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My Trip to Japan: First Culinary Impressions

Well, my trip to Japan – the one I’ve been dreaming of for years – is over. My body’s back, but my head and certainly a piece of my heart are still on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. It was a deeply inspiring, creatively enriching and endlessly delicious trip. As always, after I come back from such a stimulating trip, writing (and blogging) about it helps me memorize everything that I saw and assimilate all that I learned.

Of course, some of my strongest memories are linked to food. I knew I would love food in Japan, but it turns out that love isn’t strong enough a word; I’d say I fell head over heels for it. Everything we ate over the course of our three-week trip was delicious, from the simplest snack to the most elaborate kaiseki (multi-course) meal. Before setting off on the trip, I had a lot to learn about Japanese cuisine, and I saw my trip as a crash course on the subject; I was convinced I would come back with tons of new recipes I would want to try at home. Let me tell you—I wasn’t disappointed! Here are five of my most surprising (and inspiring) observations on Japanese cuisine.

1. Eating in Japan can be inexpensive.

One thing you constantly hear while planning a trip to Japan is how expensive everything is. In fact, many people will favor other Asian countries over Japan for budgetary reasons. While I can’t assert that it’s a cheap destination, the bill’s certainly not swelling because of the food. In a country that counts as many three-starred restaurants as France does, it’s surprisingly easy to eat well for relatively little.

Ramen soups, hearty and bursting with flavor, represent one of the best deals: a shop that makes superior quality ramen (homemade broth and noodles, local ingredients) sells its soups for ¥950 (about $12) and it’s nearly impossible to get bored with them since they’re made differently throughout the country.

4 different ramen soups, clockwise from left: Okinawa soba on Ishigaki Island; Charshu miso ramen at Santoka, Kyoto; Shio (salt) ramen at Tenkuu, Tokyo; Shōyu (soy sauce) ramen in Kyoto.

4 different ramen soups, clockwise from left: Okinawa soba on Ishigaki Island; Charshu miso ramen at Santoka, Kyoto; Shio (salt) ramen at Tenkuu, Tokyo; Shōyu (soy sauce) ramen in Kyoto.

Bento boxes are the most satisfying convenience food: they can be bought from almost anywhere (including from little stalls on train platforms), are beautiful and appetizing, are composed of fresh and seasonal ingredients, and are infinitely diverse (you’ll always find one that corresponds exactly with what you feel like eating on any given day). They are also easy to order as a “dummy” is displayed for each bento choice (complete with very realistic fake plastic food), so you can just point at the one you want and smile. Most choices cost between ¥700 and ¥1,200 ($9 to $15).

My very first bento, on the Osaka-Kyoto train, featuring seasonal salmon eggs and chestnuts. Notice the fall-inspired box design as well as the maple leaf-shaped carrot in the top right compartment.

A fall-inspired bento display at the Tokyu Hands department store in Tokyo. All the food in the following picture is made of plastic.

And there were countless other tasty choices. Throughout our trip, we feasted on tempura (always perfectly crunchy and made to order), okonomiyaki (a cross between an omelet and a savory pancake, garnished with pork belly, octopus, shrimp, cabbage and sometimes even cheese), takoyaki (piping hot crisp balls with a gooey octopus center), yakitori (meat skewers), gyoza (dumplings, fried or boiled), soba noodles (most often served cold with a flavorful dipping sauce) and tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets). Most meals cost from ¥800 to ¥2,000 per person ($10-$25, including beverages, excluding alcohol). In the end, we agreed that our whole food budget in Japan was considerably less than what we have spent in most European countries, to eat equally well (if not better) than in Europe.

Boiled and pan-fried gyoza in Tokyo.

Boiled and pan-fried gyoza in Tokyo.

Okonomiyaki in Okinawa, served glazed with a special sauce and topped with Japanese mayo and bonito flakes.

Okonomiyaki in Okinawa, served glazed with a special sauce and topped with Japanese mayo and bonito flakes.

A take-out variety of okonomiyaki, at Kyoto’s monthly Tenjin-san market.

A take-out variety of okonomiyaki, at Kyoto's monthly Tenjin-san market.

A takoyaki stand in Osaka.

A takoyaki stand in Osaka.

