By Terry Watada
Japan is full of odd and interesting restaurants serving outlandish and delicious food. During my recent trip, I managed to seek out and partake of some fascinating establishments only found in a country that prides itself on service and perfection. From the amazing variety of Ramen Stadium to the fruit extravaganza of the Takano Fruit Bar to the spirituality of the Tera Cafe, the trip was a smorgasbord of specialty food that rivalled the variety of a Japanese hotel’s baikingu.
The term “stadium” is quite popular in Japan. It denotes a collection of something; for example, Foodium (a play on stadium) is a massive grocery store with branches seemingly all over the country. It features an array of goods not seen in North America. Certainly outpaces a place like Uwajimaya in Seattle. In any case, Ramen Stadium is blocks away from the Hakata train station (Fukuoka) situated on the fifth floor of the shopping mall, Canal City. It competes openly with Ramen Street in Tokyo (a place I have to visit next time).
In the “stadium”, eight ramen shops ply their trade. The eight represent various regional styles from all over Japan. We only had one chance to enjoy a meal so we chose Hide-Chan, highly recommended by friends in Toronto.
Hideto Kawahara opened his first ramen shop in 1993. His father started in the business with Daruma Ramen, established over fifty years ago. Today, Hideto operates 15 stores in Japan, one in Akasaka, Tokyo. He has also expanded to New York City.
I ordered the tonkotsu ramen, Hakata’s representational gourmet delight. The large bowl came with a generous portion of noodles, char shiu, green onions, and other condiments. But it was the soup, made out of pork bones and fried pork fat, which took the breath away. One taste of the creamy, thick liquid and I was transported to a Nirvana of delight. Tasty is too weak a word to describe what I experienced. Word of warning, however, it was extremely rich. After a while it became cloyingly rich. By the end, I felt like I was going to come down with a case of gout. So one bowl was sufficient to experience Hakata.
In Tokyo (and 34 other locations around Japan) stands the temple to fruit: Takano Fruit Bar. The cafe/baikingu represents the perfection of fruit. Very popular, we went at 2:00 in the afternoon hoping to get a table, we barely just. We by-passed the buffet, dominated by fruit of course, but had other dishes, and went to the cafe for afternoon dessert. Too bad it wasn’t peach season because I have never eaten a bad peach in Japan (at $5.00 a peach minimum, I had better not) and so was hoping to taste the ambrosia again. But it was not, so I settled for a strawberry parfait. It did not disappoint. First of all, it was large. Certainly worth the $20 Cdn it cost. The berries not only looked perfect (a word I have overused here, I know, but there is no other word), they were sweet, aromatic and juicy. Unbelievable.
The company Takano Fruit Company started in 1885 by Shinjuku Takano. It was located appropriately enough just outside the Shinjuku Station, which opened the same year as the fruit company.
The Takano Fruit Company constantly invents ways to present fruit in original ways to sell to the public. I can see why tourists and locals make this a place for celebrations and pilgrimages.
The Tera Cafe in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district brings Buddhist traditions into the dining experience. Membership in the Buddhist Church has declined in recent times not only in Japan but in the 21st century world. Of course, Buddhism is not the only religion seeing shrinking memberships and a creeping indifference to traditional spiritualism. But Japan has been arguably the centre of it since it was imported in the 6th century.
In order to link the tenets of Buddhism to the lives of contemporary Japanese, Buddhist monks opened a relaxed and comfortable place to enrich their customers’ lives. What better place to start than Tokyo, the modern megalopolis so prominent in the world?
There is a butsudan that dominates the dining room, but there is a patio that exposes the place to the unusually quiet street. Monks and others staff the place and can be a source of counselling if needed. After hour and off-location courses, workshops and lectures are also offered, but never forced on patrons. There is no proselytizing like a Christian mission may attempt. Instead, Tera Cafe is a calm spiritual refuge from the daily pressures of modern life.
The menu features light snacks and coffee of course. A typical variety consists of grilled mackerel, assorted tempura, fried octopus and tsukemono. The cafe also offers a vegetarian set menu based on the dietary restrictions of Buddhist monks. There are four essential elements: rice (a boiled dish), a grilled dish, a salad of chopped vegetables and a Japanese soup to cleanse the palate.
My experience with Tera Cafe was very calming. I felt very much at home, reminding me of my youth at the Toronto Buddhist Church. It was good to go back for a while anyway.
So that in a nutshell is my latest eating adventure in Japan, and I’ve only scratched the surface. Like my first experience with baikingu. Upon hearing the term, I thought it had something to do with germs and not food. Turns out baikingu is derived from the word Viking. And what are the Vikings said to have invented? Not sure if it’s true but the smorgasbord. So the baikingu is a smorgasbord featured mainly in hotels like the Prince and the Hotel Shiroyama in Kagoshima. See how Japanese cuisine goes beyond sushi. Simply fascinating.