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Monday, May 25, 2015

Toyama black ramen, firefly squid and a Cheap Eats cover story for Good Food

Soft serve challenge across Japan 2015

I'm back. If you've been following me on Instagram, you'll know I've just returned from a three-week holiday in Japan. The buy-one-get-one-free Jetstar sale tickets were too hard to resist. What did we do? Ate non-stop. We licked our way through a couple of soft serves too.


Premium gyumeshi gyudon at Matsuya, Ikebukero, Japan
Premium gyumeshi 480 yen (AU$5.20)
with spicy sauce, green onions and egg with free miso soup

We landed at Narita airport about 13 hours after leaving Sydney, including a plane change at the Gold Coast. Tired and grumpy at 10pm, I knew we'd end up at Masuya for our first meal, just one chain of many gyudon (beef and onion on rice) restaurants in Japan that are open 24/7.

Premium gyumeshi beef at Matsuya, Ikebukero, Japan
Gyumeshi beef, a mix of imported Australian and American beef

Gyudon is all about simmered beef and onions on rice. The meat is thinly sliced and tender, cooked in a sweet onion sauce that sinks slowly into your bowl of hot rice. This is a comfort food dish that hits all the right notes. It's hard to miss the irony of ordering the premium gyumeshi, a proud offering of imported Australia and American beef, but the meat is remarkably fatty and juicy.

Ontama egg on premium gyumeshi beef gyudon at Mastuya, Ikebukero, Japan
Runny egg yolk deliciousness

An onsen egg is essential. Pierce the bright yellow yolk for a flood of richness that drenches everything. Add a spoonful of the complimentary pickled ginger for a palate cleanser between bites.

Gyudon is impressively cheap, with small bowls starting at about AU$4. The food arrives fast, and our counter seats give us an intimate view of everything happening in the kitchen.

The tiny wooden box presented on our tray has us stumped until the staff laugh and remove the tiny wooden dowel sticking out. It's a vessel for chilli powder, adding the fiery punch we need after a long haul flight.


Tokyo to Toyama, Japan map

We leave Tokyo the next morning for Toyama, a new addition to the shinkansen or bullet train network. It now takes about two hours to get to Toyama from a Tokyo on a direct train. Previously the journey took about three and an half hours with a mandatory transfer. The brand new train station is bright and gleaming, and is expected to open up the city to a significant increase in domestic and international tourism.

Bridge over the river at Toyama Castle Park, Toyama
Bridge over the Matsu River at Toyama Castle Park, Toyama

The flood of tourists have yet to arrive when we visit though, and we're glad to have the wide streets to ourselves. At the centre of Toyama (population one million) is Toyama Castle, set within the grounds of a sprawling public park.

Toyama Castle, Japan
Toyama Castle, rebuilt in 1954

Like the majority of castles in Japan, Toyama Castle is a reconstruction, rebuilt in 1954 after earlier versions were destroyed. The original Toyama Castle was built in 1543.

Toyama Castle Park, Japan
Lakes and greenery in Toyama Castle Park

The surrounding gardens are immaculate, dotted with koi ponds and waterfalls that create a tranquil escape from the concrete jungle. More than 95% of the city was destroyed in World War II, after 173 American B-29 bombers dropped incendiary bombs on August 1, 1945. You won't find many old buildings in Toyama, but the city has been designed to be compact and accessible.

Firefly squid sashimi in Toyama, Japan
Firefly squid sashimi 800 yen (AU$8.80)

When it comes to food, Toyama is best known for its hotaru ika ほたるいか or firefly squid. If we'd been more organised, we would have joined one of the tours that visit Toyama Bay at dawn. The firefly squid emit a fluorescent blue light, creating an eerie and beautiful display in the unique bowl-shaped bay.

We tried them at the newly built shopping complex near Toyama JR train station with a bounty of restaurants and food stalls. Eating them raw is the best way to appreciate them, a chance to admire their glistening sheen. There's a slight stickiness to the surface. The flesh is mildly sweet with a gentle chew. The tentacles are slightly stronger in flavour. Both can be relished plain or with mustard and a soy dipping sauce.

Seasonal sashimi set in Toyama, Japan
Seasonal sashimi set 1,100 yen (AU$12.10)

The seasonal sashimi set is a showcase of all that is delicious from the local area. Thin slices of raw octopus are incredibly tender, and the raw squid has been sliced into the thinnest of ribbons. The raw shrimp, or prawn, is wondrously sweet.

