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When in Yokohama: Visit the Cup Noodle Museum (Really, Do!)

The Japanese love a museum. They especially love a food museum, and are particularly devoted to and proud of instant noodles, ramen and cup noodle, which were invented in Japan in 1958. This convenience food, which was introduced to the world by Momofuku Ando when he discovered that frying fresh (Chinese) noodles extruded the water and preserved them, is a national favourite, and it has spread throughout the world.

Nissin, the company that Momofuku founded, is still one of the leading producers today (and really, they are so much better than Pot Noodle, which was one of the companies to copy them). Now, instant noodles are eaten in the billions, being convenient and cheap, and very quick to prepare. In 2005, 86 billion servings of instant noodles were eaten around the world (according to The Economist).

The first ramen, chicken ramen, was on sale in the shops at 6 times the price of fresh udon. This is in firm contrast to today, where the prices are surely in reverse. The cup noodle followed in 1971, and then finally, in 2005 Momofuku developed space ramen for astronauts (when he was 95 years old – what a character!).

There are two Nissin noodle museums in Japan, the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka and the Cup Noodle Museum in Yokohama. Their mission is to inspire people to be creative, particularly in the face of adversity (their 6 rules are: discover something completely new, find hints in all sorts of places, nurture an idea, look at things from every angle, don’t just go with the status quo & finally, never give up). When you hear Momofuku’s background, this makes perfect sense.

Momofuku had a meandering path to success, an earlier business had gone bust, and failure to keep on top of his taxes landed him in jail. His response? “I came to understand that all of my failure — all of my shame — was like muscle added to my body.” He persevered and became one of the worlds most successful and creative business men. 

I went to the Cup Noodle Museum in Yokohama, how could I resist it? Yokohama is Japan’s second largest city and only half an hour by train from Tokyo. It is a very clean modern city built around a large port, rebuilt entirely after the Great Earthquake of 1923, only to be destroyed again by over thirty air raids during World War II. A busy port city, and one of the few parts of Japan directly exposed to western culture in the mid 20th century, Yokohama is responsible for the Japanese pasta fusion dishes that they are so fond of.

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Eating Tokyo: Monjayaki on Monja Street, Nishinaka Dori, Tsukishima

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Nishinaka Dori in Tsukishima, also called Monja Street

Let’s talk about monjayaki.

What is it? It is often compared to okonomiyaki, I thought this too the first time that I had it in Tokyo 6 years ago, but it quickly became clear as it was cooked that it was a different beast.

Monjayaki, I was told, translates as snack cooking, and okonomiyaki, favourite style of cooking. Japanese readers, please feel free to correct if I am wrong. I tried to make myself understood but the language barrier can be brutal.

They are separated by geography too. Monjayaki comes from the Kantō region (greater Tokyo and around it) and okonomiyaki from Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka etc.). That is not to to say that okonomiyaki from Kyoto or Osaka are the same, they have their own styles, which can be very different (Hiroshima is most famous for okonomiyaki incidentally, but I didn’t get there on this trip).

The centre of monjayaki activity in Tokyo is Tsukishima. There is one particular street, Nishinaka Dori, with 75 monjayaki restaurants on it and the alleys off of it. There is even a Monjayaki Information Office on this street established by local restaurateurs.

Monjayaki started out as a snack that kids primarily would have. It is a lot wetter than okonomayaki and cooks very flat, and only on one side on a teppan grill, whereas okonomiyaki is drier, firmer and thicker. The ingredients also differ.

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After a very clumsy conversation at the Monjayaki Infortmation Office (clumsy on my part, they were very helpful), I wandered down Nishinaka Dori looking for one of the 75 that would grab me. It was impossible to choose. As I walked a lady from the office gestured that I should go into one that turned out to be hers, and her daughter spoke English. Result.

IMG_9604 Inside were several teppan tables and a bunch of Japanese school girls in for a snack after school. There were many choices, but I chose the traditional mentaiko mochi monjayaki, with primary ingredients of mentaiko (cod roe), mochi (bouncy rice cakes) with flour (a very light powdery flour), dashi (a stock made with bonito & kombu), worcester sauce, cabbage, noodles and agedama (bits of tempura batter).

