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Tokyo's taste sensations

By Wes Little, CNN
Be sure to dine at one of the many noodle shops in Japan. Curry with pork or beef is a popular dish in Japan.
Be sure to dine at one of the many noodle shops in Japan. Curry with pork or beef is a popular dish in Japan.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Grilled chicken is centerpiece at yakitori restaurants, but it's sometimes available raw
  • Kaiseki is formal Japanese meal consisting of many small courses
  • Bento are to-go meals in a box, perfectly packaged for a train ride

(CNN) -- You can't beat Japan for variety and quality of native cuisine. Here are some of my favorite types of restaurants, followed by a few recommended Tokyo spots.

Noodle shops

A little more than an hour off my plane from the U.S., I was starving and had some time to kill, as my ride was going to be late to Shinagawa station. It is a very busy, somewhat bewildering train station. I'm a noodle fanatic, so I naturally homed in on a noodle shop.

For a minute or so, I studied the action: People lined up at little machines, dropped some coins in, got a ticket and entered. I followed suit, punching a button next to a picture of a bowl of udon and a small bowl of rice with some yellowish stuff on it.

Inside, I was greeted and gestured to a standing table. I gave my ticket to a waiter who asked me haltingly, "hot or cold?" I opted for hot. Moments later, my noodles and rice showed up. I still don't really know what the bland topping on the rice was, but I ate it. The udon in dashi (with a few bits of stuff floating around) was one of the best dishes I've ever had.

Maybe you've heard that in Japan, it's not only acceptable but polite to slurp your noodles. In a busy train station noodle shop at rush hour, the slurping is positively deafening.

There are three main warring noodle factions vying for hearts in Japan: udon (fat wheat noodles, and my favorite), soba (spaghetti-sized buckwheat noodles often eaten cold) and ramen (a Chinese import, a sexed-up version of the American college staple).

Yakitori

For my first dinner in Tokyo, I have to say I was a little disappointed when my friend suggested his favorite local yakitori joint. In a country full of unique and risky options, yakitori seemed a safe fallback. I thought it was grilled chicken kebabs, and it is, mostly. But it is all of the chicken, and it's not always grilled.

The author eats chanko, a "sumo wrestler's meal," at the restaurant at the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo.
The author eats chanko, a "sumo wrestler's meal," at the restaurant at the Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo.

This spot offered chicken sashimi and a few other semi-cooked versions. For the sashimi, the raw chicken is dipped in a quail egg and soy sauce before eating. I tried it, and that is about all I can say for it.

Chicken is maybe the only meat I can say, unequivocally, that I prefer cooked. And the cooked chicken was great. Even the half-raw chicken with an ume plum sauce was good.

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Yakitori chefs stand in the center of the bar and carefully cook their skewers over a small bed of charcoal. Some interesting chicken parts I was served, which were all on the menu, were hearts (decent), necks (better, and boneless) and um, cartilage. Chicken cartilage is apparently something people enjoy for its "unique crunchiness." I am not one of those people. Still, the other bits of smoky goodness, including regular dark and white meat, made it a great meal.

Kaiseki

Kaiseki is the traditional Japanese meal, often served in traditional inns, consisting of many courses -- eight or more -- of small dishes. There is a lot of focus on presentation, with the arrangement of the food and even the choice of plates garnering nearly as much thought as the food itself.

Typically, there is a sashimi course, a tempura course, a rice course and one or more courses of Japanese pickles. It is a very leisurely affair, lasting hours. Many restaurants offer a toned-down version, or casual kaiseki, where you still get many elaborate small dishes, but they all come on one tray.

Bento

Bento are to-go meals in a box, consisting of many tiny dishes divided into little compartments. Most have half a dozen compartments, with at least one filled with Japanese pickles, rice, a protein and a couple of mystery items. There are purveyors of bento in train stations (and on trains), and many restaurants offer a bento that you can buy at a little side counter.

Sushi

Yes, they have sushi. You can pretty much run the gamut in price and atmosphere, including shops where the sushi rattles around on a little conveyor belt and you grab it as it comes by.

Some recommended locations:

Torishige

3-11-12 Azabu-Juban, Minato-Ku. Phone: 03 5445 1589.

The aforementioned yakitori-ya In Azabu-Juban. It's a nice, cozy space with great chicken. The yakitori master has an interesting haircut, which I thought might have something to do with yakitori. It does not.

Udon Kurosawa

Nakagin-Roppongi Manshion 1F, 6-11-16, Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo. Phone: 03-3403-9638.

There is a great noodle restaurant between Azabu-Juban and Roppongi Hills. Udon Kurosawa takes its name from Japan's most famous film director and approaches popular noodle dishes with the same precision. The curry udon is the same genre of curry noodles you could find at thousands of Japanese restaurants, but it is a cut above. The dish tastes like curry, but it is only slightly piquant, in a way that just catches up to you at the end of the bowl. In addition to the curry and a few other noodle bowls, they also offer complex oden (stew) dishes.

Chanko at sumo

In the Ryogoku Kokugikan

If you are attending a sumo match, consider eating at the restaurant at the Ryogoku Kokugikan. They serve large bowls of noodles to sumo and non-sumo alike, and you could end up sitting next to a rikishi, or wrestler, carb-loading for a bout. I had the "chanko," billed as the sumo wrestler's meal. It has a pot of broth over a burner where you cook various meats, vegetables and fungi. This is complemented with pickles, a bowl of cold precooked stuff, rice and an egg. If I ate this on a regular basis, I might bulk up enough to compete.