Ramen Iroha

Ramen Iroha, Toyama, Japan
Dining counters at Ramen Iroha

Toyama is also the home of black ramen, a local specialty that marries noodles with a distinctive black soy sauce soup.

Toyama black ramen at Ramen Iroha, Toyama, Japan
Toyama black ramen 980 yen (AU$10.75)

We get our fix of Toyama black ramen (富山ブラックラーメン) at Ramen Iroha, tucked into the basement of the CiC department store.

Toyama black ramen at Ramen Iroha, Toyama, Japan
Crinkly noodles in a black soy base

The black soy gives a hearty salty kick to the otherwise light chicken stock. The noodles are noticeably thick and chewy. Thick slices of fatty pork, a soy sauce egg and a pile of shredded leeks round out a satisfying meal.

Kushiage skewers at a Japanese supermarket in Toyama, Japan
Kushiage deep fried skewers at the supermarket

We only have a day in Toyama, but that's still enough time to stalk the local supermarket stocked with sashimi boxes, sushi, bakery goods and more. The kushiage section is always my favourite marvel, a self-serve display of fried deliciousness to take home.

Pluto pups a Japanese supermarket in Toyama, Japan
Pluto pups!

You'll find deep fried fish, sweet potato, chicken and prawns. The pluto pups are too exciting to resist. They're less of a frankfurt and more like a pork sausage inside, missing the drizzle of tomato sauce but still tasty.

Statue outside a restaurant in Toyama, Japan
Statue outside a restaurant

We only have a day in Toyama for tomorrow we head to Kanazawa! Post coming soon.

Boats on the river in Toyama, Japan
Hanging flower pots above the Matsu river that runs through the centre of Toyama

Spring blossoms in front of Toyama Castle, Japan

>> Read the next Japan 2015 post: Kanazawa gold leaf soft serve and the Ninja Temple

Japan 2015: Toyama > Kanazawa > Nagano > Kyoto > Nara > Osaka > Kobe > Kagoshima > Hakata > Hiroshima and Miyajima Island > Sapporo > Otaru > Hakodate Tokyo

1-20-6 Nishiikebukuro Toshima, Tokyo
Tel: +81 (03) 5396 7631
Open 24 hours a day
Matsuya has outlets all over Japan

Menya Iroha
CiC department store basement (B1F)
1-2-3 Shintomi-cho, Toyama, Japan
Tel: +81 (076) 444 7211
Open 7 days 11am-12 midnight

Sydney's Best Cheap Eats

Sydney's Best Cheap Eats by Helen Yee for Good Food, 28 April 2015

And as luck would have it, my cover story for Good Food was published while I was away. You might say it was a surreal moment when Good Food editor Ardyn Bernoth approached me for this feature. The $10 issue celebrates Sydney's best cheap eats, the kind of food I always get excited about. Fancy meals can be impressive but a budget feed can leave you just as breathless with wide-eyed excitement and appreciation. My pick of restaurants was harder to compile than you could possibly imagine.

Sydney's Best Cheap Eats by Helen Yee for Good Food, 28 April 2015

Ten bucks might not seem like much but it can score you all kinds of awesomeness across Sydney. I tried to give a geographic mix of seated establishments, but you can tell my heart (and stomach) lies in Sydney's west.

Missed out on reading the two-page spread? You can read the full story online at Good Food.

>> Read the next Japan 2015 post: Kanazawa gold leaf soft serve and the Ninja Temple

Japan 2015: Toyama > Kanazawa > Nagano > Kyoto > Nara > Osaka > Kobe > Kagoshima > Hakata > Hiroshima and Miyajima Island > Sapporo > Otaru > Hakodate Tokyo
23 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 5/25/2015 12:27:00 am


  • At 5/25/2015 8:18 am, Anonymous Nagi@RecipeTinEats said…

    Read every word and loved it. I've never been to Toyama but now I want to go! Black ramen is interesting, never seen that either. Had to grin when I saw that your favourite section of supermarkets is the fried goods! Mine too :) Japan does fried goods better than any other country in the world. You'll never get a soggy oily fried thing in Japan!

    Congrats on the feature story! I'm off to read it now. :)

  • At 5/25/2015 8:19 am, Anonymous Nagi@RecipeTinEats said…

    PS Isn't the price of fresh sashimi in japan insanely cheap!??

