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Floor B1

Floor B1

Sometimes you hear about this stuff, sometimes you don’t.   Many guidebooks suggest that you stop in a department store to explore the food offering there.   What they aren’t always clear about is HOW to explore and, interestingly enough, how standardized all the offerings are in Japan. First of all, there are usually three main places to find food in the department stores – the first floor has lots of fancy gift food (all boxed up, very pretty and sometimes very expensive), the top floor usually has restaurants (sometimes the top two floors) and many of them are surprisingly good.   Then there’s B1 – or the first level basement. That’s where you can get an amazing variety of food, from baked goods to produce to fresh fish to prepared dishes.  Each city has it’s own specialities, but there is usually a whole underground floor of Japanese food delights (including ice cream!). If you’re traveling with a group, on a bus, you might not get a lot of opportunity to explore these food halls, but if you’re traveling on your own, on the trains and subways as the Japanese do, you won’t have any problem finding them.  Many department stores are connected directly to the train and subway stations and you can wander into some of them while waiting for your train connection (or rush in to get something really quickly while running for your connection!). Perhaps something like...
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Taberarimaska? Eating when you’re allergic…...

Traveling when you’re allergic to common foods is always a challange – in Japan it can be even more so.   I’m allergic to onions, my boyfriend to garlic.  As you can imagine, some cuisines are totally off limits.   Japanese food, however, is great because it doesn’t always contain these, but that doesn’t mean NEVER. What makes traveling in Japan with allergies more difficult is the inability to read the language – so even if you know the word for what you are allergic to, it’s not always possible to figure out if it’s in the food you’re about to order or buy. Enter two useful tools:  The first is a food allergy card produced by Select Wisely.  We were alerted to this resource about a year ago and it has become invaluable.  They produce allergy cards for a very large number of food allergies (in addition to diabetes, medical conditions, etc) in just about every language there is.  Just as a side-note, they also allow you to indicate the level of your allergy (serious, life-threatening, etc.). The second useful tool is the phrase covered in about lesson 14 of the Pimsleur Japanese tapes:  Taberarimaska (my own spelling, not official) – which means – can I eat this? We take out the cards – present them to the food vendor/seller/waiter – point to what we want and say, in our faltering Japanese, “taberarimaska”.  Then we get surprised looks and delight, followed by lots of discussion with nearby colleages and then, either the very politely delivered shake of a head “no”, or the grinning, thumbs-up “yes!” we CAN eat...
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What’s with the No Chocolate Ice Cream?...

OK, I can now say, without qualification, that it is impossible to find Haagen Daz Chocolate Chocolate-Chip ice cream in Japan.   This is too bad for the chocoholic, ice-cream addicted traveler who is jonesing for a fix. Here’s where we tried:  every 7-11 we could find, every Lawson’s we could find, every grocery store that we could identify as a grocery store, the Daimaru, Takashimaya and even the Haagen Daz shop on Kawaramachi-dori  in Kyoto.   None. Nada. Keine.  and, of course, Betsu. We also found every OTHER odd-ball flavor of Haagen-Daz – green tea (of course), Azuji bean (see future posting on this very fine sweet), the god-awful Milk Tea (which did NOT taste like a good ‘cuppa’ at all),  Bitter Caramel,  Mango and “Rich Milk” (whatever that is). Just for emergency support -we went with some Godiva Chocolate ice cream purchased at a high end department store at great expense.  I think it cost $10 for two small cuplettes. But at least they gave us two of those “freezy things” they put in bags of food to keep it fresh until you get it home. We figured we had to wait until we hit the Haagen-Daz stand at DFW airport on the way home.  BUT NO!  Not for the addict – it was Thanksgiving day and even it was closed!   Then, when we got home, the grocery was already closed in 24-7 Las Vegas.  So we tried the 7-11 and the Walgreens.    They didn’t have any either.   We finally wound up buying some plain chocolate ice cream and chipping up a Giardelli 72% chocolate bar to add to it.  This is desperation. Twenty one days after the last fix we finally rounded up some of the real thing!  Ah…. So, if you are a chocolate afficionado (OK, addict is a better term), you might want to consider bringing your own, or else be prepared to pay – big...
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Moms Are Everywhere

Moms Are Everywhere

The gentle women of the ryokan were fussing around, putting each plate just-so, wiping up a tiny little crumb from the table and making sure that each course was presented perfectly.  Our information indicated that we were not to worry if we didn’t eat everything, as many of the dishes were unfamiliar, and that gaijin were not expected to finish every bite.  But apparently, the authors were unfamiliar with one particular attendant in Karashiki… It started with simple instructions, all communicated in sign language and three words of English.  Put this sauce on this item…  Use this utensil to eat this small little delicacy…   Dip this squishy piece of something into that hot liquid and then eat…   And simple instructions can be useful and we appreciated the education. Then things got a little more intense.  After a bit of an incident (let’s just say that having  bar-b-que boyfriend cook his own fish over a flaming brazier is just asking for trouble…), she no longer trusted us to handle this kaiseki on our own.  Now we were instructed on EACH STEP of the meal, and any leftover food was looked upon as a personal insult to her serving abilities.   Every item had to be consumed (or hidden under the mashed potatoes I guess), so it soon became a battle of wits.  Luckily, afforementioned bar-b-que boyfriend eats all slimy food – so was able to help out in the complete consumption department. The next morning, our hovering “mom” also served us breakfast.   Load it up once again!  No item was allowed to go untouched – each one had to be consumed.  Luckily I had my food taster/tester along, so anything I didn’t want could be consumed by him.  But sometimes she hovered so closely, that I wasn’t able to pass off the unwanted items.  So I did resort to hiding them! So when they tell you that it’s OK for gaijin not to eat everything, just remember, moms are...
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Where’s the (Hida) Beef?

Where’s the (Hida) Beef?

So while in Takayama, we were told that the Hida beef was a “not to be missed” – and that some of the best available was at the Hotel Associa, outside of town, either at the regular kaiseki or at the Teppanyaki restaurant.  We hauled ourselves out there and sure enough, in addition to the great beef, we were also treated to the “meditation of the chef”.  One of the cultural wonders of Japan is the reverence with which so many people approach their craft, whether it’s the traditional arts or the art of service.  The care, temperance and almost wonder with which our chef prepared our dinner in front of us was somewhat of a spiritual experience.  Each course was perfectly cooked before us with a delicate hand and a watchful eye.   It’s almost hard to explain the essence of the experience, which involved not just the taste of the food, but the mastery with which it was prepared and presented.  The meal included several courses, but the final presentation of a perfectly cooked steak of hida beef is a not-to-be missed experience.   Warning – this stuff is not for the cholesterally challenged!!    Here’s a picture of David warming up for the...
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It’s Waste Your Money!

It’s Waste Your Money!

Eating out in Japan is always an adventure – not quite as adventurous as China (fewer eyeballs in the soup), but lots of unknowns none-the-less.   However, one restaurant in Takayama has solved the mystery of where to eat and has posted advice for the puzzled traveler.   Their advertisement (from the blackboard outside) is shown here and we’re sure that you’ll want to find out what they’re all about.