Tag Archives: japanese food

If I Understood the Labels on Food, it Would be a Merrier World

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Let’s be honest, the food is half the reason one travels abroad. This fact certainly played a part in my decision to study abroad in Tokyo. Eating out all the time is just not a realistic plan of action though. I’m a poor college student, on a strict budget.

One great thing that Japan does have that I sincerely wish the US did have (or at least college campuses), is a convenience store (or conbini) on practically every corner. These are not like the convenience stores in America. For one thing, they’re smaller. For another, they sell almost everything. At least it feels that way to a newcomer. The best part about convenience stores, in my humble opinion, is that you can buy lunch there for really cheap. Just today, I bought a bowl of rice, chicken, and a hard boiled egg for roughly $3.50. What I struggled with at first when buying meals, was talking with the cashier. Having rapid-fire Japanese words thrown at me, makes me anxious since I don’t know any Japanese. Thankfully, most cash registers state the amount you have to pay, so I just have to look at that instead of deciphering the numbers that the cashier had said. As for everything else they say, I just nod and smile (which works 90% of the time).

Food at the convenience store is great but it did not feel super healthy. There was serious lack of vegetables. That meant it was time for me to brave the supermarket. My trip to the supermarket was a great learning experience. Here’s what I learned:

Most signs are in Japanese. Not only that, but almost all the packaging is in Japanese as well. This meant walking through the entire store in order to familiarize myself with where everything was located. I had to figure out what I was picking out through pictures or by typing in the characters into my phone (which did not have a huge success rate on my part).

For everything I recognized, there were maybe three other things that I saw that I did not recognize. I’m in a whole new country and they have items that are not found in the US. I had two choices: avoid everything unrecognizable or try new food. Depending on the week, I ranged from adventurous to downright stuck in the old. Don’t let the unfamiliarity deter you. Accept that what you are getting may end up being really horrible. It’s a risk to take on the off chance that it turns into your new favorite food.

When you can’t find something, ask. If you’re like me and don’t know how, grab your phone, bring up a picture of what you want, and point. It’s really that simple.

You bag your own groceries. You pay an actual cashier but you bag your own groceries. Speaking from the point of view of someone who’s been a cashier, I have to say that’s an ingenious idea (I hated bagging items).

 

All in all, food shopping is not the worst experience in the world as long as you’re prepared for things to go wrong.

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Take pictures of food that you like so you can find it later.

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How I’m Spending My Food Budget

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Though my days as a study abroad student are largely dedicated to schoolwork, commuting, and learning about the country I’m living in, cooking and buying food is central to my daily life in Tokyo. Temple University in Japan has no meal plan and no facility for making students meals, so Temple students are required to find food for themselves. While some students are provided meals through homestay, the majority of students eat from the same, extremely cheap, restaurants, grocery stores, and convenience stores.

Like my peers, I frequent the Lawson’s and Seven Eleven convenience stores that appear on every city block in Tokyo. Unlike those in the the United States, convenience stores in Japan are known to carry a variety of Japanese food, both healthy and unhealthy. Frozen Slurpees are replaced with nikuman, a steamed bun with meat filling. Cans of Coke are substituted with cartons of strawberry and matcha-flavored milk. I often go to my local convenience store to grab a pre-packaged lunch or a quick snack. My personal favorites are egg sushi trays and onigiri, rice balls wrapped in seaweed with a small amounts of mayonnaise, fish, veggie, or egg in the middle. Food is sold at a reasonable price, usually between 100 to 500 yen, roughly 1 to 5 U.S. dollars.

The Seiyu supermarket a block away from my dorm is also a great source for inexpensive meals. Seiyu is literally the Japanese equivalent of Walmart, as both store chains owned by the Walmart Corporate Company. I have been able to find pre-packaged meals of slightly higher quality at Seiyu between 10,000 and 300 yen (10 to 3 U.S. dollars). I often use these meals for lunch or a last minute dinner.

