The Land of Rice and Sake: A Small Feast from Joetsu, Niigata, Japan

It’s true. Of all the potential prefectures (roughly states/provinces) in Japan to be considered the “land of rice and sake,” Niigata often leads the pack. Of course, it helps that sake, the quintessential Japanese liquor enjoyed warm or chilled, is made from rice … indeed, according to one source, Niigata prefecture regularly vies with Hokkaido for the top spot in rice-paddy yield, and total area dedicated to rice-paddy cultivation.

Thus, with all of this hubbub about being one of the culinary centers of Japan, not just for rice and sake but for seafood, hot sauce(called Kanzuri; link in Japanese) and even B kyuu gurume, I decided to take a day trip from Kanazawa to Joetsu city Joetsu (上越市).

Hopping on the Hakutaka shinkansen, or bullet train, in Kanazawa, I made it to Joetsu about 50 minutes later. After walking a couple of miles to Takada Castle to check out its lily ponds, and a stop at a secondhand shop to rummage through bygone electronics, my hunger pangs led me to a restaurant called Gunchan. (Note: I generally don’t care about restaurant reviews, because I’m the only one with my taste buds. This particular branch gets a low rating online, so I guess my delicious meal was an off day?)

Niigata cuisine Joetsu Japan
Gunchan Restaurant, Jouetsu, Niigata Prefecture, Japan

CRAB MISO soup, seasonal fish sashimi and tempura, and a brisk glass of regional sake were just some of the highlights. Suffice it to say, I’d go back.

Bear Meat, in Japan?

One of my favorite aspects of eating in Japan is the department store.

Hold up, what?

Whereas department stores may be terribly dull in most of the western hemisphere, places like El Corte Inglés in Spain, and KaDeWe in Berlin, and many, many choices in East and Southeast Asia’s biggest cities do more than just delight the average clothes shopper.

Japan is where my first memorable introduction to department store food halls occurred, at the Daiwa Korinbo in Kanazawa. While living there for the summer of 2000, I’d get corn bread — that is, buttery bread stuffed with corn kernels — at a place called Don Q., and an apple almost everyday, always in the basement section.

Years later, I realized that Japanese department stores sometimes had food festivals in their upper floor event halls; some focused on a specific prefecture (let’s say it’s like a state or province), whereas others covered the entire country.

Last week, at a Hokkaido Food Festival — Hokkaido being Japan’s northernmost prefecture, known for its dairy, miso ramen, salmon, and melon, among many other edibles — I found an exotic (for me, anyhow) treat to sample:

Brown bear, known in Japanese as 羆 (ひぐま/higuma). Although brown bears were historically hunted by the indigenous Ainu culture, they also have greatly influenced Ainu life for generations, with both having shared the often frigid and remote terrain of Hokkaido. (link in Japanese)

n.b. bear meat can also be found in Aomori prefecture, the one atop Honshu island most famous for apples, but Hokkaido is where its consumption is just a bit more common. (link in Japanese)

Want to know how it tasted? Check out my YouTube video!

The Largest Sushi Roll I’ve Ever Seen

How does eating sushi in Japan tickle your fancy? It may not be the original home of sushi, but Japan — and depending on where you live, South Korea — certainly popularized it.

I’m certainly a fan of sushi, be it found in a sushi buffet trough, or at a more rarefied establishment (upon further reflection, that first bit does not sound enticing).

Whenever I was in Japan, I would of course take advantage of food being all over cities, whether in a vending machine in an office building, being given out in department stores, or a neighborhood specialty shop.

And then, there were the supermarket discoveries:

huge sushi roll makizushi Yokohama Japan
Giant Sushi Roll (Makizushi), Yokohama, Japan

I found this massive otherworldly specimen at the Mark IS minatomirai shopping mall in Yokohama. In Japanese, it’s the 海鮮大名巻 (kaisen daimyou maki), or the “seafood daimyou (feudal lord) roll.” That’s quite a makizushi, or sushi roll … is it meant for one person (me), or for a small village?

During My Last Visit to Japan, I Had Poisonous Fish

In the wide world of Japanese cuisine, Shimonoseki, Japan is particularly famous for something particularly controversial:

Shimonoseki - Sewer Cover fugu
Manhole Cover with Fugu Design in Shimonoseki, Japan

Blowfish.  Pufferfish.  Swellfish.  Delicacy.  Jimmy.  No matter what you call it, there are still…plenty of other words to call it.

River pig (河豚).   鰒/フグ, pronounced fuguふく fuku, which means “good fortune” and which serves as a pun on fugu, the official name for the venomous fish.

Hire me to remove the eyes, ovaries, and in particular the liver, and you won’t be around to read my next post.  Nor will I.  I’ll be in jail.  You really need to find the right chef at the right time.  Or, cower out and try the poison-free version.

