As I rounded up my second trip to Japan, I found myself having difficulty saying goodbye to what has officially become my favorite country on earth.
Hailing from the Manchuria area in northeast China, which Japan invaded in 1931 following the Mukden Incident, I’m supposed to hold grudges against the Japanese, like some of my family members and friends. I remember how every year, on September 18, a loud siren would sound, reverberating throughout the city, reminding people of a shameful chapter of our region’s history.
However, at Harvard, I found some of my best friends to be Japanese, and it only took one short visit to Japan to convince me that it is impossible to hate this country. Last winter, I went on a one-week trip to Tokyo, Kyoto, Gifu, and Kobe, where I was greeted with the hospitality of my Japanese friends and instantly found myself in a foodie’s paradise. I enjoyed myself so much that I had to pay a second visit this winter break, this time spending twice as much time.
One chief reason I love Japan is that predictability and punctuality—qualities that I treasure—seem to be the rule of the land. Everything is trustworthy and reliable, from the safety of the tap water to the time the Shinkansen will arrive. If you plan properly, it is possible to draw out a day trip’s schedule by the minute—something that is impossible in America, where a supposedly four-hour Greyhound ride from Boston to New York can take up to seven, with no explanation or apology.
But if I were to be completely honest, I would say that the true reason I keep coming back to Japan was to eat. About 80% of the time while I’m awake in Japan, I’m either eating, on my way to eat, or tirelessly browsing Tabelog (Japan’s equivalent of Yelp) to find where to eat next. Japanese people devote such great energy into making food taste perfect that their effort is palpable: from a soft-boiled salted egg in a bowl of ramen, to a scoop of matcha ice cream with just the right balance between richness and sweetness.
I’m impressed by not just the quality of the treats, but also the way food is packaged and respected. Each time I buy a dessert to-go, I’m asked “How long will you be walking before you reach the place where you’ll be eating this cake?” At first I was confused by the question; then I realized that my cake box was inserted little bags of ice to keep it cool while it’s being carried. This seems to be an extremely ingenious solution in a country where eating on the move is frowned upon. Every day I marvel at details like this that illustrate the thoughtfulness of the Japanese people: bathrooms have a machine that makes noise to cover any embarrassing sound, eateries have ticket vending machines that streamline and expedite the ordering and payment process, colorful and delicious bento boxes are sold at all major train stations so that you can enjoy a clean, hassle-free meal on the Shinkansen. Everything in Japan just makes so much sense, making you wonder why the same practices are not adopted by all of humankind.
Nana’s Green Tea
Like most Asians, I’m a fervent lover of green tea. I don’t know how or when this passion started (I don’t remember ever tasting green tea in my childhood); sometimes I wonder if a love for green tea is genetically inherent in all East Asians. If you want to make a food product all the rage among East Asians, just make the food or the package appear green and you should be all set.
This year, I discovered Nana’s Green Tea (by Googling “best matcha dessert in Tokyo”; just one of my typical Google searches), a dessert chain serving matcha in all shapes and sizes, from a simple matcha latte topped with ice cream to a luxurious matcha parfait containing a piece of matcha cake, a scoop of matcha ice cream, a scoop of vanilla ice cream, azuki beans, matcha jelly, and cereal. As the sweet softness of the ice cream mixed with the crispiness of the cereal in my mouth, I felt like Japan was the greatest nation on earth. In Cambridge, I had to travel to Central Square’s H-Mart to get a decent matcha ice cream; in Japan, it felt like the closest shop selling matcha ice cream is never further than a few feet from me. It is at places like Nana’s Green Tea where I am reminded of the uniqueness of Japan: where else in the world can you find a dessert store centered around just green tea?
Kikanbo Spicy Ramen
We were in Japan for only 13 days, and my principle for eating during traveling was always to diversity my restaurant portfolio and never eat at the same place twice. Every one of the several dozen restaurants we visited was phenomenal, but only one of them made us come back a second time: Kikanbo, the legendary spicy ramen shop located in Kanda, Tokyo.
Kikanbo’s Japanese name, “鬼金棒”, literally means demon’s golden stick. It’s decor and background music are both demon-themed, but you only get a true taste of demon when you take a sip of the red, hot soup of its spiciest ramen. The whole restaurant seems to be a temple that pays worship to the god of spice. There are ten levels of spiciness, ranging from almost nothing (for the faint-hearted) to “super-extra mouth numbing spice” (for the overconfident). The store has about a dozen seats around a bar, and there is usually a long line outside its door. The wait-time is not too bad, but always became excruciating when you heard the mouth-watering sound of noodle-slurping and smell the spice that permeates the whole establishment. Its patrons range from local regulars who seem to have no problem whatsoever with its spiciest concoction, to Western tourists who came to pay pilgrimage to one of the few ramen places mentioned in Lonely Planet Tokyo and meekly order “less spice”. The ramen is prepared by several burly guys who look like they can each devour a bowl in minutes.
