This Japan-focussed article is a break from The Picky Glutton’s usual London-based coverage
For a country on the far side of the world with a reputation for being expensive and inscrutable, Japan holds an outsized place in our collective culinary consciousness. Its quixotic and singular culture might be one reason, becoming the archetype of the exotic East – familiar yet faraway, just over the horizon and yet tantalisingly out of reach. A more prosaic reason is evident once you sample even a middling California roll-YoSushised version of the country’s food – Japan’s distinctive and diverse cuisine tastes fantastic, straddling the world like a yukata-wearing colossus.
While it looks deceptively small on a map, Japan is 50% larger than the UK and has an even broader gastronomic diversity. That makes it all but impossible to get more than a brief taste of what the country has to offer on a single, average-length visit.
The following two-part overview of dining out in Tokyo, Kyoto and the southern part of Wakayama prefecture is thus far from a systematic survey of what Japan has to offer. It’s more a chronicle of three Westerners bumbling their way around the land of Hokusai and Kurosawa with exceedingly basic Japanese language skills, dog-eared JR Passes and stomaches bigger than their brains.
There was one modest hiccup though – a change in my financial circumstances just before the trip meant my budget for dining out had become a lot tighter. Sterling’s unprecedented weakening in the exchange rate from ¥170 to the pound just before the referendum to a mere ¥127 to the pound at the time of my autumn trip certainly didn’t help either. This meant that my initial plans for non-stop haute kaseiki and kappo ryori dinners (think multicourse tasting menu-style meals, the former in a private room and the latter at a counter facing the kitchen) went out of the window.
This hiccup turned out to be a blessing in disguise though – it made everything much more interesting.
Tokyo tonkatsu – Tonkatsu Santa
For a start, it made me realise that the seemingly more-mundane Japanese dishes that I usually overlook back home due to their dreariness are actually cruelly misrepresented. Tonkatsu, breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets and not to be confused with tonkotsu ramen, is the epitome of this. Little more than a thicker, smaller schnitzel in London, or perhaps a porcine kiev but without the retro charm, it’s a much more accomplished yet elegantly simple dish at Tonkatsu Santa in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.
The panko batter was beautifully done – crunchy, crisp and airy yet free of excess oil. The moist hunk of pork underneath was a revelation – unctous and tender, glistening with rendered fat, yet not at all greasy or heavy. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was what every London version of tonkatsu has never been – delicious and multilayered. It didn’t really need the sweet molasses-like taste of the brown sauce served on the side in a giant pot, but it was welcome in moderation.
If you’re averse to pork for whatever reason, Vicious Alabaster’s big, firm and fresh tiger prawns were an exceptionally worthy substitute. The accompanying scallops were creamy and sweet in their own right, but these qualities were lost admist all the crunchy batter – a rare misstep for Tonkatsu Santa’s kitchen.
If you’re aghast at the idea of eating something deep-fried despite having inexplicably wandered into a tonkatsu restaurant, then the sauteed and batter-free pork loin is by no means a consolation prize. Tender, moist strips of meat had rinds of quivering fat rendered just-so. A sweet and umami glaze of soy and mirin isn’t a cherry-on-top, but an integral part of this deeply satisfying dish.
Each of the mains above cost just ¥1300 each (£9 approx. at the time of writing), with an extra ¥500 (£3.50) getting you a ton of soft and fluffy small-grained boiled rice, a bowl of inky miso soup that overdid the umami and a choice of either hot or iced tea. The former was a so-so oolong, the latter was a far superior brew of crisp, sweet and refreshing roasted barley. Although the cantaloupe sorbet was small in size and uncomfortably cold, it wasn’t excessively icy and captured the distinctive taste of the fruit well.
The Lensman, who sadly wasn’t able to accompany us on this trip, was right – tonkatsu outside Japan just doesn’t compare. At all.
speaks volumes about the value of restaurants focussed on a single dish
Tokyo tempura – Tempura Tsunahachi
Although tempura isn’t nearly as shoddily represented in London as tonkatsu is, it rarely reaches the heights that it does at Tempura Tsunahachi. Although there are branches dotted around Tokyo, with additional outposts in Kyoto and Sapporo, the original in Shinjuku is almost certainly the most atmospheric. The old-fashioned wooden building sticks out amidst Shinjuku’s neon like a country gentlemen in tweed twirling his handlebar moustache at a rave.
