Eating out in Japan is never a problem thanks to the abundance of eating options suited to every palate and wallet size. But when overwhelmed with choices, what then, should one choose? Here are some lesser-known places loved by locals.
1. Tayu Tayu
This cramped izakaya in Osaka’s Namba specialises in grilled pork known as yakiton (pork skewers) made from every part of the pig imaginable – think tongue and intestines. Each yakiton skewer was lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, and had a smoky and fatty flavour that lingered on the palate. The pork-obsessed eatery also serves stews that include a pork belly bowl and a pork-bone chitterlings soup. Wash it all down with a pint of Japanese draft beer. Nose-to-tail eating? The Asians have already figured that out. Note that the staff, though friendly, speak limited English. Luckily, there was an English menu available.
2-6-10, Sennichimae, Chuo-ku, Osaka
This bolthole is in a quiet residential district about a 20-minute walk from the shopping stretch at Dotonbori, Osaka. The menu was filled with pictures of raw, well-marbled Kobe beef. After we placed our order, one of the chefs came by and grilled the meat yakiniku-style, piece by piece, for us.
Every individual piece of caramelised meat was sublime, the piquant beef coming close to disintegrating the moment I placed it on my tongue. There were also three “dips” for the beef: daikon in soya sauce, one thick and sweeter sauce, and a spicy mix. Try them all, for food pairing is important to the Japanese and each sauce imparts a different taste to the slices of heavenly Kobe beef.
3-5-14 Kawarayamachi, Chuo-ku, Osaka
3. Gion Nanba
Tucked into a dark alleyway in Kyoto’s geisha district is a nondescript one-Michelin-star kaiseki restaurant. Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese meal where the freshest ingredients of the season are used. When I visited, it was winter, and daikon featured prominently in a few of our dishes. I ate my way through a staggering variety of exquisite items such as duck breast, mackerel, snow crab and tuna sashimi – all cooked right before our eyes with just a touch of sauce or seasoning, resulting in bursts of natural flavour. There are several differently-priced courses to choose from. Service was gracious and warm, and despite their limited English, our server did her best to explain each dish as she served it to us.
4-jo Hanamikoji Higashiiru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Less than a 10-minute walk from the gargantuan Kyoto train station is this unassuming wood-fronted store with giant slabs of meat on display. Here, I ordered the fried sirloin cutlet set that included an egg, miso soup, cabbage and an assortment of sauces. When the food arrived, I was initially put off by how pink the meat looked. But when I took my first bite, all my doubts melted away. The pinkish beef was tender and juicy, and the breadcrumb coating made it deliciously crisp. Meanwhile, the crispy tempura shell hid an oozing soft-boiled egg, that I happily placed on top of my rice (which had barley grains in it). Try the meat on its own or have it with one of the sauces provided – soya sauce with fresh wasabi, Japanese salt and pepper, worcestershire, and curry sauce.
211 Shimogyo-ku, Maoyacho, Kyoto
5. Edogawa Naramachi
The speciality at this quaint, one-storey traditional Japanese building at the south end of Naramachi – the old town area in central Nara – is unagi (eel). The rectangular pieces of eel in my grilled unagi set were barbecued to just the right doneness, and glazed with a soya-based sauce. Each piece exuded a delightfully smoky flavour, and was tender and flaky. Some of the unagi sauce was also slathered onto the Japanese rice. Being starchier and stickier than regular rice, the shorter grains soaked up the sauce, making it the perfect accompaniment. Aside from unagi sets, other choices include standard sashimi and sukiyaki sets.
43 Shimomikadocho, Nara
– TEXT BY RACHEL AJ LEE
PHOTOS RACHEL AJ LEE
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.