poor scientist. will blog 4 food.

the culinary adventures of a self-described foodie

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Japan Trip: Odds & Ends

It’s with great relief and a tiny bit of sadness that this is my last post about my Japan trip. It’s been fun to blog about, and I hope y’all have enjoyed learning a little bit more about Japan and its cuisine as much as I did during my trip! Here are a few odds and ends of things I ate or drank that I thought were worth mentioning:

1. Okonomiyaki
A Japanese pancake filled with lots of stuff, depending on the region. “Okonomi” means “what you like” so it’s really whatever you want to put in it. This particular okonomiyaki was filled with squid, egg, shrimp, and veggies, topped with shredded seaweed and okonomiyaki sauce. I went to this okonomiyaki establishment with my fellow Kyoto hostellers, where they only served one version of okonomiyaki. However, I’ve also heard there are okonomiyaki places where you can pick out what you want to eat from a salad bar or a menu and have your okonomiyaki cooked to order. This particular okonomiyaki was just ok, but pretty economical. My meal cost about $9 including a large draft beer. Good deal!

2. Convenience store rice balls
These were great snacks on-the-go. Not only were they cheap (about $1.50) but they were really tasty too! This one was filled with salmon. To keep the seaweed fresh, they keep it separated with plastic. With typical Japanese ingenuity, there was a really clever design on the wrapping that allowed unwrapping of the plastic without separating the rice ball. It was the equivalent of grabbing the tablecloth off the table without disturbing any of the plates or cutlery. It took me a while to figure this out, but once I realized that there was a numbering system, it was pretty easy. Highly recommended!

3. Kirin Lemon
Some of you might recognize Kirin as a Japanese brewery, but they also make a variety of non-alcoholic beverages, such as Kirin Lemon. It tastes like a less sweet version of Sprite and is super refreshing. Plus, don’t sodas just taste better from glass bottles?

4. The best bowl of instant noodles.
As the creators of instant noodles, the Japanese have got an unsurprising variety of instant ramen. Since hot water dispensers and electric kettles are a commonplace appliance in many hotel rooms and hostels, these bowls of noodles are a great snack. The one pictured here is miso ramen flavored. I should’ve taken a photo of the FOUR flavor packets it came with, including freeze dried shittake mushrooms. It was awesome and the most elaborate cup of noodles I’ve ever made. Yes, it was more expensive than its American counterparts at about $3/bowl but still well worth the money.

5. Eating at the train station.
There were a TON of restaurants in the Kyoto Train Station. I was tempted to return to ramen alley but since I had my luggage with me, I decided to go to one of the more traveler-friendly restaurants on the main level. As this was likely my last big meal of the trip, I went all out, ordering a huge set meal: salmon sashimi and roe with egg over rice, vegetable tempura, soup, and an egg, tofu, and pickle platter. I looked around and didn’t see anyone else eating this much. I’m sure the waiting staff were whispering to each other, “That’s the American girl who eats like a pig.”

6. Eating at Tokyo Narita Airport.
As with every international trip I go on, I try to use almost all of my foreign currency before I leave. I ate a big bowl of ramen for breakfast at Kansai International Airport. Then I flew to Tokyo, where I had an 8 hour layover. I spent part of that time working, another part getting a 20-minute massage at Raffine Refloxology (highly recommended! about $20/20-minute massage), and some of it eating. I got curry, which I hadn’t eaten my whole trip (pictured). For those who don’t know, Japanese curry is very different from Indian curry. It’s sweeter and much less complex, relying mostly on curry powder. This curry was decent, but I was annoyed at the fact that the coke, an impulse purchase, cost almost as much as the curry!

That’s all folks! Hope all of your meals are as oishii as my Japan meals were!

p.s. Some of you might remember that I stayed at a capsule hotel in Osaka. That was a funny experience; this NY Times article about the jobless resorting to long-term stays in capsule hotels — not so much.

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Japanese Drinking Snacks

One style of Japanese dining that I really wanted to try was izakaya, which is basically beer- or sake-accompanied snacks. Think of it as Japanese tapas or pub food. Typically, you order as you go along, and you’re expected to order food throughout your visit. I was pretty intimidated by this format, as I wasn’t sure how common it was for a young woman to go to an izakaya by herself. Luckily, during the conference I was attending, a few of my fellow scientists were game for trying izakaya too!

We ended up at a large chain izakaya that was 3 or 4 stories tall off of the main drag in Gion, Kyoto. Our hostess showed us to a large, private tatami-covered room with a cutout under the table for our legs. At our table was a small round disc that served as the pager for our server. How convenient! The Japanese really do think of everything. R, who is of British origin but now works in Kobe, guided us through our English menu, pointing out his personal favorites. Photos of our dinner are below. The only dish not pictured is the fried chicken (very good). Enjoy!

#30: Grilled Chinese yam & cod ovum, aka cod eggs. As scientists, we appreciated the proper nomenclature. As diners, not so much.

Small appetizers: pickle salad and macaroni salad. Random.

A few of our dishes: grilled big fish, shrimp omelette (yum!), grilled smaller fishes.

Close up of the smaller fish.

Egg, bean sprouts, and pork stir fry. This was really good, to my surprise.

Some baked cheesy thing that I didn't try. But everyone else said it was delicious.

I think these were fried rice cakes, and I think they were quite tasty.

Another baked cheesy thing in a clam shell.

My happy dining companions!

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Department Store Delights

I’ve written before about how department stores in Taiwan often have hidden food treasures, such as food courts, gourmet food stalls, and nice restaurants. It’s a very similar situation in Japan, as I happily discovered.

Hungry for lunch after a long morning of temple touring, I wandered into the basement of the Takashimaya Department Store (at Shijō Kawaramachi) hoping to find something to eat. Luckily, I found lots of food vendors selling Japanese specialties such as bento boxes, sushi, and mochi. I gawked at the beautiful but pricey bento boxes, some costing up to $20 each. I opted for a more economical sushi sampler at about $9. I also bought a red bean “cake,” hot off the griddle. (It’s more like a thick egg-y waffle than a cake.) Unfortunately, I ate it before I remembered to take a photo. Sorry!

Sushi to go! Super yummy and fresh.

On another day, I made my way to the Ramen Hakubutsukan (“ramen alley”) on the 10th floor of the Isetan Department Store in the Kyoto Train Station. It was a great insider tip from my colleague HC, who had lived in Kyoto, because I would’ve never found this place! Once there, I was overwhelmed by the number of ramen places. There were about 10 different ramen restaurants, all specializing in different varieties of ramen. You can only imagine the kind of ramen sensory overload I was experiencing! I had no idea which one to choose, so I opted for one of the places closer to the entrance, where the line was shorter. Their specialty was prize-winning black sesame ramen, which was good but the bitterness of the sesame became a little overwhelming after a while. I wish I had more time to try all of them!

Soon I would join them in the ramen slurping...

Black sesame ramen with egg, pork, scallions, and seaweed.

Noodles: up close and personal. In your face!

p.s. Happy New Year!! Hope 2010 is full of everything sweet and delicious!