There were plenty of things that lured me to Japan for the first time last year.
Draw cards included snow monkeys, late-night karaoke, bullet trains, outrageous vending machines and the promise of 7-Eleven stores that would blow my tiny little mind.
But the main thing was the cuisine. Japanese food has been my favourite for a long time, so I packed my stretchiest pants and prepared to chomp my way around the country, a la Pac-Man.
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Within a few days my travel companions and I had exhausted the menu items we were familiar with. We’d eaten more gyoza, sashimi, takoyaki balls and Kewpie-slathered okonomiyaki than any person should eat in a lifetime. I could barely look at another udon noodle. With two and a half weeks left on our journey it became clear it was time to branch out.
At one point we were eating French fries. In Japan. Things were a bit dire. Photo: Simone MitchellSource:Supplied
We were itching to steer away from the eateries geared to tourists, with their laminated English menus and stock-standard foreigner-friendly foods.
The issue was, none of us spoke any Japanese (I am so sorry, I know how crap it is to parachute into a country without a scrap of vocab).
But in Hiroshima our luck changed, thanks to a chance meeting with a truly excellent chap.
Our adventure begins in a tiny back alley near the Hiroshima train station. Photo: Simone MitchellSource:Supplied
Firstly I’d like to identify the little pocket of Hiroshima where we met him, because you absolutely have to go there if you plan to visit.
While Tokyo’s Golden Gai district draws throngs of tourists with its intimate hole-in-the-wall bars (that often seat less than eight people at a time), it can be overwhelming and difficult to nab a spot.
This area behind Hiroshima station has the same concept – a tight little block of bar-lined laneways – but it was less hectic and mostly populated by friendly locals instead of hammered tourists. We stumbled across it by accident (full admission, I’d gotten us lost), but thank goodness we did, because this little oasis is where we ate food so sublime I still bang on about it to anyone who’ll listen. And it was all thanks to our culinary angel, who we found leaning on the counter in Bar Sango. He answered our prayers by providing a tiny slip of paper that unlocked the door to an array of culinary delights.
Our new mate was a local who had studied in the US for a number of years. He came to our rescue when he saw us struggling with the language. He took the reigns and ordered his favourite dishes for us. A highlight was these utterly delicious cherry tomatoes that the owner was smoking and flash-frying behind the bar:
A cool dude with some very hot cherry tomatoes. Photo: Simone MitchellSource:Supplied
At one point someone joked that we needed to take our new friend with us on the rest of our trip, and that what was when he whipped out a pen and paper and said “all you need to do is show the chef this note”.
Who knew that a simple phrase could work such magic. Photo: Simone MitchellSource:Supplied
He wrote down a Japanese phrase that translates to “serve me your best recommendation”.
“Chefs will love it,” he said, with confidence.
The next night we returned to the area and presented our note at the first bar we entered. The bartender clapped his hands with glee, called his friend over, showed him the note, they both giggled a lot, then he went about making an omelette.
Usually I’d yawn if I saw a plain omelette on a menu, but he kept assuring us it was “very best” and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the most beautifully simple, creamy goodness I’ve ever encountered.
He did not lie. That is a fine example of the egg genre. Photo: Simone MitchellSource:Supplied
At this point we felt like we had scored Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket and we did not let it go to waste. At the next izakaya we were given the most delicate sashimi that the bartender had caught himself that day:
It doesn’t get fresher than that. Photo: Simone MitchellSource:Supplied
This is tempura oysters dusted with lime zest and salt. My food photography was getting a bit rough at this point – blame the mega-beer in the background. Photo: Simone MitchellSource:Supplied
Eyebrows were initially raised when this guy served us wads of tempura BabyBell cheese … but again, it was outrageously good. Photo: Simone MitchellSource:Supplied
This gent made his own infused gins, and gave us samples of his favourites. Photo: Simone MitchellSource:Supplied
Of course you’re rolling the dice when you leave the ordering up to a complete stranger, and we did cop a tripe hot pot. The upside is I have this photo of my friend Emma’s response, which totally made it worth it (and frankly, once I got past the weirdness, it was delicious).
That’s a hard pass from Emma. Photo: Simone MitchellSource:Supplied
My final community service act here is to share this photo I just discovered on my camera roll of an ice cream I found at 7-Eleven. It is hands-down one of the best lickety treats I’ve had. I must’ve taken a photo so I’d always remember the precious times we had together.
I’ll never forget you, Haagen-Dazs Crispy Sandwich. Photo: Simone MitchellSource:Supplied
When we’re allowed to explore Japan again, I implore you to reproduce our friend’s note. Obviously the ideal thing to do is learn some of the language before you go – that way you don’t present as a bumbly twit like me and you can announce the phrase in Japanese with confidence and gusto. But if not, take the note. It’s a wonderful icebreaker if your language is limited and it’s the ticket to a true food adventure where you eat amazing things you might otherwise overlook.
And for goodness sake, buy as many of those ice cream sandwiches as you can fit in your stomach. Life is short.
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Originally published asSecret note you must take to Japan
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