Shimonoseki isn’t shy about its most famous resident.  I had never tried fugu before visiting that city, but a visit to one of Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores, called konbini, changed all of that:

Shimonoseki - convenience store fugu
Convenience store (konbini) fugu! — There really was a slight tingling sensation after taking a bite

Do Japanese convenience stores keep humans in mind? Fugu, bread stuffed with chocolate and margarine and pocket-sized cans of sake really make you wonder if we are their main source of revenue.  Then again, have you ever had the displeasure of breathing in at a 7-11 in the US?  Those stores must be one of the many layers of Buddhist hell.

For a short history lesson, immediately following the end of the Meiji Era (~1868-1912), Shimonoseki was the first city in the country to allow legal consumption of fugu. It’s not even the region where most fugu are caught; yet, due to its trend-setting stance on allowing people to eat blowfish, Shimonseki became the venomous fish’s main distribution port.

Anyway, let’s take a brief tour of Shimonoseki.

Shimonoseki - Karato Market exterior
Exterior Shot of Karato Market, Shimonoseki, Japan

Japan’s most famous fish/wholesale market is undoubtedly Tsukiji Ichiba (市場/いちば/ichiba = market), located in Tokyo.  However, for a much more relaxing yet equally delicious market visit, check out Karato Ichiba in Shimonoseki.

For which marine product are they most famous?

Take a wild guess.

Shimonoseki - Karato Market fugu sculpture
Is that a float? Imagine that during Mardi Gras

That’s English for fugu, and Japanese for fugu.

canned fugu supermarket
Canned Fugu and Whale Curry in a Shimonoseki Souvenir Shop

Someone went a little overboard here.  Fugu (Japanese-style) curry, boiled fugu in a can, raw fugu in a can, even whale curry tags along…who says Japan and China aren’t alike?

Would you try fugu?  What if it were a birthday gift?

Sea Urchin …Cream Cheese? (Japan)

If you don’t know what uni (うに/海胆 sea innards/海栗 sea chestnut) is, I’ll fill you in on a dirty secret- it’s not the roe of sea urchin, per se. Rather, it’s what secretes the roe.

Not hungry anymore?

I used to think uni tasted like how a durian smells, but I’ve grown out of that association, too. What do you reckon?

No matter how one feels about uni, what I believe to be one of many cool aspects of Japan is the frequent presence of food fairs somewhere on the upper levels of department stores. Those top floors are usually reserved for limited time events, say, jewelry or art festivals, a display of local shamisen, or a collection of typical foods from a certain region/city of Japan.

During my last visit to Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu — mind you, this was a few years ago — I decided to take a chance by popping in various department stores, hoping that a food fest would be occurring. Sure enough, there was a showcase for specialties from relatively nearby Kumamoto prefecture.

Whereas there’s always a nuanced selection at these events – in this case, watermelon sugar and horse stood out – one item stood out a bit more than the rest:

fukuoka-kumamoto-food-fair-uni-sea-urchin-cream-cheeseUni cream cheese, produced in Amakusa city, well-known for its sea urchin harvest. Quite honest to the description – in Japanese, it says “Amakusa uni kaiseki (a quick bite of Amakusa uni before a having tea)” on the right, and “cream cheese” on the left.

In spite of my willingness to try nearly anything once, uni was not a like-at-first-bite for me, way back when. I’ve since jumped on the bandwagon, and in all fairness, I’d spread a bagel or baguette with this stuff any day.

Kurume, Japan: The Birthplace of Tonkotsu Ramen

In 2016, I visited the city of Kurume, Japan, located in the southwestern island of Kyushu.  Kurume is notable for two major contributions to the Japanese economy: Bridgestone, the world’s largest tire and rubber company, and tonkotsu ramen.

I guess that’s why the noodles were so chewy.

Vocab check– the word tonkotsu literally translates as “pork bone,” with ton 豚 meaning pig, and 骨 kotsu bone.

A little backstory: it is said that in 1937, the owner of a street stall (屋台 やたい yatai) called 南京千両 (nankin senryou) – named for the Chinese city of Nanjing – wanted to combine the flavors of a a stir-fried ramen dish called champon from his hometown of Nagasaki with the trendy at-that-time dish of “Chinese soba.”  This became the first Kurume-style ramen.

However, the peculiar aspect of tonkotsu ramen isn’t the ingredients so much as the broth.  A few years after the Kurume-style ramen was created, the owner of another Kurume yatai called 三九 (sankyuu, like “thank you”) accidentally turned up the heat too high while preparing the soup.  In essence, the collagen-rich parts of the pig – e.g. its trotters and neck bones – formed a gelatin which led to the whiter, silkier, and cloudier qualities that distinguish Kurume tonkotsu ramen from most other varieties.

