Take the Udon Tour

Take the Udon TourIt’s wintertime in Japan, so why not treat yourself to an “udon tsooa” (udon tour)! Udon, the thick, chewy Japanese noodles made from wheat flour, are a favorite winter food and it is not uncommon for the Japanese people to make a day of eating udon. These self guided tours are really just hopping from restaurant to restaurant eating bowl after bowl of udon.

The best place to go for an udon tour is on the island of Shikoku, the place in Japan for “sanuki udon” found only in Kagawa prefecture. Kagawa is said to have over 700 udon restaurants. Many small towns have clusters of noodle restaurants where you can walk from restaurant to restaurant. Go to any tourist area such as Kotorhira, the location of one of Japan’s most popular shrines, or to an onsen town, where hot springs abound, and you are bound to find many udon restaurants.

You don’t need to worry about spending too much money eating in udon restaurants, as a bowl of noodles in Shikoku is 350 to 400 yen. The noodles are served in earthenware bowls and you can choose from a few different udon types. A good one to start with is kake udon, which is the basic, simple udon, which you can then add ingredients to later such as tempura. Some udon shops may offer just two or three kinds of udon while others may offer even more options. One chain of restaurants offers a basic bowl of udon for 100 yen, and then each ingredient you add to it costs 100 yen. Top off your bowl of udon with condiments found on the table such as ginger, slices of green onion, or sesame.

While you will find the same basic offerings at each udon restaurant, each place makes udon with it’s own specially flavored broth. This is what keeps people hopping around from restaurant to restaurant, to discover new subtly different flavors. Many people make a day of eating udon, thus the name “udon tsooa” and eat up to 5 or more bowls over the course of a couple hours.

Japanese people think nothing of lining up outside their favorite udon restaurant to wait for a table, so if you want to find a good place, just look for the lines of people waiting to get in!


Sanuki Udon

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Fall is for Eating

Fall is for EatingThe Japanese are often said to be in tune with the seasons. But even more so, I’d say they’re in tune with the season’s food. Autumn is called the season for eating, since so many foods come into season then. If you are traveling in Japan in autumn, don’t miss the autumn delicacies! But you’ll need to know what they are so that you don’t miss out:

Crabs (kani)

Crabs are available throughout the year in Japan, but autumn is considered the best season for them, when they are at their most flavorful. Crab specials abound in specialty crab restaurants as well as in traditional Japanese restaurants. Try any place in Hokkaido, or on the Japan Sea coast in Honshu, and eat crabs as big as a dinner plate!


Mushrooms are also available any time of the year throughout Japan, but Matsutake mushrooms are a harbinger of autumn. The price of matsutake mushrooms is very high this year, but that somehow only serves to make them more exclusive. Hint: There are many varieties of mushrooms in Japan and they are all called by their specific names. Only westerners refer to them all as mushrooms! Matsutake are matsutake, not mushrooms.

Sweet Potato (satsumaimo)

Sweet potato is a very seasonal vegetable in Japan that only makes an appearance in autumn. Vendors sell yaki imo (charcoaled sweet potato on a stick) on the street from their trucks. If you see a yaki imo vendor, be sure to partake in this seasonal eating activity.

Chestnuts (kuri)

Boiled and roasted chestnuts can be found hot and ready to eat even in train stations in autumn. They are also served in a special rice dish called kuri gohan,  and in an amazing variety of sweets, which are referred to as marron, as in marron pie, marron cake,  etc.

Pacific saury or mackerel pike (sanma)

This grilled fish is served with salt and grated radish. You’ll usually be served the entire fish, along with its intestines. You’re in Japan in autumn—the season for eating. Go for it!

When you’re finished with your meal, clean your pallet with another autumn favorite: Nashi pears.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Finding the Perfect Ramen

Finding the Perfect RamenIf you’re looking for an eclectic proficiency in something Japanese, why not join the ranks of the ramen connoisseurs? Ramen noodles differ from region to region within Japan, making the hunt for the perfect ramen a fun, affordable activity to do while traveling around the country. At the same time, you’ll be getting a unique taste of the local culture.

