Thank you Maria Segura of Global Chamber® Denver for bringing us together monthly and regularly for virtual global dining. This month we ate, drank and spoke Japanese business - with dinner in the Americas and breakfast in Japan and Australia. It was fun to be connected!
Special thanks to several key members in Japan and Australia who attended including Matthew Kyle of WeConnect, Catherine O'Connell of Catherine O'Connell Law and Kirsty Wilkinson of Asia Market Makers and Global Chamber® Melbourne. Thank you!
I really enjoyed everyone sharing their experiences eating in Japan. I thought it could be helpful for some who have less experience in Japan to hear more on how business dining is different in Japan. And I'm also sharing some dining experiences in Japan over the years. I've been fortunate to live and travel in Japan over 20 years - to every corner of the country.
Business Dining Snapshot
There are at least three types of meals in Japan that are a little different from other places.
FIRST there is lunch, featuring a wonderful variety. I worked in a working-class neighborhood in Tokyo called Gotanda, which is on the south side of the Yamanote ring train line. The working-class nature creates quite a number of places that aren't too expensive. There remain several 'go to' places that include a chirashi sushi lunch, and an unagi (eel) set, and a few western places including one that has a crab croquette that reportedly Alfred Hitchcock once visited (Grill F). How can you make stuff like that up? All US$7-9, including a drink.
SECOND during the mid-afternoon it wasn't unusual to head out for a bowl of hot ramen, especially in the hot summer - with the thinking that sweating in the hot, humid weather of Tokyo actually cools you off. I'm not sure about that, but authentic ramen is one of those things that seems so difficult to duplicate in other countries. In metro Phoenix for instance, there's a lack of good ramen places. But hope springs eternal - see ppps below. Anyway, I'd head back to the office after a bowl of ramen, a bit sweatier than when I left, for a couple more hours of inspired work.
THIRD and quite a bit different from western business protocol is dinner across 3 places in succession. This technique is great for connecting with team mates and hosting clients. The first location is for dinner, accompanied by beer, sake and maybe harder liquor. Then there's the second location which can be a cold sake bar, or a pub with food and liquor - and definitely the alcohol keeps flowing. Then finally the third place is for singing and drinking, and by now everyone is fully loosened up to share 'honne' - honest opinions about work and more.
Quick tips on that third location...
- Don't be too honest :-)
- Pace yourself along the way.
- Register what you hear in that 3rd location, but don't bring it up at work.
Favorite Top 25 Dining in Japan
As a foodie, it's pretty easy for me to list out some of my favorite meals of all time in Japan - and it's likely in the hundreds! I've selected a top 25 list to keep it at some reasonable length of different regional and food styles. Some are pretty basic and 'comfort food', shared with love.
- Soba and Udon. Pictured above, tempura soba and any noodle dish at a favorite restaurant in Azabu Japan - Sarashina Horii is unforgettable. They've been making noodles there since 1789, and the proximity to Roppongi makes it convenient.
- Barbecued shellfish on Shikoku Island. This is one of those meals that I can't pinpoint on a map, but it was in a town nearby the ferry back to Osaka, and we BBQ'd the most delicious shellfish on the beach at a restaurant that was set up to do just that. Amazing.
- Fresh sea urchin wrapped in seaweed. I dream of the magnificent way that fresh sea urchin (uni) dances on the taste buds, and the best place I've frequented is a little corner restaurant in Gotanda with 12 seats around a counter. For the dedicated foodie.
- Corn chowder on Mt. Fuji. Every corn chowder I've ever tasted since then has been compared to that one, and I still haven't had one that's better, anywhere - near sea level or otherwise. This one was around 9000 feet above sea level... with an assist from the view.
- Whale sushi and sashimi. I was introduced to this in a small town along the coast a 90 minute train ride from Osaka. I know now why the Japanese so stubbornly stick to 'researching' the harvesting of whales to keep this tradition alive. Delicious.
- Fresh fish everywhere. Grilled, sushi, sashimi, ikizukuri (see #7) and more... this island country knows how to catch and prepare fish for the dining table better than any country, even Greece and Spain. Order the catch of the day and enjoy!
- Ikizukuri (生き作り), eating fish that are alive. The ultimate in fresh - with sashimi right from the fish, or it can be octopus, shrimp or lobster - pulling back the tale to expose the clear, fresh tail. Not sure I'd enjoy this as much now, but the taste is excellent.
- Tonkatsu - pork cutlet, easy for Westerners. This is one of the easiest meals to handle for Westerners, it's a pork cutlet and there's no better place than Tonki in Tokyo, though it's made well all across Japan.
- Tonkatsu filled with uni. In our neighborhood of Azabu Juban there was a tonkatsu place sandwiched between buildings, tucked into a little space, that filled pork cutlets with sea urchin - seriously. Amazing differentiation and taste!
- Yakitori under the tracks. Most who visit Tokyo can easily access the yakitori places under the tracks in Yurakucho near Tokyo Station, and there are so many wonderful places everywhere - another original that's hard to find in the US - taste and ambience.
