All-you-can-eat 焼き肉

Tonight being the 8th of the month, the restaurant called 八方園 (pronounced 'Happouen') does a 食べ放題 (all you can eat) dinner of 焼き肉 (grilled meat) lasting 90 minutes for 2980 yen (about £20) including a drink. We went along with a couple of friends of ours, Taro and Miho, and after all opting for a beer as our drink, then proceeded to order copious amounts of meat to cook to our liking on the grill in front of us.

What was interesting though was the セセリ (pronounced 'seseri' - the light meat at the bottom of the first photo). None of us knew what it was, so we asked the lady and were told it was meat from the neck area of chickens. It was certainly very tasty and we enjoyed more than one plate. We ordered a plate of everything on the menu just to try them, but I think everybody's favourite was the ハラミ ('harami') coated with salt (塩) and lemon sauce; it was fantastic!

As a really kind gesture once we'd paid the bill, perhaps because we were the last people remaining in the restaurant, we were brought free strawberry ice cream. I'd love to go back again, but unfortunately we won't be around for the 8th of next month!

Tuna salad and doria at Ichibun

Well of course I wanted to bring Liz, my visiting friend, to my favourite eaterie Ichibun! The master seemed prepared too, as he surprised us with a couple of new dishes.

First up was a salad of まぐろ (tuna) on dressed cabbage, which was scoffed in an instant. Then he brought us a ドリア (doria), made with rice and seafood and covered with melted cheese. Finally after we had ordered and consumed a couple of our regular dishes (ramen etc) he brought us a complimentary dessert of lemon ice cream with berry compote and home-made strawberry jam. And as always everything else was 500 yen a dish (about £3.50).

Hopefully Liz was convinced of Ichibun's calibre after that. (I'm seriously going to miss Ichibun's food!)


I took my friend Yuzo for lunch today to Misoya (みそや), a popular miso ramen (味噌ラーメン) restaurant in front of Nagano station. There are only counter seats available, and at meal times you often have to wait for a seat. Today we were lucky though and got a seat straightaway.

While I'm not so keen on 'ordinary' miso ramen, this one I really enjoy. It has quite a lot of garlic in it, and a reasonably strong flavour. The pork meat (チャーシュー) is also very tasty, and the soup goes very well with the plentiful beansprouts and green onions on top. But I can't quite pin down why I find it so enjoyable, I just do.

Anyway it's just 650 yen (about £4) and well worth a visit if you need to eat quickly around Nagano station.

Ingresso, for great Italian food in Nagano

Ingresso (イングレッソ) is a small Italian restaurant and wine bar owned by Mario (as he's been nicknamed), a portly Japanese guy with a great sense of humour and a real passion for Italian food and wine. He learned to cook in Europe and then opened the restaurant in its current location near Nagano station just over a year ago, having first run it in a different part of town.

At lunch time his complete lunch menu comprises starter, Italian-style bread (and olive oil), a pasta dish, and finally dessert and coffee for 900 yen (about £6). That's what we went for today (and in fact every time), as although there is also the option of just taking the pasta (and bread) for 600 yen (about £4), where's the fun in that!

Today's starter was a wonderful truffle quiche with rocket. I then opted for the gnocchi, which came with a tomato and spinach sauce liberally spread with parmesan cheese, rather than the spicy tomato spaghetti with Italian sausage. I had that myself last time I came and it's great; unusual to be able to eat such sausage here in Japan.

Finally was dessert of panna cotta with golden kiwi and fruit compote, with which I drunk an espresso.

There is a blog which Mario frequently updates. I'll definitely be visiting again for lunch in the next couple of weeks.

Surprises for dinner at Ichibun

The master of our favourite local diner, Ichibun, brought out a couple of surprises tonight when we visited.

First he brought out a large dish of pork stew, with which he served slices of fresh baguette. The meat was so amazingly soft and tender, and the taste was really delicious. We were all so surprised that he'd made it for us, and then... it was gone in a flash!

We also ordered his potato okonomiyaki (made by adding potato to the normal flour and egg mix) and his Indian-style curry, plus a salad of daikon and scallops. (I took no photos of these.)

