Japan


Whilst travelling is probably the only time I’ll ever be happy waking up super early. It was particularly so in Japan when every morning, I’d get to exchange my breakfast ticket for, well, an amazing breakfast.

At our hotel in Nagoya (Hotel Trusty Nagoya near Fushimi) offered four breakfast sets each morning and your choice had to be made the night before. There were two Japanese sets and two Western sets, and of each style, one was complimentary with our hotel stay and the other could be had for a small supplement.

This was the first Japanese set – tororo gohan, or mountain yam rice. Rice, nori, a bowl of soup, an onsen egg, raw grated tororo, pickles, hot tea and soy sauce.

Tororo Gohan Breakfast Set

The soup was clear and very savoury with thin slices of pork and root vegetables.

Soup

The tororo had a slightly slimy texture that was not at all unpleasant (well, if you find okra too slimy perhaps this would be a bit too much in the morning). It was delicious! I think one could mix this and the egg into the rice and it truly was scrumptious. Altogether, it was a brilliant start to the day.

Grated Tororo (Mountain Yam)

The other Japanese set was a full Japanese breakfast, complete with grilled salted salmon, soup, braised vegetables, fruit, pickles, a huge slice of tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette), hot tea and rice. Again, this was fantastic – I love a good savoury breakfast.

Japanese Breakfast

I had to try one of the Western breakfast options (Nagoya is apparently famous for them) and decided on the simpler one that was included in our room price. I loved that super thick fluffy toast and was glad that I did try it! The sausages were more like hot dogs and the soup tasted tinned but the potato salad and vegetable sticks (salad is a breakfast food in Japan) were very welcome, as were the fruit and yoghurt.

Western Breakfast Set

If you’re curious, the other Western set (the one that cost extra) included a fancier salad and pizza bread!

Our hotel in Tokyo (Hotel Park Side in Ueno) offered a small breakfast buffet full of both Japanese and Western options. The quality of the ingredients was not as great as in Nagoya but it still beats a lot of breakfast options here in London!

Breakfast in Tokyo

Here we had components for both a Japanese and Western breakfast and I combined the two a bit. Rice, tofu, miso soup, nori, an onsen egg, and braised vegetables and bacon (oh yes!).

I also tried my first natto at breakfast in Tokyo and …. I found the strong flavour a bit challenging! That’s not perhaps my favourite breakfast food. But thumbs up to the Japanese breakfast in general!

Top of my must-eat list in Nagoya was hitsumabushi, the Nagoya style of eating unagi (freshwater eel) on rice. With the help of a tourism officer, we booked a restaurant located near Nagoya station and this turned out to be a branch of Hitsumabushi Bincho, a chain of hitsumabushi restaurants in Nagoya and also Tokyo. Most of the hitsumabushi restaurants will only serve eel so do ensure that everyone in your party is happy to eat it!

This is the tray that is presented to you after you order. A bowl of rice and eel, an empty rice bowl, pickles, a bowl of a clear broth, wasabi and spring onions, shredded nori and more dashi broth.

Hitsumabushi Set

Our kind waitress guided us through the process of consuming hitsumabushi. We first took our rice paddles and divided the bowl of rice and eel into four quadrants. We all scooped a quadrant into our rice bowls. This quarter was eaten as is, no toppings added, to really taste the eel. The method of cooking eel for hisumabushi in Nagoya does not include the usual steaming, thus leaving the eel with lots of crispy grilled edges. I loved it.

Unagi on Rice

The second quarter was to be mixed with as much freshly grated wasabi and finely sliced spring onions as one desired. Delicious.

The third quarter was topped with shredded nori and a clear dashi broth, turning the eel and rice into a sort of congee. As tasty as this was, the broth destroyed all the crispy eel edges that I so loved.

With Nori and Tea

The final quarter? We were to eat it in our favourite way of the three! A dab of wasabi and spring onions for me again then!

I loved the whole ritual involved with the meal and I absolutely loved the Nagoya style of straight up grilling the eel without the initial steaming. The meal wasn’t the cheapest in Nagoya but the price for a hitsumabushi meal was pretty consistent across all the restaurants in the guide I was given (about 3000 yen or £20 per person).

Hitsumabushi Bincho
The branch we visited was in the ESCA underground shopping avenue next to Nagoya station.

We were in Nagoya for a work conference and for each day of the main conference, we would each pick up a bento box and juice/tea box for lunch. Now these were clearly mass produced bento boxes (they would have required about 1000 bento boxes per day) but the quality and variety of the food in each box was astounding.

