This visit's top food experiences (in no particular order) were as follows:
1. Matsusaka yaki niku
Matsusaka beef is one of the less well known Japanese highly marbled beef types. I made us a reservation at a Yaki Niku restaurant in Osaka to try the specialty, and we were very pleased. The pieces were less than 1 cm thick, and easily cooked in 10-20 seconds on each side.
You cooked it yourself on a grill in the middle of the table (as well as vegetables), and it was absolutely melt-in-your mouth heaven. After the fact, E & I agree that this was probably the best overall meal of the trip in terms of value (it was expensive, but not remotely as expensive as a big steak meal in San Francisco would be), exposure to new food (we'd never heard of Matsusaka), the experience, and general deliciousness.
2. Kobe beef teppanyaki
Last trip to Japan, we'd accidentally enjoyed Kobe beef at ITOH by Nobu. This trip, we would be riding the train directly through Kobe, so E pointed out that *obviously* we had to stop and have Kobe beef in Kobe. So, we did some research and made reservations (okay, we had the Hyatt in Fukuoka make reservations for us) at a recommended teppanyaki joint.
Teppanyaki grill, crystal clean and ready to go.
We took the Shinkansen into town, checked into our hotel, and did some urban hiking (there are waterfalls smack dab in the middle of the city) to build up an appetite. We checked into the restaurant for our reservation only to learn that we had the wrong location (typical), so they called over to the correct location and asked them to hold our seats while we zipped over in a cab.
Abalone and Kobe (pre-cooking)
This meal was completely over the top. The chef sliced our beef cuts into various portions in accordance with the marbling and cooked teensy tiny pieces individually, and then told us which flavors to enjoy in which order (just salt, just pepper, vinegar, mustard sauce, and mustard sauce with fried garlic chips). The fat, fascia, and tendon portions were cooked down and rendered slowly until they were just little crispy bits in a pool of grease, which was then used to cook bean sprouts. Absolutely delicious, but so unnecessary.
We love ramen. Ichiran has quite the reputation and we haven't ever been to one, so it was on our list for this trip. Our first visit was an accident. We'd tried to go to one of the famous Okonomiyaki joints in Dotonbori in Osaka, but the line was crazy long and I was getting hangry. Conveniently, it was next door to an Ichiran shop, so we got in the much shorter line, explained that we'd take counter or table (counter is always faster) and were handed forms to fill out.
Our first Ichiran bowls
By the time we'd finished filling out the forms (incorrectly, of course), we reached the vending machines, where we put in our cash and pushed all the buttons to get the small tickets for each of the various things we'd ordered (1 ramen each, an egg for me, mushrooms for E, nori for both of us, beer for both of us, and vinegar for me).
Seated at the counter by number
We were sent upstairs to a lightboard showing which counter seats were open, and then we were seated at 2 counter seats next to one another, with articulated dividers (so we could open the space and chat with each other but have privacy from the folks to our left and right). Each seat had a small window through which you pushed your paper form (specifying spiciness, broth richness/fattiness, noodle softness, garlic level, and a few other variables) and your tickets. The servers' hands (you never saw their faces) took your tickets and papers through the window, fixed your mistakes (we didn't realize that the second form was for ordering additional servings *after* the fact and we'd essentially doubled our order), and then food and drinks started to appear. Eventually, your perfectly customized bowl of ramen was delivered with a long polite sentence and a deep full body bow. Then the curtain was lowered over your window and you were left to enjoy the deliciousness in peace in your counter cubicle.
M Yakuniku (Matsusaka beef meal) next to the main Ichiran in Dotonburi.
We loved the experience so much that we decided to go again, visiting the corporate headquarter shop when we got to Fukuoka (Hakata is the region that is the most famous for ramen).
We rounded out the ramen on the trip with 2 more bowls: one at a random ramen joint in the Raumen Stadium in Hakata (8 different small ramen shops -- decision paralysis), and one at an Ippudo shop in a basement of a commercial building in Tokyo. Both were delicious and wonderful, but neither could compare to the deliciousness of the fully customizable experience at Ichiran.
One night, E had an uni bowl for dinner.
It's hard to come up with the total number of Izakayas we visited, but it's probably somewhere around 8-10. If we didn't have a plan for dinner, we typically ended up in an Izakaya. If they had it, we always ordered Tako Wasabi. In Hiroshima, we had another cook your own meal experience (like Yaki Niku), but this one had coals instead of a gas grill, no overhead hood (smoky!) and the menu was much more varied -- we ordered gigantic clams, a squid, and some vegetables to grill along with some sashimi. On several occasions we sat at counters in front of a manned grill and ordered whatever looked good on the menu so it could be prepared and delivered over the counter as it was ready.
We did eventually get an okonomiyaki and takoyaki in Osaka,
but both didn't make our top foods list.
Skewers were a popular option with shishitos, eggplant, mushrooms, and octopus making frequent appearances, as well as more exotic options like a fried chicken (yakitori) moriawase (sampler), small beef pieces (of course), and fried cheese. Izakayas are the meals where we were the most likely to have random stuff. Like breaded and fried camembert (E was in heaven!). Or deep fried wontons around raw tuna, melted cheese, and a shiso leaf (surprisingly delicious). Or anything pickled for me. Of course, there were other delicious Japanese staples sprinkled in as well, like miso soup, ochazuke, udon, soba, somen, etc.
E's favorite Izakayas have electronic ordering systems
5. 7-11 train lunches
Because we were doing so much long distance train travel, on at least half of the days we'd find ourselves seated in a very comfortable train seat with a table in front of us during lunchtime. On those days, after getting our tickets but prior to boarding, we'd go to the 7-11 in the train station and buy the ingredients for our lunch. Typically, we'd have an onigiri or 2 each (my favorites are soft boiled tea egg, smoked salmon, and sour plum, whereas E loves roe in all of its forms), along with whatever random foodstuffs caught our fancy (octopus jerky, spicy rice crackers, yakisoba in a hotdog roll sandwich, whatever), and often, we'd splurge on train beer or train sake as well.
Typical 7-11 train lunch
6. Kaiten-Zushi (Conveyor Belt Sushi)
Because we're trying to economize, we only ate sushi 3 times in Japan. All were kaiten-zushi, and all were delicious and filling and reasonably priced. The first one, in the Osaka-shin train station was probably the highest quality fish (and the most expensive). The second one, a shop in Osaka branded by the inventor of conveyor belt sushi, was the best value by far. The third shop, a suburban chain full of families on a Saturday afternoon in Kakegawa was probably the most interesting experience, as we hadn't really interacted much with suburban/rural Japanese families.
Special orders placed on the screen & delivered via mini-shinkansen on the top belt.
I could go on, but need to stop at some point, so I'll just give honorable mention to the amazing Shabu Shabu selected and prepared by my childhood exchange student in Kamakura and say that Japan really is an amazing food destination.
E claims he will never eat Shabu Shabu in the US again