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Last minute dinners from Seiyu are pretty satisfying

Japanese supermarkets hold daily sales on pre-packaged meals, so the store can restock on fresh meals for the next day. The sale at Seiyu starts at 9pm and goes until 11pm, so I often go by the market late to grab discounted meals. I’ve been able to find some very nice entrees, such as a full sushi tray or chicken karaage meal at discounted price.  

I also buy raw ingredients at Seiyu to cook back at the dorm. I eat dorm-cooked meals twice a week with my friends. The kitchenette in my dorm room is very small, so my friends often find themselves cutting vegetables on my desk and cooking rice on my floor. We eat dinner while sitting on my bed or at my desk, and I often find dishes people left in my room the next day.

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Cooking at home with friends is the best!

We have tried a combination of Japanese and Chinese recipes, and the Japanese recipes are much easier to cook in the dorm kitchen. Japanese dishes often involve boiling food and adding various sauces and spices for flavor, while Chinese recipes call for pan frying. I don’t want to buy another pot or pan, as I have no way of taking such a thing home. However, stir frying in one small cooking pot has proven difficult, and has occasionally ended with me scraping blackened bits of food from the bottom of my once-silver appliance.

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Chinese food can be a little tricky–but it’s pretty worthwhile

Freedom and Fun stuff!

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The thought that “maybe I signed up for too much” always occasionally slips into my mind whenever my schedule starts to overwhelm me. Japan has been the adventure I have always dreamed of, but lately there is just so much to do and so much to absorb, I can’t help but feel a bit overwhelmed. It’s not a bad thing, but I’m not used to constantly being under a time pressure. The days back at home, following a mundane and repetitive schedule seems so far away nowadays. Kind of like how when you first enter college and thinking to yourself “wow, I feel like I had much more free time during high school!” Well I guess with more freedom, comes more responsibilities.

Freedom and Fun stuff:

The Otaku Cultural Center!

The Otaku Cultural Center!

One of the places I was most excited to see upon arriving in Japan was Akihabara, also known as the world’s Otaku Cultural Center. After finding each other at the station, we decided to experience having lunch at a maid café. (Yeah, I know Tiara, also did a blog post on the same place—I guess it’s almost a tradition to visit one when you’re in Japan!) Our maid knew just enough English to ask where we were from, demonstrate a really cute “ritual” to bless our food to taste good, and told us how excited she was to have us.

Here’s a picture of my meal! It’s so adorable! I wonder how they made it.

Here’s a picture of my meal! It’s so adorable! I wonder how they made it.

Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures of anything else, but they did give us a keychain and photo with our maid to keep!

Here’s a picture of me with our maid! She was very energetic and great at dancing!

Here’s a picture of me with our maid! She was very energetic and great at dancing!

Next stop Animate! So if I was to summarize this place with one word, I would probably pick “paradise”!

Heaven on Earth!

Heaven on Earth!

This store is literally six floors with nothing but anime merchandise. I have never been more tempted to buy everything I saw in a store before. We literally spend hours here and never got tired of it! I am definitely coming back here to for souvenirs for friends!

This place is HUGE!! Unfortunately the panorama picture came out a bit weird since people were still moving about, but I guess this is why I'm a blogger and not a photo blogger!

This place is HUGE!! Unfortunately the panorama picture came out a bit weird since people were still moving about, but I guess this is why I’m a blogger and not a photo blogger!

For dinner, conveyor belt sushi!

おいしそう! Looks yummy!

おいしそう!
Looks yummy!

My friends who came back from study abroad total me that the sushi here is super fresh and taste so much better in comparison to what we had in the US, so I just had to experience the difference myself. Needless to say I was not disappointed.

The plates are color coded by price!

The plates are color coded by price!

We also made a pit-stop by the Gundam Café!

Greeting us at the entrance of the Gundam Cafe!

Greeting us at the entrance of the Gundam Cafe!

Much our surprise, there was actually a decent about of girls in there! We were expecting a bunch of guys since that’s usually what we are used to when it comes to the Gundam fan-base in the US. It’s cool to see some diversity in something I once thought was a predominantly male hobby.

