You may be wondering why I am clutching a giant maki roll to my face. Today is setsubun, which literally means ‘season division’ in Japanese. It’s a crazy and fun celebration where everyone gets to throw beans at demons. And it has some rather amusing food-related rituals.
Which way is West-South-West?
A demon found his way into the classroom…
Want to know why there is a picture of some sushi and a compass? Watch below…
I am becoming domestic. I may be typing this in a hotel room with wet jeans hanging off the bath and knickers dangling from door handles, but I like to think that I’m entering a new era in my life. I am on a Daiwa Scholarship to become fluent in Japanese so I can become the ultimate writer and culture journalist, bringing you all the latest awesomeness from Japan, and Asia more generally. This is the biggest commitment I’ve made to a career path so far. Not only is the programme a whole 19 months of my life, but I intend to stay for longer to attain the highest Japanese language level JLPT 1.
With such long term ambitions to stay in Japan, finding and furnishing a flat that feels like home is important. No more Poundland – or, rather, no more 100 Yen shop. I don’t want to camp. I’m in my mid-twenties. My home should surely have a little style and charm to it.
Then why was I a little alarmed that I jumped with excitement on entering a furniture store?!
Last weekend, one of our sempai (previous Daiwa Scholars) kindly took us on a house furnishing trip. As this clearly is a chore, the adventure naturally had to begin with a meal to fuel our energy levels and moods for tackling furniture. We ended up at Daikonman again (which I reviewed here), tucking into okonimiyaki. I can confirm that putting avocado and shrimp into the pancake mix is a VERY good idea.
Their yakisoba (fried noodles) with mixed seafood also looked pretty yummy.
Sated we stopped by a second hand store in Shimokitazawa in which we met this fine and gentlemanly polar bear (I’m not sure about his wife though). I also bought a floor length lime green mirror for 1080 yen – bargain! The Japanese don’t tend to like buying second hand so prices can be great.
Then we set off to Nitori, which is the Japanese equivalent of Ikea. They market themselves slightly differently though – it’s all about “total coordination”:
It’s a little trek out from the centre of Tokyo, and it took us two trains and a taxi to make it there. On arriving, I felt overwhelmed. There were so many choices. Did I want a bed or a futon? Traditionally, Japanese dwellings are furnished with tatami mats as flooring, which are similar to straw mats and have some give to them. This makes sleeping on a futon on the floor not as unforgiving on one’s back as one might expect. However, the majority of buildings now have wooden floors, particularly in an area like Tokyo which evolves at lightning speed. But what if you hanker after the traditional, despite your modern surrounds? I present to you this hybrid: the tatami bed!
A key difference between Japanese homes and UK homes is the lack of insulation and central heating in the former. Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating and I do not mean “poor insulation and central heating”. I mean “There is no insulation and central heating and you risk losing your nipples to frostbite in the winter!” The windows are single-glazed. I wish I were joking when I tell you that I bubble wrapped my windows on the advice of my neighbour when I was living in Kyoto. And that I’m not the only one – check this article out.
One of the ways that the Japanese stay warm is through using a kotatsu. This is a low table with a heater underneath and a blanket which covers your legs. We found a very fancy one in Nitori. But I stubbornly refuse to see the comfort in warm knees and a freezing top half. As someone with asthma, a myriad of allergies and all-round pathetic immune system, breathing very cold air makes me ill. So there will be no kotatsu in my flat, just a very large electricity bill.
After wandering the aisles in a furniture-induced tranced for an hour or more, I eventually managed to pick a futon set, bedding, towels and basic kitchen equipment. Almost everything I bought was green: I believe that the second-hand mirror purchased earlier must have had an influence.
It was a major relief to learn that Nitori has a reasonably priced home delivery service, where you can specify the exact time on the exact day – unlike England, where sometimes you might wait in for the whole day in the hope that your item appears (no guarantee). I am getting my futon delivered by 8pm on the day I spend my first night in my flat. Let’s pray their service is excellent or it may be a very miserable first night.
