Finding Foreign Food

August 24th, 2006 by Chris

No matter how long it feels subjectively, we haven’t been in Japan all that long. It’s been about three weeks since we arrived in Noshiro, and in that time we’ve been busy investigating the food options in this medium-sized town.

Many JETs are placed in towns so small they don’t appear on maps, and others are in big cities with dozens of other gaijin to hang out with. The small towners tend to be local celebrities known by everyone in town. One person we met a couple weeks ago lives in a town of 6,000 and is surrounded by farmers who bring her fresh vegetables from their fields. Conversely, the big city folk are surrounded by places like Starbucks and Italian restaurants and shops that sell foreign foods.

Noshiro is an unfortunate middle ground. As Steph put it, “big enough that no one cares were here, but not big enough for there to be anything to do.” The central core of town is amusingly lifeless. There’s one big “shopping street” which has a string of mostly small restaurants and shops. We’re gradually covering this street from end to end and trying a couple of new restaurants each week. Most Japanese restaurants are intimidating because they have no windows so you can’t look in and get an idea of whether it will be any good. Unmarked doors sometimes lead into lovely little places, and grand entrances may equally well lead into dirty places selling fish guts.

One of the places on this “shopping street” is Bamboo House, which we thought was just a bar. Indeed that’s all you see when you look in the window (already a point in favor that it has a window), and all the JET gossip says that Bamboo House is a great place to drink. But we didn’t want to drink; indeed, we were just looking for some Chinese food one night, and the Bamboo House bartender looked friendly so we stopped in to ask. He said there was a second floor restaurant that had some dim-sum like Chinese food. It turns out that Bamboo House has a restaurant upstairs which had never been mentioned by all the JETs enthusiastically talking about drinking. But good thing we found it, because it’s definitely the best place in town for us world travelers. We knew we were in the right place when we were sat at a counter facing a wall with a huge statue of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha (thanks Google!) right in front of us. It turns out this place has all kinds of great food, including Thai and Indian curries, pastas, Chinese dim-summish things, and really (really) big beers. The tandoori chicken we had was fantastic. And the atmosphere is perfect (unusual in smaller Japanese towns) — bamboo blinds, rugs hanging from the ceiling, lots of warm wood and fun stuff on the walls. We find we are having to consciously keep ourselves from going there more than once a week…

We thought “shopping street” was all there was to Noshiro until we got bicycles and were able to expand our horizons. And that’s when we discovered the wonder that is Route 7. About a mile south of town, this is the big non-expressway road (think route 66) that connects all the major cities of Akita. As you would expect it’s littered with big discount stores and fast food restaurants; much as I hate to say it, I feel right at home down there.

Former Noshiro JETs had urged us to go to a place called Gusto (gasuto) on Route 7, which is legendary among American locals for its — wait for it — FREE REFILLS. And great burgers, apparently. So last Friday we decided to give it a try. Gusto did not disappoint. The drinks were indeed bottomless (and serve-yourself — choose between various kinds of coffee, soda, and tea) and the cheeseburgers were… not bad at all. I would say they were on a par with Denny’s, which is about as good as can be expected. The rest of the menu actually looked pretty entertaining. There was all kinds of Japanese junk food on there, as well as various kinds of entertaining hamburger patties on plates surrounded by interesting-looking ingredients. We weren’t feeling that adventurous that night, but maybe next time.

Across the street from Gusto is Japan’s McDonald’s equivalent, Mos Burger. We haven’t eaten there yet but it’s on our list. A poster in Mos Burger’s window shows “burgers” which look to me more like a cross between a taco and a pita.

Strangely, Italian food is everywhere. Many of the department store-style restaurants (with plastic food displays out front) have pasta dishes with tomato sauce and varying approximations of cheese and ham. My theory is that these are so popular since noodles are already a comfort food here.

We’re still on the lookout for some honest-to-god teriyaki and taro boba tea, which don’t actually seem to exist in Japan. But we’re thrilled to have begun discovering the good places to eat in town, so that when y’all come visit we will have lots of tasty options!

One Response to “Finding Foreign Food”

  1. Steph Says:

    I want to add a little disclaimer… now that we’ve been in Japan for 4 months, I love our little town. There’s plenty to do if you dig for it. We’ve found several tasty little eateries. The people are sweet and can’t be beat. And I get just the right amount of attention… not ignored like many big-city dwellers, and not swamped like some of the village folk. Noshiro rocks my world.

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