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

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Food trip

I haven’t posted in a while, been busy lately but will post more recipes and stories soon. This one is about my trip last April in Southern Philippines. It was my first time in General Santos City, known as the Tuna Capital of the Philippines. Located in the island of Mindanao, which unfortunately has a bad reputation to tourists because of certain conflict areas, but generally speaking, most of the island is safe. In fact, in Region XII alone, the Department of Tourism recorded 3.1 million tourist arrivals in the region.

Greenleaf Hotel's tuna sashimi
Tuna sashimi by Greenleaf Hotel, General Santos City

General Santos is considered one of the business hubs of Mindanao. It is the southernmost city in the Philippines and is famous for tuna—its top export product. Its access to the waters of Sarangani Bay and Celebes Sea makes it a prime spot for its still growing seafood business.

The city is part of Region XII or what is also known as Soccsksargen or SOX, which is also composed of South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, and Sarangani. What the region is famous for is the food, raw export produce like pineapple, banana, and of course, tuna. Major importers of tuna is Japan and the US, while pineapple products are shipped across the globe.

Pineapple is one of Region 12's top exports because of the huge plantations of Dole Philippines
Pineapple is one of Region 12’s top exports because of the huge plantations of Dole Philippines

“We are no. 1 in Mindanao for rice production, no. 5 in the country; for corn, no. 1 in Mindanao, no. 2 in the country; for coffee, no. 1 in the Philippines. We also export meat like “pork in box,” which is exported to United Arab Emirates (UAE). Then, there’s organic rice, which is exported to UAE, Hong Kong, United States, Netherlands, and Switzerland. But two of our top exports are canned tuna and canned pineapple,” said DOT Region XII regional director Nelly Nita Dillera.

Dillera saw the potential of the food industry as a major player in the tourism sector. After the recently concluded Flavors of SOX, the region showcased several tour packages of the region that highlighted the eats instead of the usual sights. The Flavors of SOX celebration last April was the last leg of the Flavors of the Philippines, a program of DOT as part of its Philippine Food Month campaign.

Sarangani Highlands Garden tuna lechon
Tuna lechon of Sarangani Highlands Garden

The special packages include: the Gensan Tuna Food Tour, which explores the best product of the city through different offerings of several restaurants and hotels; Blaan Traditional Food Tour, a tour that immerses guests in the tradition and food of the Blaan Tribe; South Valley Food Tour, the tour that is all about the fresh fruits, which includes the abundant pineapple, that grows in the foothills of Mt. Matutum that covers Gensan and Koronadal City; Lake Sebu Culinary Experience, a territory of the T’boli tribe which is famous for its tilapia cuisine; T’boli Food Adventure highlights the traditional cuisine of the tribe; Halal Goodness that is all about the halal delicacies of Cotabato City and nearby areas; and the Gensan Agri Tour, which explores the bounty of the country’s southernmost city.

Although I was not able to experience all the tour packages, I was able to sample some of the eats and sights the region is known for.

T'boli heklafak and rice wrapped by a native leaf
T’boli’s heklafak or roasted native chicken

South Cotabato is known for its tribal roots and two tribes have opened their doors to the public so people can experience what life is like in a tribal community. Probably the most famous indigenous group in the province is the T’boli. Scattered around the province one of the tribe’s famous homes is Lake Sebu. Because of the place’s natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, it has become a prime tourist spot. The destination is famous for its natural sights but also because of the food. Several resorts and restaurants in the area offer different tilapia dishes. The fish is farmed in the lake as one of the community’s main source of livelihood.

The Blaan Traditional Food Tour, on the other hand, lets tourists experience the culture of the Blaan Tribe. Lamlifew (lam-lee-fao) Village, located in Malungon, Sarangani province, welcomes guests to its community of more than 150 households. A producer of corn, organic rice, and cavendish, the tribe is proud of its rich heritage and food. One traditional dish is the llolot anok, a tinola-like chicken dish that cooks native chicken with local herbs inside a bamboo. What’s unique about this dish is the herbs the tribe uses, which are the sangig, a mint-like herb and Blaan sibuyas, a type of chive. Both herbs grow in the mountains and the community just cultivate it in their own backyard.

Blaan's Llolot Anok, native chicken cooked inside a bamboo with special native herbs
Blaan’s llolot anok, native chicken cooked inside a bamboo with special native herbs

“What we want is Soccksargen to be part of the Philippine tourism map. What the national government promotes are the established destinations. I mean these areas can stand on their own already. If they can graduate these areas and identify the emerging destinations. If this happens a lot of the stakeholders will benefit from it. It’s not just the sights, but the food and resources we are proud of. We have so much,” Dillera ends.

Inquire: tourism@dot12.org