I'm back. If you've been following me on Instagram, you'll know I've just returned from a three-week holiday in Japan. The buy-one-get-one-free Jetstar sale tickets were too hard to resist. What did we do? Ate non-stop. We licked our way through a couple of soft serves too.
Premium gyumeshi 480 yen (AU$5.20)
with spicy sauce, green onions and egg with free miso soup
We landed at Narita airport about 13 hours after leaving Sydney, including a plane change at the Gold Coast. Tired and grumpy at 10pm, I knew we'd end up at Masuya for our first meal, just one chain of many gyudon (beef and onion on rice) restaurants in Japan that are open 24/7.
Gyumeshi beef, a mix of imported Australian and American beef
Gyudon is all about simmered beef and onions on rice. The meat is thinly sliced and tender, cooked in a sweet onion sauce that sinks slowly into your bowl of hot rice. This is a comfort food dish that hits all the right notes. It's hard to miss the irony of ordering the premium gyumeshi, a proud offering of imported Australia and American beef, but the meat is remarkably fatty and juicy.
Runny egg yolk deliciousness
An onsen egg is essential. Pierce the bright yellow yolk for a flood of richness that drenches everything. Add a spoonful of the complimentary pickled ginger for a palate cleanser between bites.
Gyudon is impressively cheap, with small bowls starting at about AU$4. The food arrives fast, and our counter seats give us an intimate view of everything happening in the kitchen.
The tiny wooden box presented on our tray has us stumped until the staff laugh and remove the tiny wooden dowel sticking out. It's a vessel for chilli powder, adding the fiery punch we need after a long haul flight.
We leave Tokyo the next morning for Toyama, a new addition to the shinkansen or bullet train network. It now takes about two hours to get to Toyama from a Tokyo on a direct train. Previously the journey took about three and an half hours with a mandatory transfer. The brand new train station is bright and gleaming, and is expected to open up the city to a significant increase in domestic and international tourism.
Bridge over the Matsu River at Toyama Castle Park, Toyama
The flood of tourists have yet to arrive when we visit though, and we're glad to have the wide streets to ourselves. At the centre of Toyama (population one million) is Toyama Castle, set within the grounds of a sprawling public park.
Toyama Castle, rebuilt in 1954
Like the majority of castles in Japan, Toyama Castle is a reconstruction, rebuilt in 1954 after earlier versions were destroyed. The original Toyama Castle was built in 1543.
Lakes and greenery in Toyama Castle Park
The surrounding gardens are immaculate, dotted with koi ponds and waterfalls that create a tranquil escape from the concrete jungle. More than 95% of the city was destroyed in World War II, after 173 American B-29 bombers dropped incendiary bombs on August 1, 1945. You won't find many old buildings in Toyama, but the city has been designed to be compact and accessible.
Firefly squid sashimi 800 yen (AU$8.80)
When it comes to food, Toyama is best known for its hotaru ika ほたるいか or firefly squid. If we'd been more organised, we would have joined one of the tours that visit Toyama Bay at dawn. The firefly squid emit a fluorescent blue light, creating an eerie and beautiful display in the unique bowl-shaped bay.
We tried them at the newly built shopping complex near Toyama JR train station with a bounty of restaurants and food stalls. Eating them raw is the best way to appreciate them, a chance to admire their glistening sheen. There's a slight stickiness to the surface. The flesh is mildly sweet with a gentle chew. The tentacles are slightly stronger in flavour. Both can be relished plain or with mustard and a soy dipping sauce.
Seasonal sashimi set 1,100 yen (AU$12.10)
The seasonal sashimi set is a showcase of all that is delicious from the local area. Thin slices of raw octopus are incredibly tender, and the raw squid has been sliced into the thinnest of ribbons. The raw shrimp, or prawn, is wondrously sweet.
Dining counters at Ramen Iroha
Toyama is also the home of black ramen, a local specialty that marries noodles with a distinctive black soy sauce soup.
Toyama black ramen 980 yen (AU$10.75)
We get our fix of Toyama black ramen (富山ブラックラーメン) at Ramen Iroha, tucked into the basement of the CiC department store.
The black soy gives a hearty salty kick to the otherwise light chicken stock. The noodles are noticeably thick and chewy. Thick slices of fatty pork, a soy sauce egg and a pile of shredded leeks round out a satisfying meal.
Kushiage deep fried skewers at the supermarket
We only have a day in Toyama, but that's still enough time to stalk the local supermarket stocked with sashimi boxes, sushi, bakery goods and more. The kushiage section is always my favourite marvel, a self-serve display of fried deliciousness to take home.
You'll find deep fried fish, sweet potato, chicken and prawns. The pluto pups are too exciting to resist. They're less of a frankfurt and more like a pork sausage inside, missing the drizzle of tomato sauce but still tasty.
Statue outside a restaurant
We only have a day in Toyama for tomorrow we head to Kanazawa! Post coming soon.
Hanging flower pots above the Matsu river that runs through the centre of Toyama
1-20-6 Nishiikebukuro Toshima, Tokyo
Tel: +81 (03) 5396 7631
Open 24 hours a day
Matsuya has outlets all over Japan
CiC department store basement (B1F)
1-2-3 Shintomi-cho, Toyama, Japan
Tel: +81 (076) 444 7211
Open 7 days 11am-12 midnight
Sydney's Best Cheap Eats
And as luck would have it, my cover story for Good Food was published while I was away. You might say it was a surreal moment when Good Food editor Ardyn Bernoth approached me for this feature. The $10 issue celebrates Sydney's best cheap eats, the kind of food I always get excited about. Fancy meals can be impressive but a budget feed can leave you just as breathless with wide-eyed excitement and appreciation. My pick of restaurants was harder to compile than you could possibly imagine.
Ten bucks might not seem like much but it can score you all kinds of awesomeness across Sydney. I tried to give a geographic mix of seated establishments, but you can tell my heart (and stomach) lies in Sydney's west.
Missed out on reading the two-page spread? You can read the full story online at Good Food.
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5/25/2015 12:27:00 a.m.