Japan is an amazing place with cultural sights, food experiences, and hundreds of things you can not do in other parts of the world. And there is a hidden secret: most of them are easy to experience with children - toddlers as well as infants.
Japan is an amazing country for eating out, too. Many of the foods are seasonal, as Japan has five pronounced seasons. Yes, you read that right. Between spring and summer, Japan has the rainy season, which is very similar to the monsoon in southeast Asia. Which means it rains every day, and often throughout the day. And frequently so heavily houses, bridges and roads are washed away by the floods.
But the main changes in the menu come when spring comes. In old times, this was when fresh vegetables and herbs were big enough to harvest. Today, many of the seasonal vegetables can be grown in vinyl hothouses. The seasons become much longer - strawberries are available in Japan from December to May. But good though they are, chances are that your kids have already had them.
So let me tell you what my kids ask to have again, even though they eat Japanese food almost every day. Or perhaps because of it.
Summer is coming to Japan (soon) and in summer, one of the coolest things you can eat is kaki-gori (カキ氷) This unfortunately more and more often turns out to be crushed ice, but the ice should actually be shaved, preferrably with a razor-sharp cutter blade - an old samurai sword, if you have one. The softness of ice shaved that way is like snow melting on your tounge.
Japanese shaved ice is different from Taiwanese shaved ice, where the ice itself is flavored. Japanese shaved ice is not flavored in itself, the flavor comes from the syrup you add on top. When the ice melts, it becomes like a soft drink, which is why it is often sold with a straw that has a spoon at the end. You eat the ice with the spoon from the top, and drink it from the straw at the bottom.
Unlike Hawaiian shaved ice that often comes in rainbow flavor, the Japanese shaved ice comes in one flavor. Be careful not to add too much flavor, it will become oversweet and unedible.
2. Kyouhou grapes
Japanese grapes taste much better than the imported varieties, and the Kyohou (巨峰) grapes are big, sweet, and literally bursting with flavor. You will be able to find them in most grocery stores and fruit stores during the season. They may be pricey but they are worth it.
If you are visiting Japan in late August to early October, go picking grapes in Yamanashi. This region, on the other side of mt Fuji from Tokyo, is known for its grapes. And wines. And other fruits. It is one of the few aress which is not too wet for growing grapes (although there are vineyards in many other places in Japan).
3. Azari Udon
The chewy white wheat noodles are usually sold in a soup stock made from dried bonito flakes and soy sauce (and lots of secret ingredients). But in early spring, when mussel fishermen start going out on the mudflats of Tokyo Bay and collect the Japanese shellfish, udon with mussels come on the menu. Today, most of the mussels are cultivated, but spring is when the are in season, and only for a few weeks.
4. Konbu and Okaka onigiri
Onigiri (あにぎり) are the triangular rice balls wrapped in a crisp green sheet. They come in a lot of different flavors, many of which are great for kids. But others are not so good. You want to avoid giving your kids raw tuna or raw egg, and you do not want to give them anything spicy (like mentaiko, the spicy fish roe; or pickled wasabi, the fiery mustardy root which spices up most sushi).
With so many choices and possibillities, you want to avoid those which will not work. And there is one option which will work with most kids: Konbu (or こんぶ in Japanese).
Konbu is a kind of seaweed (known outside Japan as kelp), but boiled and pickled in soy sauce. So it adds umami to the rice, as well as a bit of saltiness. It is both healthy and tasty, and a great snack for when your kids are extra hungry and want somerhing quick.
Like the konbu onigiri, this is a triangular ball of rice wrapped in a sheet of nori. Just like the konbu onigiri, the taste is heavy on the umami, thanks to the soy sauce marinade and the thing it marinates: fish flakes (the combination is called okaka, おかか).
Those tiny flakes of dried bonito (katsuoh, かつお) are the flavoring that makes kids go crazy for okaka onigiri (or hate it). It is like a caramel, but instead of the sweetness there is umami. Small children have a sense of taste which makes them appreciate concentrated tastes much more than grownups.
Sakuramochi (桜餅) is a piece of mochi, the rice cake created by pounding glutinous rice with a wooden hammer. You may have come across mochi at home, typically square and dried.
Fresh mochi is different. And this mochi is pink, usually because it is flavored with cherries. It will be wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf (you can eat it or you may want to skip it). It is wrapped around a wad of bean jam (which sounds weird but is no stranger than marzipan if you think about it). Just be careful if you give it to your children - small children can choke on mochi, so cut it up before you give it to them.
But for toddlers, who know how to bite and chew, it is not dangerous. Except if they overeat. But sometimrs sakuramochi is so cute it is hard to eat. It normally comes with a salted cherry flower on top. The salty-sourish-sweet dessert is hard to let go of.
6. Ichigo Daifuku
Japanese strawberries are not just eaten in shortcakes or with cream. They are also served inside a bun made from mochi, the pounded rice cake, with an, the bean jam. Before you start thinking too deeply about this combination, try one. The different flavors complement each other fabulously. Just be careful with small children and mochi. They can choke on the mochi if they bite off too big chunks and do not chew properly.
7. Inari Zushi
Sushi is not just pieces of raw fish on cushions of rice. There are many types of sushi which are made with vegetables. You may already have come across kappa-maki, the rolls of rice around a cucumber staff wrapped in nori, the crispy seaweed.
But this is not the only type of vegetable sushi you will come across. There is a kind of brown packets of rice wrapped in a brown sheet which tastes a little sweet and chewy. It is actually marinated fried tofu. Those are called inari-zushi (because inari, the fox goddes of prosperity, loves fried tofu; the z is because there is a wovel ahead of it). Our kids love them.
8. Soy-Dipped Rice Crackers
Japanese rice crackers, senbei, are made from rice flour and grilled rather than oven baked. And then flavored, often by dipping them in soy sauce. The soy sauce sticks to the cracker and gets into the cracks, drying out in the flame and flavoring the cracker.
Fried chicken was not invented in Kentucky. It was most likely not invented in Japan either, but the Japanese have perfected it. The karaage, fried chicken, is rolled in flour and spiced and fried. Sounds simple, but is extra tasty - crispy and crackly on the outside, juicy on the inside. There is a type of chicken bred to be tasty, the Nagoya Cochin chicken, and if you find a place that sells it, line up. It is so good you will not just lick your fingers but your whole hands.
10. Shiitake Mushrooms
The Japanese kitchen is famous for its varieties of fish and shellfish, but the vegetables in Japan are equally varied and fresh. And among the vegetables, the different kinds of mushrooms are the least known outside Japan. Every supermarket has a variety of mushrooms which do not taste like champignons at all. They have various uses in Japanese cooking, often in the ubiquitous miso soup. They used to only be available only in certain seasons, but the mushrooms you find in the supermarket nowadays are cultivated under laboratory conditions.
Except for the shiitake, which only grows on logs of a type of Japanese oak. They are cultivated in all seasons and often indoors for ease of harvest, and the logs are infected with the mycelium (the actual mushroom - the part that people eat is the spore carrier, more like a fruit compared to a tree). The best ones come from logs left out in a forest, but for everyday consumption the hothouse grown ones are good enough. Just to clarify, these are not the dried mushrooms you can sometimes find in import stores (they are usually made in China). These are fresh mushrooms, and just slicing them up with a few green vegetables and frying them lightly in butter is likely to make your kids ask for more. Of the vegetables as well.
Was this interesting? This post is part of the ongoing chronicles of the Watertree family in Japan. You can find links to other posts on the country web page (coming soon!)
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.