Japan trip #4 – Food, Kyoto, and the Moon!

Bento on the Shinkansen to Osaka
Bento on the Shinkansen to Osaka

Besides this being one of the friendliest and most enjoyable – as well as very intellectually stimulating – conferences I have ever been to, it’s also true to say that I have really taken to (what I have seen and experienced of) Japan. Our wonderful hosts were extremely attentive and ensured we were well-cared for! The food here, especially, is just incredible. I haven’t eaten anything here that I didn’t think was absolutely delicious. It is good, however, I would say, that I am both an adventurous and keen ‘foodie’, because there’s little doubt that the food is exotic by any European standard: much of the time one has no idea what one is eating. On our first evening, after a particularly long day of presentations and discussions (all very high quality content – I have learnt so much these past few days, as well as contributing to the debates) we were taken to a rather fine restaurant. Everyone takes off their shoes, being careful not to stand on the boards below the shoe racks in anything but one’s socks, and then you sit, effectively, on the floor, with the table at floor level, but with your legs and feet comfortably in the well dug beneath the table. On this first night we were treated to Nabe with exquisite tofu and tripe. This is a large bowl shared between several people, filled with finely sliced vegetables, chunks of tofu, and pieces of tripe, sat upon a heater. Once the water is bubbling, the heat is turned down, and with a ladle you help yourself to a small personal bowl of the mixture. This is accompanied by a range of other dishes, little delicacies such as tempura vegetables, sashimi (raw) slices of tuna, and the excellent Asahi Japanese beer, which is quite strong at 5% but smooth and delicious. There was also, of course, the hot sake, which comes in a small jug, and which you drink from tiny bowls. It was a very fine meal. On the second night, we were treated to a buffet at the conference venue, including a fine range of delicious dishes, and accompanied not just by French wine but by Japanese whiskey. It was my first time to try Japanese whiskey, and I must say I was impressed!

Dotonbori
Dotonbori

The third day was a transfer day, moving the conference from Tokyo to Osaka, and we all took the shinkansen together, checked in to our conference hotel at Shin-Osaka (overlooking, as it turned out, the Marriott where I had stayed a few days before) and were then taken for an excursion around Osaka, to visit the famed shopping district of Dotonbori. This is like London’s West End, only the streets are all as narrow as Soho, all dead straight in a grid, and the whole area at least three or four times the size. Leaving the subway we arrived at ground level outside Cartier and Louis Vitton, and walked past Zara and Tiffany to approach the beginning of the lanes. The streets are very long, the atmosphere buzzing, the crowds lively (but always polite – this is Japan!) and the whole ambience simply jolly – as if an infectious joie de vivre permeated the very air.

Dotonbori octopus
Dotonbori octopus

Leaving the clothing district and moving into the area more focussed upon restaurants and bars we were treated to the incredible vivacity with which the various food outlets encourage passers-by to come in and enjoy their food: huge, sometimes animated models of crabs, an octopus, even a bull! We stopped to eat some of the famous street food from the area – balls of octopus prepared in front of us on hot plates which you then have to eat in one go while it’s still hot, rolling it around in your mouth until the liquid centre is just cool enough to taste and to swallow. Exquisite! We went then back into the subway briefly to visit the Osaka Tower, and be treated to Japan’s exotic values when it comes to animal welfare: a trained monkey show. Setting aside our European/American values, we sat with the Japanese to enjoy the show. It was a good introduction to different values. At the restaurant we arrived at shortly after, we were then treated to an Osakan speciality: deliciously fresh cuts of fish and slices of vegetable dipped in batter and flash-fried, served on a stick. So many kinds of fish, with names I’d never heard before, which our host was unable to translate into English, but all so very delicious. Including, however, one I never thought I would ever eat: whale. Yes, we ate pieces of whale dipped in a delicious batter and fried, and served to us on a stick. And it was absolutely delicious – like the tenderest most succulent beef. We then returned to the centre of town, and were taken up to the bar of a posh hotel above Osaka Station, where we drank Japanese whiskey – I had the Hibiki, and it was very fine indeed! The following day, after the completion of the conference, we were taken to a restaurant in the Ibaraki district, where we were treated to sashimi – a series of dishes of the freshest, most delicious raw fish, along with edamame (green peas) and cabbage, and lots of Asahi Super Dry beer.

Sashimi Whale
Sashimi Whale

And yes, amongst the tuna and sole and other fish, was one small plate of Kujira sashimi: raw whale. I ate a slice. It was far and away the finest carpaccio I have ever tried – and thicker than you would get of beef. Absolutely delicious. It is apparently a rare thing, that only a very few restaurants are allowed to serve, and we felt very privileged. It was tantamount to a sacrament.  As if this experience weren’t enough, however, we were also treated at this restaurant to fried oysters.  Yes fried oysters!  Even the Frenchmen amongst us, however, agreed that this was just delicious!