IMG_9628 All of the ingredients are presented to you in a bowl, and the mentaiko, mochi, cabbage, noodles etc are poured onto the oiled hot teppan. They are fried for a couple of minutes, and then formed into a circle with a large hole in the middle. The wet portion is poured in here, and stirred about to cook it, before the other ingredients are drawn in. Everything is very well mixed in at this point and small bits of mentaiko mingle with the mochi etc.

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IMG_9685 IMG_9690 The monjayaki is allowed to cook for a bit, only on one side which crisps and caramelises beautifully. At this point, you really should get some cheese (you order it with your monjayaki). I added mine about half way through as I wanted to try it with and without. A generous amount of a simple melting cheese is scattered on top, and allowed to melt into it. It is finished with  rich dark brown monjayaki sauce and some seaweed, toasted and fine.

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The result? Heaven. A large kinda pancake with lovely savoury bits of cod roe, bouncy bites of mochi and other bits, all crisp and caramelised underneath with lots of melted cheese on top.

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Now, what can be wrong with that? Nothing. It is a comforting and rich slice of Tokyo life.

You eat it with a little spatula, leaving it on the teppan (which is turned off but still warm).

Happy monjayaki cooks, mother and daughter

Happy monjayaki cooks, mother and daughter

(I have a card from the restaurant somewhere but am struggling to locate it, I will do my best to find the name for you).

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A Postcard from Tokyo

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Shinjuku, Tokyo

And now on to the final leg of my Japan trip, Tokyo. It makes me sad to type that.

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Tokyo

I still manage to get lost near constantly. That is part of the Japan experience though. One restaurant that I really liked and that I want to recommend is down one of many tiny winding side alleys off a street. I asked for the street name and got the reply “there isn’t any!”.

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Sushi sweets in a sweet shop in Asakusa, Tokyo

So, that is one of the challenges.

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Kitchenware in Kappabashi, Tokyo

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Tiny branding irons in Kappabashi, Tokyo

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HAI!

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Bright kettls, in Kappabashi, Tokyo

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Plastic food shop in Kappabashi, Tokyo

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Plastic beer is a lot more expensive than an actual beer, in Kappabashi, Tokyo

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Plastic yakatori, in Kappabashi, Tokyo

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Plastic meals and levitating forks, inKappabashi, Tokyo

Kappabashi is a must visit for passionate cooks, shops full of kitchenware line the streets and excellent knife shops. There are even a few shops that sell the plastic food you see in all restaurants here detailing the menu.

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Things you might need for your restaurant, in Kappabashi, Tokyo

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Cutters in Kappbashi, Tokyo

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Knife engraving, inKappabashi, Tokyo

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Gorgeous Japanese knives in Kappabashi, Tokyo

I have been moving around and staying in different parts to get a feel for the city. Starting with Shinjuku: buzzy, blurry, bright and intense, this was where Lost in Translation was set. It is enormous and there is so much there including Omoide Yokocho, a network of small narrow alleys groaning with yakitori bars, it is also known as “Piss Alley”.

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Yakitori in Shinjuku, Tokyo

Tucked in the middle of Omoide Yokocho is a noodle bar on a corner that serves soba and udon. Everytime I pass it, it is packed. One lunchtime, I joined the queue with the salary men and ordered tempura udon, which I immediately regretted when I noticed everyone around me had soba. Nonetheless, it was very good, with a big cake of shrimp and vegetable tempura on top and an onsen tamago (slow cooked egg), it came to about £2.50. Tokyo can also be really bargainous.

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Shinjuku noodle bar

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Tempura udon with onsen tamago, in Shinjuku, Tokyo

The rest of my time here has been filled with seeking the best ramen, exploring the high end a little, finding tempura, monjayaki, tonkatsu, yakitori, gyoza and digging out where I had my first tempura meal here 6 years ago. I tried some Japanese merlot (which was very good).

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Ingredients for mentaiko mochi monjayaki

The train stations are underground warrens of food shops. Calbee, the local crisp company, has started making fresh crisps under Tokyo station and serving them with hot chocolate sauce and ice cream. Actually really good. I have always loved matcha desserts but have really fallen head over heels this time. I am trying to stop myself buying this extraordinary chocolate matcha cake until I meet my friend and can share it with her.

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Fresh crisps with hot chocolate sauce, at Tokyo station

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Matcha chocolate cake

Lots of eating, and I will post more details on all of that soon.

