Deadliest Food Tour: Tokyo Edition

In his book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain confessed that for his very first meal on his first trip to Tokyo, in his jet-lagged and exhausted state, he was so intimidated by the soba restaurants and overwhelming nature of Tokyo that he went to Starbucks.  After considering his options, though, he bought a latte, rallied, and dove in to Tokyo.   

Maybe because we, too, fear finding ourselves retreating to known American brands or the cushion of what’s easy, we often book culinary tours when we visit a new country.  We started this habit after our first trip to Istanbul, when we discovered we loved the food but wanted to know more about it.  After several culinary tours through Culinary Backstreets (formerly Istanbul Eats) around the world, and with private chefs and others, we’ve become big advocates for doing a food tour.  They’re particularly valuable when you don’t know much about the cuisine in the city or country you’re visiting, or when you just need a break from making decisions all day and want to dive in deeper to the food and the culture.   

For our own first visit to Tokyo, we booked the Tokyo Time Machine: Handmade to High Tech walk through Culinary Backstreets.   Keith, his mom and I, along with another guest and his 8 year old daughter (Amy!) from Vietnam had a six hour plus crash course in Japanese cuisine.  With our guide Michelle, an expert on sake and all-around knowledgeable and friendly guide, our stops over the course of more than six hours ranged from a rice cracker bakery handed down in the same family for over 60 years (the current owners are pictured below), to a shopping department fast food restaurant full of Japanese teenagers taking photos with cut outs of a popular singer, the Soybean Farm, where we tried miso in various forms, of course a sushi counter, and many others.  We tried food we wouldn’t have normally, including fugu, the famous potentially lethal puffer fish, and traveled by train to the suburb of Kichijoji, where we were able to both see an area we wouldn’t have otherwise and experience foods at restaurants we never would’ve discovered on our own.  

 Owners of the rice cracker factory, mother and daughter.

Owners of the rice cracker factory, mother and daughter.

Aside from the educational value of the best food walks (like this one), I’ve found them a great way to be pushed outside my comfort zone.  When you’re on your own, even if you’ve carefully researched a restaurant and long-planned to visit, when you walk up to the front door and realize you have no idea what any of the menu says, discover it’s full of locals and you don’t know the ordering procedure, or just happen to see a place with a sign that says “English menu here!” at the empty place across the street, it can be tempting to slink off and choose the easy option.  But with a food tour, while no one is forcing you to eat anything you don’t want to, a good guide creates an environment where you are glad to bypass your comfort zone and go all-in on the experience.  

Michelle did such a good job of that on this tour that it felt like we were hanging out with a knowledgeable friend, who just so happened to speak perfect English and Japanese and know all the good spots.

One of our first stops was a market to learn more about ingredients and Japanese customs, particularly the custom of giving food gifts to important people in your life around holidays or special days.  (Gift giving is common, for example, during summer bonus season when workers are expected to give gifts.)  With small apartments in Tokyo, most prefer to give consumable items, such as some of the most carefully grown fruit and vegetables.  The cantaloupe shown below, for instance, are a special gift because of the intricate webbing that is cultivated on these particular melons.  Some of the individual melons in this image were in excess of 250 U.S. dollars!

 Beautiful melons and fruit in the market.

Beautiful melons and fruit in the market.

A few stops into the day, we visited a fugu restaurant.  I can assure you that there is no chance we would have settled in to taste fugu-infused sake and fugu itself without some knowledgeable guidance.  To learn the preparation for fugu, the chef must undergo three or more years of rigorous training just for the certification.  Up to 50 deaths annually in Japan occur from eating parts of this fish which has no known antidote available.  Indeed, the concept of eating something that could kill you if not prepared correctly (liver, ovaries, eyes, and skin are the deadliest parts) was intimidating even with a guide!  But that is exactly the kind of experience we wanted to have, and which a great food tour can provide.

 Fugu with our Chef and guide Michelle

Fugu with our Chef and guide Michelle

We even returned to have one more wagyu meat ball (though we were already stuffed!) at a tiny food stall Michelle had taken us to, and I found myself approaching restaurants with more confidence during our time in Japan (and beyond).  

The cost ($175 per person) was higher than we’ve paid for similar food tours in the past (both with Culinary Backstreets and with other companies), but also reflected the length of the tour, the large number of stops, the prices of things in Tokyo, and the quantity and quality of food we were able to try.  (In fact, it replaced both lunch and dinner that day.)  

If you find yourself in Tokyo, or in another country where you want to learn more about the cuisine, I highly recommend Culinary Backstreets.  Having referred several friends to them who all have raved about the experience, and having taken their tours everywhere from Mexico City to Tokyo, we really believe in what they do and asked if they could offer a discount to our readers to encourage others to try them out.  They kindly agreed, so if you book with Culinary Backstreets we have arranged for our readers get 5% off the regular prices with Promo Code "KEITH".

Have you done a food tour? What was your experience?