POPPET IN JAPAN


Over the next couple of weeks I'm lucky enough to be holidaying in JAPAN! I’ll be keeping this online diary, blog  — whatever you want to call it  — in the hopes of whetting your appetite for not only Japanese cuisine, but for travel in general. 

My Japan itinerary includes Kyoto, Hiroshima/Miyajima, Mount Koya (Koyasan), Tokyo, Hakone and Osaka. It will be filled with anecdotes, ryokans, temples, people, food (of course) and images. Everyone I have spoken to who has travelled to Japan has told me this country will blow my mind. I want to share my experiences here with as many people as I can. Hopefully I can inspire you to book that flight. If not to Japan, then to that place you’ve always been meaning to visit. You only live once… so what are you waiting for?

* We are travelling on a budget, aside from splurging on a few ryokans. Feel free to email me for more information on sights I have seen, places I have stayed, or things I have done! Please feel free to add your own travel tips in the comments section as well!




Japan Travel Blog


Melbourne, Australia to Kyoto, Japan: Day 1


“Our battered suitcases were piled high on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” This is one of my favourite quotes from Jack Kerouac’s autobiography, On The Road. Put briefly, it follows Kerouac on a road trip through self-discovery and the Beat generation. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour and buy a copy. Although my international escapades are filled less with sex, drugs and disaster (like Kerouac) than family, culture and food, most begin standing on the side of the road, waving goodbye to the dog and whoever has been roped into looking after her (you’re a lifesaver Kathy), then heaving a compact suitcase into a taxi, or into the car of the dear soul who has offered to drop us at the airport at some ungodly hour. This time, we were headed for Japan.

It all started at the airport, as a trip overseas inevitably does. Even though we arrived too early, due to the fact we set our alarms for 3am despite a domestic flight connection in Queensland, there was already a shroud of excitement blanketing us. Over the next 18 or so hours, we caught two planes and a train and managed to embarrass ourselves by getting a tomato jammed in the x-ray machine at security, and also by leaving our passports on the plane. May I just take a moment to point out that neither of these occurrences were of my making, obviously! On the nine hour flight from Queensland to Japan I watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which is somewhere between Slumdog Millionaire and Love actually (watch it) and The Hunger Games (don’t kick yourself if you missed it in the cinemas). 


We landed in Kansai and caught a 70 minute train to Kyoto. We couldn’t see much through the darkness, despite straining our eyes out the window, only the occasional garish “pachinko and slot” sign advertising Japan’s method of legally gambling in a country where gambling is prohibited. From Kyoto station, we had a 20 minute cab ride. The taxis in Kyoto have different signs that signal which company they are with, but my favourite by a mile are those with flashing neon love hearts. Girly much? 


We caught a cab to Bizan, a gorgeous three-storey rental house where we are currently staying. Three storeys sounds awfully grand, but it’s rather modest, like everything else in Kyoto. Down a side street with a kitchen, bathroom and dining table on the ground level; a bedroom, toilet and traditional tearoom where two futons can be laid out as bedding on the second level; and a double bed and shower on the top level, it’s the perfect base from which to explore Kyoto and sleeps up to six people comfortably. 


By the time we had been shown around, we were hungry. We visited the local supermarket to stock up on breakfast supplies. Out the front was a takoyaki stand. Takoyaki are a typical Japanese street snack: crisp, golden spheres filled with diced octopus and slathered in a special brown takoyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire), squirted with a generous amount of sweet Japanese mayonnaise, and sprinkled with bonito and aonori (a type of seaweed). They are surprisingly rich and we ordered too many. It’s hard not to when they are only 500¥ (about $6) for 10… or 11, if the smiley gentleman serving you is feeling generous. They come piping hot from a special takoyaki pan that reminded me of how poffertjes (Dutch mini pancakes) are cooked. If nothing else, they make the perfect drunken snack. 



Inside the supermarket we were kids in a candy store. The thing that struck me the most is how meticulously the produce is packaged. Everything is wrapped in some sort of plastic or foam buffering; even kiwis come individually wrapped. Bread appears awfully manufactured: perfect cubes of white loaves organised by slice, weight, and with or without crusts. There is a huge range of beautiful mushrooms, edible flowers, tea, dumplings, fresh fish, pickled vegetables, traditional sweets and more. We exercised superhuman self-control and settled for some milk, juice, eggs, yoghurt, bread and red bean ice cream sticks. 


Stuck somewhere between exhausted and bewildered with childish excitement, we retired for the night after the best packaged, commercial green tea I’ve ever tasted... and a red bean ice cream!

 


Kyoto, Japan: Day 2


I was up at 5.30am. It’s amazing what you can manage off five hours sleep on holiday. I was raring to go by the time we left the house at 9.30am. We skipped the bread and milk we had purchased the previous night in favour of fried egg on rice. Might as well get into it, right? We decided to walk to the train station that would take us to Toji Temple. It was a bloody long walk. Too long. I know this for a fact because my legs are aching as I’m writing this and it’s the following day. AND we did it in the rain, which is what you get for visiting Japan in the wet season. At least it’s hot and humid and we avoided the crowds. 



Eventually, we arrived at Toji Temple, “established in 794 by the imperial decree to protect the city”. Cheers for that information, Lonely Planet, although I’d love for you to explain your extremely non-PC paragraph on contraception: 


Anyway, phallus size aside, most temples in Japan were either established or handed over to a founder of some school of Buddhism (in this case it was Kukai, founder of the Shingon school) and have burnt down a few times. Most of the buildings at Toji have been rebuilt after fire damage, but still date back to the 17th century. The most impressive aspect of Toji is the pagoda, which has burnt down five times. If you want to get technical, that’s once per storey. As dad pointed out, “it’s because they keep building it with wood!” Rebuilt for the final time in 1643 and standing at 57 meters high, it’s the tallest pagoda in Japan. On the first Saturday of every month, there’s an antique fair held within the temple grounds. It was cute looking around, but we are saving our wallets for Tokyo as opposed to breakable goods.



Next, we went via Kyoto Station to Nishiki-koji Market. By this point we were getting pretty grungry (grumpy + hungry), and we almost stopped in the food court at Kyoto Station. We decided against it, figuring it was better to put some time aside and check out the station and all of its shops another time. Plus we were on the way to a food market! 


Upon arrival, we realised there wasn’t really anywhere to sit and eat, so we stopped at a restaurant called Ootoya just outside the entrance to the market. Our meals were huge and it cost about $10AUD a head. By Japanese standards it was a cheap and cheerful chain restaurant meal, but if we were in Melbourne and had the same dishes placed in front of us, we would have been absolutely ecstatic. 

Between us, we had: 

Rice topped with breaded chicken, drizzled with a thick brown sauce and served on white rice. It arrived on a tray with a side of pickles and a “sauce bowl” with hot udon noodles in a tasty, mushroom broth. Another variety of this was also ordered, but with a side of miso soup instead of udon. 


The sashimi tuna also came on rice, interspersed with strips of seaweed. It too came with pickles, but in place of udon were hot soba noodles in a thin dashi broth.

 

I had juicy Asari clams served on basket steamed rice, which was dotted with seaweed. A soupy bowl of simmered silken tofu and vegetables, thickened with egg, accompanied the clams, as did the ubiquitous pickles. 



The other dish was fried chicken on pink-tinged mochi-mochi, or mixed grain rice. It was presented in a beautiful clay pot with crisp rice cake, broccoli and a sweet sauce. As well as the side of pickles, there was a small plate of silken tofu. 


Despite the gigantic servings, we were still hungry for Nishiki-koji Market. Nishiki is an undercover food market spanning five blocks. It seems to never end, and I never wanted it to end. You’ll find everything you need to cook like a local here, but good luck figuring out what half of it is… not everyone around here speaks English, but that’s half the fun. 


Stalls upon stalls of seafood, pickles, dried fish, fruit, shrimp, sweets, tea and cookware line the narrow walkway. Everyone seems to be yelling and samples are ample. We were especially taken by one pickle shop, where vibrant blue eggplants, purple radish and an array of other vegetables were pickling away on top of wooden barrels; all were available to ‘try before you buy’. We picked some up to have with our breakfast the following morning. 






Also of interest were the tiny red pickled octopuses being sold by the skewer. Each had an egg inside it and was incredibly fishy. But as they say, when in Rome… 


At the end of the market are rows of shops. Young people stand out the front and walk up and down the isles, spruiking their products and smiling at everyone who walk past. Familiar clothing brands are wedged in between handmade paper shops and stalls selling everything from homemade egg tarts to KFC. 


Post market, we came home to rest for a couple of hours (funny how you can start calling such a foreign place ‘home’ so quickly). We forced ourselves out the door and headed to Gion, a well-known entertainment and geisha district. We wandered unhurriedly down Hanami-koji, a beautiful street lined with traditional teahouses and overpriced restaurants. Some of them are reserved for geishas and their clientele. 


We explored the backstreets and saw some beautiful, narrow houses, each immaculate in a simple, Japanese way. All ugly utility units, whether air conditioners or something else, had been fastidiously covered with bamboo to match the quaint frontages. There wasn’t a geisha in sight, but it wasn’t a wasted stroll. 


As dusk gave way to night, we walked south to Pontocho, Kyoto’s nightlife district. The narrow alley is crammed with people and restaurants that line the Kamo River. Tables with a view come at a price, but it’s worth having a pre-dinner walk here. If you’re on a budget, look out for the yakitori bars and stop in for a snack of skewers. Pontocho is highly atmospheric and runs from Shijo-dori to Sanjo-dori.



The highlight of this area for me was stumbling across a specialty tofu shop. Samples were thrust into our hands. I never knew so many varieties existed. Aside from the silken variety that I’m used to, there were also more rubbery varieties that had the texture and layered complexity of buffalo mozzarella. It was such a shame we were on our way to dinner and not on our way to a fridge, otherwise we would have bought some to enjoy back at the house. 


What was a leisurely stroll turned into frustration, as it neared 8pm and we still hadn’t decided where we were going to eat dinner. Fed up, we settled on a restaurant on the third story of a gaudy, eight-storey building on bustling Shijo-dori. It was average, unfortunately, but with a few saving graces. The edamame were soggy, the yakitori fatty, the gyoza drenched with oil and the nameless noodles (no English on this menu!) were bland. But the chewy agadashi mochi (deep-fried rice cake in bonito broth), lightly seasoned squid with mayonnaise, tender salmon sashimi, and my rice dish (with salmon, roe, whole tiny silver fish, strips of pickled carrot and cubes of seaweed jelly) lightened the mood. 





On the way home, we walked around in search of a dessert shop, but found ourselves at the end of a street full of fashion stores. We settled on some green tea soft serve ice cream before catching a taxi back to the house. If in doubt, conclude your evening with ice cream. 


After our first full day, it already felt like we had been in Kyoto for a week. If you’ve never been to Japan and picture it as the Tokyo often depicted in Hollywood, Kyoto may seem somewhat of an anticlimax at first glance. It’s not, you just have to dig a little and be sure to research the area before you visit. The city is an incredible mix of traditional temples and bland, concrete facades. Some occupants go to the trouble of dressing their lanterns in waterproof covers, while crumbling pot plants and debris can be seen outside the homes of others. Drab block buildings in faded grey sit around the corner from wooden temples with intricate tiling and lush gardens in deep green. The contrast is fascinating. The secret to Kyoto is to have a destination in mind, but by all means, make sure you get lost on the way.


Kyoto and Arashiyama, Japan: Day 3 



The best thing about waking up early this morning was that the sun was shining. The rain had completely stopped and outside and it was a 31-degree, melanoma-inducing kind of day. I cooked a home-style Japanese breakfast of fried egg on rice with furikake (a seasoning mix of ground dried fish, sesame and seaweed) and added the pickles we had bought from Nishiki-koji Market the day before. It was just what we needed to energise us for a day on our feet. 


We walked from our house up the narrow pathway that lead to Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Temple. Stores selling sweets and kitsch souvenirs lined the walkway, where shopkeepers urged passers-by to sample their products. School children made pit stops for a morning treat while tourists paused to take photos of their surroundings. 




The temple was impressive; a white-walled building with intricate, wooden roofing, but it was the beautiful gardens that took our breath away. Vivid green moss covered every surface and was so vibrant it bordered on fluorescent. Each tree looked like something out of a Japanese painting, exactly as you would picture a bonsai tree, but bigger! 


A natural pond sparkled silver, copper and gold, courtesy of coins that had been thrown onto a rock in the middle of the water for good fortune. White pebbles had also been painstakingly raked into patterns and piles. A short walk into the verdant forest revealed a vast view of Kyoto, dotted with temples and trees.


 


On the way back down the hill we stopped to refresh with green tea ice cream and a shaved ice dessert (kakigori), flavoured with matcha and condensed milk. It was exactly what we needed to cool down before continuing to The Philosopher’s Path, which intersects with the trail to the temple. 



We strolled along The Philosopher’s Path, enlightened by the shade and teased by a fragile breeze. The path hugs a flowing canal and a few teahouses and shops can be spotted along the way. The most remarkable shop implored visitors not to take photos, but I couldn’t help myself. Two women were busily crafting the most intricate ‘origami’ I have ever seen. Tiny figurines on swings and in spheres, all made from paper, swayed on invisible zephyrs. They were gorgeous, but much too delicate to carry home. 



We spotted three teddy bears propped up on a seat with fishing rods; perhaps trying to catch one of the gigantic koi goldfish we saw swimming upstream. Keeping with the animal theme, towards the end of the path was a throng of feral cats and kittens. Some were friendly, some were not, and you could hear them mewing all the way to the end of the walk. 



Eventually we reached Nazen-ji temple, a grand wooden structure in the middle of a park. We rested for a while and took it all in, before stopping for a light lunch at a place a couple of minutes walk from the main gate. 



The little café was wedged between the overpriced tourist traps, complete with a goldfish pond and red lanterns out the front. Inside was incredibly quaint but the food, although light, was fresh and tasty. 


We ordered a set platter that came with a bowl of rice, miso, pickles, a packet of dried seaweed, a square block of noodles containing prawn in a clear sauce, and a rectangular plate of pumpkin, edamame, pickled blue eggplant and an interesting tofu paste. Another set consisting of two types of soba noodles with dipping sauce was also ordered. Everything was beautifully presented and incredibly fresh. 



After lunch, we attempted to find a bus station and ended up at a ‘koban’, a small information hut with a policeman on duty, specifically for directing the disoriented. After a bit of a walk, we found the bus that would take us to Arashiyama in the west, located on the outskirts of Kyoto. 



The ride took just under an hour and we hopped off the bus at the end of the line. Once again, we were lured into shops selling traditional sweets and tempted by cafés. We briefly stopped at one of the temples, Tenyru-ji, before heading to the bamboo forest. The moment the bamboo shot up around us, we were instantly cooler. Bamboo is a truly amazing plant. Its strength and resilience never ceases to amaze me, especially when you see it en mass. The sun danced off each stalk and tried its hardest to poke through the canopy. Interestingly, there were a couple of graveyards and a train track surrounding the path. 


 

By the time we had conquered the bamboo forest, we were all a bit hot and bothered. We noticed on the map that there was a tiny building on the platform of the train station that housed a footbath in a cabana, warmed by a natural spring. We bought tickets for the equivalent of $2, were given a small hand towel (or is that foot towel?) to keep, and then we let our swollen feet succumb to 41 degrees of bliss as the trains rattled behind us. There were tables set up in the middle of the bath, complete with pencils and pens to doodle while you soaked. 



Pushed for time, we had an early dinner at nearby Obu Café. It didn’t look too promising, but it ended up exceeding our expectations. Three of us ordered the dashimeshi set, a rice bowl with a topping of our choice (we had two salmon with salmon roe and a grilled chicken), a jug of hot or cold soup, a side of pickles, fresh wasabi and interesting mountain potatoes. 




We stepped outside the box and also ordered something we usually wouldn’t: an omelette on bancha rice swimming in a creamy soymilk sauce. It was more sweet than savoury and rather rich. The matcha and mango juices were also a great choice on such a hot, sticky day. 



After dinner we walked to the river, where we bought tickets to watch ‘ukai’, cormorant fishing, from the water. It was quite confronting seeing the men handle the birds, but we took comfort in the fact that the cormorants have been trained since they were chicks to fish for 'ayu’, the sweet river fish, and that the master (usho) has 20 years experience. 



We took our shoes off and sat on the floor of a shallow, wooden boat, decorated with white lanterns and a bamboo mat. As the sun set, the two wooden ukai boats flew past us with the pull of the current, the usho and his two assistants banging on the side of the hull with their bamboo paddles to drive the fish towards the cormorants and coax the birds to dive. 


The cormorants, each attached by the neck to a carefully measured, four-meter string, slipped and slid into the water in an almost snake-like manner, the river closing around them like black velvet. Each appeared to be an extension of the boat, ever graceful despite their harnesses. The usho was adorned in traditional dress: a black Kazaori Eboshi hat and a large grass skirt. Pinewood was burnt in a metal basket to light the way and attract the fish. Every now and then it dropped hot embers into the water, leaving trails of smoke that billowed into the air and orange sparks that glittered against the darkness. As the boats passed us, the heat of the flame warmed our faces and left a nostalgic campfire aroma. 


Every now and then the man holding the end of the strings would spot a cormorant with a catch and give it a harsh tug. The bird would end up in the boat, at which point the usho would wrench the fish from its beak before setting it back to work. After about an hour, the team of humans and feathers floated back into shore, the cormorants lined up on the stern of the boat. 


Back on the land, we waited for the number 93 bus, which we had worked out would take us back to our front door. After asking the driver of two number 93 buses for directions, we were told we had miscalculated. Later, we worked out there are two different 93-route buses… how absurd! We ended up taking what must have been a long route home. 

After catching three different buses, we arrived back in our street. We popped into a ‘Lawsons’ store, which is basically the most exciting Seven Eleven equivalent you have ever seen. We were hungry, having had an early dinner, and bought sweet red bean rolls, cream-filled green tea buns, biscuits and a selection of other snacks. I downed my share too quickly and went to bed feeling a bit ill… but I’ve been known to do that regularly back home as well!





Kyoto, Japan: Day 4



Up early once again, I carefully navigated the ridiculously steep steps of our rental house, where fresh pastries greeted me downstairs. Mum was up even earlier than I, and had already visited the bakery nearby. We ate a couple of buttery croissants (there seems to be a significant French influence here) and some sweet Japanese brioche buns filled with red bean, green tea paste and pumpkin respectively. 


The weather had taken a turn for the worst, but we were determined to visit Fushimi Inari Shrine after seeing amazing images on Trip Advisor (it’s number one on the ‘things to do’ section). After catching a train a few stops past our station, realising this, and then catching one back, we arrived at the shrine in the middle of a torrential downpour, and that’s only a mild exaggeration. We made our way up the hill and through the burnt orange gate, stopping at the entrance to wait out the rain. My shoes had turned a shade darker thanks to the rain and squelched with every step.


We made it to the first temple near the front gate, where we tossed a coin into the shrine and rang bells attached to red and white material. It was raining. Seriously raining. We couldn’t bring ourselves to walk along the 4km path and see the rest. We decided to take a rain check (literally) and come back later if the weather improved. 



The train took us to Kyoto Station, where we planned to explore the 11-storey department store, Isetan… but not before lunch! After asking for directions and consulting numerous maps, we went underground to the ‘Porta’, the basement of the station. Here we stumbled upon a seemingly never-ending row of shops, half of which were restaurants.


Each had strangely appetising plastic models of food in their front windows, and after a lap of the strip we decided to eat at one of the first restaurants we passed based on their appealing window display. It was a good decision.



Each meal came on trays. Dad and I ordered the irodori-wazen, a collection of the best tempura I have ever tasted, melt-in-the-mouth tuna, salmon and cuttlefish sashimi, pickles, rice and a bowl of warming udon noodles.


My brother ordered the tentoji-don set with a bowl of rice dressed with scrambled egg and topped with tempura. He too had udon noodles in soup. The little one had plain rice and a basket of tempura.



Mum couldn’t see what she wanted on the menu, so she went out the front, took a photograph of the plastic model on her phone, showed the waitress and was extremely pleased with herself (and her meal) as a result! It included a box of soba noodles, tempura, rice flavoured with shrimp and veggies and some pickle accompaniments.


It was our best meal so far (even though we have only had three days here!). But that didn’t stop us from heading next door and sampling the rice sandwiches: triangles of white rice wrapped in seaweed and stuffed with salty salmon or crunchy pickles.



Nor did it prevent us from checking out the basement of the department store, where there was an entire level dedicated to a fancy supermarket and food stalls. There was a long, chilled section reserved for takeaway sushi, which snaked around a corner, countless varieties of miso paste and samples of noodles and curries and soup.




We then ventured up a level to sample all the treats on the sweets floor. Everything was beautifully packaged; from red bean jelly that you push up from a bamboo dispenser to individually wrapped mochi balls, tied in handmade paper and ribbons. We had a quick look around a couple of other levels, but the absence of food soon took back to the station, where we caught a bus to the Manga Museum.



Manga are basically Japanese (and now international) comics, which have influenced similar publications around the world, as well as television, toys and more. For this reason, it’s often considered a subculture. You’ll see people of all ages reading manga on public transport in Japan, and even while they are walking in the street!


The manga museum in Kyoto is set in an old school, and is more or less a library with shelves crammed with manga, as well as some information and exhibits on the history. There were copies available to read from 1945 up until today. Mum managed to find a naughty French manga, and became completely engrossed in the tale of cartoonish murder and prostitution while the boys read old Peanuts manga. Typical. 


As we left the museum, our exhaustion was quickly replaced with a wave of excitement as we realised the rain had stopped and the sun was peeking out from the clouds. Much to the 11-year-old’s horror, we decided to return to Fushimi Inari Shrine. We noticed details we barely saw during our soggy first visit, such as the sacred water you are meant to wash your hands with and drink, and mini wooden torii (traditional Japanese gate) with prayers and good wishes written on them, hung up by tourists for luck.



The Hata family built the shrine as a testament to the gods of rice and sake during the 8th century. There are five shrines throughout the Inari-Yama wooden forest, which connect to the main, four-kilometre walk. The reason it is so stunning is because bright orange torii (even thought they are apparently ‘red’) engraved with Japanese characters line the entire path. There are hundreds of them, and each is separated by a space of about 20 centimetres.


Along the path there are stone foxes with keys in their mouths. Foxes are thought to be the messengers of the god of cereal grains, Inari (and here I was thinking it was a monkey — just like a chocolate milkshake, only crunchy!). Supposedly they can possess humans through their fingernails. The keys represent entry to the rice granary.


I will be surprised if we encounter a temple or shrine more beautiful than Fushimi Inari. Walking amongst the torii at dusk was eerie, but dazzling at the same time. Don’t miss it if you visit Kyoto.


By the time we left, we were hungry again. We caught a train back to Kyoto station, where the Kyoto Tower was lit up against the dark sky. It was a short bus ride back to where we were staying from the station.


As it was our last night in Kyoto, we opted for a local dinner at a place called Kurari, or at least that’s what it translates to in English! It was absolutely tiny and utterly gorgeous. Our table of five in the window took up the whole of downstairs, and there was only room for a few more upstairs. It was like being in someone’s home. 


All the surfaces were made from unrefined wood and patches of material. Hand drawn pictures hung from the walls, the English menu was handwritten and skteched, the chopsticks rested on corks and the glasses on patchwork coasters. 


A giant fish head was sitting on the bench and vegetables were pickling in large plastic containers. The kitchen was right behind us and it felt like we had been invited inside by a friendly local.


While we were waiting for our food to arrive, we were given rectangular strips of paper and some colourful drawing pens. The idea was to write good wishes on them, which were hung up on a small bamboo tree along with good wishes from other customers. Mum and Lucas set themselves the challenge of writing theirs in Japanese, with the help of the Lonely Planet book. I hope they didn’t offend anyone!


We ordered Kurari’s Special Plate, which was preceded by a wooden bowl of peppery broth with chunks of tender meat and onion. The plate itself came with a delicious sautéed fish that was oily and firm like mackerel (I assume it was once connected to the fish head on the bench), a whole sardine, vegetables, salad and rice.



The youngen had a homemade burger patty in tomato sauce with a side of salad and rice. It was very tasty, but completely against my overseas ordering morals!


The other boys ordered the “rice bowl topped with variety beef”. Under a garden of shaved daikon radish and greens hid perfectly cooked white rice topped with a raw egg and cubes of beef in a rich, miso sauce. The ‘variety’ title of the dish is probably attributed to the inclusion of creamy chunks of liver.


Perhaps the highlight of the meal was when Dad attempted to take a photo from outside the restaurant, looking through to the rest of the family inside. As his camera flashed, a poor thing on her bike screeched on her breaks, screamed, and nearly died of a heart attack. It was only funny in hindsight! 


After dinner, we visited the supermarket for breakfast supplies and dessert. I downed some green tea ice cream and sticky mochi balls on skewers, covered in red bean paste. I think I’m addicted to red bean. It was a wonderful way to finish our time in Kyoto.


Kyoto, Hiroshima and Miyajima, Japan: Day 5

 

 

Nearly 67 years ago at 8.15am on August the 6th, the world’s first nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. One hundred thousand people were killed. Up to 6,500 children became orphans. All wooden houses within a radius of two kilometres from the hypocentre were destroyed, while windows were smashed up to 27 kilometres away. People up to 3.5 kilometres away from the hypocentre received serious burns, and those within 1.2 kilometres suffered fatal injuries to their internal organs. Thousands died instantly, but many endured unthinkable pain until their deaths, anywhere between hours to decades later. 


Following the blast, people everywhere assumed they were at the centre of a regular bombing. They could never have imagined the destruction the atomic bomb caused. Parents, children, workers and couples roamed the streets after the bomb, trying to care for each other and seek out dead relatives. Bones were reduced to ash and skin melted to clothes, hanging off people like strips of material. Ghastly burns turned black and oozed blood. People’s faces swelled and turned the colour of soot. Some were so desperately thirsty they tried to drink their own pus in their delirium. 


All of this, and worse, was conveyed at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. After we had waved goodbye to Tokyo, we caught a taxi to the train station and then a local train to Osaka. From there, we took a ‘shinkansen’, or bullet train to Hiroshima. Morbidity aside for the moment, the bullet trains are sleek and shiny and look incredibly aerodynamic. This is probably because they are: we clocked our train speeding along at 309 kilometres per hour (thanks to an iPhone app) past a contrasting mix of industrial housing estates and lush rice paddies. As staff members walked through each carriage they turned to the passengers and bowed in the doorway. It’s little details like this that make Japan, Japan.



When we arrived at Hiroshima, it was aptly grey and rainy. We left our bags in coin lockers at the station and then rather than catch a tram to the museum, we jumped in a taxi. It worked out about the same price as a bus fare for each of us. It is worth noting that some taxis in Japan seat five people, but most seat four. If you are trying for a five seater, keep an eye out for a car with connecting seats in the front. About one in every five or six seems to have that extra seat.

I was thankful for the gloomy weather when we arrived at Hiroshima’s ground zero. Sunshine just wouldn’t have been appropriate. We started off in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It was incredibly macabre but at the same time a necessary ‘attraction’, if that is indeed what I should call it. Remains from the aftermath were displayed behind glass: a lock of hair here, a child’s uniform there. Visitors wiped their eyes and sniffed away tears as they walked around.


An especially touching display was that of Sinichi Tetsutani’s rusty tricycle and helmet. He was riding his bike outside his family home when the bomb hit. Badly burnt, he died that night; age 3 years and 11 months. In 1995, 40 years later, his father dug up his backyard grave and donated the tricycle and helmet to the museum.


Sinichi’s father can rest more easily than some, as many never found the remains of their loved ones. The Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound in Peace Memorial Park houses urns holding the ashes of about 70,000 victims. The names of 816 (as of June 20, 2011) are known, but no surviving relatives have been found. Even today, remains of family and friends are returned to survivors every now and then.  In front of the memorial mound are fresh flowers, toys, and even a bottle of water, for the burnt mouths that craved it so desperately, but never made it to sip their last drop. 



There are also paper cranes on display made by Sadako, the young girl who suffered from leukaemia. She attempted to make 1000 paper cranes to make her wish come true: that she would live. Although Sadako never quite made it to 1000 paper cranes and eventually succumbed to her illness, she inspired millions of children and adults around the world through her bravery.



Today, people from all around the world put paper cranes in a dedicated space on the Hiroshima grounds to encourage world peace, hope and an end to nuclear arms. The cranes are arranged into posters and hung from string, all protected from the elements in covered boxes. Each box is open on one side so that more cranes can be added and visitors can handle them.



Across the river is the A-bomb dome, the remains of a government building built in 1915 that was once an active cultural and entertainment centre in Hiroshima. It is located only 160 meters from the hypocentre. The green dome the building was once known for is now a rusty skeleton on top of a crumbling structure. It acts as a potent reminder of both Hiroshima’s history, as well as the city’s resilience after the bombing.



If you don’t have much time to spare (like us), you can check out the museum, dome, memorial mound and paper cranes in just under three hours. Make sure you partake in the audio tour at the museum; it goes for about an hour and is a great way to be shown the highlights and get a feel for some of the individual stories.

After our Hiroshima experience and moving history lesson, we walked across the road behind the A-bomb dome to Sogo Department Store for lunch. It was truly an amazing contrast. We descended into the basement and picked various food items for lunch.



Between us, we ate sweet yakitori chicken skewers, crunchy deep fried sprat-like fish in a sticky miso sauce, sushi crafted into spheres and topped with raw fish, vegetable and prawn tempura cakes, ‘unagi’ sushi (eel on rectangles of rice) and marinated daikon and mushrooms.







