Stuffing Yourself to Live: My Top Ten Food Experiences in Japan

Thus far on this blog I have written extensively on my experiences with animals and my obsession with the nature in Yamanashi. This might lead some of you to believe that I spend my downtime traipsing through forests surrounded by fawning woodland creatures. While I won’t debunk those myths outright, I will also add that I have been doing a ton of eating. I believe that to truly get to know a place, you must eat your way through it… and eat I have. Here, in a very particular order, is a list of the top ten most absurdly satisfying and memorable meals that Japan has served up for me during these past several months.

  1. Healthy Pickled Stuff

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This is story starts like many others – While visiting Kyoto, Girl goes in search of a huge, hearty bowl of noodles only to be thwarted by spotty restaurant holiday hours. Instead of despairing, your intrepid (and hungry) heroine forges on only to find a cozy vegan help-yourself joint brimming forth with… Pickled vegetables? Miniature pickled ruby red root vegetables rested beside pale yellow pickled daikon which sidled up to the slippery gemlike, dark purple tiny eggplant slices. Everything was slightly sour and some of my selections had a bit of a bitter kickback, but experiencing this veritable rainbow of flavors was part of the fun. I initially gazed upon this spread with dismay, “How will this bird food ever satiate my monstrous level of hunger?” I wondered, innocently. Sure enough, paired with some jasmine rice my DIY-bowl of pickled objects left me feeling warm, content and (gasp!) healthy. Here’s to 2015 being the year that I begin pickling things like crazy in my little mountain apartment amongst the pines.

  1. Sour Cherry Pie with a Latte in a Bowl

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The town adjacent to Doshi Village (where I live) is pretty hauntingly spectacular in the winter. In Yamanaka Village there is a moody and perpetually chilly lake that offers stunning views of Mount Fuji. My favorite desert spot, Café Paper Moon, is situated right next to a quaint pedestrian path which runs through the woods towards the water. The café is all whitewashed wood walls, cozy booth nooks with dark blue and green plaid table cloths, and dainty dried bouquets of wildflowers strung from the ceiling. I was initially enticed by how darn cute the place was but the amazing pie keeps me coming back. They have over 25 different types of fresh baked pies – the crusts and fillings are all homemade. I haven’t been able to convince myself to stray from ordering anything other than the hot sour cherry pie. A wall flaky buttery crust just barely contains a red, purple, and pink rainbow of tart cherry halves. Resting atop this glorious situation is one lone scoop of vanilla bean ice cream, already slightly melting as the plate reaches your table. What can I say? I am a committed and faithful gal when it comes to the pie that I adore.

  1. Kaiten Sushi

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Kaiten Sushi (or conveyer belt sushi) in Japan is typically an economical, no frills affair. Sushi is sold at about one or two dollars per plate, and moves around the restaurant past customers on a mechanic belt. You can either grab whatever you feel drawn to off the belt, or put in your own special requests with the chefs. Most people tend to do a mix of both. When I first arrived in Doshi Village, my supervisor took me out and tested my limits by ordering the craziest selections they could find on the menu – Flat fish sushi, whole baby squid sushi, cheeseburger sushi, natto sushi. I tend to be more of a purist – give me a nice couple slabs of tuna or salmon atop a bundle of perfectly molded sticky white rice and I am golden,

  1. Bizarre Flavors of Soft Cream.

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Soft cream is pretty ubiquitous around these parts and it usually comes in fairly standard flavors… Until it doesn’t. Some are location specific – In Hakone, there is a sulfuric hot spring area where you can eat black eggs which have been steeped in steaming fresh pools of hot spring water. Here they offer egg flavored soft cream. In springtime, Sakura (cherry blossom) flavored soft cream is all the rage. When the lavender plants blooms near Lake Kawaguchiko or the sunflowers pop up in Hokuto, you are sure to find some softly hued lavender and sunflower ice cream at the scene. My favorite flavor thus far is a black toasted sesame flavor. It was smoky, and savory with just enough sweetness – Quirkily addictive stuff.

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  1. Udon

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I’m not exaggerating when I say that Udon is one of the best things that has happened to me all year. Udon is a cure for blustery winter blues. The thick, wheat flour noodle used for udon is unusually slick and slippery – absolutely ideal for the requisite loud slurping sounds permeating the atmosphere of any given udon shop. This particular bowl of Udon was an even greater gift than normal because I sought it out on a hungover Saturday morning. The bowl was nearly overflowing with spicy broth, thinly shaven beef, and abundant freshly hand-pulled noodles. You would be hard pressed to find a better bowl of assorted goodness to warm your winter bones.

5.) Vegan Temple Bento

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My conscience holds very little sway over my base cravings for meat and dairy so I have never contemplated veganism… That is, until I ate a piece of tofu that made me take back every mean thing I ever said about tofu. I was in Kyoto, visiting some monkeys on their mountaintop and a serene bamboo garden next to a beautiful temple. The temple served a set lunch and we had arrived just in time for the last seating of the day. We were ushered to a nearly empty tatami mat filled room with a streak of red carpeting running through it. We sat on the floor and waited for our lacquered lunch trays to be placed before our knees. Each part of the meal was sectioned off in its own small bowl or crevice in the tray and it all looked visually stunning laid out together. Lifting each lid was great fun and everything from the root veggies and pickled ginger to the sticky rice was amazing. There was a piece of tofu that was covered with a delicate wash of shoyu sauce with a small portion of fresh wasabi. It literally melted in my mouth and packed such an unusually large amount of flavor that I was shocked that I was eating tofu, of all things. We weren’t sure if it was the effect of the peaceful temple grounds or the humbling tofu, but my cousin and I agreed that we felt simultaneously lighter and more nourished than ever.

