Sunday 10 April 2016

Japan - Spring 2016

How tasty can a broth get?!
Tuesday, 5 April

As a child Japan was probably the country of most intrigue for me growing up.  The land where the almighty wrestler Yokozuna was from (or so I believed back then!) and my favourite thing in the world my Super Nintendo!  Wrestling and computer games - my entire childhood!  Back when eating raw fish seemed as utterly bazaar as the Japanese gameshows that aired on cable tv.  The life, culture and food of Japan is truly fascinating and finaly I am here to experience it for myself.

I researched for hours on the top places to eat the many delights of Japan but in the end the best advice I got was that amazing food outlets are everywhere.  It's true, it really is difficult to pick a place that will disappoint.  The Japanese are all about the food; Tokyo holds the record for the most Michelin stars and Japanese television is almost all cookery shows!  A bad eatery simply could not survive in a country of highly tuned food critics.  So that said, we landed late evening, checked in, and headed out to the first restaurant we saw that sold ramen.  Either we got lucky or it is completely true that there are no bad restaurants in Japan.  I can't really comprehend how you would make a broth that flavoursome?!  And if it is possible, which it clearly is, why isn't everyone doing it?  I think the 18 hour cooking process may have something to do with it... Between us we ordered one spicy and one standard "Tonkotsu" ramen from a place that looked like a regular local cafe.  Tonkotsu refers to the pork bone based broth and is like a Sunday roast in a bowl.  Absolute comfort food with the most ludicorously meaty savoury flavour.  I have been here three days and have eaten ramen three times!  I only have a week to tick off as many Japanese dishes I can but I simply cannot get enough of the umami goodness! 

We left Tokyo on our 2nd day with some time saved at the end to see some more.  Right now was peak blossom season in Kyoto.  We spent the morning at the world famous Tsukiji Fish market though we didn't quite wake up at the 4am recommended time to queue and still only potentially see some auctioning of enormous tuna.  We did, however, enjoy the surrounding markets for some super fresh no frills Sushi.  Less than 24 hours in and two National dishes done already!  Subtle, clean and fresh I could eat this every day.  Pretty much like I'm doing with ramen. 

The bullet train cost around £60 on the day and took 2 and half hours to arrive in the blossom decorated Kyoto.  We are staying in an AirBnB apartment in which the entire place is smaller than my bedroom at home.  That's not because I have a big bedroom at home!  They certainly know how to be space efficient here.  Our hotel room in Tokyo was the size of a double bed!   Kyoto would look beautiful with or without the blossom so the confetti bombed streets just takes the whole place to another level - we genuinely stopped to take photos of what turned out to be just a very pretty car park.  We headed to Gion for an evening of Geisha and tourists dressed as Geisha; I have no idea if I have seen a real one or not.  The fact that many of them were taking selfies every 10 seconds kind of gave it away.  Wooden buildings, pagodas and lanterns make Gion so perfect to simply walk around with no aim or plan.  Just potter.  We did exactly that and finished the night in a sweet park where we sat and ate under the blossom trees.  We ordered three beers and some snacky bits and cut off a limb to pay for it.  Japan is not cheap.  Or at least the touristy areas of Tokyo and Kyoto are not cheap!  But how often do you get to dine in amongst the blossom trees in Japan?  

It's easy to get templed out as a tourist in Japan but I feel like we did the right amount in the right order.  No point going to the best one first and finishing on the mediocre one! We did Nijo Castle (the banner at the top of this post) and Fushimi Inari Shrine in one day and that was perfect.  You could even skip the castle if it doesn't massively interest you; especially if its not blossom season.  Fushimi on the other hand is an absolute must.  No where in the world looks remotely like it but it is all strangely familiar.  The bright orange and deep black writings take you to old Japanese Martial art films and the thousand Chinese tourists bring you straight back to modern day with a thump.  We were lucky to have a local friend, Kim Asakawa, and after a poke around Gion's Nishiki market we met up with her and had a typical Japanese evening in a "all you can drink for 1500¥‎ (£9)" restaurant with picky Japanese snacks on order.  We took our shoes off and sat with our feet in a whole in the floor around a table.  You instantly feel more homely when your eating barefoot.  I have been refused from restaurants before for not having shoes!  It was a great evening of lots of hot sake, iced plum wine and Japanese snacks with an amazing egg yolk dipping sauce.  We aimed to wake up early this morning to watch some sumo training.  We didn't...    