For now, my postcard.

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A Postcard from Yokohama, Japan

Yokahama? Yes, Yokahama. I didn’t know much about it either but when planning this trip I discovered that not only is it Japan’s second largest city, it is also only half an hour on the express train from Tokyo (I know, I find that crazy). It is also the home of the Cup Noodle Museum and the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum.

I had to go there.

A few things about Yokahama: it was the first part of Japan that was opened up as a port to the rest of the world, so it has been more heavily influenced by outside cultures than other areas. It was the first to have ice cream, 150 years ago, and has a whole range of fusion food which has spread throughout Japanese food culture. It also has Japan’s largest Chinatown (surprisingly one of only three), with 600 restaurants.

Cup Noodle Museum, Yokohama

Cup Noodle Museum, Yokohama

I started with the Cup Noodle Museum. I didn’t know what to expect but I was surprised to arrive at a building which was designed so beautifully that it could be a modern art gallery (by the director of Uniqlo, I believe).

The museum details the path to discovering instant noodles, starting with the Chikin (sic) Ramen in 1958 to now, many years and thousands of products later. Cup Noodle is a serious business in Japan, they are actually very delicious (Pot Noodle has given instant noodles in the UK a bad rep). Everyone eats them here and it is common to add lots of fresh bits and pieces like seafood, meat, egg etc to liven them up. I do this at home occasionally, it is (was) a guilty pleasure. Not so much now that I know I am in such fine company.

As part of the tour I made my own instant chicken ramen from scratch, the noodles, the seasoning, frying them to dry them etc. So much fun. We got to design our own package, mine is a disgrace, I think you will agree. I think I will recruit my 3 year old niece next time, she would do a much better job.

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This is a Cup Noodle CANDLE!

Moving on from there, and I was starving by now as I had been making food but not actually eating any, I went to the The Café at Hotel New Grand, the home of Spaghetti Napoletan, a fusion spaghetti born out of requests from western visitors for pasta with tomatoes. Originally it was made with udon and tomato puree, but now they use spaghetti. The spaghetti is not quite al dente as we would expect, as it is allowed to sit for a minimum of 6 hours after boiling to recreate that udon effect. It was actually a very good sauce, fresh & fruity. This dish is hugely popular in Japan.

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On from there through Chinatown, which has 4 large Chinese gates leading into it. The Japanese love pandas and bears and there are pandas EVERYWHERE. Lots of dim sum too.

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I finished up at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum which is an illustration of dedication to a cause, obsession and deliciousness. Mr Iwaoka, who founded the museum, travelled Japan for 3 years and tasted over 1000 different ramens. He chose what he considered to be the best and invited them to be part of the Ramen Museum.

It is set out like a part of Tokyo in 1958 (the year Chikin (sic) Ramen was invented) and 9 shops serve their ramen. The shops change regularly although some are there for longer. The one I visited, and it was so hard to choose, was Komurasakai. It is so good and so well respected that it is there on a 20 year lease serving a sublime Tonkotsu style ramen called kamamoto, that is loaded with garlic chips. The broth is rich but not greasy, somehow seeming quite light. Char siu pork is served on top along with other bits and pieces.

All ramen shops at the museum serve small portions for 550 yen (about £4) as well as normal larger portions. At 300 yen to get in (just over £2), it is well worth the trip. If I had time, I would go back to try them all over a couple of days.

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So Yokohama, well worth a trip from Tokyo. Do it.

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Eating Osaka: Okonomiyaki, the pain of finding it and the joy of eating it

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I have mentioned my lack of a sense of direction, coupled with no knowledge of the language and being thrown into what feels like a maze, finding my first meal was difficult.

I thought I should start with okonomiyaki. I knew where I wanted to go, Mizuno. I was told it was one of the best and research supported this. I bounded out of the underground full of enthusiasm, spent a few minutes under my plastic clear umbrella in the rain turning my map around and then asked for help and followed it.

Lost again.

I saw two girls and asked them. They were Japanese tourists and effectively, I thought ran away, but they came back two minutes later with a girl from a sock shop nearby (who still had a lot of socks in her hand) who spoke a little English. More map twirling. Then she brought me to the shop and 3 of her colleagues helped us twirl the map. One wanted to send me one way, another the other. In the end they all agreed on a direction and I shot off.

