Friday, November 15, 2013


Tokyo is home to the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants. However, if not in the mood to splurge, one can still be assured of authentic gastronomic experience in whatever and wherever he/she chooses to satisfy the craving. Japanese cuisine is varied and extensive, and quite much approachable even for the strictest puritan of experimental food (unlike the more popular perception in India). Rice, along with noodles, soba and udon especially, are the staples of the Japanese and they can be supplemented with accompaniments of one’s choice, from pure vegetarian to fish, chicken, pork or beef, generally. Most popular, on-the-go, food are the korokkes – breaded and deep-fried patties of minced meat, sea food, fish, or mashed potato and sauce. They are quite a snacking delicacy. Indeed, they were a proper compensation for our good ol’ ‘telebhaja’ or 'fries' back home.  
A Chinese import of noodles with soup and dumplings is quite famous as ramen, which is quite healthy and filling on-the-go stuff. Rice-bowls are a common feature – a one-bowl (the big bowl is called donburi) dish of hot steamed rice with various savory toppings. They are quite delectable and easy on the skeptics as well, who are not too experimental with food. The ones that we tried were – 1. Gyudon (with seasoned beef topping), 2. Oyakodon (donburi topped with chicken and egg), 3. Katsudon (topped with deep-fired breaded cutlet of pork), 4. Tendon (donburi topped with tempura prawns). Teriyaki and Yakitori are the most popular ways of cooking, that perhaps we all know, but there is a world beyond that which remains to be discovered and savoured. 
Food expenses, in fact, were another major concern for us, next only to transportation. I hunted endless blogs and write-ups on the food expenses in Japan, but quite naturally, it was a bit difficult to find one which was written exactly keeping in mind a humble Indian, on a budget-travel to one of world’s most expensive countries. So what I got instead was the wholesome pictures of the amazing array of culinary experience awaiting us, but without much hint of how much will them our pocket burn. The god-sent acquaintance, however, assured us that the cheapest and yet decent is what one might experience at Yoshinoya, a kind of Japanese fast-food chain, quite ubiquitous. Indeed, a bowl of rice and your choice of accompaniment (chicken, fish, pork, beef or even veg) at Yoshinoya come for 350 yen. That kind of relieved us some bit that we might be able to sail through surviving on Yoshinoya, if we are stranded. But seriously, it wasn’t that bad. We got to experience a diverse gastronomic range that was on offer, and yes though sometimes a bit expensive, it was always worth the spent. A good spread can burn a hole to the tune of 2,000 yen or more. If tight on a budget, and yet interested in savouring the delicacies, the best thing to do is spend on one particular meal of the day lavishly, and save on the others. A Japanese breakfast is a must, which costs around 300-350 yen or some more, depending on the place. Often, the hotels serving complimentary breakfast, also have a Japanese spread option. It is quite heavy, and may call for a lighter lunch. So one can then have a proper dinner and spend on it. Permutations like these can see you through many an interesting meal and yet keep a check on your expenses. 
One thing not to be missed, is having a meal at a local family-run restaurant, for the authentic Japanese experience. These restaurants are nothing flashy or ornate, they are generally small and sans much ostentation, but they are a novelty in themselves, as far as experience is concerned.
Interestingly, the restaurants mostly have faux food platters on display in their windows. 
Apparently, the trend had started when post-World War II, Americans and Europeans traveled to Japan and had difficulty reading their menus. To appease and assuage the foreigners’ problem, who have been traveling to their land to help them in their rebuilding efforts, Japanese artisans and candle makers immediately took to creating wax platters for restaurants, so that the foreigners could see the platter and order whatever they fancied. Indeed, that was a big relief for us, since most restaurants have display menu in Japanese and English words are just thrown in at times, more to perk up the 'display', I presume, than for convenience or concern for travelers. 
Well, in quite a few eateries in Tokyo and Osaka, we discovered that the eatery manager or the other helpers did not understand a single word of English, and we were directed to a ticket vending machine just outside the eatery or right at the entrance, which was also all in Japanese. We realised that we had to order our food by buying tickets at the machine - each button corresponded to a certain platter, but we were left absolutely clueless as to what that might be. It would have been too tedious a task to capture faux platter picture and show them to the people at the helm of the eatery, and ask them to identify the same at the vending machine (just to say, that could be done), so we chucked the idea and set out to look for something more convenient.

Interestingly, the Japanese like their water doubly chilled. We did not find a single restaurant anywhere that served water (chilled already) without ice. Also, one would rarely catch a Japanese munching food on-the-go. I, for one, did not find any, but I am just assuming there are exceptions, surely. Also, it is the land of vending machines. You name it, and they have a vending machine for it. 

Redundant to say, sushi and sashimi are a must try when in Japan. A and I are not very gung-ho about fish and our most ‘fish outings’  while traveling abroad have been frankly quite disastrous. Despite not high on our radar, I had to try sushi in Japan, right! The first try should be at an authentic place, so that we are not left regretting later. We zeroed in on Tsukiji Fish market, since anybody and everybody everywhere recommended that. Trust me; one has to try it, however much reservations one has. The sushis at Tsukiji are the best first place to try out in Tokyo, and if you are a novice trying out for the first time, this can be the best place to begin with. Absolutely fresh and authentic, they taste heavenly. In fact, it made me more skeptical about trying them out at just any place after that, and we had a tough time to choose the restaurants where we wanted to have more of them . However, brace oneself for long queues - of locals and tourists alike-at the Tsukiji for a sushi breakfast, since they are highly recommended by tripadvisor and all other sources. But the wait is worth, I must say. Sushis/sashimis anywhere are expensive and Japan is no exception. A sushi breakfast at Tsukiji would roughly cost 3,000-3,500 yen minimum. 
A cheaper and definite must try is the kaiten-zushi, that is the sushi restaurants where sushi plates are placed on rotating conveyor belts. It is indeed a novel experience to catch the ‘sushi train’. And at a price of 120 yen per plate, that’s the cheapest that one would come across in the country. Though not always considered to be fresh and the best, it can be tried for novelty and pocket-friendliness. Eating sushi and sashimi has its own rules and methods. It is indeed interesting to read and follow them. First rule, no matter how much you know about sushi, the chef knows better. ‘Omakase’ is when you leave it up to the chef what you are served. Not only does this ensure the freshest fish possible, but sushi chefs, supposedly, take great pride in their ‘omakase’ selections. So, you know that you are getting the best that the house has to offer. That’s a safe bet, though expensive also. ‘Okimari’ is a pre-set menu with several types of sushis on a plate. ‘Okonomi’ is when you order a sushi you want to eat. It is indeed fascinating to do a bit of research on the sushi/sashimi etiquette. 

One thing that I would root for is the green tea-flavoured ice cream (‘matcha’ ice, in Japanese), if you like ice-creams. It had almost been my daily dose for the two weeks. Though, I did not find the Japanese sweets very interesting, unlike the food, I was in love with this ‘matcha’, though surely there are other flavours as well to try out.
Other than Japanese cuisine, there is no dearth to other world cuisine, and all of them are very authentic. The Japanese indeed take their food quite seriously. One very popular food loved by the Japanese is the Indian curry. Curry houses are ubiquitous and they have it with just anything – rice, noodles, spaghetti – you name it and they have it. However, their curry version is much like our 'Chinese' version, adapted to our taste buds and a native would not find any kinship with it, whatsoever. But other than that, one can have a very authentic experience of just any cuisine, if craving arises.
Indeed, if for nothing else, Japan is a must visit for the sheer gastronomic experience it has to offer.

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