A warning to the eye hungry. I’m no food blogger and so most of what I ate was consumed without first photographically documenting its existent. I’ve pulled a couple of choice snaps from my phone and my companion’s camera but this article is worthy of a scroll more for it’s information than eye candy.
Cover Photo: Omoide Yokocho/Piss Alley, Shinjuku, Tokyo
I don’t like saying a country is a food mecca because I believe every culture has a legitimate claim to that title but hey, Japan- if not at least Tokyo- can unanimously be labelled one of the gastronomic centres of the world. Like their culture, Japan’s cuisine has persisted through the perils of invasion and globalisation [not without a U.S twist here and there] and so eating Japanese food is quite a vivid culinary reflection of the ideals of its people.
If Michelin stars mean anything to you, the world’s most renown food guide awarded Japan more stars than any other nation; more than even the guide’s very own France- and to boot, Tokyo outdid Paris…not that it’s a competition, right? But how can an Asian country top a euro-centric food guide? Now, my take on is nothing you don’t already know but I will just go right along and say it anyway: it’s all in the culture. Like their work ethic, there is a heavy hue of meticulousness that surrounds Japanese food culture; whether it be their stickler-standard of freshness or their artisan approach to food, there are no corners cut here.
Beyond the stickler-nature, what I love about Japanese food is the strong dichotomy between its light, fresh and understated dishes such as sushi, sashimi, yakitori etc. contrasted with a number of decadent and heavy meals such as Okonomiyaki, chicken katsu, takoyaki etc. Intriguingly, many of the more epicurean dishes haven’t found the same popularity as the best-known sushi and sashimi in the Western world.
Speaking of, there are a number of preconceptions about Japanese food. One is the assumption that sushi in Australia is culturally accurate. Oh-so wrong. Unlike Australia, where we’ve come to enjoy the likes of avocado, chicken, mayo, smoked salmon and beef among even more unorthodox filings stuffed between rice and seaweed, back where it all began they are far more conservative with what they lay on/in their rice. Near exclusively, sushi feature creatures of the sea- usually uncooked. Whether it be salmon, tuna, prawn, mackerel, squid, octopus, or grilled eel [my pick of the lot] it was commonly served atop a small bed of rice, known as nigiri, and glazed with a thick soy marinate or small spread of wasabi, at the most. Sashimi or uncooked fish without rice was also popular. The big exception to this I found were in supermarkets and convenience stores. More on them later.
I guess you want to know whether the sushi was any good, hey? Well, it was pretty damn delicious- not to mention afforable. The quality did vary depending on the establishment but if you wanted a cheap eat you hit up a sushi train where all plates were 1.5-2auds and unlike back home you could walk out full for a bit over 10auds. A foreign sight for Dave and I were seeing guys with stacks of plates 25 to 30 high, done solo. You just couldn’t warrant that in Australia at 4auds+ a plate.
We didn’t always opt for the cheap and easy option though. We made sure to treat our palates to the refined world of ‘serious’ sushi. Before we flew over we were under the impression top notch sushi would dry out the pockets a couple of 100 smackos at a Michelin starred establishment- and we were more than prepared to cough it up. But we heard from a number of locals that you don’t need to splurge quite that drastically to chomp on some of Japan’s finest fish and rice. To many chefs, sushi, like nearly all Japanese dishes, is considered an art form. Not only do they aim for perfection with each slice, portion of the rice and the freshness of the fish itself, but also to sync themselves with their guest’s rhythm of eating so each cut is served at exactly the right time in the degustation. In fact, there is a great doco entitled ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ well worth watching to give insight into Japan’s sushi culture and just how seriously it is taken.
Not all sushi-artist have ventured into the fine dining arena and especially outside the megalopolis that is Tokyo there are many who run local joints that serve top-notch sushi in a more casual setting. For example we were recommended Tomizushi in the backstreets of Kyoto’s city centre [next to the tiniest jazz bar I’ve been to called Greenwich Bar]. We sat next to a local businessman who took his son out to celebrate his graduation and considered this place to be one of the best sushi bars in the city, yet a good night there wouldn’t set you back any more than 35-40auds- dead cheap considering. Beware: This is a locals joint and they aren’t as glad to see gaijin as others so enter modestly and be on your best behaviour.
The only sushi I had that eclipsed Tomizushi was at 8am in the Tokyo fish markets at the iconic Sushi-dai; though be prepared to wait a good two hours to experience the freshest fish you will probably put in your mouth in this lifetime. It was incredible to have fish practically melt in your mouth with the most faint hint of the sea still present. I was stunned that their tuna sashimi was so fresh it hadn’t gathered that ‘musky’ tuna kick that people love to abhor.
