Japanese food


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.

We got the most fantastic train back from Hayato to Kagoshima City.  Run by JR Kyushu, we got the Hayato no Kaze (“Wind of Hayato”), a direct train that took just over an hour – too short, for such a fabulous ride.  A sleek, polished, old-fashioned-looking black train, Hayato no Kaze was kitted out inside with pale Japanese pine, with woven rubbish baskets and professional, uniformed ladies bringing delicious coffee and cake to you on little wooden trays.  Large floor-to-ceiling windows looked out to the sea and the great volcanic island of Sakurajima which could be seen just across the water more or less throughout the entire journey as the train chuffed along the coast.  Large, outward facing wooden bench-chairs had been positioned directly opposite the windows so that passengers could comfortably admire the view.

  

We were lucky to be able to see the volcano on our journey, because by the time we arrived in Kagoshima itself, the mist had descended and the volcano was barely visible.  Until then it had looked fairly placid and the usual puff of volcanic smoke wasn’t visible.  Sakurajima was sleeping.

 

As soon as we’d dumped off our luggage at our hotel – the Shiroyama Kanko Hotel,  perched on top of Shiroyama (Castle Mountain) facing the volcano – we took a CityView bus, a quaint little tourist routehopper, down to Sengan-en, a famous Japanese garden in Kagoshima which uses the “borrowed backdrop” of the volcano as part of its beautiful scenery.

Sengan-en was a villa built by the Shimadzu clan in 1658 – later, during the Meiji restoration, the house became their main home.  in 1851, Nariakira Shimadzu, then lord of Satsuma, built the first industrial complex in Japan in a bid to modernise Japan in competition with the West.

 The gardens were vast, with little food stalls near the entrance, a tea house, and several Shinto shrines, including one dedicated to the cat god, where I got a souvenir omiage for my cousin Asako, who loves cats, especially her own – Momo-chan.

 We shared a kintsuba, a cake made with local sweet potato, then some jambo, another specialty of the area – glutinous rice cakes on a stick, covered in a sweet soya sauce glaze.  It reminded me of one of my favourites, mitarashi dango, a smaller version that can also be found in Tokyo.  The two sticks we shared fired us up with the energy we were going to need to explore the gardens and the mountainside behind them.

 

At first, we explored the lower sections, discovering hidden corners and surprises, such as a garden for composing poetry, the Kyokusui garden, where people sat around a circular stream, casting off cups of sake on little rafts.  They had to complete a haiku before the sake cup came around again to be drunk.

The Konan Chikurin was a bamboo grove we found a little further up, where one of the Shimadzu clan had planted the first bamboo shoots brought over from China – the moso variety, which we had tasted back in Myoken Ishiharaso ryokan the night before.  The little shoots poking up out of the ground would have been too tough to eat though – the ones used in cooking are unearthed from beneath the soil before they see the light of day.

We carried on exploring the many shady hidden paths lit by bright splashes of pink, white and red azalea and rhododendra, until we found ourselves heading steadily upwards.  The longer we walked, the steeper the path became.  By now we were high up in the woods on the mountainside, surrounded by complete silence except for the bird calls.  The edges of the dirt path appeared to have been torn up, and I suspected wild boar activity  Sure enough, we then saw cloven footprints imprinted in the churned earth around the tree roots.  We guessed the boar had been busy foraging around the roots for food.  But being spring, with boar protecting their young offspring, we were rather hoping we would not encounter one.

 The sweaty, hefty climb was worth it – near the top, we had an incredible view over to Sakurajima; the mist had lifted for us and now the volcano was awake and puffing away happily, a cloud of volcanic ash rising from its south-eastern peak.

 

We clambered back down again to explore what we could of the rest of the garden before it closed, then hopped back on to the CityView bus to go to Dolphin Point, a modern recreation and restaurant area on the harbour.  A two-level complex with wooden decking surrounded by palm trees, something about it reminded me of Adelaide. 

There was a local specialty food market which we explored, buying some dried horse-mackerel belly as omiage for family back in Tokyo on the advice of a nice man and woman who helped us out.  We shared a small cup of satsuma-imo ice cream – flavoured with local sweet potato – duty-bound, of course, to sample local specialties.  Tasty.

Once we’d explored enough we plonked ourselves down at an ashi-buro – a shallow, long hot spring pool for people to soak their feet in, right there at the edge of the shopping complex, free to use for anybody passing by.  Perfect after wandering around for so long.  The hot water soothed our aching feet as we gazed out to the mountains and the bay opposite.  That was when we heared a “hello again!”.  It was the two people who had recommended the horse mackerel belly to us. 

The friendly lady and I ended up having a lengthy chat.  She asked us about our travels and we talked about the differences between Japanese and Western culture, about moving to Australia, about London, Tokyo and Kagoshima, and especially about food.  It turned out that the two were colleagues working for a company selling kurozu – fermented black vinegar, a local specialty. 

