Japan: The Japanese Food for Thought

By the time I finished cramming a piece of takoyaki into my mouth, I’ve come to believe that Osaka, albeit its diligence and restlessness, has yet to relinquish its zest for life. It is a mouthful of a theory to say the least. But the city’s famed octopus dumpling can dish out quite a compelling testament.

“There are many places that sell takoyaki in Osaka,” said tour guide, Midori Fujimura. And it would seem that each establishment recognizes a highly competitive standard. One of the variants I’ve sampled, for instance, was from a random stall at the stretch of Dotonbori. A festive matter, it comes coated thoroughly with contrasting sauces, tempura flakes and herbs. Its meat, uncovered after biting through the crispy layer of garnishes, is a soft interior of packed succulence generated by a surfeit of ingredients. All, of course, surround the core: a well-cooked, mildly flavored slice of octopus.

Known for being served quickly, this is what Osaka considers “fast food”. A small but flamboyant affair, it illustrates the city’s way of life.

“Osaka people,” Midori stated, “are usually very busy. Some barely have the time to stop for a meal, so they order takoyaki instead. It’s quick but it’s tasty. That’s why it has become popular in the city.”

Of course, in a country like Japan, where four seasons bequeath the land with a rich menu of flora and fauna, there are numerous dishes deemed popular—from the many variants of ramen to the plethora of seafood. But while each of them is beloved for different reasons, all share a common trait: candor, the soulful eagerness to speak of the land from which they came from.

I’ve been told prior to my trip that, if I could break through the language barrier, Japan tells some of the most interesting tales in Asia. But as I learned during my visit—a sweeping four-day tour with major stops in Osaka and Hokkaido—the things that can be put in the mouth can be just as telling as the things that can come out of it.

What Dotonbori dishes out

Flown in by Jetstar Airways directly from Manila, I began my visit to Japan at the Kansai region where the country operates its first 24-hour international airport. Welcoming me was Midori, who was chosen to be my guide in behalf of Japan National Tourism Organization. “Yes, I know you, Angelo Cantera-san,” she greeted eagerly. “I recognize you from your file.”

After lunch at the Western-themed Country Kitchen Rinku, Midori toured me through Osaka City and she did so by being the living summary of the culture that directs it. Like the pedestrians gushing through its streets, she moves always with a sense of urgency; her gait, ever-brisk and self-assured. Like its professional orators—from the host of its famed duck tour to the barkers at Universal Studios Japan—she speaks with a tireless and almost aggressive flamboyance; nearly every word I’ve heard her utter comes with some insistent and bracing gesture. And, like the rest of the Japanese working class I’ve dealt with, she does her job with a go-the-extra-mile keenness; she toured me lugging along a bag filled with pictures, origami effects, and maps. All came into play as she introduced the city.

“Osaka,” she said, “is one of the busiest cities in Japan.” It is, after all, a major commercial and industrial area and on its shoulders rests a strong influence over the country’s economy. The city itself is a machine that cannot fail and its sense of purpose is reflected upon a people that seem nurtured to maintain a high level of efficiency. Watch a crowd walking along its streets, and you may find it easy to distinguish the tourists from the locals; they are usually the ones who don’t always “keep right” even though they’re not trying to overtake anyone.

Midori told me that Osaka’s major industries deal with “printing and chemicals,” but she said that, in the remote past, it was known for something else: food.

“Osaka was known before as the kitchen of Japan,” she said. “In the olden days, this area actually had a lot of rice warehouses near the riverside. A lot of rice was collected in Osaka, and that was sent to every corner of the country.” This food culture lives on today and its crux is the street of Dotonbori.

Located at the heart of the city, at an area flanked by the romantic Dotomborigawa River, Dotonbori is a wide stretch of paved road composed of numerous eating establishments. It sprawls near the busy commercial area of Shinsaibashi, and together, the two form a tourist vortex seemingly unified by one purpose: getting people to spend their money.

“A lot of people who come to Osaka come for food,” she said, “so Dotonbori is usually on their list.”