As a dessert he surprised us yet again by producing home-made warabimochi (蕨餅), a jelly-like substance made in this case with just potato flour and water, and covered with a sweet black-sugar syrup and soybean flour. My mother-in-law then quizzed him on how it's made, and we couldn't believe how easy it sounded; just potato flour and water!

Finally, the master brought out a miso ramen (味噌ラーメン) for us to share. Nice! Although by this time I was seriously full, so couldn't eat much of it.

I'm really going to miss Ichibun and the 500 yen (about £3.50) lunch and dinner dishes.

Delicious spicy ramen with tofu (マーボーラーメン)

Apparently (according to my other half) this is the best spicy ramen with tofu (マーボーラーメン) in the area. Actually the place we went to for lunch today is located opposite my old Japanese language school in the 川中島 (Kawanakajima) area outside Nagano city, so until March this year when I graduated we used to go here quite regularly. The restaurant's name is 永楽 (pronounced 'eiraku') and it is the only (thanks to the above-referenced statement declaring it the best) place I've eaten this ramen.

The slightly spicy soup contains mince and tofu, and underneath this top layer of meat and tofu lie the noodles. Very tasty! Reasonably priced too at 650 yen (about £4.50).

It's not too clean a restaurant I feel, but in truth it's probably typical of a 中華食堂 (Chinese-style diner). Thankfully last year they finally made the main part of the restaurant non-smoking over the lunchtime period. I do wish they'd hurry up and outlaw smoking in all public places like other countries, but I sadly don't see that happening for quite some years yet. But at least it's moving in the right direction.

Udon at 十萬石

Before visiting our local cinema tonight to see Inglourious Basterds (which was great) we decided to grab a big bowl of udon at our favourite udon place around here, 十萬石 (Juumangoku). They have three restaurants (that we know about) in Nagano prefecture, with our favourite being out in 戸倉 (Togura) - a little too far to go in the time we had. So we settled for the second-best alternative closer by.

I went for my usual-for-winter hot and slightly spicy 肉味噌うどん (miso-flavoured soup with pork and vegetables) and it was delicious, with the udon being chewy as they should be. Comparing it to the udon we've eaten recently, it's quite different, being much more rough and obviously hand-made. I really like this quality though, the unevenness of the noodles makes it delicious.

The important thing -- other than the quality of the wheat-flour -- when it comes to making udon is コシ (koshi). Literally meaning "one's back" (as in putting one's back into it) its true meaning is the firm texture of the udon, coming from the power and effort the maker puts into kneading the udon mixture while creating the noodles. Thus you can tell a bad udon if it becomes soft too quickly after being in the soup a short while.

At 十萬石 with your meal they allow you to help yourself to as much salad (well, cabbage) and tea as you like. (As a side note you'll notice that in the second photo the restaurant's name is written on the side of their mugs.) Our bill for the meal was 1995 yen (about £13).

Last night upon arriving at the restaurant we were met with the very strange sight of dozens of daikon lined up outside. Inside we were then met with boxes upon boxes of daikon. So strange! When we sat down I noticed that on top of the boxes was a written notice to customers (photo four) asking to please freely take as many daikon as you'd like, and they provided plastic carrier bags to take them away in. I guess there is a lot of spare daikon available this year; just a shame I'm not too keen on it myself.

The final photo shows the restaurant from the outside as we were leaving to drive home. One thing I unfortunately wasn't able to take photos of is the interior of the restaurant. All of the branches of 十萬石 are really old traditional Japanese-style buildings, and inside they have vaulted ceilings and are decorated with display cases containing lots of samurai memorabilia such as suits of armour and weaponry. Almost museum-like, and very very interesting.

Cafe Montmartre for delicious curry and naan

A favourite of Esdras and mine, Cafe Montmartre (カフェ・モンマルトル), was today's lunch destination. It's a great place decorated in a nostalgic American/European style (and playing Tom and Jerry on their many small TV screens!) with a Nepalese chef who always does such tasty cheese naans.

Esdras and I went for the cheese naan and a variety of curries. The deal is basically as much naan and curry as you like for 840 yen (about 5 pounds) in a lunch set which includes a salad and a drink. Once you've finished you can ask for more of both the curry and the naan.