The tempura batter here was so magnificent, it acted as a stinging rebuke to every leaden, bland, greasy and heavy deep-fried dish you’ve ever had anywhere else. Crisp and creamy, yet with very little excess oil and not at all stodgy or bloaty despite the small dumpster truck’s worth of tempura that I’d ordered.
A knot of shimeji mushroms were creamy and a little tart, while lotus root was exceedingly crisp and lightly starchy. Honkingly big tiger prawns had crispy little legs and quiveringly tender body flesh. A big clump of smaller shrimp arrived together in a big ball all intwined together, a tender aggomleration that I won’t soon forget.
Thick and meaty scallops had a light creaminess that wasn’t obscured by the batter at all. A whole sardine was salty and tender, while an oyster arrived after having been battered and fried in its shell. The oyster flesh itself was briney and surrounded by the complimentary tartness and earthiness of little mushrooms and an umami sauce.
Thanks Tempura Tsunahachi. You’ve ruined all other tempura for me.
Kawagoe street food
The timing of my trip to Tokyo with Vicious Alabaster and Templeton Peck proved fortuitous as we got to experience the Kawagoe Matsuri, the annual festival of a medium-sized town located a 45 min train ride to the northwest of Tokyo. Given the incomplete nature of the English-language information online about the Matsuri’s religious meaning, Kawagoe’s festival was odd, surreal and even a little creepy to our eyes. Around a dozen floats were pulled around the town’s pedestrianised streets, with teams of ritual musicians and masked dancers onboard, competing against each other musically for the approval of a small lantern bearing crowd.
Despite the immense crowds, the festival was supernatural in its orderliness. No litter, public drunkenness, random scuffles or misbehaving tantrum-throwing children could be seen anywhere. Another surprise was the street food. Although dozens and dozens of market stalls occupied almost every major thoroughfare, the fare on offer was surprisingly repetitive by London standards – takoyaki, okonomiyaki, various seafoods on skewers and the occasional yakisoba. The only foreign muck on offer, not that we were looking for it, was – surprise, surprise – doner kebabs. I almost regret not having one, if only to find out what meat was used – lamb is almost non-existent in Japan.
Although Vicious Alabaster enjoyed the takoyaki, the dough of these little octopus balls was too squishie for my liking. The limp bonito flakes, kewpie mayo and brown sauce didn’t impress either, but at least there was a reasonably firm octopus tentacle amidst all that excessively soft doughiness.
The okonomiyaki was another disappointment with an excessive amount of cabbage, not enough batter and tame pork belly. There was plenty of bonito flakes and sauces, but it’s a sad okonomiyaki when the most enjoyable thing here was the pickled ginger.
Squid body on a stick was a tad too rubbery and needed more glaze too, making for a disappointing chew. Far better was the firm and umami squid tentacles and cuttlefish. The highlights of the evening for me, apart from the crazy musical floats, was the firm, then tender and briney whelks and the exceptional geoduck which was even more evocative of the sea. London needs more geoduck.
An unremarkable chocolate-coated banana dusted with sprinkles wasn’t the oddest thing we ate on a stick – that honour goes to the lightly brined cucumber dressed with a punchy, somewhat bluntly umami miso sauce.
chocolate banana pic
If you wanted dessert, it was this or something from the very occasional ice cream shop.
The street food may have been mostly shrug-worthy, but the festival itself was well worth it. I hope to return to Japan in the not-too-distant future, if only to hopefully find Japanese street food that wasn’t as disappointing as Kawagoe’s.
Little Okinawa, Tokyo
This trip sadly didn’t have time for an jaunt to Okinawa, Japan’s southern archipelago which has a very different culture from the rest of the country and, due to Imperial China’s influence and its tropical climate, looks more like Taiwan than it does the rest of Japan. We had to instead be content with Little Okinawa, a restaurant in the middle of Tokyo’s Ginza district.
Little Okinawa’s pub-like surroundings couldn’t feel more different from its much pricier neighbours. The squidgy then silky tofu served with vinegary onions and mushrooms might possibly be found in the ‘mainland’ restaurants next door. ‘Grape’ seaweed, with tiny little translucent spheres dangling off the stem, almost certainly wouldn’t. Although you wouldn’t think its sweet and sugary taste would be complimented by the gently umami soy sauce served on the side, it most certainly was.
