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Big In Japan – A Day at the Sumo

The recent news that Yokozuna Hakuho, the record-breaking sumo wrestler, is finally planning to retire after a stellar career, prompted us to look back on a splendid day at the sumo in Tokyo, back in 2007 when Hakuho had just been promoted to the highest rank in the sport. Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan and is steeped in tradition. Indeed the origins of sumo are thousands of years old and it is thought to have originated in the Yayoi period in Japan (300 BCE-300 CE).

The rules are very simple: Two rikishi (wrestlers) face each other in a ring known as a dohyo, which is 4.55m in diameter. When mutual consent is given to begin, signified by each wrestler touching his fists to the floor, the bout commences. A rikishi loses when he is either forced out of the ring or touches the floor with any part of his body other than his feet. The wrestlers wear just a mawashi (belt), which can be grasped and used to push, throw or lift their opponent out of the ring or onto the floor. Some rikishi don’t use the mawashi and tend to have a push and thrust approach to taking on their opponent.

There are very few techniques that are banned, but fist punches, poking the opponent in a vulnerable area or pulling the opponent’s top knot, which is part of the chonmage (the hairstyle), are all considered to be unacceptable and any rikishi that uses these moves will automatically lose the match. A gyoji (referee), wearing robes based on medieval imperial court attire, oversees proceedings, encouraging the rikishi to spar and deciding which has won the bout. Sometimes the outcome is extremely close so additional judges sit around each edge of the dohyo in order to assess which wrestler first exited the ring or touched the floor.

The first characteristic that most people notice about sumo wrestlers is their weight, which can be substantial. Sumo wrestlers put on weight because it is more difficult to force a heavy opponent from the ring. But they are extremely fit, flexible and agile. There are no weight categories in the sport so a 100kg wrestler could easily face an opponent twice his weight. This is also what makes sumo so exciting – weight isn’t necessarily an advantage as the smaller rikishi may be more nimble and can employ moves that outsmart their opponents.

The bout itself is often, but not always, short in duration, although there is no time limit. It is always preceded by a series of rituals that have origins both in Japan’s Shinto religion and ancient warfare. The rikishi throw salt into the ring to purify it. Other practices include wrestlers raising a leg and stamping on the ground to scare away enemies and also clapping their hands. Once ready, they take their mark and squat in a position known as shikari, facing their opponent, ready to thrust forward when the bout begins. It’s often an explosive start as two large men crash into each other and it’s hugely exciting.

Grand Sumo Basho, or tournaments, are held six times every year. Three are held in Toyko at the  Ryogoku Kokugikan (January, May, September) and then there is one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). (These schedules have changed a bit during the last couple of years due to Covid.) Each tournament lasts 15 days. The most popular days to attend are weekends and the final days of the basho as the excitement mounts to see who will win the Emperor’s cup. We were honoured to be invited to the sumo by a family friend. It made for the most splendid entertainment. The tournament schedule and ticketing information can be found at the Japan Sumo Association website.

The Ryogoku Kokugikan dohyo in Tokyo is located just a two minute walk from the JR Sobu Line Ryogoku Station West Exit (useful if you have a JR pass), or five minutes walk from the Toei Ryogoku Station A3 exit on the Toei Subway Oedo Line. The Ryogoku Kokugikan is easy to find and outside you will see the brightly coloured flags bearing the rikishi names lining the route to the entrance.

There are various tiers of ticket available and the most popular seats do sell out quickly. Ringside tamari seats are the most expensive. They are the closest you can get to the action and sometimes audience members can be a little too close if an energetic bout results in a wrestler falling on top of them!

Box seats are designed for either four or six people and you have to buy all the seats within the box. This suits a group of people viewing together. They have a tatami mat base and cushions. The boxes closest to the dohyo are more expensive and they become progressively cheaper the further back they are located. The box seats are very popular.

Arena seats are located on the upper floor in a standard tiered seating arrangement, further away from the action but they offer a good view at a much cheaper price. For the die-hard fan who cannot pre-order tickets, jiyu seki, (free-seating tickets), located right at the top of the building just below the rafters, can be purchased each day at the Kokugikan from 8am. These will go quickly though and if you want some, you may well need to start queuing very early in the morning.

The tickets are valid for the entire day and bouts start from around 8:30am. Sumo is divided into a number of divisions and the lowest ranked wrestlers will spar earliest in the morning. As the day progresses and the higher ranked rikishi start making an appearance the stadium will slowly fill up. By the time the Makunouchi (the highest division) commences the Kokugikan will be full and the atmosphere incredibly lively as the audience members support their favourite rikishi. You can buy banners, t-shirts and other souvenirs at the concession stands.

On arrival at the Kokugikan main entrance, if you have tickets, you will be guided to your seat. It is possible to pre-arrange a bento and drinks. (Alcohol is allowed.) The stadium even has its own kitchen in the basement. There, they make yakitori chicken, which is often eaten as part of the bento meal. There is a reason that chicken is on the menu – it is a bird that stands on two feet, something that the rikishi most definitely want to emulate. It’s also absolutely fine to bring your own food and drink if you wish.

Then it’s a case of sitting back and watching the action, whilst enjoying delicious food, a cup of green tea and, later on, a few beers as well.

You will often see the banners from sponsors of a particular rikishi parade around the dohyo before the bout. These organisations put up prize money for their sponsored wrestler. If he wins, he receives cash in an envelope offered by the gyoji but if he loses, his opponent wins the prize. The higher ranked and more popular the wrestler the greater the number of envelopes. If a lower ranked rikishi beats an ozeki (second highest rank) or Yokozuna, he wins a magnificent wadge of cash.

