Monday, June 11, 2012

Things to try in Japan

Yes, yes, I've been neglecting this blog considerably. Nothing like a twitter conversation to bring me back though. This is not only for the benefit of @Lauren_Mmm, it's probably also a good record for myself because the below are things I would definitely eat again and again in Japan.

Before plunging any further into this post, I would like to point out that the following list is very, very subjective. They're merely things that I don't think a lot of people will recommend. Most certainly, it is not at all geared towards fine dining at all. In fact, it's very budget in some ways...

1. Yasuda Drink Yoghurt ヤスダドリンクヨーグルト
I know, the name is yet another example of the Japglish... Look past that, and you will find one of the smoothest, creamiest yoghurt drinks available anywhere. It is rather low in acidity compared with a lot of other yoghurts. Most department stores will stock this in their supermarket sections. Look for the distinctive navy blue packaging with a silver cow.  150mL will set you back around 160 yen.

2. Yomogi Daifuku, or Kusa Daifuku (草大福)
One of my favourite treats since childhood are daifukus, Japanese mochi with red bean paste fillings. My personal favourite are the Yomogi type, also known as Kusa Daifuku. Best eaten fresh, most department stores will also have at least 2-3 different Wagashi makers who will stock some kind of Yomogi Daifuku. Prices range from about 150-350 yen.
*Note: some daifuku are actually savoury, so be sure to ask first. "Kore wa amai desu ka?" (Is this sweet) is the easiest way.

3. Milk
After the milk scares of China in recent years, my family in Hong Kong has bought nothing but Japanese milk. Hokkaido 3.6 is a favourite, but I've come to appreciate milk from Kyushu too. Actually, I love Japanese milk so much, I've found it difficult to find substitutes in Australia - though few of the smaller organic brands are coming close now.
Meiji milk can be found everywhere, but think of it as something not that different to Dairy Farmers, Pura, and Paul's. If the label has a location, usually it's a good sign. Alternatively, if it says a number greater than 3.6 on the label, it's probably a good sign of a rich, creamy, full-bodied milk.

4. Omoide Yokocho (思いで横町), or Piss Alley, Shinjuku
It's a quirky little place, the famous Piss Alley, with overhanging pipes and more Yakitori stalls you can poke a stick at. The place is somewhat special to me, though. I had my first meal in Tokyo there. A little soba place called Kameya (かめや), manned by ojisan and ojiisan, open til the wee hours of the morning. Possibly even open 24 hours. I can't remember.

A steaming bowl of tentama soba really, really hit the spot, especially on a cold, wintry night, armed with nothing but a guidebook and basic Japanese I hadn't used in front of a real Japanese person for years. A perfectly cooked onsen tamago, with a round piece of tempura shredded vegetables, topped with finely chopped spring onions, in a bowl of steaming hot soba noodles. Just make sure you're hungry. I did have it on a full stomach once - the tempura got a bit heavy towards the end.

A bowl of tentama soba (天玉そば) will set you back around 380 yen.

4. Parfaits
I. Love. Parfaits. What is there not to love about fresh fruit, ice cream and sponge cake, all topped with whipped cream? Admittedly, not all places do the same fantastic parfait, but one can judge from the look of a store. I was lucky enough to be in town during strawberry season, which meant that strawberry parfaits were on the menu. The one in the photo below was from Takano Fruit Parlor West Shinjuku (タカノフルーツパーラー地下鉄ビル店). 

Above: Strawberry Parfait; Below: Strawberry Trifle, Takano West Shinjuku
Prices will vary and menus may change seasonally. Expect anywhere from 500-2000 yen. Takano will cost at least 1000 yen. Summer heralds peaches, musk melons and cherries.

5. Fruit
Japan has some of the best tasting fruit. Yes, I know, department store supermarkets stock them at huge markups, but the price is well worth it...most of the time. I have always visited Japan in winter, which means mandarins, persimmons and strawberries galore. For the top end stuff, head to the supermarket section of any major department store (Daimaru, Takashimaya, Isetan, Mitsukoshi, etc). Don't be afraid to head in; some department stores have 2 or more sections for fruit - one that is intended as gifts (v v v expensive! Think individually wrapped, gift boxed, then ribboned up) and another for more "everyday" consumption. Tsukiji Markets also have a great variety of fruit stalls around, outside the main seafood market.

6. Yo-shoku
Yes, I am talking about omuraisu, hayashi rice, curry rice, and so on and so forth. Feel free to blame that on my obsession with Japanese dramas, especially ones about food (I'm talking Lunch no Joou and Ryuusei no Kizuna here). There are restaurants a-plenty everywhere, particularly on the top couple of floors of department store buildings. These restaurants have usually been scouted by management, so quality usually is not an issue. You will also find an array of Chinese and Japanese food there, but don't expect it to be too budget. That said, they usually won't be too expensive either.

A safe bet is Restaurant Park, on levels 12-14 of Takashimaya Shinjuku. [Special mention: the kimono section of most department stores are absolutely stunning. Especially in places like Takashimaya Shinjuku.]

7. Soft-serve ice cream
Only natural that ice cream would come up after mentioning milk and yoghurt drinks, right? Yup. I love Nissei soft serve ice creams. They range from the ultra creamy Hokkaido to the sorbet-like fruit flavours. Look out for seasonal flavours, too. The Sofore (ソフォレ) and Hokkaido soft cream (北海道ソフトクリーム) are personal favourites. Or be like me and attempt to try every flavour available over 2 days.

I know, I haven't talked about ramen, or katsudon, or sushi... Given my past trips to Japan and being rather restricted in what I could do, there really just hasn't been that many opportunities to try every single thing. Rest assured, I intend to visit Japan again and again (and again), so expect more lists like this in the future.

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