Hacktreks in Japan: Eating Out
'Western Food' in Japan is hard to find.
H Ruezler tells the truth about what is in your burger and finds
the best Italian Restaurant this side of Milan.
in Japan is invariably an adventure. If you choose to sample the native
fair you confront many challenges. Aside from the language barrier,
service culture that is not dictated by tips (Think: "Silent French
Waiters from Hell"!), and very little chance of getting any kind
of a special order unless you are totally fluent in Japanese and willing
to cause such a commotion that the staff will do anything to shut you
It took my translator-interpreter friend twenty minutes and conversation
with the assistant manager and manager of the local McDonalds to get
the onions removed from their Big Mac.
If that is not daunting enough, think about what you may be eating.
Fish intestines, fish eyes, pig stomach, jellyfish, shrimp brains, and
beef tongue. That sauce you are dipping your fish into? Fish liver puree!
Squid inside its own "guts puree"! How about Sea Cucumber
and Sea Pineapple sea creatures possessing an identity crisis between
plant and animal. If all that does not get you nauseous... I mean your
mouth watering, how about Sea Urchin sperm sac?
what is this all about, dipping perfectly good foods like beef,
pork, and veggies into raw egg? In the west burdock is a plant that
annoys you by sticking to your socks. In Japan it is a diet staple.
One never can really be sure exactly what part of the bird they
are eating when they sample "yakkitori" (skewered chicken),
anything from cartilage to heart is fair game (no pun intended).
How about those Japanese foods that are rumored to have been considered
as weapons of mass destruction (at least to appetites) in the last
World War; "nattoo" (fermented soybeans), and "umeboshi"
(pickled apricot)? Had Admiral Yamamoto used natto instead of bombs
and torpedoes while invading Pearl Harbor, the United States may
well have capitulated on December Eighth.
addition to all that there is raw fish (sometimes served still wriggling),
fish eggs, seaweed, raw horse meat, eel, salmon and cod eggs, squid,
octopus, abalone, fish sausage, and whale meat, which I relish with
gusto, but many other foreigners are not so fond of eating. Do you feel
like receiving a "You will burn for that!" look? Just make
the mistake of telling someone in your home country you ate whale (unless
you are Norwegian or Icelandic). I will not make that mistake again.
At least I am grateful that Japan stops at the line of serving "fugu"
(poisonous blowfish), "shisso" (scorpion), and "bata"
(grasshopper). Japans neighbors go a step too far. China will serve
you snake and a meal that your cat may enjoy more than you ever will,
rat. Korea, the country that calls burying spiced cabbage in the backyard
and eating it six months later a delicacy, will serve you.... (HINT:
Dining out at a foreign restaurant in Japan will just compound your
adventure. You may get a decent experience, similar to the real thing.
Chances are you will get the "Japanese" version of the foreign
cuisine, which is, at times something that only vaguely resembles the
original. Japan, one must remember is the country that considers strawberries,
mashed potatoes, and fried noodles sandwich items, and will put gobs
of mayonnaise on anything that moves. It will also proffer a "Meat"
or "Curry" Donut to go with your cup of coffee.
While on the subject of curry, take note that the Japanese Starbucks
will offer you a "Curry Tuna Salad" Pita. Furthermore, a local
eating establishment will offer something called "Spinach Curry".
While quite tasty, try not to make direct eye contact with it, as it
looks like the Jolly Green Giant upchucked on a plate of rice.
The Japanese treatment of various countries cuisine can best be labeled
as "innovative", "creative", and "interesting".
Chinese and Korean fare tends to be good, because a lot of Japanese
cuisine was imported from those countries centuries ago. As a rule of
thumb if something "Japanese" is spicy, it was probably imported
from one of those two countries.
Other countries are not so lucky. The Indian takes one look at Japanese
curry, and wonders where the Nan bread went (replaced by rice 98 percent
of the time). After eating it he or she waits impatiently for the spice
to kick in, and it never does. Tex-Mex does not fare much better. It
is closer to "Tokyo" or "Teriyaki" Mex. Fortunately
it is often served with Tabasco sauce, emptying pretty much the entire
bottle of it on your food should suffice. French cuisine actually does
OK over here, but that still is not enough, as the French always need
something to be haughty about. How about my native "American"
dining in this country? I will lodge only one protest in this article
saving the other seven thousand for later. That protest is why is the
most rancid, watered-down, and tasteless coffee in Japan called "American
Coffee"? The only thing it has in common with coffee served in
the United States, is it usually served in a "bottomless"
The Italians do not have it so well in the land of the rising sun either.
