Archive for November, 2006

Day Seven – Kyoto (Nanzen-ji)

November 29, 2006

Started the day with black tea and toast (lovely thick slices) as a break from the Japanese style breakfast of rice, seaweed and pickles. The Japanese breakfast was lovely, but a return to the familiar comforts of tea and toast was marvellous.

We took the #5 bus north and east to Nanzen-ji, the temple famous for the leaping tiger shoji (sliding screens) and the Leaping Tiger Garden, a stone garden. The garden was named for the large orange- and black-brindled rocks that it was created around, which resemble (with a bit of imagination) tigers leaping across a stream. The leaping tiger shoji are all gorgeous – warm gold background, with a different scene in each room of tigers and leopards up to tricks – drinking, playing, hunting, sleeping, etc. In other words, tigers enjoying the good life.

Nanzen-ji was a little harder to find than the central Kyoto sights (although not much harder) but it was well worth the extra effort. The temple precinct was alive with people and the rows of momiji trees, the top edges of their leaves just starting to show pink, were swishing in the breeze. For once, we arrived at the main gate – the San-mon – and approached the main hall along the central avenue, as you’re meant to. Inside the main building, our shoes religiously abandoned at the door, all was peace and quiet. We both enjoyed padding around old buildings in our socks – somehow, it adds a homely dimension to all the touristy gawping, and makes you feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar place.

We had a look at all the leaping tiger screens (sadly not allowed to photograph them) – the overall effect, with the golden screens and the golden tatami mats, was of profound warmth and simple ostentation (if that’s not too oxymoronic). We also padded around the building, enjoying the feeling of being inside and outside, as the structure passed over the garden, or walls dissolved around corners and you walked towards a vision of green or gold. And then we settled down for some serious garden watching.

Regarding a stone garden was a new experience for both of us. As with the fortune telling ritual that Shizuka and Issy performed at Senso-ji in Tokyo, I found it took me a while to put my mind in the right gear for the task. Because, at first, you’re looking at some rocks, some shaped shrubs, and some scrubby grass. Looking for leaping tigers. And not seeing them.

So I turned to the information leaflet for some instruction and it told me to look at the garden in the context of its setting, to regard the wall and the floor and the buildings behind it, and the trees and hills behind them, as an extension of the garden. So I tried that. I can’t say when or how it all changed in my mind’s eye, but it did. I felt some movement in the rocks, saw something liquid in the grass, and discerned repeating patterns and unrepeating distortions in the angles of the trees and the rooves. The sky and the people around became one and… just kidding.

A fascinating experience and a new instruction in beauty, both from the garden and the temple as a whole. Highly recommended. Here is a set of photos that I took there at Nanzen-ji, with which I am rather pleased.

Found lunch of udon, soup and vegetable tempura in a pukka Japanese lunch place. The chef saved us by knowing the words of ‘noodles’, ‘tempura’ and ‘vegetable’ when he saw our puzzled perusal of the Kanji menu. We said ‘yes please’ to all three. He had a cavalier attitude towards his cooking, flinging battered stuff into one of two vats of hot oil, and fishing ropes of udon noodles out of a basin with his bare hands. Most tasty meal, although udon in soup are a challenge, being thick and heavy and very slippery, and tempura goes soggy sitting in the soup.

On to the Heian Jingu shrine that appeared in the film ‘Lost in Translation’ (Scarlet Johanssen walks diagonally across the main courtyard) [ 1 | 2 ]. Not the same effect as in the film, where it was symbolic of the mystical and religious aspect of Japanese culture, primarily because of some temporary building works in the middle of the gravel courtyard. The shrine was interesting nonetheless, and resplendent in that vigorous orange that we were encountering quite frequently now.

#5 and #17 buses home, after a brief diversion into Takashimaya to hunt yukatta, only to find the choice limited as this is a summer clothing item and it was autumn. Back to Hiraiwa ryokan and some sleepy lazing about watching a judo competition on the telly.

Overcast outside, so the plan to attend the moon viewing festival in Kyoto outskirts dissolved and we headed to Gion for dinner instead. We felt a little as though we’d wimped out, but the posters advertising the event had been unequivocal about the strategy to cancel the event if the moon was unlikely to be viewable due to cloud cover.

