Tabesugi means "overeating" in Japanese, and it's one of our favorite pastimes here at byFood. So, it was a natural choice of title for our new podcast. Created and hosted by Emilie Lauer, byFood’s Tabesugi podcast is here to give you insights into Japanese culture, history, and people through the lens of food.
How far would you travel for food? Episode 1, Welcome to Japan, investigates the statistic that, according to the Japan Tourism Agency, 72% of foreign tourists come to Japan for Japanese food. Chatting with foreign visitors and tourism industry professionals, Emilie gets down to the bottom of food tourism in Japan. She finds out about everyone’s favorite Japanese foods (unsurprisingly, ramen and sushi, although one Australian has a particularly enthusiastic love for a certain convenience store’s fried fare), hops between izakaya during a Tokyo food tour, and learns the secret to finding the best restaurants in Japan.
EMILIE: What’s your favorite Japanese food?
[Montage of answers]
Ramen soup and sushi.
Sushi, definitely sushi.
Sushi, I think it’s the best.
For me, sushi too.
Oh, the sushi is what I’m here for.
Sushi and ramen
Sushi, of course!
EMILIE: But wait? Is there only sushi and ramen in Japan?
EMILIE: What’s your favorite Japanese food?
Ooh honestly I love the fried chicken from FamilyMart. (laughs) No, but if I had to say something like yakisoba or sushi, yeah everything.
[TABESUGI INTRO: slurping, sound of gas stove igniting, glasses clinking, crunching interspersed with different voices saying “tabesugi.”]
EMILIE: You’re listening to Tabesugi podcast. Tabesugi means “overeating” in Japanese and this is definitely one of our favorite pastimes! We are here to bring you insights into Japanese culture, history and people through the lens of food. I’m your host Emilie Lauer, let’s go on this journey together! This is episode 1, Welcome to Japan.
BREAK: Tabesugi is brought to you by byFood.com, the one-stop platform for foodie travelers in Japan, where you can explore food tours, cooking classes, tastings, and dining experiences, along with food guides and videos. Every booking on byFood.com helps children in need around the world through the Food for Happiness Program. Just by enjoying a meal in Japan, you can help children in developing countries get access to necessities like nutritious meals, schools, and housing, so they can grow up happy and healthy.
EMILIE: With more than 90,000 Japanese restaurants all over the world, and the title of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, the popularity of Japanese cuisine keeps on blooming and shows absolutely no sign of slowing down.
Last year, according to the Japan Tourism Agency, 72 % of the tourists who came to Japan wanted to try Japanese food as a reason to travel the country. But what do tourists really know about Japanese food? What do they like about it? On top of sushi and ramen of course, these go without saying, but what goes beyond that?
I planted my mic in Shibuya, just near the famous crossing, the place is always packed and full of life. Tourists gather around as they wouldn’t miss their picture with Hachiko the famous dog, be aware you’ll have to queue for that. Or they walk the crossing to and fro to get the perfect shot! I’m not kidding, I did it too when I first arrived in Tokyo! So in between two shots, I was there:
What do you like about Japanese food?
CICI: I like that the flavors are very nuanced, I think that one particular dish as a lot of different flavors and textures, what else, I like that it's pretty cheap, the food and really good. There is a lot of different kinds and there are different regionally specific foods that are really good.
PHOEBE: I like that it's easy, it's cheap, it's delicious, pretty much everything is deep-fried which is amazing (laugh) and yeah look its a mix of modern food with traditional food. So you get things from centuries ago but they have a modern twist to it. I love going to the market, sushi trains, but then you got it delivered on a robot. It's cool, it's different.
FRANCESCO: The freshness, the fresh fish, the lightness, it's really light, it's ehm, easy to cook for them, but not for us
CECILIA: The most famous is sushi, obviously, in all the countries in Europe, but we know there's a lot more there yeah...
EMILIE: So let’s recap, Japanese food is convenient, cheap, delicious, fresh, flavorsome and traditional with a modern twist. And yes, there is a lot more than just sushi! You guys are right; Japanese food is all of this but also much more. I felt like we did not even scratch the surface there, of what really is Japanese food. And to get more answers we needed an expert, I found one and I just couldn’t wait to ask the question!
How would you describe Japanese food? What is Japanese food?
