Category Archives: Japan

The Legacy of Little Boy

Day 12 of our trip to Honshu. We disembarked the bullet train late morning and made our way to the most conveniently-located of all our accommodation on the trip: Hotel Granvia, a soulless glass edifice attached to the Shinkansen Line at Hiroshima’s central station. We had (rightly, it turned out) prioritised ease and accessibility over interest, given it was only a two-night stay. It was also, I have to admit, quite nice to have the option of a “Western style” breakfast for a change. As much as I was loving rice porridge, mackerel, rose-hip jelly, onsen tamasgo and other delights, I’d started to crave a bacon butty.

Dropping our bags at reception, we made our way effortlessly to the Peace Memorial Park via the city’s efficient tram and train network. So far, so good. But there endeth our insouciance. I’m not going to sugar-coat this: it was a tough afternoon. As soon as you see the carcass of the A-Bomb Dome, a quiet, persistent forlornness descends and refuses to be shaken. Even on the sunniest of days. I walked through that park with legs of lead, taking in the dreadful certainty and enormity of man’s propensity for evil.

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The museum, though excellent, is overwhelming and too much to fully take in on one visit. And in the cavernous, subterranean Peace Hall, I allowed tears to come, given words would not. Only the crowds of children handing out small origami cranes allowed, finally, a sense of lightness to return. Although their poems and songs, recited at the Children’s Memorial at the direction of their teacher, left me choked up again. It’s a strange irony that the atomic bomb was nicknamed Little Boy, given the thousands of infants who died, either at the time or from leukaemia in the aftermath. The Memorial is a fitting dedication to the young victims of the atrocity, adorned with hundreds of brightly coloured and patterned cranes.

I was pretty ignorant of the significance of the crane before our visit. The Japanese refer to it as the “bird of happiness”; with its wings believed to carry souls to paradise. Traditionally, it was believed that if one folded a thousand origami cranes, your wish would come true. Sadako Sasaki – a young girl who died from radiation-induced cancer ten years after the bomb – famously set about making a thousand cranes from her hospital bed using medicine wrappings, the paper from other patients’ get-well presents, and anything else she could scrounge together. Accounts differ as to whether she completed the task or whether her school friends finished for her, posthumously. But the story has become a symbol of hope and healing during challenging times.

A bath and nap were needed next, before a calming drink on the 22nd floor of the hotel. It was only then that I felt able to discuss what we’d seen and how it had made me feel. I’m not naïve enough to have expected to be unaffected by the experience, but I hadn’t appreciated just how much of a gut punch it would be. Luckily, I had Paul to help me shake off the day and ground myself back in the present. Helped enormously by a fantastic barbecue fish meal and delicious range of sakes at Guttsurian near the port, later that evening.

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Our second day was spent on Miyajima Island, part of the Setonaikai National Park, just a short ferry trip from the city. This is where you find the Giant “Floating” Torii Gate, which adorns many a postcard. Arriving at low tide, we were able to walk on the beach up to, and under, the colossal structure. Mightily impressive. But much more of a sight to behold in the evening, partially submerged by the sea. More on that later!

There’s so much more to Miyajima than the Gate, however, and if you fail to go up Mount Misen then you’re really missing out. Our trip up the mountain started at Daishō-in Temple in the foothills, where you are directed to climb the pagoda and pray at the shrine for an end to nuclear armament. As well as the usual halls and statues, the beautiful temple complex includes a cave filled with 88 icons representing the temples of the Shikoku Pilgrimage (on Japan’s fourth largest island). Another unusual feature is the row of spinning metal wheels inscribed with sutra (Buddhist scriptures) that line the stairs of the temple. Guests are encouraged to turn the inscriptions as they walk up, which – it is said – has the same effect as reading them. So, without any knowledge of Japanese, you can benefit from the blessings that the reading of sutra is believed to bestow.

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Having stopped to buy an antique sake jug from a market stall, and a freshly-baked Momiji (a maple-leaf shaped sweet bean cake, popular on the island), we next continued up through Momijidani Park to the cable car station. The journey up the mountain proceeds in two stages, with the second cable ride really quite high (and not a little hairy). Disembarking at Shishi-iwa, we continued on foot to the summit. I’m struggling to recall now, but I think it was about a 20-30 minute walk. En route, we stopped at Reikado to see the “eternal flame” – disappointingly not the one made famous by The Bangles, but one supposedly ignited by Kobo Dashi over a millennia ago. It was from this original flame that the one in the Peace Park was set ablaze. For more on the legend of Kobo Dashi, see my separate blog post Monks, Spirits & Fire.

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Atop the Observation Deck at last, we marvelled at the stunning views from Misen’s peak…and took many a panoramic photo of the shewn boulders, tree canopy and surrounding islands. With the sun beating down, I distinctly remember scanning my surrounds and thinking what a lucky bugger I was!

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Rather than return by aerial tramway, we walked back via the Daisho route. There are about three or four different trails you can choose from for your descent – I can’t comment on the others, but Daisho was very pleasant. Mostly shaded woodland, the path also meanders past a lovely waterfall. About an hour into the otherwise solitary ~1.25hr stroll, we passed a succession of hardy souls making the ascent, each one asking (with hopeful anticipation) if they were nearly at the top. Struggling to hide their disappointment on learning they were far from the half-way mark, one (I would say rather sensible) woman glowered at her boyfriend and turned on her heel, heading in the direction of the cable car. On a hot day, I would definitely advise doing it our way around.

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Back at the base, we treated ourselves to a purple sweet potato ice-cream (nicer than it sounds) and a beer (or shochu cooler, in my case) from the local brewery, before visiting Itsukushima Shrine on the water’s edge. By now close to high tide, we navigated the creaking wooden walkways teetering on stilts, admiring the gorgeous views out to sea. Consisting of a main hall, prayer building and noh theatre stage (on which people gather at dusk to watch music, dance and dramatic performances), Itsukushima has been a holy site since the 12th century. Compared to many of the other temples and shrines, there’s not too much of interest to explore here. But the wow factor follows sunset.

After sating ourselves with a delicious soba okonomiyaki, we returned to see the shrine and “floating” torii illuminated and dozens of lanterns springing alight. Dangling our feet over the pier, we watched the sun slowly dip beyond the horizon and the scene gradually become more and more magical. Free-roaming sika deer meandered across the beach, stopping occasionally to steal a guidebook or nibble crackers; and I sighed deep contentment. A wonderful (near) end to our holiday.

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The Big Mikan

Landing at Haneda airport at 6am is a discombobulating experience. The airport was fairly quiet, neither of us had managed much sleep on the plane, everyone seemed to be wearing surgical face masks (and this was way before the current Covid-19 outbreak), and all the signs were confusing. Luckily, Paul was prepared. Adeptly navigating the building using a site map downloaded back in England, he sourced our pre-ordered portable wi-fi and JR passes with charm and easy. Whilst I groggily bumbled around, trying not to slow him down.

Joining early morning commuters on the monorail to Hamamatsucho, we somehow managed to change onto the Yamanote line and arrive in Shibuya without issue. So far, so good. Having expected to get hideously lost, I have to admit that the hubby’s preparation paid off. With several hours before we could check into our Air BnB, we left our luggage in lockers at the 109 Building (top tip!), posed for photos on the famous scramble crossing and picked up a pastry for breakfast.

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Feeling a little more alive, and a lot more amenable to Tokyo, we embarked on our first day of sight-seeing, heading away from the bustle of Shibuya and up to the calm serenity of Meiji Jingū Shrine. It was a really hot day and the route took us alongside and over large expanses of tarmac, but the slog was worth it. The impressive complex is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, and is a great introduction to the city. Walking under big, stone torii gates and past rows of kazaridaru (sake barrels) – serving as decorative displays honouring the gods – we found ourselves arriving at the shrine just as a wedding procession was passing through.

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Learning that you need to wash your hands, rinse your mouth and spit out before entering a shrine, and that bow-bow-clap-clap-bow (or ni-rei ni-hakusyu ichi-rei, in Japanese) is the appropriate order when showing gratitude to the gods, we felt duly set up for the rest of our trip! Having explored the buildings, we walked through the gardens and down to the koi pond, noting the requisite heron and turtles. See my Kyoto blog for a fuller explanation of their significance in Japanese lore.

After all that walking, we were hungry again, so walked down Omotesandō (a popular tree-lined shopping street) and tucked into grilled gyoza and miso cucumber at Harajuku Gyouzarou. And, for good measure, some kaarage chicken at Commune 2nd, a nearby street food yard (think Dinerama, if you’re a Londoner).