One of the wonderful things about the sumo is that you can wander around the arena between bouts and will often see rikishi in their yukata (light cotton kimono). More often than not, they are happy to pose for photos.

When it’s time for the Makunouchi bouts, the top tier rikishi will enter the dohyo wearing their keshō-mawashi, which are beautifully decorated ceremonial silk aprons, and form a circle. They perform a number of symbolic movements together before they leave and prepare for their bouts.

The Yokozuna, accompanied by two top division wrestler ‘assistants’ then enters the dohyo, wearing a tsuna (ceremonial rope, the word Yokozuna literally means ‘horizontal rope’) around his waist, to perform the ring entering ceremony. There are two types and the Yokozuna will choose which one he will perform soon after his promotion.

The highest ranked wrestlers fight the final bouts and the crowd become increasingly excited. When the very last bout has been fought, there is a closing bow-swirling ceremony – another ritual steeped with symbolic meaning.

And what better way to round off a wonderful day’s entertainment than going out for dinner at a local restaurant? Of course the only meal we could have was chanko nabe – sumo stew. This is the meal that sumo wrestlers eat at their stables in large quantities after their training sessions. (They go to sleep after eating chanko nabe and this helps them gain weight.) It’s filling and nutritious and, importantly, delicious. It’s a great sharing dish – a hot pot that sits in the middle of the table and everyone helps themselves. It comprises meat and vegetables, sometimes with seafood and tofu, that simmers in a dashi broth (a recipe for dashi can be found here). Sometimes sake or mirin is added to the broth to add flavour. There is no specific recipe which means that loads of scrumptious variations are possible. Unsurprisingly, there are a cluster of chanko nabe restaurants in the Ryogoku area.

If you are visiting Tokyo at a time when there is no basho running, it is possible to watch sumo wrestlers training in their stables. There is no cost to this but you’ll have to get up early as they usually train between 7:30 and 10am. The Arashio beya stable has an English language guide to watching the morning practice: Watching Keiko: Morning Sumo Practice. You generally don’t get to enter the stable itself but can watch through a large window.

And if you can’t get to Japan at all it is possible to watch sumo basho on TV. Japan’s national broadcaster NHK World present the highlights from each day over the entire fortnight.  The first and final day’s events are also shown live.

If you are likely to be in Tokyo at the time of a basho we highly recommend trying to obtain tickets for the sumo. It really is the most lovely way to spend a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon watching this unique and fascinating sport.

Noodle Nirvana at the Yokohama Raumen (Ramen) Museum

Here at Very Tasty World we have a passion for pasta and, as our regular ramen reviews emphasise, there is a joy in the variety of internationally available variants of noodle niceness that you can enjoy at home with just a kettle, a bowl and a pair of chopsticks. Of course, ramen restaurants are also available, if you are lucky enough to be able to reach one, so you don’t even have to trouble yourself to turn on the kettle.

But what if you want more?: To learn more and to taste more? What if you want to understand the history of ramen, instant or traditional, and to try various examples with different flavours from around the country for which ramen is best known? There is only one place to go, a foodie theme park where you can learn the history and, importantly, taste many different types of ramen in all their broth infused glory. The Shinyokohama Raumen Museum (The English site is here  please be clear of the spelling with the additional ‘u’, which is correct in Japanese, otherwise you might have search engine issues) is that place, a multi-storey building dedicated to everything that is ramen. We naturally felt obliged to travel there and research our culinary favourites. We were not alone in this desire to get to know ramen because Brittany Murphy’s character Abby does exactly the same thing when she visits in the film The Ramen Girl.

The museum is located in Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan, which is easily accessible from Tokyo. If you have a Japan Rail Pass you can use the shinkansen (bullet train) to arrive at Shin Yokohama, which is the closest station, but there are plenty of other train services available too. The ground floor is the museum’s main area of knowledge, displaying a range of information about the history of ramen from traditional to instant. The displays include chronological timelines and also show the progression of instant noodle technology. So you can observe the pots, the packets and even a noodle unravelling.  

But the proof of the pasta is in the eating. So you need to head downstairs in order to fulfil your craving. Pro tip – if you are planning to visit, make sure you do so on an empty stomach – don’t have too much for breakfast in the morning..

The eating area, Sunset Shopping Street, is a recreation of a town in 1958, the year that instant ramen was invented. The whole environment has a sundowner setting with cloudy dark blue sky and street lighting which all adds to the ambience.

There are a number of restaurants where you can sample regional ramen, from miso ramen to salty soy sauce and rich, creamy tonkotsu where the broth is made by boiling pork bones for hours. The only problem is deciding which shop (or shops) to choose from, even though you know its ramen you want, the choices are far more complex than the expected ‘what flavour broth or meat/fish/vegetable combo,’ but the bigger ‘what region?’ question because each venue represents a different region of Japan’s quintessential local concoctions. Regional variations are prevalent in lots of Japanese foods such as udon (thick noodles) and okonomiyaki, so each ramen shop offering different options and all declaring their own as the very best, presents something of a conundrum to the casual noodle-slurper. We did see a number of visitors share a bowl of ramen before moving onto the next shop in order to taste as many different variations as possible. However, since our visit, the museum is clear that all adult visitors to each shop should purchase a bowl of ramen. This seems absolutely reasonable as it’s not fair to the restaurant owner to have table space taken up with multiple visitors sitting around a single bowl of noodles. Still, it’s a very pleasant choice to have to make. And these days you can order different sized portions, so if your appetite is big enough you may be able to sample many different types of smaller bowls. The street also has a traditional sweet shop, just in case you are still hungry!

