The Japanese believe that you eat with your eyes first. Japanese meals are always carefully arranged on the plate and bright colours and garnish help to enhance their appearance. Condiments are served in delicate pots and ramekins whilst attractive chinaware and chopsticks help to frame the dish. The Japanese also believe in good, quality ingredients above all else. Most recipes are designed to maximise the natural flavours and textures of fresh produce and therefore the cuisine is notorious for its lack of spices and complex seasonings. Why would you spoil a nice piece of fatty tuna with too many sauces and oils after all?
I recently did a mini tour of Japan, travelling through Hokkaido, Osaka and Kyoto in early November. They say winter is the best time of year to enjoy Japanese food. Sashimi-grade yellow tail and tuna become fattier and tastier due to cooler water temperatures and comfort foods like tempura and juicy wagyu steak taste even more comforting when it is cold outside. My trip was everything a dedicated foodie could dream of and so much more. Here are a few of my foodie highlights from Japan.
Furano Wagyu Steak
Furano is the original steak of Hokkaido. The cattle are reared with meticulous care in the Furano Basin, which lies at the foot of Mount Tokachi in the Daisetsuzan National Park at Hokkaido’s center. Their diet consists of wheat, hay, rice straw, wheat straw, beet pulp, tofu dregs and beer, which ensures the cattle are healthy and plump. The tofu dregs, otherwise known as okara, are unique to the Furano cattle diet and contribute to the meats unique flavour.
I enjoyed my Furano steak at 牛の松坂 Ushino Matsuzaka Steakhouse. It was cooked in front of my eyes, teppanyaki-style and served medium rare. The meat was soft and tender, fatty and buttery. A concentration of unami and sweet-tasting juices filled my mouth with every bite. It is hard to go back to regular steak after this meaty masterpiece.
牛の松坂 Ushino Matsuzaka Steakhouse
Japan, 〒060-0063 北海道札幌市中央区Chūō-ku,
Minami 3 Jōnishi, 4 Chome, 南3条西4丁目 五番館ビル3階
Kaisen don is quite simply fresh seafood on top of rice. But a good bowl of kaisen don can really rock your world. I was dying to try this dish at the famous Nijo fish market market of Sapporo, which has a reputation for being the go-to place for fantastic seafood. The market itself is fairly small and there are a handful of seafood taverns dotted around. I ducked into the originally named Seafood Tavern Sakanaya on the opposite side of the street because the photographs on the menu looked too good to be true.
We ordered the signature kaisen don, which came with sashimi scallops, red snapper, tuna, sea urchin and salmon roe as well as cooked king prawn, and a second bowl of salmon roe and snow crab atop rice. I don’t think I ever have or ever will savour so many high-quality seafood delicacies at one sitting. But it didn’t come cheap. Both dishes along with green tea cost around $60-70.
Seafood Tavern Sakanaya no Daidokoro Sapporo Nijoichiba
Japan, 〒060-0053 Hokkaidō, Sapporo-shi,
Chūō-ku, Minami 3 Jōhigashi, １丁目 のれん横丁
How could I visit the Nijo fish market in Hokkaido without being tempted to try a fresh oyster? The fish market has all sorts of interesting seafood on display and there are plenty of opportunities to try the delicacies. Most of the stalls will happily fry you a fresh piece of fish or let you sample raw sashimi, oysters and clams. Oysters are common in Japan and the cold sea around Akkeshi Bay in the northernmost part of Hokkaido is rich in the phytoplankton that oysters feed on, making it possible to grow and harvest Pacific oysters all year-round. Oysters from the Akkeshi Bay are labeled Kakiemon brand oysters and are notable for their depth of flavor and plump, juicy flesh.
I paid around $3 for a single oyster that was the size of my hand, served on a neat folded piece of blue cardboard with fresh lemon and chopsticks. The oyster more than lived up to expectations. The flesh was creamy and plump, which is just the way I like it! Funny enough, Japanese people rarely eat raw oysters – they prefer them deep fried!
