Japan (Niseko, Tokyo, Kyoto) trip report ‘23

All right gang, after a glorious two weeks, I’ve made it back from Japan. Thanks again to everybody who contributed. It made a daunting task feel much easier. I made a mess of this thread by starting it before I really had time to post, but specific resto reports will be below, eventually. Before I get to all that, I wanted to do a run-down of my general thoughts on my three destinations: Niseko, Tokyo, and Kyoto.

Niseko: Skiing Japow was the impetus for this trip, but honestly I tried to keep my expectations low, if only so I wouldn’t be bummed if I wasn’t skiing knee-deep powder every run for 5 days. Lolz, it snowed five days straight, crowds were minimal (rarely any lift lines beyond a minute,) and the onsen was hot, and I was skiing knee-deep powder for 5 days. There was so much powder; it was surreal. My buddy and I (both of whom average probably 12-20 days a year skiing out west) deemed this our best trip ever. So ya, go ski powder in Japan. It’s insane.

A great part about Niseko United was that the place doesn’t feel corporate at all, perhaps because it is a merging of four separate resorts all with their own identity. On-mountain beers cost like three dollars and a wonderful soba with shrimp tempura ran about $7.50. That alone made the experience so much better. Imagine the vibes of Alta but with much, much better food.

Hirafu (the main town area close to the mountain) is overrun by Americans, French, and Australians but there are still some hidden gems to be found. Reservations are a must, which is kind of a bummer in a ski town when you want to play things by ear. Still, prices were fair and the food, for a mountain town catering to people content to eat mediocre food, was damn good after a day of skiing.

Tokyo: Woof, what a city. I think if anything I was surprised by how manageable Tokyo felt—probably a combination of Google Maps, Google translate, and a decent amount of past time spent in Asian megalopolises. At the same time, I found it incredibly helpful to have my meals planned out, simply because there are so many restaurants that my feeble mind couldn’t possibly decide on a spot in the moment. By having destination restaurants (whether that be a ramen spot or a baller kaiseki spot) I could explore a different neighborhood leisurely, rather than running calculus in my mind to figure out which line I should park myself in.

I found my enjoyment of Tokyo to be neighborhood-centric, which makes sense given its massive size. I didn’t care much for Shinjuku, Shibuya was better but hectic, Roppongi (where I stayed for one night) felt like the mediocre part of any given massive city. We stayed 4 nights in Ebisu, and I loved it there. A two minute walk led us into a maze of restaurants and bars, all of which felt targeted to hip, young Tokyoites. The bars were wonderful (Bar Trench, Bar Urushi, and Buri, which is a stand-up cheap sake bar and yakitori spot) and there was a medley of well-priced but delicious restaurant options (the steak sando spot @jc_eats recommended, Afuri ramen, numerous gyoza spots, yakiniku spots, fruit-sando spots, etc.) Truly the only issue I could find with Ebisu is that the hotel situation is rather bleak. The first designer boutique hotel that opens there will make a fortune.

Also, from the Ebisu home base, we were walking distance to Daikanyama and Nakameguro, which were these tranquil little pocket neighborhoods skirting the Meguro river. Said trio of neighborhoods felt quite residential, while still maintaining a density that LA could only dream of. Each day, we would walk to a different spot to grab coffee, wander the river, and inevitably end up at the Dainkanyama T-site, which houses the Tsutaya bookstore, which has to be one of the coolest book/design shops on earth. Highly recommend. Also, thank you @J_L because I’m pretty sure you mentioned Daikanyama as a place you liked, and then with some targeted research based upon that, I ended up in Ebisu.

Kyoto: I understand why you all insisted that as a first-timer to Japan, I’d be doing something wrong if I didn’t end up in Kyoto. Walking along the river and canals at night (particularly the Philosopher’s Path on the way to Monk) was surreal and peaceful and felt quintessentially Japan. The temples were stunning, albeit crowded. (I seriously can’t imagine how overwhelming they would be in peak tourist season.) Also, the architecture and the sheer age of everything was wonderful. The history of the city is inseparable from it, in a way that feels rather unique. We ate wonderfully in Kyoto—I understand how the nuance of the cuisine could be a deterrent but I took it as part of a challenge. Lol a life goal would be to get my tongue so finely attuned that I can taste every nuance in their cooking!