Lost again. I asked some people at a candied potato counter. One ran way, I was getting anxious, but came back with a map. They approved of my choice of Mizuno! Go down two blocks (the opposite direction to which I had been travelling) and go left for 3 blocks and then – did a complicated gesture with her finger on her palm, I had no idea – but I followed as much as I could.

I got there. It must be here! Where is it? I couldn’t find it.

I wandered some more and asked a girl for help. Bear in mind it was pouring down and the streets were empty. She spoke no english but I had the restaurant details and by now FIVE maps. She called the restaurant and gave me directions, again with a complicated palm gesture. I followed, I couldn’t find it, I was so hungry.

I gave up. I know I shouldn’t have but I was ground down by now two hours in. I thought, I will just follow my nose, and if I find it I will.

I wandered aimlessly in the back streets for a further fifteen minutes trying to find somewhere I recognised. I turned a corner and realised that I had been walking in an enormous circle. Super.

I crossed the road into Dotonburi again and within ten minutes had found the kushikatsu that I wanted to try at Daruma, easily recognisable by the giant head outside. A big bowl of sauce sat at each seat with a sign in english “DON’T DOUBLE DIPPING”. It was good, very good. I had quail egg, oyster, Welsh leek, chicken meatball and the original beef with an iced oolong tea. Come to London, Daruma!

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As I left I spotted the takoyaki stand that had had such a long queue across the road, and only one person there so I had some of that. Little balls of batter / pancake with octopus inside. The best I have had yet.

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I went into the seating area behind and rejuvenated by such delicious food, I thought to myself, isn’t life so much easier with just the right amount of delicious food (too much is like cotton wool for the brain, I find myself there too often). So I asked a guy there, who had little english, where is the very best okonomiyaki near here?

Oh! Yes, Mizuno!

I was startled. Am I near Mizuno? Yes, it around the corner. And sure enough it was. With a huge queue that I joyfully joined.

Mizuno. Finally, some really good Osaka okonomiyaki. What I have been looking for. I celebrated with some warm sake and had a bowl of warm tofu with sauce to start. Gorgeous. Mizuno is tiny, only eight or ten sit at the counter where they cook.

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I got the special with lots of seafood and pork, bonito, an egg on top, it broke my heart a touch to see him break the yolk, but that is how they do it. I waited 20 minutes, sipping my sake, watching, smelling and then I had a taste.

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Worth it, so worth it. I am almost glad it worked out this way.

Time to go to Tokyo.

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A Postcard from Osaka

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Greetings from Osaka, folks! 15 minutes from Kyoto on the Shinkansen (bullet train), it is a world away. Kyoto is all low (ish) buildings, gorgeous old houses and narrow streets. Geishas wander, lots of people wear kimonos, and there is a feeling of an old world ever present here. There is, of course, a very modern portion, but there is a cap on how high buildings can be.

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A quick journey on the Shinkansen brings Osaka, bigger, bustling, higher, brighter and a lot more ostentatious. Japan’s third largest city by population, it is busy but it is gentle by western standards, everyone is very polite and super helpful. Tucked in between enormous buildings are small alleys bursting with okonomiyaki joints and noodle bars. It is charming and delicious.

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I spent two days and nights there, a lot of it getting lost, but I do love getting lost sometimes, unless I am hungry, then that is a nightmare and I feel violent (mainly towards myself). I mistook the loop line for an actual loop and a journey that should have taken 10 minutes took an hour and a half as I kept getting the wrong train. With two enormous suitcases en route to Tokyo. I do this anyway, I have a shocking sense of direction which combines beautifully with impatience at times like these, so I can’t really blame Japan.

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Never mind, I found everything I wanted to and tried almost everything I wanted to (except oshizushi – pressed sushi). Osakans love their food, it was once known as the nation’s kitchen as it used to be the centre for trading for rice. Indeed, there is an old phrase “Kyotoites are financially ruined by overspending on clothing, Osakans are ruined by spending on food”. Although, in my experience, those folks in Kyoto love their food too.

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I left Osaka hungry for more and I definitely want to go back there. It is really close to Kobe too, so it could be an epic food trip of its own.

Ps. lots more to come on Kyoto, I just like to write my postcards close to the time that I spent there.


