A Travellerspoint blog

Nara, Japan

Heading out early in the morning, we made our way to the next subway station over. The rail pass we had chosen was for the Kintetsu Group and for only $38 we could use their rail system for 5 days. Much cheaper than the vaunted JR rail pass. However, we found that the Kinsetsu groups train lines did not really connect well and to avoid a two hour detour we needed to jump on a JR train anyway for a couple of stops to get to the next Kintetsu station. Really it is the worst public transportation system we have encountered with its myriad layers of public and private rail companies in addition to its starkly different passes.

Nara was the capitol of Japan before Kyoto and boasts as many sights as its more famous neighbor. However, many tourists overlook it in favor of the larger cities.

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What they are missing out on are the herds of deer that are allowed to wander the streets harassing the tourists for biscuits. This seemed to be the most famous food item the city had to offer and tasted much like a burnt pancake.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 07:15 Comments (0)

Osaka, Japan

Osaka is known as the city of eating til you drop. Many different dishes that have since spread over all of Japan, have their origin here. Kaitenzushi (conveyer belt sushi), shabu shabu (see Kumamoto entry), Omurice (omelette wrapped rice), kitsune udon (noodles with fried tofu), takoyaki (octopus balls) and okinomiyaki (cabbage cake) just to name a few. The city itself is glitzy but oddly most of it shuts down by 8pm, since even in the summer it gets dark around 7pm.

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We also added a person to our traveling party, my wife. She will be joining us for our last two weeks on the trip while we are in the comfort of a developed country.

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There was one major food left to try that is difficult to acquire in the US: blowfish. If prepared incorrectly all of the meat can become toxic and paralyze you. If untreated this can lead to death. However, in Japan only licensed chefs can prepare the fish and the chances are quite small that anything will happen. I ordered raw blowfish with a citrus soy sauce. The flavor is light, sweet and a little chewy. It reminds me of halibut. Overall quite good but expensive like the rest of Japan.

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Takoyaki is diced octopus cooked into a crepe batter. This is done in special pans that result in a ball. This is covered in a sweet teriyaki like sauce and mayonnaise. They also add dried fish flakes, which can be good but the lady gave us fistfuls of it. After removing the layers of fish flakes the balls themselves are soft and gooey with the octopus giving some texture.

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Okonomiyaki is cabbage, egg, flour and whatever else you want. The name literally means "as you prefer". Various types of meat and vegetables, noodles, fried eggs, cheese and pretty much anything else can go in it. The servers prepare it for you and you sit there smelling the dish come together. First one side is grilled, then they add noodles if you ordered them. Then they flipp it over and grill the other side. If you ordered cheese and egg they cook this separately and then place the okonomiyaki on top of it before flipping it again. This causes the cheese to melt into the dish itself while still having that pan fried flavor. Finally, Japanese mayo (creamier than American style) add a sweet sauce is ladled onto it. Once this is done the dish is ready to eat. The flavors and textures meld together well and it is not as heavy as it looks being mostly cabbage. Adding the noodles is good as they crisp up a bit one side. Obviously the pan fried cheese on top is also a great choice and I regret not getting it on mine.

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We also stopped by a sushi place to enjoy some fresh fish. There are some cuts and species that are expensive or prohibited in America. Stacey had o-toro, or tuna belly meat. This is soft and melts in your mouth like butter. We also had a slice of a whale's tail. This is the second time I have eaten whale and it still reminds me of the darker cuts of tuna. The establishment was similar to the ones back home but had electronic menus to order whatever you like. It would then alert you when the plates got close. The bad part is you would see all of this delicious food go by but they are reserved for other people.

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Since our anniversary was recent (and I missed it due to the trip), Stacey and I splurged on a all you can eat BBQ restaurant. For $25 you have two hours to eat all you want of 18 different cuts of meat. Stacey was done after 45 minutes but I went the length. The skirt steak was the best, soft and meaty, and the beef heart was a surprise winner. Thinly sliced it was similar to liver but without the heavy iron flavor. Ben went to a similar restaurant that served all you can eat shabu shabu and Häagen Daz ice cream.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 17:49 Comments (0)

Beppu, Japan

We missed the direct bus from Kumamoto to our next stop but we headed to the nearby town of Oita and grabbed a local tram to our destination of Beppu. This small town is known for its hot springs, both to soak in and ones that are known as the Beppu Hells. Within the surrounding areas there are several famous ones and here are a selection of a few.

Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell)
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Oniishi Bozu Jigoku (Shaved Head Hell, named for the resemblance of a monk's bald head and the bubbles)
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Yama Jigoku (Mountain Hell)
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Kamado Jigoku
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Oniyama Jigoku (Reptile Hell)
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Chinoike Jigoku (Blood Hell)
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Beppu is known for toriten (chicken tempura) and for various vegetables, eggs and puddings steamed/boiled in the various hot springs in the area. Toriten has a thinner batter than normal fried chicken that results in a crunchy exterior while still retaining its juicy interior. The meat overseas is much different than back home. In America, most livestock is bred to have minimal fat which significantly reduces the taste. When cooking these "low fat" animals, it is much harder to guarantee a moist product. As for the steamed dishes, they end up with a slightly sulferous taste except for the puddings which do not taste any different than one cooked normally.

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We also at a conveyer belt sushi restaurant that had a electronic menu that you ordered through and a small train would deliver it directly to your table. No waiting for your favorites to come out and always freshly made.

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In the evening we boarded the overnight ferry to Osaka. Similar to the Busan-Fukuoka ferry, we shared a room with several others while sleeping on the floor. At least this one had free WiFi and a vending machine that dispensed hot food. Unfortunately, the containers were rather flimsy and the contents scalding.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 07:02 Comments (0)

Kumamoto, Japan

Japan is a weird blend of the ultra modern and the 1980's. One second you are having your sushi delivered directly to your table by an automated miniature train and the next your stumbling along a series of small antiquated trolleys, trying to find a single sign in English and how to pay for the train you just took. Apparently, you need to know how much the fare is first, then you go to a kiosk and pay for a receipt for that much. You can't just go to the kiosk and put in Aso to Kumamoto and get a ticket. Even so, we met a nice Japanese man who showed us the way and we made it to one of the nicest hostels we have stayed in. It was $28 and our only choice in the city. You could even purchase toiletries out of gashapon machines.

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The main thing on our list to eat was horse. A local specialty, it is mainly served as sashimi or raw slices. While I was up for that I really wanted shabu shabu. This is a metal pot, filled with boiling water, that you cook your vegetables and thinly sliced meat in and then dip them in a sesame sauce or a citrus soy sauce. Unfortunately, my Japanese is terrible and while I can read the kanji for horse, we couldn't find shabu shabu. All of the waiters on the streets trying to pull customers into their shops would almost run away when they saw we were white. After looking for over an hour, we settled for another local specialty; Kumamoto ramen. This is similar to Hakata ramen which uses a pork bone broth. The difference is the noodles are thicker and the broth a bit stronger. Ben opted for traditional, I went for the Ryu Chasui Ramen. This had slices of BBQ pork and a chili bean sauce. The broth was milky, a great sign that the flavor would be fully developed, and the pork was falling apart. While I could have actually ordered this, restaurant had a special foreign language menu that they immediately gave us. At least my Japanese is good enough to read that.

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In the morning we got a early start. We first headed off to Suizenji. This large garden and shrine was built in the 17th century and recreates the 53 post stations on the old road between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. It even has a miniature Mt. Fuji.

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After this , we headed to the major sight in town. Kumamoto castle was built at the very beginning of the Edo period and is considered one of the three greatest castle of Japan. Unfortunately, the upheavel at the end of the Edo period (late 19th century) saw the destruction of most of the castle. This is a reconstruction they have been working on since the 1960's.

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For lunch we finally found horse shabu shabu. The name literally means swish swish. The meat is so thin it only takes seconds to cook it. This horse is well marbled and succulent. Lacking the heavy beef taste it reminds me of veal. While the sesame sauce is creamy and works well with the vegetables it covers the subtle flavor of the horse. I much preferred the citrus, soy and fish sauce. Cools the meat down and gives it a nice acidic bite.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 00:45 Comments (0)

Aso, Japan

Our WWOOF host was nice enough to drive us to Mt. Aso area of Kumamoto prefecture and tour us around the caldera and mountains. First we stopped for lunch at a restuarant that makes its own tofu and we had it a variety of ways. Miso soup with tofu, tofu dipped in soy sauce and seasonings, fried tofu, vegetables in tofu paste and a salad made with a byproduct of the tofu making process. This last one was very interesting and reminded me of the texture of tuna salad but sweeter and, of course, no fish taste. Despite what people say, well made tofu does have its own flavor that can stand on its own like this meal shows.

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The terrain changes from the hills, valleys and forests of Oita prefecture to windswept, volcanic ridges that remind us of Hawi. Within one of the largest calderas in the world are five volcanic peaks that make up the Mt. Aso geological zone. Unfortunately, there is to much poisonous smoke to go up to the lip of the crater.

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From here we went to White Dragon Temple. This shrine houses two snakes; one golden and one pure white. In Japan, snakes are a sign of that brings wealth.

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At this point we are dropped off at this quaint train station. Small and unstaffed, it is
quintessential rural Japan. There is even a hotspring located in the same building. Here we say our final goodbyes to the Isayamas and head towards Kumamoto.

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Posted by CulinarySojourn 15:43 Comments (0)

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