Japanese customs


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.

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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!

 

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.

Paul had found a good walk around the Higashiyama area of Kyoto recommended in our Lonely Planet guidebook.  The route started at Kiyomizudera, a temple (temples are Buddhist, shrines are Shinto) first built in 798 and then reconstructed in 1633.  Behind a towering pagoda framed by cherry blossom trees, looking every bit the cliché image of Japan, the main temple’s massive wooden pillars were about six stories high, supporting its massive expanse as it nestled against a steep hillside.

 

P \'n me at Kiyomizudera

We made several offerings at the temple, bought omamori, offered incense and wrote on a votive plaque which we left hanging at the temple.  We chose a design of two white mice pushing a boat along to somewhere or other (Adelaide, perhaps?) laden with  a magical lucky hammer.  Quite appropriate, we felt.

 

Our lucky plaque Our wish...

 

 Lots of wishes on lots of plaques along with ours...

 

We clambered up some steps to Jishu Jinja on the temple grounds, illustrating the comfort with which the ancient, pantheistic Shinto religion sits alongisde Buddhism.  Most people in Japan practice both, though families are usually one over the other – my mother’s family is Soto Zen Buddhist. but has shinto altars in its shop to ask for good fortune for its business.  Jishu Jinja at Kiyomizudera is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the god of successful relationships.  We went up and gave incense, paid our respects and asked for strength and longevity in ours.  Two sacred stones stood 18 metres apart on the grounds of the shrine.  For those not in a relationship, it’s said that if you can walk from one stone to the other without opening your eyes, your desire for love will be fulfilled.

 

 

Jishu Jinja

 

 

The sun was out.  At risk of repeating myself, the cherry blossom was just breathtakingly beautiful, and it was absolutely everywhere.  We were out with throngs of other visitors all enjoying the sight of this awe-inspiring temple surrounded by clouds of pale pink blossom – this had to be the peak cherry blossom viewing weekend for Kyoto.

 

Along with large numbers of hayfever and cold-suffering Japanese, I decided to wear a mask.  This did the double duty of allowing guilt-free coughing and hacking without the burden of responsibility for spreading my germs everywhere, and for keeping my throat moist and preventing dust from entering and causing coughing fits – especially at dusty Fawlty Towers.

 

The masked kyaa

 

I’d had a rough night, having coughed myself (and sometimes Paul) awake every hour – so we gave ourselves a matcha (green tea) pick-me-up.  A bowl of frothy bitter tea made with powdered leaves, accompanied with an ohagi – a pounded rice cake coated in red bean paste – gave us the energy boost we needed and we continued on.

Our pick-me-up 

 

We left the temple and walked down some narrow, quaint streets lined with old fashioned tea houses, food shops and old wooden houses; one, Ishibei-koji, is said to be one of the most beautiful streets in Kyoto, cobbled and lined with historic houses and restaurants.  We passed through Maruyama-koen, where everyone and her cat were out enjoying the blossom with their obento picnics and sake.  In the centre of the park we admired the most famous cherry tree in all of Kyoto, the shidarezakura.  Its gnarled, thick, twisted trunk made it look at least 100 years old.

Ancient sakura tree

 

The park was dotted with busy yatai – food stalls – one of which was selling fresh charcoal roasted bamboo shoots on a stick (the great Kyoto spring delicacy, as you’ll have seen in my previous posting).  A healthy kebab, if you like, which Paul and I shared there and then.

Takenoko Tanoko stall 

 

We continued along the route past several other beautiful buildings and temples, including the stunning Chion-in with its vast gate.

Chion-in

 

We’d booked lunch at the handmade noodle shop we’d discovered the night before.  Nakajima san had reserved a private room for us  at his restaurant, Uichiro.  The sunlight filtered into the miniature garden facing our little tatami mat room, making for a calm, relaxing atmosphere.

 

Inside Uichiro

We sat on the cushions at our low table and shared a fresh, crisp mooli salad with spring leaves and a Japanese dressing.

Daikon salad  

Our tempura soba arrived swiftly after that– Paul’s was cold, with a dipping sauce, mine hot, with the hegi noodles sitting in the soup.  Nakajima san told us that eating the noodles cold allowed their fragrance to be enjoyed at their best, but for those that enjoyed the broth (like me), hot was better.