- Kushikatsu/kushiage in Osaka. This is also quite Western-friendly, as it's fried skewers of meat. There's a place in Roppong that I don't know the name of but it's right around the corner from the main intersection and President Clinton visited.
- Tempura. If you haven't had tempura in Japan, you really haven't had it yet. It's light and magical, and the variety is spectacular. One of our go-to places has been Yokota in Azabu Juban, where you sit around the counter and enjoy what the chef prepares. Wow!
- Hairy crab from Hokkaido. On one of my trips to the north I bought a big, 'hairy' crab that was something like $55 for one crab - and I've got to tell you, it was worth every penny. Another shellfish haven to the north to go with the ones in the south.
- Kiritanpo nabe in Akita prefecture. One of our favorite vacations of all time was to the igloo and snow sculpture festivals in Akita prefecture, and there's nothing better to do than all sit around a boiling pot of soup. Heart and body warming.
- Unagi, Anago and Dojo Loach. It is true magic what the Japanese do with all sorts of slippery eels that live in the ocean, in rivers and in river banks. Unagi makes a great lunch on a bed of rice, anago is an amazing sushi and dojo loach is an acquired taste ;-)
- Curry rice in Shinkuku station. So again I'm showing you that the simpler things in life are sometimes more than enough - and a lunch of Japanese standard 'curry rice' in Shinjuku station - and almost anywhere - is a great energizer for afternoon work.
- Ba-sashi, horse sashimi. A favorite in southern Japan on the island of Kyushu, and it's easy to see why. The meat melts in your mouth and the ginger and garlic topping on each piece adds to the magic. Like whale not politically correct, but definitely delicious.
- Fugu, blowfish. My first experience with the poison-filled fish reminded me of how amazing food in Japan really is. With licensed chefs they prepare an entire meal, including sashimi that has very subtle taste, and to some degree that's all about the texture.
- Takoyaki, street corn and more. The matsuris/festivals keep coming at you wherever you live, and the street food is something to behold, including the street corn, somewhat like what you find in Mexico. Definitely attend a matsuri - and enjoy!
- Foreign food in Tokyo. The Japanese are students of foreign food and some of their interpretations are out of this world. A highlight was my 10th wedding anniversary at a Vietnamese restaurant in Akasaka, US$400 for two people - OK, pricey - but unforgettable.
- Kaiseki. How do they pack so much flavor and beauty into each dish? Expensive and amazing. Get away from Roppongi for this and head out in the country to best enjoy this style.
- Takayama. This town outside Nagoya has its' own call-out because I'm still wrapping my head around all the varieties of mountain plants and roots that can be prepared into fantastic dishes. The morning market is a celebration of hill country food, like the tarot potato.
- Sweets and Snacks. I'm not the biggest fan of sweets in Japan, but I do find it amazing how many different varieties of desserts can be made from beans. You can be pleasantly surprised! One of my go-to snacks is dried squid strips with cheese. Explore!
- 7-11, Lawson and convenience stores. These were brought up in our global dining session. Sandwiches and snacks are surprisingly good and definitely perfect for an on-the-go day.
- Ramen. Every region and most towns have their own style of ramen. Pork-based Fukuoka-area ramen with garlic is my favorite, but it's all good, and you can spend a lifetime slurping ramen across Japan and not taste it all. Like so many items on this list, it's hard to duplicate the best of the best outside of Japan because of water, ingredients and more.
So there's a start! What meals in Japan have meant something to you?
Haven't visited Japan yet? Please add it to your bucket list - you'll love it!
Doug Bruhnke - Global Chamber®
ps to foodies. Full disclosure... I've never turned down any food, and I'm hard-pressed to select one that I can't find some redeeming value for. Perhaps it's my mother to blame - or thank - because she made us eat everything from the garden including at the time less favorites beets and lima beans, though I've grown to enjoy both. The loach dojo above is perhaps the most challenging for most folks in that it has a muddy flavor that is removed somewhat with ingredients including onions, somewhat like liver and onions go together, I suppose. Both are 'OK'. My company in Gotanda was known in the neighborhood as the 'weird food group', and so I was always being tested, but never stumped. I love shio-kara - salted squid intestines - with cold beer, oh my that's good! Natto (fermented soybeans) is a bit more challenging and 'OK', and especially good again with beer ;-) Once I was given a bowl of honey bees prepared in some unknown way, as a challenge - and that was not particularly flavorful or enjoyable. Finally... one night a local pub when hearing that I could eat anything, fixed up a clear drink made to look like a terrarium, with tiny fish swimming in it and small green seaweed type additions. The goal I was told was to hold the contents in your mouth, feel the fish swimming around your cheeks, and then swallow. That actually was quite tasty while it lasted, and the swimming fish were only a mild distraction - and you don't feel them past your tongue.
pps to non-foodies. There are dozens of food types in Japan for the less adventurous, all amazing - and some of them are documented above. I hope everyone reading this has a chance to visit Japan and travel the country to experience the sites, the people and the food.
ppps for metro Phoenix, re: ramen. Hope springs eternal. There is a sushi chef moving this week to metro Phoenix from Los Angeles to set up a new ramen shop. Hoping for good results as soon as this fall. Stay tuned!