Food Travels Episode 1: Japan
Updated: Oct 31, 2018
We arrived in Japan with excitement at the prospect of three weeks of traditional Japanese food, and with curiosity as to the secret of their longevity - the Japanese have some of the longest life expectancy in the world (second only to Monaco - and does that really count as a country?! ) .
They also have the highest number of females aged between 95 and 99 anywhere in the world, so clearly the people are doing something right in terms of their health.
Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis caters for every possible cuisine, and Kyoto has more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere in the world, so food, and it's quality, is high on the list of priorities in this nation of 127 million people.
This is reflected in the Japanese dietary guidelines, which, brilliantly, includes 'Enjoy your Food' as one of the key aspects of a healthy lifestyle, as outlined in their 'Spinning Top' guide below.
Everyone says that Japan is an expensive country, but in terms of food that doesn’t always need to be the case. Everywhere you go, there are plenty of tourist traps offering poor value food, as well as plenty of wallet-bursting high end restaurants, but you can eat healthily and cheaply if you know where to look.
For the first week, we were lucky enough to stay in AirBnBs with kitchen facilities, so we were able to take control of our diets and utilise local supermarkets to cook my ‘Japanese eggs’, which was an egg scramble with a vegetable (broccoli and cabbage were the ones that were available where we were) and soy sauce. This made sure we were set up with a good protein hit for breakfast, as well as a serving or two of veg. ['Do eggs raise cholesterol?']
We found the 7 Elevens and FamilyMarts (which appear on most corners) to be an invaluable source of convenient food for day trips. The pre-packed chicken and egg salads were a great option, and ongiri, little packets of meat or fish wrapped in rice and seaweed, cost around 100 Yen (less than £1), and are a good base for a day trip lunch - a great source of carbs, omega 3s (Seaweed and salmon) and a little protein (rice to salmon ratios varied, we found the 7/11 ones to be highest in salmon). We added an extra protein source, which was usually pre packaged octopus (sounds weird, but actually delicious), smoked chicken breast (a real favourite), edamame beans, Parma ham or boiled eggs. Beware of the stuff that looks like regular ham - we discovered a couple of days after buying that this was actually pork tongue , which although a good protein source, did not tickle our fancy in terms of taste or texture. To get the micronutrient count up, we also added some sort of greenery (pickled cucumber, green bean pots with peanut sauce, pre packed salads - octopus, broccoli and edamame with a pesto sauce was a favourite), and the biggest apples I’ve ever seen in my life.
Our AirBnb was close to Nezu and Ueno Park, a great little neighbourhood which felt like the real Tokyo, away from the neon hustle and bustle of Shinjuku or Shibuya, so for dinner, we avoided tourist areas and instead found local places serving cheap, fresh, local food. In Tokyo, this meant Ramen, Yakitori or Kamameshi.
Ramen was from Hakata Ramen Nagahamaya, near Ueno station, and proved that first impressions can be deceiving! From the outside, it was definitely not the first place you would choose to eat , but once the ramen was served (having placed our order on a box that looked like a condom dispenser), the ramen was fresh, meaty and flavourful. Their Tonkotsu broth takes a full day to make, and, grotesque as it sounds, Nagahamaya uses the whole pigs’ head to make their signature broth. As a result, the broth was rich in protein, with a full amino acid profile, as well as collagen and calcium, which have benefits for skin, bone and muscle health.
Collagen in the diet - fad or fact?
Collagen is a component part of musculoskeletal tissues, such as ligaments, tendons, cartilage and bone, and it has become very fashionable to include collagen in the diet, either through whole foods such as bone broths, or by supplementation.
This, as with many health trends, is only based on very early research.
The rise in popularity of bone broths, for example, may originate from one study, in which the addition of Vitamin C-enriched gelatin (such as that contained in bone broth) apparently further enhanced collagen synthesis in the body [Shaw, Baar et al, (2017)] It's important to note that since whole body collagen synthesis was measured, there are doubts as to the causation effects of the gelatin.
It’s also important to note that increasing collagen in the diet hasn’t been proven to increase collagen synthesis in the body. It’s likely that simply eating enough protein from sources with a full amino acid profile will provide sufficient building blocks for collagen.
