Travel Japan: Food

This is in no way a comprehensive list of all things yummy in Japan. This is merely a rambling of some of the tasty food we ate when we recently visited. Coming from Toronto, a city as multicultural as you can get, most of this stuff wasn’t new to us but I was amazed by the quality, style of preparation and in some cases the availability and convenience of the dishes. Check out my previous musings on Japan Part 1: Culture.

Let’s start off with foods at your local convenience store. You would never think of stopping in your local 7-Eleven for sushi, a cheeseburger, or fresh three cheese ravioli with mushroom cream sauce. The very least you’d get is a sloppy sandwich with sandwich meat of a questionable expiration date, soggy bread and gross tomatoes. Maybe you’d opt for a bag of Doritos or instant noodles. Either way, this is the extent of convenience store gourmet food in North America. Not in Japan. They’re jam packed with ready to eat and heat n’ serve delicious, fresh ingredients and dishes.

Onigiri

Japan's onigiri with 1-2-3 system of unwrapping to keep nori crisp

Onigiri with 1-2-3 system of unwrapping to keep nori crisp Image: TheAtlantic.com

Take for example Onigiri which is rice balls usually filled with delicious goodness from raw or cooked fish, egg or red bean paste and surrounded with crisp nori. My favourites were the ones in special ‘peel-by-numbers’ wrapper which kept the nori crisp. So simple, yet you’d be hard pressed to find something as fresh and nutritious as this in a convenience store in North America. Here’s a detailed recipe on how to make Onigiri from Japanese Cooking 101 if you’re interested. I plan to make these this weekend!

Calpis Water

Calpis Water from Japan

Calpis Water. Get on this Coca-Cola North America! Image: Rakuten.com

Technically I didn’t discover this next item at a convenience store but it’s a very popular local beverage especially during Cherry Blossom season. Calpis Water, a non-carbonated drink made from milk and lactic acid, was discovered by Kaiun Mishima when he travelled to Mongolia in 1902 and saw locals drinking a type of sour milk. The drink seemed to aid his own digestive problems and when he returned to Japan, he brought the drink that is now so very popular. Sounds weird, right? Fermented lactic acid drink? Certainly nothing that I’d want to drink but it’s delicious and sweet and only now I realize how good it is for you. I guess the sweetness made me think that it was completely void of any nutritional value but the company claims the fermented lactic can aid in digestion. Either way, it’s yummy.

Royal Milk Tea

Royal Milk Tea, served hot or cold in Japan

Royal Milk Tea, served hot or cold in Japan Image: Rakuten.com

Japan can get pretty chilly in the winter and there’s nothing better to warm you up while you’re waiting for the Shinkansen than a hot tea or coffee. All over Japan you’ll find vending machines that sell hot beverages. One that I fell in love with is royal milk tea. I’m not sure why North America beverage manufacturers haven’t got on board with milky tea, either served hot or cold. There’s tons of ready-to-serve iced coffee drinks in North America but no tea! Screw coffee!! Coffee is gross. Let’s get moving on this multinational beverage companies … Coca-Cola, I’m looking at you! You have the market locked up in Japan, let’s branch out to North America for all those tea drinkers. A refreshingly cold or warming milky tea is just what the Canadian public want. Timmy’s serves already brewed hot tea. I’m not saying … but I am saying. Get. On. It. Now.

Ramen

Noodle restaurants at the Ramen Museum,  Shin-Yokahama, Japan

Noodle restaurants at the Ramen Museum, Shin-Yokahama, Japan

Though the ramen noodle originated in China, Japan has made it one of its own. We visited the Ramen Noodle Museum in Shin-Yokohama, which in my opinion is just a trumped-up spot for a few ramen restaurants with a gift shop attached to it. No one really should go for the gift shop; they should go for the choice of nine restaurants all serving their style of unique ramen dishes all fashioned around a WWII Japanese setting. Fresh ramen is soooo much tastier than the instant stuff. Japanese ramen shops take great pride in their noodles and especially their broths which are cooked for hours and can never be replicated by the freeze-dried, powered stuff. We went to the Sumire noodle shop known for their rich, flavourful miso noodles and broth. Very cool and very tasty place to try a lot of ramen dishes all in one spot.

Uni

Fresh uni (sea urchin) in Japan

Fresh uni (sea urchin) in a box in Japan Image: SeriousEats.com

We’ve always wanted to try uni (aka sea urchin) but it never failed that when we were at a sushi restaurant and saw it on the menu it was always in the off-season. This time we were in luck and we tried it three times. The first time we tried it at a sushi train in Osaka. It was one of the foulest experiences I’ve had in my life. It tasted like dirty garbage sea water with rotting fish and it had staying power. No amount of sake would take that away. When we met up with friends in Tokyo, they saw it on the menu and thought we should try it. We told them how uninterested we were in ever tasting it again but they assured us that it didn’t taste like that normally and that you get what you pay for (we got our first serving pretty cheap). Convincing us to try it again, we tasted such a delicate flavour and texture. Everything was different from our first experience. I would highly recommend trying uni but remember: you get what you pay for. Quality is everything with uni. It’s not a flavour for everyone but definitely worth a try.

