Ichiran (Osaka)

~By Maddy (UK)~

Ichiran Ramen sits by the river in Osaka’s famous Dotonbori. It’s easily identifiable by the queue which snakes from its door and down the promenade. Don’t let this put you off, though – the ramen is totally worth the wait, and so is the experience. The wait can be considerable, though, so it’s worth arriving about half an hour before you’re really starving.

While you queue, one of the friendly employees will hand you a slip of paper – it lists the options for your ramen and what additional toppings you can indulge yourself in. This is the real treat of Ichiran! There are important choices to be made – how spicy would you like your broth? How firm, or soft, would you like your noodles? Would you like to add mushrooms? Egg, maybe? Nori? The permutations are seemingly endless, and it’s a real (and rare) treat to be able to customise restaurant food like this. I haven’t encountered any other restaurant which lets you ponder the minutae of your meal to this extent – down, even, to whether you want the green or the white part of the spring onion.

Inside, you’ll punch your selection into a vending machine, which spits out tickets to inform the chefs what you’d like. Once you’ve sat down in a cubicle along one of the benches – in the middle of which is the kitchen – the hatch in front of you will open, you’ll hear a hearty “irrrrrrashaimase!” and you’ll hand your tickets over.

A few minutes later, a hot bowl of ramen will emerge through the hatch, along with your chosen extras on small dishes. The ramen will, predictably, be pretty perfect – after all, you practically made it yourself! The pork is perfectly soft and flavourful, and the broth pleasingly milky and thick. The noodles are unctuous and satisfying – I chose to have mine firm, which gave the soup some body.

My only, minor complaint was that the broth was a little too spicy to drink on its own – but, since I chose the spice level, I really only have myself to blame! I

Ichiran is really an experience worth having if you’re in Osaka. A whole queue of people can’t be wrong! And with a price which hovers at around ¥800 yen (depending on which extras you pick), it’s not one you can afford to miss. Itadakimasu!

ichiran by maddy

ramen by maddy

ramen by maddy no.2

Chinese New Year at Japanese Cooking Class

Chinese New Year Visitor

The news of Chinese travelers coming to Japan for Chinese New Year is always covered in the Japanese media, but even more so this year because the number of tourists is expected to be the highest in history; and for many shops and restaurants, the influx of visitors can really help their business!

We are a cooking studio, not a store or a restaurant, but fortunately enough, we too had visitors from Hong Kong today. It was a large group of ten people! They came to our morning bento class and cooked typical Japanese foods such as sushi, tempura and miso soup. Like many other travelers from Hong Kong, they have been to Japan several times and knew of basic Japanese foods, so our ten friends requested to learn something new that is not typically on our menu . One of the items we chose to teach was Ichiyaboshi – one night dry fish(一夜干し) that we prepared the night before the class and had them to grill during class.

Often travelers know more than locals about the country they are visiting, and this is also the case for Hong Kong customers. They have been to major cities in Japan, so they have been visiting more rural places in recent years (according to them, they travel to Japan almost every year. I wish I could do the same to Hong Kong…) Last time they traveled to Ureshino Onsen, and this time they are staying at Ogoto Onsen in Shiga. They are the first tourists who have gone to Ogoto Onsen among all of the customers we have had in the last eleven months. It was great to learn that visitors are interested in these areas, too.

After cooking, they went up to the dining room and enjoyed lunch. Though there were so much food and three out of the ten guests were children, they finished eating and enjoyed it very much. Thank you for coming, we hope you had fun here!

Patrick

Patrick

Since we started this Japanese cooking class in April 2014, we were fortunate to have more than 1,000 customers to date. I am in the cooking studio about 95% of the time, so I meet and greet almost every guest. I won’t lie and say I remember every single person, but there are so many that I remember fondly.

Patrick is one of the customers I do remember well. That is because he attended three classes; morning bento class, afternoon kappo class, and sushi class. He is the only customer who has taken three classes with us and will actually be the last because we have stopped teaching our sushi class.