On the Tsubame shinkansen, I’d seen a poster of a field full of neat lines of dark glazed clay pots.  Higashiteso san (that was the lady’s name) explained that black vinegar was made by fermenting rice vinegar in clay pots arranged in rows in fields, with the fresh outdoor air circulating around them, using a naturally-occuring baccillus.  It can be made only in one particular area of Kagoshima, where the temperature and humidity remains constant.  It takes a minimum of one year before the vinegar is ready and develops a deeper flavour over time.  This is not cheap stuff.  It’s used as a cooking condiment – in chicken and pork stews, or as a marinade for oily fish, but it can also be drunk on its own as a health tonic, or added to fruit juice – we had tasted it this way in Myoken Ishiharaso, in the apple juice they brought us when we first arrived.

When we told Higashiseto san and Nagata san that we were hoping to sample some black pork shabu-shabu (hot pot) that night at Ajimori, a restaurant recommended by the Okuda san of JNTO in London (he is from Kagoshima himself – we knew any recommendation from him would be tip-top), they rang the restaurant for us to see if they had tables free (Ajimori is famous in Kagoshima, and as it was a Saturday they were concerned that we would not get a table) – then gave us a lift there, stopping off at their offices to present us with a gift pack containing a bottle of black vinegar and another of sugar cane vinegar, another product which they sell at a high-end supermarket in Tokyo, so that we could sample it properly for ourselves.  On the way there, we chatted more about the vinegar.

Selling their Kibisu (sugar cane) vinegar to Meidi-ya, their challenge was to explain to the many foreign customers who bought from this supermarket chain how it shoud be used.  I said that I thought a simple leaflet would be useful, and that as a food-enthusiast keen to spread the word amongst non-Japanese foodies and as someone who wrote leaflets and brochures for a living I would be delighted to cobble something together for them.  A happy coincidence.

When they discovered Paul was a chef, they asked him to come up with recipe ideas they could put on the English page of their website.  Paul and I were going to have fun thinking up ways of using the kuro- and kibi-su from then on.  We’re looking forward to experimenting when we get back to the Tokyo flat.

How nice these people were!  They were going to be visiting Tokyo for their monthly sales trip there, and we agreed to meet up with them for a drink.  I hope to bring you more on our kuro- and kibi-su culinary experiments in the next weeks.  Who knows, you may see bottles for sale somewhere near you sooner or later!

Having dropped us off, we just had a half-hour wait for a table at Ajimori.  We chose a standard pork shabu-shabu menu and a dish of chicken sashimi on the side (see previous post!) – and yes, that really is raw chicken, thinly sliced and dipped in ginger and sweet soya sauce.  There was straight chicken breast as well as wing (the latter slightly cooked) and gizzard.  Paul hesitated just a moment – he said he had to get his head around the golden rule that states – always, always eat your chicken well cooked.  But this local, free range and organic chicken, a specialty of the area, was as fresh as it could possibly be.  And it was absolutely delicious.  We both wolfed down every bit.

 

Everything at Ajimori was tasty.  Some pickles.  A plate of golden katsu (short for “cutlet”) –  breaded and deep fried pork cutlet, served with Burudoggu (Bulldog) sauce, a dark, thick, worcester-sauce flavoured condiment and finely shredded Japanese cabbbage.  A bronze-coloured nabe pot full of stock soup was placed on a burner in front of us, and the thinly sliced, surprisingly red pork, marbled delicately with fat and without a shred of gristle anywhere was brought on a large dish, together with another plate of vegetables and a bowl of whole raw eggs.

   

The waitress put the first batch of pork slices into the stock and told us to eat them just as they were, without any sauce or dip, once they had turned opaque and creamy.  So we did, and we melted with the tastiness of the meat.  Neither of us have ever had pork like this – sweet, soft, melting and so delicious that it needed no accompaniment whatsoever.  The next batch, said the waitress, could be dipped, sukiyaki style, in beaten raw egg.  Paul gave that a miss, but I went for it and again, it was delicious, the egg cooking slightly with the heat of the pork and giving it a rich flavour. 

As the stock intensified, the waitress added more water, until we’d cooked up and eaten all of the meat.  Now it was time to eat the udon noodles that usually signalled the end of a shabu-shabu meal.  These were hand-made, thick white noodles, brought cold and fresh to the table, then emptied into the stockpot to cook through.  These are served up in little bowls with the stock from the cooking. 

They say the sign of good pork is the complete absence of scum rising the top of the cooking fluid.  Sure enough, the stock was golden and crystal clear and scrumptious and we ate up every last shred of noodle. 

Rounding off with our choice of dessert – vanilla ice cream or a local red bean paste dumpling – I had the former, Paul the latter, we finished up and rolled back to our hotel, where we headed off to our respective female and male baths.  I sat in the outdoor bath, perched up on the third floor of the hotel, and gazed out over the twinkling lights of Kagoshima city, and out at the dark outline of the volcano on Sakurajima, ever present over this beautiful and friendly city.  Once out of the baths, both of us were peacefully asleep within half an hour.

