Located about 350 km (220 mi) to the northeast of Tokyo, the City of Sendai makes for a very pleasant getaway from the hustle and bustle of the Metropolis and due to its position on the Shinkansen “bullet train” network, along with various air and bus options along with low prices for attractions and hotels compared to their Tokyo and Kyoto counterparts, provides for either a quick day trip all the way to a week-long jaunt for those looking to check out a bit of the Japan “less seen” by the average tourist — both foreign and domestic. Nature, history, culture, and modernity are all on display.
According to Wikipedia, the history of Sendai as a city begins from the year 1600, when the daimyō Date Masamune relocated to Sendai. Previously Sendai was written as 千代 (“a thousand generations”), because a temple with a thousand Buddha statues (千体 sentai) used to be located on top of Aobayama. After building his castle in the same spot, Masamune changed the kanji to “仙臺”, which later became “仙台” (literally: “hermit/wizard” plus “platform/plateau” or more figuratively, “hermit on a platform/high ground”). The kanji came from a Chinese poem that praised a palace created by the Emperor Wen of Han China (reigned 180–157 BCE), comparing it to a mythical palace in the Kunlun Mountains. Tradition says that Masamune chose this kanji so that the castle would prosper as long as a mountain inhabited by an immortal hermit (too bad it burnt down a bunch of times, but we’ll talk about that a bit later.)
Later, the “City of Trees” moniker was bestowed because the last feudal lords made it mandatory for trees to be planted on everyone’s property, a tradition that can be seen to this day in the various coastal districts that had their pine trees wiped out by the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. On March 11, 2011, at 2:46 pm, a magnitude 9.0 quake struck off the coast of this part of Japan and while most buildings made it through the shaking, the resultant 10-meter tsunami inundated most Pacific coastal areas in Tohoku, including Sendai. There have been various memorials and exhibits dedicated to showing the effects of the disaster; do please go visit one of them if you visit.
The easiest way to Sendai is by hopping on one of JR East’s Tohoku Shinkansen high-speed rail trains from Tokyo. The fastest Hayabusa service makes the journey to Sendai station in about an hour and a half from Tokyo Station. With many of the major tourist attractions being very close to Sendai Station in the city center, this puts Sendai effectively into day-trip territory if you want to pop over there in the morning and return to Greater Tokyo in the evening. Fares start around ¥11,200 one-way.
For those seeking a low cost method to get there, try taking a highway bus. A sample trip from Shinjuku Bus Terminal to Sendai via Willer Express shows fares starting at ¥3,200 one-way, with the travel time clocking in at 6 hours. The more comfortable overnight buses are almost double this price, but you get to sleep all the way there in a cozy recliner and wake up with the whole day ahead of you, not to mention killing the need to stay in a hotel in the process. I am a big fan and regular user of the overnight bus system in Japan and think any adventurous traveler should try it out once.
If you wish to make a weekend or more out of your trip to Sendai, then you’ll need a place to shower and sleep, right? Sendai being a major city has its share of accommodations big and small, from economic capsule hotels and hostels all the way to luxurious hot spring resort hotels, and over the years I’ve managed to stay in every class. Here are a few of my favs:
“If you’ve got the coins for it, they’ve got the way to separate you from them!” This is my thought when I entered the threshold of one of Japan’s longest operating hot spring hotels, Sakan, situated in the Akiu hot springs area in the western part of town. The name “Sakan” comes from a man named Kanzaburo Satoh who first started a small “ryokan”(Japanese inn) here about 1,000 years ago.
His descendants have carried on the tradition for generations ever since. Today, Sakan is owned by the 34th generation of the same family. In my native USA, there are many old inns that proclaim “George Washington slept here!”; This one says the same thing about Date Masamune. He was just one of a long line of very important dignitaries, heads-of-state, and monarchs that have had a room at Sakan, along with yours truly. The room I had here was as big as whole Tokyo apartment, no joke! And don’t worry about the bath — there are three hot springs within the grounds that are sure to keep you refreshed.
Address: Yumoto, Akiu-cho, Sendai, Miyagi
Phone: +81 22-398-2323
For those of us on a budget (including me 95% of the time), there’s this option. For those not in the know, the Japanese version of a business hotel usually means you get a room with a twin or semi-double bed or two, a bath/toilet combo, a TV, and these days, internet access of some sort. Usually, there’s also some combination of vending machines, in-room fridge, hot-water pot and even breakfast bar available. It’s no-frills other than that, but it’s low-cost and you still get standard-issue Japanese “omotenashi” hospitality! The Crown-Hills is a good standard-bearer in this class and is right in the middle of downtown Sendai with good amenities and friendly staff.
