Food


We love markets. So our stay in Saigon had to include a stroll around Ben Thanh, a covered market so enormous and densely packed it’s easy to lose your bearings and find yourself wandering in circles. “That dried fish stall looks familiar… ermm… weren’t we here ten minutes ago?”

Every inch of space is filled with stalls selling everything you could ever need. Different trades occupy different sections – textiles; fresh meat and fish, jewellry, fruit and vegetables, clothes, radios, bread, dried fish and condiments, buttons, shoes, coffee… ahhh, coffee. We walked into the market past fishmongers selling eels wriggling in plastic bowls, unfamiliar looking fish flipping idly in large tanks, prawns, squid…. past butchers, their stalls hung with chickens, duck, slabs of rib…past mountains of multi-coloured fruit and vegetables and made a beeline for the coffee stalls. It was that time of day.

From all sides, voices called out for our custom. “Buy here? Good quality! Good prices! You come buy here!”

We picked a particularly colourful stall and the coffee seller pulled out a couple of plastic stools for us to sit on while they ground up some “Chon” coffee beans to make a good, strong Vietnamese-French style coffee. “Chon” is weasel coffee. What, you may ask, is weasel coffee? Chon coffee beans are called thus once they have been eaten by weasels, digested and, shall we say, passed through to the other side. Sufficiently cleaned, the beans are thereafter supposed to have had an especially deep flavour imparted to them. I’d heard of something similar – civet coffee, or some such, which is sold at ridiculous prices in Europe, which has had a similar digestive process applied to it, but this was the first time I’d tried something like this. It was rich, dark, satisfying, lovely coffee with a good kick. In Vietnam they add condensed milk to espresso coffee, just in case. It was pretty good served this way; something about drinking it from little glasses perched on plastic stools as the bustle of the market went on around us made it taste particularly good.

We wandered around and around for another hour or so. We got a bit lost in the textile section – sometimes the spaces between stalls was so narrow you had to step sideways, arms coming out of nowhere to grab you – “You come, you buy, cheap!”. I tried on a skirt that made me look like an elephant. “This makes me look like an elephant” I say. “No, no, no nooooooooo!!! You slim, looks great!”. I felt the sale was more important than the truth at this point so I declined to buy, but further on we bought two Ao Dai – the elegant slimline Vietnamese outfits that women wear – one in bright turquoise, the other sunshine yellow, for our two nieces in Sydney, aged 5 and 3. They looked great in them, by the way….

I bought some water-buffalo-horn teascoops for omiage (the all-important gifts to take back to people in Tokyo) and some delicate, dark-wood, water-buffalo-horn-topped teaspoons for me, at a dollar for six. Water buffalos are everywhere… so I hoped this was a by-product.

Once we were all marketed-out – reaching our market-wandering saturation point – we staggered out into the heat and the sun to look for a taxi. Buzzed up with coffee, we were ready for some lunch. Destination Number Two – Ban Xeo 46A. It was another one of those times of day.

May is the beginning of monsoon season for parts of Vietnam.  As Paul and I negotiated our way through the flowing traffic towards the vast train station (“ga” – in Vietnamese, as in “gâre” – a word left over from French colonialisation) the rain began to pour, a kind of massive condensation of the muggy humidity that pervaded the city.  In this kind of weather you need rubber flip flops or wellies.  We waded through puddles, observing the full colour of Vietnamese life splashing on all around us, and once at the station, booked our sleeper train journey to Nha Trang in two days’ time.

 

Our first taste of pho at a station café, a delicious steaming bowl of rice noodles in stock which you topped with fresh herbs, leaves, chillis, beansprouts and a squeeze of lime.  These noodles are eaten at breakfast, at lunch, as a snack.  I loved them. 

 

At tables nearby people lay stretched out on their seats for an afternoon nap beneath the waft of humming electric fans.  We sat at our table for a while, watching the station traffic come and go until the rain subsided.  This was how it would rain most days, especially in the south – an hour or two of heavy downpour before the sun came out and dried everything out.

 

We gave ourselves an introduction to the city by walking around some of the main sites – past the Reunification Palace, through the Cong Vien Van Hoa Park, around and into the late 19th century main post office, with its impressive French colonial architecture, and the neo-romanesque Dame Cathedral beside it.  Most museums closed by 4pm and we made a mental log of what we wanted to see next day.

 

 

Later that evening we sat on the roof terrace of our hotel and ate hotpot, the wind occasionally blowing out the flames on our table top cooker.  Someone somewhere was singing hideously bad karaoke below us and all around the city mopeds beeped and honked.  This was a huge, vibrant, energetic city and we were going to need all the sleep we could get to make the most of the next day’s explorations.  An early bedtime was in order.

 

 

A decent breakfast in the hotel and a reasonably early start for the next round of Angkor temples to explore. Again, we headed into the monsoon forest by car, showing our passes and the first stop was the compact Banteay Srei, considered the highest achievement in the art and architecture of classic Angkor civilisation.

