Tag Archives: Kyoto

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.

 

 

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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