January 19, 2016

Travel Japan 2015: Where (or What) to Eat (Part II)

Continuing my previous post...


Regional Specialty: ???

Admittedly, we never had enough time to explore the regional cuisine in Kyoto. There were so many temples to visit, but so little time to make the most out of our itinerary. We would usually end up picking a random restaurant to rest our tired feet and fill up our hungry bellies.

Needless to say, most of the food we tried out in the area turned out to be pretty good.

I had yakimeshi during my trip to Kyoto in 2011, 
but we weren't able to find the restaurant when we went back in 2013.

To share some information, here are the areas in Kyoto where (we believe) you can find some food:
  • Kyoto Station (underground) - there are a couple of malls beneath the Kyoto Station where you can find various boutiques, souvenir shops, and restaurants.
  • Higashiyama Preserved Street - walking westward from the Kiyomizudera Temple, there is a downhill slope filled with souvenir shops and shops for sweets. When you reach the bottom, there are a few restaurants to chose from.
  • Arashiyama area -
    • Arashiyama Station - A lot of souvenir and snack stalls will welcome you as you walk from the Arashiyama Station to the streets of the area.
    • Main street along Tenryuji Temple - This is the temple nearest to the Arashiyama Station. Along this street  you can find a whole row of restaurants.
    • Togetsukyo Bridge - there are a few street food stalls by the riverbanks of both ends of the bridge, where you can buy grilled squid, fish or corn.


Regional Specialty: ???

Because Tokyo is a melting pot of lifestyle and culture, I find it hard to pinpoint its regional specialty. And because there is so much food to try out, I'll just list down food stuff we were able to experience, and not focus on just one particular type of food.

Beware; I have a LOT of stuff to list down.

I. Street Food

Big parks, as well as famous temple grounds, have food stalls pitched up for tourists and visitors, especially during peak seasons. They sell various types of street food, mostly of Japanese variety. The (more or less) constant areas where food stalls are setup are Ueno Park and Asakusa.

Food stalls @ Ueno Park
Grilled fish is a pretty common food item in Japan.

II. Ramen

Each area in Tokyo has its own special ramen shop. Some of those ramen shops may already have franchises in the Philippines. But if I were to recommend one ramen shop, it would have to be Kyushu Jangara Ramen in Harajuku. Why?
  1. It's easy to spot; barely a block away from Harajuku Station.
  2. Their broth is tonkotsu, but there are a variety of styles to choose from. My favorite is the garlic tonkotsu broth.
  3. Aside from the usual slice of chashu (i.e. stewed pork), they also have their own marinated pork that you can add to your ramen.
  4. They make the BEST aji tamago ever. Bar none.
  5. English speaking staff! And they love to take your picture (with your ramen) for you.
A bowl of Kyushu Jangara ramen.

III. Sushi @ Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market is scheduled for relocation this year, so travelers visiting Japan before November MUST strive to experience eating sushi at one of the restaurants within the compound. The market is surprisingly clean (because, duh, Japan), and the fish being served is guaranteed fresh--who knows, it might just be a fresh catch!

Queues start early in Tsukiji Market.

While there are famous sushi restaurants in the area, the lines get ridiculously long as early as 8 in the morning. If you're one with a busy schedule for the day, you can try out other restaurants in the area. I'm sure that the sushi is just as good.

IV. Strawberry Shortcake

If there's a dessert that I can eat everyday in Japan, it would have to be the strawberry shortcake. Because of the climate, strawberries taste sweeter than the ones in the Philippines (no need for salt!). Pair the berries with fluffy sponge cake and equally fluffy frosting... arghh... I want a slice so badly right now.

Almost every bakery sells this stuff, so there is no need to scour the city for a slice.

One of the more memorable strawberry shortcakes we had was made by Fujiya Peko (Note: Website is in Japanese), the same company behind the Milky candy brand. They have a lot of branches in Tokyo, and they're easy to spot out, too. Just look out for their brand mascot Peko-chan and you're in the right place.

V. Yakiniku

For those travelling in large groups, the best way to share a meal would definitely be through yakiniku. All-you-can-eat meat, freshly cooked on top of a grill, in any way you like.

Tip: Because yakiniku restaurants' peak hours are during dinner onwards, it is always best to reserve your table. But since tourists can't always do this, some restaurants accept walk-ins, with a certain "time period" limit. For example, when a server ushers you to a table, you will be given around two hours for the meal (this includes cooking the meat and eating it). If ever your meal is finished and the two hours are up, you need to bill out and give up the table to the next customer.

Granted that we already have a Gyu Kaku franchise in Manila,
but Japan still has the best quality meat for grilling.