Although ramen originally comes from China, the Japanese have made it their own by adding ingredients and changing the flavor of the broth. Japanese ramen connoisseurs are known to drive 4-6 hours to go to a well-known ramen shop. They can taste the difference between regional varieties of ramen, from Kyushu to Hokkaido. And so will you, if you make ramen hunting a part of your itinerary. And if you’re in Yokohama, the birthplace of ramen, don’t miss the ramen museum!

Becoming a ramen connoisseur isn’t that difficult. With over 30,000 ramen shops in Japan (5,000 in Tokyo alone), these restaurants are literally on every corner. And, ramen is one of the cheapest foods you can eat in Japan. There are even 100-yen ramen shops. Wherever you travel, leave at least one meal for ramen, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a ramen connoisseur. Here are some basics to help get you started.

Ramen is distinguished by “umami,” or the savoriness of the broth, and the size and softness of the noodles. There are four main types of broth: the original “shouyu,” (soy flavor), “tonkotsu” (made from pig bones), Miso ramen (Miso flavor) and Shio (salt flavor). Ramen is usually topped off with bean sprouts, pork slices, dried bamboo shoots, seaweed, boiled egg, leeks or any combination there of.

Here are some of the regions famous for ramen — Sapporo, the “city of ramen” with over 1,000 ramen shops, is the birthplace of miso ramen. In the Tohoku area, try Yonezawa ramen where the noodles are aged for a few days before they are boiled. Yokohama is famous for tonkotsu-soy ramen. In Chubu, try Gifu ramen known for its very soft noodles, and in Kansai, try Kyoto ramen known for its straight noodles. Shikoku’s Tokushima ramen is served with a raw egg and in Kyushu, the home of tonkotsu, try the Hakata ramen which is available just outside the Hakata shinkansen station in Fukuoka.

How do you find a good ramen shop once you arrive in a new city? Just look for the lines of people waiting outside the shop to get in!

Instant ramen six packages for $1 is common in supermarkets across the nation

The inventor of instant ramen, Momofuku Ando, passed away Jan 5 at the ripe old age of 96. He was the founder of Nissin Food Products (Cup Noodle) and was the first to perfect a flash-frying method of cooking to create Chikin Ramen, the world’s first “instant ramen.”

Japanese ramen chefs have created many ramen variations that incorporate ‘umami’, the subtle soup stock flavour produced from seafood products and fresh vegetables, and added distinctive soup seasonings based on soy sauce, miso, and so on. In the city of Yokohama, not far from Tokyo, there is even an amusement park with ramen as its theme. The irresistible attractions of ramen draw more than 1.3 million visitors to it every year, proving just how much the Japanese love ramen noodles.

The Ramen of Sapporo

Morito Omiya, who founded “Aji-no Sanpei”, is the most memorable person among owners and chefs of ramen restaurant in Sapporo. He created “ramen in miso (fermented soybean paste) – flavored soup”. Before that, ramen was served only in soy sauce-flavored soup, which was cooked with soy sauce in soup stock of pig bones. He had been looking for new flour, so he kept researching it over and over. At last he found “miso-flavored” soup, which was familiar to Japanese people like soy sauce, and he came up with ideas to put stir-fried vegetables on it. Then he perfected “ramen in miso-flavored soup” and put it on his menu in 1954. This new ramen “with vegetables on it in miso-flavored soup” was significantly popular in Sapporo. About 1960, “miso-flavor” was started at other restaurants and established “the specialty of Sapporo” among tourists. After that, it got known all over Japan, by a demonstration of cooking it and a sale of it at exhibits of the products of Hokkaido in various parts of Japan or by the mass media. Between 1960 and 1970, as “the ramen of Sapporo”, it was extremely in throughout.

More Than a Thousand Ramen Restaurants in the City of Ramen, Sapporo

Sapporo is famous for ramen. You can see signs “RAMEN” here and there, and especially on Ramen Alley (Ramen Yokocho), New Ramen Alley (Shin Ramen Yokocho), Tanuki Menkoi Street, and in Kotoni are many ramen restaurants. Every restaurant has a lot of customers during the Sapporo Snow Festival and in summer, the good season, because many tourists come here. Sapporo has more than a thousand ramen restaurants, and it’s said to be one of the three cities of ramen in Japan. Today in Japan, ramen is called “the popular dish all over the country”. What’s “ramen”?