1 Chome Minami 3 Johigashi, Chuo Ward,
Sapporo, Hokkaido 060-0053, Japan
Most people think salmon is a Japanese staple and if you go to a sushi and sashimi restaurant outside of Japan you are bound to see countless salmon options on the menu from salmon and avocado or salmon and cream cheese sushi rolls, to salmon nigiri and salmon sashimi. But in Japan, the locals rarely eat salmon raw. It is considered a cheaper fish that is best suited to eating grilled for breakfast. Occasionally it will feature on a sashimi plate to provide colour contrast.
During my visit to Noboribetsu in the south of Hokkaido, I stayed at a traditional Japanese Inn. Each evening, they served a nine course feast in our room that began with Japanese plum wine and a sashimi plate. On the first night, I enjoyed a platter of sweet prawn, red snapper, tuna and yellow tail sashimi that were ornately arranged over shredded radish with a large fish head and miniature Oriental fan for display. The red snapper was a highlight as it had a slight crunch and was flavoursome without being oily. On the second night, I was served a tuna, shellfish and salmon sashimi plate. The tuna was cut in generous ovals and wrapped in seaweed. It was medium-fattiness and the texture was firm and crisp. The Japanese take their raw fish seriously so you don’t have to go to the most upmarket restaurant to enjoy fantastic fresh sashimi.
〒059-0551 Hokkaidō, Noboribetsu-shi
Soba are the healthiest noodles in Japan. Soba means buckwheat in Japanese and the best quality soba noodles contain at least 80% soba and 20% other wheat flours. Normally they are served in hot soup with additional ingredients such as tempura, tofu or mushroom. However they can also be eaten cold, in which the case the noodles are boiled and then plunged in icy, cold water and they come served with a salty dipping sauce.
When I was in Noboribetsu, I went to the Soba Noodle Shop on the main Shopping Street. It was one of the busiest restaurants in the area. I ordered a portion of the hot soba with soup and tempura prawns. Whilst I enjoyed my meal and the hospitable service, I was not that impressed by this type of noodle. They were a brownish colour and the texture was rough yet doughy. The tempura batter on my prawns quickly became soggy from the soup. Whilst I love Japanese cuisine, their noodles are not as good as Chinese noodles. I would describe the overall dish as forgettable.
Soba Noodle Shop, そば処 福庵
Japan, 〒059-0551 Hokkaido, Noboribetsu
Tempura is the Japanese version of deep frying. Ingredients are fried in a thin batter made from cold water, flour and egg and because it is Japanese, you don’t feel as guilty eating it compared to American fried food. Tendon is the most popular way to enjoy tempura, in which selected tempura are served on a rice bowl with dipping sauce and pickled ginger.
I ate the best tempura of my life at Tempura Soyogi in the small Hokkaido village of Otaru. This humble establishment seats no more than ten people at any given time and is run by a husband and wife team who are incredibly nimble at dishing up beautifully presented yet mouthwateringly delicious tempura. The seats all face the kitchen so you can speak with the owners whilst they are preparing your meal. I ordered the house specialty tendon, which consisted of fried crab claw, fish, prawns, pumpkin, lotus root, eggplant and endives. The batter was thin and crispy and the ingredients were plump and fresh. Amazing.
1-12-8 Ironai, Otaru
Hokkaido has an expansive countryside that is home to a massive dairy industry. 50% of milk and 90% of natural cheeses for all of Japan are produced in Hokkaido. Because of the abundance of open space, the cows are described as being more happy because they can breathe the fresh country air and roam without restriction, which impacts the taste of their milk. In fact, milk produced in Hokkaido is more expensive than milk produced in any other Japanese prefecture. I personally find Hokkaido dairy to be more delicate and sweet-tasting than European dairy. It is not as rich and has a clean relish.
Everywhere you go in Hokkaido you will see people licking soft serve ice-creams. The truth is, the locals do not eat so much ice cream and especially not in winter! All these ice-cream stalls are situated in the dense touristy areas. Nonetheless, I did indulge in two or three cones whilst I was there. There are different flavours to choose from including vanilla, coffee, strawberry, chocolate and melon. The ice cream is light with a subtle sweetness.