Fun fact! The ginger they give to you with your sushi is to clean your palette between servings and not to be eaten with the sushi. Dang, knowledge.
So…Ramen. I really enjoy Ramen. So do a lot of other people Japanese and otherwise. Somehow it’s one of those dishes that has seemed to produce a near cult following both in and out of its home country. Like sushi, there are those that spend decades trying to produce the perfect bowl of ramen, yet ramen is considered the kebab of Japan- sort of sums up Japan well, hey. Unlike sushi, a dish that is fairly uniform in its ingredients and presentation throughout the country, ramen varies drastically from city to city- from the seemingly Chinese influenced clear brothed, thin noodle soup of Onomichi or Takayama to the thick and hearty Tonkatsu or even thicker tsukemen ramen that is used as a dipping sauce for the dense noodles served as a side.
I’m a self-confessed ramen fanatic [any Asian noodle soup gets me in a good place whether it be Pho or chinese noodle soups] and was on a mission to taste as many different styles of ramen as paleteeringly possible. I would say I tried upwards of seven different regional-styles including: Tsukemen, Hakata, Kyoto [I think?], Tokyo-style, Onomichi-style, Takayama-style, Sapporo-style, oh and the Niseko spicy devil ramen challenge ramen…
Each regional style is made up from one of four base broths including shio [salt], shoyu [soy], miso and tonkotsu, or pork bone [different from crispy fried pork known as Tonkatsu]. For example Takayama style is miso-based, while Tokyo is Tonkotsu based.
For the ramen-inclined, I’d recommend checking out this list and trying to tick off as many different styles as you can. http://www.goramen.com/2008/03/26-types-of-ramen-shinyokohama-raumen.html. If I had to pick a favourite it would a dead-tie between the hearty miso-based Sapporo ramen we found in Ramen Alley [we visited one, facing away from the station, two/third down the alley on the left] and the Shoyu-based ramen at Takabashi Honke Daiichiasahi just north-east of Kyoto Station.
Not only does ramen do good things in your mouth, but it’s a winner for your stomach and wallet too. A bowl of ramen is half the price back home, at around 6-8uds, and super filling. We found ramen bars would often sell gyoza or Japanese dumplings, and so for 10-11auds you can down a ramen and 6 dumplings and be content for the rest of the day. In fact, Dave and I tried the now international ramen-chain Ippudo and paid a third of the price that you would at the recently opened Sydney store [plus the gyoza were better in Kyoto]. Actually on gyoza- Dave’s favourite dish- can be found across the country and are a safe bet when you aren’t sure what to order. Highly recommend.
Beyond sushi, ramen and gyoza, three staples [among many others] found uniformly across the country, there are a plethora of dishes that are more region-focused. Whether it be Okonomiyaki and takoyaki in Osaka; Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki and oysters in Hiroshima, Hida-Beef in Takayama and surrounding regional area or Kobe beef in Kobe, among others that escape me, regional dishes are a must-try in each respective city.
In between ticking off regional specialities there is an extensive list of national dishes worth tasting. More than I could write down here, check out Japan-guide for their list. Dishes range from traditional and well-known to the more culturally-hybrid such as curry tontasku [worth a try!]
Eating on a budget:
For travellers on a budget, there are a number of moves you can make to minimise food expenditure. Firstly, under every department store lies a supermarket. In more regional areas they are also found at ground level like those in Australia but in the cities they are mostly underground. Many of these supermarkets have a packaged meal section. This includes a number of fried meats and veggies, whether it be tempura or tonkatsu, sashimi, edamae, salads, gyoza, noodles, sushi as well as combination meal packs. Made fresh each morning, these are well priced and filling meals. But it gets better. An hour to hour and a half before closing all meals go on sale, usually at half price. The Japanese are sticklers for freshness and wouldn’t dare to resell goods the next day. You can snag a four-course dinner for 6-7auds. Beware though, locals are onto the same idea and so time it well so you have the most choice. Arrive too late and there will be slim pickings. In Takayama, Dave and I battled it out against locals, vying for pole position behind the poor supermarket employee chucking the half price stickers on the food goods. Also worth noting is the sushi in the supermarkets is one of the few places that feature more non-traditional fillings such as seafood stick and egg; probably to keep the meals reasonably priced. If sushi for breakfast is ok with you, you can even snag some food for the next morning- more money for beer.
