Japan Food Report: Internet Fish Market Changed Japanese Home-Dining Scenes

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From top R: Chu-toro (pink), Paradise Prawn (blue), Kazunoko/Herring roe (yellow), Hotaru-ika/Firefly Squid (purplish brown), Tako/Squid (white with purple edge)

Every time I go back to Japan, I’m amazed by their obsessions with fresh and unique food.  It’s getting worse every year it seems.

Now with the internet, you can order practically anything from anywhere in the world. For the Japanese, probably the most prominent is that you can order the freshest seafood that used to be only available when you traveled to a specific area. It can be on your dining table the next day, without leaving your desk or home (order by 1pm today, you get it tomorrow for dinner.)

Yes, we have been able to get sashimi of many different kind of seafood for decades (or longer) at our local supermarket, but the internet really changed the way the Japanese eat seafood, direct from the port.

On our dinner table on the first two days of our visit, we had the following:

– Hotaru ika (Firefly Squid) from Toyama (on the photo above)
– Paradise Prawn from New Caledonia (ditto)
– Shiro baigai (White Ivory Shell)
– Extra Large Zuwai Gani (Snow Crab) legs (5 inches long) from Canada

All came through internet, fresh frozen except for Baigai (fresh).  My question is, why don’t we have the same service in the US?  Canada is much closer to us than in Japan.  And their ads stated these crabs are prepared and frozen at a USDA approved plant.

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Snow Crab legs

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My sister joyfully preparing these giant crab legs for the kani shabu/crab hot-pot.  She loves seafood, plus this was an excellent opportunity for her to impress my husband, the special guest at their household.

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(Besides the hot-pot, we had yakitori (bottom left), bonito sashimi (bottom middle), mounds of hotaru-ika (brownish mass on the bottom right), pickled nappa cabbage (center, cream-colored thing), and nameko mushrooms with baby anchovies (brown thing right next to it), etc.)

The Japanese doctors and nutritionists often say “eat 30 different food items per day”. This alone is close to that 30 in one meal!

It was not just the variety, but the amount was pretty generous as well. We don’t eat like this when we are in the US, so we got really full quickly. Both my mom and sister kept offering us to eat more: “We got all these for you, and we don’t want to spoil them.” I started to think, now I lost weight from eating smaller portions in the US, this is the first time I would gain weight by visiting Japan.

It seems to me that because of the economy, Japanese people are not eating this über fresh seafood at the five-star Japanese restaurants, but at home for a fraction of the price (or same price, 5 – 10 times of the amount.)  Plus preparing sashimi takes practally no time.  Once it’s thawed, all you do is place it on a plate.

We used to buy a few slices of assorted sashimi — about 1/4 – 1/3 lbs or so on a small tray for $20 or so.   Now these internet fish markets sells these by the kilo, and often have special bulk offers, such as “buy 3kg (6.6 lbs), you get shipping free”.  These internet offerings are definitely cheaper if you do the math (and they do that for you in their marketing copy).  It’s basically bulk sales, like buying at Costco. It’s a smart business model though, because people buy a larger amount, share with others, then they too get hooked with the fresh seafood.  The word of mouth spreads like a tsunami!

For example, my sister got 3kg of raw baby squid (hotaru ika) at once, because by buying two 1 kilo boxes, this company will give you another one free, plus free shipping.  Just like me, she loves variety, so as you see, she orders four kinds of seafood, anywhere between 1 – 3 kgs, totalling about 10 kgs (22 lbs!) for 3 adults in 40s and one 78 years old woman!  Way too much!  The Japanese traditionally hates wasting food, especially super fresh straight from the port kind, so she shares these seafood with other relatives.

My guess is that one of our relatives first ordered a lot, and shared with everyone else.  In any case, the circle of ordering and sharing keeps going.

Despite her effort, my husband wasn’t too excited about them.  After all, he’s a white boy from the Midwest.  He freaked out with these “big shiny eyes”.  Me?  I enjoyed them a lot.  They were so rich and sweet, I loved them…  until after about 20, and still a mound of them left.  Too bad you weren’t there with us! (My sister probably still has majority of them left in the freezer.  If you are willing to visit her in Tokyo and eat some baby squid, let me know!)  Now I’ve been away from them for a while, these photos makes me long for this seafood…  (drool….)

Maybe some of you don’t agree with this national obsession with fresh seafood, and the gluttony of Japanese ordinary (middle-class) gourmands.

