Japanese food is very hard to beat. But outside the pure happiness that is sashimi, sushi, teppanyaki, udon noodles, curry and co. we had a number of foodie moments that we’ll remember for a long time.
1. Ice cream in bread
Yep, you heard right. Melonpan is a light, sweet crunchy bun that is stuffed to the brim with soft serve ice cream. Both naughty and nice. The kids thought it was …. the best thing since sliced bread (bwahaha).
2. Forest green tea
There is a well known historic walking trail between Tokyo and Kyoto that once connected villages and towns as a postal route through Japan’s mountainous and forested terrain. Embarking a short day walk along a well-preserved section between Migome and Tsumago we came across a travellers’ tea house nestled next to a clear mountain stream offering plenty of atmosphere with a wooden water fountain, open fire and communal low tables. Even though we’d barely started for the day, we couldn’t help wander in for a fragrant green tea and lollies for the kids and savour the feeling of being momentarily transported back 500 years.
3. Our own personal chef
Self catering is always a part of our travel. Occasionally we aim for gourmet. Most times it’s basic survival food. Our last night in Yamanouchi was designated Cheap-*rse Thursday and so we lined up in the cramped hostel kitchen to ‘cook’ 3-minute noodles for five. Two guys in the kitchen – one who told us is a chef – looked at Lisa in horror at our planned meal (probably thinking we were sending our kids on the road to malnourishment), told us we didn’t have the right type of ‘just-add-boiling-water’ noodles and said they would help cook us dinner. Twenty minutes later and we were gifted steaming hot bowls of noodle soup with asparagus and shiitake mushrooms, a plate of seasoned fresh tomato, and another piled high with fried tender strips of beef. We were floored by such generosity. So what did we give them in return? A clip-on toy koala.
4. Grape overload
The Japanese don’t just love fruit, they LOVE fruit. Being in Japan during grape season was a feast for the eyes (and wallet). Perfect bunches of bulbous grapes met us at the entrance of many shops and market stalls. There are numerous varieties – more sweet, more sour, with seeds, without seeds, thick skin, thin skin. We were fortunate to be offered these tasty flavour-filled balls of perfection by our friend Yayoi at our her house in Nara, and our hostel manager in Yamanouchi. It required that we try mastering the art of sucking the contents from their thick purple skins without juice spraying onto all four walls. Lesson learned? Eat these grapes with forgiving friends.
5. Sushi express train
There are sushi trains and then there are ‘express’ sushi trains. Who knew? There are a couple of well known restaurant chains selling 100 yen sushi (approx AUD$1.30) and we tried a couple of them out. They are family-friendly affairs with plastic booths, electronic tablets for ordering your next plate of yummy goodness, kids cutlery and crockery, and plenty of noisy atmosphere. But one rose to new heights in our minds – Kappa Sushi – which delivered our specific orders on a miniature shinkansen (bullet train) on it’s very own track. Ridiculously fun.
6. Okonomyaki … we love you
Osaka is renowned as a foodie paradise. Two of it’s iconic staples are takoyaki (fried seasoned balls with octopus) and okonomyaki (savoury pancakes most traditionally containing noodles, cabbage and pork and smothered in about three different sauces, including mayonnaise). Lisa and I were treated to home-cooked okonomyaki by our wonderful friend Yayoi where we could watch it sizzling on the table in front of our wide eyes and savour every morsel uninterrupted.
7. Thermal eggs … two ways
When staying in a spa town – in this case Shibu Onsen in Yamanouchi (near Nagano) – what else does one do with all that hot water, other than soak in it? Make soft boiled eggs! Wandering at dusk down a quiet paved street passing the ryokans (hostels) and onsens (bath houses) I was looking for a local supermarket to grab some instant noodles for dinner. Being the autumn equinox public holiday, there was little open, and then … glory be … one clever soul had placed a basket of soft boiled eggs outside their ryokan, cooked in the thermal waters, for 50 yen each. Smushed eggs on bread. Yum.
Whilst Mt Fuji is dormant, neighbouring Mt Hakone is very much active, boasting steaming bubbling sulphurous mud pools and other signs of activity that gets volcanologists excited. In yet another example of how to use all that free heat to cook a goog, the locals have for centuries enjoyed placing them in the hot sulphur water which create their distinctive colour. Me and Bug were a little hesitant but, hey ho, they were delicious. They smelt and tasted a bit like bacon to give a complete breakfast experience in one egg.
8. Harajuku rainbow everything
The Harajuku area of Tokyo is famous worldwide for its vibrant and alternative youth culture and quirky trend-leading fashion. It’s also one area to find quirky food. Our kids (particularly Squirt) love rainbows. We went bonkers over rainbow cheese toasties and rainbow candy floss, and could have gone further with rainbow slushies, rainbow cheesedogs and rainbow spaghetti. Fun food for the eyes.
9. Wasabi soft serve
We love wasabi …. in moderation. On one of the first days in Japan we spotted wasabi ice cream and, feeling quietly over-confident, dug in. It is difficult to comprehend how a food can be hot and cold at the same time. All I can say is in the space of one lick it went from exciting curiosity to extreme food challenge. I’m proud to say we somehow ate the lot, whilst secretly envying our kids’ peach and grape-flavoured selections.
10. Kuromon markets
Unsurprisingly, our kids are not the most adventurous eaters. But looking at food is often as much fun as eating it, right? Kuromon markets in Osaka is a feast for all the senses where we could stare (with your mouths closed kids!) at locals digging into (poisonous) pufferfish, grilled baby octopus on sticks, eel, fish head, baby crabs, sea cucumber and so much more.
11. BBQ on the floor
On our road trip with friends between Nagoya (on the east coast) and Nagano in the mountainous west, we stopped at Lake Siwa for a playground break and some lunch. Being off the well trodden tourist track, we wandered in search of a restaurant where we might find vaguely recognisable family friendly food. Few local restaurants have transparent windows or menus out front, making this simple task not so simple. But we ended up having one of the best food experiences of our entire time in Japan, slipping off our shoes and cramming our large frames onto cushions to barbeque plates of meat and cabbage with garlic, chilli and onion at our table with mountains of steamed rice. Simple good food. To top things off, we shared this tiny restaurant with a baseball team having a boozy end of season lunch and watched sumo wrestling on the TV.
12. Iced coffee heaven
I thought we were from the centre of the iced coffee universe but Japan takes their love of the stuff to a whole other level. We faced and overcame choice anxiety many times to work our way through the myriad of brands and varieties. I was in heaven. Yep, we’re moving here.
13. Mickey Mickey everywhere
Ok, this one’s for the kids (and Lisa). Disneyland Tokyo was a blast with more Mickey-shaped food than you could poke a stick at. Mickey chicken nuggets, Mickey burgers, Mickey iceblocks, Mickey ice-cream sandwiches, Mickey waffles ……. arrgh, enough already!!!!!