Malaysian family eats their way through Tokyo (and parts of Hakone)

The reader (far right), his wife and son enjoying a kaiseki breakfast in the comfort of their ryokan bedroom.

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Being food lovers, my family and I went to Tokyo, Japan last year for a food-centric holiday. We arrived at night, and at about 10pm we ventured out of our hotel to search for the quintessential Japanese fare: ramen.

We went to a popular ramen restaurant chain that’s unique for its minimal human interaction. After placing our order through the self-service machine, we were ushered to our own separate cubicles.

Our food was served by the partially hidden waiter through our individual window. It was very systematic with no requirement for verbal communication – which was very much appreciated as we were all looking worse for wear after the flight.

The queue for the food took around an hour, which felt ludicrous at the start, but we quickly learnt that this was common at all subsequent restaurants we visited.

The next day we explored Asakusa, a historic neighbourhood known for its blend of traditional and cultural landmarks, including the iconic Sensoji Temple and Kamina-rimon Gate. We indulged in some street food, such as amazake, takoyaki, taiyaki and mitarashi dango. Amazake, literally “sweet sake”, is a non-alcoholic fermented rice drink. A favourite of ours is tako senbei, or flattened shrimp crackers.

For dessert, we went to a matcha gelato shop that was unique for its seven levels of increasing matcha intensity.

We strolled along Kappabashi Dougo, a street dominated by shops selling kitchen utensils and cookware, as well as sampuru, which are plastic models of food meant for window displays.

The next day, we went to Enoshima and Kamakura, popular day trip destinations for Tokyo locals. Enoshima is a small touristy island where one can enjoy fresh seafood, specifically whitebait, the Japanese version of our humble ikan bilis. We had it prepared in every way possible: fried, boiled and raw, and served over rice. We even had whitebait sprinkled on ice cream!

In the afternoon, we departed the island for Kamakura on a scenic coastal route onboard the Enoden electric train, which is frequently featured in anime, manga and other films.

Kamakura is one of Japan’s ancient capitals, famous for its many temples, most notably the Great Buddha. It felt like the ideal place to have matcha, so we popped into a tiny tea shop. It was run by a kind elderly lady who shared with us the age-old technique of preparing the tea and taught us how to hold a tea cup correctly with both hands.

The reader (far right), his wife and son enjoying a kaiseki breakfast in the comfort of their ryokan bedroom. The reader (far right), his wife and son enjoying a kaiseki breakfast in the comfort of their ryokan bedroom.

Day four was shopping day, so we spent the afternoon in Harajuku, where olden and present-day Japan intertwined. Lunch was at a spot with only one item on the menu – gyoza. We stuffed ourselves with boiled and fried gyoza in different flavours, then washed it down with chuhai, a refreshing cocktail of shochu and carbonated water.

For dinner, we had the uniquely Tokyo fare monjayaki, which is kind of like a gooey okonomiyaki, and eaten with tiny spatulas called mojo-bera.

We also stayed one night in a traditional ryokan in Hakone. It was winter so we had soba, prepared with fresh mountain water and eaten cold, dipped in tsuyu sauce. It tasted excellent when paired with some hot, greasy ebi tempura. Nearing the end of the meal, we were served soba-yu – the water in which the soba was boiled – to mix with the tsuyu and drink as a warming soup. We sat at a small restaurant overlooking Lake Ashinoko. The lake never freezes in winter as its water is warmer than the air, resulting in frequent heavy fog and a mystical view.

For breakfast we were served kaiseki in our room; We had natto and ochazake (rice porridge in green tea).

Another not-to-be-missed delicacy in Hakone is the hot spring steamed red bean bun.

Back in Tokyo city, we woke up early to beat the queues at the “old” Tsukiji Fish Market. This gourmet paradise is lined with many sushi stands and restaurants. We ate the highly sought-after blue fin tuna sashimi, as well as some tamagoyaki buns, and managed to finish up just as the tourist crowd started to grow.

Lunch was at a chicken paitan ramen restaurant in Ginza that’s mentioned in the Michelin Guide. The light broth was such a unique contrast to the heavy tonkotsu broth common in Malaysia. We left the hustle-and-bustle of glitzy Ginza behind, to the relief of our wallets, for a stroll in the Hama-rikyu Gardens, once the family garden of the Tokugawa Shogun.

There, in the middle of a lake, was a teahouse where patrons sit on the floor and enjoy thick matcha and wagashi.

On our penultimate night, we had sushi at a highly rated but reasonably priced restaurant in Ginza, and thought we were well accustomed to the Japanese queues at this point. But we were wrong as it was a four-hour wait! Thankfully, we were able to monitor queue positions on our phones and went to a café in the adjacent shopping mall to wait.

A friendly vendor preparing matcha green tea for customers in Kamakura.A friendly vendor preparing matcha green tea for customers in Kamakura.

The sushi was definitely worth the long wait as each item was meticulously prepared upon order. We tried as many different fish as we could: conger eel, bonito, yellowtail, mackerel and many more.

On our last day, we took a leisurely stroll in the Eastern Gardens of the Imperial Palace and had gyukatsu or beef for lunch. We stopped by Akihabara, a hub for electronic goods and anime merchandise. It was very interesting to see the range of merchandise on offer, even if we did not watch anime.

As the sun was setting, we made a brief stop to catch sight of the iconic Tokyo Tower, brilliantly red and majestic in the night sky.

For our express train ride to the airport, what better food to round off our journey than the beloved ekiben – bentos featuring local and seasonal delicacies, beautifully wrapped and ready for consumption.

Our son spent months of research on the trip, selecting meals and activities for each day, and figuring out the logistics and accommodation. He even flew into Tokyo from London, where he lives, two days before our flight to familiarise himself with the place and finalise last-minute arrangements.

The overall holiday was truly enjoyable and memorable to all of us, even though our waistlines expanded by the time we got home!

The views expressed are entirely the reader’s own.

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