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Wandering the cable-strewn backstreets, we popped out at Takeshita Dōri – the teenage epicentre of Tokyo. I can’t quite describe how bonkers this street is: it’s full of candy-floss eating, selfie-posing princesses, mingling with platform-trainer-wearing punks and leather-attired goths, all of them eating bubble-gum pink ice-cream and disappearing into mysterious apartments advertising photo ops with litters of mameshiba puppies. Yeah, me neither! You can find some of my photos of the area at Nihon no seikatsu and in my food blog 29 Seasons of Tofu. It couldn’t be more different to the shrine we’d visited earlier, with it’s solemn, votive-wielding pilgrims. But that’s the beauty of Japan, and of Tokyo in particular: the ultra-modern and the ancient happily co-existing.

Needing a rest, we navigated back to the scramble crossing, picked up our luggage and attempted to find our Air BnB, which – with the aid of our protable wi-fi – we were assured was very close. Another tip for you: do not attempt to short-cut through the Mark City Building to reach…anywhere! After our fourth attempt at finding a top-floor exit and more trips up and down escalators than anyone needs in a lifetime, we finally emerged – sweaty and grouchy – vowing always to take the ‘long route’ from now on. Luckily, the flat really wasn’t far from that point, tucked away on Sakuragaokacho. Like most accommodation in Japan, it was TINY. But had a comfy bed, and that was all that mattered. We would stay in much more impressive home-stays and hotels on the rest of our trip, but had judged – correctly – that Tokyo wasn’t the place to bother. We hardly spent any time at all in the flat.

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In the evening, we explored the neighbourhood and ate amazing yakiniku (Japanese barbeque) at Han no Daidokoro Bettei. Again, I won’t repeat what’s in my food blog – so check that out for a full description and photos.

The next morning saw us in Tsukiji Market. What a fantastic place! It’s exactly what I wanted it to be: crowded, vast, smelly, colourful, rough-around-the-edges, and absolutely bursting with fantastic food stalls, offering delicacies I’d never tried before (and some I possibly won’t ever try again!). The fresh, grilled eel slathered in sticky soy was particularly good; as was the octopus and cabbage croquette, black pig dumpling, tamagoyaki (sushi omelette made in traditional tin skillets); scallops in miso; dried pond fish, nikuman (pork bun), tuna sashimi and matcha ice-cream. You need to be a little assertive, pointing clearly at what you’d like and thrusting money at the stallholders. Otherwise, you get shouted over by the hundreds of Japanese locals and tourists who are just as eager to try everything.

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It’s also worth exploring the inner market, where the tuna and other wholesale fish auctions take place each morning. You have to be there super-early to witness it in action – we didn’t make it this time – but it’s definitely worth popping into anyway, to catch the military wash-down and clean-up operation.

Close to the market are a couple of shrines worth poking your nose in and the beautiful Hama-rikyū Onshi-teien gardens. Like so many of the parks and gardens in Japan, I’d definitely like to return to see at its peak: with autumn foliage or adorned with cheery blossoms. Whilst generally green and lacking flora at this time of year, the Edo-period expanse was a welcome respite and the central pond, traditional tea-house and vantage points over nearby Ginza district were great.

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From Hama-rikyū, you can catch a waterbus to Asakusa. Cue Pitch Perfect jokes (you’ll know if you know). The trip up the river is interesting enough in itself, the boat passing by factories, high-rises and gleaming glass edifices – a bit like a trip on the Thames to Canary Wharf. But, it’s the destination that’s the killer: Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa. Completed in 645, it’s Tokyo’s oldest temple – a bright red, busy daily place of worship smack bang in the middle of a commercial district. Legend has it that two brothers “caught” a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, whilst fishing in the Sumida River; and even though they tossed the statue back, it kept returning to them. So the temple was built in honour of Kannon.

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You enter through Kaminarimon (the Thunder Gate), proceed down Nakamise – a centuries’ old, 200 meter long shopping street – and reach the second gate, Hozomon, through which you find the main hall, shrine and five-storey pagoda. People flock here to ‘bathe’ in holy smoke from the massive incense burner (the jokoro), believed to heal wounds, and to give thanks to the goddess. I’d have liked to stay longer and see the complex illuminated at sunset, but it had already been a long day…

With aching legs, we made our way home to Shibuya, to shower and change for dinner. A very swish and tasty meal at Argile in Ginza (highlights being the crunchy red snapper with dashi and the barbary duck with shitake) was followed by digestifs at Bar Evans and Fire, and an obligatory Japanese whisky in Nonbei Yokocko (‘drinker’s alley’), at a bar so tiny only about three people could fit in at any one time.

Day three in the city, our last before heading off to Kyoto, was mainly spent taking in some modern art and culture in Roppongi. Admiring the stunning National Art Center, visiting a sensational exhibition of Japanese Architecture at the Mori Art Museum, and taking in ‘Tokyo City View’

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Later in the afternoon we visited the district of Daikanyama, often referred to as the Brooklyn of Tokyo: all cute coffee shops, micro-breweries, chocolate shops and various buildings featured in the Wallpaper guide. If I visit again, I’d choose to stay in this neighbourhood. Whilst there, we also popped into the Kyu Asakura House, a private ‘mansion’ residence built in the early 20th century, surrounded by a roji-style garden with sculpted bonsai, bright moss covered tree roots, stone lanterns, and colourful flowers and shrubs. Would certainly recommend a visit.

Our final evening was spent chasing the elusive perfect yakitori in Omoide-Yokocho (‘Memory Lane’), a maze of little alleys near Shinjuku station (officially the scariest in the world). Then drinking too much rum and whisky in JBS, a tiny bar run by a jazz, soul and blues vinyl enthusiast who doesn’t seem to speak a word of English (or chooses not to). An odd experience, since he seems to close the bar at whatever time he chooses, and admit or refuse people at whim. We were obviously deemed acceptable, but a backpacker who arrived 30 minutes later, and had clearly sought the place out, was turned away. Not complaining though: it adds to the secretive allure of the place. A great way to end our stay in the city.

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Monks, spirits and fire

Located in the Wakayama Prefecture, about 60km south of Osaka, Kōya-san is home to an active monastic community established over twelve centuries ago for the study and practice of Esoteric Buddhism. The priest Kukai (posthumously known as Kobo Daishi) founded the monastery deep in the mountains, far away from worldly distractions, so that Buddhist monks could practice their faith in peace and tranquillity. After the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and Kyoto, it was therefore a perfect place for Paul and I to relax for a couple of days.

Don’t let the distance put you off. Yes, it takes three separate train rides and (surely) one of the steepest funiculars in the world to reach, but the journey isn’t stressful (travelling in Japan is a dream)…and trust me, the effort will be rewarded. Kōya-san truly is a secluded sanctuary, nestled away in a highland valley between eight mountains (often likened to the eight petals of a lotus flower) and with one of the most stunning collection of buildings you’ll find in the whole country. It’s film-set like perfection is a living postcard for Japan.

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I loved the place instantaneously…despite the incessant grey drizzle that greeted us. And was super excited to check in to Eko-in, our temple lodgings for the night.

Dosho, one of Kobo Daishi’s disciples, built Eko-in 1,100 years ago as a place for calm reflection. ‘Eko’ meaning “bless the light”. I felt more relaxed straight away, as one of the resident monks guided us to our traditional washitsu room, complete with tatami flooring and fusuma sliding doors, where green tea and nibbles were waiting for us. The space was only around 10 square metres, and would be where we ate, slept and relaxed for the next 36 hours; the monks changing our furniture around according to the time of day. The only snag: communal bathrooms and toilets were a fair walk down the hall…a good job we would be abstaining from alcohol for the duration!

After fortifying ourselves with the sweet sesame buns, and refusing to let the rain hold us back, we borrowed a couple of ubiquitous large, translucent brollies from the monks and set out to explore the hillside retreat. Kōya-san is only 4km east-to-west and 2km north-to-south, so easily navigable on foot and perfectly do-able in such a short break.

We headed first to Dai Garan, the second most important area of Kōya-san after the cemetery (more on which later): ‘Dai’ meaning great and ‘Garan’ deriving from the Sanskrit for a quiet and secluded place (you see a theme developing, I hope). The area is made up of four main buildings: the Konpon Daito (Great Pagoda), Kondo (Golden Hall), Fudodo (the oldest extant building in Kōya-san, now designated a national treasure) and the Miedo (Portrait Hall). Now, a confession: we did return to this beautiful place the following day, when the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so I’m cheating and posting mainly photos from that second day.

