traditional Japanese cuisine, has been registered on Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage List. The registration is believed to be in recognition that Japanese dishes, including sushi, tempura and sukiyaki, are being served at restaurants throughout the world.
|Inside the box: Bento boxes offer quick, convenient meals on the go.
However, popular Japanese dishes in foreign countries are generally limited to dishes served at Japanese restaurants.
On the other hand, there is another world of Japanese food that is reasonably priced and enjoyed by ordinary Japanese every day.
Japanese gardens often epitomise the natural landscape--mountains, rivers, lakes – in a small space. Similarly, a bento is a Japanese meal served in a small package containing rice, grilled dishes and pickles, items usually served at home. People prepare bento at home or buy one made at a bento shop or caterer. Either way, a boxed meal will give you a taste of the diverse ingredients of Japanese food culture whether you are on a trip, at your workplace or elsewhere.
There are several places where tourists visiting Japan can buy delicious bento with relative ease. Although you can buy a bento at a convenience store near your hotel, we recommend you buy one at a traditional bento stall. Such stalls can be found at major railway stations.
Whether traveling by train for leisure or on business, Japanese often buy bento either at the station they leave from or at a station along the way during long journeys. Bento made available at railway stations are called ekiben. Eki means station and ben is an abbreviation for bento. Digging into a bento while enjoying the changing scenery through a train window is one of the joys of travel.
Ekibenya Matsuri ekiben shop opened 1-1/2 years ago in JR Tokyo Station, a major starting point for many people heading to such cities as Kyoto in the west or Sendai in the north. The shop deals in 150 different kinds of bento. Most of the boxed meals sold there have been delivered from regional bento makers. The shop also features a specially built kitchenette where regionally popular bento are freshly cooked before being sold.
Ekiben is also characterised by the use of regional specialties. For instance, Hokkaido bento features such seafood as squid or crab, while gyutan (ox tongue) is common in Sendai bento and beef can often be found in bento from Yamagata Prefecture. Travellers can enjoy regional flavours by eating the specialties contained within a small bento box.
At urban shopping districts and along major roads, there are bento shops catering to customers' requests. As the rice and accompanying dishes are served hot, these bento are called hokaben (piping hot bento), and are favoured by businesspeople and homemakers.
Almost every makunouchi bento shop carries (literally, intermission bento). There are various theories about the derivation of this name. One theory has it that in the past, theatregoers would eat boxed meals during intermission.
Nonetheless, the standard style of the makunouchi bento has not changed much from the old days and remains quite popular. Besides rice, it usually contains a variety of small food portions, sometimes 10 to 15 different items, such as Japanese-style omelette and boiled dishes, all set out in an orderly fashion.
Ramen noodle-in-soup in a bowl, one of Japan's most popular dishes, has its origin in China and flourished in Japan. Having a variety of tastes and flavours, ramen keeps evolving every day at bustling ramen shops.
Ramen shops are the place where your "spirit of inquiry" is tested.
|Regional ramen:A bowl of Kitakata-ramen at a ramen shop in Tokyo. — Photo Hiroyuki Taira/The Yomiuri Shimbun
In his travelblog "Sushi & beyond", British food journalist Michael Booth writes, "Essentially, ramen is a dish of yellow, chewy, curly Chinese wheat noodles served in a deep bowl of soup with toppings--usually including a slice of roast pork."
However, the description just refers to the essential definition of ramen.
Concerning soup, there are at least three kinds of flavours – soy sauce, miso, and salt. In addition, there are various toppings for ramen, for example, a whole crab, fried chicken and a heap of vegetables.
Sapporo ramen, originating in Hokkaido, attracts many people with its miso-flavoured soup seasoned with butter and other ingredients, while Hakata ramen from Fukuoka Prefecture is famous for its white pork bone broth and red ginger.
There also are regional varieties of ramen, with every prefecture having their local ones.
The original dish of ramen came from China to Japan. However, noodles and soups have been transforming over the years, and it seems to have become one of Japan's most popular dishes after the 1950s.
In the fast-paced ramen industry, new ramen shops open every day, with new tastes and flavours produced – very hot ramen, fish-based broth and abura-soba (oil noodle) which is served without soup but with flavoured cooking oil and thickened ingredients.
That is a kind of transition in trends, making ramen gourmets enjoy catching up with these various tastes.
However, some people may like classic ramen tastes. For such people, three major ramens – Sapporo, Hakata and Kitakata – are recommended.
