Exploring Japan’s Culinary Treasures
Featured destinations: Japan, Kyoto, Tokyo
Published 22 June 2016
From the iconic Shinkasen (bullet trains) and capsule hotels to toilet seats that take the hassle out of going to the loo, and even futuristic bartending robots, modern-day Japan has evolved over the last half century to become one of the world’s most modernized countries. The Land of the Rising Sun still holds on to its customs, but the changes are clear: temples and shrines now lay hidden between towering skyscrapers in its cities; the samurais of the Edo period have been replaced by bankers and techies; and goth Harajuku girls are more prevalent than kimono-clad women.
One thing about Japan that has stayed constant during this time of great change is its food, which, despite sometimes adding innovative twists, has remained pretty traditional to this day – and we like it that way! In this post, travel-lover and self-proclaimed foodie Claus Gurumeta tells us his tips for exploring Japan while indulging in the country’s varied cuisine.
Taste of Tokyo
The megalopolis that is Tokyo is an assault on the senses: bright lights illuminate its streets, loud noises flood out of its pachinko parlours, and a mix of smells emanates from the markets in the Ueno district. For taste, Japan’s massive capital has an endless supply of places to eat, from its staggering 217 Michelin-starred restaurants, to its seemingly unlimited budget eateries. While you’ll be able to find pretty much anything to eat in Tokyo, it is important to start with the basics of Japanese cuisine. First of all, sushi bars are located on practically every corner offering high quality made-to-order sushi and fresh sashimi at great prices. For a change in taste, I often visit the noodle houses; with an unlimited supply of ramen, hearty udon or healthy soba noodle dishes available in all sort of soups, sauces and curries, eating noodles remains an exciting, new experience every single time.image:Claus Gurumeta
The sound of shabu-shabu in Osaka
A local friend who I met in Japan introduced me to the delicacy that is shabu-shabu, a hotpot-style dish in which the diner dips thinly cut slices of premium beef and vegetables into boiling broth, until it is cooked to the desired temperature. The name of this traditional dish, which was adapted in Osaka from its Chinese counterpart, is meant to describe the sound of the food being swayed from side to side along the surface of the boiling liquid. The resulting experience is a fun, interactive way of enjoying a delicious meal out with friends. With Osaka being the birthplace of shabu-shabu, you’ll have no problem finding a good place to get it. When ordering, make sure to point at the beef you want on the menu, and ensure that the server understands what you are after; while all of the options are top beef cuts, some of the higher-end ones can cost over £100 for a serving! image:Claus Gurumeta
Kyoto’s okonomiyaki obsession
Internationally recognized as the cultural capital of Japan, Kyoto is a city like no other, where customs have remained much more traditional than in other places. Part of the appeal of visiting Kyoto is its hundreds of temples and shrines, beautiful classical gardens, teahouses, the famed Philosopher’s Walk, and the traditional streets in the Gion District. As the days will be packed with sightseeing from dawn to dusk, I recommend okonomiyaki: a quick, inexpensive, and hearty meal to eat on the go. Okonomiyaki, known as the ‘Japanese pancake,’ is a savoury cabbage pancake that is surprisingly tasty, especially when it is loaded with octopus or pork meat, and served with extra toppings such as dry bonito flakes, Japanese mayo, and sweet and sour sauce. While okonomiyaki is available in restaurants as a full meal (often served with noodles and grilled vegetables), the snack can also be bought at takeaway food stands and train stations all over the city. image:Claus Gurumeta
Indulging on tonkatsu at Katsukura
While in Kyoto I indulged in another Japanese specialty: tonkatsu, a type of fried, breaded pork, which is traditionally served with shredded cabbage salad. While tonkatsu is not from Kyoto (its origins are a little blurred), the Katsukura restaurant is known to locals as being one of the best in the country. Here, the tonkatsu is served with all you can eat miso soup and shredded cabbage salad, and guests make the dipping sauce for their pork dish to their liking by adding the desired mixture of ingredients including sesame seeds, a mustard-like radish paste, and sweet, sour and spicy sauces. Katsukura is located right in the city near the Kamo River, so it’s perfect for a break after a morning of sightseeing or before an afternoon bike ride along the river.
