Delighting in the many exotic flavors of Japan

Convectional Wisdom

GOODIES GALORE— Steamed sponge cakes, called momiji manju, are shaped like Japanese maple leaves and come with all kinds offillings. Courtesy of Darleen Principe

GOODIES GALORE— Steamed sponge cakes, called momiji manju, are shaped like Japanese maple leaves and come with all kinds offillings. Courtesy of Darleen Principe

It’s Sunday night in Dotonburi, the center of nightlife in Osaka, Japan, and I am still jet-lagged.

As I walk through the crowded main street for the first time, distracted and slightly overwhelmed by the sight of giant illuminated billboards and a huge plastic octopus, a familiar smell wafts in the air and forces me to turn my head.

“It’s taiyaki,” my cousin tells me. “I’ve seen them eat it in animes (Japanese animation). I’ll go buy one and you can try it.”

 

Shaped like a fish and not much bigger than a cookie, the taiyaki is a waffle-like cake filled with smooth, sticky red bean paste. Still hot when I bite into it, the taiyaki is sweet, but not too sweet. It’s my first encounter with Japanese street food, and upon tasting it, I just know the next two weeks are going to be life-changing.

Japan had been on my travel bucket list since I was little. When I was about 6 or 7, I would go to the video store with my parents and rent volumes of “Kidsongs,” a collection of educational music video stories for children. My favorite one was called “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” where the kids went to different countries and learned traditional songs from those areas.

I was enamored with that video. I rented it again and again. I memorized all the songs and imagined visiting all those places—Italy, England, Mexico, Jamaica. And Japan, where five women wearing kimonos danced with parasols and silk fans to “Sakura, Sakura,” a Japanese folk song about spring and the cherry blossom season.

That image stuck with me all the way into adulthood, so it was truly a childhood dream-come-true to finally travel to Japan and see the real thing. In fact, I am still in somewhat of a dream state, having just returned home last week.

During the first half of our trip—I went with eight family members and friends—we stayed in Osaka and took day trips via bullet train to Hiroshima, Kura- shiki, Nara and Kyoto. We spent the last six days exploring as much as we could of Tokyo, each district so different from the rest. I loved how unique each city was. And, of course, all the goodies!

We absorbed the history in Hiroshima, but also tasted the best of the city’s famed okonomiyaki—a savory dish comprising layers of grilled noodles, shredded cabbage, egg, meat (usually pork belly and seafood) and sauce, all on top of a crepelike pancake.

We tried to catch a ferry to Miyajima Island off the coast of Hiroshima to see the famous Great Torii, the “floating” gate, of Itsukushima Shrine. But a storm began to set in and we missed the chance.

I did, however, stop in a nearby confectionery to try some momiji manju. The steamed sponge cakes, shaped like Japanese maple leaves, are a local specialty there and come with all kinds of fillings. I especially liked the cream cheese, custard and chocolate-cream ones. It was a nice little consolation for having missed the Great Torii.

In Kurashiki, which is famous for its Bikan Historical Quarter with a preserved canal dating back to the 1600s, peach-flavored treats dominate the shelves of the local sweets and souvenir shops. Peaches grow abundantly in Kurashiki, where there’s an old local folktale about a boy named Momotaru, who grew from a peach and turned into a strong warrior.

Before leaving Kurashiki, made sure to pick up some peach kibidango, mini mochi-like candies made of millet flour, sugar and malt syrup. Kibidango, which means “millet dumpling,” is a chewy and bite-sized round reminiscent of a marshmallow, except slightly gummier and much softer.

And then there was the softserve. In just about every place we visited, there was a stand, shop or truck nearby serving the silkiest, tastiest green tea ice cream you’ve ever had in your life. For me, this was heaven. Ice cream is my ultimate weakness, the one thing I can never say no to . . . and then green tea? Come on!

I could go on and on about everything I saw, tasted and experienced in Japan, but nothing I say could ever do it justice. All I know is that two weeks was not nearly enough. I’ll go back one day. In the meantime, I think I’ll look for a fish-shaped waffle iron so I can make my own taiyaki at home.

Principe is a home baker, freelance journalist and former Acorn editor who lives in Simi Valley. Reach her at dar.principe@gmail.com.