Next morning, we had one last important task to do.  We wanted to visit a little ramen (chinese-style Japanese noodles) shop in Kagoshima station building, Zabon ramen, which had been heartily recommended to us by Okuda san back in London for its local specialty – Kagoshima tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen.  Having loaded our stuff into a locker, then found the shop in the basement of the busy station building, Paul and I plonked ourselves down on stools at a counter table and ordered a Zabon Ramen each – the shop’s own specialty bowl, which had slices of tender black pork, menma (pickled bamboo shoot), chopped spring onion, flecks of fried onion, bean sprouts and the famous tonkotsu pork broth soup.  Okuda san, it was muchakucha oishii!!! – not only was it cheap and cheerful and filling, it was absolutey delicious.  Thank you for your recommendation!

 

The evening meal at our Hayato ryokan was so wonderful it does warrant its own post,  The restaurant itself was stunning – what a place this was – creatively decorated with clever dividers to provide private dining areas for guests.  The dividers were made up of old Japanese objets-trouvés – empty cider bottles with marble bottlestops, hand-made paper balloons, old-fashioned cameras, clocks, papier-mâché traditional masks.  It was like an art installation of old childhood memories, many of the things famililar to me from my own Japanese chidhood.  I found it strangely moving – and very attractive too.

 

There were big chunky tables where you could sit to eat, on western-style chairs; tatami cubicles with long low tables hewn out of giant tree trunks, with colourful rustic floor cushions.  The look of the place was just beautiful, with flowers arranged in chunky modern vases here and there, a cinder hearth with wooden benches around it, large glass windows onto the wilderness outside – none of it really possible to capture on camera.

 

We were shown to our own private cubicle, a tatami-matted room at the corner of the building with floor-to-ceiling glass on one side so that we could see all the way out over the river – a wooden sunken pit under the solid wood table, heated, no less, so that we could cosily nestle our feet down in there – and amazing paper cast walls imprinted with antique Japanese wheels and door rivets.

 

The décor paled into insignificance though, once the food arrived.  Makoto san told us that the head chef there, quite young at 39, was trained in a Kyoto kaiseki restaurant.  You could tell.  Shimomura san’s food was exquisite.

 

To begin with, Makoto san brought us a bamboo container with a milky saké from which she poured us each a saucerful, the customary start to a kaiseki meal.  It was sweet, cold, creamy and delicious.  Some milk – another specialty of Kyushu, with its dairy cattle farms – had been added to it.

 

I was so keen to drink it that I missed the opportunity to take a photograph of the attractive container it came in – but the hand-written menus we were each given carried a drawing of it, which you can see here.

 

 

With the milky saké came a bowl of kibinago – a tiny saltwater fish with attractive silver stripes down the side, mixed with tofu whey crumbs and topped with the buds of a local fern like flower.  Alongside it, a bowl of tofu made with yomugi, a local herb dressed with miso and goji berries.

 

 

Makoto san brought us a beautiful hand painted bowl containing a rolled fillet of sea bream wrapped in cherry blossom leaf and served with baby fern fronds, tiny rice crackers and a cherry blossom leaf glaze.  This was fantastically good.

 

 

We decided to have hot saké with our meal for a change.  We chose a dry, savoury one, which was brought in a warmed baked earthenware bottle, and Makoto san offered me the choice of two hand-made ochoko – saké cups – something that is often done so that the guest can drink from a cup they like and that they can admire.  I chose the rougher earthenware, so that Paul got one with a handpainted red seabream – “tai”, in Japanese – which is a symbol of  good luck.  The brush-stroked characters referred to good fortune.

 

 

Makoto san then brought us a beautiful hand-made pottery “basket” containing fresh bonito sashimi, decorated with shiso (perilla) flowers, shredded mooli and chives.  This was eaten with a sesame and yuzu sauce.  This was meltingly delicious, the fish fresh and pert and the sauce giving it a savoury edge that was zingy and earthy at the same time.

 

 

The next bowl to appear before us was made of black lacquer and decorated with gold warabi – baby fern fronds – a spot-on seasonal decoration, Makato san pointed out.  Inside, a soft block of tofu with shiro uo – tiny white baby fish, served with the tips of the ostrich fern or kinome and incredibly soft, tasty wakame seaweed.  All this sat in a delicious pool of crystal clear bonito stock. 

 

 

A red lacquer tray appeared with more local specialties – skewers of the local fresh free-range chicken with shiitake mushrooms and miniature peppers.  The chicken was tasty, firm and about a million miles away from your standard supermarket variety.  With the skewers, some moso takenoko – a local variety of bamboo shoot.  Makoto san said that Kyoto often claimed to be the original home of the bamboo shoot, but in fact, Kagoshima was the true home of bamboo, something not widely known.  Later, we saw the place where bamboo was first grown, in a garden in Kagoshima, when the first seedlings were brought over from China.

