One of the best parts of our trip to Japan was sampling the wonderful food. We really enjoyed trying everything from street foods like takoyaki (octopus balls), to beautifully presented multi-course kaiseki meals and everything in between including super fresh tuna at the Tsukiji markets and cute Totoro cream puffs.
We ate heaps of tasty noodles in Japan – tucking into bowls of ramen, udon and soba. Ramen are thin wheat noodles bowl served in a soy sauce or miso soup mixed with other ingredients such as green onion, slices of pork, egg and seaweed. The soup is the most important part of the dish and varies a lot depending on the type of ramen. We tried shoyu style (soy sauce broth), tonkotsu (pork bone ramen which has a really creamy broth) and tsukemen dipping ramen. We even visited a famous tsukemen ramen shop Tokyo which had a handful of seats and a 45 min wait time. The chef was very flamboyant (with rock star hair) and there was a lot of showmanship when it was time to take the ramen out of the water. The broth was amazingly good though and very much worth the wait.
We also enjoyed udon which are thick, chewy wheat flour noodles. Our favourite was bukkake udon where the noodles are served in a thick daishi broth and kamaage udon where you dip the cooked udon into the broth.
The third type of noodle we ate was soba, which are nutty flavoured buckwheat noodles. These were also served in a hot or cold broth, but being cold weather we always went for hot noodles!
We tried a few different styles of okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake) including Osaka-style and Hiroshima-style. Apart from the batter, typical okonomiyaki ingredients include sliced cabbage, green onions, beansprouts, noodles (for Hiroshima-style), eggs, various meats (we also tried seafood); topped off with okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayo, dried seaweed flakes and bonito (dried fish) flakes. Yum!
We had lots of fun visiting okonomiyaki restaurants, watching the chefs cook the meal on the grill, usually in front of us. Their folding and flipping was very skillful – especially for the layered Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki.
We also tried monjayaki which is a similar type of meal from the Kanto region (near Tokyo). Most of the ingredients are cooked first before a hole is placed in the middle for the batter. When the batter mostly is cooked, the runny pancake is eaten with small spatulas directly from the hot plate. It was fun to cook and eat, but we preferred okonomiyaki.
Sushi, Sashimi and Seafood
Probably the most famous Japanese food export is sushi, which is vinegared sushi rice (medium-grain white rice) served with seafood or vegetables. We tried sushi from many places including train station bento boxes, deparment stores and sushi restaruants (but not the very fancy Tokyo ones with six people…). It was good fun to sit at the counter of the sushi restaurant seeing all the different types made to order. We had a stone platter, where the chefs would place their finished creations. Our only disappointment was abalone sushi, it was really chewy!
We love sashimi so also tucked in when we could. However, the best raw fish we had was at Tsukiji markets (see below). Various places we visited also had particlar seafood specialities. For example we tried grilled eel (unagi) and oysters, a few different ways, in Miyajima.
As we stayed in a few ryokan and minshuku (traditional Japanese inns), we experienced kaiseki dining a couple of times. It is a traditional multi-course meal, beautifully presented with many small dishes. At the places we stayed, it was mainly served all at once, which made it difficult to know where to start.
Components of our kaiseki meals included sashimi, rice, miso soup, various different pickles, grilled fish or small bits of raw meat, and often a hot pot. These often cooked while we ate the rest of the meal and were usually delicious – it could be thin slices of meat, or boiled mushrooms or other vegetables in a tasty broth. For dessert, it was common to have something small like fruit, which was fine after the large amount of food in the rest of the meal!
We sometimes couldn’t quite work out what each part of the meal was, but we tried all the dishes and discovered what some of them were after visiting the markets and local shops. The thing we had the most difficulty with was sitting at the low tables, particularly after the marathon!
One of the items we had a few times in our kaiseki meals on the Kumano Kodo was home made tempura. Well-made tempura has a very light crunchy batter and each item (vegetables, seafood) is cooked individually in the hot oil, so a parade of tempura came out from the kitchen! We dipped the tempura in a soy/mirin based sauce with grated daikon (radish) mixed through.
We also went to a fancy tempura restaurant in Tokyo where sat at the bar and again saw the tempura pieces getting cooked individually in really hot oil. There was a definitely hierarchy of the chefs, with only the master doing the actual cooking (and heaps of testing of the oil temperature) and the juniors doing the preparation. No photos were allowed.
Street Food, Izakaya and others…
Although Japan doesn’t have the street food culture of places such as Vietnam or Thailand, there are still lots of tasty snacks to be bought on the street. Just don’t get caught walking around eating them (you need to stay stationary!)