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Kobo Daishi is said to have planned the Great Pagoda as the centre of the whole monastic complex. It took seventy years to build – ultimately having to be completed by his disciple Shinzen – and, at almost 50m high, it’s a magnificent construction. The Konpon has, though, been destroyed by lightning strikes and fire five separate times, so the structure you see today is far from original. Eventually, when sense prevailed (and the appropriate building materials became available), it was re-constructed in ferroconcrete with wooden overlays, to try to avoid the problem happening again. Fingers crossed!

The whole area is quite magical, with moss covered torii gates, dragon guardians, and ancient wooden halls bedecked with lanterns. You’re also more likely to see pilgrims (passing through on the Kii Mountain route) than you are tourists, which is very pleasant indeed.

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Given we were close, we also visited Rokkaku Kyozo, a hexagonal sutra repository that houses a complete copy of the Buddhist scriptures in gold ink; as well as Kongobuji temple, the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. I think this latter temple might have my favourite rock garden in Japan (a close call: lots of strong contenders). It certainly holds the prize for being biggest, at over 2,000 square metres; the 140 pieces of granite having been dragged to Mount Kōya from Shikoku and the white sand all the way from Kyoto. The resulting rock formations in Banryutei garden are designed to resemble dragons emerging from a sea of clouds. Enchanting. It’s always so tempting to sneakily create new patterns in the sand…but the stern-faced gardeners were unlikely to have found this amusing.

The temple also has one of my favourite interiors: the intricately painted sliding doors in the Yanagi-No-Ma (Willow Room) and in front of the Buddha hall depict the four seasons, as well as cranes, rivers and the surrounding landscape, all in beautiful lacquer.

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Back at Eko-in, we changed out of wet clothes and attended a meditation with Moshi, one of the resident monks. There are 117 temples in Koyasan, 52 of which are set up as lodgings; and the main reason to stay in one is to take part in the various ceremonies, rituals and meditations alongside the monks. This afternoon’s session was a Ajikan meditation: contemplation of the Sanskrit letter “A”, which is drawn on the image of the moon. The letter “A” represents the Cosmic Sun Buddha, Dainichi Nyorai, and the purpose of the meditation is to make the practitioner and the Sun Buddha become one. Posture is extremely important: you need to sit with your legs crossed and ideally your knees touching the ground, your thumbs touching and your hands making a circle. You must thrust out your stomach and hold it in tension, whilst at the same time relaxing all other parts of your body, and your eyes should be neither open nor closed, in order to watch both the external and internal world at the same time. It’s bloody difficult.

Back in our washitsu room, we enjoyed a traditional Buddhist vegetarian dinner (Shojin-Ryori – see my blog 29 Seasons of Tofu for a full account of this delicious meal) before heading out with Moshi for a nighttime tour of Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan. There are more than 200,000 graves in Okunoin, and walking through it in the dark is an atmospheric – if not downright spooky – experience. There are no dead in the cemetery, it is said: only waiting spirits. And Kobo Daishi himself has not passed on; he took himself into the woods on the mountainside towards the end of his life and is there still to this day, meditating for eternity behind a closed gate. The community’s head monk takes him a meal every day and is the only one allowed to go through the gate (I’m not able to confirm, but I suspect this monk is quite portly). But one day – so the apocalyptic prophecy goes – Kobo Daishi will finish his meditation, and it is then that all the souls “resting” in the graves will rise up.

Moshi guided us along rain-shimmering trails, past tall cedar trees and moss covered tombs, stone lanterns casting their glow and lighting our way. He pointed out the five pillars of Buddhism in structural form (earth, space, wind, fire and water) which sit alongside our consciousness; and explained how Shintoism and Buddhism have come together in Japan, which is why you often find Shinto shrines within temple complexes. We were also told to note the numerous depictions of Jizō Buddha, the guardian of youth and patron deity of deceased children and aborted fetuses. He’s usually represented as a small, cheery looking dude, and worshippers tend to knit little hats and clothes to adorn his statues. I later learned, however, that Jizō is also regarded as the Bodhisattva of hell-beings…so felt a little less warmly towards him after that.

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We followed the path through the forest and up to Kukai Mausoleum, a very sacred place where no food can be consumed and no photos taken. Once you cross the Gobyo no Hashi bridge, we were told, you have entered a higher level of the sacred. At this point, you must throw water over one of the Buddha statues lining the route, cleansing yourself for the journey ahead. Preferable, we quickly decided, to the original ritual of bathing in the freezing mountain stream.

The mausoleum is a stunningly beautiful hall, flanked by the Toro-do lantern pavilion. Legend has it that some of the gold lanterns have been burning continuously for 1,000 years. Around the back is a giant lantern with gold lotus flowers. This is the innermost sanctum, where the gate behind which Kobo Daishi meditates can be found. Moshi paused here to recite a sutra, and whilst he chanted I stared around is awe, thinking myself very privileged to see such a special place.

Making our own way back to Eko-in, we lost the crowd and took time to absorb the place, wandering the dark trails alone. Maybe a little too contemplative, since we only just made it back to the temple in time for the 9pm curfew, apologising to the waiting monks for our tardiness. Slinking back to our room and dressing in traditional yukata, we hung out playing card games for a while, but – knowing we’d be up at 6:10am for morning meditation – hit the hay quite quickly.

Waking to the sounds of monks chanting in the main temple hall, we joined our fellow lodgers for the first of the day’s ceremonies. I can’t pretend to know what this one was about, but there was cymbal clashing, repetition of a low, humming mantra, and an iron pot was hit several times; then we were invited to light incense and quietly shuffle in a circle around the hall, bowing to Buddha. Moving on to a second temple building, we were next invited to join the Gomakito (Homa fire ritual).

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This ceremony is unique to Vajrayana and Esoteric Buddhism and is considered one of the most cognitively powerful. It is performed by consecrated priests and acharyas (religious instructors) for the benefit of either individuals, the state at large, or indeed all sentient beings. The fire is believed to have a powerful cleansing effect, both spiritually and psychologically; the ritual destroys negative energies, detrimental thoughts and desires, and bestows blessings. We were told to write a prayer/wish on a wooden stick, which was later thrown into the fire, along with seeds tossed by our acharya. He also splashed the flames with liquid, fanned the fire and rubbed (what looked like) rosary beads, whilst other monks chanted and banged a taiko drum. At the ritual’s climax, we were invited to waft smoke from the fire onto parts of our body that might be in pain. It was certainly dramatic…and incredibly smoky!

Our futons had been removed while we were gone, so with no chance to returning to sleep we had a quick dip in the public baths (Paul reporting that the men were much more reserved than the women) and then revisited the cemetery. It was great to experience it in a whole new light – and a particularly glorious, blue skied light at that. A completely different atmosphere to the preceding evening.

Having exhausted the delights of Okunoin, we caught a local bus up to the imposing Daimon gate at the edge of town, walking back through the village to revisit Dai Garan and stop for a casual lunch of katsu and donburi. Just time for a quick kimono purchase, from an elderly lady on the main drag, before catching the funicular back to the station. Onward to Osaka…

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Sacred deer

Once the capital of Japan, Nara is home to a collection of important temples, the most significant of which are conveniently located in a large park at the foot of Mount Wakakusa. Arriving late morning on another day trip from Kyoto, we headed straight from the train station to the park on a mission to get to Kōfuku-ji pagoda before the crowds…and were immediately distracted by (i) perfect-looking nigiri (a handy late breakfast snack) and (ii) free roaming deer criss-crossing our path at every turn. The sika deer in Nara are very tame, almost domesticated, and have no qualms about stealing rice crackers – or indeed guidebooks, sunglasses, wallets (pretty much anything) – from tourists.

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In the Shinto religion, deer are considered messengers of the gods. So it was right to pay them due respect. And pose for selfies.

Once we’d extricated ourselves and refocused on our goal, we found and enjoyed looking around the pagoda, Golden Hall and treasures of the Kōfuku-ji complex. The temple has been fully dismantled and relocated numerous times, and is now the national headquarters of the Hossō school of Buddhism. A good start to the day. Walking down through the park to the lake afterwards, we were lucky enough to catch sight of a Japanese couple having their wedding photos taken on floating Ukimido Gazebo. One of two sets of newlyweds we bumped into that day (the others a younger, hipster couple who preferred posing in a green phone booth – see my photos at Nihon no seikatsu).

