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Eating In Japan — Every Meal Is An Adventure (Part 1)

Posted on:  April 24th, 2010  by  Ramona |  No Comments

Let me start by saying that I love Japanese food, but the stuff we're fed in the U.S. (even at places owned by immigrant restaurateurs) is so Americanized, it doesn't even compare to what you find in the land of the rising sun! While many of the basic concepts are similar (sushi, noodle bowls, tempura) — the resulting dish is is very different. Fortunately, that's what makes eating in another country fun — knowing just enough to get yourself into trouble!

Grocery-Shopping Tokyo-Style

Matt have never been “go-to-a-sit-down-restaurant-for-every-meal” types when we travel — we like to eat more the way the natives do (not to mention the fact that I'm genetically incapable of dropping 10,000+ yen per person three times a day just to stay fed!) So wherever we land, we always start out by perusing the markets. However, shopping in Tokyo is a bit different from other big cities — if you want the good stuff, head to the department store!

You might have an independent supermarket, specialty import shop, or mom-and-pop stores in your neighborhood — but the most convenient way for Tokyoites to get their daily sustenance is a stop-off at Seibu, Takashimaya, Tokyu, or Isetan after work. Nearly every major department store has devoted its basement floor to consumables — these “food halls” sell both cooked deli-style fare and ingredients that you prepare yourself. They are also cleverly situated to allow direct access from the nearest major Japan Rail station, making it easy for commuters to pick up a quick meal or a few supplies for dinner on their way home.

Beyond convenience, the variety of edibles on display is simply amazing! I've never seen so many different fresh foodstuffs in one place before (it puts even Whole Foods and the farmer's markets back home to shame.) Fruits and vegetables, rice and noodles, every kind of seafood from octopus to eel, meats and sweets (sometimes combined together), soups, condiments, snacks, and drinks — a taster's paradise! Matt and I spent one entire evening wandering around the food floor at Takashimaya Times Square, alternately shopping for dinner and and accepting whatever samples were offered to us. Most times, I had no idea what I was putting in my mouth, but I was willing to give anything a try (as long as I didn't see any eyeballs staring back up at me!) I tasted pickled pieces of lotus root and something that looked like a carrot with a glandular problem. I tried sweet buns and savory buns and buns with very little flavor at all. I sipped a small cup of blueberry vinegar and soy drink that was so good I could have drunk it straight from the bottle. I munched on sashimi-grade tuna and calamari and fresh Asian pear until I had no room left for my meal!

Matt and I also had one or two occasions to check out a “regular” grocery store in Tokyo (once at Ikspiari in Tokyo Disney, and another in the Ginza district) — although we didn't do much shopping, thanks to the lack of kitchen facilities in our hotel room. But I had fun trying to figure out what different items were (as very few labels bore any English translation.) You can get whole bottled octopus, squid ink, pickled duck eggs,  asparagus-water, and dried bonito flakes (which are actually really good on top of a Japanese omelet filled with cabbage and ginger!) right off the shelf — should you require any of the above for your recipes. But be careful when you buy milk — I had a huge craving about the third day in, and almost picked up a carton of mother's breast milk instead of the regular bovine kind (easier for the body to digest, and an alternative for the lactose intolerant?)

Personally, I much preferred the open-air stalls that you find in areas like Ueno, where you can get bulk quantities of vegetables, teas, spices, and other items to season your dishes at half the price you find in the store. Plus, these outdoor markets have an agreeably festive air to them — I would have loaded up on sticky rice, nori, dried bonito, and matcha if I wouldn't have been setting myself up for a customs nightmare, bringing a bunch of foreign food back into the country! However, search though I might, I never was able to locate any of the crazy “square” fruit (watermelons, oranges, etc.) that are the fad in Japan right now. People supposedly pay as much as $200 apiece for a round fruit that has been grown inside of a mold so it comes out with corners. Whatever — I think that Americans who go to oxygen bars for a shot of something that comes free with the air are just as moronic!

The Fish Market

While the seafood anywhere in Tokyo is guaranteed to be fresh, you have to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market if you want it really fresh — I'm talking straight out of the water, off the boat, off the fish, and onto your plate. If you're willing to get up at 5 AM, you can hit the wholesale warehouse area to watch restaurateurs and shop owners haggle for the day's catch — a level of insanity that even a New York stockbroker would appreciate (it smells a lot like Wall Street, too!) Traditionally, everyone then moves to the food stalls for sushi. There's nothing like a piece of raw fish for breakfast — once you try it, you'll never go back to cereal again! Wink Seriously though, I'm going to be spoiled for sushi in the states after eating tuna and salmon and eel that simply melted in my mouth like a piece of candy. The reluctant omnivore in me says nom-nom!

