How much do you know about udon?


DSC07069 One of my most favorite food in Japan is udon, no matter in which form (Sanuki udon, houto, kishimen, Goto udon, Yoshida udon…), cold, warm or hot, traditional or fusion style, I simply believe udon is the best soul food available in Japan. Did you know that most likely the oldest version of udon comes from the island Go near Nagasaki? Consequently it is called Goto udon. Can you imagine that the technique to make udon was imported from China most likely in the 8th century? At first udon was only food for the Japanese upper class, because it depended on having access to fine flour, which was made then with mortars. Only the upper class or monks – who drank as well macha – had a need for mortars. These essential mortars for flour making did not become easy available until many centuries later with the spread of wheat farming. If you are curious and love udon as much as I do, I highly recommend you to have a look at the video below. It is in English and shows a good overview why so many Japanese fell in love with udon.

Don’t you have to rush off to get your own bowl of udon now?

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

Sendai: A hidden gem!


Detail of Zuihoden When talking about destinations to visit in Japan, usually Sendai does not pop up, although it is the largest city in the Tohoku region. The city has everything what is needed to make a stay truly interesting from historical sites, great food, a cool Shinkansen to ride and a truly welcoming society. During my life of more than 10 years in Japan this city never was the destination for any private trips, but recently a friendly soccer match of Uruguay and Japan brought me to the area.
Sendai is mainly known for Date Masamune (powerful daimyo), who brought the city in the 1600 to its glory. The picture below shows Date Masamune at the remains of the Sendai Castle site.

Date Masamune

Within the city there is as well the final resting place of the Date clan Zuihoden, which contains as well 20 truly loyal solders who committed seppuku due to the death of their leader Date Masamune. The actual graves can be seen below in the picture, placed just beside the actual tomb of Date Masamune.

20 loyal warriors

For me one of the most impressive sites in Sendai was the Osaki Hachimangu shrine. The shrine had been built under Date Masamune. Apart from the impressive architecture, which is now an National Treasure, I was impressed that this site had until around 1945 a real horse on site representing the deity connected to Hachiman. In July 1945 Sendai experienced many air raids and destruction of many sights now being rebuilt. The Shrine is the oldest example of Azuchi-Momoyama architecture and impressed me deeply with the unique rather dark color.

Osaki Hachimangu, Sendai

Sendai is known for its delicious style of Miso. At this shrine I saw for the first time offerings of miso.

offerings of Sendai miso

Apart from offerings for gods, great food can be tasted like amazing soft tongue (picture below) or “okuzukake”.

beef tongue

Okuzakake is a local dish originating from Miyagi prefecture. We were lucky as we were in Sendai in the middle of August, because it is the period when outside of Tokyo the Obon season is observed. Obon is the period to worship the souls of ancestors. In Sendai there is a custom of offering zunda-mochi and okuzukake during Obon. The actual picture of the dish with the soy beans rice cake sweet is below. I have to say it truly tasted delicious, although the picture cannot really reflect the reality.

Zunda-mochi and Okuzukake

Okuzukake was originally a vegetarian dish. It contains eggplant, snap beans, taro, carrot and some local vegetables in season, abura-age (fried soy curd), Umen noodles (thinner style udon noodles). The picture below shows a good overview of the expected ingredients.

explanation

Sendai is definitely worthwhile a trip. You might even encounter some great warriors like Yoroku Morino from the past!

Yoroku Morino

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

So what is typically done during the New Year in Japan?


year of the snake japan I really love all the traditional New Year celebration in Japan. Apart from the already introduced Osechi Ryori there are so many things to enjoy and to do. Although there are many activities to be done, all is enjoyed in a leisurely pace. The first step towards New Year starts already before the year end. Originally with a truly big cleaning the home should sparkling including the darkest corners latest by December 31. The goal of all this cleaning is to welcome the deity of the new year the Toshigami-Sama (年神様). This originally had religious significance, as it was believed that the God of the New Year visits each household which welcomes them. Of course with these expectations to have a god or potentially several gods coming home for a visit, the house has to shine. In addition to Toshigami-sama there is another group of gods that can be expected coming to respective, suitable homes: The Seven Gods of Fortune (七福神 Shichi Fukujin). Usually they arrive on their treasure ship as depicted below. These seven gods can be visited as well at their respective shrines at the New Year (article with pictures will follow).

Seven Gods of Fortune

Then after midnight with the start of the year typically soba is eaten, but at our home the traditions are a bit different. We have home-made udon. To make udon from scratch is rather time-consuming, but having something so delicious to start off the year, no matter how hard the effort, it is still my favorite way to welcome the New Year.

home made udon

Another activity at the start of the new year is to write some calligraphy with a personal motto. In my case I have used a rather aggressive approach: Furinkazan (風林火山) which actually means “Wind, Forest, Fire and Mountain”.

