Category Archives: Japan

Glutton Abroad: Dyspeptic in Japan

Everyone always says Japan is a country full of food obsessives, and it feels true. In places like the US — full of work obsessives — and Thailand (where it is chic to pretend to be a work obsessive), it would be considered a complete waste of time to line up for two hours for the perfect soft cream (“fresh!”) cheesecake, or wait outside in the cold for a space at your favorite beef stew restaurant behind Kabuki-za (oh, OK, it’s MY favorite beef stew restaurant). In Japan, this is seen as completely normal behavior. It takes a special blend of desire and commitment to practice this kind of stick-to-itiveness for something many others would dismiss as frivolous.

In Japan, food is not frivolous, and its inevitable discovery is considered a special time in everyone’s life. This is probably why there is such a thing as the “food manga”, comic books which document a person’s first blossoming of culinary interest (a “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” for foodies). This usually takes the form of throwing over one’s job and/or parentally-approved educational plans in favor of a backbreaking, precarious life in the food business. In Thailand, this is typically called “having a nervous breakdown”.  In Japan, it is subverting your own ego to create more beauty in the world.

No great stretch, then, to learn that there are also “wine mangas”: comics which depict the deflowering of the protagonist’s innocence re wine. My friend Ritsuko says they usually fall back on the same narrative as the food manga, except that there are lots of porny shots of sexy wine labels and hot ‘n bothered talk of “terroir”. There is no burgeoning romance, no family drama to distract the reader from the main objective — the love of wine, ideally something French and expensive:


Here, a lady is discovering her first Burgundy. Whether she is shocked because of the wine’s deliciousness or the price tag, I dunno, my Japanese isn’t that good.

And here, dude is learning how a special set of characteristics manifests itself into the soil to create the best wine evah (aka “terroir”, aka “Only French people can make good wine”.)


I kid, because I love. I love Japan, and I am a Francophile, so this is a perfect storm of awesomeness for me. I also think France produces the best wine. Haha, who am I kidding. I will guzzle wine from anywhere.

I will also guzzle sake from anywhere, including Awaji Island. Now, Awaji is a special place for Japanese food lovers, because its close proximity to Kobe=wonderful Japanese beef, while its location as the biggest island in the Inland Sea on Japan’s eastern side=great seafood, particularly lobster, abalone and sea urchin. This pretty much would have equalled heaven on earth for me, were I not afflicted with %*&^#$ing GERD (medico-speak for really bad, constant heartburn). I am old.

I wasn’t so afflicted that I couldn’t eat anything, however. Awaji also specializes in red snapper, which I am told is the same thing as sea bream. Really? I see both on restaurant menus all the time, and have noticed how much Japanese people like sea bream. In any case, Awaji Island is Ground Zero for sea bream/red snapper. It’s no surprise that they serve it as sashimi as a first course. It does come as a surprise, however, when your dinner starts moving and gasping on the table as you are taking squares of flesh off its skeleton and dipping them in soy sauce. That is a surprise. If you are old enough to remember Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and the “Alice in Wonderland”-themed video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, where they start cutting pieces of Alice up and serving them as cake, you will understand what eating this sashimi was like.

This fish is still moving

This fish is still moving

If you stick around, you will be rewarded with cooked versions of this fish, grilled until white and juicy and served up alongside fragrant Japanese limes and cooked sakae, or Japanese sea snails (another specialty of the area).

Snapper and sea snails

Snapper and sea snails

As lovely as Awaji was, one could not stay there forever. There was more food to be had in Nagano, which is one of my favorite cities in Japan, no uso. Set almost smack in the middle of Honshu, Nagano acts like the country’s fruit basket — gargantuan apples, grapes, apricots, peaches, nectarines — but it also abounds in good sake, flour dumplings, grilled, miso-flecked rice cakes, and wild game. The region’s premier culinary specialty, however, might be this:

Nagano's #1 specialty, soba

Nagano’s #1 specialty, soba

Like Thais and their soup noodles, every person in this town will tell you a different place that makes the “best soba”, and they are totally prepared to fight to the death (OK, for the next five minutes) about it. In fact, when asked to go to one soba shop, our taxi driver in Nagano refused, taking us to a different one that he said was better. In the end, it really doesn’t matter where you go because (much like many of Bangkok’s more famous guay thiew shops), you’d have to work hard to find a really, really bad one in Nagano. Most are pretty good, unless you are the world’s most discerning gourmet of soba noodles ever (95% of Japanese people).

