A foodie’s guide to Japan

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Japanese food is renowned the world over for its subtle taste, exotic textures, and meticulous presentation. Part of the fun of visiting Japan is indulging in this delicious culinary concoction. In fact, it might be the ultimate destination for a foodie traveller. But while dishes such as sushi and tempura have made an international impact, there are hundreds of other local Japanese recipes ready for visitors to sink their teeth into.

Breakfast

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Breakfast is an entirely different situation in Japan. The most common Japanese breakfast is a combination of miso soup, grilled fish, pickles, and rice. Saying that Western-style buffets are also available in most tourist hotels.

Sushi and Seafood

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It’s a myth that sushi and seafood are synonymous. What makes sushi, well, sushi is the way the rice is prepared with vinegar. It can then be served with meat, fish or vegetables.

The most common varieties of sushi are described below:

  • Maki – the seaweed is on the outside of the rice and other ingredients
  • Temaki – seaweed is wrapped loosely around all other ingredients in a cone shape
  • Uramaki – sometimes called ‘inside-out’ sushi, you’ll find the rice on the outside of the seaweed (and other ingredients in the middle)
  • Sashimi – slices of raw fish and seafood on their own
  • Nigiri – hand pressed rice topped with an ingredient, this is the oldest type of sushi and was created in Tokyo

Rice Dishes

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Rice is considered an essential part of Japanese cooking, and many main meals come with a side-serving of rice. Rice-based snacks are also very popular. Such as Onigiri, which is a palm-sized triangle of rice filled with soy, tuna, salmon roe, or sour umeboshi (pickled plum), all wrapped up in a sheet of crisp seaweed (also called nori).

Noodle Dishes

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Noodle dishes are also very popular in Japan, and three main types of noodles you’ll come across are: soba, udon and ramen. Soba are thin noodles made of brown buckwheat flour and can be served hot or cold. Typically hot soba noodles are served with tofu, vegetables and chicken – combined with a hot broth. Cold soba noodles are laid on a bamboo screen bed, with a cold sauce for dipping.

Udon noodles are much chunkier and made with plain wheat flour. Yakisoba and yakiudon are the most common dishes udon noodles are found in, where the noodles are fried (often in a thick soy sauce) along with seaweed flakes, meat and vegetables.

Ramen noodles, made from yellow wheat-flour, are usually served in big bowls in a steaming oily soup and typically comes in three varieties: miso (flavoured with fermented bean paste), shio (a salty soup) or shōyu (a broth made with soy sauce).

Vegetarian and vegan

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While Japan might have been the country that brought the world tofu, plant-based diets are not that common in Japan. While it is easy to avoid dishes with meat or fish in them, it’s hard to find something where the broth doesn’t contain a by-product.  

Like most international cities, however, Tokyo has a splattering of vegetarian restaurants and more restaurants are creating 100% vegetarian dishes. You just need to plan ahead. Kyoto, however, is the most vegetarian-friendly place in Japan. It’s an ancient city that has deep Buddhist routes – where Zen Buddhist temple cuisine, which is entirely vegan, is still served today.

Desserts

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Japan has a sweet tooth and dessert is a big part of its culture. However, Japan was making desserts before sugar was readily available in the country and, as a result, fashioned unique desserts that were based on rice and sweet beans.

One of the most popular desserts in Japan is mochi – which can be a dessert in its own right or mixed with something else. Daifuku is mochi with a sweet filling, ranging from black sesame to strawberry. Mochi can also be turned into an ice-cream. Another popular option is Dango: chewy Japanese rice dumplings served on a stick that can be toasted over a campfire. Small crepe shops are also a common sight in Japan, with their crepes usually served as a cone containing elaborate fillings.

Drinks

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Japan’s most famous alcoholic beverage is undoubtedly sake (also known as nihonshu). If you’re not familiar with it, officially it is a rice wine but tastes more like beer. Two varieties exist – sweet (amakuchi) and dry (karakuchi) – and while there’s technically three grades of sake, these grades are mainly used for tax purposes and don’t indicate the quality of the beverage.

Sake is traditionally served in small square bowls and drank with a meal. You might be asked if you want your sake heated up but most sakes taste best cool. As a final note, sake is 15% alcohol and one small box is more than enough to get someone tipsy.

You’ll also spot the beverage shōchū, which is a cheaper version of sake. It’s potent, ranging between 25 to 50 per cent alcohol. Premium brands can be served straight like traditional sake, while budget-friendly bottles are served with cocktails.

While sake might be Japan’s official drink – beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage. Ironically the first ever brewery was set up to please American expats, and Japanese locals had to be bribed into drinking it. These days, Japan boasts four big-name breweries: Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory – each of which churns out several varieties of lager and ale-type beers. Local craft beers are also becoming more popular.

If you’re not drinking alcohol, tea is very common. Green teas in Japan are graded. Bancha, the lowest grade, is for everyday drinking. While Sencha is medium-grade and served in upmarket restaurants. While gyokuro, the highest grade, is served during special occasions.