The Japanese must be jealous and/or miffed that Marco Polo went to neighbor
and arch-rival China instead of Japan, and are now exacting their revenge.
Italian cuisine is very popular in Japan, but that just means that there
is a whole range of "interpretations" of what is Italian;
"A little Tuna Fish, boiled egg, potato, or canned corn on your
A bowl of lukewarm elbow noodles with Cheese Whiz on top can be called
fettucini in its Japanese translation. Chef Boyaredee's and Mama Celeste's
bodies are now revolving at approximately 78 r.p.m in their graves.
You never can be sure what you will find in your spaghetti either. How
do squid, asparagus, French fries, tofu, and the ubiquitous corn sound?
I do not mean to harp on Japanese dining too much. Japanese and Asian
food, are among the best in the world, and I find it preferable to a
good-sized chunk of western fare. With some patience, a translator or,
at the minimum, some skills in Japanese, and a good memory, you can
do well in the restaurant scene too. The service is not always bad,
but you just never know when your waiter/waitress is a member of the
"Keep Japan pristine, ignore all foreigners" movement, or
so cowed by the language barrier that they refuse to even try. At that
point, nothing short of the proverbial "setting your hair on fire"
will succeed in getting your waiter's attention. I am just trying to
emphasize that dining out in Japan has all the unpredictable elements
of a "crap-shoot", and when you enter a restaurant for the
first time, especially one that specializes in "foreign" cooking,
you can truly, "expect the unexpected!"
Which is what makes discovering La Taverna, about a three minute walk
south of the Sakurano building, including the Warner Brothers Cineplex
movie theatre, and the pedestrian mall in the heart of Kitakami, all
the more pleasant. La Taverna is decently priced Italian food, very
tasty and, while not a carbon copy of the real thing, it is very close
to the original, well worth the visit. For less than three thousand
yen my friend and I were able to stuff ourselves "to the brim"
on some good Italian, or at least relatively Italian cooking.
The salad bar there was not exactly the antipasto salad I grew up on
at "Buono Appetito" a wonderful Italian restaurant in Shelburne,
Vermont (Yet another place you may be surprised to find some great Italian
fare). However, the vegetables were arranged in a somewhat logical sequence,
it was aesthetically pleasing (the three types of pepper in one salad
was great), and they even served tuna without slathering it to its gills,
drowning it in mayonnaise. The salad bar even included a bottomless
cup of fruit juice, with a decent selection (grapefruit, cranberry,
apple, orange, etc.), just do not expect a "Big-Gulp" sized
cup. The salad/juice bar was definitely worth a few visits during our
We both skipped over the spaghetti for the main course. "Spaghetti",
being present at nearly every restaurant in Japan that is not purely
native, and a concept that can very well include just about any food
item under the sun. How does spaghetti with ketchup for a sauce, fish
eggs, and/or green peas in the mix, and grated Velveeta for your cheese
garnish grab you? It is not exactly appetizing, and in Japanese "Italian"
cuisine entirely possible to find on the menu.
I choose a dish whose katakana (Japanese phonetic script used for italicizing
and for foreign loan words) name I do not remember. Nor had I heard
of a similar sounding Italian food. Sometimes a gastronomic sense of
adventure is a key to managing dining out in Japan, so I put my life
in the Chefs hands and ordered it anyways. What I got was something
akin to pasta dumplings in a creamy, tomato-"ish", cheese
sauce. I am sure my cholesterol count went from 150 to "Esther,
I`m coming up to see you.... this time it is the BIG ONE" (The
late comedian Redd Foxx prophetically speaking about his fatal heart
attack) all in only one sitting. The salad bar and the main dish were
more than enough, and I was soon fighting off the Serontonin-induced
drowsiness that accompanies a good, satisfying, and filling meal. The
taste of the pasta and sauce immediately took me back to the time I
was working as the pasta server at an all-you-can-eat health food restaurant
(Yes, as oxymoronic as that sounds that is exactly what it was!) in
Boulder, Colorado named "Healthy Habits". It may very well
have been the best pasta and sauce I have tasted in the eight years
since I last worked there. Sorry, Mom! Sorry, Olive Garden!