For dessert, we stopped by Andersen, which is like Bread Top back at home (an Asian bakery where you use tongs to collect your own bread, put it on a tray, and then pay at the counter). The selection was overwhelming, but our decision was made for us when a lady came out of the kitchen with a tray and announced in her best English, “freshly baked!” Our tray included plain sweet bread, a cinnamon scroll, two flatbread pizzas and a seeded roll with plump raisins inside.



From the station, we caught another train from Hiroshima to Miyajima, eating our pastries along the way. When we arrived, it was a ten minute ferry to Miyajima, where we were greeted by hammering rain. Our crappy umbrellas were dripping from the inside onto our heads, our bags were soaked through, and our moods declined significantly as a result… that is until we saw the deer. They strolled around the island, tame as anything, and were unbelievably cute. They too were unhappy about the weather, and sought shelter next to us in the shopfront.



We had to get to our accommodation eventually, so we made a run for it. We stayed at Ryoso Kawaguchi, our very first ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. Ryoso Kawaguchi won this year’s Trip Advisor Traveller’s Choice Award. We slid open the wooden door and were greeted by the lovely Yoko, who was the epitome of gracious Japanese hospitality. We kicked off our wet shoes, put on slippers, and were shown to our loft room. 


The white walls were interrupted by dark, wooden pannels and the floor was covered in tatami (bamboo) mats. Three futons sat opposite a table matched with floor chairs and cushions. It was set with a teapot, cups and some Japanese biscuits. Shoji (sliding paper doors) surrounded the room, which had a wooden ladder leading up to a mezzanine with two more futons. It was simply gorgeous.


There was also a communal room upstairs, complete with books, comfy seats, a massage chair, and best of all, a view of the five story pagoda with the cloud covered hills in the background. Yoko told us to put on our yukata (Japanese gowns) and bathe before dinner. 



The bathroom was covered in sand coloured stone and had cedar wood walls, as well as a view out to a garden. The massive square bath can fit up to five people and is filled with water from a natural hot spring. The idea is to sit on the plastic stools, rinse with the shower, then immerse yourself in the bath. After you have soaked, you use the shower again to soap yourself, rinse, and then return to the bath. Then when you are ready to get out, you rinse off again before drying. It sounds complicated, but it’s awfully relaxing. 


Soon after we were squeaky clean, it was time for our first ‘kaiseki’, a traditional Japanese banquet served at ryokans. It was absolutely stunning. I imagine it was the perfect example of simple and homely Japanese fare from the countryside. All up, it was about seven courses, each consisting of a few components. When we sat down at the table, the first course was already there. 


It consisted of seared salmon sashimi with lemon, flavoursome eel and chicken with crunchy lotus root. Next we enjoyed fresh sashimi, including yellow tail and a Spanish fish, which had a Japanese name we couldn’t pronounce or get translated. Whatever it was, it was delicious. The plate was garnished with a shaved daikon and carrot salad and a large, flat shisho leaf. 

 


The most interesting course was a tomato and cornstarch soup. It was so thick it can hardly be described as a soup; it was more like a gel. An interesting dumpling made from vegetables, tofu and fish crushed into a paste and then deep-fried floated in the bowl. At this point, we ordered some Japanese sake to wash it down. We drank cold ‘suishin’, which was smooth and went down way too easily! 



A white miso and soy milk broth was then heated over a flame at the table. We were encouraged to divide a thick paste into quarters, and then drop it into the broth once it was hot. After a few minutes, the paste morphed into dumplings. We also added thin white noodles, a variety of mushrooms, greens and tofu to the broth. 


Another fish dish was next on the menu. It was a delicious white fish that arrived steaming hot and wrapped in foil. It was topped with enoki mushrooms, a mild cheese, tomato, and was marinated in a tasty miso sauce. It may not look like much, but it was one of the better plates of the evening.


The main event arrived with a side of pickles and a bowl of rice punctuated with sesame and red bean. There was also a fishy bonito broth with a rainbow mochi leaf at the bottom. But the centre of attention was a firm yet tender steak, marbled with fat and absolutely mouth-watering. Between us we decided it wasn’t wagyu, but could have been kobe. 

 


To complete our kaiseki was a small ball of Japanese mandarin sorbet. Icy and refreshing, it was the perfect end to a delicious meal full of hot soup and steaming protein. The courses came out thick and fast. As a family of fast feasters, we were finished in about an hour. 


After such a hearty (but healthy!) dinner, we were desperate for a walk. We headed to the famous ‘floating’ torii entry gate, which leads to the Itsukushimai Temple complex built over the water. Lit up in the dark, its golden reflection fractured with each ripple and cast a magnificent pattern over the water. The temple was also illuminated and appeared almost supernatural. 


On the walk back to the ryokan, we stumbled upon the resting spot of the deer. There were whole families, including awkward little fawns that followed hurriedly after their mother. Some of the deer were tired, sleeping in doorways and on steps. Others were hungry, and had a wonderful time nibbling on any loose bits of clothing they could get their mouths around… especially Max’s! 


As we continued, we heard the sound of music and followed it. Through a window, we saw two men in traditional dress beating huge taiko drums in front of an audience. Synchronised with each other and dramatic lighting, they managed to appear floaty and graceful despite their strong, athletic movements. 


Back at the ryokan, we stayed up a little while longer writing diaries, backing up photos and speaking on the phone before sleeping in the same room as a family for the first time I can remember! A word of advice: if travelling overseas, do what we did and invest in a pocket wifi. It’s compact, rechargeable and efficient. We have all downloaded WhatsApp, Viber and Facetime to our iPhones and as long as we have a wireless connection and have switched data and roaming to ‘off’ in our phone settings, calls and texts through these apps are completely free, even overseas.



Miyajima and Koyasan, Japan: Day 6



Breakfast was at 7.30am sharp in the same dining room where we ate dinner. A collection of dishes was presented on the table: a boiled egg cut perfectly in half, soft squares of pumpkin, a chunk of salmon, salty pickles, soft greens in sesame and vinegar, miso soup, rice and a light dashi broth with flat white rice noodles and chewy deep fried tofu skin.


We had an hour or so to kill before we had to catch the ferry. We decided to brave the rain. After refusing to wear a poncho, I finally gave in; I couldn’t stand the thought of being soaked to the bone again! As we slipped off our slippers and put on our shoes, they seemed a touch smaller. It turned out that Yoko had thoughtfully stuffed them with tissues in an attempt to dry them out! We faced the outside world, a family of five in ponchos resembling person-sized condoms with umbrellas. 

We walked around the corner and up some slippery steps to check out the five-storey pagoda we could see from our ryokan. We also had a look around the scrupulously polished floors of the Senjokaku Temple opposite the pagoda, wearing our daggy but comfortable green rubber slippers so we didn’t dirty the wood with our dirty ‘gaijin’ feet.



The spacious, open temple wasn’t nearly as awe-inspiring as its view of the hills in the background, blanketed in thick mist that obscured the green trees. Only the tiled rooves were visible beneath the cloud. On our way back, a lone deer was there to bid us farewell.


Some of the shops linging the street back to the ferry were already open, including a steamed bun store. We bought one filled with beef to try, even though we were full from breakfast… the smell was too good to pass up. Each doughy bun was fluffy and airy, with Japanese writing inscribed into it with heat.



We also stopped at a sweet shop, where you help yourself to individually packaged cakes and pay at the counter. We bought some filled cakes shaped like maple leaves to snack on. They were stuffed with custard, green tea, red bean, chocolate, walnut paste and more.



Our last image of Miyajima is one to remember: a deer, standing smack bang in the centre of a map of the island. It was as if it was fake, or someone had trained it to be there. If every there was a Kodak moment, this was surely it. 


The bulk of the rest of the day consisted of a ridiculous amount of travelling. First, there was the ferry, where we chatted with some Japanese primary school students who screamed and giggled whenever we said anything in English. We also ate our maple cakes!


From there, we had five trains to catch: Miyajimaguchi to Hiroshima, a bullet train from Hiroshima to Shin-Osaka, Shin-Osaka to Osaka, Osaka to Shin-imamiya on the JR Loop line, and finally Shin-imamiya to Gokurakubashi in Koyasan (Mount Koya). The final leg of our train journeys was absolutely breathtaking. As the train climbed steeper and steeper up the mountain, I couldn’t help but think of that brilliant children’s book, ‘The Little Engine That Could’.

As we journeyed further upwards, the lush rice paddies turned into a forest of bamboo and pine, the trees clinging desperately to the side of the mountain. Waterfalls trickled and gushed down every crevice and the air took on a crisp chill. But the travelling wasn’t over yet! Next there was a five minute cable car to take us almost perpendicular up the steepest part of the mountain, where a bus was waiting for us at the peak. Twenty minutes later, we arrived right outside our ryokan, Shojoshin-in. 


Shojoshin-in is a special kind of ryokan known as a ‘Shukubo’; accommodation within temple grounds run by monks. The monks at Koyasan practice Shingon Buddhism. We were lucky enough to be upgraded to a self-contained hanare room. Originally, the five of us were going to stay in a single room, but the hanare was more like a gorgeous Japanese cottage. As we entered our hanare, we removed our shoes and put on the slippers provided. We were instantly hit by the powerful smell of cedar wood, from which the walls were made.



The house had its own little garden leading to the square building, with a hallway surrounding four rooms. Two of the rooms had two futons, one had a single futon, and the remaining room was a tearoom, complete with green tea, a tea set, red bean cakes and even a television! Each room was separated by ‘fusuma’, sliding golden doors decorated in ornate Japanese images. A private pine wood bathroom with a deep bath was located in the far corner next to three separate toilets: a western dunny, a Japanese ‘squat’ loo, and a urinal!



We had enough time before dinner to check out Okunoin Cemetery, which was practically next door to where we were staying. The cemetery is a photographer’s wet dream. Set in a forest with cypress, cedar, pine and fir trees, every surface is moist and ironically, sprouting with life. Moss covers the ground, fungus clings to bark and some trees appear to be touching the heavens. The place has a mystical air about it and reminded us of Miyazaki films such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away.



Along the cemetery path, which is two kilometres long, there are over 200,000 graves and memorials. Okunoin dates back to the seventh century and has tombs from emperors and poets to ordinary citizens. Obelisks, engraved wooden steaks and five tiered ‘stupas’ receded into the forest. Stupas are gravestones or memorials made up of five different shapes, stacked on top of each other and inscribed with Sanskrit. Each represents the five elements taught in Buddhism: earth, water, fire, wind and space, from the bottom up.


The most fascinating but disturbing memorials were the smallest, many of which were dressed in pink and red bibs soaked from the rain, and beanies sprouting moss. These statues represent Jizo Bosatsu, who is believed to watch over and protect children in the afterlife. Those who have lost their children participate in this custom of dressing the small stone statues so that their living children will have long lives, and so children who have passed will be cared for in the afterlife.


Having raced for so many connecting trains and squeezing in the cemetery, we had skipped lunch and were dying for dinner (excuse the pun). The phone in our hanare rang at 5.30pm from its place on the bamboo tatami mat. Dinner was ready. We slipped on our ‘geta’, which are awfully uncomfortable traditional Japanese clogs, and made our way to the main building. The boys had even more trouble walking than us, their feet hanging hilariously over the edge of the wooden shoes. We swapped geta for slippers and shuffled down the hall, past a lovely pond, and to our own private dining room.


The moment the fusuma doors were slid open for us, I was beside myself with excitement. There, on the tatami mats, were five cushions, each with three separate raised lacquered meal trays in front of them. On each was a selection of small dishes. This was an authentic ‘shojin ryori’, a Buddhist vegetarian (and vegan) meal. Appropriated from China, these dinners focus on the Buddhist principle of the five elements; five flavours, five colours and five cooking methods. It is expected that there are at least five kinds of dishes: one grilled, one deep-fried, one pickled, a tofu dish and a soup. We had many more than this!


The middle tray held six dishes, each very different from the next. There was the usual side plate of pickles and rice, alongside a beautiful basket of vegetable tempura with carrot, mushroom, shisho leaf, eggplant, daikon and wild potato. A small bowl of sweet, boiled black beans was surprisingly rich for something cooked so naturally, while the miso soup had the addition of green shoots, orange peel and three floating tofu balls tinged pink and blue (I hate to make the comparison, but they really did look like mini eye balls!). But my favourite dish, perhaps of the entire meal, was the plain tofu. A giant square of silken tofu swam in a puddle of soy with a daub of fresh wasabi on top. It sounds awfully boring, but its texture was like nothing I have ever tasted before. The word ‘silky’ simply doesn’t do it justice. It was almost creamy, like the smoothest crème caramel you’ve ever tasted.


A tall cup of ginger broth with a quartered mushroom, snow peas, a chewy mochi rice dumpling and slices of fresh ginger rested on the left tray. Next to it a shallow bowl holding a piece of capsicum tempura and a hunk of soft, miso eggplant bathed in a soupy sauce, thickened to a gel with cornstarch. Dessert accompanied the other dishes on this tray: sweet cantaloupe, giant juicy grapes and a couple of vibrant cherries.


On the other side, a marinated vegetable dish stole the limelight. Supple pumpkin and an oversized shitake mushroom sat alongside crunchy bamboo, snow peas and ‘koya-dofu’, tofu that has been freeze dried then rehydrated so that it takes on a spongy consistency. 
The small bowl of shredded, pickled daikon and carrot in vinegar was a wonderful palate cleanser, while the final dish had three components, none of which I can name with certainty! They included a translucent, pink jelly with a delicate floral flavour, tiny soft beans that tasted like mini Jerusalem artichokes, and pickled cubes of something white, possibly daikon.


After we washed down our remarkable dinner with green tea, we were in bed (or should I say, ‘in futon’?) by 9pm. We had to be up at 5.30am, but you’ll just have to keep reading to find out why!



Koyasan and Tokyo: Day 7



Today was our earliest start yet: 5.30am. You may think we are mad, but we had to be at the ‘otsutome’ a Buddhist prayer ceremony held in the main temple at 6am. We made out way over to the main hall, where the monks had already been praying for god knows how long (no pun intended). Four of them kneeled on the floor for the entire 40 minutes, moving only to clash symbols together, softly hit a gong in the form of a ceramic urn, or turn a page in their prayer books.

They wore traditional black robes with flowing sleeves over a white undergarment. Over this was a silky purple sash with a delicate white pattern inscribed on it. Their voices were incredible, and they harmonised as they chanted Buddhist sutras. Those watching couldn’t help but sway or tap their feet in time, some even closing their eyes and losing themselves in the sound of their baritone hymns. The sound of their devotions was hypnotising. 

The temple room in which they were praying was amazing, decked out in black lacquered boxes engraved with Japanese scripture and ornate tables, as well as golden objects and lights that looked like giant lotus flowers with dragons snaking up them. When the ceremony was finished, they turned around, bowed, and asked us to go to breakfast, just like that. Unfortunately, photos were prohibited.

Breakfast was in the same private room where we had our wonderful dinner the night before. This morning there was a tray with a bowl of koya-dofu (freeze dried then rehydrated tofu) with seaweed throughout it, sweet and sticky beans, a packet of dried seaweed, rice, miso soup, pickles, and seaweed done in vinegar and sesame.


We shuffled back to our room in our ridiculous ‘geta’ shoes (see previous entry for an explanation) and packed our bags. We checked out and jumped on a bus a couple of kilometres down the road to Kongobu-ji, Koyasan’s main temple, renowned for it’s pebbled gardens. As we were up so early, we had to wait 20 minutes for it to open at 8.30am, so we went for a walk before returning. Once inside the complex, each garden was meticulously raked with large rocks jutting out from the ground.


The temple itself was a collection of rooms with beautiful ornate paintings on each sliding ‘fusuma’ door, depicting ancient stories of the area and the different flora of Koyasan during each season. Photos and even sketches of the doors were not allowed, but we did snap a humongous cross-section of a tree trunk, with hundreds and hundreds of lines indicating its impressive age.


After taking photos of the various angles of the garden with its backdrop of the wooden temple complex and manicured greenery, we made a pit-stop at a supermarket to pick up some lunch supplies, as we knew we’d be stuck for food whilst in transit. We walked from the supermarket back to Okunoin Cemetery to take some more photos, which again, was absolutely beautiful and a touch spooky (see previous entry for more photos and a description).


We picked up our luggage and caught the bus back along the winding road to the cable car. When we arrived, there was a herd of adorable Japanese kindergarten kiddies, all wearing little straw hats and matching uniforms, ‘Madeline’ style. They were unnaturally gorgeous. I was tempted to kidnap one, and would have if my bag was not so heavy!




On the ride back down the mountain they were all very excitable, waving at the cable car going the other way, holding hands and giggling. They waved goodbye to us at the other end and totted off in pairs.


At the station, we asked an official which train to get on to go to Osaka. He pointed us in the direction of the wrong one, and by the time we realised, our train had already left! We’re still not entirely sure how it happened, as we pointed out a train we had highlighted on a piece of paper. I think we listened because he was so persistent. The train we were on didn’t leave for an hour, and we only just made the bullet train to Tokyo. But when in doubt, turn to food! We ate our supermarket lunch on the (wrong) train to pass the time. 

Lucas chose some potato gems and a chicken schnitzel sandwich, which turned out to be pretty greasy. But our rice sandwiches filled with creamy mayo, salmon and tuna and wrapped in seaweed were surprisingly filling and very tasty. We also had a couple of boxes with inari and soba noodles, and one with thin, white rice noodle and a collection of packaged sauces. The small chicken burger on a brioche-like bun and the green Pringle-like crackers also hit the spot.





On the bullet train we did some Tokyo research and caught up on our diaries and blogs. We arrived only half an hour behind our original schedule, at 6.10pm. We caught two taxis (apparently Tokyo doesn’t have the five seaters, plus the driver, like in Kyoto) to our rental house down a little cul-de-sac. There, we met someone who showed us around and told us how to use all the appliances. It’s simple but spacious, with a decent living room, dining table, a large kitchen, three bedrooms upstairs (including a traditional room with futons) and a smaller bedroom with a desk downstairs where I am sleeping. 


On the way out, the house rental agent walked us back to the main street and showed us some local joints where we could get a bite to eat. We decided on the ‘tonkatsu’ place, which specialised in deep fried pork cutlets. It was tiny, with some seats lining the kitchen and two tables. Pulled together, they seated us comfortably. The menu was absent of all English, but Mum was able to say “we’ll leave it up to you to order” in Japanese. When this was coupled with a young Japanese girl who spoke a bit of English, we were able to order the famous pork cutlets and some prawns.




When reading about tonkatsu, a Japanese specialty, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to eating it. I don’t usually enjoy deep fried food, as usually it is oily and greasy. Good tonkatsu is entirely different. Thick, lean pork cutlets arrived in a coat of crunchy panko flakes with a splash of hot yellow mustard on the plate. The meat was tender and the batter was amazingly light.


The prawns came two to a serve with a mayo-based sauce and lemon on the side. They were plump and juicy inside the batter. Each plate had a side serving of miso soup and fresh, shredded cabbage. There was a light sauce you sprinkled over the cabbage, and a sweet and salty thick sauce for the meat.

 

We spied some golden onion rings another customer had ordered and quickly asked for some by pointing and smiling manically. It cost us just under $10 a head and we left satiated and satisfied. On the way back to our house, a mere 200 metres away, we stopped at the supermarket. Out the front was a box filled with heated coals that were keeping a variety of ready-to-eat sweet potatoes warm. I was tempted to buy one, but I was full from dinner! Instead, we gathered some breakfast supplies, ice creams and red bean filled mochi balls coated in sesame for dessert. This ‘after dinner stop off’ seems to have become a regular thing for us, not that I’m complaining!



Tokyo, Japan: Day 8


Exhausted from travelling so much over the last few days, we decided to sleep in and put the Tsukiji fish market on hold until Monday. That way, we allowed ourselves a sleep in instead of getting up at the crack of dawn to catch the action (if you can call 7.30am a sleep in). Hopefully we will also face smaller crowds at the market after the weekend is over. We made a Japanese breakfast of egg, rice and pickle (which we have come to adore), followed by fruit, yoghurt and granola. 

After doing some last minute research, we walked ten minutes to Ikebukuro station, changed trains once along the way and then arrived at Akihabara (also known as Akiba), Tokyo’s electronics district. Akiba has become the centre of Japan’s ‘otaku’, or fan culture. The multileveled buildings not only have every electronic gadget under the moon, but game parlours, pachinko slot machines, quirky action figures, trading cards and everything ‘anime’ and ‘manga’ you can imagine.


As it was the weekend, the main roads had been closed off to traffic so pedestrians could walk freely between the giant buildings adorned in mammoth posters of anime and flashing lights. Maids from the area’s famous Japanese maid cafés — where the waitresses are dressed in maid outfits — stand on the corner of every intersection, tempting passersby with their cute smiles, discount coupons and hidden agendas. They don’t like you taking photos of them, but they won’t tell you off if you do; they just cover their faces with their posters or umbrellas and turn their backs. You can’t take photos in most of the maid cafés unless you buy an overpriced full set meal, but if you have a decent zoom function and take snaps surreptitiously, they’ll never know!


Our first point of call, after being pointed in the wrong direction at least four times, was Akihabara Radio Kaikan or “Akihabara Radio Hall in the world” (I think they forgot to insert the word “best”!). Perhaps surprisingly, this place has nothing to do with radios or electronics, and instead has eight floors devoted to toys, models, figurines and collectables.


We saw everything from naughty anime figures and build-it-yourself Barbie-like dolls, to rabbits dressed up as princesses and figures of Johnny Depp in Sweeny Todd. The highlight was the fact that the building was heaving with full-grown men looking at dolls. Classic.


Our next stop was just around the corner over the main road, Comic Tora no Ana Akihabara Main Store. This place is dedicated to manga comics (which make up 60 per cent of all published material in Japan), with the top four levels set aside for “ladies dojinshi”, fanzines created by amateurs that are basically cartoon porn. Some of it is fairly tame and some of it is a bit more risqué, like the manga man-on-man action that is apparently popular with the ladies. From there, it reaches a whole other level with robot, monster and Disney fantasy erotica.


The comics have a classification system: a green triangle in the top right corner of the fanzine reading ‘ALL’ indicates it is suitable for everyone, while a red triangle reading ‘18+ Adults Only’ is pretty self explanatory. But the funniest thing about them is that if you flip the front sample copy over, you’ll be given a sneak peek into the dirty pictures inside. But did I buy any? Perhaps, perhaps not.


After a few hours of browsing collectables and erotica, we were ready to refresh with a meal. If you walk out of Tora no Ana, turn left, and then take your first left and walk to the end of the little alley, you’ll come to a lovely little ramen place on the corner. Inside, the space is tiny. An L-shaped bench borders the kitchen, where the chefs busily throw handfuls of noodles into hot water and briskly chop and stir. If the weather allows it, there is another bench lining the outside wall that backs onto the alley.


Out the front, there is a vending machine with images on it where you buy a meal ticket, before handing it to the man inside. Alternatively, there is a small menu where you pay inside as you order. This probably won’t help most of you, as none of it is in English. We took a punt with what looked good, and must have done something right!


We ordered a delicious bowl of ramen flavoured with pork mince and peanut. It had the consistency of laksa and was mildly spicy, containing thin egg noodles, a slice of pork, bok choy and bamboo shoots. There was also a bowl with identical fillings, but with a miso base instead. The other variety was a clearer and more gentle miso broth, with all the same bits and pieces but with the addition of seaweed. For the young and fussy, the plate of steamed gyoza was the perfect choice.




After lunch, we managed to waste a few hundred yen trying to win soft toys we didn’t need from the claw machines in a gaming parlour, before checking out Yodobashi Camera, a highly regarded electronics emporium behind the station. We successfully found a camera lens cap to replace one that was lost, but unless you are looking for something specific, it’s only worth taking a ride up and down the escalators to get a feel for the electronic madness.


The place is completely overwhelming, to the point where I developed a headache. The lights are piercing and there are shop assistants flaunting products everywhere. They have literary everything electronic, from absolute basics and gaming consoles to high-tech 3D televisions and rice cookers that sing when they’re ready. Absolute madness.


We walked a little further west until we reached Tsukumo, a building with a great big green sign. Inside on the second level is Tsukumo Robototto O-Koku, Japan’s first robot shop. It was miniscule! There were a couple of cute looking electronic creatures and build-it-yourself robot kits, but overall, you’re not missing anything if you skip this stop!


We headed back to the station, past the maids parading their cheesy smiles and pigtails, where we caught a train to Shibuya. We exited at Shibuya crossing, a neon jungle of giant screens fastened to towering buildings playing tacky, brainwashing Japanese music and displaying flashing neon signs. You may recognise it from the film Lost in Translation. It’s the equivalent of Times Square in New York, or London’s Piccadilly Circus, just quirkier. We crossed along with a bustling sea of umbrellas. From a birds-eye view, they would have completely obliterated the road.


Our mission? To shop. We strolled down main roads and up winding alleyways until we reached Tokyu Hands, one of 20 department stores around Japan crammed with everything from household goods and hardware to board games, stationary and other knickknacks. We spent most of our time in the party section, trying on ridiculous costumes such as novelty glasses and huge panda heads… although Mum and Dad seemed to get the biggest kick out of it!



It’s a great spot for souvenirs, but we needed to rest. We had all acquired headaches and felt dehydrated and dizzy from a day of looking at lights, figurines, maids and anime porn… as one does. Luckily, Tokyu Hands has an adorable café on the top floor. It’s joined to a ‘science’ shop chockfull of everything you’ve ever seen at a museum gift shop, kind of like a National Geographic store.


We scored a comfy couch seat in the corner. You order at the counter from the small menu, and we were more than happy with waffles and ice cream and a “mixed milk and fruits with euglena” milkshake. After we had revived and downed a few glasses of water, it was time to continue shopping and find some dinner.


We headed next door to Parco, a fashion shopping centre where young people go for the latest trends. Girls were standing at the front with signs and dresses on hangers, squawking at the top of their lungs in high-pitched Japanese about a timed sale. There were some adorable shops, but the boys were getting fed up so we made a bee-line for Muji, a simple Japanese brand selling clothes, stationary, travel goods and more. 

After buying a few presents, we ventured up Love Hotel Hill, west of the Shibuya centre, where couples can rent a room for the night for a ‘quickie’. The more you pay, the more you get, from themed rooms with private pools to rooms with bondage equipment and video cameras. To get there, take the road up Dogenzaka, just to the left of the Shibuya 109 building (look up when you exit the station and you can’t miss it). Most of the hotels are down the side streets and have room prices on signs out the front.


On the way, we found what must be one of the only pet shops in Tokyo. Like everything else, it was glitzy and garish, light up bright pink with pictures of puppies and a sign advertising its ridiculous name: “Baby Doll”. There were kittens and puppies in individual glass cages. Hopefully they get snatched up soon, because there wasn’t nearly enough room in there for those poor animals.


Further on up the hill, past a couple of love hotels, we stumbled upon Daidokoya, a conveyor belt sushi place. We entered and were greeted with the usual “irasshaimase!” and didn’t have to wait long for a five seats to free up. It’s always a good sign when a place is full of locals. The chef was cooking up a storm and on the menu it encouraged westerners to order, even if their Japanese is lacking.



We gained much joy from the green tea, which was served as matcha powder in a sugar dispenser. You mix it yourself by putting it into your sushi-print cup and filling it with hot water from a tap in front of you. 


We had salmon and tuna nigiri (a layer of fish or other topping on rice) and salmon norimaki (the sushi in seaweed, wrapped with bamboo, which is most popular back home). Also enjoyed was horse mackrel nigiri layered with spring onion, tamago (egg) nigiri, ikura sushi (with salmon roe that pops in the mouth) and a box of deep fried chicken pieces. It was all incredibly fresh and moreish.



Also ordered was the “steamed egg hotchpotch”, which we assume was meant to be a steamed egg hotpot! Whatever it was, it was delicious! A mildly fishy broth with silky, cooked egg layered on top arrived in a small bowl. The texture and taste was similar to custard. Mum also pointed to a soup on the conveyor belt with a sign saying something she didn’t understand, just for kicks. A large bowl of miso broth arrived with tofu and stacks of seaweed in it, the kind often served in seaweed salads. Despite her gamble, she enjoyed it very much.



We washed it all down with a Japanese draught beer, Suntory. The meal was incredibly cheap, and worked out at about $10 Aussie dollars a head. From what we have experienced so far, you should be able to eat for about $10 in any city in Japan. If you want to eat and drink on the cheap here, it’s easy! You just have to make sure you do a bit of research before you pop out, or alternatively just head somewhere that looks small and ‘authentic’. Usually these places have bar seating surrounding a kitchen of some kind.


On the way back to Shibuya station, we were amused to see a young woman on crutches, but in heels! She was really struggling. Anything to look good in Tokyo, right? On the way home we popped into an electronics store for a browse on the walk back to our house (you can never shop too much in Tokyo). Out the front, we were handed tissues with advertising on the back, which often happens in this city. The picture suggested it was for a love hotel. Mum and Dad decided they would visit (I can’t decide if that is lovely or disturbing, perhaps it is both) and sent us kids home. They turned up ten minutes later, having been sent instead to a strip club! At least it makes a good story.



Tokyo, Japan: Day 9



The first thing on our agenda this morning was to catch a train to Harajuku station to see the cosplay kids, where young people dress up in extreme costumes as anime characters, rock stars, punks etc., and hang out on the bridge next to the station. The best day to do this is apparently on a Sunday, but to our disappointment, there was only one fella there in the morning, dressed up as a character from Dragon Ball Z. It was still pretty early in the day, so we walked down the main street past a plethora of shops (Harajuku is a major shopping destination for tourists and locals alike) to Kiddyland… yes, Kiddyland.


Kiddyland is multileveled toy store and while it sounds like a shop that should be reserved for children, it’s a Tokyo institution visited all ages. There’s an entire level devoted to Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma (the brown bear you see everywhere in Japan, whose name is a combination of ‘relax’ and ‘bear’), a level for the boys full of action figures and race car tracks, one for knickknacks and soft toys and a few others as well. I challenge you not to buy something if you visit! 