Also, I had the most gracious restaurant experience of my life in Kyoto. Long story short, and this story may be elaborated upon in the forthcoming report, I totally messed up my reservation time. They sat me TWO HOURS LATE rather than taking my 900 dollar deposit. I was utterly floored. Thinking back, I’m still floored.

What a trip.

Here’s a bad photo of a good sunset on the way in to Haneda.


Wishing you a great trip and glorious eating…


Hope you gain 15 lbs and take copious photos!


Caught in blizzard going from Milk Kobo, a bakery in Niseko. For some reason, shuttle didn’t stop for us! Anyway, no pictures of the food but terrific cheesecakes, cheese tarts, and cream puffs. They reportedly have a dairy farm on-site. No idea if that’s true bc of the aforementioned blizzard.

Skiing has been very good.


Whoa… Japanese eyebrow-cicles! Stay warm, dude.


Sorry to just be seeing this now, but if at all possible, while in Niseko check out Ebisutei. It’s a cozy little izakaya serving up some simple, delicious, homey food. The teriyaki chicken, huge salad, and vinegared mackerel are all musts.

Also in Niseko you have to do the potato ramen spot, and get the stuffed chicken wings while there.

Have fun! Niseko and its surrounding environs are my favorite place on planet earth.


We might try to walk in to Ebisutei tonight! They’re all booked up for the next two weeks!

My one mistake is that I didn’t figure a ski town would rely so heavily on reservations…been scrambling and not necessarily succeeding.

I’ve had three phenomenon lunches though. Raku Ichi, Afuri ramen which has a brand new Niseko spot so the hordes haven’t overrun it yet, and a really good on-mountain spot beneath the Hirafu gondola.


Well well well, we went to Rakuichi for our first lunch, and then we walked ten minutes to the lift and went skiing. It is a bit surreal that such a place exists where it does, and certainly Rakuichi’s charm influences how I think of this food. But the soba is rather transcendence, and the rest of it is pretty damn good too.

Reviews, per usual, are crude and the photos are worse. 1-5 on a :skier: scale smh.

Otoro, miso, wasabi: :skier: :skier: :skier::skier:

Tomato and mackerel: :skier: :skier: :skier: :skier: very similar to what I ate in the Basque Country. I’m a mackerel man, so perhaps biased here.

Scallops, ikura, radish: :skier: :skier: :skier: :skier: :skier:

More otoro, this time sashimi: :skier: :skier: :skier:

Lime, botan prawn, gooseberry: :skier::skier::skier::skier::skier:
Really delicious with the citrus from the lime

Bonito, bonito, bonito: :skier::skier::skier::skier: Delicious, seared bonito with bonito flakes.

Iberico pork hotpot: :skier::skier::skier: Tasty and warming and the soup after was delicious, but still a tad behind everything else.

Tempura: :skier::skier::skier: I’ll be interested to see how this compares to Tempura Araki tomorrow! Good but not exceptional and not quite as warm as I’d prefer.

Soba: :skier::skier::skier::skier::skier: These noods are perhaps the reason to come to Rakuichi. It was wonderful to watch and listen to Tatsura-san make these. So meditative and precise. There was a perfect spring to these bad boys, and just the tiniest, pleasant bite of bitterness.

Yuzu sorbet: :skier::skier::skier::skier:: delicious, homemade, tart and refreshing. No photos, sadly

What a meal and what a welcome to Japan. Thanks to you all who steered me here.


Ok, actually getting to some reporting. Here’s where we ate of note in Niseko, Tokyo, and Kyoto. Here is a team (there were four of us) power rankings, and then my individual power rankings. There was not a bad meal in the bunch, though the service at Ichita was horrendous so that one will be low on the list.

