Reub's journey

12 July 2012

Japanese food

Green tea ice cream
So, the thing about Japanese food is that sometimes you know exactly what you're eating.

But often you don't. I never did figure out what those purple things were, but they were pretty.

Japanese breakfast: top left, cold fried tofu, then  mountain yam, salmon & pickle,  tart red sauce, green seaweed veggie, egg, plum and always miso soup.
Prettiness matters with Japanese food, in a way that it doesn't here in the US.

Tuna sashimi on the left (raw tuna), teeny-tiny white things with black eyes in the middle, and ??? on the right.

Dried bonita-tuna flakes are sprinkled on lots of things. This also contains those tiny white fish. See? They do have little black eyes.

Japanese friends treated us to a wonderful dinner at their favorite restaurant, and this was the sushi that they ordered. Very fancy. The fish was probably swimming in the ocean 24 hours ago.

They ordered this too: it's smelt. We used to have this in Wisconsin. I was surprised to see it there, fried up just the same as I had it decades ago, and you eat the heads and all just like back home. John, not raised in a fish-eating family, never really took to it in Wisconsin, so he wasn't terribly enthusiastic to see it in Japan.

Our friends had their 8-year-old with them, and this is what she ordered. Fries!

This appears to be some kind of bean-based sweet, wrapped in an oak leaf, and for sale in the market in Kyoto.

These are marzipan knock-offs. Don't be fooled. They're made out of beans too.

I took this photo in the market because I thought it showed a lot of cool, mysterious salad-y things which (except for the beans...wait...are those beans?) I didn't recognize.

So much of the food is from the ocean; I have a zillion photos of the seafood markets in Kyoto and Tokyo, but maybe I can show those another day. 

For lunch on a hot humid day: cold soba noodles for me.

But John preferred his hot. They're messy, so bibs were provided.

And now it's time to talk about the haute cuisine of Japan, and the meals-of-the-trip that I most eagerly anticipated. We spent two nights in a Kyoto ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, bathing in the hot communal bath each night, then-in our robes-being served an amazing dinner by a beautiful kimono-clad woman. We had kaisecki the first night, and shabu-shabu the second.

The kaisecki dinner had 14 courses, small servings on unique plates chosen to highlight the food, not to match the other plates.

To prepare for this dinner I read Untangling My Chopsticks by V.A. Riccardi. The author went to Japan in the 80's to learn the art of kaisecki cuisine. In this book I read that the curled shrimp represents the wish to live to old age, long enough to have a curved back like so many of the elderly in Japan who suffer from osteoporosis. Well gee, I'm not so sure I want that, but this was a beautiful shrimp, every leg and tentacle intact.

Kaisecki must include something fried: tempura shrimp and peppers.

This salt-encrusted little fish was so gorgeous, somehow broiled into the position of swimming, and accompanied by a slender stalk of ginger. ooooooooooooh.

I loved the way these kaisecki veggies looked in their black dish. What a dinner.

And now: shabu-shabu, hot-pot, introduced to Japan in the 19th century from China.

The hot pot, boiling water, is on the right. These two lovely ladies set up everything,

including the pickles, sauces, sashimi, and rice.

Then they presented us with this plate of veggies,

and this plate of thinly-sliced marbled beef.  With chopsticks we poached things one at a time, dipped them in sauce and ate them. It was fabulous.

We ate Japanese food every day until nearly the last day. And then at last, exhausted by the walking,  the heat and humidity, the long day at the National Museum in Tokyo, the grind of public transportation, we came upon one of the ubiquitous Starbucks. An iced coffee and a blueberry scone. It was all over.


  1. this is stunning. what an adjustment, having this beautiful food for breakfast!!! and the inn dinners...oh my...that little fish that looked as though it were swimming? wow. and i've actually had shabu shabu!! how many things can you cross off of your list of foods to eat?

  2. the presentation is beautiful, but i would have a very difficult time eating most. don't like fish, can't eat sushi. i'd do okay w/ veggies and soup, maybe. :) too funny to see smelt! :)

  3. Great post! The pictures are all wonderful (they brought back many memories!), but that fish that looked to be swimming was really something else. I don't think I would have wanted to eat it looking so lively. In our year there, I probably went to Starbucks more than I have in the entire rest of my life. We had one in Omuta.

  4. Fascinating! But there's too many raw foods and things with, no, no! Can't do it. I enjoyed your post, tho! Lots of color and interestingness... :)

  5. They sure do know how to make food look appealing.. even when in reality, I don't think too much of that would appeal to me on a regular basis. I like the idea of selecting the dish to compliment the food rather than to have a matching set.

  6. I loved this, all the food so artistic even if you don't know what it is. My brother told me that the only way to eat in Japan (and China) is to never ask what it is.

  7. Slim: The breakfasts were very different from what I'm used to (cereal, banana, coffee), so I had to adjust my thinking a bit. Funny you should mention the list of 100 foods! I thought about it in Japan, and now I can definitely cross off several things.

    twg: I was never one for sushi, but decided that I would have to change my ways for this trip. While we were in Akita we only had sushi once, and that was because our friends took us to that restaurant. We ate a lot of noodles.

    Chrystal: John and I were constantly wishing you and Ben were there. You could have explained a lot! I am relieved to hear you admit to Starbucks; I felt slightly guilty caving to that after less than 2 weeks.

    Gail: One has to wonder if raw food is 100% safe. I never thought I could eat that much raw fish! But you know, when in Rome...

    Hilary: The food was a sort of art, truly it was. In order to enjoy Japanese food, though. you have to like seafood and pickled things; that's not for everybody.

    Ellen: Your brother's advice is probably a good strategy! What's weird is not to know if something is plant or animal; just forget about it & try it is the best thing.

    ALRN: I can see that you are going to love your future trip to Japan!

  8. Wonderful! I am deeply green with envy. It is probably best that I have not gone there yet because I just would not leave. Beautiful post.

  9. Well Kerry,looks like you ate everything except whales. Beautiful presentation of Japanese dishes - think you nearly covered everything the Japanese eat:) But none of this stuff for me a staunch & strict vegetarian Hindu. It is considered a sin to even look at such stuff(lol).
    Coming to communal baths wasn't it embarrassing? From what I know you need be stark naked to get into these baths. Maybe my understanding is wrong.

  10. Laoch: Ha! I think you would have appreciated the food, especially since you already know something about it & you are an adventurous eater. It's on the expensive side though, so eventually you would be forced to come back to Chicago, land of good ethnic foods.

    RR: Japan is not the easiest place for vegetarians. And now you must atone for looking at the pictures in this post! :) All of that raw tuna must be revolting, and I don't blame you.

    I was worried about the baths! Who wants to sit stark naked in front of strangers? Even if they are all your same sex? Not me. The ryokan where we stayed had private "family baths" that we signed up for. So it was just a steaming hot little room with a deep bath, and wooden stools & buckets next to some taps (you have to get clean before you get in the bath). So it was John & me, no strangers. It was like taking a sauna.

  11. Alex! Welcome! Ed and Reub are sound asleep right now but if you stick around I'll wake them up.


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