Food is the quintessential way to experience a place and culture, but also a way to act like a local. Urban life in Japan allows travelers to immerse easily with a phenomenal array of options for dining.
Tonight (in 2015 on day 4) we are on our way back from a day trip using the rail system to get to Yamadera and Ginzan-Onsen from Yamagata station. It is only natural to return to the train station hub near our accommodation to find our evening meal.
In most cities in Japan, the train stations are an epicenter featuring multi-level shopping and dining venues inside and all around the immediate vicinity. Once you have a feel for the style of food you are seeking, it is quite simple to find the best option in the moment. Without a lot of planning, you can experience the art of accidental adventure just by following your nose, the lights, or the crowd.
Food culture is also part of films and even a Netflix series that I am infatuated with due to my travel experiences and interest in Asian film studies in general. Watching for example "Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories" on Netflix just takes me back to being able to walk through the urban streets for a great meal and ambience.
A feature length film in the genre of 'Spaghetti Western' that I highly recommend is called "Tampopo". It truly is one of my favorite films of all time. There are several others that you may come across such as "Ramen Girl" or "Jiro Dreams of Sushi". Any of these will give you an insight into the culture without having to travel to the place.
FINDING A RESTAURANT
Sometimes you have to just trust your gut on the type of restaurant based on the visual aesthetics from the exterior. Many Japanese restaurants will display the type of food in 'fake food' arrangement or will have a menu outside. Many also have English menus, but once you get comfortable with what you are ordering it's no need because often times the menu will have pictures and you'll remember the name of the items. In this case, we had another chance to enjoy Tsukune and Yakitori. You can see photographs of menu items at the bottom of this image.
Let's explore some of the customs you should be aware of if you ever travel to Japan. You might have to remove your shoes while in the dining area. In addition, they provide nifty baskets to store your belongings so items don't touch the ground as well as coat hooks, most often, or even coat hangers. It's about cleanliness which is a shinto philosophy. At the time of this travel, smoking was still allowed in restaurants so you have to ask for a non-smoking section, but be prepared to be quite close to the smokers. You can tell from the outside of a place if it's going to be too smokey for you. Another aspect of dining is the relative privacy you may get in some places that even have dividers between tables.
One of the first things after sitting you will often be handed a hot, moist towel which can be used to clean your hands and should remain on the table as a napkin. Ordering your food can also include using your fingers to point or count the number of items. Remember that dishes such as yakitori are typically purchased by the piece and can have different toppings. When you want to pay your bill, you use the hand symbol of each pointer finger in an X. If you are ordering a beer, simply say Biru.
Dining in Japan is often a group activity after work. In places where there are many 'salarymen' this is a custom to be part of the chain of command. People will go directly from the office to a restaurant and then travel home late. In the waning hours of the night (like the Midnight Stories highlights), the scenery changes from a bustling place to one of quiet contemplation and solitude.
The rest of the images for this post are about the day winding down and the poetic quality of isolation, solitude, emptiness which is an interesting connection to our day in the snow on the mountain at a famous temple. We depart Sendai in the morning for the next leg of the trip. Check out that blog and the one before this about Yamadera and Ginzan-onsen.
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