Over winter break, I had the privilege of studying abroad for two weeks in Japan. I took a class in Quality Management with regards to business, and had the greatest experience. Beyond visiting companies like Panasonic, Toyota and The Four Seasons hotel in Kyoto, I got a to eat a lot of Japanese food.
Two Weeks, 14 Days, a little over 42 meals…yes those are my most vivid memories from Japan. I did not really know what to expect from Japanese cuisines. Obviously I had intentions of eating all of the sushi and finally tasting some quality ramen, but there were so many things that I had never even thought of.
So without further ado, here are the 11 things I learned from Japanese Eating:
Matcha is Everywhere
If you’re not familiar with the Japanese drink, matcha, is a processed form of green tea that is praised for amazing health benefits. The taste is very earthy, but it can also be enjoyed as a part of a dessert.
Beyond the tea, some matcha products were Kit Kats (that’s only one of many flavors), Pocky sticks, Oreos, ice cream and cookies.
I personally wasn’t a huge matcha fan as I found it a bit bitter, but some of my peers looked forward to a matcha latte every morning. It’s either you love it or you don’t, but if you love it, Japan is the place for you.
The Vending Machines are from the Future
No more choice of 8 generic Coke products. These vending machines have about 30 choices ranging from juice to energy drinks to milk tea to soup. Yes, you can get soup. And the best part is, if you order an inherently hot beverage, it comes out hot from the machine. A latte is ready to sip as soon as it comes out.
Another aspect of vending machine culture in Japan, is that vending machines are everywhere. You won’t find many trashcans on the street, but every 100 steps, you’ll be able to grab a drink.
But that’s not even the best part. While I was waiting for the Subway, I saw a new variation of vending machine. It was one that specializes in coffee and tea. I was able to customize a caramel macchiato to be the perfect flavor, sweetness and temperature. I had to check my phone to make sure I was still in 2017.
Sushi Conveyor Belts are the Status Quo
Maybe you’ve been to Wasabi ( a sushi conveyor belt) in Tyson’s Corner mall and thought, “Wow, this is so cool!” That’s the Japanese version of fast food. Sushi conveyor belts are everywhere and they are taken up a hundred notches.
You have way more choices and types of sushi. The one I went to had a TV screen in front of each chair to describe each sushi on the belt. If you didn’t see the one you wanted coming around, you could special order it. When it’s ready, the kitchen shoots it out on a speed belt and it stops right at your seat.
Bento Boxes Put American Lunches to Shame
We had a few days that were very busy. We didn’t have time to stop for elaborate meals. The program provides us with bento boxes. They are essentially Japanese lunch boxes.
First off, they are adorable. Tons of little compartments holding various Japanese foods. They are also engineered incredibly. They stack up so they are portable but each compartment can be pulled out to create a full meal.
Some things that were in my various bento boxes were sushi pieces, rice, chicken, noodles, pickled vegetables and sweet red bean.
Yes Fugu is Real, No I Didn’t Die
At one of the sushi restaurants that I went to, I saw that Fugu was an option. For those of you that do not know what Fugu is, it is a poisonous Japanese blowfish that has the power to kill in a half hour if not prepared perfectly.
So I got a small piece of Fugu sashimi with a girl from my program. We looked at each other, grabbed the death fish, ate it and hoped for the best.
You Can Get Any Seafood on a Stick from Street Vendors
In the beginning of the trip, I was weary of squid tentacles on a stick for 200 yen (~$2) from a random street vendor. By the end, I adored grabbing scallops, squid and swordfish on a stick while I was on the go. It’s absolutely delicious and I didn’t get sick once.
Sometimes the Weirdest/Grossest Looking Food Is the Most Delicious
I got these fried sesame balls from a tiny restaurant. On the outside they looked like the spherical cousin of a sesame seed bagel. I bit into it all excited and was ambushed by this piping hot black goo. It scared me at first, but it was one of my absolute favorite things I ate while there.
The foods that were of a concerning color or sketchy texture tended to be some of the best food risks that I took.
