When a Japanese person asks about your vacation, the question “Where did you go?” is inevitably followed up by, “What did you eat?” It is even more likely that upon learning the destination, the next question will be “Did you try [_____]?” as the Japanese seem to acquire early in childhood the knowledge of the specific specialties of each region in their country.
In Japan, food is an important calculation to consider in the equation of whether you had a good time on vacation or not. But how many different kinds of Japanese food are there, really? Actually quite a lot. After visiting many places and trying the local dishes, I have come to place more value on eating while traveling… or even traveling to eat.
From west to east, here is a tour of some popular destinations and the must-eat cuisine offered there:
Head to Hiroshima to partake of a dish you’ve surely never seen the likes of before. First described to me as “Japanese pizza”, and later – though not more accurately- as “kind of an omelet,” okonomiyaki is a unique, eclectic mixture of most of the food groups, fried on a hot iron surface. Ingredients usually include a flour-based batter, shredded cabbage, pork, egg, and either soba or udon noodles. These are piled high in layers and get packed down as they are grilled. When it’s ready to be served, chop it into wedges with the accompanying spatulas and slather it with tangy Worchestershire-like sauce. (Then avoid using the spatula to shovel it voraciously into your mouth.)
Octopus balls. Sound appetizing? Bits of soft, boiled tentacles, green onions and pickled ginger are dunked into batter and fried. The balls are quickly and expertly turned in the specialized takoyaki pan to administer an even, golden-brown glow. They are then topped with special sauce, mayonnaise and dried fish flakes. The ingredients blend together nicely – the piquancy of the ginger and sauce, offset by the milder components, provides a pleasant flavor. Still not convinced? Since takoyaki is inexpensive, you can afford to be a bit adventurous and try this tasty treat.
The region around Kyoto is famous for growing tea – it has been cultivated there for over a thousand years. Gastronomes will be glad to know that Kyoto also dishes up its matcha (powdered green tea) into desserts. Many shops sell green tea ice cream; it’s a great reward for all the walking you’ve surely been doing around the temples. And because matcha has a distinctive, somewhat bitter flavor, it’s good to try it at least twice to fully appreciate the taste. For your second dose, get to a bakery and grab a matcha cream puff. The sweet, flaky pastry complements a creamy matcha filling, all for the sake of your epicurean enjoyment!
Nagoya is a common stopover en route to other destinations, but why not enjoy it as an eatover as well. Try tebasaki: fried chicken wings flavored in a variety of different ways, from mild to spicy to salty. These wings may not be as massive and meaty as you might be accustomed to in your country of origin, but the quality of the chicken, coupled with the savory seasonings, is quite palatable. The price is right as well. Head to Yamachan or Furaibo, the two establishments serving up the dish, and for only a small fee, sink your teeth into some of these delicious wings.
Takayama- Hida Beef
Is this beef really more special than other kinds of beef? Yes, it is. Hida beef is so tender it actually melts in your mouth. The genetics of the cows and the conditions they are raised in are apparently the perfect formula for only the choicest meat. Each cut is either Grade A or B quality beef and contains a glorious mess of marbling. Grab a cheap skewer in the old town to get a taste, or even better, fork out some more cash and sample any of the creative plates that have been concocted by the various restaurants in Takayama. It is next to impossible not to enjoy this delicacy.
Of course, I can’t leave out sushi. For the freshest of the fresh, head to Tsukiji market early in the morning, when the day’s catch is first brought in. Because it wouldn’t be civilized to just help yourself to the sea creatures you see lying before you en masse, sit down instead at one of the eateries offering set menus. For a full-on experience, order the morning special – everything from sea urchin to salmon roe, yellowtail to grilled eel. I opted for a sampling of 5 different kinds of tuna. The selection turned out to be superb, and strangely satisfying as a breakfast!
A great way to transport yourself to and from these culinary destinations is to fly All Nippon Airways (ANA), which is currently offering domestic flights for only 10,500 yen to tourists. See their website for more details https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/