After any shopping trip, a gastronomic celebration is obligatory. So what better way to reflect on our furnishing achievements than having sushi delivered to us on a train?!!!!! In this busy restaurant in Shibuya, everyone has their own touch screen menu and, within five minutes or less, your chosen dish will zoom along the tracks and stop in front of you. It delighted me so much that I can only imagine my fascination as a child. Watch the video below. For the record, I’m not stalking the blonde women – I just don’t have a clue how to use my camera:
Yet super-fast train sushi was not enough for us. What better way to finish the day than to whizz up to the 15th floor and look out over Tokyo, whilst sipping a yuzu and ginger cocktail?
We then raced to get to an ice-cream parlour before it closed, admiring donuts en route – and fortunately found that the parlour was closed because we may have been getting a little carried away.
It was when I was waddling back late, full of food, pondering all the ridiculous events that I had lined up for the following day, contemplating booking a flight to Hanoi, that I came to the conclusion that “wants nice furnished flat” could definitely be compatible with “not grown up yet.”
And so I pay tribute to my parents, who have told me many times:
Don’t ever worry about growing up. We’re still waiting.
I’ve had several requests and so here it is… I present to you the return of the Pheebz in Japan blog, added as a new category to Pheebz Eatz (because occasionally I do things other than eat, rare though that is… And to reassure you, there are lots of food pics and info below). I am lucky enough to have been awarded a Daiwa Scholarship and so I will be spending the next 19 months studying and working in Japan.
My arrival in Japan didn’t go quite as smoothly as I had hoped. I travel a lot and seem to be searched more often than not. Today’s searching was on the UK side, however, as security told me my pots of jewellery in my rucksack were too dense to show up on the Xray, which led to the tedious incident of tiny pots of (junk) jewellery being opened and examined with care. On arriving in Dubai over the summer, security saw fit to pull me aside and search my belongings (presumably for drugs), which entailed waving my knickers in the air. I wish I were joking.
Originally published under my alias Queen Spatula on Tryum.com. Check out the site for more great foodie recommendations.
If, given the Christmas splurge, you’re hardly feeling flush for cash this January, it can be highly inconvenient to find yourself in central London and in desperate need of lunch. Such a situation can also ruin any new year resolutions you’ve made on healthy eating.
Let’s consider the following dilemma. You only have £6.90 to spend on lunch. You could get a burrito and screw the health repercussions. Or you could get a take-out salad and a juice. You may feel saintly but your stomach will likely be despondent within a half an hour, and the chances are that some pre-packed lettuce really didn’t excite your taste-buds.
Or how about option three: you could go to Dozo, get a delicious Japanese set lunch and feel absolutely amazing. This comes with the added bonus of getting to smugly gloat at any passer-bys with supermarket sandwiches.
Wedged next to Soho’s famous G-A-Y club, Dozo has a modest store front but a surprisingly authentic interior. It’s beautifully decorated – a large koi (carp) adorns the walls and low-set tables with a dropped floor replicate dining arrangements common in Japan. It’s a little dim inside but it’s an oasis of calm in one of London’s busiest districts.
Of course, you can’t see its exquisite décor from the outside. What is really going to draw you in is the following sign:
A lunch set for £6.90? Really?
Some scepticism is perfectly understandable. That is until you’re presented with a beef teriyaki bento with perfectly cooked rice, two sets of pickles, a side salad and some miso soup. The teriyaki sauce is fantastic – full of great umami flavour and steering on the right side of sweet – and the salad is fresh with a great tangy dressing. What’s more, if you have penchant for drinking the sauce – and who would blame you when it tastes this good – the waiting staff will take pity on you and provide you with a spoon 😉
There’s a whole lot more than teriyaki dishes in the 12 – 3pm offer: crunch on some prawn and vegetable tempura, tuck into tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet), slurp through some ramen or dine on some sushi. Again – any of these for £6.90.
So my sound advice to you is… go and strand yourself in central London immediately and wait for lunchtime. Dozo will leave you with a happy and healthy body and wallet.
I’ve been a little quiet on here recently due to working a lot, a visit to Taipei (post coming soon), starting a new job and entertaining a friend from the UK. Gomennasai.
