I decided to make a post dedicated solely to the food I ate in Japan for several reasons. I found myself trying to remember in detail, the flavors and textures of the food I ate, and as I wrote more and more, it became a little much to add to my other posts about my trip. I also really enjoy reading others’ blog posts about food they eat in other countries. It seems to be one of the most interesting ways to gain insights and knowledge into another culture.
I definitely plan on posting about Thai food eventually as well, although I am currently accumulating more pictures and still finding my favorite foods, so that is still a work in progress. Still, Japanese food has always held a special place in my belly, from it’s fresh and delicious sushi to its fried tempura, cucumber salads, and rice bowls. It is simply amazing.
One interesting thing about Japanese restaurants is that many have displays of fake food outside their restaurants to show potential patrons what dishes are available to order. While at first this was a bizarre oddity to me, I eventually grew to appreciate it as I couldn’t read their Japanese menus, so it allowed me to figure out what types of food each restaurant served.
I ordered my first meal in Osaka from a vending machine. Outside of a small restaurant, several vending machines displayed pictures among a multitude of Japanese characters apparently explaining what the dishes were.
Fortunately, William and Thomas were able to read many Japanese characters (because they have the same meaning as Chinese characters although they are pronounced differently), so we knew vaguely what each dish entailed. I ordered a tofu dish which was surprisingly cheap (about $5), and grabbed my ticket before going inside. It was my first experience of Japanese dining, which although at first was different and almost bizarre, but soon became normal and had me wondering why we don’t have similar efficiencies in American restaurants (there were jugs of water on every table, chopsticks and other eating accessories already arranged and ready, and machines of every shape and size cooking and preparing food in the kitchen next to us). Everything was so systemized and orderly that it seemed more like a small food factory churning out rice bowls than a restaurant.
The meal was also very good – tofu with a rich brown sauce over rice upon which I heaped piles of pickled ginger (a common condiment in Japan) until I felt satisfied.
My meal that night was also a form of Japanese fast food at the chain restaurant Yoshinoya. Yoshinoya serves fairly typical Japanese fast food, mostly rice bowls and other basic dishes. I ordered a dish of beef simmering over vegetables with sides of rice (of course) and miso soup. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the pitchers at the table contained chilled green tea rather than water (another commonality of many Japanese restaurants), something that I found very refreshing and different. My meal was good, and although not spectacular, markedly better than American fast food (and again not that expensive either at around $5).
The next day we ate lunch at another Japanese fast food restaurant called Sukiya. I ordered a rice bowl with beef, slathered with some sort of mayonnaise and roe sauce. Although maybe not the most appetizing looking bowl of food, the rich sauce was delicious and contrasted well with the mounds of pickled ginger I heaped into the bowl.
That night, I tried my first bowl of ramen. Having wanted ramen from the start, I was surprised at how hard it was to find a ramen restaurant. I had assumed that ramen shops would be as plentiful as Starbucks are in the U.S., but they turned out to be much more elusive.
After talking to a helpful man on the street, we were directed to our first ramen place. I ordered ramen with seaweed and an egg. While it was a tasty bowl of soup, I was somewhat nonplussed and had the feeling that there was better ramen to be found (and I was right)
The next day, we spontaneously decided to eat lunch while in an underground mall. At first, we passed an okonomiyaki place that looked interesting but after walking around we found a ramen place that had a line out the door (always a good sign). We decided to wait in line for ramen, and as an old man left the restaurant he told us “Oishi” (delicious) and pointed at the restaurant. The smells started drifting out of the restaurant and my mouth started watering uncontrollably.
All of the ramen dishes could either be ordered with a soy-based broth or a miso-based broth. I decided to order the ‘hat-trick’ ramen with a miso broth (ramen with pork, gyoza, and kimchi). The ramen was absolutely phenomenal. I took a sip of the broth and felt the rich, silky miso flavor flow over my tongue. As I mixed the soup together, the kimchi added a little bit of spicy tartness which added more layers to the miso broth. The gyoza were amazing; they were easily the best gyoza I have ever had. There were cooked to a crisp without tasting overly-fried, and had a smoky taste from the sesame oil. The hard-boiled egg was my favorite part of the soup. It was also cooked in sesame oil and tasted smoky and smooth; it was easily the best hard-boiled egg I have ever had. As I finished licking out every crevice of my bowl, I decided to make note of the place so that we could come back again. The restaurant was a chain within Osaka, so I noted that there were several other locations to go to in the future.
That night we decided to eat in the neighborhood by our hotel (Shinsekai). After exploring the options, we settled upon a place largely because it was crowded with people. This restaurant sold kushikatsu, which basically means things fried on a stick and dipped in sauce. What we realized after entering the shop and ordering, what that this type of food (like a lot of food in Osaka), was mainly meant to be eaten while drinking, and was not typical dinner fare. We ordered pints of the delicious Asahi lager, and waited for our food to come.
