Tokyo is an incredible destination for many reasons – the history, the culture, the art, the architecture, the crowds. But that is not what called us to this Asian megalopolis. No, we arrived in Tokyo on a mission. A mission to spend four days diving mouth first into the culinary scene of the city. We ate and drank, then ate and drank, then ate and drank some more. We discovered some pretty sweet spots on our own, but nothing we ate compared to the experience we had on an Oishii Food Tour.
Oishii (oh-ee-shee) means ‘yummy’ in Japanese, and perfectly describes everything about this tour. The owner (Naoko) and tour guide (Mina) welcomed us with open arms, and showed us the hidden eateries that only locals know about. The tidbits about the neighborhood that accompanied the delicious array of food was the perfect combination.
This was not your typical food tour.
We anticipated small tastings at each restaurant. You know, many different bites that equal one meal. Not the case! On an Oishii Tour you eat a substantial amount of food, almost a full meal at each stop. Trust me, come hungry!
The Aka chochin is a tour in the neighborhood of Ebisu, and is probably one we would not have explored without the help of a guide. It is a famous place for eating and drinking, and filled with izakaya (Japanese pubs) and small restaurants. It is much quieter than its neighbors, Shibuya and Meguro. Naoko chose to launch a food tour in this neighborhood because there are so many places to eat that are not too expensive.
For three and half hours we meandered the streets immersed in the vibrant culture. We ate (a lot!), laughed, and learned all about Japanese food, language, and life.
Mouthwatering Yakitori at Tagosaku
We stepped through the curtain of a 50 year old counter restaurant known for its yakitori (skewered meat). Mugs of beer were in our hands before we even sat down. The chef, dressed in black robes, grilled up chicken and pork skewers right in front of us.
The skewers cooked quickly and came hot off the coals ready to be devoured. The tender pork and chicken, grilled with salt and served with spicy mustard, easily fell off the skewer and filled our mouths with flavor. As we licked our skewers clean, Naoko explained how and why she started the food tour; an incredible visit to Vietnam inspired her to showcase the delicacies of her own country.
Raw Fish and Sake at Taiyoya
Next up, was a small upstairs restaurant with a table ready and waiting for us. We were quickly served a plate of nigiri sushi (raw fish on a small ball of rice). Thin slices of rockfish, flounder, yellowtail, snapper, and tuna rounded out our full plate of raw fish. Now, we would have been happy with just the sushi, but in order to fully enjoy it, we needed to pair it with sake. Duh!
Naoko ordered three different bottles of sake and explained to us which ones go best with which fish. Not only was this tour an immersion in food, but learning about Japanese liquor as well was an excellent perk.
You would think after sushi, and multiple cups of sake we would be finished – but no! We gathered around the fish tank and watched the chef catch our next bite – horse mackerel. He quickly filleted the fish and presented us with thin, translucent slices of horse mackerel. The fish still twitched with electricity as we wrapped its oily meat in Japanese basil. Two totally opposite flavors that made quite a combo!
Naoko’s spunky personality really came out during this part of the tour. She enthralled us with stories of picking sea urchins on the beach, and her travels around the world, all while tying it back into her life in Japan.
Next up was my favorite part of the tour. A little food town filled with happy chatter, smoke and enticing smells. If it weren’t for this Oishii Food Tour, we would have never in a million years discovered this incredible “side town” called Ebisu Yokocho.
A Hidden Food Town: Ebisu Yokocho
Entering Ebisu Yokocho was like seeing the walls part on Diagon Alley (sorry-Harry Potter reference); it was magical. The small entrance is unassuming from the outside, lit by a few neon signs. Step passed the ordinary door and into a world of laughing people, sizzling food, and delicious aromas. We squeezed through the tight passageway, passing packed tables of salary men, young couples, and groups of friends.
The Yokocho is a food alley; a tightly packed space filled with many different tiny restaurants.
Our high top table was ready and waiting despite the crowds, and we were in for a feast. First up was Japanese brown rice wine mixed with soda water, and a savory pancake called okonomiyaki. It was made mostly of cabbage and vegetables, with fried fish and sauce on top.
Within minutes came the next dish, fried stingray.
This was by far the standout dish for me. It was marinated in sugar and sake, then dried, fried and served with mayo. It was sweet and chewy and full of flavor.
Next up was a shrimp and avocado salad called ebbi-avocado-chili-mayo-itameh. Long name for a simple dish, but it describes perfectly what it was all about. Avocado and shrimp are a classic combination, but the fact that it was fried and meshed together with mayo really elevated this dish.
Last came fried noodles. A full plate of thick udon-style noodles fried with vegetables and soy sauce. At this point, we were both so full we could only have a couple of bites of the noodles.
We didn’t want to leave the lively atmosphere of the yokocho, but our stomachs needed a break, and a nice walk would get us ready for the home stretch.
Perfectly Cooked Noodles at Yamacho Udon
This famous noodle factory turned restaurant is a popular spot. We had to wait a bit, and were told that sometimes they can’t get in because it’s so busy. They serve strictly udon, either hot or cold, so Chris and I ordered one of each to share.
The cold broth came with two different dipping sauces, one peanut based and the other soy based. While the hot udon came already in a warm broth. Neither of us are huge fans of noodles, but this dish blew us away. The udon was the perfect consistency; not too hard or soft. It held the flavor of the sauces nicely, and even on our full stomachs, we were able to slurp down the bowl.
Even after all the food we consumed over the previous three hours, there is always room for ice cream at the end of a night. Which is exactly where the fifth and final stop found us.
Traditional Japanese Ice Cream at Ouca
The line outside the ice cream store bent around the block, clearly this was something we needed to try. The line moved quickly and soon we were faced with the very tough decision of which three ice cream flavors to choose. The ice cream looked like gelato, and had similar consistency. We both went with the same flavors: sakura, green tea and sweet soybean. The ice cream was creamy and sweet and served with a wafer cookie and dried seaweed. The sweetness of the ice cream contrasted perfectly with the salty seaweed — what a combo!
The tour came to an end, and we parted ways with Naoko, Mina and our group, very full, but very happy. We tried dishes we never would have known about, and were exposed to hidden restaurants we would have never found.
Going on the Oishii Food Tour was one of the best decisions we made during our time in Japan. I highly, highly recommend booking a tour on your next trip to Tokyo!
Aka choucin Tour (this is what we did)
When: Monday-Sunday (no Friday) from 6:30-10
Cost: 13,000 yen ($108)
When: Monday-Friday from 6:15-9:45
Cost: 15,000 yen ($125)
The Oishii food tour is new, (just started in August 2015) and they are expanding quickly. They are in the process of researching more neighborhoods and adding more tours, so keep an eye on their website!
Thank you to Naoko and everyone over at Oishii Food Tours for hosting us. We had an incredible time, and all the delicious opinions are our own.