Followed the guide book recommendation for a tempura restaurant in Gion, only to find the place full of other tourists. We should have figured that would be the case before hand, and vowed never to seek out a place listed in the book again. We also paid a premium for sitting on tatami mats and watching the tempura being cooked right in front of us (lots of frying). The actual food, whilst very nice, was not as fresh and tasty as the much cheaper lunch that we’d muddled our way through. Chatted to a friendly and engaging couple from San Francisco, who were sitting beside us at the food bar. They had been on the geisha spotting tour led by the Canadian man that we’d not been able to contact to arrange a place on the tour with. They confirmed that he was very difficult to contact and they’d only caught him on the phone by calling every day that they were in Japan. No great loss. They described the kind of activity neither of us is very keen on: that is, hanging around outside known geisha haunts waiting for one to emerge, then frantically photographing her and pushing against others to see her as she rushed (no doubt with very dainty steps) from the door and into a waiting car, then stared fixedly ahead as the car sped off. Great fun.

Back at the ryokan and ready for bed in our all too middle-aged fashion. There is a small horde of Austrialian schoolgirls here now, and a couple of demure boys who looked distinctly outnumbered and were wisely keeping there heads down. The noise hasn’t died down yet (shrieking, giggling, stamping, shouting), although a lovely teacher lady in a too short green, floral satin dressing gown has assured us they’ll settle down soon.

Click here for a list of the day-by-day posts about our trip to Japan >>



Day Six – Kyoto

November 22, 2006

To Fushimi-Inari shrine on the JR local line from Kyoto Central train station – 2nd stop. This is a Shinto shrine to the god of rice and sake, with a 4km long, torii-lined (Shinto gates) path up the side of the hill. Got bitten by mosquitoes and rained on sans umbrellas about a quarter of the way along, so decided to head home, having got the measure of the place. I think in dry, sunny weather it would be most appealing. What is interesting about a lot of the temples and shrines is the mix, amongst the Japanese folk there, of tourists and the faithful. Some of the people we passed in the red, spider-webbed, dripping corridors of Fushimi-Inari were clearly just having a look around, as we were. But others were striding in a concentrated manner, just as clearly walking the path with a religious intent. On the way back to the train station we saw a stand of transparent umbrellas – you can guess the result. These were the Rolls-Royce variety though, with a spring-loaded button on the handle that you can push to deploy the umbrella with an impressive whoosh and thump as it opens. They are also large enough to cover our shoulders, and just long enough to tap on the ground as you are walking with them in dry weather. Also, mine is blue – but still transparent.

Around lunchtime we were browsing the Nishiki market and had some yakitori – a cuisine I’d been hunting for. Yakitori is generally bits of chicken and leek on a stick, grilled over coals, with either salt or yakitori sauce on it. Very yummy – a more successful dalliance with street food than the octopus dumplings in Ueno. The market is almost endless – mostly filled with food stalls of rich variety, but peppered here and there by restaurants, pottery shops, clothes shops etc. The displays are a mix of the casual and the fastidious: one stall might have carefully arranged displays of fish or pickles all pointing in the same direction and sorted by size, while the next will have a mishmash of wares crammed onto small tables and into stacks of boxes; others are working stalls, with, for instance, cured bonito fish being sliced into paper-thin flakes that pile up and flutter in the air, looking like they’re about to fly off like dandelions. It was in a 100yen shop that MLW finally found a decent branch of fake autumn momiji to take home with us. She proudly displayed them in her backpack for the rest of the trip, drawing amused smiles and giggles from Japanese people wherever we went. In between locations, they generally adorned the tea tray in our room.

Headed back to the ryokan with a bad headache from looking into too many pickle barrels, and had a small sleep and a soaking Japanese bath before heading out to Ponto-cho for kaiseki dinner at a restaurant called Uzuki.

This was a ten course fish and vegetable meal where Tom Hanks and family had recently, apparently, eaten, whilst on tour promoting the Da Vinci Code film. The soup and sashimi courses were especially good and our waiter, who was being trained, was most engaging. He described sole as ‘frat fish’, which took a bit of decoding, but otherwise we each practised our foreign languages across the ten courses. I was pleased to be able to supply the word ‘chestnut’ when all he could find was the French, ‘marron’.