The northern island of Hokkaido is famous for its miso ramen

Oh, and there’s even a classic kaiju (monster) poster on one of the fake hoardings – what more could you want?

This really is an essential tourist trip for ravenous lovers of ramen. Great fun for foodies in terms of understanding history of the world’s most popular instant food and also getting to eat yummy ramen.

Breakfast of Champions – Breakfasts Around the World

….And Why It’s Often Okay to Go Off-Menu When Travelling

Many years ago we were excitedly choosing all sorts of delicacies at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in Yerevan, Armenia, when another guest glanced at our plates, shrivelled their noses in a very patronising manner and exclaimed, “Ugh! Salad? For breakfast?”

It’s widely considered to be most important meal of the day but so many people seem to be set in their ways when it comes to eating a hearty breakfast. So much that hotels all over the world seem to offer pretty much the same fare. Western visitors are often offered fried food such as bacon, sausage and eggs with bread-based accompaniments and Eastern visitors are usually offered rice or noodle dishes. All these dishes are generally familiar to the tourist and often don’t reflect the traditional breakfasts of the country they are visiting. 

Maybe it’s because people don’t feel so adventurous first thing in the morning, and that’s fair enough, but they may be missing out. Thing is, we’re British and can have bacon and eggs any time we like. (Although, to be honest, we haven’t cooked a fry-up for years as it’s quite a lot of effort.) We’d much rather eat a typical breakfast using local ingredients from the country that we are visiting.

It’s quite common for hotels to ask their guests to pre-order breakfast. It makes sense, they know what they need to order in beforehand and this can help minimise food waste. There is usually a form with tick boxes and you can choose from a variety of typical breakfast offerings. But if you do want to eat like a local, we’ve learned that many hotel restaurants are happy to cook you a regional breakfast. We’ve discovered that very often it’s absolutely okay to go off menu.

It all started in Uganda when we breakfasted at a lodge with a local guide. We were eating standard fare but our curiosity was piqued when something entirely different was brought out for him. On asking, we learned that it was a rolex – a chapati with a layer of omelette on top, then rolled into a spiral cylinder, perfect for munching on. So the next day we asked the lodge staff if it would be possible for us to have a rolex for brekkie and they were happy to oblige. It’s great – tasty and filling – a good start to the day.

In Nepal we were given a standard pre-order form to complete (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast…) to pre-order breakfast for the following morning. We politely asked whether it was possible to have a local breakfast instead. We didn’t specify any dish – just asked for local food. They were delighted. The following morning we were served a marsala omelette accompanied by a joyous curry and roti with home-made yoghurt. It was delicious.

Gallo pinto is a typical breakfast in Costa Rica. It’s so popular it is often eaten for lunch and dinner as well. Which is just as well because it tastes great and is also really healthy. It comprises rice and beans and is usually accompanied by a fried egg at breakfast. Other accompaniments to start the morning include sausage, fried potatoes and some salad.

A dosa for breakfast in South India is an absolute joy. This is a pancake traditionally made from rice and dal (lentils) which are ground to form a batter and then fermented. The batter is cooked on a hot plate to form a large pancake and served with chutney – coriander, coconut and tomato are particularly popular.

In Vietnam breakfast usually took a buffet form but often there were chefs on-hand to cook some food to order. We were always offered Pho – a tangle of noodles, freshly cooked and served in a yummy broth, topped with meat and vegetables. You pick up a side plate and add herbs, chilli, limes and other delicious items so that you can create your own personalised taste sensation. The liquid of the broth also ensured that we were thoroughly hydrated for the day ahead.

In Japan, breakfast often comprises grilled fish, vegetables and pickles, maybe with tofu, dumpling and an omelette.

These are accompanied with a bowl of rice, into which you could crack a raw egg mixed with shoyu (soy sauce) – the egg sort of cooks in the heat of the rice – or that famous smelly fermented soybean concoction, natto, maybe with some sliced negi (similar to spring onion). Just grab a slice of nori (dried seaweed), place it over the rice, then using a pincer movement with your chopsticks grab a portion of rice with the nori. Scrumptious. (It’s worth noting that if you are at a breakfast buffet in Japan the eggs on offer may well be raw – be careful when cracking them.)

And, of course, whenever we are staying away from home in the UK, we’ll always have an honest-to-goodness fry-up. Sausage, bacon, egg (usually fried, poached or scrambled), black pudding, mushroom, tomato, beans and sometime a hash brown are the usual components.

We recently discovered that the best possible place for a full English breakfast that we’ve ever eaten is actually in our home town. While many top breakfast establishments boast locally sourced food (which is, of course, delicious), The Gourmet Food Kitchen in Fargo Village, Coventry go one step further and actually cure their own bacon and make their own sausages and black pudding. And that’s just the start: The hash brown (never the most fabulous component of breakfasts) is a home-made bubble and squeak, a glorious blend of fried potato and cabbage. The beans have never seen a tin – they are home-made baked beans in a rich tomato sauce. Chef Tony even makes his own rich, tangy and utterly delicious brown sauce to accompany the feast.

Developing a Business Plan: A Guide to Japanese Business Hotels

Japan has a reputation for being an expensive country to visit. And while it is possible to spend a lot of money on wonderful accommodation (as it is pretty much anywhere), there are plenty of places to stay that won’t break the bank.

