2222 Hirao, Shimotakai-gun
+81 269 33 3181
The Nagano Prefecture is a beautiful part of Japan, especially during the cooler months. Don’t just stay in Nagano city – it’s worth exploring the countryside even just for a day. If you can’t get yourself out there during winter, where snow-capped mountains make for a pretty Instagram photo or two, then walks through the region’s forests and orchards in all their vibrant autumn foliage glory is the next best thing.
Unfortunately, rural Japan can be a bit of a black hole when it comes to finding places to eat. During my stay in Shibu Onsen, I spotted only one izakaya and a couple of gift stores selling Japanese snacks and confectionery (think red pepper and apple Kit Kats) – unfortunately, these were the only places where I could effectively grab a feed if hunger struck.
Or I could grab a soft boiled egg that’s slowly been cooked using the hot spring water. I spotted a few of these on the streets of Shibu Onsen – they were found just outside the ryokans. You chuck in a 50 yen coin (equivalent to 50 Aussie cents) in the bowl and grab yourself an egg – yup, the honesty system was at play here.
Most ryokans (Japanese guest houses), however, provide some sort of meal option for guests. At Senshinkan Matsuya, the ryokan that I stayed at, breakfast is included in the room cost and if you wanted dinner, an extra charged applied.
Senshinkan Matsuya breakfast spread
Don’t get me wrong, I love soft boiled eggs but this was a much better option. Unlike last night’s dinner, Senshinkan Matsuya’s breakfast spread had an almost even east-west distribution. There was yoghurt with plum compote (as in most Asian countries, I did find the ‘plain’ yoghurt too sweet). There was a piece of red grapefruit. There was a lettuce salad as well as spinach, seaweed and miso soup with daikon. And then there was a piece of pan-fried salmon fillet and a ham omelette with steamed white rice on the side. To top things off, there was black coffee with a tub of creamer should you feel like white coffee.
It was a lovely breakfast; it was delicious and filling but without being too heavy. At the end of it, it was time for me to check out. My kind hosts then gave me a lift to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park where I would spend the rest of the morning. Tmomi and Keiko, thank you so much for your kind hospitality during my stay at Senshinkan Matsuya.
I probably took about a hundred shots like these guys. Unfortunately, they’re still sitting in my SLR and I’m too lazy to upload them.
2222 Hirao, Shimotakai-gun
+81 269 33 3181
If you’re ever in Japan, you’d be silly just to limit yourself to the tourist hubs of Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. Sure, those cities have plenty of things to keep you occupied but if you do have a night or two to spare it’s worth exploring the Japanese countryside.
The Tokyo-Nagano dash was an overnight trip I did halfway through my holiday. I wanted to see the snow monkeys but to do that as a day trip from Tokyo would require some amazing time management skills, not to mention getting up super early in the morning. I wasn’t quite keen to make that sort of commitment.
However, I was cool with an overnight stay in nearby Shibu Onsen, a hot springs area that’s only a short drive from the snow monkey park. Plus, it would give me a great excuse to stay at a ryokan (Japanese guest house).
Senshinkan Matsuya was the place I stayed at. It’s a beautiful two-storey wooden guesthouse that’s been around for more than 200 years and is owned by a lovely couple, Tmomi and Keiko. Tmomi was kind enough to pick me up from Yudanaka Station (the closest public transport stop to the inn) which I was grateful for seeing as it was 5:30PM when I arrived and pitch black (I didn’t have the hindsight to know just how quickly it got dark in the Japanese countryside in the cooler months).
This was my room for the night, complete with tatami mats and all. It was simple, yet beautiful and homely – the perfect place to have a quiet night in, away from the bright lights of Japan’s big cities. I paid the equivalent of AUD$100 for the night – this included dinner, breakfast and a key that granted access to nine hot spring baths in Shibu Onsen.
Senshinkan Matsuya did have its quirks – my room had a VHS player! (despite the fact there were no video stores nearby and people stopped buying video tapes a long time ago)
There were also Nagano 1998 stickers everywhere, because Winter Olympics pride.
Once I dumped everything into my room, I popped on my yukata (Japanese robe) and went downstairs to the dining room basement area for dinner. Holy hell, this was the spread that greeted me. Yup, this was yet another kaiseki dinner but unlike the Michelin-starred spectacular at Roan Kikunoi, this was a much more casual and homely version. Same same but different.
After taking a few sips of my plum wine and nibbling my way through the assorted sashimi, pickles and edamame, I got stuck into the herbal mushroom soup. Given how cold the autumn air was up in the Japanese countryside, this was a godsend. So earthy, so herby, so friggin’ delicious.
I was delighted to see kishimen (flat udon noodles) in the mix. It came in a cute little bowl with a lid on it. See that hole in the lid? It was full of beautiful steaming hot dashi soup.
