After spending fifteen days in Japan, I’ve had my share of really good food. For three (sometimes four) meals a day, I enjoyed some of the finest foods of Japan! Yes, I sometimes ate two lunches, just because I could (I had to try as many things as I could!). The beauty of Japanese food is that portions are much smaller than American portions, so it leaves you feeling satisfied and happy.
I feel so lucky to have had this experience in Japan. My girlfriend, Lesliann and I sure did venture out a lot (thanks to the fact that Les really knew her way around!). We traveled from Maebashi, to Tokyo, to Kyoto, and finally ended in Kanazawa. We made some great Japanese friends and bonded over a hot nabe in Maebashi, ate some premium sushi in Tokyo, experienced a ryokan dining in Kyoto and ate the finest seafood in Kanazawa!! All the while Les and I were on our quest for our favorite delicacy… NATTO!! So with a full stomach, I write about the ten (there are surely more than ten) food-related reasons why I love Japan!
.Number 10: Sweet Treats.
Japan has so many fine desserts and sweet treats whether it be mochi, manju, intricately decorated cakes, soft cream or their never ending assortment of pastries at the pan-ya (bakery).
I loved stopping at the Pan-ya in the morning and choosing freshly baked pastires and breads.
My favorite was a creamy milk bread, which was toasty on the outside and creamy custard-y on the inside!!
They also had fun shaped pastries like ka-melon (turtle melon bread), apple, and peach!
Les and I also loved treating ourselves to a refreshing “Soft Cream” while we took a break from the endless walking and heat. Soft cream can be found all over Japan, and its unlike any ice cream you will find in the states. It’s a creamy type of soft serve ice cream that sometimes comes in a variety of flavors.
I had tofu (soy milk), matcha, and ume flavored soft cream! This is the ume-flavored one.
I just loved looking at display cases in department stores and train stations that offered mini cakes and tarts. Each dessert was decorated so intricately and looked so yummy!!
My friend Mieko treated me to a white peach tart in Kanazawa and it was HEAVENLY!! I love Japanese white peaches, and these fresh slices were lightly sweetened and accented with the most delicious whipped cream that I’ve ever tasted!
The Japanese have a real skill for making things look pretty (and cute!).
Here is a picture of the packaging at a cookie bakery.
Here's a fancy strawberry custard-filled dorayaki dessert that I had in Harajuku's "Sweets Paradise."
And here is a picture of a chou-cream (cream puff) shaped like a panda!!
.Number 9: Okonomiyaki.
You can’t visit Japan without eating Okonomiyaki. Melissa took us to a hidden Okonomiyaki place called Sakura-Ya. It’s a tiny restaurant on a side street off Takeshita-dori in Harajuku. At Sakura-Ya, you cook your own okonomiyaki on a grill at your table. Melissa introduced us to Monja-yaki, which is just like okonomiyaki, except more liquidy. Because its liquidy, you eat it off the grill with a special utensil and as it sits there, the bottom becomes caramelized and crispy! My monja-yaki included salmon, cheese and corn!! I enjoyed monja-yaki much more than okonomiyaki…. How will I ever find monja in Hawaii???
.Number 8: Yogurt.
I love yogurt! Even in America, I love yogurt. In Japan, the Yogurt is so much better! The flavors are also so much more fun!! The portion size of Japanese yogurt is perfect (I hardly ever eat the whole container of American yogurt), and they don’t add any artifical thickeners like American yogurt, so the texture is very smooth. Some of my favorites were white peach, kiwi, apple, and mikan (sweet tangerine).
.Number 7: Fresh Fish and Sushi.
The best meal of the entire trip was with Andrea at Tsukiji Fish Market. She took us to “Sushi Dai” and we waited in line for 1.5 hours to get seated!! It was well worth it! We ordered the “Omakase Set” where you don’t order anything, the sushi chef just gives you the freshest fish of the day.
