Food, friendship and more on a tour with a chef

Food, friendship and more on a tour with a chef
Chef N. Okayama of Wanomiya Kobe Beef restaurant in Osaka cooks wagyu and vegetables before participants of the "Daza Japan Food Tour." —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

FUKUOKA, HIROSHIMA, OSAKA—We came here to savor food that popular Filipino chef Sandy Daza has taste-tested and pronounced “exceptional” (for him, “good” is simply “not enough”).

But the “Daza Japan Food Tour” of the three cities and their namesake prefectures on Oct. 20-25 offered participants more than just food. It also included visits to fish markets, handpicking persimmon on a farm, a stop at a peace memorial museum, and a boat ride to a world-heritage Shinto shrine. 

All provided insights into aspects of Japan’s food preparation, culture and history.

The food tour is an offshoot of a Japanese-government initiative to attract foreign tourists into the country to help buoy up the economy not long after the 2011 massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima devastated large swaths of northern Japan’s Tohuko region and killed some 20, 000 people.  

Not surprisingly, there was ample time for shopping and stops at the ubiquitous konbini (mostly Family Mart for its egg sandwich that Chef Sandy described as smooth and delicious, and for other items). 

The more the tourists spent, the better for the Japanese economy.

From 20 to 82

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Tour participants

The tour drew 19 Filipino participants aged 20 to 82—a group of five relatives, including a couple on vacation from Toronto, Canada; a man and his three grandchildren; three brothers; a father and daughter; other couples; and a retired bank executive.

Most joined the tour after watching episodes on Japanese dishes on Sandy’s TV show “Foodprints” and/or hearing positive endorsements from friends, neighbors and ex-classmates. 

Marlou, a resident of Butuan who is originally from Los Baños, Laguna, came to bond with her two siblings Vic and Mendie and their respective spouses Tet and Boy. She had seen Sandy on his TV show and “loved the oyster video.” She planned the trip with sister Mendie, a retired professor at and former vice chancellor of a unit of a state university.

Mandy, a former bank executive, also saw Sandy’s TV show about Japanese food during the pandemic. Then his nephew, who loves cooking, joined the tour in July and enjoyed it. “I told my wife, ‘Let’s join,’’’ he said.

Endorsements from four neighbors in BGC, the central business district of Taguig City, who had taken part in four separate tours and found these offered “value for money,” led ex-banker Jobi to take part in the gastronomic adventure. 

“So that’s it. I decided to join,” said Jobi, president of a condominium homeowners association. “Besides, I had never been to Fukuoka and Hiroshima.’’ 

Law school batchmates Popoy and Jorge came on the suggestion of an ex-classmate at a reunion, who had taken part in the food tour twice. With a number of batchmates backing out or unavailable, Jorge convinced into joining the tour a younger brother who in turn invited their youngest sibling to be part of the tour to meet the minimum number of participants.

Popoy came with his daughter Becca, a professor at a business school in Makati City.

“Sandy compelled me to join,” said Joey, a physician, when asked why he was on the tour. (He used the term “minartial law.”)  The chef is his nephew. But Joey acknowledged that he joined the tour so his three grandchildren, Vito, Hans and Anya, would come and enjoy the trip, “to ease the pain’’ brought by the death last August of their 50-year-old dad, his son.

“I’m happy that they are enjoying the tour,” Joey said. He brought an Air Wheel (four-wheel, electricity-powered luggage that can be used as a transporter), which he often used as the tour required a lot of walking. 

Ramen Gymnasium

The first stop from the Fukuoka airport was Ramen Gymnasium, a cluster of eateries on the top floor of Canal City, a shopping and entertainment complex by the confluence of the narrow Hakata River and the wider Naka River.

The tourists were each handed a “cashback” of Y4,500 (pocket money taken from the tour fee) in a small envelope for meals at restaurants where the group had no reservations.