But saving big isn’t only for after dark. Japanese eateries are always trying to fill seats through the middle of the day and so countrywide you’ll find reasonably priced and super-filling lunch sets on offer. Ranging from 9-15auds these lunch sets are usually a balanced meal of a protein, carb and some veggies. Those close to markets usually features the day’s best catch. In fact, restaurants in close proximity to markets, especially seafood shops surrounding fish markets, are a safe bet for a meal- and likely have a lunch set. Keep in mind that they only prepare a finite number of sets; get there too late and you’ll miss out.
If appeasing your palate isn’t as much of a priority as keeping your wallet nourished then onigri is up your alley. The food of Japanese uni students, onigiri is simply a triangle of rice with a small stuffing of usually processed fish, wrapped in seaweed. At around 1.20auds a triangle at of the plethora of convenience stores, three of these can keep you going for a good part of the day. Being a tuna fan, I enjoyed the tuna-mayo mix filling, although watch out as some convenience store don’t have picture of the filling and it can be a gamble choosing [beware of the pickled plum!]
For those hoping to get by mostly on fruit and veg, I have some bad news: fresh food produce is expensive and surprisingly hard to find. Most abundant are bananas and mandarins you can buy in singles from the convenience store for something like 1.50auds each. But at the supermarket it doesn’t get much better
Eating out can be surprisingly smooth considering the language barrier. When entering simply gesture how many people you’d like a table for with your fingers, no words have to be spoken. They will let you know whether there is table available, if there is a wait or if there have no vacancies. Depending on the circumstance it might be worth asking if they have an English menu. From there just point and order. Otherwise if you’re ok with a mystery bill pointing at pictures from the Japanese menu will get you by also. When done, the Japanese hand gesture to signal for the check is in fact a cross with your two index fingers. Although at times very US-centric, Japanese don’t expect tips from customers.
One Japanese dining experience you’ll surely come across is the meal ticket machine. You simply find the meal you want, insert the money and hand the ticket to the waiter or chef depending. Pretty nifty.
Sake is Japan’s most well known indigenous poison. Distilled from rice, sake is known as ‘rice wine’, although at >17% alcohol content it’s slightly more potent then it’s grape counterpart [which is around 12-15% for a white or soft-medium red]. What I found most interesting about sake was the fact it could be served either warm, chilled or room temperature. My first encounter was with warmed sake but I was told soon after that cheap sake is often heated to mask it’s harshness, and quality sake should be- as a rule of thumb- served ever so slightly chilled, although there are always exceptions. Also, a warning, too chilled and you will freeze away all the flavours. Like any poison, there are those that take sake very seriously so hopefully you stumble upon a place that can do the drink justice.
Another quintessentially Japanese wine that hasn’t seen the same international recognition as sake is shochu- and not the Korean version. Distilled from barley, sweet potatoes, or anything full of carbs, shochu, at around >22% is more of a bringer-of-the-buzz than its better known brother. Also, to my western eyes, shochu seems to be the more work-classing out of the pair. Unlike sake, only ever drunk straight with a traditional sake jug and glasses, shochu is often paired with a mixer. In fact, I started ordering shochu and oolong tea after overhearing locals order them on a number of occasions. Neither sweet nor fizzy, shochu and oolong wont appeal to most but having a tea as a mixer was such a novelty I couldn’t pass it up.
If you’re that way inclined make a point to try both. Sake to the uninitiated can come off quite intense, especially the nastier stuff, so be sure to give it a real go and splash out on some quality rice wine. Also, for those looking to get a buzz for a bargain I found sake to be slightly cheaper than spirits at around >5.50auds, and about the same price as beer [although far more potent]. Shochu was same price as spirits, which weren’t too far off Aussie prices.
Just a quick word on beer in Japan. What I loved about beer in Japan was that it was basically omnipresent. Even the tiniest hole-in-the-wall eatery had a tap- and most taps had a dedicated head handle, which was sort of necessary as the Japanese typically don’t pour the most balanced beer. The only issue besides the occasional half pint of head was that there was usually only one beer on offer. I had to go to a speciality craft beer bar to be given an option other than national brews Asahi or Kirin- not that they weren’t tasty… [although they can be bought and sunk for half the price you’d find them here in Aus so treasure it while it lasts] I’ve come to realise having a selection of beers on taps could be an Commonwealth sort of thing- or too bold a statement?
