Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The foodie paradise that is Japan


As regular readers of this blog should know, I love to travel and also am partial to good plus interesting food. It thus shouldn't be too surprising that not only do I make it a point to sample the local cuisine during my travels but I sometimes feel more inclined as well to visit a particular place precisely because it is able to offer foodies like myself travel highlights in the form of sumptious delicacies and/or special dining experiences.

Thus it was that upon being furnished with an invitation to visit Japan -- the land of sushi, sashimi, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki, Kobe beef, mentaiko, zaru soba, ramen, yakitori, okonomiyaki, mochi, etc., etc.! -- last August, I didn't need to think twice to emphatically answer with a "Yes, please!"

And this especially since on my one previous extended visit to the country (i.e., something besides a few hours spent on transit at Narita International Airport or even an overnight stay in that area necessitated by my having missed a connecting flight), a then 14-year-old moi had had the misfortune of having been on a group tour whose organizers worked on the premise that the people on it would prefer to have American rather than Japanese breakfasts and Chinese rather than Japanese food during the other meals...! :S

To be sure, however, I didn't go so far as to completely follow the example of the man and wife who looked to have not done much more than eat -- albeit diversely as well as deliciously! -- while in the Land of the Rising Sun (and whose account of doing so is a thing of literary beauty as far as I'm concerned!). Still, believe you me when I say that looking at one of that blogger's recommended eateries' sushi menu often gets me rueing my not doing so!

At the same time, it's certainly true enough that I did manage to have my share of wonderful meals this time around in Japan. And one of them -- which I previously listed as one of my highlights of 2006 -- was indeed the sublime 3650 Yen Omakase set at the deservedly famous Sushi Dai at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market.

For a similarly memorable dining experience, but one that's significantly more rarified, it's hard to beat the multi-course yuba and tofu kaiseki set meal(s) that my mother and I had over at the Dazaifu branch of the highly esteemed specialist Ume-no-hana chain. (It's not only that we were presented with hard-to-believe combinations like tofu and baked cheese or tofu topped with ikura (i.e., salmon roe or caviar) but, also, that the ultra-smooth plus delicate chawan mushi that we imbibed at that restaurant was by far the most delicious that we have ever tasted.)

Japan being the foodie's paradise that it is though, you don't actually have to go to a famous restaurant to have a wonderful culinary time. Indeed, one of my happiest food- (and drink-)related moments while in that East Asian land occured when I independently -- sans the advice of guide books or such -- discovered a thoroughly inviting izakaya while out wandering in downtown Kokura one evening.

(For the record: the Shirokiya that was a real pleasure to visit -- and which bears no relation to any of those "Shirokiya"s which appear when you do a Google search -- doesn't only possess the kind of multi-faceted plus extensive menu (see here for a mouth-watering example) along with friendly service that's associated with izakayas in general but also comes complete with imaginative decor -- think see-through plexiglass floor, under which are colored marbles along with white sand and pebbles -- and relaxing jazz music to add to the ambience. And all this for a reasonable price besides!)

Heck, come to think about it, you don't even have to visit an actual eaterie to have a fantastic foodie time! Rather, as a Metropolis writer advises, you can "[f]ind the best food in the world at Tokyo’s department store food halls". Or as a Japan Today headline succinctly has it: "Want to enjoy food? Try department store basements"!

A confession: I like exploring plus wandering around grocery stores and supermarkets, regardless of the country that I'm in. And I've been in my share of gigantic food stores (e.g., Cub Foods in Beloit, Wisconsin) and gourmet wonderlands (e.g., Harrods Food Halls in London, England). But Japan's depachika (short for
depaato-chika shokuhin uriba, which translates into English as "department store basement food-selling place"!) are up there with the best and most glorious of them.

And this not least because they are where one can go -- as I did one evening during my most recent, satisfying Japan trip -- and get yourself a take-away meal of: some flavorful mentaiko for starters; a multi-ingredient
Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki for the main course; and some fresh blueberries for dessert. All of which were washed down with tasty microbrew beer from the surrounding region that also were procured from the same depachika as that personalized dinner's food items... :b

14 comments:

alejna said...