Japanese writing

Takeda Shingen (Sengoku period daimyo) became famous with this battle approach: “Move as swift as a wind, stay as silent as forest, attack as fierce as fire, undefeatable defense like a mountain.” Personally I prefer some adaptions for a more peaceful approach of “either acting quickly or relax like being in a forest, plus not being afraid of taking actions or otherwise being unmovable when no action is necessary”. It might be a too free personal adaptions, but I still like the concept.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

How much do you spend on a luxurious trip in Japan?


Having an upcoming two-day trip to Yamanashi area this weekend I was happy to find some figures on how much is usually spent by Japanese for a pricier local hotel or ryokan stay. Based on a review done by Nikkei Shimbun (618 participants, half male and half female) the result showed with 39% percent the typical amount spend for a stay including dinner and breakfast lies in the range of JPY 10,001 to 20,000.
In my case the goal will not be on the excellent food provided at the place we stay, but much more having access to a private outdoor rotenburo (outside hot spring bath). I cannot wait to soak in the hot water and relax. For sure I love to be pampered with amazing local specialities at a ryokan, but for this trip we would like to focus on tasting local Udon unique to the Yamanashi prefecture. We will be focusing on two very specialities: One is Yoshida Udon close to Mount Fuji (described as tender and chewy at the same time) and then another version of Udon: Hoto (flat udon noodles in a thick soup, related to Udon, but actual preparation of the Udon itself is different).
Coming back to the money spent for accommodation; in our case we will have no food included and will be staying for JPY 10,000, which is reasonable considering we will have our hot spring bath for ourselves. In general the Nikkei Shimbun review found:

Up to JPY 10,000: 7 percent
JPY 10,001 to 20,000: 39 percent
JPY 20,001 to 30,000: 37 percent
JPY 30,001 to 50,000: 12 percent
More than JPY 50,001: 1 percent
Not traveling: 4 percent

For sure Japan is a country of travelers, because there were only 4 percent who did not spend money on accommodation!
I hope the upcoming travel will be a unforgetable experience, because the timing is right to see mountains full of fall colors, eating wonderful udon, plus having a relaxing spa experience combined with a promising Inka exhibition. What could I wish more!

Wishing you a wonderful autumn,

Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

Inaniwa Udon in Tokyo


The reason why I love Udon so much is very simple. There is so much variety in the forms and tastes of Udon, plus even more choices exist with the soup or flavors added to the noodles. Udon come in many shapes and forms all depending on the regional origin. Furthermore this type of Japanese noodles is served chilled in the summer and hot in the winter. For me it seems there is an endless variety for me to taste.
Yesterday I stumbled upon a marvelous building from the Taisho era in Akasaka, which contained an Akita style restaurant serving inaniwa udon (稲庭): Mugendo. Inaniwa Udon is very unique as the noodles are stretched to their form (good explanation with pictures found here) and a lot of manual labor is needed to create its unique taste. Because I am a big fan of black sesame I had to get the black sesame tantan style set.

The presentation, color and smell of the dish was very promising, but I have to say, I was disappointed about the actual taste. While I truly liked the consistency of the Inaniwa udon – much softer than other style udon – I missed the strong hearty taste of black sesame. It was definitely a nice down to earth flavor of the soup, but for a sesame lover like me, the flavor was too bland. Tasting the soup of my hubby’s udon (very basic hot udon) I have to say the taste of his soup seemed much more well-rounded than mine (great umami). I really liked the taste of my husband’s dish, but there was a disadvantage in his set menu. It was a great deal and looked good as you can see below…

but the quality of fish was questionable as my hubby considered it quite chewy. Considering the location rising the price would not be an issue, especially if the quality of the ingredients improves as well.

Bottom line (best possible rate is 5 stars):
For sure we both liked the consistency of the Udon and the taste. While my hubby’s soup was an excellent extract of fish and seaweed, my sesame soup was good, but lacking in content. Sadly the quality of the fish affected the impression of the restaurant. Too bad, especially as udon were great and the building is a jewel.

Overall: 3 stars
Udon by itself: 5 stars
Soup by itself: 2 stars (mine: 1 star, hubby: 3 stars)

Tasted by Sibylle & Kazuo Ito (伊藤シビル&和男)

40 years later, a reason to celebrate?!?