Last week was crazy on several levels. It was an “only in Japan” week. Imagine accidentally ending up at an exclusive yacht party…
As most weeks do, my week began on Monday – in fact, painfully early on Monday as I was still in Taipei. Calle and I caught the 4:30am bus to Taoyuan Airport, took our wonderful 6:55am flight and arrived in Japan a little before 11am. Needless to say I was shattered. I travelled in a zombie-like state in the train, mindlessly playing Angry Birds on Calle’s Iphone (I’m a bit slow on the craze but I have no desire to visit the theme park).
By the time, I had made it back to Kyoto, I had less than an hour until I had to go back to Osaka for my last day at an elementary school. This was one of my jobs where I was paid just to play with children in English. As a result, I have had to develop non-existent football skills and I’ve had to (re)learn to run fast. Because when playing tag, I am always the tagger. Cries of “Phoebe-sensei wa onii!” still echo in my ears.
On my arrival, I was surprised to find a leaving party had been organised. A little manga version of myself adorned the wall and I was presented with a beautiful leaving card, “signed” by all the children and adorned with photos of our time together.
I was really quite moved by the presentation. The children said they wanted to dance. They had been practising, I was told.
Given the level of organisation so far, my expectations were fairly high. Then the kids shoved on a Halloween CD. A happy American voice boomed out “time for Halloween!” Some kids proceeded to wobble and a few kids just stood, twitching their arms and laughing. Then the animal masks came out.
So with a Halloween party track echoing in the room, I proceeded to watch a trippy display of a dancing lion and elephant and some kids rolling about on the floor.
Then one boy demanded a change of music, ripped off his jumper, revealing half his body in the process, and attempted to breakdance by spinning round and round on his back.
This was all highly entertaining. The last time we had a party event, the kids ate salty crackers with a mixture of tuna-mayo sauce from a squirty bottle, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I had to participate and the bizarre combinations still turn my stomach.
Tired as I was, I returned to Kyoto in a party mood and I was looking forward to a boat party on Lake Biwa on Friday. My landlord, an incredibly fit 82-year old, had invited us to this “boat party”. It all sounded run and rather informal. We’ll be drinking he told us. I envisioned a small boat with a few retired people, sipping sake and playing go or hanafuda, or some other traditional games.
I was wrong.
Warning sign #1) When we turned up at my landlord’s house, he and his wife were dressed very smartly indeed.
Warning sign #2) Conversation en route: “I was the president of the Biwako Yacht Club. Tonight is a party for 130 years.”
Our landlord was greeted with great deference as we approached two rather swanky-looking yachts.
We were played on board by a band of three gaijin (foreigners) and I waved very happily to the clown, who had a massive balloon hat…which I subseuqently managed to wear.
The phrase “sticking out like a sore thumb” comes to mind. Not only were we the most casually dressed, but aside from the musicians and a professor from New Zealand, we were the only foreigners around. I noticed eyes slide towards and casually flicker elsewhere as if they weren’t looking really. But I didn’t need to fix my smile. I was already far too excited by everything and ran around pointing and photographing everything.
And Pheebz Eatz. So eat I did.
There was no buffet; there was a banquet. At least four rooms across the boat were filled with food. Every kind of meat was laid out in mouthwatering mountains. It was definitely a statement: the vast quantity of meat and relative small amount of fish proved that the Biwako Yacht Club has money to throw about. The food was exquisite.
And by now, you probably realise I love beef. So this was practically erotic for me.
They also had plenty of desserts, including a divine chocolate fountain and these super-cute cones, filled with cream and topped with a raspberry and blueberry.
The evening ended with fireworks and a bizarre conversation with a retired salary man, which resulted in a Frapanese – a mix of French and Japanese. It was wonderful – not only was I able to communicate with someone but I could practise two languages at once.
Of course, it was also wonderful because I was at the most exclusive party in town. And I was full of beef.
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.
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.
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.
We also got given some chicken and shrimp sushi (due to a misunderstanding of Calle’s “vegetarianism”. Chicken and shrimp is OK, right?!)