Egg yolk as a sauce is a revelation.  Why have I not had this before?  Another revelation I've had is with noodles.  Yes ramen is awesome and will always be the best way to ever eat noodles in the world but this morning I experienced cold Soba Noodles that you dunk in a hot broth before slurping it all up in one.  There's nothing like a good slurp in Japan and some say it is actually rude not to.  For me it's simply impossible not to slurp along with splatter and making a mess of anything I'm wearing and the general area around me.  Today we left our cupboard late morning, a little hanging, and headed to the golden pavilion(Kinkaku-ji) for some fresh air.  Still not templed out but slowly getting there.  The Philosopher's Walk was my highlight and was stunning dressed in Spring.  A simple cherry tree lined canal with a path alongside it takes about 30 minutes if you don't stop and smell the ros... blossoms.  It's not something you will want to rush.  Sit and drink green tea or get a hot coffee in a can(!?) from a vending machine and just sit on the bridge and people watch.

Yaruki Shijo Kawaramachi in Gion a few hours beforehand and went for a Samurai "show" around the corner.  The show was alright but nothing to write about.  The Kobe beef on the other hand... Well I went in knowing it's pricey and had the mindset of "I'm only going to do this once and so I might as well make the most of it!".  I came out with the mindset of "It's worth every single penny lets do it again and again!".  There was nothing special about this particular restaurant; it was just the first one I saw and it had a menu that satisfied every ones budget.  It was Korean BBQ themed and so we got to grill our meat how we wanted and had fun with that too.  There were 4 price options with Kobe where the most expensive was fillet and the cheapest was rib meat.  I have never been a fan of fillet; I find it tasteless and too lean.  The whole purpose of Kobe is to experience the great marbling of fat and so even if it was the same price as the others I wouldn't have gone for it.  I went with number 3 "Kobe loin slices" for 5000¥ and a portion of Kobe tongue for 1800¥ all with a fermented miso paste marinade.  Melt in your mouth is a bit of a cliche and not really what you want with meat.  Between us we had it plain, we had it marinaded, grilled rare and to well done (be it on purpose or not!) and we had none kobe beef just to realise that the Kobe was in fact far superior no matter how you ate it.  It has the juiciness and flavour of barbecued beef fat but with the texture of a medium rare tenderloin.  That taste when you wipe the pan with a piece of bread after frying a steak in butter.  I was the happiest man in Japan sitting in that restaurant and there is no way that that was my last ever Kobe beef experience.   Drinking a glass of Single Malt Yoichi Whisky in a sweet little bar finished a perfect day.

Saturday, 9 April

"If you only do one thing in Kyoto; go to Nara" was the somewhat drunken advice given to us by Kim.  And for some reason we were still debating whether we should go or not!? The journey is up to an hour by train and in all it takes up the best part of a day from your precious time in Kyoto but we were unanimously glad that we went.  My advice - spend more time in Kyoto over Tokyo if this means you are able to fit in Nara.  It's not just about the deer that are tame enough to cuddle, the whole park is stunning and home to the worlds largest wooden building.  The deer are amazing though.  I heard that the deer bow to you if you hold the deer crackers (bought on site) above your head and they totally do!  I concur that Nara is an absolute must and completely worth the journey.  We managed to fit it in comfortably into our travel day back to Tokyo having left our luggage in Kyoto station lockers.  Do it!

Tokyo does not give the impression of a country with a falling population but it is a sad truth.  People just aren't shacking up any more!  Over worked men is partly the problem and our first evening here was spent with the "Salary men" eating Yakitori down Memory Lane (or Piss Alley - it's lesser preferred name) and drinking in Golden Gai.  It is midweek and these guys are drinking like it's a Friday of a long weekend! Yakitori is grilled chicken made amazing by tare sauce, a sweet, thickened soy sauce that gets sticky and caramelises over the coals.  We could have sat and eaten a whole load but they are surprisingly expensive here.  Memory Lane looks like a cheap local area but we spent around £15 on a few skewers and a plumb wine.  These places stick out like a turd in punch bowl as they are some of the few areas that haven't been bulldozed and turned into modern Tokyo.  Old shacks that each hold no more than 7-8 customers; as a group of 5 it wasn't easy to find a spot.  The same goes for the drinking holes in Golden Gai;  except here you even have to pay a cover charge just to go in.  We pretty much needed a completely empty bar for us to even have a chance to fit and so when we came across an empty bar with "no cover charge" and "speaks English" written on the door we felt like we lucked out.  It was run by a university student and his university friends also seemed to hang out there.  As would anyone with a friend that owns a bar!  A few plumb wine and Yoichi whiskies in I asked for a decent place to eat Ramen (because clearly I haven't had enough!) which resulted in them closing up the bar and taken us to their favourite udon noodle restaurant.  It was his Birthday and he wanted us to join them in celebration!  Amazing!  Our udon session was a real experience and the bowls were enormous.  We had the option of doubling or tripling the amount of noodles for free.  I doubled and learnt that I don't really care much for udon noodles; they're super thick, stodgy and feel like a mouth full of worms.  The real truth is that a bowl of noodles that is not ramen is never going to satisfy me ever again.

