Smart & Cheap Japan Travel

The Fast & The Delicious: Tokyo Swift

July 7, 2011
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Living, working, and even traveling in Japan could be quite hectic. You’ll see that you turn to fast food pretty much everyday in Japan just to keep up with the pace of life there. The truth is, though, that any restaurant food in Japan, even at what you would call sit-down restaurants, is fast. I don’t think I’ve ever waited more than 10-15 minutes for my food in Japan. Japanese fast food is a bit different from your synthetic Mcdonald’s hamburger (though there’s plenty of that too). There are plenty of casual and inviting places where you can get great food at great prices and unbelievably quickly.

The most notorious fast food restaurants in Japan (and now in the US as well) are the beef bowl – “Gyudon” – restaurants. These include 24-hour chains such as “Yoshinoya,” “Matsuya,” and “Sukiya.” Yoshinoya is the largest chain of beef bowl restaurants in Japan. The first one was opened in Tokyo’s fish market in 1899. These chains compete heavily for customers, leading to price wars that have brought down the cost of a beef bowl to about $3. Although the beef bowls are prepared primarily with American beef, an import ban from 2004 to 2006 caused a slowdown in production, and either Australian beef or Japanese beef was used instead. Today beef bowl lovers are able to once again enjoy the original taste. Beef bowl chains serve much more than the beef-on-rice delight; you can choose from a variety of beef bowls prepared with different sauces and toppings, or you can go for something completely different like curry-rice. Everything is prepaid for using automatic ticket vending machines at the entrance.

With the influence of Western culture on Japan, burgers have started dominating the country’s fast food industry. McDonald’s does, however, not have a monopoly over the burger and fries market, as chains such as “Mos Burger” serve very respectable grub. Both in McDonald’s and the Japanese chains, the originally American delicacies are served with a unique Japanese twist to them. The chicken teriyaki burger at Mos is to die for.
“First Kitchen” is another fast food joint in Japan where you can not only find burgers, but also soups, pizza, pasta, floats and ice cream. This chain serves fries in eight different flavors!

Burger at a Japanese "Family Restaurant"

Burger at a Japanese "Family Restaurant" - Casual and fast

If you are using the trains to travel around in Japan, which you probably are, you will come across “soba” or buckwheat noodle stands at almost every station. These places offer simple noodle-soup dishes with various toppings. Ordering and payment are usually settled at the entrance with automatic vending machines here as well. Ramen noodle restaurants, though not always located next to train stations, are just as fast and delicious.

Noodles, burgers, and beef bowls have been long recognized as fast food items, but the recent fast food craze in Japan is “Takoyaki,” which are round grilled octopus dumplings. There is nothing new about the food itself, as it’s consumed regularly at festivals and other occasions, but many Takoyaki specialty stores have started popping up around the country, one of them being the “Gindaco” chain.

And when all else fails, there’s always that 24/7 convenience store around the corner.

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Ramen: The Food that Deserves a Straightforward Blog Post Title

March 5, 2011
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I’ve been talking about so many rice-based Japanese food, that I nearly forgot that Japanese cuisine plays quite nicely with noodles as well. Ramen is an internationally notorious soup dish that contains Chinese-styled wheat noodles. Many Japanese innovations owe much of their fame to China, and Ramen is no exception. Ramen originated from China, and though the source of the name is debated, it is said to come from the Chinese word “la main” that means “hand pulled noodles.” Until the 1950s the dish was known in Japan as “Shina Soba,” meaning “Chinese buckwheat noodles.” (The term is apparently considered derogatory by Chinese.) The pivotal year in Ramen history was 1958, when instant noodles were invented by Momofuku Ando. Instant Ramen just from adding boiling water into a cup. I wish I could think of such things.

Although Ramen usually comes garnished with many toppings such as sliced pork, dried seaweed, green onions, “Kamaboko“, and corn, it’s categorized and judged on quality primarily on the basis of the two fundamental components: soup and noodles. Thus there are several variations of Ramen one can find in Japan. The noodles can come in various lengths and shapes: Thin, thick, curly or straight. Ramen is further divided into the following four categories based on the soup type:

Shoyu
Prepared using plenty of soy sauce. Soup is a thick brown colored broth. Shoyu Ramen is tangy, savory and salty.