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Re-joining the throngs of tourists, after our respite by the turtle pond, we followed the trail of sturdy stone lanterns up through the forest to Kasuga-tiasha shrine. Built in the 8th century, this grand shrine of the Fujiwara family is famous for its 3,000 hanging bronze lanterns. Donated by worshippers, these can be found throughout the grounds and around the four alters dedicated to the deities of wisdom, nation-building, fortune-telling and thunder. The stunning building was one of my favourites of the holiday: all bright vermilion and gold, with twisting, peaceful paths around the trees…and baby deer tripping you up at every opportunity.

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Spotting an exceptionally large crowd of Japanese school children headed towards Tōdai-ji temple, we hot-footed in that direction, managing to overtake and get our shoes off and into the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha hall) before the queue formed. And I’m really glad we did. Housing the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha, and being itself the world’s largest wooden hall, it is a truly breathtaking sight. All the better for not having excitable thirteen-year-olds getting in the way.

It is said that the temple grew so powerful in the aftermath of its construction in the 8th century that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in order to lower its influence over government affairs. I can certainly understand why those people working in and around this building would have developed an overly-ripe sense of grandeur. Having gawped at the 15m high statue (and the two equally impressive Bodhisattvas that flank it) for a good long time, I then tried – and failed – to squeeze through a famous pillar with a hole the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. A must for any visitor: it’s said that those who can squeeze through the opening will be granted enlightenment in the next life…but it turns out only petite nine-year-olds deserve to be enlightened.

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With tired legs, and eager to rest in our hotel’s public baths before a meal at Muraji*, we decided to leave it there (see, I do learn that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing) and navigated around the seemingly ever-hungry deer back to the station. I would definitely recommend squeezing Nara into your itinerary if possible – it’s a very easy trip from Kyoto and I imagine particularly stunning with autumn colours or at the height of cherry blossom season.

*one of the best bowls of ramen you’ll ever try – see my blog 29 Seasons of Tofu for more on our wonderful Japanese food odyssey.

 

 

The White Heron

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Tucking into our bento box of rice cakes, nori, tamagoyaki (sushi omelette) and raw mackerel, we set off on a day trip from Kyoto to Himeji. An easy train ride away, taking little over an hour on the Shinkansen. It was a beautiful sunny day, and great to see so much cherry blossom still in bloom – the trees in Tokyo and Kyoto having, for the most part, long since faded. Better still: the castle had recently undergone a six year restoration programme and so, with the scaffolding now completely cleared, we were lucky enough to see The White Heron in all her splendour.

And the castle truly is impressive – a worthwhile excursion for anyone interested in seeing (yet) another side of this multi-faceted country. There’s been a fort of one sort or another on the site since 1333; evolving over time, the three-storey keep we see today was created by an eminent samurai warrior and politician (Hashiba Hideyoshi) in the 16th century, with the extensive bailey and surrounding city growing around it over the succeeding centuries. It’s considered one of the best examples of Japanese wooden architecture, and was given UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status in 1993. So, yeah: important, like.

I’d compare it to visiting Sterling or Durham in many ways. Himeji is a relatively small and unexciting city in and of itself, with the imposing castle the main feature and primary reason people visit. But while we in the west are used to austere, stone constructs perched on mounds, whether Norman, medieval or renaissance in design, the brightly painted wooden castles of east Asia seem exotic and unusual by contrast. I was certainly awed as we walked up the long approach, flanked by rows of bonsai.

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The castle is very plain inside, with not a lot to see but wooden beams. On balance, probably worth joining the queue for the views from the top; but if you can’t be bothered queuing, really don’t feel like you’ve missed out – it’s the exterior you’ve come to gawp at.

It doesn’t take too long to see. So, after walking around the castle walls, taking in the beautiful tiled roofs, crests, gates and moat (and giggling at the dozing actor in full warrior gear – his exposed spear presenting an element of danger in an otherwise happily-pedestrian visit), we headed on to nearby Koko-en Gardens.

Now, despite what many guidebooks seem to say, Koko-en does not contain recreated samurai houses. Rather, meticulously recreated Edo-period gardens built atop the ruins of old samurai houses. Important difference. No need to be disappointed though: the gardens are really beautiful. The nine different spaces, spread over about three and half hectares of land, were built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the city. The main Lord’s residence garden has a tea ceremony house, a pine tree garden, bamboo, koi pond, waterfall and flower garden. Very serene and peaceful. You’re also likely to spot herons, interesting insects (large beetles, caterpillars and the like), and – of course – plenty of selfie-taking humans.

Our visit to Himeji only took half a day in total, but it’s worth including in your itinerary and makes for a really easy and interesting break from the city. Some people alternatively use it as a calling-off point on their journey between Kyoto and Hiroshima. Works well either way.

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Fushimi Inari Taisha

A photographic ode to my favourite shrine in Japan.*

Fushimi Inari Taisha is fabulous. End of. Worth going all the way to east Asia for alone. An important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto, it is recognisable the world over for its thousands of bright red torii gates, which criss-cross a network of trails into the hills behind its main hall.

I’d allow at least 3 hours to follow the tunnels of gates uphill into the forest of sacred Mount Inari. Maybe longer in peak season. But it’s time well spent. Dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, the trails are a magical climb, twisting and winding in a seemingly never-ending route through the woods. The course is littered with offerings of grain sacks and sake bottles, and statues of foxes appear frequently. As Inari’s messangers, the foxes have been guarding the keys to the granary since the 8th century, when the first torii was constructed. And over the years, businessmen have donated more and more gates (and continue to do so), resulting in the 4km of tunnels you see today.

I’m not going to pretend that the experience is calm and meditative. At least, it wasn’t when we visited late morning, joining the throngs of tourists plodding up the hillside. If (or, more accurately, when) I go again, I want to try dusk or dawn and hopefully avoid the crowds. There are various little shrines to dip into on the journey up, though, which provide respite, and don’t be tempted to turn back once you’ve reached the lookout point. 15 minutes beyond the observation deck you’ll find one of the best sub-shrines in the complex, and it’ll be completely peaceful as the masses have substantially thinned out by then.

Back down on the main avenue, you’ll find the giant Romon Gate and honden (main hall), and if you’re lucky you might catch some open air theatre or – in our case – a fan show. Before you go, be sure to seek out Fuku Kaeru, the Fortune Frog shrine near the exit. Kaeru means “Come back” or “Return” in Japanese. For sure!

*Disclaimer: I reserve the right to declare a new favourite shrine at a future date…

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The Eternal City

I’m bored. A particularly nasty chest infection has seen me bedridden for over a week; the cabin fever sending me delirious. But I’ve finally started to turn a corner, and can now go a whole three minutes before my body attempts – once again – to expel my guts by way of a hacking cough the sound of a dying baby seal. To celebrate, I decided to create a new blog post. Remembering I’d not yet done justice to last year’s trip to Japan.

Japan had been top of my holiday wish-list for as long as I could remember; and whenever I thought of the far-off island it was the ancient capital of Kyoto I was imagining. Its very names evokes images of wooden temples, geisha, cobbled streets, ritualistic tea ceremonies, shrines, rickshaws, pristine gardens, onsen baths, vibrant markets… This is what I’d longed to see. And so when Paul suggested it would be the perfect place to celebrate our 10-year anniversary, I was ecstatic.

In May 2018, at the tail-end of the cherry-blossom season, we boarded a sleek, Concord-esque bullet train from Tokyo to ‘The Eternal City’. I’m not usually a big fan of train travel, but the Shinkansen is a whole different ball game. Ridiculously efficient, über-clean and, of course, super-fast, the bullet train is a pleasure to ride. With hardly enough time to get through a chapter of my book, we were disembarking and making our way to Kinse Inn, our homestay in Shimogyoku ward.

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I fell in love with the traditional ryokan upon first sight. An ex-brothel, the beautiful wooden building has been in owner Kojiro’s family for close to 300 years. The squeaky ‘nightingale’ floors, shoji screen doors, tatami mats and calligraphy art were just perfect. You get the entire top floor of the building to yourself, with the ground floor boasting a charming cafe, whisky bar and lounge area. As I say: perfect. That is, if you can get used to sleeping on the hard wooden floor. Authenticity can give you back-ache!

After a quick cup of their freshly-roasted coffee, we headed to Arashiyama – a quiet neighbourhood at the base of the city’s western mountains – for our first afternoon of sight-seeing. First up, the bamboo grove and Nonomiya shrine. It’s not a large area (it certainly doesn’t warrant a rickshaw ride, although many – mainly Japanese – tourists seemed to think this necessary), but the densely-packed grove is at once peaceful and eerie.

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After a quick katsu pastry and some steamed gyoza, Tenryu-ji (the “Temple of the Heavenly Dragon”) was our next stop. Head temple, no less, of a particular branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. Legend has that it was built to appease the emperor’s spirit, after a priest dreamt of a dragon rising from the nearby river. The creature is depicted in gorgeous screen work throughout, and its Hōjō (main hall) is one of the oldest in Japan; probably my favourite of all those we saw on the trip. The complex also boasts one of the most renowned landscaped gardens in the country, now one of the city’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites. 

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Close by – and it seems somewhat overlooked – is Ōkōchi Sansō Villa, the former home and garden of famous samurai film actor Denjirō Ōkōchi. The views from up amongst the garden trails and out across the Arashiyama mountains are stunning, and the entrance price gets you a matcha tea and sesame sweet in the traditional wooden teahouse to boot. I’d definitely recommend seeking it out.

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A stroll around the pond, taking in tiny Mikami-Jinja shrine, and then we were ready to head back for some dinner. See my dedicated food blog (29 Seasons of Tofu) for an account of that evening’s foray into the weird and wonderful world of conveyor-belt sushi. An aged Nikka whisky (for him) and a not-so-local rum (for me) back at our ryokan rounded out a great first day in the city.

Another packed day of sights followed. Some (i.e. Paul) might argue too packed. There was a point on day 2 when I was told in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t permit a beer stop then our relationship might well be over. It’s hardly my fault, I remember countering: the Emperors of Japan ruled from Kyoto for eleven hundred years and decided in their wisdom to build over 1000 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines in one bloomin’ city. Paul stared at me. Beer was duly tracked down.

But I get ahead of myself. We started by catching the underground to Keage, at the northern end of the Higashiyama Mountains. Stealthily tagging on to the end of an English-speaking guided tour at petite Konchi-in, we learned of the importance of the crane and turtle motifs within Buddhism. The crane representing the soaring heights of life’s good things; the turtle the depths of the bad. It is important, we were told, to keep them in balance. Built in the early 15th century by a shōgun, the pretty temple is actually “just” a sub-temple of the sprawling Nanzen-ji complex next door.

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You need to allow a couple of hours, at least, to do this complex justice. The giant Sanmon gate (one of the three biggest in Japan) is a sight to behold. The 22 metre high Zen gate has a gabled clay-tile roof, five giant pillars and three entrances. At its centre, a statue of Buddha with a jewelled crown is accompanied by 16 Arhat statues. Arhat are those who have gained insight into the true nature of existence and have achieved nirvana. Mortuary tablets of high-ranked courtiers are also enshrined within, covered by paintings of phoenixes and heavenly maidens.

Try not to ape our faux pas by walking into a wedding at the Rinzai School of Buddhism on your way up to the main hall. Oops. Still, the guests were very polite. Once in the correct location, the temple’s Hōjō has a wonderful ceiling painting of a dragon, and the Leaping Tiger Garden behind is classically Zen and flawless, with gardeners literally extracting tiny errant weeds with tweezers. Dating from the 13th century, the temple was originally a villa for Emperor Kameyama and is considered one of the most important in the world.

However, if you walk uphill past the cemetery, under the red-brick aqueduct and through a woodland trail, you’ll find the much more charming Nanzen-ji Oku-no-in shrine. Nestled in a forested glen by a beautiful waterfall and bridge, you are likely to get the shrine all to yourself, as it seems tourists tend not to bother making the trip. Though you may see a pilgrim or two praying.

By the time we got to Eikan-do, Paul was flagging and starting to complain about the aforementioned lack of pit-stops. I was determined to fit this one in before lunch though. Bedecked in colourful streamers and spread over a large area in a series of covered walkways (garyurō) and halls, this was one of my favourite temples. The pièce de résistance is the two storey Tahō-tō pagoda, to which you climb via steep steps in specially-provided slippers. You can see over most of Kyoto from the top.

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Paul finally got a (late) soba noodle lunch and beer. And then – lest anyone consider me a slave driver – a rather nice ice-cream to boot, as we ambled down the Path of Philosophy. The canalside walk is apparently gorgeous in peak blossom season, but given most of the flowers had past their best it didn’t wow as I’d expected. It does, though, take you straight to one of the city’s most popular and arresting sights: Ginkaku-ji (the “Silver Pavilion”). The pavilion, a national treasure though its shōgun never completed its intended silver facade, looks out across a tranquil carp pond, alongside an old Shoin hall filled with Nanga style paintings.

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Enough, you say? Yes. For one day at least. Our evening was spent enjoying a long kaiseki meal in central Nakagyo ward. And after dinner, we had cocktails in the decadent but staid Bar K-ya, before happening upon the wonderful, fun L’Esca Moteur Bar on Saitocho (again, you can read about our Japanese food and drink odyssey in my parallel food blog).

Having learned my lesson from the day before (I do sometimes learn), I made sure we started day 3 with a hearty breakfast at Vermillion Cafe, close to our first destination: Fushimi Inari Tashi. This amazing shrine deserved a post of its own, so click on the link to be re-directed there.

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After a quick lunch of takoyaki (octopus balls) from a street vendor, we next headed to Sanjūsangen-dō temple (otherwise known as Rengeō-in, “the hall of the Lotus King”) back in the Higashiyama district. At almost 400 feet long, this holy building – founded in the 12th century by a samurai for the Emperor Goshirakawa – is one of the longest halls in the world. It houses 1001 human-sized wooden images of Kannon – the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy – painted in gold leaf with crystal eyes. Each Bodhisattva has eleven faces and hundreds of arms.

Along the main corridor there are stone statues of 28 Spirits, flanked by the Wind-God (Fūjin) and Thunder God (Raijin). The whole effect is truly awe-inspiring, having taken over a hundred years to create.

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With some time to spare before our tofu dinner extravaganza, we had a (longer-than-it-looked-on-the-map) stroll to Tōfukuji temple. I feel this could have easily been a favourite, if it wasn’t facing such stiff competition by this point in the trip. The moss garden is particularly lovely, and there is an impressively large garyurō overlooking the valley around back.

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On our fourth day in the city we moved out of our ryokan and into the Granbell Hotel in Gion. As sad as we were to leave the brothel, it felt positively luxurious to have a ‘proper’ bed with soft mattress. And the boutique hotel was in a fantastic location, with a cute bar and its own communal onsen (hot spring baths). Paul chickened out of getting naked with strangers, but I loved the spa-like ritual. And to be honest, I had the women’s bath to myself most of the time anyway.

Most of day 4 was spent in Himeji (covered in a separate post) and day 5 in nearby Nara (ditto). But the evenings were spent exploring Gion and its surrounds. Wandering cautiously around Hanamikoji Dori, the main Geisha district; drinking copious amounts of sake in the likes of Jam and Bar Ichi; and sampling izakaya (Japanese pub grub) on Kiyamachi-Dori, one of the main nightlife strips running alongside the Takase canal. Illuminated by lanterns at night, this road is a great place to linger over shochu high-balls. I’d recommend casual Torikizoku, where you can also try the chicken liver yakitori, cod innards and pickled cucumber. Other notable drinking establishments include Out Loop-Way Blues Bar for rum, Finlandia for whisky, and hard-to-find Jeff Bar in a stilted shack on the edge of the Kamogawa river.

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I said that we moved cautiously around the geisha quarters. This in an effort to be respectful. Though it didn’t prevent me absentmindedly bumping into a young maiko on Pontochō, the narrow alley running between Shijo-dori and Sanjo-dori. She literally growled at me in disgust: you are not meant to touch. My bad.

Maiko are apprentice geisha, “Women of Dance” who are educated in arts and music, but who – it seems – spend the vast majority of their time simply pouring drinks and giggling at their older male companions. I admit to finding geisha culture both utterly fascinating and appalling at the same time. Their elegant white make-up, elaborate silk kimono, and shimada hairstyles adorned with expensive pins, combs and ornaments are truly beautiful. But, despite assurances to the contrary, the difference between geisha and prostitutes can feel ambiguous. Modern geisha still live in traditional geisha houses called okiya in areas called hanamachi (“flower streets”), particularly during their apprenticeships. It’s a strangely self-sacrificial existence, anachronistic in vibrant, contemporary Japan. But, again, therein lies its allure. You can’t help but be excited to catch a rare glimpse of a fully-trained and attired geisha hurrying into a teahouse.