Like the sashimi, I’d have to say that I didn’t particularly warm up to the tempura. The sashimi was nice enough but after getting used to insanely fresh sashimi in the larger cities, the kingfish and tuna here paled in comparison. Understandably though, we were up in the mountains where fresh seafood is harder to come by. The tempura batter was light but not as crispy as I had come to expect in Japan. I did like the green tea salt though – it injected a bit of flavour to the eggplant, zucchini and green tea salt tempura pieces.
And who doesn’t like a bit of creamy cheesy chicken? I definitely wasn’t saying no. It went down well with a bit of steamed rice.
Finally, some nice peppered salmon to get my Omega-3 fill for the day.
It’s hard to believe that this entire spread was for one person. And yes, I did eat it all!
I felt like a bit of a loser sitting there in my yukata alone while couples and groups around me were chatting and eating away. I’m not sure whether it was because it was such a small and homely environment or whether it was because I was in a small country town. Nevertheless, the host (and chef) was lovely and came over every now and then to converse with me in what limited English she had and with what limited Japanese I had.
After such a feast, it was time for me to go for an evening walk around Shibu Onsen and visit its spas. Sorry, no spa photos – I wasn’t going to be the creep who took her iPhone to a spa to take photos while other spa users were around.
118 Saitocho Kiyamachidori 40-jo Sagaru
Shimogyu-ku, Kyoto 600-8012
+81 75 361 5580
A gorgeous kaiseki dining experience marked my final night in Kyoto, Japan’s cultural and historical capital. Kaiseki dining is essentially a traditional multi-course dinner comprising of a colourful array of dishes showcasing the chef’s skillset as well as the season’s freshest ingredients. These little dishes are artistically arranged in little portions and presented to the guest during the course of the meal – yup, meet the original degustation.
Kikunoi is probably the most famous and lauded kaiseki restaurant in Japan. It also happens to be one of Tetsuya Wakuda’s favourite restaurants so the man gave Kikunoi two thumbs up, then it must be decent. Unfortunately, I was unable to score a booking at Kikunoi most likely thanks to its three Michelin star status so I tried my luck at its little sister restaurant Roan Kikunoi instead.
When looking to dine at Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan, one knows that lunches are the way to go if you’re looking for the same top-notch food at lower prices. Unfortunately, Roan Kikunoi couldn’t squeeze me in for lunch but thankfully they had a spare seat for me at the bar for dinner.
Still, I’d definitely encourage you to try for lunch – lunches here are a steal from ¥4000 (AUD$43), whereas dinners start at ¥10000 (AUD$109). In this instance, I went for the ¥10000 dinner.
Roan Kikunoi’s counter dining approach lends to a more casual atmosphere than its big sister. Sure, the restaurant is still refined enough for your typical Gold Coast bogan to look awkwardly out of place in but it was definitely less formal than Fujiya 1935. Plus, sitting at the counter meant that you get a more interactive (and hence, more fun) experience.
Things were already off to a fantastic start when I was quickly seated and presented with a personalised menu. Okay, I lie. It wasn’t personalised per se – it was essentially just the set menu they gave to everyone who ordered the ¥10000 dinner. Still, it was a lovely touch – it’s amazing just how much better a dining experience can be when only the littlest time is invested in these sorts of things.
The first cab off the rank was a hollowed out fresh yuzu (Japanese citrus) filled with yuzu tofu topped with yuzu miso. The yuzu tofu had a very faint hint of citrus notes but was the perfect catalyst for soaking up the strong nutty and citrusy flavours of the miso on top. A lovely yuzu-infused sake also accompanied the starter.
Series of appetisers: arrowhead root chips, dried mullet roe, duck liver paté with white poppy seeds, maple leaf-shaped squid coated with egg yolk and sea urchin, anglerfish liver, Shimej mushroom, pine needle-shaped tea noodles, sake-glazed gingko nuts.
I was then presented with a small tray of the season’s autumn and among them, an assortment of little nibbles to get my appetite going. I loved how the whole thing was presented in a nonchalant manner, yet I’m sure each little element would have taken a lot of time and skill to prepare – I mean, hello, pine needle-shaped tea noodles?!
Red sea bream, Spanish mackerel with ponzu jelly, chrysanthemum petals, wasabi.
Next, I had the sashimi course. Moments beforehand, the chef came over to show me the still-alive fish he was going to cut up and present to me. Talk about super fresh, hey. Each bit of fresh fish was covered by a thin layer of ponzu jelly for a bit of zest with fresh wasabi on hand for a kick. There was also a dab of chrysanthemum petals but to be honest, the flowers didn’t do anything for me.
Pike conger soup, matsutake mushroom, mitsuba herb.
My first warm dish of the night was a fragrant pike conger soup that came in a neat clay teapot. The soup was insanely herby with few Japanese pine mushrooms thrown in for a bit of woody sweetness; this soup was perfect for those cold Kyoto autumn nights.
I was then presented with a little cup covered with a cute wooden lid. What was inside?
Yuzu and wasabi sorbet.
