Japan 2011: What I Ate

The sad thing is, I wasn't all that hungry when I was in Japan. Normally I love to eat but I couldn't get excited about food, probably because of the heat and humidity. It's terribly ironic, to me, to go all that way to somewhere where I'd normally want to stuff my face and then not being interested. Fortunately I was hanging out with a person with a normal appetite, so we ate regularly and interestingly anyway. (If I had been by myself I might have just survived on bread and fruit juice, and that would have been a pity.)

My first meal in Japan was dinner: okonomiyaki at a cook-it-yourself restaurant near Ameyayokocho, with Dave and his friend Robert. We had a kind of miscellaneous omelette, fried enoki mushrooms in butter (so good!) and some sautéed greens. The greens came in their own little soup of cornstarchy sauce, which you are supposed to add gradually to the greens. After you have cooked the greens and sauce, you add a bunch of cheese, which suddenly changes the whole thing from sautéed greens to fried cheese with bits of greens. Tasty.

We also had a couple of flagons of Japan's Default Beer. You go into a restaurant and order "beer" and they bring you "beer", a glass mug of a cold, easy-drinking lager with a good inch of head on it. (Usually Asahi Super-Dry or Kirin Lager, I think.) It was the perfect drink in that weather, and Dave and I had one with almost every meal.

Japanese Breakfast For the next morning's breakfast I had ordered the "Japanese breakfast" at my ryokan, and I was eager to find out what it entailed. It turned out to be rice, miso soup, some lightly-pickled sliced cucumber, steamed greens in a sweet sesame sauce, scrambled egg with tomato and orange on the side, and some grilled fish. Also green tea and a little package of nori. It was a lot of food and I didn't finish everything, which I'm sure is either completely insulting or totally acceptable. The fish was delicious: mild and slightly crispy on the outside.

Tiny shrimp sushi For lunch that day I decided we should have sushi, since that's the quintessential Japanese food in my mind. Dave found us a conveyor belt sushi place where we had eel, salmon, tuna, tiny fish, tiny shrimp, and plenty more.

Later that afternoon we wandered to Harajuku, where the street eat of choice is crepes. This is curious because there aren't really any other street eats in Japan, apart from the odd soft-serve ice cream place — walking while eating just isn't done — but for some reason it's acceptable to eat a filled crepe folded into a cone while walking around Harajuku. I had ice cream, chocolate syrup and whipped cream in my crepe; I think Dave had bananas or apples in syrup or something similar. (Dave has lost lots of weight since moving to Japan by eating carefully and walking a lot; I think he must have had to eat even more carefully and walk even more after I left to make up for sharing my bad habits while I was there.)

For dinner that evening we went to a (chain?) restaurant which offered a variety of food: garlic cheese bread, pizza, shrimp chips, chicken. We had some gyoza and an assorted yakitori plate (grilled chicken parts on sticks; mmm, chicken kidneys). I think we also had something with cheese, but it's hard for me to say because I was rocking some serious jet lag and pretty much falling asleep on my plate.

Next day's Japanese breakfast was about the same, but with salmon instead of the mystery white fish.

Ramen We had ramen for lunch in Fujisawa, on the way to Enoshima. It was a rustic little restaurant, staffed only by two cooks behind the bar. You order by selecting and paying for your dish from a machine, then giving the resulting receipt to the cooks. It was delicious: the meat was tender, the noodles were soft with that particular chewiness you only get from freshly made noodles, and the broth was savoury and rich. (I wish I had been as hungry when I had it in front of me as I am now writing about it. Irony!)

It was on Enoshima that we had the mango softserve ice cream that I posted about earlier. It was almost like a mango sorbet, with enough creaminess to make it luxurious without cutting the refreshing fruitiness of the mango. Served in a twist ("mix") with vanilla it was like a creamsicle all grown up.

After Enoshima we went on a long train ride to a yakitori restaurant run by some friends of Dave's. We could have ridden the whole way in a standard JR train car, like a fancier subway car, but there's an option on JR (the rail company) to take a "Green car", a sort of first-class which is more like a double-decker GO train car — cushy reclining seats with a tray, and drink and snack service (with very cheap beer!)

Sink The restaurant was like a pub, kind of dark and medieval with low ceilings and lots of wood. (Never mind the high-tech powered sliding door which are all-but ubiquitous in stores and restaurants.) The sink in the picture gives you an idea of the rough-hewn feel of the place.

