One of the primary ways people are introduced to Japanese culture is through its food, the ubiquitous example being sushi. Increasingly, other Japanese foods are gaining attention, with ramen and izakaya-style restaurants becoming popular in Cape Town. Variety is good and it challenges the perception of Japanese food as an uninterrupted diet of flavoured raw fish (...not that it would be a bad thing).
When travelling in Japan, the choice of food can be bewildering, but it also means there is something for everyone - from traditional Japanese cuisine (formal and informal) to contemporary Japanese meals inspired by other food cultures. Here we present you with a tiny selection of some of our favourite places where we sat down for a meal, a snack or just coffee during our WAZA Japan trip in December 2016 / January 2017. If you find yourself in Japan and you are peckish, these are highly recommended.
1. D&Department cafés
According to the D&Department project founders: "We created this place so that everyone could take the time to consider long-lasting things." Now with 47 shops across Japan, D&Department remains one of our major inspirations at WAZA. Most shops have a café attached where you can enjoy a great set meal, or setto (セット) as it is called. Pictured below is a lunch setto at Pippin café adjacent to D&Department in Sapporo, Hokkaido.
The D&Department Osaka café below also offers dinners and doubles as an event space for product talks by craftsmen from the Japanese companies they stock.
2. wad omotenashi café, Osaka
The Japanese have a word for their unique type of hospitality, namely omotenashi
(). It is one of those difficult-to-define concepts, but essentially means a form of aware and selfless hospitality that is considerate and conscious, yet unforced and unobtrusive. If you are still struggling to understand it, then just visit wad café in Osaka, where the tea, mochi and art blend in a serene setting with warm and friendly service.
3. San, Osaka
It is often not easy locating small, owner-managed eateries like San, as many such restaurants, cafés and bars are hidden away above ground level in nondescript buildings. If you circle long enough with a combination of Instagram and Google Maps you can, however, find many such interesting places in Japan's cities. The owner at San, who is also chef, waiter, interpreter and dishwasher was surprised to receive such determined guests all the way from Cape Town and prepared some custom seafood dishes on the spot. A nice surprise was the three wonderful starters in small yumiko iihoshi porcelain bowls, which we also stock at WAZA.
4. Sankeien Garden, Yokohama
Even in winter strolling through traditional Japanese gardens is a beautiful and serene experience, and when it is a chilly day, there's nothing better to warm you up than hot noodles. The small garden restaurant in Sankeien Garden serves delicious bowls of steaming broth with soba or udon noodles, and the set of three small soba bowls, each with a different topping is divine. To finish, do not leave without tasting some black sesame mochi for dessert.
5. Café Kurokawa, Nagoya
This might be the place you go to if you are still skeptical about Japan's coffee culture, hand-drip coffees or slow roasted beans. The ambiance, attention to detail, sweets (try the crème brûlée!), soundtrack and of course coffee at Café Kurokawa
(喫茶クロカワ) will make you forget many troubles for as long as you remain inside.
6. Aomori Museum of Art
If you are a fan of Chagall or Yoshitomo Nara, the Aomori Museum of Art is a definite place to stop. Next to the museum shop is a restaurant which does not stand back when it comes to the visual display of its food and so close to Hokkaido you know a crab pilaf will be a winner.
7. Taishu Sakaba Confit, Aomori
The literal translation of taishu sakaba is a pub or drinking place for the masses and they can be found all over Japan. The irony is that a taishu sakaba such as Confit can probably seat 12 people at a maximum. The chef is inspired by Spanish tapas style cooking and the choices are diverse and the food delicious. There is a good wine list to accompany the southern European flavours, some with an interesting Japanese twist. To top it all, any restaurant that plays 80s classics and has a copy of Lovesexy by Prince on the wall is a friend of ours...
8. Izakaya Banya Bettei, Sanjō
So you find yourself staying in a traditional Japanese wooden house in Sanjō, a town in Niigata Prefecture famous for its blacksmiths and steel work and you are looking for a good place for dinner. The best option is to ask local expert, guide and interpreter, Yasushi Kawakami, who suggests an izakaya called Banya Bettei. You go. You walk out a few hours later vouching to go back as many times in your lifetime as possible. The attention to detail, the presentation, the taste is exceptional and pictures don't do the meal justice.
9. Nest, Sapporo
Once again you find yourself in a street with amazing looking eateries, but you cannot find the one you are looking for - Nest. At last, above ground floor walking down a sterile passageway you find the large wooden door and another delightful, yet brief escape from all the work emails that were following you. For coffee, a setto or just a sandwich, this is a great place to go and hide with dark wood tables and natural light streaming through a big rear window. Sit at a table or choose a comfortable agura position on one of the cushions.
10. Kitakaro, Sapporo
Imagine you could visit a Japanese style patisserie and café in an old library built in 1926 and renovated by Tadao Ando on Japan's most northernmost island, Hokkaido. You can. Kitakaro's newest confectionary shop Kitakaro Sapporo Honkan offers rice cakes of various local flavours, adzuki bean crackers, mochi-but-not-quite-mochi desserts, baumkuchen and more. Then you go upstairs and order the modern Japanese patisserie cake set. And you stay there until it closes. Stark concrete walls, books to the ceiling, coffee and cake - the stuff that could tumble civilizations.
And the bonus number 11:
11. Tensoba (Tempura soba) - get it where you can
Tensoba is a popular dish throughout Japan, dating back to the Edo period and comes in different varieties across the different prefectures. Most restaurants offer you a choice of at least hot or cold broth, and sometimes you can choose between different bases for your broth (e.g. miso or soy). The most difficult is probably to choose which tempura to go with it. The pictures below show the quality of food you can experience by just walking into a random place off the street, or in a shopping mall. There are many quick-stop soba eateries as well, where you can assemble your own tensoba cafeteria-style, based on what is freshly made and available.
Disclaimer: Did you miss the wagyu and shabu-shabu? We at WAZA are pescatarian, so these meals were only vegetarian or seafood-based... which means it's the tip of the iceberg. Japanese cuisine awaits you!