On the first day, we received this beauty. It was a bit rice heavy but the fried fish, prawn (I got a second because my colleague couldn’t eat hers) and little hamburger were lovely. Everything was delicious.

Day 1 Bento

Our second bento was in the most beautiful box that I even managed to keep and bring back to London (after emptying out the food covered dividers!). Again there were three lots of rice but this was improved by having one of the rices cooked together with carrots and mushrooms. The sweet included in the top right corner was a curiosity – two large beans cooked in syrup! In the top left, there was an excellent braised tofu bundle filled with vegetables. Of all the bentos we had at that conference, I liked this one the best.

Day 2 Bento

The bentos handed out on the third and last day had one of its rices in the form of a Nagoya speciality – tenmusu, an onigiri with a prawn tempura in it.  This last box was a bit fried-heavy (the tenmusu, the prawn, pork in the middle and karaage in the top left corner) but just look at the designs printed on the food dividers!

Day 3 Bento

We even got a taste of ekiben, the railway bentos that can only be purchased at train stations or at special ekiben fairs. After our time in Nagoya, we took the shinkansen to Tokyo and while I bought this katsu-sando (most convenient for a train journey where you’ve not got a tray because your suitcase is in the way)….

Tonkatsu Sandwiches

….my colleague purchased this chicken yakitori ekiben that’s one of the specialities of Nagoya. He said it was brilliant.

Alessandro's Ekiben

I only wish there had been more time and more stomach space for me to try more bentos on this trip!

It was our first night in Nagoya – my first night in Japan really! We had arrived early in the morning after a long flight from Frankfurt and after a post-lunch wander about, we all took naps and awoke quite refreshed and ready for dinner. From our hotel in quiet Fushimi, we strolled east to the Sakae district, full of restaurants and entertainment. We were heading to the ground floor of Oasis 21 (you can’t miss its gigantic oval glass roof), under the shadow of the Nagoya TV Tower, where we’d been directed by our concierge when we asked for kaiten-zushi – conveyor belt sushi. We wanted sushi, we wanted good stuff but we also wanted a bit of fun.

Nagoya TV Tower

We eventually found Nigiri No Tokube by my repeatedly asking “kaiten-zushi?” and then following the direction indicated by the random answerer. It worked!

We chose to sit at the counter rather than at a table and a spot cleared for us within 10 minutes. The first thing we noticed was the double decker conveyor belt arranging with the top deck for sushi plates and the bottom for clean empty tea cups. We helped ourselves to disposable chopsticks, green tea powder and hot water, wasabi, soy sauce and pickled ginger all arranged on the counter. Dishes could be picked up from the conveyor belt or ordered off the menu.

Double Decker Conveyor Belt

The sushi options ranged from the classic to the very modern (with lots of toppings) and we tried a bit of everything. One major highlight was this broiled prawn nigiri. I think the prawns had been drizzled with a bit of Japanese mayonnaise before being torched and the overall flavour was of a delicious deep smokey prawn.

Broiled Prawn Nigiri

From the special autumn menu we spotted a sardine tempura nigiri and sure enough we soon saw it come whizzing down the belt at us. These non-traditional little morsels were so good we ended up grabbing another plate.

Sardine Tempura Nigiri

From the menu again, we ordered some of our favourite classics: both unagi (freshwater eel) and anago (saltwater conger eel). Each was at the top end of the price range (380 yen each), which is still cheaper than the equivalent here in London. The unagi (on the left) was the more familiar with its charcoal grilled silkiness and thick sweet eel sauce; it’s relatively easy to find in London. The anago though was totally different (not necessarily better but just different) and even more silky (if that’s possible). What a great way to compare the two.

Unagi and Anago

And back to the novel nigiri we went. A little less exciting was this salmon nigiri with mayo and thinly sliced onions.

Salmon with Mayo and Onions

More exciting was this torched salmon nigiri with a creamy sesame sauce and fried shredded leeks. There really was something for everyone at Nigiri No Tokube.

Salmon with Sesame Sauce and Fried Leeks

I finished my meal with an order of a limited edition chawanmushi that was also being advertised for autumn. There were chestnuts, mushrooms, slices of fishcakes and other goodies hidden within the gloriously silky savoury egg custard.

The Autumn Chawanmushi

We all ate quite a bit that night (a lot more was consumed than just what you see above!) and the bill for each of us worked out somewhere between £10 and £20. Plates ranged from 120 to about 500 yen (when we went, it was 150 yen to the pound sterling) which I think is about the going rate for this quality of kaiten-zushi place (main menu here and here). Japan was certainly treating us well.

Nigiri No Tokube
Oasis 21
Sakae, Nagoya
Japan

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