In a procedure quintessentially Japanese, food was ordered via an ATM-like machine. Chef Sandy tapped the picture of the delicacies of our choice after feeding it with Y1,200. Then we presented the receipt to the waiter.

On Sandy’s recommendation many chose a combo of ramen with tender braised pork and gyoza, pork and cabbage dumpling, that tasted a little sweet and countered the ramen’s thick soup that was a bit salty. 

“There’s no sophisticated way to know whether ramen is delicious. It will hit you. You’ll know that it’s delicious,’’ Sandy said.

At the “gymnasium,’’ eateries that do poorly are replaced in a process that is simply “survival of the tastiest.”

After lunch, we strolled by the river and then met up at the shopping center where dancing water from fountains is an attraction. Then it was time to check in at Hotel Monterey. 

Something went wrong. I was left behind at Canal City when I followed another tour group. I could not contact Pat, the Filipino tour coordinator, and neither could she contact me, as my roommate had the wi-fi pod issued to both of us. A short taxi ride solved the problem. 

Dinner was at Shabuzen, a restaurant in Hakata, a merchant district that merged with the adjacent Fukuoka, home to many samurai, in 1889. The latter became the name of the new entity upon the insistence of the samurai. For certain Filipinos, Hakata sardines ring a bell.

We put beef (wagyu), pork and vegetables in a pot of hot water and dipped the cooked morsels into a bowl of egg yolk and albumen. Voila—we had sukiyaki.

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Sukiyaki at Shabuzen restaurant in Hakata.

“Guys, ‘di masarap, ano (it’s not delicious)?’’ Sandy told his foodie followers in an attempt at reverse psychology. “Who wants more egg?”   

Almost at the end of the filling meal, a small cake topped with a lit candle was presented to Mandy in celebration of his 72nd birthday. 

When we were done eating, the chef suggested that we try pino (vanilla coated with chocolate) that come in six pieces in a box, to counter the feeling of satiety (“pantanggal ng suya”). We heeded his advice.

Fugu, whale meat

The second day was packed with activities. Breakfast was at the hotel cafeteria. 

On the pink bus to the Yanagibashi Morning Market, Sandy asked if anyone wanted to taste fugu (butete, or puffer fish, which is poisonous when not properly prepared). I and a few other brave souls raised our hands, as we were assured that the person preparing the dish trained for three years to earn a license. 

The fish is “chewy” and “bland without seasoning,” the chef said. That was why, he said, there was a seasoning dip. 

I was disappointed that no fugu was available that day at the market, where the sea’s bounties—varieties of fish including galunggong or round scad, crabs, shells and oysters—were on display. 

At one stall, whale meat was prominently displayed below photos of different species of the marine mammal. Japan still allows the hunting of minke, Bryde’s and sei whales.

Sandy did not tell us to try the whale meat. It was a sensible move; partaking of the meat of the gentle giants could raise the hackles of Philippine animal rights and environmentalist groups. 

Instead, we were ushered into a tuna specialty shop to observe Takehisa Dai expertly slice a chunk of tuna into sashimi. Before the sashimi were served, along with the soy sauce and wasabi, Ken Kunuo, the tour interpreter, explained the different parts of tuna using an illustration and the metaphor of plane seating: 

Chef Sandy Daza and interpreter Ken Kunuo explain parts of tuna—”akami” (economy class), “chutoro” (business class) and “otoro” (first class)—at Yanagibashi Morning Market in Fukuoka.

Akami (economy class) is the red part found in the sides of the fish; chutoro (business class) is the upper or dorsal part; and otoro (first class) is the fattest part found in the lower belly.

Lunch was at a tonkatsu restaurant, some 10 kilometers from the fish market. Deep-fried, breaded pork and a piece of tempura, a bowl of rice and miso soup were served. The dip was mixed with ground sesame seeds. 

“Why is there only one piece of tempura?” Sandy said. “Let’s ask for more.” I dared not try the tempura because of a past allergic reaction to shrimp. The tonkatsu was soft and yummy, but I refrained from consuming it all. Control.