You can visit Katsukura Kyoto Station at 901 Higashishiokojicho, Shimogyoku | TheCUBE 11F, Kyoto 600-8216 image:Claus Gurumeta
The grilled oysters of Miyajima Island
The beautiful Miyajima Island is accessible by a quick ferry ride from modern Hiroshima, and is well worth a visit. The entire island has been designated as a sacred shrine, which forbids the felling of trees, hence a naturally green forest and roaming deer abound as soon as you step foot on the island. Miyajima’s iconic floating torii, the shrine’s red gate which appears to be floating on the sea at high tide, is one of Japan’s most photographed icons, and really is a sight to see. If you’re peckish during your visit and you like seafood, you are in luck – Miyajima is known for its delicious grilled oysters, which are available all over the town at the foot of the island, sold by the shell for a few hundred yen as a quick treat. image:Claus Gurumeta
A ryokan stay in Hakone
Staying in a typical Japanese Inn, locally known as a ryokan, is a cultural experience that is sure to satisfy your soul… and your appetite! At these Inns, travellers get to sleep in traditional Japanese futons on the floor in a minimalist room decorated with bamboo mat flooring and paper doors. An important part of the ryokan experience is the breakfast, which is served early in the morning. During my stay at a ryokan in Hakone (at the foot of Mt Fuji), my innkeeper rushed me out of bed promptly at 7am, and proceeded to transform my room into a private breakfast area. Within minutes, she had put my futon out of sight and created a sitting area on the bamboo mats, where she placed a large breakfast consisting of grilled fish, raw tuna, rice, miso soup, a scrambled egg on a stick, a hard-boiled egg, whitebait, seaweed, and an assortment of pickles. The early morning wake up is a bit of a shock, but after that big breakfast you’ll have the energy to explore Mount Fuji for the day, and even fit in a dip at the onsen (hot spring) before night falls. image:Claus Gurumeta
Hida beef and sake tastings in Takayama
Up in the mountains of the Gifu prefecture, the small city of Takayama offers visitors a refreshing change of pace with a small-town feeling that is unlike anything else I saw in Japan. Here the buildings still use strong wooden features as an ode to the city’s carpentry heritage, and the nearby Hida Folk Village is a living museum of traditional Hida architecture. Takayama had two highlights for me: first, I was able to indulge in the local hida beef, a dish in which thin slices of raw beef, enoki mushrooms, and Japanese eggplant, all covered with a big serving of miso paste, are served over a small fire so the diner can grill it to perfection at their own table. Secondly, the town has a high number of sake breweries, many of which offer daily tastings of sake, the traditional rice wine that is Japan’s national drink… Get ready to say kanpai! image:Claus Gurumeta
Desserts of the Kansai region
To finish up on a sweet note, there is nothing like a dessert from the Kansai region. While most Japanese desserts tend to be bland, the Kansai region, which encompasses many popular cities like Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara, has delicious treats to satisfy those with a sweet tooth. Matcha, a powder made from grounded green tea leaves and sugar, is used to make an assortment of desserts including green tea cheesecake, jelly, and ice cream. Red beans, a popular ingredient in desserts throughout Asia, also have a strong presence in the Kansai Region, often served alongside ice cream or as a topping over dango, an otherwise tasteless rice dough dumpling. To sweeten up some of these desserts even further, thick molasses is sometimes used as a topping, so get ready to end your meal with a sugar rush.
If you fancy trying Japan's tasty culinary offerings, head off on our Classic Japan small-group Journey, covering Kyoto, Koyasan, Hiroshima (with a side trip to Miyajima Island), Matsumoto and Tokyo, and staying in a ryokan in Tsumago.