Sukiyaki

Sukiyaki (Japanese hot pot) just like Mama-San served

Sukiyaki (Japanese hot pot) just like Mama-San served Image: Japanese Homecooking

We were very fortunate to have a home cooked meal prepared by my brother-in-law’s mother-in-law (if that makes sense). We called her Mama-San and she made us sukiyaki, a hot-pot filled with love. Cabbage, tofu, sliced beef, enoki mushrooms, noodles, were spooned into our dishes that had a freshly cracked and beaten egg in it. When the fragrant hot broth and ingredients hit the egg, it became this velvety-smooth mixture of pure deliciousness. When we walked in to their house all you could smell was the aroma of the dashi-based broth with a hint of sweetness from the sake, mirin and sugar. It was heaven. Arigatō Mama-San!

Katsu don

Pork katsudon (Japanese fried pork cutlet on a bed of rice and egg)

Pork katsudon (Japanese fried pork cutlet on a bed of rice and egg) Image: Crizzfood.com

Pork katsu don wasn’t anything new for us but it is just delicious and needs a proper shout out. For those who aren’t familiar with the dish, it’s a fried piece of pork (or chicken) cutlet, served over a bowl of rice with an egg. The katsu don I’ve had in Canada was will a fried egg with a runny yolk so that you can incorporate the yolk with the rice and the bit of katsu don sauce creating something epic. In Japan we had it served two ways: with the sautéed chicken breast it was served just barely cooked and then pretty much raw with the deep-fried pork cutlet. Depends on how comfortable you are with consuming raw eggs. Nothing hard to do, nothing too complex, just simple delicious food that kept me full for over eight hours of walking around Osaka.

For a really comprehensive list of yummy Japanese dishes, check out Japan Talk’s “101 Kinds of Japanese Foods”.

 

Travel Japan: Culture

Just returned from a two week trip to Japan visiting family. We stayed in Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka with a smattering of day trips like Hiroshima, Enoshima, and Kamakura sprinkled in for good measure.

Temple in Kyoto, Japan

Temple in Kyoto, Japan

I love Japan. I love the abundance of temples and shrines throughout the country. I love the dichotomy between the stoic and imperial history and the flash and energy of the big cities.

I love the courteousness and politeness and how clean everything is. I love how when we looked confused at a train station, someone would come up to us and offer help. Even when we were trying to figure out what to eat, someone approached us and ask if we needed help. When we explained our dilemma, they suggested we try a local delicacy, takoyaki, a fried ball of yummy diced octopus served with a kind of BBQ sauce and mayo and topped with finely shaved bonito flakes and told us how to get to their favourite spot for it. Very helpful indeed.

Outside Shibuyu Station, Japan

Outside Shibuyu Station, Japan

We weren’t surprised with the number of people who approached us. We knew were weren’t confused on which train to take next but it’s the graciousness and helpfulness of the Japanese that makes them so lovely. That and many people want to practice their English with other English speakers, so we amused them by asking them more questions. We were very impressed with how well they spoke English. Maybe it was my pale Canadian pallor or my blonde curly hair, but I was a popular target for a girls’ school English project at one of the temples in Kamakura. We were approached twice by groups of girls who asked us questions like how long we’d been in Japan, where we’d been, if we watched the Olympics and our favourite Japanese dishes.

English project at Kamakura, Japan

English project at Kamakura, Japan

In 2019, Japan will host the Rugby World Cup and of course in 2020, Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics and Paralympics. As such, there’s a big push for students and public service workers to learn English in time for the Olympics. Major train stations and cultural destinations have or are undergoing renovations, and while some signs are in both Kanji and English, there’s still room for improvement. I can’t tell you how many times I picked up a brochure or looked at a map that had English headings only to be dejected to see that all the content was in Kanji! Arrrggghhh!

Stay tuned for the next post Japan Part 2: Food where guess what I’ll talk about? That’s right! Some of the yummy, delicious, weird and wonderful food of Japan.

In praise of singing in cars

Brisbane is a commuter’s paradise.

Its smaller population and small town vibe allow for an easy and short commute. Driving into the city in the mad rush of the mornings is an easy 20 minute drive. Yup. 20 minutes.

