Ask five Tokyoites to name the best sushi restaurants in the city, and you’re likely to get five different answers - the old "how long is a piece of string?" quandary.
That's because the sushi experience is a very personal one that can include not only raw seafood, but also things like unmatched service, chefs whose skills were honed by years of apprenticeship, an atmosphere that screams “traditional Japan” and, in many cases, a whopping bill. Because of all this, any one traveler’s favorite sushi experience is going to largely depend on budget, interests and previous experience with the cuisine.
As a child, Ashley Richards found ramen noodles frustrating to eat. She had to wait for them to cook, wait longer for them to cool, and once they were ready, "it took so much effort to get the long noodles into my mouth without making a mess."
Eating them uncooked was much easier. So after stomping on the cellophane to break up the noodles, that’s how she enjoyed her ramen - straight from the package. She’s 25 years old now, and still prefers it her ramen raw.
"Crunch it up in the package, pour into a bowl, and sprinkle with oriental flavoring," Richards says. "Yum!"
Much has been written about the relationship between the French and their cuisine, but one could also argue that the people of Japan take their love for food a step - or several galloping strides - further. Where else is it common to embark on weekend trips, the sole purpose of which is to sample several varieties of a single dish?
Modern Japanese kyodo ryori, or regional cuisine, is a tourist attraction all of its own, with a signature dish for nearly every major city.
What do tomatoes, cheese and mackerel have in common?
They are all responsible for umami, the slightly mysterious fifth basic taste now counted alongside sweetness, saltiness, sourness and bitterness. Umami is often likened to savoriness, but defining exactly what it tastes like can be tricky.
If you have two mini-tomatoes and chew them 30 times before swallowing you should feel a strange sensation that spreads in your cheeks. That, according to chef Kiyomi Mikuni, is the umami taste.
Compared to the snaking queues and crowds at Tokyo’s biggest food festival, the four stalls from Fukushima prefecture are an oasis of quiet.
It might just be a pre-lunchtime lull, but among the hundreds of stall owners and the thousands of hungry visitors to the nine-day "Furusato Matsuri" or "Hometown Festival" at the Tokyo Dome, it’s a reminder that for many from Fukushima prefecture, getting rid of the legacy from last year’s nuclear disaster is ongoing.
Business is okay, says Ici Masakani, who is selling steamed sea urchin to visitors, but normally works at a restaurant on the coast of Fukushima prefecture. The main question he is asked by customers is not if his steamed "uni" are safe to eat and radiation-free, but why they are so big.
“I have a little challenge for you,” my editor began, employing the disingenuous tone of an adult trying to convince an eight-year-old that math homework is fun. “I want you to put together a food guide that would reflect what it’s like to eat in Tokyo right now, in 2012.”
I blinked, wondering where to begin. With literally tens of thousands of places to choose from, Tokyo is a food lover’s paradise, and composing a shortlist of restaurants is more than "a little challenge."
These days, the city offers a mind-blowing array of options - from traditional favorites like sushi and tempura to creative, cutting-edge cuisine that’s hard to categorize.
You can find just about anything your heart (and stomach) desires, which is exactly why I love eating in Tokyo, even if it makes my job harder.
Think back to your younger, broker (or possibly drunker) days, when you enjoyed home-cooked beans folded into instant mashed potatoes and eaten hot from the pan, or ice cream piled onto your favorite donuts. It's cheap, tasty and satisfying as all get-out, but most definitely not about to find itself on any Michelin or Zagat lists.
The term "B-grade food" sounds just plain weird, implying something less than great. Yet stroll into any Japanese bookstore and you’ll spot dozens of magazines and books emblazoned with the characters "B級グルメ" - "B-kyu gurume." So why is second-rate dining so hot right now?
Wasabi lovers may want to add more than a small pinch to their soy sauce the next time they go to their local sushi bar. The green paste, made from a fiery root called Wasabia Japonica, it is not only the perfect accompaniment to raw fish - it has also been found to possess numerous health benefits.
Mentions of the now internationally popular condiment have been found in Japanese manuscripts dating as far back as the 8th century, when it was used more as a medical herb than a complement to food.
According to wasabi expert Naohide Kinae, recent studies have shown that the root has characteristics suppressing a bacterium responsible for many stomach related diseases, such as gastric inflammation and possibly even stomach cancer. Some have promoted it as a means to prevent food poisoning, one of the reasons why it is often served alongside raw fish.
Products in Japanese convenience stores come and go at a bewildering velocity. One day you find the greatest canned coffee of all time and then, a week later, it’s gone forever.
The existence of these products is often so brief they almost completely fail to enter our collective memories or get tangled in the branches of the Internet.
We step into the local convenience store - or the one right across the street from that one - and select the latest and oddest products we can find.
The results aren't always pretty, but the write-ups are crucial for capturing the ephemeral nature of Japan’s consumer culture.
The remaining question is why Japanese companies spend so much time and money developing products that are likely to disappear within a few weeks.