Here are a few more notes from my family vacation in Japan.
Mid-winter is oden season. This dish is like Japan’s version of Italian bollito misto, except instead of boiled meats you have fish cakes, hard-boiled eggs, fried tofu, braised daikon, devil’s tongue squares (a firmly gelatinous vegetable), cabbage bundles and all sorts of other goodies bobbing around in a flavorful broth. You choose what you want and eat it, steaming in a bowl, with a ladleful of the broth and a swipe of hot mustard.
While there are many fine oden stands and street stalls that pop up in winter, I’m not ashamed to say I got my fix at Lawson, a chain of convenience stores that sells oden by the counter.
(Here’s where I point out that eating from Japanese convenience stores is a vast subject in and of itself.)
After leaving Hiroshima, we headed back east to Osaka, the largest city in the Kansai region and the place where I worked 30 years ago. We stayed near Namba, the southern transportation hub and entertainment district. Dotombori is the famous locus of activity — a pedestrian thoroughfare filled with bars, restaurants and clubs where people carouse until the wee hours. It was Christmas night, which the Japanese treat a bit like Halloween, so a lot of young women were parading about in slutty Santa costumes. My family didn’t quite get it.
We went to a terrific kushikatsu (skewer) restaurant on Dotombori for dinner, and the next day went to a takoyaki joint for lunch. At right you can kind of see cast iron ball molds that you heat at the table. Into each indentation goes one chunk of octopus. You then pour a batter over the top and use a metal stick to push the batter into the holes. At first it’s a mess, but you prod and turn and push and keep flipping the slowly forming balls until they emerge as perfect orbs. You’ve got fish flakes, powdered seaweed and brown sauces at the table to flavor them.
After the madness of Osaka, we spend a couple of days in Itō, a sleepy seaside town on the Izu Peninsula, south of Tokyo.
Not much goes on here, but there’s good local seafood, a handful of fantastic hot springs, a local wasabi crop, small mountains you can hike to catch breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji, and a traditional Japanese inn that has got to be the best deal in the country. I cannot tell you how much we fell in love with this place.
Across the street was a perfect little izakaya, run by a friendly older couple. Five of us ate and four drank our fill, and we paid just over $100 for a grand meal.
I couldn’t resist ordering basashi, slices of raw horsemeat in a pungent garlic-soy sauce with green onions. Will all due respect to the dressage team, I’m here to tell you that horsemeat is sweet, lean and refined tasting, with a kind of purple darkness I found very intriguing.
I’m not sure where to begin with the food wonderland that was Tokyo. I guess at Tsukiji — the world-famous fish market that has become enough of a tourist destination that workers hand out maps and warnings to stay out of the way of vendors.
Since we were there at the highest season, the morning tuna auction was closed to visitors, so we didn’t go at the crack of dawn. We were lucky enough to have a personal tour from our friend and neighbor, the Atlanta chef and ramen impresario Mihoko Obunai, who happened to be in Japan visiting her folks at the same time. Afterwards, we went out for a terrific sushi lunch at one of the many small restaurants ringing the market. The chef worked out of what looked like a broom closet to prepare this gorgeous, soft, love song of a sushi combination for only about $23.
On our last day in Tokyo, the girls went shopping and daddy spent an afternoon being a big, fat pig and eating ramen, ramen and more ramen. One of the more interesting was this agoshio ramen I ordered on Mihoko’s recommendation. The intense broth is made with flying fish and pork bones.
It was December 31, and everyone in Japan was getting ready for the the traditional New Year’s Day meal, which is culturally a bit like our Thanksgiving — with families getting together to eat specific traditional dishes.
The “depaa-chikas” (basement food halls in department stores) were mad with activity. I was surprised to see film-wrapped paper plates of fugu (blowfish, which is poisonous if not butchered correctly) stacked up and ready to go. Just to be safe, I passed.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog