Nissin Cup Noodles Museum in Osaka, Japan

Although Japan’s Ando Momofuku (born Go Pek-Hok in Japanese-controlled Taiwan) invented the cup noodle (instant ramen) in 1958, he was undoubtedly inspired by his visits to the United States in the 1960s to sharpen the concept.

After a brief stopover at the Mister Donut Museum in Osaka last year, I finally remembered that the Cup Noodles Museum was also located in the city. (any other carb-related Osaka museums that I’m forgetting?)

Whether it’s to wax nostalgic about your late-night college snacks, or it’s to see how zany the different ramen flavors have been, you might want to visit the Cup Noodles Museum to understand just how the one-time luxury food had come to be appreciated by the masses throughout the world.

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Butter Juice

Ah, the weirdness that you can find in a Japanese food store.

I suppose it’s subjective — something weird to us isn’t necessarily unusual in its home market.

But in this case, R&D (research & development) might have gone a little overboard in the drinks category.

Late last summer, I was investigating new snacks to try at a convenience store, called konbini (コンビニ) in Japanese, when my peripheral vision caught a glimpse of this trio: a sweet potato shake, a zunda shake, and some type of buttery drink.

Let’s go with butter juice; it has a catchy but misleading ring to it.

How did it taste? Hmm ….

Japanese B-Grade Food: Hanton Rice (ハントンライス)

In a country where food packaging and displays are meticulously presented, regardless of whether you’re in a wealthy neighborhood food market or standard issue convenience store, the same idea also applies to meals.

If you go to a high-end omakase (おまかせ・お任せ) — that is, one where the chef chooses your menu — sushi restaurant, each piece will be placed onto your geta (下駄), or wooden tray, as if it were a work of art.

On the other hand, if you’re in a casual place to eat, those chefs generally don’t slouch either. It could be a beef bowl, ramen, or omuraisu, but when presented to you, it still looks like an exhibit … in a food museum anyway.

This transitions us to the Japanese genre of food called B-kyu gurume (B級 グルメ). In English, it would be translated to something like B-grade food, and refers to cheap ingredients that “appeal to the masses.” Think carnival fare, fried stuff, and things that you might have dreamed of us once, but never dared to try in the kitchen.

Hanton rice (ハントンライス) is one of those things. Hailing from the city of Kanazawa, what started off as fried fish with paprika atop an egg and pasta has become something equally carb-heavy.

Curious? The more recent version has fried shrimp, fried pork, a fried croquette, and omuraisu, basically an omelette filled with rice mixed with ketchup. For toppings, ketchup and tartar sauce were thrown into the nuttiness.

Sounds too good to be true? Perhaps ….

Yuasa, the Home of Japanese Soy Sauce

As is the case with many facets of Japanese culture, soy sauce’s ancestors hailed from China. The earliest recorded history involving the family tree saw people fermenting meat, vegetables, and soybeans in salt and water or wine, so as to preserve them during the colder months. Then, during the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), Buddhist monks then experimented with fermenting soy beans and wheat, eventually creating a paste called jiang 奖.

But it was in the 12th century that a Zen Buddhist monk puttering about present-day Yuasa city, in Wakayama prefecture, realized that the leftover food waste from preparing miso could be extracted into a circus of liquid umami.

Last fall, I visited Yuasa to explore the birthplace of Japanese soy sauce.

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.

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