Although the food was not bad, it basically just tasted like the sauce that we dipped it in. Wisely, we had only ordered a small platter of fried things to share, so we decided that we would head somewhere else afterwards to finish up our meal.
After leaving the kushikatsu place, we walked to a nearby place serving takoyaki, or little dumplings traditionally filled with octopus batter. We ordered two different types of takoyaki (traditional, and takoyaki with scallions and citrus sauce) from a vending machine, before showing our tickets to the chef. I watched in fascination as the chef twirled and spun the takoyaki balls in their grill plate, until they were cooked to perfection. They were then drenched in condiments and sauces before served to us.
Careful not to burn myself, I let the takoyaki cool before trying them. While saucy and zesty on the outside, the interior was gooey and rich, with bits of octopus. I particularly enjoyed the traditional takoyaki, which were covered with the classic sauce which is kind of like a thicker and sweeter version of Worcestershire sauce. Overall, I enjoyed the takoyaki much more than the kushikatsu, and was pleased with our meal for the night.
The next day in Nara, we went to a restaurant recommended by a woman near the train station. The restaurant turned out to serve sushi made with only preserved fish that was wrapped in persimmon leaves (known as Kakinohasushi, a Nara specialty). Not knowing what to expect, I was astounded by how delicious the sushi was.
We shared a large platter of several vegetable sushi’s as well as mackerel, trout, and salmon. Each piece of sushi was perfectly prepared, and the wasabi accompanying the sushi was also very pungent and delicious (perhaps the first real wasabi I had ever tasted). The sushi was so flawless that I did not dip any of it in soy sauce, as it seemed to have enough flavor to stand on its own (with a touch of wasabi that is). This was easily my favorite meal of the whole trip, maybe in part because I had no idea what to expect of sushi with preserved fish.
That night, back in Osaka, we decided to have okonomiyaki for dinner. Okonomiyaki is similar to a savory pancake made with flour, shredded yam, eggs, cabbage as well as other ingredients of your choosing. I ordered mine with octopus and sweet potato.
The okonomiyaki was prepared on a grill in the middle of the table, so it was interesting to see the waitress whisk together the dough, before laying it on the grill and flipping it until it was seared to perfection. Our okonomiyaki were then slathered with mustard, mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce.
Although they looked huge and filling, it was actually a lot lighter than I was expecting. I really enjoyed the sweet potato in mine, although would probably get it with pork instead of octopus as the octopus added nothing expect a chewy texture. Overall it was fairly delicious, although a bit weird and not quite as filling or as satisfying of a dinner as I was expecting.
The next day for lunch we headed to the ramen place that Taka had recommended. This place was special in that it made its own unique broths (different than the soy and miso broths that we had tried before). I got a bowl with a mix of the two broths (one was light and creamy, the other darker and more potent) as well as marbled pork. The broth was very good, and the pork was amazing. Although the pork was more marbled with fat than I was used to, it melted in my mouth and was delicious. While not as delicious as the ramen in the subway station, this ended up being my second favorite bowl of ramen.
After meeting Natsu in Kyoto the following day, we had ozobonsai for lunch. Ozobonsai means “little dishes made by Mom”, and thus is a platter of many small dishes as well as one entrée. I got pork katsu on my platter. Although the meal was good, I had no idea what many of the small dishes were, although they all resembled vegetables and starches of some kind.
Strangely enough, after the meal I felt a lot of heat rushing to my face and had a minor allergic reaction to the food. My face turned red, as well as my arms and legs, and I felt sort of feverish for the next couple hours. While I felt better by the evening, it was somewhat unsettling, as I have never had an allergic reaction to anything I have eaten, and I am not sure what it was in the meal that gave me the reaction. I decided to avoid eating ozobonsai for the rest of the trip, and fortunately never had another allergic reaction to anything I ate.
For dinner that night, Natsu took us to a popular ramen place in Kyoto. Ironically, this ramen place was next to another popular ramen place, and both restaurants had lines out the door.
This place only served ramen in a soy sauce broth, which sounded good to me since I had yet to try that type of broth. The ramen was also normally served with a raw egg, which I contemplated trying but then declined. The bowl was filled to the brim with noodles and pork, and consequently was the only bowl of ramen on the trip that I was unable to finish. Although it was delicious, it was simply a huge amount of food and after eating a considerable amount, I accepted defeat and laid down my chopsticks.
By this point, having tried many different types of ramen, I was beginning to feel like a ramen connoisseur, and was able to determine which flavors I preferred in my ramen (miso broth rather than soy broth, extra kim-chi to add spicy and tangy flavor, and pork with some glistening, marbled fat).