Another, far less lauded Nagano specialty is its “apple beef”, made from cows fed on, yes, the region’s famously sweet, juicy, and large apples. Like their more famous Kobe brethren, these cows are massaged regularly so that the fat is distributed throughout the flesh, like this:

Apple beef ready for the sukiyaki pan at Sukitei

Apple beef ready for the sukiyaki pan at Sukitei in Nagano

I’ve come to believe that Japanese-style beef may be that country’s most famous “fusion” food. Popularized during the Meiji Restoration when Japan was coming to grips with Western influence, beef (and “steak”) here have since taken on qualities that are uniquely Japanese. While American beef is about the beef itself — fibers, sinews, blood and all — the flavor characteristics prized by the Japanese are tenderness, fattiness, umami. It’s meat that’s been manipulated from day one, made to be cooked to medium or even medium-well to activate the fat buried within, and then (if served as a steak), grilled before its heady baptism with soy sauce and a dollop of wasabi to cut the greasiness. I’ll be honest: this meat is too much for me, especially in my old lady GERD state. This kind of meat is meant for lucky people with working digestive systems. I’ll be in the corner gnawing on a couple of medium-rare pieces of Porterhouse.



Filed under Asia, beef, food, Japan, restaurant

Glutton Abroad: Soup’s on

Maguro chazuke at Chikuyotei

Maguro chazuke at Chikuyotei in Tokyo

Fetishizing food is encouraged in Japan. Much like how having an opinion on the best chicken rice or egg noodle in Bangkok lends you social currency among a certain set in Bangkok, the genuine appreciation of a certain dish or ingredient — in the right season, of course — is considered cultured, even necessary. Knowing about this stuff seems to be part of what being Japanese is all about.

So it’s not surprising that I always enjoy my trips to Japan … even though I almost always end up committing some horrible faux pas on some poor unsuspecting Japanese person (people). Once, as a guest in a holiday house with its own onsen bath, I was offered the opportunity to bathe first. Now, I’m not a total idiot: I knew I would have to sit on a teeny tiny stool and clean myself out in the cold before actually going into the bath, which was very hot and the size of a baby pool. But maybe pulling the plug after I got out wasn’t such a great idea. They had to fill it all back up again with new water after I left the room. To this day, they have never mentioned the appalling thing I did (and I’ve never mentioned it either. Call it a game of embarrassment chicken). That level of politeness also seems to form a part of being Japanese.

One of my favorite dishes to search out when I go to Tokyo is ochazuke, which is rice served with whatever topping you feel like (raw fish, pickles, or fish eggs are common) and broth on the side. You yourself decide how soup-y (or mushy) you want your porridge (I don’t like too much broth). Rice porridge doesn’t sound like it would set many hearts a-flutter, and not many people order it outside of Japan, but to me there is no better lunch (if you are wondering, Aoi in Bangkok serves versions topped with pickled plum, salmon, baby sardines or spicy fish roe). I could eat it every day: with a different topping for each day of the week, of course.

It’s not a hard dish to get right, but it’s a difficult dish to really excel at. Which is why I think the taichazuke (sea bream porridge) at Chikuyotei (5-8-3 Ginza, across the street from Mitsukoshi and next to Nissan) is so exceptional. The morsels of fish are freshly sliced and then left to “marinate” for a bit on a tangy sesame sauce spiked liberally with sesame seeds and strips of nori seaweed. There is a big bowl of rice and pickles, and the all-important kettle of broth. It’s simple but deceptively disarming. I blame the sesame sauce.

A pity I’ve been eating it wrong all these years. Apparently, you are supposed to “savor” the delicate taste of the fish in the sauce with the dry rice before drowning all those poor rice grains in fish broth and your grody drool drops and then pouring that mishmash down your open face hole. Oh well. The long-suffering ladies who serve here must deal with this kind of stuff all the time (not really. I never see any gaijin there).  They also serve a raw tuna version that is less good, but more substantial, for those days when you really want to pig out without looking like you are pigging out (or you can just suck it up and order oomori, or a large-sized portion). Really, these triumphs in the art of rice porridge cookery are not bad for a restaurant that supposedly specializes in unagi (eel). Yay, porridge!

A great surprise, then, that the culinary wasteland known as Narita Airport also boasts its own ochazuke restaurant, in the “mall” adjacent to the check-out counters — a place I never go to normally because I am usually so late getting to the airport. Wasting your entire day at Narita might be worth it, if only for the 15 minutes that it takes to find Dashi Chazuke En, order your porridge at the counter (they also have their own raw tuna and sea bream versions, as well as fish eggs, pickles, and a cold version topped with thinly sliced pickled cucumber), and slurp that whole shebang down your throat before your waitress even knows what’s up. Sure, it’s the “poor man’s” chazuke, the Joan Collins to Chikuyotei’s Liz Taylor, but who on earth is choosy at the airport?