‘Okinawa-style’ onigiri tasted like little more than fried rice shaped into a triangular arrangement. Far more impressive was the seaweed ‘tempura’ – not the battered indulgences we’re all familiar with, but deep-fried patties resplendent with the umami, salty taste of concentrated seaweed. The soft and oil-free patties were neatly emphasised by a dipping sauce of soy and vinegar.
The Chinese influence was most evident in the stewed pork cubes. Reminiscent of both Sichuanese twice-cooked pork and braised hong shao rou, the tender, fat-laden pork belly here was drenched in a sticky, gently umami sauce. Although not quite as multi-layered as the best hong shao rou, it was still a joy to savour – especially with the julienned parsnips and vinegared onions cutting through the unctuous porcine richness.
Peanut tofu was somewhat similar to the Chinese dish, but with a firm creme brulee-ish crust, a creamy interior and a gentle, but still distinctively nutty sauce.
Templeton Peck was sceptical of the sliced bitter melon, but came to appreciate these vegetables. Bitter, gently softened gourd slices were classily combined with bready, eggy tofu for a light, yet satisfying series of mouthfuls.
The generally excellent savoury mains made the shoddy desserts all the more disappointing. Stodgy, stale and almost hard bits of doughnut mixed in with bland ice cream that was a touch too icy made for a poor pairing – each half of this dessert tended to bring out the worst in each other.
A doughnut served by itself was slightly better – served warm and much softer than the hard scabs dotting the ice cream, it was still a bit too crusty and definitely too bland.
Tokyo soba – Kanda Yabu Soba
Kanda Yabu Soba is a remarkable soba restaurant. For starters, it’s a surprisingly tranquil and classical-looking place despite being located amidst grey office blocks 10 minutes walk away from the frantic cyberculture of Akihabara. Although its sliding paper doors and timber beams are a reconstruction (the original building burnt down a few years ago), something else is even more distinctive – the waitresses sing. Not in the canned operatic canto of numerous gimmick restaurants in London and other European cities, but a soft, gentle melodic hymn that somehow carries from a station in the airy main dining room to the kitchen. It’s certainly a damn sight more charming than an iPad or notepad.
All of that would be nought if the soba wasn’t up to scratch, but it was and then some. The restaurant’s trademark nameko soba is served cold, ideal for a hot Tokyo day. Surprisingly light buckwheat noodles faded into the background, allowing everything else to shine. Mushrooms were sticky, richly umami and lightly creamy. The cool soup had a deep, layered umami with an undertone of sweetness best enjoyed in short slurps. Nori shavings and crisp spring onions were the cherry on top. It’s all deceptively simple, belying the kitchen’s adept artistry.
‘Fish paste cakes’ turned out to be fish sticks, effectively a lighter, creamier and more subtle antecedent of surimi ‘crab’ sticks. Served cold, it acted as a carrier for top-notch wasabi – subtly sweet and creamy, then hitting you with a modest nasal heat. The fish paste cakes turned up again as a topping for Templeton Peck’s hot soba. The broth was a warm version of the one served with my cold nameko soba and was just as satisfying, although a little something in the broth was lost in translation from cool to hot.
Don’t dawdle if your order the hot tempura soba as Vicious Alabaster did – the tempura prawns will quickly get soggy in the piping broth, depriving you of the opportunity to savour the batter. This did at least allow her to see that whole chunks of fresh prawn had been used underneath the coating.
Fresh yuba skin cubes were served chilled, yet were still creamy and refreshing – quite a surprise as I’m more used to the heartier nature of the dried and fermented versions of this tofu-esque soybean preparation.
Slices of duck breast served cold were nonetheless very dense and lightly smoky. It was made even more delectable by the light tingly heat of mustard and a dipping sauce with layered, sophisticated umami. All in all, it’s one of the best duck dishes I’ve had to date.
The water in which the soba noodles were cooked is served after the meal as a drink. It’s an odd but utterly slurpable libation – sort of like a tea that had somehow been made from eggs, it was simultaneously refreshing and eggishly creamy. It’s one of the most delightfully distinctive drinks I’ve downed.
