When in Japan, eat as the Japanese do (part 3/4)

The month of August was dedicated to traveling around Japan. The first post gives a first glance on planning, budget and itinerary, while the second summarises the top 10 things that I would absolutely love to import from this awesome country.

One of the reasons I voted for Japan was food. Even though at first sushi did not really intrigue me. On the contrary, I had to play knowledgeable the first time they’ve ordered sushi at our company 😛 Not to mention the training with holding the chopsticks!

But little by little, you learn to love the taste. To understand how much wasabi to take with each bite. To appreciate the fresh fish. To learn that this is the umami taste, one of the five basic tastes together with sweetness, saltiness, bitterness and sourness. Beautiful discovery, isn’t it? The umami taste can be translated as pleasant savory taste.

Little did I know about the variety of food in Japan, though. In one month, we had sushi 3 times. Yes, only 3. Here’s what else we have tried and how we liked it.

fish-rice-and-picked-vegetables

Lunch in Kinugawakoen, a small town north of Tokyo. Their dishes are often composed of small diverse portions including rice, fish and pickled vegetables. A small soup is always a must at the beginning of a meal.

rice-tempura-and-picked-vegetables

A similar variety, but with tempura, instead of fish. Tempura consists of seafood, vegetables or even meat coated with batter and deep fried. It is usually served together with sauce. It was introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century and has become one of the most well known dishes outside of Japan.

tempura

Here’s another tempura dish. It was common to have a big bowl of soup with vegetables and tempura aide.

Five course menu at Nikko. Click on each of the pictures below to see what they are. Thanks to Nadina and Piet for the recommendation of this specific restaurant 😉

traditional-japanese-breakfast

Traditional Japanese breakfast. Even though it looks very stylish and very well taken care of, I would have opted for some old plain bread instead.

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Soba for lunch, a sort of pasta with all kind of vegetables.

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Loved it, it seems 🙂 [especially the tempura!]

eating-mount-fuji

After climbing down Fuji, we’ve treated ourselves with Fuji goodies: coffee and a sweet pastry in the shape of Fuji. They totally love this mountain 🙂

gyutan-curry-stew

One of my top three dishes was gyutan curry stew. Gyutan is basically beef tongue. It was specific for Sendai area, in the north of the main Island of Japan. Wouldn’t have thought I would like it so much, so if you happen to encounter it, just give it a try 😉

grilled-gyutan

Grilled gyutan (beef tongue). Delicious!

dumplings

Japanese gyutan dumplings. Filled with meat, they are a wonder aside soy sauce for light evenings.

udon

But of course, we wouldn’t always know what we order. One of the first meals in Hiroshima was the case. Just look at my face watching a bowl of udon (thick noodles)…

udon-noodles-2

This must have been the reason why… 😀

edamame

Edamame, or immature soya beans, are steamed and served with salt. You eat just the inside which contains soya beans, looking very similar to the oh-so-known beans.

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Okonomiyaki! Order the mix and prepare the food yourself on top of a hot plate right in front of you. You like it medium or well done? No problem, it’s up to you!

how-to-call-it?

Rice with chicken coated with a thin layer of omelette. Tassos called it *calzone rice*. This could easily qualify as an insult for both Japanese and Italians, I know, our apologies. It was a rather sweet dish, which I wouldn’t necessary choose again. But well, part of the experience 🙂

Matcha is powdered Green tea. One of the omnipresent tastes in Japan. The very first day we have tried cold matcha tea. It was also the last time. Needless to say, this is also a taste you learn by trying things. By the end of the trip, I was more open to stuff like croissant with matcha (one of my favourite sweets, found in Himeji!), Oreo with matcha, ice cream matcha and even candy with matcha! As you can guess, they had more of these international brands totally adapted to the local market by adding.. matcha 🙂

grilled-salmon

Grilled salmon, which as a base type of fish, was very affordable. Mind the presentation 😉

We’ve also tried several juices, the one on the left made of some specific fruits (of course I cannot recall the name :p) found in the region of Ise, also called by our lovely friend, Yuki, the Mecca of Shinto shrines. The second one was a gift of a stranger when we’ve knocked at her door for water. We wished her to be healthy 20 times that day :))

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The famous Japanese ‘Shabu Shabu’. Legend says that the meat is from cows that are treated with beer and massage to make their meat soft. You dive the thin slices of meat in the heated soup and while you swing it to get cooked you sing to it ‘Shaaaabuuu… shaaabuu…’

_eel_rice

Eel on rice and omelet. Eel is considered a very special delicacy in Japan and people are crazy for it when it is the period of fishing (end of summer). 

Food is always enjoyed more in the presence of nice people. We were really fortunate to be hosted by some wonderful people. In Ise, our host Yuki introduced us to his friends and took us for dinner in a very special restaurant. I wouldn’t be able to describe all the things we tried, but it was an assortment of different sashimi (raw fish), meat, vegetables and other Japanese delicacies.