The first shop dedicated solely to ramen was called Rairaiken and opened in Tokyo’s Asakusa district in 1911.

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com

Apples: The New Luxury Fruit

Apples The New Luxury FruitTo an American, the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables in Tokyo are outrageously expensive. The first time you see a $100 watermelon, you think it’s either a joke or, well, a really bad joke. A watermelon, even a square one, should fall within the realm of reasonably priced — and $100 is rarely considered a reasonable price.

Now it might not be a comfort to the people of Tokyo, but high-priced produce may become Japan’s secret weapon export. Producers of “the Rolls-Royce of apples” have discovered the Chinese market and beyond — selling fruit for prices that make overpriced watermelons seem like bargains. And why not? In China,

. . .Japanese apples are being scooped up by the Lamborghini-driving, Gucci-toting nouveau riche in Beijing and Dalian at $17 apiece, or roughly 100 times the price of a Chinese apple. Some of the finest specimens, with dragon designs and Chinese characters in their peels, retail for more than $100 each. 

Yes, you read that right: $100. For an apple. An apple in a country that holds the honor of being the world’s largest apple producer. But China isn’t the only growth market for Japanese fruit:

The crates of “Japan’s Best” apples being shipped overseas are only part of a niche-market export boom from high-end Japanese farms. It includes $240 musk melons flying off to Thailand, $3 strawberries going to Hong Kong and $170 square-shaped watermelons for Kuwait. 

Never fear, Tokyo shoppers: all the good stuff isn’t heading overseas. If you shop carefully, you can find your own $100 fruit in high shops in the Nihonbashi district. For the highest prices, we suggest out-of-season delicacies:

Cherries in winter, from Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan, can fetch a Â¥50,000 price tag for just 300 grams, or 10 ounces. 

Solo Woman Sushi, Or Watching The Otaku

We’re not too proud to admit that we’d never heard the term onna hitori-zushi (or, solo woman sushi) before. Of course, we’d never heard of bijin sushi (good-looking woman sushi chef) either. Clearly we need to get out more.

Author Reiko Yuyama’s book, appropriately entitled Solo Woman Sushi (or, Onna Hitori-zushi) tells the story of her adventures as a lone woman entering a traditionally male domain: the high-end sushi bar.

The act of onna hitori-zushi, Yuyama says, underlines the sushi restaurants’ unique features. “Sushi restaurant culture has developed along with the corporate culture in Japan, which considered expensive sushi places as convenient venues for high-powered corporate entertaining. Naturally, those places have come to serve mainly male customers, especially men with power.”

As a result, many of those establishments have come to play the role of exclusive salons, where regular customers and the chef develop a special bond. Those customers generally know a lot about sushi, and also know the prices, even though their host does not disclose them directly. “Women also go to such restaurants — but generally they are accompanying those ‘knowledgeable’ men,” Yuyama says. 

The book also explores the notion of gourmet otaku, the latest in a long line of otaku concepts fascinating us here at Planet Tokyo, though we tend to specialize more in udon than sushi.

The Great Sauce War of 2005

Japanese FoodIn later times, 2005 may be known as the year of The Great Sauce War. Old-timers will tell tales of the days when families were divided over their support for the tasty, but financially troubled, Ikari Sauch versus their belief that the only way for JapaneseWorcestershire to survive was through the kind auspices of rival Bull-Dog sauce.

To put the crisis in perspective, let us offer insight from those in the know:

For the gourmands of Osaka, who believe that their tastes are more refined and diverse than those in Tokyo, Ikari sauce is the gold standard by which lesser brands must be judged.

The Osaka gourmands prefer the sweeter Ikari while Tokoyo-ites enjoy a spicier mix. Both parties remain blissfully unaware that their beloved uustaa sohsu has its roots in the British Isles. While there are many brands of the sauce available, only the folks at Bull-Dog have the financial stability necessary to save the Ikari name.

We won’t bore you with financail trail that lead sauce lovers in Japan to the brink of disaster. Suffice to say that the ‘dog is reaching out in the spirit of true friendship. He knows that a healthy rivalry leads to a better product.