Written and photographed by Stacey Lastoe
“What was your favorite meal?” I asked my husband, roughly three-quarters of the way through our three-week Japanese honeymoon. By this point, we’d become well-acquainted with Wagyu beef and takatsu and tempura. We’d eaten bowls full of tuna sashimi at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, and we’d wandered up a random staircase in Osaka to order the savory pancake known as okonomiyaki pictured on a street-level menu. Above all else, we’d been eating—and eating well.
“That first night at the dumpling place,” he responded without hesitation. We’d arrived at Toyko’s Narita airport at around 3 PM, exhausted but excited to take it all in. One smooth train ride from the airport to our hotel in the red-light district of Shibuya, a much-needed nap, and a plan to get drinks at the New York bar—famed location of Lost in Translation—and we were off to explore the town, the dense, detailed (and barely touched) guidebook left behind.
Although our honeymoon took place a good three months after our wedding when I suddenly had time on my hands that wasn’t being sucked into planning our nuptials, I’d done little research on the trip. Having been instructed to book accommodations six months in advance, we had an ambitious itinerary, Japan rail passes, baseball tickets, and little else.
We didn’t have dinner reservations or a printout of places we hoped to dine at. Our guide wasn’t dog-eared or highlighted. An early attempt at Googling blogs for recommendations overwhelmed me, and I decided that I couldn’t deal with organizing our meals in advance. The choices in Japan were staggering, and tracking down restaurants with little or no signage, places that food writers warned would be “hard to find,” felt onerous and completely unappealing. We’d just have to wing it and hope for the best.
Ruling out the five-star, $350-per-person omakase joints was our first step in going with the flow. That’s how on our first night, after a couple of overpriced cocktails that paid for the view, we ambled back toward our hotel, peering in windows and stopping to look at pictures of food items until we settled on a spot that smelled good and appeared bustling.
It turned out to be a soup dumpling place, a literal hole-in-the-wall joint that was packed, even though we were seated past 11 PM. Ordering two steaming bowls of dumplings and two cold beers, we surveyed the condiment situation and became enamored with the garlicky chili paste and ginger puree. This was the meal that my husband cited as his favorite.
The rest of the trip played out in similar fashion, eschewing online research and reviews for wandering the streets and making spontaneous decisions. Some spots offered us English menus, but other times, we happily relied on images, which we pointed to when the server came by to take our order. We became skilled at determining which color represented pork and which shrimp.
In Kyoto, we were rewarded when we took a chance on an inviting corner spot with no menu to lure us inside. There, we ate traditional izakaya dishes, including grilled chicken livers, chicken skins, and fatty thighs. We washed it down with sake poured from a bamboo bottle. One evening we found ourselves facing a menu with two offerings only: gyoza and horse meat. We opted for the former, ordering a third dozen after polishing off the first two plates.
The grilled eel—the best street “meat” I’ve ever had—we discovered on a quiet alley near one of Kyoto’s shrines. We didn’t know what to expect when we wandered into the packed restaurant off one of the main streets in Ishigaki in the Okinawa region. When it turned out to be Korean BBQ prepared with the finest Japanese beef one could imagine, we couldn’t believe our luck.
Thinking of the time and energy I’d invested in researching “best restaurants” in Kauai, Barbados, Portland, Maine—some memorable, others mediocre—I started to wonder if I’d been traveling all wrong. Sure, TripAdvisor can be helpful once you figure out how to weed through the myriad reviews, and the guidebooks can offer perfectly fine suggestions for any number of cuisines no matter where you’re going, but the real prize comes from getting there on your own.
It’s possible that Japan is just such a place where your taste buds will be delighted when you take chances and stop relying on five-star reviews, but in spite of that, I’m pretty sure my where-to-eat philosophy is forever changed for future travels here and abroad. Not being glued to a guidebook or following a map to a specific café or bar means you actually get to see what’s in front of you. So we didn’t dine at any of Japan’s famous restaurants. We have no regrets, and neither do our bellies.