Follow Me Foodie to Japan (Tokyo & Kyoto): About Japanese Culture, People & Food

Follow Me Foodie to Japan!

For those who travel for the love of food, then Japan is likely at the top of your list. And if not, it should be. I headed here right after Follow Me Foodie to Hong Kong (Part 3) in November last year. It was peak season and the leaves were starting to change colours. I was there maybe 1-2 weeks early before all the leaves changed to gold or red, but I didn’t feel like I missed any beauty.

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 738Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto

Japan was incredible. Culturally, visually, and mindfully stimulating, and often a bit challenging for a first time visitor. Scenes from Lost in Translation became so relatable. Between Pictionary, charades, and translators, I got the most I could out of the short time I was there. If I could pick up Japanese faster, I would consider living there for a few years, and even that would not be enough time to understand their cuisine. They take it to a whole new level.

I’m not new to Japanese cuisine, but I didn’t grow up with it either, in the sense that it wasn’t on the table everyday. However I’ve always taken an interest in it and pursued it further by reading about it and learning about it from Japanese chefs and friends. I was satisfied for the time being, but still longing the day I would get to actually visit Japan and submerse myself in the culture. This trip was not just about eating and food, or crossing off any sort of “must visit” restaurant list (although I did have a planned dining itinerary), this trip was really about the relationship between food and culture.

Japanese People & Culture

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 645Demonstrating drinking games at the Kyoto Cuisine and Maiko evening at Gion Hatanaka in Kyoto.

Food and culture was what catapulted my interest in food to begin with, and essentially what started Follow Me Foodie. It was a delicious way of connecting to people and places. It gave my travels substance and I got obsessive trying to figure out how everything fit and how I related to it.

The relationship between food and culture is relevant to any food scene, but the role culture plays on food in Japan, is particularly unique. To understand their food scene, it is important to understand their culture. Be forewarned I’m pulling out some stereotypes.

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 799Chef Yoshihiko Yano at Ishibekoji Kamikura Restaurant at Gion Hatanaka in Kyoto

The Japanese are intense. They make me look type B (and if you know me or this blog, you’re probably laughing). In many ways they reminded me of Germans, which isn’t too surprising if we look at history. The way they run their cities is precise and everything is to the minute. Meeting at 10:23 am means meeting at 10:23 am, and there is no North American 15 minute grace period. The cultures are based on precision and attention to detail, and the Japanese tend to think a step ahead. I guess that’s why “the best” knives, cars, and products tend to be made in Japan or Germany as well.

Traditionally the Japanese are competitive, although this goes for many East Asian cultures. It’s a competitive nature with other people and themselves, so the idea of being better and improving is always on their mind.

They are also conservative, organized, and by the books, and there is an obsession for perfection which runs in their blood. This mentality makes them masters at their craft and often they can spend their whole lives doing one thing and trying to perfect it. It’s how they approach their food scene, but relevant to other industries as well.

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 833Chef Yoshihiko Yano’s knives

For example I talked to a bladesmith, umbrella maker, and sushi chef, and it was the same philosophy, just different jobs. With the bladesmith one person was responsible for the handle, another for the blade, someone else for the sharpening etc., and you become a specialist in a very specific skill, unlike other cultures were one person would make the whole knife. With the umbrella maker, one person would make the handle, another the shade, and someone else the artwork etc., and with the sushi chef… well let’s just say he spent 5 years making rice before he was even allowed to touch the fish. Mind you, cutting and serving raw fish to customers is understandably a station to work up to.

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 969Kanesaka Tamago (brined in shrimp stock and dashi) on My Top 50 Favourite Dishes of 2013

You remember that scene in Jiro Dreams of Sushi where the chef cries tears of joy after Jiro tells him his tamago (Japanese omelet) is perfect? That was after spending his whole life making it too. This wasn’t something from a movie or something that only happens at Jiro, but it’s more or less the Japanese standard.

Dine Out Preview 2013 - Market Jiro Sushi 04How many chefs in North America would spend their whole life trying to master the skills of making a perfect omelette?

It’s not about mass production, volume, multi-tasking, or one person carrying out a project from start to finish, it’s about mastering the craft. Jack of all trades isn’t the idea and success is not weighed by mere completion.

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 980Chef Takashi Usuba at Sushi Kanesaka in Tokyo

It’s a different culture and different ball game. Not any better or worse than other cultures, but just how I experienced it. I was aware of most of this going into it too, but having now been there, I saw how it all fit. I was infatuated. Their dedication and commitment to achieve this sense of “perfection” is as impressive as it is unattainable, but nonetheless admirable. It’s not about being good, it’s about being excellent.

**Note: I haven’t acknowledged the modern, wild, funky and darker side of Japan… which is a whole other post. Every county has the conservative and the “rebellious”, but in Japan it’s more extreme.

The Food Scene

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 347Chu-toro at Hachibe in Tokyo

I went to Japan not confident, but comfortable with my understanding of Japanese food and eager to learn more. However despite studying, researching and writing about it (eg: How to eat sushi part 1-3), I left feeling like an amateur. I felt like I knew nothing about it and it was all new again – and it still feels that way. I will never know it all, but at least I know more than I did before. It has sparked further culinary curiosity and helped put things in perspective.

I’m not about to apply everything I learned in Japan to Japanese food outside of its origin, but I can’t look at Japanese food the same way again. I can still eat at an average sushi joint and appreciate it in the context of the place it is in, and the tastes it is catered for; but really, outside of Japan, we are exposed to such narrow ideas of what Japanese food is.