Research that suggests collagen supplements aid injury recovery are unfortunately unreliable, since they are paid for by the supplement companies themselves.
That’s not to say that there is definitely no benefit to adding collagen to the diet, but rather that the recent hype is premature at best.
If you did want to experiment, utilising the whole animal is a much more sustainable and nutritionally well-rounded means of getting these nutrients into the diet, and avoids wasting money on supplements. Use of the whole animal is under-utilised in the West, perhaps because we have the luxury of being able to select certain cuts and discard the rest, but there are economic (and possibly health) benefits in a more primal approach, using less traditional cuts, as well as other parts of the animal.
The challenge for most people is finding a pallatable way of including these in the diet (I'd guess that most people won't immediately be going down to their local butchers asking for whole pigs heads!).
Bone broths are a great way to start, really economical and a great way of avoiding food waste.
Easy tip: after your Sunday roast, boil down the leftover chicken carcass with some root veg (carrots, onion, etc), some herbs (sage, thyme and rosemary) and the juice of a lemon, for at least 6 hours (and up to 24!) for a delicious bone broth/stock that you can drink hot, refrigerate or freeze and use for meals during the week.
In Nezu, we ate at a fantastic local place called Matsuyoshi, specialising in Yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) and Kamameshi (rice cooked in a traditional kettle with chicken, prawn, shiitake mushroom and green beans). Not only were both delicious, but were also amazingly fresh, and ticked nutritional boxes in terms of protein and veg. The yakitori were freshly grilled by the happiest chef in town, and the kamameshi came in a traditional kettle with a lid, ensuring you could keep your meal hot as you dished servings into a small bowl. The set menu for 900 Yen (around £6) also included miso soup and salad, so was great value too.
From Tokyo, we moved to Nagoya (mainly because of the proximity to Nakatsugawa, where we could hike the Nakasendo way, an ancient road that Samurais would use to walk between Kyoto and Edo - the old name for Tokyo). Nagoya was not only the best-dressed city we visited in Japan, but was also the home of the most incredible Udon noodle restaurant, Yamamotoya Ookute. We loved it so much that we ate there on both nights that we stayed in Nagoya. Nagoya as a region is famous for miso broth, and our meal of choice, chicken and egg miso udon, was out of this world. To top it off, we were treated like royalty by the family of owners, chefs and waiters, who have run the restaurant since 1925. My offer of a tip was met with the insistence that we meet the rest of the family, get a photo outside the restaurant and take away a bottle of their prized miso paste.
Miso is made by fermenting soya beans, a process which, as the owner proudly informed us, takes 3 years. Because of this fermentation process, miso, like other fermented foods, has probiotic qualities, and therefore has benefits for gut health. Science is emerging all the time about the importance of gut health, and the importance therefore of incorporating fermented foods, as well as a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, into the diet, so the miso was a welcome addition to our Japanese diet. [Article on gut health/fermented foods to follow]
Our next stop was Osaka, where we again utilised local supermarkets for ‘fast food’ breakfast and lunch options. Dinner was more ramen, which given that we were racking up 25,000 steps a day exploring, was a welcome calorie and carb hit!
From Osaka, we took a day trip to Miyajima, a beautiful little island where deer roam freely amongst people, and home to the famous Tijoji gate, an imposing shrine entrance standing in the sea between Miyajima and Hiroshima. We topped off our supermarket lunch with an ice cream - purple sweet potato ice cream. The taste was surprisingly good, the addition of the sweet potato adding a cake-like texture, as well as a good hit of vitamin A and other micronutrients. The Japanese have some of the longest life expectancies in the world, and those in Okinawa (a southern island), who have diet rich in purple sweet potatoes, live longest of all, making it a 'Blue Zone' of longevity and health. The abundant availability of non-processed carbohydrates such as sweet potato, and the variety of nutrients found in different coloured vegetables, seems to be a huge factor in the longevity of Okinawans.
One criticism of the Japanese diet in general is that it is quite white rice-dominant. Indeed, the Japanese dietary guidelines (at the top of this article) put grains such as rice right at the top of the priority list, recommending 5-7 servings a day. There is a place in the diet for white rice of course, but adding more non-processed carbohydrates, such as purple sweet potato (not necessarily in ice cream!) maintains micronutrient diversity and fibre intake.
