Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sushi and More in Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan

A display of plastic food models in a restaurant window, Kyoto, Japan (photo by Simone Cannon)

When I first visited Japan, I expected to be met with a sushi-fest of biblical proportions, but much to my surprise, sushi was only a small part of Japanese cuisine. For one thing, sushi is treated less like a sit-down meal and more like a snack in Japan, much like grabbing an empanada in Argentina or a hamburger in the U.S. For another, the food options in Japan go far beyond sushi and are much more varied and interesting than I had ever imagined. Traveling by train across Japan, via my Japan Rail Pass, I was able to try a fairly good cross-section of regional Japanese cuisine. Although the elegant high-end meals that Japan is famous for were a bit beyond my means at the time, I was nonetheless able to keep myself well-fed with relatively little money. Japan overall can be a very expensive country in which to travel, especially when buying food. In high-end department stores and gift boutiques, it's possible to spend between US$60 and US$300 for a single perfect specimen of melon.

Display of gift fruit in Tokyo: melons for US$80 apiece and apples for US$12 each (photo by Simone Cannon)  

Luckily, cheaper choices abound and, even with limited funds, there are many delicious meals available. Aside from sushi (which is generally served in much smaller portions than in the Americas), it is possible to eat quite happily and cheaply: udon or soba noodles, okonomiyaki (a type of delicious egg-based shrimp pancake cooked on a griddle), gyoza (japanese dumplings or raviolis), yakitori (grilled chicken kebobs), korokke (the Japanese version of croquettes) or shabu-shabu (meaning "swish, swish" in Japanese and consisting of meat and vegetables cooked in a type of Mongolian hotpot). All inexpensive, delicious and filling.
Unfortunately, many Japanese don't speak English, which can present a challenging situation when attempting to order food. Fortunately, the Japanese in general are incredibly helpful and polite and, in urban areas, many of the menus have photos of the food, names printed in Romanji (Roman letters) and have molded plastic displays in the front window of the restaurant of each dish available, so the only skill a traveler needs is the ability to point. Traveling outside the cities is a bit more challenging since the menus are often only in Kanji (Japanese characters), but the wait staff or chef will often suggest things that you might like. If you have a good sense of humor and are willing to take a chance, the experience can be great fun and can break down the barriers between local and tourist.   

A cooking class learning to make tofu, Kyoto, Japan (photo by Simone Cannon)

Once when I was hiking through the forests of the Kyoto hills to visit hidden temples, it started to rain hard and I decided to duck into a local restaurant. The menu was indecipherable to me, but I was starving and didn't want to traipse around in the downpour looking for a place with a menu in English, so I decided to try my luck staying where I was. There I stood in the doorway, befuddled and looking like a drowned rat, when a kindly group of smiling Japanese women took pity on me and invited me to join them at their table. I only knew three words of Japanese and no one spoke a word of English, including the waitress and chef, so I had to mime everything from "chicken" (flapping my arms wildly by my side) to "beef" (using my index fingers as horns on my head and mooing) to "noodles" (don't ask). All the while, the waitress was smiling, nodding and commenting in Japanese to the other customers. I imagine it translated roughly to: "I can't wait to see how this crazy American is going to mime shrimp..."  My attempts at animal charades, combined with my total ineptness with chopsticks and soup-slurping (de rigueur in Japan) had everyone in stitches, but after the meal, I was given dozens of little gifts, invited to an Ikebana (flower arranging) class and had three invitations to visit restaurant customers in their homes later that week.

Shopping for fruits and vegetables in a Tokyo neighborhood (photo by Simone Cannon)

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