Shio
This is one of the oldest versions of Ramen soup, based on salt. It’s considered the simplest and lightest of all the soups, though its variation, “Shio-Butter,” is probably a bit more hearty (and tastier…).

Tonkotsu
Tonkotsu translates literally to “pork bone.” Soup is a cloudy white colored broth. Definitely one of the more heavy soups.

Miso
Miso Ramen is is the newest version of Ramen which was developed in Hokkaido. Its broth features a combination of abundance of Miso with oily chicken. Tonkotsu or lard is added to the soup to make it thicker and slightly sweeter.

Goma
Goma Ramen has a thick and strong-tasting soup based on white sesame seeds. This isn’t one of the more traditional types of Ramen, and cannot be found in any Japanese restaurant, but I strongly urge you to seek it out.

When you get the chance to visit Japan, you can indulge yourself in the world of Ramen by paying a visit to the Ramen Museum in Yokohama, established in 1994. Although, if you were to ask me, I would rather spend my time on a Ramen-tasting quest for Japan’s best Ramen joint.


Breakfast of Champions

January 24, 2011
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If you want to live past 50, better lay down your spoon and flush the cereal down the drain. Throw out all the Pop-tarts while you are at it. Japan boasts an average life expectancy of 82.6 years, and it all starts out with breakfast.

Modern Japanese breakfast has become somewhat similar to Western cultures, consisting of boiled or fried eggs and toast. These days even cereals are becoming quite popular. But the traditional breakfast that has been giving Japanese society the strength to endure the never-ending “Salary-man” workdays or the harsh farming and fishing lifestyles is quite different from what you may be used to.

Traditional Japanese breakfast always consists of rice as it is the staple food of the country. Alongside the rice or on top of it you will find various seafood and fermented foods. One very popular and healthy rice topping is “Natto” that I described in one of my earlier posts. These are fermented soybeans, first seasoned with mustard and soy sauce before placing the slimy and smelly clump on the steamed rice. Absolutely disgusting, and will put your adventurousness to the test – until you get used to it. I personally love it. Other seafood items on Japanese breakfast menus include dried horse mackerel, known as “Aji” or broiled salted salmon fish.

“Tamago Gohan” is another Japanese breakfast favorite, and can be easily and quickly whipped up. Take a bowl of steamed sticky white round rice, break a raw egg into it, add some soy sauce, and mix everything up. Consume with strips of “Nori” – Japanese dried seaweed – or specifically “Ajitsuke-nori” for extra flavored seaweed. If that sounds a little too much, perhaps the “Tamagoyaki,” a Japanese version of a rolled omelet, will be more to your liking.

Some prefer to take “Okayu,” a type of congee or thick rice soup, as part of their breakfast. This Japanese dish is very nutritious and easy to digest. Okayu is often served with toppings such as onions, fish eggs, and “Umeboshi” – a pickled plum. “Miso” stock can also be used to flavor the Okayu, though Miso soup is often a component of Japanese breakfasts anyway. The soup includes hooped green onion, tofu, “Wakame” seaweed and numerous herbs.

“Can I at least have my cup of Joe,” you ask? Hey, something has to get you going in the morning, right?


Top 7 Bizarre Japanese Foods – Eat Them or Leave Them!

December 8, 2010
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Japanese cuisine has been heavily exported around the world, with Japanese restaurants popping up on a daily basis in the Western world. Sushi is arguably the most well known Japanese dish, and most restaurants indeed end up being centered around it. Throughout my blog I’ve been introducing you to many alternative dishes and praising the Japanese cuisine for its wide variety and tastes that are comparable to none. However, Japanese dishes are not always user-friendly. There are several bizarre foods originating from Japan, for which the taste is… acquired with time. These usually don’t end up on your plate in your local Japanese restaurants. Here are the top seven (not necessarily in order of bizarreness):

1. Natto
Are you brave enough to gulp down food that gives out an aroma of old gym socks that haven’t been washed for a decade? Natto is a food item that is made from fermented soybeans. Think slimy, sticky beans in a small Styrofoam container, looking like they have been kept there for several generations. It’s actually one of the healthiest dishes the Japanese cuisine can offer. Usually, Natto is served for breakfast on top of hot white rice, together with a special sauce and a hint of mustard. Sometimes Japanese people mix in raw egg to the dish just to add to its bizarreness. I find the whole thing delicious.

2. Umeboshi Plums
If you think lemon heads are sour, you must have not heard about or tasted Umeboshi Plums yet. These salty and sour pickled plums range in variety from small to large, and from juicy and soft to rather dry and hard. Some may seem quite innocent, and actually hit you with their sourness only after a few seconds, causing you to make a run for the nearest ocean for relief.

3. Inago
Inago – a great appetizer consisting of small brown crispy crickets/grasshoppers on your plate! These friendly creatures are marinated in soy sauce, sugar, sake and then dried. The handsome grasshoppers have all their internal and external organs and heads left intact for you to swallow down as well.

4. Shishamo
First of all, Shishamo is practically impossible to be eaten with chopsticks. These small fish of about 15cm tall get grilled before you find them on your table with their head and tail intact. Actually not all that bizarre considering the other stuff on the list here.

5. Mozuku
Pick a few hairs from your scalp and examine the stringy cluster to understand how Mozuku looks like. Mozuku is a type of seaweed generally served cold with vinegar dip. Absolutely mouthwatering. These algae from Okinawa are very nutritious, with many Mozuku-based supplements now being marketed.

6. Dried Octopus or Squid
You just need to open the food packet to know why this food item has been added to this list. The octopus and squid are seasoned and dried in rings or shreds, looking nothing like their original forms. The dried and chewy food is served as a snack to go along with beer. Nowadays it’s easy to find these in Asian food grocers around the world. Try them, they go great with beer.

7. Konnyaku
The dish is made from the wild Konnyaku potato. If you are a dieter, this dish is for you, as it has practically zero calories and is devoid of sugar, fats, protein, and also almost any taste. It is magically filling, however. Eating this slippery and bouncy chunk of gelatin definitely will make you feel weird. Konnyaku is usually a part of Japanese stews and soups, including Oden (remember that?). By the way, yet another dish virtually impossible to grab with chopsticks.

There are plenty of more Japanese foods that are worthy of being on the list above, and I’ll make sure to write about them in the future.

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Japanese Food: Yakisoba

September 17, 2010
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Looking for something uniquely Japanese to eat and want it fast? Yakisoba is the answer. It’s a traditional Japanese dish that is very easy to prepare. Yakisoba is basically pan fried noodles. It is a commoner’s food, not very fancy, and it’s usually prepared as a snack or as picnic food. The noodles used in this dish are not regular noodles, but buck wheat noodles. These are thicker and darker than the Chinese Chow-Mien noodles, and are much healthier. Careful though, because most of the buck wheat noodles sold in stores are not made from 100% buck wheat, but rather mixed with regular wheat.

So the ingredients that you will need to cook this mouthwatering treat are: Thinly cut cabbage, pickled ginger, dried green seaweed, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup and finely chopped pork or squid. Add oil into a frying pan and toss in the finely chopped meat and cabbage. When they are cooked take them out of the pan. Next, put in the noodles to fry. Meanwhile, mix together the Worcestershire sauce and ketchup with a spoon in a small bowl. Once the noodles are fried for a few minutes, add the sauce mix and with it the previously fried cabbage and meat. Stir everything up, remove onto a plate and garnish with some pickled ginger and dried green seaweed. Voila!

Yakisoba tastes best when served hot. To make the dish more interesting you can use different sauces like chili, soy sauce, and even sweeten it with some honey or sugar. Instead of pork/squid you are free to experiment with chicken, tofu or shrimp. Toss in some more vegetables like onion, cabbage, snow peas, capsicum, carrots or anything else you can think of for that matter. As with any other food in Japan, this can be bought already prepared in supermarkets and convenience stores, or in an instant cooking form.


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    About the Author

    Born in Tokyo. Lived, worked, and traveled in Japan for over a decade combined. Author of the book, "All-You-Can Japan: Getting the Most Bang for Your Yen" - www.allyoucanjapan.com

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