 

Next to appear, a slice of a local variety of sushi – the rice mixed with saké dregs, giving it a moist, slightly alcoholic taste, was layered with white seaweed and vinegared white fish, kibinago, fresh prawn, and egg.  It tasted fresh and lively.

 

Following swiftly on, a dish of black pork – our first taste of this local specialty, topped with a broad bean (soramame – a little less floury and fresher-tasting than the British variety) sauce, spinach and a thick slice of daikon (mooli radish) underneath, which had absorbed all the delicious flavour from the stock the pork had been cooked in.

 

A palate freshener served in a bamboo cup – broad strip noodles of agar agar, similar to the tokoroten I ate in Tokyo on our second day there.  The cold broth it sat in was savoury, cold and tangy.  Paul loved this version and ate the lot.

 

A chunky square plate appeared next, with the tenderest, softest slicest of local wagyu beef, served with green and white asparagus spears and a watercress sauce.  Absolutely beautiful.

 

The carbs part of the meal appeared in a clay plot – steamed rice cooked with peas, fern fronds, pepper plant leaves and sliced paper-thin omelette.

  

This was accompanied by a dish of pickles, one variety of which was made from the famed giant daikon radish which grows in the fertile volcanic soil to enormous sizes weighing about 25 kilos.  The miso soup with this was red, Paul’s favourite, and contained paper-thin slices of soft black pork.  Again, just fantastically good.

 

 

Dessert was a scoop of home made vanilla ice cream, a lychee, strawberries and a local specialty, tankan jelly, made with local mikan tangerines (the latter known as satsumas in the UK, presumably because Satsuma is the old name for the Kagoshima region, where this fruit originates from.

 

We raved about the food so much that Makoto san called out the head chef, Shimomura san.  He greeted Paul in solidarity as a fellow chef, and thanked us for our enthusiasm for his food.  Makoto san took a photo of the three of us.

 

Another dinner of memories to dwell on when we are back to eating ramen noodles from Seven Eleven once we move into our rented Tokyo apartment next week.  They’ll be tasty, but it’ll be nothing like the subtle, fine flavours we enjoyed that night in Myoken Ishiharaso.

Our shinkansen trip from Nagasaki was pretty spectacular. The Tsubame, or “swallow”, is a Kyushu specialty bullet train, with seat backs made from Kyushu wood and the seat covers from woven local fabric. Brand spanking new, the toilets had warmed electric seats and shower cleaning sprays, the handwashing areas were divided by cotton noren curtains, the doors and fittings lacquer red. A fabulously stylish train.

At Nagasaki station, before getting on,we sat at wooden tables on the platform to share a green tea Kit Kat (yes, really – and it was delicious) and some tea. We admired the real cherry tree bonsai, complete with miniature blossom, placed on the tables as decoration. We couldn’t help but wonder how long such an arrangement would last at any British station before it was stolen or vandalised.

Once off the Tsubame we transferred to a local train at Kagoshima Central. It was a cloudy day, but we glimpsed the great volcano on Sakurajima as we headed along the coastline on a chuff-chuff train towards a little village called Hayato. The ryokan had arranged for a taxi to be waiting there for us at the tiny little station when we arrived, and sure enough, we were greeted by a polite, peak-capped, white be-gloved driver who stowed away our rucksacks and drove us up into the mountainside, chatting all the way.

I asked him what the food specialties were of the area – he said it was mainly black pork, shochu (a strong spirit distilled from either rice, potatos or buckwheat), and good free-range chicken that was so fresh it could be eaten raw, as sashimi. We bore that one in mind for later – we would be trying that out for ourselves in Kagoshima city next day.

On arrival, we received the usual ryokan welcome with three people outside bowing, “Irasshaimase!” (“welcome!”). Our bags were quietly whisked away and we were led to a calm, tastefully decorated lobby with vast windows overlooking the hillside and a flowing river. Sitting at a beautiful chunky wooden table, I filled in our check-in forms. As is the custom, we were served a refreshment – here, fresh-made apple juice served in gorgeous hand-blown glasses with a drop of another of the Kagoshima area specialties, black vinegar – on which more later.

Our young hostess, Makoto san, was incredibly friendly and sweet – she explained where everything was and brought us our yukata in time for our kashikiriburo – private reserved bath – another outdoor one. Our room – or rooms, I should say – was absolutely enormous – two separate areas for sitting in, another for sleeping in, and a stunning bathing area, with our own deep Japanese pine bath. We were served tea and a cherry blossom sweet made with rice and red bean paste.

The style of the place is incredibly appealing – completely Japanese and traditional, yet with a modern, contemporary feel. You could tell that whoever chose the décor has a great eye for good design, with impeccable taste. The whole place was immaculate, as if completely new and as if nobody before us had stayed there.

Once again, the view outside the window was extraordinarily beautiful, opening out to a river flowing past. As we both stood there taking it all in, a white stork flew past and landed on the rocks below, looking for its dinner. Then, suddenly, a flash of bright blue. A kingfisher! Neither of us had ever seen one before. I remembered how my mother had always longed to see one. We managed to get a distant shot of it, the photograph doing little justice to its colourful plumage. Next day, on the taxi drive back, I asked the driver if sightings of kawasemi (“river cicada”, the Japanese name for kingfisher) were common – and apparently, they are extremely rare. So we were very lucky to have seen one.

