catching somen noodles from a slide. Nasgashi somen, or ‘flowing noodles’, are typically enjoyed in the warmer months as a fun way to beat the heat. Customarily, the noodles are pre-cooked, dipping sauces laid out, and then a bamboo tube set up with icy-cold water coursing through, with one person designated as the ‘launcher’ and the rest gathering around with their chopsticks at the ready to snap up the slippery somen. Playing with your food is encouraged in this way in Japan, and many families still own somen slides (although these days they’re more often store-bought versions than ones cut from bamboo trunks). One of the best restaurants for this seasonal treat is Hirobun, in a mountainous area of Kyoto by a river, and it’s also a picturesque place for a traditional kaiseki meal.
See how many Kit Kat flavours you can collect
The way Japan has owned and elevated the Kit Kat, you’d think the candy originated in the country (even most Japanese people would be surprised to learn that’s not the case). Part of the reason this British chocolate is so popular is that it sounds like the Japanese phrase ‘kitto katsu’, meaning ‘to surely win’. As well as that, in different provinces of Japan, there are regional takes on the treat that only exist in those areas, plus seasonal releases which are only available for a few months to celebrate significant events (such as the bloom of cherry blossoms), adding to their collectability. There are more than 400 varieties of Kit Kat to have been released in Japan, and catching them all (or at least as many as will fit into your suitcase) is tastier than chasing Pokemon. Visit slick Chocolatory Boutiques for Kit Kats made with a higher grade of chocolate and rare ingredients, and the Don Quijote mega mall in Tokyo for one of the most extensive selections (with flavours such as sake, wasabi, red bean and plum wine). Unusual versions will pop up wherever you go though, so keep your eyes peeled.
Take made-to-order to the next level with okonomiyaki
Sometimes referred to as the ‘pizza’ or ‘pancake’ of Japan, okonomiyaki, which translates to ‘whatever you like, grilled’, is a dish with a history that traces back hundreds of years. The modern incarnation found at okonomiyaki restaurants, however, wasn’t born until the late 1940s. There are two important regions of Japan for an okonomiyaki food tour – Osaka, which claims to have opened the first dedicated restaurant, and Hiroshima. Each of these regions has a distinctive style, with the main difference being that in Hiroshima it tends to be a heartier version topped with noodles and a fried egg. The cool part about eating at okonomiyaki restaurants is that once you’ve chosen the ingredients (in addition to the staples of eggs, flour, cabbage and the zig-zag of Kewpie mayo and moreish brown sauce), you sit down at a table with a hot griddle top where the chef assembles your order.