Zaru soba Tempura Hot soba noodles

 

We were then brought the hot water the noodles had been cooked with – which is usually added to the dipping sauce that comes with the zaru soba (cold noodles) so you can drink it warm at the end like a soup.  In normal noodle shops, it’s not always brought to you, but you can ask for soba yu, and they will gladly bring you some.  Nakajima san told us that it was very good for the consitution and could be drunk just on its own.  So I did (as I’d had the hot soba).  We asked to share a kinako (roasted soya flour, with a nutty, caramel-like flavour) ice cream topped with molasses syrup but Nakajima san insisted on bringing us an extra one on the house.  It was absolutely dreamy.

Kinako and kurozato ice cream

 

We’d like to thank Nakajima san for his wonderful hospitality and food; we enjoyed eating at Uichiro enormously and hope to be back there again to enjoy another season’s worth of food there.  Here we are, with Nakajima san himself.

K & P with Nakajima san, ownder of Uichiro

 

We went to a little internet cafe recommended by the friendly waiter, who went there to read manga books and lie on a massage bed for his afternoon break until evening service.  Paul was flabbergasted by the sheer variety and volume of comics and browsed while I went online for  a while.

 

Walking back to Fawlty Towers, we passed street after attractive blossom-lined street, stopping at a traditional senbe shop to take some snaps.  Senbe are my favourite Japanese snacks.  Made of rice, you can get a whole range of shapes, sizes and textures, mostly flavoured with a base of soya sauce, but with top flavourings of anything from sesame, sour plum, chili spices, crystal sugar; the varieties available are endless and change from region to region.

Senbe shop

 

I didn’t buy any though.  We needed to save space in our stomachs for the fabulous food experience that lay ahead.  We were going to Okumura’s, a French-influenced Japanese Kaiseki restaurant in the heart of the Gion entertainment district of Kyoto.

 

A brief return to Fawlty Towers to get dressed for the occasion couldn’t dampen our excitement about this much anticipated meal.  And again, this meal was so great an experience that it is going to get its own posting… one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.  Paul says “It’s definitely one of the top three meals I’ve had in my life, and it’s set a ridiculously high benchmark for all Japanese food I’m going to be eating from now on”

Sybil’s breakfast wasn’t going to get much of a look-in on the Arguile gourmet ranking the next morning then.

 

 

Sybil punished me for keeping her awake by calling the room at 6.30am telling me breakfast was ready when we’d asked for it at 7am. I’d had some trouble persuading her that yes, we preferred a Japanese breakfast, but when we went down there there was a table in the front room with a kotatsu blanket – a cosy traditional set up of a small table covered with what looks like a thick duvet, with another table top over that, on which the fish, rice, pickle, miso and so on were placed. We tucked our feet under the cosy table and tucked in. It was nothing to write home about, but not bad at all, just some good old home cooking, and it persuaded us to endure the grumpy weirdness, dirty sheets and dusty rooms for the duration of our three nights in Kyoto. We were told there was just the one bath for everyone and that we would have to wait until it was free for us both to go in together. We did, after breakfast, only to find that the bath – a Japanese style bath in the corner – had been heated up enough for us to be able to slow-boil eggs in it. Now I know from long experience how hot Japanese baths can be. This one was a no-go area. We could only just dip our fingers into it for a few seconds before they scalded. A great way to avoid guests spending any time in the bath! It’s a no-no to add cold water. We just ended up showering for the rest of our stay.

Paul was the tour guide for Kyoto; having looked through his Lonely Planet Guide, he chose for our first day a morning’s tour of Nishiki food market in the middle of the city. Excellent choice.

Nishiki market

We started early, as the stallholders were setting up. On the way there, we found a traditional yuba shop. Yuba is best described as soya bean whey skin; it’s made by hand by cooking up soya bean whey and skimming off the skin on top and hanging it out to dry. It can be eaten wet just as it is – it has a lovely fresh, creamy taste, or it can be dried and then cooked in broth or miso soup, or used to wrap all manner of small filings. Obachan loves yuba, so we bought her a small box as her omiage (omiage is “gift”. More on the complicated business of omiage in a later blog, probably when I hand out all ours from the UK to Tokyo friends and family when we get back there on the 17th April).

We spent a happy morning wandering up and down the extensive covered alleyway of the market. There were all kinds of foods new to Paul and he made the most of finding out what everything was – some wonderful grocers selling all the best local ingredients.

