Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Japan 2015 - Not All Good Japanese Food is Sublime

Food in Japan is not all sublime seasonal delicacies. The Japanese are huge consumers of fast food of the American variety and of their own. Every station has what appears to be an endless selection of bento boxes with fish, chicken or meat, vegetables, pickles, rice, tofu and fruit, in all kinds of combinations, neatly placed in compartments in the bento box.

We had a nice one -- in two boxes, although only one is pictured -- on our train from Kanazawa to Kyoto, the Thunderbird (pronounced "Sandabaado"), although I confess to having eaten mine on the bus between Toyama and Kanazawa.

Excellent bus bento
In Kanazawa, which ironically is known for its elegant Japanese food, a group of us went to Jiyuken, a simple Japanese yoshoku (Western-style food) restaurant that has been in business since 1909 serving, among other things, spaghetti, beef stew and rice-stuffed omelets. Here I had an old favorite, katsu curry, a breaded fried pork cutlet atop rice and a gloppy curry sauce bearing no relationship to the Indian or Malaysian variety, all topped with a fried egg and accompanied by pickled ginger. Japanese curry is a unique thing and it just is what it is: you either love it or hate it.
Katsu curry, a unique Japanese take on curry
Japan is also full of vending machines selling cold and hot tea, coffee, water, sports drinks and health drinks. Here's a photo of two with names that Americans find odd: Calpis and Pocari Sweat.

Calpis and Pocari Sweat in vending machine
And coffee, of course, an old vending machine standby.

 Coffees from vending machines
Note that Wonda Gold is "A Premium Coffee With A Radiant-like Beauty Perfected With Premium Beans." No Wonda that it's Tiger Woods' favorite (or at least he did commercials for it when we lived in Tokyo 15 years ago).

In the old days, one could buy sandwiches, beer and even sake in vending machines, but now there are convenience markets everywhere where those items are purchased, in addition to their own, less elaborate, bento boxes and, in the cooler months, oden, the steamed vegetables and fish cakes braised for hours in dashi (Japanese stock, virtually always based on seaweed and most often flavored with bonito flakes).

One of the remaining food items that may be found in vending machines is corn soup, which is surprisingly not bad. Here are two of the many brands that are available.

Two varieties of corn soup in vending machines, about $1.10 at today's exchange rate

One of my favorite things in Japan s is Häagen Dazs matcha (powdered green tea) ice cream, an intense, almost bitter confection bearing no resemblance to the insipid green tea ice cream that Häagen Dazs sells in the US. There are many other brands but -- trust me -- Häagen Dazs is best. 

Häagen Dazs matcha ice cream
In addition, our guide Andy, a great expert on Japanese culture, provided a steady stream of sembei (rice crackers) and other delights to keep us busy on train and bus rides. Among the best (well, most interesting) were the iconic Tokyo Banana cakes -- a lot like Twinkies in their cult status in Tokyo, and just as awful -- and rum raisin KitKat bars that I must admit I liked.

Tokyo Banana cake and rum raisin KitKats
Try to read the fine print at left on the Tokyo Banana wrapper. If you can't make it out, here's what it says:
People gather in Tokyo from here and there with memories of their home. And then, TOKYO gets everyone's home town. TOKYO BANANA
I could go on and on but it's hard to follow that quote.

Bobby Jay

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