GreenAroundTheGlobe - Part 17

Cuisine of Japan

by Keith on June 15, 2010 · 6 comments

Okonomiyaki. It is a fun word to say, go ahead and try it, o-ko-no-mi-yaki.  It just rolls off the lips and tongue.  If saying it is fun, eating it, be it Hiroshima or Osaka style, is a texture and taste experience not to be missed when in Japan. Okonomiyaki was just the beginning of our 15 days tasting and eating our way around Japan.

Our journey was filled with culinary exploration and rewards at every turn.  Using dollars as a metric for what we valued, when we look back at our budget for Japan it is clear that we voted for the amazing food.  We exceeded our average daily budget for food of $45 by 80%, while still being slightly under budget for the country as a whole.  We both have zero regrets about a single dollar we spent on all of the delicious food.   Below are some of our favorites.  If we missed your favorite, please leave it in the comments.

The Great Okonomiyaki Debate

Hiroshima or Osaka style?  This is the question that needs answering when consuming okonomiyaki.  Both styles start with the same basic ingredients: cabbage, rice pancake batter, and egg.  And while Hiroshima style also includes noodles, it is really the assembly process that distinguishes the two. Hiroshima style okonomiyake has a much more complex and regimented approach to its layered construction.  At the Full Focus center in Hiroshima, which has an entire floor dedicated to okonomiyaki restaurants, we sat at a bar and watched the process unfold before our eyes.  The chefs layer the ingredients one at a time to carefully build a crunchy and cheesy delicious creation.

Our experience in Osaka was much different with the ingredients arriving mixed together in a bowl.  The chef then poured the mixture out onto the hot griddle to let it cook while periodically reiterating through hand gestures that it was not yet ready to eat.  I guess he expected us to dig in with our chopsticks as soon as he turned his back.   And while I appreciate the simplicity of Osaka style, and its delicious combination of sweet sauce and mayonnaise, I remain a loyal Hiroshima style fan.  There are after all no short cuts to create the great tastes and textures that come from the effort that goes into creating a layered Hiroshima okonomiyaki.

Donuts

While not the first thing to come to mind in a discussion of Japanese cuisine, we found that despite a couple of other dessert failures (green tea ice cream was gross), the donuts were consistent winners.  From the cinnamon donuts we bought in a Kyoto subway station to the delicious whipped cream and brown sugar topped delight below that we discovered by joining a long line of teenagers outside a stand at the Nishiki Food Market, the donuts did not disappoint. The second lesson we learned here is that a long line of Japanese teenagers outside any food stand often leads to delicious discoveries!

Attention to the Details

The Japanese take presentation of their food to a whole new level.   For anyone that has read Linchpin by Seth Godin, the Japanese bring their “art” to work everyday in many wonderful ways.  If you have not read the book I highly recommend it, but the result of this effort towards every small detail is that you will constantly be delighted.   The perfect example of this is the omelet I ordered for breakfast one morning from a small hole-in-the-wall place in Tokyo.  The owner/chef used the ketchup to wish me a great day, and as a result was sure to bring a smile to my face and more importantly bring us back in the next morning.

We found this same amazing effort all over Japan, including the McDonald’s in the Hiroshima train station.  Imagine this experience at a McDonald’s at home: our order of hash browns is delayed, so we take a seat at a table. Minutes later the cashier brings our hash browns to the table and apologizes for the delay.  He then wishes us a great morning and safe travels.  What a change from what we can expect when we return to the States!  At the 30th Street Station McDonald’s in Philadelphia I am glad when I get what I ordered the first time around, much less a polite good morning and a wish for safe travels.

The Best Beef

No discussion of Japanese cuisine would be complete without mention of one of Japan’s most famous and expensive exports, Kobe beef.  With our JR train passes in hand, we spent our last afternoon in Japan by taking a quick side trip to Kobe.  Only a 25-minute train ride from Osaka, I had to try genuine Kobe beef in Kobe.  Despite the price tag of $55 per person for lunch, it was well worth it.  The beef had extensive fine marbling that made for a tender and flavorful steak when prepared by our own personal chef.  In addition to the beef we also had seasonal vegetables that were grilled in the rendered fat of the steak (yum!), seafood bisque, salad, coffee, green tea and grapefruit sorbet for dessert.   It was an excellent end to our Japanese eating adventures.

Also be sure to check out our favorite pictures from Japan here.