Lucky for you – among these ramen, you can enjoy Kitakata ramen in central Tokyo. The ramen has its roots in the city of Kitakata, western Fukushima Prefecture.
Ramen shop Kitakata-ramen Bannai's Uchisaiwaicho outlet, located at the south of Hibiya Park in Tokyo, opened in 1987 under a different name. The characteristics of the ramen is its clear pork bone broth as well as flat and curly noodles. The shop's roast pork slices are extremely tender.
Kitakata is about 100km away from the crippled Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant. While the Bannai shop uses only some ingredients produced in Fukushima Prefecture and they are all confirmed safe, there was concern about losing customers after the nuclear crisis at the plant.
However, many customers encouraged staffers saying, "Keep it up, Fukushima!" Kazuki Nakamura, the chief of the outlet, said, "We are making ramen that customers will not be tired of eating even though they eat it every day." As the outlet is located near the Imperial Hotel, it has many customers from overseas. Therefore, the outlet prepares forks for such customers, but only a few foreign customers use them.
The basic arrangement of a traditional Japanese meal, known as ichiju-sansai, consists of miso soup, three dishes and rice, and those elements are handily served on a single tray as a set meal known as teishoku. Teishoku meals are prepared and served quickly and easily at relatively low prices at specialised eateries. To many, teishoku are like a little taste of "mom's home cooking".
Founded in 1958 with its first shop in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Ootoya Co. is one of Japan's largest teishoku chains, with more than 300 shops all across the country and even branches abroad.
|Classic: These traditional meals feature a variety of dishes served with rice.
According to Toru Nakamura, Ootoya's marketing manager, teishoku meals are a "substitute for home cooking like what a mother might lovingly prepare for her family."
Nakamura said teishoku "offers diners a variety of nutrients, balancing carbohydrates, protein and fat, while keeping calories relatively low."
A typical teishoku meal at Ootoya adopts the ichiju-sansai format, comprising a main dish, side dishes and Japanese-style pickled vegetables, accompanied by the ever-present bowl of rice and miso soup. Even the most expensive of the restaurant's teishoku meals are priced no more than 900 yen.
Customers can request a large portion of rice at no extra charge, and those with a yearning for healthier food can also have their white rice replaced with gokokumai, a mixture of rice and other grains at no additional cost.
Tourists and locals alike can find time-honoured teishoku eatery Kanda Shokudo in Akihabara. At first glance, the eatery is certainly unlikely to impress, but Kanda Shokudo, with a history of more than 50 years in a floor space of about 50 square metres is thronged almost every day with close to 300 customers.
Shoji Asanuma, second-generation proprietor of Kanda Shokudo, explained, "Since early in the Showa era (1926-1989) when the country's largest vegetable and fruit wholesale market used to be located nearby, we have been serving our tasty, voluminous meals to working men and women quickly and at reasonable prices."
The kitchen staff get cooking as soon as they receive an order for a ginger pork meal, one of the restaurant's signature teishoku meals and the most popular with customers. Just a few minutes later, a dish of ginger pork accompanied with plenty of shredded cabbage is delivered to the table along with a tofu and seaweed miso soup, plus a bowl of steaming rice. Teishoku meal prices range from a little more than 500 yen to just under 800 yen.
Teishoku specialty restaurants aren't the only place to find teishoku meals. Japanese-style pubs and cookshops frequently incorporate them into lunch menus. A wide range of flavours from broiled fish to fried croquettes or deep-fried breaded pork can be had served alongside sauteed vegetables and meat. Many restaurants gladly ladle out second helpings of rice and miso soup free of charge.
If you get the chance, be sure to sample a variety of teishoku meals, the ambrosia of common people in Japan.
Women tend to like dessert, both in the East and the West. In Japan, women who love sweets fill most of the seats at establishments called kanmidokoro (place to have something sweet), sanctuaries for women that men hesitate to enter.
Kanmidokoro are tea houses that offer desserts unique to Japan. The main ingredient in many of the desserts is "an", which are simmered and mashed adzuki beans kneaded with a large amount of sugar until they become paste-like.
|Just desserts: Teahouses offer unique Japanese-style sweets.
Shiruko is a thin an soup with small pieces of toasted mochi, or chewy rice cakes. Anmitsu is small cubes of cooked kanten agar and sliced fruits with an on top.
