As we’ve pretty much come to the end of my geographical journey of Japan here in my blog, I’m now looking back on the whole experience to bring you some “bonus posts” surrounding some of my favourite cultural elements of the journey.
The first and foremost that I’d like to share with you is OBVIOUSLY going to be food based.
It was immediately obvious that meal times in Japan were a grand opposite when compared with how we scoff down our food in the West. There’s a “convenience culture” here in England where we tend to want to just grab our energy source, chomp it down, and get out there (or carry on with whatever we were doing prior to needing to satisfy our hunger).
In Japan, meal times were a prime feature of one’s day, and although fast food is an option (We saw a McDonald's in Harajuku, and for the most part you can pick up crepes on the streets pretty much anywhere), 90% of the time you are only ever going to look like a crazy person if you don't take your time over your food, and engage in some communication and enjoyment surrounding the activity.
Meals in Japan have as much love and effort put into the visuals as is put into the actual ingredients and making of the dishes. You only have to look at sushi as an example, right? It's an art form, and appreciated as such.
For over 100 years, a quirky little aspect of shopping around for your lunch or supper at a restaurant has continued to be displayed throughout the main streets of Japan, called "Sampuru" meaning "Sample Food". I never would have believed it until I saw it with my own eyes, but these life size wax models of examples of dishes displayed in restaurant windows to tempt you inside are a masterpiece!
The first you ever see leaves you analysing and pawing over it for a good 10 minutes with awe and admiration at the fun of it all, but then you'll see 100 more as you spend more time in Japan, until eventually you get back home and wonder why you can't see what you're going to eat before you eat it anymore!
The craftsmanship which goes into these models is incredible, and amazingly accurate too! This isn't your average "perfect image" of a well stacked Big Mac on a billboard, only to then find it's completely on a wonk and spilling all of it's sauce; what you see is most definitely what you get!
This art has become so common place and well known and loved that you can buy "Sampuru" gifts and other little foodie trinkets like erasers, keyrings, and more.
Ahhh we're no strangers to bento boxes in the west now, are we? You can buy your own lunch box bentos to take to work with you. It'll be no shock for you to know that ANY train station and ANY convenience store stocks rows and rows of bento meals to grab at your convenience for your up and coming commute or rushed lunch.
Even so though, these meals may be on the "fast food" scale of convenience, but the way they are presented, as well as prepared, is spared no expense. The food within is incredibly fresh, perfectly placed, and intricately constructed (if sushi, which a lot of them are), and not smushed around like most of our Tesco value versions are (which, to be honest, you can't call them bento boxes. They're just little plastic packets of California Roll).
There are even bento boxes for the health conscious too! On our journey over to Hakone I stumbled across a "Less than 400 calorie" bento box, which was fish and fruit based.
Sorry vegetarians, but the meaty ones were a huge hit with us though. The examples below were two of our more luxurious bento purchases that we made, due to this particular stretch of the journey being a long one. Even so, they only cost us between 500-700 Yen (£3.00-£5.00).
So speaking of Sushi, Lloyd and I were incredibly lucky enough to be invited into the home of a wonderful Japanese lady to have a traditional cookery lesson! During our stay we learned how to make Maki (seaweed rolled sushi), white Miso soup, Japanese omelette, and one of our absolute favourites, vegetable Tempura.
It was such an incredible experience to immerse ourselves in such an important part of Japanese culture. Preparing and serving food to family and guests is SUCH a personal honor to the Japanese, and I even noticed how equally honored that those we were then cooking for and learning from were to be served by us!
At the end of our lesson we enjoyed our creations over gentle chatter and PLENTY OF TIME to enjoy and be thankful for every mouthful, and the effort gone into it. Our guide who took us to the lesson itself was genuinely thanking us and our host in between mouthfuls! I swear! I was getting particularly emotional myself at this point.
One of the ultimates in Japanese dining and hospitality, however, was found during out time spent in Tsumago, Koyasan, and Hakkone.
Kaiseki refers to a traditional Japanese multi-course dining experience. Kaiseki meal times typically consist of between 7 to 12 courses.
Our first experience in Tsumago (full write up can be found HERE) naturally blew us away as although we had roughly read about Kaiseki dining, we still truly didn't really know what to expect.
Every dish, as I outline in the primary post on Tsumago, was exquisite on the eye, the mouth, and in the belly. There were 11 courses of literal pieces of art served over the course of over an hour, with delightful insight into what we were eating, and any questions answered if we wanted to know more about anything at all.
There was even a little secret nibble part way through where our host wanted us to try a historical delicacy of the region before asking what it was. I ate both my share AND any remaining of Lloyd's (it was DELICIOUS), before fining out that they were bee larvee. It was SUPER sweet and moreish in my opinion, and hey, the benefits of eternal youth and beauty from the little guys was worth the try, am I right? Haha.
Just look at this Tempura though (above). Deliciously and delicately deep fried mushroom, lotus root, and courgette along with "cherry blossom" styled batter is just one example of how above and beyond the Japanese take their Kaiseki. Art! Like I said. Pure art. I really struggled to eat this up at first because it looked literally too gorgeous to want to eat, but when I tasted it, it didn't last long. The powder on the side there was a delicious wasabi salt which you could either dip your pretty tempura in, or sprinkle over the top. Yummy.
Thanks for sharing my favourite treats with me on this tasty journey of some of the Japan's finest culinary habits. I can't wait to put my memory to the test and start recreating some of the dishes in my own kitchen soon.
What would you most like to try from this little snapshot of delights? Would you dare chow down on some bee larvae too?
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