Once again the food was delicious: we had grilled bits and pieces on sticks, mostly-raw chicken (I wasn't up for more than a taste of that), and hiyayakko, sliced tofu with soy sauce and fish flakes. (A.k.a., "That cold shit.", as Dave thinks of it.) Also more beer.

For Sunday's breakfast I requested "Western-style", as much because I wanted to see what they would do with it as because I craved familiar food. "Western-style" breakfast turns out to include back bacon, scrambled egg, a giant slab of toasted white bread, tomato and some orange. Also penne with sweet tomato sauce, and steamed broccoli. Of course.

Tonkatsu We had lunch at a chain tonkatsu restaurant called Wako. I had a combo with pork medallions, a shrimp and some pumpkin, all breaded and deep-fried, as well as a haystack of shredded cabbage and the usual miso soup and bowl of white rice. There was a side of mayo, for what I'm not sure (I made the cabbage into coleslaw with it). Also chawan mushi, a savoury custard. The tonkatsu was crispy and delicious and the pile of cabbage was a refreshing change from the analogous pile of french fries you would get on this side of the Pacific. It, as well as the miso soup (I think) were bottomless — you could hail the waitress and she would come over with a enormous bowl of shredded cabbage and pile another stack of it on your plate.

Having had a tasty plate of deep fried for lunch, we set out vaguely in search of something healthy for dinner. I moved to a hotel in Saitama on Sunday, so we were in Saitama for dinner, and had a choice of the usual suspects: ramen, sushi, and so on. We eventually talked each other into Korean barbeque and decided to be healthy another day.

Most Japanese restaurants have pictures of all the dishes they offer, but the interesting thing about Korean barbeque is that the food in the pictures is still raw. I guess that's not the most interesting thing — the most interesting thing is that the food they bring to your table is still raw. Each table is fitted with its very own little fire pit, some intrepid young man comes by with a bucket of hot coals and skillfully sets it into place, and then you use cunning little tongs to cook everything to your taste. We had some delicious strips of beef and placated the gods of healthy eating by roasting up some assorted veggies.

There was no breakfast at my hotel in Saitama, so on Monday morning I ventured out on my own to find something to eat. It seems like an odd choice, but I found it at 7/11. They have a decent selection of cellophane-wrapped pastries, so I bought brioche sort of thing, and added a can of delicious Boss Caffe Latte from the vending machine in the hotel lobby.

Lunch led us on an epic train journey to Utsonomiya, the world's gyoza capital, for (that's right) gyoza. We went to a tiny restaurant and ordered their special plate of 12 gyoza*, all different (and beer!) There were pork, shrimp, chicken, kim chee, pork and shiso, and some more which were delicious but not readily identifiable. (I actually left the kim chee dumpling; it was just too spicy for lightweight me — Dave helped me out with it.)

(The more I write this post the sadder I am that I had no appetite to speak of while I was in Tokyo. Everything was good but it would have been even better if I had been hungry.)

By dinner time I was craving a Pickle Barrel big salad. I don't know what it says about me that when I'm in a foreign country full of exotic, delicious food I crave the most pedestrian Western food, but there it is. All I desired was a giant bowl of crispy iceberg lettuce, ham, eggs, and chicken smothered in some unctuous dressing. There is about 0% chance of finding that anywhere in Tokyo, let alone Saitama. We wandered around sussing out various restaurants and finally chose an odd little second-floor pub, advertising $3 beer in the window. (We weren't sure whether $3 beer was a good sign or not, food-wise, but we figured at least it meant there would be $3 beer.)

The place was decorated in a blackened-wood and fishing nets motif. We got ourselves a beer, and ordered what might be the closest thing to my big salad you'd find in Tokyo: a green salad with sashimi. It was delicious, and hit the spot. We also had shrimp and cheese sticks — shrimp with cheese rolled in an egg roll wrapper and fried — and I think Dave ordered some other stuff I either didn't try or tried and didn't remember.

Individually wrapped boiled egg On Tuesday my 7/11 breakfast was a boiled egg (individually wrapped) and a Georgia Iced Coffee. I thought the Georgia Iced Coffee would be pretty much the same as the Boss Iced Coffee, but it was much more bitter and metallic-tasting. I learned from Dave, later, that all the different iced coffee brands have distinctive flavours, and I just lucked into the one I like best first try.