At around ¥1000 per bowl of soba (£7 approx. at the time of writing), you’d be mad not to eat at Kanda Yabu Soba.
Tokyo izakaya – Sakagurakomachuu
Templeton Peck has a bizarre fascination with salarymen. This proved to be almost our sole reason for stumbling into Sakagurakomachuu, an izakaya a few blocks northeast of the famed Tsukiji fish market. The place was indeed packed full of besuited blokey desk drones, ties loosened and banter flowing, with very few women present. It was a nonetheless welcoming place with an English language menu, allowing Vicious Alabaster to indulge in her new-found ginkgo nut fixation – a peanut-sized snack akin to a cross between cashews and potatoes in taste. Give ’em a try – they’re addictive.
Neither Templeton Peck nor Vicious Alabaster would touch the squid innards, but I love the funky, bitter, sour and mildly astringent taste as well as the somewhat gooey texture.
Breaded pork cutlet on a stick was forgettable. It initially appeared that the tofu might turn out that way too, but underneath its anonymous fried exterior was the pleasingly silky, squidgy texture that I’ve come to appreciate over the years. Shame the bonito flakes weren’t up to much though.
The exotic sounding ‘fried fish paste’ was really just fish cakes, but these were squidgy, light and umami fish cakes that were well worth having.
Thinly sliced octopus sashimi was meaty and firm, while the surf clam sashmi was firm then tender with a gentle, beguiling sweetness.
Although the saury, also known as sanma, was in season, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the grilled version here. Very bony with mackerel-ish flesh, but without mackerel’s distinctively flavoursome punch. Serving it with the guts intact or adding a touch of pickling Wakayama-style may have added more of a flavour profile.
The poultry used in the karaage tasted anonymous, even after allowing it to cool down – more resting time after emerging from the deep fat fryer would’ve been beneficial. The batter was truly superlative though – free of excess oil, crispy and then simultaneously unctuous and fluffy. Pair this sumptuous batter with better meat and you’d have a fried chicken for the ages.
The best of the assorted yakitori had to be the wonderfully textured hearts and gizzards. Very similar to the yakitori that Yumi Izakaya used to serve back in London (before its sad closure), these bits of offal somehow managed to be taut, crisp and tender all at the same time. It’s different, but no less delectable than the chicken yakitori from the famed Birdland in nearby Ginza.
Not everything at Sakagurakomachuu was a resounding success, but there were more than enough delights to go around to make this izakaya worth a visit if you’re in the neigbourhood and don’t want to spend more than around ¥4500 per person for dinner (approx. £31 at the time of writing).
Bento lunch boxes from Tokyo Station and Kyoto Station – Bentoya Matsuri/Ekiben-ya Matsuri and Awaji-ya
Long-distance train travel in Japan can mean only one thing – a bento lunch box, with those eaten on trains known as ekiben. The Daimaru department store just outside Tokyo Station is purported to be one of the best places to get an ekiben with a larger selection and lower prices than shops inside the station past the ticket gates. A time crunch meant that we had to be content with ekiben from Bentoya Matsuri/Ekiben-ya Matsuri (different sources give different translations for the name – any help from Japanese speakers would be appreciated!) which is located in between platforms 6 and 7, but this choice turned out to be far from a burdensome one.
Spending around ¥1000 on a boxed lunch (approx. £7 at the time of writing) seems like a costly extravagance indicative of all the stereotypes about pricey Japan, but these ekiben more than justified their price as a travelling treat. Seasonal vegetables gently simmered to bring out their natural earthiness were joined by a choice selection of pickled root vegetables which were eye-opening in their dynamic range. From sharp to sweet, tangy to vinegarish, Japan’s pickling arts deserve to be more widely appreciated.
Reasonably crisp, light and oil-free vegetable tempura and a hefty helping of soft and fluffy small-grained rice provided the bulk. Gingko nuts had been softened, increasing their resemblance to potatoes while retaining their distinctive cashew-like quality, while tamago was sweet and fluffy. Meat made a brief but memorable cameo in the form of a dense, umami, jerk-like hunk of slow-cooked pork. Lightly glazed and gently cooked salmon teriyaki was pleasant enough and a couple of chewy sweets finished things off.
