Headed to Japan and wondering what to eat? Looking to learn more about Japanese cuisine? Join me as I interview a former personal chef to find out exactly what to eat in Tokyo and Kyoto!
Jeff Gibbard is unlike anyone else I know. He’s the kind of guy who will cook you an incredible five-course meal with a pear theme (true story – that was the first time I met him), then turn around and make a seven-minute-long SnapChat story filled with characters he’s created for each filter. He’ll get married privately at City Hall so that later he can have his wedding officiated by a unicorn. He’s loud and confident, prone to easy laughs and long impassioned tangents. He’s been one of M’s best friends for a decade and we always have a great time hanging out with him.
While he now brands himself as “the world’s most handsome social media strategist,” Jeff has a background in food. He used to run an in-home fine dining company and still delights in preparing elegant, innovative dishes for friends and family. For Jeff, food is a passion, an experience, and a joy.
Jeff and his new wife, Erica, chose to honeymoon in Asia after their wedding last year. After spending some time in Vietnam, they moved on to Japan. Following their trip on social media felt like watching a travel show about food; it seemed that they were always eating and having a complete blast while doing it. Thumbing through their photos and videos confirmed three things for me. First, I was hungry. Second, I needed to visit and eat my way through Japan. And third, I had to interview Jeff for Full Life, Full Passport.
I’m delighted that Jeff agreed to let me pick his brain over video chat about Japanese food, and I hope you enjoy this (much condensed!) transcript of our conversation in the interview below.
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Hi Jeff. I’m really excited to talk to you about Japan today. First thing’s first, what is it about Japan that really excited you as a honeymoon destination?
I love everything about Japan. It’s one of my favorite places on Earth. Every single aspect of Japan – Japanese culture, Japanese food, Japanese people, Japanese everything – speaks to me. We chose it for our honeymoon because Erica had never visited, I am obsessed with it, and we both are in love with Japanese food.
I first visited Japan in 2003 for a study abroad program. I was in Tokyo for six weeks, and then we did a weekend trip to Kyoto. That program caused me to fall 1,000% in love with the country for so many different reasons.
First of all, I am a fervent believer that Japan has the single best food culture in the world. I’ve been to both Italy and France, and I’m sure other countries are amazing, too, but the precision with which the Japanese cook literally anything is beyond mind-boggling to me. So that’s one piece of it.
There’s also something about their culture, with its love of order and discipline, that brings me calm in the way that minimalism and order in my home brings me calm. A really good example of Japanese order happened when we arrived in Japan after spending the first part of our honeymoon in Vietnam. In Vietnam, walking around the streets is just pure chaos. You fear for your life crossing the street because cars are swerving around you and stoplights don’t matter – it’s just madness.
When we arrived in Kyoto, we were walking to our hotel and approached this tiny little alleyway. It may have fit one car, and a car may have only come along every ten minutes or so. Even though there were no cars coming, we stood at the red light at the intersection and waited with four other people. There was no thought that they could jaywalk across this alleyway; it would have been an inappropriate thing to do. So to go from Vietnam where crossing a street is madness to Japan where people wait to cross an empty alleyway… There’s something about that respect for the rules that I find so deeply satisfying.
It’s funny that this resonates with me because I’m not a rule following person. I delight in breaking every rule that is presented to me, but I go to Japan and I dig the fact that they follow every single rule. You know what to expect and people aren’t just doing whatever the hell they want.
Tell me a little bit about your trip. Where did you visit?
Our trip was ten days, and we had two home bases, Kyoto and Tokyo. For the first half, we went to Kyoto and did all the Kyoto things. We went to Gion, the geisha district, and also went down to Fushimi Inari, which is this beautiful shrine. In Fushimi Inari, there are all these amazing street food vendors were you can get things like wagyu beef on a skewer for like four bucks. Absurd.
And then a twenty-minute train ride away is an area called Nara, where there’s this park with deer that just roam free and you give them crackers. You can hold up a cracker and they’ll bow for you. It’s just ridiculous. On that day, I got a samurai costume and Erica got a kimono and we wore them – it was amazing.
We also did a day trip to Osaka and one to Hiroshima in addition to going around to different areas of Kyoto itself. Afterward, we went to Tokyo, where we stayed in Shinjuku and just kind of bounced around different areas of Tokyo.
