Yakitori are the Japanese version of kebabs, but much smaller than the kebabs we are used to. Four or five pieces of meat are skewered onto a bamboo stick and are then grilled over a charcoal fire. English language menus in a Yakitori restaurant can be entertaining because of the strangeness of some of the meats, but for anyone who’s squeamish, it might be best not to look at the menu if a Japanese is doing the ordering for you. Gizzard, heart, tripe and giblets will normally feature.
If I were a student or on a tight budget, I’d eat every day in one of the Japanese chain restaurants such as the Yayioken chain. Japan has all the usual American suspects, such as McDonalds and KFC, but the food there is as trashy as it is everywhere else and, for the price of a hamburger, you can eat very well in a Yayioken. The method is that you select your meal in the restaurant lobby using a machine like the one shown in the photo below. The machines are easy to navigate, even for a westerner, as the selections are illustrated with photos. If there is any doubt, the restaurant window has plastic models (a little garish for some tastes) of all the dishes on offer. In exchange for your money you get a ticket, which you hand to a waitress, who will take your drinks order (alcohol is served) and bring your food. There’s no queuing. A meal of grilled mackerel, with a bowl of rice and miso soup (pictured above) is 590 yen (£3.58). A large bowl of chips as another pound. The Yayioken chain is as good an illustration as any of the choice and value available to Japanese who want to eat out.
A Yatai stall looks so alien that very few westerners eat there. I only took the plunge with some Japanese hosts. They are found in the Hakata region of Fukuoka, the main city on Kyushu island, where my eldest daughter is at university. The stalls, complete with portable kitchens, appear as if by magic at about 6pm and serve food fast and furiously, mainly to salarymen, until the early hours. I tried to take a picture of the chef, but he was excessively shy and every time I took out my camera he put a towel over his head. But he had no reason to be ashamed of his food. The picture below is of some very basic, traditional fare which looks much more gruesome than it tastes. The strange looking object at the top is fish, whose name eluded me, and the egg has been marinated in soy sauce to make the white look like a shell – which is a good joke at the expense of the tourist.
The standard bullet train is so long, at 16 carriages, that passengers have to be told precisely where to stand on the platform when the train arrives, otherwise there would be no chance of all the passengers embarking on time. Three or four of these monsters leave from Tokyo to Osaka every hour, always precisely on time, to the second. Japanese visitors to England are wide eyed in amazement at how backward our train system is, just as we are at how advanced theirs is. It’s a little depressing to think that they have had theirs for 25 years and it will be at least 25 years until we get ours (if at all).
The first time I had wagyu beef was in Hong Kong, when the chef cooked small cubes of beef on a grill, with nothing but a little garlic. There began a lifetime obsession with wagyu meat which has left me considerably poorer. Wagyu is never cheap but is always delicious and the most entertaining way to eat it is the method known as “shabu-shabu” where you cook it yourself by dunking a slice of it into a pot of boiling water, and then dipping it into a sauce. Two kinds of sauce are used with shabu-shabu – a creamy sauce called gomadare, which is made from sesame seeds, miso paste and soy sauce; and ponzu, which is a vinegary sauce made from soy sauce and lemon juice. After the beef has been eaten the boiling water has become a light beef stock, into which vegetables such as shitake and enoki mushrooms, chinese cabbage and grilled tofu are added. When they have been eaten, the remaining stock is used to cook some noodles, which the Japanese regard as a final treat. In fact the meal is down-hill all the way, as everything is an anti-climax after the exquisite beef.
The photos show, firstly the wagyu beef, secondly the cooking pot, and thirdly the starter which we were served in a meal which cost £44 a head. This is probably the most expensive meal you will eat in Japan.
Canal City in the centre of Fukuoka is a shopping mall of American proportions. Like every self-respecting mall it has a cinema complex, next door to which, as may be expected, is a series of fast food restaurants. The difference at Canal City is that they sell nothing but ramen. There are eight of them. It’s called the ramen stadium. These ramen restaurants, like many elsewhere, are a little daunting to the westerner, as you have to pay in advance using a ticket machine whose instructions are in Japanese.
In 1997 Simon Woodruffe had the bright idea of opening a Japanese ‘kaiten’ conveyor belt sushi restaurant in London. He called it Yo-sushi and it went on to become one of England’s most successful restaurant chains. He followed in the footsteps on Alan Yau, who in 1992 had opened a ramen restaurant with wooden tables, very similar to many seen in Tokyo, which he called Wagamama and which is now one of 119 worldwide. Both men have sold on for enormous sums.
If you look closely at the photo above you will see, on the left hand side, the head and skeleton of a mackerel. The mackerel’s flesh is neatly arranged to one side. The head and the bones are included on the plate not to be eaten, but to show how fresh the fish is, and this is neatly demonstrated in the video below, which shows that the flesh was removed while the fish was alive – one of our party, who was new to Japanese food, said that it was a little disconcerting to see the head “nodding and winking” at us while we ate. This is sashimi, whose literal translation is “fresh slice”. There’s never any doubting the freshness, even in the cheapest joint. As with so much Japanese food it is served with a dipping sauce, in this case, shoyu (soy). Sometimes the fish can be a challenge, as with whale blubber, when the salty taste of the soy sauce can very helpfully disguise the taste of the fish.
As no cooking is involved the chef showing his skill is the presentation, known as otsukuri, which is always helped along by a little nodding and winking. The cost? From £6 to £60, with no discernible difference to western eyes between the two.
Okonomiyaki restaurants are as popular in Japan as creperies are in France; they both make pancakes, but there the similarity ends. Japanese-style pancakes are so huge even a visiting American would be hard-pressed to finish one. The best place to sit in an Okonomiyaki restaurant is at the counter, where you can see them being put together and cooked on a mini-assembly line. The main ingredient of an Okonomiyaki pancake in most parts of Japan is cabbage and the first person in the line is the cabbage slicer. He uses a machette to slice cabbage leaves very thinly, almost parallel with the counter. The shredded cabbage (kyabetsu) goes to the first of two chefs on the hot-plate, who pours a circle of batter onto the hotplate and then adds the cabbage and other ingredients, such as prawn (ebi) and squid (ika). A second chef finishes the pancake off, adding an egg and sprinkling seaweed flakes (aonori) and bonito flakes (katsuo bushi) on the top. In Hiroshima, noodles are used instead of cabbage. This is my favourite kind. The cost will rarely exceed 1,000 yen (£6).
It’s odds on that in seven years’ time, after the Olympics, Japan will be a popular tourist destination for the British, but now, hardly anyone goes. I’m looked at with astonishment when I say that I’ve been there 12 times. I think that people are put off by the perception that it’s expensive and that everything will be a little too strange, or incomprehensible or weird for comfort. Most visitors go for the gardens, but to my mind there’s a bigger attraction, one which justifies a visit for no other reason, and that’s the food.
The idea of Slow Life is to take the principles of Slow Food, which are “good, clean and fair”, and extend them to life in general.
Here in the Lake District, the air is clean, the pace is slow and the atmosphere is calm. If we don’t grow food ourselves, we can buy it in friendly small shops, where you know the quality is going to be the best.
This blog is a celebration of the Slow Life, with forays into the world of design, music, the arts, gardens, and my particular weakness, Japan.