Dashi Chazuke En's raw tuna porridge

Dashi Chazuke En’s raw tuna porridge


Filed under Asia, food, Japan, porridge

Glutton Abroad: In the Japanese hinterlands

To celebrate the season: grilled matsutake and tuna sushi at Garyu in Tokyo

To celebrate the season: grilled matsutake and tuna sushi at Garyu in Tokyo

The sign said it would take 3.5 kilometers to reach the lip of the crater overlooking Tamagawa Onsen, a hot spring resort in northern Honshu that is believed to host the most acidic waters in all of Japan. This — paired with the presence of a radioactive stone thought to aid health and even combat cancer — has drawn the health-afflicted from all over the country, to lie near the fissures that hiss a thick, hot sulphuric steam.

Now, I’m not one to say what does or doesn’t work, healthwise or any-which-way-wise, really. But I am hesitant to lie on steaming hot rock smelling egg salad farts all day if there’s not a great reward guaranteed at the end of it — something like David Chang hand-feeding me Korean tacos maybe, or the Steelers winning a single game.  Neither of those things looked likely. We were going to go for a walk.

A rock-strewn path winding through the “onsen” — a collection of steaming vents around which people were lying or sitting — turned into several stories’ worth of stairs, and then a muddy incline riddled with rocks and tree roots. Treachery lurked everywhere, in every slippery stone, slick of mud, thorny branch. Whenever one stretch was finished, another would peer out from around the corner. I consoled myself with thoughts of recent meals: mashed mountain yam topped with a wasabi-flecked seaweed; peanut tofu daubed with more wasabi; a virtual downpour of awamori, an Okinawan liquor brewed from Thai rice and kept in urn-like earthenware vessels for decades. In Okinawa, despite the occasional monsoon-like shower, the sky was always blue, people were always smiling, and taco stands, inexpensive fresh fruit and ice cream cones (with seasoned salt!) were everywhere to be found.

Peanut tofu at Shine of Ryukyu in Okinawa

Peanut tofu at Shine of Ryukyu in Okinawa

But Akita was something different. Proud of its rice and udon noodles, and abundance of apples, and mountainous terrain: Akita held little to fall in love with for a Glutton like me. And now stranded on a thickly wooded hillside — did that sign say I’ve only walked 1.8 kilometers?! — I was running out of steam.

Singing along to what appeared to be a Discman, an old lady — maybe 70, although it is hard to tell here in Japan — emerged on the trail, laughing when she saw my husband and me. A quickfire barrage of questions in Japanese ensued, to which we could only smile and nod. That made her love us  more. Declaring us wonderful, she took our picture, and then when we made motions like we would, against our better judgment, continue on the path, she followed, chirping happily all the way.

Now I feel that, despite much evidence to the contrary, I am actually a pretty fit person. I work out with a trainer 2-3 days a week, do a day of TRX training a week, and run an hour on the treadmill on my off days. Just this past April, I walked 200 km on the Camino de Santiago. But this septuagenarian lady wearing what looked like orthopedic shoes smoked me on the trail. Huffing and red, with sweat stinging my eyes, I could only watch as her trim figure clambered up the rocks and jutting tree trunks ahead of me. She turned around to offer encouragement. “All this walking will make you slim!” she said, effectively sealing my humiliation.

Powered by the knowledge that turning around and walking back would be just as hard as forging ahead, the hope that our walk was nearly done, and our lady friend’s occasional interjections of “GO GO GO DE GOZAIMASU”, we finally reached a ridge where we could see the white barren crater that marked the top of our hill, and the onsen stretching below. Our friend said we had 300 meters to go, which is, in the normal world, nothing, a mere walk to the grocery store.

But this 300 meters yielded an exercise in sheer WTF-ery: a steep ascent carpeted with cut bamboo stalks that ensured a slip with nearly every step. As if to mock us, ropes hung from some sections that were particularly steep — up to 80 degrees. After a few minutes, that was it: I was okay with curling up and dying, and with the thought of my body eventually washing away on the rotting bamboo into the waiting valley below. We had been walking for more than two hours. Above us, our friend scrambled from point to point like a mountain goat, exclaiming things in Japanese to either us or to herself. “You can do it!” my husband said, trying to boost me, but since it was not in Japanese or from the mouth of a friendly old lady, I wanted to punch him in the face.

Yet it was easier to pull oneself up, each step by agonizing step, than to turn around to face Lord knows what. Better to deal with it later. Eventually, in spite of myself, we made it to the top. The Japanese lady, of course, was nowhere to be found.



Filed under Asia, food, Japan