Sculpture Representing the Birthplace of Tonkotsu Ramen
Sculpture Representing Yatai in the Birthplace of Tonkotsu Ramen, Kurume, Japan

If you’re a seasoned ramen consumer, you may also know that Kyushu is famous for Hakata ramen and Nagahama ramen, two styles which originated in the island’s largest city of Fukuoka.  Though the Fukuoka types have adopted Kurume’s broth, there is a significant difference as to how Kurume’s ramen is prepared.

Piping-Hot Bowl of Kurume Ramen, JapanKurume-Style Ramen, Japan

Firstly, Kurume, chefs use a broad-rimmed cooking pot called a 羽釜 (はがま hagama), and reuse the broth.  In Fukuoka, the apparatus is a 寸胴鍋 (ずんどうなべ zundou nabe), or a stockpot, and the broth is not recycled.  Thus, the intensity of the flavor of Kurume’s pork bone broth is stronger.

Moreover, whereas the ramen for both Kurume and Fukuoka have a low water content, Kurume generally has thicker noodles as compared to the latter.

Especially when the weather is colder, writing about ramen warms me up, and makes me excited to attempt to sample all different types of regional ramen available in Japan.

Have you tried Kurume-style ramen?  If so, are you a fan of the unique broth?

Not Ice Cream, But Ice Crin (Japan)

While studying abroad in Tokyo years ago, thanks to an article in an expat magazine, I had come across Namjatown, in the district of Ikebukuro.  Namjatown was a theme park, with carnival games, arcade consoles, and food-themed areas, namely a gyoza (dumpling) section, and an ice cream “stadium.”

Ice Cream Stadium used to have flavors such as “salad,” “garlic,” and “beef tongue.”

Namjatown is still there, though greatly diminished both in quality and quantity.  That is to say, as much as I love eating gyoza, what really sold it was the ice cream  stadium, which no longer exists.

Viper (マムシ mamushi) Ice Cream

Ironically, I don’t eat ice cream much – it’s too good.  But just as I would to unique flavors of other foods, I acquiesce to seldom seen flavors of ice cream.

Kudzu (Arrowroot) Soft-Serve Ice Cream, Nara, Japan

Take Yoshino Hon Kuzu (吉野本葛) as one example.  Whereas to botanists in the Southern US, it’s an invasive species, to chefs, it’s a horse of a different color.  Kuzu, kudzu, or arrowroot, is a tuber best known as a thickener for soups and sauces, and as a primary ingredient in wagashi (わがし 和菓子), or traditional Japanese sweets customarily eaten with tea.

Fast-forward to 2019, after a stint volunteering at a restaurant on the artsy island of Naoshima.  I spent a few days in the small but extremely appetizing city of Kochi, where I discovered that ice cream wasn’t the only chilled dessert in town.

At Hirome Market in downtown Kochi, as I was weaving through the cramped aisles filled brimming with good eats, I was struck by this sign:

Ice Crin (アイスクリン), a Kochi, Japan-Specialty

The sign read “ice crin.”  What???

Apparently, ice crin is a Kochi specialty, made with eggs and powdered milk, though clocking in at less than 3% butterfat, it’s a bit less “unhealthy” than the heavy cream and milk combo that composes ice cream.  Ice crin is also somewhat crunchy, which makes it a cross between ice cream and shaved ice, or kakigoori (かき氷).

For some backstory, Japan had known about ice cream since the 1860s, when a Japanese delegation was introduced to it on a boat while visiting the US.  Although the frozen treat spread quickly around Japan, it was through the ravages of World War II, when certain foodstuffs were in short supply – in this case, fresh milk – that gave rise to ice crin.  With the post-war proliferation of cars, ice crin stalls were set up along highways, further adding to its appeal and convenience.

One cool aspect of Kochi is that it’s subtropical, so the local flavors that can be added to ice crin – yuzu (a citrus fruit), my favorite, green tea, tangerine, and pomelo – are all fresh.

Have you ever tried ice crin?

Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン)

Located on Shikoku, the smallest of the four primary islands of Japan, Tokushima is a small seaside city best known for a 400-year old dance called the Awa Odori, an historic indigo trade, a citrus fruit known as sudachi, and Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン).

Tokushima ramen may not be one of the better known bowls of noodles throughout Japan, having only been popularized at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in 1999.  It’s saltier and sweeter than the average Japanese ramen, generally has thin and soft noodles, and unbeknownst to me at the time, comes in three different types of broth.

Tokushima Ramen at 麺王

The most common broth is brown, using tonkotsu (豚骨), or pork bone broth, and a darker soy sauce.  Fried pork, spring onions, and a raw egg (already mixed-in in my photo) round out the Tokushima style.