Oh, nice. More yuzu. More wasabi. I say it in a good way though – this sorbet not only tied the last few courses together neatly, it was also a refreshing palate cleanser. I loved the combination of icy texture and strong citrus flavours tainted by the slightest hint of heat.
Ayu with roe, shiitake mushroom.
The ayu seems to be the fish of the season here for it was the second time I’d seen it served at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The duo of fish was char-grilled along with a piece of shiitake mushroom and then presented on top of some reeds.
I’m not sure why they decided to chop the fish heads off, especially since the Japanese lady next to me had her fish served with their heads intact. Perhaps they incorrectly assumed this gaijin couldn’t hack seeing fish heads. Nevertheless, the fishes’ intestines were still intact, giving them that really sharp bitter kick I’ve come to dislike. Not even the water pepper vinegar that accompanied this dish could get rid of the bitterness. Yeah nah, sorry, ayu isn’t for me.
Rice with matsutake mushrooms.
The final savoury course was the mushroom rice cooked in a claypot. This chef had seen me take photos of all the food with my iPhone so he decided to be a good sport by holding up the rice pot. Naw.
I was served half the rice, which was served with some Chinese cabbage soup and a trio of Japanese pickles (eggplant, daikon and seaweed). As simple as this dish may sound, it was probably my favourite. It may not have looked like a lot of rice but it did the job in making me full and I just loved how flavoursome the mushrooms were. Washed down with some tasty miso soup and the rest of my glass of white wine, the rice made me a happy camper.
Lemon ice cream, pear compote.
Dessert was a simple yet perfect affair consisting of lemon ice cream and pear compote. Much like the yuzu and wasabi palate cleanser, this sorbet was equally refreshing and tasty – the perfect way to end a well-executed dinner.
Where did the other half of my rice go? It was made into two pieces of onigiri and placed in a brown doggy bag…
… for me to enjoy the next morning for breakfast.
Roan Kikunoi, you’re very clever. Kudos to you. Not only did you have me buzzing as soon as I left your warm and friendly establishment, you also had me thinking about you the very next morning as I hopped on the train to Nagoya.
238 Giommachi Kitagawa
Higashiyama-Ku, Kyoto 605-0073
+81 75 533 0001
Kyoto is a gorgeous city and what people say is the cultural and historical epicentre of Japan. If you like temples, old paved streets and centuries-old bridges, you will love Kyoto.
A night walk took me through the famous (and amazingly beautiful) tea house-lined Gion district where geishas once roamed freely. These days, the sight of a geisha is quite rare – I didn’t see any during my stay in Kyoto – but it’s still worth the short commute up to Gion just for the stroll alone.
You may also come across some strange things during your Kyoto post-dusk stroll. Like this dude dressed in a cake costume buying a drink from a street vending machine.
Or this statue of a dog pulling a guy’s pants down from behind with his teeth. Strangely enough, this statue marked the entrance to Issen-Yoshoku, a popular eatery that specialises in Kyoto-stye okonomiyaki.
The Kyoto-style okonomiyaki is also called issen-yoshoku. Like its traditional Osaka counterpart (the kind we all know and would get instant boners for), the Kyoto version contains egg, flour, shrimp, okonomiyaki sauce and dried bonito. On top of that, however, it also comes packed with spring onions, grilled fish paste, beef, ginger, tempura batter and konjak jelly. As a result, you’re getting a motherload of flavour in one little omelette/pizza/pancake/insert whatever other western equivalent you can think of.
Once you are seated in the bustling dining room, a waitress comes around and asks for upfront payment. As soon as you’ve paid, the freshly made banh xeo-looking issen-yoshoku is presented to you unceremoniously on a plastic white plate. At approximately seven Aussie dollars, it isn’t bad value.
Given the amount of ingredients packed into the omelette, you won’t be complaining that it’s tasteless. In fact, I found that it was TOO tasty; there were so many things happening all at once that my poor tastebuds got confused. It wasn’t horrible though but I yearned for the relatively simplicity of a traditional Osaka okonomiyaki. I also found the dough of this Kyoto version to be a tad too soggy too.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the issen-yoshoku is worth trying at least once. Who knows, you might end up getting bigger boners for it yourself. As for me, I’m sticking to the classic okonomiyaki, thankyouverymuch.
2-4-1 4 Yariyamachi
Chuo Ward, Osaka
Osaka Prefecture 540-0027
+81 6 6941 2483
You’d be completely insane if you thought I was going to visit Japan without sussing out some Michelin-starred restaurants – I ended up going to five. I visited three in Tokyo, one in Kyoto and one in Osaka, the latter of which I’ll talk about here.
I was only in Osaka for two nights and after I had my fill of takoyaki and okonomiyaki, it was time to venture into three Michelin star territory by dining at Chef Tetsuya Fujiwara’s modern Spanish restaurant, Fujiya 1935. Like most Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan, Fujiya 1935 offered reasonably priced lunches. Unfortunately, lunch sessions are always booked out well in advance and in this case, I missed out. I was lucky enough, however, to score a booking for their ¥15,000 (just under AUD$150 at the time) per head dinner which, mind you, does not include the compulsory 8% service charge they’ll chuck onto the bill at the end.