Our next stop was a single night just outside Nara, at Toyouke No Mori, a farm retreat run by three women who live and work on the premises. They pride themselves on eating their own organic produce, and also produce their own miso. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to utilise some of this home-grown produce, so I used their basic kitchen to cook a chicken and veg miso broth.
It must be noted that, at present, there is limited science of significant health benefits of organic vs non organic food. However, the definition of ‘organic’ is that no artificial chemicals are used in the production of food, and that the highest standards of food production are used. While some may have other priorities, if you already have a healthy diet, consisting predominantly of whole foods, and if the price is not prohibitive, you may want to choose organic due to the higher 'quality' of food on offer. From an environmental and sustainability point of view, there is also a benefit of organic produce, which the ladies on the farm took full advantage of.
Our next stop was the Biwako hotel, a beautiful hotel next to Lake Biwa, and conveniently located 20 minutes outside Kyoto. We stocked up on breakfast and lunch from the local 7/11, with pre-cooked chicken, salad, yoghurt, and bananas the staples.
For dinner, we avoided the temptation of eating at the over-priced hotel restaurants and sought out local ramen shops, which offered a delicious and cheap alternative. I made sure to order extra protein in the form of pork belly in order to try and hit a good level of protein each day. [Protein article to follow].
[Nutrition strategies when travelling article to follow]
Next up, we travelled north to Kanazawa, considerably colder than Kyoto, but a good base from which to explore the north west of Japan. We spent our first night having the best sushi of our trip at a small local place called Kourin Sushi.
It was around about this time that we had a couple of money related disasters, meaning that, to an even greater extent, we were seeking only the cheapest food. Luckily, our accommodation had a kitchen, meaning I could cook scrambled eggs with salad or broccoli for breakfast, and cook our own dinner, sourced from the local market, Omchi. The market itself was a fascinating experience. The region’s close proximity to the coast meant weird and wonderful fish and seafood everywhere you looked. Some of it even looked back at you.
After avoiding the full crabs and prawn crackers (quite literally a prawn squashed into a cracker shape), we settled a couple of fresh swordfish fillets, which, coupled with broccoli and yam made for a cheap, nutritious and delicious meal for two, ticking our protein, carbs and micronutrient requirements.
We also took advantage of the larger supermarket to buy minced pork, tinned tomatoes and carrots to make a simple and cheap pork ragu, as well as sourcing some of the cheapest ramen of the whole trip (550¥ per bowl - about £3.65). This, like every bowl of ramen, included pork belly as the main protein source, which we found to be delicious. Ordinarily, pork would not be high on the list of meats that I would choose (with the exception of bacon), but following my experience in Japan, I would definitely choose it more frequently in future. Not only is it a great source of protein, but is also a tasty alternative to other meats, and great in bolognese, chilli, and of course - ramen!
Our penultimate stop was Yamanouchi, a mountainous area in the centre of the country, and home to Japanese Macaques (snow monkeys) in their natural habitat. We were lucky enough to have breakfast included at our hotel, and this was served in a traditional Japanese style, meaning that there was a whole tray of items, some of which were somewhat unfamiliar! [pic] The items that we definitely recognised were a cooked salmon fillet, mini omelette, melon, ham, rice and miso soup. The rest of the tray was made up of smaller items, mostly vegetables and fruits, and a pot of green tea.
Finally, we returned to Tokyo, where the cherry blossom had disappeared, but which still offered plenty to explore, particularly in Ueno Park, which became my favourite workout spot.
From a nutritionist’s point of view, this was a fascinating insight into the typical Japanese diet, which more often than not includes plenty of vegetables and proteins. The coverage of each macronutrient, and the variety in vegetables that the Japanese are able to enjoy is likely the reason for their impressive longevity.
Overall, from a nutritional perspective, the Japanese get a lot right. The vast majority of meals have a good protein source and good vegetable options, and though it can be quite heavy on carbs, the Japanese tend to control their overall calorie intake, balanced with activity levels, [Energy balance is one of the Core Principles] in a way that means just 3.6% of Japanese people are classified as obese, compared with 32% of Americans and 25% of Brits.
In terms of food cost, imported foods are generally expensive, but as we discovered, you are able to eat reasonably cheaply and healthily in one of the more expensive countries in the world.