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Lunch in Kyoto: Confusion & Flavour in Equal Portions at Ujicha Gion Tsujiri

Street in Gion, across from the green tea shop, Kyoto

Street in Gion, across from the green tea shop, Kyoto

Sitting in a green tea café in Kyoto, I look at the menu and think, at least there are pictures. I had visited the shop below a couple of days earlier and the queue for the café had been insanely long, so when I idled past later, and saw none, I bolted up the stairs.

It is not uncommon to find that Japanese restaurants don’t have English menus, even very popular ones like this (although I was the only tourist).

Why should they?

This is part of the fun I think, even when there is no pictures, I communicate in whatever way I can using sign language and whatever else I can (pleading looks, clumsy pronunciations), that I would like whatever they think is good. It usually works.

Ujicha Gion Tsujiri is a green tea shop in Gion. The cafe upstairs is famous for matcha ice cream and crazy looking sundaes with ice cream, bits of cake, glutinous rice balls and sauce. I really wanted to try.

Menu

Menu

I was handed the menu and reviewed the pictures. I had yet to try the sweet local glutinous rice balls and also these squares of jelly covered in a powder of sorts (I now know they are warabimochi, a jelly made from bracken starch, and these were like a really toothsome tea jelly dusted with kinako, which is sweet toasted soybean flour).

So, I pointed and looked pleadingly at my waitress: this?

Waitress: No!

Me: Er, why not?

Waitress: This is a set menu.

Me: Ok, can I get the set menu?

Waitress: Yes! {always smiling}

Me: Oh, good! {relieved} I pointed again at the dish and said, pleadingly: this?

Waitress: No! {Still smiling}

This went on for a bit. A complicated dance of me, essentially trying to order the cover of the menu (even though it was about 5 pages in), I found out later through the wonders of twitter.

Waramibochi

Waramibochi

Eventually I got to order this crazy little but very delicious dessert of glutinous rice balls with warabimochi (that came with a liquid green tea sugar to pour on top), and a scoop of wonderful matcha ice cream. Because you just have to.

Fantastic matcha ice cream

Fantastic matcha ice cream

The room was starting to fill up. To my left, Kyoto’s very own Sex & the City seemed to be playing out. A guy dressed head to toe in bright pink (and really rocking it), a pink velvet blazer, light pink trousers and shirt, bright pink loafers, a pink man bag and pink phone was chatting enthusiastically with his girlfriend and to my right a couple sat down and ordered noodles.

Happiness is a green tea shop

Happiness is a green tea shop

NOODLES! I didn’t see them.

I finished my dessert and waited for the waitress. I ordered some noodles through my now established pointing enthusiastically routine. I had managed to find the noodles in the menu by now (this mental chaos is entirely supported by jet lag by the way, it is like oxygen to the flame of confusion).

Green tea noodles

Green tea noodles

The noodles arrived, green tea noodles in a cloudy broth with tofu. Light, lovely, flavourful. Dessert first, but who cares? It was all delicious.

Green tea noodles

Green tea noodles

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Japan: The Anatomy of a Kyoto Breakfast

Japanese breakfast at Touzan in Kyoto

Japanese breakfast at Touzan in Kyoto

When I first came to Japan 6 years ago, I remember nervously spying the hotel buffet, wondering how on earth I could eat fish and miso soup for breakfast. Even rice at breakfast time seemed alien. Now I am thinking, maybe this should become my breakfast routine? It is so delicious, healthy and flavourful and leaves you full of chutzpah to get on with your day.

My first three days in Kyoto were marked by wonderful breakfasts (among other things). The Hyatt Regency, where I stayed, has a wonderful restaurant Touzan, that serves a gorgeous local breakfast, very much Japanese, but with local flavours. I was hooked. When I first dipped that semi dried barracuda into the seasoned egg, I sighed, then smiled. It was dreamy.

Japanese breakfast at Touzan, Kyoto

Japanese breakfast at Touzan, Kyoto

Japanese breakfasts, when you first have them, are overwhelming, in content and size. An enormous tray of food arrives with lots of fish, some fresh, some preserved, some tiny, a bowl of rice, pickles, tofu, tea, more fish, more pickles and lots of tea.

Japanese food is fiercely seasonal and also tied to its geography, so while there are common themes, there are variations wherever you go. The Touzan breakfast is one of the best breakfasts that I have had to date and it is all about Kyoto.