Offering a wide array of restaurants and food stalls, the street gives a rundown of Osaka’s regional gustatory offering. It tells the story of a menu that does its best to catch up with the city’s busy lifestyle. Scouring Dotonbori, most of the culinary experiences I’ve encountered offer some level of convenience. Takoyaki, for one, is a quick and filling meal skewered for easy consumption. Meanwhile, okonomiyaki (which usually costs somewhere between 800 to 1000 yen) is what Midori calls “econo-miyaki” since it is a savory pancake dish “big enough to feed a group of people despite its relatively inexpensive price.” And then there are the variants of customizable fare—shabu-shabu, izakaya and sushi packs—since, according to Midori “Japanese people usually want a little bit of everything.” The offering in Dotonbori comes by the numbers, but in the chorus of tales told by every dish lie one undercurrent of a thought: that in the midst of all the hard work, Osaka does not forget how to have fun.

Yes, the city is disciplined, but it is not robotic. It is also efficient, but it does not seem heartless. I, for one, have gotten rammed by many of its fast-striding pedestrians, but each one of them has apologized, though many of the apologies were so hurried and animated that they almost seemed violent. Near Genko Sonezaki, where I tried an izakaya-style dinner during my first night in the city, I accidentally dropped a coin worth 50 yen and a girl moving toward the opposite direction actually chased me down an alley just to give it back. I also got lost at the Tombori River Walk and, when I asked a local for directions, I didn’t just get directions; I got taken to where I wanted to go. Meanwhile, in establishments like the Catholic Osaka Umeda Church, there have been numerous well-received measures to solicit donations for the victims of Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines.

In Osaka, it seems, there is a layer of humanity sustained beneath the juxtaposing coat of mechanized diligence. And as I progressed through the rest of my tour, I found out that, in another corner of Japan, there are other things sustained beneath the jacket of an opposing force.

Best served cold or in the cold The day I expected to suffer my tour at its coldest and most unforgiving, heat lined a trail of sweat on the back of my neck, and my hair, beneath a thick knit cap, felt damp and heavy.

It was the hardest I’ve ever perspired during my stay in Japan, and the only time in my trip when my undershirt actually stuck to my skin. Ironically, I was in central Hokkaido, flown in by Jetstar Airways during the onset of winter. It was at that time of the year when the island begins to wreathe itself with white birch and snow, and, at its worst, the temperature can reach as low as -41 degrees Celsius.

“But not here,” said Kenta Goto. “Here, it’s 30 degrees Celsius and it stays that way for the whole year.”

We were, of course, at Mina Mina Beach, a prized property of the Tomamu Hoshino Resort where Kenta works. Tucked in the mountain ranges of central Hokkaido, around two hours away from the Sapporo Prince Hotel where I stayed the night before, this is where Japan gives a taste of summer in wintertime. Outside, the sound is that of rustling trees played by cold, gritty wind, but inside, one can hear surf coming in from the largest indoor wave pool of the country.

Local tour guide, Michiko Mizuguchi said that tourism is the number one industry in this region, and Mina Mina Beach is but one of the many reasons behind that.

“They keep the place warm using kerosene broilers,” she said. “Because of that, a lot of people come here to escape the cold.” I wouldn’t blame them, personally. Winters can be difficult in Hokkaido. Back in 2012, the prefecture even recorded one of its coldest winters to date; reports say that the area saw temperatures sinking to as low as -32 degrees Celsius.

All things considered, however, Hokkaido has not been frozen stiff. On the contrary; the cold which blankets the land in white has also paved the way for the prefecture’s economy to thrive. It is partly thanks to the land’s Chitose Airport opening up to international flights, but it’s mostly due to the level of commercial resilience exhibited by its people, the kind that can develop a “beach” on a mountain range and turn a former farming village into a promising tourist haven.

“Yes, the cold can be difficult,” said Michiko, “but the people of Hokkaido have done their best to use that to their advantage.”

Since Hokkaido experiences long winters which can start as early as October and last until March, the prefecture has launched numerous winter events including the popular Sapporo Snow Festival in February. It also makes tourist attractions out of its coasts where drift ice can be seen floating by from Siberia. At Chitose, establishments like the well-stocked Rera Outlet Mall were designed to use snow to enhance their aesthetics; Rera even has a large straw statue just waiting to be turned into snowman by the winter. And, of course, there’s the Tomamu Hoshino Resort which takes advantage of its vast landscape to operate a popular skiing destination.

But as showcased by Mina Mina Beach, Hokkaido’s coping mechanism doesn’t always take advantage of the cold to draw in tourists. Sometimes, it combats it to draw focus on the warmth the prefecture sustains despite the freezing weather. This is where the food comes in.

