Best (and worst) Food in Setouchi, Japan

I am not ashamed to admit that the quality and variety of food factors greatly into my overall impression of a place. As someone that seeks out groceries and restaurants that are as clean and close to the source as possible, I have high expectations when I travel. To be honest, I often find that international destinations actually do have less processed cuisine than use over here in America.

Miyajima street eats

Well my experience in Japan took local food to a whole new level. I had been to Japan once before, exploring the Tohoku Region with CNN. It was there that I realized that Japanese food is not just sushi. However, the sushi still is really good but on this 2 week exploration in Setouchi, I had two very good reasons to push the boundaries of the culinary side of Japan.


Firstly, we were shooting one entire episode just on the best local food and local drinks in the Setouchi region. Secondly, I was pregnant during the entire shoot, which greatly limited my fish intake to those with low levels of mercury (and I hate to say it, a lot of seafood around the world is very high in mercury). So I was ready to dive into noodles, tempura, local game, river fish and various wild looking snacks that I grabbed from street vendors on the way.

You can watch the video to go deep into all the top dishes, restaurants and traditional cuisine of Setouchi. However below, I’m going to recap my personal favorites.

 

Udon Noodles: Thick and Thin

I got quite the education in Japanese noodles. I had no idea how many types of noodles this country could lay claim too! Also, many of the regions in Japan have their own signature noodle. In Setouchi, it was udon. To understand the intricacies of this chewy, satisfying, slurpy noodle, we went to the source: the Nakano Udon School.

Nakano Udon School

 There, classroom style, we learned about udon, from the ingredients to the finished product. Our very entertaining teacher was strict, in a funny way, and she required that after we prepared our noodle dough out of flour, salt and water, we had to wrap it and dance on it to make it soft. Yes, dance. She blasted “YMCA” and other 70s dance hits, all while yelling at us to keep dancing.

I definitely burned off the calories to eat my creation, which we did at the end. After the dancing, we flattened and then folded the noodles so we could cut into long, even strands. Mine weren’t as perfect as hers, but they did taste good!

Hiroshima Udon

We also ate super thick, gelatinous Shinsho-ji Udon at a Gokando, a beautiful garden in the Hiroshima prefecture. The was a whole different style of udon, rolled as thick as 3 straws and placed in a communal hot water pail. From there, we used wide chopsticks to fish out one long noodle strand and place it in our own bowl. There was a selection of delicious toppings, which you can add to your taste. I loved the salts and chilis!

Shinshoji udon

 

Soba Noodles (Handmade by a singing mountain local)

I love all sorts of noodles but I think that Japanese soba noodles are my favorites. I love the buckwheat flour used in them, giving them that earthy flavor and grainy texture. I also usually love the salty broth that they are served in. 

My favorite soba noodle award goes to the lovely woman below, who cooked a lunch feast for us in her home/restaurant in the Iya Valley.

Handmade Soba in Iya valley

Located on the edge of a cliff road, we took off our shoes and walked into what felt like her home (her home actually was attached). She watched us with delight as we ate all the deliciousness that she had prepared for us, including heaps of these soba noodles.

Our dessert? A song! She was a famous singer and unprompted, she stood up and starting singing a ballad in Japanese. Now that is a memorable way to end a meal.

 

Matcha Tea

Matcha tea iyaI drank copious amounts of tea while in Japan–it is served at every meal! But I developed a new love of matcha tea when we tried it at a roadside stop of another tiny mountain town in the Iya Valley. We were welcomed in with song, dance and costume by the proprietor, a spry, smiley older woman that is known for her enthusiasm.

Matcha Green Tea Iya Japan

She showed me how to grind the matcha using a traditional grinder, then she placed heaping spoonfuls in my cup, covering them with hot water.

As I sipped this rich, green liquid, she pointed out the window at the verdant mountainside across the river. That was where the tea leaves of this same matcha were grown. It only made it taste that much better.

 

Tempura

I’d had tempura before in the States so I thought I “knew” tempura. Well, I was wrong. Tempura in Japan is not the thick or greasy style that I’d had before. It is instead, delicately battered and just lightly fried, which only brings out the flavor of whatever delicious vegetable, starch or meat that was lucky enough to be “tempura-ed.” I loved all the tempura vegetables that we tried specifically the lotus, pumpkin and squash.

