Friday, May 29, 2009

Japan Travelogue - Hailing from the Land of Instant Noodles

Remember my previous post on the first impressions of Japan? Those were some of the very new things that I have come to realized about the country - and refreshingly so. The next pressing concern upon touching down, other then lodging and accomodation? It's obviously food. Granted, there are already plenty of options when it comes to Japanese food here in Singapore, but there's nothing like having a first-hand experience of them in their own land is it? Tempted? Read on to whet your buds even more! ;)

The very first oddity that dawned upon me is the general absence of food courts, something that has been so commonplace to me. Rather, there was an abundance of food outlets, scattered all over the place. If you want something more posh, of course there are plenty of restaurants for you to choose from too - but be prepared to get your pocket burned. A plate of assorted sushi, containing six to eight pieces of them, already cost something in the range of $25. Even the 'normal' meals don't come cheap, with prices in the range of 450 to 650 yen ($7 to $10) being the norm, such as the bowl of ramen below:

A bowl of spicy ramen

Noodles and rice make up the bulk of Japanese cuisines. For the noodles, apart from ramen, there are soba (a brownish type of noodle that resembles the local yee mian) and u-don (thick, white noodles) for you to choose from. Not a fan of noodles? You can try out their rice too, as shown in the picture below:

Typical combo set

The main attributes of Japanese rice lie in their texture and size - first of all, the grains are generally more 'plump' but shorter; also, they appear to be more sticky than the rice I have been used to, such as the Royal Umbrella brand. Being stickier also allows it to be made into convenient dumpling-like meals, such as the onigiri:

Japanese bakzhang!

It's always handy to have a couple of these in your bag, especially during those seemingly never-ending Shinkansen rides. Two is enough to satiate your hunger, while having more is fine too - if you can take it. These 'bakzhangs' come in a variety of flavor, and the main ingredients are seaweed, rice and the core - which can be anything from salmon to mayonnaise tuna. And an additional plus to these 'bakzhangs' are its price - with everything else so pricey, having a couple of them at approximately 100 to 130 yen (~$2) seem like a catch!

Other than the onigiri, another type of food that might come in handy would be the bento, which is equivalent to the mixed vegetable rice locally. These bentos don't come cheap either, with prices ranging from about 400 yen to 750 yen normally. And an additional downside is, you can't customize your own dish - so you may need to depend on your luck in coming across one that you like. If you do, it is usually a wholesome and balanced meal:

Munching on one during rush hour

Being in Japan, it was almost an imperative to try out sushi, which I did on one of the days in the later part of my travels. As the conventional ones were too expensive, we had to do some leg work to land our butts in a sushi bar - the conveyor-belt type. The sushi there were much more afforable at 105 yen each and came in large varieties. Me and my friends gobbled down at the plates like hungry wolves and in the end, each of us finished about six to seven plates - and the total cost was still at an affordable $10-ish. However, sorry for the absence of pictures! Guess we were too engrossed then. Heh. :p

I bet you must be a bit tempted to try them out yourselves? Oooh wait. I think I forgot about something. What is it? That's right! The instant noodles! How can I not talk about them when Japan is, technically, the land of instant noodles? After all, these handy little stuff was invented by a Japanese guy back in the 1950s (I think) for convenience sake and it became such a blast later on. As with other food, their instant noodles are quite pricey too - selling at about 200 to 300 yen ($3 to approximately $5) per bowl. However, there is no reason not to try them, for all their flavors looked so foreign to me! None of the locally available flavors are sold there - there is just no overlap between the two. Rather, the flavors available for selection are very Japanese-based: salted chicken, milky pork flavor, dry noodles with soy sauce, etc. And it sure felt different when one is staying in a Japanese inn-typed hotel, slurping away at the noodles while donned in traditional Japanese robes and sitting on the tatami - very authentic Japanese feeling.

All in all, it's rather easy looking for food in Japan, provided that you are amply loaded and have some legs - 'cos the primary downside is, you have got to walk a bit if you want things on the cheaper end - and the maps are pretty bad in the sense that, only major buildings and road names are shown. Besides, there is an abundance of convenience stores located throughout Japan - and you would come to familiarize with them, such as the Family Mart links. There's also a wide selection of foodstuffs in their supermarkets, and you will find yourself dragging loads and loads of shopping bags home, if you do know where to go.

Of course, the genres of food don't end here - there are more of them, such as the grilled meat, herbal soups and such - but for the lack of time, I did not get to try them. But no worries! For the shortage in food, the load of cultural immersion and brushes with danger more than make up for this regret - and I'll show you why and how.

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