To think that sushi best represents Japanese food is like saying that pizza is the finest dish to be found in Italy. The elements of sushi--freshness, seasonality, uniformity of texture, and a single, deep, intense flavor specific to each type of fish--are emblematic of Japanese gastronomy as a whole.
But what other delicious Japanese foods exemplify these key elements?
Yuba, which forms when soy milk is boiled to make tofu, is served throughout Japan. In Kyoto several restaurants, especially those near the famous temples, specialize in multi-course meals with yuba as the star. Dried strips adorn a fresh salad; mock duck is made of thin layers of yuba and sauteed mushrooms; and, crisp, fried yuba dipped into a soy sauce decked with rings of scallions can comprise a meal. Yuba provides a perfect backdrop for other stronger flavors as does its delicate texture.
Throughout the country you will also find wonderfully simple unagi restaurants. Few culinary experiences are as pleasurable as tasting the salty, sweet taste of grilled eel with a cold Asahi draft beer while sitting on a mat and just relaxing.
In fact, most traditional Japanese food is unpretentious, comfort food: Washoku. Ramen noodles in an enoki mushroom broth, a plate of deeply fried chicken Karaage, or a bowl of soba noodles with freshly grated wasabi (Japanese horseradish): these are easy to prepare, ingredient driven dishes created by a history of isolation from other gastronomies and cultures.
One of the most fun things you can do in Japan is to enjoy the cuisine in a typical, family-owned establishment. Usually the music playing is exquisite, classic jazz--Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis--and while you swoon a little to the vibe, the darkness of the room adds to a dreamy effect then heightened by the owner's ability to recognize what you most desire in order to be satisfied by the food. You don't need a menu, but instead a conversation will follow, as if between friends, and soon before you will be given a succession of small plates of whatever is in season: whole, grilled baby fish; edamame; picked vegetables; small, hot peppers; roasted bits of pork. The place? It's an izakaya, a Japanese pub, and no place on earth is more convivial.
What do you drink with Japanese food?
The current generation is more likely to drink beer or shochu, a strong alcohol (about 25% alcohol) typically made from grain or potatoes, but sake ("our father's drink," young people say) remains popular. An artisanal brewery in Yamanaka makes shishi no sato, but the sake from Niigata is a great introduction as it has a pure taste achieved through heavy filtration.
The gastronomy of Japan is so unique and spectacular that it is inspiring today's top chefs--Joel Robuchon, Ferran Adria, Alain Ducasse, among them--to rethink how they cook and serve in their establishments. Why not join in that discussion by taking off your shoes, sitting down on a tatame mat, picking up your hashi (chopsticks), and scooping up what's in front of you? It may not be sushi, but it will be good!