One of the many things that I love about traveling in Japan is the huge number of affordable, relatively healthy restaurants. If you want to go for yōshoku (their take on western food), which is basically dishes centred around meat, cheese, or egg, that’s a totally different story. But, if you wander into one of the Japanese noodle joints frequented by locals, it’s pretty easy to fill up on good quality delicious veggie food for five or six dollars. I also find that the atmosphere can often be more rewarding than dining at a formal restaurant. At these sorts of places, you get to sit shoulder to shoulder with high schoolers and businessmen, and there’s a lot more interaction with the customers and staff. You get a feel for Japanese food culture and etiquette…and honestly, that’s one of the best parts about eating out anyways!
I was walking through Mito train station looking for somewhere to stop for lunch, and I found this place advertising their salad udon. Usually, udon noodles are served in a hot broth along with something like green onions, deep fried tofu, or tempura. But, these noodles were topped with lettuce, bell peppers, carrots, okra, and crispy pumpkin sticks. I was so stoked to find this. Another lunch success!
On a weekend visit to Hitachi city, I happened to stumble across a festival right outside the main train station. It was an afternoon event with food stalls, live music, and stand-up comedians. There was also a performance put on especially for the kids, featuring characters from a hugely popular cartoon series called Crayon Shin-chan. (I totally forgot about this show. I haven’t seen it in years!)
Hitachi city is well known for being the home of the huge multinational company, Hitachi Ltd., and the festival was actually hosted by them as a way of thanking the company workers and their families for their constant dedication and hard work. The main goal of the event was to give everyone a place to gather together and relax (not to make money), so everything was ridiculously cheap and laid back. Almost everything was $1…even the beer!
For lunch, I enjoyed a bowl of miso ramen topped with corn, cabbage, and green onions. After hanging out at the festival for a couple hours, I walked down the street to see a performance by a local high school band. I had originally just planned to head to Hitachi to do a bit of shopping, but I guess I got really lucky!
Have you ever heard of yakisoba? It’s a super popular street food in Japan, and a staple dish found at every festival you’ll ever visit. The streets will always be lined with food stalls where they have a big flat grill set up, and there’s someone frying up a huge pile of yakisoba noodles using these metal spatulas specially designed for flipping the ingredients.
The most classic yakisoba dish consists of hearty noodles fried together with cabbage, carrots, and onion. It’s then topped off with a savory sauce, shavings of aonori (a type of dried seaweed), and small slices of pickled pink ginger. Recently, some vendors have started to add on some other popular toppings like Japanese mayonnaise.
I don’t usually get to buy yakisoba at food stands because there’s sometimes a bit of meat thrown into the mix, but that doesn’t stop me from making it at home! Lucky for me, it’s fairly quick and easy to put together. I had this for dinner the other night, along with some slices of deep fried tofu that I picked up at the shops and then warmed up in the grill a few minutes before serving.
Here’s what a typical dinner can look like for me while in Japan. You can of course easily buy regular spaghetti noodles here, but I’ve found that using soba (buckwheat noodles) as an alternative is so amazing!
Soba is usually eaten in the traditional Japanese style with a soy sauce based broth. So, serving them the way I do is unconventional, but I find that the nutty flavor of the buckwheat goes perfectly with pesto.
I just put a bundle of soba noodles into a pot of boiling water and let them simmer for about seven minutes. After draining, I top them with a bit of pesto, some fresh basil leaves and whatever other veggies a have at hand. Today, I dressed it up with a handful of tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, daikon radish, and black beans.
Not only does soba taste good, but it’s actually an incredibly healthy alternative to white spaghetti noodles, as it’s much higher in protein and fiber. Buckwheat also contains no gluten, so if you can find soba noodles using 100% buckwheat flour, it’s gluten free as well!
As I wandered through Mito the other weekend, I started to get hungry and was lucky enough to find a fantastic little udon shop. The prices are very affordable, and they have basically every udon dish you can think of. Among some of the veggie options were: kitsune udon (udon noodles with a huge sheet of fluffy deep fried tofu floating on top), tororo udon (udon topped with grated yam), kake udon (a plain udon bowl with sliced green onions piled up on top), oroshi udon (udon with grated daikon raddish), and kare udon (udon noodles in a thick curry broth).
I went for the wakame udon, which is the standard bowl of udon noodles, topped with a whole bunch of wakame seaweed and some sliced green onion. The great thing about a lot of udon restaurants in Japan is that they have a self-serve topping station where you can fill up on tenkasu (little bits of deep fried batter), crushed chili powder, grated ginger, and green tea.
After this fun lunch, I discovered an incredible park nearby that was surrounded by a bamboo forest. It was so serene and absolutely gorgeous!
On Sunday, I took the long trip out to Tokyo to attend a gagaku performance at the Japanese imperial palace! Gagaku is an ancient imperial court music and dance form that has been performed in Japan for about a thousand and five-hundred years. I was incredibly lucky and honoured to have such a rare opportunity. I worked briefly at a major Shinto shrine last New Year’s (which in itself was an unbelievable honour), but when the chief priest of the shrine got an invitation to the gagaku performance this month, he was amazing enough to gift me one of the tickets!
I haven’t been to Tokyo in many months, and it felt like such a tremendously urban and glamorous city, especially after staying in this little town for so long. The difference was even more noticeable because I was specifically in the Ginza district which is famous for being the most posh, impressive, and high-end region of Tokyo.
I got to the city pretty early in the morning so I headed over to a nearby shrine while waiting for the performance to start. After paying my respects at the shrine, I wandered through an antique market that had been set up for the day just outside the shrine. I also spent a bit of time at a museum that was displaying old documents from the fifteen and sixteen hundreds.
I got pretty hungry as I walked around, but a lot of restaurants were closed that morning. After a while, I was lucky enough to find a place where I could get a late breakfast of udon noodles. It was incredibly cheap, too, at just 150 yen which is around $1.50! I enjoyed the noodles topped with a whole bunch of shichimi (a Japanese spice mixture) while my friend had a bowl of Japanese curry and rice.
No one was allowed to take photos of the actual gagaku performance, but we could take pictures of the stage before the show started. I also took some shots of the people setting up the instruments in preparation for the musicians. The actual performance was hauntingly beautiful. There’s something about gagaku and noh that is other-worldly…it really does transport you back well over a thousand years to an entirely different time and place. I can’t even begin to describe how enchanting it was!
One of my favorite meals that I like to throw together while here in Japan is a big bowl of soba noodles. It’s perfect in every way! It’s healthy, cheap, quick, easy, vegan, and delicious. When it’s cold outside you can serve it in a hot soup. Or, when it’s warm out you can eat it zaru soba style with a small bowl of cold broth on the side, which you dip bite-size portions of the soba noodles into bit by bit as you eat them.
For breakfast, I enjoyed a bowl of hot soba noodles in a soy sauce-based soup. I added in some wakame seaweed and fluffy agedashi tofu, and topped off the dish with Japanese chili powder and slices of fresh green onion.