After surprising ourselves with the amount of time we could spend in a toy store, we walked a little further to a beautiful store called Oriental Bazaar, which was recommended in a couple of guidebooks for souvenirs and present buying. Inside was an array of beautiful cups, bowls, teapots, chopsticks, sake sets, kimonos, wooden Japanese dolls and a few quirkier items downstairs, such as sushi shaped erasers and sumo paperweights. 



We had a quick stroll down Harajuku Street, which runs parallel to the main road and has a significant amount of second hand and vintage clothing stores, before heading up Takeshita Street (how can you forget a name like that!). Takeshita Street is a pedestrian fashion street crammed with cheap souvenirs, fashion boutiques and crepe stands. It’s always loaded with people on weekends. You’ll find it right outside Harajuku station. 


By the time we had finished shopping and walking, we were starving. Rather than search around for a decent restaurant to eat, we took a punt and went to a place called Peco. If you walk up the hill on Takeshita Street and exit with the station in front of you, turn left and it’s the first one you’ll come across. You have to take an elevator up a couple of levels to get there. While the décor was uninspiring, we were pleasantly surprised by our food. 

The 11-year-old ordered a tasty curry with rice that was mildly spicy and came with miso soup and a side salad. A salmon donburi was also ordered, a bowl of rice topped with fresh salmon sashimi and garnished with seaweed and daikon. 


The boys ordered a plate of fried chicken, similar to nuggets, which came with rice and miso, as well as a hamburger steak we had seen someone else order. The patty came swimming in a rich, creamy sauce with enoki mushrooms on top. It was tasty, but one bite was enough for me! 



The best meal was the chicken karaage. Crisp chicken was layered on top of a bowl of rice, filled with scrumptious bits of kimchi and crunchy pieces of pork crackling. It was a tasty take on the traditional dish with a Korean touch. 


After lunch we headed back to the bridge to see if there was any cosplay in sight. Apparently Sundays between 2-3pm is the time to have a look, but there were only a few strange looking people holding up “free hugs” signs and a guy in a bondage mask and wooden flippers, playing the guitar and a kazoo. Weird and wonderful, but not what we had in mind. After a bit of research on our phones, we discovered that the cosplay kids don’t come out to play as much as they used to. While we were expecting a bridge full of interestingly dressed characters, these days you’ll be lucky to see four at any one time, and you’re almost more likely to spot some walking around Shinjuku. 


Somewhat deterred, we walked around the corner to Yoyogi Park, a large green oasis in the middle of Tokyo. We had heard that Japanese rockabilly gangs hang out here on the weekends, but we didn’t want to get our hopes up like we did with the cosplay peeps. Luckily, our guidebooks were accurate this time. Three groups of Japanese rockabillies were sitting around drinking beer, dressed in tight black pants, even tighter black singlets, leather jackets and denim. One group was called “The Strangers” and another was called the “Lebels”, which we assume was a cute take on the “Rebels”, incorporating the lazy Asian pronunciation of the letter ‘r’. 


We arrived at about 2pm, and they were all just taking it easy. Nevertheless, a few kids who combined skipping and hip-hop (skip-hop?) entertained the crowds until about 3pm, when the rockabilly music started blaring over the speakers. Suddenly, the rockabilly groups were all dancing in the middle of the park, combing their Johnny Cash hairstyles, strumming invisible guitars, kicking the air and doing the twist. It was hilarious to watch and some of them were actually rather incredible! 



Following our rockabilly fill, we stopped for a soft serve ice cream and then jumped back on the train to Shibuya station, where we were meeting one of my brother’s friends from work. We were early, but were entertained by a cute pop trio of Japanese singers in kimonos performing on a pop-up, sponsored stage near the busiest station exit. We had no idea what they were saying, but they could sing and were very smiley! 



We met Ai soon after, and took a train to Asakusa, a district in Tokyo where the ‘old world’ feel remains. On the way to Sensoji temple, the area’s main attraction that was built in the 7th century, we saw a cosplay girl walking down the street! She was ordering dinner from a stall like everyone else, and I could only get shot of her from behind. At least we could tick it off our list! 


We strolled down the lantern-lined strip called Nakamise, which offers tourists everything from plastic lucky cat souvenirs to local snacks such as homemade rice crackers and sweets. On the way we saw some store holders setting up for the Ground Cherry Festival the following day. Pots containing the plants with wide, flat leaves and orange paper-like blooms were being strung up and sold in preparation for the festivities. '


Just past the plants was Kaminarimon, the temple entry gate, which is home to a giant lantern. We took a few snaps around the temple grounds, including one of a young Japanese girl decked out in lipstick and full traditional get up, before drawing our fortune (omikuji) from a draw. 



The idea is you pay 100 yen into an honestly slot, then shake a metal box while making a wish until a wooden stick with a Japanese number comes out. Match the number to a wooden draw, then take a sheet of paper from inside and voila! You have your fortune. 


Fortunes can be good or bad. Bad fortunes are tied on special stands and left at the temple. My fortune wasn’t good or bad… it was “regular”! Through broken English, my fortune basically said that there is much growth to come in my life, my requests will be granted, someone ill will recover soon, I’ll start a trip (a touch late on the uptake there, omikuji!) and my work and marriage are well. Somewhat accurate, I suppose! 

Next, Ai took us to the Tanabata “evening of the seventh” Festival, held in Kappabashi Hondori Street on the weekend closest to the seventh of the seventh. The festival celebrates the meeting of the Orihime and Hikoboshi deities. Orihime was the daughter of the Tentei, king of the sky, and was a weaver. Her father loved the cloth she weaved dearly, so she worked constantly to make it for him. Concerned that his daughter worked so often she would never find a partner, Tentei arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi, a cow herder. They fell in love and as a result became complacent in their work. As a result, they were separated by the Milky Way, and were only allowed to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. 


Down the 1.2 kilometre stretch where the festival takes place are statues of ‘Kappa’, a mythical Japanese water creature that resembles a turtle and is considered a troublemaker. They are supposedly mischievous, and their behaviour, according to Wikipedia, ranges from the relatively innocent “such as loudly passing gas or looking up women’s kimonos, to the malevolent, such as drowning people and animals, kidnapping children and raping women”. Charming. 

Before we even arrived in the street, we could hear the sound of drums beating in the distance. We followed the vibrations and stumbled across a group of traditional taiko drummers, surrounded by a massive circle of people. I ducked under a tree and pushed my way to the front, sitting with the little kiddies. The drummers were extraordinary. Each person had a large base drum and a smaller drum, which they beat with thick wooden sticks. Their sense of rhythm was flawless and each time they hit the drums the sound resonated within our bodies. It was as if they were compelling us to stay glued to the spot and watch them. 



They were so good that as soon as they finished, the crowd cheered for an encore and they obliged. The best part about it was how much each drummer appeared to be enjoying themselves. They all had huge grins on their faces as beads of sweat rolled down their foreheads. After the performance, they graciously accepted compliments, standing around and chatting to everyone who came up to them. People were also allowed to touch the drums. Absolutely everyone got involved. 


We continued along the stretch of the festival, which was completely void of tourists. In the background, the 634-metre Tokyo Skytree, the tallest freestanding broadcast tower in the world, stood to attention beneath a clear sky. Paper lanterns and brightly coloured decorations hung from the buildings and powerlines, like vibrant jellyfish that made a calming swishing sound in the breeze. 

We picked up some lightly pickled cucumbers on sticks, which we had seen everywhere in Japan but were yet to try, while taking in the atmosphere. There were a surprising amount of dogs being walked down the street in an array of interesting attire. For example, we saw one poor pup wearing shoes, and others dressed in mini kimonos! We even got a glimpse of a mad dog lady, as opposed to a mad cat lady, who was wheeling four dogs in a pram! 


All along the street colourful pieces of paper and paper chains were tied to trees, each with a wish written on them in Japanese that someone hoped would come true. By now, the sky was darkening, and the paper lanterns began to emit a gentle pink glow. We passed small woodwork shops and tiny ‘restaurants’, which were basically someone’s garage selling homemade meals. People sat on crates and countless children ran about the street, investigating plastic toys and taking part in basic carnival games that had been set up on the side of the footpath. A group of people selling shaved ice desserts were trying to get rid of their final cup at a discount. We obliged at 60 yen, about 70 cents. 


Just passed a vending machine selling Japanese beer cheaper than a bottle of water (a 500ml can of Asahi would set you back $2.50 AUD), we stumbled across some kids playing with sparklers and fireworks down a side street. As we went to get a closer look, one of the dads urged us to join in, thrusting red sparklers into our palms before snatching our cameras away to take a family photo for us. It was very kind of them, and one gentlemen was even able to practice his English: “me fucky boy,” he announced with laughter. 


After a while, we arrived at the end of the street, just as the festival was finishing at 7pm. The train station was a short walk away and out next stop was Shinjuku. Known as a big entertainment and shopping district in Tokyo, Shinjuku station is the world’s busiest station, with over two million people passing through every day. Walking to dinner, we walked over the road at the busiest crossing I’ve ever seen. Not only do people cross from one side to the other, the pedestrian lines also go diagonally. Spotlighted by the glare from the flashy neon signage on the surrounding skyscrapers, it was truly a sight to behold. 

Dinner was at an izakaya called Cha Cha’s. Despite its name, it was very traditional. We took off our shoes at the entrance and went up to the second level. Past some romantically lit round tables and the bar seating was out private room, where we sat on cushions atop tatami bamboo matts. To drink, we ordered some sake, Kirin beer and ‘umeshu’, fruit wine. We tried a plum and peach variety of the umeshu. All of it was exceptionally strong, which is why Japanese people sip their drinks, unlike us Aussies!


To start, the waitress brought us little bowls of soft tofu with a jelly-like miso substance topped with a smudge of wasabi. The rest of our order was placed via the phone from our little room… thank goodness we had Ai to speak Japanese for us! 


We ordered the authentic-style beef and potato pot-au-feu, with tasty chat potatoes with crisp skins and a pile of fatty, tender beef in a flavoursome sauce. Also delicious was the simmered pork belly in a thin soy sauce, served with hard-boiled egg. 



Two varieties of dumplings also arrived at our table: deep-fried golden balls of lotus root in a thick sauce, as well as potato dumplings in minced chicken gravy thickened with cornstarch. It’s worth noting that when a Japanese menu reads “potato dumplings” it is actually referring to mochi rice balls, as was the case here. 



As for the rice and noodles, we had ‘ochazuke’, steamed white rice in a clear broth, topped with a couple of slices of red snapper sashimi (they could have been a little more generous with the snapper!), as well as ‘onigiri’, rice balls or sandwiches stuffed with filling (in this case salmon and tiny fish) wrapped in seaweed. The ‘cha soba’ (buckwheat noodles containing green tea in a light dashi broth) was the best soba dish I’ve had since arriving in Japan. 



One of the tastiest dishes, which was snackier and went down incredibly well with the beer, was the deep fried whitebait in a light batter, coated in Japanese pepper. Each was a tiny morsel of deliciousness. 


From the veggie sector was soft, simmered pumpkin in a thick sesame sauce, homemade agadashi tofu that was so soft it was actually impossible to eat it with chopsticks (hence why it was served with spoons), and ‘dengaku’ eggplant in a thick miso glaze. 


 


We were about to order dessert when we realised it was already 10pm and we still had to get home! By the time we arrived back at the house, we realised just how fatigued our bodies were. Every day since we have arrived we have been walking non-stop, except when we are sleeping or eating. It has been an incredibly intense holiday, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.




Tokyo, Japan: Day 10



Did you know that the average bluefin tuna produces ten thousand pieces of sushi? Or that the specific process of dissembling bluefin is called ‘maguro no kawwa’? Neither did I, until I started researching the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.


After deciding not to brave the crowds early on a Saturday morning, we visited first thing Monday. When I say ‘first thing’, we arrived just after 9am, not at 4am, which is when many people visit to watch the exclusive tuna auction, where bluefin have fetched over $170k per kilo in the past.


When we arrived, the market was still bustling with activity, but most of the trading was winding up for the day. The place is huge. Hundreds of stalls with their own refrigerators, tanks and stainless steel benches covered in fish guts line each row.


Giant fish the size of a person rested frozen in piles, red squid tentacles curled with their suckers exposed sat on ice, as did the largest oysters I have ever seen. A huge selection of prawns and shrimp are sold each day, including an Asian striped variety, sold individually in wooden boxes filled with sawdust.


Shellfish so large you could view their digestive systems through their semi-translucent flesh were propped up on display, and something unidentifiable and soft that resemble alien hearts floated in iced water. After a bit of research, I found out they are called “sea pineapples” and are found on rocks and taste like iodine. Go figure.


Electric and diesel powered three-wheeled trolleys speed around every corner and down every narrow isle, with no consideration for tourists or the sixty thousand people who work at Tsukiji. It’s essential to keep an eye out and stay out of the way, especially if you are travelling with kids. Some trolleys are empty, others are loaded with polystyrene containers full of fresh fish. Then there are those loaded with fish heads, intestines and off-cuts.


At Tsukiji, every stallholder works in a mist of cigarette smoke. It’s almost as if smoking is compulsory. They skin, fillet, gut, chop and prepare. Slabs of deep pink bluefin are available fresh and frozen. Tanks of eels slither in water, and some spin in bloody baskets out of their tanks, withering in circles just before purchase.


There are plastic packets of dried kombu (kelp), but it’s also available fresh. Orange jewels of fish roe are sold in boxes, as are sacs of octopus eggs. If you keep an eye out you’ll spot ‘fugu’ or puffer fish, a lethal delicacy that requires a license to serve. There’s even whale meat available if you know where to look.


Every fish and sea creature you’ve ever dreamed of is at Tsukiji. The hustle and bustle of the market is fascinating and there’s barely a trace of fishiness in the air. The smell is of moisture and saltiness, as much from the sea as it is from the sweat of the workers. The cobblestones are constantly hosed down, so there’s no need to worry about blood and guts on your shoes. Just make sure you don’t wear sandals; you’re likely to be shoved out of the way by a local and have a close call with an aggressively driven trolley.


The best thing about visiting on a Monday is that we were able to eat at Dawai Sushi, the most popular sushi joint in Tsukiji along with Sushi Dai, without queuing for long. The restaurant is split into two sections, both with a long bar in front of a glass counter with three sushi chefs on the other side. Each bar has ten seats and a menu with English translations. You point at the menu to indicate what you want to the chef over the counter, who prepares it in a flash and then reaches over to place it on your wooden platter. The best (and most authentic) way to order is one piece of sushi at a time, to preserve freshness.


We decided to split into two groups, as getting a table for five at a restaurant that has two lots of ten bar seats would have been a nightmare. We lined up outside Dawai at 10.04am. By 10.23, we had a table for three, and a few minutes later, a table for two. On weekends, you can wait up to three hours for a spot, and it’s easy to see why.


