Any opportunity to visit one of my favorite eating destinations, the Land Of The Rising Sun, Japan, has my taste buds buzzing in anticipation of the epicurean delights that await at the tail end of that arduous 14-hour flight. Even though Japanese food does not pack the spicy punch that Korean, Thai and Vietnamese food can, it does satisfy my taste for something clean, fresh, unique, and aesthetically pleasing. I appreciate the Japanese because they take their eating very seriously, for they realize that food is life itself, as well as art. Every meal I have ever had there is literally a feast for the senses that nourishes the spirit, and reaches for the sublime.
It has always been my good fortune to travel to Japan on (music) business, and Japanese hospitality being well-established, my hosts usually strive to fulfill my every craving and desire, and unquestioningly pick up the tab. In the past this has included expensive and utterly indulgent meals of word-famous Kobe beef in Kobe; horse-meat sashimi (raw) in Tokyo; and Une (sea urchin) in Osaka. And while my hankering for the exotic usually fulfilled, it is the simple, everyday meals that I really appreciate the most.
This year’s Japanese excursion was fast and furious, and involved a lot of bouncing around—thankfully on the Shinkasen or legendary “bullet” train, which feels like it’s hovering on a cloud of air. We arrived in Tokyo and went straight to Gumma; then back to Tokyo; down to Newagaya (just outside Kyoto) for a couple days; on to Nagoya; and finally to the city where I feel most at home, Osaka.
My first Japanese meal in Gumma at a small informal eatery or Izakaya consisted of asimple pork stir-fry with vegetables accompanied by a bowl of white rice and a side dish of Ramen noodles floating in a spicy broth and topped with a dollop of ground beef. After the forgettable airplane fare, this stuff hit the gastric G-spot. As much as the Japanese love their rice, noodles are also very much a dietary staple. In addition to the cheap and ubiquitous Ramen noodles, Japanese favor Udon, thick, flat wheat noodles, and Soba, which are rounder and made
of buckwheat. Eaten hot or cold, in broth or with a simple soy-based sauce, noodles make for a quick meal, meant to be slurped with gusto for maximum enjoyment.
Barbecuing appears to be a mainstay in most cultures, but the Japanese put their own classy twist on man’s primal penchant for grilling meat on an open fire. In addition to Yakitori, the small skewers of grilled meat that go down perfectly with a few beers, Yaki-niku is my personal favorite form of grilling. At a Yakiniku restaurant, the tables come equipped with small circular grills built right into the center. The waitress brings a tray of thinly sliced raw meats—usually beef, chicken, and pork, and sometimes vegetables and seafood—and it’s up to you to grab whatever you want and grill it up. Then you dip the cooked meats in a teriyaki-style sauce and enjoy. Accompaniments include a steaming pot of rice and sometimes even a pot of Japanese kare (curry) or kimchi to supplement the protein. The mouth-watering aroma of grilling meats and smoke coming off the grill all enhance this thoroughly enjoyable dining experience.
While American fast food has made serious incursions into Japanese culture, I believe that Japanese fast food will always reign supreme. I’m talking about the bento box, which is basically a small box or TV dinner-style tray with various compartments containing
rice and small portions of different foods. You can get these bento boxes practically anywhere, and they require no heating up or special preparation—just pop the top and get down to business. I had several Bentos in Japan—usually at the train station, since they make a convenient and portable meal. The first featured cooked mackerel and various cabbages and pickle along with a generous portion of rice, and the second was a seafood extravaganza with a whole mini squid, oyster, fish, shrimp, and fish roe along with rice and some greens. Who would have thought that “fast” food could be healthy and good?
Though I had hoped to try Suppon (turtle) or Fugu (the famed poisonous blow fish) this time around, our hectic schedule did not really allow it. My single-most favorite meal on this trip was not some exotic fare, however, but simple down-home cooking at a very homey establishment in Newagaya, the home-town of my host Gebo. Run by a mother and son, Tsuneyoshi, was no bigger than a wide hallway with a bar and some stools that separated us from the gracious proprieters. We tried practically everything on the menu including braised beef intestines, which melted in my mouth; pan-fried chicken; gyoza (or fried dumplings); shrimp tempura; sashimi (raw fish); and chicken teriyaki. Everything was prepared fresh right before our eyes, and served with a smile, and though the place was somewhat “rundown”—especially by Japanese standards—it was a diamond in the rough that I would gladly visit again.
So when it comes to Japanese food, sushi is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, having sushi in Japan is like having a burger in America. There are many places to get it and 99.9% of the time it’s going to be good. But when you venture out of the box or off the beaten path, you are bound to discover new tastes and experiences of which there is no shortage of in this tiny island nation.