Team power rankings: Japanese cuisine category. Commentary is sparknotes of forthcoming review.
1a) Sushi Zai: Tokyo: Super friendly itamae in a tiny 8-seat bar serving brilliant tsumami and really strong nigiri. The two Japanese couples eating alongside us booked their next resy on the spot. (Full disclosure none of our group has extensive sushi experience so take this with a grain of a salt but it’s got a 3.91 [pretty solid!] on tabelog and a fun sake or tea pairing.)
1b) Jiki Miyazawa: Kyoto: This was an @NYCtoLA rec and it was the best value meal of the trip, bar none. Two people had this $50 lunch as the best meal of the trip! Pretty insane sesame tofu dish (maybe the team bite of the trip?) Also, the Tabelog score here is kinda low compared to other spots, but the opening chef apparently moved on, and perhaps his successor is better? Or our tastebuds just suck. All a possibility!
3) Kiyama: Kyoto: Really nuanced, delightful Kyoto kaiseki. Also they improbably sat us two hours after our reservation instead of pocketing our 900 dollar deposit so they are heroes to me. Remarkable service and a super gracious chef/owner. Fewer standout dishes and instead just continuous really high-level cooking. Kiyama probably falls into that infamous Kyoto delicate cuisine. Nothing was punchy but some of the joy was straining for all the flavors.
4) Rakuichi: Niseko As seen on Bourdain, and as reviewed above, our first meal of the trip held up remarkably well. Perhaps it’s their incredible locale and service, but it was also just a lot of really damn good food, without the slightly subdued flavors of the Tokyo and Kyoto kaisekis. Thanks to @J_L and @NYCtoLA
5) Stand up sushi Akira: Tokyo: Simply a must visit, thank you @jc_eats. Also, for context, restaurants 3-5 all fell within two points of each other, so the five slot is by no means damning. The whole experience here is so emblematic of what makes Tokyo such a great city. You queue up in a dingy basement to eat at a stand-up sushi bar. The uni and nodoguro bites here were next-level and likely better than those respective bites at Zai.
6) Ebisu Yakiniku: Tokyo: Fantastic wagyu tasting menu with some really interesting cuts. Obscenely high tabelog, and I understand why. We all loved this restaurant, we just loved the other ones more.
7) Tempura Araki: Niseko: Young, friendly chef and really solid tempura in Niseko. Not much wrong with this spot! Note, we were traveling with a shellfish allergic dude so we didn’t go for the baller crab and uni supplements which could have changed things. They looked superb.
8) Ichita: Tokyo: Ugh, really unfortunate service here. We were in a room which was fine, but the counter was raucous and seemingly filled with wealthy and wild businessman. As such, we were ignored throughout the night. Think they were just overwhelmed. Our one server was like a 22 year old who was super friendly, but just couldn’t pull it together. The food was great, honestly. The soba was markedly better than the soba at Rakuichi and we maybe had our favorite cooked fish dish of the trip here. But I can’t recommend this spot. It was 33k yen pre-booze and service/coursing was awful. Someday I’d like to return and sit at the counter, but blah.

PS, my rankings were Zai, Kiyama, Jiki Miyazawa, Stand up sushi, Raku-Ichi, Araki Tempura, Meat, and Ichita.

Non-Japanese rankings: All of these spots were very much filtered through a Japanese lens, so to call them Non-Japanese feels stupid, but it felt dumber to compare them to a spot like Kiyama. PS–all these restaurants were crazy good, and each of them would be like top 50 in LA I reckon, if not higher. Also, we rank because it’s stupid and fun, but these lists were so debatable.

1a) Caveman: Tokyo: Wowzers, an incredible value meal of world-spanning cuisine that felt, in a sense, very Los Angeles. If this were in LA I’d be here weekly, and I’d expect it would cost 80 dollars instead of 30.
1b) Lature: Tokyo: Insane French game cuisine. Highlights were a pate en croute of foie, bear, badger, boar, and venison. As good as anything I’ve had in Lyon. This would be a top ten restaurant in LA, lol, but it’s heavy, intense game cooking. Lol it started with a deer blood macaron!!!
3) Seirinkan: Tokyo: The marinara I think was the best pizza of my life. Photos to come. Also, FWIW, we thought Seirinkan bested (rather noticeably) PST Roppongi, which is not on the list because only 3 of us went to it, instead of all four.
4) Monk: Kyoto: It is crazy that this place was ranked 4, because it is delicious and weird and beautiful. The pizzas were truly wonderful, though the rest of the tasting menu didn’t hit quite as hard as the rest of these spots. Location-wise, this place is remarkable. It’s just a few steps off the Philosopher’s Path and the space itself is charming and warm plus they serve tasty natty wine.

My rankings were Lature, Seirinkan, Caveman, and then Monk.

To give you an idea of how competitive this category is, my pal ranked Lature #3 and called it the best French meal of his life and said it was noticeably better than a 2 star spot in France that he went to this past summer! Also, one of us had Monk as the #1 restaurant in this category. It was a battlefield out there.