Like numerous areas in Japan, Hokkaido is home to a plethora of dining establishments serving different variants of ramen. Among these variations include the miso ramen, which originated from its capital city, Sapporo. There are also places like Chitose Dosan Ichiba, which serve chan chan yaki, a hot pot dish usually composed of salmon and vegetables seasoned with a miso-based sauce. Meanwhile, in restaurants like Gyuzen Sapporo, traditional shabu-shabu buffets are offered.

“While in Hokkaido, people should just forget about going on a diet,” Michiko quipped, and her joke remains relevant for the whole year. Like the rest of Japan, Hokkaido also experiences four distinct seasons. But regardless of which one that land is experiencing, it always seems capable of offering something special.

Thanks to its geography, the prefecture was able to make agriculture one of its primary industries. Through this, it has produced an expansive menu catering to various tastes. Its harvest season usually falls on September, and during this time of the year, Hokkaido reaps corns, green asparaguses, carrots and cherry tomatoes, among others. It also produces a wide variety of dairy products—from the usual fresh milk to the atypical lavender-flavored ice cream. At the upland province near Tomamu, Hokkaido has a steady source of beans and confectionaries. At Sapporo, meanwhile, lies a beer production so dynamic that it stands toe-to-toe with major beer-producing cities like Munich and Milwaukee. Hokkaido is also known for its seafood; its key bodies of water spoil the land with fresh scallop and salmon. All things considered, the region is made rich by nature and it is a wealth often discussed by its cuisine.

“Hokkaido is different compared to most areas in Japan,” said Michiko. “It provides a different scenery overall, and the food is very good.”

The story that goes on Nature, of course, isn’t always kind to Hokkaido – or the rest of Japan, for that matter. Because of its location near major tectonic plate boundaries, the country has had a long history of devastating natural disasters. There was the great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, which saw fatalities by the thousands.

And then, of course, there was the big one: on March 11, 2011, a cataclysmic 9.0 magnitude undersea megathrust earthquake hit near Tohoku. This resulted in a disastrous tsunami that wrecked areas of Japan facing the Pacific. The said tsunami also damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, thereby triggering a major nuclear crisis. Overall, the successive tragedies led to a death toll of around 19,000.

“That was really terrible,” said Derek Swan, a tourist who traveled all the way from Vancouver, Canada. I met him during my last night in Osaka. I was strolling along the quietness of the Tombori River Walk, eating yet another round of takoyaki while trying to figure out how to get back to my hotel, Hopinn Aming of Amagasaki. Meanwhile, he was taking photos by the river.

He had just arrived from Kyoto and was in the midst of fulfilling a long-time goal to tour Japan. His fascination for the country pretty much stemmed from the same place mine did: a childhood of videogames and over-the-top anime.

“I’ve been saving up for this trip for years now,” he said. “Japanese culture is one of those things you see everywhere, but it always gave me the impression that, no matter how much you see of it, unless you’re actually here in Japan, you’re missing out on something special.”

Like numerous people around the world, Derek found his eyes glued to all manner of media as the events involving the Tohoku earthquake began to unfold. He was a distant witness to the devastation that swept the land, the fallout of the nuclear crisis and the heartache that came with it all. But like the rest of the world, those weren’t the only things Derek witnessed.

“I remember reading about the Fukushima 50,” he recalled. He was speaking of the workers who refused to leave the plant, despite alarming risks of radiation, just so they could tame the facility and avert further disaster. He then rhapsodized about the local relief efforts that followed “and then there was that dog who survived for three weeks before being reunited with his owner.”

Like numerous countries in the world, Japan has had its share of misfortunes. But in the aftermath of such tragedies came stories of heroism, hope and resilience—stories worth telling. “They’re pretty tough,” he told me, as he proceeded to take photos of a nearby crowd and I proceeded to eat the rest of my meal. “To think that they endured so much.”

Survival, however, is not the full story here; at least not according to the cuisine I’ve encountered. From Osaka to Hokkaido, Japan’s culinary identity does more than endure. It thrives, it evolves and, more importantly, it lives. If there is any truth to the saying that “we are what we eat,” then Japan is brimming with life.

“They’re really something,” Derek said of the Japanese. But I didn’t have to hear that; the food stuffed into my mouth was already dishing that out.