They have six curry options on offer including mutton, vegetable, seafood and chicken, from which one can choose two. For the naan one can choose from about four varieties including plain and of course cheese. Yuzo, not being a fan of curry, went for the beef stroganoff, but it was a bit too sweet(!) for my taste.


On the 487.5km journey home from Osaka today, we stopped at the newly-opened Suwa (諏訪) branch of Ippudo (一風堂), the ramen restaurant we ate at the other day in Kyoto, for lunch.

I chose the spicy miso option (一風堂からか麺 - photo one) and opted for the 'normal' spiciness level, and she went for the tonkotsu soup with added flavour (赤丸かさね味 - photo two). Along with my ramen came a bowl with half an egg, some pork meat and some rice flavoured with a similar taste to my soup.

After we had finished our noodles, we both asked for more noodles (替え玉), at which point we swapped soups so we could try each others'. I actually really liked both, although the winner for me was the ramen with separate noodles (つけ麺) I ate the last time, but unfortunately it seems like that choice is only available in the Kyoto branch.

The final photo is of the outside of the shop, painted bright red with small slices of windows. Very easy to spot!


Despite feeling rather worse for wear with a cold, I dosed myself up and went out in Osaka for a few hours this evening. Earlier in the day I'd dropped my brother at Osaka Itami airport for his internal flight up to Tokyo, ready for his flight home tomorrow morning, and arranged to meet Han-san. Han-san was a student in my class at my Japanese language school, and since graduating alongside me in March he moved to Osaka to continue his education. He's Korean, but moved with his mum to Nagano a couple of years back, and his Japanese is great. Especially now, since he has part-time jobs in a couple of hotels in Osaka - hence the good room rates for staying.

Our first stop was Ichiran, his favourite ramen restaurant. It's a chain restaurant, and its ramen was very tasty. However due to my cold unfortunately my taste buds weren't in optimum condition, so I will have to have another visit to confirm this verdict 100%. (Oh what a hardship.) It somehow felt like it had been a while (久し振り) since I had eaten a ramen, and indeed it had - five days since the last one. Ha!

Upon entering the restaurant (we had to queue outside for 10 minutes) there was a machine with just a single button labelled ラーメン (ramen) which made me laugh. Underneath that were more buttons for extras like an egg (which I chose) and beer (which of course I also chose). We inserted our money and it spat out our meal tickets. The seats inside were arranged in a single line, and on the wall of the waiting area was a panel with flashing LEDs showing the empty seats. When a row of three became empty we were told to file in and find our seats. Once sat down we were greeted with effectively a questionnaire of how we wanted our ramen to taste. The questions/options were:

- soup flavour strength (味の濃さ)
- soup thickness/oiliness (こってり度)
- amount of garlic (にんにく)
- onions (ねぎ) - either white (normal) or green
- noodle hardness (面のかたさ)
- spiciness / mystery sauce (秘伝のたれ)

I went for normal (基本) for everything except for noodle hardness, as I like my noodles slightly harder than normal. For spiciness I opted for 1/2 - the recommendation for newbies - whereas Han-san chose 2x, and you could soon tell as the sweat started pouring off his face!

I'll definitely be back to try their ramen again, probably next month at one of their many branches in Tokyo.

Small croissant breakfast

As part of the reduced-food course we had booked at the ryokan in Kotohira, we were only expecting something like a single croissant and coffee for breakfast this morning. Instead we were presented with this - a tray including some orange segments, a salad, juice and two warm croissants. Butter and jam were also provided of course. Lovely!

I don't have anything but good things to say about this ryokan. We'd definitely love to go back at some point, and also take the opportunity of having more free time in which to climb the 1,368 steps up to Kompira shrine.

My brother didn't want to leave the breakfast table without leaving behind a present, and in his inimitable style this was an origami chicken made from his napkin. I'm sure the waiter appreciated it and had a laugh (assuming he could figure out what it was).

You call this a reduced-food dinner?!

After enjoying our earlier pre-dinner udon, we returned to the hotel for our "reduced-food" dinner course. We were certainly not expecting what we ended up with! The five courses we were given were:

- Appetisers (including jellyfish - in the tiny flower-shaped bowl on the right)
- Sashimi (including sea urchin, raw prawn, turban shell [栄螺/サザエ], flounder, scallops, yellowtail, sea bream)
- Beef and Matsutake mushroom (cooked ourselves over a flame)
- Miso soup
- Swiss roll and kiwi fruit

We were completely stuffed after this. All we could do was have a quick rest, and then go for a long soak in the ryokan's onsen. This was so clean and the indoor and outdoor baths were an absolutely perfect temperature (my guess 41 degrees).