Business hotels are a great way of finding relatively cheap accommodation, especially in cities. Many are located close to railway stations, so you don’t have to drag your luggage too far if you are travelling by public transport (easily the best way to tour around Japan, especially if you have a Japan Rail Pass ). They are primarily designed for salarymen on business trips but are great for tourists too. There are loads of affordable hotels right in the centre of Tokyo; business hotels in other cities can be significantly cheaper.

You can reserve accommodation via the usual hotel booking sites but these days most hotels have an English language website where you can book direct. It’s worth noting that some hotels don’t release dates until quite close to the time of stay (between one and three months) so if you are super-organised and want to ensure you have your accommodation booked early the booking sites still offer a pretty good deal – and a guarantee that you can stay there. Indeed, some may offer free cancellation up to a few days before your stay so you could book up early and change your plans if you need to.

Business hotel rooms are small. There’s no escaping that fact. Think of all the estate agent euphemisms about describing tiny spaces: “small but perfectly formed”, “compact and bijou”, “cosy”… We’ve stayed in some rooms where you could barely swing a kitten, let alone a cat. Sometimes the hotels themselves are tiny. You might walk into a compact lobby that has just a front desk and an elevator to the floors above. But, the thing is, you’re in Japan! Why would you want to spend time in your hotel when there are amazing vibrant neon cities or charming towns to explore?

If the room is small then the bathroom is minuscule. It’s a pre-fabricated plastic shell. But everything you need is in there. Bath/shower, basin and… the toilet.

Japanese toilets are an experience in themselves. When you discover that your toilet has a control panel you know that your bathroom experience is going to be… interesting. Don’t worry, it’s fine, you can get away with answering the call of nature then simply pressing a button (look out for the kanji 大 (big) or 小 (small) to get the required level of flush) but if you’re feeling more adventurous bidet options are very common, so be prepared for a jet of warm water if you select the right option. Of course, the instructions may be in Japanese, in which case you might be taking pot luck. This kanji means stop: 止. Some toilets are sophisticated enough to have seat warmers or even make a sound of tinkling water to disguise those undesirable body sounds emitted while using the loo.

The bathroom will also contain a basket of useful toiletries which are free for your use. These include a toothbrush/toothpaste set, razor and shaving foam, a comb and other little items. So you really don’t have to worry if you forgot to pack your toothbrush!

Indeed Japanese business hotels manage to pack a huge amount of facilities into such a compact space. And they genuinely supply everything you need.

Most rooms will have a fridge. They are small but great for storing a beer or sake (or two) and, also, you might want to pick up a breakfast bento at the local konbini convenience store.

Most business hotels will supply disposable slippers (using outdoor shoes inside is usually a no-no in Japan) and sometimes there will be a yukata (light cotton kimono) for relaxing in.

There’s always a TV as well as a kettle and cups along with sachets of tea so that you can enjoy a hot beverage, if you can work out how to use the kettle (fill with water and press the buttons bearing in mind that one will probably dispense very hot water, if indeed you’ve managed to heat it).

One problem we have found is that it can be tricky to store your luggage. Some beds have enough space to push your luggage underneath and this works particularly well if you have squishable soft bags. Big, hard cases are not ideal, but there is a solution if you don’t need to have all your luggage with you all the time. You can forward luggage to another hotel via Takkyubin (described here) which is an amazingly efficient and great value service. We often found that keeping one ‘big bag’ (we always ensure that we have a mix of our clothes/undies for each of us in both bags rather than packing a separate bag per person – just in case luggage gets lost on the flight out) and forwarding the other onto another hotel means that you only need to worry about storing one bag in the room.

It’s not common for Japanese business hotels to offer a substantial breakfast and many won’t offer food at all. Some may have a small café area where you can pick up a tea or coffee, others may offer a basic breakfast – such as rice balls (onigiri) and a cup of green tea. There will almost certainly be vending machines so that you can purchase food (snacks or cup noodles) and drinks (soft drinks, canned coffee or beer). And you usually won’t be far from a convenience store (konbini) where you can buy pretty much anything you might need! We often pick up a bento (boxed meal) for breakfast – at a few hundred yen they are cheap and filling and can be stored in the room’s fridge. There’s usually a great variety to choose from.

Japanese business hotels are undoubtedly great value but it is also nice to experience other types of accommodation. Ryokan are traditional inns which often offer a suite of rooms with a tatami (reed) mat floor, futon and amazing breakfasts and dinners – it’s a real experience although, of course, they are usually more expensive.

Minshuku are Japanese B&Bs – usually family run, they also offer Japanese style accommodation. They are fun, friendly and often cheaper than ryokan. It is also possible to visit family homes in some areas. AirBnB has been increasingly popular as a choice of accommodation in Japan too. There are also cheap dorm rooms for backpackers and the famous capsule hotels, whereby you can sleep inside a tube for the night, all mod-cons provided, albeit within an incredibly compact space. It’s worth noting that the budget accommodation options are often sex-segregated. When we travel around Japan we tend to choose business hotels for the majority of our stays, in order to keep the budget low, and then treat ourselves to a few nights’ splurge at a ryokan.

Making Miso Happy Part 2

One of the great things about travelling around Japan is getting to sample the regional variations in the food. We had visited a miso/soy sauce factory in the western city of Kanazawa but, on our way, we had taken a detour to visit the snow monkeys at Yudanaka and also had the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Obuse in Nagano prefecture.

