If you look back through my blog, you will see I was in Japan this summer. For some reason, before I went I guess I thought many restaurants outside of the tourist quarters would serve portions an American might find small, and there would always be rice, and while the food would be tasty, it would often have a salty-soy sameness and regimentation within categories—that all ramen would be similar, for instance.
“You’re gonna eat a lot of noodles,” my friend’s daughter warned.
I would have been fine with that, but none of it was true, even on a frugal budget. I never felt hungry after a meal, and the food was varied, delicious, and always served with artistry. Here are some things I particularly enjoyed, and where I found them.
Older standard hotels often served buffets, at breakfast and dinner, with many Western and Japanese dishes. I could choose eggs for breakfast, with Singapore noodles on the side, and an experiment in fish or sausage. Like many other places, they had heavy-duty coffee machines that would grind the beans for each new drink, whether it was espresso, latte, or drip. They were self-service, so I enjoyed many cups every morning.
More traditional inns, often built around a hot spring, encouraged guests to wear yukata and slippers to multi-course meals they called “feasts.” The table was already set with a variety of dishes, including a lidded pot with cold broth, raw pork, tomatoes, leeks, mushrooms, and udon noodles. A gel votive was lit under it, and the nabemono hot pot cooked until the votive ran out of fuel.
Additional dishes might include a platter of cooked crab; a pot of tofu pudding; miso soup; two or three small slices of Wagyu beef to cook in the hot pot or on a yakiniku brazier with summer vegetables; sashimi prawn or tuna or whelk; a cooked snail with a toothpick dagger in its back; panko-fried fish and vegetables with dipping sauces; roe cake; sauced eel; a single scallop in a bowl with garnish; pickled plum; black beans in sauce; green beans with glass noodles; tempura prawn, eggplant, pumpkin, even a single delicate leaf; a whole small fish on a skewer, caught in the shallow river outside the window and grilled in salt; asparagus black with pepper; pickled vegetables; white rice; and pickled mushrooms, firm and sweet, with garlic, on a perfect marijuana leaf.
Desserts at the feast were in a buffet and might include a profiterole; clear jelly with pears; mango and pudding; crème caramel; and large cubes of gelatin rolled in graham powder, with a floret of whipped cream.
Breakfast feasts might include a hamburger patty in sweet gravy; a handmade frankfurter; cubes of omelet; bacon; fresh fruit with yogurt; slices of French bread with dabs of homemade jam; tiny seaweed wraps filled with salty-sweet paste, tied in natural twine as fine as a hair; a tofu pudding sprinkled with rough salt; a piece of fish, orange and meaty on the bone; vegetables heavily and lightly pickled; more miso; and a hard-boiled egg.
Train stations always had excellent chain or independent bakeries, where I bought popovers with cheese, pork belly, and chives, and apple tarts to be eaten later on the trail. Some had croque monsieurs, scones, savory or sweet buns, cookies, muffins, fruit tarts by the slice, hand pies, or karē pan, a donut filled with beef curry, rolled in panko, and deep-fried.
Western-style bakeries were not common on the rest of the economy, but it was pleasant to find one and have a sweet pastry with almond cream and black sesame seeds, or a savory one with sharp cheese and a perfectly-cooked egg slice on top, with a little box of milk. Outside a temple I found a shop that specialized in freshly-made rice cakes that were firm, crispy, and warm, with flavorings such as raw sugar and plum.
We might as well admit that Japanese 7-Elevens are light-years ahead. There is no hope of catching them.
The self-serve coffee machines are there, along with perfect egg-salad sandwiches (Anthony Bourdain loved them) and a dozen other kinds of delicious pre-packaged sandwiches; hot, fresh yakitori skewers; and rice or noodle bowls. An entire line of tasty rolls are wrapped in cellophane like honey buns, but with excellent texture and flavors such as condensed milk; cheese and onion; tuna, onion, and corn; corn and mayonnaise; or melon. Odd but tasty banana-shaped pastries, with banana cream inside, have the word “banana” baked into them, to eliminate any doubt. A similar pastry, taiyaki, looks like a sharply-defined fish and is also filled with pastry cream. The freezers hold Banana Gelato Frappe bars and knockoff Dove bars; and the walkaround coolers have individual trifles or delicate egg custards with caramel or black-currant sauce.
For the discriminating but pinched traveler, individual cans of cold Sapporo, Kirin, and Asahi beer, or a half-pint of Suntory at less than $3, makes for a nice hostel happy-hour.
The non-7-Elevens are all just as good. Most mornings in small towns I got yogurt smoothies from them in little boxes that read: “The expensive luxury is not necessary, but I think that the everyday small luxury enriches your heart.”
Even less corporate were the little bodegas, like the one by the world’s smallest train station in a tiny town in the mountains, where I bought spicy rice crackers and a bottle of cold water and enjoyed them standing in the rain.
I was surprised that soba noodles, made of buckwheat, edged out rice almost everywhere. It is served cold with a soy dipping sauce and spring onions, or hot in a broth.
Ramen of course was an entire culture, with noodles made in the shop, to order. Most had an assari (light) broth that was either loaded up with other ingredients or served simply (actually, more like poetically) with sliced pork, scallions, and sliced radish. In Osaka we had kotteri (rich) style, a thick-broth that was almost a stew, with hot sauce or pepperoncini optional.
Okonomiyaki has regional differences. In Hiroshima, it was wheat-flour crepes served flat and filled with noodles, cabbage, lard, pork, bean sprouts, bonito flakes, seaweed flakes, scrambled egg, tempura crumbs, and a kind of hoisin sauce (and sometimes mayonnaise). It was made on a grill in front of customers, who could choose which noodle and ingredients they wanted.
Lunch … diners … grills?
Places with names such as Excellent Tendon have plastic food in their windows to show what you get and its prices. Tendon means tempura over rice, however, and it is uniformly delicious. Between these and the ramen shops, it is possible to spend $15 per day on food, even in Tokyo.
Big stores in cities like Hiroshima were like old-school Marshall Field’s and often had three or four restaurants on one floor. We had sushi with fresh wasabi (parboiled grunt, 460 yen) that passed on conveyers. A canister of gunpowder tea and a hot water spigot were at the table.
Even bigger stores had Harrods-like food halls in their basements, with everything from olives and baguettes to Parma ham and the famous square watermelons that cost a hundred bucks.
In the biggest mall I have ever seen, in Osaka, the food court had actual, non-chain restaurants that were affordable and good. Shops sold specialties, such as 14 kinds of yakitori, chicken or beef or meatballs on skewers, sauced differently, stacked by the hundreds, at $1.50 to 3.00 each; or 30 kinds of colorful frozen-fruit bars with large circles of lemon or chunks of sour plum or lychee visible in them. Other flavors included piña colada or tomato-basil.
My last meal in Japan was nigiri, raw “fin” and fatty tuna and medium tuna and lean tuna on sushi rice, daringly ordered in Narita Airport an hour before boarding. It was made in front of me and was better than any I have had in the States.