Ugh, I really tried to ignore all you guys when you said the food in Japan was at a different level, but, sadly, I concur. The hit rate on this trip was 100 percent. Every meal was wonderful, save for Ichita and that debacle.

Some more in-depth reviews to come.


Thanks for reporting on your experience and providing updated restaurant info. Was great being able to live vicariously through your posts!

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Way more reviews to come! Thanks for all your help in the planning.

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Been super slow on these: call it a post-Japan languishing. (Not really but sorta. It’s hard to think about all that un-skied powder without getting at least a little melancholic…) Anyway, here’s some photos and thoughts on a restaurant called Lature, which specializes in French game cuisine. It’s in Shibuya, and we did lunch, which was 8580 yen, or 63 bucks or so. A quick googling suggests that the chef serves a lot of game that he’s hunted himself, and that they also have their own farm somewhere in Chiba.

This, my friends, is winter food, and honestly it’s mountain food. If this were in some cabin in Hokkaido and the chef picked you up on a snow mobile and there was a fire in the hearth, this would be among the most famous restaurants in the world! I swear to that. Cuisine-wise, this took me back to the bouchons in Lyon, but, as expected, there’s a tad more restraint here. (There’s not a ton of restraint; nearly every dish was flirting with being too decadent, but not once did we feel a line was crossed.)

Scale of course is 1-5 :deer:

Dish one: Deer blood (boudin noir) macaron: :deer: :deer: :deer: :deer: :deer:

Pretty exceptional to get the meal started. Peppery and rich and terrine-y and kind of eases you into what’s to come.

Dish two: Mushroom and pork-fat on a potato tart base: :deer: :deer: :deer::

As the youth say, it’s giving pigs in a blanket. But seriously, another wonderful bite to kick the meal off.

Dish three: Yellowtail, pomelo, macadamia nuts, radish: :deer: :deer: :deer: :deer::

All things considered, this felt like the most classically French dish of the meal. I’ve had something similar to this in a number of bistros in both Lyon and Paris, but as would be expected the ingredient quality here was spectacular: the yellowtail was just perfect.

Dish four: : Paté en croute of foie gras, bear, badger, boar, and deer: :deer: :deer: :deer: :deer: :deer::

This is why you come here, friends. My god, what a dish. All the funky goodness of a paté en croute, and perhaps an added gaminess from the bear and badger and venison. Somehow in this madness there was a bit of a restraint, and we all devoured this tranche and lapped up the compotes alongside it.

Dish five: Monkfish in a beurre noisette: :deer: :deer: :deer: :deer:

I remember the texture of this guy (poor man’s lobster) and that beautiful brown-butter sauce. Wish I could remember the greens, but alas, I’m not sure we were told what they are and I’m a bitter eater than I am a botanist.

Dish six: Deer from Hokkaido in a cherry, red wine, and black pepper sauce: :deer: :deer: :deer: :deer: :deer:

The game dishes were really damn good. I swear I’m not giving these guys 5 :deer: just for the novelty of the dish. Perfectly cooked, again toeing that richness line, the inherent gameiness perhaps coaxing it back to the good side.

Dish seven: Citrus + Meringue. :deer: :deer: :deer:

I remember thinking I’d had many variations of this as the dessert course in a lunch prix fixe in France. Very classic but not my favorite.

Dish eight: Brown butter and wild animal oil financier: :deer: :deer: :deer: :deer::

Lol it was not specified what “wild animals” were used in the making of this financier, but it was damn delicious and if you were feeling romantic and in marvel, you might have made the deduction that I did: which is that the animal oil cut the sweetness of the financier and made for the perfect bite. We debated stealing un-eaten ones of these from neighboring tables.

Verdict: We liked this place a lot. Value-wise, umm, it’s pretty surreal. 63 dollars for this! About 7 years ago I spent two months in France and this meal would compete pretty well with all except Troisgros. I’d say this one is pretty self-explanatory. If you want to eat a ton of Japanese game, come here. If not there’s probably other restaurants in Tokyo…


That is a very deer-forward meal. Nice!

Lolol it was certainly not short on venison.

That’s insane for 63$ Damn!

