Eat Japan: Everything.
Not "This Is Everything You Want to Eat in Japan." Rather, "Eat Everything in Japan." Everything.
Glad we cleared that up.
Preamble: Star Power
419, 217, 25.
The first is the number of Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan.
The second is the number of Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo alone.
The third is the number of 3-starred restaurants in Japan, Michelin's highest rating and a nigh impossible feat.
France, with over 600 starred restaurants (naturally) and the home of Michelin, has only one more 3-star restaurant than Japan.
You want to eat here.
You think you know ramen. I thought I knew ramen. We're cute.
Ramen has been exported all over the world in its full spectrum of quality, from one minute Cup Noodles to Ippudo's no-one-else-can-seem-to-match authenticity, and even exported back to Japan via New York chef Ivan Orkin. Yet no ramen is quite the same as a bowl of the best in its country of origin. In fact, not even close.
I'll rant on this someday, but exported cuisine will always lose something on the trip out of its host country, and gain something else as it finds a place in its new home. Ramen out of Japan is not necessarily worse than ramen in Japan; it is different. I freely, easily, gratefully say that I have had plenty of fantastic American ramen in the year since I visited Japan. I subsequently dare you, dearest reader, to go to the above or below establishment in Tokyo, take a big hearty slurp of noodle, pork, and broth, and not pull a When Harry Met Sally deli scene. You know the one.
I won't waste time describing the ramen, because I can't. Every ramen shop is unique anyway, and proudly so. Just be ready to A) slurp and be surrounded by slurping B) sit next to jovial Japanese strangers, and C) order and pay at a machine outside (don't worry, there are pictures).
Pro Tip: Kaedama = "More noodles." You're welcome.
Though obviously still a noodle, soba is in almost every aspect a separate beast from ramen. Where the latter is flashy, heavy, spicy, meaty, and intense, soba is light and cold, with more subtle flavors, and often served with vegetable and shrimp tempura.
Soba in America is most often relegated to salad or lunch bowls. A soba noodle restaurant in Japan takes the making of its own buckwheat noodles very seriously (well, nearly every restaurant in Japan takes the making of its whatever very seriously), and serves the noodles as the main dish surrounded by sides and sauces. It's a tranquil and unique experience, best enjoyed after a visit to one of Japan's thousands of temples or shrines.
Surprise surprise, and yet, a little surprise - sushi is not the most popular food in Japan*. Udon, ramen, and curry are twelve to a block, but sushi is relatively harder to find, even in Tokyo.
When you do find it, however, the standard Japanese 100 yen/plate conveyor belt sushi bar is a leap and a bound and a thousand mile flight better than its distant cousin in America. Putting away 12 plates of roe, tuna, salmon, octopus, sea urchin, and more than a few who-knows-what never felt so good.
*At least not in Kyoto, Fujiyama, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagano.
Chirashi (aka Sushi Bowl!) - Akihabara, Tokyo
If managing stacks of bitty sushi plates is too tame for your flamboyant food sensibilities, there is always chirashi around some corner or another. Rice, fish, soy sauce, heavenly delight. Do as the everyone else do and minimize the distance between the bowl and your mouth, use those nifty chopsticks as a shovel, and go to town. Then again, if you don't like raw fish to begin with... maybe don't.
Convenience Store Food
In the grand old (young) USA, convenience stores are good for three things: road trips, late night munchies, and big honking gulps of headache otherwise known as "slurpees."
In Japan, convenience stores are good for literally everything. Breakfast egg sandwich? They got it. Fried chicken box? They got it. Bubble tea? Got it. Ice cream in a squeezy bag? Yes'm. Booze? Y'done know it. Everything matcha-flavored? Hoop there it is. Copy/fax/ATM? Right over here, sir.
Lawson's/7Eleven/Family Mart are still very much convenience stores, but the food is quick and preternaturally tasty. Pop in without hesitation and try not to drop that jaw.
You curry favor, I favor curry. What's not to like? Saucy, tender meat served with naan or on rice hits the spot any time, especially on a chilly fall day in Tokyo. Both Japanese and Indian curry are extremely popular in the cities, as one of many imported cuisines fully embraced by the population.
If you're a person who associates curry with an upset stomach, might I gently suggest getting over it. Ask a local for a rec if you're that worried; they don't bite.
Beef. - near Meiji University, Tokyo
Like curry above and Italian food below, Korean barbecue has found a happy home in Nippon. Here the star is meat, and the show is cooking it yourself. Meat in Japan is generally much more fatty than in the US, and is thus much more delicious. The fat absorbs a ton of flavor, and besides, you're walking miles around every day to burn it off, so who cares? Your mouth does, and it will thank you. Plus sweating it out over the grill really works up an appetite, so buck up there grillmaster.
Aside, in regards to beef: if you, hypothetically, receive an offer to eat real Kobe beef at a traditional establishment in Kyoto, complete with a rare appearance and performance by a real, honest-to-goodness geisha, and you turn it down because you "don't like red meat that much" - slap yourself, apologize for that brief moment of lunacy, and go.
Not going could, hypothetically, haunt you forever. Anyway...
I ate two of the best Italian meals of my life while in Japan. Granted, they were both at Michelin-starred restaurants, but still. Italian, in Japan?
It totally works.
Like in America, Italian restaurants are usually nicer establishments where one would go to dinner with a small group. Many happen to be very nice restaurants. From prosciutto and foie gras antipasti to simple, perfect pasta and pizza, the Italian cuisine in Japan blew me away with its level of expertise. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been that surprised.
One in particular - Roberto's - is about 20 seats large and manned only by the chef and a server. That was the best dining experience I've ever had: between watching a master chef at work (the dining bar overlooks the kitchen), pasta precisely al dente, a full-bodied glass of red wine, my favorite company, and the lingering, happy knowledge of "Hey, I'm in Japan!"... that little 20 seat Italian restaurant in Tokyo is unforgettable.
There's more, so much more. I didn't even visit Osaka, the home of takoyaki (fried octopus balls - no, not like that. Just, you know. Balls.) and the "everything pancakes" known as okonomiyaki - the ultimate in Japanese treat y'self food. Next time.
Just remember: Chococro for life. Dumplings for days. If it looks good, it is.
Now follow that stomach.