What a mouth-watering post!

I realized at some point that I sometimes think of traveling as visting sections on an enormous menu. My own trip to Japan was definitely marked by some wonderful food. I stayed at a hotel in Nara that had an incredible buffet breakfast with literally dozens of options, including an array of pickles, various kinds of fish, as well steamed rice and miso soup. And I stayed at an inn that had a less elaborate, but still amazingly delicious, breakfast. There I learned how much I love simple hot tofu in the morning! I dreamt about the food for months afterwards...

GoldenRockProductions said...

I studied in Japan for a year myself (and also went again on vacation for this past new years), and I have to attest to Japan's great food. The great thing is you don't necessarily have to eat expensive to get good food. Even the 350-yen Kimchi Gyu Don (which is essentially kimchi and an egg inside a beef bowl)at fast food chain Matsuya can be extremely filling and delicious, despite its dubious quality as Korean cuisine.

Another example would be the great Momo Paradise (or known to Japanese as Mo-Para) and its 1980 yen all-you-can-eat 90-minute shabu shabu. Despite its comparatively cheap price (the shabu-shabu restaurant my girlfriend used to work at charges up to 8,000 yen for a meal!), the meat is excellent, and at least the Shinjuku locations allow you to get the vegetables yourself.

Of course, I also went to Tsukiji, but went to Daiwa both times, which is right next to Sushi Dai, and on my second visit, I found that the chefs at Daiwa put too much wasabi in my sushi. Of course, both my girlfriend and my Japanese friend loved it nevertheless, but maybe next time I shall go to Sushi Dai instead.

just me said...

Unfortunately for me, in Singapore tour agencies almost always arrange Chinese food for tour groups no matter where you go, if the tour group is majority Chinese of course. I remember eating Chinese food everyday when I visited Australia some time back. I was quite unhappy about that.

The food during this recent Guizhou trip was also not fantastic as it was all pretty generic dishes tailored to Singaporeans in general. But it wasn't as bad as my Australia trip, this time the guides did arrange for a few local dishes to be added to our dinner over the course of my stay in Guizhou. So while I really don't like my "tang yuans" savoury and with meat in them, I'm still happy I tried them since this is the way Guizhou locals eat them.

My friends and I did buy food at some of the street stalls during the trip so I ate this fried banana with peanut thing which was really good and also ate the local "stinky toufu" which I rather liked and I generally hate "stinky toufu".

My next trip will probably be to Tibet or Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan, China. Hopefully, we'll be able to sample some of the local cuisine but I'll still stay clear of fried bugs and really weird stuff. =)

YTSL said...

Hi Alejna, goldenrockproductions and "just me" --

Before anything else: Great bunch of comments from you all there! :)

Also, Alejna --

"I realized at some point that I sometimes think of traveling as visting sections on an enormous menu."

I know what you mean. Except that I'd add that often times, I've encountered items that I never would have known were items on someone's menu (cf. Ume-no-hana's tofu and baked cheese dish; but also all manner of crisp critters at Beijing's night markets!) if I hadn't visited a new territory and seen them for myself! :)

Thanks too for the description of the Nara hotel's buffet breakfasts. Mmmmmmm and yeah, I can well imagine dreaming about the food for months afterwards! ;)

And goldenrockproductions --

"The great thing is you don't necessarily have to eat expensive to get good food."

Absolutely. E.g., at one of those automated noodle shops, I got a delicious bowl of tempura udon for just 400 Yen! And at one kaiten (conveyor-belt) sushi restaurant in Harajuku, my mother and I feasted on uni (sea urchin), ikura and other sushi. Yet the total cost of *both* our meals put together came to less than 2000 Yen!

All in all, one of the shockers of being in Japan was finding that some museum entrance fees were higher than prices of many, if not all, of my meals in the country!

