Harajuku, the land of the hip and whimsical, where nobody bats an eye at rainbow outfits or sky-high platform shoes, is also a paradise of eccentric sweets and restaurants that would put even Willy Wonka to shame.
On a chilly Thursday, I was fortunate enough to join the Harajuku food tour to discover the most Instagrammable and delicious treats in the area. We started our gastronomical journey at an “antenna shop” in Omotesando. Antenna shops are a fantastic way to discover other parts of Japan without traveling, and this one specialized in goods from Niigata prefecture.
Niigata is known for being home to the most sake breweries of all the prefectures in Japan, and the shop even had a well-stocked sake bar. Our tour guide, Asami, shared information about how high-quality sake is made. The water makes a big difference, she revealed. For example, soft water, which Kyoto is known for, makes for fruitier sake.
She also introduced us to a version of the popular savory snack food, Kaki no Tane, a spicy rice cracker snack with peanuts, which pairs wonderfully with beer or sake. The version we tried was revamped with a chocolate outer coating—perfect for winter because it won’t melt into a sticky mess.
But the most intriguing snack she introduced to us was sasa dango, a rice cake wrapped in sasa, or bamboo leaf, which is said to have antibacterial and natural preservative properties. Sasa kamaboko (fish cake) is also known to be wrapped in bamboo leaves for this reason, as is sasa ame (bamboo candy).
Our cheerful and bright tour guide was full of cultural information and historical tidbits regarding the area. One of Asami’s insights, in particular, really struck a chord during the food tour: “Japanese eat not for the flavor, but for the texture.” She elaborated that a possible challenge for foreigners experiencing Japanese food for the first time might be the variety of unfamiliar textures. It makes sense if you think about all the neba-neba (slimy) foods that Japan has to offer, from natto to tororo (grated mountain yam). But the varied textures are also what makes Japanese food so unique and special, especially to foreign taste buds.
For me, one of the highlights of the experience was definitely our next stop! A certain French pastry chef,* of cookie shot and cronut fame, had been on my radar for years, and to finally get to press my nose (hyperbolically speaking) against the pastry case was such a dream. As someone who used to work in the kitchen of a French-style bakery, I had been meaning to go to this Tokyo location and was not at all disappointed.
Dramatic desserts are this shop’s specialty—it’s half-spectacle and half-mindblowing flavors. The frozen s’more was one such idea with a dramatic execution: vanilla ice cream with crunchy, chocolatey bits, encased in a honey marshmallow, which is carefully blowtorched upon ordering.
Everything in the shop was magnificent. There was a hojicha (roasted tea) melon-pan I had my eye on, called “Mr. Roboto,” with a cute design on top of the bun that looked like a robot’s face. The Paris-Tokyo, a playful twist on the traditional Paris-Brest, flavored with matcha and passion fruit curd was also stunning. It is only available in Japan, and although I didn’t get to try it, I’m secretly pleased to have an excuse to go back!
In the end, I decided on the mikan religieuse, a stack of two choux buns with earl grey ganache and mandarin orange jam, designed to look like a mandarin orange. An almost religious experience, it was quite possibly this moment that converted me into a dedicated follower of this ingenious James Beard Award-winning chef.
Next, Asami brought us to an okonomiyaki shop unlike any I’d seen before. It was hidden away in a little nook; you’d never even know it was there from the main street. With its creative and kooky graffiti and murals, it was like walking into a hip art exhibition. Then, after we seated ourselves, Asami had so many helpful cultural tidbits to share regarding table manners and drinking culture in Japan. She explained the differences between Hiroshima and Osaka style okonomiyaki, briefly touched upon the origin of monjayaki, and demonstrated beer-pouring etiquette.
Lastly, we strolled down Takeshita Street, known as a hub for fashionable high school students and delicious crepe stores. That day, we passed on the crepes, as we had an even more Instagram-worthy subject in mind. In front of our very eyes, a massive cloud of rainbow cotton candy was dextrously spun, forming a flamboyant and sugary-sweet delight, emblematic of Takeshita Street.
The idea that the Japanese prefer varied textures, rather than flavors, began to make sense during the course of the food tour (though there were some incredible flavors as well). The saku-saku (crunchy) textures of the Niigata snacks contrasted with the melt-in-your-mouth rainbow cotton candy, and the crispy-on-the-outside-gooey-on-the-inside okonomiyaki. It was a remarkable experience that renewed my appreciation for Japanese food and introduced me to some new favorite shops.
Another special point of the Harajuku food tour is how it is carefully catered to the interests of the group, rather than consisting of the same itinerary every time. Asami was receptive to hearing about what we wanted to see, taste, and learn about, and used our answers to give the tour a direction. With a different group of people, the tour could be an entirely different journey!
*Update 3/27/19: Due to the closure of Dominique Ansel Bakery in Omotesando, it is no longer included in the Kawaii Food Tour in Harajuku. Taking its place is an amazing new spot featuring homemade goma (sesame) ice cream, among other sweet treats!
Want to spruce up your Instagram with crazy colorful sweets and indulge in some saku-saku snacks? Experience your own Kawaii Food Tour in Harajuku!
Rika is a sourdough enthusiast, amateur film photographer, and pun-lover, born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia. As a carb-based lifeform, she is always on the lookout for tasty bakeries in the Tokyo area. She currently lives in Yokohama.