THE TOUZAN JAPANESE BREAKFAST

Home made soy milk – so rich, fresh and creamy

Fresh tofu – Kyoto is renowned for the quality of its tofu, as it has very soft water (see also: green tea and sake) with seasoning including small fry fish and sansho pepper, detailed below.

Fresh tofu at Touzan, Kyoto

Fresh tofu at Touzan, Kyoto

Fresh semi dried barracuda with a seasoned egg – this was caught near Kyoto, and is dried for two hours which reduces the water content in such a way that the fish dries a little but stays quite fresh, and the fish becomes a little sweeter. Dipped in the seasoned egg, which was rich and gorgeous (I could swim in it), this was the highlight of the meal along with the tofu.

Fresh semi dried barracuda with seasoned egg

Fresh semi dried barracuda with seasoned egg

Kyoto pickles – Kyoto is famous for its pickles, and deservedly so. Aubergine (which in this case was pickled with shiso which changed the colour), cucumber, radish and gobo (burdock?). Really beautifully done and provides a lovely piquancy while cleansing the palate in between intense bites of the other dishes.

Small fry, sansho, pickles

Small fry, sansho, pickles

Small fry, rice and sansho pepper – I think baby sardines, they translate roughly as small fry. Either way, tiny delicious fish used to garnish your rice and your tofu, peppered, literally, with sansho.

Nishin, aubergine, beans

Nishin, aubergine, beans

Nishin (herring) and aubergine – the herring is slightly sweet due to the way it has been marinated and cooked. Herring is intrinsic to Kyoto food and is also served with soba, among other things.

Miso Soup with a beautifully soft and fragrant sesame tofu & yuzu. A bowl of rice. Lots of tea.

Gorgeous. I miss it already.

Touzan is a restaurant at the Hyatt Regency in Kyoto, where I stayed as a guest.

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Valentine’s Day in Japan: a totally different experience

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Valentine’s Day Chocolate in Kyoto, Japan – Honmei Choco, I think!

Japan is wonderful for so many reasons. I feel totally out of my water here and at once, also, at home.

It takes a few days to adjust, as it does to anywhere. I am taking my shoes off in the wrong places, and very clumsily, much to the amusement of the locals. Sitting for the tea ceremony results in a speedy dead leg and limping out, and drinking the tea with all of the particular traditions (and with the fear of offending everyone) will hopefully become easier soon.

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A chocolate teapot :)

Sometimes things appear inverted. Japanese people are so polite and softly spoken, I feel so bolshy by comparison. It takes care and attention to pick up on important details at times, so, I am quieter than normal (mostly!), listening, observing and learning, and taking a much in as possible.

Take Valentine’s Day, for example. On Valentine’s Day it is the woman’s responsibility to buy chocolates – and only chocolates – for the men in her life. There are two types of chocolates, giri choco and honmei choco, and in between is a potential nightmare, from what I can see.

Giri choco, obligation chocolates are given to the men that you work with etc. and honmei choco, true love chocolates, to the man that you would like affections returned from. The only difference between these is the price of the chocolate, and they aren’t divided into sections in the shops, they are all just chocolate. So you must be clear with your intentions by choosing a chocolate that is not too cheap but also not expensive enough to be considered a honmei choco.

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Solar system chocolates

Then you wait exactly a month until White Day, the day when men return a gift to the women / woman who gave them giri or honmei choco. The gift returned, if returned, will indicate his intentions.

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Very popular animal chocolates :)

I spoke to a lovely Kyoto lady about this, in detail. I wondered if it was as enormously stressful as it seemed? She told me that she had given her honmei choco to a man that she had an enormous crush on, but it wasn’t returned, and she was devestated. But, one of the men that she gave her giri choco to, interpreted it as an honmei choco (eeek!), but it all worked out brilliantly. He gave her a lovely gift in return on White Day (a ring but not an engagement ring or anything), they started dating, and then she married him.

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Adore this chocolate dinosaur dig, uncover a white chocolate dinosaur

The shops are full of wonderful chocolates for this tradition, I visited the Daimaru department store food court and also a wonderful green tea shop (Ujicha Gion Tsujiri), which even during the week had a very long queue for its café. They have a wonderful range of green teas and products incl fabulous chocolates and ice creams.