Whilst in Otaru, I found myself in an old bar named Nikka Rita. Apparently the place is really famous for stocking a wide selection of whiskies and is fondly named after the wife of the guy who pioneered whiskey production in Japan. Well I’m not really much of a whiskey fan but I was delighted to order a Hokkaido cheese plate whilst I was there. It was nice. Not great, but nice. Certainly not as good as French cheese. Hokkaido cheese has a fine, nutty-like taste and is incredibly light in both texture and flavour. The cheese plate we ordered consisted of one soft cheese and two hard cheeses but they all tasted pretty much the same. The cheese would not hold up to any bold wines due to the lack of richness in palette and creaminess of texture. I’m guessing it doesn’t taste too good melted either.
Hokkaido, Otaru, 色内1丁目1−17
Yakisoba is typical Japanese street food. Now, earlier I mentioned that Japanese noodles aren’t so great but yakisoba noodles are my favourite because they don’t taste bland. Yakisoba are yellow, wheat flour noodles that are grilled with oyster sauce and vegetables. Good yakisoba has a smokey taste and the noodles should be slightly charred. When I was in Noboribetsu I ate seafood yakisoba at Onsen Ichiban, which came with prawns as well as bonito flakes. It was very delicious and I detected the slightest hint of sesame oil as well. For real comfort food, you can try yakisoba stuffed into a sandwich at the nearby Cafe Upopo.
50 Noboribetsuonsencho, Noboribetsu
Hokkaido 059-0551, Japan
Unexpectedly, this was the best thing I ate in Japan. It could be because I have had a craving for bread lately after two years of living in Asia. Katsu Sando literally means cutlet sandwich in English, and it is breaded and deep-fried pork in white bread. I spent one hour hunting down the best Katsu Sando in Kyoto, since Kyoto is known as the bread capital of Japan and boasts the greatest number of bakeries per capita. One of the oldest bakeries is Sizuya, which opened its first store on Kawaramachi Street in 1948. Their signature Katsu Sando is packaged in a special plywood box and comes with a secret recipe sauce.
Sizuya Kyoto Station Shop
Japan, 〒600-8214 Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto
Shimogyo Ward, Higashishiokoji Takakuracho
８−３ 京都駅八条口 アスティロード内
The secret to eating at a sushi train restaurant in Japan is to never select the dishes from the conveyor belt. They are primarily for display purposes as the average Japanese diner is fussy about not consuming old food. Most restaurants will only allow the dishes to make a certain number of rounds on the conveyor belt before throwing them in the garbage. However, some cheeky places might leave the dishes on there for the Western tourists to eat.
If you are going to successfully dine at a sushi train in Japan, I recommend you just order the dishes you want to eat from the menu. I went to an incredible place in Kyoto called Chojiro. We ordered all the Japanese classics such as ikura maki and tuna and yellow fin nigiri. However I insisted on ordering one of the more touristy dishes as well, which was the prawn tempura sushi roll that came with Japanese mayonnaise.
Chojiro Shijo Kiyamachi
103-2 Hashimotocho, Shimogyo Ward
Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 600-8011, Japan
When you go to Osaka you have to try octopus balls. Osakajin (people from Osaka) are ridiculously proud of the fact that octopus balls originated here and the best place to try them is at the Honke Otako stall. The balls are made from a mixture of octopus, ginger, soy sauce, eggs and wheat flour and they are fried in circle-shaped moulds. The hot balls are then drizzled with takoyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce) and mayonnaise and served with a sprinkling of bonito flakes. They have a springy texture and the inside is sort of slimy yet delicious, which make these balls an indulgent and addictive snack!
1 Chome-5-10 Dotonbori, Chuo Ward
Osaka, Osaka Prefecture 542-0071, Japan
These are just a few of the famous foods of Japan. I’ll need to be very strict about my dieting now, so I can go back and indulge in more delicious Japanese foods next year!