Address: 2-3-18 Chūō, Aoba-ku, Sendai, Miyagi
Phone: +81 22-262-1355
If you want a truly “only in Japan” experience, then you’ve gotta try a capsule hotel. These are a type of hotel that feature a large number of extremely small sleeping areas (capsules) the size of about a semi-double bed intended to provide cheap, basic overnight accommodation… But in recent years, the services offered by some chains are just like their Business Hotel brethren. My stay in Topos included a climate controlled pod with a TV, swing-out desk and locking storage space big enough for my laptop and a change of clothes for the next day; the rest of my luggage was safely stashed away by the front desk clerks.
There’s a 24-hour exercise room, sauna, indoor and outdoor bath, manga and TV rooms and lots of places to chill out and binge watch Netflix on your iPad in a comfy chair with the free wifi. There’s only one big catch here though: it’s men only! Not to fret though, there are plenty of capsule hotels that also accommodate the ladies.
Address: 2-1-25 Chuo, Aoba, Sendai, Miyagi
Phone: +81 120-371-610
If you are looking for a contemporary hostel experience where you can be more social with fellow guests and make some new friends, or go and stay as a group on the cheap, then Ciel House is for you. Located on the 4th Floor of a nondescript office building with a tapas cafe on the first floor, beer hall on the second, the guesthouse is the perfect spot to get acquainted with all things Sendai. It’s also one of the very few options that can be had if you’re an AirBnb user since the minpaku short-term hotel laws were changed in May this year.
Opened in August, the amenities are pretty good for a hostel. A wide open living space with a TV, table for six and a big kitchen for shared use greet you. Just around the corner is the restroom and bath facility, both being the same as you’d find in the typical Japanese home, right down to the clothes washing machine being located in the same space. (Just remember most Japanese families hang dry their laundry so no drying function is available. You’ll need to use the clothesline on the balcony.) In the rooms, you’ll find a twin bed, small table with chair and a closet. There’s also an HVAC unit in each room to adjust the temperature to your liking, and free wifi all over the facility. Towel, toothbrush, and other consumables are available as well. I’ve done plenty of hosteling all over Japan and Asia and found it’s a great way to save money since I can cook myself, and can meet other tourists and locals to find out those “off the beaten path” haunts only they’d know about.
For more information regarding accessing and staying in Sendai, check the city’s official tourism website at http://sendai-travel.jp/
— By Jason L. Gatewood
Images: Jason L. Gatewood
No review of any part of Japan would be complete without talking about its contributions to the gastronomic scene, and Sendai has definitely done its part, and there are TONS of places to check out local delectables.
Ask any Japanese person anywhere what food Sendai is famous for, and you will definitely get ”gyu tan” as an answer most of the time. The version served in Sendai is tender, thick and aged like a good steak and has the exact same flavors of a rich Delmonico cut. The usual serving is usually served with a side of oxtail soup and mugimeshi, rice cooked with barley.
Date no Gyu Tan
I don’t think Date Masamune himself ate here, but he definitely would if he were around today. The Sendai based group has locations all over Sendai and even a few in Tokyo, but I recommend checking out the main restaurant right on the grounds of Aoba Castle Park.
You may be used to eating edamame beans lightly covered with salt as a complement to beer, sake, or whiskey at many izakaya taverns around Nippon. However in Sendai, they also crush them up, combine them with sugar and use it as filling in soft rice mochi cakes and even taiyaki fish (and other) shaped cakes.
Located across the street from Sendai Station is this taiyaki place that specializes in filling their fish-shaped pastries with zunda mochi. This isn’t the only place where you can get this confection but the line of people waiting on the side walk tells me this is one of the best. And if you are looking for other flavors, they have curry, cheese and sweet bean paste tastes too.
Made by taking ground whitefish with salt (kamaboko) and forming it into the shape of a bamboo leaf (sasa), the resulting grilled fish cake on a stick can be had in plain, cheese, beef tongue, and even smoked flavors.
This store specializes in a lot of Sendai’s regional dishes (including zunda mochi MILKSHAKES!) and will grill up their signature sasa kamaboko for you while you wait.
Hiroshima is perhaps more well known outside Japan for these mussels but any shell-head here also knows Matsushima Bay on the northeastern coast of Sendai is also famous for their oyster habitat and harvesting operations. You can have your kaki raw, grilled or battered and fried, and if you’re in Sendai from mid-autumn until early spring, most every area restaurant will have something on the menu involving them.
This izakaya is operated by the same company as the Ciel Guesthouse hostel above it, and is a great place to wander over to if you can’t really make your mind up about lunch or dinner during your stay because they have all of Sendai’s “greatest hits” on offer, including local sake, beef tongue and of course oysters when in season. If you still can’t decide and you’re out with friends, just go for the course menu and get everything for one low price!
For more on tasty treats and good eats in Sendai, access the city’s official tourism website at http://sendai-travel.jp/
— By Jason L. Gatewood
Images: Jason L. Gatewood
One of the first things anyone traveling around Tokyo should do is to pick up a Suica or Pasmo transit card. The main advantage being that it speeds entering and exiting the fare gates, and gives a small discount since all transit agencies round up their cash fares to avoid using ¥1 and ¥5 coins; you pay the exact fares when using IC cards.
