During my first visit to Japan, I am a sucker for everything and anything related to street food and snacks in Japan. The excitement makes me becoming those kind of tourist. You know, the ones that aggressively cheerful that almost fainted every time see something a tiny bit interesting? Yeah, sure you do.
My travel compass during that time is ….(I’m a bit ashamed telling you this) … my memory. No, not because I’ve been there before. Well, it might be more suitable if it called: My Impression. Slightly posh and sound sophisticated, right? Not really.
I’m scheduling my travel based on the Impressions I got from Japanese comic books and movies. Okay, now you know one of my humiliating secret. Apparently, I am quite shallow and peachy for the pop culture. No matter how many and travel articles about Japan I read, the comic books giving me the most impressive information.
Since my early teen years, I’m a big fan of Japanese comic books. Back then in Indonesia, we don’t called it manga, just comic books. Starting from girly and romantic stories like Candy Candy, Sailor Moon; to thriller like City Hunter, Yugi Oh, Detective school Q, Kindaichi case files and Detective Conan. And then I need quick stress reliever in humorous manga such as Shin Chan, Kobo Chan, Chibi Maruko Chan, Kariage Kun, Doraemon and Dragon Ball. I often getting in and out reading food related stories too; Yakitate!! Japan and Born to cook are just to name a few.
Now, I still read comic books but limited only to my all time favorites: Kariage Kun, Kobo Chan and Detective Conan.
I gathered fractions of Japanese culture and subcultures from those comics, fragments of events-locations-food from it story board. Since I don’t trust most of popular Japanese restaurant in Indonesia serving the authentic flavor on it dish, I’m dying to sample Nippon culinary. From the most traditional ones to the newly found or trending ones. I’m an omnivore eater, I eat everything except pork and expensive food. Yeah, I do come with string budget. Therefor, I’m prowling every street vendors (with price tags under 500 Yen), station’s mini markets and local markets to taste what I read-heard-imagine from the comic books.
Every afternoon, sometimes even at 8 pm, finishing my trip for that day- I always went to the Konbini. It was a convenience store that opens 24 hours and loads with affordable food, also snacks. Japanese town, from urban cities to it’s rural areas, are flooded with modern mini markets. Lawson, Seven Evelen, Family Mart are the most popular ones. Everytime I see those harshly lit store, at night or day, I must come in and take a look. When I see food that intriguing, I buy and tried them. Some are ‘Okay’; the other just plain Horrible; but there are few of them that are great.
I’m scanning the ready to eat cold food, just observing the different range of Onigiri and Bento available. I’m starving for Onigiri since I saw it on Kobo Chan and Detective Conan books. I know how rice taste like, I know how Nori sheet taste like and I’m familiar with some of the filling. But the experience holding the triangular or round shaped Onigiri with your fingers, biting the pickled Umeboshi or Kombu in the center are unimaginable.
I’m directing my steps to the bread and cakes aisle, hoping there will be Dorayaki cakes with fillings other than red bean paste. By the way, I knew about this cake from Doraemon movie and comic books. There also a whole lot other cakes that taste quite similar with Dorayaki with red bean paste, such as Anpan, Daifuku and Taiyaki. The Japanese sure like their red bean paste, because you can find it in most deserts and sweet snacks. Hot and cold.
When Yakitate!! Japan manga featured Yakisoba sandwich, I’m curious. In my mind, I can’t understand the concept eating fried noodles between two slices of bread. After I tasted it, I can relate to the umami taste and filling sensation. It remind me the time when I feel bloated after eating french fries sandwich. Carb on carb with carb sauce. Triple threat meal!
I sample Takoyaki everytime I see them sold by the street. I even sample the re-heated version ones, and never want to again. Ever. The best one composed from freshly made batter, good chunks of octopus in it and flavorful mayo with green onions sprinkle on top. I got the best ones at Osaka by the Dotonbori alley. I’m craving for Takoyaki ever since I read about Octopus Ball snacks eaten during summer or at high school bazaar from romantic manga. When Kariage Kun posed as Takoyaki seller, it reinforce my will to sample it as much as I can.
The next of my list are a long line of noodles in a bowl. I’m salivating when Kobo and his family eating Ramen, when Kariage Kun sit on Soba restaurant and slurping cold soba. I envy Kobo’s father when he eats hot udon with a lot of chill flakes to keep him warm during winter. I’m imagining different level of chewiness or al dente within different Soba made from variety of flour.
