Japan | A Gastronomical Experience that Satiates

2nd in a series

Previously in this  series:

Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

The words umami and oishi found their way in our vocabulary thanks to the Japanese who seem to have an acute sense of taste for good food. They have a way of elevating everything that is already good to even better – from presentation, to taste, to the whole experience of living well. It is also a study in contrast. Strongly-held traditions of the past sit side-by-side with modernity. Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, yet unlike others, it has managed to preserve, nay, live its traditions to this day. Its cultural past is alive and well.

Interesting cultural differences abound. For example, slurping and burping, considered bad manners in the West, are acceptable here. No, in fact, not just accepted, it’s actually seen as a form of compliment to the host, especially if you finish your plate clean because that means you have enjoyed the food. As I would always say to myself: ‘If only by that standard, I could fit in Japan nicely 🙂 I can live here’. I could well be in my element, haha!

The culinary adventure started from even before we landed in Japan. Coming from the house with no breakfast, I was kind of feeling famished already during the flight. The smell of food wafting from the cabin crew station excites me. And when the food was finally served, I was sated like I was never sated before – or maybe I’m just really hungry, I don’t know 🙂

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Look at this spread and be the judge.

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They even have cute, little Haagen-Dazs ice cream served afterwards. How cool is that?

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One would be extremely amazed with the country’s obsession with vending machines. They are practically everywhere – at the airport, pit stops, train stations, convenience stores, even ramen houses! The ubiquity of these machines astounds me. I wish we have something similar back home. Oh, I’m missing the hot VanHouten chocolate drink already. Yes, they not only offer cold but hot drinks as well, and all other curious stuff, too 🙂

In one of the convenience stores we stopped by, I saw this cute robot. I think his name is Pepper, I’m not sure. I will call him Pepper. Judging by this bot’s more intuitive responses and smoother, more fluid movements, Pepper belongs to a newer, smarter generation of AIs. Another evidence of Japanese innovation at work. Aaawww, isn’t he adorable?

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We also had the chance visiting a strawberry farm. Yes, you heard me right. You might be wondering, ‘how in the world are they able to produce strawberries in the dead of winter?’ Well, not a problem if you have a greenhouse.

We were asked to get five of the juiciest, most red, most plump strawberry we could lay our hands on. Look at these beauties 🙂

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Then off we went tasting different types of sake at the Shirataki Sake Brewery – a more than hundred or so year-old institution of this town which was established back in 1855. It is interesting to note that the Niigata Prefecture is the largest producer of sake and is long celebrated for the fine quality of the products.

We were briefed first on the process of making sake and then a tour of some of their facilities. And then the much-awaited sake tasting 🙂 It is no wonder the Japanese love their sake. After a few drinks, one would immediately feel his/her body temperature rise. It would then begin to feel warm inside – perfect in combating the cold.

Below are some of the types of sake we have tried.

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The orb you see hanging in front of the entrance is made of cedar. This serves a practical purpose in that it indicates the passing of time. The wood originally is green-colored. When it turns brown, like it is now in the picture, it means that the sake is ready.

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It’s a walking distance from the brewery to the train station. If you are interested in buying local delicacies, you will find a lot here. One of the specialties of the place is a type of rice called Koshihikari, which they say has the highest quality (I take that to be the most delicious, too) in the whole of Japan. There’s also lots of ramen houses here.

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I’m smelling something good cooking on the grill in that corner. Ah yes, street food! In all shapes and sizes, and in more variations, I suppose.

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Is that “baticolon” (gizzard) I see over there? Oh, look at those intestines. They are huge! For that size, they couldn’t possibly be your typical “isaw” (chicken intestine), could they? Pig’s, perhaps?

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It seems like in this aspect, the Japanese are like Filipinos – neither are keen on leaving any animal parts to waste as long as they are edible, yeah?

I tried the yakitori or grilled chicken on skewers. Oh man, this one is on a different level. It didn’t take long to cook, actually. Reason why meat is probably so tender. It is tasty but not overpowering. Yum!

Also, noticeably not as charred as it would normally be back home.

I also couldn’t resist trying this fish-shaped waffle filled with custard or red beans. I tried the one with custard. To a Filipino, this looks really unusual and interesting. I mean, why fish? Koreans also use this as cone for their ice cream. Is there something auspicious about it? Oh, well, doesn’t matter. As long as it tastes good, haha!