Obuse is a pretty little town with some interesting museums – notably an exhibition space dedicated to artist and printmaker Hokusai who was famous for his ukiyo-e (floating world) pictures from the Edo period. His best known work is probably The Great Wave off Kanakawa, one of the 36 views of Mount Fuji series. When we visited, they had on an exhibition which contrasted the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji with the One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji series.

We were pleased to discover that the town also had a shop dedicated to miso.

The delightful owners were very happy for us to sample their wares and it was great to be able to compare flavours of the different types on offer. We bought some packets of miso to take home with us.

We had long wanted to experiment with making miso but, while it’s easy to get hold of soy beans, obtaining rice koji is more difficult in the UK. We were able to buy some inoculated koji in Japan and have later discovered a number of suppliers in the UK and EU from whom koji can be obtained. We used pre-inoculated koji. If you are really hardcore, you can obtain the spores, then steam the rice and let the mould grow on it to create your own koji.

That is for another time though. We started with the simple approach using koji that we had bought in Kanazawa…

The best book in the world for learning how to make Japanese preserves, pickles and ferments is Nancy Singleton Hachisu’s Preserving the Japanese Way: Traditions of Salting, Fermenting, and Pickling for the Modern Kitchen. We have tried and tested loads of recipes from this book and can wholeheartedly recommend it. We followed the miso recipe.

Organic soy beans were soaked overnight and then boiled for a couple of hours until soft.

One thing we realised that we needed to obtain – a bit too late at this stage – was a proper blender. The soy beans were mashed by any means necessary – in the end a combination of a potato masher and hand blender produced the best results from all the available gadgets in the kitchen but the beans were still a bit chunky – we didn’t achieve a really smooth paste. But that was okay, miso doesn’t have to be totally smooth. In fact, chunky miso has a very pleasant nutty texture. But a blender was duly ordered for future use.

After the beans had cooled we mixed in the rice koji and salt – giving everything a really good squash together. It’s a very hands-on approach. (Make sure hands are clean, of course, a good way to do this is to spray them with white vinegar.)

Then you get a big container, in this instance we found some food-grade plastic tubs, which we cleaned thoroughly and wiped with (cheap) vodka, grab a ball of mixture and throw it into the container. You need to have a good aim. The point of the throwing is that the mix splats together and doesn’t allow air bubbles. It’s really important that the mix is compact. If your splatting ability isn’t as accurate as it could be, make sure you really pack the miso together afterwards – a good squish with your fists will help.

When the mixture is thoroughly squashed and compacted, sprinkle salt over the surface of the mixture, find some heavy weights and crush the miso to push it all together.  

Then it’s simply a matter of time. Miso production in Japan is usually started in spring when temperatures are low. We started in April. The hot, humid summer is essential for the maturation of the miso and this is quite difficult to replicate in the UK, which has summers that can best be described as variable. However, we are lucky enough to have a greenhouse in our garden so our miso spent several days at a temperature that tried to emulate Japan’s summer heat although it didn’t get close to its oppressive humidity. It worked though – after the summer, on opening the lid we could definitely get that distinctive miso aroma. We knew we were on the right track.

We waited a few more months – until late October – and finally plucked up the courage to scrape the scary-looking surface of the miso and dive in.

An initial taste revealed it to be really delicious – salty and savoury with a heady aroma. We do a lot of food preservation via a lacto-fermentation process and are generally a bit scared of mould which is considered to be a Bad Thing. If food goes mouldy, it is dangerous and should be chucked. With the miso, the covering of the weight did develop some mould so we were cautious. But it hadn’t affected the food, so all was well.

It turned out that we had managed to ferment about 3kg worth! That will keep us going for a while. We carefully washed some old plastic tubs from takeaway food – these are brilliant for storage – decanted the miso from the tub and put it into the fridge for future use. As a fermented food, it should have a very good shelf life.

The first thing we made with the miso was soup – the traditional accompaniment to many Japanese meals. Our miso was so delicious that it was possible to make a nice drink by simply pouring boiling water onto the paste, mixing and devouring, but that was too crude an approach.

The very best miso soup starts with a dashi, which is a soup stock. There are several types of dashi. You can get instant powdered dashi and just add water but it’s really easy to make your own using ingredients that are generally easy to find from Asian supermarkets. The process is very simple and much quicker than traditional stock making in European cuisines, which generally require ingredients such as meat, vegetables and spices to be boiled for several hours. And it’s definitely worth the not very considerable effort.

Dashi usually only uses a couple of ingredients. The dashi we made used kombu (kelp – a seaweed) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes, which are skipjack tuna flakes that have been simmered and smoked, then dried in the sun to ferment and finally shaved to wafer thin slices). Katsuobushi, like many fermented fish products (think Thai nam pla – fish sauce), smells somewhat stinky and rather unpleasant when you open the packet, but somehow it adds a magical quality to the finished stock. Other dashi ingredients could include dried shiitake mushrooms or dried anchovies. Dashi definitely puts the “mmm” into umami.

We simmered kombu and bonito for 20 minutes, skimming off any froth from the surface of the broth. Then we sieved the broth and kept the solid materials. A bit like olive oil, this was the primary dashi, but it’s possible to resuse the dried base ingredients to make another dashi.

When the dashi is ready add a tablespoon of miso paste and bring to the simmer.

Miso soup usually has some additional ingredients such as negi (like spring onions), tofu, mushrooms or wakame seaweed.

You can find our detailed recipe for making miso soup here.

And here are some links to the highly recommended Preserving The Japanese Way book in the UK or US.