We put on our yukata and colourful obi and headed down to our private bath called “nanaminoyu” – hot spring of the seven berries. This was the closest you could get to a treehouse bath. Built out over the rocks, a large wooden tub was set into wooden decking built around two trees, again, overlooking the river. There was a strong smell of iron in the air near the water spout and a faint and not unpleasant smell of sulphur. The wood near the water spout, where the hot spring gurgled up out of the ground, had turned a rich dark red from the iron deposits. A perfect hot spring for an anaemic like me. We had a good long soak and washed away our travel fatigue. The sight of the tree-covered hill opposite and the river, strewn with giant boulders, made us feel we were right in the midst of the wilderness.

Returning back to our room, we had just enough time for a cold drink before heading to the restaurant area for our evening meal, which, unusually, was not served in our room. I will write about the meal at greater length in the post after this one…

After our wonderful dinner we headed off to the other outdoor bath, one that is shared by both sexes and therefore requiring us to wear towels when we got in the water. We made our way along a woodland path, heading for some lanterns lit up ahead of us, passing tiny little shinto shrines lit with candles on the way. Hugely atmopheric, we felt we were going deeper into the willderness until suddenly, we saw just below a steaming pool where hot spring water gushed out into a hollow in the rocks. Paul and I clambered in after our customary wash and had a relaxing soak. We could hear the river below us rushing by and I had to pinch myself to persuade myself I wasn’t dreaming.

There was a foot bath, so we made a brief stop there too.

Wandering slowly back to our room, toasty warm from the hot soak, we arrived at the front entrance where the inn’s tortoiseshell cat sat in the heat of the lights. When we walked past he didn’t even budge. We shared his contentment.

Burrowing into soft fluffy futon I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and didn’t wake up once until it was morning. I filled the Japanese pine hot tub in our bathroom and had another lovely long soak.

Breakfast was served at a table in the wonderful room we’d eaten our evening meal in. The quantity of food, though all of it was healthy, was vast – but it was all so delicious that we ate every crumb. The rice was particuarly good, having been steamed in iron pots; every little thing was tasty, right down to the freshly made carrot juice (carrots being another specialty) that we had before we began our meal.

We had just enough time to have change out of our yukata and pack before check out, which can be early in ryokan like this. We sat at a table and enjoyed a couple of cups of coffee each, different crockery being used with each serving. The modernity fused with the traditional ran through to the availability of wi-fi so that I could sit at my laptop catching up on atchikochi.

All too soon, the taxi came to take us back to the station. This is a place we hope to come back to one day.

A note on cost for those interested to coming to such places. It is definitely not as cheap as a night in a capsule business hotel. But for two enormous, delicious meals, prepared to exceptionally high standards, unlimited use of the hot spa facilities, a maid who looks after your every need and beautiful surroundings, you’re looking at spending the same as a night in a three star hotel in London or a good evening meal in a central London restaurant.

We’d better get earning fast in Australia. We want to be back in time for next November, when the food will be autumnal, delicious and different again from the spring, and when the hillside will be covered in red and gold.

We make it over to Kyushu, a large island to the south west.  We arrived in Nagasaki early Tuesday evening after a long shinkansen journey from Miyajima via Fukuoka in a heavy spring downpour.  It was windy too, and we had to stop every now and then to turn our umbrellas back each time they were blown inside-out.  We were soaked by the time we arrived at our hotel – three nights in a functional, cheap business hotel to balance out the more indulgent accommodation we’ve enjoyed so far.

Both my father and Obachan mentioned an old song, “Yesterday It was Raining In Nagasaki”, as being particularly appropriate.

 

Although we had been enjoying ourselves enormously, all the sightseeing, travelling and rucksack-lugging had worn us out.  With the weather as rotten as it was, with me needing to catch up with my blogging and still full from our anago-meshi in Miyajima, we decided to take it easy the rest of the evening and stay in.  Paul went out for snacks at the local Seven Eleven, I settled down with my laptop and we were asleep nice and early.

 

When we woke up it was still pouring outside.  We boarded one of the kooky little Nagasaki trams and headed up to Matsuyama-machi, where the atomic bomb was dropped on August 9th 1945.  At the epicentre of the explosion, a sober black granite column stands pointing up into the sky, surrounded by beautiful trees and flowers.

 

The weather was dark and grey and Paul and I both fell silent.  Heading into the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum, we felt even more solemn.  The museum exhibition is extremely well done; unsentimentally, it explains events factually and displays various objects such as a melted, distorted clock, its hands permanently frozen at 11:02, the moment the bomb exploded just 500 metres above a neighbourhood full of women and children, destroying a large catholic church.  There are eye-witness accounts from bomb survivors, who were children at the time, who suffered terrible injuries and who lost their entire families.  It is certainly not a cheerful exhibit and is deeply disturbing.  Almost a third of the city’s population died, and another third was injured.  The effects of radiation have continued and to this day people suffer from illnesses as a result.  The city itself, once a beautiful harbour town, was almost completely destroyed.

