Musings on Japan
Japan is one of those countries that has been on my radar for a while. Mostly because I am obsessed with Asia and it’s many amazing, diverse, and always delicious cuisines. I have put it off because it’s not exactly the cheapest destination but nonetheless one that I wanted to see. I finally booked my trip earlier this year and mostly put it out of my mind (due to work and life,) until it was time to pack my bags and get on the plane.
I landed in Tokyo on a Saturday afternoon. I headed to my hostel ready to meet a group of strangers who would soon become my tribe in Japan. We came from different parts of the world drawn to this place for different reasons. One of them of course being the food. Our first night there we went to a fried chicken place in Tokyo where we had lots of small plates and beer. More of a Izakaya style eatery. Sadly the only picture that I have from my first food encounter in Japan is of beer. Jetlag soon won over and I found myself going to bed relatively early. This would be the last night that my head would meet the pillow at such an early time during this trip.
I was quite amused that the waiter added a syrupy smiley to everyone’s beer. It quickly became apparent to me that the Japanese attention to detail is quite special and something that is not seen in most places around the world.
The next morning we woke up eager to explore Tokyo. My first food encounter happened to be in Asakusa which is an area known for the famous Senjo-ji temple. In this area there are a lot of small shops that sell souvenirs and tons of snacky type foods from the sweet to the savory. This is where I had my first pancake filled with bean paste. I have an obsession with bean paste. Something about the taste of the bean itself backed by the sweetness, is a combination that I really like and tend to seek out when in Asia, or anywhere that I can find it!
After tons more walking (we racked over 29k steps that day), it was soon time for lunch and my first bowl of ramen in Japan. Now I have had a lot of ramen back home (including Futo Buta in my beloved Queen City), this time I was beyond excited to try it straight from the streets of Tokyo. We went to a small place recommended by our guide, where we made our selection outside from a vending machine, we paid through the machine which prints out the order and you then head inside and give your order to someone behind the counter. There were a lot of places like this throughout Japan and it actually makes for a quick and efficient interaction.
Pretty quickly after I sat down, a steaming bowl was placed before me. The broth was fairly light and it was soy based. The meat was pork and as pictured above the green onion serving was generous. This was not the fancy and heavy ramen dishes that I was used to at home. The noodles themselves were thin and didn’t really stand out as having a distinctive taste. I would rate my first bowl of ramen as ok. I would soon have one in Osaka that was my favorite.
That evening we tried a pork curry dish. This dish while fairly heavy was quite delicious. I didn’t know up to my trip that were any curry dishes in Japanese cuisine. This dish was composed of a large bed of rice at the bottom, layered with fried pork (think katsu style), and then topped with heavy layers of curry. A beer made a nice companion to this heavy and slightly spicy dish.
One thing that I found very convenient while in Japan is the number of vending machines on the streets. They serve anything from water, cold coffees, energy drinks, teas, and juices. Needless to say I would visit one of these multiple times a day for various sources of hydration and energy. One thing that was really interesting in Japan is the lack of trash cans on the streets, if they were seen, they were few and far between. People tend to take their trash home with them and dispose of it there. We quickly learned to carry little bags with us so that we could get rid of our trash.
Pretty soon I knew I had to have my sushi fix. I have always been obsessed with restaurants that have sushi rotating on a conveyor belt. This allows me to take my gluttony to the max. We walked into a little place and with lots of hand motions and watching others figured out how things worked. There were faucets dispensing hot water ready to be poured into little cups that would be mixed with matcha powder. Tons of sushi flying by on the rotating belt whose price was designated by the type of plate they were served on. We got our chopsticks out of little drawers and off we went.
I had sushi four times during my trip. Keep in mind that this was a 10 day trip. I probably would have had it every day if there weren’t so many yummy things to try.
I also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the famous fish market in Tokyo where you can observe fisherman haggle with the locals on the fresh catch of the day in the wee hours of the morning. Keep in mind that they frown upon too many tourists getting in the way although there are tours available through third parties. There are also many food stalls outside of the fish market serving all sorts of yummy finds. We decided to stop at one of those eateries where I doubled up on my sushi intake for the day because when in Tokyo, right!?
One of the highlights of my trip was having matcha as often as possible (geez Ana you want to have everything as often as possible, don’t you? Why yes! Yes, I do!). I love matcha and have been in love with it from the moment I first tasted it. I love it with milk, I love it in ice cream, i love it in sugary confections, and I even have it straight up with just hot water, as it should be drank. During my time in Japan I got to attend a tea ceremony where we learned the proper steps to take to undertake the great honor that it is to make a beautiful cup of matcha.
I also had it in a latte and at an ice cream shop that specialized only on matcha ice cream. There were five levels of matcha strength to choose from. I opted to go for the middle range.
One of the highlights of my trip happened in Osaka during a sojourn to try okonomiyaki. This happens to be a cabbage and egg pancake. Doesn’t sound that appealing based on that description but holy guacamole my life was changed and I have been craving this deliciousness from the moment I left Japan.
Cabbage and eggs are thrown on a griddle along with bonito flakes , your meat of choice (I chose beef tripe) and other ingredients and they sizzle on the grill and are flipped a couple of times.
Some were also mixed with noodles but I decided to order one that came topped with an egg and lots of green onions.
During my time in Japan I had all well known beers like Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo. We also stopped at a craft beer place where I got to try some local micro brews. Can’t say that they were my favorite as some of the names and flavor matchings were taking too literally but it was fun to try them while I was there.
Another food thing I got to try were eggs cooked in the volcano in Hakone. Legend goes that for every egg you eat you will get 7 more years of life. Don’t get too greedy though because more eggs doesn’t mean a longer lifespan. Apparently there is a limit.
Another thing I got to try in Hakone was tempura and udon noodles. I typically avoid tempura in the US just because the batter tends to be too thick and greasy once fried. However in Japan it was a fluffy cloud of deliciousness were the vegetable selected was really allowed to shine due to the a barely there batter and no greasiness. I can’t say that I am in love with udon noodles as they are meant to be eaten cold and the noodles themselves don’t have a lot of flavor. I think I would have to further explore udon noodles before I make up my mind on how I feel about them.
Towards the end of my trip I found myself in Osaka and had my second bowl of ramen. A pork broth based one this time. It was definitely heavier and hearthier in taste and composition. The raw eggs added a thickness to an already thick broth and elevated it’s flavor profile. The meat in this dish was also more heavily seasoned. This was definitely more my speed in the ramen category although the first ramen bowl I had makes for a good lighter option.
Alas, all trips must come to an end. I found myself at my last meal with my travel companions, no longer strangers but people who I had shared laughs with, lots late night talks with, a ridiculous amount of sake and beer, and experiences that no one else would understand. Japan was an amazing trip. I don’t say that just because of the food but because the culture of this country is like no other. The mindfulness and attentiveness of the Japanese people is unmatched. I left this country knowing that I wanted to come back to further explore it’s many corners and with an eagerness to further explore Japanese cuisine.