Japanese culture


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.

Advertisements

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.

Paul and I arrived in Ibusuki mid-afternoon. Our ryokan, Shusuien, was a lovely traditional ryokan located five minutes from the beach. We walked through the traditional, beautifully decorated entrance and were greeted by staff before being led to the lobby which opened onto an immaculate Japanese garden. There was even a little ochashiki in the corner – a traditional Japanese tea ceremony room – next to this, an open door to a decking area in the corner of the garden where guests could plonk themselves on cushions to dip their feet into a hot spring bubbling up into an ashi-buro – foot bath – or, if preferred, a pit filled with the hot volcanic sand Ibusuki is famous for.

Ibusuki is a little seaside village about an hour eastwards along the coast from Kagoshima, famous for a stretch of beach where hot springs well up through the sand, creating a sunamushiburo – a steam sand bath. It has been visited by many for its health benefits for centuries, and it is good for rheumatism, arthritis, and all kinds of aches and pains.

Okuda san of JNTO in London had been a wonderful help to Paul and I when we were in the thick of packing up to leave London. I had managed to book our first twelve days of accommodation, but had struggled to find more after that with lots of places fully booked – much of Japan would be getting busier as it approached Golden Week, a long stretch of national holiday. When our lovey friend Michiko rang up to ask how things were going, I was in a bit of a whirl with so much to do – “I don’t know how I’ll manage to organise the rest of our trip, there’s so much to do before we leave!!!”. She stepped into action and called Okuda san, who in turn called his contacts and in less than 24 hours, accommodation for five different locations had all been booked for us. Thank you everyone!

The Shiroyama Kanko hotel in Kagoshima had been the first of these places booked for us, a lovely hotel with incredible views, and now this, the little ryokan in Ibusuki, where the staff were charming, incredibly friendly and at ease in English – something of a relief for Paul, who had had nothing but Japanese spoken around him for nearly two weeks.

They gave us instructions for our first sunamushi bath. It was drizzling, so after we’d got ourselves into our yukata and packed our towels and washing things into the little baskets they gave us, we were driven down to the public sunamushi bath centre.

In our respective male and female areas we changed into yukata supplied by the centre and packed our things in lockers. Wearing the flip flops provided, we wandered out and along the sea front taking in the salty sea air, and down some stairs to the sand bathing area along the shoreline. There, people with shovels neatly and expertly packed yukata-clad customers into neat rows in squares of steaming black sand, leaving just towel-wrapped heads exposed.

Soon it was our turn. Little hollows had been made for us in the sand, with gentle mounds for our heads. We lay down next to each other and some little obachan (“aunties”) got busy with their shovels. You could tell they’d been doing this a long time. They spilled not a grain of sand anywhere and they packed us expertly under the hot sand. I asked one if she ever got a sore back. “Definitely. It does in my koshi (lower back)”. Poor thing – I guess the simple solution was to have a go under the sand herself. It can’t be an easy job, doing this day after day, however fit it must keep you.

The black sand was pleasantly weighty and although initially the hot sand under my backside burned a little (Higashiseto san in Kagoshima had warned us not to stay in the sand for too long – otherwise we’d end up with a bright red “monkey’s bottom”), I soon felt drowsy and relaxed under the heat and weight. We were told not to stay in for longer than fifteen minutes, and clocks were dotted all around so the buried didn’t lose track of time. The only bit of me exposed – my head – was sweating profusely and my whole body was pulsing gently with the heat.

For obvious reasons we couldn’t take any photos of ourselves undergoing this rather unusual process, so we called over the sunamushi photographer who snapped us as we lay there buried. Here’s a photograph of the photograph.

When we felt we’d baked for long enough – the full fifteen minutes – we unearthed ourselves from the sand. We felt fantastically refreshed, rested and light. Paul heard the phrase “Kimochi ga yokatta!” everywhere so I taught him this useful expression, often uttered after a good bath – “that felt great!”. He created a subtle and interesting variation on this phrase, coming up with “Kimchi yukata!” – “yukata robe made of garlicky and spicy Korean pickled cabbage!” which caused some merriment but he got the hang of it in the end.

After our sand-baking, we each went into our respective public baths attached to the sunamushi centre. Showering off the excess sand and taking off our yukata, we washed ourselves sitting on stools by the taps, then having rinsed off, went to soak in the hot spring waters. As the waters come up through the sea, they tasted salty. Our ryokan hostess told us that because of the salts in the water, the body stayed warmer for longer than a normal bath and were exceptionally good for the skin. Mine felt soft and smooth for days afterwards.

Once washed and dried and wrapped in clean yukata, we went outside where we were met by the ryokan driver again, who took us back in time for dinner, and once again, what a dinner it was.

Packed with local specialties, we had everything from sweet black pork gently stewed with miso and soya beans, to lobster caught just near Ibusuki beach, to fresh sashimi, again, locally caught, served in its own little miniature kamakura – a little ice house.

There was a lot of food. Paul and I were going to have to do lots more exercise – we were going to need to do more than cart heavy rucksacks around. But for now, we trotted down to the ryokan‘s public baths, had a soak, then came back and fell asleep straight away in the fluffy futon they’d laid out for us in our room.

The next morning we were presented with an absolutely enormous breakfast. All healthy, low fat options, but the quantity was vast! It was delicious, but this was the first day on our two week journey where we felt that perhaps half a grapefruit each would have been best.

We’d enjoyed the sand steam bath the day before so much we decided to go for one last burial. Outside, the rain had long stopped and the sun was blazing golden, the temperature just perfect with a soft spring breeze keeping things cool. It looked like summer out there, the sea sparkling and twinkling at us. For the first time this year we were in short sleeves. Back at the sunamushi centre we went through the ritual again, standing the weight of the hot sand for as long as we could before rising out reborn and refreshed.

We still felt floppy and relaxed as we checked out and headed for the station.  From Ibusuki back to Kagoshima, we boarded the Tsubame shinkansen train again, heading straight north up to Hakata in Northern Kyushu, heading away from quiet, rural Japan and gradually back towards urban areas in preparation for our return leg back towards Tokyo.  As I watched the sparkling sea slide past the train window, I felt a little twinge of regret, then remembered that two months from now we would be living somewhere not too dissimilar from this ourselves – albeit without the hot volcanic sand – in chilled- out, peaceful and sunny Adelaide.

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!

 

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.

Next Page »