4.) Okinomiyaki

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Okinomiyaki is a stoners dream. The word Okinomiyaki is loosely translated as “Grilled whatever you’d like” and it is basically a pancake/ omelet hybrid from heaven stuffed and topped with all sorts of amazing, strange stuff. It is a well-known dish down south from where I live, in the Kansai and Hiroshima areas. I had my first run-in with Okinomiyaki in Osaka and it was glorious. My cousin and I waited in the blustery December wind outside the little shop for around an hour before we settled in while our handsome skateboarder server grilled our Okonomiyaki and chatted with us about California surf culture. The batter went from a less-than-impressive mushy to a perfectly tender and slightly crisp vessel of mixed egg, chopped cabbage, and yam. The pancake was topped with a tangy rich brown sauce and had chunks of scallops, shrimp, and octopus nestled inside like craters. I haven’t touched Okonomiyaki since – I am scared that nothing will live up to that initial experience and I don’t want the magic of that first spell to be broken.

3.) School Lunch

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It has been about eight months since I arrived in Japan and I have not been sick once. Not once. Not even a tiny cold. I have put myself in the way of germs multiple times. I have held the hands of nursery school toddlers as they led me authoritatively to the playground after having just wiped their runny noses. I have been served food by an entire class of twelve-year olds who were forced to come to school despite having all procured some sort of horrid plague. Despite all of these near-brushes with death by germ transference, my immune system has managed to somehow stay above the fray. I credit this in large part to the school lunch (kyuushoku) that I am served every day. My schools employ a kyuushoku teacher (basically a nutritionist) who is responsible for crafting delectable monthly menus. Instead of overworked and underpaid cafeteria staff, we have the nutritionist who does the planning, two local women who do the cooking, and students who help each other serve the meals. 12:30 is the best part of the day for many students and teachers in Doshi Village because that is when lunch begins and we can dig into some teriyaki salmon, rice, miso vegetable soup, peanut vegetable salad, and sliced apple. The menu changes daily and sometimes it has an international twist, but my favorite days usually consist of solid Japanese classics. Essentially, we are all terribly spoilt and Doshi Junior High is chock full of preteen (and grown adult) foodies. Portions are plentiful, fruit and veggies are abundant, never anything but fresh, lean protein is present, and the ubiquitous bowl of rice is usually around. I truly believe that my childhood was missing this kind of school-stomach TLC and I think that school becomes a hell of a lot more tolerable when your brain connects learning with delicious meals.

2.) Drunk Ramen

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Ramen is basically the penultimate comfort food in Japan. After a long night of imbibing Moscow Mules at a friends jazz-themed birthday party, a bunch of companions and I crowded around a street corner drunkenly plotting our next move. As these things tend to go at a certain hour, the planning was incredibly dysfunctional and I was becoming increasingly hungry. Everyone was certain that a feeding was in our future but no one had the wherewithal to pin down a solid plan. I pulled my friend Josh aside and whispered “Dude, we need to thin the herd. Let’s find some ramen.” What ensued was us being led by some higher power down a backstreet where we stumbled into a tiny ramen joint that was filled with jovial and drunk elderly Japanese men. Two seats were wide open near the door and we sat down with bleary eyes to what was probably the best drunken after hours meal of my life. The noodles were thin and buttery, the broth had a deep and rich flavor from the pork bones it was cooked with, and the thin slices of pork practically dissolved on your tongue. I have had some pretty great bowls of ramen since, but the serendipitous 2 am stumble into that shop was something I will be hard pressed to match.

1.)   Matsuka Beef

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I have deep, deep feelings for steak. When I was living in Florida, I would beg my father to grill some up for dinner when I came home from college. He was always happy to oblige and I could always rely on him to seek out the best cuts of meat at the butcher. My dad’s steaks were always had perfectly caramelized, charred spice rub on the outside and were beautifully tender and medium rare in the middle. I miss his steaks something dreadful, so, when I visited the Kobe area I decided that it was necessary to splurge on a steak experience. We chose a platter of Matsuka Beef with three different levels of marbling. Matsuka beef is considered one of the three top types of beef, along with Kobe and Omi. Matsuka cattle are primarily raised in Hyogo prefecture, in serene pastoral farmland. They are fed tofu lees and ground wheat daily and are treated to beer to stimulate their appetites. That diet, along with regular massages and soothing music, leads to healthy and unstressed cows that eat in peace to achieve a really high fat to meat ratio. We began the meal with pieces of lightly rare steak sushi, cooked just on the outside, which was unbelievable.  When our platter of beef arrived, we were able to dip it in salt and a fast marinade before searing it over out tables own mini-grill. What followed was probably the best meal of my entire life. Matsuka beef pops up in my dreams every once in awhile and I hope to someday be reunited with it.

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