He came to Japan for a week from San Francisco. The idea of coming to Japan popped into his mind randomly and the airfare happened to not be so expensive (January-February is the off season for tourism in Japan and particularly in Kyoto. That is probably why.) He flew to Japan and visited Kyoto for half of his trip.

First, he took our morning class. It just so happened that he was the only customer on that day, so he and Aiko san (one of our staff) walked through all the dishes at his own pace. We had plenty of time to talk about food, his dog, and many other things. I remember we talked about the unfairness of the property tax in California.

Next, he took our afternoon class with two other people also from the United States. Maya san was our teacher that day, and again, Patrick had a great time. And lastly, after the weekend, he came back to us on Monday morning for a sushi class with Aiko san. He told us about what he did over the weekend. One thing he did was visit Gear, a modern theater performance. It’s one of the most popular entertainment activities in Kyoto. According to him, it was a great time and is definitely worth seeing. (Patrick, I visited them recently, too. You’re right, it’s an incredible performance.)

When he finished all of his classes, he gave us a big hug and a smile. Later, he sent us a kind testimonial and even made a video for us! Cooking Sun is not just a cooking class where we teach how to cook Japanese foods, but it’s a place where customers can feel more connected to Japan through interacting with locals as they cook Japanese food together. His testimonial and video were very meaningful to me and reminded of the day we started Cooking Sun. Thank you, Patrick.

Who likes cooking classes?

Cooking Sun Feb 7, 2015

Our customers have often been to cooking classes in different countries. Participating in a cooking class when you travel has been becoming a trend in some countries because it is a more immersive activity than shopping and staying in luxury hotels. At Cooking Sun, most of our guests are from North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, but occasionally from Hong Kong as well.

As we have learned from many of our American guests, cooking has become a part of their popular culture culture, so there are many TV shows and celebrity chefs. Even here in Japan, Jamie Oliver is well known and you can watch Gordon Ramsay’s show on television.

We also sometimes welcome guests from the Netherlands and Switzerland. Despite the fact that they are smaller countries in terms of population, they are rich countries so they probably travel relatively often and thus are interested in learning about culture through hands-on activities such as cooking classes.

Take today’s guest from the Gold Coast as an example. They’ve attended cooking classes in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Australia! (By the way, one of their favorite foods in Japan is the triangle rice ball, called Onigiri, in convenience stores.) Cooked tuna, raw salmon, and kewpie mayonnaise are their favorite!

If you’ve done cooking classes in other countries and are interested in trying one in Japan, please join our cooking class in Kyoto!

Setsubun ritual at Yoshida shrine, Kyoto

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After the holidays, winter is a quiet season for tourism in Kyoto. Most people do not have vacation for a while after the holidays, and even if they do come to Japan, most people choose to visit very snowy places such as Hokkaido and Nagano. Many customers at Cooking Sun have been or will be going to ski resorts like Niseko, Hakuba, and Nozawa Onsen.

Today’s guests from Australia had also been to Nozawa Onsen before they came to Kyoto. They stayed at the ski resort for 6 days. They had a wonderful time between the great skiing, the many onsen (hot springs), and delicious food. When planning their trip, their travel agency recommended Niseko and Hakuba. However, our guests chose to visit Nozawa Onsen because they wanted to do what tourists don’t usually do! When it comes to international travel, I think everyone wants to experience something very local and personal, not just the typical tourist attractions.

So they were brave enough to experience winter in Kyoto, something the majority of people do not choose to do, but they came prepared! They were very good at researching what was happening in this temple town. They found out that February 3rd is a ritual day called Setsubun, the day we get rid of misfortune and welcome spring. They found a special event that was held at the Yoshida shrine near Kyoto University.

Usually, people bring paper and other small personal belongings that are burned in a bonfire, but somehow they were just collected in a pile but not burned.. According to them, all foreigners who ventured to see the event in the cold weather were wondering why they were not burned.

