We had one stop over from Narita, in Seoul – just one stepping stone of difference between the bustling Tokyo we left (stories about which I’ll fill in, in date order, whenever the opportunity presents itself) and the next – the unspoiled, semi-rural town of Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Our five hour night-flight from Seoul took us over electric storms, flashing eerily red in the darkness below us, reminding us that we were heading for Cambodia right at the start of its rainy season. We had caught news on the havoc wreaked in Myanmar by the cyclones and wondered if these storms were offshoots of the disturbance this had caused in the atmosphere. We held on through a few bouts of bumpiness but it wasn’t too alarming and we approached Siem Reap airport through clear skies. At first we weren’t sure if the dark surroundings as we approached the landing strip was due to cloud cover – then we realised that there was hardly any artificial light leaking up and out into the skies. We could only guess what lay in the dark beneath us, but we imagined, correctly, dense monsoon forest in whose hidden corners lay the legendary temple complexes of Angkor Wat.

Our flight was delayed by an hour and a half, but Vong, our guide for the next four days, had been waiting patiently at the airport for us and greeted us with a warm smile. The air had that heavy sub-tropical scent and it was hot and humid. I could feel myself relax. Taking us straight to the hotel – it was late – we promised to meet the next morning at nine. We unpacked, showered and slept. We were excited about what the darkness would reveal with the morning light.

Paul and I drew into Tokyo station, weary and laden down with heavy rucksacks full of omiage – gifts – for relatives and family friends. On our journey, the shinkansen had gradually passed from mountain valleys, rice valleys and isolated farms to villages, then towns spread about factories – then the buildings grew higher and higher until suddenly, there we were, in the middle of the huge, sprawling megatropolis of Tokyo. People were everywere and the basement shopping areas of Tokyo station stretched far out in every direction, as far as the eye could see. It took half an hour just to get out of the station and onto the correct undergound line to get to the office of our apartment rental company.

By the time we got there, we were exhausted. It has started to pour with rain again and too tired to negotiate rush hour trains with our heavy rucksacks and bags, we decided to grab a taxi. We arrived in Roppongi, our home for the next few weeks, huddling under our umbrellas from sheets of rain. The apartment was small, compact, immaculate, modern. Perfect. It was the most welcome sight. Although we loved the myriad experiences of our two week trip, now that we were ‘home’ we realised just how tired we were. We got in, unpacked, filled the Japanese bath full of hot water, had a soak. With a cold beer and our feet up, we felt ready to begin the next chapter of our adventures. Or chapters – these were going to be our Tokyo Stories.

For now, though, given that I am writing this by the poolside of our hotel in Siem Reap in Cambodia, I’ll be interweaving our Tokyo Stories with my tales of Indochine. It’s time to get to real time and tell you all what we’re up to right now, here in Cambodia, two days away from our flight to Vietnam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

How much?!” Paul exclaims in horror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kondo san, I tell them.

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

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

Is Kondo san a man? he asks.

Er, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!