Menu (as best I can recall and interpret it):

  • A cube of dense, milky, silky tofu with a walnut sauce, decorated with a green momiji leaf.
  • Drink: hot sake
  • A broth served in a teapot. You open the lid, and squeeze the juice from a lime wedge into it, then eat the segments of cod and mushroom out of the pot. Then you put the lid on and pour the broth into a teacup and drink it from there, refilling as you want to (of course, I drank it all). This broth was exquisite.
  • The sashimi course was a complex construction of skipjack, swordfish and squid, with fresh radish, wasabi, red and green sprout, and a sprig of purple flowers on top. The fish and squid was so fresh and fine that it tasted like no fish I’ve ever eaten before: so tender and sweet. Delicious. Best sashimi I’ve ever had. Soy sauce in a separate dish.
    Drinking Kirin beer about now.
  • Extraordinary course of barracuda nigiri sushi, with a cross-section of pickled sweet fish (literally a slice of the whole fish – we could see the spine, organs etc. inside, and the fins etc. outside: dense texture, but a sweet, meaty taste), and a fascinating variety of nuts. There was a peeled and an unpeeled ginko nut, each skewered on a matsu (pine) needle, and a peeled and unpeeled chestnut. Eating these nuts in this was made me acutely aware of the difference in taste and texture between the peeled and the unpeeled version.
  • Stewed pumpkin with boiled prawn dumplings and a clear, silky ginger sauce. The skin of the pumpkin, which I ate and MLW did not, was soft and nutty.
  • Fried sole and some other fish I missed the name of, served on a bizarre potter leaf with a rope handle arching across it. I found the dish something of hindrance and the fish less than fascinating. The lotus root was interesting and the popped rice on its stalk was very impressive. I struggled to extract the fish from the bones, not being that adept with chopsticks – I made a mess but MLW handled it beautifully.
  • Drinking hojicha (roasted tea) about now.
  • Clear steamed pudding with prawn, ginko nut etc suspended in it.
  • Tempura prawns and chillies, to be dipped in the special salt (light and slightly sweet and sour) served with it separately.
  • Gohan (boiled rice) served with tsukemono (pickles), miso shiru and hojicha. Uzuki’s variation on the rice course (always the last – except for ice-cream, of course) is to pour hojicha over the rice.
  • A ball of pear sorbet with crunchy cubes of pear in it.

Everyone we meet and talk to in Japan is so polite, friendly, and helpful. And endlessly courteous. Our Japanese, I feel, is getting smoother and our delivery is more confident. More excitement in Kyoto tomorrow, and then we move on to Fukui for a bit of hotel R&R: baths on the roof and a laundry service!

Click here for a list of the day-by-day posts about our trip to Japan >>


Day Five – Nara and Kyoto

November 20, 2006

Now at Hiraiwa ryokan in Kyoto, in ‘lower Gion’, just over the Path of Philosophy, so I feel at home. Have had a busy and tiring – but fascinating and fun – day in Nara. Transferred from the hotel to the ryokan this evening.

We took the JR local train to Nara after breakfast and headed into Nara-koen, the big park there that shelters a large number of Unesco World Heritage sites in its leafy province, with sacred deer wandering here and there. Lots of temples. Lots of deer. Lots of school children.

We walked directly from the train station to the park, and directly across the park and into the hills, winding up a stone lantern-lined pathway, and up to the Kasuga Taisha shrine. Prayers and gifts were offered in various forms. (The simple rule of thumb that our guidebook provides is that if something is a shrine, the attendant religion is Shinto, and if it’s a temple, then Buddhism.) Twice a year the many lanterns (thousands) are lit for festivals, and the four sides of the stone lantern papered over to protect the flame and create a religious glow. We could see the remains of the paper from the last festival still stuck to many of the lanterns. Groups of school children were running and playing up and down the length of the pathway, and often when we passed them, or them us, there was a flurry of hello’s and herro’s and konnichiwa’s from them. Some were fleeing the sacred deer, which could get quite pushy if they sensed you might have some sacred biscuits.

From this shrine we walked along the perimeter of Nara-koen, and climbed even higher to visit two halls: Nigatsu-do and Sangatsu-do. Part of the larger Todai-ji temple precinct, they are both beautiful old wooden buildings. Sangatsu-do is the oldest building in the complex, and Nigatsu-do has some famous steps (upon which many photographic moments were taking place) and an expansive view over Nara. Stopped for a ramen lunch with udon and tofu. We then walked towards the Daibutsu-den hall, passing the temple bell on the way.

The Daibutsu-den is enormous, although it’s not as big as it once was, apparently. Many temples and shrines in Japan count their age in terms of how long a shrine or temple has been on a particular site, rather than the age of the buildings themselves. This is because time, war, earthquakes and fire take their toll on wooden buildings. So, the current Daibutsu-den hall was rebuilt at a proportion of two thirds the size of the hall it was replacing, in 1709, but it’s still the largest wooden building in the world today. Atop the hall are two golden horns (not sure what they mean) around which a murder of crows swoops and dives continuously, giving the building an intimidating air. Inside is the Daibutsu or Great Buddha: cast in 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold, it’s 16m high and each of his ears is taller than me! The Buddha effectively fills the hall but behind him there’s a small crowd gathered around one column that has at its base a hole believed to be the same size as one of the Daibutsu’s nostrils. If you can wriggle through the hole you are ensured of enlightment. So, there are a lot of enlightened children and skinny people amongst us.