Yamashita’s famously tasty udon in Kotohira, Shikoku

The part of the Japanese road trip with my brother I was most looking forward to was the two-day drive through Shikoku, well known for its udon. I love udon and for the last couple of years - I think since watching the Japanese film 'Udon' - I've wanted to visit Shikoku and eat Sanuki udon.

We'd booked to stay in the well-known (and expensive) Kotohira Kadan, a top-class ryokan, and one of the ways of reducing the price (as you pay per person, not per room), and at the same time experiencing some of the local udon, was to take a "reduced-food" course. In addition to this reduced dinner at the ryokan, we were also each given a ticket (photo two) which could be exchanged for a bowl of udon at one of a couple of the local udon restaurants.

We went for 山下うどん (Yamashita Udon), which was about a ten-minute drive from the ryokan. And it was fantastic. The udon were quite chewy and obviously home-made (in a good way). Unlike our lunch earlier they aren't going for completely-smooth seemingly Sanuki-style udon, but instead the taste was much more preferable to me; I do like firm noodles!

The first photo shows my choice of the きつね (named for the sweetened fried tofu served on top of the udon) ready to eat once the sauce was poured on. The third photo shows the bottles of cold and hot sauce the staff brought to our table, along with the stub of fresh ginger they provided for us to grate for ourselves. Finally the last photo shows my brother's (meat topping) udon. Yum!

After finishing, I had enjoyed my udon so much that I ordered another きつね. It should be pointed out that these bowls of udon were considered their 'small' size (they also had 'large'), and cost just 350 yen each (about £2.30). Amazingly cheap and so very delicious!

Our first Sanuki udon experience

On our way to Takamatsu, the largest city on the island of Shikoku, a quick check online (using my iPhone) and we had our lunch destination in 鶴丸 (pronounced 'tsurumaru'), a small restaurant in the centre of town near the station.

The owner was really friendly and recommended a few things to us, as I guess it was obvious we weren't local and didn't know our udon. First on the list was 'sashimi udon', served cold over rice with some onions and ginger. It's eaten sashimi-style, in that you eat it by first dipping it in soy sauce. This cost just 100 yen (65p), and I ordered seconds.

The udon was really smooth and surprisingly soft. It almost melts in the mouth! I somehow remembered that in the film 'Udon' it was said that you shouldn't chew Sanuki udon, but instead let it just slide down. Not sure how true that is, and I didn't fancy trying it in case I choked, but I can see how it could be feasible as the noodles certainly don't require much chewing at all.

Shown next below is my hot ぶっかけうどん (served in slightly-watered-down sauce with meat, ginger and onions) which was very tasty, and after that my brother's かけうどん (served with meat in a thinner broth).

As we paid and left, the owner asked us if we'd had a good experience of udon, which was really nice. Definitely a good first experience.

Curry and beer!

Tonight we are fortunate enough to be able to stay right in the centre of the south part of Osaka (Namba). A friend of ours works at a hotel literally right off Dōtonbori so not only did we get a great room on the 14th floor for next to nothing, but this evening we were able to sample the food of a fantastic curry restaurant nearby.

The place is called Puru Nima, and to cut a long story short we all left there very full and very happy. The service was great; the guy (of Indian descent who spoke very capable Japanese) politely and patiently answered all of our million-and-one questions about the different types of curry on offer and the spiciness and contents of their menu. I enjoyed a Kingfisher beer - a lager which, despite being offered as an Indian beer, is in fact bottled in the UK - and we gobbled down our curries and naans with tremendous gusto.

Between us we had a prawn curry, a potato and aubergine curry and a minced chicken curry, accompanied with garlic, cheese and plain naans. Superb!