This temple is considered one of the most beautiful with its volcanic rock of different subtle shades of green, pink and yellow – and because of the intricate, deep carvings that are in exceptionally good condition. Bas-reliefs depicting myths and stories about Shiva, to whom the temple was dedicated, were deeply and delicately carved.

More temples and archeological sites; Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Prea Khan and Phnomh Bateng.

Of all these I loved the last three. Neak Prean is not so much a temple as a hospital built by (here he is again) the philanthropic Jayavarman VII. A place of healing, Neak Pean is an island temple within an island located in the middle of the “Sea of Victory”, Jayatataka, a vast reservoir lake, or baray, measuring 3,500 by 900 metres. Dedicated to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, symbol of mercy, the central island rises up in the centre of four pools, each of which is fed by a different gargoyle – heads of a human, a horse, a lion and elephant. To one side, a sculpture of the mythical horse, Balan, who saves all those in need, is seen carrying desperate men to safety, toward the central island.

The lakes were empty of water – they are full only at the end of the monsoon season – and Paul and I clambered in and out of each one in an anti-clockwise direction from south to east as those coming to be healed used to do 900 years ago, finally ending up on the central island. It’s said that pilgrims took the waters at each pool, picking the herbs and plants that grew around each of them and taking them as healing medicine in order to get well. The power of suggestion is a great thing. I came bouncing out of there full of energy, racing up steps as if I were eighteen again.

Having been “healed” I tested my luck by trying out a dish that Vong told me was “poison soup”. At another airy, bamboo and rush-roofed eatery in the jungle we sat and ate lunch and I just couldn’t resist trying out this soup, called samlor ka kor, after hearing Vong’s story. During the reign of one of the ancient Angkor Kings, it was found that one of the royal retinue, usually eunuchs, had somehow escaped the snip and had conducted an illicit affair with one of the royal concubines. The court conspired to get rid of this pseudo-eunuch, but felt unable to kill him in too obvious a manner. They therefore concocted a soup using the most poisonous plants they knew of and cooked it up with fish and served it to him. Their intended victim wolfed it down and asked for more as it was so delicious.

Not only did he not die, the soup went on to become a delicacy and continues to appear on Cambodian menus today. “Not using poisonous leaves any more though” said Vong. I was quite glad about that. It was deliciously herby with a chilli zip, like a soupy green fish curry and I lived to tell the tale.

At Preah Khan we saw the first of the temples which have been left as they were when they were found after long centuries of abandonment. Enormous trees grew out of, on top of and through the temple which had become swallowed up by the nature around it. We would see an even more impressive example of this the next day – Ta Prohm – which was used for filming Tomb Raider, on which more on the next post.

We ended our day of temple visits with a climb up to Phnomh Bateng. “Phnomh” means “mountain” in Khmer, and this one was one of the very few around. Temples built on flat ground had several levels rising up to a peak in the centre, symbolically representing a holy mountain. This one, said Vong, was a temple on a real mountain.

He left us to climb up and explore – we began our ascent accompanied by traditional Cambodian music played by men who eked out a living this way since losing limbs stepping on hidden mines. There are still many in Cambodia.

Vong had brought us here to watch the sunset over Angkor. As we approached the summit the temple appeared, and we clawed our way up extremely steep sets of stairs to get to the top. Still full of beans from my visit to Neak Pean, I raced to the top. All around us the light was becoming golden as the sun began to set. The whole world was there at the temple at the top of the mountain and we could hear Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Swedish, Portuguese and of course, Khmer. Normally I’d balk at being surrounded by so many people but the atmosphere was that of a party. Everyone smiling and chatting and sharing in the experience, including a group of monks whose robes glowed bright in the light of the setting sun.

All around us stretched an extraordinary view – the dense jungle-forest; Angkor Wat, the whole of the massive East Baray reservoir, gleaming silver, many temples. Far on the horizon, storm clouds drifted, flashing occasional lightning. It was a spectacular and dramatic sight.

We, along with the world up there, watched the sun go down. It started to become dark and a few spots of rain announced that it was time to go; steep steps had to be negotiated safely while there was still light – there was no artificial lighting anywhere in the vicinity.

We arrived back in town and had a bite to eat at the stylish looking FCC Angkor hotel restaurant. We weren’t terribly impressed with the food and wished we’d eaten at the street-side restaurant near our hotel which was always full of Cambodians. We’d save that for tomorrow. Once back at the hotel, I slept better than I’d done for months.

I’m blown away.  I’ve seen pictures, documentaries and read descriptions about the Angkor temples – Angkor Wat, in particular – but none of these prepared me for the incredible reality.