Takoyaki are balls of diced octopus and dough which are grilled as you wait, then covered with bonito flakes and a sticky, BBQ like sauce. Being served hot, they often caused a juice explosion when eaten! Takoyaki were one of our favourite snacks, and very famous in Osaka where the stalls are advertised with huge octopi on the roof.
We had a couple of meals in Izayaka which are smoky pubs filled with people drinking beer and having snacks after work. The main items on the menu are skewers of meat or vegetables. The most popular being yakitori, or chicken skewers using many different body parts, though we stayed away from the gizzards-on-a-stick. It was fun to order lots of different things of the menu, and there were some interesting locations we visited like the very narrow, small shops in Omoide Yokocho (Piss Alley), Tokyo. Other snack type foods included gyoza (Japanese dumplings) and karaage (Japanese fried chicken).
I really liked tonkatsu which is a breaded, deep fried pork cutlet served with shredded cabbage, and in sets with rice and miso soup. In the better restaurants it also involves grinding your own sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle which are mixed into the thick Worcester like tonkatsu dipping sauce. The pork isn’t over cooked and is still moist, yet the batter is crunchy. Often it is eat as much as you like cabbage and rice, so it was a good pre-marathon meal!
We had sukiyaki in Kyoto, though it wasn’t a great restaurant (and I couldn’t get the Sukiyaki song out of my head!). An iron pot filled with a broth mixture of soy sauce, sugar and mirin (Japanese rice wine), was brought to the table, and we cooked thin strips of beef and vegetables in the pot before dipping in raw egg and eating. This was similar to shabu shabu that we had in one of our kaiseki meals, but sweeter in taste.
We explored a couple of markets on our trip with the highlights being Tsukiji Market in Tokyo and the Nishiki Market in Kyoto. Tsukiji used to house the tuna auction, which has recently moved to the Toyosu wholesale fish market, but the outer market is still open and there was some fantastic seafood available.
We headed to the market for breakfast and although there were lots of small seafood restaurants, we visited a take-away stall called Maguroya Kurogin where we could see the tuna being hand cut in front of us. We ordered a tuna rice bowl, with the fish being much lighter than we had tried before. However, we learnt that the lighter colour, the more fatty and hence tastier! It was so yummy we went back to the same stall later, when they had started making tuna rolls. They remembered us and gave as a little bit extra on top!
Another item we really enjoyed at Tsukiji was tamagoyaki, which is like a rolled omlette but quite sweet. Definitely try one at the markets!
To end our breakfast feast, I couldn’t go past a strawberry mochi! There were lots of strawberry shops and dessert items in Japan, but they were all pretty expensive.
We went on a food tour of Nishiki Market in Kyoto, it was good to have a local to explain all the different food, and deal with the small change at the various stalls! We enjoyed seeing the more traditional ingredients such as pickles, dried bonito, a huge variety of seaweed as well as meat, seafood and vegetables.
There were also some items which looked like they had been designed for Instagram… Takotamago are a small chewy octopus which has been stuffed with a quail egg. I didn’t really like it, but was one of those thing you need to try once!
I don’t think Japan is actually famous for its egg cooking, but we did try a few unusual cooking methods, utilising it’s volcanic and geothermal activity!
Our first unusual eggs were black eggs at Owakudani, a volcanic area near Hakone, with great view of Mt Fuji. These are ordinary chicken eggs which have a black shell due to cooking in hot sulfur springs. Local tradition is that for each black egg eaten, seven years is added to your life. However, eating too many (more than two) is not recommended!
During our Kumano Kodo hiking adventure we also ended up cooking ‘onsen tamago’ which are literally translated as ‘hot spring eggs’. At Yunomine Onsen, there is a a public hot spring cooking basin, called yuzutsu. You can buy eggs at the local shop which are conveniently sold in a net bag which can be hung from a hook in the cooking basin. The eggs take about 13 minutes (the water is not quite at boiling temperature) and we even saw locals cooking sweet potatoes and other vegetables.
Sweet Treats and Cute Food
Although Japan isn’t well know for its desserts, there are still sweet treats available and lots of kawaii (cute) items to buy, although some I struggled to eat them because they were too cute! Particular favourites were mochi (pounded rice cakes) and taiyaki (fish shaped cakes).
Lot of places have an item for which the town is famous, for example in Miyajima there were lots of momiji manju which are buckwheat and rice cakes shaped like a Japanese maple leaf and filled with red bean paste.