From the high-quality green tea of Uji to the rich soba culture of Izushi to Osaka’s hearty soul food, Japan’s Kansai Region is made to be explored through the tongue. While many may associate Japanese food with rice, sushi and miso soup — which are all important parts of Japanese cuisine — it’s not as simple as that. And if that’s all you eat during your travels, you’re missing out on a slew of delicious opportunities. Here’s what Epicure & Culture suggests:
Local Guide Recommendation: For a certified Japanese, English and Spanish speaking guide Epicure & Culture recommends Michiko Moriwaki (moriwaki.michiko (at) gmail (dot) com). Not only is she extremely knowledgeable on the Kansai Prefecture, her upbeat demeanor and passion for showing guests a good time lead to an extremely enjoyable experience.
Green Tea In Uji
While you’ll find green tea all over Japan, Uji, located on the outskirts of Kyoto, is particularly well-known for the curative drink. You can take the West Japan Railway Company (JR West) Nara Line to Uji Station, and from there it is easy to walk around the explore the city. Wander the streets around the station, like Ujibashi-dori and Byodin Omote Sando Streets, and find endless opportunities for green tea ice cream, green tea baked goods, green tea sake and complimentary green tea tastings.
For this I recommend Nakamura Tokich, open since 1854 and housed within a historical building over 200 years old — with many of the rooms and accents preserved for viewing. They also have green tea-infused foods as well as an outdoor garden where you can sit and sip your drink. For something refreshing, Masuda Tea Store Kyoto serves Uji’s “best green tea ice cream,” at least that’s what the locals say. In the sweet treat green tea naturally blends with the sugar of the ice cream, perfectly diluting but preserving the earthy taste.
For some cultural immersion, a Japanese tea ceremony at Taiho-an (2 Ugi-Ttogawa) is an incredible experience for only $5. You’ll not only sip matcha (high-quality powdered green tea) made with grace and care, but will learn the importance of the tea ceremony, it’s meaning, how to properly sip a cup of matcha at a ceremony and how the elements of the room are chosen in accordance with the seasons.
Bonus Recommendation: A bento box at Kyouryouri Tatsumiya Restaurant (Tel: (0774) 21- 3131) offers the chance to sample 30 different Japanese delicacies as well as miso soup and rice seasoned with ground green tea. Located on the Path of Ajirogi (the river path), you’ll enjoy views of the Uji River while you eat.
Soba Noodle Making
You can’t visit Japan without sampling soba, and learning how to make this culturally-important dish is a truly worthwhile culinary experience. Izushi is one Japanese town renowned for its unique soba culture, different from other places in Japan. In fact, it has its own name: Izushi Sara Soba. With an advance reservation made through the local tourism board one can take a soba-making class at Irusaya Restaurant (98-10Uchimachi) in Izushi, located in the Hyōgo Prefecture less than two hours from Osaka and about two-and-a-half hours from Kyoto. During the class, which is in Japanese so a local guide is recommended for translation purposes, you’ll begin with a flour mixture of about 80% buckwheat flour and 20% wheat flour and some water. You’ll strategically mix the ingredients with your fingers, rolling, kneading and cutting the dough before boiling it into homemade soba. The best part is eating the soba, as in Izushi they do this in a way different from the rest of Japan. Along with eating the noodles cold and on many small Izushi-Yaki pottery ceramic plates (instead of one large dish), a dipping sauce is made by taking soba sauce (soy suace, mirin and dashi) and adding in either minced green onion and wasabi, a raw egg or yam puree. Once the meal is complete, this sauce is combined with the water used to boil the soba for a digestive-helping soup.
To reserve this experience, you can have your hotel call ＋81-796-21-9016 (Toyooka Tourist Association) or email [email protected].
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, typically located in a scenic area with natural landscapes. Here you’ll sleep in a room with tatami flooring, sliding doors, futon-style bedding, low tables with cushion seating and a closet with kimonos and slippers to wear both in the room and around the property (and often around the town). Public baths are typically part of a ryokan stay, allowing guests the chance to bathe with others in hot curative waters. According to Michiko, there are many accounts on how public bathing — not actually used for bathing but for for relaxation and health — became part of the culture. The most popular is that a Buddhist monk happened upon some wounded animals who were in hot springs. When they emerged they were cured of their ailments, and the monk realized the waters were special, and that people should be using them, too.
Not only is the room and public baths an important part of the experience, but also the food. Typically, meals are included in the price of a ryokan stay, and are traditional Japanese style with a number of courses featuring a variety of Japanese tastings (kaiseki).
Japan’s Kinosaki area is one of the most popular places in the country for hot springs and ryokans, and one recommendation is Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei. At the luxury ryokan, meals take about 90 minutes and showcase the highlights of the region in small courses (kaiseki-style): Japanese sea bass, Tajima-gyu beef, Matsuba crab, taro root, Chinese cabbage, pink sweet potato and lots of fresh local seafood. Some dishes are served cold, others are served already prepared and others you’re brought a hot pot or plate with for cooking yourself. Rice and bamboo sakes enhanced the meal.
