Japan, So Much Good Food

The seventh instalment in our (not so) recent adventures in Japan.

May 3-17, 2015: One of the best parts of traveling is trying the food in new regions, which is why it’s kind of surprising that it took us this long to get to Japan. We love Japanese food. Especially sushi and sashimi. Bring on the o-toro (fatty tuna belly). But there’s so much more to it than that.

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The noodles…ramen, udon, glass and soba. Tempura battered seafood and vegetables. Yakitori, sticks of grilled meats including tame options like chicken thighs, pork belly and asparagus wrapped in bacon, and more adventurous selections like beef tongue and assorted chicken innards such as intestines, cartilage and tail. There’s home cooking like nikujaga, a stew made of beef, potatoes and carrots. Miso soup. Shabu shabu, a hot pot cooked at the table. Ikayaki, grilled whole squid. Gyoza dumplings. Chawanmushi, a steamed egg custard filled with seafood and mushrooms and other yummy things. Gomaae, a side dish of vegetables served in a sesame dressing. Umeboshi, the pickled ume fruit, kind of like a sour plum. There are pancake-like dishes, such as okonomiyaki and mongayaki. Bento boxes. Our favourite quick snack was onigiri, handheld rice triangles wrapped in seaweed with a little bit of dried fish tucked inside for flavour. You could pick these up at any corner store. There’s the chankonabe (sumo stew) that we tried on our sumo day (see previous post). And let’s not forget the assorted grilled seafoods, from salmon belly to scallops to oysters to little bony fishes. I love agedashi tofu…Chris not so much.

Some of the best places for food oggling turned out to be the basements of department stores in Tokyo. Here’s where you find grocery stores, delis, fruit stalls, bakeries, specialty food producers and take away options galore. There is so much pride in the way the food is prepared and served. It was beautiful to see.

There were lots of dessert choices, but it seemed hard to get beyond my favourite, green tea ice cream. Yum.

We ate way too much, including things we didn’t recognize, things we couldn’t name and things we’d never tried before. There wasn’t much we didn’t like, except maybe for a few of the more crunchy unidentifiable yakitori chicken parts that were skewered and grilled for us. Mostly likely the cartilage, the tail or the intestines.

Of course, we also ate sushi. We ate sushi standing up. We ate takeaway sushi from grocery stores. We ate sushi at kaiten (conveyor belt) restaurants. Sometimes I even got brave enough to order fresh dishes from the chefs. We ate sushi at sushi bars where we watched the chefs work. We ate sushi from bento boxes on the train. We ate sushi and sashimi at sit down restaurants. We ate sushi at a futuristic sushi pod restaurant. (We even went for sushi not long after we arrived back in Subic.)

In true gluttonous style, sometimes we even ate two dinners in one evening. An early one at one restaurant and a later one when we found another spot we just had to try. We were turned away from one restaurant because they didn’t speak English. We were welcomed into another restaurant down the same street that didn’t have an English menu or staff that spoke English. It turned out to be one of our favourite places and we went back again. It was challenging ordering from the specials menu, but with sign language and the help of a kind young couple at another table (who could translate the Japanese script into English for us), we tried some really interesting dishes. Like beautiful steamed bamboo shoots and sea snails.

Aside from the language barrier, the other tricky things to navigate were the coupon restaurants. These don’t have a waiter or waitress. Instead you order what you want from a vending machine and pop in your money to pay. This was especially challenging because the machines didn’t have any pictures of the dishes. We avoided these for quite a while, finally giving it a go at one place where one of the staff helped us figure things out. We pointed to pictures on the wall and he pressed the right buttons. A few minutes later, our food was delivered to our table.

The food really did make this trip extra special. The only thing I really missed was vegetables. They seemed hard to come by on many of the menus…or maybe we just didn’t know what to ask for. Regardless, I’d go back again in a heartbeat.

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