LAUREN: I think there are three things that make Japanese food very special. The one thing is that we eat for the seasons here, and in Japan actually there are even micro-seasons, so they really celebrate exactly what's in the peak, like every week or two weeks. So I think that makes Japanese food really special because we use the best ingredient, at the best time of the year. So where I am from in Philadelphia, like you can get certain kinds of fruit all year long, but doesn't taste good all year long right. And in Japan, my favorite, favorite fruit is peaches and they're in seasons still right now but there almost out of season and once they're gone, that's it and you've gotta wait another year to try them. So I think that's really special, that's the first thing.
The second thing is people in Japan specialize, so you will notice when you are traveling around Japan that like sushi restaurants sell sushi, yakitori restaurant sell yakitori; everyone kind of specializes because they wanna do the best that they can at every single thing that they do. So I think that elevates the food business here, to something special.
And then the third thing is that food is very regional as well. Everyone in Japan celebrates what every place is famous for and when you travel in Japan, people will always ask you not what did you see but what did you eat. So if you go to Hokkaido, they will say "Oh what did you eat in Hokkaido? Did you try the soup ramen or did you try crab?" because they know and they are always dreaming about trying the food from all over Japan.
EMILIE: This was Lauren Shannon, our Japanese foodie expert. Lauren is originally from Philly in the States and she first set foot in Japan about 22 years ago. At first she was only there to set up computers in small creative schools tied to the embassy, way before the Internet boomed. And like a lot of foreigners in Japan, she fell in love with the country and obviously the food. Ever since she has been involved with the food and tourism industry and for the past few years Lauren has been the general manager of Arigato Japan, a food tour company.
LAUREN: Arigato Japan is a food tourism company, we started 3 years and a couple of months ago. And we specialized in culinary tourism. Since Japanese food is not just a part of our obsession in Japan. Japanese people are very obsessed with food but it's also a really great gateway into culture. So what we decided was, a lot of people are nervous about coming to Japan, they've heard that it's a very polite society and they might make mistakes or not understand what's going on. And so we kind of use sitting around a table, enjoying food together as a way to explain our experience in Japan and daily culture and customs and manners. So it becomes a really great way to share our culture and also learn about people's culture from all over the world, because our guests also talk about what's different for them. So that's kind of why we started the company and we've already had over 22,000 guests visit our food tours. So it's been a really amazing ride and we're so excited to be able to share Japanese food with so many people.
EMILIE: Lauren’s right, Japanese food culture can be daunting, I mean first of all the language barrier and the writing system. Let’s be honest Japanese is really hard and without an English menu or Google Translate, you’re never really sure of what you’ve ordered! Secondly, Japanese food is the antithesis of western food, with a lot of fish, fermented food, unusual texture and taste combinations. You’ve also gotta use chopsticks for everything which also comes with a particular set of rules. So yes, the first time you are in Japan, food as good as it is, can be a struggle. That is maybe why people only know about sushi and ramen but it’s time for a change!
Tourists actually only know sushi or ramen, so what other foods are you offering them?
And so, as we said before tourists actually they only know sushi and ramen so what kind of other food are you offering them?
LAUREN: So we try to expose people to everything from street food and soul food in Japan. really like common things that people eat with their families or eat after work. But we also help customers find really innovative restaurants, we also talk a lot of washoku and yoshoku, so washoku is the Japanese word for Japanese food and yoshoku is the Japanese word for western food that has been Japanified. So you said you're French so, there is French food in Japan but it's French food made with Japanese ingredients and a Japanese sensibility, so it's a little bit different. So we try to talk about more about than any specific type of food, we share with our guests the Japanese approach to preparing food and sharing it.
EMILIE: Washoku, Yoshoku, never heard of it before today but I was eager to learn more about Japanese food and culture. To be really honest with you, I had never done a food tour before and I was always skeptical of it, I always thought that they bring you in partnered restaurants which aren’t always good and that the guide doesn’t bring that much on the table! Boy I was wrong!
Lauren had planned for me one of their most popular food tours, I would join a group and experience with them all the subtlety of Japanese food and the culture surrounding it. The tour is named The All Star Tokyo Food Tour and it reads like this on the byFood platform:
“Experience off-the-beaten-path Tokyo and explore hidden gem foodie spots during the All Star Tokyo Food Tour. Here, you will get a taste of the diverse personalities of the Tokyo neighborhoods of Yurakucho, Ginza, and Shinbashi. To start your journey, you’ll travel back in time to 1970s Japan and traverse the maze of eateries in Yurakucho’s Gado Shita area, a favorite watering hole of Japanese businessmen.”
