Traditional Japanese breakfast

If you ever spend the night in a Japanese hotel or traditional ryokan, it is highly likely that you will be confronted with what I like to call ‘the Japanese breakfast experience’. While most Westerners will already consider a bowl of cereal a heartening breakfast, the Japanese are a bit more thorough when it comes to eating breakfast.

The simple version will usually include a bowl of miso soup, rice or rice porridge (called okayu), a piece of cooked fish and some pickled vegetables. Additionally bread, eggs, vegetables, natto or meat may also be included. And of course a cup of green tea.

japanese breakfast

Traditional Japanese breakfast from a breakfast buffet at a youth hostel. From left to right: bowl of miso soup, cup for green tea, glass of water, plate with fried egg, baked fish, various vegetables and salad, pickled vegetables and squid salad, bowl of rice, container with natto

japanese breakfast

Japanese breakfast in a hotel. From left to right: pickled vegetables, cup of tea, daikon and tofu boiled in broth (oden), bowl with various vegetables, bowl of rice porridge (okayu) with a pickled plum (umeboshi) on top, fried eggs, glass of water, miso soup.

modern japanese breakfast

Due to Western influences, bread and meat may also appear in a modern Japanese breakfast. From left to right: cup of green tea, delicious home-made bread, miso soup, yoghurt with raisins, a plate with vegetables, bacon and fried egg.

The Japanese breakfast experience can be quite a hurdle for Westerners. We are not used to eating fish, rice or soup for breakfast. Most of those items are considered dinner foods in Western cultures. While some gaijin seem to have trouble suppressing their gag reflex while just looking at a Japanese breakfast, personally I am a big fan. The hearty Japanese breakfast provides energy all through morning, without getting the 10 a.m. faintness I usually experience after a Western breakfast. And I love the taste of the salty rice porridge.

But even a fan like me has her limits. I had a bit of trouble downing this breakfast provided to me in a traditional ryokan:

japanese breakfast ryokan

Elaborate Japanese breakfast at a ryokan

grilled fish for breakfast

I had some trouble with the fish especially

The fact that the breakfast was served at 7 a.m. didn’t help. I was even more surprised that the gentleman at the table next to us felt the need to combine this healthy, early morning breakfast with a large beer.

beer for breakfast

A Japanese man enjoying a beer for breakfast. Notice the 1 liter (!) bottle on his table.

In fact, it seems quite normal to have alcohol at breakfast in Japanese hotels. Look at this menu we found on our breakfast table at a hotel in Nagano:

beer for breakfast in Japan

A menu advertising beer or sparkling wine for breakfast. Don’t even get me started on the Engrish, that’s for another blog post.

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The vicious deer of Nara

Nara is an ancient city not too far from Nagoya. At one point it was the capital of Japan (from 710 to 785). The most famous sites include the largest wooden structure on earth (Todaiji Temple), a 15m Buddha statue and the second tallest pagoda of Japan (Kofukuji Temple).

But never mind all that, because perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in Nara are the deer. Large numbers of Sika Deer (‘shika’ in Japanese) wander freely around the premises. Visitors can purchase rice crackers, called ‘shika senbei’, to feed the deer.

Sika deer in Nara

Sika deer in Nara

Nara deer everywhere

Deer everywhere!

selling shika senbei

A stall selling shika senbei, the special crackers to feed the deer.

At first sight, the deer seem quite tame. In fact, they appear to be downright lethargic.

This deer just couldn't be bothered, although I am practically in its face with my camera    This deer just couldn't be bothered, although I am practically in its face with my camera. Even when I start petting it, it acts as though I am not there.

This deer just couldn’t be bothered, although I was practically in its face with my camera. Even when I started petting it, it continued to act as though I was not there.

But don’t be fooled. Their innocence is but a ruse. As soon as they smell food, the deer of Nara turn into vicious predators. They stop at nothing to get hold of the rice crackers, even going as far as attacking the humans holding the crackers.

deer looking for food

Obtrusive deer looking for food. These people didn’t even buy shika senbei. They are just trying to enjoy a bit of yaki-imo (grilled sweet potato).

