Living in Taipei, I have a lot of friends and co-workers who always rave about Japan. For myself, I never made Japan a goal destination. However, I recently had the chance to visit Toba in Japan – and a surrounding island called Toshijima. (Toba is approximately 3 hours away from Osaka’s Kansai International Airport and Toshijima is a 20 minute medium sized ferry ride away from Toba.) As a first time visitor to the country, I was blown away by the degree of hospitality – though it shouldn’t be a lightbulb moment.
What did surprise me though, when I chose to explore, was the number of vending machines. Regardless of city or rural, there were vending machines everywhere. As a Taipeier, that rings true for convenience stores.
My question was “Who refills these machines and do they have a computer system that indicates when the supplies are low?”
Other than generous hospitality – the constant smiling and bowing, the food was also a great foray into the geography of Toba.
Toba faces Ise Bay, flowing into the Pacific Ocean. As we were looking at the sunset one day, one of our translators said “If you look far enough, you can see Hawaii!”
Let’s talk food. On my first night, I attended a welcome dinner party where the menu featured local ingredients.
Drinks were the first call of order. For the indecisive, there was a glass of everything and anything. Red wine, white wine, sparkling wine, a beautiful cocktail with gold specks and a pearl nestled inside the portion of cotton candy made to melt into the beverage and even sake “Mokkiri” style.
Sake “Mokkiri” style is when the sake glass is placed into a square wooden container, pouring to overflow the glass on purpose. One can choose to drink from the glass or directly from the aromatic wood box. I tried it both ways and preferred drinking my sake from the box – it added another level of flavour.
The assorted sashimi dish highlighted the fresh seafood ingredients Toba’s natural environment abundantly provides. (Kudos on the region’s efforts in sustainable catching.) In the dish, there was Japanese spiny lobster, abalone, Ise tuna, sea bream and Spanish mackerel. With this course, we also had fresh wasabi. The active eating aspect, where we had to grate our own wasabi from the root, was thrilling. It was an accomplishment. We were given a small rigged mortar that would grate the root into paste as you vigorously swirled the root in a circular motion. The taste was mild and light, unlike the radioactive green pungent paste I’ve often seen at North American sushi joints. (The better places I’ve been to offer a pistachio shade of spicy wasabi paste.)
The most memorable dish for me was the Japanese beef teppanyaki. I will boldly proclaim that it was the best beef I’ve had in my life. The beef is highly marbled so it’s a very rich bite of protein. According to our translator, the Matsusaka beef, named after the city that farms the cattle, is raised where each cow is given a name. (Our cow was named Neneko…sorry, buddy, you were delicious.) The cows are given beer to drink and pampered with shochu sake massages. At around $50 USD for 100 grams of beef, even people who live in the area can’t afford it – and can only splurge during special occasions.