My friend selected an equally artery-clogging selection of "coronary-on-a-plate"
disguised as fettucini. When my friend could not finish their order,
I gleefully threw my 220 pounds into the task, but alas I could not
get the job done. Take my word that the fettucini ranks right up there
as one of the best bowls of pasta that you can find north of Tokyo.
A word of warning about lunching at La Taverna followed by a movie at
the nearby Kitakami Mycal Cineplex, the post-meal drowsiness combined
with the darkness of the theatre, may induce napping. I was abruptly
woken from mine by a sharp punch to the ribs applied by my friend.
Although the other staple item on the menu, Pizza was not sampled, the
pasta experience leads me to believe that La Taverna has a good selection,
as I would suppose for their spaghetti selections too. My bet it is
closer the "Sun Dried Tomato and Mozzarella" etc. variety
that you will find in a quality Italian restaurant, they may even have
real Pepperoni, Black Olives, Italian Sausage, or Green Peppers and
Mushrooms on their pizzas. As opposed to the "Nattoo, Persimmon,
and Fish Sausage", "Peanut Butter, Kelp, Banana, and Salmon",
or "Mayonnaise, Mackerel, Salami and Corn"-variety pizzas
that plague many a visit to a "run of the mill" Japanese "Italian"
It is just about the closest to the "real thing" I have had
in Japan. The decor was not your "stereotypical" Italian restaurant.
It was not dimly lit with the red and white checked table clothes, and
the candle stuck in a bottle of wine on the table. In addition it had
the largest wine bottle I have ever seen on display, being about three
feet tall and one foot wide at the bottom. You can purchase one for
about 30,000 Yen ($260 USD).
There are a few other good Italian restaurants in Iwate Prefecture,
but all that I know of are in the general vicinity of Morioka. Stella
Monte has first-rate décor and atmosphere, and good food, but
you will not be able to stuff yourself for only three thousand yen.
Panini has good atmosphere, and decent food, but it part of a chain
of Morioka restaurants, all specializing in some sort of amorphously
indefinable "exotic" cuisine, and just does not seem to separate
itself from the other restaurants in the group as far as dining experience
is concerned. Bistro, on Morioka`s main street Oodori has really good
atmosphere, and is somewhat of an "institution" to Iwate`s
expatriate population looking for palpable variety in their dining experience.
However, to call the fare "Italian", even if most of it is
really good, is a stretch of the imagination. Call it a unique, eclectic
mix of foreign and Japanese, and keep in mind if you are looking to
"pig out", it will cost in the vicinity of five or six thousand
Yen for two. Villa, on Route 4 (easy to find as it is the main road
to Tokyo, and the longest in Japan) somewhere between Tamayama and Takizawa
has a large selection, some of it relatively Italian, and the best "Italian"
coffee selection you will find in Iwate, not to mention a large, if
somewhat "creative", desert menu.
There are a few more decent Italian restaurants in Iwate, but you may
have to wade through quite a few pretenders to the "Italian"
moniker to find them. That is why La Taverna is well worth your time
and effort. It is head and shoulders above anything outside of Morioka
for an "Italian" experience. It is also as close as you will
get to the real thing in Iwate, and cheaper than the others that do
a good job of replicating Italian cooking. So the next time you make
a trip to the Warner MyCal theatres in Kitakami, the only movie theatre
of consequence between Morioka and Sendai, take the three-minute walk
to La Taverna. You will get more almost authentic Italian food than
you can eat, and for a good price too. It is most likely the only Italian
Restaurant of consequence between Morioka and Sendai.
La Taverna Italian Dining, 1-5-31 Hondoori, Kitakami, Iwate Prefecture,
HOURS Lunch: (Weekdays) 1130AM-230PM (Weekends/Holidays) 1130AM-3PM
Dinner: (Weekdays) 6-12PM* (Weekends/Holidays) 3-12PM*(Sundays) 3-11PM*
© Dean H. Ruetzler September 2003
Nishine, Iwate, Japan and Warren/South Burlington, Vermont, United States
More Adventure in Japan in Hacktreks
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