If I were to ask you to list the most important aspects of enjoyable travel, I'm sure food would make it high on the list for many. Obviously it's one of every human's most basic needs, but it also plays an important role in developing our memories of new and different cultures. Unfortunately, many times the actual travel itself offers few opportunities to enjoy quality cultural cuisine. Just hearing the words "airport food" may bring back bad memories for some! Tokyo's Haneda airport, however, has made it a goal to push past this stigma, and one of the best examples of this is Hitoshinaya in Haneda's domestic terminal.
Hitoshinaya not only raises the bar for airport food, it raises the bar for experiencing Japanese cuisine altogether. The idea starts with the name itself. "Hitoshinaya" literally means "one dish shop" and for this restaurant it is more than a name, it's a philosophy. Hitoshinaya is really three restaurants in one, with each individual section focusing on a special type of dish. The main area in the center of the restaurant serves Japanese style breakfast, which includes foods that can be enjoyed all day long. On either side are smaller sections with their own specialties. On the right, the focus is surinagashi, a thick soup akin to potage. On the left, you can find donburi, a rice bowl topped with all kinds of culinary goodness. Don't let this single dish idea fool you though: at Hitoshinaya, less is definitely more!
Unlike many restaurants where the saying "jack of all trades, master of none" applies, Hitoshinaya's focus on a single dish means each dish is skillfully crafted to perfection, each ingredient purposefully chosen to connect with the other flavors. During my visit, I was fortunate enough to try one dish from all three menus, so I speak from experience when I say you can't go wrong with any section of the restaurant. In fact, you may find yourself wanting to try out all three as well!
From the breakfast menu I had the salmon dish, which aside from the main portion of salmon also includes a bundle of delicious sides. The salmon itself was a delightful combination of crispy skin and tender meat, which for me is the first step in enjoying a fish filet like this, and the taste avoided the overly fish flavor found at many restaurants. In addition, every side portion that comes with the dish was a perfect compliment to the salmon, which again speaks to the benefits of focusing on one particular kind of dish.
Next, I tried out the surinagashi portion of the restaurant, ordering the romanesco broccoli (sometimes known as broccoflower) surinagashi and rice with winter vegetables. Not having experienced surinagashi before, I really wasn't sure what to expect, but I was in for a tasty surprise! My visit happened during the middle of winter, and nothing could have hit the spot more than this soup. Thanks to the psychedelic looking vegetable it was crafted from, this surinagashi had both a fun texture and fresh taste. Garnished with pink pepper, certain bites get a tiny kick to add to the flavor. There's even a mochi ball (a type of chewy dumpling made from rice) included, which serves to expand the plethora of textures found in this soup. Add in the rice with winter vegetables, and this dish is sure to warm you up on a cold winter's day. Not visiting in winter? Don't worry! The dishes change throughout the year, so whenever you come you'll be sure to find fresh ingredients that accent the season.
Finally, I was also able to enjoy a dish from the donburi section of the restaurant, ordering the rice bowl topped with yellowtail and Japanese radish with broth sauce. Being from the Gulf Coast region of Florida in the US, and growing up only a block away from the fishing docks, I know a thing or two about fish. But, I also love donburi! Bear these facts in mind when I say this was the most delicious donburi I've ever had. The fish was amazing, perfectly tender on the inside but with a light crispy coating on the outside. The sauce poured over the top of the dish was sweet, but not too sweet, giving a fuller flavor to the entire bowl. Meanwhile, the more subtle texture and flavor of the Japanese radish (called daikon) completed the dish by soaking in the surrounding flavors. At parts sweet, at parts smoky, and all the way through delicious, I highly recommend this dish if you visit the restaurant.
With a great atmosphere, true Japanese hospitality, and delicious, fresh flavors, you might expect the price to be sky high, but that's not the case at all. I was happy to find the prices very reasonable, especially considering the quality of the dishes. Open from 5:30 a.m. until 8:00 p.m., it's very convenient no matter when your flight leaves. And since the restaurant is located just across from the airport check-in counters, you won't be left dashing across the airport to get to your flight even if you take a little extra time to enjoy your meal.
I could go on all day about Hitoshinaya, but the traveler lives not by food alone, and so it's also worth mentioning why you should include Haneda in your travel plans. If you're visiting this amazing country, you're likely to find yourself traveling long distances at some point. Though Japan is famous for bridging these distances via an expansive system of high speed and local trains, there's also another option - domestic air travel. Not only is this method faster, but it is frequently cheaper and can take you to locations you cannot reach by train. With that in mind, Haneda is not only Tokyo's best, but is among the best airports in the nation.
One reason Haneda is such a great option for air travel is that it is truly a city within a city. Multi-story shopping, a capsule hotel, and great views are a few of the options available in just the domestic side of the airport. With what is essentially a miniature mall, you'll find everything from clothing to souvenirs here. There are also many varieties of Japanese omiyage - special snacks and treats that are great gifts to take back for co-workers, friends and family. Tired from traveling or just want to catch some shut-eye before a long flight? Take a visit to the capsule hotel where you can pay to use a bed by the hour. Looking to get some fresh air or enjoy watching planes come and go? Head to the top floor, where an expansive observatory is available, which on clear days even offers views of Mt. Fuji. Add in the friendly, helpful staff at Haneda, and you can be sure your travel experience will be top notch, comfortable, and most of all - fun.
To put it simply, Haneda and Hitoshinaya were a match made in heaven. With easy access, good prices, and lots of options, both the airport and the restaurant are worth the visit even if you're not flying anywhere. Though be warned, after a visit, you might find yourself buying a ticket to explore more of what Japan has to offer.