Journey of the creation of okonomiyaki

Our journey today took us from Kyoto to Osaka, and for lunch we decided to visit my favourite okonomiyaki restaurant chain, 風月 (pronounced 'fugetsu'), for lunch. The photos show the stages of the cooking process, all done by the staff on the large heated pan embedded in the table in front of us. The items we chose were (left to right):

1) 風月焼き (pork, beef, squid, prawns)
2) 牛すじねぎモダーン (beef and onions with noodles)
3) とんぺい焼き (omelette with pork)

Photo 1: placing the mix of the pancakes on the pan (the omelette was brought to us)
Photo 2: adding fish flakes to both, and noodles on the middle one (half the omelette, gone!)
Photo 3: after flipping them over (and finishing consuming the omelette)
Photo 4: adding the final mayonnaise, sauce, and onions. Ready to eat! Go!

Can’t beat scrambled eggs for breakfast

Not very traditionally Japanese, but lets face it who really wants grilled fish and rice for breakfast. This was courtesy of Shinshindo, a place tucked down a side street off the main Shijō street thoroughfare and dating back to 1913!

The buttered bread in particular was so soft, and they gave us a pot of jam to spread on it. I want another one now just thinking about it.


Tonight on the way back to our hotel after our evening meal, we passed Ippudo (一風堂) again and this time I couldn't resist. So I rather meanly sent my brother into Starbucks with his laptop to wait (as he very sensibly didn't want more food) while I popped in for a ramen fix. I went for the つけ麺 (cold noodles served separately from the hot soup). I really loved it, as the soup was so meaty and delicious. Afterwards the staff topped my soup up with thinner bonito soup (to water it down) so I could then drink the remainder of it.

I had the chance to order 1.5x more noodles for the same price (850 yen; about £5.50) but I couldn't manage that this time, having already eaten a meal; next time I will for sure. I've been told there are other branches of Ippudo in among other places Osaka and Kobe, both of which we're due to go in the next couple of days, so it could be sooner rather than later.


I took my brother to the Kyoto branch of one of our regularly-visited chain restaurants, Din Tai Fong, this evening to let him try some of the delicious Taiwanese soup dumplings (小龍包). Shown here are the steamed prawn gyoza (海老蒸し餃子 ) and a couple of the larger pork meat buns (肉まん) which we also ordered.

Poco-a-Poco was open tonight!

Last night I tried to take my brother to Poco-a-poco, a favourite restaurant of mine which I've written about before. Unfortunately however Wednesday is their day off, so we returned tonight in expectation of a feast; and we weren't wrong in that expectation.

In addition to the オムライス (omelette-covered rice) and プリン (creme caramel-style pudding) ordered the last time, we shared one of their wonderful mixed meat and vegetable pizzas and a mini oyster gratin. Needless to say we left there totally stuffed!

Soba lunch and ninja trickery in Togakushi

For our first short trip by car I took my brother into the mountains of Togakushi (戸隠) to eat lunch at Utsuraya (うづら家), arguably the most famous soba restaurant in Togakushi.

Togakushi is well known for its soba noodles, its shrines, the Togakushi mountain range and ski area, and finally its connection with the ninja martial arts. But we were of course here first and foremost to eat. So once inside the restaurant (there is always a queue outside, no matter the weather or day of the week) we set about ordering. We went for a 大現盛りざるそば (extra large cold soba noodles - photo one) and a かけそば (regular hot noodles), plus a plate of tempura consisting of vegetables and three large prawns (photo two). As always they also provide a lump of raw wasabi root to use as a condiment, which you grate yourself while adding some sugar - shown in photo three.

After lunch we walked up the nearby steps to the middle (中社) Togakushi shrine, shown in photo four. Because of its elevation (somewhere around 1200m) they have already had snowfall, and there were a couple of patches still lingering around the temple. This of course started the inevitable but short-lived snowball fight.

We then jumped in the car and headed up the road a bit to the ninja village (忍者村) where my brother and I attempted to navigate ourselves through the various secret doors and compartments in the ninja trick house (からくり屋敷) which was fun if a little perplexing - I got a bit stuck at one point even though I'd been there once before! One funny memory is my brother attempting to run up the 'strange slanted room' (斜めの不思議な部屋).

As a final mention, there's some great information available on the official website about Togakushi.

Sushi at Tsukiji fish market

For my brother's second meal in Japan I suggested that we could go to Tsukiji fish market to taste some of the freshest sushi available. He's eaten sushi once before with me in London but it was really terrible. (Yo Sushi is definitely not recommended!)

