Food, like the bicycle, is everywhere. But food is not the same in Japan, as many people know. Octopus tentacles cooked in dough (delicious). Pufferfish sashimi with a side of soy sauce and wasabi (also very good). Rotten ("fermented") soy beans (part of my breakfast every day). And if you've only had instant ramen, you are missing out on one of the tastiest (if also very unhealthy) comfort foods. For some reason, Japan has tested the limits of food, and though most countries have their oddities, Japanese people seem to be particularly adept at seeking out the most fascinating ways of eating.
More than this, though, it is the Japanese enjoyment of food that is striking. When I first started watching Japanese television, I was amazed by how many shows there were about food. Of course there are cooking shows, just like in the US, but talk shows invite their guests to sample a dish; game shows, even those that don't revolve around food like Ryori no Tetsujin (or Iron Chef) will include food in the game in some fashion. Travel shows must include local eateries, and often the eatery is more important than the program's destination; sometimes, it is the destination.
And every dish is relished. With the first bite it is "uma'!" or "oishii--honto ni oishii" (both mean "tasty", "delicious"). Faces contorted in the most sublime pleasure. Women titter and blush, while men sit back and let out sighs after each bite.
When I first saw this in the US on Japanese tv there, I thought it was all a show, acting; every one of the people making these comments was a performer of some kind. But then I had my first meal here, and I too was struck by how remarkably tasty it was. I've had mediocre food here before, of course, but I don't remember being shocked at how good something was in the US more than a couple of times, whereas here I have more than once been spirited away by even quite simple fare. I'm not quick to give out compliments, a fault I'm aware of; all the more fantastic, then, is the meal that shortcuts this cynicism and grants me the unwarranted pleasure of expressing the most profound and deeply felt gratitude for good food. It is healing.
I've been introduced to hundreds of dishes, ingredients and ways of cooking here, and it would be pretty dull to list them all, I guess. But I do want to cover at least a couple of themes.
First is ramen. Like I said, if you have only had instant ramen, well, you haven't had ramen at all. Real ramen is just as bad, maybe worse for you, but if you only eat it once in a while, it satisfies like nothing else, in my opinion. There are thousands of variations, but usually there's a chicken stock or pork bone base, wheat noodles, chopped green onions, a mushroom of some kind, and a piece of pork. I'm generally vegetarian these days, but ramen is something I still get cravings for. See the movie Tampopo if you haven't yet, then go to Japan to eat the real thing. Tampopo restaurant in San Francisco's Japan town is pretty good, but not as sublime.
Next is tofu. I know, boring, right? Whatever. The problem with tofu in the US is that it is hard as rubber and couldn't soak up other ingredients if you fired at it with a shot gun. After searching for the hard stuff for about a month here, I got into momen, the slightly firm version. Cooked right, momen is fantastic by itself, but with shiitake mushrooms, a good dashi, maybe some oyster sauce, it is fantastic. And silken tofu, the really soft stuff, is very delicate and perfect with rice and bamboo shoots. Then there's atsuage, fried slabs of the rubbery stuff (you can also get silken tofu atsu age, which makes a nice, tender teriyaki steak). This is the one time I like the rubbery stuff: it's easy to make a taco/burrito filling chopped up and seasoned with some cayenne and cumin.
The next is yuba: I'm not sure how many people are familiar with it, but it is exquisite. I think they sell dried yuba in the US, but the fresh stuff is fantastic. Soy milk is cooked until a film develops; the film is skimmed and served hot, with soy sauce or some other seasoning, or as a wrapping for sushi. The texture is sort of like grilled mozzarella, but the flavor is more subtle.
Finally is the izakaya. I may have talked about it before, but an izakaya is the Japanese version of a bar. Really it is more like a family restaurant, with lots of alcohol. So you eat while you drink, a drape between you and other tables so that you and friends have privacy and can hear each other when you talk, but there is still the atmosphere of a night on the town. Often the food at an izakaya is as good as a regular restaurant, with an a la carte setup. There's no mingling, really, but these days that's not as important as it used to be. A nice place to relax and wind down after 12 hours at work.
I want to say more about food, but I think it's really, in the end, something you have to experience first hand. So try to make it to Tokyo sometime.