The second advantage is being able to use the stored fare e-money function as cash in tons of places like convenience stores, fast food restaurants, shopping malls, vending machines, and video game arcades. Among all these places you can use transport IC cards, one place that always perplexed me that you were not able to use them was to board Shinkansen “bullet trains”… Strange right? As it turns out, that gaping hole is semi-patched, but not 100% so I’ll need to explain how it works so you can see if you want to take advantage of it.
These JR-Central and JR-West trains travel the heavily used route between Tokyo and Fukuoka with all stops including Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Hiroshima in between. In the past, I have tried everything from discount ticket shops, 7-Eleven, to JR Travel Centers at many large stations, but the easiest way I’ve found is using the Smart EX website and app to attach the ticket to my Suica card. In my case, I use the Mobile Suica on my iPhone and Apple Watch, but you can use any JR company issued IC card where the Tokaido Shinkansen travels (Suica, Toica, ICOCA, and Sugoica.) You can also use the service to book for others or when traveling in a group of 2~6 people but you’ll need to pick up paper tickets at a ticket vending machine [TVM] prior to boarding.)
These operate a little bit differently since they’re run by JR-East. Using the service name “Touch and Go Shinkansen” you use the in-station TVM itself to register your transport IC card for the service. The service area is smaller since the maximum fare is limited to ¥5,150 one-way. That means from Tokyo, you can only make it as far as Gunma or Tochigi prefectures. This is only designed to make it easier for frequent users to and from those areas. It’s a shame though because unlike the Tokaido Shinkansen scheme, it depends solely on the stored fare e-money on the IC card and not a separate credit card.
You simply tap the gates, and board the Shinkansen like a regular train; no app or website stuff necessary at this time. Because of the current limits, you may only use Non-Reserved Seating (first-come-first-serve). However JR-East says it will be expanding the service to all stations in 2019, and of course, I will update this article when that happens.
— By Jason L. Gatewood
Touch And Go Diagrams by At A Distance
There are a ton of deals to come from your home country to Japan for a holiday trip, especially in this era of government mandated “low-cost inbound flights”. But for those living here long-term, sometimes we have to jump through a few hoops to get a decent deal on a flight back to our home countries. Here are a few techniques I’ve used over the years to keep my airfare prices and stress levels low, while still getting home for a visit or skipping to another country for a holiday.
Japan has its holiday travel dates almost etched in stone, and due to the hardworking, by-the-book nature of its citizens, they don’t tend to travel outside of these seasonal break periods. Airlines and hotels know this, so you can expect prices to jump accordingly and plan around Golden Week in May, Obon in August, and of course New Year holidays in December/January to get the best prices and selection. You should also be aware of our neighboring country’s holidays as well; for example, going anywhere during Chinese New Year will cost more in Japan even though we don’t officially celebrate the lunar calendar as many surrounding countries do. Be aware that prime periods to visit Japan may also mean a higher fare trying to leave, even during our seasonal outdoor times like cherry blossom season, fall leaf season and winter ski season, as they play a role in jacking fares up at those times.
If time is not of the essence, try routing your flight through another nearby hub such as Seoul/Incheon in Korea, or Taipei in Taiwan and use their flagged carriers to boot. I’ve done this with using Korea Air and EVA air to travel back to the US and saved big; in one case over a thousand USD dollars. Happy bonus, Korean food!
Also, check out the option to fly from cities in Japan other than the usual Narita/Haneda combo here in Tokyo or Kansai/Itami airport in Osaka. International flights to other Asian hubs from places like Nagoya, Fukuoka, Komatsu/Kanazawa, and Sendai may be cheaper even with the added expense of a bus or train ticket to get there first. Combine that with a long stopover in one of these places and you have a mini-vacation too!
The real game changer is doing all the planning, routing and ticketing from your fingertips. Aggregator sites like Hipmunk, CheapOair, and Google Flights aggregate flights and prices in real time. Although I’ve never used it myself, Scott’s Cheap Flights has many fans as well. Here in Japan though, you might want to walk into a good old-fashioned travel agency like IACE TRAVEL or H.I.S. Travel because they are very good at doing package deals for both flight and hotel bookings, and also group deals if you’re traveling with the family.
Got any tricks of your sleeve? We’re collecting them and adding them to the list! Comment below if you want to tell the world your money or time-saving method for traveling outside Japan!
— By Jason L. Gatewood
For a city its size (just over one million people, which is considered small by Japan standards), Sendai has a storied past, steeped in nature, and has a vibrant lifestyle for its citizens. This all adds up to a perfect place to check out if you’re looking for a change of pace from the hustle and bustle of the Tokyo Metropolis and you seek to avoid the endless tourist throngs around places like Kyoto and Nara to the west.