 

[An aside:  I’m currently uploading this from Nha Trang in Vietnam.  It’s a hell of a struggle to upload these posts – internet speeds are s…l….o….w.   I’m watching a baby gecko on the wall beside me as I wait for this post to upload, from one of the very places there are here with internet.  It’s pretty basic, a hole in the wall!  As each photo takes fifteen minutes to upload, and one post can take well over an hour, I can only upload every once in a while, and with fewer pictures.  Thanks for your patience!  I’ll upload all photos to Flickr once I have better internet access.  Now, back to Cambodia…]

 

On our first day, as with each of the four days we were in Siem Reap, Vong, our guide, collected us from our hotel.  On the edge of town we drove through a checkpoint where we bought our three day passes for visiting the Angkor heritage sites.  Then on we continued, down a single paved road lined with rows of wooden and bamboo huts on stilts, dogs, bare-footed children and chickens running about.  Eventually the huts gave way to thick forest and suddenly we reached a towering gate topped by vast bas-relief sculptures of four gently smiling faces.  This was the South Gate of Angkor Thom, the great ancient city of Angkor, and these faces, Vong told us, were the different faces of the Buddha, representing his four aspects of loving kindness, compassion, charity and sympathy.

 

Before the gate lay a long bridge flanked on either side by enormous sculptures.  This was the first of many naga sculptures we would see during out visits to various Angkor temples.  The seven heads of the naga, or serpent, reared up as balustrade ends, while on the right side, demons pulled at the snake’s body and on the opposite side, gods pulled back in an eternal tug-of-war.

 

 

Here was an illustration of the story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk – from the Ramayana, an epic of Hindu mythology.  Here was our first glimpse of the Hindu and Buddhist mix that would characterise some of the temples here.  In this particular scenario, recreated in a number of different sites, Vishnu umpires the tug of war, standing on a turtle’s back, as the demons and gods pull alternately at the naga, wrapped around a mountain which is twisted back and forth in the sea of milk, in order to create the elixir of life.  This took place during the creation of the universe.

 

I saw this as the circle of life, bad and good, bad and good, cycling back and forth in eternity. 

 

This was to be the first of many stories that Vong would tell us – complex myths involving the main characters – the Hindu gods and their consorts – Vishnu and Lakshmi, Shiva and Uma, Brahma, all of whom created many long stories involving jealousy, anger, love, forgiveness, a veritable Holy Soap Opera.  The temples of the Angkor period reflect Khmer beliefs, a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the stories are told in the bas-reliefs, the sculptures and architecture of each of the temples.  Most feature the three gods, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma – though most are dedicated to Shiva or Vishnu. It would take a lifetime to learn and discover all there is to the Angkor temples, I would imagine; a rich source of study.  There are countless books on the subject and there is, no doubt, still much that is mysterious about the place.  We found Michael D Coe’s book, Angkor and the Khmer Civilisation (Thames & Hudson), to be fascinating and informative, though it was Vong who brought everything to life for us.

 

We drove on under the bridge and further into the forest.  Coming upon a clearing, suddenly, there appeared a vast stretch of water – the Angkor Wat moat – then, the ancient towers of Angkor Wat itself.  As the first proper glimpse of these ancient temples it was breathtaking.  We continued to drive past, Vong teling us that we would be back later.  There was another temple he wanted to show us first.

 

We drove deeper into the monsoon forest until we reached another clearing.  This was to be the first and, I think, one of the most beautiful temples we saw – Bayon.

  

This was built in the twelfth century by Jayavarman VII, whose name cropped up again and again in our tour.  It seems he was considered the greatest of all the Khmer kings, a Mayahanist Buddhist, builder of hospitals and temples and extender of Khmer territory.  He built Angkor Thom, a city within a city, covering three square kilometres.  Many of the temples and hospitals he built, along with those built by other kings – including Angkor Wat – lie within it.

 

The kindly, smiling, beautiful faces of the Buddha that we saw on the South Gate of Angkor Thom and which characterise other temples built by Jayavarman VII were everywhere we turned in Bayon (there are fifty-four in total).  Like many of the other Angkor Temples, it was built on five levels, the layout reminding me of Inca ruins.  Well-preserved and graceful bas-relief sculptures were carved everywhere – graceful apsaras – dancing celestial nymphs – on many of the pillars, and representations of daily Khmer life.

 

 

 

Vong, who had studied for years before becoming an official guide, clearly knew his stuff – including where to get the perfect “Kodak moment”, nose to nose with one of the faces of the Buddha.

 

Following Bayon, we visited Baphuon,  built by the King Udayadityavarman II in the eleventh century, which had suffered great damage from collapse during monsoon season in the 1940s, then had its restoration, led by the French, severely disrupted by the Khmer Rouge.  Now, it seems, the painstaking task of putting the temple back together, piece by piece, was fully underway. 

 

Next, Phimeanakas, Suryavarman I’s state temple; it was said that in its top tower there lived a nine-headed naga snake woman, and that the king went there every night to sleep with her.  A more probable story about Suryavarman was his building of the impressive West baray, a reservoir 8 kilometres long and 1.4 kilometres wide, holding about 48 million cubic metres of water. It is so big it can be seen from outer space.  It had symbolic, as well as practical purpose – representing the Primordial Ocean.

 

We made a brief stop for lunch, Vong taking us to a local place where we sat at tables shaded by a woven rush mat roof, hammocks slung beside some of the tables where locals took refuge from the intense humidity and heat outside.  Paul and I ordered each ordered typical Cambodian dishes – Amok, a soupy coconut milk based stew served in a coconut, and Sour Soup – a… sour soup.  I asked Vong what the Khmer name for Sour Soup was.  “Sour Soup”, he told me.  Both were served with a plate of rice (chicken Amok for Paul, fish Sour Soup for me) and were herby, tangy, spicy with chilli and delicious.

