Note: Japan is the last country on my travel schedule for 2007, following Jakarta, Indonesia; Vancouver, Canada; and Seattle, Washington. I visited these four cities/countries all within the space of a month and a half, and to describe my schedule as “hectic,” is a gross understatement. Now I come to Japan, which is one of the most vibrant, dynamic cities I’ve ever been to in my life: so much to see, do, and eat. There’s so much I want to tell you about this country and time is running out because I’ve got to start focusing on my Christmas posts. So, to make up for lost time and to make it even more difficult for myself, I hope to whip out this 8-part post in 8 days ”“ that’s a post a day! Goodness, help me. (But if I miss a day, don’t kill me, yes? I have a life to live, too.
Overview of Japan posts:
Japan 1: Welcome to Tokyo! (and a killer okonomiyaki)
Japan 2: Yokohama and Omuraisu
Japan 3: What Makes Japan One Of A Kind
Japan 4: Special Japanese Neighborhoods + Those Famous Food Floors
Japan 5: A Gourmet Japanese Lunch + Roppongi Hills
Japan 6: Kyoto (1st installment, 2nd installment)
Japan 7: Disneyland and DisneySea
Japan 8: Tsukiji Fish Market & Tsukiji neighborhood
I’m very methodical when I travel: I tirelessly research the countries that I’m going to visit, I print out lists of restaurants and shops that I want to go to complete with their addresses, telephone numbers, and hours of operation. They’re even listed according to priority, complete with highlights and post-its. Some people might say that I’m not leaving room for spontaneity, which is after all, the spirit of travel, but I like to know what to expect and more importantly, I don’t want to miss a thing. These lists are what I call my codigos.
Japan is one of those countries that holds a place of mystique in the minds of a lot of people, me included. It’s famous and influential in terms of its food, its manga and anime, and of course, its technology. Everybody knows about Japan, but nobody really knows what it is. It’s one of the great exciting unknowns. And, in spite of a few brushes (and tragedies) with colonial influence in its history, Japan’s culture has firmly remained intact and unsullied.
When my Bin, Boo, and I get to Japan along with my mom in law and sister in law, Risa, I show my codigo to another sister in law, Yappi, who’s been living in Tokyo for 13 years. She gives the printouts a perfunctory once-over and says, “Those are the touristy stops, what everyone comes here to see. I’ll show you what the real Tokyo is all about.” I’m immediately overwhelmed and injected with energy, I’m a rocket gunning to take off and see it for myself.
Yappi lives in a condominium in ChÅ«Å City, a central area of Tokyo that incorporates the famous districts of Ginza and Tsukiji on its eastern side. From Yappi’s 17th floor space, there’s a mesmerizing view of the Sumida River and one of the 26 steel bridges that cross this body of water.
The first thing we eat in Japan is okonomiyaki, a very common food that is largely unknown outside of the country. ‘Okonomi’ literally: “grilled whatever you like,” reflects the assortment of ingredients that can used in okonomiyaki, which is often described as a Japanese pancake or pizza. After seeing how it’s made, I tend to agree more with the description of the former. One thing that is quickly made clear to me in Japan is that each restaurant serves a specialty and only that specialty, be it sushi and sashimi, sukiyaki, yakitori, or in this case, okonomiyaki. It’s very unlike Japanese restaurants elsewhere in the world where a whole lot of Japanese food is available in one place.
The only required ingredients to make an okonomiyaki are water, hondashi (bonito flavored powdered soup stock), eggs, flour, and chopped cabbage. Some people replace the flour with cornstarch, making for a more brittle, flatter okonomiyaki. Green onions are almost always added because of their unique flavor. Every table is fitted with a flat-top grill that’s turned on as soon as everyone sits down. A menu is given of all the various ingredients available, and Yappi reads out those she’d like for each okonomiyaki she’ll be making. Eating this Japanese specialty is a “group event,” and three or four, even more are the usual number ordered.
We begin with some sautéed shiitake mushrooms to whet our appetites and to get the umami (the fifth taste) juices flowing. The server periodically sets down a large bowl of the ingredients ordered which Yappi summarily stirs briskly and then pours onto the grill. Using a flat metal spatula, she evens out the mixture into a uniformly flat pancake. The mixture gently hisses and already I see the undersides browning ever so slightly. I can already smell the green onions, or maybe it’s the okonomiyakis from the other diners. There’s so much cooking going on at the other tables accompanied with loud conversations fueled by plenty of glasses of sake that I really can’t tell.
Once the underside has set sufficiently, it’s flipped over, followed by a loud hiss and a wisp of smoke. Japanese mayonnaise ”“ the ultra smooth, super good kind ”“ is spread on lightly and then drizzles of a brown Japanese sauce commonly known as “Bulldog sauce,” aka, the brown sauce dribbled on top of katsudon. A few more minutes, and when done, Yappi neatly divides the okonomiyaki into four, one for each of us ”“ mom, me, my Bin, and herself. Boo is happy with her yaki soba (fried noodles) and Risa, my other sister in law, is outside taking pictures. She has several food allergies which prevent her from enjoying the foods that we eat on this trip.
At first bite, okonomiyaki reminds me of the Philippine ukoy, the deep-fried patty made from rice flour, sweet potato, and shredded vegetables. But its Japanese counterpart is smoother, wetter, with an inherent richness from the mayonnaise and a citrus tang from the Bulldog sauce. A sprinkle of togarashi chili flakes contribute a tingly heat. Succulent slices of tomato dipped in more of that divine Japanese mayo cleanse the palate nicely between okonomiyakis.
I’m enjoying my okonomiyaki with a chu-hi lemon, (sometimes chuhai, chihi), a carbonated drink that tastes like 7-Up. My Bin is liking the drink too but when he wonders why he’s feeling a bit dizzy, Yappi giggles and tells us to take it easy on the chu-hi because it’s got a shochu base, a rice wine with an alcoholic content between 35%-45%! Egads.
When Yappi suggests some sherbet for dessert, I politely decline since I’m not a fan of sweetened ice. But she good-naturedly brushes my decision aside and orders some anyway. And am I glad she does! What the “sherbet” turns out to be are frozen strawberries filled with a cold custard mixture. Its arctic texture is a supreme contrast to the hotness we’ve been ingesting. All throughout dessert, we wonder aloud, “How do they get the custard inside these things?” alternating with “Mmm, so refreshing! So good!” I think it’d be wise to say ”˜yes’ whenever Yappi asks me if I’d like to try something here in Japan.
After rolling ourselves out of the restaurant, we wander the shops situated in the area which I’m kicking myself now for not remembering the name of. (Have to ask Yappi!) The strong smell of coffee beckons me into what’s called a gourmet coffee store selling everything from beans to coffee makers. The only thing that’s missing is the actual serving of coffee itself.
Some other things I see:
Walking home, we cross a bridge near the Sumida River. We spy a boat ferrying passengers who are undoubtedly enjoying this beautiful, moonlit night. I snap a photo and smile, already excited for tomorrow.