Sendai would still be a fishing village if it wasn’t for the feudal lord Date Masamune (pronounced “DAH-TAY”, not like the word meaning a romantic outing!) Known as the “One-Eyed Dragon of Ōshu” because of loss of his right eye to smallpox (which may have been part of a poison his mother gave him according to one legend) , his ambitious plans to grow his domain were rivaled by his cunning tactics in both battle and forming alliances. His likeness can be seen all over the city with his trademark black and gold-trimmed battle armor and large golden crescent moon atop his helmet.
The best place to learn about the man behind the place is to head atop the Mount Aoba Plateau in the middle of town and check out his old castle… ruins. Unfortunately, the structure burnt down repeatedly over the years, most recently during bombing runs in WWII. The walls and foundations are still shown off, and there is a large museum dedicated to the Date clan and their exploits. Also don’t miss the large statue of Date Masamune atop his steed that eternally looks east over the Hirose River, through the city and into the sea beyond just as he likely did atop Mount Aoba over 400 years ago. It’s a prime photo spot and one of the best skyline views I’ve ever seen.
Access: Stop #6, Loople Shuttle Bus
(“Loople” is a shuttle bus that links Sendai station to all major attractions and tourist spots immediately around the CBD area using trolley style buses. You can purchase a day pass at Sendai Station’s East Bus Rotary and use it all day to get around. for more info, check their website here.)
You can also check out where Date Masamune is entombed along with three of his sons by visiting this mausoleum. The tombs of his son and grandson are also nearby. There are volunteer guides that speak English here along with a really good smartphone powered guide app as well. Just be prepared for the 70 steps that will await you when you arrive. Hey, gotta get that cardio workout in!
Access: Stop #4, Loople Shuttle Bus
Osaki Hachimangu Shrine
Sendai’s main Shinto shrine is located just west of the center of town and founded by Date Masamune himself, dedicated to Hachiman, the god of war. Its most famous festival, Matsutaki Matsuri during Dontosai is held over the New Year holidays, the time when people make their first shrine visits of the year. They drop off their old *ofuda* good luck charms and get new ones. The old ones are piled along with new year decorations and burned in a huge bonfire to send off the gods for a new year and earn their blessings. Of course, you are welcome to check out the temple grounds any other time too and marvel at its black lacquer and gold leaf construction and like me, wonder why there are wild chickens just running around the place.
Access: Stop #12, Loople Shuttle Bus
One fascination I have with Sendai is its similarity to the city I hail from, Atlanta in the United States. Even though it’s a metro area of just under 5 million, there are tall pines, winding rivers, rolling hills, and stone mountains all over. Sendai looks the same with its spreading oaks, rocky bluffs and the Hirose River cutting straight through the middle of town. There are plenty of parks and historical sites that offer a nice respite to allow you to reset your mind and spirit while bathing in nature’s glow, from mountain to sea and everything in between.
This area in the southwestern part of town is home to many hot springs and resort hotels centered around this natural formation the Natori River makes as it carves its way through the area.
Address: 62 Akiumachi-yumoto, Taihaku-Ku, Sendai, Miyagi
Akiu Great Falls
Further upriver lies one of Japan’s tallest waterfalls. Surrounded by the natural pine and oak forest, take a walk down to the bottom of the falls and enjoy the natural temperature difference (Much cooler down there in summer!) When you’re done, come back up and head over to the nearby botanical gardens and shopping street… Or how about some soba noodles at Michelin ranked Jōan?
Nikka Whiskey Sendai Factory
The Sendai area is known for its great sake and nihon-shu rice spirits, but did you also know the clear mountain streams are also great for making whiskey? The founder, Masataka Taketsuru did in 1967 when he saw the water in the Nikkawa River was crystal clear. Having already established his first brewery in Hokkaido, he wanted to expand the business and create a contrasting taste to what was being done at the Yoichi Brewery. For that reason, the Miyagikyo Brewery has a different set of equipment and process that helps round out the Nikka brand. The factory grounds are also very picturesque with red brick buildings and wrought iron gates competing with the ponds, trees and grassy knolls for attention against the mountainous backdrop. I asked one of the factory workers candidly what they liked about working there, and he replied simply “all this nature.” I agree… Along with the added benefit of being able to partake in some of Japan’s finest libations that are the product of the factory! OF COURSE, there’s a tasting after the tour, and you will not be disappointed.
For more information on tours, Check out Nikka’s Miyagikyo Distillery website.
Address: Nikka 1, Aoba, Sendai City, Miyagi
Phone: +81 22-395-2865
Okura Dam and Recreation Area
The far western part of Sendai is very mountainous, and the headwaters of all the area’s streams can be found here. Of course, this makes for a great place to plop a dam down and generate clean electricity while using the resulting reservoir to get drinking water from. Somewhere in the process, someone noticed how beautiful everything looked and made many of these locations into parks. The Okura Dam and surrounding prefectural park is a great area to visit and take in the surrounding scenery especially in spring cherry blossom and fall foliage seasons. Also, the park at the bottom of the dam is renowned for its picnicking area.
