7 things to expect from traditional Japanese meals

My tummy will be forever thankful to Japan for giving the world sushi, tempura, ramen, katsu, and other glorious eats. Japanese food is a favorite around the world because the cuisine is considered umami-rich, healthy, and basically an art form. The Japanese take their food seriously.

When I say the Japanese take their food seriously, I mean seriously. Presentation alone, I think the Japanese are the best at presenting and plating their food. Even the vessels the food are on are also works of art—beautiful ceramic plates, bowls, and cups are often handmade by master craftsmen. And for chefs, some take years just to master one dish. Japanese master chefs are not called masters for nothing.

I discovered in Japan that what we eat today at local Japanese restaurants is far from the traditional meals. Yes, tempura, ramen, sushi, etc. are common dishes in the Land of the Rising Sun, but you haven’t truly eaten Japanese food until you try the traditional meals.

So, for people traveling to Japan for the first time and really want to try authentic Japanese fare, I will give you a list of what to expect from them.

Traditional Japanese setup
The beautiful dining setup at Bizenya restaurant in Goju

1. Traditional dining setup

You might already know this but traditional Japanese restaurants don’t have regular tables and chairs. Instead, a table that is low and close to the floor and pillows or legless chairs to sit on. Don’t worry because sitting on tatami mats is very comfortable even without pillows.

And a reminder, shoes are not allowed inside traditional restaurants. Eateries usually have shelves or shoe racks at the entrance and sometimes they provide guests with slip-ons so you can walk around the restaurant. But the dining area is still off limits to any kind of footwear.

Ready
Cold appetizers would be waiting for you on the table.

2. The food is ready on the table

The starters are already ready on the table before you even enter the restaurant especially if you or your tour guide reserved and ordered ahead of time. A typical Japanese meal starts with several amuse bouche or small portions of appetizers (mostly cold) like salad, pickles, vegetables, tamago (egg) omelet, grilled fish, sashimi, just to name a few.

Mini squid specialty
Toyama’s mini squid delicacy

3. Delicacies and exotic dishes

Speaking of appetizers, depending on where you are in Japan, there are certain specialties to try. When we were in Toyama, Toyama Prefecture, the city’s specialty is a type of tiny squid native to Toyama Bay. This squid is steamed or boiled then served cold with some kind of sour sauce. It’s very briny (not salty) but very fishy. I did not like this one that much.

Another are these small white fish sashimi in Goju. It is mixed in with herbs and pickles. Again, it was too fishy for me. These dishes are for people with an acquired taste.

There are however more delicious things than dishes I didn’t like. I loved the grilled fish, salad, seaweed pickles (or something), blanched green vegetable with crushed peanuts, egg omelet slices, various pickled vegetables, among others.

Cooking your main dish
Hot dish on the table

4. Cook your own main dish

At every restaurant we dined in, we always cooked the main dish on the table. A small pot or pan is usually situated on the side of your starter plate. What’s inside is raw fish or meat in a broth or sauce with whatever ingredients the dish may accompany. The pot is usually on top of a small ceramic or metal “stove” with some kind of burner the size of a small candle. The meat are usually sliced thinly for quick cooking.

This actually was quite a nice experience because we were able to cook the meat according to our liking. My favorite was the Hida beef dish at Irori restaurant in the heritage village Shirakawa-go. Slices of beef, tofu cubes, chopped scallions, bean sprouts (not sure but it may be soy bean sprouts), and miso paste on a bed of dry but soaked in oil ho leaf. It was so good. Hida beef is a kind of high grade cattle meat like Kobe.

Various starters
Small but several portions

5. A meal is composed of several courses

Most of the restaurants we dined in are very fine dining-esque. The dishes come in courses. After the appetizers and while waiting for your main dish to cook, several dishes would come one after another like a plate of sashimi then a bowl of soba noodles then a bowl of miso soup then a bowl of rice then the dessert.

You would think that the meals have small portions but there are several dishes—six to seven courses! You’ll get full but you won’t get that bloated feeling.

rice
A Japanese meal is not complete without rice.