 

Vong then took us to see the Elephant Terrace – a vast parade ground built by Jayavarman VII – the terrace adorned, as the name suggests, by enormous bas-relief carvings of an elephant procession – and opposite, a vast open area where it was said elaborate processions and displays took place, including large towers strung with rope for tight-rope walking acrobats to walk across to entertain the king and his guests.

 

We saw out our first day with the most famous and well-known of all the temples, Angkor Wat.  Built in the early twelfth century by Suryavarman II, this place was huge and impressive.  The entrance to the temple was along the Rainbow Bridge, straddling the vast 200 metre wide, 1.5 kilometre square moat.  All around, sugar palms, the national tree of  Cambodia, rose up, the damp lushness of the dense foliage everywhere lending to the exotic atmosphere.  Half way along the bridge, we watched a group of giggling boys take turns to leap from a great height into the moat and clamber up ancient stairs back up to the bridge again.  I imagined countless generations of young boys doing the same thing throughout the centuries that had passed since the buillding of the temple.

 

Inside, we climbed up increasingly steep stairs from one level of the temple to another – the outer, lower level comprising vast long corridors decorated with extraordinary bas-relief carvings illustrating Hindu mythologies.  At each higher level, narrower corridors and steeper stairs, with more and more carvings depicting Vishnu, to whom the temple was dedicated.  Four massive pools, representing the four oceans, are positioned at each corner, filling up during each wet season and reflecting back the strange shadows of the temple.  The extraordinary layout of the temple, aligned symbolically in a way that can only have been designed by builders using sophisticated measuring tools, can also be seen from outer space.

 

 

 

Breathless from the impressive array of temples we had seen, as well as from the humidity and heat, we were dropped off back at our hotel for a freshen up before Vong picked us up again to take us to a “dinner dance show”.  We are not big fans of such performances laid on for tourists but went along anyway.  A large all-you-can-eat buffet was on offer, with a wide range of Cambodian and Chinese food – and later in the evening a dance troupe performed various traditional Cambodian dances accompanied by live music which sounded to my ears like a mixture of Thai (finger cymbals), Indonesian (gamelan type instrument) and Chinese (string instrument) music, with drums.  The women danced with graceful, curved fingers familiar to me from Thai dance perfomances, flexing their feet and slowly stepping forward, heads bent.  We ended up enjoying it far more than we’d expected – and more than the food.  We knew we’d find better where the locals liked to eat.

 

After the heat, we were tempted when we got back to our hotel, to have a swim in its lovely looking pool.  But we were too tired.  I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.  The temples of Angkor filled my dreams.

Another shinkansen ride and bento lunch and we arrived at Himeji station. With some relief we stuffed our heavy rucksacks into a locker and despite the rain, decided to walk to Himeji Castle, the main attraction for us in this city.

I told Paul about amayadori – taking shelter from the rain – and the romantic connotations it has in Japan. In the UK, one might draw a love heart enclosing the intials of the two that are in love. In Japan, the heart is replaced with a stylised umbrella, the names on either side of the umbrella handle. Someone later pointed out that this is only easily done in Japan, where traditionally, words were written vertically, from top to bottom. Nonetheless, the idea is that it is rather romantic and sweet to share an umbrella to shelter from the rain. Ah, if only this idea caught on in the UK – the Brits would become a nation of romantics from constant opportunities for amayadori.

So Paul and I walked down the long and wide avenue, trying to be romantic under our shared umbrella despite our squelching, rain-sodden shoes, heading for the misty horizon out of which rose the upper levels of Himeji Castle. Its much photographed white walls and grey tile roofs tower over the city, a permanent reminder of its ancient heritage.

The castle is another World Cultural Heritage site, and with good reason. It is extremely well-preserved, the castle complex remaining as it did when it was completed in 1618. Building first began on the site in 1333, commissioned by the first ruler of the area, Norimura Akamatsu. Successive clans built further on the site – the Kotera, Kuroda and Ikeda clans – with shogun such as Ieyasu Tokugawa, lords such as the Matsudairas, the Sakakibaras and so on each making their mark on the place. The final lord to inhabit the castlewas Tadazui Sakai, who moved in in 1749. The family remained there until the feudal Shogunate system disappeared in the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Constructed in such a way that any enemy attempting to break into the inner sanctum of the castle would be thwarted at every opportunity, the path meandering uphilll to the main part of the castle was divided by gate after gate; I imagined myself an ambitious intruder on horseback, envisioning obstacle after obstacle presenting itself to me – a series of four or five enormous wooden gates eight inches thick and reinforced with iron – once through those, having to duck and dive from the shower of arrows launched from the many arrow-holes in the walls of the six stories above, and rocks thrown down through specially designed slots on each floor. Even if I besieged the castle with an army, and those inside had closed themselves in behind the protection of their many solid gates and wallls, there was a well, and enough rice and provisions in their massive stores to keep them going for long enough to dispirit any army.

