A Chef’s Epic Eating (and Relaxing) Tour of Japan

The mastermind chef behind San Francisco hotspot Lazy Bear shares highlights of his recent trip to Tokyo, Kyoto, and the Japanese countryside.

A Chef's Epic Eating (and Relaxing) Tour of Japan

The kaiseki-style breakfast served at Yagyu-No-Sho.

Photo by David Barzelay

Lazy Bear chef David Barzelay recently took a trip to Japan for vacation, where he ate his way through Tokyo, dined and relaxed at a traditional ryokan, and hung out with locals at an izakaya in Kyoto. “You pick up a certain aesthetic when you dine in Japan,” Barzelay says. “Chefs demonstrate a constant improvement and dedication their craft.” Here are the highlights of his epic trip.

Tempura and Tonkatsu in Tokyo

“We started in Tokyo, and stayed for four days. One of our best meals was at Tempura Iwai, run by a husband-and-wife team. He cooks the food, and she serves. The shrimp are live until seconds before they’re served—he takes the heads off and peels the shellfish right in front of you. Another standout was squid that was just briefly fried—it was super tender. There was an uni tempura that was crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. The dinner was about $200 per person. There were only four other people in the restaurant with us.

“We had another great meal at Butagumi, a tonkatsu place. ‘Tonkatsu’ is a fried pork cutlet, and this particular restaurant’s specialty is a thick-cut version. You can choose from eight different breeds of pork—you even get to choose your cut, from pork belly to lean cutlets, and thickness. It comes out beautifully crispy on the outside and tender and fatty on the inside. They serve it with shredded cabbage, homemade tonkatsu sauce, and a wedge of yuzu. Simple and delicious.

“A Tokyo highlight that wasn’t food-related? The Murakami exhibit at the Mori Art Museum. It was amazing—one of the coolest exhibits I’ve ever seen. The most prominent piece is The 500 Arhats (2012), a 100-meter painting that depicts 500 followers of Buddha. It’s expansive and occupies three rooms. The level of detail is incredible.”

Delicious Food and Relaxation in Shuzenji

“We stayed at Yagyu-No-Sho, a ryokan in the rural town of Shuzenji, and enjoyed the onsen [natural hot spring]. It was the best thing we did on the entire trip. The food was great—it was served kaiseki-style in the rooms. It’s a fairly traditional way to serve food, and it’s always presented in the same order: Something simmered, something grilled, broth, pickles, and more, with tons of components and all arranged in a certain way. The ryokan’s team asks what time you’d like to eat, and then they bring you a 14-course kaiseki breakfast complete with tableside tea and broth. At night, they do dinner in a similar fashion.

“The ryokan also has outdoor public baths that are beautifully landscaped with rocks and plants. They’re all natural-feeling pools. The ryokan contracts with the city to pipe water in from the the natural hot springs in the surrounding area, so they can control the temperature. You go out to soak in the morning, fully naked (the baths are gender-separated). There’s steam rising off the water. There are gentle waterfalls. It’s so peaceful. We had a semi-outdoor private bath in our room as well.

“We had a couple of really awesome meals in town, outside of the ryokan, including one of buckwheat soba, which is what that area is known for. We ate it with tempura shrimp. You take the soba, which is cold, and dip it in a warm broth to sauce it. Then you drink the broth when you’re finished.”

Temples and Ramen in Kyoto

“The temples are the main attractions in Kyoto. One of the most memorable for us was the silver temple. It’s manicured, but in a Zen Buddhist way: Moss-covered grounds and sand gardens that are constantly raked into patterns.

“Food-wise, we had ramen at Gogyo Ramen as well as the original location of Ippudo. Gogyo basically invented a new style of ramen: burnt miso ramen. They get a wok screaming hot, add lard, and then spoon in miso. It flames up and they burn the shit out of it. That’s a no-no in western food—you avoid burning oil at all costs, because it creates what are considered off-flavors. But in Asian cooking, they consider that flavor good, a quality called ‘wok breath.’ This burning turns the sugar in the miso completely black. Then, they deglaze the wok with the ramen broth. It’s this rich tonkatsu [pork bone] broth with this sweet, savory, seared Gogyo ramen noodles.

“Another night in Kyoto, we were on a quest to find a fabled uni place—which we did find, but it had run out of sea urchin. Walking back, we happened to stumble on an incredible izakaya. We met these drunk guys from Hokkaido who kept buying us sea urchin and soju. We were disappointed about the first restautant, but that meant we found this other amazing place—and got our uni fix anyway.”

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