We left the Todai-ji temple through the main gate, the Nandai-mon, inside which are two statues, one to each side. They are Nio guardians, venomous looking with fierce musculature, one has his mouth open to admit the faithful and the other has his mouth closed to keep out the heathens.

Leaving the park and heading back to the train station, we stopped at the Kofuku-ji temple, which has two pagodas, one a 3-tier effort, and the other a magnificent 5-tier erection that is the second tallest in Japan.

Nara had a good vibe and we were in the right mood to walk the tourist route between station and park, bedecked with fake autumn momiji. We cruised the sweet shops, looking at the staggering array of beautiful and mysterious o-mochi. We bought some clams in a sweet shop (not as out of place as it might sound in Japan) and brought them home for MLW’s family, not knowing what might be inside them. Turned out to be a delicacy: a lump of sticky brown sugar, like muscovado. The clam, with a bit judicious drilling, becomes a whistle, the instructions informed us.

Train back to Kyoto, and taxi to the ryokan, which seemed a slight mismatch of transport and destination. This ryokan is much better than the one in Nagoya, being an altogether more professional operation, staffed by at least three generations of ladies from the same family – a truly matriarchal environment. Tatami mat rooms smell a bit grassy to me but perhaps I will grow accustomed to it. The room, we worked out, has about the same floor area as our study/second room in our flat at home, but in a square instead of a rectangle (so a bit shorter and a bit wider).

Am tired now and full of conveyor belt sushi. I’ve realised that in London, when we go out for sushi, I actually manage to not eat much raw fish at all. The sushi this evening was two parts fish to one part rice, and I had to chew valiantly on a chunk of young yellowtail that in hindsight I should probably not have put in my mouth. Sushi is best, I feel, when it doesn’t taste like raw fish. Thank goodness sushi is just one of many Japanese cuisines.

Tomorrow we go to the Fushimi-Inari shrine and have kaiseki dinner in Ponto-cho.

Click here for a list of the day-by-day posts about our trip to Japan >>


Day Four – Nagoya to Kyoto

November 16, 2006

Our meagre Japanese helped us to explain to our ryokan hosts that we had changed our plans and were moving on to Kyoto a day early. We didn’t complain as there seemed not much point in doing so – I think that by the standards of the place, we’d been treated perfectly well.

The trains in Japan are a delight. On an Hikari shinkansen to Kyoto now, travelling fast. There are three flavours of shinkansen on this route, we’ve discovered: Kodama is the stopping service, which we caught to Nagoya yesterday; Hikari is the limited express service, stopping at some stations but not all; the Nozomi is the express and has a more aerodynamically pointed nose than the trains for the other two services, but sadly we can’t take the Nozomi without supplementing what we’ve already paid for our Japan Rail passes. You hear a sort of whale song sound from underneath the train carriage whenever it ‘changes gear’, either accelerating or decelerating. This sense of the train singing adds to the general delight of being on a fast, efficient train.

Arrived at Kyoto station and spent an hour or two in travel agents’ finding somewhere to spend our unexpected night in the city – ended up in a twin room with a short, deep bath in the Kyoto Keitan Hotel on the south side of Kyoto Central Station. The station is a brutal building with more escalators per cubic meter than anywhere else in the world, I’m willing to bet. As with Nagoya station, it is about 12 stories of shopping mall and restaurants rising above the train platforms. There is a sort of terraced valley held between the two rising edifices that face the city to north and south, with cascades of escalators from top to bottom, inside and out at the eastern end (11th to 2nd floors), and the same again, but stacked atop each other at right angles at the western end. You can only easily cross-cut the station at the western end – we spent a lot of time, and rode a lot of escalators, trying to cross the station at the eastern end, from north to south, where our hotel was, but without success. Arching across the valley inside the building is a rectilinear honeycomb of grey steel, spanning the space lengthwise, and cut diagonally by a covered skywalk (a link to someone else’ photo of the Kyoto station roof). The exterior walls are all sparkling black granite, and inside is all light and noise. Brutal.