We were down at Tokyo Bay at lunchtime — I wanted to check out Tokyo's "Harbourfront". There's a big mall down there (Doug Ford take note!) and they were having some kind of ramen festival in one of the food courts. (Or else one of the food courts was set up to simulate a perpetual ramen festival; now that I think about it I'm not quite sure which.) I had a hankering for eel, so I ordered something which looked like a delicious bowl of ramen with eel on top. Turns out the colour reproduction on the picture was a little off, and I got a delicious bowl of ramen with two slices of boiled bacon on top. (Dave tells me it was Okinawa-style ramen, which is of course different from the various other kinds of ramen.) I know boiled bacon sounds disgusting, but it was smoky and tender. I expect if you tried boiling Canadian mass market bacon it would fall apart or go slimy, but I think if you got good bacon from a butcher it would boil up nicely. Try it in soup!

I also had some melon soda. Melon is a big flavour over there, although it seemed more vaguely fruity than tasting of any melon I'm familiar with.

After we walked around the waterfront some more we had kakigori, which is like a sno-cone or granita or whatever they call flavoured ice where you are. I chose Blue Hawaii flavour, which is... blue. And sweet. It was delicious, just the thing to eat while sitting by the water and sweating gently.

Our next stop was Tokyo Tower, where I had a piece of cheesecake at the restaurant up top. Cheesecake seems to be quite popular in Tokyo, and I was curious as to how it was interpreted. It was softer and smoother than a New York-style cheesecake, and had a nice sharp cream cheesy bite.

Dinner was fancy, at the Chou Chou Dinning Room (not to be confused with Tony's Fine Dinning, a roti place up on Sheppard). Like many restaurants in Tokyo, it was on the second floor — Tokyoites don't have our aversion to going up a level or two to eat or shop. The restaurant was beautiful; we entered on a transparent walkway over a mock riverbed of white stones. Shiny dark wood and elegant lighting set a mood of quiet refinement.

Keeping with the classy style of the place, I refrained from ordering my usual beer and had a grapefruit sour instead. We ordered chicken gyoza and little fish baked in phyllo, with the heads still on. But the highlight of the meal was the risotto, a creamy sweet-savoury delight.

Wednesday was my last day in Tokyo. My final 7/11 breakfast was a green bun filled with cantaloupe-flavoured custard. Why was it green? Green tea? Melon? Mint? It's hard to say, and the flavour wasn't much help. The custard was delicious, though, and not something I'm likely to ever get in Toronto. I also had a tub of yogurt in a vague attempt to eat some protein, and, sadly, my last can of Boss Caffe Latte.

Dave and I decided that my last meal in Tokyo should be the iconic conveyor belt sushi, so for lunch we ducked into a really cheap little place. It was fascinating — they had laid out the restaurant so that the conveyor belt wound round into every cranny of the odd-shaped room, so it formed an irregular, jagged L-shape and we had to shuffle sideways behind half the other diners to get to our chairs.

I didn't realize how cheap the place was until Dave pointed out they were serving fake wasabi. But even the cheapest saddest Tokyo sushi is still fresh and delicious; really, the only thing that distinguished it from more expensive sushi was that the rolls were slightly misshapen. We had the usual selection of tuna, salmon, and clam. Dave scooped himself a plate of natto sushi, and I had some alarmingly tacky shrimp salad sushi, while I amused myself trying to think what you could serve conveyor-belt style in a Canadian restaurant: sandwiches? Salads? It's such a great way to have lunch: fast, fresh and cheap.

My very last Japanese food purchase was a can of peach soda from a vending machine in the airport. Even though I was only there for a week, the idea of Japanese vending machines has lodged itself in my brain, to the extent that whenever I go to a public park in Toronto I'm always briefly disappointed that I can't buy myself a can of coffee or a soda from a handy vending machine.

I love eating in other countries; you learn so much about a place from what and how they eat. I loved the little plates, which allow you to try lots of different things, and to eat as much as you like and no more. I liked the way everyone orders together and shares the food. I think the Japanese custom of not eating while walking is healthy and sensible (although it would take me more than a week to get out of the habit). And I liked the food itself: everything (apart from my 7/11 delights) was freshly made from excellent ingredients. Tokyo is a great destination if you like to eat.

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