Japan is a land rich in culture. One cultural aspect that the Japanese are particularly proud of is their food. You are probably familiar with many Japanese foods already: ramen, sushi, tempura, teppenyaki, Kobe beef… It was a delight to taste the foods of Japan firsthand. And of course, I had to devote an entire blog article on food 🙂
Japan is a dense country. People are everywhere. Likewise, food is everywhere – to serve the people. The major districts of Tokyo (Shinjuku, Shibuya, etc.) and Osaka are packed with restaurants. Train stations, hubs of foot traffic, feature a variety of restaurants and shops for people on-the-go.
For us tourists, there was no problem finding food. We tried hard to find the best places, as recommended by our handy dandy Lonely Planet books. They were all excellent picks. But after walking around all day, we often got tired and hungry, so we often stopped at whatever was nearby. Either way, the food was good.
You can’t come to Asia without having a bowl of noodles. Japan is full of noodle shops. Ramen noodles are one of the most common styles of noodles, especially in Tokyo. Ramen is a wheat-based noodle, yellowish and wavy-looking. You can usually choose from several soup bases (miso, soy, etc.), as well as various toppings (pork, pork belly, etc.). Do you remember eating cheap instant pre-packaged ramen in college? I did – and lots of it! I probably consumed a lifetime’s worth of MSG from instant ramen. Ramen in Japan is much, much better. It’s fresh, it’s healthy (enough), and it’s tasty. I could probably have eaten Ramen every day in Japan without getting sick of it….
Udon noodles are another popular type of noodle dish. Udon is a super thick wheat noodle. The soup base is usually a much lighter, clearer soup. It often comes with something tempura-fried as an accessory, such as shrimp. We noticed Udon to be much more common in Kyoto. There are several other types of noodles in Japan: soba (buckwheat), somen…. Here’s an udon dish:
The way you eat noodles is a bit different in Japan. First of all, you use chopsticks with your main hand, and the large soup spoon to catch noodles and soup in your other hand. Most Asians do this with noodle soup. In Japan, people usually place their heads close to the bowl and slurp the noodles. Making a slurping sound (“ssssssp”) is encouraged. I’m not sure this woman (photo to right) enjoyed having Mo place his camera right next to her as she ate, but she was a good example.
We observed some differences in people’s dining habits in Japan too. Japanese big cities are very fast-paced, and Japanese business culture can be pretty crazy. There are a lot of fast food counters, for people on-the-go. With respect to restaurant food, the Japanese don’t appear to do take-out. Instead, there is a lot of fast dining in. Many shops just have bar counters for solo diners to eat quickly.
Japan is so into fast and efficient dining that some places even have vending machines to take your orders. You place your order and pay through the machine outside. Then go in, sit at the counter, and give your order ticket to the shop owner. This approach cuts down on the labor costs for extra waiters, as well as space requirements. For us, it was a bit difficult to understand the vending machines. They were mostly in Japanese! But at least they had pictures next to the buttons.
Speaking of vending machines – you can buy beer or shochu from vending machines in Japan! How sweet is that!!
You can’t talk about Japanese food without talking about sushi. All I can say is that the sushi was great anywhere we went. Most of the time, the sushi didn’t cost an arm and a leg; it was reasonably priced. While sushi is sushi anywhere, we did learn one thing from asking the locals: they don’t do fancy rolls in Japan. It’s straight up sushi, nigiri, or sashimi. All these fancy dynamite rolls, caterpillar rolls, godzilla rolls, etc. appear to have been concoctions made by Gaijin (non-Japanese). At any rate, I think at least Ingrid was in heaven, since sushi is her favorite food, at least of the non-tortilla-based foods 🙂
We didn’t want to eat just any sushi when we were in Japan. We had to try the best. So we decided to visit Tsukiji, the Tokyo Fish Market. It is the largest fish market in the world, and probably the world epicenter of sushi production. The first part of this adventure was checking out the tuna auctions super early in the morning. A limited number of tourists are allowed to watch the auction each day. In fact, the market was never intended to be a tourist attraction, and the workers don’t really like all these clumsy, snap-happy tourists wandering about. We got our butts up early, arriving at the fish market at around 4:30am. We got lost a few times, but finally got to the auction tour office. We were the last ones allowed inside!
The auction was fascinating. While I’ve been to fish markets to buy fish, I’ve never seen the production side of it before. The fish market is a huge complex (maybe a full square kilometer?) – full of warehouses and stalls. Various utility vehicles like forklifts and scooters fly around at a frantic pace; it’s actually rather dangerous if you aren’t careful. These fish come off boats or planes, then they’re forklifted to warehouses like the one above. Buyers poke and prod the fish, to determine which ones they like and how much they are worth. Wholesale auctions take place for each fish. Sushi-grade tuna goes for quite the premium. The most expensive tuna species, bluefin tuna (which is actually the unfortunate victim of overfishing and is at the center of an international controversy), can sell for over $100,000 USD!