And excessive fishing.  I haven’t watched the Cove yet, but I can see that the same thing could happen with other kinds of seafood.

What do you think?  Is it good that Japanese can order so many varieties of fresh seafood so easily?


Japan Food Report 1 – Amazing Food Choices at the Train Station

Food is everywhere in Japan.

A lot more than I thought, or specifically, a lot more than I remembered.

Even at the train station. I mean inside of the actual station, after you pay, and go though the ticket booth.

When we went to Kyoto, we got some bento — pre-made boxed lunches before we went through the actual ticket gate at the station. Since we started our day a bit late, I thought we should eat lunch in the train and save time in Kyoto for sight-seeing. I knew that in Japan, all these long-distance trains have vendor girls who go through the entire train to sell bento, snacks, and drinks. There are also some bento sold at platforms of the major stations of long distance lines. But in my memory, the choices were pretty limited. We had time there till our train would arrive, so I thought we should buy our bento where there was the most selection.

There were quite a bit of choices at Kamata, which is medium sized train station near my mom’s house, even without going into the adjacent department stores’ food floor. Most of the Japanese department stores have at least one, sometimes two floors dedicated to everything food for home-consumption, in addition to one or two more "restaurant floors".

We took the JR (Japan Rail) Keihin Tohoku Line to Shinagawa, to get on to the bullet train.

I was in awe when we got there!

This medium sized station changed so much! I used to get off at this station, every single day from spring of 1967 till spring of ‘77 for my elementary and junior high school. Even later, I either passed through or changed trains at that station practically every day until I left Japan in early September, 1988. Now not only Shinkansen, but Narita Express stops there. The biggest surprise was that they have something called Ecute, which is the concourse food mall, much more elaborate (when it comes to food) than those in the major airports in the world. On one floor that opens right up to the major station corridor, they have 13 food shops called "Traveler’s Kitchen", 13 sweet shops, and 7 other food related stores.

The first thing that caught my eyes…

Only in Japan, you see individually wrapped sushi. The choices are pretty impressive, far better than the typical sushi joint (at least to those who just arrived from the US!) This is a branch of a Numazu Uogashi Sushi, in English, Numazu Fish Market sushi. Numazu is a well-known fish port in a few hour South of Tokyo. No wonder they have amazing choices even for "wrapped sushi".

Another pretty and appetizing choice from Numazu Uogashi Sushi. These look prettier than desserts! I love the color contrasts, not only from the top, but from the side too. When I make chirashi zushi like this next time, I might put it in a glass container.

Traditional Japanese traveler’s lunch, onigiri. A seasonal item, the pink one on the left feature salted cherry blossoms. Looking at these choices inspires me to incorporate more colors and varieties in my cooking.

Not only Japanese, but they also have Chinese dim sum. We Japanese LOVE these, and often make them at home as well. these are giant "log gyoza", probably about 3-4 times bigger than regular gyoza.

Shrimp Chive Dumplings. They are my favorite! I bet they are pretty warm, or they will heat it up for you. We had our 3rd breakfast one hour before (we were jetlagged!), and it was only at 10 am, meaning they wouldn’t be eaten for another 2 hours, so we had to pass on them.

Japanese love foreign names, and often it sounds funny to those who speak English. (Same can be said about American stores and products with Japanese names.) Buzz Search for a fancy bakery. I wonder where the name came from???

You can buy this beautiful fruit tart at the train station, while connecting to another train. Especially because it was a station I used every day since I was 6 years old, it felt very strange. I wish train stations in the Bay Area were like this….

Japanese love seasonal items. These are Sakura (cherry blossom) Roll Cakes. I didn’t eat any, but they probably have cherry petals ground into the cake outside, and the leaf on top is cherry. We also enjoy cherry blossom tea & cherry blossom mochi (Sakura mochi) in spring as well. One time, I even bought cherry blossom udon. Pretty pink udon with a subtle scent of cherry blossoms.

Japanese often buy food or cakes for others, or when they travel somewhere, they buy something to share (and eat) for work. So they are probably for that purpose, not to eat the whole thing in the Shinkansen train. The entire show case was filled with these cakes. Who buys all these cakes? The Japanese are getting even more picky about freshness, I bet they will throw them out if they don’t sell in one day.

There was only one non-food store on the first floor…

It’s pretty amazing they have such a fancy florist inside of a train station. These tall branches are cherry blossoms.