Fuijya 1935 is located on a main road but its door was so well hidden (read: poorly lit) that I ended up walking past it TWICE. It was dead quiet when I crept in and no one was around.
I stood there awkwardly for what felt like forever, expecting someone to greet me. No one did. So I took a seat on the long timber bench against the wall and twiddled my thumbs like a loser.
Amuse bouche: mushroom soup
At some point, the host appeared out of nowhere. She saw me, exclaimed ‘oh!’ and apologised profusely for not hearing me come in. She went away and returned immediately with a hot vessel of wonderfully silky and creamy mushroom soup before ushering me upstairs to the main dining room. It was the only slight hiccup in service; from that point on, everything was flawless and efficient.
Fujiya 1935’s very small dining room is all about muted colour schemes and minimalist timber furnishings – think Swedish uber sophisticated injected by Tokyo cool (even though we were in Osaka). It was a very quiet restaurant and if I was dining with a friend, I would probably find dining here very awkward. But because I was dining alone (and so were three other guys there), I happily embraced the eerie yet soothing tranquillity of this place.
2008 Rueda Supeiror Belondra
Fujiya 1935’s focus is on modern Spanish flavours using the best of Japanese seasonal produce so it made sense for them to have a neat and small selection of Spanish wines with one or two from Japan. The menu only had wines by the bottles but if you asked nicely like I did, the guys here are more than happy to pour you just one glass if that’s all you wanted to drink.
Amuse bouche: radish, wasabi cream
My second amuse bouche was the fresh radish served on a slab of ice with real dirt. It came with a lovely wasabi cream that was super silky with the slightest kick. Although I was initially ‘err’ about being served a single raw radish at a restaurant, I understood what all the fuss was about – the radish was insanely crispy and fresh, nothing like any radish I’ve had before.
Having said that, I’d happily swap this course for something else if I returned to Fujiya 1935 because screw radishes.
Amuse bouche: cheese ball; chestnut bread
My final amuse bouche was a sponge bread, a signature of Fujiya 1935 – but one that changes every now and then. Today, it was a chestnut sponge bread topped with whipped ricotta – it gloriously melted into nothingness as soon as I bit into it.
Roasted peanuts, Kuromoji leaves
Next, I had the roasted peanuts served with the Kuromoji leaves they were cooked in. Like the radish course, it was a dish that was meant to showcase how wonderful the prime ingredient was. The peanuts themselves were sweeter than your average supermarket nuts and the leaves imparted a lovely herby and smoky flavour. Once again, I got what they were doing but c’mon, I wanted to see some actual cooking and taste combinations of wonderful flavours rather than attempt to appreciate the one ingredient, no matter how amazing it was! It almost felt like I was being jibbed. A three Michelin star restaurant should be lauded for its cooking, not how well they can forage for super amazing ingredients. (although the latter is important too, I get that)
They did it again with the mushroom. Yup, it just a single mushroom. I liked this one better than the radish and peanuts though – partly because I love mushrooms in general and partly because it was delicately fried so it came out beautifully crispy. The matsutake is a Japanese pine mushroom that is available during the cool autumn months and is a delicacy prized for its distinct spicy flavour. I could totally see that. Delicious.
Wild mushroom and shrimp from Nagano
The waitress simply introduced this dish as ‘wild mushroom and shrimp from Nagano’ that had been ‘cooked with no water.’ Due to the language barrier though, I couldn’t get her to elaborate but that was fine. It was essentially a light consommé with the liquid made using the natural juices of the shrimp, beef and mushrooms that appeared during the cooking process. Served with warm pumpkin bread and Japanese sesame butter, it was delicious to the very last bite. This was my favourite dish so far.
The ayu is a fish that I would see a lot during my Japan travels. Colloquially known as a ‘sweet fish,’ it is called so because of it apparently tastes like watermelon. I call BS on that – the small fish is cooked and served with its intestines so it was very bitter. As for the fish itself, it tasted like a delicate version of a mackerel but without the oiliness. I can’t say I’m a fan of the ayu, but I give mad props for the beautiful presentation of this dish, laver seaweed squares and cucumber balls and all.
Blue swimming crab linguine with black beans and mimolette cheese
We steered into heavy European territory with this mouth-watering pasta dish, surprisingly one of my favourite dishes of the night. The thin strands of pasta were are robust as the delicious cheese-flavoured sauce which was creamy without being too heavy. The fresh crabmeat injected a lovely natural sweetness while the beans added an earthy oomph.
White tilefish, potato, ground cherries
This was another dish with very strong European influences. The soft white tilefish was cooked in a very delicate and light sauce made using the juices of the potatoes and ground cherries, both served with the fish. I also suspect that a bit of butter was added for cohesiveness too. Again, this was a delicious and well-balanced dish.
Intermission involved some figs, fresher and sweeter than any figs I’d ever eaten. My previous statements-slash-whinges about the bloody raw one ingredient dishes did not apply to the figs – they were insanely and eye-poppingly tasty.
Free range French chicken with mushroom sauce and taro root
The final dish was a well-cooked French chicken breast drizzled in a creamy mushroom sauce and served with shallots and what the waitress called ‘a Japanese potato’ (in other words, taro root). The chicken alone, covered in a neat layer of perfectly crispy skin, held so much flavour – it made me reassess my views on not ordering chicken at restaurants because I considered it to be boring (definitely not in this case!).
Texture of pear
A lovely pear-themed palate cleanser put an end to the savoury courses. The pear came in three forms – sorbet, caramel and crisp – and was finished off with a couple of sliced grapes which you can’t really see in this photo. If this had been dessert, I would be a happy camper. It was light, refreshing and did not bog me down like a ghastly chocolate cake did.
Chestnut and coffee pudding with grass jelly
Actually, none of the desserts did. They arrived one by one, in miniature form – enough so I could get a taste without getting that nasty feeling I normally get after eating a full-sized serving of ice cream or cake. The chestnut and coffee pudding was another fabulous dessert, served with a box of chestnuts.
Okay, I lie. There was only one roasted chestnut – the rest of the box was filled with shavings and other sorts of stuff. But it was a good chestnut, obvs. So soft, so smoky and so sweet. Definitely not so-so.
I did prefer the coffee pudding though. Topped with a delicate chestnut foam, the pudding itself was infused with a dash of rum to keep things interesting. And who could ever say no to grass jelly? (I can’t)
Passionfruit and dill icy pole
This passionfruit and dill icy pole was gorgeous – it was almost too cute to eat. It was another refreshing dessert, though it sucked that it was gone in a matter of seconds. It might have been small but looks were deceiving for this tiny thing was bursting with flavour with a slight hint of dill for balance. Though the whole time, I was wondering where the hell one grew passionfruit in Japan and how…
Honey cake (background)
Oh yeah, the honey cake in the background was also pretty nice. Think Sri Lankan semolina love cake, but a slightly lighter version. Thumbs up.
I don’t normally rave on about restaurants’ washroom facilities but I’d like to say that Fujiya 1935 had some of the best bathrooms I’d seen in my life. The ladies’ room was decked out like a Hollywood dressing room. Check out those mirrors!
The toilet roll holder also had sanitary napkins just in case you ladies had your monthly visitor arrive during dinner service.
There were also toothpicks in case you got ayu bone stuck between your teeth. They also had toothbrushes because you may as well go the whole nine yards.
And while we’re at it, why not cotton buds in case you felt the need to clean your ears? And don’t forget the mouthwash. After all, there is a chance you might get a goodnight pash from your date at the end of the night. (though what kind of insane person would choose Fujiya 1935 as a first date venue?!)
As for the meal itself? Yeah, I can see why Fujiya 1935 got their Michelin stars. When they actually decided to combine more than two ingredients to make something that resembled an actual dish, the result was wonderful, cohesive and flawless. I also liked that they really embraced (worshipped, even) seasonal produce and did their best to showcase them beautifully. And although there weren’t many of them, the dishes that lacked in taste (okay fine, just that ayu dish) certainly covered their bases via presentation.
I would have preferred to see less radish and peanut-type ‘dishes’ but that’s just me. If it works for Fujiya 1935 and their customers, then it works and who am I to argue? Plus, their figs certainly shut me up. A meal at Fujiya 1935 isn’t for budget travellers but relative to other THREE Michelin-starred restaurants in Japan, ¥15,000 isn’t bad at all given the amount of dishes you get and the efficient and cheerful service I received on the night.
Nara City 630-8217
During my Osaka stay, I made a day trip out to Nara. The good thing about Japan and its wonderful trains is that it doesn’t take long to go from one city to another – my trip to Nara only took 30 minutes.
As some of you may know, Nara is famous for its thousands of deer that quietly roam Nara Park and surrounding areas. It’s also home to some beautiful temples, serene parks and probably a whole of other stuff that I didn’t quite get around to seeing because my Osaka hostel owner said Nara ‘wasn’t worth staying overnight for.’ Still, it’s definitely worth a day trip – or even half a day if you’re pressed for time. If I had my way, I could have happily spent an entire whole afternoon patting, feeding and chasing all the deer.
There are probably more selfie sticks in Nara than there are actual deer these days…
After I had my fill of deer and temples, it was time for a late lunch before heading back to Osaka. Not knowing where to go or what I wanted, I decided to walk around until I found a place that looked reasonably busy from the outside – because chances are the food would be, like, totes amazeballs, right?
I came across Mentouan, which is located just after Nara Park but before Nara Railway Station, heading back. There was a steady but not a terribly long line of people waiting outside as well as a sign with what looked like a bowl of dashi and a fried bean curd bag and ‘No 1’ next to it. Being a sucker for hyperbole (and bean curd, I suppose), I decided to give this dish a go.
I was told that there would be a 10 minute wait for a seat which was fine with me – I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Plus, it was pissing down rain so the last thing I wanted to do was walk around the streets looking for another lunch venue. Once I got in though, I was greeted warmly by my waitress and presented with a warm towel and a cup of hot green tea.
Mystery bean curd pocket in soup ¥850 (so, just under AUD$9)
My bowl of soupy goodness arrived within minutes. What was inside?
Oh mein Gott! Udon! And lots of them too! You should have seen me squeal in delight when I broke open the beancurd skin pouch and a motherload of beautiful slippery noodles came tumbling out. It was a bit Walking Dead-like in a sense – think guts oozing out of bodies but without the blood.
As for the taste? Delicious, absolutely delicious. It was such a simple and effortless dish that hit all the right spots, especially in the cold. Best of all, you got to eat the bean curd and the little spring onion ‘tie’ once you were down with your noodles. So so good. In fact, I’m surprised that this bean curd-udon-soup thing hasn’t caught on outside of this little shop in Nara.
So while Nara is famous for its cute deer, I think it should also be known for this amazing noodle shop that serves up reliably good (and tasty) noodle dishes for less than an Aussie tenner. They are closed on Tuesdays though and be prepared to wait if you decide to come smack-bang during the lunch peak.
1 Chome-3-37 Sonezakishinchi
+81 6 4797 2498
In Osaka, I discovered that Champagne and gyoza made for an excellent pairing. I also learnt that Tinder is a fantastic tool for solo travellers wanting company for a few hours. As much as I love travelling by myself, I do yearn proper human interaction every now and then – and this is where Tinder comes in handy. Swipe right, match, ask if the other is free for a drink and off you go.
My companion for the night was a Canadian-raised Malaysian-Chinese business analyst currently living in Shanghai. The guy, Chris, was in Japan for a work trip and was also on Tinder to meet some drinking buddies. After making pleasant small talk and establishing that the other one was not a weirdo, we decided to meet at Umeda Station after dinner and take it from there. Chris and I walked around the area, neither of us knowing exactly where we were going. Finally, we stumbled across a cute little champagne and gyoza bar on one of the little streets.
Champagne? Gyoza? Um hello, like we’d say no!
The place was called Le Comptoir de, a name which looked incomplete to me at first glance. Then again, my knowledge of French is very limited to words such as ‘canard,’ ‘terrine’ and ‘merde’ so what would I know? Anyway, Google tells me that Le Comptoir de neatly translates to ‘the counter’ and that’s pretty much what this establishment is – one little L-shaped counter topped with Louis Vuitton Damier-esque napkins, half empty bottles of champagne and happy people imbibing late on a Tuesday night.
Owned by quirky Osaka resident and Champagne aficionado Takeaki Motoda, the bar is a sophisticated yet warm and relaxed space for those looking to unwind. For a bar that specialises in Champagne, I was surprised to find the Champagne list very limited (in fact, the nibbles menu was bigger than the drinks list) but I guess this was one of those places that focus on a small number of things well.
Because we got around to ordering our drinks, an old business guy sitting next to us with his 20-something-year-old lady friend quickly started talking to us. Before long, we were talking and laughing like old friends – and he bought our section a bottle of Piper Heidsieck Brut. How lovely of him! I remember the price being something like AUD$85 a bottle, a mark-up that isn’t TOO huge for Asia (bearing in mind that you can get that bottle for AUD$50ish back home).
The food menu covers a neat range of nibbles, from cured meats to olives and of course, gyoza. They weren’t expensive either – we’re talking AUD$5-15 or thereabouts. I wouldn’t have minded some jamon to nibble on but in the end, we decided to split a plate of gyoza.
Pan-fried pork gyoza AUD$5-6ish
Takeaki-san’s chef cooked the dumplings in front of us while the drunk businessman gave us young(er) ones some sex advice because, I don’t know, apparently we needed it? Either way, Chris and I were both very amused though I’m not sure the dude’s lady friend was – she kept giving her man dirty looks.
As for the gyoza? They were predictably delicious; they were crispy and virtually oil-free, and the filling was a delicate mix of pork, ginger, cabbage and a hint of garlic. We were also given a variety of sauces to dip the dumplings with (soy, vinegar, garlic, chilli) but I found that I didn’t need the sauces so much – the dumplings were so tasty on their own.
Towards the end of our drinking session, I went to the bathroom and left my ring on the sink there. I only realised it was missing when Chris and I were at our second bar across town and after calling Le Comptoir de and asking if anyone had found a ring (in badly broken Japanese), we were told that it was long gone. However, it’s true what they say about the Japanese – the sleazy old dude’s missus picked it up after we had left, told her man, the man then rang the champagne bar and told Takeaki-san that ‘if the Australian girl calls about her ring, ask for her address’ because the man was going to post it to my house in Queensland himself. Seriously, how lovely was he?
In the end, the man ended up going back to Le Comptoir de at some point during the night with my ring, Takeaki-san then messaged me to say that he had the ring with him and 15 minutes later, I was back at Le Comptoir de clutching the AUD$5 ring I got from a non-descript market stall in Jakarta three years ago. Top marks for kindness and hospitality, I tell you.
And there’s Takeaki-san waving goodbye to us after a fun and eventful night.
If you love Champagne and gyoza (seriously, who doesn’t?), then you will love Le Comptoir de. The space is warm, the workers there are lovely and the customers are a friendly bunch. And even if you’re only so-so about Champagne and gyoza, I’m pretty sure you’ll end up having a great night there regardless.
2 Chome-9-5 Nishishinsaibashi
Chuo Ward, Osaka
I was walking along Osaka’s Doguyasuji (essentially a street filled with shops selling cooking tools) when I met Eric, a loud Jewish American lawyer from New York who was living and working in Osaka. This tall epitome of all the stereotypes I could think of was off to watch a baseball game at New Japan Hotel which has one of the very few, if not the only rooftop bar in Osaka – and he asked me to come along. I know jack shit about baseball and this was my first extended encounter with a stranger in Japan. In accordance with my promise to be spontaneous and meet new people on this trip, I accepted Eric’s invitation.
Doguyasuji, where I bought a motherload of crockery, cups and cooking utensils
Although I didn’t quite get into the game as much as Eric and his mate Dennis did (as well as the twenty or so Japanese patrons cheering with us on the rain-drenched roof), I had a good time. Dennis then decided to call it night, whereas Eric and I worked up quite a bit of an appetite. Having lived in Osaka for a few months now and befriending quite a few locals, Eric knew his way around the area and suggested we go to one of his favourite okonomiyaki bars in Osaka.
The place was called Très Bon, a rather odd name for a tiny 12-seater okonomiyaki bar in the depths of Namba. Translating to ‘very good,’ the little hole-in-the-wall joint is owned by a grumpy 85-year-old Japanese man simply known as ‘Jefe’ (Spanish for boss). He was a funny man yet got on my nerves by saying that it was bad enough that an Asian like myself couldn’t speak Japanese but inexcusable a Chinese person like myself could barely speak any Chinese (of course, the fact that I can speak fluent Bahasa meant nothing). That aside, he was great to talk to in bits of broken English, Japanese and Mandarin over a few beers – that is, when he wasn’t muttering phrases like ‘silly Australian’ and ‘what a pretty lady, shame she doesn’t know her own language’ to his head chef, Mitsuru-san.
Mitsuru-san whips up an okonomiyaki
Très Bon is hard to find, purely because it doesn’t have much of a web presence. However, if you can find Ganso Ajiho, then you should be able to find Très Bon – just look for the little corner bar across the street. Like most mama and papa joints in Japan, Très Bon does not take bookings so you need to rock up either early or late. They are open every day except for Wednesdays so don’t organise hump day drinks here.
Everything at Très Bon is cooked right in front of you though there is no Benihana-type theatrics or lame onion volcanoes here. There is no strict menu here either – you just tell Mitsuru-san what you want or get him to suggest a few recommendations and off he goes. Having been here plenty of times, Eric knew what was good so I sat back and let him order for us.
We started off with some very lightly battered Moroccan beans, served piping hot and crispy. I’m not sure why they were called ‘Moroccan beans’ – they were not like any other bean I’ve tasted, though they looked like snow peas but had a taste similar to broad beans. They were seasoned with a lovely and bloody addictive umami seasoning that could best be described as just as addictive as Red Lea hot chip salt but possibly with more crack.
Our next dish was Mitsuru-san’s take on an Osaka speciality. If you like okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pizza), then you should give the tonpei yaki a spin. It’s an omelette served with okonomiyaki sauces (creamy mayo and tonkatsu sauce) and bonito flakes. The omelette itself is also filled with shredded cabbage and sliced pork but Mitsuru-san does his own bacon version.
Tonpei yaki; Moroccan beans
It was shit good. It was lighter than a typical okonomiyaki as batter is being substituted for egg, which obviously contains less carbs. The bacon also gave it a lovely salty edge. If I can have this for breakfast every day, I’d die a happy woman.
Our final dish was the okonomiyaki. Diners can either choose what they’d like in their okonomiyaki or leave it up to Mitsuru-san. Because we rocked up late, there wasn’t a lot of ingredients for us to choose from by that point – we got cabbage, egg, squid crab though, which was enough for me.
Well, this okonomiyaki threw Ganso Ajiho’s one out of the window. It was not at all soggy, the batter wasn’t dense like the ones you get at many suburban food courts in Australia and best of all, I could still taste a slight crunch blended in with a lovely hint of smokiness underneath all the sauce on top. It was fresh, delicious and full of flavour – just how an okonomiyaki should be.
