The three of us who traveled to Japan recently liked to think of ourselves as fairly adventurous eaters, partial to spicy, exotic food. But we were in for some surprises. For example, we found that none of us really likes fish eyeballs for breakfast.
We had several traditional Japanese dinners at the ryokan, Japanese-style hotels, where we stayed. Usually
there is a crab leg to start off, followed by various kinds of fish, sashimi (raw fish), soup, and maybe a stew of some kind. Plus rice, pickled vegetables, and tea. The first night of this was not unpleasant, except in my case, for the sashimi. I just couldn’t take the texture of the fish. My brother dared me to eat it, and I had the devil of a time getting it down, and keeping it down.
The second time we had this kind of dinner, the “stew” was all white, slimy things of unknown origin that none of us found appetizing. The worst part was when they served us almost the exact same menu for breakfast–with no coffee. I repeat, NO coffee. We were unhappy with this particular hotel anyway, and had no trouble ditching our reservation for the next night and hightailing it out of there. Fortunately, most train stations have coffee and bakeries these days. I have to confess I ate more croissants than fish eye balls on this trip.
Japan lives by the sea, and sushi and sashimi are extremely popular. One new twist we saw in Tokyo is “conveyor belt” sushi. In this kind of restaurant, little dishes of food are put on a conveyor belt that goes around the counter where people sit. People take whatever they like off the conveyor belt and eat. Quick and handy.
Another evening in Matsumoto, we ducked into a yakitori (grilled chicken) bar for dinner. People sit around the counter and watch the grill master do his magic. The first skewer brought out to us was announced as “chicken tail.” I thought, oh no, but knew I had to eat it. A perfectly seasoned and grilled little packet of fat slid down my throat. Chicken leg and neck (who knew you could eat the neck?) came out on other skewers. The master seasoned each offering precisely, like an artist at work. His movements were dance-like as he held the shaker over the chicken parts in a ritualistic display of pride in his craft. After a few beers, the noise level in the tiny bar went up and we were getting to be old friends with everyone. When we left, everyone waved and said goodbye.
We had one dinner of katsudon (fried pork steak) like the ones I remember from 45 years ago that was
especially good, but I couldn’t find many of the kinds of restaurants I so vividly remembered. Instead there were hamburgers and fries, pizza, and KFC fried chicken. We had a hamburger made of marbled Hida beef in the mountain town of Takayama. Food preferences have changed dramatically in Japan since I was there as a young woman, not necessarily for the better. I saw a fair number of overweight Japanese people, which simply didn’t exist when I was there last.
Of course in Tokyo you can find anything, and fortunately there was a good Indian place near our hotel to satisfy our need for heat. Convenience stores like 7-ll saved us on more than one occasion with a good selection of salads and sandwiches at cheap prices. Before we’d get on the train, we often stopped at 7-11 to get our lunch supplies and other snacks.
We tried to keep it simple, and cheap, when we could, so we did not seek out the many fine dining establishments Japan has to offer. Other people will have very different culinary experiences, no doubt. But for us, a backpack full of snacks is always essential. Part of the adventure of traveling is that you often don’t know where or when you will next eat, nor certainly what it will be. Bon Apetit!