Aside from the hype created from tourists, travellers and guidebooks, Dawai lived up to expectations and was by far the best sushi I have tasted. Mum and I ordered a piece of tako sushi (fibrous, chewy octopus that challenged our notion of ‘traditional’ sushi), aki (melt in the mouth horse mackerel), toro (the most expensive cut of tuna, the chunky belly, which would dissolve as you bit into it were it not for thin layers of fat holding the strips together), kobashira (supple baby scallops on a bed of rice, held together with seaweed), ikura (juicy orange balls of salmon roe), anago (a generous pile of meaty seawater eel stacked haphazardly on top of rice) and hamachi (firm yellow tail that was a wonderful contrast to the softer varieties of raw fish).



Next door in the other section of the restaurant, the boys ate tamago (egg) kappamaki and tekkamaki (cucumber and tuna rice rolls respectively) and a beautifully presented set menu, where the chef replaced a piece of sushi every time it was consumed until Dad had eaten his way through most of the menu.


We were also served complementary green tea and miso soup. The chefs were incredibly friendly and helpful, always looking over the glass counter to see if our wooden plates were empty and gauging our expressions after every mouthful. They weren’t so much gauging whether their sushi was satisfactory as much as they were waiting for the reward of our smiles and exclamations. They know that the combination of fresh produce and their kitchen skills creates some of the best and most sought after sushi in the world.


After our remarkable sushi breakfast we had a look around the nearby wholesale stores. We spent the most time in a beautiful green tea shop, smelling the different varieties and sampling iced matcha. The men carving knives around the corner were also brilliant to watch. Most of them were older, their hands rough from crafting Japanese blades their whole lives. As a demonstration, they picked up their sharpest knives and sliced a thin piece of paper with graceful ease. Some knives are made specifically for sashimi and others for meat. There were also regular kitchen knives.



Our next port of call was Ginza, which translates to “silver mint” in English, as it used to be the site of a mint. The area was recreated after a massive earthquake in 1923. Ginza is Tokyo’s fancy shmancy area, mot renowned for it’s upmarket shopping and $10 coffee. We were headed for Hakuhinkan Toy Park, but on the way we stumbled across an ultrasonic glasses lens cleaner outside an optometrist. We all had way too much fun dipping our glasses into the vibrating water for a minute, rinsing them, then dabbing them off with tissues. The difference was incredible! But we lingered not; we had shopping to do.


Hakuhinkan is one of the oldest toy stores in Japan. It opened in 1899! It’s also one of the biggest. The basement is reserved for Liccachan Club, which is like Japanese Barbie, while another floor is devoted entirely to strange but adorable soft toys. Up the top, there’s an impressive racing track, where you can rent a car and race against others. Our favourite level was the first, filled with whacky novelty goods, gadgets and interesting toys, such as handmade wooden babushka dolls with moustaches.



By the time we had finished shopping, it was one of our favourite times of day again… lunchtime! Mum had read about a place in Lonely Planet that she was keen to check out. On the way, we passed a really interesting looking joint with a round metal frame spinning dried fish. It looked really quirky and authentic, but Mum had already decided on where we were eating. To my delight, it was closed, so we ventured back to the first place that I had my eye on. We found a shortcut under the railway line, through a lantern-lined laneway with oyster bars and closed izakayas on either side. I imagine the area pumps in the evening.


Unfortunately I can’t tell you the name of where we ate, because it was all in Japanese. However, I can tell you it was under the railway bridge and give you a picture of the front of the building! Aside from the spinning fish, there are also crates of fresh fish out the front. Inside there’s a deep blue tank filled with ice, which keeps an array of shellfish fresh. The place had a distinctive nautical theme: wooden walls, beams, tables and crates with cushions fastened to the top. Suspended, exposed light bulbs were scattered generously from the ceiling, interspersed with aquamarine glass buoys in rope netting. Specials were strung up everywhere on paper strips. Alas, they were in Japanese, so we had to stick to the picture menu.


Continuing with the sushi theme from that morning, I had a sashimi platter for lunch. It was beautifully presented with five varieties of tender fish, firm octopus, an almost buttery raw shrimp and a couple of chunks of tamago (egg), all presented on a wooden platter with coarse wasabi and shisho leaves. It was served on a tray with white rice, miso soup, pickles, bean shoots and a small cup of egg and mushroom custard. Although it far surpassed anything I’ve ever tasted back home, it still wasn’t as good as our breakfast at Dawai.


Another tray with the same accompaniments was ordered, but this time with a sizzling plate of fried noodles instead of the sashimi. Ribbons of carrot and shredded cabbage broke up the noodles, which had a surprise piece of seafood— whether it was fish or octopus — in every mouthful.


The final tray was a thickly battered white fish: soft, flaky and boneless in the middle. The crumbed coating was light and crunchy, balanced by the bed of cabbage on which it was served. Satisfied with our lunch, we headed back to Shunjuku to be tourists.


We passed the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower and visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. On the 45th floor you can get stunning 360-degree panoramic views of Tokyo... for free! There are gift shops and cafes at the top, but it’s the view from the free observation deck that draws the most visitors. We had to line up for about 20 minutes because some of the elevators were being renovated, but it took less than a minute to reach the 45th floor from the ground. When we visited, there was a photographic exhibition on, where images were labelled with an A, B or C. The idea was for the public to vote on their favourites for each letter. I’m unsure whether it was for a competition or something else, but it was a great way to look at other people’s views of Tokyo and it forced us to decide which photos we thought best represented the city.


Once we had drunk up Tokyo’s skyline, we descended the tower and walked under the station along conveyor belts (it’s amazing how the little things can be so entertaining after a week and a half of walking) to ‘Omoide Yokocho’ (Memory Lane), formerly known as ‘Shonben Yokocho’ (Piss Alley). It’s a five-minute walk from the West Exit of Shinjuku Station if you’re taking the train, on the street between the rail bridge and the main road.


Piss Alley obtained its charming name in the 1940s, when the lack of toilets surrounding the then-black market drinking hub encouraged patrons to break the seal at the nearby train tracks. In 1999, a fire destroyed the rickety infrastructure, but it was rebuilt in a manner that retained the grungy feel. When it was rebuilt, more toilets were added, and now an ironic number of modern toilet signs hang around every corner. 

Despite it's relative youth, Piss Alley... I mean... Memory Lane… is THE place to go for yakitori, traditional Japanese chicken skewers. But each bar is not limited to chicken skewers. You can slo try your luck with hormone-yaki or motsu-nabe, grilled organ meats and offal stew respectively. If you know where to go, you can even sample salamander and pigs’ testicles. Google will give you more details if you want to cross it off your bucket list.


Down Piss Alley, red lanterns give the grimy laneway a warm blush, rendered hazy by thick smoke from the meat being grilled in every bar. Some places you’ll struggle to get a seat, with locals chatting, eating and drinking noisily after work. While some joints shoo tourists away, others seem desperate for your patronage. Use your gut: if it looks and smells good and it’s not empty, it’s probably a good option. We decided on a little place diagonally opposite Vin Chou, just to the left. You’ll spot Vin Chou because it looks like a brothel, a glowing pink sign out the front and a chandelier hanging over the baroque-like bar.


We started with broad beans, which we popped out of their casings and into our mouths. It’s the first serving of veggies I think I’ve touched since landing in Japan! The yakitori came next, simple but effectively marinated with soy and cooked right in front of us. Actually, a little too close in front of us; the heat from the grill was almost unbearable in 27 degrees Celsius! The liver skewers were also divine, just charred on the outside, pink in the middle, extremely rich and borderline creamy.



Also ordered was a shitake mushroom skewer, grilled and then doused in a sticky brown sauce, as well as some mini frankfurts that were cooked on the grill and zigzagged with tomato sauce, for little max. Adding to our fibre intake were some lightly pickled cucumbers, served with highly bitter pickled plum, as well as some tofu in a light soy crowned with spring onion and bonito flakes that waved in the heat.

 



Unless you’re hanging around to drink, it’s expected that you leave pretty much as soon as you’re finished to make room for other customers. We departed not long after we left, having loved the atmosphere as well as the food. 

Seeing as we had eaten early, we ventured to Kabukichō, Shinjuku’s red light district. There was nothing awfully out of the ordinary as far as Tokyo is concerned, perhaps because it wasn’t quite late enough. There were, however, plenty of themed strip clubs and love hotels.


Walking back through Shinjuku to the station, the boys were keen for dessert. We obliged and sat while they ate oh-so-very-Japanese crepes from a freestanding stall.


The most amazing thing about Tokyo, aside from the high-rise buildings, light-box advertising trucks that blast music, interesting characters and hypnotising neon signs, is its sheer buzz. Every single night feels like Saturday night, and not as you know it back in Melbourne. Whenever there is an event on in the city or a big football match back home, you can always tell based on the concentration of bodies in the CBD. Tokyo is like this, times a million — every, single night. It’s exhilarating. It’s exhausting. And yet despite all you’ve read in glossy magazines and everything you’ve seen in Hollywood flicks, Tokyo’s unreserved energy is still — somehow — completely unexpected.



Tokyo and Kamakura, Japan: Day 11


Today was the first day of our trip that the family split up. Dad and young Max went to Disneyland Tokyo — just because — while Mum, Lucas and I made the journey to Kamakura, which is just under an hour south of Tokyo. Kamakura is a popular seaside town and tourist destination. As well as laying claim to plenty of temples, shrines and even a giant Buddha, Kamakura's beaches draw hoards of people when it's warm.


As soon as we arrived, we hired bicycles. It cost us about $25 AUD for four hours and was worth every cent. I highly recommend you do the same if you plan to visit Kamakura, as it’s by far the best way to see a bit of everything — the temples and beaches are quite spread out. But we didn’t just hire any bikes; we hired fancy brown Yamaha bikes. It wasn’t until after we cycled up a gigantic hill that we realised the bikes had an electric function, which gave you a booster when you started peddling and made riding easier. So novel and so much fun!


After dismounting and walking through the main shopping strip, we hopped on our bikes and cycled to the first temple: Engakuji. This temple, founded in 1282, pays respect to the fallen Japanese and Mongolian soldiers after Mongolia invaded Japan. The main hall, the Butsuden, has an ornate wooden statue of the Shaka Buddha. This building isn’t as old as one may think, having been rebuilt from the ground up in 1964 following a large earthquake.


We were sore and tired from such a busy holiday, compounded by the fact we had just charged up a large hill (we hadn’t yet made the most of the electronic booster function), so we weren’t impressed when the ‘National Treasure’ was up a steep flight of stone steps. It turned out to be a large, traditional bell (ogane), of which there was a smaller model next to the main temple hall. There was, however, a beautiful teahouse at the top of the steps, where you can sit on cushions and look out over the forest while enjoying a cup of tea (or sake!).


But in my opinion, the most interesting aspect of the grounds wasn’t the ornate temples, national treasures, or the manicured gardens; it was the group of elderly people sketching and painting watercolours of the Japanese architecture.


Thankfully, the way back was downhill! We cycled through the grounds of Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, founded in 1063 and dedicated to Hachiman, the patron god of the samurai. We took a snap in front of the stairs that lead up to the main hall, and had a quick look at the wide path that leads to the town through a number of torii gates. On the way out, we navigated the crowds to hunt for a place called Milk Hall, which Mum had read about in Lonely Planet.


Milk Hall is a cute little café-cum-antique store with incredibly charming polished wooden finishes, a calming jazz soundtrack, a scattering of vintage fans, lamps and furniture and — unfortunately — absolutely rubbish food. We should have known something was fishy when we were given cutlery instead of chopsticks.




The small menu was the furthest thing away from appealing. We ended up enduring deep-fried bacon served with cherry tomatoes and cabbage; a battered sheet of roast beef with a thick gravy, salad and a minimal amount of roasted veggies; and a sloppy beef curry served with rice. The menu was definitely trying to appeal to westerners, but these westerners came to Japan to eat Japanese cuisine, not US-influenced fast food… shock horror!




Slightly disheartened from my average meal, I grumpily got back on my bike after lunch. It’s amazing how the wind in your hair can lift your mood. We cycled to The Great Buddha of Kamakura (Kamakura Daibutsu), a 13.35-metre bronze statue of Amida Buddha on the grounds of Kotokuin Temple. It’s the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan and was cast in 1252. Its original resting place was destroyed by tidal waves and typhoons in the 14th and 15th centuries and it has been ‘al fresco’ since 1495. 


The Buddha was certainly grand and for 20 yen each, we went inside his stomach through a little door on the side (as Lucas pointed out, now we can say, “I’ve been inside Buddha”). Inside it was practically a claustrophobic bronze oven. We were in there for less than a minute, but it was interesting to see how it had been built from the inside out. 

Our next stop was the beach. Kamakura lies on the Pacific Ocean, with the sand about a 20 minute walk from the station. But again, if you want to see the beach, Buddha, temples and more in one day, hire a bike! By Australian standards, the beach was interesting, as opposed to beautiful. The sand was black, not from natural minerals but from dirt. The beach was an eccentric jumble of ramshackle beach bars sponsored by Midori, Bacardi, and even Armani Exchange and large, industrial cranes scooping up sand right next to sunbathers.



We bought a shaved ice (one flavoured with Crème de Cassis instead of sugar syrup by request), had a seat beneath a bar umbrella, and took in the strange but fascinating scene in front of us. Then, with only 15 minutes to go before our four hour bike hire was up, we sped back into town with the aid of our electronic boosters and returned our bikes.


Having not quite had our fill of Kamakura, we walked a couple of minutes back to the shopping strip where we had initially started our day. We checked out the novelty stores with tacky Hello Kitty merchandise, poked our heads into sweet stores and bought some rice crackers. They were made fresh, squirted with soy, and then served hot with a piece of seaweed so you didn’t get sticky fingers.

 

On our way back, we stumbled across a gorgeous tea/dessert café with a red door and an attractive plastic food display out the front. How could we resist? Inside, Lucas was the only male, the rest of the patrons made up of elderly ladies and mother-daughter pairs.



We ordered two tasty desserts, each bursting with sugar and an eclectic mix of textures. The favourite consisted of amazingly soft cubes of green tea mochi rice coated in fine, green matcha powder. It arrived in a bowl with two scoops of ice cream: one matcha and the other vanilla bean. The other dessert was a mixed bag of glutinous mochi rice balls, cubes of jelly, sweetened mashed red beans, vanilla ice cream and pear and mandarin segments. Both desserts came with a small jug of brown sugar syrup that you poured yourself.



After dessert, we caught a train back to Ikebukuro, the station nearest to our accommodation in Tokyo. Lucas returned home with a key to meet the boys after their Disneyland adventure, while Mum and I checked out Seibu Department Store in the middle of the train station. We were there for about two hours. The first hour involved us trying to navigate up and down and across the many levels of Seibu. We visited Loft, a variety store where Mum finally bought her sesame grinder and a couple of fashion stores.