To keep it concise, I’m hooked with a bowl of noodles concept. Served hot or cold, with or without protein. I went to ShinYokohama Ramen Museum and Momofuko Ando Instant Ramen Museum, motivated by my passion for that concept. Unfortunately, since most of ramen using pork, I must extra careful. But that won’t make me down, because I can splurge with Soba and Udon. I sampled it in standing restaurant at train stations, at underground pedestrian at regular restaurants. I can’t find any foul in a bowl of hot Soba or Udon with Sweet Tofu or Tempuras. Every merchant served good broth, hot-clear-savory soup with a hint of sweetness. I often put a lot of chill flakes, since I like spicy food. I also like the cold udon or soba in a hot day. But the hot ones are the best.
One of Kariage Kun story board shows him eating Soba while waiting for the train. He wasn’t finish eating the whole bowl yet, but his train arrived so he must run for it. After work, he come back to the restaurant and asking for his left over bowl. The merchant gave him puzzled look. That what came across to my mind, when I found this vendor literally by a hole in the wall. Crammed at the side of stairs in subway stations. I have to try it. Eating while standing, slurping the hot noodles as fast as I can while balancing my self between the second and third steps of the stairs. It was delicious.
I also tried variety of crackers similar they showed it on manga book. Rice crackers with nori, black sesame flavored crackers, assorted nuts in different flavors. Variety of sodas, canned and bottled drinks often featured in romantic manga. Well, I’m taking it further more. I sampled most of vending machined drinks from tea to coffee, from ordinary juice to amino acid power drinks, except the one with alcohol.
Speaking of drinks, I forgot about iconic summer treat: shaved ice. Kobo likes it, Kariage use it to tease his boss, K On girls enjoys different flavors of it. So when I have saw a vendor, I must tried it. My first time sampling Kakigori was at Disneyland. It was hot afternoon, I’m a bit noxious with overflowing plastic joyous around the theme park or just having mild heat stroke. I saw a small cafe-like merchant under the shade. Hiding from the sun, I enjoy the large portion Kakigori with matcha syrup and ice cream. It was delightfully refreshing. Bring all my sanity back and ready to be cheerful again, patiently waiting for the Disney night parade. The next time I saw another vendor, I tried different flavor such as cherry, lemon and blue hawai. I recommend to stay away from blue hawai, food with color you can’t find in nature is better to avoid. The other ones are tasty.
Mochi, one of the iconic cakes of Japan. I tried the big ones, the small ones, original red bean paste flavor, fusion kind ones with kinky flavors (chocolate, strawberry, coffee, green tea, sesame, etc). I also sample the grilled version on a skewer and dipped into sweet-savoury sauce. I don’t like it. Kashiwa mochi featured in one of Kobo Chan books. He likes it so much that he almost eat the one prepared for his grandma. I imagine it would be so delicious that little boy would want more. Well I sample one at Shin Osaka stations and it taste similar with regular mochi with a hint aroma from Kashiwa leaves. I guess the symbolic meaning from the cakes that make it appealing more than just the flavor
Reading about Conan Edogawa riding Shinkansen with Ran Mouri and eating bento, I’m salivating. More over, the case he tried to solve related to victim’s bento box. The picture showed beautifully arranged food in a box. So, every time I’m taking Shinkansen train I always buy bento box. Since it kind a bit pricey, I have to pick the cheapest one and not contain any buta aka pork in it.
I noticed even in the cheap ones, they cut the vegetables neatly. Every slice of anything on it is flavorful. Some even bother to give extra soy sauce or fish souce in cute package. I tried ordinary rice bento, soba bento and unagi rice bento to name a few. For my palate, all those bento are too sweet. It taste one dimension. Savoury with a touch of sweet. So, I often add my secret weapon. Sambal (hot sauce) in sachets. A drop of spiciness bring the food to the next level or more enjoyable.
Until now, I still reading manga books. The subtle humor in satire like Kariage Kun and innocent like Kobo Chan just fit me right. Less violent picture and scientific text-book style explanation from Detective Conan never bored me. Some people may call it pop culture, un sophisticated and for the low end taste level. I don’t care. I like it and it makes me learn about different culture from daily life activity in fun way.
- Why YOU Should Read Manga (ifanboy.com)