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Our final day was spent eating and souvenir shopping in Nishiki market and walking the quiet residential streets of Gion. Including pedestrianised Ishibei-koji lane, considered to be one of the most beautiful streets in the city, with its traditional wooden houses and seeming complete lack of modern technology. Nearby Ninen-zaka is lined with expensive sweet shops – where delicate black sesame buns are treated with the reverence of jewellery – as well as kitsch ‘Hello Kitty’ boutiques. And Sannen-zaka is a lovely preserved street with craft stalls, rickshaws and little cafes.

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In the afternoon, we were lucky enough to visit Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Pumpkin Forever’ exhibition at the wonderful Kuryu-Sanko Do Art Gallery. She’s one of my favourite artists, and being able to walk straight into an extensive retrospective of her work without queuing or needing to buy a ticket three months in advance was a revelation. The flyer from the exhibition has since been framed and hung in our hallway. Love it!

And there endeth our time in The Eternal City. It was onward to Mount Kōya after that. I will continue the story of our trip once I’m fully recovered from the evil germs. In the meantime, you can find more of my photos from Japan at:

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29 Seasons of Tofu

At some point this millennia, I plan to finish editing my photos and tell you all about the amazing sights and experiences of my recent trip to Japan… But in the meantime, I thought I’d start with a culinary tour of Honshu.

Food, for me, is such an important part of any holiday. Some might argue the most important part. My waistline would certainly argue as much. Give me good food, nice weather, and decent company (Paul will do) and I’m a happy bunny. So take me to Japan, and I’m ecstatic. I don’t think you’re likely to go anywhere else in the world and find such a wonderful variety of high-quality fare. From street food to haute cuisine, the country delivers memorable taste sensations every meal.

So here’s my run-down of must-try food styles and dishes in the Land of the Rising Sun.

1. Ramen

I’ll begin with ramen, one of my absolute favourite dishes. Every region in Japan has its own version of ramen, and frankly I don’t think you can go wrong – whether you’re eating in a tiny six-seat counter bar under a railway arch or paying 4,000JPY atop a skyscraper. In fact, I’d argue the former will be better. Thick meaty broth, noodles, soy, nori (dried seaweed), seasoned egg and spring onions. Simple and heavenly.

Two particularly notable versions from our trip to mention: one in Tokyo and the other Kyoto.

Kamazi in Ginza offers a delicious tonkotsu (pork bone broth) as well as its signature sake kasu noko soba, a rich slightly sour-tasting broth made with sake lees. I heaped extra chāshū (sliced pork) onto my order, not realising it already came with plenty. This is a perpetual problem in Japan – most menus are not translated or, where they are, only partially so. A kind customer had to help explain the vending machine to us, from which you place your order, and in our confusion we inevitably over-ordered. A tip: most times ramen dishes come with all the trimmings, so only order extra if you’re super hungry. It’s a filling meal. Anyway, I would definitely recommend seeking this place out. It’s not easy to find – hidden away down a side alley – but luckily Paul had had the foresight to order us portable wi-fi from the airport. An absolute godsend, given Japan doesn’t seem to ‘do’ road signs.

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Whilst Kamazi was a traditional counter style restaurant, Muraji in Kyoto was a very different experience. Situated on the upper floor of a traditional machiya (old wooden town house) in the Gion district, guests sit at large round communal tables. The furniture is elegant, there are beautiful vases and mid-century lamp shades, and – given the price of food is no more than in the casual joints – it feels excellent value for money. The restaurant specialises in chicken paitan (white soup) broth. It is unctuous, punchy and truly delicious. I would have gone back there every night…but Kyoto has so many other enticing places to try, so one trip had to suffice. It was here though that I learned the term omotenashi, Japenese for “hospitality”. It’s a philosophy that the country embraces and you very quickly come to appreciate. You’ll queue for 30-60 minutes to get a seat, depending on what time you arrive, but trust me: it’s worth the wait.

2. Takoyaki

My new fast-food nibble of choice! Takoyaki (octopus balls) are surprisingly light for a battered snack, yet so moreish and tasty that you find yourself wanting to order them all the time…even when you’ve just had a swanky eight-course meal (not that I, erm, would do something like that).

Made in special iron moulds, the octopus is paired with pickled ginger, onion, and batter scraps, then topped with takoyaki sauce (a bit like Worcestershire sauce) and mayonnaise, and sprinkled with dried bonito flakes and aonori (green seaweed laver). My mouth is watering just thinking about them.

You can buy takoyaki everywhere in Japan. We had some very nice ones from a street stall near Inari station in Kyoto; cheap and sloppy ones in Shibuya; and really fantastic ones in Dōtonbori in Osaka. The Osakan ones – named tako-sen – took the concept to the next level by squishing the battered balls between two large shrimp senbei (crackers). Delicious!

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3. Sushi

I’m using ‘sushi’ as an umbrella term here for all manner of raw fish dishes. We didn’t end up going to a proper sushi restaurant as such – a combination of time (there are simply too many things to try in Japan!) and funds (they can be eye-wateringly expensive, and we already had a few ‘treats’ pre-booked – see below). However, that’s not to say we didn’t have good sushi whilst we were there – that would be ridiculous! You can’t go to Japan without frequenting one of the kaiten sushi chains (conveyor belt sushi). Nor should you miss purchasing sushi bento boxes for long journeys on the bullet train, grabbing fresh fish from a market, or buying snacks from Japan’s excellent convenience stores. We did all these things.

Our kaiten experience was at Sushiro, a popular chain with families. So popular, in fact, that we ended up queuing for around 75 minutes. One of those situations where you feel like “I’ve waited this long, so might as well carry on”. You take a ticket from the machine (again, we needed help from friendly patrons) and then wait nervously, hoping you can figure out when they’re calling your number. This particular branch was close to our ryokan in the Shimogyō-ku area of Kyoto. It’s incredibly reasonably priced – most small dishes costing 100-200JPY (around £0.60-1.30) – and as such you can try a wide variety of interesting things. I won’t list all of our many, many plates, but some highlights included: kelp nigiri; sardine and pumpkin tempura; and black mirugai clam. All washed down with shochu cooler (a spirit distilled from wheat or potatoes and mixed with, I assume, lemonade: my drink of choice of the holiday). Would also recommend repeat orders of the eggplant wasabi – yum! There were lowlights too: the herring roe was crystalline and very odd, and I had no idea what the strange and bitter ume hijikilnari was (still don’t – if anyone can enlighten me, please do).

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The best nigiri and sashimi we had by far, however, was in Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Sashimi, as you’ll know, is simply very fresh sliced raw fish (often served with shredded daikon radish) – unlike sushi, which is wrapped in vinegar-ed rice. Nigiri is raw fish lain over, rather than contained within, pressed rice. We sampled the best tuna sashimi and salmon nigiri I’ve ever eaten in the outer market (I’m afraid I don’t know the name of the particular stall: there are hundreds of them!). The owners delicately and expertly prepare the fish right in front of you; the large tuna carcasses testament to the popularity of the place.

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Whilst I’m talking about the market, I may as well cover some of the other food we sampled there, since it doesn’t neatly fit into another category. Grilled eel slathered in a sticky soy glaze was particularly good; as was the black pig dumpling and nikuman (pork bun). We also had fresh “sushiegg” omelette, made in traditional tin skillets; scallops in miso; clams in citrus; and dried pond fish (like little white bait). The bustling, colourful, loud, vibrant market is a brilliant place to wander and sample, wander and sample, until you’re full to bursting…and then you can have a matcha or black sesame ice-cream to finish off (I can recommend Tomi Sujahta’s Silk Ice).

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Nishiki market in Kyoto is similarly great for browsing and nibbling. It’s very different to Tsukiji: more deli-style shops, quieter and more refined, but with lots of great places to buy your food-based souvenirs. Its clichéd, but you have to try their famous mini octopus on a stick, head stuffed with a quail’s egg. Crab sticks; fish cakes; grilled tiger prawns; rice balls in syrup; and wasabi senbei all great. The highlight: black sesame cake with a soy bean curd filling – not dissimilar to M&S’s chocolate puddle pudding. The market is close to Gion and the Kamogawa River, and a perfect way to spend a morning, before hitting more shrines and temples in that fantastic city.