After meeting Natsu and Taka the next day, we decided to try soba (wheat noodles). The restaurant even served a soba tea, which tasted of wheat and was delicious. I got a large platter with sushi, hot soba noodles in soup, eggplant with miso sauce (light and dark misos), and mochi dessert. My favorite part was actually probably the eggplant with miso sauce which was rich and tangy, although the sushi was good and the soba was good as well. While I have had mochi in the U.S., the mochi dessert here was much softer and covered in some sort of powdered sugar. I actually did not really enjoy the mochi, as I just found the texture too bizarre and it had little flavor other than a slight sweetness.
That night we ate yakitori, which consists of lots of little grilled dishes. At the beginning of the meal, we also all ordered pints of Asahi lager ‘superchilled’ (served at -2 celsius). The beer was incredibly refreshing, and went down quick as a result.
The restaurant was mainly known for it’s homemade sake. I had only had sake once before in Davis, and I did not particularly enjoy it. However, I dutifully agreed to try it again here since it was their specialty and was pleasantly surprised. Served cold, it had a delicate tart, rice flavor that was actually very refreshing. I enjoyed it very much, and ended up having several glasses throughout the night.
The food was also great too. We began ordering grilled dishes of meats such as pork, chicken livers, chicken breasts, chicken hearts, as well as scallops covered in bacon, and eggplant slathered with miso. I particularly enjoyed the scallops covered in bacon, which were absolutely exquisite. We kept eating and eating, little bites of fried dumplings with potatoes, salads with chicken, and finally a rice soup with pickled plums (which was tart, delicate, and phenomenal). Overall, the meal was fantastic, and I probably could have continued drinking the sweet glasses of sake for several more hours, but we decided to head back.
Our final day in Kyoto, we settled on sashimi for lunch. We again went to a place recommended by Taka, and were not disappointed. I ordered a platter of nigiri with the usual delights (eel, salmon, tuna, tofu, squid, shrimp and salmon roe), as well as a bowl of hot soba noodles. The nigiri was very good, although I have had better nigiri in the U.S.
That night we again decided to have ramen. The place we went to had a fascinating atmosphere; it had individual stalls for each patron, and small windows into the kitchen partially covered by bamboo screens, so that you could not see the cooks and they could not see you. After delivering your ramen, the cooks would lower your screen for your privacy, and if you wanted something else such as extra noodles, you could simply write that on a slip before pressing a button to get their attention.
In short, it was a very efficient enterprise where one could enjoy themselves in individualized privacy, without really interacting with anyone, including the employees (a very Japanese experience). The ramen itself was good too. To order, I filled out a card where I indicated how strong I wanted the broth to be, how soft or firm I wanted my noodles, how spicy I wanted the broth to be as well as additional items I wished to add to the ramen.
The ramen I got was sufficiently spicy, and the broth strong like I requested, but after having tasted many bowls of ramen I didn’t think it was fabulous. It was certainly an experience eating at the restaurant though, and while I am not obsessed with privacy, I certainly was fascinated with the idea behind giving individual’s a way to order food without having to have any interactions with people whatsoever.
Being my final day in Japan, the next day I again decided to have ramen for lunch (notice a pattern?). We went to another place recommended by Taka. Again at this place we ordered and paid at a vending machine, before handing our tickets to the chef. This place also had free kim-chi and rice, so I loaded a bowl with a large bundle of kim-chi and sat down.
After receiving my ramen, I mixed in the kim-chi and chowed down. The ramen was good, although nowhere near as good as some of the others I had tasted. Still, it was nice to wash it down with the potent, free kim-chi which was definitely a nice touch.
That night was my final meal in Japan. Taka and Natsu agreed to meet us in Osaka, and we decided to have sashimi for dinner. After running into Taka, we headed to the restaurant where Natsu and Taka’s wife were meeting us later. We began with a pint of Asahi (of course), before ordering some sashimi. The sashimi was amazingly beautiful, and delicious as well. I particularly enjoyed the bonito on our first platter. Eventually Natsu and Taka’s wife arrived, and we began ordering more courses of food. I finally tried uni (sea urchin) which was very interesting, with a shellfish like flavor, and toro (fatty tuna) which was wonderful and very delicate. We also had waygu beef, which we seared ourselves at our table, and sukiyaki, in which I found myself dipping thin slices of beef in raw egg (very delicious although very different than the sukiyaki I had eaten in Thailand). To wash down the bounty of delicious food, I had several glasses of sake, including a small bottle sparkling sake.
It was a fantastic meal to finish the trip, with so many exquisite delights that I had never eaten packed into several short hours.
I miss the food in Japan already (especially the ramen), as good food is easy to find wherever you are, and delicious food is also often not as expensive as I had expected (for example, the sushi I had in Nara only was about $10). While I have not been able to give Thai food as fair of a shake as Japanese food (since I have not been able to explore all of the food options of a city like Bangkok or Chiang Mai), I believe that I prefer Japanese food overall, for all of its varied dishes, clean flavors, and exquisite preparations.