Other types of Tokushima ramen might be yellow, due to chicken or vegetable broth and a lighter soy sauce, or whitish, using tonkotsu and a lighter soy sauce.   Also, rice is a common accompaniment to Tokushima ramen, as if there weren’t enough carbs on the table.

The Sweet Potatoes of Kawagoe (Japan)

Kawagoe (川越), a roughly 30-60 minute ride from major train stations throughout Tokyo, is also known affectionately known as Koedo (小江戸/Little Edo), whereas Edo refers to Tokyo’s former name.  As Kawagoe made it through World War II only receiving minor damage, many of its most famous structures, the 蔵造り (くらくり/koora-zukoori), or warehouses, survived:

Old Town Kawagoe, Japan

For that reason, it is one of the gems of Saitama prefecture, and one of the reasons that I visited.

Alas, there was another motivating factor for the short-haul north of Tokyo– the 芋 (いも/ee-mo) , or sweet potato.

“Imogura,” the Kawagoe Sweet Potato Mascot

That freaky fella above is called いもグラ (ee-mo gu-ra).  It is one of hundreds (seriously) of ゆるキャラ (yooroo kyara), or mascots designed for companies/tourism bureaus throughout Japan.  There are even annual competitions among said mascots; if you want to forego nightmares for some time, don’t click this link (in Japanese).

Kawagoe is one of the sweet potato centers of Japan; this was particularly important for the region during the war, as other foods were quite scarce, and more susceptible to pests/extremes in weather.

Although I referred to the character 芋 to refer to sweet potatoes, that character can also mean potato, or country bumpkin.  You see, the other part of Japan best known for sweet potatoes is present-day Kagoshima prefecture, on Kyushu island.  A section of that prefecture used to be called Satsuma, which begets another way to say sweet potato, 薩摩芋 (さつま・いも/satsuma ee-mo).  More still, loanword enthusiasts would appreciate the term スイートポテト , which literally reads “suii-to poteyto.

Stroll through Kawagoe, and you’re bound to come across numerous food shops and souvenir stores vending this hardy tuber; sweet potato noodles, a sweet potato-centric set menu, desserts, ice cream, candies, and who knows what else?

Fortuitously, I found one of my favorite sweet potato snacks, daigaku imo (大学芋/ dai-gakoo ee-mo).  It means college potato, and is made of caramelized sweet potato sprinkled with black sesame seeds.  The sign showing its name is written in Japanese above, and the dish itself is photographed below:

My time in Kawagoe was rather limited – if judged solely by the food I didn’t get to try – so I must revisit.  That said, here are a couple more delights sampled on that day:

Grilled sweet potato-coated karintou (花林糖・かりんとう).  Karintou are sweet, deep-fried  snacks made of flour, yeast, and often brown sugar.  Though they often look like things you’d find crawling across the floor, to me, they’re delicious.

Termites!  No, no.  Actually, these いもかりんとう饅頭/まんじゅう (ee-mo karintoh-man-juu) were excellent.  Manjuu are typically made with rice powder, flour, buckwheat, and red beans (adzuki), but these used burdock and carrot powder for the outside, and sweet potatoes inside.

Are you as big of a fan of sweet potatoes as I am?

Oden (おでん): Japan’s Wintry Snack

Tokyo - Oden (1)

What’s that floating by the cash register of many Japanese, Taiwanese, and Korean convenience stores?   It’s called oden (おでん), something you will generally see once the colder months kick in.

The big question: What is oden?  It’s a type of hot pot in which fish plays an important role, both in the stock – also known as dashi, made of kelp and katsuobushi – and as a bobbing ingredient.  Eggs, a starch called konjac, tofu, and various pieces of vegetables and meat commonly round out the oden basin.  Another ingredient is called shirataki (白滝) is sometimes part of the oden pot; it is made of the root of the elephant yam, also known as konjac.  This root contains a fiber called glucomannan which makes you feel full for a longer period of time.

Tokyo - Oden (2)

You can even find your favorite oden in a vending machine.  Collect all 1000.

From left to right, ganmo (がんも)- a disc of fried tofu with vegetables; gyuu suji (牛すじ)- beef tendon; tsumire (摘入/つみれ)- fish balls.

Now, we’re going to focus on one member of the oden clan: chikuwa.

Chikuwa (竹輪) is a tube-shaped fish paste cake.

Unusually, I noticed on a Japanese television channel a man playing a chikuwa as a flute.

Tokyo - Chikuwa Oden (1)

Okayama - Chikuwa Oden (2)Coincidentally, a few years later, while on a trip to Okayama I happened to pass by this statue of what else, Chikuwa Flute Man.

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