I wish I could remember all the names of the sushi that I ate, but I was too busy savoring and enjoying every bite! The names are almost meaningless anyway because if I ordered it again in Hawaii (or anywhere else besides Japan), it would not be the same!
We also had our share of really good cooked seafood. In Kyoto, Les and I ventured into a tiny mom-and-pop Izakaya where the owners served us their “osusume” or recommendations. With the little Japanese that we had, we managed to carry on a conversation with them as we enjoyed some of their finest dishes and watched them cook our fish right before our eyes. The most interesting dish we tried was tempura style "chirimen iriko," which was tiny little sardine-type fish battered and deep fried.
I really enjoyed the grilled ika (squid) served with mayonnaise and tongarashi. The ika was very tender, with a light smoky flavor!
Also delicious was a grilled fish called “iwashi.”
In Kanazawa, our friend Mieko, took us to eat at a trendy Izakaya. The “osusume” was the kanpachi sashimi, which was really fresh, slightly sweet, and very soft.
The “Komochi Shishamo” were little grilled fish that were filled with fish eggs! It was very scrumptious!
The Ayu, was also very delicious! I really wanted to order it because this is the fish that we saw all over Omicho Market (The open market in Kanazawa)!
.Number 6: Japanese Breakfast.
When I was a little girl, my grandma sometimes prepared a traditional Japanese breakfast for me. It traditionally includes rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables, and sometimes fish. Besides the fact that these foods are just plain yummy, a Japanese breakfast is also comfort-food for me as it reminds me of the days when my grandma would take the time to prepare a special breakfast!
In Maebashi, our hotel offered free breakfast! It was a great way to start off our long days!
In Kyoto, Les and I had the opportunity to stay at a ryokan, which is like a bed and breakfast in the traditional Japanese style. Each morning, the ladies of the house would wake up early and prepare a feast for our breakfast! It was a real treat!
.Number 5: Noodles.
I love Japanese noodles! Somen, Ramen, Soba, and Udon… you name it, I love it!
The most unique experience that I had with noodles was in a train station. We chose what we wanted to eat and paid for it at a vending machine! From there you get a piece of paper that you give to the lady at the counter. Within seconds, she hands you a steaming hot bowl of soba! There are also counters to sand up and eat your noodles in case you are hurrying off to catch a train! I wasn’t expecting much from this “fast food” noodle place; but my soba turned out to be quite delicious!
The best noodles that we had in Japan was in Ueno off a side street from Ameyoko-cho. Les and I ventured to the side streets looking at restaurants and trying to read the menus. We finally decided to try this udon place that turned out to be awesome! It was also cold and rainy, so the hot bowl of noodles sounded very inviting! After being served, I discovered that the restaurant hand-made their noodles and made their broth from scratch! It was very comparable to my favorite udon restaurant in Hawaii (Jimbo). This was my most memorable bowl of noodles!!
.Number 4: Department Store Basements.
The basement of department stores are always so much fun!! Sometimes its just a simple grocery store, but other times its filled with Japanese delicacies!! Everything from prepared food, food gifts, frozen foods, and grocery items can be found in the basement of department stores. And to make the experience even more fun, everything is packaged and prepared with such care and beauty. The prepared foods were my favorite, and Les and I bought our meals from different department stores on several occasions. Les was very patient with me as I looked at everything twice before finally deciding what it was that I wanted to eat!!
I bought a very pretty bento.
On another occasion I bought oden and a musubi from a stand that sold so many different types of onigiri (musubi)!! On our last visit to a department store, I bought a bento which included a croquette filled with 10 types of vegetables!! When I finished that bento, I decided to go for a second meal and ordered takoyaki!!
Another beautiful bento that I enjoyed was my eki-ben, which was not from a department store, but from Tokyo Station. Eki-bens (train bentos) are so much fun because you get to choose a pretty bento before heading out on a long train ride!
.Number 3: Nabe Parties.