EMILIE: Honestly they had me at “hidden gems” – I crave places where only locals go. For me this is the real experience, this is the true Japan – I started to really be enthusiastic about the food tour, I knew that I would have the chance to discover new restaurants that I would have never come across by myself! In fact, what is better than a food tour to learn more about authentic Japanese food and culture.
So on a Monday at 4:30 pm sharp I joined Kay, my tour guide for the night and the explanation started right away!
KAY: Did you see that train pass by? This is one of the very unique styles here in Japan. Those izakayas, Japanese pubs, underneath the train tracks. And you know what, we are going to one of those underneath of it later. So, looking forward to that.
EMILIE: Kay is a petite woman full of energy, she’s originally from Osaka but moved to Tokyo in middle school and she definitely knows the cities like the back of her hand. The first stop is an Okinawan restaurant not far from our meeting point. The restaurant is hidden in a back street near the train station. It’s a very small place where you can sit at the counter or at the few present tables and in the background Okinawan music fill the air. I have never had Okinawan food, and I really hope to go there soon, so this was a good teaser for me.
Right in the center of the restaurant, a longer table had been set up specially for us, we all sat, ordered a typical Okinawan beer or cocktail and went for the traditional kampai!
KAY: When you do “Cheers,” try to be equal, because if you do go upper, it’s kind of like you’re trying to show you’re superior to the others, well unless you’re paying them off (for the drinks). So, you all try to do “Kampai” and look at me! Give me kampai!
[Various people saying “Kampai!”]
EMILIE: Around the table are real foodies from all over the world, Mexican, American, Bulgarian and French are enjoying their meal – In total we are 9 foodies and at the opposite of me this isn’t their first food tour.
AMERICAN TOURIST: We’re big foodies, we love eating and touring and trying different food and I feel like it’s a great way to see a culture and explore and learn different things along the way. We did a food tour when we were in Vietnam, it’s just fun to explore culture through food.
EMILIE: But can you really learn a culture through food, is food that important?
LAUREN: I always worry when people come with kind of a closed mind about food because, not just in Japan but anywhere, I think food, is the direct conduit into culture and history. And it's like they say “the eyes are the window to the soul,” I think the food is your entry point to culture.
EMILIE: Like Lauren says, food is the entry point to Japanese culture. And food tours don’t only satiate physical hunger, but also satisfy appetites for knowledge about foreign cultures and societies. And it started even before digging into the food.
KAY: First of all, we have special words for before and after eating. The one on the left says “itadakimasu,” means “before eating.” Technically, it means “humbly receive” but it’s more like “bon appetit.” But the one after is “gochisousama” that means that you enjoyed. So you can simply say, “gochisousama” afterwards, over the table, when you’ve finished. Also, you can say that to the staff when you leave the place, chef, staff, to let them know you enjoyed.
LAUREN: A lot of Japanese culture can be observed in food. We teach people about Itadakimasu, which is kind of Japanese bon appetit but it has a much more deep and spiritual meaning actually, so much so that it's one of the first things that little kids learn to say at home. So when mom brings dinner to the table, all the family has to say Itadakimasu and it's kind of like " thank you to the ingredients, and for the chef, and for being alive and having good food to eat.” And the reason I say this is such a great way to observe culture is, if you go to a company cafeteria, a lot of companies here have in-house cafeterias, If you go to a company cafeteria you can see a salaryman, with his little bento box and he's sitting all by himself at a table and when he gets his lunch out before he eats, he will still say Itadakimasu. Because it's so ingrained as part of the culture and its really, kind as a deep meaning in Japan. Japan hasn't always had good food stability and so I think people really respect, you know having a full belly here. I think it's really important. So this is just one example, but I think Japanese food culture speaks a lot to Japanese culture overall.
KAY: So everybody just go ahead to pick. Wait, what do we say?
EMILIE: While food is a real pleasure and offers foreign tourists a window into the culture of Japan, it carries another meaning for the Japanese, who have a special bond with the concept of mealtime.
LAUREN: I think there is a big respect for the Shokunin here, the professional chefs, so I think that Japanese people hold people in high esteem who can prepare really amazing food, I think that's really important.
EMILIE: As Japanese homes are quite small and it is pretty rare for Japanese people to invite friends and family over, restaurants are not only a place to eat but also a place to gather. Restaurants witness a lot of social interactions inside the Japanese society and especially among the working class.