While the main fish market is certainly immense and filled with activity, I found the “jogai shijo” or “outer market” much more interesting. This is the retail side of the operation, with dozens of small stalls selling all kinds of seafood, cooking implements, and items with which to embellish your meal. You can buy your food live or dried (dehydrated squid, anchovies, whitebait, scallops, fiddler crabs, and baby octopus are popular as both ingredients and “pop-in-your-mouth-whole” snack foods.) You can get it intact or cut into pieces (most disturbing was the booth selling chopped up pieces of fish head — nothing but disembodied eyeballs!) Everything is either really big (300-pound fish and crabs as big as my as a my mattress) or really teeny (like the 1/2-inch long ice fish that are eaten alive and supposedly wiggle as they go down your throat — although I wouldn't know  personally.) And many bins contain items you can't begin to identify without a little help. Matt's and my favorite game was “what do you think that is?” I got the urchin and sea cucumber right, but couldn't tell what the pan of gooshy brain-looking things were (and I probably didn't want to know — my web-research revealed they were “shirako,” a sack that contains a fish's seminal fluid, and one of the best reasons I can think of to be vegetarian when traveling abroad!)

Like the food halls, folks were offering samples — but I was less likely to be adventurous if I didn't know what it was (a reasonable stance, I think, considering!) And even when I came across some lovely-looking raw tuna with wasabi, I was still disinclined to join in because the crowd was using communal toothpicks for tasting — that's right, try your sample then put the toothpick back for the next person to use (no thanks!) Matt and I were more than willing to munch on the fruits and nuts  and sliced veggies (we bought some particularly tasty roasted soybeans from one enterprising young salesman who spoke very good English) — but beyond that, our trek through the market was more observation than participation.

Japanese Convenience Foods

The lack of a microwave in our hotel room limited us to items that required very little preparation — fortunately, convenience foods in Tokyo are plentiful, tasty, and relatively nutritious. My favorite fast breakfast was either a soda can filled with sweet adzuki bean soup (stored in a hot-case, so you simply pop the top and drink it down), or what I call a “rice McMuffin” — a ready-made rice ball wrapped in seaweed with scrambled egg on top. I never could get Matt to try the hot bar (that boy has no sense of adventure!) I mean, look at what he missed out on — squid tentacles, dumplings, lotus root, and fish sausages (as well as a few unidentifiable noodly-looking objects that might have been udon, or possibly some kind of sea creature) floating in a warm pan of broth. Wimp!

Groceries, quick marts, and department stores also offer a variety of fresh “bento” box meals that downright yummers and very affordable (and they'll even nuke your meal in the microwave for you at the shop, so you can eat it hot!) These usually come with good sticky rice that even the least experienced anglo can actually pick up with chopsticks (Uncle Ben has his head up his ass, thinking that separate grains are the way to go) — as well as pickled vegetables and some variety of protein. Of course, the labels are in Japanese, so you're sort of guessing at the contents, but I never once ran across a tentacle or eyeball in one of these meals. Everything Matt and I tried was highly enjoyable, but still unusual to our western palettes — it's funny how the seasonings and ingredients always taste just a bit different overseas!

Matt and I also became enamored with the noodle bowl concept. I'm not sure how ramen got relegated to the rank of “cheap-college-food” in America, but it's an art form in Japan. Good fresh noodles, served with vegetables, meat or tofu are a filling and satisfying meal option any time of the day. I became a breakfast-time noodle freak in Tokyo (add a soft-boiled egg to the mix and it's a much better way to start your day than cereal or a pastry!) Of course, the best ramen comes from street vendors and food stalls — but even dried noodles are far superior to the bland pasta they sell in the U.S. Grocery-store noodle bowls come with hearty buckwheat noodles, packs of dehydrated veggies and tofu, seasonings that are more spice than MSG (Americans, take note — there are other flavors out there besides “salty!”), and tasty liquid sauces that allow you to create your own combination of flavors. A little hot water from our teapot and we've got gourmet meal for less than a dollar!

The thing I found so interesting about the convenience stores in Japan is how relatively healthy they were. Even foreign chains like AM/PM and 7-Eleven were light on true “junk” food (sodas, chips, candy bars, and other snacks laden with fat, salt, and preservatives.) Of course, you could find these things if you looked hard enough, but it wasn't your only option when in need of  a quick and inexpensive meal — and you didn't see many locals chowing down on this kind of crap. The refrigerated foods were much fresher and more appetizing-looking than those toasted-skin-graft sandwiches, shriveled hot dogs, and week-old burritos that they sell at most American gas station stores. And “prepackaged” didn't necessarily mean overloaded with salt and sugar  — even the sweet stuff wasn't that sweet (at least to my bloated American tastebuds,) you were unlikely to drip anything down your front due to an overabundance of sauces, and it was possible to actually find plain green tea in a can (tea and water without anything artificial.) Some might call it bland, but I found it refreshing to actually taste the food, rather than all the additives.