 

The exhibition also has a display outlining the current situation globally with the nuclear arms race but the exhibition ends on a positive note with the work done by the anti-nuclear arms movement and a plea from the people of Nagasaki:  “Please, we ask the world, never to allow such a bomb to be dropped ever again.  Nagasaki should be the last city ever to be destroyed by a nuclear bomb.”

 

We felt somber for the rest of the afternoon.  But we felt it was important to acknowledge this painful part of Nagasaki’s history.  It struck me, over the two and a half days in Nagasaki, how cheerful, friendly and relaxed the people were.  It is extraordinary how rapidly they rebuilt the city; they even continued with their usual annual October festival, just months after the bomb, to keep people’s spirits up.  Nagasaki is an emblem of human resilience.

 

We had cheered up a little by the time we went out to eat in the evening.  We visited Chinatown’s Kairakuen (a recommendation by our friend Michiko-san) for some saraudon (“plate-noodles”) and ton-po-ro, which is slowly stewed belly pork, sandwiched in a dumpling with a sweet sauce.  It was delicious, comforting – good rainy-weather food.

  

 

The influence of Chinese culture is visible everywhere.  Nagasaki is the first natural port of arrival when sailing in from the west and so is the “gateway to Japan”.  Its first contact with the West was with the Portuguese and the Dutch as early as the 16th century, when an off-course Chinese ship blew into port, setting of the start of many fruitful exchanges.

 

The cultural mixture is evident in the food – the Nagasaki specialties are almost all Chinese-based dishes; as is its famous local cake, Castella, a fluffy handmade traditional sweet treat taken from old Portuguese recipes.  We went to buy a small loaf of it from Fukusaya, which, incredibly, has been making Castella since the 17th century.

There is, however, an indigenous specialty, a local fruit called zabon a delicious giant orange/satsuma/grapefruit whose peel is sugared and eaten as a sweet.  Paul and I enjoyed both the peel and the juice on our visit to the Dutch slopes.

 

Nagasaki, despite its tragic history, is exotically mixed.  I felt its appeal particularly with my own Japanese-Western mixed background and visiting Glover Garden and the Dutch slopes the next day was fascinating.  Glover Garden is the site of a 19th century foreign settlement, an abundantly lush hillside area, crowned by Glover House, where a Scotsman, Thomas Glover, once lived with his Japanese wife and half-Japanese children.  By all accounts he was quite a character, creating a warm environment around him and founding a company, Glover & Co.  He supporting the rebels at the end of the feudal shogunate, and after the Meiji Resotration, brought Western culture and science to Japan.  He lived in Japan until his death in 1911.

 

Glover Garden contains a series of Japanese-western style houses built on a slope in Minami-Yamate.  It is a romantic place with gardens, fountains, waterfalls and wonderful colonial houses with verandahs looking out over the bay.  There were accounts from the wife of one of the 19th century settlers who said she thought that Nagasaki was perhaps one of the most beautiful places she had ever seen.  Wandering along the hillside paths, I could see why, and we both thought of the irony of a beautiful city so eager to exchange culture, ideas and science with the west becoming a target for destruction at the end of the Second World War.

 

Paul and I whiled away a happy afternoon there clambering up and down the slopes, feeding some enormous koi carp with the food provided and gazing down at the famous Mitsubishi shipyard where a new container ship was being built; the sun had come out for us just a little.

We wandered further out and along to the Dutch slopes (“Horanda Zaka”) where we saw more colonial houses and explored some more.  We found an extraordinary temple quite unlike anything I’d ever seen before in Japan – if anyone showed me a picture of Sofukuji and asked me where it was, I would immediately have said China.  Bright red and with gold decorations on the altars hung with Chinese lanterns, this was as far as you could get in contrast from the muted, sober Zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto.  The friendly monk allowed us to look around even though the temple was closed to tourists.  Perched up on the hill, with dusk falling, it was atmospheric and left quite an impression.

  

 

Our evening meal was spent in a trendy izakaya (bar serving tapas-style dishes) where we had our own tiny tatami-floored cubicle.  The food was pretty good, though not a patch on the superlative food we’d had so far, but it was a fun place to eat.  Wandering home a little boozy from the fresh Japanese draft beer, we slept like stones until it was time to get up and head off to the station.

 

 

From Nagasaki we were to head south, to Kagoshima, the city in sight of the great Sakurajima volcano.  We’d be transferring to a local train that would take us up into the hills, to another night in another hot spring ryokan.  We couldn’t wait for another night of soaking in hot springs, eating tasty food, sleeping and relaxing.

