My husband and I met in Japan when we were fresh university graduates looking for adventure and well-paying jobs. I lived in Osaka for the better part of the year but when the choking heat of summer came, I didn’t want to live in the dry, dusty city anymore. It’s not just in Osaka that I feel this way in the summer, in Canada, the summer heat feels like a punishment to be endured until the weekend comes and I can escape to the countryside.
I moved to the West coast of Japan to a smaller town steeped in historical tradition called Kanazawa. The climate in Kanazawa was quite different than what I had grown used to in Osaka. It was wetter and cooler so that a common saying we heard from our students was though you may forget your lunch, don’t forget your umbrella.
In summer, it was very hot and humid and in the winter, there was often slushy snow that could stick around for a couple of days. In Osaka, if it snowed, it was a rarity and would most likely melt with the rising of the sun.
My husband and I taught at the same language school and it turned out we both had Mondays and Tuesdays as our days off. We also had a wanderlust and were up for trying just about anything new. We explored the region and its cuisine on bikes, would take short train trips into the mountains for picturesque hikes or longer train rides to destinations known for their hot springs or more challenging hikes.
As I said, Kanazawa is known as a town where the population loves its traditions and I took classes in whatever was available to a foreigner with a weak grasp on the language. I learned about ikebana (the art of flower arrangement), took lessons on the koto (a Japanese string instrument), used traditional methods to guild chopsticks in gold leaf, visited the wooden houses where Geisha used to live, visited the samurai district, attended tea ceremonies, learned paper crafts and visited the famous Kenrokuen regularly (which has been ranked as one of the top three gardens in Japan).
Not ones to stay in the same place for long, we moved back towards the Osaka region after having lived in Kanazawa for several months. We settled in the countryside in Nara prefecture. Once again we had a hub from which to explore parks, onsens (hot public baths) and hiking trails.
We lived in a very small town this time surrounded by rice paddies and we encountered few foreigners in this isolated region. I worked for a company that supplied native English teachers to the school board so every working day was an adventure. I was given a new school or destination every day. I didn’t know how old the kids would be that I’d be teaching or how many classes I’d teach that day. By this point, I had learned enough of the language to get by without a translator.
I’d hop a few different modes of transportation and either someone would meet me to take me to a school or I’d find my way on foot, and being blonde and blue eyed, they knew why I was showing up at their door. Someone at the school (probably the vice-principal) would usher me from class to class where I would play games and read stories to the children. It was a fun job without much responsibility.
The whole point of this trip through my memory is that yesterday, my son said he’d like dinner pancakes for dinner. And so, I thought of okonomiyaki. Something special about Japan is that it’s a country with so much culinary history. In cities that are so close together it’s hard to know when you’ve left one and entered another, each city is known for its unique cuisine.
Here in Canada, everything is set apart with wide open spaces and cities are distinguishable more for their landscape than their culture. We share similar cuisines and culture across the wide country with only subtle differences. (Maybe other Canadians would disagree?)
In Japan, each city has its flavour. Literally. So if you want the best okonomiyaki, you go to either Osaka or Hiroshima. Okonomiyaki are savoury pancakes (also referred to as Japanese pizza since you can change the toppings). They are made with cabbage and an eggy dough, covered in a sweet brown sauce, topped however you like it and often drizzled with Japanese mayo (I could write a whole post about Japanese mayo – I’m not a fan) and heaped with fish flakes (I also never liked the flakes).
We’ve made okonomiyaki many times at home but not for many years. I’ve recently tried a few recipes but they weren’t authentic. Last night, I tried this one. It was good but I’ll be tweaking it a bit next time to come up with one that is a closer match to my memories of the okonomiyaki we ate regularly.
In my mind, it should be thicker, heartier and they need toppings. I made these small and thick to ensure they cooked properly and because I wasn’t sure if the kids would like them. It was only when we went to eat them that I remembered what was missing. I’ll keep you posted if I’m able to come up with a good match now that my memory has been stoked. And I know the kids are on board! The next batch will be the size of our plates and won’t require anything on the side.
The okonomiyaki in Hiroshima is quite different and includes noodles. But for me, real okonomiyaki is the Osakan variety.
We had the okonomiyaki with white rice and tofu teriyaki – which was nice. We skipped the mayo, didn’t have any toppings and didn’t even try to replicate the fish flakes – ewww!