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Travel Memories - Part I

Travel Memories - Part I

We have a map in our warehouse showing the locations of all of our producers. It sits near our desks, so we can’t help but to look at it every day. It is a nice reminder of our journeys up & down Japan, searching for new products, meeting amazing people and, of course, eating great food.

Recently we set about developing an online version of our Producer Map so you could see where our producers were located. As we were finishing that project, Greg and I started reminiscing about some of our best memories from our trips to Japan. If you know us, you won’t be surprised that many of them revolve around eating. But what really stands out are the memories of the wonderful people we have met along the way. They have really made everything magical.

So, here are some of our favorite memories from our travels up & down Japan finding artisan products...

On our first trip to Japan, we were taken on an izakaya crawl in Akabane after visiting Yugeta Shoyu. This is what our host called “going deep” because you rarely find tourists in this neighborhood in outer Tokyo.  Amongst other things, that night we learned that sipping hot sake mixed with oden broth & shichimi togarashi at an outdoor food stand was a great way to warm up.

Sake with oden broth and shichimi togarashi

On a subsequent trip we went on another izakaya crawl (seeing a trend here?) with Yugeta-san and his consultant Okubo-san in Tokyo. It was a night full of seafood, beer & highballs. At the first izakaya Yugeta-san ordered the ribs of a tuna and we learned how to use a spoon to scrape the leftover meat between the bones and to make hand rolls with it – so delicious! At the next izakaya they brought us a little charcoal grill so we could grill our own seafood. Yugeta-san showed off his grilling skills…pretty impressive considering our drink intake up to that point!

Yugeta-san izakaya crawl

Every time we have been to Japan, we have had the pleasure of spending time with Yoshiko and Motofusa Uneno. Besides being konbu masters, they also have two amazing restaurants. As we arrived one night at their high-end oden restaurant, they told us they had good news. Their wonderful udon restaurant had just received a Michelin Bib Gourmand and we should celebrate! The evening started with champagne and ended with Greg not even remembering how he got back to the hotel. I think it was in a taxi…

Celebrating with Uneno-san

On another occasion, Uneno-san took us to what Motofusa called his favorite seafood Kappo restaurant near Lake Biwa. At a Kappo restaurant the menu consists of just a list of ingredients and the chef will cook them any way you want (kind of like a very high-end version of what the Master in Midnight Diner does). The chef’s deep knowledge and masterful skill was on full display that night. I knew Greg was blown away because his jaw was open for the entire meal.  It is fair to say he had a huge chef crush.

Kappo restaurant

Meeting Tsujita-san of Yamatsu Tsujita is daunting in itself.  Not only does he stand over 6 feet tall, he’s also one of the top ranked Kendo competitors in Japan! His factory is in a compound that includes his house and we were honored when he invited us into his dining room for lunch. In addition to being delicious, that meal was a master class about Takanotsume peppers, shichimi togarashi, sansho & yuzu kosho. As dish after dish came to the table, Tsujita-san would show us how his different spices complement each one. It might have been all of the spice, but we left feeling that our minds were melted.

Tsujita-san

As our exporter, Takehiro Wada of Wadaman is a constant during our trips to Japan and we share meals with him often. Winter is when Fugu (blowfish) is in season and on one December trip, he asked us if we wanted that for dinner. He knew a great restaurant just around the corner from Wadaman’s head office. It turns out that his family home is just near there, too, and he’s been going to this restaurant since he was a kid. Of course, the elderly couple who own the restaurant treated us like royalty. We had so many different Fugu dishes that night - sashimi, fried, a salad using the (chewy!) skin and finally stewed in a donabe.

Greg and I share a guilty pleasure that Takehiro has, too – ice cream. And when we’re in Japan the ice cream we eat is soft serve. You see, Japan is crazy for “soft cream” as they call it. Sure, it comes in pedestrian flavors like vanilla and chocolate, but the Japanese (in their awesome way) have taken soft cream to the next level. From soy sauce to black vinegar to shichimi togarashi to dashi, the Japanese haven’t really found an ingredient they won’t highlight in soft cream. And we’ve been happy to try so many of them.

Japanese soft serve ice cream

We have been so fortunate to see Doi-san of Konbu Doi during many of our trips (and he even visited us here in San Francisco once). On our second trip, Doi-san wanted to show us how to use his konbu (both in Japanese and Western dishes) and he thought - what better way than to cook & serve us an 8 course konbu dinner at his house in Osaka? Besides stuffing us with his delicious cooking, he also took us to konbu school that night. He explained not only the uses of konbu, but also the history including the effects of the “Konbu Road” on the regional cuisines of Japan.

Doi-san

Doi-san’s family shop is located on a traditional shotengai (shopping street) in the tourist-free neighborhood Tanimachi in Osaka. Near there sits Takoriki, a small 8-seat champagne and Takoyaki restaurant. You heard it right, champagne and Takoyaki (octopus balls).  Their Takoyaki are not like the cheap (yet delicious!) sauce-covered ones you get at a street food stall. These elegant bites are a perfect match with your glass of champagne.

Takoyaki and champagne

From Osaka it is almost a four hour drive along the Wakayama coast to the town where Marusho is located. That night Kosaka-san of Marusho took us to a tuna restaurant. We thought we knew what good tuna tasted like, but the fish that night was out of this world. Later we learned why – Nachi-Katsuura is the port where locally-caught tuna is landed. These tuna are not the giant ones you find frozen in large fish markets, but smaller fresh ones that were caught only hours before. The next morning, I went down to the port early to see the tuna auction, held right next to the docks.

These are just some of the wonderful experiences we have been fortunate enough to have in Japan…