YAJR (yet another Japan Report): Tokyo, Kyoto/Nara, Nagasaki, Kagoshima, Fukuoka

Fellow ATL Berserker @Dennis_Atick was 2 weeks ahead of my trip, and while we both hit Tokyo and Kyoto and covered the same neighborhoods with similar sources and research and interests, our dining picks ended up with very little overlap - which speaks at least a little to the vast diversity of options. We generally avoided the “hot” places with long lines, and realized quickly that in Kyoto and Tokyo, that rules out a whole lot of places (but doesn’t necessarily diminish the quality level, as noted in Dennis’ earlier thread). My wife and I hit the smaller cities in the title as part of a cruise (that started in Hong Kong and went through Korea), then left the boat to hit Kyoto and Tokyo, which were easily the highlights of the trip. Generally, I don’t think Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and Kagoshima are “destination-worthy” as far as planning a trip around, but we enjoyed each of them in their own unique ways. As Dennis did, I’ll focus on the food and drinks, though will pepper in some thoughts on the sights as well.

Fukuoka: a fairly uninteresting (at least what we saw) port town, with a wonderful destination in the nearby Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine and neighborhood. That said, being Japan, we ate very well. A mentaiko (spicy cured roe) rice bowl from Ali No on the main street of Dazaifu was really fantastic, packed with salty umami flavors and a delightful broth soaking into the rice and marrying the mentaikos flavors into the rice as well. The local specialty mochi cakes are fun and yummy - and there are seemingly dozens of stands making them fresh along the street. Back in town, we had an excellent unagi and rice lunch set at Yoshizuka Unigaya (since 1873!) followed by a nice bowl of ramen at the nearby Hakata Kawabata Dosanko. Loved the chaotic swirl of sitting at the bar facing the kitchen. The Kushida Shrine nearby has a nice little row of torii gates, a small preview of what would come at Fushimi Inari in Kyoto…

Nagasaki: The peace park and museum is indeed a somber and important reminder of the horrors of WW2 and the resilience of humanity. And the town is much cuter and has much more personality than Fukuoka. Whatever the main food/shopping covered street was had some fun/scary things - cans of whale shark or whale katsu anyone? We stumbled upon the local art museum, which had an astonishingly good exhibit of Yoshimura Yoshio’s work. Lunch was at the somewhat revered by pretty lackluster Yossou (since 1866!), one of the pioneers of chawanmushi.

Kagoshima: A rainy day, a rather drab town, we headed the outskirts to the Sengan-en garden and museum then took the ferry to get up close and personal with the active volcano Sakurajima. Great tonkatsu “mix fry” lunch at one-man joint called Michiya, the highlight being a fried (katsu) whole egg with a custardy center. Wandered around and settled on ramen at Tontoro Tenmonkan, and really liked the way they do their pork, cut from the belly I believe into small chunks rather than thin slices.

Kyoto and Tokyo next…


Leaving the cruise ship behind at the port of Osaka, this is where the trip REALLY started to astonish. We had already begun to soak in the Japanese culture at the smaller ports, but shifting to Nara and Kyoto and Tokyo brings an onslaught of traditions and evolutions and delights (and crowds of people happy to chase the thrills).

Nara: We hit the astonishing Kashuga Taisha shrine and the massive Todai-ji temple, played with the friendly herds of deer, then walked to the station to catch the express to Kyoto. Quick stop nearby for the local speciality kakinohasushi, conveniently packed to go, from both Hiraso Todaiji and the fancier Hompo Tanaka. This is a fun and unique take on sushi, typically wrapped in persimmon leaves, and the rice having a stronger than typical seasoned vinegar. Our favorite was a yuzu mackerel version, but enjoyed them all, and a fun takeout option.

Kyoto: my goodness, what a special place, positively littered with delightful temples and shrines, and yeah, sometimes insanely crowded with tourists. Choosing dinner destinations was tough, getting reservations was tougher.