Pickle stall Charcoal roasted river fish

Bamboo shoot, the first of the season in Kyoto and reputed to be the best that could be found in Japan, was everywhere, and we were to find this and other seasonal ingredients cropping up in all of our meals here. We chatted to a lady who had a katsubushi shop specialising in the dried bonito shavings used to flavour Japanese stock, a base for almost all sauces, soups and flavourings in Japanese cooking. She also sold the whole dried bonito fillets which were dried into what looked like wedges of wood, a slow process of smoking and drying them over many days. We discovered that her cousin had moved to Adelaide and that she had visited the place herself. She wished us well on our journey and told us she thought we would have a great life there.

We had a brief stop at a very sweet little cafe, Kaneta Cafe, upstairs from a shop in the Nishiki Market. The theme for the cafe is what I call “folky funky Japanese” – traditional rustic Japanese style with a nod to the west – here, jazz playing in the background, and beautiful roast coffee fresh ground just for us. It felt homely, comfortable and cosy.

Having feasted our eyes at the market we were a little hungry by one o’clock so explored side streets until we found a little family-run noodle shop. I had soba, buckwheat noodles, with grated mountain yam and an egg, while Paul had a Jumbo Chicken Katsu – a huge deep-fried fillet of chicken which went down a treat. The soba was good, but not hand made, and this set off an idea for a mission – to find a real Kyoto soba shop where they made the noodles by hand.

Wandering towards the Imperial Palace gardens, we stopped at Toraya, a famous traditional Japanese sweet shop on the way. We bought some mizuyokan, a bean paste dessert, to have as a picnic tea. According to the season, there were cherry blossom-themed cakes too. Everything looked too beautiful to eat.

Cherry blossom sweets at Toraya

We lay in the sun on the grass of the Imperial lawns, drinking bottled hot tea out of a vending machine and wolfing down our mizuyokan. We whiled away a relaxing afternoon walking up and down the palace paths admiring the cherry blossom with the rest of the crowds.

Some lovely flowers Hello from Kyoto

Our wish to find a suitable soba shop was fulfilled when we found Uichiro. It was tucked away in a little side street and something about it just appealed to me. Looking traditional from the outside, a glimpse through the window showed a touch of the “folky funky Japanese”, something which was confirmed when we went in and there was jazz playing softly in the background.

A bowl of soba is usually something that is eaten at lunchtime. So we picked an omakase menu – meaning “leaving it up to the restaurant”, which came with a little dish of cold noodles at the end, dipped in a slightly sweet soya sauce dip with wasabi and shredded spring onion. It followed a dish of sashimi, another of tempura, which used all kind of spring mountain vegetables, stems and even leaves, then the noodles It was all finished off with a delicious cream mousse with spring strawberries.

The noodles were considerably superior to the usual reconstituted buckwheat soba noodles (which are tasty enough). These noodles were called hegi, flavoursome, and made with a higher proportion of white flour to buckwheat, and beautifully hand-made.

We sat facing a shimmering kimono on display on a dais, alterating shades of sand and dusty pale blue. We shared the large central table with five others; when I had a coughing fit (embarassing), one of the men got up to get me a glass of water from the kitchen. He was the owner. Once I recovered from the coughing, we all started to talk. The owner, Nakajima san, is also a maker of cloth and costumes for traditional Noh plays and collects antique Japanese costumes. He is also has a passion for soba noodles, so besides running his artisanal textile business, Kinsyo, he also had time to run his noodle shop.

As we all chatted, we found an extraordinary series of coincidences and connections between us.

One of the men sitting with Mr Nakajima worked for a major Japanese department store. He mentioned that he had visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London three times in the hope of seeing a piece of the Gobelin Tapestry he believes was once a part of another that is in use in the niwatoriboko float at the Kyoto Gion matsuri, an annual festival. It was never on exhibit and stated that if he would weep tears of joy if he ever got to see the real thing. He believes a Japanese merchant bought the tapestry while travelling to Europe, long ago, but cut it in half for easy transportation back home. One half is now on the niwatoriboko and te other, he believes, is in the V&A. Well, my lovely godmother Vicki is an excellent volunteer guide there and has a particular interest in such European-Japanese art historical exchanges, so I’ll be emailing her with that puzzle later!

Another of the men was an art critic for a major Japanese broadsheet newspaper, specialising in Japanese art. He happened to know the gallery I worked for in Tokyo back in the late 80s, and the gallery owner too.

The atmosphere was so convivial that we hardly noticed time passing – even Paul, who couldn’t really take part in the conversation, felt the warmth around us and enjoyed what he could of the talk I translated for him. And so, armed with this human warmth and the knowledge that we had a private tatami room booked for us the next day so we could savour a proper bowl of soba noodles, we headed home prepared for another night at Fawlty Towers and a bath hot enough to boil noodles in.

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