Speaking of beer, the Japanese do watering holes a little bit differently. The casual drinking establishment, or pub equivalent is called an izakaya. There is a slightly larger emphasis on food in an izakaya, usually serving yakitori, or meat on a stick [not the most budget friendly food if you want to go home full]. I came to Japan with a preconception of what an izakaya should look like, but in fact they can be found in all shapes and sizes, serving a variety of foods to a variety of crowds. Your best bet is to keep an eye peeled fo a red lantern as that signifies the establishment in an izakaya, which more than anything came to mean for Dave and I a relaxed place to drink with an accompanying meal- although the exy-nature of yakitori will put off the budget traveller.
The final poison, and my favourite, is whiskey. In the past half a decade or so Japanese whiskey has been on the global rise and rise, surfing the wave of success that has come to the Yamazaki name through international whiskey competition praise. For those that don’t know [most of you] I partake in regular whiskey tasting with other friends of that inclination, and have tried a number of Japanese whiskeys, which are always of the highest pedigree. Of course there is Yamazaki, the single malt success story of the Suntory brand, who also produce a beautiful blend called Hibiki that I thought good enough to bring back home and taste with the group. There is also Nikka, the second player in a sort of market duopoly shared with Suntory. Naturally there are a number of more niched distilleries that I didn’t get to explore but if what I’ve tasted is anything to go by, your palate is in good hands with anything from land of the rising sun! P.S Don’t miss out on the Yamazaki distillery in Osaka like I did! P.P.S …NO ICE!
Overall my favourite part about drinking in Japan are the bars themselves- namely their petite size, or lack of metres squared to put it poetically. At times no roomier than your bathroom. In fact, one bar next to Shibuya station in Tokyo, empty before we entered reached capacity after the three of us walked in. With that being said it’s easy to get the homely vibes from many of their watering holes. Dave and I watched a jazz quartet play at the Greenwich bar in Kyoto and by the end of the first set the place had reached capacity at 10 people. How they stay afloat I do not know…but somehow they do and it’s nothing short of awesome. Not only that but it’s wholly unsustainable in Sydney and so there is nothing of sorts around, making it a sort of spectacle for Sydney-siders. Different story for Melbournians I imagine. Moreover, the miniature size of Japan’s bars bring a personalised experience to drinking after dark- another manifestation of the countries moralistic makeup, everything is to be done right and justly. Even their cheaper-than-chips, Bar Century-esque drinking holes radiate buckets more class than the Sydney’s budget bars.
Find your own favourite but if you’re stuck check these gems out! Disclaimer: My ideal bar is more on the laid-back, nicely furnished, bartender with XP points sort of bar. If you’re a doof doofer please take with a bar of bath salts.
- Osaka: Space station
- Hiroshima: Revolucion & Koba
- Kyoto: Urbanguild & Greenwich jazz bar
- Kanazawa: Ao’s underground bar (Graffiti on the wall at the dead-end, or ask Shaq)
- Tokyo: a number of accessible bars in Golden Gai (they are picky about foreigners)
My favourite Japanese dining experience: In the same vein as my love of Japan’s shoe-box bars, my favourite experience [among many] would have to be the culinary alleys. Both Omoide Yokocho [‘memory lane’ or the fan-favourite ‘piss alley’] in Shinjuku, Tokyo and Ramen Alley, Sapporo were two of my favourite locations to eat- with a honourable mention to Okinomi-mura in Hiroshima, akin to the jostling business of Sapporo’s tightly squeezed and competing ramen joints, but okonomiyaki shops over three stories in an office building.
You’re most probably rolling your eyes to the vanity I know, but hear me out: these hard to find, hole in the wall establishments were always gems. Why? Because revenue was no more important than the quality of their craft. They work under the ideal that a strong product will equate to a sustainable crowd. Likewise, as a shop owner, the more difficult your shop is to find, the more dedicated the patrons are to your service; what more can you ask for.
Although in my eyes the zenith of Japanese dining is a ryokan meal. The sum of freshness and history is presented in perfect composition for your consumption. I recommend forking out a nights stay in either a ryokan or minshuku just to experience a traditional Japanese bed and breakfast meal. Dave and I were presented with the food considered unorthodox in the west, namely horse sashimi and caramelised grasshoppers as well as fish and veggies caught and picked right outside the house. It’s a culinary treat like no other.
There is still so much I haven’t been able to touch on, but hey it’s all part of the journey working it out for yourself. Hopefully this read has given some insight into the eating-ways of Japan.