I’m sorta taking today (Saturday) off- I’ve been on the move just about every day since I got to Japan and my feet have given up. I’ve actually been cooking more than I thought I would be, mainly because when calculating whether I’d rather fire up the rice cooker or walk another half-mile and back or so to find a restaurant, I’m usually going to fire up the rice cooker.
Haven’t done anything truly exciting on this front so far. One thing in common that I see a lot in Japanese restaurants is that they are often “participatory”. If you are familiar with the ‘sushi boat’ type sushi places (kaitenzushi, which means ‘rotating sushi’) you kinda know what I’m talking about. Then you have all the theme restaurants and the korean BBQ, shabu-shabu, etc places where you cook the food yourself at the table. I went to a korean BBQ place in Shibuya the other day that was mighty tasty.
There’s also a bunch of places that are ticket-based. You buy a ticket for what you want at a vending machine outside the restaurant, give it to an employee when you come in, and then they bring you what you ordered. I’m still a little puzzled about this setup- the only reasons I can think to do it this way is a) cash and inventory management – instead of having to invest in a computerized infrastructure to manage the money and track how many bowls of this kind of ramen are purchased, they use tickets to do the same thing (and to some extent prevents shrinkage of employees giving out free beers to their buddies I guess), or b) it front-loads the process – most of these places are in busier areas: in train stations or near popular tourist destinations, and instead of having employee time and tables taken up by people deciding what they want, all of that is done before entering the establishment.
Either way, even with my basic knowledge of Japanese vis-a-vis food, restaurants have been a bit of a challenge. I went with one of my classmates up to Nagoya yesterday. At a ticket-based curry restaurant inside the station (Nagoya station is huge, and has a bunch of restaurants for commuters inside), and I got the spicy beef curry and a ‘premium beer’ from their ticket machine. I didn’t read closely enough, and got the alcohol-free beer, which of course defeats the purpose.
“Conbini” is the Japanese word for convenience store. Since they don’t have a ‘v’ sound, the transliteration is ‘conbiniensu sutoa’, and they love to shorten words, especially transliterated ones, so it’s just ‘conbini’. Japan’s conbini are a sight to see. There’s at least 4 major chains here: 7-11 (of course), Family Mart (called ‘Fami-Maa’ here, again with the shortening), Lawson’s, and AM-PM. There were so many 7-11s in Japan that the franchise owner for them here bought out the 7-11 corporation, originally in Dallas. So 7-11 is now a Japanese company. Conbini here have much more of a prepared food bent than ones in the US. Where the US will have maybe a half a cooler of sad-looking egg salad sandwiches, JP ones will have an entire section of the store dedicated to sandwiches, onigiri (rice balls), bento, etc. They also often have warmers set up with various food near the front of the store.
In Tokyo, the hotel I was staying at was connected directly to a Lawson’s, so I’d often go down there for onigiri for breakfast. I’ve done the same on my way to classes, although the Family Marts here in town are slightly out of the way.
There’s a ‘full’ kitchen in my studio apt here, so I figured at the very least I should start carrying some essentials- rice, green tea, and a few other things. Full is in quotes, because it’s pretty basic. A 2-burner gas range, a sink, a medium size fridge and freezer. And then there’s a rice cooker, a frying pan, a medium sized pot, and a tea kettle. The other equation I have to look at is that I’m only here for 6 or maybe 8 weeks, so I don’t want to go out and buy a ton of stuff that I either won’t use again after that, or at best will have to schlep back to Tokyo either by hand or send for delivery. So I’ve bought a few bowls, a pair of chopsticks, some tupperware, a few glasses, some cleaning stuff and a few other implements, like a knife and some tongs. I’m sure I’ll have to spring for a few other things as I go along.
I thought I’d try my hand at cold-brewing green tea, so I’d have to buy less bottles of the Ito-En stuff that I love. Conveniently, Ito-En also sells their green tea in tea bags as well, so hopefully problem solved. I was also going to try my hand at making onigiri, because it would be far easier to have a few on hand in the morning instead of walking extra in the cold. I bought this hilarious onigiri case at Tokyu Hands, which is a store-within-a giant department store attached to Nagoya Station (there’s one or more in Tokyo, too).
Anyway, I’m not much of a cook anyway, and it’s hard to be adventurous with my level of language skills- it took me a few minutes to figure out how to work the rice cooker (all the buttons are in Japanese), not to mention making sure that the food I’m buying at the store is what I think it is. You can only stand for so long in front of a display case in a Japanese grocery store with the product in one hand and your iPhone dictionary in the other.
The gas range thing in my kitchen also has a grill slot of some sort for grilling meat, so I bought some strips of pork with dreams of having homemade grilled pork. This morning, I fired up the rice cooker and started up the gas grill, and smoke started pouring out of it. I turned it and the gas off, but the damage had been done. My smoke alarm started going off. At 8.30 in the morning on a Saturday. I’m sure my neighbors were thrilled with me. I’ll have to figure out how to clean or burn off whatever is going on there. I ended up just frying the pork, which pretty much turned it into bacon. That over a bowl of rice turned it into my first attempt at Bacon Donburi (donburi is a japanese dish of ‘something over rice’). It was pretty tasty as all fried pork dishes tend to be.
No other super plans for food here, aside from exploring town more to see what’s what. There’s a coffee house nearby that also apparently serves okonomiyaki, which is like a thick japanese crepe with various stuff in it — it’s often called a japanese pancake, but it’s less straight forward than that. I haven’t tried either of the coffee houses on campus either. In the next few weeks, I’m gonna have to start mounting some travel campaigns to Kyoto and other points south. I might as well while I’m down here.
Okay, gotta get some studying done.