6. Rice comes in late

Like Chinese lauriat, rice arrives towards the end of the meal, usually served with a bowl of miso soup. The rice bowl comes before the dessert. Just be prepared because during our first meals, we were surprised when the rice was served last after we already downed the main dishes. Though some restaurants serve noodles instead of rice and sometimes both.

But like good Filipinos we are, we usually order the rice in advance so we can eat it with the main dish. You can ask politely and they will oblige. But in a non-traditional setting, rice is usually served along with all the dishes.

tempura
Mixed tempura served with fine wasabi salt

7. It gets really authentic

Japanese cuisine outside Japan is already modified one way or another. We were served tempura in two meals and both times, no dipping sauce was served with it. Gasp! We are used to the sweet, soy, and gingery sauce of tempura served here in the Philippines. Traditionally, however, termpura is only served with a small plate of fine salt. Sometimes, the salt are flavored with various herbs and other spices.

When in Japan, expect real wasabi and not the bright green kind that comes in a tube. The real wasabi has a lighter green color, is more moist, and has bits and pieces of the root. The spice doesn’t linger and smoother compared to the fake ones.

So there you go! If you’re traveling to Japan, make sure to try some traditional fare. You’ll really discover how the Japanese really take their food seriously.

Jetstar offers low fares to Nagoya and flies four times weekly from Manila / www.jetstar.com

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Beautiful Japan and its colorful food

Colorful in the literal sense but also colorful in terms of flavor, presentation, and texture. Japan has one of the best cuisines in the world and the best way to try this is by visiting the country itself.

I was lucky enough to visit the Land of the Rising Sun last month with a group of bloggers and journalists. It was my first time in Japan. And as I said it in previous posts, it is a dream destination for me.

Sakura in Magome
Sakura in Magome

So when my editor texted me (almost two months ago) if I was available to cover a familiarization tour (FAM tour) to Japan, to say that I was excited was an understatement. I was excited to see this beautiful country, which is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. I was excited to experience the country’s world-famous culture, both past and present. I was excited to taste the food—sushi, ramen, sashimi, tempura, udon, katsu, etc.

The destination was Central Japan, yes we toured not just one city but an entire region. Nagoya was our entry point via Jetstar, the organizer of the trip. The Japanese low cost airline started its flights to the Philippines last year and MNL-NGO (Nagoya) is one of its routes.

Nagoya TV Tower and Central Park from Oasis 21 all viewing platform
Nagoya TV Tower and Central Park from Oasis 21 mall viewing platform

Nagoya is home to around 30,000 Filipino residents. It is also the entry point to Japan’s heartland.

Before we get to the food, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the highlights of the trip.

Matsumoto Castle, the oldest castle in Japan
Matsumoto Castle, Japan’s oldest castle

Matsumoto Castle in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, is the oldest castle in Japan, built between 1593 and 1594. Made of wood, stone, and clay, it’s one of Japan’s best symbols of building skill and design. It’s one of the most beautiful castles to photographs, because the Japanese Alps play as its stunning backdrop.

World Heritage site Shirakawa-go
UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO world heritage site located in Gifu Prefecture. The small village is famous for its gassho-zukuri-style thatched roof houses. Situated in a valley up in the mountains, the village is surrounded by hills with lush forests, that is why one of the best seasons to visit is autumn. Wintertime is also best, when snow beautifully covers the thatched roofs.

The famous road of Alpine Route with snow walls on both sides
The famous highland road of Tateyama Alpine Route, flanked by snow walls on both sides

Alpine Route on Tateyama mountain (part of the Japanese Alps) in Toyama Prefecture is one of the most visited spots in Japan and now I can see why. It is famous for the mountain road that is sandwiched between towering snow walls. Located at 2,450 meters above sea level, Tateyama experiences some of the heaviest snowfalls in the world. Workers clear up the highland road of snow every winter but snow still accumulates on each side of the road. Parts of the wall can even reach up to 20 meters high! Best part of the visit was the travel route because of the stunning views left and right like the picture perfect Kurobe Dam. This attraction opens every spring.

Different varieties of begonias
One of several pavilions at Nabana no Sato that houses different varieties of South American begonias.

