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Elizabeth Connolly travelled to Japan in April after developing a tailored itinerary with our travel consultants. Once there, she wasted no time sampling the local delicacies, octopus balls anyone?!
First taste of Japan
Midday in Asakusa, Tokyo, and time for my first meal in Japan. After nearly 24 hours without sleep I headed for the safety of an international coffee-house and chose my first meal: a mozzarella, egg and avocado sandwich. Plasticky bread surrounded a mound of soft filling, in a combination never before seen. While the room spun around me, I decided that if I’d come to Japan for the food, I should eat Japanese style.
So began my exploration of the delights of the Japanese way of eating.
Appearing at almost every meal, this staple of the Japanese table managed to be the perfect foil to almost everything placed on it, around it, or beneath it. Sticky grains clung together, making eating with chopsticks easy even for my unpracticed fingers. Was the highlight the salmon don (rice bowl) in Kanazawa market – a perfect match of vinegared (sushi) rice, huge strips of raw, cured and broiled salmon, garnished with zingy, fresh onion and salmon roe? Or was it the magnificent hotel breakfast in Kyoto that set me up for the day and brought together pickles, tofu, sticky pork, and both raw and grilled fish to partner the plain rice? Impossible to say!
Udon, soba and ramen. I could have eaten a different noodle dish at every meal and only scratched the surface of the variety on offer. The amazing Ramen Street high above Kyoto Station brought me a taste of Hokkaido in its rich bowl of porky soup from which I pulled the curly ramen noodles, slurping them into my mouth. The Edo Tokyo Museum supplied udon noodles in a light broth with plenty of greens, and tiny whole shrimp floating like pink jewels in the clear pool.
So many fabulous meals. The freshest sea bream sashimi served at dinner on Miyajima: in the morning it was swimming in the ryokan fish tank; by the evening it was soft and wonderful on my plate. The indulgent tuna sushi selection at Tokyo’s Sushi Zanmai: fatty, blowtorched or just plain rolled, I wanted every mouthful to last forever. And fabulous tempura prawns in a cheap restaurant in Asakusa: light tempura on juicy, meaty crustacean.
There were a couple of disasters too, of course. Pork tonkatsu: greasy meat deep-fried in greasy batter and finished with a nearly-raw egg was probably the low point. Then there was the steak meal that turned out just to be (very nice) steak – on its own, on a wooden board – a situation that my non-existent Japanese and the restaurant’s equally limited English was entirely unable to resolve.
Then there were the regional specialities: takoyaki (battered octopus balls) in Osaka, eaten from the cardboard box with a cocktail stick and fresh from the pan; Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki – a layered savoury pancake that transforms its cabbage, noodles, pork and egg ingredients to an unexpected and umami-rich whole; and Miyajima oysters cooked in 3 ways, each more delicious than the last.
Among such riches it should be hard to pick a highlight but in fact it is easy: the 2 slices of raw beef cooked on a hot stone in front of me and garnished with sweet and salty condiments. It melted in my mouth and the flavour was beyond compare. A tribute indeed to the Japanese style of eating.
If a tailored trip to Japan sounds like your cup of matcha tea, take a look at our Self-Guided Adventures.