G and I just returned from two weeks in Japan. We had both been wanting to go to Japan and it seemed do-able in two weeks. Personally, my curiosity and interest in the culture was peeked after reading Memoirs of a Geisha and in the food (more than it already was) after reading the Story of Sushi. So, we booked our tickets and started planning! Our trip began in Tokyo where we spent 6 nights, 5 days. From Tokyo we took a day trip to the sacred mountain town of Nikko. Then we spent 7 days, 7 nights in Kyoto. We used 5 days to explore Kyoto and took two day trips to Osaka and Kobe and to the ancient capital city of Nara. Finally, we spent one day and night in Hiroshima before heading back to the airport. It was a whirlwind trip but truly wonderful!
Needless to say, we ate and tried as many various things as we possibly could! The food and the food culture in Japan is so interesting. There is a strong food tradition with elaborate meals and customs which is juxtaposed to the modern city life of fast food eateries and chains. But, all are completely Japanese. I have made many notes on our meals and various foods which I will write up slowly but surely. However, I wanted to post right away my primary observations about Japanese food and eating.
1) The Japanese take pride in their food. Wherever we went the food was always high quality and well prepared. We had meals ranging the gamut from fancy sit down to quick open 24 hour eateries and convenience store prepared foods; regardless of venue the food was very good. The food was delicious even at the local fast food chains (i.e. Mos Burger, Soup Stock Tokyo). Actually, our worst meal was at McDonald’s (we had to try it!). We haven’t been in years here in the US so we can’t compare.
2) Food is art in Japan. The presentation of food in Japan is beautiful! Traditional meals are served in bento boxes with little dishes inside and all the colors are well balanced typically with dark lacquer or wood to contrast the lighter colors of the food. Sometimes the boxes are tiered adding to the joy and whimsy of the meal! Not only is the meal visually attractive but is also balanced in flavor and texture. None of the flavors in a meal are too pronounced, nothing is salty or spicy, but all the flavors are balanced. Meals often include pickles for sourness and something sweet to end. We also found that most meals have something crispy and something smooth; something hot (often miso soup) and something served cold. All meals are works of art; balancing all aspects!
3) Wonderful food can be found everywhere in Japan. Department stores in Japan dedicate the entire basement floor (sometimes two floors) to food and put American grocery stores to shame. These food floors have grocery items including produce and meats, prepared food which can be taken home, and sometimes little mini-restaurants right there in the store. They also have entire sections of gourmet products including Parisian chocolates, British teas, Japanese specialties, etc. Unlike American airports where you tend to try to avoid the food, Japanese train stations are food havens! Ekiben (bento specific to railway stations) are wonderful and can be found on any platform. The station buildings also have excellent restaurants. In Kyoto we had an incredible traditional Kyoto tofu meal in the huge station complex. Kyoto station also has an entire row of restaurants specializing in ramen (which we managed to try only one!) and in Tokyo station we enjoyed delicious keitien sushi (conveyer belt).
4) You have not eaten in Japan unless you have had rice. All meals and snacks in Japan include rice. At our ryokan (traditional inn) in Kyoto we had traditional Japanese breakfast and they served us eggs, fish, pickles and rice. A typical (and wonderful) snack is onigiri (rice balls) which are flavored with fish or green onion and sesame seeds and wrapped in nori (seaweed). You can find these anywhere, convenience stores, train stations, specialty shops and you can see people snacking on them everywhere. Even noodle meals were served with a bowl of rice. In most places the noodles would be considered sufficient carbohydrates for the meal but in Japan huge steaming bowls of ramen and soba were served with rice. In fact, Mos Burger offers a burger bun made out pressed rice (check it out on the menu!)
5) The Japanese love sweets. Whether it is Japanese sweets, gourmet chocolates, donuts, or pastries there is a sweet shop of some type on every corner in Japan. The department stores have huge spaces dedicated to gourmet chocolates by all of the big names, Michel Cluizel, Pierre Hermé, La Maison du Chocolat, and there are people lined up at every counter. They have adopted the German layer cake, Baumkuchen, as their own. There are fancy specialty shops with cuts of cake revealing all of the rings beautifully packaged with lines out the door as well as smaller mom and pop shops selling these cakes. There are plenty of coffee houses which are filled with people enjoying a slice of cake, often matcha (green tea) flavored; we saw green tea cheesecake, green tea chiffon cake, and green tea roll cakes. They also cherish more traditional Japanese sweets with tea and sweet shops where you can enjoy a cup of matcha or hojicha (roasted green tea) with wagashi (Japanese confection). Kyoto in particular seemed to have traditional sweet shops everywhere with beautiful displays. I believe that sweets are often presented as a gift when visiting someone’s home which explains all of the beautiful packaging.