While in Maebashi, Les and I had the opportunity to homestay with some college students. One way that Japanese students enjoy a meal together is to have a nabe (hot pot) party!! So our homestay hosts and their friends hosted a nabe party in honor of us!! Misako and Nanami made a tasty nabe with tan-tan broth, vegetables, enoki mushrooms, chicken and pork. It was so much fun, and very delicious!! It was a great way to bond with new friends!
.Number 2: Snacks from Konbiini (Convenience Store).
Convenience stores (Konbiini) can be found all over Japan. They may be everyday mundane things to a typical Japanese person; however to a foreigner, it is filled with yummy Japanese snacks! Even the ready-made meals are actually very good! I always had a fun time looking at all the beverages and snacks at the convenience stores. My favorite beverage was strawberry milk and Kagome, which were juices filled with 20-30 different types of fruits and vegetables. I also loved getting the different types of kit-kats. On this trip, I found strawberry, azuki, and kinako Kit-Kats. Other people have also brought back matcha green tea and peach flavored Kit-Kats.
.Number 1: Street Vendors and Open Markets.
One of the most interesting ways to experience a culture through its food is to visit open markets and street vendors. Here you find locals shopping for the finest and freshest foods, and vendors are willing to stop and explain what they are selling (which was a little bit of a struggle with the language barrier).
Tsukiji Fish Market is Tokyo’s famous fish auction and market. The tourist guide books tell you to visit there; however, they fail to mention that if you’re not careful you could get run over and killed! The crazy fishermen go about their typical day’s routine, rushing around in trucks, bikes, and mopeds. There is no order to this chaos, and they do not care about the little foreign tourist trying to interrupt their daily business. It was quite an experience, and luckily, Les and I had our friend Andrea to show us how its done!
The veondors offered a plethora of fresh seafood, some unidentifiable, and some very strange. For example, “Kujira” or “whale!” The whale sashimi appeared so red and fatty it resembled raw beef!!
In Kyoto, the best market to visit is the Nishiki Market. Here you will find Kyoto’s finest delicacies including tsukemono (pickled vegetables), tea, tofu, yuba (tofu skin), fresh fish, and tongarashi (red pepper). Vendors actually insist that you sample their products!! Les and I visited this market during lunch hour and it took us (okay, just me) a really long time to decide what I should eat for lunch!
We finally decided to get Kyoto-made natto (our quest for natto!),
and serving of freshly made tofu.
Because I wanted to try an assortment of foods, I also got a serving of tamagoyaki (sweetend, rolled, scrambled egg) from a specialty okonomiyaki place, and a piece of saba sushi! For desert, I ate tofu soft cream (soy milk), and a freshly roasted senbei!
These stands with freshly roasted senbei are so delicious, it can’t beat anything that comes out of a package!!
The hard part about eating food from an open market is that Japan doesn’t offer very many places to sit down and eat your food. To make matters worse, its considered very rude (especially for women) to eat while walking. So Les and I just plopped ourselves down on the sidewalk at ate our lunch. We got some strange looks from the locals and when we were done this lady politely asked us to not sit on the sidewalk. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our natto!
In Kanazawa, we visited Omicho Market. Kanazawa is known for having the finest seafood because they are close to the ocean.
Although it was still morning, we saw so many vendors selling grilled fish and unagi, that Les and I had to try one. So with the little Japanese that we could read, we chose the one that said “Unagi” but paid little attention to the kanji that followed it. After taking one bite, I noticed that the texture was very different from unagi. It was more like chicken and the flavor was more like clams. From then, I knew that we were not eating unagi, so I asked the vendor to clarify. He said “yes, its unagi. Its unagi ‘ri-ba’...‘ri-ba’” Ri-ba?? Liver??!!!! Les and I bought a 400 yen stick of unagi liver!! We forced ourselves to eat this expensive mistake, but only got about half-way through it!
Thank you to Dad and Mom for sending me off on this amazing adventure!! A special thanks to Andrea, Melissa, and Mieko, for showing us a great time in Japan!! Thanks to Les for all the great memories!! Natto Quest 2008 was a success!! Gochisoosamadeshita!!