Before going to Japan we were told that the cost of living there was very high. We were worried that eating out every day would really take its toll on our budget. As it turned out, eating out was cheaper than the UK, except for very western things such as Starbucks coffee, or McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken... oh yes I have a funny story about KFC... remind me at the end and I'll tell you.
Help with food is vital when you do not understand the menu or the ingredients. Although to be fair every restaurant has samples of the meals displayed in pictures or plastic models in the front windows... this helps enormously. Oh and the real food looked pretty much identical to the plastic models too!
Our first weekend there we visited a temple flea market and like markets all over the world there were alot of food stalls. For the first time in my life I found that I had real trouble recognising both the food and the ingredients... I joked that it was like being on another planet! At the market we tried Mochi. Mochi is sticky rice that has been pounded into a paste. Here is some that has been put on a stick, then grilled and then covered in a brown sweetish sauce.
It was unusual but really quite tasty and quite filling. We also tried some Taiyaki which is an egg batter cooked with sweet red bean paste in the middle. Sometimes you can get them with custard or chocolate in the middle. It was ok... but not as sweet as I had expected.
It rained quite a bit while we were there and on one visit to a Buddhist temple we were beginning to feel quite wet and cold so we bought some Amazake from a street vendor.
This is a hot sweet Sake drink which has a little well-cooked rice in it and is flavoured with ginger. It was the Japanese equivalent of Gluh Wein (or warm spiced red wine). It was delicious and very warming.
The picture below shows Oden bubbling away. Basically you have a soup stock - chicken usually with noodles cooked in it. They then put various things into the stock, pork pieces, chicken pieces, prawns or shrimp, boiled eggs and sticky rice balls (Mochi). These are left bubbling away for some time. You come along and choose how many rice balls or boiled eggs or pieces of meat you want and they fill up the container with the stock and noodles, give you a set of chopsticks and away you go. You can buy this just about everywhere. None of the food we tried was spicy though. They don't seem to go in for spicy tastes... which has sort of earned them the reputation of being a bit bland. We thought so at first but you get used to it very quickly.
This is Okonomiyake and Modanyaki.
It is cooked on a special hot plate in the centre of your table. It is a pancake batter into which is mixed a sauce and a whole lot of shredded cabbage, some cooked noodles and whichever meat or fish you have chosen. I had chicken, BillyChristina had beef and BillySteve had prawns.
They sprinkle onto the top some thinly shaved dried fish or squid which are paper thin and move about in the heat... this has been known to put some people off but honestly I couldn't even taste the fish in it once it was cooked and if you wait long enough the movement stops!
The Modanyaki had different noodles but otherwise was the same. They cook it for a while and then turn it over just like a fat pancake. Finally when it is almost cooked they add a dollop of mayonnaise and a big squirt of Okonomiyake sauce (well it was brown and very tasty but I couldn't tell you what was in it). They turn the hotplate off and leave you to help yourself. It was delicious!
As you can tell we mostly ate Japanese food but we did have some Western style meals. We had a McDonalds which was pretty predictable except for the shrimp burger. We also found that the Japanese are very fond of Italian style food... there were a lot of pizza restaurants except they are not big fans of tomatoes so the pizza's were mostly mayonnaise instead! We passed on that one! We did have an Indian meal while we were there and also a Chinese one.
Japanese food is very seasonal, certain things are only available during certain seasons and the seasons change abruptly. During spring certain foods become a favourite in the restaurants and then as soon as they declare it summer, these foods will disappear and you won't be able to buy them anywhere until next spring. One of these seasonal delights is the Sakura Steamer.
Sakura means cherry blossom, it is only available during spring and you get it from Starbucks of all places. It was steamed milk which was flavoured with cherry blossom and something slightly salty. It was a curious taste, very pleasant but hard to define... sort of vaguely cherry or perfumed hot milk.
Finally, we had to try one of Christina's most favourite snacks - she informed me that she had eaten two dozen of these in one go once. They are called Takoyaki.
It is the same pancake batter type thing made in a ball shape with octopus in a sauce in the middle. I was worried that the octopus would be rubbery but it didn't taste of very much, the sauce made it a bit squidgy which wasn't the most pleasant texture, so I only ate one.
Overall I only had one meal that I actually didn't like. I had chosen a noodle soup with five different things in it... there was a large prawn in tempura batter, a piece of pork in breadcrumbs, a boiled egg, noodles and a lump of seaweed. Now I have had seaweed before... it was like a green vegetable thing and I liked it, but this was more like the kind of stuff that you see wrapped around an anchor chain... dark green and like hair. I decided not to be a scaredy cat and just eat some. I wish I hadn't! It tasted like something you scrape off the bottom of a boat and put me off the rest of my meal. The one thing we did not get around to eating was Sushi. And the best thing of all, we rarely paid more than £10 a head for a large main course. Mostly we didn't have room for starters or desert. The Japanese are not big on sweet things so we only had a pudding once or twice. Usually a 'Mister Donut' filled with cream or a Crepe filled with fruit and cream... very yum!
Oh yes, the KFC story. Well the local Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant had a statue of Colonel Saunders outside. When the Hanshin Tigers (Osaka's baseball team) won the championship the fans celebrated by throwing the statue into the river. From then on the baseball team has had an appalling losing streak... they recently dragged the river and brought the statue up... the team is still losing but they are hoping that their fortunes will now change. There has even been talk of Colonel Sanders being a God and having cursed them for throwing him in the river... In the Shinto religion it is very possible that the statue was taken on by a Kami or Spirit and therefore it is possible that the disrespect shown to the statue resulted in a curse... We only laughed because it was Colonel Saunders!
Since BillyChristina has been in Japan her taste buds are certainly changing. I was pleased that she was brave enough to try new foods and to experience as much as possible but I was surprised when she told me that in the Korean part of town they were selling bbq pork entrails on sticks and that they smelled so good she was tempted to buy some but didn't have time on that day... but is determined to go back and give them a go! On a final note about food... in spite of eating all sorts of new food and buying from street vendors no one had an upset tummy... slight headache from lack of caffeine... but once we figured out what it was BillyChristina brought us some English T bags to make tea in our room! ~Tomorrow I will tell you about the trains... we spent a lot of time on the trains!