Let me start by saying that when I went to Japan my expectation was that Japanese food would be like Wagamama (which is a gorgeous Japanese fusion restaurant) and sushi. It wasn’t. It was very different – sometimes bizarre, and always interesting!
Japanese restaurants display plastic food outside to indicate the dishes they are selling. I liked this idea as regardless of whether you speak the language you can see the portion sizes. Unfortunately you still don’t know what it is precisely! Our food vocabulary was limited and encompassed words like Chicken and Rice, but that will only get you so far!
If restaurants are catering for tourists they will include English translations, but we often tried to avoid these as we were on a strict budget. We tried to eat the places that locals do, which obviously means no English translations. Often we were guided by the price and the photo.
One day we tried okonomiyaki which is a specialty of Hiroshima, and I would definitely recommend it. It is essentially a large hot-plate down one side of the room and the chefs cook a kind of pancake, with eggs, bean sprouts, and prawns. The chefs cook it in front of you, and once it is cooked they pass it over to your side of the hot-plate, where you chomp it down!
We enjoyed several dinners which boasted not just one main dish but several side dishes to taste! Don’t ask what they were, but it was fun to taste all the different things. Mostly we got rice, meat in a sauce like teriakyi, and vegetables / pickles/ miso soup on the side.
We also tried Sushi. The first restaurant we went to said that overseas travelers needed to show their passports to staff. We weren’t happy to do that so we tried to find another sushi restaurant. This was surprisingly hard to do, which seemed pretty ironic, in Tokyo! We were given directions for one and eventually found it in an alleyway underneath and behind a building. Restaurants were often located in the smallest of alleyways and streets, in basements and so forth. In the UK if a restaurant isn’t on a main street it will go out of business, but here in the most surprising of places you’d find thriving restaurants.
Anyway, the sushi started off well – I played it safe with tuna and salmon-looking things, and it was lovely. Then I decided to become more adventurous, thinking “what’s the worst that can happen?”. Well, it turns out that the answer is having your mouth engulfed in what I can only describe as a particularly foul tasting glue. I tried to spit it out but that created a string of glue from my mouth to the napkin. I tried to pull it away with my hands but it just stuck to my fingers like a web that spiderman would be proud of. It wasn’t my favourite meal ever, and I still have no idea what it was!
One of our favourite discoveries in Japan was Yoshinoya – a fast food restaurant… except fast food in Japan means a bowl of rice with chicken, egg, or beef and onions. There was also free green tea on tap. Love it! It was within budget and delicious. We also saw a kind of fast-food special of “coffee and a curry” – a combination which I wouldn’t put together! We had the curry (without the coffee) in a busy fast-food restaurant underneath a railway bridge, and it was really lovely – like chicken katsu.
Breakfast in most hotels was fish and rice -related foods. I normally had a parcel of rice with tuna in the centre, wrapped in seaweed. With coffee, naturally!
There were also western options for when you need a bit of a variety, and we had some nice pizzas, some less nice pasta, and a spectacular ice cream sundae! One pizza had some odd cheesy sauce on it, and one pizza had a raw egg on it, giving it that Japanese twist! We decided the general verdict was “it’s almost as you expect, but slightly different and a bit odd … very nice, but I wouldn’t quite want it again”. McDonalds was also present and correct, so you can also get your fix of hydrogenated fats.
So overall, rather stupidly, I was a tad disappointed to learn that the so-called “Japanese” foods we get in the UK – like sushi (eg Californian rolls) and Wagamamas – are not truly Japanese. They are often a Western take on Japanese food. I absolutely loved the more familiar side of Japanese food, such as rice with chicken and veg with a delicious sauce. The more extreme side of Japanese food (such as the dried fish with eyes in Kagoshima, or the gluey sushi in Tokyo) was not to my taste!
Next blog: Transport in Japan (hello bullet train!)
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