There is something exceptional about the island of Miyajima.  Not only is it stunningly beautiful, it’s also said to be a sacred island and is the location for Itsukushima, an ancient 7th century Shinto shrine built on stilts at the edge of the sea; its bright red torii gate, standing out in the water in front of it, is said to be one of the most photographs landmarks in Japan.  The wild deer that roam freely around the island are seen as messengers of the gods. Approaching the island by ferry (JR pass accepted), we watched the mountainous island loom up out of the light mist framing the unmistakable red dot of the sacred gate before it.  Miyajima is a World Cultural Heritage site, with good reason.

 

 

Having had a long shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Kyoto (tucking into our obento boxes again as we travelled), and enjoyed three days of intensive sight-seeing, the sea air was rejuvenating.  We were met at the small ferry terminus by a lovely man from Iwaso, our ryokan, who drove us up to a stunning location up in the hillside to Momijidani – valley of the maple trees.  Deer roamed freely about, a river burbled by, interrupted by little waterfalls, and the cherry blossom was mankai –in  full bloom – here, too.  Sure enough, fresh green spring maple leaves that gave the valley its name were bursting forth everywhere.

 

 

 Leaving our luggage there we walked over an arched bridge to explore the hills behind the ryokan and happened upon signs for the cable car to the top of Mount Misen.  This mountain, seen as a sacred dwelling for the gods, has been an object of worship since ancient times and rises 535 metres up from sea level.

 

We decided to jump on.  The first leg of the cable car journey was jelly-knee inducing and breathtaking.  In our own private car, we soared up into the sky towards the first peak, the thick forest far below us.  Behind us lay the sea, shrouded in a fine light mist, the dark shapes of outlying islands visible on the horizon.

 

 

We both spotted it at the same time – a vast, brown bird of prey, circling around the empty cable car just ahead of us.  Its wingspan must have stretched three or even four feet.  We were thrilled, not quite managing to take photographs and stumbling about in the car, making it sway alarmingly.

 

 

At the top of the first peak – already high up in the clouds, we transferred to a larger cable car which we shared with other visitors, though as it was a Monday afternoon, there weren’t many.

 

At the cable car station at the top of the ropeway, signs warned us to leave our belongings in lockers free of charge so that we didn’t tempt the monkeys.  Monkeys?  Sure enough, when we stepped out into the open, clusters of monkeys ran about, some of them very little and cute, preening each other and chattering and huddling together to keep warm.

 

 

From this point we walked up and up, past odd, misshapen boulders with names like “Kujiraishi” (whale rock) or “Kugureiwa” (duck-under rock – you had to duck under it to carry on along the path).  The atmosphere of the mountain felt heavy and awe-inspiring.

 

 The more pragmatic Paul said it was just the mist, but I really felt struck by a sense of mystery up there.  We were completely alone as we huffed and puffed up the steep paths, overhung with thick foliage and flanked by vast cedars and tall pines, elegant bamboo thickets and flowering bushes.  We pushed onwards toward the summit, passing by shinto shrines and sacred places where we would stop to pay our respects and the occasional gap in the forest which revealed extraordinary views down to the sea.

 

Once at the top, there was complete silence.  Just the wind quietly blew puffs of cloud past us.  I opened my mouth to swallow the mist and said “Look, I’m eating the clouds on the mountains of the gods”.  Normally Paul would have taken the mickey, but even he was struck by the atmosphere up there, and he smiled.

 

It was stunning.

 

Clambering back to the cable car stop in time for the last one back (being left behind would mean a three hour walk back down to the bottom), we landed at the bottom just in time to be shown to our beautiful tatami mat, Japanese-style room, to take a restful bath and be served our evening meal by the nice lady looking after us, Shigeoka san.  Iwaso is an old ryokan but had recently been refurbished – its baths were sparking new and stylish, swapping over from male to female once a day so that Paul and I could again see where the other had bathed the night before.

 

 

Two sets of baths each – indoor and outdoor.  Unlike the Hakone hot springs (which were natural rock pools, also lovely), the outdoor baths were modern, sleek, large squares of pale Japanese pine sunk into a granite floor, framed with miniature Japanese gardens and overlooking the river rushing by below.  Again, a stunning location, dreamlike and breathtaking.  I had a lovely conversation with a regal-looking 82 year old lady (she didn’t look it) who said she had spent much of her life travelling with her late husband, not just to Europe and America, but to places Japanese tourists rarely went in the 60s and 70s.

 

Dinner was superb, as usual – I’ll just show photos here rather than describe each dish, or this post will be the length of war and peace.  It was exquisite – as was breakfast – though now I’m reserving the truly memorable meals for dedicated posts.

 

 

 

Having eaten our evening meal, we changed out of our yukata (cotton robes) and headed back to the harbour, where we boarded a little narrow boat, lit up with paper lanterns, that was to take us out to the torii in the sea.  The man explained the history and origin of the massive gate, each pillar hewn out of massive camphor trees and the whole thing simply resting on the sea bed, its weight keeping it in place.  However, as the pillars gradually shifted apart over the years, a stone was set into the wood in the archway to anchor it into place.  At low tide, it is possible to walk under the gate, but that evening we went under by boat, the high tide an incredible ten metres higher than it was that morning when we saw people walking under it.