We ended up with one “fancy” meal, at Koke, which struck the perfect balance of being rooted in local ingredients and Japanese cuisine, but pushing the envelope as far as semi-modernist (Spanish-leaning) techniques and creativity (though never going over the top). They have a Michelin star, but this was easily Michelin 2* level dining IMO, and crazy affordable vs. the US or France, etc., for what it was (less than $1k for four people all in!). The wine pairing was truly fun, unusual, and most importantly elevated the dishes. His choices were diverse, mostly natural-ish, small producers, mostly on the lower price side. Probably things many folks would scoff at, but they were consistently well-paired and interesting wines, and a lot of them! Champagne Laurent Lequart 100% Meunier reserve brut, Stella Maris kerner from Hokkaido! (surprisingly delightful, not much info about them online), Moon Wine/Famille Milan La Passion orange vin de france (grenache blanc, vermentino!?, roussanne, muscat), La Bancale Peaux Rouges Marnes Noires, Bodegas Baron Micaela Amontillado sherry, Skerk Bianco Venezia Giulia, Clos Luern Aurore chardonnay from Auvergne, 2014 Clos du Mont-Olivet CdP, Recaredo Intens Rosat Brut Nature 2018, then a 16yo Sennen No Hibiki madeira cask finish whisky to finish things off. The food was consistently intriguing and delicious and beautiful, hitting on all cylinders.

Everything else we ate in Kyoto was really good, but casual and often just “street” food in Nishiki or out and about around town. Fantastic “kyoto latte” (with a bit of condensed milk) at % Arabica, luxurious uni over unagi grilled/torched by a friendly guy in the market (no idea the name of his stand), wagyu sushi and skewers in the market, plus some good drinking - cocktails at the Bar Rocking Chair and sake at Sake Hall Masuya. Loved the duck rice at, um, Duck Rice. A side of duck livers was also nice, as was a local craft beer to wash it down. We didn’t have the luck Dennis did among the Pontocho alley spots - our first couple picks were full, the list at nearby cocktail bar was 61 people long, and the place we landed on was a fairly mediocre yakitori joint with not much of an interesting vibe. Oh well, everything can’t be perfect. We also ate an egg sandwich and a pork katsu sandwich from 7-11 some time close to midnight, and were happy with that decision : )

As for the sights in Kyoto, I’ll just call out that we were very thankful to visit Fushimi Inari both very early in the morning and late at night, to experience it both ways, and both with minimal crowds. We were also very thankful to have done an excursion to a less visited part of town north of Arashiyama - to the Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple and the quaint Saga Toriimoto area. The cherry blossoms were just starting to bloom, and I’m actually kind of glad they were several days out from full bloom because that would have just brought more crowds. We loved Kyoto.


Took the bullet train to Tokyo, where we had three full days (just 2 nights though). Dinners were planned in advance - a combo of Gen Yamamoto for cocktail omakase then “standing sushi” omakase at nearby Tonari, then fancy tempura omakase at TenTempura Uchitsu followed by sake at Eureka! During the day we mostly explored on foot and hit street foods along the way, and did very well with that - especially at Tsukiji outer market. Some of the best bites of the trip were tuna nigiri at a place we picked randomly (Maguro Kurogin)at the market (and happened to be among the first in line right before they opened at 8am). And the roasted sweet potato “brûlée” at a little place called Imo Pipi in Asakusa’s busy food streets was really fantastic. We also happened upon the really nice little Saturday farmers market near Shibuya, which was full of interesting vendors selling produce, rice, wine, condiments, etc. - we came home with a few things from here.

Gen Yamamoto - an entirely unique take on “cocktails” and I hesitate to even use that word. Yamamoto-san entertains up to 8 guests at the counter for progression of 4-7 drinks over the course of roughly 90 minutes. We were seated at the counter alongside just one other couple (I think a group of 4 must have been a no-show) and chose to keep going all the way to 7 after our initial choice of just 4. The drinks are mainly freshly hand-pressed juices based on what is in season locally - specific types of kiwi, pineapple, tomato, melon, etc. He has direct relationships with farmers and comes up with drinks weekly based on what is best. There is booze, but it is an accent rather than a primary component. Japanese gins, various whiskeys from around the world, sweet potato sochu, etc. They are delicate and bright concoctions, some with things like wasabi mixed in, refreshing and thought-provoking. I kind of wish the spirits were more present in several of them, but the tomato-centric cocktail with a peaty Scotch struck a shockingly perfect balance, and each drink in the progression seemed to build towards greater intricacy and depth. Almost a meditation on drinking, yet Yamamoto-san was friendly and engaging (though often focused and silent) throughout.

Sushi Tonari - we really enjoyed this nigiri-centric meal at an intimate standing bar on the second floor overlooking a Roppongi-adjacent upscale street. The fish was of seemingly very high quality, and the two sushi chefs behind the counter were constantly crafting then handing over their creations, watching for reactions along the way. At roughly $180 for two of us including some really nice sakes, this was also a bargain relative to good sushi in the US. A fun way to get an array of sushi. The horse mackerel was our favorite (well, the uni was even better).

To be continued!