Nice! So you alluded to this a little bit in your answer to my first question, but what do you think is so special about Japanese cuisine?
The big thing really is precision. There’s an attention to every single detail, and I think that’s what so many people who try to imitate Japanese food get wrong. They see the output and think, “Oh, I can do that,” but they don’t recognize that there are these little steps in every piece of the process that they’re just missing.
I’ll give you a really great example of something that is very basic but makes a huge difference. There’s a curry chain in Japan called CoCoICHI, which might be one of my favorite places in the world. It is one of the best meals I have ever had in my life, and it costs, like, $10. The dish that I like to get is a pork katsu, which is a fried pork cutlet with curry over rice with cheese. (I had no idea they did cheese in Japan, but they do cheese in Japan like WOH.)
Here’s the difference: we went to the same chain on a later trip to Hong Kong and it was really good. But in Japan, they take the panko bread crumbs and they toast them before breading the meat. So what happens is that the crunchiness of the breading on the pork has a whole other level of crispity, crunchity num num (read: deliciousness) that just didn’t happen in Hong Kong. In Japan, there is this golden perfection to the cooking. There weren’t parts that were more or less golden brown; it was just perfect. Every piece of it.
It appears to me, in my experience, that Japanese culture honors every action that they take. If they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it properly. They’re going to put the effort in and show that they care about that moment. It doesn’t matter what you buy, it’s coming to you beautifully wrapped and beautifully prepared.
If you go into a Japanese restaurant and watch the way locals eat, they will often before a meal say, “Itadakimasu,” which roughly translates to “I gratefully receive.” It’s like saying grace; they honor the food that they’re about to eat. You’re showing that you’re appreciative of that meal. That appreciation shows in the way that they prepare the food, it shows in the way that they consume it, and it shows in the way that they limit waste throughout their entire culture.
You kind of answered part of my next question, which is “What are some of the most distinctive features of Japanese cuisine,” but can you talk about its distinctiveness especially as it relates to other Asian culinary cultures?
I could talk about Asian food in general for a long time, but I think one of the really interesting facets of Japanese cuisine is how well they do non-Japanese cuisine. I’ve had Italian food in Japan and it’s stellar. I’ve had French food in Japan and it’s stellar. In fact, one of their most popular and best-loved dishes, which they’ve exported all over the world, is not Japanese. Ramen came from Chinese lo mein noodles, and then the Japanese took it and turned it into cuisine.
The baked goods that exist in Japan are shocking. One of our favorite foods of the entire trip was from the Kyoto train station. (I swear to you, if, or rather, when I go back to Kyoto, I will go to this bakery in the train station and I will eat this very thing. We ate it almost every day.) It’s a bread bun that’s crispy on the outside, almost like it’s covered in panko bread crumbs. The bread itself is soft and sweet, and on the inside there’s curry and a perfectly – bold, underscore – medium-cooked egg. I don’t know what sort of sorcery they do to create such a thing, but when you bite into the bun you get the crispy, the soft and sweet, the perfectly cooked egg, and then the curry. It is like an explosion of love in your mouth.
I can’t even imagine the taste of that. It’s so unique and intriguing that I feel like I have no concept of how that would taste.
Seriously. So the distinctive feature is precision and that that precision and quality carries over into literally every interpretation of food, Japanese or otherwise. The preparation is so meticulous; even something like rough chopping doesn’t seem to exist unless that rough chopping is being done for a specific reason.
We were eating about six meals a day – we were eating like we were trying to gain weight – and we only had one thing that was anything less than excellent in ten days. With everything else, we would look at each other and be like, “What is this magic?!”
Can you talk about how the cuisine varies by regions and which places, regions, or areas of the country you would recommend to someone who considers him- or herself a foodie?
Kyoto is the greatest place on earth. It’s smaller, a little bit more manageable, and has more quaint cuteness to it. Tokyo, on the other hand, is just this massive, massive city. If you’re looking to enjoy traditional Japanese food, Kyoto is a magical wonderland of delights.
