All 19 of us plus TV crew made it back in 14 minutes. The excitement of being on a foodie tour with Sandy Daza, one of the most celebrated chefs in the Philippines, was about to pop. We hopped back on our bus. It was only a 10-minute ride and we were back outside being led to the fifth floor of the Ramen Stadium, an appropriate name for what we were about to have.
There it was--our first restaurant—a ramen house with decorative Japanese curtains in the doorway. “Hello” and “Welcome” the wait staff said in Japanese and then we placed our orders in something that looked like a drab slot machine.
Hmm, let’s see. I wasn’t up to having soup at this point so I ordered gyozas, placed 1000 yen (about US$10) in the machine and got 400 yen back. My travel buddies Ana Segovia and Rho Clemente ordered pork neck ramen, the restaurant specialty, and that cost a little more.
We sat at a counter and waited. We did not know most of the folks in our group yet except for the super-friendly ones like Looloo Fernando and Joy Balatbat, who worked our group like we were in their living rooms. Already, Sandy was a super host, talking about what we were about to have and how to eat them but, more importantly, he pointed out that this tour was more about having fun.
Those ramen and gyozas easily won the best tasting food we ever put in our mouths. Yes, we were hungry. Famished. Most of us skipped breakfast before our scheduled 9:30 a.m. departure, but that flight was delayed to after 11; and because the food in Philippine Airlines is not exactly a foodie-dream-come-true, many of us skipped that too, thereby making the ramen stop at 5:00 p.m. our first real food for the day.
But Sandy said “Wait. Pace yourselves. There will be a lot more food to come.”
Darkness had fallen when we walked outside the mall to the beautiful Yanagawa River with ferryboats sailing back and forth. We waved to the people inside. Meanwhile, we waited for a makeshift stall to free up. Daily at 5:30 p.m. artisan cooks set up shop along the river with counters for about 10 or 12 diners. We queued up for gyozas.
Each gyoza or dumpling was put together (as in “place meat in wrapper, fold and crimp”) and pan fried right before us so orders took a while to arrive. Meanwhile, it was a good time for a tall bottle of cold Asahi beer.
I already had gyozas earlier in the ramen shop so this time I ordered teriyaki gizzards with onions. Yum. When our orders came we passed our plates around so everyone got to sample a bit of everything on the menu. Oh, man! In Texas where I used to live, we said when food was exceptional: “So good it makes you want to slap yo’ mama.” Okay, okay, maybe that does not sit well in a righteous society. Well lah-di-dah.
We walked through streets flaunting bars and escort services. Hmm. Then we were in a restaurant where we took off our shoes and sat at sunken tables with gorgeous kimono-clad women waiting on us. We were in fantasyland.
Japanese food is like sex in many ways. You have to take it slow and savor all the flavors and textures of the appetizers before going for the main course. There were slices of raw chicken that I had never had; crisp edamame, round sweet potatoes, baked scallops and mushrooms. There was also salad and squids, shrimps and cauliflower. We ate everything in the dozens of tiny plates before us.
The main course was chicken shabu-shabu. The waitresses came with large pots of broth, cooked them on built-in stoves on our tables then added slices of chicken and vegetables to the boiling brew. They were expectedly delicious, but we all had gorged ourselves silly with the appetizers plus the ramen and gyozas we had beforehand so I doubt that anyone had more than a bowl of the main course.
Lesson #2: Listen to Sandy. He had warned us not to eat everything at once. Take it nice and easy.
Our hotel room in Fukuoka, like those in Hiroshima and Osaka, was comfortably large for two persons with a small sitting area and all the amenities of a first class hotel. Because we were Filipinos in Japan in the middle of winter, the warm toilet seats and warm water bidets made for euphoric conversations.
Our five-day foodie tour in Fukuoka, Hiroshima and Osaka was thought out and led by Chef Sandy but coordinated by JTB Travel. The agency sent Jekha Mae Jayectin to round us up, and that’s a good thing because 19 food-minded people can be quite lost and hungry. We also had an English-speaking Japanese guide named Masako, who told us where we were going and why.