Tempura Shrimp Onomichi

However, I think my favorite was the tempura shrimp which we enjoyed in Onomichi (see above). The most exotic? Tempura wild deer. It was actually delicious!

 

Shabu-shabu

What a perfect meal! Shabu-shabu is also known as hot pot. It is when a large pot of lightly seasoned broth is served boiling with various raw vegetables, starches and meats. The meat is usually very thinly sliced beef to make for quick cooking. Not only does everything taste so flavorful, it is prepared exactly as you like it! And I love that it felt relatively light since no oil is used!

Shabu Shabu JapanWe enjoyed Shabu shabu feast up in the mountains of the Iya Valley, at our kominka. A local woman prepared so many dishes, in addition to the shabu, all from locally grown, raised and hunted sources. I never wanted to stop eating!

Shabu Shabu Japan

 

 

Kobe Beef

Of course this beef has international acclaim but I have to say, it lives up to the hype. I enjoy a good steak every now and then, but the grass fed, tenderly aged kobe beef is a totally different dish.

We went to Kobe Misono, the restaurant that launched the worldwide chain known as “Benihana.” It was fun because we were able to watch the expertly trained chefs prepare and cook the kobe beef right in front of us. What was impressive was how little was need to transform these perfectly cooked morsels into some of the best meaty bites I’d ever have. Just a little salt, a drop of oil, a sear on all the sides and done. Pop that in your mouth and you’ll know why kobe beef has such a big fanclub.

kobe beef kobe misono

 

Arima Cider Teppo Water

Arima Cider Teppo Water

In the hot spring town of Arima, everything revolves around the legendary hot springs. Not only do you soak in these therapeutic waters, but you can DRINK them too! Grab a bottle of the Arima Cider, made from the local hot spring water, and you’ll feel like a kid again with that bubble gum flavor! I don’t love soda but I did love this drink!

 

Favorite Meal: Kaiseki at Ryokan Kurashiki

There wasn’t one dish that I loved here–it was all of them. The whole 4 hours of this tasting menu experience was made memorable by the exquisite service and talented chefs behind each bite. I shouldn’t be surprised, the Ryokan Kurashiki is known to be one of the most luxurious ryokans in Setouchi! There was no detail overlooked.

Ryokan Kurashiki Kaiseki

The menu is seasonal and since it was late fall, early winter, we enjoyed root vegetables and wild game, as well as locally caught fish. The presentation of each course was mind-blowing. Tiny personal grills allowed us to grill our own meat, individual shabu hot pots and ornate bites displayed in fruits. There was even a wasabi root on the table with a grater so we could grate our own fresh wasabi!

 

….Dishes that I did NOT love:

Just for fun, I wanted to include a few things that I tried that I did not love so much. Every culture is bound to have food that you don’t like (see you later, France’s foie gras) and there are many American dishes that I despise too. But in Japan the list was short. Here are a few.

Kakiwai Miyajima

Fermented Oysters

Miyajima is known for having fresh oysters and you see them in every style. While I don’t go crazy over an oyster, I don’t mind them. However, I found out that I do not like them fermented. We went to a lovely coffeehouse overlooking the slope down to the sea on this magical isle. It was there that I tried their signature fermented oyster. Not only was the visual not appetizing to me, I did not enjoy the taste. I ate it to be polite and of course, for the camera, but to be honest, I did not go back for another bite. Those I was with did like it a lot so clearly it was just a matter of taste.

 

Salt Ice Cream with Red Bean

Salt Ice Cream Red Bean Paste Japan

Ice cream is everything to me so I had to try the popular salt ice cream with red bean paste when we stopped at one of Japan’s roadside food marts (they are incredible by the way!). So the verdict? It definitely looks better than it tastes. This soft serve ice cream is extremely salty–so much so that it was hard to swallow. The slightly sweet red bean paste had little flavor and was an odd textural combo with the ice cream. I didn’t despise it but I definitely didn’t see the appeal, particularly with how much sodium must be in each lick!