But this morning, they checked on Google (they are so curious!) and figured out why. Starting this year, the city government changed the regulation on disposing of the ashes and the shrine had to pay a lot of money to clean up the ashes after the bonfire. So, they decided to just collect the papers and not to burn them.

A traditional event could not win against the huge public deficit that burdens this country… haha. Hopefully the festival will go back to normal next year.

My Favorite Places in Kyoto

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I have never lived in Kyoto before Cooking Sun. In fact, I’ve only visited Kyoto once before, and that was when I came to do field research to prepare my business plan presentation. One year after I moved to Kyoto with my family, I’m so happy to live in this cultural city and every weekend I find new part of the city to explore.

Here are my 3 favorite places in Kyoto:

1. Fushimi Inari Shrine
This place is very special. There are so many Torii (red gates) and walking up to the top through thousands of torii is such a refreshing experience no matter how many times you do it. Many travelers do not know, but each torii has an owner. You can buy torii and place it in a vacant space. If you can read Japanese, you’ll notice on the way that the shrine displays the prices of each Torii. Torii are for good fortune, and many business and individuals purchase them to ensure good fortune for their lives. I’m not sure if non-resident foreigners can buy Torii, however…

2. Kamogawa (Kamo river)
Walking along Kamogawa river is a nice way to relax for both locals and travelers. I sometimes go to the river with my son and he loves it, too. You can also cycle along the Kamo river. It is a wonderful way to see the city and people watch.

3. Kodaiji
There are so many temples and every traveler has a limited amount of time. It’s hard to choose which ones to go! Usually, people go to Kinkakjuji (The Golden Pavillion), Kiyomizu temple, and/or Fushimi Inari shirine. And I agree with those three choices- they are all very impressive and worth visiting. But if you’ve already been to Kyoto and visited these three attractions, Kodaiji temple is my favorite. The garden is large, peaceful, and well-designed. It is even beautiful at night when the lights turn on. Kodaiji Temple is in the Gion area, very close to Kiyomizu Temple, Yasaka Shrine, and many famous Ryotei restaurants.

(Image from Kanpai-japan.com)

Growing Through Word-of-Mouth

Everyone knows a referral by word of mouth is so important for every business, and no surprise, it also applies to a small business like Cooking Sun. Today we had guests from Australia, but they did not just happen upon us online.

I (Shohei) used to play Australian Football in both Australia and Japan, and I made a lot of friends through the sport. In my twenties when I lived in Tokyo, I befriended a gentleman from Canberra. He had worked in Japan for a few years and now he lives in another country. It has been more than five years and I do not even remember the last time we spoke, but we are still connected on Facebook.

However, today’s guest was his colleague! She had mentioned in her message to me that she had heard about Cooking Sun through our mutual friend.

It’s amazing to realize how small the world is, and in fact, today is not the only time we had customer from referral or word of mouth. We had a lovely family of five from New York at the end of last year who had heard about us from guests who came the previous August. Two American gentlemen had heard about us in Sapporo when they met previous customers of ours. We had a French lady who met one of our guests from Montreal, Canada, in Hiroshima. The list goes on. Although we had only been in business for 10 months, we’ve gained quite a few customers from referrals.

It’s such an honor to know that our customers are recommending us as one of the things to do while in Japan. And because we know that our guests will talk about us if we do a good job, it motivates us to deliver our best every time we welcome new guests.

Cooking Japanese on the last day in Kyoto

Cooking Sun: Where are you from?
Today’s chef: I’m from Perth, Australia.

Cooking Sun: Where have you been in Japan?
Today’s chef: I’ve been to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. Today is my last day in Kyoto and I head off to Sapporo for a few days before I go home.