Even if I had been lucky to reach the interior of the main tower, the creaking wooden floors would have given me away – little cubby holes in every corner would have released hidden ninja to attack (that’s what they think the cubby holes were for) and I would have had to work my way up to the very top floor, climbing steep stairs up the entire six stories, fighting past samurai who had their bows and arrows, and later, guns and ammunitiion easily to hand hanging from hooks pinned into every wall.

As it was, I was glad to be a tourist, climbing up each level unhindered so that I could safely enjoy the view from the top floor – quite a sight – after paying my respects at a little Shinto shrine there. There was a shrine located on the top of the hill where Akamatsu wanted to build the castle, and so it was moved. After that the place was felt to have been cursed by nature, so it was placed back inside the main tower of the castle. It’s now said that it is haunted by the ghost of Miyamoto Musashi, a great swordsman who was killed there.

Later, we walked down long corridors in the West Bailey Buildiing, the living quarters of the Princess Sen, the eldest daughter of the second shogun in the Tokuawa government. This place felt less designed for war, and more for pleasure and peaceful living. The rooms all looked out over beautiful gardens and the many rooms off the main corridor would have been filled with the many maidservants of the Princess, all of whom, it is said, loved a laughand a gossip. I could imagine it must have been a lively place. It stopped raining and the sunlight poured in through the windows.

It seemed a good opportunity to visit Kokou-en, a ten minute walk away from the main castle complex entrance. This garden was only created in 1992 to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the creation of the Himeji municipality. Its nine gardens are so well established, however, with mature trees and moss-covered stones, that you would never think it was so new. Again, cherry blossom was magnificent here, and we wandered along meandering paths winding through boulders, across bridges over miniature waterfalls and ponds full of enormous koi carp.

A bamboo garden felt fresh and springlike, with new leaves made for a pale green mist; a tea garden, complete with traditional Japanese tea house, was quiet and contemplative. Paul and I took tea there – a bowl of deicious, frothy, bitter matcha tea and a delicate bean paste rice cake.

Which led my thoughts to other things. The garden was about to close, and although we needed to head for Kobe on the next shinkansen, I wasn’t going to leave Himeji without getting hold of some tama tsubaki, recommended by our friend Michiko san. She says it is her favourite! Tama tsubaki means peony bud, because that’s just what these sweets look like – pale pink buds. Inside there is a white bean paste; the enclosing mochi (pounded rice paste) is soft and toothsome.

Most places near the castle seemed to have sold out, so popular is this confection; but someone directed us to a department store near the station. As always in Japan, its basement was dedicated entirely to food, and there we bought ourselves a box, and a niku manju (Chinese meat dumping) as a snack. We were hungry.

A short shinkansen ride later and we were in Kobe. Like Hakata, poor old Kobe hardly got a look in. It was pouring with rain and we arrived late – tired and hungry. We had just enough energy to go and eat some of the famed Kobe beef at a surprisingly reasonable price in the hotel teppanyaki restaurant. Teppanyaki is a relatively recent culinary development in Japan – less than 100 years old, where meat, seafood and vegeables are cooked on a steel griddle right in front of you by a chef with exceptional knife skills. The meat was, as expected, melt in the mouth tender and delicious. All we could do was eat and go to bed. We did have one drink in the bar afterwards on the top floor of our skyscraper hotel. We looked out through the rain to the distant hills, lit with beacons in the pattern of anchors and ships to welcome sailors into the port. I spent some infant years here, but remember nothing about the place. I was sorry not to have had more time and less inclement weather to see it. Like Nagasaki, it is a port that has seen the influx of outside influences – Western as well as Chinese – and has a large Chinatown area. But it would have to wait for another time – we had come to the end of our journey. The next day the shinansen would take us back to Tokyo where we would spend the next stage of our trip – nearly three weeks – meeting family and friends. The two week journey to Kyushu and back was unforgettable, fabulous. But we felt pretty tired too. And so after just one drink we fell deep asleep. I dreamed about tadpoles and giant toads that lived in the sea.

We let the shinkansen whisk us away from Kyushu and back towards the big island of Honshu.  Our time there had been much too short and we hoped we’d be back again before too long to explore some more.  Two weeks with a car would be a good option, to meander around the mountains in the interior and stay in some of the more remote hot springs.  We’d also want to bring our hiking boots and take the four-hour ferry to Yakushima, the wild island south west of Kagoshima, which has been designated a UNESCO Nature Heritage site and which inspired Miyazaki Hayao’s extraordinary animated film “Princess Mononoke”.
Our next stop was Kurashiki, in Okayama prefecture, about 600kms away.  Our friendly taxi driver, who drove us from the station to our ryokan told us that Okayama was the perfect place to live in Japan – temperate, even climates and hardly ever any earthquakes.  The town of Kurashiki was a prosperous, thriving trade centre during the Edo Period, about 400 years ago; the river and canals were the routes along which merchants transported and plied their wares.  Now it is a historical town, a genteel and popular tourist destination.