After a delicious tonkatsu lunch (breaded pork cutlet served with shredded cabbage and a special sauce) we took to the streets and walked through Kyoto, aiming for the Heian shrine but not getting that far due to distractions along the way. Away from the station, the streets quickly get narrower, losing their pavements; the buildings get lower, older and woodier, and overhead wires appear, draped thickly over the streets and houses, like the cobwebs of an older place left to itself.

We bumped into the Sanjusangen-do temple and so went in to have a look. Inside the main hall, hundreds of gilded Buddha statues with thirty-three (sanjusan) arms each are arranged in ranks about 10 deep along the length of the hall. They’ve been there a while – 12th century-ish. Saw our first carp and first turning momiji (Japanese maple) leaves in the garden. The inside of the temple precinct wall is painted a very bright orange. This was the first time, but not the last, we encountered this vivid paint on temple walls.

We proceeded east up the hill and popped into two more temples on the way into Gion, the famous geisha district of Kyoto (which lies roughly between Kyoto Central Station and the Heian shrine that we were originally heading for). Gion has an obvious life of its own, exhibited in the narrow streets, many shops quietly selling mysterious things, and the people on the streets going about the business of living their lives the way they do. We loved it.

We happened on a small pottery shop that had lovely cups, bowls, teapots, sake cups and flasks, plates etc. on display, but which was most special for the old man who owned it. This man was welcoming, despite our seeming bull in china shop appearance (large bodies and dangerous swinging rucksacks). I felt like a clumsy oaf inside the shop because there wasn’t room to swing the proverbial and a multitude of breakable pottery arranged delicately all around you besides. He was attentive to our browsing and soon opened a dialogue with us by observing, ‘You are not Americans. Where are you from?’ And so began an exchange of halting Japanese and halting English. He kindly indicated that the upper shelves displayed the expensive wares and the lower shelves the affordable. This was a clever sales technique as it focused our attention on half the shop and put us in mind of being able to afford to buy something lovely. We showed our appreciation for his selected pottery and asked where it was all made, to which the simple answer was, ‘Gion’. We looked first for cups with momiji on and then for those with the rabbit and the moon. These, you see, are the themes presiding over our time here: the turning maple leaves of autumn; the rabbit and the moon for the autumn moon festival, because rabbits come from the moon and look up at it with homesickness (as it was first explained to us, a later refinement on this explanation includes that when you look at the moon, you see a rabbit in it, pounding rice). Finally, we settled on a pair of rough cups with a light-coloured but thick glaze of white, grey, orange, and pink because they reminded us of the tea cups from the meal that we loved so, given us by S., and hence also to remind us of her when we drink from them. The proprietor approved our choice – ‘Natural’ – and commenced boxing and wrapping the cups while we looked over everything in the shop. Too many lovely things, especially the tea cups: luminescent yellow-green with large craqueleur and dark interior; plain glaze with geometric texture; steely black outside with etched white flowers and a loosely spun thick white glaze inside, etc.

We paid and as we were leaving the man gestured to the camera Issy was holding and offered to take a picture. He did so, positioning us for the best shot including some of his shop and then reacting with delight when Issy showed him the picture he’d taken. He asked where else we were going and Issy told him our route: Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Kanazawa, Matsumoto. He nodded and, in a warm tone, said, ‘Good. All the places the Japanese go.’

We cut down to the river, ambling through the back streets of Gion, passing shops and homes. On the river bank we saw a grey and a white heron and enjoyed the cool evening air on the walk beside the river. Then walked back to station for dinner and the hotel, and now to bed. Tomorrow we go to Nara.

Click here for a list of the day-by-day posts about our trip to Japan >>


Day Three – Tokyo to Nagoya

November 15, 2006

Another broken night with only 3.5hrs sleep for each of us. Up early to the Tsukiji Fish Market before checkout time. Had good, fresh sushi for breakfast but it was something of a shock to the system and it took me a while to get over having raw fish for breakfast instead of shredded wheat.

The market was very busy and somewhat dangerous, with little transporters that looked like mobile mashing machines on planks zooming around every which way in chaotic and noisy fashion. Also, little mini-trucks and scooters everywhere. We poked our noses into the market building but felt distinctly out of place as we clearly had no intention of purchasing boxes of clams or whole tuna, so we soon left again, our curiosity sated. (A link to a search results page on flickr of other people’s pictures of the market – we didn’t take our cameras out as we were too busy dodging traffic!)