What takoyaki looks like, once served. It’s topped with sauce, mayo and bonito flakes.

What takoyaki looks like, once served. It's topped with sauce, mayo and bonito flakes.

2. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is difficult in Japan.

Because Japan is a mountainous country, it lacks the large fertile plains needed for a diverse agriculture. We ate surprisingly few vegetables (and even fewer fruits), and I noticed that almost all vegetables offered in markets were white or green: a clue to the limited offering. It is possible to buy colorful imported product, such as bell peppers or apples, but they are sold at exorbitant prices, like ¥300 (4$) for one apple or ¥200 ($2.50) for one small red onion. A Korean couple who used to be vegetarians confirmed that they had to start eating meat again when they moved to Tokyo because it got too expensive to keep up with their diet in the Japanese capital.

Precious fruits, sold individually at very high prices.

Precious apples, sold individually at very high prices.

Shades of white and green in the produce section.

Shades of white and green in the produce section.

3. Japanese chefs are obsessed with seasonality.

While seasonality has recently become a hot topic on this side of the ocean, it seems like it’s in the Japanese DNA to cook that way. Just as they celebrate the beauty of what each season has to offer (such as sakura flowers in the spring and colorful foliage in the fall), they favor seasonal choices in the kitchen. A few examples:

  • When we visited, in October, it was chestnut season and dozens of different products featuring the nut were offered in markets and it was heavily featured in restaurants and bento boxes.
  • When we visited a sushi restaurant with a Japanese foodie friend, he told the chef to serve us what was on season. Yes, I learned then and there that even fish is seasonal. It was the best sushi I’ve ever had – and probably the best I’ll ever have until I go back to Japan.
  • When we chatted with a chef about yuzu, the widely popular Japanese citrus, he told us that they use it from the green, unripe and tart stage in the spring through to the yellow, ripe and sweeter stage in the fall. After that, he told us, if you want yuzu, you have to buy it imported from Fiji – and we could see from the look on his face that he wouldn’t be caught dead using Fiji yuzu.

I admire the fact that this focus on seasonality, which may have been forced on Japan at a time when importing food wasn’t an option, hasn’t been tamed by convenience over the years. While I have long thought that eating seasonally in a Northern country is mission impossible, my trip to Japan has finally made me realize that such limitations can be inspiring. I’m coming back with the resolution to pay closer attention to the origins of what I buy throughout the year and to push myself to make more with what’s in season.

Best. Sushi. Ever. In Ginza, Tokyo.

Best. Sushi. Ever. In Ginza, Tokyo.

The sushi chef, working his magic. Watching him work so quickly and precisely was more entertaining than watching a movie.

The sushi chef, working his magic. Watching him work so quickly and precisely was more entertaining than watching a movie.

Fresh chestnuts, sold with their spikey husks on.

Fresh chestnuts, sold with their spikey husks on.

A chestnut vendor at Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

A chestnut vendor at Nishiki Market, Kyoto.

4. The Japanese know how to be creative with rice.

Rice isn’t always eaten white in Japan – far from it. We delightfully discovered the joys of Japanese fried rice (which can include pork, tofu, eggs, seaweed, green onions, etc.) and marveled at how many different rice toppings are sold to enliven an ordinary bowl of rice. From dried fish and seafood to pickles to spice mixes, it’s easy to change things up by sprinkling a little bit of this or that over perfectly steamed sticky rice.

We also discovered donburi (literally “bowl”), which is a rice bowl dish consisting of fish (raw or cooked), meat, vegetables or other ingredients served over rice. In many cases, the protein is simmered in a dashi (broth) seasoned with soy sauce and mirin. When served, the rice absorbs the rich broth or sauce and becomes an integral part of the dish. This diversity shows that rice in Japan isn’t just another carb, but rather a chameleon component that can highlight beautiful flavors.

Japanese fried rice.

Japanese fried rice.

Katsudon: deep-fried pork cutlet topped with a raw egg, on rice.

Katsudon: deep-fried pork cutlet topped with a raw egg, on rice.