Let me put that in Toronto, Mississauga, and Brampton terms. That would be like driving from the corner of Bathurst and Bloor to Yonge-Dundas Square. In Mississauga, it’s the equivalent of starting at Burnhamthorpe and Hwy 10 and making your way to the QEW. And from Brampton’s corner of Steels and Hwy 10 to Bovaird. Congratulations! You made it to the QEW in 20 minutes but you now have to battle the traffic with the rest of the cogs heading downtown which could put another 30-40 minutes on your drive time depending on your final destination. I might be giving the benefit of the doubt to some of these, but you get the idea. Time is precious and you can’t travel very far during morning rush hour.

Don’t get me wrong. A short commute is ideal and there’s plenty of research showing a correlation between commute times and physical health and your relationships with loved ones. The negative impact commuting has on environmental issues like pollution, CO2 emissions, etc., all point to the solution that we should be using more public transportation, carpooling, walking or biking to get to work. But there’s something to be said about the alone time you have when it’s just you – and only you – in the car and faced with a 20 minute or more drive ahead of you. Taking public transit, carpooling, walking or biking just doesn’t cut it. You need the feeling that no one is watching, no distractions from other people, no eavesdropping, nothing. Just you, your car, a cup of tea/coffee from Tim’s, a cup holder, and the stereo.

Here’s why commuting to work is awesome by yourself if you have a long enough drive (and a car).

Pondering life’s mysteries.

Should you try Nepalese food? What is Nepalese food? Do you really like pad thai or do you think it’s weird to have peanuts with noodles? Why does everyone like garlic? Why are the other drivers idiots? Why is Two and a Half Men so popular when it’s not funny? Why aren’t I a millionaire? All these questions can be answered during your drive to work.

Career coaching.

The time commuting to and from work was usually when I thought about my career journey, where I pictured myself working in two, five and ten years, how I could have handled a work situation better, female leaders I admired, how/when/where to network, etc.. This sometimes turned into a negative tangent about colleagues, their skills and abilities, and I’ll admit some colourful language was used to describe these things. However it was a valuable learning lesson for me to stop all those negative feelings and it’s still a work in progress. It’s very easy to blame everyone else for why things went wrong but the challenge is to find your part in it and how to approach it next time so that the end result is successful. Did you effectively get your message across? Though they’re colleagues, did you make sure you knew your audience and how best to communicate to them? Did you make sure they understood what you were saying? Instead of getting uptight about others, I looked at it as an area where I could improve.

Checking out other people and what they’re doing.

Everyone’s curious and does it. What are people eating for breakfast? By looking at their wardrobe (and car) you could guess where they worked and the title they held. But this has the potential to be harmful to your health because we’ve all seen it: the nose picker. As I mentioned before, you need the sense of being alone for self-discovery and alone time, but that does not mean discovering that the huge cranial booger needs to be immediately removed in the middle of the Gardiner. Cars have windows, people. Others can see you and all your grossness. Leave personal grooming and disgusting habits for the privacy of your bathroom. I really can’t stress that enough. Even seeing women putting on eyeliner and mascara irritates me. Don’t get me started on plucking eyebrows in public. Don’t.

Singing.

Now this is the reward for driving by yourself. You could probably do it with others in the car but they’d have to be your partner/best friend/parent/child under the age of whatever it is before they learn to talk back. And there’s really no going back once you’ve open this can of talent on a work colleague. Belting out your version of Adele, Beyoncé, or any of the top 40 hits, is cathartic, empowering and boosts your mood. Awkward Moments has a story about what happens when someone sees you singing like no one’s watching.

Remember this? Don’t lie … you know you rocked out to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Image courtesy of Collection of Awesome.

Is there a perfect amount of commuting time that facilitates and aids self-discovery, mental health, and the self-indulgence of singing at the top of your lungs to your favourite songs? For the last two years, I’ve walked to work which took no more than 10 minutes. That’s just enough time in the hot sun when it’s 8am and the temperature has already reached 28 C degrees. Make-up ruined? Check. Hair a big ball of frizz? Check. Look like a hot mess? Check and double check.

Make-up ruined? Check. Hair a big ball of frizz? Check. Look like a hot mess? Check and double check.

I’ve decided for me the ideal car ride to work is around the 20-35 minute mark. That’s just enough time to solve all of life’s mysteries for one day, sing about five to ten really good songs but not be in the car for an excessive amount of time. There’s evidence that anything longer will make you miserable and it’s even worse if you take public transit.

What’s your ideal commute time and what do you do to pass the time while idling in traffic?

Australius Boganus (The Bogan): Native species of Australia

Australia’s warm, subtropical climate creates the perfect environment for one of the nation’s greatest native species: the Australius boganus, otherwise known as the bogan.