  • At 5/25/2015 8:51 am, Anonymous Racy_staci said…

    Keeping Toyama on the list for next time. Gotta see the firefly squid in action.

    Congrats on the cover story! Here's to many more!

  • At 5/25/2015 9:15 am, Anonymous Maureen | Orgasmic Chef said…

    Why have I never heard of Toyama? What a wonderful holiday. I would have jumped out of bed every day eager for new adventure. Bet you did too!

    Congrats on the Good Food story!

  • At 5/25/2015 9:34 am, Blogger Papagana said…

    That all looks so amazing! I just came back from Japan as well, and the food over there is sooo delicious. Have you found any Perilla/Shiso since coming back? I'm desperate to track some down without having to grow it!

  • At 5/25/2015 10:25 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    welcome baaaack and congrats on the cover story!

  • At 5/25/2015 10:36 am, Anonymous Isaac (@iFat23) said…

    Great post, Helen! I'm going to be taking notes since I plan on going to Japan soon!

    I've seen your cover story plastered all around town, nice work!! =D

  • At 5/25/2015 10:41 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I can't wait to read your next Japan post, I'm actually going to use them as part of planning my trip to Japan. Thanks so much for putting this together it's really informative. Oh and congratulations on making a double page spread in Good Food - I always trust your recommendations Helen :)

  • At 5/25/2015 10:42 am, Anonymous Kelly @ MsBrulee said…

    I can't wait to read your next Japan post, I'm actually going to use them as part of planning my trip to Japan. Thanks so much for putting this together it's really informative. Oh and congratulations on making a double page spread in Good Food - I always trust your recommendations Helen :)

  • At 5/25/2015 12:08 pm, Blogger Jacq said…

    Take me back to Japan! Can't wait to read more of your Japan posts, I'm looking forward to your soft serve adventures

  • At 5/25/2015 5:17 pm, Anonymous missklicious said…

    congrats on the cover story!

    and your japan post makes me want to book flights!

  • At 5/25/2015 9:41 pm, Blogger gaby @ lateraleating said…

    Great article on Good Food!

  • At 5/26/2015 7:48 am, Anonymous john | heneedsfood said…

    Yes, I was watching your Japanese holiday on Instagram. So much deliciousness! And congrats on the Good Food feature!

  • At 5/26/2015 1:28 pm, Anonymous phatsthetics said…

    We were in Japan at the same time! Looking forward to more Japan blogs! Absolutely loved Japan.

    Check out our blogs and vlogs from Japan if youre interested =)



  • At 5/26/2015 5:54 pm, Anonymous Hotly Spiced said…

    Congratulations on being featured in the magazine! And what a terrific opportunity to see Japan. I have never been to Japan but I did learn Japanese at school (can't speak a word of it now!) The first meal after you arrived looks like the perfect pick-me-up after a long Jetstar flight xx

  • At 5/26/2015 8:36 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Welcome back Helen! OH how I miss Japan so much. I love how Jetstar does these super affordable tickets, it's great for the uni students and adults too. AND Congrats on the cover story!

  • At 5/26/2015 10:06 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Oh man! Japan is the BEST!
    I just realised I wasn't following you on IG, that has been remedied and your pics are killing me!

  • At 5/27/2015 5:17 pm, Anonymous Joseph said…

    Congrats on the good Food cover story!! Some nice looking things in that article I want to try.

  • At 5/29/2015 1:42 am, Anonymous Arwen (hoglet k) said…

    I love your collage of soft serve icecreams! Looks like a great trip, and congrats on being the sought-out expert on cheap eats in Sydney.

  • At 5/29/2015 7:55 pm, Anonymous House in Tillford said…

    1) you are making me kick myself even more for not getting on that jetstar deal- looks like a delicious trip!
    2) congrats on the cover!

  • At 5/30/2015 10:17 am, Anonymous Berny @ I Only Eat Desserts said…

    Congrats on the story - must be a great feeling to see your own writing in print :D

    Reading this post makes me miss Japan so much as I lived there for 6 months for an exchange. I miss Japanese ramen :D

  • At 6/01/2015 10:58 pm, Blogger Sarah said…

    Oh yay! Japan post! I loved following your Japan adventures on Instagram!

    Congratulations on the Good Food feature!!!!!!

  • At 6/10/2015 12:56 am, Anonymous sara | Belly Rumbles said…

    Congratulations on the cover! Well deserved and fantastic to see and read xxx


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