We were to stay in a beautiful ryokan in the centre of the historic centre.  About three hundred years old, it was the oldest place we’d stayed in in Japan so far.  Its traditional old stone-flagged entrance faced out onto a picturesque miniature canal, conveniently close to the tiny humpbacked Nakabashi footbridge.  We left our luggage at the inn to explore the Bikan area of Kurashiki – the oldest, historical part of the town, preserved so that it looked exactly as it would have done centuries ago.  With the bright sunshine, the place looked even more beautiful.

Our first stop was the Ohara Museum of Art, an elegant Palladian style buliding set back from the main street in the Bikan area.  This wonderful art gallery was established in the 1930s and houses a collection of exceptionally good taste with works by Gaugin, Picasso, Renoir, Monet and a various modern Japanese painters as well as pottery by Bernard Leach and other potters inspired by Japanese ceramics.  We spent a peaceful hour or so drinking all this in before continuing to stroll around the town.

As the sun began to set we strolled around until we found a steep flight of steps up to a small hill – climbing up, we discovered the entrance to Achi shrine – then descended back to the main street of Kurashiki’s Bikan area to have a long soak in the bath before dinner.

Our rooms in the inn were huge – a large tatami area, and another newly renovated room for sleeping in, surprisingly, with western-style beds and a huge plasma screen TV attached to the wall.  The bathroom was also newly kitted out, with a deep Japanese bath with jacuzzi jets and beautifully arranged cosmetics.  It looked immaculate.

 

Dinner was something else – the chef had made huge efforts with the presentation – dishes laid out like ikebana flower arrangements that were so beautiful it was a shame to eat them.

  

 The menu was printed in English and great care had been taken to make the food accessible to foreigners.  It was a curious sensation for me, being so used to staying in Japanese ryokan with my mother as a child and being treated as Japanese, to have a translator arrive in our room to explain all the dishes.  I felt grateful and excluded at the same time.  The rice course was a curious selection of cooked and vegetarian sushi – delicious – but very different from what one would expect in a ryokan catering to Japanese guests.  Later, the lovely lady who was employed by the ryokan to translate explained that the majority of guests at Ryokan Kurashiki were westerners.  They had made changes to the menu to cater for western tastes.  The dish they normally served at this point always came back untouched, which was why they had come up with a fusion dish instead.  I asked her what was normally served.

“Taichazuke”  she said.  Inwardly I wept.  A favourite!  I used to eat it when visiting my maternal grandmother’s family in Kyushu–? sea bream on rice, with green tea.  It is a delicacy I would have loved to have eaten.
The translator and I had an interesting discussion; the topic in question: how to cater for Western tourists and yet keep things authentically Japanese?  There is so much a foreign visitor needs to know before they can stay in such a place.   No slippers on tatami.  How to take a bath.  That dinner is usually served in your rooms – and often, you sleep on the floor in the same room after taking a bath.  On top of this, to those unaccustomed to Japanese food, some things can be a challenge, with new textures (slimy, for example), tastes (simmered sea bream eggs and pepper tree sprouts).  So do you serve up Western food instead?  Then, the authenticity of the experience is lost.

Many ryokan just go ahead and keep to the menu they would serve Japanese customers.  But as the translator said, a lot of food then goes to waste.  It is an interesting challenge.

Once we had eaten up our delicious food, we went to bed and I immediately fell into a deep sleep.  At half past midnight, I woke up with a start.  Paul was fast asleep and snoring and everything was quiet and dark.  I knew that we and another couple were the only guests at the ryokan and the stillness was all-enveloping.  At the same time, I felt inexplicably and completely spooked!  I couldn’t get back to sleep, overwhelmed with the strange sensation that I was being watched…. Like a six year old, I pulled the covers over my head, my heart pounding.  I switched on the TV at low volume to try and chase the shadows away and after a while I felt less alarmed, as if whatever was watching had gone away.  After an hour or so I switched off the TV and went back to sleep.

In the morning, Paul told me that he too had woken up suddenly in the small hours, hearing footsteps in our tatami living room on the other side of the door…. and I told him about my own restlessness.  Having scared me witless by looking through our camera pictures and telling me that the last photo on there was of us sleeping (a ghoulish joke), we went through to the dining area to have breakfast.

I asked our translator whether this ryokan, being so old, had any ghost stories attached and she said:  well yes, many people ask us if there are ghosts here and things have been seen and experienced here.  In fact, there are some rooms are staff will not enter alone…. goosebumps raised up on my arms.

You may poo-poo such things; whether real or not, Japan is full of fantastic ghost stories.  The idea might be, here, that this ancient inn, inhabited by generations of innkeepers and their families, is still home to generations past who are curious about the renovations and new customers, especially if they are foreigners.  Well, if you have lived all your life in the inn, running it as a place for travellers to stay, wouldn’t you want to stick around and see what became of it?  Although I’d been spooked, I didn’t feel, at any point, that I was under threat.  I just felt I was being watched – and in the middle of the night, that can seem alarming.