Address: 1 Okura-Fuda, Aoba, Sendai, Miyagi
Jogi Nyorai (Saihoji Temple)
Follow the Okura River up through the gorge another 15 minutes, and you’ll arrive at Johgi Nyorai Temple tucked into the valley. Famous for being the place to pray for matchmaking, safe childbirth and having a happy home in general, the temple grounds itself is surrounded by nature, and you’re perfectly welcome to simply stroll the grounds admiring the koi ponds, trees that burst into golds and reds during fall and the sounds of birds all around. The temple itself has a fabled history as it houses a relic painting of the Kannon Buddha that’s kept in the main temple. There’s also a five-storied pagoda and a nice market street that is home to a very famous fried tofu joint, Johgi Tofu Shop, that deserves its own write-up!
Address: 1 Ōkura-Jōge, Aoba, Sendai, Miyagi
The phrase ganbatte loosely translates into “do your best” or “don’t give up” and following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami was something said, heard and seen almost everywhere in Japan. The eastern portion of Sendai, made up primarily of flat farmland, industrial zones, scattered residential areas, and beaches were very hard hit on March 11, 2011, when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck and generated a 10-meter wave washing ashore about an hour later. If you visit the area, it would be a great thing to visit some of the areas that took the brunt of the disaster and have risen from the rubble anew.
~Arahama Elementary School Memorial ~
The full gravity of the disaster can be felt here, as this school saved the 320 people that evacuated from the nearby neighborhood on the coast that day. Water crept up to the middle of the 2nd floor bringing in all manner of debris including cars, furniture, and other possessions. The town the children lived in that attended this school was destroyed as was the school’s newer gymnasium next door. It was decided the school should stand to show the power of nature, and the bottom two floors have been left as they were once the water receded; the top floor exhibits photos and movies of the disaster and includes the chalkboards left as the children saw them that day.
Sendai Coast Equestrian Center
Humans weren’t the only thing rescued that day; just down the street is an Olympic class horse riding training facility and over 20 of its horses needed to be evacuated and sent to other facilities in the aftermath. Three of them have returned since the facility reopened this year and you can ride, pet and feed them starting with a lead around the course for ¥500. There are a wide variety of training and even fitness courses available; please check their website for details.
Seaside Adventure City Park
Sitting on the other side of the horse stables is a park situated on top of a hill and because of this was mostly spared from being inundated totally by tsunami waters. Even so, the park known for its hands-on recreation and learning programs for local kids had to go on hiatus for the last seven years and has only now reopened this past July. Home to a “day campsite” where you can barbecue in the warm months, a large playground and sandbox for the kids, it’s a nice place to relax and catch a breath of fresh air with the Sendai skyline on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.
For more things to see and do in Sendai, access the city’s official tourism website at http://sendai-travel.jp/
— By Jason L. Gatewood
Images: Jason L. Gatewood
Whether you have been here for a few weeks or know the city like the back of your hand, Nagoya is a city that is full of surprises. New restaurants and bars pop up all the time, and you can be strolling down a familiar street and suddenly notice a temple you’ve never seen before.
We all have our favorites, our haunts, our places of sanctuary. In this JIS series, Nagoya residents share their recommendations so you can get to know this amazing, beautiful, eclectic city as well as they do.
Photographer Becky, from Turkey, has been in Nagoya for four years now and is an up-and-coming star of the Nagoya art scene, with some local exhibitions under her belt. But when she isn’t out taking pictures, browsing Dean and Deluca (“They have such amazing food, wine, and dessert selection, I head there almost every day!”) or reading her book in Meijo Park, she’s watching movies at Fushimi Million Theatre.
“I really like independent, arthouse and European movies, but most commercial or big movie theater companies in Japan generally show big Hollywood blockbusters or Disney movies, which isn’t my thing,” says Becky. “A friend of mine, a real movie buff, recommended Fushimi Million, and it’s a cozy little place where you can catch some fascinating films, although most foreign films are generally only subtitled in Japanese.
“Also, they sell cool books and stuff and last time i was there I saw some old vinyl too, so it’s a really nice place.”
David used to run a bike shop in his native New Zealand, but after moving to Nagoya seven years ago, he still felt that itch to get out on his bike and throw himself down the slopes. He’s been around the country to hit the mountains, but when he is in Nagoya he loves to hang out at Rookies’ MTB Park
“The guy who runs Rookies, Enemoto-san, is a total dude. He also has a bike shop (also called Rookies) which his wife looks after on the weekends as he goes to build trails and run the park Saturday to Monday. Okay, it’s not strictly in Nagoya, but it is just an hour out of town, and it’s a nice drive out there. The park has very well built trails that all levels can enjoy, and a fantastic friendly atmosphere where everybody ends up riding together,” David says.
“He also runs a children’s mountain bike school, and quite a few kids are rocketing around on any given day. So it’s not just for seasoned bike nuts like me, it has a real community and family vibe going for it as well”.
