Published: October 3rd 2011October 3rd 2011
This was the best sushi place I've ever been to-tiny local place, off the beaten track.
Food in Japan is something else…here follows a lighting quick aperitif for those who might be interested. Part 1 involves what you can get your laughing gear involved with if you go out. Part 2 will be what ‘we’ eat at home. Take off your blinkers, it's not all (or in fact quite rarely) sushi, and open your mind! Welcome to a new world. I knew very little about Japanese food before I made it out here — there's so little in the UK bar the odd sushi bar — and what I found was so much more varied and interesting than I'd expected. Freshness and seasonality are key, which means you can't go far wrong. Izakayas
The best place to eat out in Japan is the ‘izakaya’. These are Japan’s pubs, sort of, and do a far better line in food than those at home (acknowledging, though, that our pub grub has improved immensely in the last decade).
You HAVE to eat here, you can’t just drink, so they all serve an obligatory starter when you order the first round. The rest of the menu is then optional, but to avoid it would limit the love in your life.
My all time favourite- partially cooked octopus chunks. Nectar!
Izakayas are very social; you order loads of different dishes and share them with your friends. This means you can cast your net widely across the menu, rather than limiting yourself to one or two choices. The same thing goes for most meals at home, too, rather than having your own food (territory?!) as we tend to. (It does have the down side, though, of more washing up!)
The very best izakayas are the individual, local jobs, but these are unfortunately fairly inaccessible to the traveller unless you’re very brave or have Japanese friends/family: the menus are obviously indecipherable if you can't read Japanese, and the level of English in the staff is unlikely to be of any help. The best thing about the local places is that the friendly ‘master’ will gladly make recommendations, and sometimes do you something off the menu. They tend to serve things slightly off the beaten track, too, their own takes on classics as well as personal creations. There are two particular izakayas that we’ve been going to for a while, and we always do very well out of them. There are also major chains, of which very few — if any —are below
You almost don't want to eat it, it's so pretty!
par. They tend or have pictures on the menus, so are more user/foreigner friendly, as you can just prod your stubby digits at things you want. Something you do get used to in Japan is that you will virtually never have a bad meal out- I can count probably three in five years, and literally hundreds of attempts (eating out is generally quite inexpensive). Also, the service in shops and eating places is always brilliant; I have travelled a bit, and nowhere comes close, unless you really up the 'degree of fancy'. Kaiseki Ryouri
Kaiseki Ryouri is the upper end of food in Japan, somewhat akin to nouvelle cuisine, in that there are lots of little courses. You get it when you stay at a ryoukan (Japanese inn, an experience in itself, look up my kinosaki or amano hashidate blogs), or go to fancier restaurants. This is special occasion stuff, more formal. We had two on our last trip — one (a memorial lunch) was delivered to the house — and the other, for a wedding, was eaten out. The presentation is something else, each dish is a little masterpiece, and courses can consist of a few dishes each
You drink the soup in little cups, then finish off the prawn and veggies later.
Cafes often do really good lunches, especially of you take one of the set menus, and these are generally great value. The food tends to be light and can be quite international- pastas, noodles, (mild) curries, as well as more standard staples. The traditional cafe, or 'kissaten' is similar to the old-style coffee houses that you might have found in London or Amsterdam (not coffee shops!) in times gone by. Dark wooden counters and almost German Bierkeller decor, seriously good coffee, slices of cake- and that's about it. Boozes
As for drinking, draft beer is by far the best accompaniment, and preferably in insensible quantities- Japanese beer is truly excellent, especially anything by Kirin and Sapporo. Bottles are good, too, and cans are cheaper. (From what I can gather, they don't line cans in Japan, so you can get a slight metallic tinge.) Japanese beer is mostly lager (although dark beers — not stouts — are quite common), but with smaller bubbles, so it’s lighter on the touch and doesn't seem to fill you with gas as much as the British/Dutch/Danish junk we get in the UK. Sake — hot or cold (I prefer the cold,
it tends to get me drunk less rapidly!) — is also ubiquitous. It’s usually quite dry and sweet by our standards, and is a little thicker in texture than wine from grapes. It usually comes in a small jug with thimble-sized glasses or cups. The other regular act is Shouchu, which is higher up in the alcohol stakes, and can be made from all sorts- potatoes, rice, corn and so on. For alcopop or alco-free afficionadoes, there are all sorts of fruity concoctions available. Japanese people often drink Oolong, barley, or black bean tea with meals. Green tea finishes off most meals; the fancy stuff — 'matcha' — that you might associate with ceremonies is less commonly drunk. (Keep an eye out for matcha ice cream, though, which is ace.) Sushi or Sashimi?
It's a bit patronising to say it, as so many people know by now, but raw fish by itself is known as sashimi. Sushi refers to the vinegared rice that the fish (or sometimes egg slices) sometimes sits on. Sashimi is eaten all the time; sushi tends to be a bit more special occasion, almost never cooked at home (but delivered when you have guests), unless
This was at a 'kissaten', a brilliant little out-of-the-way one.
you go out to the cheap kaiten-sushi (sushi train) places. Sushi doesn't always look like the thumb-sized rice patties we associate with it- there are different kinds, including a big plate of sushi with bits scattered over the top.
There are more photos below