Ordering and etiquette

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Restaurant and dining etiquette is different in Japan. When you are initially seated, you’ll be handed an oshibori (a damp, folded hand towel, usually steaming hot though sometimes cool in the summer) and a jug of water will usually be automatically brought to the table.

Most Japanese restaurants will give you chopsticks by default, but in touri
st places, forks and knives are usually available (though you might have to ask for them). Chopsticks, however, come with their own rules of etiquette. You should use different ends for your own plate and taking food from communal dishes, and shouldn’t use them to point at things. Also remember to not stick your chopsticks upright in rice, as this is an illusion to death.

As for tipping, it is not usually expected and service charges are automatically added to bills.

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The Taj Mahal in India at sunset

Where will be popular in 2018? Our predictions

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There’s something about a new year that brings about the plan-making in us. Maybe it’s purchasing a new diary with fresh pages, or maybe now that the festive season is over our minds turn to what’s ahead.

If you use January as an excuse to map out your year, you’ve probably already thought about what countries you would like to visit. You’re not the only one as January is one of the most popular times of year to book, with airlines and hotels offering an array of early bird discounts. If you’re short on inspiration, however, here are our predictions on what destinations will be must-visits over the next 12 months. 

1. Japan

Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto during sunset

Japan is an island full of wonders. Whether you’re looking for sky-high cities, fascinating culture, or stunning natural landscapes, you’ll find it in this two-island destination. The country also boasts an impressive bullet train service, making it an excellent choice for a touring holiday if you can’t choose between the popular cities of Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto.

2. Vietnam

Tourists on a guided river boat tour in Vietnam

Vietnam is the perfect mix between old-school oriental charm and modern-day buzz. Its capital, Hanoi, is a mixing bowl of French and Asian culture and boasts a European feel with a lively old quarter. Down in the south though you’ll find tranquil beaches in the resorts of Hue, Nha Trang and Hoi An (but if you begin to crave the city, the bustling Ho Chi Minh City can also be found in the south).

3. Argentina

The Iguazu Falls from above.

South America is a once-in-a-lifetime destination, and Argentina is currently its hotbed. Get lost in the infectious spirit of Buenos Aires where you can tango until seven in the morning. Then take a trip to the breath-taking Iguaza Falls on the Argentinian and Brazilian border. And remember to pop by the Andes.

4. Italy

Colourful buildings along the coast in Genoa Italy

Thanks to its generous offering of tourist hotspots, Italy makes this list every year. Whether it’s the canals of Venice, iconic buildings of Rome, the shopping in Milan, the scenic views of Lake Garda, or the rich architectural heritage of Genoa – Italy offers something for every traveller.

5. China

Gold pavilion in Chinese garden

China is a fascinating country, whether you’re looking for city lights or iconic world wonders. Celebrate modern China in the city of Shanghai, with its high rise buildings, the charming People’s Square and first-class Grand Theatre. Then explore the oriental temples of Beijing, before moving onto the ancient sites of Xi’an – including the Terracotta Warriors.

6. Croatia

Old Istrian town in Rovinj Croatia during the day with lots of boats in the harbour.

Croatia has seen a surge in popularity over the past few years, largely thanks to Game of Thrones. But this beautiful country is more than just the real-life location of the Red Keep and the House of the Undying. It is home to eight national parks, that are overflowing in fauna and flora, and the striking Postojna Caves.

7. Cuba

Buildings in Havana Cuba with a blue car outside them.

In 2017, the Cuban travel industry opened up and we’re predicting a rise in holidaymakers (especially from cruisers). A little bit different from the other islands in the Caribbean, Cuba boasts a unique, Latin-shaped history with an energetic atmosphere, as well as sunny beaches.

8. Thailand

A traditional boat in a secluded part of Thailand while the sun sets.

Thailand is always popular, and for good reason. Whether it’s the exotic aroma of lively Bangkok or the relaxed beaches of Koh Samui, Thailand offers something for beach-bums and city-lovers.

9. South Africa

Cape Town South Africa from above with the football stadium in full view.

If you’ve never been to Africa before, South Africa is the perfect place to start off. The city of Cape Town has plenty to offer such as Table Mountain, Robben Island and a modern waterfront with shops and restaurants. After you’ve explored the city, get back into nature with a safari in Kruger National Park or a shark diving expedition in Gansbaai.

10. India

The taj mahal in India from the front.

There are many sides to the country of India, but all of them are equally amazing. Feel the buzz in the bustling city of New Delhi, admire the Taj Mahal in Agra, or relax on the beaches of Goa. Whatever India you choose in 2018, we guarantee you’ll love it.

Where are you escaping to in 2018?

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Magical adventures via Japan Rails

If there’s a country you should travel from north to south, then do it with Japan railways. From its Siberian north to its bustling cities in the south (and not forgetting the 6,800 islands) it is a stunning destination. Luckily, travelling through the country is simple with their high-speed rail tours. If your inner travel bug has begun persuading you to choose […]

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