The Vending Machine Craze

As you wander the streets of Tokyo, you are likely to pass at several dozen (or several hundred) vending machines in a single day. You'll find them lined up in parking lots and along sidewalks, on train platforms and in restrooms, just about anywhere that there's a bit of free space — literally, three or four banks of machines on each block! I've even seen lonely vending machines sitting out on the side of a rural road between Tokyo and Mt. Fuji — no other commerce or civilization in sight, their lights glowing, waiting for a customer (who ever would have thought to install a power plug there in the first place?)

You may have heard stories about being able to buy cuts of beef or fresh eggs (or used schoolgirl panties) by dropping a few yen into a slot — but that's more out in the smaller villages, where a vending machine might replace your local grocery store (and porn shop!) Urban dispensers are much more mundane (at least according to these standards), but they're certainly more interesting than the typical candy and soda machines found in the U.S.

Matt and I bought a variety of goodies from these modern-day marvels — sometimes, because we were legitimately hungry, and other times, just to try out something we had never seen before. We had sea salt popsicles, green tea sorbet, and adzuki bean ice cream (fortunately, we missed out on the machines carry squid- or anchoy-flavored sweets — you have to hit the grocery store for that.) I tried something called a “vegestick” (a lightweight cookie made from carrots and sweet potatoes and other healthful orange foods — 650% of my beta carotine for the day!) with a refreshingly cold bottle of local milk from a machine while in Hakone. And we saw a number of “hot food” dispensers that would provide you with a ready-to-eat can of soup, tray of sushi, octopus balls, or french fries (just didn't sound appealing at the time, so we skipped these.)

However, most vending machines within the city limits are for beverages (folks in Tokyo are clearly afraid of becoming dehydrated while out and about!) I saw a few that sold Coke or Pepsi or Shasta — but most are filled with Japanese brand drinks. The machines seem to be run mostly by Asahi, Kirin, Suntory, and Sapporo — and you guessed it, they dispense cold beer and sake. Surprisingly, I never saw any abuses — underage drinking or the obnoxious public inebriation that would accompany these machines were they allowed in the U.S. It's good to know that the Japanese seem to have a handle on responsible vending machine use! What's funny is the same machine that helps you get trashed will also keep you hydrated (with a bottled water), boost your immune system (with a vitamin-packed green spinach juice), then assist you in sobering up (via a tasty little shot of caffeinated coffee or tea.) The companies that we think of as producers of adult beverages are just as well-known for their non-alcoholic drinks in Japan. “So what?” you quip. Well, that would be like Anheuser-Busch selling a line of soft drinks, and Coke distilling liquor — it just doesn't happen in this country. I'm not sure if there is an FDA regulation forbidding bottlers from dabbling in both arenas, but there's clearly something keeping the trend from reaching our shores.

I fell in love with the canned coffee, which is dispensed hot (the whole container comes out of the machine warmed) wherever you see a sign saying あついです! My first concern when leaving the hotel each morning was to get my shot of Wonda! I was also amused by the fact that Tommy Lee Jones has apparently been hired as a spokesperson for Boss coffee, which is owned by Suntory. His picture on the vending machines is even more dour and severe than usual, and it made me think of “Lost In Translation.” I wonder if Bill Murray's character is actually based on Tommy Lee Jones's experiences — or if Suntory liked Sofia Coppola's movie so much, they thought it would be a good idea to get an aging American actor for their commercials. I kept picturing him being paid a mint to fly to Japan and do Suntory ads, quickly losing what little humor he had as the photo session and bizarre stage direction drug on. For a relaxing time, make it Suntory time!

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Ramona Creel is an award-winning 15-year veteran organizer and member of the National Association Of Professional Organizers. As well as having birthed “The A-To-Z Of Getting Organized,” Ramona is also the author of “The Professional Organizer’s Bible: A Slightly Irreverent And Completely Unorthodox Guide For Turning Clutter Into A Career”—and the creator of more than 200 “quick-start” business tools and templates for use by productivity professionals. She writes seven different blogs, has worked with hundreds of clients, and has delivered scores of presentations on getting organized. Ramona resides on the roads of America as a full-time RVer—living and working in a 29-foot Airstream with The Husbert and two fur-babies. Learn more at GettingOrganizedAToZ.com and RamonaCreel.com.

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