One of the many famous Japanese dishes that might not have made it abroad yet is the okonomiyaki, a dish whose name translates roughly as “cook it as you like it”. It is basically batter, vegetabels, eggs and anything you like to put on it, mixed and fried as a huge pancake on a hotplate or in a frying pan. The most classic okonomiyaki is the style championed in Osaka and western Japan but there is one big local contender up there: the Hiroshima Style Okonomiyaki. The main differences is the that they fry up a pancake first, then add noodles. In Hiroshima they are also very particular about their sauce, and the most well known classic Hiroshima style sauce is the one made by Mitsuwa Foods.
The Okonomimura is a premier tourist location in Hiroshima visited by almost everyone that comes to Hiroshima. It is a four story building crammed with okonomiyaki restaurants, most seating only between 6-15 people. The origin of the building dedicated to okonomiyaki can be traced back to a street of food vendors that put up their stalls there in 1950, only five years after the atomic bomb blast. It is not very far from the epicenter either. In 1967 the street vendors were moved into a building on the initiative of okonomiyaki entrepenur Mr. Yoshida. The present building dates back to 1992 but it already looks much older.
There are 27 restaurants to chose from inside, and I picked the Kaeruttei (かえるっ亭) on the 4th floor. The name means Frog Palace and the owner explained to me that he was stumped for a good name when he was opening the shop many years ago. In his home he had a large frog statue that he was planning to move to the restaurant and someone suggested they name it after that. The frog statue can still be seen in the shop. The word for frog in Japanese, Kaeru, is also the same as the word “to return”, which in this case might be good for business. I certainly will return the next time I visit Hiroshima!
After last week’s Whiskey post I feel I should balance things up a little and introduce this non-alcoholic beer! This brand from Suntory, as well as another one from Kirin has really been life savers at many a recent corporate drinking parties here in Japan. I am not a big drinker and I have no interest in keeping up with the Japanese (who despite persistent rumors to the contrary are generally incredibly strong drinkers) but the social pressure on “having another one” can be very strong, and to save face both for myself and my drinking buddies, as well as saving my health and my ability to walk upright the following two or three days I have secretly made sure the waiter brought me these beers on many occasions. They taste 99% similar to ordinary beer although beer fiends from all over the world ridicule me for drinking these I hold that although they taste slightly different it is no way worse or better than ordinary beer.
The Japanese culture of drinking together goes very deep and they even have a portmanteau word for it “nominication” (飲みにケーション), nomu (to drink) + communication. It is very hard to get to know a Japanese coworker (or male friend for that matter) without going drinking with them, at least once, but ideally regularly. This is nothing new, even 1000 year old novels and stories tell of lords having drinking sessions with their vassals and warriors to test their mettle. If you work in Japan, try to work in Japan, try to form a circle of friends or take part in any sort of group activity it is not long before they break out the drinks and you’ll have to show your strength.
In defense of the Japanese though, they are truly the best drunks in the world! The general level of drinking aggression is much lower in this country, as anyone can attest who has been outside a pub at closing time, anywhere in the world. So Suntory and Kirin, I salute you for your alcohol free beer! You’ve saved my liver a lot of damage over the years!
I know I’m late to the game, but not being a big drinker I tend not to notice these trends, and although I have seen these kind of beer places around I never thought there was anything special to it. For the last three years (I think) beer companies have started running temporary beer gardens at central locations across Japan. The first I saw was a Asahi Beer place in Ginza, but here’s a Kirin one I walked past in Sendai last weekend. Their thing is that they serve super chilled beer, -2 degrees celsius to be exact, and they are hugely popular this summer, usually with lines of people waiting to get inside and cool down. I have never tried it, but some of these days I will, just to be able to say I did! I wonder if Ebisu Beer has one of these bars as well? The head on that beer makes it look more like ice-cream I think!
A couple of weeks ago I visited one of my favorite Yakitori restaurants, Sekai no Yamachan, this time in Okachimachi (or Ueno, depending on how you see it). Sekai no Yamachan is probably the most famous culinary thing to come out of Nagoya and it was in Nagoya I first tried it a few years ago. Nagoya cuisine is mostly renowned for its use of miso in everything. Sort of like the Koreans and kimchi, Nagoyans like their miso in practically everything! Unlike the miso you’ll find outside of Nagoya, this miso is a thick, spicy, rich, paste which I guess could be an acquired taste but most people will get it quickly. This restaurant is especially famous for its spicy crispy chicken wing plates, tebasaki, if you’re only going to eat tebasaki once in Japan, I think this is the place to do it. When you’re seated you’ll get you chop sticks along with an explanation of how to eat the tebasaki (in my opinion the best part is the pointy end, dry as sand and crispy to perfection), you should end up with just three thin bones! There was also a pamphlet with instructions on simple palm reading – maybe useful to break the ice in conversation?
Yamachan also runs a farm that is open to the public and I think they have a guest house offering farm stay experiences where you can try out rice cultivation by hand and other fun looking stuff, in the town of Nakatsugawa (中津川市) in Aichi prefecture. Every restaurant has a small gift shop where you can buy pretty much the perfect souvenirs for your friends back home. Just writing this blogpost has made me hungry again. Maybe it time to visit Yamachan again tonight?