My personal deer feeding adventure soon turned into a shouting frenzy when one of the deer tried to head-butt me. Another person in our group got bitten in the  behind while feeding the deer.

In all fairness, the park authorities did warn us this might happen. Here is an overview of what the deer might do to you:

nara warning sign

Warning sign in Nara park

Be forewarned!

Running out of gas in the middle of nowhere

During our recent trip to Hokkaido (see post about Hokkaido) we covered quite some distance by car. At one point we drove all the way from Hakodate to Kushiro, about 585 kilometers in one day.

Hokkaido from Hakodate to Kussharo

The blue line indicates our road trip

A large part of this route included highway, which is closed off by toll booths at the beginning and end. It turns out there are no gasoline stations (‘gasorin sutando’ in Japanese) on the highway in Japan, or at least not in Hokkaido. Here’s the story of how we found out:

We entered the highway above the left-most black arrow. We saw a gas station right before entering the highway but we still had enough gas for about 160 km. So no need to fill up the tank. Or so we thought.

So we start to drive. And drive. And drive some more. After about 100 km we start to get a little worried. Where are all the gas stations? When is this highway going to end? There’s not an exit in sight.

When the highway finally ends, after 127 km (right-most black arrow), we’re relieved. There’s bound to be a gas station soon. Right? Think again. The highway ends on a road that leads through the middle of nowhere. We’re in the mountains, night is setting in and we don’t even pass any side roads, just the entrance to a farm here and there.

Hokkaido mountains at dusk

The mountains at dusk. Very gloomy.

Meanwhile our estimated driving range has dropped to 4 km. Gulp. It’s time to do something now! So when we finally come across a side road, we make a turn. It’s supposed to lead to a village 12 km further. We start driving along this road, only to see this road take us further into the mountains and further into the middle of nowhere. By now our estimated driving range is 0 km.

Estimated driving range 0 km

Estimated driving range 0 km

Feeling slightly desperate, we decide to stop at the next farm to ask for directions. It feels strange just driving up someone’s farmyard but we don’t have a choice. After shouting ‘sumimasen’ for about 5 times, a very sleepy woman and an old man come to see what all the fuss is about. I can only imagine their surprise when they see two gaijin standing on their porch.

We try to explain in our best Japanese that we’re looking for a gas station. ‘Gasorin sutando???’ they repeat with a puzzled face, like we just asked them if there’s an ice cream parlour around here. After talking back and forth some more, it turns out there are no gas stations around here (we already figured as much). But they understand our problem and generously offer to sell us some of the gasoline they have in their barn.

They transfer 10 litres to our car and we shower them with thank you’s, bow about a hundred times and pay them 3 times the amount we would have paid at a gas station. With this we should be able to make it Kushiro.

I can hardly describe the relief we felt seeing the first houses by the roadside again, the first convenience store (a sure sign you’ve entered civilization) and of course the first gasoline station.

Gasoline station, Hokkaido

Finally a gas station!

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.

Hokkaido – birthplace of the earth

As some of you may or may not have noticed, I have been afk for while. For the non-geeks among you: afk means away from keyboard. The reason was our trip to Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan.

Like many Japanese companies, Toyota had decided to send all of their employees on a mandatory holiday around mid August. To avoid the crowds, we decided to go the most remote Japanese destination we could think off: Hokkaido. Further more, we were looking forward to spending some time in a refreshing 30°C atmosphere instead of the scorching 36°C of Nagoya.

Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan, marked in dark green. The tiny red cross indicates where we live.

I can wholeheartedly recommend Hokkaido (in summer) to anyone who likes any or all of the following: lakes, mountains, volcanoes, onsen, forests, seafood, wildlife (not necessarily in that order). I guess in winter it’s mostly nice for people who like snow.

It was a great trip. We got to see Japanese minshuku and youth hostels from the inside for the first time; an experience that deserves it’s very own blog post later on. The food was delicious, with a lot of fresh fish and seafood and a dish with mutton and cabbage called Genghis Kahn.

