Tourism by Matt S.
One of the comments that I get frequently from people about Japan comes when I tell them that I can't eat seafood. "But how do you survive?" they ask, or something along the lines of "but aren't you missing out on the best food that Japan offers?"
Yes, Japan has awesome seafood, But the country also has plenty of amazing food that doesn't come from the oceans. The 'wagyu' in 'wagyu beef' is a Japanese word for a reason. Equally, anyone who has ever tried Japanese pastries and breads could not sanely claim that Japan is lacking in this area either.
Heck, I could live on melon pan alone. Melon pan ('pan' means 'bread' in Japan) is a singularly spectacular invention that I have a habit of buying from every single shop that I can whenever I'm in the country.
Related reading: Matt found some excellent food during his travels last year... at a zoo!
Melon pan is basically a sweet bread roll that has a cookie surface baked on to the top of it, and is then given a criss-cross pattern so that it looks like a melon, though it doesn't traditionally taste like one (some bakers will add in a melon flavour now, though). These breads can be bought at convenience stores for as little as 100 yen (about $1-$1.50, depending on where you come from), or you can buy 'proper' melon pan from bakeries for a couple of hundred yen. If you ever find yourself in Asakusa, there's a store there that exclusively sells melon pan, and is famous across the country for it. Definitely try it from there if you can - those melon pan are the true meaning of heaven.
Japanese pastry shops are everywhere and you'll have no trouble tracking down both chains or local bakers, depending on your mood. Many places will actually have characters designed into the pastries to celebrate a local character or popular design at the time. Over the years I've seen pastries themed from everything from Totoro himself through to more generic turtles and other animals (the latter was at a cafe close to Ueno zoo). It makes for a good lunch; buying two or three different pastries and a coffee before sitting down somewhere relaxing to eat them.
Other favourite choices for pastries and breads, beyond the melon pan, include curry pan - a bread that has some Japanese curry sauce inside it, and hot dogs, which when purchased from these pastry stores are consumed cold, are awesome because they generally use arabiki sausage. For those that don't know what those are, they are pork sausages that have a snap to them thanks to the thick skin when bitten into, and are delicious and juicy.
For people into sweeter fare you'll also find a wide range of cream buns and these delicious bread rolls that have been soaked in butter and then sugar sprinkled over them. Not healthy, of course, but delicious.
In terms of quality; if you're buying from the big pastry chains that set up near train stations, then it's pretty reliable. For something cheaper, convenience stores will generally carry the same basic pastries, and they'll be cheaper in mire than price, and be nice without being spectacular. Your best bet is to go where the crowds are, however. The independent bakers that are able to attract a lineup and a busy store (such as the aforementioned Asakusa melon pan store) and the ones that will charge the most for their food, but the enduring popularity with locals exists precisely because the food is so completely worth it.
More than anything else though I really recommend that when you visit these pastry shops to be brave and experiment. Japan is at its best when you're trying things that you would not normally, and so many of my favourite foods in this country have come as a direct result of taking a deep breath and diving beyond my culinary comfort zone.
- Matt S and Lindsay M.
Editor-in-Chief and News Editor