My favorite meal that I have ever had in Japan, including my study abroad, was Arata in Kyoto. It’s the kind of local place where foreigners don’t always feel welcome. There, I was introduced to two new foods, and both of them blew my mind. First was okonomiyaki, which is essentially a Japanese-style pancake with lots of cabbage, pork fat, and this amazing bunch of sauces. It’s just incredible. It comes in two styles, Osaka and Hiroshima, and we had the Osaka style. It was total drunk bar food, which was perfect because we were drinking Asahi.
We also had yakisoba, which are these fried noodles with scallions and all this other deliciousness. We sat next to a guy who spoke about as much English as I speak Japanese and ended up having an entire conversation through Google Translate, and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in an establishment in a foreign country in my entire life.
Overall, I would say that Kyoto is where you go if you want to have a really amazing food experience. You almost can’t go wrong. But we had some great experiences in Tokyo as well. We did Kobe beef twice, which is extremely expensive and really tasty.
If you want to talk about the dishes I’ll never forget, however, they were meals that cost less than $15. I would get in a teleport right now and go to Coco Curry, and then to get some ramen. (There is no way to describe just how good ramen is to people who have only thought of it as college food. It’s ridiculous.) Finally, the sushi! Conveyor belt sushi is everywhere, and we found tons of different 24-hour sushi places. We’d go out at night and just stop into these 24-hour sushi places on the way back to our hotel. Ending the night with big, beautiful, thick, amazing pieces of fatty tuna and yellowtail and salmon… I loved it. It was so good.
So apart from specific dishes, what food experiences are available in Japan that you wouldn’t find anywhere else? For example, different ceremonies, interesting customs, a use of color – what’s unique other than just the dishes themselves?
There are a couple different things. First, there are definitely specific foods that are hard to find outside of Japan. One of Erica’s dishes was shirako, which is the sperm sac of a codfish. I thought it was kind of eh, but Erica loved it. It’s also hard to find A5 Kobe beef.
Second, there’s a particular type of Japanese meal that takes you through seasonal ingredients and traditional ways of preparing food. It’s really just beautiful. Because of the influence of Shintoism and Buddhism, there’s a real respect for nature and your ancestors, as well as a very keen eye toward the beauty and simplicity of things. As a result, Japanese food very rarely seeks to overpower you. Instead, it seeks to accentuate and bring out the natural beauty of things.
One night during my first trip to Japan, my classmates wanted to go to Burger King or Wendy’s or McDonalds or something. Standard American crap food. So I go in and order a burger. When I looked up from getting my cash, the food was already in front of me. Instantly. Real, true fast food. I thought they must have been mistaken because I had just ordered. Then, when I opened the box, it legitimately looked like the picture of the burger on the menu.
Which it never does!
Never! But it was perfect.
Another unique food experience is that you can get some of the best meals in train stations. No joke. It’s so weird because
Finally, you can actually get a real foodie experience in the basement of certain department stores. There, you’ll find depachika – food halls where you can sample all sorts of different foods and cuisines. The prices are pretty reasonable there, as well.
How is food and the eating of it viewed by the Japanese? You’ve mentioned that there’s a precision, specialness, and honor to it, but do you want to mention anything else in regard to the people’s relationship with their food?
Yeah, I would also say that for a culture that is fairly rigid – people work long hours and put a lot of pressure on themselves – you see everything relax in spaces of food and drink. It’s really kind of beautiful. Everyone will look stressed out on the train, but then in a restaurant they’re all laughing, having a good time, drinking, and enjoying the food. There’s a hospitality and togetherness and camaraderie that happens. It’s so cool because the system feels so orderly and everyone seems so respectful and closed-off, and then you go into those atmospheres and it’s wide open and fun.
Izakayas are where people go to cut loose and relax. The closest I can compare them to are gastropubs, though that might not do them justice. They’re bars that serve amazing food. They are also a place for people to get together to discuss business after work hours.
That’s really interesting. On one hand, you have people who are taking tremendous pains to make sure that a particular food experience is amazing. On the other, that experience actually allows people to relax enough to appreciate it. The system, for lack of a better term, feeds itself and provides a service to the people. That’s really cool.
You’ve already mentioned a couple, but what were some of your favorite things that you ate on the trip, other than those crazy buns with the eggs?
