Japanese cuisine

A foodie’s Journey from Kansai to Kanto

By the time we arrived at the Kansai international Airport it was 7 pm. After being on one of those budget flights with no meals, we were definitely ready for some authentic Japanese food. This is what the trip is all about: to journey from Kansai to Kanto as a foodie, exploring the culture and art of Japanese cuisine. Japanese food is more than sushi trains and teriyaki chicken. It is about the freshness of ingredients, emphasis on natural flavors, presented in a minimalistic and refreshing approach. It is the search for this true Japanese flavors that brought us to this Land of the Rising Sun to satisfy the curiosity of our taste buds.

9 pm, Namba station. Right in downtown Osaka, the area is filled with people enjoying nightlife. Within 10 minutes walkfrom Namba station is the Dotonbori district – the food destination of Japan. Famous for its giant neon Glico Man, the moving mechanical crab of KaniDoraku, and young people with the most extreme hairstyles, Dotonburi is associated with Kuidaori by the locals, literally “eat till you drop”. It is lined with a large number of restaurants and food stalls and is the most fitting place to start our food journey.

To get our appetites running, we shared a paper plate of half a dozen takoyaki balls from the popular Otakoya. These pingpong sized balls are big on flavor: a small piece of chewy octopus wrapped in a ball of soft gravy-like dough, barbequed to perfection and served with special takoyaki source and bonito flakes. It is as fresh as it gets as we watched them make it while we waited, and we ate it up quickly by the stall with a toothpick as you are supposed to. Just watch out for the hot center as it might burn if you are not careful.

For the main course, we had a large selection of restaurants at our disposal, ranging from the Raman stalls dotted along the street sending our way the smell of freshly brewed Tokontsu pork bone soup, to Fugu specialty restaurants serving the dangerous pufferfish, which although display the ultimate sophistication and elegance of Japanese cuisine, is not for the faint-hearted as it is said to cause about 1 casualty per year. Not wanting to be too extreme, we chose KaniDoraku – the restaurant made famous by the giant mechanical grab on its billboard – for our first contact with Japanese traditional fine dining. KaniDoraku serves a seasonal eleven course banquet, specializing in crab. The mouthwatering spring banquet which we had includedking crab sashimi, charcoal grilled crab, crab roe nigiri and crab chawanmushi (steamed egg a tea cup). Finishing the course with a green tea ice-cream, this first dinner in Japan could easily be the best we ever had.

The next morning, we bought a train bento from the railway station and hopped on the Shinkansen. Kyoto, the capital of history and culture in Japan, is only 45 minutes away. Kyoto is home to the most elegant vegetarian cuisine. From the dawn of Japanese history, Kyoto has a strong link with Buddhism. Because of this and the distance of Kyoto from the sea, the region developed the most exquisite soy-based cuisine that can turn meat-eaters into vegans. To experience this soya-bean magic, we headed to Tosuiro, a tofu specialty restaurant serving a 7 course banquet, all based on soya beans. We were genuinely surprised by the number of ways that tofu can be eaten: boiled in water and dipped in soysauce; minced and fried into a crunchy tofuball; grilled and topped with sweet cheese and an unimaginable tofu-based ice cream.This fantastic meal has definitely changed our view on tofu.

Kyoto is also famous for its mochi: traditional rice cake served in a tea ceremony. It was invented to counter the slight bitterness of green tea, but nowadays it can be bought anywhere from supermarkets to souvenir stands at train stations. The best mochi, however, is always hand-made, and we were lucky enough to find a traditional mochi shop, just across from the bus stop at the famous Golden Pavillion temple, where all kinds of mochi with fillings such as red bean, plum or even chocolate. While the traditional red bean filling is always the best, our favorite is sakura (cherry blossom), a unique filling which gives a taste of fresh Japanese spring.

After a few days exploring Kyoto, we ventured out Kansai into Chubu. Literally translated to “the Central Region”, Chubu lays between Kansai and Kanto, with the landscape dominated by mountain ranges and farmlands. Chubu cuisine is bold and hearty, reflecting its unique geographical location and the agricultural nature of the region. One of the most famous produce of Chubu is beef, and for this we travelled 6 hours north of Kyoto to Takayama of the Hida region, where the beef is considered on par with the world famous Kobe beef. Looking for a quick lunch, we ventured into a local sushi shop, where we found a local delicacy: Hidabeef nigiri. It is a dish with two pieces of nigirisushi topped not with raw fish, but with raw top quality Hidabeef slices, served with a sprinkle of ginger, spring onion and soy sauce. While it might sound barbaric, the soft and mellow taste of the juicy beef melts in the mouth, and it’s balanced by the ginger and spring onion to give a refreshing taste that left us wanting for more.

After lunch, we took a 1 hour bus ride to Shirokawago village, home to the world heritage Japanese farmhouses. It is also the perfect place to search for an authentic Japanese rural farm dinner at one of the many minjukus (Farm stays) in the village. We stayed at Koemon, one of the few farmhouses in the village which is foreigner friendly. It was an amazing place to be – a grass roof house, a large medieval style room and comfy futons. But the best is the dining hall. Sitting around a large fire hearth, we were served a traditional farm dinner – a multiple course dinner featuring char-grilled fish, miso soup, pickles, chawanmushi, rice, and best of all, Hoba miso Hida beef, where thick slices of Hida beef is cooked with locally produced miso on a piece of dry Hobaleaf with an open fire. This specialty is the best the region can offer, where the fragrance of the leaf gives a unique flavor to the miso and brings out the juiciness of the well- seasoned beef. Everyone was warmed up by such a hearty meal, and afterwards we just sat around in front of the roaring fire, and spent the night chatting with the locals, enjoying this rural way of life.

After a refreshing night at the Farmhouse, it is time to make the last leg of our journey, travelling across Kanto to the mighty Tokyo. Only with a day to spare in Tokyo, there wasn’t time to enjoy all that Tokyo can offer, from street food stalls to fusion restaurants to 5 star hotel cuisines. Rather, we headed straight to the Tsukiji Market, the largest fish market in the world. Our destination is Daiwa sushi, the best sushi in Tokyo. We got there just before 9 a.m., in time totaste the freshest fish when the sushi shop opens at 10 a.m. The sushi stall is very small, and can only fit 5 people. So there was a long waiting queue even on a rainy day like this. Once we were inside, we were escorted to our seats in front of the sushi bar where the chef greeted us with a confident smile. We ordered a deluxe sushi set, which has a bit of everything. The place, while small, is as authentic as it gets, and you know that you are in a top-notch sushi bar when the chef personally tells you not to add any soy sauce or wasabi as the taste has already been finely adjusted. And he didn’t disappoint – the fish was all very fresh, and each piece was well-balanced by the seasoning in the rice. The sea urchin so finely seasoned that unlike most other sushi places, no overwhelming fishy taste remains. It is no doubt worthy of its “best of Tokyo” title, and it was definitely a sushi meal that we will never forget, nor will we ever find any better anywhere outside of Japan.

As we fly out of Tokyo that evening, we regretted the fact that we didn’t have enough time to savor all the other delicacies that is on offer in Japan. It is truly a foodie paradise for anyone who enjoys food and takes interest in the culture and art of every single meal. Japan, we will definitely be back!

Date posted: 23rd January, 2015

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