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My matcha honmei choco, gifted to myself :)

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…. and a matcha truffle :)

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A Postcard from Kyoto, Japan

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The Yasaka Shrine, overlooking Kyoto at sunset

Greetings from Kyoto! This is my second trip to Japan, but it is my first time outside of Tokyo and I am excited.

Kyoto, like Tokyo, is charming as you would expect, and a lot more intimate, with many more older buildings and a lot less buzz, but in a lovely way. The streets are gentle and calm and filled with the smells of great food.

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Gion, Kyoto, which you might recognise from Memoirs of a Geisha

I have been here for just 24 hours, and have already fallen head over heels for yatsuhashi, a floppy little triangular sweet that is a folded blanket of glutinous rice flour dumpling, filled with the likes of cinnamon or black sesame. I bought some to bring home, however, I doubt they will make it out of Kyoto. I tried it at Nishio, who have been making them for 324 years, so should know what they are doing.

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A wedding photograph I happened upon in Gion

Then the noodles. Lunch had to be noodle based and I opted for some terrific soba at Misoka-an Kawamichi-ya. I had cold soba with tempura. Simple but it hit every spot available. Perfect noodles, rich dipping sauce and light tempura with wasabi and fried shredded leek. My guide had a really intriguing dish that I must try: cold soba with grated raw yam, a raw quails egg and a very tiny bit of seaweed that seemed to be in oil.

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Shoes off for soba

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Soba with yam and raw quails egg

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All mixed up

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Tempura soba

No trip of mine would be complete without a thorough explore of the local food market and food shops so I made sure that I hit the Nishiki Market, a long sprawling market full of wonderful barrels of sharp pickles, all sorts of fish – dried, fresh, sashimi and pickled, a dreamy knife shop. There was also Daimaru department store food court which was terrific. A highlight was the obligation chocolates which I will tell you all about tomorrow.

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Nishiki Market

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Chopstick shop at Nishiki Market

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Amazing knife shop in Nishiki Market – Artisugu, who started making knives in 1560

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Candied sweet potatoes at Daimaru department store food court

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Tofu doughnuts at Nishiki Market

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Pickling fish at Nishiki Market

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Dried persimmons at Nishiki Market

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Octopus with quails eggs in the head at Nishiki Market

Kyoto has five geisha (or geiko as they are referred to locally) districts. The largest, Gion Kobu has 90 geiko, 30 maikos (trainee geiko) and 64 tea houses. A 90 year old geiko is rumoured to still be working there. It is impossible to access a tea house without a recommendation or invitation, but it is lovely to wander the old streets there with its plentiful restaurants and beautiful old buildings. A keen eye will spot a geiko boarding house and tea house, and luckily I was with one. I even spotted a maiko. Although, I was so engrossed with a green tea sweet shop at the time, I only managed to get a photo of her as she walked away.

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Maiko, just outside Gion, on a day off

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Two girls chatting outside a sweet shop in Gion. The board above their heads lists all activities for geiko and maiko training that week by individual.

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Curious cats

There are 1600 buddhist temples & 400 shinto shrines in Kyoto, not including the tiny ones on the streets. I visited a few. Some gorgeous, proud and bright, others more subtle and tucked among shops. The Yasaka shrine is bright and vast and very beautiful. With one of its pagodas dedicated to easy childbirth and a shrine dedicated to finding a great love match, it is a quirky place. It also seems appropriate given that tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. When I got to the love match bit, it was closed, which tells you all you need to know about my love life!

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Forget your troubles – bad fortunes tied and abandoned for the deities to deal with at Yasaka Shrine

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Part of Yasaka Shrine

I had a wonderful guide, Meg, who brought me around today. She is freelance and can tailor a trip to your most random of requirements as she did mine. I found her through the Japan National Tourism Organization (who are so very helpful – be sure to contact them if you do visit), you can also email Meg to arrange.

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Angry cats – I want one for my doorway to scare away junk mailers

 

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Okonomiyaki, Abeno & Abeno Too

Monjayaki

It has been a bit quiet on the blog front, apologies, I’ve had a busy couple of weeks. I’ve eaten out a couple of times so there’s loads to write about but there’s just never enough time! How London is that? I’ve been cooking too, so will blog about those bits and pieces over the next short while.