5. In Japan, tofu is far from boring.

Tofu hasn’t ever had a particularly stellar reputation in Western countries, and, considering the important role it plays in Asian diets, I always suspected that we didn’t get the good stuff over here. Boy, was I right! The tofu I’ve had at home may very well come from a whole other planet, compared with the versatile ingredient we feasted on in Japan. From silky to firm, turned into anything and everything from warm savory custards to luscious dairy-free “ice cream”, served from breakfast to dinner, it’s indeed hard to imagine the Japanese diet without this essential protein.

The best display of tofu versatility we witnessed was in Arashiyama, a Western Kyoto suburb, at a restaurant that made their own, on site. We enjoyed a tasting menu of tofu-based dishes and the diversity in tastes and textures was simply mind-boggling. My favorite discovery was yuba, or tofu skin, which is made “in an open shallow pan, thus producing a film or skin composed primarily of a soy protein-lipid complex on the liquid surface.” (source: Wikipedia) Yuba is protein-rich and it has a soft yet somewhat rubbery texture that is very enjoyable, especially served in a milky savory broth as it was in our tasting menu.

Tofu is one of those “perfect foods” that anyone would benefit from: low in calorie count, high in protein and with very little fat, it’s a versatile and all-around healthy ingredient. While most of the delicacies we enjoyed in Japan will be impossible to find at home, I’m determined to include more tofu in our diet. I’ve already found a better-quality silky variety at a local natural foods store, so I can’t wait to experiment!

Tofu-themed tasting menu, in Arashiyama, Kyoto.

Yodofu, tofu served in hot water, is very soft and silky. It’s also served as part of the traditional Japanese breakfast.

Yuba (tofu skin).

So much culinary inspiration in so little time: it’s not surprising that I’m having a tough time coming down from my Japanese cloud. Since we came back, I’ve already tried my hand at a few dishes inspired by what we tasted in Japan. I foresee that our diet will remain forever changed by this trip, and I look forward to all the great meals to come.

Yum

10 Responses to My Trip to Japan: First Culinary Impressions

  1. Loved the post Marie. That was fascinating about fruit + veg being so much more limited over there, as well as their embracing of seasonality. I love the creativity that results from limitations that are placed on people's cooking- such as the decision to cook only with what is in season. (It's very designerly, I think.)
    I am also completely intrigued by the way you describe that incredible tofu… I wonder where I can sample something like that in Sydney… speaking of Sydney, when are you coming to Sydney…..? ; )

  2. You are welcome, Marie! We thought you’d be interested in some insights since you are into culinary cultures.

    Another thing you might also want to know is the Japanese concept of “cold” and “warm” vegetables/fruits. This is another reason why most Japanese people are sticking to the seasonal vegetables/fruits besides the deliciousness.
    For example, summer vegetables/fruits like tomato, cucumber, okra, corn, watermelon, peach, aubergine, etc have the effect of cooling down your body thus it’s not considered healthy to eat them when it’s not summer. Most Japanese would not feel like eating summer vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, etc in winter, just thinking of them already cools down our body! ;)
    Japanese tomatoes in summer are cheap and very sweet with so much flavour, but once the late-autumn brings cold air, the tomato market shrinks considerably since people are not so interested in them any more and also flavour-rich tomatoes become less available, which makes the price go up.
    Dutch friends who visited us in summer had hard time finding strawberries, and of course it was hard to find because, in Japan, strawberries are early-spring fruits!
    Now that apples are in season in Japan, you can buy a high quality apple only for 80yen in our local supermarket and it has so much flavour with really high natural sugar and great texture, and also it’s 3 times larger than apple that you find in Europe, so it’s really reasonable.

    Below you can read about the fruits and vegetables cultivated in Mainlands of Japan, written by a Swiss living in Japan. Of course there are more varieties than these but these are the most common ones throughout many regions. The explanation is quite good.

    Fruits (excluding the tropical fruits from the southern Japanese islands):
    http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2347.html

    Vegetables:
    http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2346.html

    Also it should be interesting for foreigners to know that a wide variety of seaweed is playing an important role in the Japanese cuisine, and seaweed are considered to be one of the reasons why Japanese live the longest in the world (and 8% of Okinawans live over 100 years old). My favourite seaweed is “umibudo sea-grape” from the Okinawa islands! They are amazing!

