I must point out that much of the credit due in my being able to become immersed and understanding this incredible country, goes to Naoko Vallebona of Vallebona Ltd. Stefano and Naoko Vallebona are some of our closest friends,(Naoko happens to be Japanese), and our regular travel companions.
As a chef and obsessive foodie, Japan has long held a superlative position on my bucket list. The history, the culture, the cuisine (the fish!), and the overall approach to food is enough of a draw for most food-admirers, let alone a family like mine. For the record, my wife Vicki, my seven-year-old daughter Rosie, my twelve-year-old son Jack, and the wonderful Vallebona clan were my travel companions and fellow food-enthusiasts on this expedition. The Vallebona tribe is made up of Naoko, Stefano, and their two boys, Nico and Rocco.
We decided to travel over Easter, partly due to weather and partly due to the possibility of seeing the short-season cherry blossoms. We didn’t fly direct—we flew to Finland before heading on to Nagoya, Japan. It’s cheaper this way and breaks up the flight for the young ones, nine hours being the (manageable) longest stretch.
We finally landed in Nagoya at 9:00am—just after 2:00am London time. With such a traumatic shift in our body clocks, we decided that the only way forward was to push on to the end and attempt to realign our internal clocks from the get-go. We took taxis, hired cars, shopped for groceries, found our shared house—booked under Air BnB—and ended up that evening in a typical Japanese hot spring bath! Naked but not afraid, the baths where natural HOT volcanic springs with varying options. An incredibly relaxing soak in the hot spring and the intense massage that followed left us all feeling well and truly whacked. What followed to round off the day was a simple yet delicious shrimp ramen: cheap, humble and utterly delicious. We had arrived!
The following day, we whetted our excitement with a morning of perusing samurai swords and Japanese knives; fun for the kids and a great way for me to stock up on some serious Japanese blades at a fraction of the price. Nagoya is the home of Misono—with the UX10 being a favourite of mine and half of the UK price.
We ate lunch on the go at a conveyer belt restaurant akin to the likes of Yo Sushi, but so much better in regards to quality and atmosphere; not to mention that a meal for eight of us with 50 plates cost ¥6000, or the equivalent of £30. Quite the introduction. I particularly loved the matcha powder on the table, adjacent to the on-tap boiling water that provided us with delicious ready-made bottomless drinks throughout the meal. We finished lunch and made our way back to the house. At this point, we are still in the countryside and enjoying a wonderfully unhurried immersion into this amazing country. We definitely felt a million miles from home.
Dinner that evening came in at the hands of At Zauo, (fishingzauo.com/english/charm), a huge restaurant near the city of Nagoya, which housed a boat (a big boat) surrounded by water replete with live fish. The fish were mainly bream, but special appearances were made by the odd ray, crab and shark (to the delight of the little ones). The kids fished for our tea; they reeled in a few of the abundant bream and within ten minutes the fish was on the table in the form of sushi. Being in a busy, bustling inner-city restaurant was a new and slightly accelerated tempo than we had been exposed to thus far. Even stranger, we found ourselves to be sitting in a restaurant where people still smoked—it definitely took me back. The bream was interesting, but slightly strange with it still being warm, and unfortunately a little shallow in flavour. We ate sea snails grilled over a table top fire, which were a little bitter at first; and I have to say, pouring a soup stock into the snail and watching it boil in front of you was a little odd. Next up was the abalone, which definitely looked appetising, but the sea was unfortunately a distant part of its history, and for me the fish here was not amazing. Overall fun and entertaining but low on the food front.
We were treated to a sake and mirin tasting at a 400-year-old sake factory near Nagoya. We sampled sake with varying degrees of fermentation, age and grades of rice. Sake is not something that I’ve ever really understood, having only ever tasted cheap sake in the UK. I came to realise that it is a fascinating product with an amazing heritage and, like wine, some outstanding varieties.
Vintage, I’m informed, does not play a part in its improvement. We were given a tour of the mirin factory floor. We came to learn that essentially, the fortified version of sake is generally used exclusively for cookery, but this particular brand was delicious and palatable on its own, and enjoyed locally as an aperitif. There was a sweet aroma to the mirin rice once it had been fermented, cooked and pressed. The leftover waste is then used to ferment vegetables. The pulp is transported off to Nuka pickling plants where salt is added and vegetables are submerged for 60-90 days. I loved these vegetables. A truly fascinating part of the trip.
The next day we headed to Himakajima, also known as Octopus Island, for lunch. After an hour’s drive followed by a 20 minute boat ride, our expectations were running high. We ate in the traditional tatami style which I physically find very awkward (but authentic), as we marched through twelve courses of boiled octopus, octopus shabu-shabu style, live prawns (peeled, dipped and devoured), hot pots, live cooked clams, sashimi bream, red fish and, only because of an excitedly made pre-order, we were able to eat the sashimi blowfish. Poisonous and only legal when prepared by a licensed chef, I enjoyed the blowfish a lot. Although it tingled quite a bit, the flavour was fresh and deep. It was served with sudachi (Japanese tiny limes) for acidity. The meal was rounded off perfectly with a rice and miso soup. I found it a fascinating way to eat a meal with no carbs until the very end; incorporated beautifully with the palette-cleansing miso. Lovely. Another naked hot bath after lunch was followed by a blissfully languid stroll along the beach to meet the returning boat.
We decided to visit Minamichita Toyohama Fish Market by the coast and were pretty taken aback when we arrived to see that the fish were being taken from live tanks and filleted to customer’s specified requests. The tanks were brimming with blow fish, lots of turtles (to my surprise), tons of seaweed products and the biggest prawns that I had ever seen. These made for great photos. We all drank cans of hot coffee gratefully made available from local vending machines which, as it turned out, were everywhere. Quite the revelation as coffee doesn’t feature highly elsewhere and my cravings for it were becoming pretty serious.
That night, we ate tonkatsu style at Isuzukan restaurant in Himakajima. Tonkatsu feels quite Western in style—with all manner of cuts being coated in panko crumbs and deep fried—but there is certainly more going on than that. This is Japanese comfort food at its core, very kid-friendly and served with unlimited sides of raw cabbage doused in a light mirin vinegar. Nothing too fancy but ultimately delicious.
The next day, it was time to leave our friends and embark on a trip to Tokyo. We took the train to Nagoya and switched to the Shinkansen, or ‘Bullet train’. Navigating the train system was a daunting thought, but thankfully in the end turned out to be quite straightforward (for Vicki). We took Naoko’s advice and brought along bento boxes and a couple of beers to satiate us during the trip. The bento was spot on, and would have been the highlight of the train ride had we not managed to catch a glance of Mount Fuji whizzing past us.
We met Naoko’s cousins in Tokyo before making our way to our serviced apartment, which was lovely and felt very city-living. My daughter and I headed out alone to buy groceries and shopped in a very Western supermarket, stocking up on wine and PG tips! Later that evening we headed to Yakitori Hachebei in Tokyo. This was to be one of the best meals of the whole trip. So simple in approach, yet so bloody amazing in execution. We gorged ourselves on incredible meat skewers, grilled over a first-rate charcoal stove and cooked by a chef who was so clearly at one with his grill. We all loved this restaurant: having been won over by both its vibe and food (especially the ramen and the chicken salad). When the bill was laid down, we saw that the whole meal was amazing value and under £100. We called it a night.
Catch The Second Half Of My Japan Trip In My Next Blog