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So, Kiyama was our final meal in Kyoto, and perhaps our most anticipated meal of the trip. It has a tabelog silver medal and was by far the highest rated of our Japanese meals. We’d had a long day of ceramic and tea shopping, so though our reservation was at 8, at around 5:30, we had a small katsu curry so we wouldn’t show up to the restaurant absolutely famished. At about 7, I got off the shower and decided to check my email. There were a slew of emails in Japanese, then one from pocket concierge saying that’d missed our reservation at Kiyama and would have to pay our $900 deposit in full. Cue devastation. Every other dinner reservation the entire trip was at 8, and I’d just idiotically assumed that Kiyama was the same. Nope, it was at 6. Woof. I more or less sprinted to the hotel lobby and frantically explained myself to a very confused receptionist. So you want to change your reservation from 6 to 8? No, I am desperately begging them to seat us! Finally, I got the point across to the receptionist—he called the restaurant, their conversation stretched on forever… and then he said to me, all right, it is okay, you can go!

What a damn miracle.

We showed up at 7:45, still frantic and deeply apologetic. Our server greeted us with a little grin, as if to say you silly bastard, and then he proceeded to treat us with nothing but grace for the rest of the night. The meal started with a cup of hot water from the stream/well that the restaurant is situated on. That was the best damn cup of water of my life. There were no photos allowed—perhaps you could have taken food pics but I was so focused on being the best guest possible that I didn’t want to probe at all, and English descriptions were scant, and I wasn’t taking any notes because of the no cell-phone rule! Also, I was so damn flustered, and once the sake started hitting, I did not try to commit the thirteen or so dishes to memory!

We were given a menu though with a lot of mis-translations. Anyways, here’s more or less what we had! Also, there was a pretty amazing presentation of the three types of bonito that were used to make the dashi. Our server shaved off flakes for us to try—pretty remarkable the nuance in taste.

1)Karasumi and grated turnip over rice.
2) Nanohana (rape seed) porridge with sesame tofu. I was pretty obsessed with the Kyoto sesame tofu.
3) Tairagai with mountain vegetables, daikon radish, and ponzu. This was sublime.
4) Another clam dish with carrot, daikon, burdock, mushrooms, and a mountain plant called udo in a gorgeous dashi.
5) Kinmedai sashimi (we think)
6) Grilled fugu with white pepper that had an almost South-East Asian feel. This was likely my favorite pufferfish prep of the trip.
7) Red turnip, ankimo, and something else. (I remember liking this dish but this far gone have little recall.)
8) Deep-fried fugu shirako with lotus root. This was delicious! I’m pretty damn certain it was pufferfish shirako, does that make sense?
9) Cue (long tooth grouper) and yam in a dashi and beef consommé. Really delicious here.

Then we moved into a really fun user’s choice part of the menu. There were five dishes and you could have as much as you wanted of each dish. We had two bites each, though those two bites were probably more akin to five!

  1. Egg and rice topped with beef
  2. Noodles in chicken soup stock
  3. Squid and ground yam
  4. Rice in dashi topped with an oyster
  5. Chirimen sansho (dried tiny sardines and Japanese peppercorn and bonito atop rice.

Gah, these were all small miracles. The chirimen sansho haunts me, and the egg and rice topped with beef was so damn tasty and so pleasingly out of place on such a delicate menu. Also, the rice and oyster in dashi was superb.

The meal finished with a kumquat sorbet, wagashi, and a brilliant matcha.

When it was all over, Yoshiro Kiyama, the chef and namesake, introduced himself to us and thanked us for coming. We obviously thanked him profusely, and he was so darn gracious, maintaining that showing up two hours late was a super easy to make mistake and that it was no big deal at all. We were the last ones in the restaurant at that point, yet never did we feel rushed!

Kiyama is a place I’ll think about for a long time, and it’s a place I’m eager to return.


My heart skipped a beat as I read your harrowing tale. So glad it all turned out for the best.

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yeah, still pretty wow’ed by their decency! I mean, I paid in full for 4 people. They so easily could have taken the money and ran!

Also, in my entire existence, that’s the first time I ever did that with a reservation. Glad I didn’t pay the price for my sins!


Sounds like a great meal! I too was sweating bullets when I read about the timing. Sucks about no photos though! Did not realize they were one of those places. Looking closely now at Google-translated Tabelog reviews it does seem like a policy put in place the last couple years unfortunately.

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It was a very surreal evening. I probably did not relax for at least thirty minutes into our meal, haha. I kept expecting them to be like go home you fools!

Then afterwards we enjoyed an evening stroll through the Nijo Castle grounds. Highly recommend!