Recipe: Miso Soup

Miso soup is a traditional Japanese broth made with miso (fermented soy bean paste), dashi (a simple but delicious stock) and a variety of other ingredients of your choice. It’s the perfect accompaniment to so many Japanese dishes.

,

2 sheets of  kelp seaweed (kombu)

1 packet of bonito flakes

500ml water 

1 tbs miso paste (home made or shop-bought)  

Optional:#

spring onions

silken tofu

wakame seaweed

enoki mushrooms

  • 500

It should be possible to buy kombu (kelp) and bonito flakes from Asian supermarkets. The dashi really adds to the deliciousness of the soup but if you can’t get hold of the ingredients, you can make a vegetable/fish stock and skip to the step where you add the miso paste.

Make the dashi: Put kombu and bonito flakes into a saucepan of water.

Bring to a simmer. Skim off any froth.

After 20 minutes, you should have a clear broth

Sieve the solids from the broth. Keep the solid ingredients. You can dry these out and use them again to make a secondary dashi.

Add the miso paste to the dashi in the saucepan. You can buy miso in most supermarkets but you can also make your own. Warm through gently.

This is the soup base. There are a number of ways to embellish the miso. Optional ingredients include such delights as negi (Japanese onions, they are a cross in size between a spring onion and a leek – UK spring onion will be perfect), silken tofu cut into very small cubes, wakame seaweed (a type of kelp that you can buy dehydrated from Asian supermarkets) or small mushrooms (enoki style – the teeny bunches of mushrooms are perfect, but finely chopped ordinary mushrooms will work well).

In this instance we had some spring onions to hand. So they were finely sliced and placed in a serving bowl.

Pour the miso broth on top. Enjoy while hot.

It is absolutely fine to drink the miso soup using a spoon or to drink directly from the bowl. In Japan, it’s also okay to slurp – this helps cool the hot liquid as you drink it. Make sure you stir it (you can use chopsticks to do this) before consuming so that the ingredients that settle at the bottom are agitated – the miso never dissolves completely into the broth – and produce an even flavour throughout the drinking.

Making Miso Happy Part 1

Miso is the very essence of the fifth flavour umami, that enigmatic taste of ‘savouriness’ or ‘deliciousness’ and forms the flavour base of so many Japanese dishes. At its heart it is basically a fermented mix of soy beans, rice, koji (aspergillus oryzae, the national mould of Japan – really!), salt, water and time…

Like many Japanese foodstuffs, miso has regional variations. As a general rule (and there are always exceptions) the colour of finished miso is darker in the north, and lighter in the south of the country. Kyoto is famous for sweet white miso, for example. This means that it is possible to encounter a wide variety of miso on your travels – from rich umami to salty to sweet and with textures from smooth to chunky.

We visited a miso factory/koji park on a trip to Kanazawa on the western coast of Japan. Shinkansen (bullet train) construction reached Kanazawa just recently, in 2015, and the city is now easily accessible from Tokyo; the journey takes around 2.5 – 3 hours. It’s a great city with a lively market (which has some amazing seafood restaurants) and one of the top three gardens in Japan. The miso factory is located at Ohno machi (Ohno port), which is a bit of a journey; you can catch a bus from the Kanazawa station area (ask for the location of the bus stop at the tourist information centre inside the station concourse – it’s a five minute walk away) and it’s the very last stop. When you arrive at the sea you are there. You’ll likely be the last ones on the bus. Alternatively you can get a taxi. The journey from the station takes around 20 minutes but the cost is considerably higher than the bus. Then just walk over the bridge to the little island.

As an aside, at the far end of the island is a charming museum of mechanical toys which has a brilliant hands-on exhibition where you can spend hours playing games and enjoy viewing antique toys and games. The staff were absolutely delightful and very much wanted to make sure we enjoyed the exhibits. They were also very helpful when it came to supplying a timetable for the bus journey back into the centre of Kanazawa.

There are many historic mechanical puppets – karakuri – on display. The museum is a memorial to Benkichi Ohno,a master craftsman who lived in the area from 1831. Many of his creations can be seen at the museum.

Some exhibits show you how the puppet mechanisms work.

Some dolls are cute(ish) which turn into scary (incidentally these words are, respectively, kawaii and kowaii in Japanese, be careful not to confuse the two!).

Around the circumference of the main building there are tables and chairs set out with all sorts of puzzles that you can try to solve.

It’s a really hands-on museum and it was lovely to see families with children of all ages sitting together and working out solutions to some of the puzzles.

This doll is 300 years old, from the Edo period. The craftsmanship is exquisite.

After a lovely diversion, it was on to the Yamato koji park, just a 10 minute walk away at the other end of the island. It’s part factory, part museum, part shop and part café. There weren’t any specific tours when we visited but the staff were super-helpful and directed us to a display where we could understand how miso is made.

Miso basically contains five ingredients: water, koji, soy beans, rice, salt. Koji thrives on the rice. Then it is mashed with the soy beans, salt and water. After about six months yeast forms. The miso flavour develops thanks to the interactions between the yeast and the koji. Fermentation can take as long as three years.

Soy sauce is made using a very similar process and ingredients to miso but uses wheat instead of rice. A mash is formed and then it’s pressed (like olives for olive oil). After fermentation, the resulting liquid is soy sauce. It was fascinating to taste the difference between pasteurised and unpasteurised soy sauce. Unpasteurised soy has a more complex flavour because some of the aromas are lost in the pasteurization process.