LAUREN: In general, people aren't so direct when they communicate here. So we do a lot of things culturally to break down barriers and break the ice. So I think food is very social. I think it really helps people talk to each other, after work people go out with their colleagues a lot, when their working on a big project, you don't decide a lot of things in meetings, you decide a lot of things at an izakaya or pub after work. That's where a lot of, like getting together with your colleagues and friends, that's where it happens.
EMILIE: Our next stop is indeed an izakaya, actually we checked out 2 of them, one specialized in Miyagi prefecture and the other one, a long-time running izakaya under the train station, typical of the Shinbashi neighborhood.
Izakaya are not to be missed while traveling and exploring food culture in Japan. There are many sorts of Izakaya all around Tokyo, but they usually work in the same way, with many small dishes to be shared by everyone around the table, a lot of drinks, and filled with pretty loud with salarymen who have finished just finished work.
They are real institutions in Japan, but where does izakaya come from?
KAY: Izakaya, we already know what izakayas are, the Japanese pubs where you enjoy eating, drinking, being with your company, friends, right? So izakaya didn’t exist in Japan until the Edo era, which was 250 years ago, so before izakayas existed, how people enjoyed was people brought some sort of container from home to the liquor shop, but then some of the liquor stores started to have some stools, chairs, in front of the store, so they could drink right there. And then, some of them started to serve some food. So that’s literally the start of izakaya.
EMILIE: One of the advantages of isakaya is that you can try a lot of different foods. This is where I tried nabe, karaage and purple potato croquette for the first time, I also discovered one of my new favorite niku maki onigiri – a pork ball filled with rice. But the winning dish of the tour was definitely the black squid ink noodles from Okinawa.
KAY: What was your favorite?
GUEST: The last one, the place. But the food, I think the first one.
KAY: The first one, which dish?
OTHER GUESTS: The soba, the black soba.
KAY: The first place, either croquette or soba got the vote for half and half.
EMILIE: But if sushi is still your favorite, you should know that many different types of sushi are available all around Tokyo. Not only the famous nigiri ones.
LAUREN: One of the most famous food you mentioned most travelers know about sushi, and what you think of with sushi, the nigiri sushi, a little ball of rice with a piece of fish on top of it, that was invented in Tokyo. And actually, it's called Edomae sushi and that's mean in front of Tokyo Bay or in front of the bay in Edo. And so, that was originally a street food actually in the original fish markets in Edo back in the samurai period, they would set up a stall and cut the fish right there and put it on some rice and give it to you and you would eat it standing up at a street stall. So sushi's come a long way but the things that you think of as sushi, there’s lots of different kinds of sushi, there’s all kinds of pressed vinegared sushi, there’s temaki-zushi, there’s all kinds of… I would say try chirashizushi, that’s a really great way to try sushi because there’s a bed of sushi rice and on top is all kinds of different scattered types of fish. Chirashi actually means “scattered.” So try that, that’s really good at lunch.
EMILIE: Whether it is sushi or other dishes, Japanese food is a must when traveling in Japan. If you are a foodie, a food adventurer, or you just want to grab a nice meal, it can be difficult to choose a restaurant in Japan and even more so in Tokyo where the number of restaurants available reaches 160,000. But Lauren has a final tip for you guys.
LAUREN: I have a really funny one, so usually I only share this on food tours, but I tell you since we're making friends here. You know Japanese people love to line up, and if you see a line in front of the restaurant it usually means it's pretty good, but you have to analyze the line a little bit more carefully, so the best food is if you see a line of women over forty, Japanese women over forty in line. And if it’s mostly women, and the reason why you know that's good is that Japanese women will only line up if food is really really good. But Japanese men will sometimes line up because food is inexpensive, because a lot of Japanese guys are kind of on a budget from their wife, so they could line up for a curry place just ‘cause it's cheap. But if women are lining up, it's always good. If women are out with their friends there looking for really good food experience. So it's a surefire way to know that a restaurant is excellent if you see 5-10 women waiting outside.
EMILIE: This show is reported, produced and edited by me, your host, Emilie Lauer. Tabesugi is executive produced by byFood.com, the one-stop platform for foodie travelers in Japan. If you are interested in food experiences like food tours, cooking classes, tastings, and dining experiences, check out byFood.com that’s B-Y-F-O-O-D dot com.