While often cited as one of the most delicious and varied cuisines in the world, Japanese food, referred to as washoku in Japanese, has been recently recognized for an even greater feat. Inclusion in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list places washoku on par with the theatrical arts of kabuki and noh. Renowned for its traditional respect for nature and sustainability, washoku is an art in preparing and presenting food that looks exquisite and tastes even better.
One of the key features of washoku is the reliance on fresh ingredients. Thus, depending on the season and the region within Japan, dishes can vary greatly, making the enjoyment of food a yearlong source of pleasure. Of course while the deep fried, tender batter of tempura vegetables and seafood dipped in a soy-based ten-tsuyu sauce or more elegantly enjoyed with fine quality rock salt is a classic Japanese dish that rivals even sushi for its fame, there are many other options to be had as well. The quintessential Japanese meal is called kaiseki, which is the equivalent of a multi-course meal in western fare. While originally consisting of only miso soup with 3 accompanying dishes, kaiseki today can be an elaborate gastronomical journey lasting over eight courses with themes from nature and local ingredients presented in tableware to illustrate the region, style and ingredients. A ryoukan, or Japanese style inn, is one of the best places to enjoy kaiseki, though prices generally begin in the higher range.
But the Japanese obsession with good food means that even daily meals can be exceptionally rewarding. Casual dishes such as okonomiyaki, yakitori or ramen are often the subject of heated debate regarding what venue serves the best one. Available throughout Japan, okonomiyaki is most common in the Kansai area, especially Osaka. It is flour batter mixed with cabbage and meat or seafood which you cook yourself on grills at the center of your table. The cooking is a big part of the ritual, with first-timers enjoying a helping hand from the restaurant staff. Yakitori, which literally means grilled chicken, can be almost anything skewered and cooked over coals either in a thick tare sauce or with salt. Popular varieties include chicken with leeks (negima), chicken thighs (momo) and minced chicken (tsukune), but real adventurers will want to try the heart (hatsu), liver (reba-), chicken tail (bonjiri), cartilage (nankotsu) or chicken neck (seseri). The most talked about dish in Japan is without doubt ramen. Nothing more than noodles in soup, ramen is akin to a religion for many. Soup stocks range from miso to tonkotsu (pork bones) to soy sauce with countless other ingredients used to keep the soup recipes as secret as the Colonel’s own special blend. Each area in Japan has its own particular style, and claims to offer the best in the country. While trying all of them is a difficult task, it surely won’t disappoint.
If you are looking to experience many types of dishes in a comfortable, traditional atmosphere try an izakaya or a robatayaki. Izakaya’s are something like a Japanese tavern, offering a vast menu of standard dishes and local options with beer, shochu, Japanese cocktails called sours and of course sake. Robatayaki’s are similar in that they offer a wide variety of fare and drinks, yet they generally include seats around the grilling area and are found particularly in the colder, northern climates.