Some the the traditional fermentation vessels are enormous.

You can also dip your hands into a koji hand bath which will, apparently, give your skin a soft and delicate sheen. It’s quite nice to be able to dip your hands into a warm bath, especially on a cold, wet day. Apparently two minutes is the optimum time – there is a timer so you can check. And yes, we can confirm that our hands did emerge from the bath silky-smooth.

There is a shop with an extensive variety of products and you are able to sample before you buy. It is particularly interesting to be able to taste different sauces.

Amazake is a sweet, low alcohol drink made from fermented rice and koji. Amazake literally means ‘sweet’ (ama) ‘sake’ (sake, which can be used to describe alcohol). You can buy the paste, mix with hot water and drink. It’s sweet and has a smooth, creamy texture. And for a delicious dressing, you can mix amazake with ponzu soy sauce (ponzu is a citrus juice comprising Japanese fruits sudachi, yuzu, and kabosu and vinegar mixed with soy sauce to give an amazingly tangy, salty flavour) in the ratio 1:1.

And one of the best foodie souvenirs – for the adventurer who cannot travel without seasoning – spray soy sauce, conveniently packaged in a container that would even fit into your hand-baggage.

They also have a café and ice-cream maker. Amazake and soy sauce ice-cream were on offer and we tried both. Soy sauce ice cream sounds so wrong but it was delicious, full of rich salty umami flavour that complemented the creamy ice-cream.  

What was also rather lovely was that the CEO, Mr Yamato, was on site that day and came to say ‘hello.’

We shopped for as many products as we could fit into our luggage. One particular packet that we were very happy to find was that of inoculated rice koji. It was also conveniently flat for packing and much cheaper than koji that we can purchase in Europe.

Making our very own miso was most definitely going to be one of our foodie missions on our return home. To be continued

Three is a Magic Number – The Very Best Views in Japan

Of the many, many beautiful places to visit in Japan, there are, in fact, three that have been officially designated to be the most celebrated.

The Itsukushima Shrine is probably the best known of these views. Japanese tourist literature and guides often show a picture of the iconic red torii ‘floating’ in the Seto inland sea and it is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is located on the island of Itsukushima, more commonly known as Miyajima.

It is a beautiful sight, especially when the sunlight catches the sparkling sea.

It’s less beautiful when the tide is out so it’s worth planning a visit for when the tide is in if you want to take that perfect Instagram snap.

The torii, in common with Shinto temples, is actually the gateway to the shrine and it is also possible to visit the shrine itself. There are a number of temples and corridors to visit. It even has a noh stage – for traditional Japanese theatre.

The island is really easy to reach from Hiroshima. You can catch a train and then a ferry to the island on a journey that takes about an hour.

Miyajima is a lovely island, perfect to walk around, especially if you’ve arrived at low tide and need to wait in order to capture that perfect shot of the torii. There are forested walkways to explore and it’s possible to climb up to the island’s highest peak, Mount Misen. If you’re feeling less energetic, there’s a ropeway to take you up to the top.

There are also some friendly-ish deer which aren’t as bold as the ones at Nara.

The next view is that of Matsushima on Japan’s north east coast, which is a short rail journey from the northern city of Sendai, easily accessible from Tokyo via the shinkansen (bullet train). Matsushima comprises a series of hundreds of forested islands dotted through a bay. It was lucky not to have been too badly impacted by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, the geography of the bay protecting the islands.

It is possible to visit some of the islands nearest to the mainland by crossing traditional vermillion bridges from the shore.

But taking a boat trip across the bay is highly recommended as you will get to get close to some of the more remote islands. Beware, though, bird food is available to buy prior to boarding the ship and the seagulls very much knew this, so we were followed by flocks of gulls eager to feast upon a tasty snack.

It is reputed that Japan’s most famous poet, Basho, best known in western countries for his haiku, was reportedly so struck by the awesome beauty of Matsushima, that he was lost for words and could only utter, ‘Matsushima, Ah Matsushima, Matsushima,’ to describe his feelings about viewing the area. The story is likely to be apocryphal but the sentiments are appropriate.

The viewing point isn’t near the beach, it’s a walk across the railway tracks and up a hill to a park. The weather wasn’t really on our side but we had come all this way to see one of Japan’s greatest views, so a rainy trudge wasn’t going to stop us. In fact, a very kind lady was driving past in her car and stopped to offer us a lift, which we were happy to accept. She knew exactly where we were heading and we exchanged pleasantries about the weather – ‘O-ame,’ (big rain) we declared. She agreed. After she’d dropped us off in the car park we thanked her profusely and wandered through the park to look at the view. This probably isn’t the same view that Basho enjoyed but it was wonderful nevertheless, despite the rain.

The town is lovely to wander around and there are also some interesting temples to visit.

The local foodie specialty is gyu tan – beef tongue. It might not sound very appealing but in fact it’s delicious – it has a very soft texture and is packed full of beef flavour. It’s in the top right of the picture below which shows a set meal that also offered some sushi, miso soup and pickles.

The third view of Japan is a little trickier to reach but it is definitely worth making the journey. You can reach Amanohashidate via a direct train from Kyoto but the journey may be a bit complicated – our train was scheduled to split at a station part way through the journey – fortunately we learned about this prior to the carriages parting and found our way to the right section of the train. The excellent and indispensable hyperdia site will help with journey planning.

Amanohashidate is a sand spit that spans the mouth of the delightful Miyazu bay. The name is a bit of a tongue twister but it translates to something akin to ‘bridge over heaven.’ It is a very pleasant walk across the spit, about three and a half kilometres, which is covered with pine trees that provide shade in the heat of the sun.

