Japan like a boss: travel tips part II

Japan like a boss: travel tips part II

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     Today I write about one of my favorite topics: food! I am a Chef by trade, and love all things culinary; especially when it comes to eating lots of delicous things. This article will cover tips on procuring eats with ease; finding cheap, yet fantastic places to get said food from, and some of my favorite dishes that you need to try. I am a firm believer that good food doesn't necessarily need to be overly expensive, or elaborate. There is beauty in simplicity, and this certainly can be said for a great meal.

Finding Places

     Remember last article where I mentioned the usefulness of having a pocket wifi? Being able to search the internet, and Google Maps for places to eat nearby is a lifesaver. I don't know how many times I found an amazing little restaurant/bar/cafe just by doing a bit of quick map work; and web searching. We live in a great age of technology, where everything is more or less searchable via the internet - so use that to your advantage! If you're in a pinch, or need to find something to eat fast; here's a few tips for easy places to find food at.

Convenience Stores

     Corner convenience stores in Japan are far more, well, convenient than the ones we have back home. A lot of Japanese people do little to no cooking at home and thus the market for quick, prepped meals is quite large. Convenience stores all carry a wide variety of pretty decent pre-prepped meals, onigiri (rice balls usually filled with veggies, or fish), microwavable proteins, and all sort of snacks to satisfy any craving. When I found myself in need of a quick meal, or something fast - corner stores saved me more than a few times. Lawson always seemed to have slightly better things on offer, however Family Mart and 7-11 (the other two major chains) are fine too. As an added bonus, corner stores sell many types of alcohol. Being from Canada, being able to buy beer at a convenience store is definetly a fun novelty for me.

Food Halls

     Most major train stations (especially in the larger cities) have either a mall area, or underground shopping complex attached to them. Anywhere you find a larger mall/shopping area, they will most likely have a food hall located on the basement floor. Food halls (known locally as depachika) are great places to try a little bit of everything, and to sample regional specialities. A large floor area is divided into seperate food stalls/areas; each selling something different for take-out. Most food is sold either in pre-packaged containers, or by weight. This is where you'll find really delicious bento boxes, fresh sushi trays, hot fish and veggie croquettes, local dishes, Japanese sweets, and more.

Food halls are great for getting food for a picnic, or to take on a longer day trip/hike. Most halls also have a grocery store in them as well; which brings me to my next point.

Grocery Stores

     Most grocery stores have a large deli section with a plethora of fresh prepped meals, and snacks. Like corner stores, but better in selection and quality; grocery stores/supermarkets are another great alternative to eating at restaurants all the time. That, and you'll also discover lots of cool things if you take time to explore all the seperate aisles. I found one store that had a huge section in the tea aisle for just brands of matcha. Another store had more varieties of rice crackers, and snacks than I've ever seen. Some of the better supermarkets even have a little section where you can buy Japanese craft beer - most of which is delicious.


     My morning routine was to find a nearby bakery, and explore/eat the pastries they had on offer. Bakeries in Japan are very popular, and for the most part really good. Here's where you'll find staples of Japanese baking - such as melon bread, red bean paste buns (an pan), curry doughnuts, milk bread, sesame mochi balls, and matcha infused pastry. Most bakeries use a very simple, and straightforward system for ordering. When you wander in, grab a tray from the stack by the door, and a set of tongs. Use your tongs to grab whatever baked goods you desire from ths display shelves (choose wisely, as putting your selection back after picking it up is frowned upon), and place them on your tray. Bring your tray up to the register when you're ready, and pay. Simple, right? Oh, and if you plan on eating in, make sure you order a drink (coffee, tea, etc). This rule applies to pretty much any food offering establishment - so do not be surprised when you are asked to do so. Restaurant/cafe seating is prime real estate in highly populated areas, and you are paying for the privilege to use that space.

Local Specialties

     If you're an adventurous eater like me, then you'll want to explore all sorts of different dishes here in Japan. Most towns, cities, areas, and prefectures all have regional specialities to try. Some of your favorite Japanese dishes are even better in certain areas of the country than others; as different areas are famous for doing some foods better than others. So do a bit of research on the areas you will be traveling to, and see what foods they are known for. Eating fresh mochi in Nara straight after it was made, was an absolutely delicious experience. How did I know about it? Research and planning! Let your brain do some work before your stomach does, and you will not be disappointed.