I have always prided myself on a very high tolerance for spicy food, especially compared to Westerners. I am a devotee to Sichuan food, and cannot resist anything that appears in a red, oily soup. On my first visit, I ordered a level of spiciness that was between medium and high, which tasted just spicy enough that I felt a “spicy high” and not spicy enough to make me stop eating. It was a wonderful experience. The most divine part of the ramen was the “big-sized pork.” Kikanbo’s ramen includes not a slice, but a chunk, of pork cooked to perfection such that it melts in your mouth almost faster than Kobe beef does. It is so tender that picking up one end of the chunk will result in the whole thing breaking into half. For me, it is the pork, rather than the ramen, that made me want to come back for a second visit on my very last day in Japan.
On that second visit, by some miscommunication, I received a bowl of ramen that looked like my first one but was in fact added the “super-extra mouth numbing spice.” Each time I swallowed some soup or noodles, a little fire was started in my throat and burned through the rest of my body, such that I had to put it out with a gulp of iced water after every mouthful. A quarter through the ramen, I had to get a bowl of rice to offset the hot spice in my mouth (I had wondered why a ramen shop would include rice on its menu; now I knew why). By the end of the meal, I had drank about three glasses of water—a extraordinary amount for someone who seldom finishes her single glass of water during meals.
As you step out of the restaurant upon completing your Kikanbo experience, you are invariably greeted with a fit of shivering as a cold current went through your body: the spiciness has raised your inner body’s temperature such that the air feels colder than usual. Your stomach—if it had survived the mini-fires—will chastise you for the rest of the day, as the spiciness has the effect of numbing you to satiation, and you end up eating more than you can. It is almost hard to believe that a simple bowl of ramen could evoke so many bodily changes in a human being. Each time I went to Kikanbo, my digestive system probably spent the rest of the day dealing with the consequences. But the smell and sight of the large bowl of spicy ramen still evokes an almost primal urge in you every single time, and you tell yourself that it’s time for your tastebuds to take over from your brain.
Another memorable restaurant is the ninja-themed “Ninja Akasaka” in Tokyo. They are so highly demanded that we had to make a reservation almost two weeks in advance. Upon arriving at the door, we were greeted by a waitress dressed in ninja costume, who led us through winding pathways (including a fake river upon which a bridge had to be summoned by the waitress) before arriving at our private tatami room. I ordered an “All-Black Course”, and true to its name, all of my food was colored black: black-coated sweet and sour pork, black curry with rice, black fish ball soup, black sweet bean dessert. The restaurant tries hard to infuse an element of “magic” into the dining experience. At one point, the ninja-waitress made a soup with a hot stone in front of our eyes. Halfway through the meal, a “ninja-master” came into our room to perform magic tricks.
With all its trappings and touristy air, you would think that the quality of its food would be mediocre at best. However, to our surprise, everything that was brought to our table tasted fantastic, including some stuff that at first sight seemed inedible (such as the black crackers in the shape of shurikens). Its cuisine was extremely innovative, and combines traditional Japanese and Western elements in a most delightful way.
Then there was the Kobe beef dinner. We had thought that our tight schedule left no time for Kobe, but on our Shinkansen ride from Hiroshima to Osaka, we realized that Kobe was only a 15-minute ride from Osaka, so decided on a whim to hop off the train early and splurge on a real Kobe-beef dinner (Side note: This is the advantage of the Japan Rail Pass, which allows you to basically hop on and off trains worry-free, without the hassle of purchasing tickets in advance). On Tabelog (my Bible by this point), I found the highly rated steak restaurant Wakkoqu (和黒), which happened to be located right outside of Shin-Kobe station, where the Shinkansen stops.
The setting reminded me of a high-end Western restaurant, with multiple courses and a complete wine list, but the food was decidedly Japanese. A worldly-looking chef cooked everything on the teppan in front of us with extraordinary dexterity. First, the fatty parts were cut off from our two large pieces of Kobe beef (each costing close to $100, and worth it)—the oil produced by the fat was used to cook everything else later on, making the taste of the beef permeate every item, such that even the roasted garlic slices tasted divine. Like a master faced with the uninitiated, the chef instructed us to dip the first piece of our precious beef in salt only, the second in black pepper only, the third in soy sauce mixed with mustard, and the fourth in Ponzu sauce. By the end of the meal, the fatty parts had become so cooked that they had hardened. Our master chef cut them up and used the little pieces to make a garlic fried rice, such that every last bit of our Kobe beef went into our mouth in its best possible form.
My best memories of Japan are those associated with food: early-morning sushi at Tsukiji market, a pampering round of afternoon tea on the top floor of Park Hyatt Tokyo, pretty desserts in the basement food hall of Takashimaya, slices of musk melon served in the fruit buffet at Takano Fruit Palour, a legendary bowl of prawn rice at Asakusa’s Daikokuya (大黒家), an elaborate Kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) meal in Kyoto, freshly cooked okonomiyaki in Osaka, ice cream with traditional Japanese flavors at Ouca Japanese Ice, a surprisingly good chocolate cake found in a bakery on the hill to a Nara temple, and the always reliable delights at national chains like Co-Co Curry, Sukiya, or Ichiran. The most unassuming eatery in a remote alley could be serving the best noodles in the world. Everywhere I turn, there is great food that tastes better than anything I can find in America and is safer than anything I can find in China. How Japanese people stay lean is a mystery that I will never comprehend.