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Reprint of my email to Jim Leff

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Hello fellow 'hounds!

I'm back from our time in Japan sussing out the best cheap (yet delicious) eats the country has to offer.

Original post: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/379801

Per one poster's suggestion, I emailed Jim Leff for his article on eating in Tokyo and he was kind enough to email me a copy on the condition that I reported back to him. This this is a copy of my email to Jim.

I will make further posts down the line of specific recommendations from other posters who were kind enough to help us in our search for cheap-yet-delicious eats throughout Japan.

Mr Taster


Hi Jim

Well, we're back from Japan, and here's your report as promised.

First let me say that your analysis of Tokyo as Chowhound Heaven/Hell is really an incredibly accurate view of Japanese culture. We stayed with local people throughout our trip (courtesy of hospitalityclub.org and couchsurfing.com) and so we received quite a lot of insight into the Japanese way of thinking. Whereas in America we appreciate things that take a great deal of skill and effort that manifest themselves as BIG (think a rags to riches story of a child gymnast who realizes her dream of winning Olympic gold), the Japanese have the same appreciation for those that manifest themselves in a small way. Take, for example, the infamous perfect $100 melon, which likely was produced hydroponically by an wizened old man who rotates the melons every half hour through their growth cycle in order to maintain perfect shape, color and texture. Or think of the geisha whose dance movements are so minute and precise she could perhaps be the latest Honda android. Or think bonsai trees-- small, accurate, precise, with great deal of care an attention. It's really a fascinatingly stark contrast to the "bigger is better" philosophy of American culture where that bonsai tree would be trampled by a 300 lb guy in overalls on his way to the 2-fer-1 big mac attack sale.

We did check out quite a few of your suggestions. I know I've been keeping you in worried anticipation re my last email about Heaven, so I am here to tell you that Volga is in fact still very much up and running. In fact, we went there twice. First, a clarification. The restaurant is in fact called VOLGA, which is in fact a Russian word (according to the waiter, the owner fought in Russia near the Volga river at one time), but the Japanese pronunciation of Volga is BORUGA (hence the disparity). We were told by the waiter (perhaps the same one you had), a skinny, yougish-looking middle aged guy (last 30's, early 40's maybe) with round owlish glasses and a perpetual smile, who spoke a very broken but understandable English (much better than my Japanese). We took a photo with him but sadly I can't seem to find the pic... however I have attached a photo of my lovely wife with an absurdly large glass of beer, which we shared. The tsukune were really, really good. However I must say, my knees did not wobble and the earth did not open. I didn't even have an orgasm. But they were very tasty, and our Japanese friend Megumi (who we brought on our second visit) agreed. We ordered various skewers and all were adequate to tasty, with nothing mind blowing. We tried to order the potatoes and bacon, but instead we were brought potatoes and sausage, which was quite tasty, but was not bacon. "He must have misunderstood," I muse, as I flip through my Lonely Planet Japanese phrasebook, and see that the word in Japanese for bacon is pronounced "be-kon". Hm. Eventually we realize that the potatoes and bacon is part of the rotating menu, and today is not the day for it. "When will the potatoes and bacon be on the menu again?" I ask. My question was responded to with a shrug and a smile. Ah well.

Apparently however JUNSAI had not been rotated off the menu. If you may recall from an old post of mine where I went to Urasawa in Beverly Hills, I reported that Junsai was an appetizer course.


At Urasawa, it was served in a shot glass, in a kind of vinegary, briny murk. You freaked out at the prospect of our having been served junsai in America. This was actually my big reason to come to BORUGA (after the tsukune). I had to see if your experience and mine were in any way similar.

Well, first let me say that I don't believe that Junsai is quite as rare a find in Japan as you may have assumed. We actually saw junsai on a couple of menus, not the least of which was a cheap 100 Y per sushi restaurant (yes, junsai sushi!) So perhaps it is not quite as hifalutin a dish as it once was. It was definitely the same stuff we had at Urasawa, with the biggest difference being that at Urasawa it was delicate-- just a few little pea-sized morsels floating in the brine. At Boruga it was a gigantic dish of the stuff, slimy, crunchy, in your face. I realize that at Urasawa I had hardly any idea what it was that I was eating whereas here at Volga I was forced to stare it down in all of it's slimy glopulence. I did my best to chow down about half of the stuff, but I could hardly do any more. My wife, being a tried-and-true chowhound, picked up my slack.