By this time, some, if not all, must have been putting on weight. “You’re destroying my diet,” the chef complained to the group in jest, adding: “We should all gain weight.’’ As no dessert was served, he advised the foodies to stop at a convenience store to buy something to ease their “delicious ‘taba sawa’ (fat satiety).”  

He will later say: “If you lose weight [during the tour], I lose my name.”

Hand-picking persimmon

After a group photo outside the restaurant, we took a long bus ride to Migita Orchard, about 50 km to the southeast of our hotel. The bus did not stop at a konbini. 

At the orchard, the trees brimming with persimmon even by the roadside were a sight to behold. In the reception area, a taste test was offered, followed by a demonstration of how to cut the yellow orange fruit from the tree. Then off we went to hand-pick just five pieces of our choice that we put into our respective baskets the color of the fruit. 

As expected, no one passed up the opportunity to document the harvesting of fruits not grown in tropical Philippines. Picture, picture! We did not eat what we harvested, and I set aside the persimmon as pasalubong (gift) to the family back home.

With handpicking persimmons done, we took a 25-km bus ride to Tosu Premium Outlets, a collection of over a hundred stores selling tax-free global brands—a shopper’s mecca. Among the brands that maintain their own outlets were Armani, Kate Spade New York, Coleman, Columbia Sportswear, Thermos, Under Armor, Levis, Adidas, Adidas Golf, Nike, Puma, Onitsuka Tiger, Vans, Birkenstock, Oakley, Swarovski, Samsonite and Tommy Hilfiger.  

A pair of classic Birkenstock sandals selling at a 50% discount caught my attention. I tried two to three pairs, but my size had run out of stock. Jorge bought a pair of black Birkenstock shoes. Others made purchases at other stores, toting shopping bags on the way back to the bus late in the afternoon. 

After freshening up and depositing the fruits and shopping bags at the hotel, we rode the bus to Kani-honke, a restaurant specializing in Hokkaido crabs. The main dish and appetizers were creatively presented. Two porcelain plates were in the shape of boats and the coaster was marked with an orange crab.

As enticing as the crabs were, I restrained the urge to partake, recalling a medical emergency in Manhattan in the 1990s. I was rushed to a hospital with breathing difficulties, facial swelling and rashes as a result of eating snow crab at dinner!  

Pat, our Filipino guide, took antihistamine to guard against any allergic reaction to crabs. It did not work. She showed me rashes on her hand. My antihistamine tablets remained untouched.

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Hokkaido crab meat and side dishes for dinner at Kani-honke restaurant in Fukuoka

For foregoing the Hokkaido crab, I ended up shelling out Y2, 400 for a bowl of kamamishi (rice with fish toppings). I should have informed the organizers in advance about my allergic reaction to crabs so they could have prepared another meal and prevented me from depleting my cashback. Anyhow, I relished the kamamishi, downed with cups of warm green tea.

Dessert was yoghurt mixed with kiwi, raisins and a dried berry. Sarap.

‘No. 6 is Death’

On the third day we went on a trip northeast on Shinkansen, a bullet train. It took about an hour from the Hakata Station on Kyushu to Hiroshima on Honshu, the main island of Japan.

Sandy recommended dry ramen for lunch at the tidy and gleaming Hiroshima Shinkansen station even as it was teeming with people. He explained to his gastronomic “disciples” that ramen at the restaurant had six levels of spiciness. “No. 6 is `Death’ (super spicy). Get Level 1,’’ he advised. 

So we queued at the vending machine to place our orders. I settled for Level No. 1, mixed the noodles, added white vinegar as instructed, and proceeded to eat.  

The brothers Vito and Hans ordered Nos. 1 and 6 and shared the meal. Vito found No. 6 delectable, with nary a mention that it was too spicy.  He must have Bicolano blood.