Once the auction tour was done, we were ready to try out some fish market sushi. There are two super popular sushi joints at the market. We went to one of them, Daiwa Sushi, which was recommended in our Lonely Planet book. It was a bit strange to do this at 7am – even for Japanese – but hey, it’s supposed to be the best!
Daiwa is a very intimate place. There’s a sushi counter and maybe 8 seats. With so few seats, you have to wait a while to get in. We waited maybe 30 minutes – even at 7am. Many wait for an hour or two. Once you are seated, you just place your order verbally to the sushi chef. You can order individual nigiri items a-la-carte as I did, or you can get the chef’s choice of X items. He gives you your sushi as he makes it.
OMG. It was sooooo fresh, soooo good! The best was toro – fatty tuna belly. It just melted in my mouth. I could have had 10 of them, but at 800 yen a piece ($10), it would have been very expensive! I was able to try many kinds (which were cheaper than the toro), such as: hamachi (yellowtail tuna), ebi (raw shrimp), aji (mackerel), tako (octopus), anago (freshwater eel). I even overcame my ill will towards uni (sea urchin). Many Americans don’t like the “fishier” ones like aji or uni, but at the fish market, everything tasted like perfection.
You know you’re in Asia when you are at a market. You see great stuff everywhere: small alleys full of shoppers, shop stalls with eager vendors, and tasty food of all shapes and sizes. We spent our remaining time at the Tokyo Fish Market going shopping at the various stalls. We had more opportunities at the markets in Kyoto and Osaka.
Japan is an island nation, with little land for its 130 million person population (1/3 the U.S. population). This lack of land is probably why seafood is such a big part of Japanese cuisine. The Japanese have figured out ways to prepare and eat pretty much anything from the sea. Whether it’s fish, shellfish, sea vegetables, or just some crazy squirming thing in the sea, you can probably find it at a Japanese market.
Maybe I watch too many Anthony Bourdain shows, but I love eating street food when I’m traveling. There’s nothing fancy or gourmet about it. It’s real stuff, served to real people. No tablecloths or table manners. Just pure food goodness. Japan fares well in terms of street food. Baked, deep fried, stir fried – it’s all there. Japan especially has a lot of fried seafood on a skewer. I really enjoyed these juicy baby octopi. Ingrid and Mo got quite a kick out of the squid. Another popular item is takoyaki, a dumpling of octopus and veggies mixed with batter (not pictured).
Japan loves its tea. It appears to be served with every meal. There are various types of tea, like oolong and green. Teas are produced in different ways, giving you tea leaves or powders to put in your hot water.
There is a lot of history and tradition around tea in Japan. Although tea first came from the Chinese, it became well incorporated into Japanese society over the centuries. We attempted to learn more about it by attending a tea ceremony. There’s a ritual around the preparation and consumption of macha, a powdered green tea. To net it out for you, there’s a picture on your tea bowl. Bring the bowl up with the picture facing you. Breathe. Contemplate. Rotate the picture around to drink. Key thing – don’t drink from the picture side! Rotate it back when you’re done.
Any time Mo and I go somewhere, an excursion to eat something bizarre is not unheard of. Many North Americans used to eating chicken or beef all the time would easily find it strange that the Japanese enjoy so much seafood. The Japanese, however, will tell you that their cuisine isn’t full of strange food like the Chinese (I actually had this exact conversation). It’s true – the Chinese are masters of strange stuff (have you seen our fried scorpion video?). So our choice for a bizarre food was the spiny blowfish. A fish, you might say? What’s the big deal? It’s not any fish. It’s poisonous!
Needless to say, you shouldn’t try spiny blowfish at any ole’ place. That’s why we selected this restaurant in Osaka with a big blowfish sign on the front. It must be good, no? 🙂 Well, Lonely Planet also recommended it. You need a specially licensed blowfish chef that knows how to remove the poisonous parts BUT also keep enough bad stuff in there to give you a little zing in your mouth.
We went with a blowfish hot pot sort of dish. There are some very expensive blowfish deals, which we skipped. Heat up a stew, throw the fish in, and voila, you have some cooked blowfish in front of you. Tasting it was actually underwhelming. It just tasted like any other white fish. And it was quite bony (hence the name). But hey, we can now say we tried some official Japanese style blowfish and lived to tell the tale.
Japan is full of delectable delights for your palette. I could probably have written pages and pages more about the food, but hopefully you get a good feel for the food. For a culture that prides itself on dining, it’s amazing that the Japanese are so skinny (even tall and skinny compared to other Asians). Maybe it’s the high seafood diet? Smaller proportions? Or maybe their lifestyle involving lots of walking and little couch time? Or is it the genes? Whatever it is, Japan has its cuisine figured out, and it was a pleasure to experience it firsthand.