Oh, gosh, where do I even start? It’s honestly, literally, everything we ate except for one thing… and that thing wasn’t really bad. It just wasn’t as good as anything else.
We had ramen five times, and every time was amazing. We had delicious sukiyaki (a beef hot pot) after we did a honeymoon photo shoot in Akasaka, which is a beautiful part of Tokyo with lots of temples. Sukiyaki is similar to shabu-shabu (another hot pot dish): raw meat that you dip in a fish broth with beef fat and mushrooms and vegetables. You then dip it in raw egg, and it’s amazing. We did it with A5 Kobe and it was unbelievable.
The sushi and baked goods that we had were amazing. The pork curry that I mentioned before was one of my favorite things, and the yakisoba was incredible.
We got dumplings in the train station and they were legitimately the best pork shumai I’ve ever had. In a train station. The same thing happened when we got back late from some sightseeing and there weren’t many restaurants open. We went into a place that looked like a convenience store and got udon and curry that were incredible.
The motherlode was the Nashiki market, which is this big, wide-open market in Kyoto that has stalls as far as the eye can see. We ate so many different things while we were there, but one of our favorites were these live scallops that they would open, top with some ingredients, and then hit with a blow torch. So amazing. You could also buy fresh sashimi and sushi right from these stalls. They had anything you wanted, like fatty tuna, yellowtail, salmon, and sea urchin, and in a lot of cases it was much cheaper than in the United States.
And the fruit. I defy anyone to find a fruit experience that is anything like you’ll find in Japan. It is common in Japan to give exquisite fruit as a gift like you might give flowers in the States. They select the most perfect fruit ever and they charge stupid sums of money for it. For example, you can buy a pair of melons for $150. We bought a $30 bunch of grapes, and they were the cheap ones. The fruit is picturesque, more perfect than you’ve ever seen. It often comes in pairs and is much larger than the counterparts in the States. Those grapes were the size of plums, and we saw fuji apples the size of melons. They’re huge.
Seriously, if I go back through my food diary from the trip, I’m like, “That was amazing, that was amazing, that was amazing…” and on and on. It’s just the best place to eat in the entire world.
My question was going to be, “What did you eat that you didn’t like or was hard to finish.” Given our conversation, though, I think I’ll change it to “Tell me about that one meal that was ‘just okay.'”
It was sort of like going to the worst pizza place in Manhattan. It’s probably still decent pizza. With this meal, it just was unimpressive by comparison. We felt that we could have done a little more research and gotten something better.
I did have a couple of things that just weren’t really my speed, like certain organ meats and the shirako (the cod sperm sac). I thought they were good, and I’m ok with eating weird stuff, but they didn’t wow me. Erica’s been looking for shirako everywhere since we got back, though. She loved it.
Since it’s such a unique food culture, are there any etiquette considerations or interesting customs that visitors should be aware of when they’re eating out in Japan?
Yeah, most definitely. I would venture so far as to say that if you were to list every culture and every country, your etiquette concerns for Japan are toward the top. I will say, though, that there are only a few that are really big ones. The biggest one – and this is all over Asia, do not do this – is to never put your chopsticks in your rice. Never.
Your chopsticks? Don’t put them in your rice. Ever.
Oh, like stick them in? Like stick them in the rice and then take your hands away?
Yes, exactly. Don’t, like, stick them in there and then say you have to run to the bathroom or something. Sticking them in like that is super offensive. A Japanese person would probably be very polite about correcting you, but they would say that that’s death. You’re bringing death to the table, or a very negative vibe to an otherwise positive experience.
Also, never pass something from chopstick to chopstick. It goes along with the whole death thing. If someone wants something, you put it down in front of them and they pick it up with their chopsticks. The reason why is that in Shintoism (I think), there is a tradition where you pass the finger bone (I think) of one of your relatives, one of your ancestors, from chopstick to chopstick. That’s my understanding. I don’t know exactly, but I do know that it has something to do with ceremonies around death.
(Note: After our interview, I did a little research on these taboos, since Jeff wasn’t quite sure as to their exact origin. In short, sticking your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice is offensive in Buddhist societies because that is the way that rice is presented to the dead. Similarly, part of a Buddhist funeral ceremony involves the bones of a cremated person being passed from chopstick to chopstick. You can learn more about chopstick etiquette and these interesting customs here and here.)