So that, in a nutshell, were the highlights of our visits to Volga. By the way, every food dish, from tsukune to potatoes to junsai, costs 500 Y. Beer is variable-- that gigantic beer Eva is drinking cost 1500 Y I believe.

A few more highlights....

We were on a serious quest for ramen deliciousness and we must have eaten at least 40 bowls during our time there. It is true that never, ever do Japanese people finish the soup (for salt reasons, as you describe). Similar to Chinese people (and Taiwanese people, as my wife is Taiwanese) they do not see the liquid part of the soup as being the real food. In fact this is brought to new heights of amazement (at least in Taiwan and certain authentic Chinese restaurants in LA-- I'll show you if you come to LA) that if you run our of soup, you can actually ask for a refill, so that there's enough to finish your noodles with. In Japan I don't know if you can get free soup, but certain ramen shops jive with this philosophy by allowing you to order more noodles, usually for 100 Y.

One utterly fascinating phenomenon is the Japanese phenomenon of the "ramen street". We found these all over Japan-- a series of 7 - 10 different ramen shops, all located within the same narrow hallway of a strip mall or shopping center, and each shop specializing in a variety of ramen from a different area of Japan. The most easily accessible of these "ramen streets" can be found on the 10th floor of the massive and ultra modern Kyoto station. You buy your ramen ticket at a vending machine and wait in line until a table is available. Often we would just order one bowl to share so that we could try 2 or 3 different shops.

The ultimate insanity of the ramen street culminated in a visit to Yokohama, just outside Tokyo.


There they actually have a Ramen Museum- complete with plastic models of the different types, sizes and textures of noodles used in ramen throughout the country, and a gigantic wall map of japan with photos illustrating the different types of ramen. Sadly it's entirely in Japanese, but it was fascinating nonetheless. However we were bowled over by the ramen museum's two-level basement..... a theme park style recreation of a 1950's tenement neighborhood, complete with city sound effects piped in, vintage movie posters and street signs, a cast of characters (the goofy policeman, the wacky street vendor, the candy shop guy, etc.) and people's laundry hanging from open windows through which you could see ramen chefs plying their trade through plumes of fragrant steam. They actually weaved 7 real ramen shops into the storefront facades, with each preparing a different regional kind of ramen.

However the hands-down absolute BEST ramen we ate in all of Japan (including Hakata) was a dively little place called KARAKO on the NW corner of Nijo-Dori and Higashioji-Dori in Okazaka-Tokusei-cho (closest subway stop is Higashiyama)... go west on Sanjo Dori and then right on Higashioji-Dori until you cross Nijo-Dori and look for the red lantern on the left side. The mustachioed ramen master's image appears on menus and signage all through the restaurant. It's not entirely our find as we got it from the Lonely Planet Japan guide. Apparently the special here is the Chashu (pork slice) ramen served kotteri ("extra rich"). And by rich let me tell you, this was rich. Generally when we order a soup kotteri it comes out with either a layer of oil pooled at the top, or lots of little tiny chunks of soft fat fill the soup. This version of kotteri was uniformly smooth and rich, so much so as to nearly rival a light sauce or gravy with its decadence. Although thickly sliced, the chashu was outrageously melt-in-your-mouth tender (apparently they sell whole loaves of the stuff to serve at home). We couldn't get enough of the stuff-- we went at least 5 times. However we did notice a sort of interesting phenomenon at this place (which is not listed in the LP guide).... it seems that many of the other patrons would order fried chicken with their ramen and then DIP the fried chicken into the soup before consuming! Of course we had to try this.... fried chicken is a Taiwanese speciality and as such my wife is a glutton when it comes to the stuff. (I coined the term "crispy chicken love" based on the look in her face when she gets her first Taiwanese fried chicken after a long absence from home). The fried chicken at Karako was a revelation. Outrageously light, barely there batter and the meat had a juicy succulence beyond our wildest expectations. On its own it was ambrosia but when dipped in that sinfully rich soup it made us both go bleary-eyed with gluttony. We hardly knew what to eat first. The best part is that a huge bowl of the ramen costs 650Y and the chicken a paltry 300Y ! We would share one order of each and be full for the rest of the day.

OK, I think I've written enough for now-- my back is starting to hurt! I'll write some more later when I get around to it.

Take care!