_kyoto_sushi

Traditional ‘Kyoto style’ sushi. Found only in one restaurant in the famous area of Gion. Nothing tremendously special but definitely filling for the rest of the day.

That’s it for now 🙂 As pictures testify, there are plenty of dishes to try, even if fish is not your favourite. The Japanese are masters in the way they present their food. They want to make it appealing and varied in terms of taste and colour. Moreover, they are very fast with delivering as we have rarely waited more than 10 minutes to be served an order. How they manage to do this, is a mystery I haven’t resolved yet 🙂

The only disappointment was that I could not find those colourful and (sometimes) unbelievable sweets from Bored Panda that I have dreamed of before going there.

Oh well, need to go again! 🙂

One month in Japan. Budget, itinerary and first impressions (part 1/4)

For various reasons and circumstances, we have decided to take a month off and travel to Asia. We also reference this trip as our honeymoon 🙂 We had something with Japan, so even though at first we wanted to go in June/July (when it’s rainy season, so a rather no-go), we have postponed it for August to be able to enjoy it 🙂

This is the first post which gives a glimpse on budget, first impressions and pictures from almost every city / town we have visited.

yasaka-shrine

Yasaka Shrine is a Shinto shrine in the Gion district of Kyoto, the so-called Geisha district. We have found during our trip that every Shinto shrine is rebuilt every 20 years from scratch so that tradition is passed from generation to generation.

First things first, since everybody is interested in costs, here are the first “investments” we had to make:

  • 550 € for an open-jaw return ticket with Emirates (not paid to say this, but if you have the chance to fly with them, I highly recommend them 😉 ). We have landed in Tokyo, Haneda airport (which is closer to the city than Narita) and we have taken a return flight from Osaka (Kansai airport).
  • 500 € for a 21-days JR pass (delivered in 3 working days). This is a pass which can be bought only outside of Japan, being dedicated to tourists. It gives you access to almost all their trains (regional, express, Shinkansen — the bullet trains). There are 3 periods available for JR pass: 7, 14 and 21 days. (Later edit: we have kept track of all the trains we have taken, as we were doubting at first that JR pass is going to be that much profitable, and the cost for all the trains we have taken was around ~800 €/person).
japan-rail-pass

Japan Rail Pass featuring sakura (the period when cherry trees blossom) and Mount Fuji, two of the most widespread Japanese symbols. On the back side it contains the holder’s name as well as the validity period.

Accommodation wise, it also depends on your budget. During August, it wasn’t that difficult to find accommodation, although in some smaller cities, AirBnb had few available options. We had found apartments from 36 € / a day for 2 persons, but as well with 100 € for a traditional Japanese style room with tatami floor and mats to sleep. As said, there are options if you want, especially if you don’t mind sharing your space with others 😉 Ah! Probably the most expensive and least private place was a hut on Mount Fuji at 3.250m, for 75€ / person, where we slept with 80 others. Understandable why though 😉

traditional-japanese-room-in-onomichi

Traditional Japanese room (washitsu) with tatami floor (made of rice straws) and paper doors (shoji). Japanese are crazy and famous for their paper. This has been our room in Onomichi, a small but very nice place, my favourite during this trip 🙂

Food wise, Japan is actually pretty cheap for the quality of food. The best noodles I had (soba, a type of noodles) were in Tokyo in a claustrophobically small restaurant, at around 7 €. The best sushi we had was in Okayama and somewhere under 30 € for two people. The average cost would be somewhere between 10-12 €. And remember, water is free everywhere, which is a high plus, Japan 😀

japanese-food-display-in-a-restaurant

This is the display of a restaurant which features food from their menu. There is a whole industry around making “plastic” food for display, at least 50% of the restaurants have it. The other 50% always show pictures in their menu 😉

For planning, we had a rough itinerary and accommodation booked for a week. And that was it! For the rest, we have arranged everything on the go and adjusted a bit according to recommendations 🙂 Our inspiration was Japan guide which is incredibly well documented (Mariska and Jesus were right!), every country should have such a complete guide! There, I said it 😛

So for the first post, let’s see a photo from each place we’ve been:

fish-market-in-tokyo

Fish market in Tokyo. This is a rather small, size wise, tuna fish, which I gladly discovered as being absolutely delicious when freshly eaten. Japan has a tuna flavour for me. The fish market was very clean and not killing you with its “fishy” smell 🙂

geo-cosmos-at-miraikan-tokyo

The Geo-Cosmos which is the symbol exhibit of Miraikan (Science Museum, Odaiba island, Tokyo), produces a rendition of our Earth shining brightly in space with a super high precision exceeding 10 million pixels. It is the world’s first “Globe-like display” using organic LED panels.

pagoda-at-toshogu-shrine-in-nikko

Pagoda at Toshogu shrine in Nikko, a town north of Tokyo. Pagodas are places of worship, very very rarely open to the public.