Mai was born and bred in Kanie, one stop from Nagoya on the Kintetsu Line, but having gone to high school and worked in Nagoya, she knows the place well. Mai has so many things to recommend about Nagoya, but her favorite place to go is Arimatsu.
“Sometimes living in and being in a big city like Nagoya you can feel a bit stressed, everything is so go-go-go. When that happens, I love hanging out in Arimatsu,” said Mai.
Established in 1608, Arimatsu was an important trading town along the Tokaido road connecting Edo with Kyoto famed for its classic tie-dye fabric, ‘shibori,’ which was used to make Japan’s best kimono and yukata. The old Tokugawa era buildings remain to this day, as well as many shops selling shibori goods.
“It’s so beautiful there, this classic old town in the middle of the city, hidden away. You can go there, walk around and absorb the feeling of traditional Japan. It’s so peaceful there, and there are even a couple of old temples. You feel like you can connect to history, and you don’t have to go to Gifu or Mie to see it, it’s right here in Nagoya!”
Ghia is an unabashed foodie. Her social media sites are of the type that will make your stomach growl as you flick past it, and she knows all the best restaurants in town. So you would expect her hidden gem to be some fancy, upmarket restaurant like The Kawabun (although she is actually quite a fan of it), rather than Nagoya Miso Curry Labo in Osu.
“I love Japanese curry, it’s awesome comfort food,” says Ghia, who has lived in Nagoya for 14 years. “But at the Curry Labo, it is at another level, with chicken, beef, tomato and cheese all mixed in together. Then you add loads of chopped green onions and mayonnaise and boom! The best curry in town!”
This being Nagoya, it is perhaps unsurprising to get two miso recommendations back-to-back, but Ichimasa Miso Ramen is not your regular Nagoya Miso spot, Frenchman Gregory explains.
“I love ramen that has thick, juicy grilled pork, and this place has the best, but that’s not necessarily what sets it apart. I love the fact that you can choose soup with miso from different regions all over the country. My recommendations would be the sweet miso that comes from Kyushu or the really tasty miso from Hokkaido. But no matter which one you get, you pretty much can’t go wrong.”
There are five branches of Ichimasa Miso Ramen around Nagoya, but for Gregory, who has lived in Nagoya for seven years, the branch in Moriyama Ward is the best.
“I tell everyone I meet about it, and I even take the restaurant’s business cards to give to people. It’s a real hidden gem!”
Photo: by Mark Guthrie (Own Work)
How do you get warm and stay warm when the temperature in Hiroshima drops during the winter?
Ah, that’s easy, the locals tell me, hot sake!
With the weather getting cooler, now is the perfect time to take advantage of some of the best sake around and also the time to work out what type of sake you prefer. There are lots of factors to consider, including whether you prefer it dry or sweet and indeed, whether you want it hot, cold or served at room temperature.
Sure, you can go to a bar or izakaya and ask the staff to recommend something, but as far as knowledge goes, they may not be able to answer all your questions. Instead, why not head to a place where everything will be revealed by experienced and professional staff?
The place? Yamatoya! Located on one of the main street corners in Nagarekawa it offers both a bottleshop and bar upstairs which has regularly sake tastings.
In January of 2015 they held one such event and as it coincided with my birthday, I decided to check it out. It may have been below zero outside with snow falling from the sky, but inside it was warm and toasty. For 500 yen we were given three cups of sake with very distinct and different flavours. For a little extra, you could also buy some snacks, which paired well with the sake. Owned by the Omaya family who also brew their own sake, Yamatoya is the place to go when you want an expert opinion or when you’re looking to buy that special gift for family and friends.
Although they don’t speak a lot of English, they are very friendly and are always willing to try their best to help you find something you like. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed with their service. Although the shop is known for its sake, other alcohol is of course available. If you’re into other types of Japanese alcohol such as shochu, this is definitely the place to go.
The bottle shop is open every day except Sunday between 9am and 10pm. They also have a webpage where you can order without even leaving the comfort of your own home. It is, however, all in Japanese, so if your kanji isn’t too good, ask a friend to help you decipher it.
Their website is regularly updated and is also where their sake tasting events are listed. I highly recommend the events, especially for those who are new to drinking sake as it gives you the opportunity to work out exactly what you do and don’t like and is much cheaper than spending money on a bottle that you may not finish if it’s not to your taste.
All in all, Yamatoya is the place to go for all your sake and other alcohol needs. Service is friendly but professional and you will leave the place with more knowledge about just what it is you’re drinking than if you simply went to a bar or izakaya.
Nagoya’s cuisine is pretty different from traditional Japanese fare. While most of the best known Japanese dishes are famed for their subtlety, their delicateness, and their graceful tastes, with its spicy red miso and peppery tebasaki, Nagoya cuisine is known for having a bit of a kick to it, and none more so than Taiwan ramen!
