What was your defining memory of your first day in Japan?
Perhaps it was the cleanliness and efficiency of the airport. Maybe it was the friendliness and courteousness of the staff at your hotel.
For me, my most vivid memory of that first morning, more than 11 years ago now, was of the breakfast.
The delicious taste, the beautiful presentation, alongside the perfect calorific balance, just set me up perfectly for what was to be a long day of trekking around various Tokyo tourist hotspots and enjoying a long, grueling, sweat laden, but hugely enjoyable Kendo practice at the world famous Noma Dojo.
Breakfast at a Ryokan
Photo: Yuli Chua on Flickr
More than a decade later and sadly Noma Dojo is no longer with us, being demolished a number of years ago to make way for a book publisher’s warehouse.
The funny thing is, even today the aroma of a freshly cooked Japanese breakfast activates the memories of that day in my subconscious. The sound of the creaking floorboards of the dojo, the tremendously powerful “kiai!” of my fellow Kendoka, and the perfect image of the gentle summer rain smattering against the sliding doors of our place of practice. It was an almost spiritual experience and one that I now, in my own typical style, have come to associate with food!
So, what was in that magical first breakfast I had in Japan all those years ago?
Nothing out of the ordinary as it turns out.
It started with a bowl of miso soup. Miso soup is undoubtedly one of those “Marmite” or “Vegemite” type foods. You either love it or you hate it, but you can’t deny it has a unique taste.
As is often the case with soups it is as much about what is in the soup as it is how its flavoured, that defines how good it tastes.
Photo: Mokiko on Flickr
This particular miso soup was an absolute treat. Along with the usual suspects of wakame (seaweed) and cooked tofu (this was actually the first time I ever ate tofu), were the likes of carrots, fish and beansprouts. Much like my mother’s good old homemade lentil soup, this was the perfect way to get my daily fortification of vegetables and minerals.
And it didn’t stop there.
Ever since I was a small child, I never really cared for eggs. Perhaps it was the smell, or the somewhat slimy texture, but I just never really liked them and would often go out of my way to avoid eating them.
That changed when I moved to Japan however.
One of the highlights of that first breakfast was something you probably would never typically associate with Japanese cuisine. An omlette!
This small triangular shaped wrapping of a small meat parcel in fried egg with a small dollop of tomato ketchup on top was a delicious little treat. Indeed to this day one of my favourite convenience store snacks here in Japan is the famous “dashimaki”. Dashimaki is basically this same fine omlette-style egg, wrapped up into a swiss-roll shape and served ice cold. It is absolutely delicious and at only 150 yen or so for 4 pieces, it provides a very cost-efficient protein boost to start your day the right way.
Photo: ayustety on Flickr
Of course everyone across the world who is even remotely health-conscious acknowledges the need for everyone to make sure they get their “5 a day”. Once again my breakfast that day didn’t disappoint with a delicious side serving of steamed green vegetables. Spinach, again an excellent source of iron and antioxidants was blended with sweet corn and some small shavings of cooked ham to given a little extra protein and some more flavour to the dish.
Spinach with sesame seeds
Photo: Machiko Sakai on Flickr
Now, as someone who was born in Scotland, and coming from a family of chefs, it’s fair to say that, growing up, I was no stranger to seafood. Indeed, truth be told, if I had the time and the money, to this day I would gladly eat fresh seafood for breakfast lunch and dinner every day.
So, naturally, I was delighted to find, as the centerpiece of my breakfast that day was none other than a beautiful and generously large slice of lightly grilled salmon.
I didn’t realize until coming to Japan just how popular salmon actually is here, and in all honesty, the quality is pretty close to what I would expect back in Scotland.
Indeed, in recent times Scotland, Norway and Northern Japan have emerged as three of the world’s best fishing regions for fresh salmon.
Steamed rice with salmon and asparagus
Photo: Jeremy Hall on Flickr
The salmon that day was, as I have in the time since become accustomed to, lightly grilled, retaining its light pink colour and the sliver of scales on the outer layer retained a nice silvery glow. It was perhaps a little firmer to the bite than a typical western eater may be accustomed to, and perhaps it is due to the salty oceans off the coast of Hokkaido where the salmon came from, but it was noticeably a little saltier than most salmon I had had before. And yet, it was undeniable delicious.
Rounding off the meal was small bowl of that ever present Japanese staple food, a bowl of white rice.
So, characteristically, the Japanese breakfast differs quite a bit from what an American or European may be used to back home. Cereals generally aren’t an option on most traditional menus here.
Likewise things such as yoghurt and fruits aren’t usually breakfast staples here. Although the banana diet was a fad here for a while back in the mid 2000s.
Fuit salad, breakfast
Photo: florathexplora on Flickr
In the years since that first Japanese breakfast back in the summer of 2005, I have enjoyed a great many more, and similarly delicious breakfasts here. Indeed, these days whenever I am staying in a hotel, or taking an early flight, I always opt for the Japanese breakfast at the expense of the western option.
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but nothing gets me going in the morning like a good, traditional Japanese breakfast!