 

Calpis Water

Don’t be fooled, this is not water. This opaque, white drink is actually made with milk and lactic acid, so it is fermented milk water. It has a strange, slightly fizzy feel on your tongue and the flavor was not enjoyable in my opinion. I prefer the green teas or sparkling waters that I found at the food marts instead!

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Have you tried any of these before? Tell me what you thought!

 

xo

Kelley

48 hours in Tokyo: Unexpected Eats in the City’s Trendiest Neighborhoods

 

Tokyo is a massive city and if you only have 48 hours, you aren’t going to see all of it. The city can be overwhelming with its sky high buildings, intimidating language and maze of concrete. But you can crack this Japanese edamame pod, you just need to start small. My best advice? Instead of trying to criss cross the city like a pinball, stick to one or two neighboring areas and DIG IN.

 

On my first trip to Tokyo, I did not follow my own advice. When I boarded my return flight to California, I carried a mental snapshots of standout locations (Asakusa, the top of the Park Hyatt, the Shibuya Crossing) but I had trekked across the city in my limited time to get these, which meant that my most prominent memory was navigating the metro system. The metro is super efficient and clean, but they aren’t always easy during rush hours, those cars will be packed so tightly, you’ll think sardines have a room life.

MoCHA cat cafe

For my second trip, I did it right. Harajuku and Omotesando are two iconic Tokyo neighborhoods that seem to be on the pulse of the city’s modern culture. They also are scenic, walkable and have a slew of fantastic shops and restaurants. And in two days, you will have time to wander the pedestrian friendly streets, check out some notable hotspots, snap photos of Japanese fashion and maybe even pet a cat or two.

 

Day 1: Harajuku

 

Harajuku is synonymous with the wild, often cartoonish, street fashions of Tokyo and Takeshita Street is the epicenter of it all. It is a shiny, bubble gum pink, cute overload — just people watching makes it worth the visit. Wander through the out-of-this-galaxy shops and pick up some unique gifts for friends at home.

Takeshita Street

Forgo the more gimmicky crepe and rainbow colored ice cream shops to indulge in the very popular Japanese trend right now: pancakes. These aren’t just any pancakes—they come in every shape, size, color and flavor. Go to Gram, on a side street just off of Takeshita. Don’t bank on sitting right away, they only serve 20 every time, starting at 11am, 3pm and 6pm. I came at 11:30am and was able to get a reservation for 3:30pm. Nothing like a mid-afternoon snack of pancakes! More on that later..

Gram Pancakes

While on Takeshita, you can experience another famous Japanese trend: the cat cafe. Cat Cafe MoCha is one of the highest rated with very clean facilities and well taken care of kitties. You leave bags and shoes in lockers at the front and head in with your cameras. The whimsical decor looks straight out of Wonderland, but I was too distracted by the orange, grey, brown and black fluffy patrons sauntering by. The cats here are VERY used to people and are not too interested in having you pet them, unless you catch them asleep. I did notice that if you have treats, you instantly become their best friends. As they charge by the 15 minute interval, make sure to check your watch every now and then.MoCHA Cat Cafe Tokyo

 

Since pancakes will be today’s dessert, have a solid lunch to start. I opted for The Great Burger, a vintage Americana style burger joint, located on some winding streets in between Harajuku and neighboring Omotesando. Their homemade milkshakes are simple and just right, while their 35+ options for burgers will definitely make choosing hard. There are plenty of other options, including vegetarian friendly meals, but if you eat meat, do yourself a favor and get one of their perfectly crafted patties.

Great Burger Tokyo

Dessert time! Gram’s signature pancakes here are not what you’d expect.  The originals are served in threes, and they are thick, almost souffle like quality. The airy softness of the cake jiggles as they are presented in front of you, topped with a mound of butter and sidled with a carafe of maple syrup and healthy helping of whipped cream. The restaurant was very quiet because everyone was too absorbed in each melt-in-your-mouth bite —or they were busy Instagramming their plates. I managed to do both at the same time.

Gram Pancakes Tokyo

Shops in the area stay open until late so work off your delicious day with retail therapy. Personally, I found Kiddyland to be a fun, uniquely Tokyo spot that was perfect for gifts for all the nieces and nephews in my life. Each of the 5 floors was dedicated to different Japanese characters and popular animated figures. Don’t miss the Hello Kitty and Star Wars sections.

