I’m on holiday in Japan. More precisely, Ishigaki in the Yaeyama island group, which is to the south of Okinawa and fairly close to Taiwan. It’s hot, the sun shines, the scenery is great and I’m sure the sea is pretty warm too, but I’m not much of a swimmer.
But I do eat.
There’s a concert I’ve been invited to and I take a wander through the central part of town on the look out for somewhere interesting to eat beforehand. I remember there was an intriguing looking little place that I passed a few nights ago, but it was full so I walked on. On Sunday night at 7pm, it’s empty so I step in.
I take an immediate liking to the place because it’s laid out the way I like. A counter that seats eight and three tables that can take another six or so. Couples who want a bit more privacy. There’s just one member of staff who cooks, serves and chats to the customers between orders. There’s a moment of brief tension on her part since there’s no English language menu but, no, it’s okay, I can read the Japanese one. I take a look at the day’s specials, which are laid out on the counter and they all look inviting.
That one with the peppers looks rather like caponata, I say, so we get to chatting about food. She’s from Akita at the north of the mainland of Honshu and despite a few nods at local ingredients, it’s a Japanese menu rather than Okinawan. I order the not-really-a-caponata, sanma (bluey or saury fish) with ume plum and a deep-fried chikuwa (a hollow surimi fish tube) stuffed with potato salad. That last one is still warm.
Over the next fifteen minutes the place fills up. I often want to take photos of food before I eat it, but generally I don’t. If food really interest me, I just want to eat it entirely unmediated by preserving the visual record. I want the food memory, not the Instagram moment. Admittedly, the food memory is harder to share. But I do take a snap of the counter and the specials menu.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Obanzai [Home style simmered and marinated dishes]:
1. Colourful vegetables fried and simmered in soy and mirin [agedashi] - £2.80/€3.60
2. Saury with ume plum - £2.50/€3.25
3. Taro with scrambled meat sauce [soboroan] - £2.25/€2.90
4. Chikuwa stuffed with potato salad - £2.25/€2.90
5. Fried chicken wings with coconut - £2.80/€3.60
6. Chilled tomato and sudachi [a citrus] - £2.15/€2.45
7. Err, kiriboshi daikon. Dried strips of mooli reconstituted - £1.70/€2.15
Today’s Cooked Fish:
1. Salt-grilled saury - £2.80/€3.60
2. Mackerel in shio-koji [a salty rice by-product] - £2.80/€3.60
3. Salmon belly - £2.70/€3.45
4. Dried squid in mirin - £2.50/€3.25
Prices! What are they thinking? Okay, there are a few things to bear in mind. I’m on Ishigaki, it’s nowhere that central at all in Japan. So overheads on rent are significantly lower but, at the same time, much of the food has to be transported here and that’s not for free. For the record, we’re 260 miles from the nearest metropolis of Naha on the Okinawan mailand and a glorious 1210 miles from Tokyo. It’s also a holiday town that is fairly dependent on seasonal mainland tourism as much as regular locals.
The current exchange rate is also very beneficial for UK visitors. It’s hovering around ¥177 to the pound. My return ticket to Japan was £503. Do the math! It’s really not that much more than your European jaunt. If you’ve been pondering coming to Japan, now is as good as it has been for a long time.
But even if we went to one yen to one penny parity, these prices would still be cheaper than most you encountered in London for the equivalent. Why? I kept thinking to myself.
At the counter, we chatted about food. What is English food? I still don’t have an answer in Japanese to that question. I mean, I could start talking about Bath Chaps or something, but what’s the point. What’s popular in London? Well, tonkotsu ramen is quite big recently. And it’s about ¥2000 (£11) a portion. No one believes that. Has it got caviar in it? Haha, two thousand yen ramen. You’re joking. I never resist to chance to mention the preposterous Kansai Special okonomiyaki at Abeno. Yours for ¥8,900 (£49.95). For okonomiyaki?!? Do you share it with a hostess? And get a blow job after? Maybe during…
With the conversation talking a turn to the ribald, I pay up, say my goodbyes and head off to the gig. It’s been a nice hour of chat and snacks. Oh why, London, are you so stupidly expensive?
One challenge is ingredients. Although Chinese and Korean sources are more reasonable for cost, there are many ingredients which you can’t substitute. I walked round a Japanese supermarket yesterday, almost tearful, how does a product so reasonably priced get to be so expensive by the time it gets to the UK shores? I’m thinking of you, katsuo bushi. A key ingredient in the making of stock and many other uses besides. It’s at least a 300% mark up on many products from Japanese supermarket retail (not even stock or bulk catering!) to the UK shelves. There’s insufficient choice amongst UK suppliers of Japanese food. For sure, running an international business with reliable supply is complex and costly so it’s not as if you can really set one up yourself to compete. They have us over a barrel. We can’t boycott if we want these ingredients. Ach.
London also has high overheads. Preposterous rental values. But catering staff mostly on near minimum wage…
My mother moved out of London recently to a small village in East Sussex. There’s a nice enough pub up the road with a good choice of - as ever these days - locally sourced ingredients. But the mains all clock in around £15-18. Wasn’t local supposed to be cheaper? And if your prices are going to be about the same as the Anchor and Hope in Waterloo or St John Bread and Wine then your cooking had better match it as well. It doesn’t. It’s just the benchmark you can get away with in pricing. Everyone’s calculating the percentages, paying off their ridiculous mortgages, worrying how long they can get away with it all, before the cash flow collapses. No one is exactly laughing all the way to the bank. Although the bankers are certainly laughing.
I have no issue with food being expensive, but I have certain expectations of a place if it charges that much: the staff should be happy (well-paid helps), the service pleasant and the experience should be one of welcoming generosity. I fear many places have forgotten about that. With every flake and crumb costed out, so everyone along the way who can takes their cut, generosity has been factored out. I’m thinking of a recent visit to Flesh & Buns. I want limitless buns! It’s only frickin’ flour and I’ll run out of fillings fairly quickly anyway. Two buns for £2? Stick it up your Hirata.
(For the record, and quite honestly despite my strong connections and friendships, I still warmly recommend Sho Foo Doh at the Pacific Social Club for non-kechi portions of Japanese food at decent prices. The new and larger kitchen should bring some surprises in due course too, I’m sure. Similarly, on the few occasions I’ve worked with Tim Anderson, I’ve been touched by his genuine concern over pricing and making things affordable. We all want people to be eating Japanese food!)
It’s not just generosity that I find frequently missing when I consider London food from afar. It’s also my belief that food is not solely physically essential, it’s also sensually and socially essential. Tasty, pleasing and enjoyably healthy food should be available to all. A society that prices that beyond the reach of many is a nasty, hoarding culture that breeds avaricious, dissatisfied people. I don’t want a kechi (stingy) food culture. I neither want a kechi society. It’s fine for us in London’s middle classes to extol the many improvements in food over recent years, but not if the pricing is a hush-hush form of social exclusion. Gated communities and gated restaurants and markets. Yes, expensive high end restaurants will always be so, but fresh, tasty, reasonably-priced food is considered a democratic right here in Japan as it is in parts of Europe and elsewhere. Pleasure for all, I say.
Okay. That’s enough half-thinking. I’m off to Hateruma tomorrow. The southernmost island in Japan. This is all a long away from me, but at the moment I kind of dread coming back.
The restaurant pictured is called 紅ほっぺ (Beni Hoppe, it’s a kind of strawberry) and the details are below. Warmly recommended. Okay, Ishigaki is a bit of a ways away, but you can fly from the Japanese mainland from about £80 one way if you book ahead.
Masatoshi Naito, 1970
I was asked by two different friends for recommendations, so to save time, wrote one post.