tanabata-matsuri-festival-in-sendai

Tanabata Matsuri is a yearly festival in Sendai where a shopping street is “dressed” with these kind of decorations, some made by schools, some by shops, some by people of Hiroshima praying for world peace. They are almost 15m long and made out of washi paper and bamboo.

pikachu-day-in-yokohama

Pikachu day in Yokohama. Full of pikachus everywhere!

shiny-happy-sefie-in-yokohama

Shiny happy selfie with Pikachu! The ‘victory’ sign we’re doing is a kind of religion, everybody, really, E-V-E-R-Y-B-O-D-Y is doing it when taking a picture, so we’ve blended in!

mount-fuji-on-top

We have climbed Mount Fuji (Japan’s highest peak at 3776 m) from 5th station, at 2300 m. This is the view from the top, you can see the shade of the almost perfectly conic shape of Fujisan. One of Japan’s symbols, Mount Fuji is actually an active volcano, which most recently erupted in 1708.

couchsurfers-in-ise

We wanted to go to Ise as I fell in love with the bridge on www.japan-guide.com‘s homepage. We have later found out this is THE MECCA of Shinto shrines from our amazing couchsurfer, Yuki and his friends, Tsukuda and Hiromi. That night they’ve treated us GREAT food! Thank you, Yuki, once again 🙂

okayama

After Ise, we have made a stop in Okayama. First thing that I associate this place with is the great sushi we had. There is a conveyor belt going around with sushi, you pick whatever you like (or can order if not there already) and then you pay based on the number of the standard plates.

korakuen-garden-in-okayama

One of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, Kurakoen garden, is in Okayama. The islands, trees, immensity of green fields, tea and rice fields made it one of the must sees for me in Japan. Definitely worth it!

rice-field-okayama

Ok, last picture from Okayama, for now, I promise 😛 This is how rice fields look like, first time for me to see one from such a close by distance. Mind the deep water 😉

pumpkin-art-in-naoshima

Naoshima island breaths art. Full of museums (most of them designed by famous architect Ando Tadao), we’ve found one of the most intriguing of them at Benesse Art Site: Yayoi Kusama’s “Pumpkin”. We are absolutely not centered, not very good looking due to our lack of patience to stay in the queue 😛

itsukushima-shrine-in-miyajima

Miyajima Island, one of the most scenic spots in Japan, has long been regarded as an Island of Gods on the beautiful Seto Inland Sea. This historical island is home for Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage site, which has this famous Torii gate. As you can notice, there was a low tide that day, so perfect to walk all the way close to it 🙂 beautiful indeed!

peace-park-in-hiroshima

Our next stop was in Hiroshima, Peace Park and Peace Museum. On August 6th, 1945, USA dropped the first atomic bomb (called “Little Boy”) above Hiroshima, followed three days later, on August 9th, by a second bomb (“Fat Man”) dropped in Nagasaki. Hope this will never happen again!

view-of-onomichi

Onomichi was this small city I have chose as my favourite in Japan 🙂 this is the view from the Observatory. In the inn we were staying at overnight, we’ve found a Japanese person who has spent 22 years in US and returned to Japan especially for this place. It was lovely to exchange opinions with him. Absolutely recommended to check out Miharashi-Tei if you happen to pass by 😉 http://miharashi.onomichisaisei.com/en/

inari-shrine-kyoto

We’ve been to Nara and Osaka next, but seems my phone has few memories from there 😛 Here we are at Inari Shrine in Kyoto, which has almost 10000 (!) Torii gates, all of them donated either by companies of individuals. Took us like 1.5 hours to go all the way to the top of the mountain, but it was definitely worth it 😉

kinkaku-ji-temple-in-kyoto

Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto has 2 floors out of three covered in golden leaf. Crazy, but it exists! And it is worth visiting 😉

maiko-dancing-in-gion-kyoto

“Maiko” is the term used for an apprentice who wants to become a geisha. We’ve been to a show where they’ve presented tea ceremony, played traditional music, theatre, maiko dancing and also an interesting puppet show.

The show was organized by Gion Corner and at least when we went, it wasn’t that much crowded. We were there 30 minutes before, but it wasn’t really needed.

himeji-castle-in-himeji

Himeji Castle is the largest and most visited castle in Japan, being registered in 1993 as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country. Impressive about it is the fact that it is built out of wood.

higashi-honganji-in-kyoto

The last temple we visited was Higashi Honganji, which is one of the biggest wood structures in the world. The part we’ve liked the most was its large space inside which let people take a moment and meditate, something we have barely encountered in all the temples we have seen, thus greatly appreciated.

Must say also that we had to take our shoes off, not for the first time though. But that part of story will follow in the upcoming posts 😉

Japan was amazing. Respectful and helpful people. Cleanness all around. Order. Quality products. And lots of them. More about all these in the upcoming posts. Until then, have you been to Japan? If yes, what did you like best? If no, what in this list triggered your curiosity? Arigato gozaimashta for your comments ツ