Taiwan ramen is perhaps the spiciest of Japan’s ramen soup dishes. Ground pork, Chinese chives, green onions, and bean sprouts are seasoned with lots of spicy red peppers and other spices before being fried. Added to this is a heroic quantity of garlic, and then the mix is placed in a soy-sauce chicken broth with ramen noodles.
With all the garlic and chili it is quite a strong-smelling dish – and you certainly wouldn’t want to be kissing anyone after eating it – though the first taste generally is not that piquant. But then, as the spices meld with the hot soup and the chili kicks in, you’ll be sweating buckets before you can say ‘can someone get me a glass of milk, please!’ In the best possible way, of course
Now, I know what you are thinking: “Taiwan ramen? That doesn’t sound so Nagoyan. The clue’s in the name, right?” Wrong. While you would be forgiven for thinking that way, as many locals do, Taiwan ramen originated here in Chikusa Ward and is as Nagoyan as Ichiro and the TV Tower.
The dish has its origins in the early 1970s in a Taiwanese restaurant, Misen (more about which, later). It is said that the restaurant’s chef created the dish – essentially Taiwan danzai noodles with the spice dialed up to the max, or a variation of on Chinese tantanmen – as a way to feed his staff during shifts.
The restaurant’s regulars were intrigued by the spicy ramen and demanded that it be put on the menu. At the time the dish did not even have a name, but as the restaurant owner was from Taiwan, he simply called it ‘Taiwan Ramen,’ and thus a legend was born.
During the mid-1980s, Japan saw a spicy boom after it was rumored that weight loss could be encouraged by eating food spiced with red chili peppers. As a result, Taiwan ramen became one of the most popular of these ‘slimming’ dishes, and its fame grew across the Nagoya and the Chuubu area.
Nowadays pretty much every Chinese restaurant in Nagoya, as well as most ramen shops, serves Taiwan ramen. However, if you want the best, the three restaurants below should be your first ports of call. However, if you disagree and you know somewhere better, please let us know in the comments below.
The originator of Taiwan ramen, Misen is also the best. Here it comes in three spice levels, with ‘American’ being the weakest, ‘Italian’ the spiciest and original Taiwan in the middle (the ranking, interestingly enough, comes from the strength of coffee served in each country).
While JIS loves spicy food, we recommend avoiding the Italian as a lot of the flavor is lost in the search for fire.
While Misen is the creator of Taiwan ramen, Menya Hanabi took this well-loved dish and revolutionized it, in doing so becoming the first shop to serve Taiwan Mazesoba.
Taiwan Mazesoba tastes almost exactly like Taiwan Ramen but is soup-less. With thick cut noodles served with spicy meat, raw egg yolk, and negi onion, it packs a punch right at the bottom where all the extra spice hides. Another great place that is famous for its Taiwan Mazesoba is Anzutei in Meieki.
This is perhaps somewhat blasphemous to say, but one of the best Taiwan ramen shops is not only from Osaka, but it isn’t even a ramen shop. O-Sho is traditionally a gyoza restaurant, and damn fine gyoza they do too. However, they also do a fantastic Taiwan ramen, which you can have as a lunch set with their gyoza. Not all O-Shos serve Taiwan ramen, however, so ask before you sit down.
Starting work in a new office can be pretty stressful. Each office can have its own particular rules and culture, and this is particularly true when in a new country. While some things remain the same, there can be vast differences between the way things were back home to how they are in Japan.
One of these such cultural differences is the ‘enkai,’ or office party. If you come from a country where clocking out means clocking off and going home, these after-hours get-togethers can seem strange, if not a little daunting, but they are an integral part of how the Japanese office unwinds and bonds. Enkai are held to mark a wide range of events, including completion of significant projects, attainment of set goals, foundation anniversaries, school sporting events, entry of new coworkers, and retirement of senior employees, and are an essential social aspect of work-life.
While some of you may take to these parties like a duck to water, for others they can be a little daunting as, like so much of Japanese culture, there are many rules of etiquette to follow. Fortunately, we here at Japan Info Swap have learned the hard way, foolishly breaking all of these rules repeatedly so that you don’t have to.
Do turn up on time. While in the west it may be cool to turn up fashionably late, that’s certainly not the case here in Japan. The party won’t start until everyone arrives, so don’t dawdle. With that said, sometimes things are beyond our control, so if you are unavoidably delayed, do call ahead and request that they start without you.
Don’t just get stuck in. As mentioned, the party has an official start time, and this will usually begin with a short speech from a manager, followed by group ‘kanpai’. The raising of everyone’s glasses together signifies the start. It doesn’t look too good if your glass is only half-full, and you are already half-cut! Also, if you want to get some serious gaijin brownie points, there is a special way to kanpai. Learn how to here.