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4. Yakiniku

Korean barbeque has become popular in London, so the concept of grilling your own meat at your table is more familiar, and therefore possibly a little less impressive, than it might have been a few years ago. But, even so, the Japanese version can be a lot more down-and-dirty than I’d encountered at home. Smoke filling the room, posters blue-tacked to the walls, waiters haring around with pitchers of beer, grills being cleaned with an unnatural speed between sittings, orders for more intestine being constantly yelled into the air (not that I can speak Japanese, but there was a LOT of intestine arriving at tables!)…

After an early evening spent enjoying really delicious flights of sake at Jam in Gion (the big revelation of the trip, having both previously convinced ourselves we didn’t like the stuff), we walked down the pretty, lantern-flanked Takase canal to Aje Kiyamachi Donguri. Waiting in line for a table (which by now we’d come to accept as standard practice and a sign of good quality food within), we tried to decipher the menu and peer inside to see how the system worked. Basically: order a lot of meat and then attempt not to over- or under-cook it on the dancing flames. When we were seated at a communal bench, it quickly became clear that this simple premise was beyond us. A concerned Japanese couple took pity, and – trying their best not to be condescending – directed us to the correct part of the grill to use for different cuts of beef (tongue, flank, rib) and shared some tetsu-chan (the aforementioned intestine) with Paul. It wasn’t a cheap meal, but a fun experience and one I’d definitely recommend.

Han no Daidokoro Bettei in Tokyo was more akin to the London versions of Asian barbaque I’d tried, but a really excellent example. A big room on the top floor of a non-descript building in bustling Shibuya, you are greeted out of the lift by a bowing maître d’ and shown to an individual table with a sparkling clean gas grill. There we opted for someone else to do the choosing (and some of the grilling) for us, plumping for the speciality Yamagata set meal. Yonezawa beef from Yamagata prefecture in Northern Japan is considered one of the three best areas for beef in Japan, and home to plenty of herds of wagyū cattle. Starting with creamy samgyetang chicken ginseng soup and yukhoe tartare (spicy raw beef), we then eased in with some tongue, before moving on to three varieties of yamagata (shoulder, rib and cap) with water kimchee, and then the pièce de résistance: top wagyū skirt steak, accompanied by chilled noodles and gyeren-jjim (a Korean style steamed egg custard, which was particularly nice). Another good find.

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Before I move on, I want to cheat a bit (again) and mention a final place: Guttsurian, by the port in Hiroshima. Not yakiniku, but rather a seafood barbeque. Paul’s favourite restaurant of the holiday. A complete chance find; Googled in a hurry and quickly booked on our arrival into the city. It’s basically a warehouse shack, where – shoes removed – you sit on sunken benches around a well-stocked bar, served by knowledgeable, hipster waitresses, surrounded by driftwood, shells and fish bone ornamentation. We tucked into yellowtail carpaccio, flounder tempura and tuna sashimi for starters; followed by barbequed (not, thankfully, by us) sea snail, mackerel, whole squid, prawn, and scallops with eringi mushroom; finished with grilled snapper in a butter and herb dressing. Quite possibly the best seafood meal we’ve ever eaten!

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5. Tofu

I’d never considered myself a lover of tofu. To be fair, I’d never really given it a chance. A couple of encounters with overcooked, rubbery versions had given me an unfair impression of the stuff. So when our ryokan hosts recommended Shoraian in Arashiyama, a kind-of suburb or outer-town of Kyoto, we were initially sceptical. However, their enthusiasm was intriguing and the setting sounded magical, so we decided to give it a go.

It was indeed a lovely location…albeit one that was a little tricky to find. After a full day’s sightseeing, and a quick refresh back at the homestay, we caught a train over and then looked puzzled at our map. Half an hour later, having navigated the bamboo grove, gone up-and-over the public park, and then cut down through the ‘monkey forest’ (disappointingly, no monkeys were spotted), we arrived at the small restaurant beside the river, a little breathless and concerned we might cause offence for having arrived two minutes late. Punctuality is highly valued in Japan. Luckily, we were met with smiles and, having removed our shoes, led into our own private dining room. To Paul’s relief, chairs were provided – unlike in the room next door, where the Japanese guests were seated on the floor.

The restaurant only offers set menus. Our ryokan hosts had chosen for us and we were happy to let them take the lead. And so, a succession of dishes began appearing: 29 Seasons of Tofu, or so Paul nicknamed the menu. In actuality, I think we had around six courses, each prepared in a different style: creamed, gratinated, chilled, steamed, grilled, and boiled. Each dish was beautifully presented, on an array of different crockery, and each with a different accompaniment – a cold seafood salad in one case; goji berries in another; etcetera. I was a convert: tofu, it turns out, is delightful.

The only respite from the seemingly endless stream of soy curd was a stunning wagyū course, marbled with fat and truly melt-in-your-mouth awesome. Amusingly, when we told the waitress how much we’d enjoyed the beef, she could only wax lyrical about the side of charred spring onion. Go figure. Our only two slight gripes: the pacing of courses often felt hurried – an observation not unique to this restaurant (we learned that the flow of a meal can be quite regimented in Japan) – and the dessert was sub-par (again, not unusual – whilst sweets are treated with a reverence normally reserved for jewellery, desserts – even in the swankiest of places – are often only a simple sorbet).

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I must also mention our Shuboku (temple lodging) meal in Koyasan. Spending a night in Eko-in, one of 117 temples atop Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture, was a fantastic experience. The centre of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism, the mountain complex is a peaceful haven and a welcome retreat from bustling city life. Having completed our afternoon meditation, and kneeling on tatami mats in our room, a young Buddhist monk brought in the dinner tray, laden with all sorts of vegetarian delights. As in Shoraian, a bowl of tofu – still steaming over an open bunsen flame – formed part of the fare. Much simpler, admittedly, than our earlier offerings, but taken as a whole – with the accompanying pickles, rice, watermelon, seaweed soup, noodles, and blossom syrup – it was a unique and tasty meal. At Eko-in they specialise in goma-dofu (sesame tofu) and kouya-dofu (dried tofu). This is shōjin ryōri, traditional temple food, rooted in Buddhist mental training and with a complete focus on conveying a sense of the seasons using the five different methods, tastes and colours of cookery. If you’re debating whether to include a trip to Mount Koya in your itinerary, I would insist you hesitate no longer!

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6. Okonomiyaki

I’d been looking forward to trying okonomiyaki – a type of Japanese savoury pancake – but we waited until we reached Osaka, knowing the Kansai region is particularly famous for it. Having met up with Masa (an old university friend now living just outside of the city) and being reminded – quickly – that he’s a living embodiment of the ‘kuidaore’ philosophy (roughly translated as “eat until you drop”), we set out to find the best pancake we could. Kuidaore is particularly associated with Dōtonbori street food culture, and we were happy to have him as our guide around the mad, neon district.

The area is lined with restaurants and street stalls, each boasting giant plaster cast advertisements – crabs, blowfish, scary-looking sushi masters, dragons, cows: you name it. As well as educating us regarding what to buy in Lawson’s (one of the country’s main chain of convenience stores) – try the surume (dried, shredded squid), pickles, any of the many otsumani (snacks like crackers and dried fish to be consumed whilst drinking alcohol) and the best value sake – he also took us to four(!) food joints and a rooftop bar. I’ve already mentioned the tako-sen stall; and the others are touched on below. But we’re focusing here on pancakes.

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Mizuno is one of the most popular okonomiyaki restaurants in the city, meaning – yep, you guessed it – another long queue. Luckily it died down quickly, but the wait did give me opportunity to have a mooch around the area, taking photos. The restaurant is small, casual and bustling. Like most of the places we went to, ninety-odd per cent of customers were Japanese; a sign that always gave me comfort. Kansai pancake batter is made from flour, dashi (an umami cooking stock), eggs and shredded cabbage, to which other fillings are added. The pancakes are then topped with dried bonito, aonori, mayo, and seven-spice (an accompaniment I sought out at Lawson’s later, to bring home with us). We chose to share three pancakes: one with yams and pork loin; one with scallop, shrimp and squid; and one fairly plain but heaped with spring onion. As they were cooked on the hot plate at our table, I wondered how on earth we would manage to eat them all (let alone go on to other places afterwards), but okonomiyaki is actually very light and not filling at all. What it is though is absolutely scrumptious!

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One of the many, many reasons that I’m incredibly lucky to be with Paul, is that he likes experimenting in the kitchen, and he’s already taught himself to make a pretty spot-on version of Kansai okonomiyaki since our return. [Insert love heart emoji].