Is it weird for me to take a picture of their bathroom? In addition to being super clean, they designed it to make you feel like you were actually piloting a Gundam!

Is it weird for me to take a picture of their bathroom? In addition to being super clean, they designed it to make you feel like you were actually piloting a Gundam!

After a fun Saturday with friends, I stayed home on Sunday to catch up on homework and spend time with my host family. Around evening, otou-san told me that there was a local Matsuri, and asked if I wanted to take a break from homework to walk with him. And I’m certainly glad I did!

Wish we had these in the US!

Wish we had these in the US!

There were kids doing taiko drumming, all the fun games you would normally see in an anime Matsuri episode, and the food smelled delicious!

To the left we have the shrine, to the right we have the taiko drummers!

To the left we have the shrine, to the right we have the taiko drummers!

The goal of this game is to catch a goldfish, without breaking your net! It's a lot harder than it sounds!

The goal of this game is to catch a goldfish, without breaking your net! It’s a lot harder than it sounds!

The food smells and looks amazing! But I'm pretty sure it has nothing against okaa-san's cooking!

The food smells and looks amazing! But I’m pretty sure it has nothing against okaa-san’s cooking!

We did a quick prayer to the gods, enjoyed the festival, before returning home to okaa-san’s world-class cooking.

It looks just as good as it tastes!

It looks just as good as it tastes!

Eating Our Way through Tokyo: Okonomiyaki

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Another day, another amazing meal. This time we tried Okonomiyaki, a savory “pancake” dish that is cooked at the table on a flat griddle.

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The bowl that contained a combination of cabbage, egg, and tiny little shrimp was mixed together to create a yummy batter. Then, the mix was poured and cooked right there!

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There is an incredible amount of variety in toppings and Okonomiyaki types. I was very impressed with the skills of the waiter! The staff was very friendly and forgiving of our broken Japanese.

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He even let us flip the pancakes.

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Or, at least, we attempted to. Usually there is a point where the expert has to step in to make the results as delicious as possible.

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This one was especially delicious. It is yakisoba, i.e. fried soba noodles covered in batter and egg!

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Each flip was very exciting; it smelled incredible and we were starving after a long day of walking around.

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I was amazed at these minuscule shrimp, they were delicious!

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And the final result: incredible okonomiyaki drizzled in sweet, savory sauce and delicious mayonnaise. I am definitely trying to repeat this meal sometime soon.

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It’s perfect for group outings, a true Japanese family-style meal.

Welcome to Tokyo: Spring 2014 at TUJ!

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We’ve finally arrived in Tokyo and have settled in! The Spring semester has begun and the city of Tokyo is as beautiful as ever.

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The all-girls Kitazono Dormitory is a lovely place to wake up in, especially because of the fantastic view.

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Another welcome sight is the nearby pastry shop, a convenient and delicious breakfast option on the way to the subway station! They also have amazing quiches.

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After a pleasant walk to the subway station and a quiet train ride, we arrive at campus for our first day of classes.

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The lobby of TUJ’s Azabu Hall is modern and inviting, it was helpful for the transition back into student mode after a long Winter break.

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The Azabu cafeteria has the famous and amazingly convenient Japanese vending machines, offering a perfect hot chocolate or coffee for a mid-class treat. While I’m not used to heated drinks from vending machines like this, I’m already unsure if I’ll be able to live without them.

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Finishing classes for the day, we head to the local ramen joint to get some hard earned noodles.

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Delicious and cheap! Ramen is always a great lunch, we’ll definitely be returning to this convenient spot.

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Still hungry, we traveled back home to Itabashi-ku, the neighborhood of the Kitazono dorm. We stop to pick up a few sticks of yakitori (skewered grilled chicken) for the walk home.

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While the exact parts of the chicken meat that are available are usually a mystery, tastiness is always a guarantee.

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Tokyo streets are a pleasure to walk through. The neighborhood of Itabashi-ku is always safe with unceasing hidden surprises down every alleyway, one of my favorite characteristics of this endless city.