As for Sushi Daiwa versus Sushi Dai: In general, it does seem like most people who have been to both those Tsukiji Market sushi-ya prefer Sushi Dai -- for the food and also the fact that the people don't seem to effectively make you eat at a faster pace there. Though of course the corollary to the latter is that queues for Sushi Dai tend to be far longer and/or move slower than those for Sushi Daiwa.

And "just me" --

"Unfortunately for me, in Singapore tour agencies almost always arrange Chinese food for tour groups no matter where you go..."

As I'm sure you realize, Malaysia's is the same way. Which is why I've become such an *independent* travel enthusiast and eschew tour groups as a rule. ;S

Anonymous said...

I've been to Tokyo twice and the only reason I want to go back is for the food. Not shopping, not sightseeing (although can't not partake in that though there's not much in the city), but for dining. Didn't have a lot of time to search out nice dining digs but just hanging out at the Tokyo and Shinjuku stations was fascinating and delectable in itself. And the department stores with the basements devoted to foods are heaven. Everything arranged so neatly, the aroma so tantalizing, and the other edible goods wrapped so prettily in colored paper just makes you marvel at the attention to food (and appearance). I'm not a big food-y and prefer low-cost dining experiences but with everything so yummy in Tokyo, it's okay.

Oh, and the Japanese men can be so gorgeous. So many like Takeshi Kaneshiro. *gasp* The busboy at a restaurant in the Takanawa Prince had me salivating. haha. So did the Japanese breakfast. ;)

GurlonFilm

YTSL said...

Hi GurlonFilm --

Re Tokyo and sightseeing: Hmmm re your comment re there not being much to see/do in the city. But, then, for me, a visit to Tsukiji Fish Market constitutes sightseeing (along with a "must go eat sushi" portion). Ditto visits to the department store basements... ;)

Also, if you include the Greater Tokyo area into the bargain, there are quite a few interesting places to go on day visits to...

"Oh, and the Japanese men can be so gorgeous."

Tee hee hee! Me -- I reckon that, like with other countries, they run the gamut. So I definitely salivated more over the Japanese food than the men.

However, there was one fellow I had problems taking my eyes off on a train...not that he was incredibly handsome and/or exactly to my taste, mind, but, rather, because he seriously looked like an anime character come to life, with his angular face, shock of hair, svelte figure, well-cut -- and fashionably draped on -- clothes, etc., etc.! ;b

eliza bennet said...

The most delicious food I have had in Japan in Omurice (and thank God I finally learned how to cook it :))

Apart from all the food the cutest was how they change other country's food to yourself. I have been to an Italian restaurant in Ginza with a Japanese group and both the food and the service were nothing like I have experienced before (either in Italy or in here) so I enjoyed that meal immensely.

YTSL said...

Hi "eliza bennet" --

"The most delicious food I have had in Japan in Omurice"

Really?? Omelette fried rice is the most delicious food you had in Japan???!!! :o :DDD

"Apart from all the food the cutest was how they change other country's food to yourself."

If I understand you properly, I'd say that lots of cultures do that too. E.g., in Malaysia, we have this dish called Chicken Maryland. Believe you me when I say that no one I've ever met in the U.S.A. -- including residents of the state of Maryland -- have ever heard of this dish whose major components comprise fried chicken, fried sweet corn fritter and fried banana! ;D

plhu said...

My 2nd trip to Tokyo was virtually a food trip. Reading this post brings back good (and tasty) memories! I'll be going there again, but with raw-fish-hating parents, argh. Such a pity.

Love the desserts and sweets there too.

[Thanks for the link to my site, btw :) ]

YTSL said...

Hi plhu --

Like I do like to point out to people: Japanese food *is* more than just sushi and sashimi. Still, if truth be told, I do think that Japanese are ace at preparing, etc. raw seafood. So you do have my pity and empathy at the prospect of your going to Tokyo with raw-fish-hating parents! ;S

Oh, and you're welcome re the link to your site. Thanks for writing what I linked to since it saved me from having to write it myself! :)

just me said...