We also tried Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki at Kishibe on Miyajima Island – read above and insert fried soba noodles. A little one-woman operation, the tiny cafe isn’t much to look at, but provided a perfect pre-sunset snack.

7. Yakitori

We’ve already established that the Japanese like their grilled red meat. They’re also rather partial to a chicken skewer. Despite our best efforts, however, I don’t think we sampled especially good yakitori on our trip…but it was still fun trying.

Omoide-Yokocho in Shinjuku, Tokyo, is well-known for its skewers. So much so, that when we rocked up at 8pm on a standard Wednesday evening, most of the tiny bars on the ramshackle street were already sold out of chicken (people eat earlier in Japan and the alley attracts a big post-work crowd). After sating our hunger with some asparagus and enokitake mushroom skewers at a crammed bar, we finally managed to find somewhere selling butterflied chicken wing skewers and crunchy chicken skin, with edamame and green chilli peppers. As I say, nothing to write home about, but the trip to the alley was fun. IF, that is, you have the patience to deal with Shinjuku station. The station is the world’s busiest transport hub (check the Gusiness Book of Records, if you don’t believe me), with 36 platforms serving over 3.5million people a day and over 200 (yes, 200!!) exits. Important to keep your cool. We may have got a tiny bit tetchy with one another that night.

We also tried chicken liver yakitori at Torikizoku on Kiyamachi-Dori in Kyoto, a casual joint where we also ordered spicy cod innards, and pickled cucumber, washed down with some rather strong shochu high-balls.

But probably the best we tried, unsurprisingly, were from a street vendor in Dōtonbori. Tender morsels slathered in plenty of spicy salt: yum.

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8. Gyoza

I’m not going to pretend the gyoza we had in Japan were mind-blowing either. Maybe it’s because I had too high expectations; maybe it’s because there’s simply not a way to make gyoza extraordinary. Don’t get me wrong: they were good. Just don’t expect anything all that different to your standard Wagamama fare. Still, they had to be ticked-off during the visit.

My recommendation would be Harajuku Gyouzarou, located on a side street off the plush Omotesando in Tokyo. Worth going there just for their crunchy, punchy miso cucumber..and their grilled vegetable gyoza are tasty too. But the place felt, unusually for the trip, like it was mostly full of tourists rather than locals.

Chao Chao Kawaramachi in Kyoto is similarly recommended in practically every guidebook you’ll read. It may be because it was late (they almost didn’t let us in, as they were shutting up) and we were tired after a full-on day of sightseeing. It may be because the Japanese youths on the next table were quite obviously and unsubtly taking the piss out of the white folk. But, again, the dumplings – steamed and grilled varieties – were nice without being special.

9. Kaiseki-ryōri

I will, however, unashamedly rave – and shout from the rooftops – about the traditional multi-course, seasonal Japanese kaiseki dinner we had on the trip.

Paul and I joined six other guests at petite Jiki Miyaki for the epic feast, positioning ourselves on our allocated counter stools right in front of the head chef, Takatomo Izumi. We’d been told to expect a potentially cool welcome, with many kaiseki restaurants actively discouraging tourist trade. It was true that booking (any) restaurants had proved somewhat tricky – mainly due to the language barrier – but we’d again enlisted the help of our ryokan hosts, so had got in without a problem. And Izumi was anything but cold: he was friendly and informative, explaining each dish in both Japanese, for our six companions, and English for us. When we asked for clarifications, he was more than happy to try to assist, even whipping out his iPad at one point to show us the process of vacuum-extracting nerves from tuna.

Modern kaiseki draws on a number of traditional Japanese haute cuisines, most commonly: imperial court cuisine (yūsoku ryōri), from the 9th century Heian period; Buddhist temple cuisine (shōjin ryōri, which I’ve discussed above), from the 12th century Kamakura period; samurai cuisine of warrior households (honzen ryōri), from the 14th century Muromachi period; and tea ceremony cuisine (cha kaiseki), from the 15th century Higashiyama period. I can’t pretend to know whether or how what we ate that night fit into those traditions, but the meal certainly felt like it paid homage to orthodox styles and etiquette. From the way each course was elegantly prepared and presented on a different, specially chosen, earthenware plate or cut-glass bowl; to the way we were asked on arrival to choose our own sake cup from a presentational box.

I’m going to be lazy and simply list the 12 courses, to give you an idea of what you can expect:

  • aged squid;
  • seaweed soup with sea bream;
  • grunt sashimi (a type of ray-finned fish) with sea urchin, Japanese ginger, soy and wasabi;
  • aged tuna sashimi with fresh seaweed;
  • sesame tofu;
  • congee eel nigiri style over sticky rice with jellied Japanese peppercorns;
  • Spanish mackerel from Beijing with potato sauce and dried onion;
  • crab two ways with an egg sauce and yuba (bean curd skin);
  • white asparagus in rice cracker batter with grated fish roe;
  • prawn in a shrimp reduction with a radish pudding;
  • ‘taste of seasons’ rice three ways with miso soup, pickles, Japanese baby sardines, and tea; and
  • mango with wine jelly

After the final course, Izumi conducted a mini matcha tea ceremony, presenting the frothy green drink with a sweet bean macaroon. It was fascinating to watch. But as much as I’d hoped to get accustomed to tea on the trip – mainly so I could justify buying a nice teapot and other paraphernalia – my taste buds remain resolutely opposed to the stuff. It in no way diminished the overall experience though: the meal was absolutely superb.

It felt rude to take photos during the experience, so I have instead posted a shot of us with Izumi.

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I also want to give a special shout-out to the cocktail bar, L’Esca Moteur, which we were lucky enough to stumble into after the meal. We’ve since learned that the owner – Christophe Rossi – has won various mixology awards and his speakeasy-style bar is considered one of the coolest in Japan. And he seems to have managed to pull together the nicest team of bar staff you could hope for. The place is amazing – tiny, dark and covered in artfully-placed bric-a-brac, with the entrance to the toilet disguised as a bookshelf: very Alice in Wonderland. I had a Shiso Sour (Kinobi gin, Shiso liquer, lemon and egg white) and a Twisted Pepper (gin, lychee liquer, sansho pepper, yuzu bitter and lime); Paul a Remedy No.86 (whisky, maraschino liquer, blood orange, campari, vanilla syrup, lavender bitter, and absinthe rince) and a Smoky Old Fashioned (see photo below). All four cocktails were superlative. Seek it out! I promise you’ll thank me.

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10. Katsu curry

No trip to Japan would be complete without a katsu curry. Be under no illusion, though, this is the least ‘Japanese’ of all Japanese dishes. In his bid to modernise the country and lead the way in terms of development, Emperor Meiji (1867-1912) encouraged Western influence, and the nation transformed during this period from an isolationist feudal state to a capitalist world power. And at the same time adopted the bread-crumbed escalope.

There are two main types of katsu: tonkatsu (pork) and torikatsu (chicken). Both are deep fried in panko breadcrumbs, served with a sweet curry sauce and accompanied – usually – by shredded cabbage, tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and rice. We shared the dish at Yuryo in Hakone (alongside some cold soba dipping noodles). It was perfectly pleasant, without being special. But there’s something about katsu that lingers in the memory…and, I have to admit, it was one of the first dishes we chose to recreate back in England. There’s a reason it’s so popular on both sides of the world.

Other notable mentions

It didn’t make it onto my ‘Top 10’ list, but a honourable mention must go to the traditional Japanese breakfast, the best version of which I sampled in our ryokan in Hakone. I’ve got to admit, we tended to crave a western breakfast most days (your ubiquitous Starbucks croissant or the like), but I’m glad we also tried the alternative. The Hakone spread consisted of: omeboshi (pickled plum – supposedly one a day will keep you healthy, according to the Japanese); tori soboro (minced chicken); onsen tamasgo (runny, only-just-cooked egg boiled in natural spring water with a vinaigrette served over rice – really nice!); kuki wakame seaweed; sakura (cherry blossom) pickles with soy; grilled mackerel; and miso soup. Pretty darn good.

I have to also mention the truly fabulous croquant chou (crispy cream puffs made fresh as you wait and injected with creamy custard, topped with almonds) at ZakuZaku on Takeshita Dōri, Tokyo. Divine! Right, that’s it. I could go on, but most of you probably stopped reading after ramen. And I need to go learn how to cook okonomiyaki. 🙂

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