A number of images have stuck with me from my first visit to Palermo in Sicily: my companion’s teeth glistening black with squid ink from across the table, the fug of smoke at night from the barbecues of the stigghiuole sellers, her suitably English decision to wear black tights on a sunny beach in Cefalu, an octopus at Vucciria market and much more. But above all; the size of their balls. Blimey, we concurred, those are impressive. Arancine - deep-fried rice balls - are big!
And it would seem that Korean ones are tiny.
Ten images sitting on my desktop left over unused from previous posts.
King of Kings, Umeda, Osaka.
Madura/マヅラ, Umeda, Osaka
American, Sennichimae, Osaka
A few years back when in Osaka, I looked for a place that had just opened called Expo Café near Tenmabashi. It was a themed café with fair bit of memorabilia in it. I didn’t find it. It seems that that original place has now closed and relocated/renewed itself in the South just off Dotonbori as an Expo-themed takoyaki place. Not sure that the area really needs another takoyaki business, but chances are it might get more footfall in the new location.
There’s also a cafe/patisserie group called Taiyō no Tō.
The recently opened Expo 70 mini-museum/gallery at Banpaku doesn’t have a cafe.
If you actually want an Expo 70 cafe experience, there are two places I’d suggest visiting: American and Madura (sic?)/マヅラ. The first in on Sennichimae in the South and the second in Umeda in the North.
American is possibly the more classy of the two, but don’t let that put you off visiting Mazura in the least! They’re both great. What is sometimes called in Japanese a “timeslip”, a place or experience that’s like a montage sequence in a film pulling you back into the past and in both these places, it’s very much the time of Expo 70.
I was walking with the daughter of a family I’ve long been friends with in Osaka once and I suggested we pop into American. She was rather horrified. Although she was keen on the combination of coffee and cake, the place didn’t really suit her more contemporary tastes. Only old people go in there, she said. Well, that’s not quite true, but the food and drinks on offer are resolutely Showa-era. Old school service, old school food (that was once modern), lovely modern interior that was once new, etc…
I’m pretty sure that American will still be there when I go back to Osaka at some point. I’m not so sure about Madura. This is in the basement of Eki-mae Dai-ichi building 1. The whole basement is worth an explore, but I keep worrying that the whole place will be redeveloped some point soon. It probably seemed up-to-date in the 70s, but it’s dated now. Only continued economic slump will save it, perhaps…
Whereas American is somewhere you can’t take daughters but nostalgic mothers might just go, Madura feels a bit more hip and swinging, or rather it must have been once. Often it’s thick with cigarette fug, but it has the feel of a waiting room at a spaceport. Or in my mind it does.
(And if you do visit Mazura, you can also visit its nearby upmarket sister bar/café King of Kings…)
For those of you that like and miss places like New Piccadilly in London, Japan’s kissaten (喫茶店) are well worth exploring. They are slowly vanishing. That’s not to say that cafés are vanishing, but these sorts of places are. The coffee is often expensive (and often not that great either!) compared to cheaper Starbucks-alike and the food overly familiar and not that adventurous. But the hours I’ve spent in them, sipping ice coffee, writing, reading, watching and listening, smoking fags and then people ask me on my return about Japanese food and I think, well, I spent a lot of time in retro-timewarp places eating pasta Napolitan or something.
I miss them a lot.
Note: I’ve no idea what language マヅラ is loaned from. Majura? Mazura? Madura seems the most likely.
Eating/Drinking The Tower of the Sun
Monsters fight at Expo 70.
In and around 生命の樹/Seimei no ki/Tree of Life by Taro Okamoto.
Excellent blog post here (Japanese)
Interior to open again from 2014!
There’s a place I always go… Hmm, that sounds like an opening to a song and not even such a good one maybe. But there is a place I always go when in Osaka as a kind of pilgrimage and that’s Banpaku. Or in full Banpaku Kinen Koen (万博記念公園). This is the park that was constructed following the conclusion of the Expo 70 fair on the site.
Takara Beautillion, Expo 70, Osaka. Designed by Kisho Kurokawa.