A cheaper ekiben at around ¥750-800 (approx. £5) consisted of a lot more rice, but there was still plenty of simmered and pickled vegetables to chuff down as well as fillets of neatly grilled snapper. It may be a cheaper and less varied option, but certainly not a lower quality one.
Bentoya Matsuri/Ekiben-ya Matsuri spoiled me as other ekiben I tried from other vendors just couldn’t compare. A bento box of gyudon from Kyoto Station’s Awaji-ya was certainly big, but it didn’t do enough to justify its ¥1000 price tag – especially as gyudon outside the station confines can be had for as little as ¥300. The saucey beef was tender but dull-tasting, leaving it to the firm prawn and slice of octopus, as well as the reasonably earthy vegetables to pick up the slack. One admittedly neat, small touch was dividing the carb bedding in half between fluffy rice and wrinkly noodles.
Kyoto tonkotsu ramen – Hakata-Nagahama Ramen Miyoshi and Seiryu Ramen
By some quirk of fate or geography, almost every ramen eatery we spotted in Kyoto appeared to be dedicated to tonkotsu ramen – which is fortunate as I have an obsession with it. Hakata-Nagahama Ramen Miyoshi is little more than a dozen stools facing onto a tiny kitchen. With some seats, there’s little more than a curtain separating your back from the bustle of Kiyamachi-dori street, but everything we ate was worth this minor inconvenience – heck, it was worth crawling over broken glass for.
There are few things in this world more slurpable than this shop’s tonkotsu broth. Wonderfully fatty, rich, umami and creamy, it puts the vast majority of London’s efforts to shame. The thin noodles were firm, cooked just-so, while the thin slices of char siu pork were moreish and lightly sweet. Due attention had even been paid to the cabbage – each and every one of the earthy and slippery leaves was devoured.
It would be a grave error to skip the side dishes. Bamboo shoots were earthy with a gentle musky sweetness, their texture slightly fibrous and then gently yielding. The kimchi was a little unusual, with a taste reminiscent of funky fermented bean paste rather than the tart, spicy sharpness I was expecting, but no less scoffable for it.
The highlight of the sides had to be the stewed chunks of beef with root vegetables. Although the tender fatty pillows of bovine flesh were spot-on, the immensely moreish tendons were even better with their squidgy moistness and the absorbent connective tissue soaking up the lip-smacking sauce.
Unlike much of the rest of Kyoto, Hakata-Nagahama Ramen Miyoshi stays open late well into the wee hours and becomes understandably popular. Even with the rapid rate at which most Japanese slurp down ramen, it can sometimes be tricky to snag a stool. Don’t be tempted to settle for Seiryu Ramen a few doors down though.
The only good thing about the tonkotsu ramen here were the firm, wrinkly noodles. The tepidly flavoured broth didn’t have anywhere close to the same levels of rich complexity as the broth at Hakata-Nagahama Ramen Miyoshi. Even the roast pork, fungus and onsen egg were underwhelming. It was roughly on par with the uninspired average level of most tonkotsu ramen in London and, thus, probably a meal of last resort for the locals.
Kyoto gyoza – Hohei Gyoza
Stepping over Hohei Gyoza‘s threshold into the small dining room (just over a dozen covers or so, including the stools at the bar) brought us face-to-face with a wall-to-wall group of belligerently affable Antipodeans. Hohei is just as popular with Kyoto-ites though, who quickly replaced the Aussies and Kiwis in a surprisingly swift and wholesale customer shift-change.
As with many of our Tokyo meals, the dumplings at Hohei Gyoza were so startlingly good that it altered our perception of what this staple dish, so averagely misrepresented elsewhere, can be. It speaks volumes about the value of restaurants focussed on a single dish.
The thin yet sturdy skins, supple on one side and judiciously fried on the other, came apart under our teeth and not our chopsticks. The pork filling wasn’t the star here, with the additions of either ginger or garlic and leek grabbing the spotlight. The bold flavours of both variants were immediately appreciable – a simple thing that shouldn’t be remarkable, but most certainly was in this world of piss-poor dumplings. The umami of the recommended miso sauce for the ginger pork gyoza complimented those dumplings delightfully. The mix of soy and vinegar for the garlic and leek variant wasn’t as pleasurable due its subdued weakness, although this wasn’t a huge loss in the end given the punchy garlic and bitter, supple bits of leek.
