We are “foodies” and travelers. Great combination. We’ve taken “foodie tours” in many of the countries on our itineraries. What we discovered is that these tours are not just about the local cuisine. Way beyond that, our knowledgeable guides share insights into the country, the people, and the way of life.
The “Secret Food Tour” in Tokyo in 2019 included seven stops with multiple tasting experiences. Mission accomplished yet again. We sampled new foods and learned more about the area as we walked the crowded streets of Ueno with Tomoko our expert guide.
Sometimes just getting to the meeting point is part of our adventure. We passed on the simple solution – no taxi for us. We left The Viking Orion Cruise Ship and took a local bus from the disembarkation terminal to the massive crowded Tokyo train station. We found our way to the JR line to Ueno. There amid the comings and goings of so many travelers, we found our guide Tomoko, as promised, waiting in the terminal in front of the Hard Rock Cafe. (Hey, those are everywhere.)
Our adventure started upstairs at the Sushi at Sushitsume restaurant in the terminal where we learned the history of sushi and techniques for its proper consumption . We were told that sushi is a casual food that originated in the 18thcentury when raw fish were packed with fomented rice as a means of preservation.
As sushi became more popular, the portions became smaller and the preparation more sophisticated. The flavor of the various sushi rolls is dependent on the type of seaweed used in the preparation. Tomoko recommended black seaweed.
Tomoko then led us through the busy streets to the Ueno section of Tokyo, a popular area for shopping, eating, drinking, and socializing. We visited food venues on the crowded side streets as well as the main thoroughfares.
Oyama Meat Shop was our first stop. We sampled Menchi-katsu, a deep fried meat croquette. It is a storefront with stools and a fryer – very typical shop for the crowded side streets.
Next was the Sanko-en tea store where we sampled green tea and learned a little about this ancient drink. We were told that green tea is generally produced from young leafs, is healthy, and contains high caffeine levels. Japan has two major tea producing areas – the Central and Southern regions.
Our main course was a huge seasonal lunch with Sukiyaki at a special restaurant. We learned that the Japanese appreciate the seasons in terms of what they eat and drink. As example, our meal included a strawberry flavored desert since strawberries were in season. Before we ate, Tomoko discussed Japanese eating etiquette and taught us a few Japanese expressions . “Oishi! “Or yummy and “Itadakimas” or thank you for the meal were my favorites,
After the extensive lunch, knowing we needed a bit of exercise, Tomoko took us to the colorful Ueno Park. Since we visited during the Japanese Golden Week holiday, the crowds were huge. This heavily wooded 133 acre site is Japan’s most popular park.We learned that it was established in 1873 and is the home of several museums, a shrine and a temple. A major battle took place here in 1868 during the Boshin War pitting the forces of the emperor against the forces of the Shogun and Samurai.
Tomoko continued to discuss Japanese history and led us past the five story pagoda and into the Shinto shrine. We saw the monument dedicated to former United States president Ulysses Grant as well as the statue of Takamori the last samurai.
We ready for our next course. At Ichigoro, we sampled Gyoza or fried dumplings. Tomoko told us that Gyoza are actually Northern Chinese in origin and Japanese soldiers discovered the food during a military occupation and brought the recipe home. We enjoyed the tasty fried dumplings on the second floor of this crowded restaurant. I learned to beware of dipping into really hot sauce.
Next, we enjoyed some sake and yakitiru at the crowded energy-filled Takioka standing bar. This all night restaurant was filled with wall to wall patrons eating, but mainly drinking beer and sake and clearly thoroughly enjoying themselves.
It was time for desert. On to Hyakka-en for fresh strawberries or pineapple on a stick. This was not a walk in and sit down spot, but rather a simple stand with fruit-filled coolers and a long line of customers. It was a delicious way to conclude the tour.
The Secret Food Tour certainly lived up to our enthusiastic culinary expectations. We were exposed to Japanese food in restaurants frequented by locals together with learning more about the history and culture of this fascinating country. It is well worth your time to take this tour when visiting Tokyo.