Noticing us taking photos, this guy at the florist gave us a peace sign. : )

A traveler or a commuter can buy these foods (and flowers) with a Suica Card, a chargeable card for any train or bus line tickets in Greater Tokyo and Kanto area, which can be also used at vending machines, Kiosks, and other stores inside of the train stations in the Suica covered area. The Wikipedia says that you can use this in Kansai Area, but when we were in Kyoto and Kobe, I didn’t see any Suica readers. The greatest thing about this card is that you don’t even need to take it out of your wallet or even a purse. You just need to strategically place your suica card facing outside of the bag or wallet, and tap that area with the reader when you are going through the booth. A perfect solution for ever crowded stations in Japan!

So, of course, there were Suica readers at these food shops within ECute.

Suica is a charge card mainly for all public transportation within Kanto area, but also for other purchases at the vendors inside of train stations as well as other stores outside of the train station. I loved that card — I can get on to all the trains, subway, bus, and buy things like bento box, sushi and flowers.

Given that in the Bay Area (and many other US cities), we need different cards for different things, or have to buy a ticket each time you use public transportation, I really want Suica to be introduced to the US!!!

You could pass HOURS at ECute, but (un)fortunately, these bullet train comes every 5 minutes or so. Even Hikari, which is free for JR Pass holders comes every 30 minutes, so we couldn’t piddle there too long. The good thing is, is just right down the hallway! How convenient!

Our train is coming into Shinagawa station. I’m surprised that the gate is left open before the train comes to stop.

You can buy things like several choices of bento boxes, canned beer, soft drinks, green tea and sake in most long-distance train in Japan. Next time we go somewhere, I’ll definitely buy my bento at ECute at Shinagawa Station!

I wish there were these stores when I was at school. Then I would be buying these tasty snacks and more every day after school, since I was always hungry.

The thing is, it was good that there weren’t. I would have gone broke easily, and if there were Suica at that time, I would have been in trouble with my parents why my card needs to be charged more often than needed for commuting.

So do you think it’s good to have fancy food stores like these inside the train station? Would you like to have a few at your station? Or for drivers, would you like fancier choices than McDs and other typical first food drive-throughs?

Walking, Sharing and Picnicking – New Mantra for Staying Healthy and Fit during Travel

Summer is at full swing!  Some of you are just about to leave to well-deserved vacation.  Lucky you!

When traveling, staying healthy and fit often becomes an issue.

As an avid world traveler and foodie, here are my top 3 tips to minimize health issues when traveling:

1. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes and walk as much as possible.  By exploring (even commuting to and from "work") the city by foot, you can feel the city, know what’s going on, and keep fit without going to the gym or building in something "special". A lot of people in Asia and Europe stay fit just by walking a lot, and not by "exercising" per se. 

2. We tend to overeat when we travel… all these unique foods looks great, don’t they?  So when going to restaurants, order a variety of dishes and share with others.  That way you can try a larger variety of foods and flavors and eat smaller amounts of each dish – resulting in better balance, higher satisfaction and lower calories.  Make sure to include lots of varieties – especially salads and vegetable dishes – not all meat! In a country like France where they have a great "Plat du Jour", resist the urge to order one per person. Order one, split the appetizer and dessert, and order one extra main (or appetizer) from the regular menu.  Then you can pick anything you want, without overeating. (In case of over-indulgence both food and alcohol, Alka Seltzer works well.  Take one dosage immediately after you realized your over-indulgence, and another in the morning, if you still do not feel better.)

3. For lunch and special events…  Buy a variety of local produce and tasty tidbits at local markets (if farmer’s markets are not open, supermarkets are a good alternative too.) By not eating at a restaurant you can save time, money and your figure… This is also a great opportunity to give a needed rest to your stomach and mind, enjoy good weather with locals at the park, concert, etc. You will have a better sense of place: how locals live and eat, how much things cost, etc.

Bonus tip: If possible, rent an apartment and cook by yourself from time to time. Get a cookbook of local cuisine, and take advantage of the local markets. This will definitely enhance your travel experience and keep more money in your wallet – with the bonus benefit of keeping off those extra pounds. Even if you just make yourself breakfast everyday, it’ll save a ton of money, and you can make friends at the bakery! The best part is that you can re-create and enjoy your tasty memory once you come home — over and over!

By following these simple suggestions, you can maximize your travel experience, stay physically healthy and fit, and maintain mental and financial well-being.

Happy Traveling!