Houstonians know their food, and they sure do get around.
Take the thirteen members of the Sushi Club of Houston who recently ventured to Japan with Carl Rosa, president of the club, for the trip of a lifetime.
Rosa led the group through six cities, including Narita, Tokyo, Mishima and Kyoto, for 11 days, but didn't confine them to a strict itinerary. He did, however, plan a multitude of special activities, including a dinner at the famous Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant and a hike to the top of Mt. Fuji.
"It's my goal to show people how accessible and how amazing Japan is," Rosa says. "And while we are there, everyone gets a crash course in understanding how things work, [including] typical customs and getting around on the bullet train."
Kourtnie Howard had traveled to Japan with her husband once before, and said that the trip with Rosa was more economical and enjoyable.
"I visited six cities in 11 days and I did not feel like I was rushed," Howard says. "I didn't feel like I had to stay constrained to an itinerary. The only thing was the hotels, but then we were free to go about ... Carl definitely made sure that every person was equally involved in where they wanted to go and how they wanted to get there."
Though the trip's activities were planned and conducted in a relaxed manner, Rosa made sure the Jiro dinner was scheduled months in advance.
"It is extremely rare that you can get more than four seats reserved," Rosa says. "I have a very good relationship with them and they gave us the entire sushi bar."
Only nine members of the group were able to eat at Jiro, but Rosa made sure the other four travelers had equally special experiences at Sushi Saito and Kyubei, both Michelin-rated sushi spots.
Rosa presented Jiro with a gift from the Sushi Club of Houston, thanking him for reserving the restaurant for the group. For one hour, the Houstonians feasted on edamame, green tea and nigiri. A meal at Jiro costs about $370.
Rosa says the tamago, a sweet egg omelet, shows the true talent of the sushi chef, and adds that Jiro's was the finest he has ever had in all of his experiences of Japan and sushi.
The rest of the nigiri sushi offerings at Jiro included anago, akami, o-toro and chutoro. According to the group's members, the smoked bonito, whole scallop and uni were the highlights of the meal.
"The scallop was very good," Rosa says. "The bonito was smoked with wood-fire hay, and the smoking of the bonito before we received it was quite surprising, and everyone said that this was very different."
Howard says she was hesitant to eat the uni, but reminded herself of her vow to try everything on this trip.
"I was surprised in the taste," Howard says. "Sea urchin - I have seen it, I know where it comes from, but the way it looks didn't translate in my mind. I thought it would be a little grainy; in fact, it winded up being sweet and creamy. The texture really surprised me."
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While the evening at Jiro of the trip was a highlight, Rosa says a lot of the best moments on the trip were spur-of-the-moment experiences, such as a dumpling encounter in the city of Utsunomiya.
"I took them to Nikko just to show them around and see the beautiful architecture and history," Rosa says. "You have to stop at Utsunomiya, which is famous for having developed Gyoza dumplings. We immediately left the train station and found the first cool pot sticker-driven restaurant and we just ordered right off the menu -- totally off the cuff, totally unrehearsed -- really unique traditional dumplings. It's really great when something like that happens."
Rosa has two more Japan trips planned for this year, from November 15 through November 24, and from November 25 through December 15. Rosa founded the Sushi Club of Houston in 2006, and has hosted more than 30 trips to Japan since then.