Hi ytsl,

re: As I'm sure you realize, Malaysia's is the same way. Which is why I've become such an *independent* travel enthusiast and eschew tour groups as a rule. ;S

Yeah, I kinda knew that Malaysia is pretty much the same way. =) I prefer to do it independently too if I could but the planning takes too much time and I'm too busy with work and projects so I just take the easy way out and sign up for a tour instead.

Also, although I did visit San Francisco by myself, I still rather have at least one traveling companion and I haven't found one that is as enthusiastic about photography and walking as I am.

Anonymous said...

hi ytsl:

re "he seriously looked like an anime character come to life". That's what I totally mean about some Japanese men. All these modern day animes draw Asian men all so similar, like an animated Takeshi Kaneshiro. That guy (I wish I had taken a pic!) in the Takanawa Prince restaurant had exactly what you described. His chiseled jaw, his Roman (?) nose, his dark eyebrows, his side-swept, long-ish hair, tall, not too thin. Ugh, gorgeous (if you like that sort of look)! haha.

I joined a local tour and it brought us by the district where they sell the plastic Japanese food displays. I wanted so much to get off the bus to buy a few of those things. We visited Asakusa and Meiji Temples and later got dropped off somewhere in the Ginza district. I was all alone and how I managed to find the subway and to get back to my hotel is something of a wonder. Being familiar with Chinese characters from 4 years of Chinese school must've helped. ;)

Also went to Tokyo Disneyland all by my lonesome. Glad I dragged my ass out of the hotel in Urayasu otherwise I would've regretted not being as bold as I was. Tokyo's safety was surely an inducement. I haven't had so much fun in a Disney park since then.

GurlonFilm

Anonymous said...

Tours also work for me bc of the economies of it in both $ and time.

GurlonFilm

YTSL said...

Hi again "just me" --

"I prefer to do it independently too if I could but the planning takes too much time"

For me, the planning may take a lot of time but it's part of the pleasure with regards to a trip! As another friend of mine and I have told each other: We both love poring over maps and reading up about where to visit, what to do there, what it's famous for, etc. :b

"Also, although I did visit San Francisco by myself, I still rather have at least one traveling companion"

If you have the right travel companion(s), it can be fun. But agree that that's a big "if". So, many a time, I'm happier to go some place by myself -- albeit with the caveat that this is way more true with regards to urban than rural, etc. locations.

And GurlonFilm --

"I was all alone and how I managed to find the subway and to get back to my hotel is something of a wonder."

When were you last in Tokyo? When I went last year, found to my relief that lots of signs (including at train stations) were in English as well as Japanese. And in less foreign touristy places (like Kokura), I still always managed to find at least one person who could speak English to turn to for help.

"Tokyo's safety was surely an inducement."

Speaking of the safety factor: It was soooooo nice to feel like I could go out as late into the night as I wanted to. (A feeling that, incidentally, I've only ever been able to have while in Japan and Hong Kong.)

"Tours also work for me bc of the economies of it in both $ and time."

I see where you're coming from here. And I guess I justify my independent travel in terms of my maybe covering less space and fewer places for the buck but, more often than not, seeing and experiencing them in more depth.

Also, it's true enough that because of the way I choose to travel, I've been more restricted to urban locales -- and public transportation friendly ones at that -- than I ideally would have wished for.

Additionally, on a guided tour note: My experience has been that when you go to less popular places (as far as tourism is concerned) on them, you end up in smaller groups -- and sometimes even in a group of one.

Thus it was that it was only me -- and minus the guide after a few hours as I told him I wanted to go around the place again if I could and he said it would be fine if I went by myself and he could just wait me at a nearby bar! -- on a tour of Great Zimbabwe. Even more amazingly, it was only me and the pilot on the plane back to Harare from Masvingo -- with the result that I got to sit in the co-pilot's seat to boot! :)