Then you can then wander through the small town of Miyazu to catch a cable car to the viewing point. (This photo shows the downhill run, which obviously has a better view.)

The scenery is wonderful, especially if you are lucky enough to see it on a sunny day.

But it’s very important to know that there is a specific technique to maximise your viewing experience. You should bend over and look at the sand spit through your legs – there are special observation points to allow you to do this. The reason for this amusing way of viewing is that an upside-down perspective gives the impression of the bridge floating to heaven.

Actually it looks like this.

It’s great fun to watch other visitors enjoying themselves – everyone has a good laugh as they bend over to view.

There is a restaurant at the top of the viewing point. As with all restaurants in Japan, the food is tasty and wholesome – we had chirashi sushi (a rice bowl with prawn, squid, salmon roe and shredded omelette) and udon noodles, accompanied with tempura and washed down with a nice cold beer. All enjoyed with the most delightful backdrop.

Three amazing places, three spectacular views. But, of course, these are the daytime views. Japan also has three night-time views. Actually, there are top three gardens, castles, mountains, sacred sites, hot springs, festivals and many, many more.

But that’s for another time.

Sweet Treats in Candy Alley, Kawagoe, Japan

There are loads of cool and interesting districts to visit that are just a (relatively) short train journey from central Tokyo. Kawagoe is one such place. It is just half an hour to one hour’s train ride away, depending on where in Tokyo you are staying, in Saitama prefecture. You can get there directly from Shinjuku on the Seibu line. It’s known as Little Edo because of its old warehouses and merchant homes, called Kurazukuri.

It has a charming old world feel, albeit with lots of shops for tourists, and there are loads of foodie attractions and restaurants to look out for; charcoal boiled eel in a sweet soy sauce is a speciality here, as are sweet potato dishes.

One of the attractions in Kawagoe is Kashiya Yokocho – Candy Alley – a street chock full of traditional Japanese shops offering sweet temptations.

This emporium had a giant penguin minding the store.

The Kawagoe tourism website has a brief history of the alley:

It is said that the beginning of this Kashiya Yokocho was in the early Meiji Period when Suzuki Tozaemon started to make candy in this prospering town in front of Yojuin Temple. In 1923, after Tokyo was damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake, this area became the main producer and supplier of candy. There were more than 70 shops in the early Showa Period but due to the war and changes in lifestyle the number has decreased.

If you don’t have a sweet tooth, no problem. There are plenty of savoury snacks on offer as well. Takosen is takoyaki (deep fried octopus balls) sandwiched between prawn crackers.

The name combines tako (octopus) with senbei (cracker) and advertises itself as junk food. It is seriously good.

Sweet potatoes are particularly popular, in fact Kawagoe is known colloquially as the city of sweet potatoes. Once considered a staple after the war, when food was scarce, the city still makes multiple products from these tasty tubers.

And if you’re given a photo opportunity to pose as a sweet potato you have to take it, don’t you?

Imo senbei snacks are thinly sliced, dried sweet potato crackers sprinkled sparsely and randomly with black sesame seeds.

The curious thing about these is that you would expect them to be either sweet or slightly salty and they are neither. They are not bland, but rely on the natural sweetness of the sweet potato and have just a hint of sesame for additional flavour. They have a lovely crunchy texture and are great to eat as an accompaniment to a cool beer.

They are also very thin and lightweight – so they are ideal for slipping into your suitcase as an omiyage (a souvenir/gift) for your friends. Or you could just keep them and scoff them yourself when you get home!

Whatever the Weather, Mashu Noodles in Hokkaido, Japan

Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido is a nature-lover’s paradise. To the east of the island, just north of the city of Kushiro is the Akan National Park, named for the beautiful lake in the region.

There is a very pretty waterfall close by.

Akan is not the only lake. Lake Mashu is also renowned for its beautiful clear water. That’s if you can see it. Unfortunately we visited on a particularly vile day – when we arrived it was raining and misty and there was no view of the prestigious lake to be seen. Hey ho. Can’t help the weather. This is what it looks like on a sunny day.

We did manage to see the sign though.

To make up for the lack of view, we decided that lunch would be a good option. The region specialises in soba noodles.

Mashu soba is made from buckwheat noodles. The noodles are made that morning, so are really fresh. They are cooked, rinsed in cold water and then served on a bamboo mat. Pick them up with chopsticks, dip into a savoury, refreshing dipping sauce and devour. Wasabi and negi (like spring onions) are available to add an extra dimension of heat and crunch. And don’t forget, it’s perfectly acceptable to slurp your noodles.

If you’re hungry you can eat mashu soba as part of a set meal. Vegetable and prawn tempura, miso soup, pickles and a cup of green tea make for a veritable feast.

You might think that cold noodles on a rainy day might not be the best combination for maximum enjoyment but actually it works. Especially if your next stop is to a hot spring foot spa. Simply dip your toes in the hot water and ignore the rain… (we’ll spare you the pictures of our feet in the water).

There are also some other interesting places to visit in the area.

The Iozan volcano area (Iozan literally means ‘sulphur mountain’), with its gloriously yellow sulphur deposits and eye-watering smells if you get too close. You are free to walk around on the footpaths, although areas are off limits for safety reasons. You can also buy eggs cooked using the natural heat of the mountain at the visitor centre.

The Kushiro wetlands.

And the Akan International Crane Sanctuary.