Do pour the drinks. Whether a relaxed, after-hours bite with colleagues, entertaining clients or an official party such as a retirement, there will be a fair bit of drinking involved. In fact, another name for an enkai is ‘nomikai’, or drinking party. Often the standard drink will beer, with either large bottles or jugs on the table to share. An important part of this is pouring for others, and not for yourself. Top up everyone’s glass as often as you can, as showing understanding of this custom will ingratiate you with your colleagues, and they will return the favor. But keep an eye out for full glasses because…
Don’t feel pressured into drinking. You don’t have to drink if you don’t want to, it isn’t compulsory. However, if you don’t, expect to field questions on why you aren’t drinking – and ‘I’m driving’ isn’t usually considered a good enough excuse, because why on earth would you drive to a nomikai?! – all night, from everyone. There are two useful techniques to avoid this. One is to accept your beer glass with good grace, but leave it untouched. Well, hold it in your hand occasionally, but don’t from drink it. Another is to order ginger ale from the waitress quietly. It looks enough like a whiskey highball to avoid questioning.
Don’t wear the toilet slippers back to the table. At every nomikai someone does just this and will face light ribbing for the rest of the night. Just try to make sure that this fate isn’t yours.
Do join a nijikai (if you want!). Once the enkai has finished, usually after two hours, there will undoubtedly be a ‘nijikai’, or second party. These will be more relaxed, and can quite often be more enjoyable, with most of the rules mentioned above no longer applicable. Nijikais will take place at a more casual restaurant, karaoke, or even at ‘kabakura’ hostess bars, depending on with whom you are partying. But if you aren’t feeling up to it, feel free to say ‘no’, as there is zero obligation to join.
Don’t talk about it the next day. While it was funny watching the company CEO dancing on the table with his tie around his head, it’s not considered common practice to discuss it the next day. What happens on enkai… stays on enkai!
Don’t worry too much about the rules. If there is one thing that Japanese understand, it’s that their customs can be pretty perplexing for foreigners, and as such, they will forgive pretty much every transgression of these rules, so relax. However, if you can demonstrate a knowledge of these rules, there will be some impressed faces all around.
By Mark Guthrie
Photo by Mark Guthrie (Own Work) via Instagram
Osechi-ryōri are traditional Japanese foods eaten at the start of the new year. The osechi tradition has been alive in Japan since the Heian Era (starting in 794) and the foods are easily recognizable by the special bento boxes called jūbako, which are often stacked for larger families or parties. Like many places in Asia, food items included in Oshechi have special symbolic meaning, and are generally standard.
Of course, I am sure you can find some local variations and expression of personal taste out there; I am willing to bet there is something involving mayonnaise that is very popular. It is Japan after all, and tradition only goes so far.
Here are some examples of dishes you might find in an osechi box at New Years’
Daidai (橙), Japanese bitter orange. Daidai means “from generation to generation” when written in different kanji as 代々. Like kazunoko below, it symbolizes a wish for children in the New Year.
Datemaki (伊達巻 or 伊達巻き), sweet rolled omelette mixed with fish paste or mashed shrimp. They symbolize a wish for many auspicious days. On auspicious days (晴れの日, hare-no-hi), Japanese people traditionally wear fine clothing as a part of enjoying themselves. One of the meanings associated with the second kanji includes “fashionability,” derived from the illustrious dress of the samurai from Date Han.
Kuro-mame (黒豆), black soybeans. Mame also means “health,” symbolizing a wish for health in the New Year.
Kamaboko (蒲鉾), broiled fish cake. Traditionally, slices of red and white kamaboko are alternated in rows or arranged in a pattern. The color and shape are reminiscent of Japan rising sun, and have a celebratory, festive meaning.
Kazunoko (数の子), herring roe. Kazu means “number” and ko means “child.” It symbolizes a wish to be gifted with numerous children in the New Year.
Kobu (昆布), a kind of seaweed. It is associated with the word yorokobu, meaning “joy.”
Kohaku-namasu (紅白なます), literally “red-white vegetable kuai,” is made of daikon and carrot cut into thin strips and pickled in sweetened vinegar with yuzu flavor.
Tai (鯛), red sea-bream. Tai is associated with the Japanese word medetai, symbolizing an auspicious event.
Tazukuri (田作り), dried sardines cooked in soy sauce. The literal meaning of the kanji in tazukuri is “rice paddy maker,” as the fish were used historically to fertilize rice fields. The symbolism is of an abundant harvest.
Zōni (雑煮), a soup of mochi rice cakes in clear broth (in eastern Japan) or miso broth (in western Japan).
Ebi (エビ), skewered prawns cooked with sake and soy sauce.
Nishiki tamago (錦卵), egg roulade; the egg is separated before cooking, yellow symbolizing gold, and white symbolizing silver.
Traditionally it is taboo to cook meals during the first three days of the New Year so osechi boxes are cooked or purchased well in advance of the end of the previous year. This is a great deal of work, but it finishing this task early allows time to relax a little for the first days of the New Year.
If you plan on buying Osechi for your family to enjoy you will find options readily available beginning as early as November. Most people order early, and you should too if you want to get the best! Alternatively, you could make something at home.
Here are some of videos from YouTube about how to make a few varieties to get you started.