A Sake Buffet in Niigata, Japan

Niigata is arguably Japan’s home of rice and nihonshu, or as many of us like to call it, sake. You see, sake really refers to any liquor, whereas nihonshu more specific to rice wine.

Last month, I traveled to Niigata to check out the food scene for a long weekend. Unbeknownst to me, there was a particularly unique spot to indulge in the region’s most famous alcohol. It’s called Ponshukan, and it’s a place to try a variety of nihonshu from throughout Niigata prefecture.

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?

Japanese Oumi Beef (近江牛): Kobe Beef’s Ancestor

You may be familiar with Japan’s legendary Kobe beef.  The lofty bovine must be of the Tajima breed, have spent its entire life in Hyogo prefecture, and be treated to massages and a round of Sapporo beers to increase its appetite.  That last part may only be a half-truth, but if you’re into eating meat… I might recommend Sendai beef instead.  Slightly less marbling, but it still leaves you with a melt-in-your-mouth 食感 (shokkan), or mouth feel.

Sendai & Kobe Beef, New York Grill, Park Hyatt Tokyo, Japan

But if you want to dig deeper into the history of prized wagyu (和牛), or Japanese beef, you may want to start with Omi (Oumi/近江) beef.  Omi is the historical name for present-day Shiga prefecture, which also hosted the Japanese capital, in the city of Otsu, for five years.

For centuries, the consumption of meat in Japan had been taboo (especially after Buddhism had spread there in the 6th century), or consumed only by aristocrats and imperial leaders.  Moreover, given that much of Japan is mountainous and/or characterized by long winters, and that seafood was much more readily available (and took up no land, to boot), meat-eating wasn’t a particularly common sight.

To return to the topic, it is said that at the end of the Warring States period (~1467-1590), Takayama Ukon, an ally of Japan’s first unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi, presented his victorious war chiefs in Hikone city, Omi province with cattle, thus originating the term Omi beef.

Omi Beef Set Meal, Hikone, Shiga, Japan (近江牛定食、彦根、滋賀県,日本)

Since Japan was effectively shut off to most of the world between 1603 and the 1850s, It would be almost 300 years until meat consumption flourished.  Once the Meiji period began in 1868, as Western countries started cultural exchanges with Japan, so, too were the Japanese introduced to Western clothing, scientific advancements, and food.

Coincidentally, when Omi beef was first exported, it shipped under the name “Kobe beef,” due to Kobe being the closest port at the time.  Only when Shiga’s Omi Hachiman train station opened in 1890 did exports that now shipped through Tokyo adopt the name “Omi beef.”

On May 11th, 2007, Omi beef was officially recognized with a seal of “Japan Geographical Indication.” by the Japan Patent Office.  Consequently, something can only be called Omi beef if it is raised in Shiga prefecture, by the shores of Lake Biwa.

Separate Checks: A Tale of Two Japans

When I was last in Japan a couple of years ago, I went with family to try the Kani Douraku (かに道楽) restaurant chain.  Kani Douraku (translated as “crab hobby”) is best known for having most dishes incorporating crab; also, when you walk in- at least to the one in Kyoto – there’s a stream with crabs puttering about.

One of many delicious courses at Kani Douraku, Kyoto, Japan

Although I thoroughly enjoyed just about every dish I tried, I couldn’t help but notice something (in Japanese) stand out on the bill:

The first line reads あかり男性.  The word あかり (akari) is harmless enough,  meaning “light” or “glow” and refers to the name of the set menu  The second, 男性 (dansei), however can be translated as “male,” or “man;” to breakdown the character for man, it represents power 力 lifting a rice paddy 田. For reference, the Japanese (and Chinese) character for woman is 女, and female 女性 (josei).

In Japan, I have seen set meals listed on menus specifically aimed at women, but in Kani Douraku’s case, this wasn’t made obvious on the menu.

Indeed, when the waitress took our order, she asked which of the three of us (two males, one female) would be eating the akari course.

Same price, of course, but presumably less food per course for women.

Kouji: The National Fungus of Japan

If you have ever traveled to East Asia, visited a Chinatown, or studied Chinese and/or Japanese, you likely have come across the character 酒.  In Chinese, it is pronounced jiǔ, and in Japanese, generally it is さけ (sake) or しゅ (shu).  The character originally referred to wine, but now encompasses all liquor.  Harking back to when pubs doubled as places to spend the night, in China, 酒店 –  jiǔ​diàn –  means “hotel,” although it literally means “liquor store.”

Referring to the above photo, 甘酒, or amazake, can be translated as sweet liquor, or sweet sake.  Yet, written right below that word in the picture is the phrase ノンアルコール, meaning non-alcoholic.  How can that be?

A bit of backstory: the full name of the drink is 米麹甘酒 (こめこうじあまざけ) komekouji amazake, or malted rice sweet sake.  The key element of the name is the character 麹, aka 糀, which is koji/kouji, a fungus primarily used to ferment soybeans, in addition to aiding in the creation of rice vinegar and alcoholic beverages.

Kouji was first discovered in China more than 2, 300 years ago., and introduced to Japan around 300 A.D.  To create kouji, spores of a fermentation culture, called Aspergillus oryzae, are injected into rice that has been steamed and then cooled. After a couple of days of being stored in a warm place, as A. oryzae begins to break down the proteins and carbohydrates of the rice, the fungus begins to form.  Finally, the kouji is separated from the decomposition, ready for their task in preparing our favorite soy sauces, mirin, and liquor, among other products.

Indeed, it is the fermentation process that explains why the amazake drink isn’t mislabeled, and why kouji has become Japan’s 国菌 (こっきん) kokkin, or national fungus.


Among these two titans of international cuisine, it’s always fascinating to learn about the humble ingredients quietly playing their parts behind the scenes.

Waiter, There’s Salt Outside Your Restaurant (Japan)

Years ago, before I went to teach English in Shenzhen, China, I happened upon a satirical video about the traditions of eating in a Japanese restaurant. What can one do, besides wax famished about those daily searches for good eats?

More importantly, what does Shenzhen have to do with this?…

Once settled in there, in order to spice up my daily Chinese meals, I went looking for Japanese food.  After stumbling upon a vertical “Japantown” in Luo Hu, the old commercial center of Shenzhen, I started to explore different floors of the building.  Seedy stuff – with discounts for Japanese businessmen – was located on the top floors, whereas just below those were restaurants.

Hungry, I alighted to find something that had been making me chuckle since watching the sushi video above:

Just what am I pointing to?

Salt.  Right outside of a Japanese restaurant.

The mound of salt is known in Japanese as 盛塩 (morishio).  Why was it there?  I asked the manager, and she didn’t know.  Though, one theory says that it was placed out front by the door sill in the event that your meal wasn’t salty enough.  Other possibilities include a nobleman being present in the restaurant, or that when you pass through the door you’ll be purified.  Another two mention that salt is placed there for good luck for the owner, or to keep evil spirits away from one’s abode (in Japanese).

Imagine at your own discretion, but please, the next time you reach for a bit of salt, think of your kidneys.

Morishio, “lucky salt,” outside of a Fukuoka Sushi Restaurant

Have you noticed this when you’ve gone out for Japanese food?  Have you taken advantage?

%d bloggers like this: