Okonomiyaki

Grilled as you like it

Nagasaki, Unzen, and Shimabara July 20, 2010

Our next stop in Kyushu was Nagasaki. We had a pleasant morning stroll in the Teramachi district.

That’s a big pot! It might be hard to tell from the photo, but you could probably fit about ten of me in this pot. You can see a tiny person wearing a pink shirt in the background, that’s how big this pot is.

After our stroll we headed to Chinatown. We had Nagasaki’s famous “Chinese” noodle dishes, sara udon and champon. The noodle dishes were pretty forgettable, in fact, they seemed to be the same toppings on top of different noodles.

But while we were waiting for seats in the restaurant for lunch, we had some buta-kakuni buns that were very tasty.

The next day we headed out early in the morning to Unzen Onsen. Like Beppu, Unzen also has an area called a “hell,” where sulfurous water and steam bubble from the ground. Most of the hell is pretty dry these days, and crisscrossed with pipes and hoses that siphon the hot water off to the onsen hotels.


a ghostly tree in Unzen

In some spots steam vents out of the ground. Spiky yellow sulfur crystals form around the mouth of the fissure.


A basket of eggs cooks on top of a steam pipe

As at any onsen with a healthy number of tourists, they’ve devised a way to use the onsen’s heat to cook eggs to sell. This pipe basically vents steam directly out of the ground. Top it with a basket of eggs and a towl and you’ve basically got yourself a little egg-oven.

After Unzen we headed to Shimabara, which is just a short bus ride away. Shimabara is known as a city of water, with many famous canals, fountains, and springs. Koi are a famous symbol of the town.

First we enjoyed a lunch of guzoni at Himematsuya. Guzoni is the famous dish of Shimabara, a filling soup made with eel, fu (wheat gluten), kamaboko (fish cake), chikuwa (more fish cake), tamagoyaki (egg), shiitake, hakusai (napa cabbage), lotus root, gobo (burdock), chicken, mitsuba, and of course mochi (those are the white rice cakes on top of the soup in the picture). Mmm… if you find yourself in Shimabara, definitely try some guzoni.

After lunch we walked around to see the sights in Shimabara. First we went to Shimabara castle. Then we went to the city of swimming carp and the Hama-no-kawa spring.


Aren’t these funny looking birds cute?

Interested in Nagasaki, Unzen, and Shimabara? Check it out here: http://www.ngs-kenkanren.com/eng/cs3.html
http://www.city.shimabara.lg.jp/english/003.html

See more from our trip at Alex’s photoblog: Nagasaki and Unzen and Shimabara

 

Ippudo ramen in Hakata June 26, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 4:10 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,


Ippudo’s honten kasane aji ramen

After Beppu we were off to Nagasaki, but not before changing trains in Fukuoka/Hakata. It was around dinner time, so we decided to try one more time to find the Ippudo Honten. Ramen is one of my favorite foods when traveling in Japan for many reasons. First of all, it’s hard to mess it up, so wherever you find a ramen shop, you are almost sure to find a good meal. It’s also filling yet affordable. And finally, it’s one of those foods that will be hard to find once we go back to America, so we had better enjoy it while we can. Ippudo is a famous chain of Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen shops, and we often stop in at their Ueno location for lunch when we’re on the way to the airport.

I had read in the Japan Times that the original shop has a honten-only tonkotsu made with additions of caramelized onions and chicken broth that sounded worth searching out.

We already knew where one location in the Tenjin district was, so we stopped in there to get directions to the honten.


the hand-lettered menu


Hakata pork bun: a quick and cheap snack

They directed us a few blocks down the way. We found this location. The long line of guidebook-in-hand customers snaking out the door was a good sign that we were on the right track…

…but the fact that the shop had two stories should have been a dead giveaway that this couldn’t be the original shop! When it was our turn to be seated, the host kindly told us that we were in the wrong place and showed us a small map to the honten that was affixed to the outside wall of the restaurant (but obscured by the long line of customers). The real honten was actually still a block away.


Ippudo Honten

Aha! Finally, we found it on the third try. Of course there was a line here too, and this location was much smaller, so it wasn’t moving as quickly. We were starting to feel pretty hungry, but we were inside soon enough.


bowls waiting to be filled with ramen goodness


help yourself to some pickles


hitokuchi (one bite) gyoza

Of course, we had to get the honten kasane aji ramen since it was what we had come all this way for. We also got an order of hitokuchi gyoza to snack on. The honten kasane aji ramen came topped with not just onions, soft-boiled eggs, nori, and charshu pork slices, but also sliced vegetables, naruto (fish cake) and mini wontons. Don’t make the mistake of ordering your soup and noodles “futsuu” (average); instead I always ask the waiter “osusume wa?” (what do you recommend) and get it that way. This is how I learned to order the noodles on the hard side. The noodles continue to cook in the hot ramen broth, so they’ll be too soft and plump by the time you’re finished if they’re already average to begin with. So what’s the verdict on honten kasane aji ramen? I think it was indisputably worth the trouble.


I love the slogan on the staff T-shirts: your happiness of eating this ramen makes us happy

While you’ll have to go to Hakata to try the honten kasane aji ramen, you can enjoy Ippudo’s other ramens (I recommend the akamaru) here in Gunma at their new(ish) Takasaki location:
群馬県高崎市上大類町809番地1号 | Gunma-ken, Takasaki-shi, Kamioorui-machi 809-1

 

Beppu June 24, 2010


Takegawara Onsen, Beppu

We headed off to Beppu on the Sonic limited express train. The hotel had a nice outdoor onsen on the rooftop so we could enjoy the view of the stars and the hot bath. In the morning we checked out of our hotel and walked along the shore (which was lined with giant concrete erosion control “jacks”) before walking to Takegawara Onsen. Takegawara is a historic onsen that dates back to 1879. There we took a sand bath: you dress in a cotton yukata, lay down in the hot sand, and the bath attendants bury you up to your chin in steaming hot sand. You lay under the sand until you feel just a little bit cooked and just a little bit crushed, before they tell you to wriggle out of the sand and rinse off in the bath. Unfortunately by the time my “bath” was finished, the morning sun was shining right in my eyes, so I had to close them. The feeling is uniquely oppressive yet refreshing.

After the bath we hopped on a bus to see some of Beppu’s famed jigoku (“hells”). The first one we arrived at was Hon-bozu Jigoku (Real Monk’s Hell), which is managed independently of the other hells. The jigoku is named for the hot bubbling mud that resembles a monk’s shaven head, and the historical  handout that we got said that when the geyser first opened up during an earthquake there was a monastery on the site and the monk was tossed into the air by the hot steam (I hope that part is just a legend). In any case, the muddy hills were pretty cool to look at so I would definitely recommend this jigoku.

There was also a spot where volcanic gases vented out from under a rock. Lots of people have left their coins here and the 5 and 10 yen coins turn an impressive shade of violet.

Next we walked downhill to Umi jigoku (Sea Hell). This hell was very popular but also very beautiful. The water is a beautiful aqua shade. There are some torii that lead to a small shrine. Onsen tamago in a basket suspended from a bamboo pole cook in the main pond.


onsen tamago

In addition to the main pond there is a large, emerald green pond. In the pond you can see lotus flowers and giant lily pads which are apparently large enough to float small children on.


Umi Jigoku’s Chinoike

There is also a mini Chinoike (Blood Pond) there. Although it was small, on that day this Chinoike was much more impressive than the real thing.


the real Chinoike

Unfortunately, it was really sunny that day so the jigoku were not at their photogenic best. The steam rising from the ponds was a little thin and a lot of them were just plain old boring. I’d say that Umi Jigoku was the best value and Hon-bozu Jigoku was pretty interesting. Bozu Jigoku, next to Umi Jigoku, was a huge disappointment and hardly seemed worth the 400 yen entrance fee. Shiraike Jigoku was just ok, but might be better on a cooler day. Chinoike Jigoku seems to have potential, but was pretty boring on a sunny day.

Of course our day in Beppu wasn’t all hells an photo-taking. We also stopped to enjoy some snacks. I wanted to try the onsen tamago at Umi Jigoku, but unfortunately they’re sold 5 at a time. I didn’t really want to eat 5 boiled eggs so we had some ice cream and an onsen steamed custard (it was just ok). Outside of Shiraike Jigoku, some vendors were selling eggs cooked with onsen steam by the piece, so we bought some. They were much firmer than the onsen tamago that I’m used to (I suppose that makes sense, steam is hotter than most onsen water) and pretty bouncy (well done). I suppose in the end it’s just a novelty, but it was a pretty tasty snack. We also found a shop selling moromi soft serve. Moromi is a kind of chunky, whole-grained relative of miso that is often used as a vegetable dip. It’s a little sweet and tastes a lot like miso. So how was moromi soft serve? Pretty good, actually.

 

Silver Week in Kyushu: Hakata/Fukuoka June 19, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 11:25 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,


Fukuoka’s yatai street

September in Japan has the public holidays Respect for the Aged Day and the Autumnal Equinox. Respect for the Aged Day always falls on a Monday, while the Autumnal Equinox always falls on September 23rd. If, by a quirk of the calendar, there is only one day in between them, a new holiday called Kokumin-no-hi (People of the Nation’s Day) is created. Well, last year, just such a day occurred. Like Golden Week in the spring, many people used this extra-long holiday (which became known as Silver Week) as an opportunity to travel. We took Thursday and Friday off too and took a whirlwind tour of Kyushu.

First off, we flew into Fukuoka, which is also known as Hakata. They used to be two cities but are now one. It seems that they haven’t been able to settle on a name yet (Officially it’s Fukuoka, but the train station is Hakata). We had an afternoon to see the city before heading off to the hot spring town of Beppu.


A very narrow building along the river

We caught a bus to get to an area called Bayside Place. Wikitravel had recommended it as a good place to go for a date… well, not so much. As far as we could tell it was closed for renovations… or maybe just closed. The Hakata Port Tower is in the same area, so we went up to the top for the view. After enjoying the scenery we came back down and walked back to the downtown area.

Now we were getting hungry. Since we were in the Tenjin area, we stopped into an Ippudo Ramen that we passed, seeing if it was the honten (original store). It was not, so we appeased our stomachs with a Hakata pork bun before heading back out in search of food.


Hakata pork buns


waiting for a seat to open up at a yatai

Hakata/Fukuoka is known for it’s yatai, which are open air food stands like the ones you see at festivals. We went walking along the yatai street at Nakasu looking for something to eat. It was really crowded, so we found one where the wait seemed reasonable and enjoyed a bowl of Tonkotsu ramen. Tonkotsu is Hakata’s famous style of ramen made with a thick, white, pork bone broth, thin noodles, and slices of pork.


tonkotsu ramen

After dinner we went walking through the colorful Canal City shopping center before catching our train.


Canal City


Canal City

See more from Fukuoka at Alex’s photoblog

 

Ivan Ramen May 22, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Japan — laurel @ 10:07 pm
Tags: , , , , ,


shoyu ramen

On my second try I made it to Ivan Ramen, the Tokyo ramen shop owned by transplanted New York chef Ivan Orkin that has received lots of favorable attention from both bloggers and newspapers such as The Japan Times and even New York Times. So why was it my second try? Well, the first time I went, I showed up in time for dinner on a Saturday, only to find that they’re only open for lunch on weekends. So next time I was in Tokyo I was sure to get there at lunchtime. And I wasn’t the only one. There was a line of hungry customers stretching back into the adjacent alley. As we waited for a seat at the cozy counter inside, we passed around a menu to whet our appetites. With just 10 seats around the bar, it was sure to be a long wait, and my stomach was really rumbling by the end.

Once seated, I ordered the slow-roasted garlic mazemen and Alex got the shoyu ramen. We also split the roasted tomato meshi, which was more food than we needed, but it looked so good that I really wanted to try it. Ivan was really friendly, chatting with us while he made our ramen.


slow roasted garlic mazemen with everything (charshu, hanjuku tamago, onions, and ao-nori)

Mmm… A taste of these delicious dishes revealed that it was worth the wait, but next time I think I’ll try to show up a little earlier to beat the crowd.


roasted tomato meshi

 

Oden April 18, 2010

Winter is over, but the recent cold and rainy weather means it’s still a great time to enjoy oden, a long simmered mix of root and sea vegetables, eggs, tofu, and fishcakes that is sometimes referred to as Japanese comfort food. A steaming pot of oden is a great day to warm up on a cold day, so it can really get you through the winter. Another great thing about oden is that it’s even better on the second day, after all of the bits have had time to soak up the broth overnight. So you can put together the oden on a weekend when you’ve got time, park it in the fridge for a night or two, and then reheat it to enjoy it during the week.

I made oden for a party, but when you’re making oden for eight the hardest part might just be finding a pot that’s big enough to simmer all that stuff in. I made do with a two-pot arrangement where I used one pot to blanch the age-mono (fried things like fish cakes, fried tofu, and tofu pouches which need to be simmered to remove the frying oil), konnyaku, and boil the eggs and a second, broth-filled pot. When I had finished blanching ingredients and boiling eggs I split the broth into two pots and simmered all of the ingredients for about 3 hours. In fact, even with my two largest pots, there wasn’t quite enough room to fit the eggs in the pot, so I just put them into the storage containers to absorb the flavor of the broth overnight. Actually, this proved to be a stroke of luck because the eggs were flavorful but still had a nice, slightly soft orange yolk since they didn’t simmer for so long with the rest of the goodies.

So there’s about half of my party oden at the top of the page: two types of age kamaboko, konnyaku triangles, daikon, carrot-gobo kamaboko, shiitake mushrooms, thick fried tofu, hampen, boiled eggs, shirataki bundles, chikuwa, age-tofu pouches filled with mochi or egg and tied with kampyo, shrimp surimi balls, and kombu. My favorites are the carrot-gobo kamaboko, eggs, shirataki, and stuffed age-tofu pouches. Another tasty idea from Jiman no Nabe Ryori is Nagoya style oden made with the usual suspects, plus skewered beef tendon and a rich, Hatcho miso broth.

Typically oden is served with sinus-searing karashi mustard, but not being partial to such an intense burn, I also mixed up a slightly sweeter and milder mustard-miso mix to go with mine. (more…)

 

Miso in the mail April 15, 2010

Filed under: Cooking,Eating,Japan — laurel @ 10:49 pm
Tags: , , ,

If you live outside Japan, you might be tempted to believe (due to the selection that’s available at most stores) that miso comes in two varieties: white and red. Well think that no more. Miso, a fermented paste of soy beans, salt, and koji (a special kind of mold that is usually used by inoculating rice or barley), is a delicious and many-flavored thing. There are so many different varieties that vary by regional tastes and traditions. Basically, Kyushu is home to mugi miso made with barley, different varieties of kome miso made with rice are found across Honshu, and Nagoya is the birthplace of the slightly funky-tasting all-soybean Hatcho miso. In addition to color (varying shades of brown, but usually described as white or red) miso can be classified by it’s texture, level of sweetness to saltiness, and flavorfulness. Many misos are associated with the region they originated in: Saikyo (Kyoto), Echigo (Niigata), Edo-mae (Tokyo), Akita, Shinshu (Nagano), Sendai, and the list continues. Most families keep at least two types to mix their own special blend, called awase miso.

A glowing review in the Japan Times led me to Sano Miso in Tokyo’s Kameido neighborhood. I love seeing their rows of miso barrels with their conical lids, ready to be lifted for a whiff of the miso’s fragrance. The sales staff helpfully made recommendations and would mix up quick cups of miso soup so that I could taste and compare the flavors. There are so many varieties, so it’s really necessary to taste a few before you make your decision. In addition to miso, the store stocks other pantry necessities like dried kombu, katsuo flakes, soy sauces, vinegars, and so on. I highly recommend the giant, delicious, and not too sour umeboshi and the jidai mame, peanuts with a sweet, crunchy coating.

At first, I would stop in when I was in Tokyo on other business, but the train ride out to Kameido and back wasn’t exactly quick. On my last visit, I asked if I could get my miso by mail order. What luck, they gave me their catalog and their web address. Not only can I have my miso delivered right to my door, but with shipping all over Honshu just 290 yen, mail order costs less than a round trip on the train. How wonderful!

After poring over the descriptions of each miso (and finishing the miso that I still had from my previous visit to the Kameido store), I prepared my order. I settled on 500 grams each of red Kogane miso, white Kogane miso, Nagasaki mugi miso, and Sendai miso, along with a case of amazake and a few bags of jidai mame. My order arrived just a few days later with a bill to be paid at the convenience store. And the miso? Fantastic–my favorites are the red Kogane miso and Nagasaki mugi miso, both of which are sweet and flavorful. (I have been very happy with all of the miso that I’ve bought from Sano Miso, with the one exception being their Saikyo miso, which seemed too mild and a bit floury tasting.)


500 grams each (left to right) of white Kogane miso, Nagasaki mugi miso, red Kogane miso, and Sendai miso.

I store my miso in 450 mL glass storage jars from Muji (the stackable rectangular shape fits in the refrigerator more efficiently). I was surprised that I could fit 500 grams of miso in a 450 mL container (with room to spare) until I realized that the salt used to produce the miso makes it somewhat more dense than water. Not surprisingly, the saltiest of the four, Sendai miso, takes up the least space.

If you’re interested in ordering some miso for yourself (in Japan of course), start from Sano Miso’s website. Even if you’re Japanese isn’t quite up to snuff, you can do it easily with some help from Google Translate.