On the red bus, Chef Sandy, who was assigned to the seat right beside the door, took the microphone and asked: “Guys, how was the experience?’’ Cesar, a lawyer, replied: “Kailangan pa ba itanong yan (Does it have to be asked)?’’ 

As it was still too early to check in at the hotel, we dropped in at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum where a long line of visitors of various nationalities formed at the entrance. I was pleasantly surprised that Filipino was one of the languages that visitors can tap on monitors for the background on hellish scenes of death and destruction in the aftermath of the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan on Aug. 6, 1945. 

Watching “Oppenheimer” and documentaries on History Channel was one thing. Seeing the carnage and devastation in Hiroshima at the museum, including the names and faces of the victims and their personal belongings, was another. The museum is an eloquent call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

We eventually checked in at Mystays Hotel, a stone’s throw from the museum and located at the Hiroshima Peace Park. Its cafeteria on the 14th floor offers a panoramic view of the museum grounds, the Motoyasu River and environs. The Atomic Bomb Dome is visible from the cafeteria.

On the way to the restaurant for dinner, Chef Sandy said, “Prepare yourselves.” He paused, prompting someone to ask, “For what?” The answer: “For more than you can [eat].”

Wagyu and basketball 

Laid out on the horigotatsu table for four with a grill in the middle was a feast—plates of slices of wagyu and ox tongue along with pieces of pumpkin, carrot, and green pepper and slices of lemon. There were salad greens, mostly romaine, and four types of fermented vegetables. And a pitcher of water.

The wagyu could be replenished, but orders like sake or beer were for the diner’s account and could be made on a tablet at the side of the table that has a recessed floor where diners could dangle their legs. By happenstance, one of the waitresses was Arabel of Calapan, Mindoro, who eagerly took orders from Popoy and Jobi. She has been working in Japan for 21 years.

One has to be nimble in taking the wagyu out of the grill to prevent it from being charred.

Something unexpected happened while the participants were busy cooking and eating wagyu, rice, salad and fermented vegetables. At a table next to our group, Sandy was giving an account of the University of the Philippines (UP)-Ateneo de Manila men’s basketball game that he was watching live. He was holding a smartphone with his left hand and chopsticks with his right. “Tie, tie, tie with three minutes to go,’’ he said.

The game went overtime. Then Ateneo was leading by seven points and Anya, who was at Sandy’s table, was smiling and silently making a clapping motion. 

“Wow, Lebron [UP player Francis Leo S. Lopez, a Filipino-Angolan] was injured but still played in OT,’’ reported Sandy, who at 5’10’’ and a half was a basketball player of UP High and had tried out for the collegiate team until martial law ended his basketball days. “UP lost. OMG,’’ he said, as the final seconds ticked. The score: 99-89. The team of Anya, a third-year European languages student at Ateneo, won. 

Those from UP, half of the participants, were dejected. Becca, a UP Diliman alumna with a degree in industrial engineering, also monitored the game on her Viber group with her ex-classmates posting updates. 

The end of dinner meant walking in nippy weather for 10-15 minutes to Don Quijote, a store selling a variety of goods and knickknacks at relatively low prices.

A pair of black Crocs carried a  price tag equivalent to P1,145. One of the cashiers on the ground floor, Sonia, a Filipino from Batangas City, said it was “cheap, but it appears not to be original.’’ Still, she said, she had noticed that many from the Philippines were buying the sandals. Sonia has been working in Japan for the past 25 years.

Miyajima and Honshu

The next day’s activities were different. The red bus took a 21-km trip and delivered us to a ferry station where we took a short trip to Miyajima Island. The ferry was filled to capacity. Many were standing at the sides to take in the scenery. Later they gathered at starboard to catch a sight of what appeared to be a “mirage’’ on the beach: the gate to the Itsukushima Shrine.

The terminal was teeming with people, including high school students from Hokkaido on a field trip. A group of tourists followed a guide hoisting an Italian flaglet fastened to a stick.

