It should come as no surprise that the Japanese are as committed to perfection in food as they are to perfection in everything else. Food halls and convenience stores alike are laid out beautifully. Everything is orderly, neat, and logical: my convenience store onigiri came with a separate plastic coating so that the seaweed sleeve would not get soggy.
But perhaps I was led astray into thinking that I would find square watermelons and fugu on every corner. (I did not look very hard, but I never did find them!) Nevertheless, I had many other food experiences which were equally delicious, and very “Japan.”
Coffee Jelly: Unsweetened coffee turned into Jello, often mixed with ice cream. This bizarro delicacy can be found in plenty of cafes, and has even made its way to Starbucks:
Kit Kats: I had heard rumors about strange-flavoured Kit Kat bars, and was very glad to pick up a few boxes at the airport (in matcha, sakura, red bean sandwich and chili flavours). Most convenience stores seem to stock only one or two flavours, so it’s best simply to buy at the airport.
Matcha: Matcha, or powdered green tea, is a Japanese tea ceremony staple. Over the course of my two-week holiday I tried matcha cake, matcha ice cream, matcha tea lattes, matcha Kit Kats, and a matcha croissant from this place. It was one of the most delightful croissants I have ever had.
Natto: The beans on toast of Japan, Natto is a fermented soybean dish that you mix together with mustard and soy sauce to serve on top of rice. It has a very strong smell and becomes slimier and stringier as you stir it, so it is definitely an acquired taste. But it is cheap, ubiquitous, and very nutritious, so there’s that.
Onigiri: In this category I include all convenience store snacks like inari sushi, rice crackers, and my favourite triangular onigiri, which can be filled with tuna, salmon, cod roe, smoked shrimp, kombu, etc.
Red Bean Cakes: Japan on the whole is not big on sweets, so even desserts are a bit “earthy.” But red bean paste is delicious and features in many North Asian desserts.
Sushi: Sushi chefs train for eight years–I repeat, eight years–before they are said to have “mastered” nigiri hand rolls. Knowing that I was extremely appreciative of our fine chef at the Mandarin Oriental. This meal was expensive, to put it mildly, but worth it for the lovely view of Tokyo and getting to sit two feet away from a master chef. Sadly, we did not get to Jiro’s restaurant, or even get to speak with a member of his staff, but this place was just as lovely–and with the added bonus of a very chic black-panelled interior.