February 23, 2011

FAST TRAINS AND THE FOODS THAT LOVE THEM

I would like to introduce Georgia Freedman, a long-time friend who resides in New York and has kindly contributed the following article.  A former editor for Saveur magazine, Georgia is often traveling to distant, unfamiliar lands like Japan, Cambodia, and her native California. 

As a New Yorker, I can be pretty smug about train travel. With subways crisscrossing the city, three different sets of commuter lines, and Amtrak trains departing at all hours, I always thought that no other city in the world was more accessible by rail. But then last fall I went to Japan for the first time, and I was completely floored. The entire country is so covered by trains that I was able to visit eight cities in ten days, with just one domestic flight on the entire trip (and if I’d added just one more day to my trip, I could have done that leg on the train too).

    But the best part of train travel in Japan is the food. Japanese travelers take their food very seriously, and in every train station the snacks and meals for sale outshone anything I’ve ever seen in a train station or airport in the US, other parts of Asia, and even Europe.

    The easiest thing to pick up in a train station is onigiri, the triangular rice balls stuffed with various kinds of fish or pickles and wrapped in nori. At the train station in Himeji, I found a specialty shop selling these beautiful specimens, but at almost any station in the country (including many subway stations in cities), you can find more humble versions wrapped in cellophane that not only covers the entire snack but also buffers the nori from the rice to keep it crisp (the wrapping is ingeniously designed to come apart in two pieces, removing both the inner and outer layers while leaving the onigiri intact). If you don’t read Japanese, it’s impossible to tell what the filling of these will be, but they’re all wonderful. The same little shops that sell these also have bottles of tea and iced coffee in their fridges, so you can grab a meal while you’re waiting on the platform.

Onigiri topped with crispy fish and salmon with salmon roe in the Himeji train station
Tsuya, pancakes filled with red bean paste and other fillings, in Tokyo Station
  Many stations are also good places to pick up local delicacies. In Kyoto, the train station has very popular shops devoted to wagashi, the traditional sweets that can be made from anything from red bean paste-stuffed buns to delicate jellies filled with fresh fruit. These too are usually labeled only in Japanese, but most shops have examples of their wares (either real or made from plastic) in the front of each case so that you can see what you’re getting.
 
    The very best of all the stations to eat in, however, is Tokyo Station. With something like six stories (most of them underground) and dozens of restaurants and shops, the station is a destination in and of itself for Tokyo residents. One evening on my trip I had a couple hours in Tokyo between trains, and I took the opportunity to explore some of them. I started on the ground level where numerous pastry shops sell everything from wagashi, like those in Kyoto, to strange, modern treats. There were dozens of kinds of jellies made from fruit like persimmon; at least six places selling some kind of donut; lots of sweets made with puff pastry or sponge cake in a French style that has now been popular in Japan for quite a while; and dozens of puddings or parfaits. The most popular sweet, however, seemed to be the ring-like layered German cake baumkuchen. Made by pouring batter over a spit-like cone rotating over a flame, these seemed to be all the rage—there were four or five counters dedicated to them, each with a sizable line. 

Crisp cookies in seasonal shapes and flavors in Tokyo Station
Donuts in traditional western and Japanese flavors, including, possibly, green tea, yuzu, and cherry blossom, in Tokyo Station
Cream-filled cookies in green tea, red bean, and sesame flavors in Tokyo Station. The image on them most likely refers to the "moon rabbit"—where we see "the man in the moon" the Chinese and Japanese say that you can see the shape of a rabbit on the surface of the moon
Baumkuchen, a German cake made by dripping batter onto a rotating spit, in Tokyo Station
    On the level below the pastry shops the eating opportunities continued. There were sit-down restaurants (some of which have long lines at dinner time), a huge food court, cozy whiskey bars and stand-up sushi bars, and shops selling everything from dried and pickled seafood to Japan’s notoriously expensive (and perfectly packaged) fruit. I stepped into one little restaurant and ordered something from a picture menu that looked like green tea ice cream topped with a slab of red bean paste, glutinous rice mochi, and tangerine slices. When it came, however, I discovered that all of these items, including the ice cream, were actually toppings for a bowl full of small blocks of firm, flavorless, clear gelatin of some kind. The combination was unexpected but also delicious and fun to eat. I sat and savored each cold, sweet bite and watched dyed blond teenagers, suited businessmen, and kimono-clad grandmothers all walk past headed for dinner somewhere in the maze of the station.

Having an after work drink in the basement of Tokyo Station
Clear cubes of agar-agar jelly topped with green tea ice cream, red bean paste, glutinous rice cakes, and tinned mandarin slices
Ladies in traditional dress shopping for wagashi in the basement of Tokyo Station


Words and Images by Georgia Freedman

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