At breakfast, the sun was out, and things no longer seemed so ghostly.  We had a little time to explore some more, so we decided to visit the Japanese Rural Toy Museum.

 

This is a treasure trove, founded in 1967 and hidden in a series of old, black-tiled warehouses, displaying thousands of colourful folkcraft toys.  There are bells, whistles, tops, dolls, traditional Kurashiki Hariko (hand-painted, rustic papier-mache figurines) wooden toys, kites and masks covering every shelf, from floor to ceiling.  An enormous wooden spinning top is displayed along with its Guiness Book of World Records certificate for the longest human-powered spin of one hour, eight minutes and fifty seconds.  The top was hand-made by the owner of the toy museum, Hiroyuki Ohga, and the Guiness Superlatives certificate is in his name.  He guided us about the museum in very good English and explained that the world record had since been broken by someone else, using a custom-made top Ohga san had designed.  It seemed a generous gesture.

On our way out we bought a tiny daruma, a stylised, round Bodhisattva figurine made of colourfully decorated papier-mache.  One is meant to fill in one eye with black ink while making a wish for a successful conclusion to a project; the other eye is filled in once the wish has been granted.  Paul and I decided to get one for ourselves as a good luck charm for settling into our new life in Australia – to wish for good jobs and a comfortable home we loved.

Behind the counter I spotted some familiar pictures framed on the wall.  Professor Yunoki’s textile pictures!  He is a wonderful folk artist who is a friend of my father’s.  Yunoku Sensei is from Kurashiki and it made sense to see his work in the toy museum, whose objects embody the hand-crafted, child-like playfulness embraced in Yunoki Sensei’s art.  More of his work was hung upon the walls of a little cafe attached to the museum.  In the sunlight the bright pictures added to the light-hearted joyfulness of the place.  All thoughts of spooks and ghostliness were chased away.

Onwards, onwards.  We could have explored some more in Kurashiki.  But we needed to get back to Tokyo before our JR Passes expired and we still had more to see.  Picking up our luggage from the inn, we made our way to the train station for a shinkansen that would take us further east again, to Himeji, where we were to make a flying visit to the great castle there.  We were booked to stay the night in Kobe, so we would need to make the most of the four or five hours we would get to explore this historic site before we headed closer and closer back to our temporary ‘home’ in Tokyo.

How much?!” Paul exclaims in horror.

We are staying in the Hotel Nikko Fukuoka, stylish, modern and immaculate.

We gaze at the photograph in the hotel information file.  A gorgeous swimming pool in a glass atrium, a gym, spa, sauna. 3000 yen per visit per person (fifteen squids, UK people).  Great if you have an afternoon to splash, soak and be massaged but we just need to work off some of the bulk that’s accumulated after so many (albeit healthy) dinners.  We decide to DIY Keep Fit on the cheap.

Paul is down to his boxer shorts and is running on the spot in our hotel room:, thump thump thump.  God help whoever’s in the room downstairs. “Hup two three four!”. He’s doing the Jane Fonda thing, minus leotard and pink legwarmers. For the next half hour we take turns to be aerobics instructor, making it up as we go along. I struggle when it’s Paul’s turn to guide us through the push ups. I’m laughing too hard and I keep collapsing in a heap.

We’ve worked up enough of a sweat to feel justified in our mission for our very short stay in Fukuoka (also, confusingly, known as Hakata), a port city on the north-eastern tip of Kyushu. Having indulged in a second sand steam bath in Ibusuki that morning, we didn’t arrive in Hakata until late afternoon – our sleek shinkansen traversing the island of Kyushu from bottom to top in one speedy swoop along about 300 kilometres.  Poor Hakata, so much more deserving of a long visit from us, but we were heading back eastwards the next day, so we only had that night to enjoy there.

We did, as I say, have a mission in this city.  Seek and find Tomo-chan, a yatai (street food stall) run by the friend of the sister of a friend of a friend who I was introduced to back in London. As it happens, Tomo-chan also featured on some photocopied gourmet guide pages for Hakata that Okuda san in London kindly brought us just before we left the UK.

Hakata is famous for its good food, and especially for its street stalls (yatai).

Row upon row of stalls line the river, port and streets all over the city.  Each of these yatai make me think of Dr Who’s Tardis.  Clearly, they’ve been wheeled to the location, a single package on wheels. But they open up to include a little roof, awnings, counters, grill cookers, steamers, shelves full of glasses, fridges….a whole little restaurant bar on wheels unfolds.  From the outside these look ever so inviting, the warm glow from the lanterns enticing you in, the voices of customers hidden away inside filtering out into the street; wafts of delicious smells make your mouth water. Cosily arranged so that customers lining the tiny counters feel tucked away intimately inside the noren (short curtains), the interior of the yatai is warmed by the rising heat from the steaming vats of oden (Japanese ”hotch potch”, so the translation goes – fish cakes of different shapes, flavours and sizes, whole eggs, chunks of daikon mooli, potato, all slow-stewed in a seaweed broth and eaten with yellow mustard). The proprietors busy themselves over yakitori (skewered chicken) charcoal grills, serve up ice-cold draught beer and warm sake to rosy-cheeked customers.

