A trip to Kyoto would be remiss without several things. While I accept that it is impossible to do everything, I have many more trips to make before I have, I will give you a starter list. You need to do a full exploration of the tea culture, including attending a tea ceremony as Kyoto is renowned for the quality of their tea and their beautiful antique pottery. You must have a kaiseki dinner and a proper Kyoto breakfast (my favourite was at Touzan at The Hyatt Regency). Finally, you cannot visit Kyoto without a visit to at least one sake brewery. Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
(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).
And now on to the final leg of my Japan trip, Tokyo. It makes me sad to type that.
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!”.
So, that is one of the challenges.
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.
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”.
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.
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).
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.
Lots of eating, and I will post more details on all of that soon.
For now, my postcard.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So Yokohama, well worth a trip from Tokyo. Do it.
Hello! I’m Niamh (Knee-uv! It’s Irish).
You are very welcome here. Eat Like a Girl has been my place to scribble online since 2007. That’s 14 years of recipes and over 1000 posts to explore.
Eat Like a Girl? It’s simple, we love to eat too. Anything else you’ve heard about women and only eating salad? It’s noise and misogyny.
But, we really love an excellent salad too. Shouldn’t everyone?!
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