japan: let’s start with the food

i am not a celebrity, kate mcauley, food, japan, travel, sushi, sashimi, ramen, tokyo, osaka, nagano, kyoto, nagano, dumplings, tea, ryokan, moshi

For weeks now, I’ve been editing the photos from my recent trip to Japan. Narrowing down which ones to share has been an impossible task, so instead of dumping them all in one post, I thought I’d break them up in to sushi-sized morsels. And where better to begin than with a subject that gets everyone excited: food.

When I moved to Kanazawa in the mid-90s, I’d never really travelled overseas (apart from a family trip to New Zealand when I was ten). By my late teens, I was ready to face the world, though my adventure got off to an inauspicious start. The plane that was supposed to deliver me to Osaka ended up crash landing me back in Sydney an hour after take-off. Bummer. Needless to say, I got there in the end (the very next day, in the same clothes, with the same seat allocation, on an identical 747 – but that’s another story).

I’m not sure that I’d been exposed to cuisine of my new home before I left. I remember borrowing a Japanese cookbook from the school library when I was around seven, though my mum wasn’t having a Mars Bar of it. ‘They only eat raw food,’ she said. And my pre-Wagamama, pre-California-roll 80s mum was about ten per cent right.

Yes, there sure are some wacky things on the plastic food scupture menu in Japan. The sight of a middle-aged man chowing down on a bag of dried fish and processed cheese strips on my first train trip from the airport to Ishikawa-Ken is an enduring memory. And, yes, I had the odd joke-on-the-gaijin run-ins at the dinner table.

The worst happened two years and one pain-in-the-proverbial language learnt since my plane fell from the sky. I was leaving and to mark the occasion, Takada-san – my boss at an English school where I worked part-time and was paid less than the American teachers because the Queen’s version of our shared language taught by an impatient Aussie was considered inferior – took me to lunch.

It was spring and I remember the drive out to the hills was Cherry Blossom-tastic. I forget, however, the name of the chi-chi restaurant he had chosen for our final meal. The dining room was all dark polished wood, tatami mats and the low tables I’d expertly learnt to fold my 6ft frame beneath. The walls featured aquariums packed with a coral reef’s worth of marine biodiversity.

A live baby squid – a house delicacy – landed on my plate. I picked up my chopsticks. I pinched the squirmy sea creature. I swallowed. Takada-san smiled in approval. I prayed that my stomach acid would enact a swift end and tried not to think about tentacles attaching themselves to my oesophagus. I’d learnt the hard way that it was better to rip off the prandial bandaid than risk offending your host.

This is a story I obviously tell for effect. The fact is, Japanese food is delicious, and I loved introducing the MrMr to my favourite dishes in situ. I adore almost everything about Japanese food – from the careful and considered presentation to the use of seasonal ingredients. The cuisine alone is a reason to visit. Here’s a taster – pun intended – of what we ate.

Itadakimasu. 

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A note on the camera: I didn’t want to be burdened by too much luggage on my trip as we were hitting up three cities in ten days. So, I left my Canon DLSR at home and took my new Olympus PEN mini with me. I didn’t have much chance to use it before I left and I was dubious of its merits, but I shouldn’t of worried. Not only is the camera small enough to fit in my handbag, it allows lots of manual control (i.e. depth of field), is intuitive to use, and I’m really happy with the quality of my shots. The Olympus PEN mini and other digital cameras can be bought here.

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© Kate McAuley 2012

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