We take a long time to find Tomo-chan. We decide to walk from our hotel to add to the exercise quota.  Although we’ve been told which street it’s on, and that it’s opposite a big Japanese bank building, we get a bit lost. There aren’t any rows of stalls to be seen, and it looks an unlikely place to find a yatai.  We ask a passing office worker going home. He’s friendly and helpful, peers at our map under the light of a street light, squints at it, then at a speck of golden light opposite the vast road and says – “Isn’t that Tomo-chan, over there?”.  Sure enough. Tomo-chan’s stall squats, tiny, at the foot of some vast buildings.  We walk over to it – it’s tiny and from the lively conversation audible from outside the noren there seem to be five or so customers in there.  Suddenly I feel a bit shy – it’s so small, and our entrance feels like an intrusion – but I take a deep breath, push aside the noren and shuffle inside. There’s a pause in the conversation as the customers, a group of funky young twenty-somethings clock these one-and-a-half foreigners lumbering into the tiny space.

We squidge up next to them, order some beers. The conversation resumes again. We’re fine, settled in!

Two young men are manning the stall – one plays host and clearly knows the other customers quite well.  The other is standing, sweating, before the hot charcoal grill, cooking up the skewers to order.

In front of us at the counter, a glass chill cabinet (how? How? It’s just a tiny wagon stall!) is filled with skewered chicken, octopus tentacles, gingko nuts, slices of marinated beef rump, beef tongue, air dried shishamo – a slender, silvery fish – behind the young man chatting to us, two enormous pots, one filled with boiling water, the other with tonkotsu broth (pork stock), piles of ramen noodles, shelves of gleaming beer glasses, bottles. Beside him, the obligatory vat of steaming oden, and the smells from the tonkotsu, the oden, the charcoal grill on which skewers of juicy chicken morsels, marinated beef fillet are sizzling, all just make it irresistible.

We order, we eat, we order again. Whole skewered green capscicums, the charcoal roast rendering them soft and savoury, with a bit of a kick; gingko nuts, chewy and soft and nutty-tasting; plates of beef fillet (sagari) and beef tongue (tan), tender and oozing with a dark, juicy sauce. Shishamo fish, fresh off the grill, huge white scallops charcoal-grilled and dressed with a squeeze of lemon juice.

A few beers in and we are part of the crowd. We make our occasional contribution to the conversation.  Paul orders another beer – in Japanese.  I tell the chap behind the counter that we have come to Hakata just to eat here, and that the stall was recommended to us because Tomo-chan was run by “the friend of a sister of a friend of a friend back in London”. They ask the name of this friend of a friend.

Kondo san, I tell them.

Aaah!!! says the one manning the grill.  This stall’s owned by my brother, who isn’t here today.  But I think I know his friend Kondo san.

A connection! He knows who I’m talking about.

Is Kondo san a man? he asks.

Er, no.

Never mind!  He says he’s sure he’s heard the name, but his brother would know for sure.  Anyway, the food’s great, nothing else matters.  We’re just eternally grateful for this fabulous recommendation.  So we eat some more.

We want oden too, but we knew we couldn’t possibly leave without ordering one of the vast bowls of Hakata ramen, the specialty of this town, noodles in pork broth topped with bean sprouts, so we decide to reserve what little space we have left in our groaning stomachs for that.  Our neighbours, who had a head start on us, have already slurped theirs down and the sight, smell and sound of this was just too much.  We want ours NOW.

We watch our friend behind the counter expertly scoop two piles of ramen noodles up into a giant sieve scoop and drop them into boiling water.  Two bowls put out on the counter are filled with steaming, creamy tonkotsu broth. The noodles are vigorously drained of excess water (is he on a mini trampoline? Paul asks – for his draining action is very bouncy behind the counter) are dropped into the broth. Slices of pork, bean sprouts, spring onion are generously piled on top. Each steaming bowl us placed before us on the counter and we tuck in.

It’s heaven. The broth is rich, porky in a good way, mouthwatering; the noodles firm and pert, the spring onion adding the necessary zing. The delicate slices of marinated pork are tender, soft, the crowning glory on an absolutely great bowl of noodles.

By this time, another group of customers has arrived and the little stall is now full, all ten seats taken; convivial conversation flows, punctuated with laughter, while glass after glass of beer and sake is replenished. The charcoal grill sizzles, the proprietor’s brother fanning the glowing embers and wafting more tempting smells our way.  But our stomachs are beginning to protest, gently.

It was getting late and we had an early start in the morning. An hour and a half had slipped by quite easily and it was time to find our way back to the hotel. Weaving slightly, and loosening our belts, we saunter along the river, over the bridge, through the brightly-lit night-time city, Arriving back in our beautiful room in our hotel, we gaze out below us at the twinkling city and say a wistful goodbye.  Hakata, our one-night stand.  We loved what we’d seen of it.  And then, gazing down at our ramen-filled bellies, we knew that our encounter with Hakata had definitey made us fatta.  Paul, get those leg-warmers on.

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