In Vancouver, the idea of Japanese food is sushi, izakaya, and ramen, and that’s about it. The regional styles of dining in Japan are not defined or even known, which in a way is understandable (being outside of Japan), but also disappointing. There is so much more to Japanese cuisine than these categories, even though one could spend years exploring each of the mentioned categories in Japan.

For instance there are several varieties of mochi, different styles of sushi, and even the ramen and Japanese style curries vary from region to region. Tempura, tonkatsu and teriyaki chicken might seem like the “ABC’s” of Japanese food in North America, but even these are taken seriously in Japan.

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 94210 day aged Chu-Toro Nigiri from Oma from Sushi Kanesaka on My Top 50 Favourite Dishes of 2013

Almost everything here is treated as an art form regardless of its simplicity. And simplicity comes with complications in any cuisine. Take for example the art of making sushi rice, let alone sushi. It is only two components, but showcasing them at their maximum potential is not easy. With so few components, there is nothing to hide. Drawing a circle, roasting a chicken, or frying an egg is easy on the surface, but to do it near perfect, is not. Everyone can make eggs, but who can master the art of making them stand out? It is not just details, but attention to meticulous details the Japanese are known for.

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 617Exquisite Leek and Taleggio Cheese Risotto with Japanese Uni from Piacere at Shangri-La Tokyo on My Top 50 Favourite Dishes of 2013

Japanese food isn’t the only thing to try in Japan either. It’s an international city with international dining options, and the Japanese are very good at taking ideas, or “borrowing ideas”, and making them better. It is no wonder why many well travelled food lovers claim they’ve had better French or Italian food in Japan than they’ve had in France or Italy. It goes back to the strive for perfection and competitive nature, and these classic European cuisines are highly regarded and respected in Japan. They adapt their techniques and honour them by following through with patience and discipline.

Valrhona chocolate in Tokyo, JapanI had the opportunity to visit Valrhona’s l’Ecole du Grand Chocolat in Tokyo which just further proved Japanese dedication to perfection.

Valrhona, a French luxury chocolate manufacturer, is widely known as the finest quality in chocolate. It is used by most world class chocolatiers and pastry chefs. After France, their biggest market is in Japan. There are only three Valrhona chocolate schools for professional chefs, and two are in France and one in Tokyo, Japan.

I was able to meet with Valrhona President Denis Vergneau and Chef Pâtissier Nicolas Botomisy, and both stressed the high level of technique from Japanese chefs. The Japanese actually push Valrhona to be better, and that just almost says it all.

Tokyo, Japan - Kozue Sukiyaki at Park HyattA very formal sukiyaki at Kozue at Park Hyatt Hotel – on My Top 50 Favourite Dishes of 2013

The service and hospitality are often above and beyond too, exceeding any expectations you may have had. From the moment you walk in the door, you are treated as a guest more so than family. They call it “Omotenashi”, which is providing detailed service and knowing in advance what their customer wants before they ask for it. Again, this goes back to being a step ahead.

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 763Kyoto style dining at Ishibekoji Kamikura – Assorted seasonal delicacies on My Top 50 Favourite Dishes of 2013

Unlike many Asian cultures where the meals are presented family style, in Japan it is about individual servings. The concept of leftovers and packing them up is not part of their culture. However when it comes to presentation and packaging, there is still noticeable effort. Every meal feels like a gift, and depending on the style of dining, items will come in boxes or hand crafted dishes.

Shopping in Japan at DaimaruPierre Hermé at Daimaru department store… and my food shopping aftermath.

Even though taking things to go is rare, packaging applies in other areas and is part of the final product. I remember buying a single macaron and having it packaged in another package, and on its own individual ice pack, with an optional bag protector. An uneven fold, damaged bag, or crinkled box is taboo, and this attention to detail and formality isn’t just in their food scene, but their taxi drivers are dressed like butlers and the seats often covered in lace or linen.

Hong Kong & Japan 2013 596Even something as simple as a fruit can be treated so preciously. Here are $50 cantaloupes, $5 apples and $6 Asian pears at Daimaru, an upscale department store in Tokyo. They can get up to $100+ at even higher end department stores too. They taste very good but not particularly better than an excellent cantaloupe. The aesthetic plays a significant part when it comes to these precious fruits. There is value in growing a perfectly shaped fruit and having them all identical. These are fruits you give as gifts.

Just like in every country, there are still mediocre or bad restaurants and food. Not every single restaurant approaches food in the mentioned manners, but the majority of them do. It’s part of who they are and what makes Japan a culinary Mecca and destination for serious food enthusiasts.

My short time in Japan was just that – too short. However a lifetime in Japan, would still be too short. Rice is never just rice and fish is never just fish, and everything is more than meets the eye, yet presentation is not forgotten. Understanding the people and culture is as important if not more important than understanding the food alone. First impressions of Japan were as infatuating as they were intimidating, and it has been one of the most impactful countries in my Follow Me Foodie journey.

Follow Me Foodie’s Travellers’ Tips:

  • Learn basic Japanese or have a translator. Hire one or download one.
  • Learn basic Japanese etiquette.
  • Learn how to eat sushi.
  • Know the regional specialities. (I’ll discuss this in a future post)
  • Free wi-fi is extremely rare, so rent a portable wi-fi device at the airport or buy a data plan.
  • Purchase your Japan Rail Pass before getting to Japan if you plan to travel to many cities. If you’re only in Tokyo, there is no need.
  • Experience 1-2 nights in a ryokan (Japanese style hotel).
  • There is no tipping, even at nice places.

Part 2:

Where to visit, what to try and where to eat it?

Follow Me Foodie to Tokyo

Follow Me Foodie to Kyoto

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