The bogan’s easily identifiable features include:

  • Mullet
  • Missing teeth
  • Acid-washed jeans
  • Driving a Ute (that’s Australian for utility vehicle aka pick-up truck)
  • Use of “truck nuts”
  • A propensity for swearing
  • Swearing at/around your children
  • Wearing Ugg boots outside (Uggs are meant to be only worn indoors as house shoes)
  • Using white sandwich bread as the bun for your hot dog or sausage
Australian bogan

Australian bogan. Image courtesy of FromParistoMelbourne

The bogan’s natural habitat can sometimes be difficult to identify, however if there’s a car in the front yard, a couch on the porch, and a collection of empty beer bottles lining window sills or doorways, you know you’re in the presence of the elusive bogan.

The genetic North American cousin of the bogan, the white trash and redneck variety, thrives in North America. But the bogan is evolving. It’s coming into money, big money. It’s getting richer. Enter the CUB; the “Cashed Up Bogan”. This offshoot has recently appeared in Australia, typically on the west and east coasts where jobs on oil rigs or in mines are plentiful. The term was “used by one marketing researcher in 2006 to describe people of a blue-collar background now earning a high salary and spending their earnings on expensive consumer items as a matter of conspicuous consumption”. You can find CUBs at five star restaurants wearing jeans and running shoes, high end resorts wearing beer/alcohol-branded t-shirts, at gambling establishments, anyone on jet skis and anyone going to an Eminem concert (true story, it happened yesterday).

Vibewire.org wrote a great article about CUBs, comparing them to hipsters but with more money.

Interested in learning more about these native creatures? Check out the blog “Things Bogans Like”.

Melbourne: The Toronto of the Southern Hemisphere

A few weeks ago, my guy and I headed south to the lovely state of Victoria to take in all the sights and sounds of its capital city, Melbourne. We’d been to other states like Cairns (Queensland), Sydney (New South Wales), and Perth (Western Australia) but we always heard from others, locals and expats alike, to visit Melbourne. So last Australia Day, we set out to spend the long weekend and explore the city, which turned out to be one of my favourite places in Australia.

Here’s a photo of the Crown Casino’s hourly fire show. Yes, this happens hourly outside the complex.

Hourly fire show at Melbourne's Crown Casino

Hourly fire show at Melbourne’s Crown Casino

Here’s why: it reminded me so much of Toronto. Am I pinning for Toronto? Completely, without a doubt. I had been back to Toronto eight months ago, and that visit only made me miss it more. The sights, sounds, smells, and even the traffic made me realize how much I had missed it over the year and a half of living abroad. It felt as though my two weeks were compressed into only a few short days and I desperately wanted to drink it all in. I would live in Melbourne without hesitation if it weren’t for the fact that we moved from Toronto to find something different. It would have been a a disappointment to make the long haul journey to Australia and end up pretty much in a city that’s eerily similar to the one we left.

Locals describe Melbourne as the European city of Australia. It’s not like Sydney, Brisbane or Perth, and definitely not like Cairns. Melbourne has a unique history and is generally known as the melting pot of Australia as many immigrants from Greece, Italy, China, and Vietnam made Melbourne their home. It’s a beautiful and welcoming city, and equally fantastic as Toronto.

Here’s my theory on why Melbourne is the Toronto of the Southern Hemisphere:

Streetcars.

Public transportation geeks unite! Melbourne offers a free City Circle Tram that travels around the city centre and provides a recorded message of some of the interesting points of buildings, local attractions and neighbourhoods. Yup, free. Could you see Toronto offering a service like this? In addition to the free city centre service, it was very comforting to hear the sounds of cars driving over the streetcar tracks.

City Circle Tram

Melbourne’s free City Circle Tram [image courtesy of onlymelbourne.com.au]

It was cold.

Like 17C cold when we arrived. In my opinion, that’s not normal for Australia during the summertime. People who live in Melbourne say they can go through all four seasons in a day and I completely believe them. It was like Toronto on a cool autumn day.

Amazing food. 

Here’s where things get “European” in my opinion. Like many European cities, Melbourne has dozens of laneways and alleyways where amazing food is served day and night. That’s the only difference in terms of where you actually find food. Toronto doesn’t have the alleyway restaurant culture simply because of the weather. If Toronto had the same climate as the South of France where the only threat comes from a chilly day and potentially rain, then Toronto would all over it. Unfortunately, Toronto is faced with -32C, snow, sleet, hail and everything else that drives outdoor eating inside.

Diversity.

Not just for food but cultures and people. It was incredible to walk down the street and see different nationalities and cultures living in one area. Melbourne, in my opinion is the most diverse city in Australia.

Gardens, boulevards, and parks.

Parliament Garden

Parliament Gardens

Like Toronto, Melbourne is full of green space. We’d walk past numerous parks and will the streetcars going by, the large open areas, it felt as though we were walking into High Park.

If you’re ever on this side of the world and are pinning for a bit of Toronto, then head over to Melbourne for a few days. With its mixtures of cultures, from Europe, Asia and of course Australia, it’ll satisfy any craving. Bonus: no Rob Ford.