Is it also true that you’re not supposed to rub the chopsticks together? I had heard that that was insulting because it insinuated that the chopsticks were cheap.
You’re not supposed to, but it doesn’t seem to be a big deal because I actually saw people do it. I had heard that, too, and was scared to do it, but a Japanese person sitting next to me assured me that it was fine.
Is it also true that slurping is a sign of appreciation and respect for the chef?
Yes, probably even more so than people understand. When you actually hear the way some people slurp in a ramen shop, it’s almost gross – almost – because it’s so loud.
Another piece of etiquette involves eating sushi. I think a lot of people forget or don’t know that sushi is actually about the rice moreso than the fish. Rice is actually what makes sushi sushi; it’s vinegar rice with the fish. The rice is supposed to be warm, the fish is supposed to be cold, and it balances together and makes this beautiful thing.
A lot of people use way too much soy sauce; they just douse it and the rice turns all brown. You’re not supposed to actually dip the rice in the soy sauce; it’s the fish that gets dipped in it. What you do is have the fish on top and rice on the bottom, flip it on its side with your chopsticks, and gently dip the edge of the fish into the soy sauce. You also don’t eat half of a piece of sushi. It’s not meant to be eaten in bites; you eat the whole thing. It’s also 1,000% acceptable to use your hands, which I typically do.
I feel much more prepared to go out to eat! Moving on, do you have any funny food stories, anything you ate that was strange or comical?
Oh my gosh, there’s so much wacky stuff in Japan, so much that could only happen there. In Harajuku, where the Kawaii culture is strong, we went to this monster cafe place and everything was brightly colored. It was totally over-the-top wild, though the food was more okay than great.
They also have all these wild, crazy snacks that are just totally delicious. We ate this rainbow cheese thing, which was like a fried cheese stick with rainbow-colored cheese. They also do so much delicious stuff with green tea, and we had these tiny little crunchy crabs that were one of my favorite snacks.
And oh! We ate these crazy, jiggly pancakes. Have you ever had pancakes and thought, “Wow, these are fluffy and great”? Well, in Japan our pancakes were like three inches thick. They were huge, and they jiggled if you shook your plate.
The last question I have is, “What have you been craving since you returned?“
I just want to go back. There are so many reasons to go back to Japan, but I just like the way I feel when I’m there. Food-wise, I absolutely crave CoCo Curry and ramen. You can get sushi here and it’s close enough, but there is just no comparison for the ramen. And I cannot give Coco Curry enough accolades for how good it is.
I crave that curry egg bun every day, and I would go back to Arata in a heartbeat. I miss yakisoba and okonomiyaki… Man… I don’t know… Everything. There’s not a thing from Japan that I don’t miss a little bit.
Ugh. That’s the wonderful thing about travel that’s also terrible. You have these incredible food experiences and then it’s just a little depressing when you get home because you’ll never have that food as good as you had it there.
Yeah. On every trip that we’ve taken, we’ve had something that we wish we could have again. Japan is especially tough because so much of what we had was amazing.
That’s all the questions I have, but any final thoughts? Anything else that you want people to know?
Japanese cheesecake. It’s stupid how good it is. Every other cheesecake is a mere mortal, and this is a superhero. We brought two of them home.
And finally, here’s Jeff’s one tip for what to bring home. There’s a ramen chain called Ichiran. Do not leave Japan without as many packs of Ichiran instant ramen as you can fit in your bag. While you can get it in the States, the broth is made with a powder and the noodles are straight. The version you buy in Japan has a wet pack and wavy noodles, and I would venture to say that it can go toe to toe with any ramen shop in the United States. Then, just for good measure, bring home some Kit Kats because there are like a billion weird flavors.
Awesome! Jeff, this has been so fun. Thank you so much for sharing all of your expertise. I hope it was a fun little trip down memory lane for you, too.
**Responses have been edited for length and clarity. All photos were provided by Jeff. Don’t forget to check out Jeff’s follow-up interview about eating in Maui, Hawaii!
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This foodie guide to what to eat in Tokyo and Kyoto was originally published on November 19, 2019, and last updated on November 16, 2020.
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