The sushi train

Ask anyone to name something typical of Japan, and it is highly likely that they will say ‘sushi’. After my return to Belgium, I have often been asked if Japanese people really eat sushi every day. The answer is no! Japanese cuisine is incredibly varied and there is so much more to it than just sushi.

Since I am not a fan of these stereotypical ideas about Japan and did not want to encourage them further, I have put off writing about sushi for more than two years. But despite all my ranting, I cannot deny that sushi is in fact a part of Japanese cuisine. Moreover, it is an extremely delicious part of Japanese cuisine. By the end of my stay in Japan, I could be found in a sushi restaurant on a weekly basis. (*´∀`*)

So it seems that the moment has finally come. It is time for a post about sushi.

In Japan, sushi is often enjoyed at a restaurant, rather than at home. There are many different kinds of sushi restaurants, ranging from extremely high-end places where the chef personally prepares each delicacy in front of you, to the more moderately priced conveyor belt restaurants (kaiten zushi 回転寿司 in Japanese). Even in the conveyor belt category, there are different prices and qualities. Today I will talk to you about the lowest of the lowest: Kappa Zushi. Although this is not a great introduction for a restaurant, I assure you that compared to most European (or at least Belgian) sushi restaurants, the quality is still very good.

kappazushi logo

Kappa Zushi logo

kappa_zushi_mascotte

Interior of a Kappa Zushi restaurant. The mascots of Kappa Zushi are these two green creatures. In Japanese, kappa is a water monster from folk tales. But it can also mean a sushi roll with cucumber in the middle. Hence the choice for kappa as mascots I guess. Despite their best efforts to make these kappa seem cute, they still scare me a little – image from the Kappa Zushi website

kappazushi conveyer belt

Kappa Zushi conveyor belt

tuna sushi on the conveyer belt

Tuna nigiri zushi on the conveyor belt

At conveyor belt restaurants, the kitchen prepares a standard selection of different sushi dishes and places them on the conveyor belt. The sushi passes by all the tables and the customers take off whatever they want to eat. Usually the colour of the plate determines how much the sushi costs but at Kappa Zushi, all the sushi costs 105 yen per plate (about 1 euro at the time we were in Japan). At the end of the meal, the plates are counted to determine the price to be paid.

kappa zushi stack of plates

Our stack of plates at the end of the meal

In case you don’t find what you are looking for on the conveyor belt, you can also order  directly from the kitchen (for the full Kappa Zushi menu, click here –  click on each category to see more sushi). Kappa Zushi has a computerized system for those orders. You operate it with a touch screen above your table. Not an easy thing to do if you can’t read kanji. There is one button that summons a waitress. I am afraid we accidentally summoned the poor lady twice before we figured it out. But if you press enough buttons, you will eventually end up in the orders menu.

kappa zushi touch screen

Kappa Zushi orders menu. You might notice some unusual sushi like tonkatsu sushi (fried pork cutlet) and beef sushi. You will definitely not find any meat sushi in a high-end sushi restaurant.

hamburger sushi

Another special sushi: hamburger sushi. I guess you can pretty much slap anything onto a piece of rice and call it sushi.

Now comes the best part: the orders are delivered on a special sushi train! It is shaped like a shinkansen and swishes over to your table in no time. You take off the plates and the train goes back to the kitchen. Never mind sushi quality, that train in itself is a reason to visit Kappa Zushi!

Something else that I love about Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurants, apart from all the sushi, is the table side tap of hot water. You get a cup, a tin of green tea powder (different from matcha) and you serve yourself from the tap at your table. All you can drink green tea and an endless stream of sushi passing by under your very nose… pure bliss!

kappa zushi tea

Tea can in the bottom left, cup in the middle, and the tap is below the conveyor belt, next to the red box with pickled ginger. The black box holds the chopsticks. Each table also has their own supply of soy sauce and wasabi.

If this post has made you hungry, or you want to see the sushi train for yourself, you can find your nearest Kappa Zushi restaurant on this map (Japanese only). This is the Kappa Zushi in Toyota City:

KappaZushi_ToyotaCity

Kappa Zushi in Toyota City – image from Google Maps Streetview

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Starbucks Coffee Japan

Since Starbucks has been fueling my JLPT (see previous post) cramming efforts for a few days now, it seemed like the right time to write something about Starbucks in Japan.