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Best Values in Japan

by Keith on June 10, 2010 · 2 comments

Japan is not cheap.  Our first example of this was finding out that $55 per night only gets you a 48sq foot room, with a shared bathroom, in Tokyo.  If that sounds small, that’s because it is.  The room was just big enough for twin bunk beds, so tight in fact that the door was not able to fully open.  But cost is absolutely no excuse for skipping this amazing country.  Our two weeks in the land of the rising sun was a fantastic experience full of friendly people, gastronomic delights and elegant architecture.  While there are many ways to blow a modest flashpackers’ budget, in Japan, most of them on the amazing Japanese cuisine, there are also many hidden values if you know where to look.  Since we found a couple we thought we would share them.  If you have other examples be sure to add them into the comments below.

1) Nara YMCA Goodwill Guides: Private 5 hour guided tours of Nara

Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan and like other first capitals (such as Philadelphia, the first capital of the US) Nara is rich in history and sights.  And being only a short 30-minute train ride from Kyoto it is an easy day trip.  All of the major sights are within walking distance from the JR train station.   The day before we were going to head to Nara, I looked in our Lonely Planet and found an outdated entry for Nara Goodwill Guides.  After a quick Google search to find their latest website I sent a quick email on the off chance we could still arrange for a guide the next day.  An almost immediate response from Keiko let me know that it was possible to still arrange for a guide. After a couple of logistic questions we had sorted out that we would meet our guide at the information desk in the JR station the next day at 10:15.   As we arrived at the information desk we spotted Nishi, a rather petite woman asking all the white tourists if they were “Mr. Keith Sutter.”  I approached Nishi and introduced myself and she quickly shuffled Amy and I out of the train station for a full 5 hour tour around her beautiful and historic city.

The best part of our time with Nishi was the opportunity to get to know a friendly Japanese woman who it turns out is one of the top square dances in the world.  She is ranked in the top 15 in Japan and is at a level of only the top 100 square dancers in the US.  Quite an amazing lady, even if she was only 4 foot 10 inches tall!

2) Sushi-go-round: Conveyor belt sushi, where you sit at a bar and different sushi comes around to you on a conveyor belt.

  • Cost = price is dependant on the plate color.  The cashier counts your empty plates when you are done to determine your bill.  Our bills were $18-35 for two of us.

This is not a top value for the reason you are likely thinking.  Yes, the fish is fresh and just eating at one of these at the end of the day is worth it to watch as locals stop in on their way home from work for a quick bite.  The reason I think that this type of sushi restaurant is a great value in Japan is the unlimited ginger and green tea. I hate it when you go out for sushi in the States and get two or three anemic little pieces of pickled ginger with a large order.  And if you ask for a little extra you may even be charged for it.  This is a travesty as far as I am concerned.  I love pickled ginger with sushi, and want a piece or two on each piece of sashimi or roll.   That is why I was ecstatic to discover a jar on the bar at the sushi-go-round with a little pair of tongs that was filled with pickled ginger and, get this, you can TAKE AS MUCH AS YOU LIKE!  It is amazing and delicious.

Additionally, but not quite as exciting, is the unlimited green tea.  If you have never had Japanese green tea, you may be surprised when you open the other jar on the bar and discover that it is filled with green powder that is tea, not wasabi, which was my first guess.  Place a small scoop into your cup and then fill with hot water from the spigot right at your seat for delicious hot tea, again as much as you can drink.  Sometimes it is the little things that I appreciate.

3) Calligraphy Books: An accordion-style book used to collect unique red stamps and hand drawn calligraphy at most major Japanese temples and shrines.

  • Cost = 1,000-1,500¥ ($11.15-16.72) for a book & 300¥ ($3.34) per stamp

We learned about this extremely cool Japanese souvenir from a traveler we meet in China.  He had studied for a year in Japan and told us that we should look for these books at the first temple we went to in Tokyo.  Our first stop was at the Meiji Shrine in western Tokyo and near the main shrine building was a small building that was selling charms.  We walked up and found a book we liked and got our first stamp and calligraphy page there.  By the end of our 2 weeks in Japan we had nearly filled up the book with only 4 empty pages remaining.  Those empty pages mean that we will now have to return to Japan someday to finish the job of filling the book.  That is a job I look forward to.

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Great Wall in Photos

by Keith on June 8, 2010 · 3 comments

When you are in Beijing there are a couple of mandatory stops.  Climbing the Great Wall is one of them.  We decided that we would visit the Mutainyu section of the Great Wall, which is less touristy as it is a little further from Beijing.    After a short ride up in a chair lift we were off to climb the nearly 2K of restored Wall.  Below are a couple of our favorite shots from the beautiful day we had.

An unrestored section

Twisting up steep hills

The alpine slide you ride to get down from the Wall

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