 

As the shrine the gate faces is especially sacred, seen as the world of the gods not to be accessed by humans (you can walk through designated corridor-bridges in the shrine during the daytime), we were asked to practice oihai together – all fifteen of us passengers – as we went under the gate.

 

 

Oihai – paying respects – in Shinto practice involves bowing deeply first, hands clasped together as if in prayer, then clapping the hands together twice (to alert the gods to your presence – in some shrines, there are ropes attached to bells you can ring as well), then bowing again with hands together.  In Buddhism, you eliminate the clapping, otherwise the bowing and hand clasping is the same.

 

So we all did this in silence as we went under the floodlit gate, which towered impressively over us, and indeed, you did feel as if you were encroaching on the territory of the gods.  Speaking of gods, if you have never seen Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film “Spirited Away” – (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi), I would recommend this as a good introduction to the mystery of Shinto gods and goddesses.

 

At the end of our boat journey, guided by a kind local man who gave an excellent talk as we sailed around the gate, we were given a shamoji each – a rice spatula, a local craft specialty.  It is so famed a product that in the village there is a huge 270 year old “o-shakushi” o display, the world’s biggest rice scoop weighing in at two and a half tons and 7.7 metres long.

 

We walked along the shoreside, where stone lanterns were lit with candles, casting a warm glow and lending the place a peaceful atmosphere as the water lapped against the shore.  It seems the local people were keen to preserve the gentleness and historic authenticity of the place, so there were few artificial lights, lending the place an ancient air.  We could see the torii looming up out of the water ahead – this was subtly floodlit, to good effect.  There were few people around, just Paul and me and a few Japanese tourists gazing out at the gate.  Before long though, we all shifted our amazed gaze from the sacred gate to a large group of German tourists who had suddenly arrived, all wearing their ryokan yukata out there in the cold, complete with socks and shoes….

 

Once up in the morning, having bathed in the wonderful hot springs again (my skin and hair was baby-soft afterwards) and eaten our (once again) fabulous Japanese breakfast, we left our things at the ryokan and set out to explore.  We visited Senjokaku, known as the “thousand tatami temple” – the vast open main hall of Hokoku temple with views out to the sea and surrounded by blossom.  We watched a deer nibbling at the drifts of cherry blossom petals on the ground.  They’re certainly tasty enough to feature as a popular springtime ingredient in Japanese cuisine, so it wasn’t surprising that it was appealling to the deer too.

 

We walked down to the shoreside area, a long street of artisanal  and local food shops, selling the specialities of Miyajima, mainy Momijidango (maple-leaf dumplings), a sweet red bean paste filed soft sponge dumpling in the shape of a maple leaf.  We watched a few shops making these – some using fully automated Heath Robinson-like machines, others by hand.  Paul and I sat and shared a few  to eat while sipping hot green tea – one containing cherry blossom flavoured bean paste, which was fragrant, slightly savoury, warm and delicious.

 

 

 

Feeling duty-bound to savour the main specialities of the island, we also had a grilled oyster each.  Oysters are one of the island’s speciaities – we had come past oyster beds when we arrived by ferry – and these, charcoal roasted so that they were warm, but still raw and dressed with a yuzu soya sauce dressing, these were absolutely scrumptious.

 

We wandered past more of the food shops – a good indication of what the local food specialitie were – then headed to a shop recommended by the ryokan manager to eat the other famous speciality of Miyajima – anago meshi.  Anago is conger eel, anago meshi is eel on rice, with a savoury-sweet soya based sauce.  Fujitaya, tucked away on its own down a traditional side street behind Itsukushima shrine has been serving anago to its customers for over 100 years; a sign tells customers there is a fifteen minute wait between ordering and eating – this is because each bowl of anago meshi is made to order from swimming and fresh….

 

While waiting, I ordered us some anago no kimo, a delicacy – eel liver.  This arrived in a little bowl, warm and dressed with parsley.  They had been simmered in broth and each tiny morsel was delicious.  Paul hesitated only for a second before tucking in.  Eventually, our anago meshi arrived – together with a bowl of miso soup with whelks.  This was really tasty stuff, soft and tender, sweet and savoury, just gorgeous and melting.  Clearly, Fujitaya had had plenty of practice to get this right and the recommendation had been an excellent one.

 

Stuffed (once again), we reluctantly headed back to the ryokan to pick up our luggage and get a lift down to the ferry terminus.  Heading back on the ferry, I gazed back at this extraordinary island and hoped that it wouldn’t be too long before I’d see it again.  Again, autumn would be a good time to visit, when all the maple trees in Momijidani turn red, russet and gold.

 

We were now off again, next, to Nagasaki on the southern island of Kyushu.  It would be a world away from Kyoto and Miyajima, both on the island of Honshu.  We were going to experience another of the myriad faces of Japan.

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