Another Adventure in Fearless Feasting: Gyutan

According to our original itinerary, the day following our perfect Obon experience in Matsushima had been set aside to visit Yamadera. But when faced with the prospect of having to actually climb up 1000 steps to visit the mountain temple there, we realized that not only were we absolutely EXHAUSTED, but the reality of having a private room was just way too decadent for us to pass it up. At $105/night, this was one of our most expensive lodging options and we figured we might as well get our money's worth.

For us, this meant, sleeping in, relaxing, enjoying a leisurely hotel buffet breakfast, and oh yeah, our first round of sink laundry:

When we first conceived of this trip, we really approached it the way we had our previous vacations, which is to say that we planned to have our days jam-packed with activities because we wanted to maximize our limited time in Japan. I don’t know about you, but we have always come home from vacations more tired than we left, and we assumed that the adrenaline of being somewhere new would keep us moving at a breakneck pace. But we are coming to realize that this year of travel will not and cannot be like the travel we have done before where at the end of a punctate period we would return to our regular lives. No, instead we must find a way to travel in a way that is sustainable and balanced, because this is our new life for the next year or so. We need to take time to blog and read books and watch some TV now and then, because these were all things that we enjoyed in our life pre-travel and when you strip us down to our basic needs and wants, these things are important to us, just as seeing the world is.

So we gave ourselves the day off to lounge about in bed, enjoying the air conditioning, and we didn’t feel the least bit guilty about it. Not even though the only time we ventured out of our room was to grab some dinner.

Because really, what a dinner it was!

The gyutan (tongue) in all its grilled glory!

One of the fun things about traveling in Japan for foodies is that most cities have local specialties. Of course, we try to make it a priority to try as many of these dishes as we can. In Sendai, the local specialty is gyutan, or in English: grilled cow tongue.

Having done our due diligence, we knew that one of the best places to check out some gyutan was the third floor of the Sendai train station. There are approximately 10 -15 restaurants up there that specialize in cow tongue, some of them quite famous (and with rather long lines), but we decided to just roll the die and pick whichever one looked best to us.

Where the magic happens

We didn’t know whether splitting meals is something that is commonly done in Japan, but we seeing as we had already flouted our own itinerary for the day, we figured we could continue to live life on the edge and share a larger gyutan set meal. We’ve been told on countless ocassions that most Japanese people turn a blind eye to baffling “gaijin” behavior as they figure we don’t know the rules anyhow, so we might as well use that to our advantage every now and then. As it turns out, our waitress wasn’t phased at all when we only ordered one set dinner and a small soup to go with it, and even brought out a second plate for me (without us having asked), so it seems that sharing meals, while uncommon in Japan, is not actively frowned upon.

I know for most people, the cow tongue (or perhaps the ox-tail soup) would be the clear adventurous aspect of this meal. But Tony & I already have a long-standing love affair with tongue: my parents used to serve it to my brother & me when we were kids (calling it “tender beef”… we didn’t realize until years later what it was we had been eating second and thirds of!), and one of Tony’s favorite Mexican joints in Nashville did an amazing “lengua” taco. So unlike some of the daring meals we had tried in Japan, this one was well in our comfort zone. True, we had never had tongue grilled before, but really, the weirdest and riskiest dish for us that evening was probably the weird gloppy yam mixture that came with the set meal. It had a pretty slimy texture, was served nearly ice cold, and tasted like not much of anything. While it didn’t offend us, I can’t say either of us really understood the point of it! (I’m guessing that it probably is meant to aid in digestion, but I shall wait for someone who knows for sure to weigh in on this!)

As for the star attraction, the gyutan, it was very good, though certainly more chewy & crispy than the slow-cooked versions of that we’ve experience before. Truth be told, however, I think the real unexpected hit of the meal was the braised ox-tail; it was incredibly rich and unctuous and practically fell apart in our mouths. It was packed with great, meaty flavor and was a carnivorous delight. The gyutan was good, but it’s that ox-tail that we would go back for if we ever pass through Sendai again some day! It definitely made us happy that we splurged a bit and got one of the deluxe set meals, as not all of them included ox-tail in any capacity other than the soup, and this was far better than that.