The second half of our time in Seibu was spent, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the basement food hall. The first thing we bought was ‘taiyaki’, which translates to baked sea bream. It sounds uninspiring, until you realise it’s a Japanese cake in the shape of a fish! They are more often than not filled with red bean paste, but they also come tinged green from matcha, filled with custard, chocolate, mochi or green tea. It was great watching the taiyaki team pour the batter into the fish-shaped mold and layer the fillings on top, before closing the mold and cooking it on both sides until golden brown. Taiyaki tastes like a sugary cake. It’s slightly undercooked in the middle, so you get a hit of cake mixture goodness along with your filling of choice. 



The novelty of high quality basement food halls in department stores hadn’t worn off: Mum and I did laps of each isle with maddening grins spread across our faces: classic ‘kid in a candy store’ stuff. We bought some bread from one of the ‘help-yourself-with-a-tray-and-tongs’ bakeries, where we just caught the head baker cutting up a giant, steaming loaf of crusty white bread. Customers flocked to him to get their hands on a chunk of the prize. We joined in and it disappeared in no time.


Rather than search for a dinner place that evening, we decided to buy a department store feast. We ran insanely from stall to stall, picking up a little bit of this and a little bit of that. We were tempted to steal the plastic shopping basket to carry everything home, but thought it was very un-Japanese, so we made do! Back at the rental house, we lay the feast on the table before the boys.


We bought giant steamed pork buns, a couple of packets of the most perfect pork and vegetable gyoza I have ever sampled, mixed rice, saucy Japanese meatballs, soft mouthfuls of cucumber sushi, sweet inari (rice wrapped in tofu skin), a ‘meal bucket’ (with rice, minced pork, salad and egg), individually packaged mini hamburgers (we just had to, they were too cute!), and my personal favourite, a Styrofoam box made to look like wood containing sushi rice and layered with salmon roe, sashimi, crab meat, and chunks of tamago (egg). It was the perfect, high-class takeaway meal and it allowed us a relaxing last night in Tokyo.




Tokyo and Hakone, Japan: Day 12



Today started with a bang. Or at least it was a bang by edible standards! The night prior, Mum and I had bought some baked goods from the basement food hall for breakfast. I opted for an interesting three-in-one roll. It was as pretty to look at as it was tasty. A third was filled with green tea, a third with red bean and a third of something else whitish and fruity (sorry, that’s the best I can do!).


We left the house in Tokyo and heaved our bags along, struggling with the ten minute walk to Ikebukuro station for the final time. Thankfully, the sun was shining. On the way, a wheel fell off one of our heaviest cases. It instantly became the bane of our trip. We took the JR loop line to Tokyo station to catch the Shinkansen to Odawara, as it was still quicker than catching the local train directly from Ikebukuro station. The bullet train only took 35 minutes, after which we transferred to the Tozan line to take the mountain train that snakes up the hill towards Hakone. On the journey, we were fortunate to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji’s snow capped peaks in all their glory. Keep an eye out for it if you catch the Shinkansen en route to Odawara. 

At Odawara, we purchased a ‘Hakone Free Pass’, which allows you to jump on all forms of transport in the area for a couple of days. It works out at around $40 AUD an adult, but it’s definitely worth it — it includes the local trains, buses, funicular, ropeway and a cruise on a ‘pirate ship’ around Lake Ashi. At Hakone-Yumoto, we changed trains again. It was one stop to our ryokan at Tonosawa. After disembarking the train, we foolishly followed Mum down a steep hill with steps, our baggage behind us all the way (including the wheelless case!). Once we had walked in the wrong direction for a while, we journeyed back up the hill on foot to our ryokan. It wasn’t “just around the corner” after all.


Hakone is situated in a gully with green leafy hills on each side. There are numerous bridges that allow you to cross over the bubbling rapids and rivers, which cascade over rocks and breath life into the surrounding flora. We crossed a bridge that we knew would lead us to our ryokan, Yama No Chaya, which translates roughly to Mountain Tea House. The staff were taken aback that we were so early (later, we realised it was because they usually greet you at the bottom of the hill and carry your luggage for you). We left our bags and went exploring. 

Rather than walk back to the station, we took a bus to get us to the electric train on the Tozan line, which changed direction three times to zigzag up the mountain face. It took about 45 minutes to reach Gora terminal, where we jumped on a funicular. The train trip took longer than expected, as did the funicular, which waited for more passengers to fill it up. Although we passed beautiful red maple trees that leaned towards us on the funicular, if we had caught a bus up from the bottom, we would have beaten the clouds that hid our view of Mount Fuji on the ‘Hakone Ropeway’ cable car.


I’m not usually scared of heights, but there was something terrifying about being so high up in such an open space. The noise the wind made as it stealthily attacked our cable car didn’t help the situation. We were high up. Like, REALLY high up. My fear didn’t stop me from appreciating the sights though. There were four cable car stops altogether, and on one leg we had a fantastic bird’s eye view of sulphur pits spewing smouldering yellow steam at Owakudani. Around them, rolling hills met the sky, interrupted only by the occasional cable car coming the other way. The only disappointment — as mentioned — was the cloud cover, which meant that we didn’t have the spectacular view of Mount Fuji that the speaker in our cable car kept pointing out to us. It was pretty cruel, if you ask me.



The last cable car let us off at Lake Ashi, where the Hakone Free Pass permits you to cruise around the lake on a kitsch pirate ship. We ended up sitting inside out of the wind and stuffing ourselves with beautifully packaged bento boxes that we had bought at Odowara station. Mum was thrilled that we avoided the rather revolting, overpriced food on the boat, although Dad was fascinated by his Coke, which came in an aluminium bottle. We also couldn’t resist buying a packet of chocolate covered ‘Meji’ almonds that we have become fond of since arriving in Japan. We shared them with a chatty seven-year-old girl from Melbourne, who initially thought we were Japanese! “I love making new friends!” she chirped.




By the time we dismounted the boat, the journey that day had taken us about 3.5 hours (including walking the wrong way and dropping off our bags at the ryokan). We decided to take a bus to the ryokan instead of going back the way we came. The driver sped around the hairpin bends with absolutely no regard for anyone’s life, including his own. It was terrifyingly exciting. At least if we died, we would have been happy. We made it back to the main station in just under 20 minutes (still alive), where there was a local bus waiting for us that took us to the stop right outside our Yama No Chaya. Now that we were expected, the staff greeted us joyfully, bowing deeply and explaining all the facilities. It was here we met Sawa-San, our host who learnt our names and doted upon us during our stay.


When we entered our room, our luggage was already waiting for us. We stayed in a long, rectangular space with a tatami mat floor and a teeny two-chair terrace that looked out over green bamboo. There was a single toilet, with all the bells and whistles (Dad accidentally squirted himself in the groin by standing up and trying to take a photograph of the arm that extends and washes your behind), as well a small sink and stool at the entrance to the room. A long, black lacquered table was set up in the middle, waiting for us with cold rice tea and black sesame mochi balls.


After we had been shown to our room, we reserved the popular private bath. The kids then relaxed while Mum and Dad went for a walk into town. When they returned, we stripped off and wrapped our ‘yukata’ left over right, and then made our way to the ‘rotenburo’, the stunning open-air bath. The ryokan has three outside baths and one inside bath, which like all ryokans rotate at various times of the day so both men and women can have a turn in each. None were as tranquil as the one we had booked.  


We left our yukata robes and towels in an antechamber, complete with wicker baskets, an urn of iced tea, sinks, hairdryers, toiletries and best of all, two electric vibrating foot massagers. Through a frosted glass door was the open air bathing area, divided into two sections. The first lined the faux boulders and consisted of four washing stations with wooden stools and water bowls. Watching us from the corner was Tanuki, a mythological Japanese racoon dog who is supposedly a shape shifter with mischievous tendencies. We have seen him all over this country, with his characteristically bulging belly and large scrotum, wearing his hat and holding a bottle of sake. The second section was a large, heated bathing pool, surrounded by the same rocks and set against the peaceful hillside greenery. Our allocated 45 minute time slot felt like mere moments.


Back at our room, we sat squeaky clean around the table and watched in awe as Sawa-San emerged with course after course for our dinner. There were nine in all, and it was my favourite meal of the trip.  

First up was the appetizer, or ‘saki hassun’, which came with light and fruity grapefruit sake. Presented immaculately on a leaf-shaped plate was a smooth corn soup with bitter green melon and red pepper; silky homemade soymilk tofu in a sticky sauce topped with wasabi and tobiko (crunchy, orange flying fish roe), served in a hollowed-out bamboo cup; as well as a mixed plate of tasty dried ayu (the fish we saw caught by cormorants in Arashiyama!), soft barracuda sushi; and best of all, a whole, deep fried baby river crab. It’s hard to not play with your food when something so entertaining turns up on your plate. Our manners went out the window.



A ‘tsukuri’ or sashimi selection was next, with tuna and horse mackerel from Izu-Oshima in Tokyo. It arrived on crushed ice with shaved daikon, peppery red shoots and a yellow bloom as garnish. The third course was a flavoursome broth with a chunk of grilled eel and another of grilled eggplant floating in the middle. Hearty and warm, it was balanced by the addition of grated ginger. Crispy skinned, grilled sea bass was next on our edible agenda, topped with a splodge of green miso and seaweed sauce. It sat between a star of lemony, boiled sweet potato and a baby tomato stuffed with creamy foie gras, sitting in a dried ground cherry leaf. All components rested on a bed of pebbles in a dish shaped like the inside stalk of bamboo.




Next was ‘nimono’, the boiled course. In a decorative yellow bowl inscribed with Japanese writing was a thick, boiled gourd soup (related to melon, pumpkin and cucumbers). Supple hunks of gourd and taro stem sat at the bottom of the jelly-like soup, which also contained a scattering of minced shrimp and a single, bitter okra (also known as lady fingers).


The main dish, or ‘susume-zakana’, was served on a lacquered square plate, lashed with colour and tinged with gold. A pile of local Ashigara beef and seasonal vegetables such as corn, zucchini, cabbage, green pepper and yam were stacked like building blocks in the centre of the dish. The beef was marbled with fat and served with a lemon segment and two sauces: sesame and ponzu sauce and sweet plumb sauce.


Courses seven and eight arrived together. The vinegared food, or ‘sunomono’, included a meaty, ridged lump of conger pike eel, firm celery, onion, yam and yellow capsicum. The ‘shokuji’ meal course had four components: buttery black rice mixed with short neck clams in a raised, heated pot; miso soup; a small yellow dish of pickled cucumber; and pink medallions of grilled cod roe and squares of salty seaweed with the consistency of tough jerky.




Finally, fluffy, sweet peach mousse topped with pink and yellow cubes of watermelon was presented in lidded glass bowls. To accompany it was a small serve of kiwi and matcha mousse that tasted mildly bitter but complemented the peach superbly.


It was the kind of meal where you couldn’t help but make ridiculous baby noises in response to the immaculate presentation. We savoured every mouthful. The entire experience, and I say experience because it was more than a meagre meal, took two hours. Apparently the chef, Akinori Matsuki, is from a renowned restaurant in Osaka. 


At about 9pm, we were asked to sit at the bar/lounge area while our bedding was prepared. When we returned to the room, the table had been moved to the side and five futons were lined up in a row. We went to sleep wedged next to each other, the most contented and satiated sardines that ever existed.




Hakone and Osaka, Japan: Day 13




I felt incredibly revived this morning, despite having spent the night in the same room as my entire family, sleeping in a row like something out of a children’s nursery rhyme (“and the little one said, ‘roll over’…”). Futons are so comfortable and I’m almost positive they are brilliant for your back. After wheeling luggage around all holiday, they were exactly what I needed. Mum was awake at about the same time as me, so we crept out of our room and went to the allocated ‘ladies bath’ that morning. It was inside, and not quite as nice as the luxurious outdoor bath the evening before, but we had it all to ourselves and took our time. The water, usually set around 41 degrees Celsius, was a touch too hot for that time of the morning. 

Just as we arrived back at our room, the phone rang to wake us up at 7.30am sharp. The rest of the family was pretty dopey, their eyes still half shut, but we had to clear out so the staff could put away our futons and set up for breakfast. We waited in the bar area for about five minutes, chatting to a Japanese man who lived in Melbourne for five years some time ago. He was impressed that we had chosen this particular ryokan, and said he visits it once a month for a night to escape his busy life. He was also reading the paper, and when we asked him what the news of the day was we found out that the baby panda born in the zoo a couple of days ago had died! So sad.


Breakfast was huge. A ryokan “big breakkie”, if you will! An ornate basket was set up in front of each seat, decorated with a selection of tamago (Japanese omelette), pickled veggies, lotus root and small cubes of sashimi tuna in a slimy daikon mixture that trailed from our chopsticks.


It didn’t stop at the basket, either. We received silken tofu topped with tomato, daikon and crunchy dried cabbage, as well as miso soup, black rice porridge, whole horse mackerel, soup with spheres of baby taro and chicken, a well as a few slices of pineapple to cleanse the palate. All the while, Sawa-san waited on us like royalty, refilling our green tea and placing dish after dish in front of us.



After breakfast, we packed up and thanked her profusely, before a woman three times my age insisted on carrying my extremely heavy bag to the front door for me. Sawa-san stood behind our car, waving manically until we were out of sight. We were driven back across the bridge to the train station, where we caught a couple of trains, including a local train and a bullet train, to Osaka. 

The entire holiday we seem to have caught more trains than initially expected at the start of each journey to get to our destination. For once, luck was on our side, and our hotel was literally just outside the station. We set up camp for the night at Hotel Monterey, which was the perfect mix of simplicity, luxury and location for our last night in Japan. The view from Mum and Dad’s room of the lively city was also pretty spectacular. 


We had bought something to eat at the train station before hopping on the bullet train, unsure of whether we were going to be hungry on the 2.5 hour train ride (food on the train is expensive and measly). I picked a bean and vegetable salad (my cravings for fruit and veg by now had reached something shocking!) and a DIY sushi roll, where the rice and filling, in this case prawn, came in a log, which was separated from the seaweed to avoid it becoming soggy. You don’t have to travel to Japan for this novel form of sushi; the offshoot of Kenzan down the side of GPO in the city offers the roll-it-yourself sushi as well.


Post lunch, we left the hotel on foot to check out the lively Shinsaibashi area nearby and see what Osaka had to offer. We soon realised we were staying in a pretty colourful area, with a strip of love hotels just around the corner from the hotel. The love hotel buildings were really interesting and each had some sort of Disney-esque theme and a flowery French name.


As we headed to Amerikamura, an area in Osaka devoted to U.S fashion and shops run by westerners, we couldn’t help but think that Osaka was rather strange. It has similarities to Tokyo, with plenty of garish lights and advertisements, and parts of it are set on canals. It has a strange but not unpleasant feel to it. Then again, perhaps it was just an end-of-holiday defence mechanism kicking in. Pausing for a ‘fro yo’ at a joint called Googie’s Berry (mine was plain with three toppings: tapioca, dried coconut and raspberries) we rested for a while and indulged in some serious people watching from a second storey window. The size of some of the heels the girls were attempting to walk in was awfully entertaining. 


