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Japan: Travels and Tastes in Asia

8 Oct

So, sorry I haven’ t posted for a while, I actually went on a trip to Japan, hence my absence.  I spent about two weeks in Japan in September.  I had high expectations of Japanese food, I had done some research before hand and was expecting lots of fresh fish and lots of delicate, refined dishes.  What I actually found was slightly different.

Our first stop on our trip was in Kyoto.  One popular dish we had there was a mix, half yakisoba (japanese fried noodles) and have okonomiyaki (japanese pancake).  For me, this felt like japanese pub food.  The noodles had a sweet/sour taste, and were my favorite part of the meal.  The okonomiyaki ressembled takoyaki (fried or grilled octopus), the same brown soya sauce, dried bonito and mayonnaise toppings.  I did not like this dish, too many toppings, so that all you taste is the mayonnaise and the soy sauce.  We met other tourists who loved this dish, for me, it fell flat. Another meal I tried while in Kyoto was sukiyaki.  It’s a type of hot pot, filled with shallots, greens, tofu, mushrooms and thin slices of beef.  Once the items in the hot pot are cooked, you eat them with a bowl of rice and some raw egg.  I was disappointed with the quality of the meat, there was lots of fat on it, and it was so thin, that it quickly got overcooked in the broth.  I ended up eating mostly the greens, tofu and mushrooms with the rice and raw eggs.  Let’s just say, I wasn’t very impressed.   Next, we headed to a small coastal town called Shirahama.  Here, I had chazuke.  Rice served with hot tea, grilled salmon and pickles.  This was served at a simple local restaurant, and the dish was good, but nothing special.  What impressed me, however, was the number of dishes and the presentation.  Despite this being an inexpensive meal, I got eight plates.  This attention to detail and the emphasis on presentation was something that we were often witness to while in Japan.  Presentation is often as important as the food itself. My boyfriend had Donburi oyakodon.  A combination of eggs and chicken served over rice. As always, it was accompanied by miso soup, which is served with almost everything in Japan.  Also, to end the meal, there are often some pickles and pickled vegetables, which are supposed to help with digestion.

While in Shirahama, we stayed at a Ryokan, that is, a traditional japanese hotel.  Meaning, we slept on floor futons, and had supper in our room every evening served by our personal waitress.  Since we stayed there three nights, we got to have a preview of different types of traditional japanese food.  Sobe noodles with pesto sauce served cold, beef served in a hotpot and known as shabu-shabu, kaiseki style meals, sashimi, teppenyaki which was beef cooked on a hot iron griddle and tempura.  Here are some photos of what we ate while at the ryokan, where once again, presentation was very important.

Don’t you just love the fish eye staring out at you?  I have to admit, I didn’t have the guts to eat it…

The next stop on our trip was Osaka.  In Osaka, we had a wonderful sushi supper.  The restaurant was small, and most patrons (ourselves included) sat at a bar, watching the chefs in action.  In Japan, the norm is sushi, with occasional sashimi, but I saw very few maki throughout our trip.  Also, wasabi is rolled into a small ball and placed between the fish and the rice of the sushi, so, you have to be prepared to have a spicy meal!  The fish was incredibly fresh.  One thing I discovered was raw shrimp, something I’d never had in Canada.  Sweet and sharp, almost reminiscent of scallops but with a more chewy texture, I loved the raw shrimp.  As well, we appreciated the fatty tuna, scallops, eel and sea urchin.  Eaten while accompanied with some warm sake of course!

While in Osaka, we also saw several food stands, and some fugu restaurants.  I wasn’t brave enough to try this deadly fish.  I’d heard it wasn’t particularly tasty, and wasn’t willing to risk my life for something that was potentially bland and uninspiring.

We also took a day trip to Kobe, where we visited a Sake museum.

Next, we travelled to Hiroshima.  In Hiroshima, we had supper in a typical Izakaya where businessmen were enjoying casual eats while drinking and smoking.  It’s something we had to get used to, smoking in restaurants.  But it definitely made for an authentic meal.  Here’s a selection of what we ate, which included popular yakitori.

The last stop on our trip was Tokyo.  There, we visited the Tsukiji fish market, the largest fish market in the world.  I wanted to visit it, but you can only do so from Monday to Saturday, if you’re among the 125 first people to arrive for the two morning tours, at 5:30am and 6:00am, to visit the tuna auctions.  The problem being that at that time, there are no subways, so we had taken a hotel in the area.  However, despite getting up around 4:30am, we arrived too late because the line up was already full at 5:10am when we arrived.  Nevertheless, I decided that this was the best place to try sushi for breakfast, where fish is at its freshest.  We particularly enjoyed the fatty tuna and prime fatty tuna, very different from the tuna we find in most sushi restaurants in Montreal.  The tuna melts in your mouth.  The sea urchin was also particularly delicious, creamy and buttery in texture, but with a definite briny taste, amazing!

While in Tokyo we had more sushi elsewhere as well.  We tried the famous rolling sushi, where a chef prepares sushi and places plates of sushi on a rolling conveyor belt and patrons choose items as they roll by.  This seemed to be a popular choice for lunch in Tokyo.  As well, we ate at a sushi restaurant where we saw some maki, but it had too much rice and wasn’t comparable to what we find in Montreal.  We also had some sashimi, and the fish, as always, was incredibly fresh.

Later, we rented an appartment in Tokyo, near the Roppongi and Tokyo midtown areas, and there we had some delicious eel, or as it’s known in Japan, unagi.  We also had some delicious edamame beans while at this restaurant, perfect with some sake or Asahi Japanese beer.

While in Japan, we also had a number of noodle dishes, marinated squid, bento’s, and believe it or not, maple cookies.  Here are some photos of what we enjoyed.

All in all, what I most appreciated from Japanese cuisine was the fresh fish and the attention to detail and presentation.  As well, I particularly enjoyed the japanese beer and sake.  What I least enjoyed was the repetitive nature of their dishes, lots of miso soup, noodles, soy sauce, and few vegetables or fruit.  However, I did not embark on this trip as a culinary trip but rather as a regular tourist, so maybe if I had I would have had a different impression.  Hope you enjoyed travelling vicariously through this post, and if you are interested in learning more about Japanese cuisine, here are some interesting links:

Enjoy, bon apétit and bon voyage!