Caught the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya. Rain. The twin cylindrical towers of the train station building faded into the clouds above us (a link to someone else’s daytime photo of Nagoya’s train station building). Inside, the station is a massive 15 floor shopping mall and seems to be one of the few immediately accessible things about Nagoya.

Our first ryokan (Japanese inn, with futons on a tatami mat floor, and shared bathrooms) experience was not good. Friendly people but the place was filthy and smelly and we were eaten alive by mosquitoes. Together with the rain, it destroyed our interest in the city, so we decided to move on to Kyoto the next morning.

I think the mixture of elements was just not right for us, in this case. There are, reputedly, good things about Nagoya, including an art museum that draws its exhibits from the famous Boston museum, as well as from Japan. We’d intented to take a day trip from Nagoya to Tajimi, a famous pottery centre of Gifu prefecture, but ini the whirl of preparing for the trip neglected to reserve places on the factory tour that the guidebook mentioned. So, we skipped Tajimi too, without regret.

In Nagoya we bought our first Japanese style transparent and disposable umbrellas. The Japanese tend to eschew raincoats as wearing one in a tropical climate is a nasty experience, as we discovered. So everyone uses umbrellas, including cyclists. Also, umbrellas can be neatly fitted into long, thin plastic sleeves before you enter a shop or station, and so nobody drips water indoors. Except people with raincoats. We had cleverly packed raincoats.

MLW had spotted the white-handled transparent type out and about on the street and was determined to purchase one (again, a link to someone else’s photo of these umbrellas – I didn’t think to explicitly photograph them). She was also determined to purchase some material autmun momiji (Japanese maple) leaves, which were adorning shop windows and displays everywhere. But in Nagoya the more pressing need was the umbrella. So we started, as good Londoners would, at the department store, Takashimaya. No luck there – all the umbrellas were too fine, too dear, and patterned besides – so we engaged the sales ladies with the awkwardly put (in our Japanese) question of where to purchase a transparent umbrella. Once the message was received, the answer was clear: the convenience store across the road! £1 each. They were undersized though, it transpired, and were later replaced by a more serious, spring-loaded variety.

Click here for a list of the day-by-day posts about our trip to Japan >>


Day Two – Tokyo

November 14, 2006

Night was broken at about 1am when we were both suddenly wide awake. Hopefully our sleep will get onto an even keel again in the next day or two.

Spent a lovely day with S., MLW’s friend from her year in Bonn. We met her in the hotel lobby and for a moment she and MLW seemed unsure that they had recognised each other so tentative were their movements, but then they joined in a lovely long hello hug. S. took us on the overground train from Shimbashi to Ueno, on the green line. All the Tokyo trains have small touches of genius about them in the way they convey information to you, with dynamic displays of lights or even animated TV screens. The line and station logos, for example, convey information in three ways: colour, name, and numbers used to indicate where you are now, and which stations are in each direction.

At Ueno we visited the main hall of the Tokyo National Museum – the Hon-kan – and saw a lot of lovely Japanese stuff. The sort of arts and crafts stuff that your see in the V&A in London. On the upper level of the museum the exhibits are arranged chronologically, shepherding you along a short course in the development of Japanese art. I particularly enjoyed: the pottery and ceramics, much of which is roughly shaped and has bold, earthy glazes and informal and unexpected shapes; S.’s engagement with the objects in the tea ceremony room, telling us something about them and her own ten year study of tea ceremony; the “Eight Scenes of Old Omi Province” woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige, and was struck again by the brilliance of his compositions but also the technique of drawing positive and negative spaces into each other using horizontal lines to blend the two areas together; a kimono depicting spring on its top half and autumn on its bottom half, the two halves to be visually separated by a bold obi (a wide, decorated, silk belt for a kimono), so that the kimono could be worn in both seasons.

Back to the trains to go to Asakusa and received a bright ‘Konnichiwa!’ from a little girl in passing. Bought kakoyaki (not unlike octopus vetkoek), which we all gravely tasted in an attempt to appreciate the fabled street food, and then quietly disposed of them. Ramen for lunch in a not-smart café – simple but tasty. Then, having entered the Senso-ji temple grounds via the lantern-filled Kaminari-mon (gate). In between, the heavens opened and the rain brought the people more clearly to life. Rain water was streaming off the pitched rooves of the temple side buildings and off the corners of the main building into enormous, thirsty basins beneath. MLW and S. followed a short fortune telling ritual that I initially thought silly but as they performed it I realised that involving yourself in another culture or religion’s custom can make it more knowable.