Awesome stuff, Brad. Thanks for the pics. A vicarious return for me. Seeing all you did that we didn’t just means I need to go back. Already thinking about when!

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Japan is so amazing!

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More Tokyo. Second night combo of Uchitsu and Eureka! Uchitsu is a really special place, 8 person bar, watching the master and apprentice do the mostly-tempura meal preparation the entire time, handing over each dish as they went along. The simple backdrop behind the counter of the backyard garden makes the experience that much more intimate. We were seated next to a family of three, regulars for the past 10 years or so, and their joy and camaraderie with the chef was nice to watch. This is the type of dining experience that really doesn’t exist anywhere other than Japan, so very thankful that we were able to snag a reservation (our hotel concierge actually got this one for us - the only time they were able to come through on a request).

Highlights? Man, everything was so good, but the tempura carrot sprinkled with thick sea salt may have been the most revelatory. There were a few different foraged spring "mountain vegetables, bamboo, astonishingly good shrimp, several types of fish and mollusks, tempura shiso-wrapped uni (I am a sucker for uni, this did not disappoint), maybe 20 courses in all? Loved that there were a few non tempura diversions mixed in, including a shabu shabu style quick cook of fresh seaweed and firefly squid, then a soup with a fried seafood patty soaking in finisher before dessert. We went with a couple different sakes as pairings, and were very pleased (they did have a nice but short list of French wines at pretty high prices). This is Japan.

We walked from here to Eureka!, which has gotten a reputation as one of the top sake bars (and very English speaker friendly), with over 200 on offer. We put our faith in the friendly “sake some” (who used to work in Vancouver), and she rewarded us with really interesting choices that showed the vast range and complexity/elegance that sake can offer. Tried maybe 8 different sakes, and loved everything except a sip of the ultra-funky cloudy sakes that are akin to cottage cheese gone bad : ) the last one pictured below, a 4 year aged sake dubbed “The Heretic”, is apparently one of the most culty of sought after sakes and had a distinctly wine-like character.

Highly recommend Eureka! for sake exploration.


OK, wrapping up Tokyo and the trip… damn the Tsukiji market area is fun. A simple nigiri platter of freshly cut tuna of three fat levels, six pieces for roughly $22, was absolutely swoon-worthy… and would have cost probably 3x in a US sushi restaurant and not be as good. Loved seeing the vendors selling crates of fresh wasabi root, wooden boxes packed with various types of bonito flakes, etc. Sure, it’s touristy, but it’s also clearly serving the local buyers as well (at least some of the vendors). The Jagalchi market in Busan Korea that we hit earlier on the trip is a far better place to see the bounty of the sea, but Tsukiji offers more of a diverse street food scene.

As for the sights, the Asakusa area was fantastic given the combo of the temple, busy market streets all around, and culinary/kitchen specialists nearby. The sweet potato brûlée I mentioned earlier was amazing. We stumbled upon a fantastic gourmet soy and condiment shop called Demachi Hisaya that was offering tastes of their products and came home with several interesting things. Also picked up some very affordable ceramic plates and bowls. (Didn’t go knife shopping, but was regretting that decision a bit as we passed by the many stores).

Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Harajuka were all a bit overwhelming and not really my cup of tea, but we did enjoy the backstreets of boutiques and residences between Shibuya and Harajuku, and the Meiji Jingu shrine offered a nice peaceful respite from the chaos.

Cherry blossoms were blooming, though not yet at peak. Fun to see the crowds gathering around each of the trees that had sprinted ahead of the others in their desire to show off.

And the department store food halls are simply astounding in their variety and size. Biggest shock was seeing a pack of 2 mangos priced at $220! That’s 2 single mangos, not 2 crates of mangos! They were, I admit, some beautiful looking mangos.


Fukuoka is famous for it’s yatai, street stalls, serving food. Also as the birthplace of Hakata style tonkotsu ramen. A lively music scene.
Kagoshima is known for it’s horse dishes and imo shoju (sweet potato liquor).


Saturday farmers market near Shibuya - I believe this is the one in front of the United Nations University, between Shibuya and Omotesando?

Yes, the Aoyama Market. Nice mix of vendors.


Stunning photos! Thanks so much for taking the time to post. I was on the fence on whether to return for Nomo Kyoto and I think this just pushed me over!!!


Awesome report and pictures!

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Another awesome Japan report.

How did you get the reservation at Gen Yamamoto? I’ve been wanting to go.

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There are instructions on the website - I called, exactly at noon Japan time one week out, took about 4 min before I got through, one of the easier reservations I made for my time in Japan!