01.04.2013 - 28.04.2013 17 °C
BGM: 君のふるさと by パラレルリープ ("Kimi No Furusato" by Parallel Leap)
Every prefecture, city and major town in Japan is known for a special product that's tough to find anywhere else. During my decade-long sojourn down the length of the Archipelago, it's become a hobby of mine to seek out and try as many of these regional delicacies as possible. The sheer variety is staggering! After settling into my new post, I quickly set to work snooping around Takehara in search of its hidden culinary treasures. Much to my delight, there are too many to count!
OKONOMI HOUSE BON-BON （お好みハウスBon-bon)
Perhaps the most famous food in Hiroshima is the appropriately-named Hiroshimayaki, a meticulously layered take on the Osaka savory pancake classic. Hiroshimayaki, unlike its starchy, gooey-centered cousin, is a paper-thin crepe and egg sleeping on a bed of stir-fried bean sprouts & cabbage. Whereas the overriding flavor of Osaka okonomiyaki is predominantly flour, Hiroshimayaki leaves a clean, light taste in the mouth and none of the sugar rush from having consumed too many carbs at one time. After squeezing big blobs of mayonnaise and sauce on the thing, the locals eat Hiroshimayaki right off the "teppan" griddle with cute little square spatulas called a "kote" (/koh-teh/). The secret to not burning your lips is to scrape the food off the kote with your teeth. (It's actually quite fun!).
Though well off the beaten track, Takehara City has a few locally famous spots for okonomiyaki. My favorite, however, is just a little bit out of the way but well worth the effort of finding it. Getting there is a breeze, even without a car. You can take the bus down Highway 432 (bound for Kampo no Yado, 190 yen) from Takehara Station and get off at the Family Mart convenience store intersection (Nakadori bus stop). Across the small street from the Family Mart parking lot is an old run-down cafe called "My Way." Beside it is a small okonomiyaki restaurant called "Bon-Bon," marked with orange and white banners flapping in the breeze, advertising Hiroshima's special "Otafuku" sweet and spicy okonomiyaki sauce. According to the locals, the Otafuku banners are "the mark of a decent okonomiyaki-ya restaurant."
Walk up the cement block steps into the restaurant and you're instantly greeted by Murakami-san, in my opinion the friendliest lady in Takehara. She studied under an okonomiyaki master for years and has been running Bon-Bon with her two sons helping out for over a decade. Her place is a favorite local hangout for the students in the community and her disarming smile is as comforting as the little piles of meticulously layered Japanese "soul food" magic she flips and fries with her kotes. Her spotless "teppan" griddle and sparkling overhead ventilation system show her commitment to her customers. But the proof is in the pancake!
Soul food needs time to be delicious. Each layer (fillings, crepe, omelet, etc) is fried separately and layered to steam into an enticing pile of veggie goodness. Murakami-san has all the listening skills and people-loving curiosity of a top-notch barista. While enjoying the musical dance of flipping crepes and clanging kotes, my conversations with Murakami-san have traveled the world over. Though she's yet to set foot outside Japan, her thinking is refreshingly worldly-wise. She once said something I've always kept with me like a word treasure: "Looking at the world from the perspective of a single culture is like trying to understand a whole photo from a single pixel." It's a wonderful thing when the conversation can be just as nutritious as the entree!
You can have your choice of udon or soba noodles (fried to perfection), with an array of savory fillings like pork strips and plump, juicy shrimp to regional delicacies like Takehara "sake kasu" (/sah-keh-kah-soo/, the leftover fermented lees from sake production). Slathered with sweet, warm Otafuku sauce and topped with a massive pile of sliced green onions, it's a fun mountain of food to explore slowly. She also has a wickedly delicious invention called "119 Pizza," a steamed miracle of cheese, shrimp, ham and onions on an okonomiyaki crepe, accented with her own secret sauce. Though the name implies that I'll need to call Emergency Services upon consumption, it quickly became my new favorite.
Bon-bon also has amazing yakiniku: generous cuts of quality meats like the amazing horumon (fatty pork offal), so tender it melts in the mouth like butter. Her yakiniku menu is just as popular with the locals as her okonomiyaki!
Takehara City's Machinami Hozon Chiku, ("Special Historical District," also called "The Little Kyoto of Aki"), is an enchanting collection of lovingly-preserved Edo period houses, shops, temples and shrines, just a 10-minute walk from JR Takehara Station. Reminiscent of the quiet wooden backstreets of Gion in Kyoto, a stroll through these streets is a trip back in time to where people decorated their front doors with seasonal flowers and took the time to say "hi" to any passers-by. The aging grannies and shopkeepers who keep this district afloat still carry on this tradition of gracious hospitality, hobbling out of their doorways to greet the tourists and ask them how they are, where they've traveled and what they think of Takehara.