S. then took us to a Japanese tea house for ocha and ice-cream with fruit, jellies and a sort of molasses syrup over it all. We all got on famously in a brain straining mix of English, German and Japanese – a sort of lingua a trois. Exchanged gifts – lovely Japanese goodies for us, and a box Harrod’s delights for her.

Walking along the avenue behind the market, MLW spotted a lovely fan (sensu) for T. in a shop window – dusty gold lines of a cat on its back, paws in the air – and she and S. went inside to buy it while I waited outside so as not to make the shop too wet with all our dripping selves. Felt, as I watched them buy also a dragon fly design sensu for A., that I was in a film or scene from an earlier time. Saw the silent figures transacting over the fans in the warm orange light behind the windows and a dripping curtain of rain off the gutters above. Fans arrayed in the window, on display, all bright and colourful. And outside the air was cool and the street dark and wet. People walking past, casting a glance at me sheltered in the doorway opposite the shop.

And so to Ginza and some drifting into a stationery shop and Tiffany’s, then to the restaurant that S. had reserved for us. Turned out, to our complete surprise, to be a private dining room and a kaiseki meal experience based on the tofu cuisine of Kyu-shu, a southern region of Japan.

Menu (as best I can recall and interpret it):

  • Smoky red-brown hojicha (roasted tea) in rough cinnamon and rusty pink cups. Brewed in a metal teapot with an overarching metal handle.
  • A 3-tier tower of square dishes, white-blue with navy and yellow highlights, containing:
    1. White cube of dense, milky tofu with a dot of green paste on top that gave it a slightly cheesy flavour.
    2. Steamed spinach with a single gnocchi-like piece of tofu in the shape of a plum blossom, with a pink tint on one side. This represents the restaurant, which is named after a plum tree.
    3. Sheet tofu folded and twisted into a little pile topped with a dot of yellow wasabi (normally green).
  • A steamed dumpling containing shredded chicken, with a dot of mustard on top, served in a cream dish with holes in the base for the steaming, and a wooden lid. The base was square and the dish round, as was the dumpling. The dumpling was dipped in citrus soy sauce, on a cream soy dish.
  • Meanwhile, in the centre of the table, in a rust brown, rough, two handled bowl, three protions of slabs of tofu topped with sheet tofu and a plum blossom gnocchi and a green pea pod, was coming gently to the simmer in onsen (hot spring) water brought specially from Kyushu. This was dished into white bowls and we added soy sauce, ginger paste and sesame seeds.
  • Sushi rolls formed with a checker board pattern at each end made from bars of red tuna and white radish, with wasabi, red sprout and seaweed served on a leaf in a cylindrical black lacquerware bowl with a red rim. Dipped in a thicker soy sauce on a white soy dish with red glaze drizzled across it.
  • Steamed egg and miso pudding, served in a sky blue cup with an overhanging lid and a white interior and white ceramic spoon. The pudding is steamed by being placed in boiling water in its vessel and so sets. Within the pudding, like little suspended treasures, were a leaf of seaweed, a prawn, a mushroom, and a ginko nut.
  • A square wooden box holding two dense, chewy oblongs of tofu on bamboo forks. One yellow, the other green, both with slightly sour/cheesy tooping painted onto the wide, top side. They were cold, as was the green chilli served with them. Also, a deep-fried semicircle of cod and tofu mousse and a lemon wedge to squeeze over it. Hot.
  • A backed dish of soy cream topped with cheese, in a shallow black cup on a a black saucer, with a white ceramic lid overhanging, and a white porcelain, falt spoon (like a scraper).
  • Clear miso shiru (soup) with coriander and ribbons of sheet tofu, in a black lacquerware miso bowl with a lid that fit inside the rim of the bowl, instead of hanging over it. Also, a small, round, dull black dish of tsukaemono (pickles) – cylinder of pak choi heart, quarter wedges of radish, and diagonal slices of baby cucumber. A square, light blue bowl of gohan (boiled rice), steamed via the holes in the base of the dish, with a thick, square wooden lid. Rice topped with slices of intense mushroom.
  • A single ball of marron (chestnut) and soya milk ice-cream in a small, white porcelain cup (just fit the ball of ice-cream).
  • Ocha (green tea) brewed in a ‘side saddle’ teapot (cylindrical handle on the side, at a right-angle to the spout, rather than over the top of at the back of the teapot). Pot and cups from the same dinner set as the 3-tier tower of dishes at the start of the meal, bringing things around in a neat aesthetic circle.