So we headed to Sushizanmai, a 24-hour restaurant I've been to several times before. After saying he was up for trying anything (a great attitude to have!) we ordered and quickly consumed various types of tuna, red snapper, flounder's fin, scallop, eel and tamagoyaki (a kind of sweetened egg roll - it can be seen in the very top-right of the first photo).

The favour ite for me was the broiled tuna (two of which are shown in the first photo next to a prawn and cucumber temaki roll) which is truly delicous, and also the most expensive at 395 yen (about £2.50). My brother said that he really enjoyed the eel, which was great news - I foresee an unagi (eel) dinner coming up for us in the next couple of weeks.

At one point the staff all stopped what they were doing, and one of them held up a huge crab and announced that they were going to sell the legs for 1000 yen (about £6.50) each. We didn't partake but I did get a photo.

Ramen Fantasista (part 2)

I wrote about part one a few weeks ago, and part two of the yearly Ramen Fantasista is taking place between the 16th and 28th of October, where the chefs all switch round and we are given three new types of ramen to try.

So yesterday I dutifully went again with ramen-lover-extraordinaire Yuzo to taste the second batch. We went with two orders of the 醤油ラーメン (soy sauce flavoured soup - photo 1) and one of the 信州肉味噌ラーメン (miso fish-flavoured soup with meat - photo 2). The 醤油ラーメン seemed to mix pork and fish flavours, like a 魚介, but with a very mild taste. Yuzo commented that it was almost a 塩らーメん (salt-flavour soup) in taste and thickness.

The 肉味噌ラーメン on the other hand was very strong in flavour with an almost cheesy taste to the slightly spicy meaty sauce; almost similar to a pasta! Yuzo and I quite liked it, and in fact he ended up ordering it as his second bowl.

As my second bowl I tried the third ramen variety (photo 3) which offered both pork meat and smoked chicken meat (which I wasn't a fan of, being smoked) in a thick soup not unlike 豚骨 (tonkotsu) but supposedly with prawns also included somewhere in the soup mixup. The inclusion of prawns unfortunately excluded it for Yuzo as he's allergic, but with the organic soba-like noodles it made for a nice taste. Very thick though, so I don't think I could have managed more than half anyway.

Overall though, from all six Fantasista ramens available over the four weeks, I think my favourite has to be the 醤油ラーメン from part one last time as that really was a great taste for me.

I won't be in Japan for next year's event, but I'll hopefully be back in 2011 to try them all again!

Casamingo’s chocolate Sacher Torte cake

Today we visited Casamingo, a fantastic cake shop which I've written about before.

As you can see by the label that came with the box, this is the shop owner's son's creation because, as I wrote about previously, he trained in Vienna, so his cakes are more Austrian in nature (as opposed to his father's which are apparently more German).

The cake itself is reasonably small - we went for the smallest 12cm size which costs ¥2600 (about £17) - but they sell larger sizes too. It looks the business and cutting into it reveals the marmalade-like jam in between the two sandwiched halfs and also under the icing at the top. This jam adds a really nice flavour to the cake and also makes it less dry, so it becomes very easy to eat it without any cream or anything extra.

Very delicious indeed. I might also take my brother to the shop next week if we get a chance, as he's visiting me from the UK, and he – like me – is a real cake fan.

Ramen three (Togura)

Finally then, after enjoying one average ramen and one horrendous ramen at the two previous places, we thought that we should finish the day on a positive by visiting a place in Togura (戸倉) on the way home, which Master has been to before and knows is good.

Here there was no bad smell, no dirty bowls, just tasty ramen. The lady there was pleasant, and there were some hairy potato heads on the window ledge beside our table which she assured us had had their hair trimmed recently.

We all ordered the standard (醤油) ramen and left very satisfied. My only slight negative was the thin noodles which, despite eating as fast as I could, quickly went softer than I ideally like. Still, everybody else there prefers thin noodles so I didn't say anything. Master wouldn't take any money from us again though - ごちそう様でした!

When we left we drove back separately; a good end to a nice long (and interesting) lunch trip. Lets hope we can do it again soon! I do love my ramen.