    Finally, if you ever find Dekopon in Canada, please try even though it’s expensive. It will blow away your image of citrus fruit! Now they are also grown in California:
    http://www.latimes.com/features/food/la-fo-dekopon-20110217,0,1927089,full.story

    Bisous,
    Ippei + Janine

  3. Marie, nice article!
    It’s interesting to read how foreigners, especially western people perceive the Japanese culinary culture.
    However, let us tell you that eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables at one certain period is difficult in Japan because, just like you noticed, Japanese are totally obsessed with the season for many centuries in their DNA. Therefore, only the seasonal fruits are cheap and really delicious (e.g. apples become cheap and very delicious from mid November to end December, that’s when most Japanese start craving for apples). For example, most Japanese people don’t feel like eating mandarin or any citrus fruits if it’s not winter which is the season for a huge variety of Japanese citrus fruits (over 20 types) so buying them in other season is expensive unless you buy the imported low quality fruits grown by industrial farming. People simply go for quality and season so even though the import tax on fruits is only 10% in Japan, you hardly see any imported fruits in supermarkets unless you go to a low quality discount store.
    Thus people don’t measure, for example, one apple is such price, which many western people do, but people here measure an apple from such place, from such season, from such growing method, has such price. All about quality, not about quantity. Also, the Japanese don’t eat one particular thing a lot, but instead, they eat small portions of many different things, so carefully hand grown high quality produce (the opposite of industrial farming) becomes mainstream, despite the price.
    It’s true that Japan is 75% covered in steep mountains, but now more than 10% of farmlands are abandoned and so it’s now possible to switch to industrial farming in many places like in Hokkaido, but still many are against the western style industrial farming.

    Also traditionally Japanese are vegetarians due to the Buddhism, so it’s not difficult at all to be vegetarian if you cook at home making the buddhism cuisine. This cuisine uses mostly the Japanese root type vegetables which are available all around the year at low cost. Of course many foreigners have no idea what they are, so perhaps you don’t take that into consideration with your observation. For example, bell peppers and red onions are not traditionally used in the traditional Japanese cuisine, thus it’s like buying wasabi root in Canada.

    Looking forward to reading more!

    Ippei & Janine

    • Thank you so much for providing this valuable background information. I did see the country through my western eyes, and three weeks was far than enough to understand everything! The “better quality, smaller quantity” concept explains a lot – and I would venture to say that this principle seems to apply to many different aspects of Japanese culture, not just food. It is polar opposite to what we’re seeing here in North America, and especially in Quebec. Because our winters are harsh, we rely on imported foods a lot. A few years ago, I was told that chain grocery stores in Quebec sell imported produce of a lesser grade than any other Canadian province or the US because we’re are supposedly even less willing to pay for quality, compared to our neighbors. I believe this is slowly changing with the growing “locavore” movement, and the fact that people are becoming aware that imported products have a high environmental cost. It seems like Japan has always been aware of this for a long time, you guys have a lot to teach us!

  4. Absolutely fascinating! I am so jealous. I would love to go to Japan and this post has left me wanting it even more. I LOVE Japanese food but I don’t get to eat it often as I live in rural France and they have not yet embraced other cultures cuisines much! Thanks for this post, my mouth is watering!

    • I think the popularity of Japanese food is rapidly growing in France! You may have to wait a while until it gets to rural areas, but at least, in the meantime, you can get inspired by the cuisine’s delicious flavors. Until you get to Japan, maybe you can cook some Japanese dishes at home? I thought it was an intimidating cuisine before I went to Japan, but now I really want to make more at home. It’s not so complicated but soooo delicious!

  5. This was a wonderful post! It was great learning about all of the food there. I’ve travelled to Singapore a couple of times- and enjoyed the food there as well. Just as you mentioned, it’s not very expensive. With Singapore it’s interesting since they have to import a lot of food (since they are so small). But it was all delicious! Where are you planning to travel to next?

    • I’m happy that you liked the post! Singapore is definitely on my travel radar – the food looks so good over there! I’d love to go to Malaysia and Vietnam as well, for the same reason: FOOD! Right now I don’t have any big travel plans, but since we just went to Asia, it would be great to target another continent next – Argentina sounds good to me! We’ll see what 2012 brings :)
      P.S. I just visited your blog, the hot pot you just enjoyed in New York looks so good! I’m definitely putting that restaurant on my NYC list.

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