Shisen-Do
Shisen-Do

As if the hospitality of this country had not already impressed itself upon me enough, the day after the conference three of us were treated to a guided tour of Kyoto by one of the Japanese academics and his wife. The sky was covered in a thick carapace of cloud all day, and on occasions a light rain accompanied our travels, but we each had umbrellas, and it was never heavy. I had planned something like this – I especially wanted to visit the Matsunoo-Taisha shrine on this day – but I was very glad of the guide, as there was much I would have missed, and the distances between everything made navigating the transport system quite a challenge! But our guides knew to spend only 500Y on a one day bus-pass, and take us around the city on the buses, rather than the subway. We began in the East, at the serene Buddhist Temple of Shisen-Do. The colours of the leaves here were just so beautiful – a signature of Buddhist Temples here, alongside the famed grey gravel gardens. The Shinto Shrines, by contrast, celebrate evergreen trees, rather than those more seasonal. We are blessed to be here in Japan in November, because this is indeed the perfect season for the Buddhist Temples, when the leaves are at their most colourful. It is also one of the high points of the year in the Shinto calendar, when it is said there are no gods in Japan – because they have all gone to Izumo-Taisha, where I too am headed after Osaka and Kyoto. In one corner of the garden here, a tea-house that is normally closed instead today sat with its main door open to the air, revealing the painting on its inner wall of the full moon behind the waving grass. This day, of course, was the day of the so-called ‘supermoon’, when the Full Moon was to occur within only two hours of its perigee (nearest approach to Earth) and – in addition – be closer to the Earth (and seem larger) than it has for nearly 70 years. It was a privilege to see this Moon shrine at Shisen-Do.

The Golden Temple
The Golden Temple

After Shisen-Do we stopped for a Lamey lunch, a Kyoto speciality, which is a very thick broth with garlic and ramen and pork. We three Westerners insisted, in return for their hospitality, on paying for this lunch, and I fear our Japanese guides found this rather embarrassing. A classic clash of cultural expectations, I think, here, whereby for us it would seem too much to accept all this generous hospitality without taking the opportunity to make some small return – such as paying for lunch – but for our guides such an eventuality seemed almost to slight their generosity. Still – after some protestation, they accepted, and we did pay, and the embarrassment passed. From there we went to the very famous Buddhist Temple, Kinkakiuji Golden Temple – possibly one of the most beautiful sights in all of Japan. This was heavily populated with tourists, however, compared to Shisen-Do, and the crowds were moved along quite quickly, such that we were already leaving the precincts of the temple only some ten minutes after arriving. Delightful, nonetheless, to see such a fantastic sight, and – tall as I am, and especially here! – capture a photograph from over the heads of the crowd. Next we went to Ryoanji Temple, to pay a visit to the Philosopher’s Garden – perhaps the signature example of a grey gravel and stone garden.

Matsunoo-Taisha
Matsunoo-Taisha

Lastly, then, as the dusk on this amazing day out gathered, we took two buses back through the centre of the city and out towards the west to visit Matsunoo-Taisha, arriving, finally, at the shrine, moments after sunset. The shrine is quite high-up into the foothills of the mountains that surround Kyoto, and we could see the twinkling lights of the city below us. The shrine was still open, but deserted, and we entered, paid our proper respects in the Shinto way, and wandered around the courtyard drinking in the atmosphere. It was the highlight of the day – and not just for me. The shrine honoured the mountain, whose evergreen trees towered above it behind the wooden buildings. All the roofs of Shinto shrines are thatch, unlike the wooden poles of the Buddhist Temples, and the older ones gather moss as green as the evergreen trees.

With the Leader of the staff at Matsunoo-Taisha Shrine, Kyoto
With the Leader of the staff at Matsunoo-Taisha Shrine, Kyoto

The ambience of the place was ancient, serene, and exotic, and somehow, in the dusk, just for us. Until, that is, the Headman of the Shrine’s staff appeared, and spoke with our Japanese guide. I found myself being pictured together with him – a young man, I thought, for such high office, but then perhaps the Shinto shrines in Japan are still busy with devotees. I spoke the word I had learnt, which was the name of one of the gods to which this shrine is dedicated – Tsukuyoni – the Moon God. It was because of this, on this day of the extra special ‘supermoon’, that I had wanted to visit Matsunoo-Taisha. He nodded, and spoke again with our Japanese guide. As we left the shrine, the Headman closed the gates behind us – we had arrived just in time! Our guide now told us, informed by the Headman, that there was another, small, special shrine, that was dedicated to Tsukuyoni alone, just five minutes along the lane. We all walked along this lane, feeling privileged with this special information: although they had visited Matsunoo-Taisha themselves, before, our Japanese guides had never heard of this extra shrine. Arriving there, we saw that it was indeed just for the Moon God, and entered quietly. Again empty except for us, this small shrine was somehow as spacious and serene as the main shrine, for all that it was so much smaller. I made especial prayer to the Moon God, greeting him from the Moon Goddess of Britain, and paying honour and respect to him on this, his most auspicious and special of nights. It was a truly delightful experience. Turning from the shrine, at last, our little party began to walk down the lane, with the main Torii of the Tsukuyuni shrine behind and above us. It was then, at this moment, surely the only moment in the entire day, that the clouds suddenly parted, just in one small part of the sky, and the giant, bright, full disc of the Moon shone down upon us and the shrine behind us, for an exquisite few moments, before the cloud cover crashed back across its face and hid it once more from view. Moments later, one could not tell where in the sky the Moon was at all. All of us were absolutely enthralled, feeling utterly blessed by this moment – a vision of this perigee of perigees itself.

Supermoon
Supermoon

There was only one way to follow such a divine experience – with a night at the Imperial Hotel, Osaka, including sushi individually prepared in front of me by the Master Sushi chef, followed by a (Plymouth) Gin Martini and a Montecristo No.4 in the Old Imperial Bar!

Sushi chef
Sushi chef

 

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