If I hadn’t already been inclined to do so, my dearest friend made me promise to eat all the Japanese food I could and photograph it besides.
Start with the lunch counters.
Or no…. sushi. Yes, let’s find sushi immediately.
And what exactly is ramen? It’s not those bags of dried noodles I ate through college is it? Cuz yeah….. not really my thing anymore.
Tonkatsu. Udon. Gyoza. Tempura. Sushi. Ramen.
It’s enough to make your head spin.
I start with supermarket sushi, because why not? And the selection of sushi, and the average price point… I’m instantly ruined for sushi at home. Maybe even my Singaporean home. My only hiccup is that in Kyoto (maybe all of Japan), one must pay for plastic bags at the grocery store if I haven’t brought my own. It takes a second or two of awkward conversation while holding up the checkout line before I understand what the clerk is asking me.
That night at a famous restaurant in Kyoto I ease into my first traditional tempura dinner. Tempura is lightly and flash fried different foods (shrimp, vegetables, etc) which is an incredibly poor description for this hot, light, crunchy, fresh food.
Then there’s the entire ambience and experience. There’s only the most discreet sign above the door of the, but the taxi knows exactly where to take me. I enter a gorgeous small garden and am seated at a lovely bar around a chef and his instruments. The meal is like a dance, with the chef preparing items according to the pace I eat them. At first, as I’m completely solo I focus entirely on the food, and eat at a relatively fast pace, but then a lovely English couple is seated next to me and we get caught up in conversation considerably slowing the pace of my meal. The chef simply adjusts accordingly.
A beautiful woman dressed in a traditional kimono serves wine but also discreetly educates me on how to eat each course. There’s pulverized radish to dip in different sauces. And salt and spice to be added to certain bites. I watch a group of Japanese coworkers at the other end of the 8 person bar, where the women serve the men and raise their hands to cover their laughs.
For lunch the next day I go to a traditional tea house and have a “when in Rome” moment. Hello Kitty is incredibly popular in Japan… for adults.
Yes, this is going where you think it is.
So at the Hello Kitty Tea House in Kyoto, Japan I have soba noodles in hot green tea broth, steamed vegetables with Hello Kitty printed spices on a lovely side dish. Oh, and if you’d like (or you’re dining solo like me), the staff is happy to arrange a full size Hello Kitty dining companion for you. Seriously.
That next night I stand in line outside of one of the best Gyoza restaurants for more than an hour. You see I’m obsessed with dumplings. I have to be careful because when I eat all the dumplings I want I start to turn into one. But they are so good. So I have several plates of dumplings and cucumbers on the side (a common Japanese side dish which is fantastic!) once they finally let me into the restaurant. There are less than 12 seats in the whole place, but oh my it’s worth it.
In Tokyo I dig into savory ramen with the most perfectly soft-cooked egg, pork and noodles.
Or one afternoon after completely losing my personality while wandering about Tokyo I stumble into a traditional tonkatsu lunch counter.
No one here speaks English, and the menu, printed above the counter is in Japanese. But a waitress takes pity on me and offers me a menu with English. Ultimately, though, I end up discreetly pointing at what the Japanese businessman next to me is having. Not quite as sexy as Harry and Sally, but a sufficient sign language version of “I’ll have what he’s having.” It’s the way to go. Tonkatsu is this incredibly tender and moist breaded and fried pork chop. It’s served with a mound of shredded cabbage, sauce, rice and in my set – miso soup.
For some reason I had this impression that Japanese food would be interesting, but very foreign. Maybe too much sour, or bitter, which isn’t something I like in great quantity. Maybe there would be moving octopus legs. (Okay, okay, I watch a little too much Anthony Bourdain.) Instead, this was my delicious experience. Eating solo was surprisingly comfortable, the cuisine can be very subtle, but it’s also incredibly comforting.