Foods You Absolutely Must Try

Do it, you will not be disappointed.

Ramen.  I'm sure you've had ramen before, and I'm sure it was ok. However, nothing compares to the ramen right here in Japan. So simple; so good - and so plentiful. This is at the top of the list because I could literally eat ramen for days; and have before. Most ramen is made with pork broth, however there are some fantastic chicken broth ones, and delicious vegetarian ones as well. If you enjoy some heat like I do, be sure to try some super spicy ramen as well - it'll knock your socks off.

Takoyaki.  Another food I could eat endless amounts of; takoyaki is a ball-shaped snack of a wheat-based batter (think like pancake batter), wrapped around diced octopus, tempura bits, pickled ginger, and green onion. It is then brushed in takoyaki sauce (like a soy sauce and Worcester flavor), drizzled with mayonnaise, and topped with bonito flakes. Takoyaki balls are roughly sized for one or two bites each, making them a great little snack.

Taiyaki.  This fish-shaped cake is in the form of a sea bream, and just the smell of the batter cooking will make me want one. Taiyaki is made with waffle, or pancake batter, which is poured onto either side of a fish-shaped mold, then filled with various things. The most common fillings are red bean paste, custard, chocolate, sweet potato, and cheese.

Mochi.  It's hard to describe mochi without actually being able to taste it yourself. Mochi is a rice cake made from super glutinous short grain rice that has been pounded into a paste, and then formed. The end result is a deliciously chewy, almost gooey texture that is often accompanied with various sweet fillings in the middle. Mochi can also be incorporated into baked goods, creating a super chewy layer between a crust, which is super tasty.

Curry donuts/bread.  I made it my mission to try a curry donut at most bakeries I went to, as they vary from place to place. Curry donuts/bread (depends on if they are made with donut dough or bread dough) are japanese curry encrusted in dough, coated in Panko crumbs, and then deep-fried till golden and crispy. Nothing starts your morning off quite like eating the perfect curry donut. On rare occasions they are baked, but I still say fried is far better.

Sakura flavoured things. This one applies mainly if you're here during cherry blossom season, but is worth mentioning. Literally everything consumable has a sakura flavoured version during the season, and can be very tasty.

Umeboshi. I admit, I wasn't a huge fan of pickled ume fruit at first, but the taste grew on me. Ume fruit is often referred to as plum, although their species is closer related to the apricot. Anyways, most of you associate pickled fruits and veggies as having a super tart flavor; which is not completly the case with umeboshi. Japanese pickling methods also use a lot of salt, leaving a flavor that is a powerful combination of sour and salty - something that's not for everyone. However, I can almost guarantee the taste will grow on you. Try and find umeboshi flavored potato chips for a truly interesting snack.

Shochu. When I say to name a Japanese liquor, most of you would think of Sake. However, shochu is probably more widely drank here than Sake. Shochu is a Japanese distilled liqour, with less than 45% alcohol by volume. It's commonly distilled from rice, barely, sweet potato, and buckwheat. Keep an eye out for other types of shochu such as ones distilled from chestnuts, or shiso (Japanese herb), as they can have very interesting flavors. Shochu is commonly drank either on the rocks, or diluted with water or oolong tea.

Okonomiyaki. Interactive dining at its finest, okonomiyaki is usually eaten with a small spatula, straight off a hot flat top grill built right into the table. At it's simplest, okonomiyaki is a sort of savory pancake, filled with various ingredients which change from region to region. Most variations contain shredded cabbage, green onion, and several types of proteins. It's hard to describe okonomiyaki, as the style of it changes from region to region. My suggestion is to find a place that sells it, and experience it for yourself.  (Yes, that's me in the photo.)

Soba. Delicous hot or cold, soba is the ultimate all-weather food. I took a soba noodle making course while in Kyoto, and it was very cool to learn how they were made right from scratch using techniques passed down from generation to generation.

Japanese curry. Very different, with unique flavours than curry that you're probably used to. Aptly called Japanese soul food - as it's delcious, and hearty.

Matcha. The matcha in Japan is, as expected, far better than any others found elsewhere in the world. Matcha everything! Try and see how many different matcha infused, and flavored foods you can eat.

And that's the food post. I'm sure there's plenty of other foods and things that I forgot to mention, so keep checking this post for updates. I will be adding a part III to my travel tips sometime soon, so stay tuned!


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