This ain’t Benihana’s, Baby!

SUSHI

Nothing is more Japanese than sushi. It’s the equivalent of our burger and fries. But have you ever gotten your sushi off a conveyor belt?

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That’s right. Sushi chefs stand in the middle of a conveyor system that carries sushi past diners who grab what they want as it passes. Granted, this would never work in the States. (We did see a similar set up when we were in Vancouver, though.)

For one thing, the health department would never allow it. As we sat eating, we played a game. We kept our eyes on one particular sushi item, wondering how many times it would go around before the chefs decided no one wanted it – and tossed it. The fish had lost its luster so to speak, and looked quite unappealing. But it was still there when we left.

Another reason you could never do conveyor belt sushi here is that too many people would cheat. As you can see, several plates have more than one item – like two pieces of sashimi, or four pieces of chicken. It would be too tempting for some people to snatch a piece without paying. Or hide the plates so the cute little waitress couldn’t tally up how much they ate.

SUSHI IN BULK

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This display was at the fish market in Osaka. And the sushi was cheap! Those boxes along the top were only $6. And it wasn’t fake crab and avocado like you get at dollar-sushi-night.

TONKATSU

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A lot of restaurants specialize in a particular ‘style’ of food. This place – called Tonki’s – served 5 different katsu’s, all with the same cabbage salad garnish. The meat, usually pork, is┬ábreaded with panko and fried, then sliced and covered with tonkatsu sauce. Chicken is popular, too. You want noodles? Go to a noodle shop.

YAKITORI

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Sometimes sold by street vendors, like this man, who has been selling these sticks of glazed chicken bites for over 30 years. There is no restaurant, you just walk up to the window and order as much as you want: a single stick, or a whole meal. He sells beer, too.

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You can also get yakitori at markets, but it kind of takes the fun out of getting it hot off the grill.

OKONOMIYAKI

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There’s a big rivalry over who makes the best okonomiyaki: Osaka or Hiroshima. It’s hard to even describe what this dish is, except to say that it usually starts with a crepe-like pancake, gets stacked with veggies or noodles (whatever’s in the fridge) and sometimes topped with eggs to hold it together. Then it is slathered with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, and mustard.

Pictured is a restaurant in Osaka that specialized in this delightful dish. They cooked it right at our table, then we hacked off sections and devoured. We also had the Hiroshima version and I liked it better. (In case you’re keeping score.)

OCTOPUS BALLS or SHRIMP BALLS

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Mostly batter, with either octopus or shrimp bites stirred in, then fried in these special pans. These are also popular with street vendors. We got ours at Narita Airport while waiting for our flight. Served with mayo.

PLASTIC FOOD

Nearly all restaurants display their food in the windows – as plastic reproductions.

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That’s what I said. Everything you see is plastic.

You can browse the selection, then go inside and try to explain what you want. But it’s usually easier to walk back out front and point. Some restaurants have a handy picture board/vending machine near the entrance. You select the item you want, pay your yen, and get a ticket which you give to the waitress.

The reproductions are amazingly realistic. And unlike the mushroom steakburger ads that you see on American TV, the food that comes to your table is just like it looked in the picture.

LUNCH BOXES

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Trains are big in Japan. Especially the bullet trains. (Tune in later for a post on traveling in country). The larger train stations all have shops that offer box lunches to carry onto the train. Sushi, sandwiches, cold noodle bowls. You name it, they’ve got it. And although the containers are paper or styrofoam, they look very much like lacquered Bento boxes, and blue floral bowls.

Each box comes complete with wet wipe to clean your hands before eating (a BIG tradition in Japan), condiments, pickled veggies, chopsticks, and of course, a toothpick.

MEALS IN JAPAN

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We traveled to Kinosaki, a small town north of Kyoto to spend a night at a traditional Japanese inn. The table was in our room, and the woman pictured served our dinner.

There must have been 25 separate dishes for the meal: small cups with just two or three bites of pickled vegetables or marinated seaweed; burners to keep bowls of miso soup warm; bamboo steamers of veggies and fish; hibachis to grill fish. As we finished one course, she put out another. It was an incredible meal – well, except for the raw crab legs.

Kinosaki is on a river near the Sea of Japan, where they catch a particular type of crab. It isn’t a firm, meaty crab like we’re used to in the States. It’s a soft, mushy meat. I’ve had my share of sushi and raw oysters, but that raw crab leg was disgusting. And of course, the Japanese lady was kneeling right there like a Jewish mother, making sure I ate every bite. (Thank God there was only one leg.)

P.S. The cooked crab legs weren’t any better.

BREAKFAST

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No pancakes and sausage here. The Japanese don’t distinguish breakfast from lunch or dinner. We stayed at two different hotels that offered buffets. The staples on both included: miso soup, kongee (soupy rice), fried rice, regular rice, tossed salad, steamed dumplings, fresh fruit, and green tea. There are also lots of pickled condiments to put on your rice, steamed vegetables, meat and potatoes. They do make a small folded omelet called tomago, about the size of a piece of sushi. And for western guests, they grudgingly put out an assortment of danish sweet rolls.

But trust me, if you scanned the buffet, you’d be hard-pressed to guess it was breakfast.

VENDING MACHINES

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These suckers are everywhere! Alleyways, outside bars, on every street corner. They have cold coffee drinks, green tea, sodas, water, and beer.

That’s right: Kirin, Sapporo, ice cold and ready to consume. How can that be? What keeps kids from buying as much as they want, whenever they want? That’s a good question. Maybe because it’s readily available, they don’t care. Or can it be that the kids know they’re not supposed to buy it so they don’t? I’m not sure. But Japan does not have the problem with under-aged drinking that the US does.

STRANGEST MEAL

Well, not really a meal. More like an appetizer of cold noodles that came washing down a bamboo chute and had to be grabbed before they got away. Once you snatch your noodles out of the rushing water, you dip them in a soy sauce and slurp them down. But hurry up, here come some more!

Don’t believe me? Check out this video.

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