Seafood don

The Genghis Kahn dish (Jingisukan in Japanese)

The nature was overwhelming. We bathed in a natural onsen by the lakeside.We walked trough forests and wandered along the shore of beautiful lakes. We met a host of wildlife that we’d never seen before, like cranes, chipmunks, dolphins and a fox. Fortunately we didn’t run into any bears.

Lakeside onsen - free of charge, just dive on in (Lake Kussharo)

Lake Shikotsu

Cranes by the roadside

The cutest little chipmunk

An audacious fox looking for an easy meal

The chipmunk has the children eating out of his hand – or was it the other way around?

Whale-watching trip in Muroran. We didn’t see any whales but there were a lot of dolphins.

 

And then there were the volcanoes. I had never seen an active volcano up close before. It was overwhelming, almost like an apocalyptic scene. A barren rocky landscape with blotches of yellow left by the sulfur. Hissing steam escaping from the rocks and the smell of rotting eggs (from the sulfur). Apparently this is what hell is supposed to smell (and look?) like, only worse.

Volcano crater on top of the mountain (Tarumae-zan)

The hellish mountainside of Io-zan volcano

Boiling water and sulphurous gasses on the slopes of Io-zan volcano

 

Again I was confronted with the fact that the earth which seems so stable to us most of the time, is actually a living thing of sorts. One of the volcanoes we saw just popped up out of a vegetable patch some odd 60 years ago. Another one violently erupted in 2000 and turned a lively little town into a post-apocalyptic ghost town that is now visited by tourists.

Showa-Shin-zan, which emerged out of a field in 1943 after a series of earthquakes

Ghost town. The orange building in the back used to be a cooky factory - image taken at the Nishiyama Crater Promenade

It made me think of Hokkaido as the birthplace of the earth. This also relates to the relationship that the Ainu, Japan’s indigenous people who now mostly live in Hokkaido, have with nature and the earth. Hokkaido, with its mountains and forests, covered in mist and clouds, seems like a mystical place to me. Mysterious things such as the birthing of the earth from an active volcano definitely seem possible here.

Mystical Hokkaido

Shibori – Japanese tie-dye technique

Two weeks ago, friends of ours took us to see the historic town of Arimatsu.It still has a lot of Edo period buildings.

beautiful building in Arimatsu

Located on the Tokaido (ancient road from Tokyo to Kyoto), Arimatsu is famous for ‘shibori’ or tie-dyed cloth. The cloth is tied up with rope before dying, thus preventing certain parts of the cloth from being dyed. It’s not just fuzzy circular patterns, it really leads to intricate patterns.

Everything in this shop is created with various shibori techniques

It turns out we could have a go at shibori ourselves. Our friends had arranged for a workshop in the local museum. Upon arrival, we were immediately given a piece of cloth and a needle and were put to work. Two ladies of a respectable age with at least 50 years of shibori experience each, taught these clumsy gaijin how to make a simple shibori cloth. Unfortunately we could not see the dying process but they will send us the finished cloth once it has been dyed.


Of course when these ladies have a go at it themselves, it’s a whole other story.

Arimatsu ladies showing us how it's done

a little more complicated than a mere handkerchief

Hiroshige made an ukiyoe (woodblock print) about Arimatsu in the series ‘The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido’, in which ‘shibori’ is pictured. You can see shops selling the cloth and someone sitting inside the shop tying some cloth in preparation for dying, or perhaps untying the knots after dying.

Hiroshige's print featuring Arimatsu

Veilig aangekomen

We zijn veilig aangekomen in Japan!

De vlucht was zeer comfortabel. Vliegen in business class, daar zou ik wel aan gewend kunnen worden. Danku Toyota 🙂 Een fotoverslagje:

een paar spulletjes voor onderweg

Business class bij Lufthansa

Champagne bij het wachten op take-off

Beenruimte!

Driegangen diner en heerlijke wijn

Dessert en Dennis die in de foto probeert te passen

Landing in Nagoya. De luchthaven ligt op een kunstmatig eiland. Bij het aanvliegen leek het even alsof we in de zee zouden landen.