Just saying the name will make you smile. Shabu-shabu is a DIY-style dish where thin slices of beef and other dishes — like pork, long green onion, Chinese cabbage, enoki mushroom, crab, pumpkin, glass noodles, octopus, prawns and more — are cooked in a boiling hot pot. The “shabushabu” is derived from the sound you make as you swish the proteins and produce around with your chopsticks in the bubbling liquid quickly to cook it. We suggest savoring shabushabu in Kyoto’s famous Gion District, specifically at a restaurant called Gion Gyuzen (323 Gionmachikitagawa, Higashiyamaku). Not only is the dinner high-quality here — as well as adventurous at times…jellyfish anyone? — but the dessert is out of this world. While you may be tempted to order the “hokey pokey flavored ice cream” (huh?), go with their decadent banana crepe filled with sweet vanilla ice cream, a thick layer of whipped cream, a full banana, and ribbons of chocolate and caramel syrups.
Sample Traditional Osaka Specialties
Traveling from Kyoto to Osaka you’ll notice a complete shift in culinary philosophy. While in Kyoto the focus of food is the beautiful presentation and showcasing the seasons, Osaka is more practical, crafting dishes that are filling and taste good. Have a true bite of Osaka was at Fuku Ebisu (7-6 Soemoncho Tyuoku) where you can try regional specialties like takoyaki, giant octopus fritters drenched in a barbecue like sauce with about 30 other ingredients. The dish features contrasting textures, crispy on the outside, yet creamy and oozing filling on the inside. There’s also okonomiyaki, which is like a pancake-meets-omelet topped with anything from cheese and corn to shrimp, pork and bonito flakes as topping that melt onto the concoction as it grills right on your table. Shown in the video above you’ll see tonpeiyaki — similar to okonomiyaki — a cabbage and pork-filled omelet topped with rich sweet and savory sauce, mayo and bonito flakes that melt while it’s grilling.
Visit The Birthplace Of Sake
In Nara Town, located less than an hour from Kyoto and Osaka, one will find a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, classic Edo Period-style buildings, and, as told by multiple sources, the birthplace of sake. During Nara’s time as Japan’s first international capital from 710 to 784 sake was brewed in the imperial palace, and was eventually made in the local temples. It was in Nara, according to Sake World, that the ideas of using both koji rice and the straight rice, fermenting in different stages, pasteurization, filtering and making a yeast starter began.
At Harushika Sake Brewery (24-1 Fukuchi in-cho, 81-742-23-2255) one can do a tasting of high quality sakes — probably better than what the monks were drinking in ancient times — and have been doing so since 1884. Their philosophy is “Polish the rice, the water, the technique and the mind.” For 500 Japanese Yen (about $5) you’ll get a locally hand-made tasting glass and the option to try five different sakes, each very different the last. A typical tasting includes an extra dry crisp sake with stone fruit aromas, a dry yet fruity seasonal sake, a light slight warm Gold Medal-winning sake, a sweet wooden barrel-fermented sake and a fizzy cloudy sake where the yeast was still alive in the bottle. Each sip is smooth and refreshing, and for those who have only ever had cheap sake, quite a surprise.
Fun fact: Koji Rice, which is infected with Aspergillus Oryzae mold, is imperative for the making of sake as it breaks down rice starch into sugar, which then gets fermented into alcohol.
Kushiage With A Side Of Chocolate
While Japanese dining is generally healthy, there is one style of dining that packs on a bit more calories — but is worth it. Kushiage refers to eating deep fried foods on a skewer. Although the restaurant typically prepares these deep fried delicacies for you, there’s an eatery in Osaka’s Minami neighborhood, located near Namba Station, that provides more of a do-it-yourself experience: Kushiya Monogatari (Nanbanaka 2-10-70, Nanba Parks 6F). Raw beef, mushrooms, shrimp, salmon, chicken tenderloin, sweet potato, squid and more are showcased behind sliding plastic casing you can open and put on your plate. Once your dish is topped with raw proteins, you’ll choose your sauces — there about about 10 options — and create two bowls of wet flour and yam mixture as well as breading. In the center of your table is oil and baskets for you to deep fry your own skewers and be a chef for the day. When you feel fried out, fruit, raw vegetables, pastas and salads offer a fresher taste, while gelatins, an ice cream sundae station and decadent chocolate fountain with marshmallows, pretzel sticks and donut bites sweeten the experience.
As you can see, yakiniku can be pretty adventurous
Yakiniku (Korean-Style Barbecue)
You may be thinking, “Why would I want to eat Korean barbecue when I’m in Japan?”. Actually, yakiniku is an important part of Japanese culinary culture, as it takes the Korean-style of cooking and puts a Japanese spin on it with the local ingredients and is a typically dining style of the Japanese. During the Korean War, Korean restaurants in Japan were divided into North Korean and South Korean, while yakiniku remained as the one way to eat both. What’s interesting is that in many other countries like China and Taiwan people refer to yakiniku as Japanese barbecue, although in Japan this is debatable. Wherever you believe it originated, there’s no denying the Japanese love it, and rightly so.
One recommended venue to savor yakiniku is Kisshan (Namba dining maison 8F) in Osaka, where for about $50 you’ll grill your own meats and vegetables over a griddle heated by wooden charcoals in a private room. Savor beef tongue, Kuroge Wagyu beef, chicken, pork, onion, peppers and yams hot off the flame. There are also already prepared dishes like kimchis, bibimbap (mixed rice with vegetables) and, to end the experience, a sweet vanilla custard pudding. This restaurant is within Namba Station.
Have you visited Japan’s Kansai Region? What’s your recommended epicurious experience? Please share in the comments below.
*Featured image courtesy of William Cho
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