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.
Christmas is often a time for heavy eating and drinking, and the Japanese don't miss out.
But unlike many other countries where there are traditional Christmas dishes, Japan does not have any, and a quick look at a regular family's Christmas feast shows that anything, from sushi to chinese steamed shrimps, are acceptable at the buffet.
However, there is one specialty that many Japanese like to have on the table next to those items – fried chicken from KFC.
Today, it is possibly the closest thing in Japan to a Christmas tradition.
How do you make a 1,200-year-old drink, hip? One way is by calling it the “new wine” and making it an essential ingredient in killer cocktails. That’s what’s happened to sake, the rice-based liquor that is associated with all that is traditional about Japan. Yet from its origins in Shinto ceremonies in the 8th century and its place modern-day weddings, it is currently undergoing a revival.
It may be a laggard compared to sushi in its global appeal but it is increasingly popular among connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine, says Kelvin Zeia, the sake sommelier of Japanese restaurant Zuma in Hong Kong.
“The palate goes from sweet to dry, but there are subtleties between different types of sake,” he says. The alcohol content of around 15% also means it can be a discreet mixer in cocktails.
As the world and his dog know, the Japanese are famously open-minded eaters, and their cuisine is full of tastes and textures alien to the foreign tongue.
But plenty of foods that strike terror into expat hearts are actually pretty damn good when you get right down to it. Seaweed, konyaku, oden, natto ... I've braved them all, and my life is the better for it. In fact, sometimes I even find myself craving them when I'm away.
But there are certain dishes that can cause even a native gourmet to lose their lunch. Think: Reptiles, amphibians and insects (oh my!).
So, allow me to present a rundown of the top five freaky Japanese dishes I’ve encountered on my travels. For the faint of heart, I've ranked them in ascending order of difficulty to digest ... or at least to get down.
Read the full story: "Extreme cuisine: The 5 dishes even Japanese people are freaked to eat"
So, how do you eat sushi, the quintessential Japanese delicacy of vinegared rice topped with raw fish and other ingredients? With your fingers? With chopsticks? Dipped into soy sauce; daubed with wasabi? One mouthful or two?
The only certainty, it seems, is that its proper consumption demands both etiquette and practicality. To put the matter to rest, we enquired at the top: Sushi Sawada, on Tokyo’s most prestigious intersection of Ginza 4-chome.
With two Michelin stars and only seven seats, Sawada is a shrine to this single wondrous dish - and to straight-talking master Koji Sawada’s constant quest for perfection.
Read - How to eat sushi
In Japan they say that the customer is God and even a machine is expected to pay its respects.
It’s a saying that supports the idea that Japan is the land of the vending machine with perhaps more machines per person than anywhere else in the world. In Japan’s cities they can be seen on most street corners dispensing sodas and hot coffee, but also more far-out items like ice cream, french fries, umbrellas and clothes.
They’ve even made it to the top of Mount Fuji, providing hungry hikers with hot, steamy instant noodles at the summit.
The country even has its own association of vending machine manufactures, the JVMA, which notes that the number of automatic dispensers in Japan, including ticket machines, amounts to over 5 million. That's a human-to-machine ratio of around 24 to one.