Reflective of this sweetness, Takehara has an impressive collection of confectioneries. I became helplessly addicted to a hundred-year-old cake shop called "Kikujudo," close to the bridge along Honmachi 3 Chome street, a shop well-known around Takehara for its decadent brandy cake, bamboo charcoal roll cake (more appetizing than it sounds) and sweet-bean-filled mochi flour dumplings.
Me being the choco magnet that I am, I ordered the mysterious brown blob on tinfoil simply called "Rock" (/rokku/). Having absolutely no idea what delight lay inside, I bit into it expecting some sort of rocky mountain-like crunch. But when my teeth eased through the chocolate into rum-drenched sponge cake, I was first elated and then stunned by the alcoholic shock that came after, so strong it made my nostrils flare out in a buzz. But just that one bite and I was hooked! Now my husband gets to hear me beg for my "rock fix" every weekend. (But apparently, since I wrote this article, they've been having trouble keeping them in stock).
When the Rokku is sold out, my second favorite culinary sin is Kikujudo's "Marron Paquet." Creamy, pillow-like whipped cream and fluffy chocolate cake smeared with a nose-tingling paste of rum mixed with marron (chestnut) paste. The effect is out of this world.
MATSUYA NIJUYAKI (松屋二重焼）
My husband found his sweet tooth in Takehara at the same time I did. Across the highway, just over the small boat harbor bridge, is a tiny, inconspicuous little shop that sells what could very possibly be the best sweet bean pancake in all Japan.
The bright-eyed elderly lady heading the operation said she's been making the same "nijuyaki" sweets for well over 6o years. Known in Kanto as "Imagawayaki" and in Kansai as "kaitenyaki," "nijuyaki" (meaning "double-layered pancake") is a traditional street snack consisting of delicately sweetened "anko" (adzuki bean paste) cooked between two layers of vanilla-scented pancake. What makes "nijuyaki" so special is that it contains twice the amount of anko and is cooked quite differently from others of its kind (but I can't tell you because it's a secret). The result is a small hamburger-size confection that is a meal in itself, oozing with rich, sweet bean bliss. You can easily tell the building from the flashing red police box light and hoards of people always standing outside with grumpy expressions and arms folded, patiently waiting. If you're unlucky like we've been, your wait can easily surpass 20 minutes, especially if the person ahead of you ordered 30 to stock up her freezer as is the local custom. But trust me. They're darn well worth it.
I heard from a Takehara local that years ago, the Matsuya Nijuyaki shop offered several flavors including vanilla cream custard and white bean anko paste. Now they only make the red bean nijuyaki. But like I said earlier, it's the best in Japan so they don't need to diversify their line any.
MICHI NO EKI TAKEHARA (道の駅たけはら）
At the main intersection of routes 185 and 75, marked by the eye-popping green bamboo sign, is a godsend of a building that provides more than just a free place to park and use the restroom. Michi no Eki Takehara is an all-purpose facility that includes a small gallery, an information center, a cafe featuring dishes made from regional delicacies and my favorite: a small farmer's market/gift shop. The name "Takehara" in Japanese means "bamboo field" and Michi no Eki Takehara celebrates the beauty of this tree-like grass with bamboo art strewn all around the complex. You can sit on one of the comfy round chairs in the lounge and munch on a bamboo shoot rice ball while contemplating the projected overhead map of the Seto Inland Sea. It's the perfect place to get out of the sun and chill after a stroll around the Special Historical District.
But I came here as a woman with the mission of hunting down Takehara's delicious eats. I found all sorts of unusual taste ideas here: from wild boar meat and conger eel sushi to canned Akitsu oysters from the next town over. The cake made from mikan oranges grown on the islands really caught my eye, as well as the vast array of local jams and jellies that rival Takehara's own "Ohata Jam," a giant in Japan's preserves industry.
Aohata Fig Jam
I gave in to my personal nutritional needs and ended up buying a lovely bunch of locally-grown spinach destined to turn into a spicy and soothing batch of north Indian-style aloo palak (potato spinach curry). To me, the best local foods are the ones you can use in your own home cooking.
At the cash register, we bought an endearing little smoke bomb-shaped confection called "budo yokan" made from Takehara Campbell grapes. The clerk gave us each a toothpick to go with it. My husband and I both wondered what they were for. He said "let's eat these in the car" and I was hesitant, expecting a juicy explosion to mess everything up. Since we had no scissors to open the thing properly, I poked a hole into the thin rubber casing with the toothpick and it quickly unrolled itself off, revealing a perfect round ball of bean-paste yokan that tasted more like grape soda than anything else. We were pleasantly surprised. But I felt kinda sad that I didn't try to bounce the thing off the concrete, first.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where I visit a cherry blossom festival and encounter more food for thought -Takehara Style!