Cooking Sun: What did you enjoy in Tokyo?
Today’s chef: I went to Odaiba and did some shopping. I also enjoyed Toyota’s car themed park (Mega Web). I also went to Shinjuku, Asakusa, Akihabara, and some other areas and they were all good. I went to some museums on Monday and they were all closed which was a bit disappointing, though.

Cooking Sun: Will you go skiing in Sapporo?
Today’s chef: No, not this time. Not enough time. But I may come back very soon, and if that happens, it will be to ski. Probably Niseko. The snow is much better in Japan!

Cooking Sun: Did you try Kobe beef?
Today’s chef: Yes I did! It was amazing. I tried it at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel in a teppanyaki course. I did not eat much. It’s really rich so I just wanted to taste it. I had it without any seasonings and it was great.

Cooking Sun: Do you like fish?
Today’s chef: Yes, I like tuna, mackerel, salmon. Boiled prone is also ok. I do not really like eating raw conger eel because of its soft texture.

Cooking Sun: Which meal did you enjoy the most?
Today’s chef: I think I enjoyed the meal at Shinagawa Prince Hotel (Steak house Katsura) the more. But I like going into small restaurants where there are many local people. If locals go, that restaurant must be good.

What oil do you use for cooking in Japan? Is tempura healthy?

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The most frequently asked questions since we started Cooking Sun in April, 2014 is: ‘What oil do you use?’

We answer ‘Salad oil’ or ‘Canola oil‘. Simple and honest. In fact, this is the most common oil for deep-frying foods. And actually the only oil we use for daily use. We use other oils such as sesame oil but that is more for flavoring and less for every day cooking.

I suspect people may think canola oil is unhealthy, so when they see oil, they get nervous and ask about every day oil use in Japanese cooking. But, please don’t worry. Vegetable oil is perfectly healthy in small amounts. At Cooking Sun, we use lots of oil for tempura, but it is actually considered a very healthy food because of its oil use!

Why is tempura healthy? Though I’m not an expert, let me explain briefly. Usually we eat vegetables stir-fried or boiled. But by doing that, if the vegetables are in the pan or pot for a long time, the nutrients can be cooked away. But if you deep-fry vegetables tempura style, because they are covered by tempura batter, the vegetables are only steamed and maintain their full nutrients. And some nutrients require a bit of oil in order to be best absorbed in the body, so the oil used in making tempura is actually perfect for this purpose. This is why tempura is sometimes mentioned as a healthy food.

But you may wonder if tempura batter is healthy or not. That is a valid question. If the tempura batter is too thick, it sucks up a lot of oil and it will never be healthy. Sometimes if you order tempura at a restaurant, and the batter is so thick with just a tiny shrimp or vegetable inside, don’t blame tempura. Blame the chef!

Using oil is not always unhealthy. Japanese people have been using vegetable oil and making tempura for thousands of years and we are some of the healthiest people in the word. So don’t worry! Just come and savor the delicious food.

Best restaurants in Kyoto? Oh, too many…

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We often see the phrase, “best places to eat” in travel media. We like rankings. An as a tourist, they work as a kind of assurance to avoid unpleasant experiences during your precious, limited time. We understand this. Here at Cooking Sun, we are constantly asked what we think are the “best” restaurants in Japan.

However, when it comes to traveling in Japan, it seems to me that the phrase ‘best places to eat’ is much less relevant. Why? It’s simple. It’s because the general standard for food is high. If you ask local people which restaurants are the best, they may have an answer for you, but in most cases, they will just say ‘hmm, there are many, and any restaurant is pretty good”.

I often suggest to our customers to pick a restaurant while walking around and just give it a try!  If the restaurant looks decent, most likely the quality is good. You may enjoy interacting with the restaurant staff and other diners because they are not used to meeting foreign travelers. You are very new to them! By the way, if you want to eat Kobe-beef while in Japan, that’s fun to try, but many yakiniku restaurants serve delicious beef that is much cheaper because it is not officially Kobe beef.

Experiencing the tastes of nameless small restaurants in Japan is another great way of exploring each city.