Japanese cuisine is a case of the good, the bad, and the downright weird. Don’t get us wrong, we’re all about experiencing new cultures and testing local delicacies, but wasp crackers? No thanks. Here’s what we’ve learnt about Japanese food…
If you think sushi is just a slice of meat perched on a ball of rice, be prepared to learn. A $14 billion (USD) industry in Japan, sushi making is considered an art form and takes years to perfect. The Japanese term itamae loosely refers to the term chef, and to become an itamae of sushi is a long and often difficult journey, and it can take up to 20 years before an apprentice is fully qualified.
Each restaurant has their own secret sushi rice recipe so everywhere you go the rice tastes slightly different. The fish markets play a huge part in both Japanese culture and specifically sushi cuisine, with chefs rising at the crack of dawn to get first dibs on the best produce (crazy fact – the boss of Sushi Zanmai once paid $1.8 million for a single fish at the Tsukiji market, that’s how seriously they take their fish).
As for the sushi itself, that’s the fun part. You can play it safe with the classic nigiri, norimaki, or California roll, or get slightly more adventurous with gunkan or oshizushi. The fundamental thing to remember is that sushi is different to sashimi. Sushi refers to any dish that is served with sushi rice, whilst sashimi refers to a piece of meat (not necessarily raw) draped over a garnish.
Sweet, sweet ramen, the ultimate Japanese comfort food that no trip to Japan should be without. A dish that was originally imported from China but that is now 100% Japanese, there are 4 major soup styles: tonkotsu (pork bone), miso, soy sauce and salt. A favourite amongst travellers for its cheap price tag and country wide availability, you’ll often find the most delicious Ramen tucked away in a side street off a side street off a side street, so be prepared to work for your dinner (but don’t worry, the taste is most definitely worth it).
If you thought Germany or England had a strong drinking culture, wait until you get to Japan, a country where alcohol is completely accepted as a way of life. And man, do they know their booze. Let’s start with beer, the most popular drink. You’ve probably heard of Asahi, but the lesser known Kirin, Suntory and Sapporo are equally good. There’s also happoshu, which is a low malt beer, so slightly lighter than your regular, plus due to its lower malt content, it’s taxed differently and sold at a lower price. Then there’s sake (rice wine) (“sake” is also the general Japanese term for alcohol), which is brewed using rice water and white koji mold as the main ingredients. Be warned, sake is LETHAL – it typically has a 10-20% alcohol content. Whiskey also plays a big part in Japanese drinking and is often served on the rocks or over ice, or you can try a whiskey highball for a slightly less intense flavour. Finally, plum wine, for those who like something a little sweeter. Plum wine is made from Japanese plums, sugar, shochu and nihonshu and has a much lower alcohol content to all of the above.
Yes these really do exist. The senbei, which is a Japanese style of rice cracker, has had wasps added to it for added flavour. It’s also meant to be good for your health (we’re guessing as long as you don’t get stung…).
PLACENTA 10000 JELLY DRINK
I’m feeling thirsty, maybe I’ll have a drink of placenta…said no one, ever. That is, unless you’re a Japanese lady on the hunt for eternal youth, and then you’re totally game. The placenta 10000 drink is in fact pig placenta that is completely odourless except for a slight scent of peaches, and is a hugely popular drink choice. Whatever floats your boat, I guess…
What goes well with a nice cold beer? Oh, just a bag of fried crabs.
BLACK SULPHUR EGGS
A speciality of the active sulphur vents of the Hakone region, the eggs are hard boiled in the hot springs and as such turn black and smell sulphuric. Eating them is said to add seven years to your life, but that’s if you can get over the seriously eggy smell!
Yep, you heard right. Curry infused lemonade is actually real. And it’s gross.
THE DOWNRIGHT WEIRD
From robots fighting to Alcatraz themed dining, Japan has a serious thing for theme restaurants. Probably the most famous is of course the legendary robot restaurant (think metallic bikini clad ladies screaming and banging drums, mad LED light shows, glow sticks for days and robots here, there and everywhere), but the Calico Cat Café (you basically sit in a room with lots of cats), the Cannibalistic café (you eat “people”) and the Alcatraz themed café (nurses feed you prison food then handcuff you) are all worthy contenders for the most bat shit crazy and fabulous theme restaurant Japan has to offer.
Supposedly easier to stack in boxes than their round counterparts, the square watermelons are grown in a box to force their shape. Most crazy of all, they are sold for at least $100 a pop!
DRINK WITH CAUTION
‘If you can think it, you can vend it’ seems to be the logic behind Japan’s obsession with vending machines. From canned meals to floral arrangements, its seems the possibilities of the vending machine are endless. Pick up some underwear, a frozen meal, some fresh eggs or even a beer – that’s almost a full weekly shop!
Want to discover Japan for yourself? Go there with Contiki on: