A long time ago, in a prefecture far, far away, we first began talking about Japanese food. One of the things I decided to monitor was my weight because, as anyone will tell you, Japanese food is inherently healthy.
Ninety-three days later, I can exclusively reveal that this is a total myth. Yes it’s true that some Japanese fare is amazingly good for you, but for every one of those, there’s a fried menace waiting to pounce.
That doesn’t mean to say they aren’t absolutely delicious.
Take the okonomiyaki for example. The Osaka version is essentially a mound of almost every ingredient you can think of, tossed together with batter and fried, like some weird all-encompassing omelette. Being consummate professionals, we also tried the Hiroshima version, which is neater and has a bit more cabbage. So, basically a healthy version, right? What about the other Osakan speciality of takoyaki? Doughy, calorific little balls with chunks of octopus inside. A blind man on a galloping horse would tell you they’ll pile on the pounds (though only after he’d been distracted by the amazing smell).
No, the truth is that a huge amount of Japanese food has its Chinese ancestry shining brightly: a lot of it is fatty, salty and largely irresistible. Huge bubbling bowls of ramen, with islands of cabbage bobbing along on an oily ocean of broth are straight from the streets of Shanghai. Having ordered copious amounts of them from Japanese restaurants in Dubai, we thought gyoza (highly addictive half-fried dumplings) were surely Japanese inventions. But no, they’re originally Chinese too.
Actually, if you really looked at it, all “Japanese” noodles are probably have their origins from elsewhere, but today there are distinct specialities in regions up and down the country.
To our surprise, Korea has also made a big impression on Japanese cuisine. Some of our very favourite dishes like the Genghis Khan (tender lamb cooked on a DIY barbeque) in Hokkaido and shabu-shabu (a kind of bubbling pot in which you quickly boil bacon, below) with “platinum” pork in Iwate are essentially Korean traditions.
Of course there are many, many dishes that are quintessentially Japanese, and nothing more so than sashimi. The concept of eating raw fish stopped being shocking to us many years ago, so we’ve surprised some Japanese people by quickly declaring a love of anything that’s uncooked (and then again when we’ve been able to pick it up with chopsticks). Of everything we’ve eaten raw, it’s very, very difficult to pick an absolute favourite, especially when we’ve found ourselves in dedicated sushi restaurants, eating until we felt quite unwell, before resolving to eat our way out of the problem.
However, if absolutely pushed, we’d pick tataki in Kochi. It’s not entirely uncooked: the outer-layer of the bonito (or skipjack tuna) is quickly seared, giving a tasty black crust that draws the very best of the flavour out. When added to some zesty ponzu sauce, the whole thing is a consistent joy and the polar opposite of the blandness that we dislike in fugu and squid.
The beef, too, is so different from any other type we’ve tried that it has to be regarded as a separate entity. First there was the Kobe beef, and today we had Omi beef (below), which was cut from a similar cloth, but not quite as famous as its predecessor. In both cases, we will forever remember the incredible tenderness of the meat as something distinctly Japanese.
Speaking of which, we won’t easily forget kaiseki dining (below), either, the ultra-fancy regal cuisine that originated in Kyoto. Style always surpasses substance and the results are often quite mixed (pickled fish) but it always, always has delightful presentation.
Then there are the foods which are frankly a little outlandish. There was the triple surprise of fried grasshopper, raw horse and raw chicken in Nagano prefecture. Hundreds of kilometres away in Okinawa, I very much enjoyed tebichi, which is essentially a slow-cooked pig’s trotter. If it was in the UK, I’d only get away with that if I was a Labrador. Similarly, we ate gyutan (grilled beef tongue, pictured below) in Sendai. It was sensational, and I’m sure people would agree back home, if it was 1920 and we were paupers. All of this pales in comparison however, when we remember the “crab miso”, which we ate around a fire with the heroic volunteers near Ishinomaki, Miyagi. Actually, had we not been in such mighty company – and not have been armed with a bottle of whisky – we may not have been able to stomach the fact we were eating flurried crustacean innards. But we did – and it was actually pretty good. I mean, I’d never eat it again, but I didn’t vomit.
All of this food, and hundreds of other meals besides, have meant that no, I didn’t really lose any significant amount of weight – perhaps a couple of kilos, perhaps not. Actually, it seems curious that we haven’t ballooned, but I can only put this down to one thing. The smartphone that the endlessly astonishing Travel Volunteer team in Kanazawa gave us at the start of the trip has a pedometer which has been tracking our steps since day one. According to that, we’ve walked an average of 5.4km a day, often up steep inclines. So thanks to that, when our families give us a hug on our return, they should still be able to reach all the way around.
Ten of our favourite foods:
Tataki, Kochi (seared bonito)
Wanko soba, Iwate (endless buckwheat noodles)
Gyutan, Sendai (grilled beef tongue)
Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima (layers of cabbage, eggs, meat, seafood, noodles, bean sprouts and anything else you fancy)
Tempura, Everywhere (battered anything)
Kobe beef, Kobe (the world’s most succulent beef)
Chicken namban, Miyazaki (juicy chicken deep-fried in vinegar batter)
Genghis Khan, Hokkaido (barbequed lamb)
Teiyaki, Nagoya (fish-shaped pancake things that are typically served with sweet bean paste or – better – with cinnamon and apple inside)
Inairzushi, Kyoto (sweet rice coated in a thin layer of fried tofu)
And three we won’t be having again:
Chawanmushi, Everywhere (a sickly custard mix that contains shrimp and chicken)
Uni, Everywhere (raw sea urchin, but then any sea urchin would be disgusting)
The Japanese breakfast, Everywhere (fish with heads, raw eggs, pickled everything, soggy tofu, natto, and not even a hint of coffee – no, we’re quite happy to stick to toast and cereal).
Our time in Shiga prefecture was made possible by:
The unerring Ms. Hideko Tamoto, our guide, translator, driver and fantastically generous supporter. She gave so much to the project, but her conversation was invaluable: never have we met such a straight-talking guide, so unafraid to broach controversial and difficult topics. We may not always have agreed with everything she said, but that’s what makes for great debate.
The kind people at the Biwako Hall Kyogen, who invited us to come and enjoy a traditional kyogen performance. Had we not just seen and written about kabuki a few days before, we’d have covered it extensively (especially as it was a lot more accessible than its expensive cousin.)
Ishiyamadera, a quaint temple complex. Having just come from Kyoto, we were happy to find something so much more manageable, yet still deeply historic and spirtual.
The astonishing Miho Museum, which you can read all about here.
The homely Guest House AN whose Beatles-loving hosts went out their way to make us as comfortable as possible. We had cheese on toast in the morning – it was one of the most immediately satisfying breakfasts we’ve had in a long time.
The kind people at Omi Hachiman Cycling, who lent us some bikes to hare around the countryside. Check out the upcoming gallery for some pictures from the trip around Shiga.
Sennariya Kyara, for laying on a brilliant Omi beef lunch, and triggering this blog.
The ultra eco-friendly bicycle taxi service in Hikone. We felt fleetingly guilty at having a man pedal us around town, until we found out that he’s a life-long cyclist, and a far more daring traveller than we could ever be: he spent 7 years cycling around the world, covering 48 countries, and 40,000km across five continents. Unbelievable stuff.
The sleek Biwako Onsen Hotel, which has stunning views across the lake and is a testament to the best of the traditional ryokan style. Too often these kinds of places can be uncomfortable, but this one was a genuine pleasure.