Unlike Korea's samgyeopsal, there aren't that many side dishes to accompany the meat. There will be rice, miso soup, and some picked vegetables, but that's mostly it. However, I personally think that the meat used in yakiniku is fresher and softer than the ones used in samgyeopsal. I mean, if there's nothing else to eat but meat, then they should make sure that the meat is good.

The yakiniku restaurant we tried out in Japan actually has its own franchise here in Manila (at Bonifacio High Street, Taguig City). The franchise was set up just a few years after our visit.

VI. Shabu-Shabu

Shabu-shabu, or Japanese hotpot, is another dinner option for big groups. This option, however, requires more cooking skill than just placing meat on a grill and waiting for it to be cooked. Since you are essentially building your own soup, you have to think about what type of vegetables would best match the type of broth boiling in front of you.

When in doubt, fill up your hotpot with mushrooms.
You can never go wrong with mushrooms.

For this experience, we tried out Nabezo in Asakusa. It is an all-you-can-eat shabu-shabu restaurant, where the meat will be delivered to your table and the vegetables are selected buffet-style. There are two options of broth per pot, and customers can chose from five types of nabe soups. I think, we chose shabu-shabu and sukiyaki.

The most interesting part of this experience, for me, is that each customer is handed a raw egg. At first I thought that I will be placing it into the pot to poach it, or perhaps to make an egg drop soup, but then I learned that I should dip the raw meat into my bowl of beaten raw egg before dipping it into the broth for just a few seconds; the egg and meat cook surprisingly fast. This way the egg and the meat will be cooked simultaneously, with the egg enveloping the meat.

Their willingness to eat almost-raw egg and meat amazes me; they must be very confident about the freshness of their ingredients.

VII. Kobe Beef (when you can't go to Kobe)

During our 2013 trip, we wanted to try out Kobe beef but didn't have the time to take a trip to Kobe. So, after doing a little research, we were able to find a steakhouse in Ginza that serves Kobe beef. The restaurant's name is Gyu-An.

Unlike the restaurant we tried in Kobe, Gyu-An is more of a sit-down type of restaurant. A steak dinner comes with appetizer, salad, bread or rice, and dessert. The steak is served in a sizzling plate, on top of onions and vegetables. There are also various dips that come with the steak, but during that time the servers did not orient us so we just discovered the dips for ourselves.

The beef in Gyu-An is leaner than the one we had in Kobe;
there isn't much fat around the beef...

Which is okay, at least hindi kami naumay.
The steak isn't cooked in front of you, nevertheless it is cooked perfectly.

VIII. Japanese-style Kit Kat

Of course, a trip to Japan isn't complete until you've had your fill of exotic-flavored Kit Kat. Aside from the staple Japanese Kit Kat flavors (i.e. Green Tea, Wasabi, Dark Chocolate), each region in Japan has its own flavor (i.e. Kobe has a Kobe Pudding flavored Kit Kat). Since not everyone is capable of travelling around Japan just to collect all the flavors, there are some specialty stores in Tokyo that sell even the special regional ones.

A selection of Japanese Kit Kat flavors @ Shokoku Gotochi Plaza

The stores we usually frequent to check out Kit Kat flavors are as such:
  1. Don Quijote - Don Quijote is a 24-hour mega "sari-sari store" that sells various stuff like grocery items, cosmetics, electronics, accessories, and souvenir food items. If you're looking to bring Japanese Kit Kat as pasalubong, it is more practical to buy them here as they sell the "packed" type of Kit Kat. 
  2. Village Vanguard (Note: Website is in Japanese) - Village Vanguard is more of a novelty shop; where they sell various collectibles, character merchandise, and different-flavored Japanese Kit Kat. They sell regional flavors here.
  3. Shokoku Gotochi Plaza, First Avenue Tokyo Station (at the end of Ramen Street) - This shop, for me, has the most extensive selection of Japanese Kit Kat flavors. Aside from the regional ones, they also sell seasonal flavors. So there is a high chance that the Kit Kat flavor you bought on a certain year will no longer be available on the following year.


Regional specialty: Kuro-tamago (black eggs)

As a bonus, if you happen to be in the Hakone area for a view of Mt. Fuji, you might want to try checking out Owakudani and having a sample of their black eggs.

Kuro-tamago is said to have some health benefits such as
increased life span by seven years.

The black eggs are boiled in the hot springs of Owakudani; some hot springs are just right along the path. The sulfuric content of the hot springs make the eggs black, but there is no need to worry because the inside of the egg is not damaged at all. There is a bit of a sulfuric smell on the shell, but after peeling the egg, everything looks, smells, and tastes normal again.

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