A post about an epic adventure in Japan, featuring some food, and…
Where to begin a blog about food in Japan but with the fish in all its forms: sushi; sashimi; whole fish to be deboned; little fish we fried ourselves over a mini fire; cured; jellied; caked; rice crackered; and the strangest of all – a fish mesh carpet.
We started off with a particularly pretty presentation of buri (yellowtail) at a great izakaya (sort of pub-eatery) called Mifune (where Jam-san is local celebrity でしょう). Buri / yellowtail is Japanese amberjack and unfortunately the first in a long line of endangered species we sampled (BAD Japan). Japan then does redeem itself by being incredibly seasonal with its food; the buri season runs through the winter months so we came across it a lot:
Fish jelly – a lot nicer than it sounds:
This was on the second night in Tokyo in an izakaya called Yamato (aka Jen-chan’s place, as I like it so much!), and presented Billy Joel with his first opportunity to say “I’ll have the weirdest thing on the menu please!” After a long conference between The Local and the wonderful Yamato woman, I think we got the censored version in the form of these little fish to fry ourselves:
Fish carpet also in Yamato. Don’t believe me? Look for the little glittery eyes!:
We went to another izakaya in Nozawa Onsen, in which Jam-san got to demonstrate his most authoritative “SUMIMASEN”, spoken in a very specific way to an empty room, resulting in cries of “Hai!” from the distant kitchen. I say specific and it really is true – others in the group said and shouted it in a number of ways to an increasingly awkward response of total silence!
We only had sushi once on our whole trip – it’s more of a special occasion thing in Japan. We went to the same restaurant as I went to last year as well, which is expensive, but at the right (or should I say left) end of an exponentially increasing price curve. It was legendary – tray after tray of perfect sushi, with a few surprises thrown in [see Weird Shit, below]. This was their sashimi – so pretty:
The Director was a useful noodle exponent on this trip in that he was essentially up for noodles at any time of the day. As a result we got on the case early with a Tokyo ramen stop, complete with individual booths, a choose-your-variety machine, and personal sliding hatches which mysteriously shot up and down, launching our bowls of steamy ramen towards us. Experience now tells us that ramen + beer is an almost indigestible amount of liquid to consume in one go (except while snowboarding where it actually turns out to be a useful counteraction to the perpetual dehydration).
Another noodle highlight was in Nozawa Onsen, at Daimon Soba, a family-run restaurant that has been churning out quality hand-made soba noodles for generations. Nozawa Onsen threw us a few challenges, such as ALL restaurants simultaneously swinging their Closed signs round at 20:30 each evening. It required a bit of research to find this place but was well worth it and a real privilege to eat in such a traditional family-run place.
We recreated a great noodle experience from my last trip as well, by going to Ramen World in Hokkaido Airport (amazing). Everyone else had a delicious pork-and-egg topped bowl of miso ramen. Never one to follow the crowd, I accidentally ordered one with “hormones” in [see Weird Shit, below] – could have been worse but it was a little challenging!
The Takoyaki (Octopus Balls)
So, Takoyaki. My nemesis. Except this time you come to the party late as a midnight feast, cooked on a special hotplate by the awesome Foot Bar lady, and I’ve already been sake-bombed up before you arrive.
It’s all good, Takoyaki – your blobby octopus tentacles were a much more manageable size this time, and I am converted. In order to make amends for my previous resistance, we have lined up some Takoyaki cheek action for your pleasure. Jam-san has been practicing for 18 months and you can see the time he has invested has really paid off:
The Hotch Patch
We think they meant hot pot, but I’m going with hotch patch, as a much more appropriate descriptive term for this genre of Japanese food. We had three different types of hotch patch on this trip – the simple shabu shabu;
My personal favourite – the higher maintenance but delicious sukiyaki;
And the weird-but-tasty hotch patch itself from Ebisu Te in Niseko;
The Mountain Food
It was a trip of two halves when it came to ski/board breakfasts. In Nozawa Onsen, we came down each morning to a full-on spread of interesting and tasty delights, complete with a huge bucket of rice, and always some sort of alternate reality egg product. It was awesome. Set us up for the day.
In Niseko on the other hand, breakfast was an intriguing assembly of whatever we had acquired the night before from the late night convenience store. Judging from some of the contributions, I’m not sure we could claim these shopping trips were always conducted soberly. Lowlights were some chocolate eggs (but unfortunately it wasn’t chocolate) and some bread covered in saucy noodles – v weird.
There’s nothing quite as bad as boarding in the Alps after a grim panini & chips and a pint (this would be a first world problem!). Conversely I’m not sure there is anything better in the world than boarding after a bowl of warming spicy ramen and half a jug of sake. Certainly I don’t feel my performance was affected by the alcohol – a quick dunk in some chest-high powder and a near miss with a tree later (not so lucky, o Japanese Speaker) and back in the game. The pick of the Niseko lunches was a storming katsu curry (Jen-chan: “I will finish this curry”; The Money: “but Jen-chan, it’s bigger than your head”) with some local sake at the hideaway Boyo-so; and Nozawa Onsen was a brilliant conveyor belt of ramen, udon, rice bowls and curries, with our favourite being Buna on the Slopes.
One of the most interesting meals of the trip was at Kawahiro, our lodge in Nozawa Onsen. It had its ups (karaage – fried chicken, even the tofu) and downs (an unfeasibly large soggy daikon wheel with tuna / some sort of fruit paste on it). Most interesting of all was the horse sashimi [see Weird Shit, below]. Ethical considerations aside, I have to admit it was tender and tasty and really bloody enjoyable.
Other Highlights and Classics
For our very first meal of the trip The Local took us to a brilliant tempura place, complete with kneeling seating and some local beer to settle us in. For us gaijin, the average time spent kneeling without shifting / moving / hopping up and down with pins and needles was around 30 seconds. All good fun and delicious food.
I’ve talked about Jen-chan’s place before, but it really is the most fantastic and amazing izakaya – welcoming, fun, friendly and with wonderful food. It would have been a challenge without The Local because the menu is just parchment scrolls of handwritten Japanese script. Somehow I think they would have sorted us out either way though.
And what an awesome invention these are from an izakaya in Niseko – chicken wing gyoza:
We had a few good yakitori experiences, and one of them was a recommendation in Niseko where thrillingly I got to use the Japanese phrase “onaji mono”, which means ALL the same again! What I like about Japan, and what makes it very different to Europe, is that even if someone speaks perfect English, if you speak to them in Japanese then that’s what you get your response in. It’s so much less depressing than say France, where no matter how reasonable your French is, you unerringly get a withering look and an English response for your trouble.
These yakitori came with a choice of salt or sauce so we mixed it all up and it was all delicious, washed down with a healthy volume of Sapporo beer.
My favourite yakitori experience of all time (so far!) was on the last night, when we went to a local place with a sunken bar-style seating arrangement which was a little precarious to get into, what with some serious cooking going on inches in front of us.
Our last night was magically never-ending and we settled into a local Spanish izakaya with lots of beer (sorry Alex!) and a selection of food that started out vaguely Spanish (kinda Mediterranean stew) and ended up more or less Japanese (kinda udon noodles). We shared tequila shots and choruses of Kanpai! with a bar full of Japanese salarymen and it was a perfect way to end the trip.
The Weird Shit
This section is dedicated to Billy Joel, whose unorthodox but entertaining “weirdest thing on the menu” tactic led to some really memorable food experiences. Notable ones were raw horse; deep-fried stingray complete with many (surely unintended) wing bones; hormones; chicken bum; space candy (miso paste with cracky fried bits of noodle – awesome); chicken hearts and gizzards; and fish sperm.
Appendix – Sake Rules
1. Sake is around the same strength as wine but if you stand up and you can’t feel your knees, ease off. Except if you have just got up from kneeling in front of a table / hot plate in which case not being able to feel your knees is normal, and will shortly be followed by blinding pain.
2. There are aniseedy ones and cloudy ones – these are nice, but impossible to identify from the names and descriptions. In fact, they even move them around so once you’ve worked out which one the aniseedy one is, next time it will be different.
3. Sake sometimes comes in a glass within a cedarwood box. In order to demonstrate generosity, the sake will often be poured up to and over the brim, over-spilling into the box. You should first lower your mouth to the glass to drink without spillage. Then when there’s space in the glass, you may pour the sake back into the glass from the box. Sometimes, it can deceptively appear as though there is more space in the glass than sake in the box when in fact it is the other way round. This mysterious illusion can lead to sake all over the table.
4. Order everything on the menu to see which one you like. This tactic is best employed in a group. It is impossible to keep track of who likes which ones, in which case, “onaji mono” is an appropriate thing to say.
5. Sometimes, you will need to choose your own sake glass from a tray with vessels of all shapes and sizes. Remember the training from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – largest or shiniest is not usually correct.
6. Sake in large quantities can lead to a condition called “The Tokyo Effect”. This serious affliction can result in periods of memory loss, time distortion, money extraction, and geographical disorientation, and particularly in males can result in a secondary group of symptoms collectively called “Cloakroom Syndrome”.