The onigiri were brought in from elsewhere, but don’t let that put you off – they were well worth having while waiting for your gyoza. The rice in all of them was soft and fluffy. The kelp version was suitably umami. While the fillings in the miso pork and the cod roe variants were meagre, the former was still reasonably meaty and moreish while the latter had a pleasing, gently spicy hit to it. The meaty and salted grilled salmon went down well with everyone.
Following our encounter with whole pickled cucumbers on skewers in Kawagoe, we chuckled at their reappearance, without sticks, at Hohei. They were only lightly brined and dressed with a surprisingly weak miso sauce though. A far better umami dish was the chilled miso pork. Tender almost to the point of disintegration, the gentle umami of the pork was neatly offset by a bed of sharp, vinegary bean sprouts – and I usually hate bean sprouts. It was surprisingly refreshing as well as gutturally satisfying.
A single clam at the bottom of a full, if small, tea cup may not look particularly impressive – but that’s because looks can be deceptive. The clam consommé was richly earthy and yet also had a gently sweet mushroom-like flavour, with the chewy clam at the bottom of the cup providing a chewy, salty finish. An exceptional consommé. Truly, singularly exceptional.
Hohei Gyoza is an unassuming yet truly wonderful restaurant that could easily getaway with charging twice as much in London and still have a queue stretching out the door and down the street.
Kyoto tofu vegetarian – Sagatoufuine
I have to suppress the urge to roll my eyes every time someone complains about how much they hate tofu. It really is a testament to my self control that I haven’t given in to homicidal acts of animalistic rage and righteous indignation. The tofu that most Britishers will have encountered is all about the texture and not the taste. To be fair, the squidgy, silky texture of such tofu is an acquired delight, but there’s a whole world of tofu beyond that.
Sagatoufuine is a tofu-vegetarian restaurant with two large branches on the main drag just outside the Tenryu-ji temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama suburb. This, along with a well-oiled kitchen and front of house, meant that the large set menu arrived with almost indecent haste.
Soft small-grained rice arrived soaked in a sticky, lightly moreish goo and topped with surprisingly peppery leaves. The star of this dish was, of course, the soft and wrinkly fresh yuba which was also surprisingly sturdy with a mild amount of elasticity despite its thinness.
A tub of ‘thick soy milk skin’ came filled with a creamy and lightly sweet soup that had been lightly thickened. The fresh yuba (or tofu ‘skin’, if you prefer) made a welcome return and was made even better by the umami and sweetness of the soy and mirin dipping sauce on the side. Pour the excess dipping sauce into the soup for a powerfully satisfying umami hit.
A deep-fried tofu fritter was hearty with a slightly gritty, grainy texture and wasn’t at all greasy. The taste came from gently simmered vegetables which provided a light earthiness that didn’t overwhelm the palate.
The tofu chawanmushi doesn’t look like much, but this savoury tofu and egg custard (for the lack of a better term) was an incredibly satisfying, multilayered concoction of rich creamy egginess and milky crispness with a deep umami. And yet, it also had a surprisingly clean aftertaste. This was a dish of immense character.
Namafu is a combination of a mochi-grade rice flour and wheat gluten, resulting in oddly smooth glops-on-a-stick that were also weirdly sticky and a tad gooey. One had a reasonably strong taste of sesame, while the other was too subtle for its own good with a restrained mung bean-ish quality to it. While not bad, the surreal experience of eating the namafu was neither here nor there.
Although the white miso soup had less umami than I was expecting, it did have a beguiling and gentle earthy sweetness. The pickles didn’t fail to impress either – crisp and sweet with a light vinegarishness.
Although the dessert of warabimochi had a similar texture to the namafu, this smooth, slightly gooey and somewhat tacky dessert was more pleasing. Its texture along with its light sweetness and starchiness won’t be to everyone’s taste, nor will the dusting of nutty toasted soybean flour. Still, if you keep an open mind, it’s a light and undemanding way to finish a meal.
Some of the most common complaints levelled at vegetarian food is that it’s derivative, bland and unsatisfying. Sagatoufuine refutes such nonsense in the strongest possible terms.