To start, I’d like to chatter a bit about eating Monjayaki in Tokyo and Okonmiyaki in London. The food in Tokyo is wonderful and varied, I loved it from a culinary (and many other) perspective(s) and can’t wait to go back, I hope within the year for a holiday. I had a list of things to try, I think I’ve mentioned it here before! One of the things on that list was monjayaki, a tokyo version of okonomiyaki which I’ve never been able to try in London. Okonomiyaki is frequently described as a japanese pancake or pizza and is made from eggs, flour, water and cabbage with anything else thrown in. The literal translation according to Wikipedia is: Okonomi means “what you like” or “what you want”, and yaki means “grilled” or “cooked”. Monjayaki is a more specific specialty of the Kantō region, and is made with more liquid than okonomiyaki – quite alot of very flavoursome dashi is used. The cabbage is finely sliced and mixed with the eggs, dashi and flour. To this is added pretty much anything you want, we had one made with cod roe and it was absolutely divine.

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Eating in Japan: Tsunahachi, Shinjuku

Tsunahachi, Tokyo

I was extremely fortunate to have a work trip to Japan this year and while it was a very busy week I did get an opportunity to sample some of the wonderful food and sights that Tokyo has to offer.

I had never been to Japan before but had heard a lot from varied sources. I have always had a fascination with Japan, from the history and clothing to the food. I went through a phase of buying vintage kimonos from Japan for the beautiful silk, but, until now I had never had an opportunity to visit. I had heard that Tokyo was a very busy city and was very expensive – even worse than London. Well, I live in London, and thought, really, how much more busy/expensive can it be?! The answer is it’s not. Perhaps London is the best leveller for world cities, I have been to a few and each one has been calmer and less expensive (I haven’t been to NY yet before you comment). Relative to London, Tokyo is actually quite cheap, this is attributed to their lengthy recession, prices haven’t increased in years.

So, on my second day there, still very jet-lagged, I was determined to go out and eat some tempura. I had a list of food to eat whilst in Japan – tempura, sushi, sashimi, okonomiyaki, gyoza, unagi (eel) and tea in a traditional Japanese teahouse. I had brought two guidebooks with me – the Lonely Planet Guidebook to Tokyo and the TimeOut Tokyo Guide. Both great but for food I’d prefer the TimeOut guide. I had planned to visit Shinjuku and spotted a Tempura restaurant in the cheap eat section, Tsunahachi.

I found it without much difficulty, it was quite close to the seven floor electronics shop I had spent the previous two hours in (camera window shopping!). It had a beautiful old wooden front and was really understated and hidden in the mesh of neon lights in Shinjuku. There was one person waiting outside the door so I waited with him. I quickly discovered that not many people speak english in Tokyo so I had to rely on my *extremely* pigeon japanese. I must stress that I didn’t expect them to speak english, why should they, it’s Japan not England! A queue quickly gathered behind me and within 15 minutes I was seated at a counter facing the open kitchen. The waiter brought me a menu, most of which was in Japanese so I chose a fish set menu and some sake.

The waiter brought me a little tray with some rice, pickles, miso soup and green tea. The miso was beautiful with tiny clams at the bottom. The rest was pretty impressive too. I saw one of the chefs about to fillet a flat fish and it looked very wet still, well, not surprising as when he stuck the knife in him I realised he was still very much alive and on my plate within 5 minutes. Harsh, I know, but the fish was beautiful to eat, really light with delicate white flesh. Next up were two tempura king prawns, also fresh from the tank, some green pepper and half an onion. All lovely, crisp and fresh but the onion was astounding, intensely sweet soft flesh contrasting beautifully with the tempura batter. I thought that this was it so finished my rice and miso, when a cake of tempura prawns arrived. It consisted of 15-20 large very fresh prawns and again, was very impressive. This was swiftly followed by some unagi (japanese eel) which was not unlike a white fish, very light, sweet and delicate. All the time I was washing this down with the sake which was beautifully dry and the perfect complement. I finished my meal with some green tea.

I requested the bill, expecting it to be a little more than I had expected given how much I had eaten. It came to a total of 2,000 yen which was incredibly good value, just under £10 sterling. The staff were very friendly and accomodating of my poor communication skills. I would recommend to anyone visiting Tokyo, it’s a very pleasurable experience.