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These are just appetizers and desserts, and already we are feeling full 🙂

However, one still has to eat dinner, right? We were whisked to the Toei Hotel afterwards for some luxurious meal and some karaoke after, to those who want to belt their hearts out. Filipinos love to sing. It is interesting to note that although the karaoke was invented by the Japanese, it was a Filipino who patented it. Nothing spells entertainment more to a Filipino than karaoke 🙂

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The highlight of my day however, is the relaxing onsen bath. First time I’m trying this and it’s not without some first-time jitters I would say, what with local custom requiring you to strip down to nothing but your birthday suit, and this in front of strangers. Major intimidation, haha! Oh, but really, once you’re there, all inhibitions get thrown out the window. No room for body issues here. Important thing is to be able to enjoy the relaxing and the medicinal benefits of the onsen. You know what they say: “When in Rome”…, or more accurately in this case, “When in Japan” 😉

One has to make sure however, to familiarize himself first with the do’s and don’t’s in an onsen before taking that dip so as not to offend locals. Resource materials should be available at the hotel or from your travel agent. Google, even.

Yup, here’s to another item off my bucket list. Kanpai! 🙂

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Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

1st in a series

Not being able to join the Japan tour three years ago was a big bummer. Japan is one of those countries people want to go to and check off their bucket list. It’s just awesome like that without even trying. Just hearing about it talked about, or read, or seen somewhere is enough to spark one’s imagination. Japanese culture exerts a strong influence on the world. There’s something about it that draws people in. One could understand the excitement and the fulfillment it brings me to be here. This is one of those things I can proudly say, ‘been there, done that’. Kudos to everyone who has been behind the success of this trip.

When we say ‘winter’, ‘ski resort’, or ‘snow’ in Japan, first thing that comes to mind probably are the more popular places to the north like Sapporo in Hokkaido, and Nagano.

Yuzawa, in the Niigata Prefecture however, is kind of under the radar, off-the-beaten-track, if you will (at least for the uninitiated).

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And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, you know. Seeing the glass half-full, one would appreciate the fact that you can, sort of like, have the whole of Yuzawa for yourself (yes, one does get that kind of feeling, even if just for rhetoric).

As of June 2016, the town only has an estimated population of 7,972. That’s just 22.3 persons per km²[1]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuzawa,_Niigata

As we say in the vernacular: “Pwede pang mag-tumbling sa loob” 🙂

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The whole place is blanketed in snow, and not a lot of people are on the streets. It’s like ‘the-world-is-my-playground’ kind of place.

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Due to its geographic location, this town has one of the highest annual snowfalls in Japan, earning it the moniker Snow Country (one of the many snow countries in the region called yukiguni, Japanese for heavy snow area).

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And as you can guess by now, skiing and snowboarding are its principal draw and main source of income during this season.

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Dealing with extremely cold weather is a challenge for tropical folks like us. We are not used to wearing extremely thick clothing (oftentimes several layers), with warmers especially on our extremities, where the cold would normally seep in. We find it restricting our movements. But, it is what it is. You wear it or you suffer the cold.

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Day 1 of our activity in Snow Country is snowshoeing – a form of hiking which uses snowshoes. The way it works is it distributes the weight of the body so that the foot does not sink into the snow completely, also known as flotation (can also be spelled floatation). We went to this place where the snow is about knee- to waist-deep in some places.

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We were asked to put on the proper gear to walk on snow. Now, if you think walking on snow is easy, think again.

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Photo courtesy of Stephen Tamba

Well, actually, it depends on a host of different factors: how long the trail is, for example; how steep the incline, how thick the snow is, etc. It can be really exhausting though, if you ask me, what with the weight of the clothing bearing you down. I find myself sweating inside my clothes towards the end of the trail. Also because being the first person in line after the instructors (on the second half of the trek), there is pressure to catch up with them seasoned folks (around 6-feet tall-ish Caucasians who have such huge gait). Maybe it needs a little getting used to.

I kind of learned from that experience so the next time around, I removed a layer from my five-layer attire. You kind of acclimate to the weather as you go along, too 🙂

It was fulfilling finishing the trail because we were already anticipating something good at the end of it – food! But wait, one gets to work for it first. It’s time to make soba noodles! Yehey!… (Nooo! We’re already famished, haha!)

The soba we made were served two-ways, one as hot noodles with soup and the other is cold like salad, with dipping sauce and wasabi on the side. They say among locals, the cold is the preferred choice.  I am yet to agree to that. Right now, I need a hot bowl of noodles. They also served us a basket of tempura. It satiates our hunger. We capped it off with hot tea.