Mr Taster

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  1. Karako sounds like a great find. Here are some informational websites with photos.

    3 Replies
    1. re: E Eto

      That's the place... I can tell the soup is theirs by the distinct, rustic look of the chashu.

      By the way, we did see many people with a type of soup which was opaque yellow in appearance (ours was a milky tonkatsu) and for some reason I was unable to communicate to them my curiosity about it. One fellow patron with a poor command of english told me it was chicken based ramen, but that could be a misunderstanding on my part (or a misspeaking on his). We even tried to order it, but no matter what we said we got the same bowl of chashu tonkatsu kotteri. No complaints, as it was divine, but still we left saddened that we did not have a native Japanese speaker there to help us navigate the menu.

      OH and I don't know how I ever could have forgotten to mention this.... if you go in the evenings, they have "Japanese style panchan"... unlimited, FREE helpings of about 5 different types of complimentary appetizers such as marinated eggplant, fried potates and fresh fruit-- all well prepared and extremely tasty. Simply amazing! (On the one occasion we went for lunch, these dishes were not presented)

      Mr Taster

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      1. re: Mr Taster

        Right now, I am about 15 minutes away from Karako by bicycle (researchr in Kyoto University). The dinner thing is a great deal. Did you stay near this area when you were here in Kyoto?

        Strangely enough, Karako isn't my favourite ramen here in Kyoto! I like it for the chicken though. Did you manage to try Tonryu soba (near Ginkakuji)?

        However, as with any foreign countries, you've got to take what you hear from the locals with a pinch of salt. I have heard that ramen shop cooks get very happy when you finish your soup because that really means you love it. And have seen loads of people finish their soups in the ramen shops I go to.

        Also, as someone from Cantonese stock (pun not intended), we definitely see soups as part of the main food!!

        1. re: Mr Taster

          According to the Walker website on Karako, their specialty is the yellow opaque ramen, which is eponymously known as the Karako-ramen. The soup is made with chicken carcass, pork bone, and pork knuckle, which is simmered for at least 8 hours. Additionally, there's kabocha and carrots among other vegetables simmered in the soup that make that yellowish color. The ramen you ordered is the "chuka-ramen" kotteri style (there's also an assari style). Chuka ramen simply means Chinese ramen. Karako seems to be especially famous for their yellow ramen, as it receives a lot of commentary from reviewers and bloggers. And the fried chicken.

      2. nice! but yea, hakata ramen actually isn't for everyone i don't think. even for me, it came as an aquired taste. my first time in fukuoka i didn't think too much of it, and it wasn't until i lived there that it grew on me. but once i was hooked, it was all over!

        karako sounds interesting. kyoto is famous for using chicken and chicken bones in their ramen, which actually cooks up thicker and richer than tonkotsu. tenka-ippin, with a branch in honolulu, does it that way, and that stuff has the consistency of wet cement. i'll have to check that out the next time i'm in that part of the country!


        3 Replies
        1. re: rameniac

          I'd love to hear about it the next time you head back to Japan. We tried desperately to order the yellow chicken ramen, but despire our wild gesticulations in pointing to other patrons bowls, we just couldn't get the ramen master to understand us!

          Mr Taster

          1. re: Mr Taster

            As I understand, Tenkaippin has branches throughout Japan. As luck would have it, the original honten is a 10 minute cycle away! I used to go to another branch also, and surprisingly for a franchise operation, quality changes drastically from branch to branch. The chashu is not particularly impressive, though, but the soup is unique. Tastewise, however, I enjoyed the assari (normal, non wet cement type) soup more!!

            As for Karako - unfortunately the increases in oil prices and wheat has probably let to some budgeting, so instead of 3 freaking huge pieces of chicken, you get 2 medium sized chunks now. But i think the rule still stands that if you go with a group of 5 or more, everyone gets free fried chicken.

            1. re: Klimbim78

              Oh Klimbim78, how I envy you. I dream about that fried chicken, and I'm just biding my time until we go back to japan and we can try the fried chicken in chicken ramen soup. I don't care if it's two small pieces or one... it was so good that we'll pay any price! :)

              My wife is from Taiwan, so maybe on the next trip home (we live in Los Angeles) we can arrange a stopover in Kyoto and meet up with you and two of your friends for free chicken...?? :)

              Mr Taster

        2. I'd also like a copy of Jim's article on eating in Japan.