Sandy talked about food, their nuances and flavors, and shared with us ways to enjoy them. He enticed us to try everything at least once, including blowfish or fugu.
At the Yanagibashi Morning Market he pointed to a small fugu and asked the man behind the counter to prepare it. We learned there’s a poisonous substance in fugu and if prepared incorrectly, the eater could die. Gee, thanks. The fish was skinned and cut and we all eagerly picked pieces off Sandy’s plate. The delicacy was chewy but surprisingly tasteless.
We walked further down the market aisle, oohing and aahing at every novelty food until we came to a full stop at a rinky-dink store with the freshest looking sushis and sashimis on display in a glass shelf. We were instantly starved! Sandy said we each could order 2,500 yen or about US$25 worth of food. (I must note here that our tour package was inclusive of all meals except breakfast.)
Rho stood in line to place our orders while Ana and I climbed a rickety set of stairs to the second floor of the hole in the wall.
Looloo Fernando and Cyrus Fagar, a congenial couple from California, sat with us on stools around an old linoleum table next to a window shut closed. When forced open, we got a view of water pails lying next to an old air-conditioner. It was a perfect place for a chilly day in southern Japan. Our food arrived steaming hot and beautiful. We shamelessly ravaged the mess of sea urchins or uni, fatty tuna sashimi, fish cheeks teriyaki, fish eel or unagi and more fish cheeks, this time grilled. This, to me, was our second best meal and food experience in our tour.
Happy and content, Ana, Rho and I wandered off in the market and got left behind by our group. “Surely they’ll notice we’re missing!” we said. But it was no cause for panic. Might as well pose and have passersby take our pictures. Ha! Ha! We probably documented this tour with more pictures of ourselves than anyone has ever taken of cherry blossoms in the spring.
Perhaps the only time the cameras did not come out was when we were too busy shopping. We spent the afternoon in an outlet mall no different from outlet malls in the US, but with a store or two of Japanese brands. We were happy but yet again Sandy warned, Lesson # 3: “Do not panic. There will be enough time to shop!”
But all the gods on Earth could not calm Rho down. She was a brazen shopaholic. When we landed in Fukuoka to start our five-day tour, we were comically surprised to see her come out with two huge suitcases and a carry-on bag. “Rho,” Sandy teased, “have you come to migrate to Japan?” But by the third day it was clear that she could no longer fit all her purchases in her three bags. She needed a fourth large suitcase. She was blessed with a good man in our group—a solo traveler named Boy Juan who gamely obliged to help with her haul.
We were glad to have various characters in our group, each one adding a little to spike things up. There were Rick and Mely Rey from Chicago, who took the best pictures with their impressive camera equipment; Ria and Titos Almendral who, like Louie and Adela Evangelista and Joy Balatbat, had already joined Sandy’s tour in Hokkaido but wanted more; plus five crew members of the Lifestyle Channel, who videoed our every bite and burp. I understand our tour will air on “Foodprints with Sandy Daza” this August.
Strawberries, anyone? We visited greenhouses with rows upon rows of huge, red, sugar-sweet strawberries bursting from their stems, and we were free to pick all we could eat right then and there. Wow. Those fruits gave the reason why strawberries sold for at least a dollar each in the stores.
On Day 3 we checked out of our hotel, walked to the Hakata train station next door and rode an hour to Hiroshima. It was the only time we were solemn, and rightly so. In the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum we learned that 140,000 people died from the atomic bomb.
Our heavy hearts were lightened up by lunch of flaky-on-the-outside-tender-in–the–inside pork tonkatsu. The vegetarians and no-pork eaters among us had salad or shrimp tempura.