In traditional Japanese cuisine, which did not use animal fat such as butter or fresh cream, an was the most popular ingredient for sweet desserts. In the Edo period (1603-1867), kanmidokoro became a staple of ordinary people's lives.
"When bread was introduced by the West, Japanese invented anpan, or an-filled bread," said Asako Kishi, 90, a cooking journalist. "An matches Japanese tastes perfectly." As she pointed out, the main items on the menu at kanmidokoro are soul food to Japanese.
Probably because kanmidokoro date back centuries, many famous establishments operate in old wooden houses. One is Takemura near Akihabara, Tokyo, which was established in 1930. It offers several kinds of shiruko with different methods of preparing the an, all priced at about 750. yen
Among men, kanmidokoro tends to be thought the place frequented predominantly by women. Why? According to Kikuo Hotta, 74, the second-generation owner of Takemura, many kanmidokoro used to be located near bustling areas with beautifully dressed geisha. "Kanmidokoro may still conjure up an image of a place frequented by classy women," Hotta said.
Indeed, this tea house's atmosphere suits the kimono-clad madams stopping for sweets after going to the theatre. Kanmidokoro, however, are too attractive for only women to visit them. Good and old Japan certainly await you if you slide open the lattice door of Kanmidokoro.
When it's time to relax after a day's hard work, Japanese often drop into an izakaya – a Japanese-style pub--for a drink. Izakaya usually offer a good selection of food and drinks, with a bit more variety than a typical Western-style pub. These pubs offer a place for people to chat with close friends and colleagues over inexpensive drinks before heading home. For office workers, therefore, izakaya are a pit stop between the workplace and home.
|Happy hour: The izakaya offers food, drinks and a place to relax after work.
Japanese salaried workers sometimes feel a need for a space away from work and from home, where they can loosen up--a place to let their minds relax, or to reflect without pressure from their bosses or families, a sort of "third space" to get together with friends. But izakaya can be a place where supervisors offer words of encouragement to their employees or provide some guidance. At other times, employees might privately share a few sharp words about their bosses after work is over. It's a different kind of space that awaits behind the sliding doors typical of Japanese pubs.
The classic izakaya has a rope curtain in the doorway and red lantern hanging out front. But at Santaro, an izakaya in Ikebukuro in Tokyo, the lantern is white and painted with the characters for oden, a preparation of various foods slowly stewed in broth.
Because izakaya serve so many different foods, it's not at all unusual for Japanese dishes and Western, Chinese and Korean dishes to share space on the menu--or maybe dishes fusing styles.
While Santaro focuses on Japanese dishes like sashimi and broiled fish, customers can also order Indian-style curry.
"Foie gras pickled in sweet Kyoto-style white miso," a personal creation of Santaro's proprietor, Eiichiro Hayashi, is perhaps the pinnacle of local fusion flavours at Santaro.
Izakaya are ready to serve drinks aplenty as well, ranging from sake and shochu to beer and whisky. Santaro in particular keeps 120 different types of sake. Among them, Hayashi recommends newer brands from younger brewers produced outside Japan's urban centres. With its sweetness, refined flavour and fruity aroma, sake is a smooth drink that is enjoyed not only by Japanese, but by foreigners, too.
According to professor Kenji Hashimoto of Waseda University, who is knowledgeable about izakaya, a growing number of women are visiting the pubs. The efforts of izakaya to improve the quality and flavour of their food and drinks might explain this change.
"Where groups of inebriated middle-aged men used to fill izakaya seats, groups of women are now a common sight," Hashimoto said. "At more upscale izakaya offering a good selection of fine sake, I sometimes see women with the bearing of managers quietly enjoying a cup of sake."
There are many inexpensive izakaya chains, where guests can eat and drink for under 2,000 yen each, but at a place like Santaro, which serves an ample variety of sake, that figure might be closer to 5,000 yen. Even though Santaro doesn't aim for the lowest prices, it is usually crowded with customers enjoying a modest indulgence.
Michael Molasky, an American professor at Waseda University, wrote in his book "Nomeba Miyako" ("A Man's Pub is His Castle") that izakaya were where he learned the Japanese language and culture.
Even the non-confrontational Japanese manage to speak their minds, growing sociable after a couple of glasses of the national beverage. Foreigners in Japan can often find themselves in touch with the spirit of Japan at their favourite izakaya.
Compiled by Hiroyoshi Horii, Ruriko Hatano, Hideyuki Tokida, Satoru Watanabe and Yuichi Shibata. — The Japan News