Nara kaiseki ryori – Hirasō
The ancient and surprisingly compact city of Nara is an easy and thus popular day-trip from Kyoto. The hordes of tourists that throng the historic centre of the city during the day seem to vanish by nightfall though, leaving it a far more tranquil place. It’s worth sticking around if only to sample some of Nara’s unique dishes for dinner. Hirasō, roughly 10-15 minutes walk south of the city’s picturesque five-storied pagoda, specialises in this traditional cuisine. That aside, it was almost worth eating here just to see Templeton Peck and Vicious Alabaster struggle with sitting cross-legged on cushioned tatami mats at the decidedly traditional low-slug tables in the semi-private dining room.
One dish particular to Nara’s traditional cuisine is sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves. The latter are alleged to have anti-bacterial properties which aid in the preservation and consumption of the lightly cured fish. Regardless of the veracity of these claims, the leaf-wrapped nigiri rolls were larger than usual and noticeably lacking in wasabi. Delicately fruity and meaty salmon-like fish, resplendent with a brilliant tangerine hue, was nonetheless pleasurable as was the salty and tangy mackerel-like silver-skinned fish.
Creamy, eggy tofu with the appearance of scrambled eggs was tinged with sesame. It was sumptuous enough already, but the extra layers of flavour provided by the earthy vegetables and the distinctively sweet goji berries were still welcome and didn’t unbalance the dish.
Another dish of tofu didn’t taste of much, instead relying on its two-part texture to please. Initially firm, then squidgy, it was akin to a clean-tasting savoury crème brulee.
A big gluten-packed vegetarian meatball was light despite its size. Sweet and small-grained, its somewhat oat-like flavour was enhanced by the lightly nutty, umami, sticky and gooey sauce as well as by the gently sweet and earthy mushroom.
Aju is apparently a prized seasonal fish in Nara and it’s not hard to see why. Judiciously grilled, the fish here was meaty despite its small size and had an oddly grainy, almost roe-like texture. It was nonetheless pleasing, especially with its citrusy taste emphasised by shiso leaf. Accompaniments of creamy tamago, sweet and starchy ginkgo nut, crisp lotus root and sharp pickles were no less accomplished.
As a long-standing opponent of congee, I didn’t expect to like Hirasō’s rice porridge and was thus surprised to find myself quite taken with it. Far from the neutral tasting goop that I’ve avoided over the years, its taste was highly reminiscent of barley tea. This quality was only enhanced by the popcorn-like taste of toasted, puffed rice served on the side and applied yourself. My dining companions seemed somewhat ambivalent over our sticky gruel, but this chagayu is definitely a congee I can vouch for.
Dessert was an odd, but light and refreshing dish of narrow glass noodles served in a thin, lightly sweet syrup that tasted a lot like orange honey. A taste reminiscent of the Near East rather than the Far East (to use geographically relativist terms) was unexpected, but certainly welcome.
There’s so much to savour and enjoy in Kyoto that it would be easy to overlook Nara’s culinary delights, but Hirasō’s take on this city’s quirky traditional cuisine is easily worth your time. Plus it’s hardly unaffordable at ¥3785 (approx. £26 at the time of writing) for our set menu.
Convenience store and vending machine food
The unexpected budgetary crunch for this trip meant that convenience store food played a bigger part in my diet than originally planned. Although comparable on paper to a Tesco Metro, the archetypal 24-hour Japanese convenience store’s bigger focus on food means that the various snacks and take away meals are more interesting and surprisingly better tasting than your average corner shop Cup-a-Soup.
Lawson has nothing to do with Nigella, but is one of the biggest convenience store (or konbini) chains in Japan. I regret allowing Templeton Peck and Vicious Alabaster to talk me out of dipping into the steaming bain maries of oden (stewed Japanese fish cakes). It’s worth downing Lawson’s range of savoury snacks – dried squid was chewy and umami with the tentacles possessing a suitably ribbed texture. A roughly equivalent bag of dried squid strips from Family Mart was less pleasing – far too chewy and hard for too little umami gain.
Family Mart’s sandwiches were a better bet than their dried squid snacks. A chicken tonkatsu sandwich sounds bizarre, but it’s not that different from the ‘southern fried chicken’ sandwiches you’d find in a Tesco or Sainsbury’s. The limp batter won’t set your world alight, but at least the moist chicken underneath was a meaty fillet with discernible muscle fibres and a light smearing of tingly mustard, all sandwiched in soft white bread.