Don’t forget to order beer
I don’t know how much each dish was, the final bill came to approximately AUD$35 including a few glasses of cold beer. In terms of Japanese mama and papa joints, it’s not the cheapest but it was worth every yen – the okonomiyaki was probably the best I had on my trip, the atmosphere was electric and even Jefe’s gruff demeanour was strangely endearing. I highly recommend Très Bon for a fun night out – but if you’re a non Japanese-speaking Asian, be sure to cop a bit of shit.
+81 6 6213 8806
Day two of my Japan trip saw me take an early morning bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka, the city that many consider the Melbourne of Japan. By the time I almost managed to miss my train by hopping on the wrong platform, got lost wandering through all the stops at Umeda Station and got into an argument about bag storage at the capsule hotel I was staying at (yes, capsule hotel), I had worked up an appetite.
Without knowing where to go for a feed, I decided to get my senses direct me. Just around the corner from my hotel was a busy takoyaki-slash-okonomiyaki bar with men cooking takoyaki (octopus balls) out the front and tables filled with happy diners inside – I figured I couldn’t go wrong.
It took me a while to work out what this place was called (I used Google maps to trace my steps back from the hotel) but I finally got there in the end; Ganso Ajiho was what it was called. You can’t miss it – it’s decked with red lanterns and takes up two shops, whereas most places in this little enclave are tiny.
I was seated in a tiny table at the back, right next to a table topped with dirty plates and empty beer glasses – presumably because there was no room in the kitchen to store all the dirty dishes.
I started with some big fat octopus balls (giggles), a steal at approximately AUD3 and a large bottle of lager (another steal at ¥500, so less than AUD5). The balls were squishy and soft (har-har-har) and the filling much more gooey than what I’m used to back home. I’m not sure whether this was legit as was the surprising lack of octopus but at that price, I didn’t complain. I was also surprised that it didn’t come drizzled in sauce and topped with bonito like I’d come to expect in Australia (rather, a light citrus-y broth was provided for dipping). Again, maybe that was the legit way of eating them.
I was told that there would be a twenty minute wait for the okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake), which was totally fine with me – it’s not like I had anywhere else to be seeing as check-in wasn’t for another two hours or so. Like the octopus balls, the okonomiyaki was massive and definitely filled me up. The sauce to dough ratio was great and the whole thing was nice enough; however, there was something missing and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Was it depth? Character? Did those dirty dishes put my senses off? I had no idea.
There are hundreds of places that do okonomiyaki and takoyaki in Osaka and even the ‘bad’ ones will do a decent job by Australian standards. I wasn’t in a hurry to rush back to Ganso Ajiho, especially after a life-altering okonomiyaki experience at Tres Bon across the road later that night.
Koto 135-0016, Tokyo
+81 3 5677 5176
My first meal in Japan was a comforting and insanely delicious bowl of ramen that sent me walking back to my hotel with change for AUD9. After a very long bus ride from Narita Airport to downtown Tokyo followed by two subway trips to Shirakawa, I finally checked into my hotel two hours after my feet touched Japanese soil.
I don’t know why I booked a hotel at a random slightly-out-of-nowhere district on my first night in Tokyo as opposed to the more popular Shibuya, Ginza or Shinjuku districts. In saying that, at least I was forced to learn Tokyo’s initially confusing subway system very quickly. Plus, staying in a relatively quiet district meant that I would be forced to sleep early rather than get distracted by lights, bars, restaurants and cheap whisky bars.
Despite my hotel being on a quiet street, there was no shortage of eateries within walking distance – as was the case almost everywhere in Japan. It was a bit chilly that night so when I came across a ramen restaurant, I knew that a steaming bowl of noodles would hit the spot.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Ramen Yamagoya is a ramen franchise famous all over Asia and I just happened to walk into one of Japan’s many branches. It was close to 11PM but the place was still happenin’ with a few solo diners polishing off the last dregs of their ramen. I was nervous because this would be the first time I’d be ordering food in Japan but thank goodness for menus with photos and English translations, hey.
Mukashi ramen ¥870
I ordered the default ramen, with the barest of trimmings – sliced chashu (roast pork), boiled egg, dried seaweed and pickled bamboo shoots.
The word ‘mukashi’ means ‘old school’ in Japanese and the menu described the pork bone broth as being ‘nostalgic-style’ – whatever that meant. Regardless, this simple bowl of ramen was amazing. It might have been a chain restaurant ramen but it certainly beat any ramen I’ve tasted in Melbourne; the broth was teaming with so much flavour and depth and the noodles beautifully chewy. Everything was perfect, from the buttery slices of roast pork to the gooey egg. Best of all, it was the perfect portion size to stave off my massive hunger pangs (after all, I flew Jetstar and didn’t bring enough food for the entire flight – silly me).
I never got to visit another Ramen Yamagoya in Japan but that was fine because I got to try heaps of other wonderful ramen places. Best of all, there are Ramen Yamagoya restaurants in Jakarta so I know where I’ll be getting my fix when I’m there in just over two weeks’ time.