Japanese Food – The High Quality Stuff!

My most read blog post to date – The REAL Japanese Food – highlights the everyday junk you will find in Japan in attempt to dispel the pervasive image of delicate sushi being eaten at every meal. So it’s only fair that I take your saliva glands on a tour of the more traditional stuff, especially the over-the-top feast we got served at a luxury ryokan (Japanese-style hotel with baths).

Back in Janaury, Calle and I snagged ourselves a bargain – a bargain so good that you’ll think I’m lying. Let me explain…

Tanabe is a small, rural town, in Wakayama prefecture, to the south-east of Kyoto. It’s a depopulating area with agriculture as its main industry. As a result, the Tanabe Tourism Bureau is striving hard to change this quiet, mountainous region into a must-see tourism destination. Combine these factors with the Japanese government’s attempt to gain back all the tourists scared away by the tsunami and earthquake, and you’ve got a lot of money being thrown into new tours for tourists.

Of course, someone has to go on the “trial” tour and provide feedback, namely, a questionnaire at the end. Of course, Calle and I were more than happy to be the test subjects. Especially when we got a three-day tour, all transport and accommodation (farm-stay and top-quality ryokan) for a mere 10,000円 (that was about £85 at the time, currently £76.60). Whatever the conversion, the tour was practically free.

Lunch: rice, pickles, stewed veg, tempura, miso soup.

The tour got off to a good start when we were informed that we would be eating in a very good quality restaurant in central Tanabe. Not the fanciest of lunches, because we wouldn’t have time. But it was more than substantial. Tempura, stewed vegetables, rice, soup and pickles. Although tempura is, by its nature, deep-fried and battered, the quality was really evident – the flavours of the vegetables and shrimp stood out, and the batter was crisp and non-greasy. I’m making myself hungry just thinking about it.

Tempura. Those shrimps were fantastic!
Veg, egg and “fish cake” stewed in an awfully bitter sauce. I was not a fan but it looks pretty.

Our evening meal was with with a Japanese family – the “farm-stay” part of the tour. Dinner consisted of yet more tempura (you can definitely have too much of it – in fact, you get sick of it very quickly!) but also these amazing rice cakes. The rice has spinach and some other kind of leaf in it. It’s topped with grated egg and minced chicken / salmon. Intriguing and more tasty than it sounds.

Chicken rice cake

We also got given some chicken and shrimp sushi (due to a misunderstanding of Calle’s “vegetarianism”. Chicken and shrimp is OK, right?!)

Egg and shrimp sushi and minced chicken sushi

But I want to particularly commend my host mother on the breakfast. I’ve always been a breakfast person. Within half an hour of waking, I’m ready to turn to cannibalism unless someone feeds me quickly. I can pretty much eat anything in the morning. Fortunately, my host mother was a woman who understood my desperate needs and prepared a feast, including freshly baked bread and the most delicious pumpkin soup.

Pumpkin soup – warming and delicious!

Next up…dieters, get excited by the best diet food in the world – こんにゃく (konnyaku). It’s a gelatinous substance made from the corm (fleshy, potato-like bulb) of a potato-like plant. Virtually tasteless, it’s about 97% water but incredibly filling, making it a great diet food. Of course, your body may also be nutrition-starved…

Konnyaku with a miso sauce

Check out the other delights:

Crisp, fresh salad
Rice wrapped in cabbage – surprisingly good!
I’m not a tea drinker but I loved this!

Finally, the ryokan. 

Reception area

Fujiya Ryokan is a luxurious ryokan with an outdoor bath and two indoor baths (and ping-pong that cost 250円 per 30 mins – rip-off!) It’s located almost opposite the Kawayu Onsen, a natural wonder where 73degC spring water flows into the river and is cooled to ~40degC, making it bearable enjoyable to humans. We could glimpse this wondrous bathing area from our bedroom window but sadly, by day, it looks a little like a gravel pit. At night, however, it was very relaxing to sit in it and gaze up at the trees and moon.

Kawayu Onsen

Our room was a perfect example of interior design – minimalist and simplistic. I find the style too sterile for my liking – although I feel it works very well in a hotel context.

Our room
Calle is Guardian of the Window

Plus we arrived to a snack and hot tea. And we got to wear Japanese bathrobes!

Tea and snacks! The snacks were a sweet rice puff bar with some kind of dried fruit – sounds naff, but they were really addictive!
Well, this is a fetching ensemble! (Yes, I know the shoes shouldn’t be on the tatami!)

Of course, the most important aspect of our stay was the food. Now please don’t judge me too harshly. But I didn’t get the fish dinner, I got beef. I love beef (gyuniku in Japanese). I love gyuniku so much that an unfortunate essay on “My favourite things” in beginners Japanese class earned me the nickname “Gyuniku Girl”.

To my delight, this is what greeted me when I took my place at the dinner table.

Look at that beef! And the beautified mushroom.

This is prime quality beef, as can be seen from the beautiful fat marbling. The Japanese really understand the need for fat in the meat to infuse it with taste, whereas people in the UK seem to commonly make the mistake in trying to find the leanest joint.

I had to quickly boil the beautiful beef and the accompanying vegetables and dip them in a soy-based sauce. The method supposed to emphasise  the natural and delicate flavours of the ingredients, which I am all for – I wouldn’t want anything strong to mask the taste of the beef. But couldn’t everything have been boiled in some kind of broth? Surely salt in the water is a basic necessity? As a result of this minimalism, I was a little bit sad as the potential of the beef wasn’t realised.

Fortunately though, I was also served this:

“Roast beef”

Have a look at the other delights we got served:

One large shrimp
Home-made udon – delish!
More konnyaku – this time with wasabi
The obligatory pickles to go with the rice. Includes an umeboshi – pickled plum, a speciality of the Wakayama prefecture.
Aubergine gratin – the only fail of the evening. Cheese isn’t common in Japan. Being able to cook well with it is even less common.
I’m allergic to strawberries 😦
What would be considered cheap sponge cake in the UK but is apparently luxurious in Japan. Cake blog post coming soon…

At breakfast, it really was fortunate that I could eat anything at any time in the morning.

Strong, bitter, green vegetables with fish flakes
More pickles
Tofu *sigh*
Mushrooms with sesame
Baked egg with broccoli

Overall, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the ryokan experience. I’m not someone who likes relaxing. And I don’t like lounging around in baths. Hot springs normally make me feel very faint. But with careful “heat management”, good company and good food, I could easily go again. In fact, the plans are currently being made…

Author: Phoebe Amoroso

Phoebe Amoroso is a Tokyo-based reporter, multimedia journalist and storyteller. Hailing from the UK, she moved to Japan in 2014 and has since been shouting about the country to all who will listen. She divides her time between covering breaking news and producing feature stories for TV; writing about everything from business and tech to food and travel; and guiding hungry visitors who want to sample the best of Japanese cuisine. When not working and/or eating, she can often be found running up a mountain or cycling by the sea.

5 thoughts on “Japanese Food – The High Quality Stuff!”

    1. Sorry Heather, it was a one-off! 😦 I’ll let you know if any amazing offers come up again!

      http://whynotjapan.com/ run quite cheap weekend trips for people based in Kansai. I haven’t been on one and I’m a little reticent because they emphasise the “All You Can Drink PARTY!!!!!” which really isn’t my kind of scene….but the canyoning in Tokushima trip in May sounds like fun!

      Where are you living?

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