A surprisingly more moreish alternative was a temaki-style ‘sandwich’, but with nori and then a layer of fluffy rice taking the place of the bread. The same moist chunks of battered chicken made a repeat appearance.
Family Mart’s mini bento-style meals pack a lot of variation into a small plastic container. Sweet tamago, a crunchy croquette, a slice of salty frankfurter and moist, lightly sweet onigiri rice balls were far more palatable than a supermarket tuna nicoise or falafel salad back home. Bulking up with an additional nori-wrapped onigiri, such as the vaguely umami miso pork variety, is pleasing enough and costs mere pocket change like all the konbini foods here.
Daily Yamazaki is a far smaller chain of convenience stores, but that doesn’t mean its cheap and cheerful food is any less edible. Umeboshi onigiri wasn’t quite as tart and sour as I would’ve liked, but that may make it more palatable to some and the rice was fluffy enough. Stir-fried chicken noodles were surprisingly good – moist chunks of chicken and hearty noodles all doused in a modestly umami garnish of aomori (chopped seaweed).
Given the hot weather prevalent during my visit, convenience store ice cream was alluring even if the reality was somewhat underwhelming. A Family Mart dorayaki was a disappointment once you got past the soft pancake with limply flavoured adzuki beans and matcha ice cream presenting themselves for your disapproval.
A lot of mass-produced Japanese ice creams seem designed to preclude any possibility of unsightly drippage. Ice cream sandwiches, such as a Haagen-Dazs branded matcha-flavoured option, didn’t just use a pair of wafers but encased the entire serving of ice cream in a wafer coffin. Unsurprisingly, the Haagen-Dazs effort tasted of mediocrity and compromise. An oddly ingot shaped Ohayo chocolate affair was even less convincing.
A better option, surprisingly, was Lawson’s sweet potato ice cream sandwich. Although the wafer casing looked more convincingly realistic on the box than in the flesh, it was still a reasonably charming recreation – especially with the smooth ice cream and syrup inside managing to stay true to the taste of the original tuber.
Imuraya is a company dedicated to making sweets and other dishes made from adzuki beans, a very savoury and distinctively nutty dessert staple in this part of the world. It’s a favourite foodstuff for most Japanese, but gets a decidedly more mixed reaction amongst most Westerners. Imuraya’s adzuki bean ice lolly would be a suitably gentle introduction for such adzuki bean sceptics. A crunchy, tame and pale icy shell with a pared back core of inoffensively moreish and lightly sweet adzuki beans at the centre.
The cool dollops at the centre of the Lotte-branded ice cream mochi didn’t taste of much, but were refreshing enough with suitably elastic, chewy mochi-style skins.
I could easily devote a whole website to the endless kombini vittles as well as the foodstuff wares available from Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines – both of which I only managed to scratch the surface of. ‘Ubiquitous’ doesn’t quite do justice to the seeming omnipresence of the Japanese vending machine though, which seem to materialise in herds on every street corner, urban and rural, with multiple brands having dedicated machines of their own.
The apparently universal availability of iced coffee from vending machines meant that I had no trouble keeping my caffeine addiction in check, even if some of the brews available left much to be desired. Pokka Sapporo’s Biz Time Black had plenty of kick, keeping me motoring along from an early start until after lunch time, but the sour taste was grim.
Kirin is only known for beer in the West, but the company appears to have several soft drinks available from its home territory vending machines. A salt and lychee libation was surprisingly refreshing, capturing the taste of the fruit with the hint of salt alluding to the crispness of the fruit’s flesh – a visceral point which obviously couldn’t be recreated directly in a bottle.
Royal Milk Tea is a smooth and refreshing but very odd cold drink. The taste of tea is tangential at best, with the brew dominated by the intense sweetness of what tastes like condensed milk but with none of the viscosity.
Hot items are also available from some vending machines, an oddity that I found quirkily charming. Hot sweetcorn soup in a can from Bistrone Select (a Coca-Cola brand) wasn’t just coasting by on its toasty warmth – it was actually filling with a creamy consistency and a natural-seeming sweetness that wasn’t overpowering.
Up next: Eating my way around Japan, part 2 – Wakayama’s Kii Peninsula and the Kumano Kodo