We took a short ferry ride to Miyajima Island the next day where white-tailed deer roamed freely and small children in school uniforms competed in a fun marathon. The streets leading to the Itsukushima Shrine were lined with food and souvenir shops. Scallops on a half shell! Curried oyster breads! Giant roasted chestnuts! Matcha tea!
Our stomachs could not wait. Who knows, lunch may never come. But we should have waited because what came next was, to me, the number one food experience on this tour. Shimada Suisan oysters. Buckets and buckets of the freshest, tastiest and most succulent oysters this side of the universe.
It was a nippy afternoon outdoors on a deck built over an oyster farm on Hiroshima Bay. We sat on benches next to low wooden tables with built-in grills. The charcoals were hot and ready. Shrimps, scallops, beer and everything not oyster was extra. We each had a fireproof glove on our left hand (or right, if you prefer) and chopsticks on our right. Always, one of us got up to get a bucket of oysters from a nearby pile and place each shell neatly on the grill. When they cracked open, they were ready to eat.
Hold the whole shell with your left hand; shuck with your right; throw the top shell in a pail; slurp the juices and slide that baby to your mouth. Repeat and keep repeating until you cannot take any more. Enjoy the gluttony.
I fell asleep on the train ride to Osaka. I was deliriously happy.
Dinner that night was on the top floor of the Daimaru complex within the Osaka station. I was alarmed that despite having two dozen large oysters for lunch, I again hungered for food. Waiters brought us a tableful of appetizers before serving the most delicious and tender fish eels or unagi over rice.
Our last full day was a good time to get pasalubongs or presents. In the morning we went to Kuromon Market that had kimonos and jackets, bags and souvenirs. At the same time the market brimmed with fish, meat, prepared foods and fresh produce. I watched a man searing scallops on a half shell. Another man fried tempura in a deep fryer. Yet another grilled lobsters and crab legs over hot coals.
Later we did the festive Shinsaibashi and Dotombori areas. Sandy set us free at 11 and said we would meet at the Kobe Beef steak house at five. Six hours of more shopping?! “Well, yes,” our guide Masako said. “Straight ahead are several kilometers of shops. The crossroads also have kilometers of shops.” The place was packed with shoppers on a workday Thursday. It was our last chance for Don Quixote. Uniqlo. Desigual. Polo. Onitsuka Tiger. Bic Camera. Daimaru.
Come 5 o’clock we all looked like Christmas trees with shopping bags hanging from our limbs. We were exhausted. But feed us our last hurrah.
It was all too exciting. The Wanomiya Kobe Beef restaurant had won the best beef award in 2012 and beef was what we were having, no less. Sandy’s tour is a class act. We ordered beer and wine to go nicely with our steaks and after all the appetizers and service rituals, we had our first bite.
I said it first. I nudged at Ria to my left and asked, “Is your steak tough?”
“Yes,” she said. “Too many tendons.”
Ana whispered to my right, “Mine too.”
Maybe the steaks were cooked too rare. Politely, Sandy asked the chef, “Can you please cook the next batches a little bit more?”
They came out a little more tough.
Ha! Ha! Ha!
All good things come to an end.
It was nobody’s fault but the cow’s. Unlike humans, they should have walked less and eaten more.
Sandy said the last time he took a group to that restaurant they had tender and tasty beef worthy of an award. But it did not matter to us one bit. The tough steak made for an experience we were unlikely to forget along with the taste of ramen we had on Day 3 that was so spicy hot even Sandy got up and went out the door for air.
Hugging each other back in the Manila airport we swore, “Until the next foodie tour, wherever Sandy takes us.
For now, we diet.”
The next Sandy Daza foodie tour will be on April 15 and May 5. According to Daza, the next ones after these two might be sometime in the fall, when the weather is cooler. For details, please email email@example.com.
Bella Bonner is a journalism graduate of the UP Institute of Mass Communications. Among others, she worked as a grant writer and hotelier in Texas where she lived for 30 years. She has retired, returned to Manila and spends her days in sports, traveling and writing a personal blog, "Chicharon Diaries."
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