Last Saturday I was lucky to combine several wishes together: Explore more of the lesser known areas in Kanto, experience and respect Japanese history, while listen to good music. In advance of the event of today, when people in Okinawa are “celebrating” the transfer from US rule to Japan rule, I went to a lesser known area of Tsurumi, which has close ties to Okinawa.
The history of Okinawa – a previous kingdom with very long independent history and culture – is truly complex, furthermore still today 2 economies push the locals into a difficult role. The US bases in Okinawa are a challenge, plus in the words of Moritake Tomikawa (former president of Okinawa International University, quote from Japan Times): “Okinawa’s return to Japanese rule was supposed to unite it with the rest of the country, but in reality Okinawa’s economy was taken over by businesses from mainland Japan.”
Due to many reasons before or after the war a lot of Okinawans come to Tsurumi to work at the many factories. The above picture shows the area just outside Anzen Station. This station named after Zenjiro Yasuda (the station takes ‘zen’ from the first kanji in ‘Zenjiro’ and ‘an’ from an alternate reading of the kanji for ‘yasu’). Yasuda was an entrepreneur who supported the Tsurumi Rinko Railway and founded the financial conglomerate in the area: Yasuda Zaibatsu.
The integration for the immigrants from Okinawa had not been easy based on an old article of the Japan Times. After Okinawan had arrived in Tsurumi many mainlanders regarded their new neighbors as bumpkins, at best; at worst, an inferior race. Factory owners fired workers, who spoke in island languages and landlords turned away Okinawan tenants. The flood-prone area south of the Tsurumi river was one of the few places that Okinawans could rent accommodation so they settled here en masse and began to build a community.

Due to the historical event the “Okinawa Town” in Tsurumi had some special event. I had heard that my favorite Sanshin/traditional Okinawa folk singer was giving a live concert, so I had no choice but to go. Although Tadokoro Yoshiyuki (田所ヨシユキ, http://u-nosuke.com/profile.php ) is not born in Okinawa, he has strong passion for traditional music from Okinawa. Further not only music is his passion, but he loves as well food from Okinawa. He has written a special song about his favorite speciality, which you can see on Youtube on the link below.

足テビチの女 (pig legged woman)

Let me add an interesting fact about a very old musical instrument: Sanshin (三線), it is a three strings musical instrument, which is the precursor of the Japanese shamisen.

To make the day even more perfect experience, close-by there are several restaurants serving my favorite Okinawa food: Okinawa soba (沖縄そば or ソーキそば). Honestly I am not a big fan of soba, but the secret is that this kind of Okinawa soba have different roots. The noodles are not made from buckwheat noodles as in the rest of Japan, but made from flower. The thick wheat noodles resemble udon, while the soup is more similar to that of ramen. Personally soki-soba is an example of a perfect dish: colorful and full of healthy ingredients. Yes, you are allowed to get hungry by the picture below. Mmmmh!

Okinawa is for me a place that has endured and is still enduring so much, but all the people I have met in regard to Okinawa were always smiling, very friendly and had only kind words to me. For sure I respect what many Okinawans have gone though in Tsurumi, while the events are still ongoing in Okinawa…

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (伊藤シビル)

Fast food Udon Korean fusion


Recently it seems to me the variety of instant Udon is increasing. At some convientent stores and major supermarkets I came across a higher priced (JPY 250) Korean fusion instant Udon from Nissin. Apart from the higher price, addtionally this product stands out because the packaging seems more classy compared to the typical low priced instant noodles. Of course with the rather higher price my expectations rise. Notice the marvelous plastic cup that looks rather similar to the real thing. I am really curious whether the taste can live up to my expectations.

Surprisingly for me there are two ways of making this instant Udon: One is the traditional method with just adding water, but then an tiresome part is that the normal step of adding water has now to be done in two steps. First is to “wash” the udon itself and soon pour away the water, add the rest of all the ingredients. The second step of adding water water is annoying, because usually instant noodles are done in just one step. Although both steps of adding water are not time consuming, though having extra steps to consider for instant food seems to me rather unusual. At the same time I need to point out that after adding the second round of water, after just mixing all the ingredients Udon are ready to eat rather quickly. The second procedure includes a microwave step of 1 min. 30 sec as you can see in more detail below.

Now how is the actual taste: The soup itself is truly flavored interesting, but it seems for me rather unusual. Tasting the soup without the spice oil, it seems to me very milky in taste, but not based on a soymilk or tofu, contrary then much more similar to a cow milk base. After mixing with the spice oil the milk taste goes away and the spice flavor takes completely over. I have to say it tastes quite good, but not impressive. After having balanced out the different flavors, the soups is much better, but too spicy for my taste: all the flavor just reflects lots of salt with spice oil, but not much of any other flavors can be tasted.
On the other hand, I was blown away about the consistency of the main ingredient Udon: Amazingly good. Not only the taste is very good, but as well to consistency was perfect. Additionally I am positive impressed about the Tofu. Although the origin is based on dried Tofu the taste and consistency is very good. Considering that it is a fusion based on Sundofu, I expected more than just the spice oil to be added and I wish there were more Tofu included to get a better balance of the different tastes.

Bottom line (best possible rate is 5 stars):
I would recommend this Udon for someone, who is curious about fusion Udon, but apart from the Udon I am really concerned about the soup. Just by being spicy it does not mean that the taste is actually good. Having a good looking plastic cup is a great idea, but the soup should live up to the standard as well.

Overall: 3 stars
Udon by itself: 5 stars
Soup by itself: 2 stars

Tasted by Sibylle & Kazuo Ito (伊藤シビル&和男)