And so back to the Dai-Ichi and the parting of ways with S. in the lobby. She and MLW were very emotional about saying goodbye – understandably – which was a good feeling for them, I think. Their clear bonds of friendship were very much in evidence throughout the day but especially at the separation.

In our room, I had a shiatsu massage on the bed, a small 50 something Japanese lady with steel thumbs clambering and pressing all over me, whilst MLW sat at the desk and wrote in her journal. Read and enjoyed MLW’s journal entry for today, and then this, and now to bed.

Click here for a list of the day-by-day posts about our trip to Japan >>


Day One – Arriving in Tokyo

November 13, 2006

Arrived at Tokyo Narita airport after a very smooth flight from London Heathrow. Had an easy transition through Narita airport: a most organised and cleanly airport. We exchanged our JR Rail Pass vouchers for the passes themselves. Watched the choreographed movement of people and buses outside the bright white terminal building. Caught our bus and gazed out of the window at the lush greenery turning into industrialised Tokyo bay, as we floated along in this orange Nissan bus. The other cars and trucks on the highway seemed unfeasibly clean as well, especially wherever they had some chrome to display. For some of the way, especially as we entered Tokyo proper, the view was blocked on both sides by about 20 metre high dazzle screens, sometimes overgrown with creeping vegetation. This – the view – had an interesting effect of its own, making one feel more like a vessel in the blood stream of Tokyo, flowing along a concrete and steel vein, toward the heart, where our hotel – the Dai-Icihi Hotel Tokyo (Number One Hotel Tokyo) – was, in Ginza, near the Imperial Palace. I say the heart because Tokyo is built on the medieval pattern of the palace and its two moats. The water is still there, and if you see an aerial view of Tokyo it’s immediately apparent that there are two concentric circles of urban setup that surround the Imperial Palace grounds of today. The highway was punctuated by toll gates that, thrillingly, automatically recognised the bus (and other vehicles) and raised the boom very suddenly, just as the bus seemed certain to smash through it, as the driver had hardly slowed at all on approaching the gate.

After a shower and a brief sleep (a mistake, as this is not the way to handle jetlag, apparently, but we couldn’t help it) we left the grand hotel in search of food. The Dai-Ichi hotel is a four star affair, and something of a highrise hotel, with about 25 floors. It was peachy coloured on the outside, and all marble and fake Florentine murals on the inside, and generally also peachy coloured inside. We found the main drag of Ginza, the Knightsbridge of Tokyo, with its mad proliferation and competition of neon lights, and fabulous window displays. Had a sukiyaki meal on the food level of a large department store called Matsuzukaya. Sukiyaki is shredded meat stewed in sake and sugar, and eaten by dipping it in raw egg. This last element, needless to say, surprised us. Although it shouldn’t have, as we’d read all about sukiyaki in our guide book. We just hadn’t quite put two and two together yet. The raw egg actually tasted lovely on the beef I had, but I had to remind myself to forget that I was eating raw egg. Something of a baptism by fire.

I love the design of the taxis in Tokyo (and everywhere else in Japan that we went, but most ubiquitous in Ginza) – beautiful boxy sedans with side-view mirrors mounted halfway down the bonnet. They’re generally made by Toyota or Nissan, so far as I could surmise. The design is essentially the same regardless of manufacturer. All of them sport lacey white seat covers and have a special button the driver can press that pops open the curb-side rear passenger door, so that you can speak to the driver and get in chop-chop. There is a Nissan showroom on the corner of the main Ginza crossroads that was drawing quite a crowd with a display of its concept car that would eliminate the tricky task of reversing by having a central passenger pod that rotates 360 degrees, so that you can always be driving forwards.

Still feeling deathly tired, we trickled back along the main drag, eventually reaching our hotel again. We tried out the complimentary yukattas (much like a unisex cotton gown) and generally sank towards sleep. Looking out of the window at the night-time cityscape, we could see the landmark Tokyo tower (a bit like the Eiffel tower painted white and red) and below us, the platforms of Shimbashi train station. Seen from above and between the shoulder of two other tall buildings, the lighted platforms seemed to stacked atop one another, in the same way as the highways did as we entered Tokyo. At one point, our bus was sweeping along snaking, red-arrowed highways above the tops of apartment buildings and office blocks.

Click here for a list of the day-by-day posts about our trip to Japan >>



November 7, 2006

They’ve changed the disembodied voice-of-the-train on the Piccadilly Line from the whining, tired sounding man to a smooth and sexy sounding older woman. I think it’s the news announcer from BBC Radio 4 and The News Quiz – Charlotte Green.