Food Adventures in Japan
I just got back from Japan last week and after unpacking, I look forward to checking out my photos. Beyond the standard pictures in front of this shrine and that landmark, this time I had chronicled my trip with a new type of photo – food porn – the close-up shot of that meal you’re just about to eat.
I don’t normally take pictures of my food but I did want to share my Japanese culinary experience on Special Fork, so I snapped away. As it turns out, it’s a nice way to remember great meals like the excellent sushi at Tokyo’s world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market, where delicious morsels are made with tender raw fish fresh off the boat. Or the lavish 11-course dinner at a country inn in Fukushima, renowned for having hosted one of Japan’s emperors.
But more fun is to share the food experiences that would strike Americans as quirky.
Are you uncomfortable dining by yourself? At Ichiran Ramen in Tokyo. each diner eats in a private, single-seat cubby. This style of restaurant is geared primarily to women who feel self-conscious about eating alone. You order from a vending machine and sit down. You can’t see the cooks who are preparing your ramen noodles, and side walls block your view of the customers to your left and right. Once the food is delivered, a privacy shade drops down in front of you so you are completely isolated.
Each space is self-contained with tableware, its own hot water dispenser for tea, and a button to press when you’re done. Word has it the restaurant is opening in New York, so if you feel self-conscious lunching by yourself go check it out.
A few days later we visited the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Hakubutsukan in Yokohama. It’s a Ramen museum with nine restaurants, hand-picked from across the country. The restaurants are set in a replica of a 1958 downtown district. As with most ramen restaurants, you order via a vending machine. If you’re lucky there will be pictures with the buttons. If there are no pictures – just text in Japanese – you either go by price or make a random choice. In this case, price didn’t give us an upgrade in variety or quality. The lowest price got one bowl of noodles and the next highest just got more noodles.
But here is where cultural differences came into play. We were directed to a rectangular table with six seats – three on each side. Ordinarily I would expect to sit opposite my companion, but there were two girls sitting at the table side by side. So we did the same thing. During the course of the meal I waited to see what would happen to the two remaining seats which were now facing each other. They were never filled, even though the line waiting for tables was 20 minutes long. I assumed that it’s uncouth for the Japanese to sit across from each other in this type of situation.
Throughout our trip we ate all different types of Japanese food from okonomiyake (Japanese pizza) and izakaya (small plates) to yakitori (grilled skewered meats) and I never got tired of it. But I always like to make a trip to McDonald’s (horror!) to try the unique local adaptations. In China I had some sort of pork sandwich, in Thailand I had the oddly named “Samurai” pork sandwich and in Japan there were definite possibilities. I usually like to go for the craziest thing I can find and in this instance it was the Carbonara sandwich. I had no idea was it was – from the menu it looked like some sort of unidentified patty with cheese, bacon and some unknown yellow sauce.
I had my heart set on this adventure but when I tried to order, through a series of gestures I came to realize that the Carbonara sandwich was not going to be on the menu until November! It seemed that McDonald’s was doing an around-the world-promotion with global sandwiches. I guess they do this in other countries because I experienced this when I was living in France a number of years ago.
With heavy heart I opted for the current promotion which was the German Sausage sandwich. It turned out to be Japanese fried chicken served on a sausage patty with cheese. It was good but I’m sure wouldn’t have been as good as my mystery Carbonara.
So if you happen to be in Japan during the month of November, go to McDonald’s for me and order the Carbonara sandwich. Let me know what that mysterious yellow sauce is.