Nabano no Sato is a garden park at Nagashima Resort. Located in Kuwana in Mie Prefecture, less than an hour away from Nagoya City, the park displays indigenous and imported flora and fauna. The current displays include an exhibition of beautiful begonias of South America; field of tulips; and the Winter Illumination light installation.

Now to the important stuff—the food. As you guys already know, I love Japanese food. So to go the place where it originated was such an amazing experience.

For most of the trip, we were treated to traditional Japanese meals, except on the last day. This means no bowls of ramen or tendon or curry or fluffy cheesecakes or strawberry shortcakes.

Since we were in the countryside, the food were very traditional. I will only mention meals and restaurants that stood out for me, after all, there was a lot of food during the five-day trip.

Magomeya restaurant in Magome
Magomeya’s dining space

First eatery is Magomeya in Magome, Gifu Prefecture. The restaurant is located behind the bus parking space at the foot of the famous Nakasendo Route in Magome. It has a simple and traditional dining space but has an amazing view of the mountains.

The food here are set meals that comes with a bento box of starters, soup, soba noodles, rice, and dessert. In our bento box was a variety of proteins like karaage (Japanese fried chicken), braised fish, and egg omelet. It also has a mix of vegetable pickles and seaweed. The miso soup is like no other miso soup I ever had. It’s filled with ingredients like daikon, carrot, thinly sliced pork, and green onions. The broth is very flavorful and perfectly seasoned (this was so good!).

Magomeya set meal
Magomeya’s delicious set meal

The soba noodles was also a meal on its own. The perfectly cooked buckwheat noodles (chewy but still has a bite) was swimming in a warm dashi broth with a mix of mushrooms and green onions. To finish, a simple not-so-sweet jelly dessert with fresh fruits is the perfect light ending to a delicious meal.

Irori hida beef
Irori’s Hida beef cooked on a ho leaf

Another must-try restaurant is Irori in Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture. The eatery in this heritage village serves Japanese meals in its most traditional form. This includes slices of beef cooked on a ho (local tree) leaf with miso paste, tofu, bean sprouts, and green onions. This was, for me, the best beef dish during the trip! What’s even better is the restaurant uses Hida beef, one of Japan’s high grade cattle meats (in the level of Kobe beef). The set meals also comes with the usual starters like vegetables, smoked fish, tofu, and a bowl of rice.

Dinner setup at Bizenya restaurant in Gujo
Bizenya’s traditional dining setup

Then there’s Bizenya in Gujo City in Gifu Prefecture. The restaurant has a beautiful traditional garden and has a traditional dining setup. The restaurant’s setup lets its diners sit on cushioned legless chairs on the floor, covered with the very comfortable tatami mat. The beautifully presented meal has the usual starters. Note that appetizers vary per restaurant.

Fresh sashimi
Uber fresh sashimi
Tempura
Traditional tempura is served with plain or flavored fine salt

Bizenya served us a variety of starters including extremely fresh sashimi (tuna, salmon, etc.) and steamed sea snail. The restaurant also served mixed tempura. At this point I discovered that tempura is originally served with plain or flavored fine salt and not the sweet ginger-soy dipping sauce we Filipinos are familiar with. The main dish is the beef (Hida, no less) sukiyaki, which we had to cook on the table by ourselves.

Hitsumabushi unagi
Hitsumabushi Bincho’s grilled unagi

The last memorable meal for me was the bowl of unagi at Hitsumabushi Bincho at La Chic mall in Sakae area in Nagoya City. Nagoya is famous for its unagi or freshwater eel. The restaurant chain serves the grilled unagi on a bed of rice and different condiments including dashi broth. This dish can be eaten in three ways—as it is; with nori, green onions, and wasabi; and with dashi broth. Diners can divide the big bowl of unagi and eat it however they like. Personally, I like the nori-green onionswasabi combination.

Traditional Japanese food is what I expected it to be—clean, beautiful, and flavorful. Some dishes may be for an acquired taste but most are overflowing with umami goodness. I will detail what to expect from traditional Japanese meals on my next post. And also watch out for what food souvenirs to buy in Japan.

You can also read my Manila Bulletin Lifestyle article here.

Jetstar offers low fares to Nagoya and flies four times weekly to Manila / www.jetstar.com