Keio Plaza Tokyo

For a comfortable stay, I chose the Keio Plaza, a large hotel located right near a metro station just a few stops from Harajuku. Though it might not have the most character as a boutique, the rates are good and the views from the upper level rooms are jawdropping. Plus, the restaurants inside are quite impressive!

 

Day 2: Omotesando

 

If you are taking the Metro, get off in Omotesando for breakfast at Bills Pancakes. This Australian eatery is located many floors up in the Tokyu Plaza Omotesando. Though very popular, it’s worth the wait for the fresh green juice, the melt in your mouth omelettes and the caramelized banana pancakes. Actually, every single thing that went by looks too good so don’t worry about what you order. For a kick, their flat whites are a must though.

Bills Pancakes Tokyo

After, head over to Cat Street where you won’t actually find any cats but you will find a lot of trendy stores, both international and local boutiques. The alleys twist and turn, but don’t worry, just get lost. There’s an adorable mom & pop artisanal store or a high end clothing shop around every corner.

Gong Cha Tokyo

While here, grab an iconic bubble tea at Gong Cha. Schoolchildren and fashionable elite all congregate here for cups of the sweet, caffeinated teas. I loved that they are completely customizable, down to the amount of ice, type of milk and sweet level.

Mmmozza Tokyo

After, nearby Mmmozza is a sliver of an Italian panini shop whipping up delicious mozzarella and prosciutto sandwiches on freshly made bread. Certainly a different flavor profile than most Japanese cuisine, it’s a tasty change and won’t hold you up on your day of exploring.

 

For a sweet treat, Dominique Ansel’s bakery is just a few twisty turns away! The chocolate chip cookies or legendary Cronuts will out a smile on your face.  

Fuerza Bruta Wa!

Bonus: For a wild night, head to Fuerza Bruta Wa! Though not in either neighborhood, this new artistic spectacle-meets-show-meets interactive play art is sure to awe. You might get wet but you won’t be bored for a second of this non-stop performance. To understand more about what Fuerza Bruta Wa is like, take a look at my video here or below!

 

Tokyo is always changing but this eating guide should make sure you dine well and enjoy the experience! Don’t worry, in a few months, there will be more trendy spots to try out!

 

Food Guide: Basel, Switzerland

Fondue, pretzels, flammkuchen, leckerli, beer… there is no shortage of deliciousness in Basel! Along with Swiss specialties like fondue, there’s also great international food in this diverse culinary hotspot. Of course, you’ll taste influences from nearby Germany and France, but the result is a unique type of quality Swiss food that you can only find in Basel.

I ate my way around this city, from breakfast, to lunch to dinner, to many sweets, pretzels, cocktails and beer in between. Trust me–bring your appetite and check out this video for suggestions of Basel’s best, before you go.
Featured: Confiserie Bachmann, Berower Park, Kunsthalle Basel, Walliser Kanne, Ueli Brewery

Food Guide of the Lake Geneva Region

 

Cheese. Lake fish. Chasselas grapes. Chevreuil. Mushrooms. There’s so much good food in the Lake Geneva region, you need to come with an appetite! I toured through Vevey’s Farmer’s Market, the farms of the Pays D’enhaut, tasting the cheeses of Château-d’Oex, Michelin restaurants L’Auberge de L’Onde & La Brasserie at the Royal Savoy Hotel and sipped wines in Lavaux. Don’t miss the lake fish, the family run wineries and vineyards in Lavaux, like Domaine du Croix Duplex, and the amazing cheeses!

The Food of Brazil

The culture of Brazil translates directly its food—each dish has a history, story and purpose. I loved the rich feijoada, the crispy acarajé, decadent churrascarias and of course, refreshing acai. We bit into the food of Bahia checking out top eats in Salvador & Lencois and then we went on a food BINGE in Rio De Janeiro. YUM. Don’t miss the caipirinhas either–they might be my favorite cocktail ever.

Show: Live like a Local in Brazil with Kelley Ferro: USTOA Travel Together