Not wanting to spend too much time in ‘America’ while in Japan, we walked over to a nearby Daimaru, one of many Japanese department store in a huge chain, to pick up a few bits and pieces. We then walked down Ebisubashi, an activity hub and undercover shopping street near Dotonbori. Mum and I dragged the boys into an incredibly cheap fashion store called g.u., where I finally bought myself something, even if it was just a pair of shorts!


When we emerged out the end of the shopping street we crossed a bridge and were hit with pushers trying to entice us into their restaurants with discount coupons. Meanwhile, scantily dressed male and female club promoters were preying on Japanese locals on the main street, which was crammed with game arcades and shops selling an eclectic variety of edible souvenirs. But the element of the street that stood out the most was the giant model animals above most of the restaurants, indicating their specialty.


Giant octopuses holding kitchen knives and skewers advertised takoyaki places selling fried octopus balls with a section of different sauces. Giant ‘fugu’ or puffer fish swayed mechanically above restaurants advertising the deadly delicacy and giant crabs pointed out where to find crabmeat for dinner. Where animals were absent, creepy plastic mascots holding skewers of deep fried kushikatsu enticed (or perhaps scared) passersby with their frozen, hysterical smiles.


After a while, we diverted away from the action down some side streets and alleyways and stumbled across Hõzen-ji, a tiny temple built around a famous statue, Fudõ-myõõ, which is enveloped in moss. People who work in anything to do with the water trade stop by the statue and throw water on it for good luck in their businesses, which is probably why the moss flourishes!



Running parallel to the statue is Hõzen-ji Yokochõ, a small laneway lined with traditional eateries. You’ll notice it because it’s signposted by two glowing red lanterns hanging beneath a wooden sign (although the sign is in Japanese!). The place where we stopped to eat had a pale yellow lantern out the front as well as a plaque with the restaurant’s logo and the number ‘300’, indicating that everything inside was 300 yen. Although it looks small from the outside, it had three stories. You want to sit on the first or second level, where a number of bench seats surround an open kitchen, with meats skewers, shellfish, seafood and whole vegetables displayed on baskets of ice.



You can ask for an English menu, or simply point to what you want grilled in front of you. The chef cooks it all before your eyes, splashing on sauces and dipping bits and pieces in terracotta pots filled with only he knows what. When your food is ready, he passes it to you across the bench with a great wooden paddle and a smile. We ordered a few things that weren’t grilled in front of us, such as the creamy crab croquettes and the deep fried silken tofu with a thin, crisp shell of golden batter surrounding its smooth inside.


My favourite dish was the scallops, which were cooked in their shell, then removed and trimmed. Next, the chef put the shells back on the grill and filled them with a light sauce so the liquid would warm, before placing two scallops back inside each shell. Finally, he topped the scallops with spring onion for garnish, sprayed the underneath of each shell with some form of liquid and then BOOM! He set it alight… scallop flambé! They were tender, full of flavour and set an incredibly high standard for the rest of the meal.


The grilled frankfurter kept young Max happy, as did the lean chicken skewers and flavoursome ‘tsukune’, Japanese chicken meatballs. A tube of purple squid was cleaned, grilled, sliced into rings and then doused with sauce before we enjoyed each tender loop. The whole grilled corn, although simple, was one of the tastiest dishes and definitely the juiciest.



After dinner we returned to the bridge and waited until 7pm when the lanterns lining the canal began to glow, contrasted against a showy neon sign for Asahi beer. It’s a wonderful spot for people watching and we really enjoyed checking out the kitsch Japanese fashion including plush toy backpacks, hairbrushes held in the hand as accessories, Croc-like shoes in the shape of paws and girls dressed like Little Bo Peep. Following our voyeuristic evening, we walked back to the hotel down Dotonbori, past some shady looking shops and a hotel with creepy face statues out the front. I slept like a well-fed baby in that bed… probably because that’s more or less what I was.




Osaka, Japan: Day 14 (The End!) 



Our last morning didn’t exactly pan out as we had hoped. But before we touch on disaster, the day began pleasantly enough with a trip to Daiki, a department store next to the hotel that was like an upper class K-Mart. We bought some last minute presents before returning to our bags, checking out and then setting off for the day. The plan was to leave our bags at Tennoji train station in coin lockers, then head to a food market, then to Denden electrical town and finally Dogusuji-ya, a strip where you can buy kitchenware and kitsch plastic models of food like you see in almost every Japanese restaurant shopfront. After that, we were going to finish up at Spa World, a public water park and relaxation centre with themed baths. It didn’t work out that way.


The coin lockers at Tennoji were full, so we caught a train to Shin-Imamiya station on the loop line. It was the same deal there: no free coin lockers. Shin-Imamiya was a short walk away from Spa World, so we thought it would make sense to leave our bags in lockers at Spa World, see the other sights we planned to visit, and then return to Spa World to enjoy the facilities before heading to the airport. After about 20 minutes of bad English, worse Japanese and masses of frustration, we were told that we couldn’t get a pass out. During this jaunt, the handle on Max’s case broke. We left grumpily with our five bags, two of which we couldn’t wheel, and tried one last time to find a coin locker at Shin-Imamiya. No luck. 

“F*ck the market!” I announced exhausted on behalf of everyone. It was the first and most likely the last time I will ever voice that utterance. We dragged our cases back to Spa World, paid, entered, and ditched our shoes and bags in lockers. The literal weight off my shoulders was immense. We never thought we would spend five hours at Spa World, but we did! Not a bad effort, considering I snuck in with my miniscule tattoo on my foot (tattooed skin is strictly forbidden at Spa World and at traditional baths, as they often indicate a connection to crime). 


First we had to change, the boys on level six and us on level four. We met on level eight, where a moat runs around the outside of three impressive waterslides, a cave and a kiddie area with mushroom swings and a giant bucket that tips over when filled with water. After some difficulty communicating, we bought an unlimited pass to go on the three waterslides. One was a steep, enclosed tube that dropped you into a funnel and sent you spinning around the outside, the same way water does when you empty the bath. Another was a steep drop that propelled you up a flat, 70 degree angle and then back down again. Both of the aforementioned waterslides required rubber tubes for one, two or three people. 


But the best slide was called ‘The Death Loop’, and it was the most terrifying waterslide I have ever been on. The suspense was almost as bad as the ride. You are asked to stand upright inside a rocket-shaped tube. Water starts rushing behind you and then the door is bolted shut. The attendant tells you to cross your arms over your chest (as if you were in a coffin), and then speaks into a microphone that you can hear inside the tube. He counts to three and a trap door beneath you opens. You free fall for a split second before your speed forces you through an uphill loop and finally ejects you out the other side. I nearly backed out last minute and was shaking both before and after. Somehow, I kept my ice cream down. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Did I do it again? No freaking way. 

Somewhere in between splashing and sliding we went to the typically scummy outside public pool area, which was surrounded by food stands. There was an industrial view of cranes and construction sites, an interesting contrast to inside. The boys ate hamburgers, hotdogs and noodles, while Mum and I ordered okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake particular to the region that we were yet to try. It was very tasty in a naughty, greasy kind of way, but I’m sure there are better places to try it than on a public pool rooftop.



After lunch, it was time to try the themed ‘onsen’ (spa facilities based around a natural hot spring). Strangely, we had to don a ridiculous pink smock every time we came from the eighth floor back to the fourth floor. We put it on as we exited the lift, walked a few feet to our locker, and then took it off again and put it in a nearby bin to be washed! We think they were for modesty, but it’s ironic when you can see naked ladies walking around on their way to the onsen just next door! 

This month, the women were allocated the “Europe Zone” and the men the “Asia Zone”. Even though it was tacky, we were completely flabbergasted by the detail. There were a number of different spa and bathing rooms, each representing a European country. Unlike the slightly scummier public waterslide area, the spas were immaculately maintained. It’s not for everyone: you have to go naked. In your birthday suit, totally bare and utterly exposed. Obviously, there are only women in the women’s area, but it is still quite confronting. Funnily enough, the reason I found it so confronting was because of how comfortable everyone was, although because I wasn’t Japanese, I copped a few stares (but each ended in a friendly smile!). 

It was as if I was in a Japanese version of Dove’s ‘everyone is beautiful’ campaign. Every form of woman was there in the altogether: ancient ladies who would have been pushing a century with curved backs and harsh spines, prepubescent teenagers hiding the beginnings of lumps on their chests with orange hand towels, mothers with babies, gaggling groups of girlfriends, model-like Japanese women with porcelain skin, plump ladies in shower caps and nothings else… it was bizarre, but incredible. Because we spent most of our time in the onsen, this post is lacking in photos. While tens of interesting naked ladies sitting in a row would have made a great shot, it was completely inappropriate, as well as forbidden, to take photos! 

Before we entered any of the baths, spas or pools, we had to rinse off in a delegated washing room. Disposable scrubbing cloths were available, along with shampoo, conditioner and body soap. The first spa you come to when you enter is Atlantis, a wide, circular pool surrounded by Grecian columns and statues. Little rooms off to the side of Atlantis included a cold spa coloured in gold and a steam sauna. Around the corner was a grotto pool in a dark cave with a painting of a lighthouse scene on the walls. Near that was a salt sauna, where you scrub yourself with hot salt from an urn in the centre of the room and wash off just outside the door before hopping into a single person bath. Just make sure you avoid your eyes and cuts!


Our second stop was Finland, a sauna complex made to look like a Scandinavian wood cabin, complete with a log bridge, fake wolves on the roof and cold pools out the front to cool off. Next we stopped in at Rome, where a giant fish tank sat in front of the main spa, complete with televisions and reclining deck chairs. My favourite room was Greece, with constellations on the ceiling lit up by purple ultraviolet lights. There were a number of heated spas, one of which was tinted suspiciously yellow. Upon closer inspection, we realised the water was infused with herbs and lavender, courtesy of giant tea bags floating in the water (at least that’s what they looked like). Our skin felt incredibly smooth when we got out. Mum’s favourite area was Spain, where the open-air spa had a pummelling waterfall that doubled as a back massager. There were also reclining chairs in a heated pool opposite. To get to Spain, you walked through a café, where you can sit at a table and soak your feet, even though you are nude! There is definitely something fun about eating naked. If not at Spa World, I recommend you try it at home some time. 

The themed onsen was totally over the top and unlike anything I have ever seen. After a while, I completely forgot I was walking around naked in front of over a hundred or so other women. When we met up with the boys, they only had praise for the Asian themed onsen as well. We had a few more turns on the waterslides before returning to our respective gendered dressing rooms. We had another quick salt scrub and lavender bath before prettying ourselves in the salon room, complete with complementary hairdryers, hair product, moisturisers and sterilised hairbrushes. After we had dressed, we indulged in a 15 minute massage in one of the massage chairs, but Mum was starting to worry about making our plane and cut hers short. She had to scramble out as it was lying vertically. I needn’t explain in detail how hilarious it was to watch. 

After all our troubles that morning, it was a relief that spa world turned out to be such a blast. We probably wouldn’t have gone if we weren’t travelling with an 11-year-old, but I’m so glad we did. After we collected our bags and the boys, we walked back to the station in the rain. We took the train one stop and changed. From there it was direct to the airport, although only for carriages one to four… the others split off half way and went elsewhere! We had cut it pretty close and slurped some rice and noodles standing up near our gate after checking in. I bought my last thing in Japan, which was, unsurprisingly, edible: a green tea KitKat.


We had a seven hour flight from Osaka to Cairns, a five hour layover in Cairns airport, and I am just about to be asked to turn off my computer on our last leg back to Melbourne. That means my Japan travel blog has come to an end, by the skin of my teeth, just like the timing for everything else on this trip. It has been jam-packed, exhausting, intense and absolutely unbelievable. Sure, I may never enjoy sushi, udon, ramen, soba or yakitori in Melbourne properly every again, but it was worth it. 

Of course, this trip was mostly about the food for us, but there was so much more than that too. The contrast of neon versus natural, kitsch costumes verses business suits and traditional versus modern has been a lot to take in. We practically flew around Japan in two weeks, and didn’t even touch the north. Writing this during our limited time in Japan has been a welcome challenge, allowing me to mull over everything we have done and remember it for my future travels, as well as to share my busy (but achievable) Japan itinerary with others. I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on this journey. If you have any tips of thoughts to add in the comments section below, please don’t hesitate to do so. Until next time, sayonara!




6 comments:

  1. What a wonderful tribute to the country that's currently playing host to you. Of course I've had the joy of following your adventures as you relate them on Twitter, but it's especially wonderful to sit down and read about it all in so much more detail. I don't want to think about how much time this post took you to write, though!

    Loving the photographs, as ever. :)

    -Awanthi

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    1. Thanks Awanthi! It really is an amazing country, full of contrasts and culture!

      I've been keeping this blog as a public diary, so while it has taken a while altogether, I'm writing it one day at a time : )

      Cheers for your interest!

      Sofia

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  2. I came across your post during web surfin'... and you made me home sick!
    I am a Japanese guy living in the US for 7 years, and it was more than 3 years ago when I went back to Japan last time. You know so much about Japan and Japanese food, and actually stepped out of ordinary "tourist comfort zone (proper expression?)". I am so impressed that you went into a bar in Memory Alley, where usually very limited regulars go and I would hesitate to step in.
    And Ikebukuro! I was born and grown up near Ikebukuro, and Seibu Department store and its food section in the basement (depa-chika) are strongly connected to my childhood memories. But I think Kamakura is SO far from Ikebukuro, so I wonder how you got to Ikebukuro and how long it took.
    Your reports about food are so great. It looks like you enjoyed a bit formal dinner course at ryokans to dinners at cheap set-meal joints (teishoku-ya) in every corner, from hard-core Japanese to not-so-much Japanese food. And open sky bath, which I miss the most right now.
    Reading your post, I wonder if you did not have some "must-have (in my opinion)". In Hiroshima, did you have Hiroshima-style Okonomi Yaki and oysters? They are specialities of Hiroshima and if not, it should be added to your next mission.

    Thanks for your post!

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    1. Such a compliment to have someone who is Japanese say such lovely things about this post! Thank you so much!

      I'm a big food lover, as you can probably tell from the rest of my blog, and am always happy to try new things and learn (with my mouth!).

      Kamakura to Ikebukuro wasn't bad at all? It took us about an hour on JR if I recall correctly? Lots of tourists do it as a day trip like us :)

      The mix of formal and casual food was fantastic in Japan, but I go a real kick out of eating at little places and in the big department stores!

      Will definitely add Okonomi Yaki and oysters to the list for next time, can't wait to go back to Japan :)

      Thanks for reading!

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  3. Amazing Post - I feel like I just spent the last two days touring Japan with you - and now I am completely inspired to go.
    You write brilliantly - and I completely agree with you about sticking to native food in a foreign country.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words, Jessica. Been meaning to go back over this and break it down into cities for those who don't have the time to read it all. I'm sure in my excitement my spell-check abilities were slightly compromised ;).

      I've always loved Japanese food, but when you get there you realise how fresh and refined it really is.

      Thanks for reading!

      Sofia

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