You are Never Truly Aware of All of Your Seafood Choices Until You go to a Fish Market
Fun fact: Tokyo is home to the largest fish market in the entire world. I had the privilege of going and wow was it a sight to behold. Beyond just seeing massive fresh caught tuna and perfect cuts of salmon, there were also some more exotic seafood choices as well.
The strangest thing I saw was a massive squid tentacle that was fire truck red. I don’t know how it got that red or how many of these creatures are roaming the Earth. Every mini booth within the market had some of these tentacles on display for sale, so I’m willing to bet that these alarming squids are very prevalent in our oceans.
If you ever happen to go to the fish market, please taste one of these for me. I was in a hotel, so I had no way of preparing and tasting it.
You Can Eat Duck Head (and other things you never thought were edible)
When I travel I try to say “no” to as little as possible. My food limits are close to zero so typically that’s not hard…until I see the head of a duck in front of me. This one was almost too much. I remember feeding ducks in my neighborhood pond, now I’m expected to rip a brain out of one and eat it. Too far.
Just kidding, nothing is too far. I tasted it. It was well spiced and did not taste bad. I couldn’t make the first rip though, so one of my fellow travellers pulled out a piece of meat for me. Teamwork makes the dream work.
Another notable weird food endeavor was eating raw whale. In a traditional and gourmet dinner with multiple courses, we were able to taste the fin whale. I learned afterwards that the fin whale is very endangered. All I’m going to say is it was not yummy enough to justify losing the entire specie.
Stretch Before Attending Traditional Meals
Many of the meals require sitting on the floor. The tables are low to the ground and sometimes will be surrounded by cushions, which act as the “seats." This would have been fine if you could sit however your joints do it best, but there is etiquette in place for sitting positions.
Men are expected to sit criss cross and women are expected to kneel then place their butt on their heels. Maybe you’re a yogi god and this is nothing for you, but after a 45-minute meal, everything from my thigh down went numb.
Japan’s Noodle Game is Strong
I came in with high noodle expectations and my expectations were still surpassed. There are three main noodles, soba, udon and ramen. I’ll touch on the delicate deliciousness of each one.
Soba is a thinner, flat noodle. They are made of buckwheat flour so they aren’t quite as “fluffy” as the other choices. They are served either hot or cold (if you can’t do cold noodles, make sure you specify. I found a majority of time they were served cold). It was a solid, dense noodle that was the yummiest when dipped in a broth.
Udon is the complete opposite of soba. It is a thick noodle that is soft, chewy and heavenly. I’d say it’s the equivalent of a fat spaghetti noodle. Udon is almost always served hot in some form of soup or broth.
The last type of noodle is ramen. This is not your cup of noodles that you get from the 24-hour convenience store on campus. Ramen chefs train for years as an understudy before they open up their own ramen shop. You can taste the years of experience with the perfectly seasoned broth and fresh, made in front of you noodles. The ramen noodle itself is a thinner version of the udon noodle.
Chopsticks Can Be Mastered
I ate sushi often before going so I was pretty confident with chopsticks for that purpose. I wasn’t sure if I could get rice and noodles in a smooth way. After using only chopsticks for about a week and a half, I felt like a chopstick master. I was even able to get the slippery udon noodles out of their broth.
The point is whoever you are, this seemingly impossible skill is very learnable. Plus there are artsy glass chopsticks that you can buy and take home to feel like a classy Japanese eater at every meal.
One thing to note though, never stick your chopsticks in your rice when you’re chewing or taking a food break. That gesture means that someone died.
Japan was a whole new world for me, but one that I fell in love with. From a food perspective, I was able to leave my comfort zone at every single meal. More importantly I developed new favorite foods and hard to fill cravings back in the States. I consistently crave pork buns, those sesame donut holes, udon noodles, scallops on a stick and fantastic sushi.
More than just food, I was able to meet some very sweet people and talk to them about cultural differences. It was an eye opening experience and I think I’m going to have to go back at some point in the future.