Feral deer were ubiquitous on the grounds. 

On Chef’s Sandy’s recommendation, we tried oyster curry bread.

For most of the hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors, walking was the name of the game to get to the shrine and the 16.8-meter-tall O-torii gate, and back. 

I managed to touch the massive post of the red orange gate on the beach (it was low tide) but was unable to get inside the shrine. The queue was too long.

Back on the Honshu mainland, lunch was oysters. “You cannot eat oyster fresher than these,” Sandy earlier said on the bus. “I have had 500 to 600 tour participants [over the years] and none got sick for eating oyster,” he assured, adding: “White wine goes well with oyster.”

He further said that people called this “the highlight meal.”

Lunch was by the sea. 

On a floating platform, each table for our group was supplied with denim gloves, tongs, and two small plastic basins of oysters. We placed six oysters on the grill until they opened slightly and juice began to ooze out. Time to put the shells on the plate and pry them open with a knife. 

With the shell open, a fat, steaming oyster beckoned. I had to scoop it with a spoon while wearing gloves. The meat was tender and juicy. Delightful. 

But grilling the oysters, prying open the shells and scooping up the meat to finally eat it took some effort and getting used to. No wonder customers at the next table enlisted someone just to do the grilling. 

Sandy said our oysters were juicy because oysters produce more fat in cold waters. Hiroshima Prefecture, which has been farming the bivalve since the 16th century, accounts for 70% of Japan’s oyster production, according to Ken, the interpreter. 

Jobi, who is not into oysters, was given pre-ordered wagyu to be grilled along with the oysters of his tablemates. 

Halfway into the meal, I asked a waiter for vinegar, but he handed me plain soy sauce instead. It did not go well with the seafood. Sandy said the group should have brought vinegar and Tabasco. 

Perhaps the highlight of the meal was Popoy slurping his 51st oyster under the watchful eyes of the participants, who egged him on as they were about to leave the floating platform. I only managed to eat about 10.

In Osaka, after a Shinkansen ride of less than three hours, we had unagi (eel) for dinner at the Chikuyotei (bamboo leaf “house”) in Excel Hotel Tokyu.

Winding down

Our hotel rooms got smaller as we moved out of Fukuoka. The smallest was in Osaka: It did not have a cabinet. Toilet “amenities,” such as shavers and cotton buds, had to be obtained at the lobby—a setup similar to that in Hiroshima. Pajamas had to be taken from a rack by the elevator, if you received the advisory.

It was a long ride the next morning to a second Premium Outlets, this time bigger than Fukuoka’s.

On the bus, as was his practice, Chef Sandy gave a pep talk of sorts. “One indicator that this tour is a success is: ‘How time flies. Tomorrow we’re done,’” he said.

The bus had to travel all the way to Kobe Prefecture, about 50 km from the WBF Hotel Namba Motomachi in Osaka.

We now knew the drill: Go shopping and meet at the food court at a designated time. The global brands sold here are practically the same as those at the Tosu Premium Outlets. And the layout and design are similar. But there appeared to be fewer shoppers in the place, maybe because it was morning and a weekday.

This time, the participants bought more items from this shopping mecca. Sandy himself bought Levi’s 501, his favorite and part of his “uniform.” The third pair of jeans, he said, had a bigger discount. Two participants who play golf bought—what else—golf shoes (from Adidas). 

An animated Cynthia told a group that she had purchased two shirts and a jacket at 70% off. “If you buy three, less 20% pa!” she said. By then she was already sporting a pair of black Asics shoes that she got at 30% discount.

Pat said it was the participants of tours past who had requested longer shopping hours. 

Kobe beef

Lunch was met with anticipation, as we were about to savor the famed Kobe beef. On the bus to Osaka, Ken gave me a quick backgrounder on wagyu as he was just in front of me, saying there were five levels of quality. He also said that every year, a group selects the top eight wagyu across Japan. 