In Belgium I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Starbucks since there are so many nice and locally owned coffee bars. Besides, there are only 3 Starbucks in Belgium. But in Japan, if you feel like having a decent cup of coffee, Starbucks is as good as it’s gonna get. And I have to admit that despite my initial scepticism, I have become a fan.

starbucks toyotashi 2

Starbucks in Toyota City

The atmosphere in Starbucks is nice. The cozy feel is even more appealing now that it is getting colder. In addition to that, the coffee is quite good, though a bit expensive for European standards (but reasonably priced for Japanese standards). And it is a popular place to study among young and old alike.

starbucks toyotashi 1

Starbucks in Toyota City - people studying everywhere

students in sakae starbucks japan

High school students studying in a Starbucks in Sakae (Nagoya, Japan)

Surrounded by a bunch of studying high-school students and with a warm mug (I love that it’s a mug instead of a cup) of delicious energizing coffee in front of me, I memorize Japanese vocabulary at an unseen speed. Let’s hope my caffeine overdoses pay-off at Sunday’s exam.

Starbucks in Toyota City is in the Matsuzakaya building near the train stations ‘Shintoyota’ and ‘Toyotashi’. My recommendations: Caffe Latte or Chai Tea Latte.

toyotashi_station_area_Japan

Nagoya style eel – Hitsumabushi

Eel is a popular dish in Japan, especially in summer. It is believed to give you stamina so as to better endure the summer heat. Moreover, grilled eel is a Nagoya speciality.

Needless to say I was excited when my friend Mari-san proposed to go to the most famous eel restaurant in Nagoya: Hōraiken. It’s so popular that we had to wait for almost an hour before being seated, while it was just a regular Tuesday at lunchtime. In the weekend there is supposed to be a 2 or 3 hour wait.

Horaiken eel restaurant entrance

The entrance of the restaurant

I ordered the most popular dish on the menu, which is the Nagoya speciality: Hitsumabushi. It’s a special kind of unadon. Unadon is a bowl of rice topped off with grilled eel covered in sweet soy sauce. What makes hitsumabushi different from regular unadon is the seasoning.

Hitsumabushi grilled eel

Hitsumabushi (a kind of grilled eel), a Nagoya speciality

On the picture above you can see the seasoning in the three squares on the top of the tray and in the red flask. The bowl of rice with the eel on top is on the bottom right and in the middle there’s some soup and pickled vegetables.

There’s a special procedure involved in eating hitsumabushi:

1) First you take about 1/4th of the rice and eel, put it in the little white and blue bowl and eat it just like that.

2) Next you take another serving of eel and rice and season it with nori strips, wasabi and green onion.

hitsumabushi second type

The second way to eat the eel

3) For the third serving you use the same seasoning but you also pour hot tea on top of it.

4) The fourth and final serving is meant to repeat the style you liked best.

Four servings of rice with eel, that’s a lot of food. Good thing it’s delicious!

The restaurant is very close to the Temma-cho station on the Meijo Line, the purple line of Nagoya’s subway system. Some advice: put your name on the list at the restaurant, ask how long the wait will be and take advantage of the spare time to visit nearby Atsuta Jinja, the largest shrine in Nagoya.

It’s alive!

During our recent trip to Hokkaido, we enjoyed a host of new culinary experiences. The most spectacular one was without a doubt the sashimi dish that came with the fish’s still moving head in the middle.

I’m not squeamish about food, but this did make me think twice before digging in. But then again, it’s an experience and how can I justify eating regular sashimi or even canned tuna, which also had a head at some point, if I don’t eat this?

By the way, I try to avoid (canned) tuna altogether because tuna is becoming an endangered species. Click here to read a BBC article about it.

In case you’re wondering, the head is purely ornamental. You’re not supposed to eat it.

I tried looking for a scientific explanation of why the head was still moving despite the fish clearly being dead, what with its head being severed from its body and all. But I was unable to find it by just googling. I’m sure that it has something to do with electric signals being automatically generated in the brain or something, but that’s far from accurate. Anyone care to have a go at the science part of it?

We ate this dish at Marukibune restaurant (next to the Ainu Museum) by the side of lake Kussharo. They serve all sorts of typical Hokkaido dishes like milk ramen and ‘jingisukan’ (see previous blog post for a picture of that dish).

Marukibune restaurant, Kussharo Kotan, Hokkaido

'Howaito-ramen', noodles with milk soup

This post was submitted to the November 2011 Blogging Festval J-Festa: Dining in Japan.