I suppose that’s the nice thing about being on the road: even when you give yourself time to breathe and take a time-out from playing super tourist, you find that even in the seemingly mundane actions of life, such as having dinner, adventure and the opportunity to learn or try something new can still be had.


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14 comments Leave a comment

  1. Ah yes…the gooey yam dish…what was up with that?! I have yet to try the tongue although, same as you, it doesn’t seem as bad as many of the unknown options that could be presented. At least tongue is a muscle!! And you are soooo right to take some ‘normal’ time during your travels. You will need it – this is a marathon and you need to take some time to regroup and feel ‘normal’.

    Sep. 17 2012 @ 7:12 am
    1. Gillian @OneGiantStep author

      Honestly, I know it’s cliché but tongue really just tastes like excellent roast beef! If you get the chance, definitely try it… as far as off-cuts go, it’s one of the best!

      Sep. 19 2012 @ 9:54 am
  2. Good for you for taking a day off. Traveling is exhausting and you need to recharge (and do laundry).

    I’ll reserve comment on the tongue. 😉

    Sep. 17 2012 @ 10:31 am
    1. softdrink author

      Travel was certainly exhausting for us in Japan, so we definitely needed a vacation from our travels there every so often!

      I guess we could say that you are biting your tongue about the tongue… 😉

      Sep. 19 2012 @ 9:54 am
  3. Taking a day off to relax sounds sensible – loving the ‘sink washing’ too! I keep forgetting that even when you’re away travelling certain chores still need to be done! Do you miss home cooking at all?

    Sep. 17 2012 @ 2:57 pm
    1. amy author

      Honestly, I kind of got out of the cooking habit during the last 2 months of my dissertation and the food has generally been so good that I haven’t missed cooking at all! Would definitely like to learn some new dishes for when we are settled down somewhere though!

      Sep. 19 2012 @ 9:56 am
  4. Yeay for sink laundry! ha ha… I’m glad that you guys are adjusting to slow travel, and you’re brave for eating tongue!

    Sep. 17 2012 @ 11:33 pm
    1. Dana - Our Wanderlust author

      Yeah, the kicker to our sink laundry was that the only place we could hang it all was right over our bed. Aw yeah, sexy times! 😉

      This was really our first slow travel day and was the first day we acknowledged we needed to make a change… We honestly haven’t had that many lazy days since leaving home, but you definitely need them every now and then!

      Sep. 19 2012 @ 9:57 am
  5. I have never tried tongue, and have secretly been afraid of it all my life, but it looks delicious there! And I can understand that you might have to treat this trip differently than most, since you will be gone for so long! I hope you are having fun over there!

    Sep. 19 2012 @ 11:42 am
    1. zibilee author

      I know tongue scares a lot of people, but honestly, it’s the kind of cut that you’d swear is the most delicious and tender roast beef you’ve ever had if no one ever told you what it is!
      And yes, we are having fun over here (even though we are now in China and it has been certainly challenging at times!)!

      Sep. 20 2012 @ 5:48 am
  6. I loved everything in Japan except for my struggle for finding vegetarian food. And I agree that slow travel is the best, too much cramming and we dont enjoy or remember anything.

    Sep. 20 2012 @ 6:13 am
    1. Arti author

      Yes, Japan is a great place for food if you are pretty adventurous and NOT a vegetarian! 😉

      I think we did a pretty good job in Japan because although we had packed days, in retrospect, each one is very clear and distinct! But for our sakes, I am glad we are slowing down and realizing we just can’t see everything.

      Sep. 22 2012 @ 6:42 pm
  7. Lengua tacos are also my absolute favorite! Are those also two giant hot dogs on the plate with the tongue?

    Sep. 28 2012 @ 4:45 am
    1. Mark Wiens author

      Yes, lengua is soooo good! And those were two sausages sort of in a german style (they were served with a grainy mustard)… have no idea why they were there but they were delicious none the less!

      Sep. 28 2012 @ 7:29 pm

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