I love that as soon as you enter a restaurant in Japan every chef and waiter jumps up erect and shouts "Irasshaimase!" to welcome you in.  Most places we have been to takes your order through a machine and prints a ticket that you give to the waiter.  Japan has this restaurant business down!  Yesterday was a rainy day in Tokyo making it pretty uneventful where I dragged people across Tokyo on the hunt for a Fugu restaurant called Chiba; a restaurant that promised a more affordable way to experience the puffer fish and still not kill you from the poison that is 1200 times deadlier than cyanide.  Probably not a thing you want to be stingy with but it was also the only place that seemed to be open for lunch.  Chiba failed to exist but just happened to be in a part of Tokyo (Ikebukuro) famous for ramen. Score! With full bellies, things to do in the rain become very limited.  Senso-Ji temple was overtaken by umbrellas and we were slowly getting cold and miserable.  Cocktails in the Park Hyatt "Lost in Translation" bar it is then!  I can't think of a better way to spend a rainy day.  Followed by DIY Okonomiyaki we didn't do to badly.  Okonomi-what?  Okonomi means "what you like" and Yaki means "grilled". It was described to me as a Japanese pizza in which I now know the only resemblance it has to a pizza is its shape.  More like an omelet made with batter and filled with veggies and meats and covered in bits and sauces.  Making your own food that you have never eaten before is a challenge.  We had fun not knowing what the end product should look like (as did the waitress watching us) and went from ordering one shared Okonomiyaki to ordering three more.

Sushi restaurants and was happy to pay for yet another "one off experience".  The one where you and five others are the only guests sat around the Chef.  The issue is that most of these top places will only take reservations through local people or reputable hotels.  On top of that they want a massive deposit.  Low and behold Yoshi recommended a brilliant place, booked it and somehow got a waver for the deposit.  After a day in Meiji Jingu shrine and nosing around Shibuya and Akihabara we finished our holiday off with the most incredible sushi experience ever.  Shibuya is what you imagine when you close your eyes and think of Tokyo.  Akihabara is what you imagine when you close your eyes and think of Japanese porn.  Arcades are massive here and I couldn't believe how busy they were in the middle of the day.  Even suited business men were sitting and playing something.  A group a squealing teens leaving a "Make yourself Anime" photo booth is what caught our attention though.  Bigger eyes and smoother skin; my girlfriend looks way more attractive in anime!

We've been staying in an amazing AirBnB in Tokyo and Yoshi, the owner, was extremely helpful in arranging my final thing to do in Japan.  I looked into a lot of different Sushi is ruined for me now forever.  What is the point in eating it knowing how much better it can be.  We went for the Omakase meal which means "Chef's choice" for around £100 each at Sushi Hisaichi.  We sat with the Chef, along with 6 locals, and got handed individual pieces of sushi prepared in front of us.  Everything was so different to my typical "Yo Sushi" experience.  The wasabi was freshly grated and not harsh at all, the fatty tuna was creamy and delicious and the sea urchin actually did melt in your mouth.  Just watching the chef was awe inspiring and after 16 different exquisite pieces of sushi plus 4 other plates of the seas finest we were delightfully stuffed.  What a brilliant way to finish our time in this beautiful country.     

If I were to list the top three food countries in the world, Japan will definitely make it on the list.  Where on that list alongside India and Singapore I couldn't possibly say.  Full of food that I just cannot make at home.  Good ramen takes 18 hours just to cook the broth and people train their entire life to be able to prepare Sushi.  It pains me to think that the next time I get to eat food as good as this will be the next time I step foot in Japan.  Here's hoping that it is soon...