Monday, July 19, 2010

Umami Japan: Sushi First

Mysterious, simple and delicious. For me, one of the most exciting and anticipated joys of traveling to Japan. The variety is expansive and every trip introduces me to something new because of the regional specialties found during excursions throughout the country.

However, the food Japan is most famous for is, Sushi. So I will start there. Whenever I mention that I travel often to Japan one popular question I am asked is, “Do you eat a lot of sushi?” The answer is, no. Now, I love sushi and, sushi in Japan is so delicious that I’ve all but stopped eating sushi in America but, at the end of each trip, on the long bus ride to the airport, I usually think back to the food I’ve eaten and always remark that I only ate sushi, as a meal, once. As a result I usually eat sushi in the airport before heading home.

I’ve eaten sushi a number of times as part of a meal but, there was always food other than sushi that was the focus of the meal. Many Japanese meals begin with sashimi, raw fish without the rice, and often have a second course that includes a few pieces of sushi. Then the main portion of the meal is served.

My point here is that when you go to Japan you are not forced to eat sushi at every meal because of a lack of choice but, if you want to it is generally available.

Of course there are sushi-only restaurants available. One of the most popular styles is called the Kaiten sushi. You may have seen them here in America, they are the ones were various plates of sushi are riding on a conveyor belt around the restaurant and the customers help themselves to the plates as they go by. The plates are color-coded based on price and when you are finished your meal you signal for the waiter who totals up the stack of plates in front of you and hands you your bill.

The first time I saw something like this was in San Francisco and the conveyor was a slowly flowing moat and the plates of sushi were placed on little boats.

Some of the Kaiten sushi restaurants in Japan are very high tech. Each color-coded plate has a transmitter or barcode on it and the waiter scans the stack of plates in one smooth downward motion and the total shows up on his little screen. He then prints you out a ticket and you go and pay. The total is all you pay because in Japan there is no tipping. How civilized is that.

The sushi is good and the experience is kind of liberating in a way. You watch the food go by and choose what you would like. If you change your mind about wanting the horse mackerel sushi, you just have to wait a minute or so and another plate will glide by. You are free of making the wrong choice because you are always deciding and you don’t have to feel guilty because you can’t decide right now on what you want to eat while a waiter impatiently awaits your decision.

On a trip in January of 2009 my son and my friend from the Keio Plaza Hotel were going on a day trip to Mito, which is on the Pacific Coast, north of Tokyo in Ibaraki Prefecture. We were going to visit the Kairakuen garden that had been constructed by the Mito branch of the Tokugawa family which ruled Japan as the Shogunate for over 250 years. A fellow employee of my friend grew up in Mito and suggested that we take a side trip for lunch to the small fishing village of Nakaminato, a 5 minute trolley ride.

A historical note: My friend’s fellow employee’s family had been in the service of the Mito Daimyo (Lord) during the Edo period from 1603 to 1858. Around 1635 the Shogun created a policy called, Sankin Kotai. This was a policy of, Alternate Year Attendance, in which all Daimyo in Japan had to live in Edo (Tokyo) one year and were allowed to go back to their home province the next. The daimyo’s wife and some members of his family were not allowed to return and were therefore prisoners.

The purpose for the policy was two fold. First, it cost a lot of money to travel each year from Tokyo to the daimyo’s home province so they didn’t have enough money to strengthen their armies. Secondly, they remained loyal so that nothing happened to the family they left behind.

My friend’s ancestors were artisans who traveled with the Mito daimyo to and from Edo and he remembered his grandparents telling stories of other older relatives making these trips. I was thrilled to come this close to a history that I had so often read about.

Back to Nakaminato where we hunted for a specific restaurant where my historically connected friend recommended that we eat lunch. We missed it the first time we walked by it and so my friend asked a fisherman (he was wearing the white rubber boots that the fisherman wear) standing on the street where the restaurant was located. We had been told to eat on the second floor of the restaurant because the sushi was better on the second floor so my friend asked the fisherman about that as well. The fisherman pointed behind us to a bright yellow building to indicate the restaurant and then pulled out his cell phone to call the restaurant. He asked the restaurant if the food was better on the second floor to which he was asked, “It’s the same food, so how could it be better on the second floor?” Makes sense to me.

The restaurant served sushi Kaiten style and the sushi was exceptional because it was very fresh. When we left we noticed that the back side of the building was a large fish market and we knew that the fish was as fresh as it gets.

If you're looking for an interesting day trip I would recommend going to Mito to see the famous garden. It is considered one of the three best examples of Japanese gardens in Japan. The side trip to Nakaminato for lunch and a visit to the fish market are also worth the trouble.

For the freshest set-menu sushi experience the best location is the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. It is famous for being the largest fish market in the world and one of the tourist stops that are listed as a ‘must see’. Here’s what could be a bit of a deterrent for some people; the best time to see the market is very early in the morning and the best and freshest sushi is also served at that time, so you have to get your head around eating sushi for breakfast. Common in Japan but not so much for us westerners, especially when, I believe and recommend, you must drink sake with the sushi.

There are numerous restaurants in the area. The best ones, I think, are right up adjacent to the market. The market is just around the corner from the Tsukijishima subway station on the Toei Oedo line and as you walk into the market there are a group of small kiosks and restaurants to the left. These small restaurants have 5 or 6 seats and usually have a lineup outside. My son and I have gone to the same restaurant both times and know it by sight, not by name. They have a set-menu and we usually go after we have walked through the main fish market and looked at all the various species of fish.

It is the freshest sushi I have eaten and the atmosphere of being right next to the market in these old and partially rundown buildings is hard to match. My girlfriend and I went a little later in the day on one trip and, although you don’t get to see as much activity in the fish market, the sushi is still the best, even as late as noon.

One thing you will notice is that wasabi is not provided on the side of your plate. This is because part of the chef’s skill is the application of what he believes to be the right amount of wasabi between the rice and the fish. Asking for more wasabi is like saying you think the chef is wrong. I knew this before my first trip to Japan so I haven’t ever made that mistake and I advise anyone not to make it either.

Now an update: I still haven’t confirmed my apartment. We are still playing a waiting game because the rental agency wants me to take the place 9 days earlier than I arrive. We’ll try them again this week.

The apartments in Japan all come with internet access which is becoming more important to me each day. I am about to enter into a publicity campaign for my novel, A Wind In Montana. Blogging, Facebooking and interviews are all going to have to take place via email or Skype. It’s nice that the technology to be anywhere to conduct business is so readily available and accepted. Time zones will surely come into play.

Another consideration on the packing front has come up. Usually my trips are for a week or two and if I charge up all of my rechargeable items before I go, they last for the entire trip. This time I have to take all my charging units which will take up more space in the suitcase.

More about food in future posts. I felt that sushi needed some exclusivity.

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