For this year, the winners are Kobe-Sanda beef (Kobe Prefecture), Matsuzaka beef (Mie Prefecture), Oumi (Shiga), Yonezawa (Yamagata), Maesawa (Iwate), Sendai (Miyagi), Hida (Gifu) and Ishigaki (Okinawa). The top three winners have consistently kept their rankings over the years, he said.

Then we were seated at the award-winning Wanomiya Kobe Beef restaurant on Nanba Sennitimae Street.

Standing before us was Chef N. Okayama. She laid out two big slices of wagyu on a hot plate. She placed slices of mushrooms, eggplant, pumpkin, sweet potato and nama-fu (wheat gluten mixed with rice flour) next to the meat.

At the proper moment, she sliced the wagyu into small pieces and distributed these to us. Sounds of “mmmm” and “sarap” were promptly heard.

What to do between lunch and dinner in Osaka? Take a leisurely walk to Dotonburi and Shinsaibashi-Suji, a roofed street of shops 

We ordered Crimea ice cream on a cone at a parlor by the river. I chose vanilla, so rich in taste but not so different from our own Selecta. From the ice cream parlor, we strolled to the Ebisubashi Bridge, where a musician strummed an electric guitar for coins and a man dressed as Spiderman stood on a ledge showing his moves, as people took pictures.

Small groups went their separate ways. I was with the group of Joey and his grandchildren and Sandy. Out of the blue, a woman from the Philippines, who was with family members, asked Sandy if she could take a selfie with him. The chef obliged. “She’s a foodie,’’ he said.

Then we ambled into the roofed street of shops heavy with foot traffic. Hans and Anya bought classic Adidas shoes, with the former settling for a green Samba edition. On the street, Hans asked if I had a power bank. I lent him mine and he, to my amazement, used his smartphone to take an online quiz on entrepreneurship in a shoe store.

For the second time that afternoon, Sandy was recognized at the store by a Filipino woman, who was also with relatives. Another foodie, I thought to myself.

We reached a department store and went straight to the food section in the basement. I bought a Japanese brand of butter, which the chef said was “good for bread.’’

As it was close to dinner, we wended our way to Don Shop Shabu-tei on Shinsaibashi. Wagyu and vegetables were dipped in boiling water on the table. As usual, the meat was soft.

Jorge was late by an hour or so for dinner. He said Waze had suggested a long route that he followed because he could not read Japanese. And the people he talked to were not helpful because of the language barrier.

Another “setback” that afternoon came when Popoy and Cesar could not find, after a long walk, the parlor offering karada (Japanese massage) for an hour. On the way back, a taxi dropped them off near the canal. So they took a boat ride. “Think positive. We were able to ride a boat,’’ Popoy said.

Last day

On our last day, the morning was spent visiting the Kuromon market, where oysters, king crab, squid, shrimp, scallops and sashimi, as well as fruits such as apples, oranges, grapes, melon, persimmon, kiwi, pineapple, purple sweet potato, eggplants and whatnot, were sold.

Later at the nearby Family Mart, Hans scooped up the egg sandwiches, which, according to Sandy, could last up to a week in the refrigerator.  

By this time, some of the participants were beginning to miss their comfort food. A group of about six went to a McDonalds outlet for lunch. 

It was time to go home. The flight home was at Kansai, an airport on an island reclaimed from the sea. Pico, a businessman and golfer, and Anne stayed on for another four days.

Waxing poetic, Sandy said this was one of his “fastest” food tours. “You know what that means. Aside from the food, I appreciate the friendships. Thank you. What a nice and wonderful trip,’’ he said.

Marlou, a former boutique hotel administrator, said she enjoyed the trip so much. “We already know exactly where to go. If we were on our own, we would do trial and error. At least here, somebody has chosen the places to eat.”

Asked about bonding with her siblings, the purpose of their trip, Marlou said: “We did not bond only with family. We bonded with new friends. How nice, ‘di ba (isn’t it)?”

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