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.
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…
Check out the other delights:
Finally, the ryokan.
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.
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.
Plus we arrived to a snack and hot tea. And we got to wear Japanese bathrobes!
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.
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:
Have a look at the other delights we got served:
At breakfast, it really was fortunate that I could eat anything at any time in the morning.
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…
The place: Zawatami
The food: standard izakaya fare, such as grilled chicken on sticks, tofu, salads, chips, various fried foods
Whilst studying at Nihon University in 2010, Calle and I made a very good friend called Tom, who is studying for a PhD in Buddhist philosophy. Happily for us, his research brought him to Kyoto, and, in honour of his visit, I decided to rally the crew for an izakaya outing. Being uninspired, Zawatami was suggested as a chain izakaya, which would suit everyone’s budget and be able to sit a large party size.
Zawatami is the kind of place which justifies chain-snobbery. Big, impersonal and serving cheap food that tastes cheap. When I eat out, I want an eating experience that is indelible on my brain, burning a hole until I visit it again. I might have forgotten all about Zawatami should I not pass it on a fairly frequent basis.
I’m writing about it, however, because it gives another a good insight into the kind of dishes served at izakaya, drinking places which serve food tapas-style. I really appreciate this kind of eating because I relish variety. Also, the dishes often have stronger flavours than the “delicate” flavours of traditional Japanese cuisine, because they’re designed to be consumed with alcohol. I like the stronger flavours. I don’t want tofu to taste of tofu, because tofu tastes of nothing. And I’ll take my bowl of chips over my bowl of rice any day!
I should also mention to all horse-lovers out there that raw horse meat (bashimi) is very common on the menu. Sorry.
Zawatami wasn’t terrible. The tuna and avocado salad nudges at the back of my brain. It’s a winning combination of flavours.
The giant plates of sashimi were devoured appreciatively by our party (but I always think, how far wrong can you go with raw fish in Japan? Of course, I’m excluding sushi conveyor belt places where the sushi sits sweltering, unrefrigerated for hours!)
And the chocolate sponge, filled with warm chocolate sauce, was good. Undoubtedly it was just brought out of the freezer, but it was very chocolately indeed.
Then I scrolled through my photo selection to discover…
…cheap, oily gyoza – Chinese pork dumplings (which are even more uninspiring on reflection, because I’ve just eaten delicious homemade gyoza in the past few days. And they were…VEGAN. Yes, I know – I’m still traumatised myself. Blog post coming soon!)
…and raw horse meat for Tom. Tom likes raw horse meat very much. To me, it tastes a little like steak, but I’ve never eaten raw steak so the comparison probably fails. I’m not big fan of raw meat – I prefer my food not to bleed onto my plate. I like my steak to be pink in the middle, but never bloody.
As for Zawatami, I wouldn’t have resented the food so much if it weren’t for the fact that I know I can get much, much better food for less money. I believe we paid over 3000円.
Unremarkable. Better, cheaper food can be found elsewhere, but Zawatami is good for accommodating large parties and everyone’s budgets and tastes.
Food quality 2/5 – Quite poor quality and poorly flavoured/seasoned.
Value for money 2/5 – Too expensive for the quality of the food we got.
Atmosphere 3/5 – Busy, but full of rowdy crowds that made conversations difficult. A very drink-centred atmosphere – this is a party place for the young. Plus the carpet was really gross.
Service 3/5 – Impersonal but prompt and efficient.
YO! Sushi* may have invaded the high streets of the UK but it’s no match for these gigantic roadside sushi stops that are peppered across Japan. A warehouse-sized room, at least 50m of conveyor belt and only 100円 a plate – it was no surprise this place was packed.
*YO! Sushi puzzles me. The food goes round and round looking far from appetising as bored-looking workers stand in the centre of the conveyor belt, clumsily shoving more sushi together. However, the name of it puzzles me more. It appears as if they decided that “Yo” sounded vaguely Japanese but by adding an exclamation mark, they could turn it black-rapper-gangster-style – an amazing two-in-one combination.