Food. Food. Nearly forgot. How could I have? There are several matters of which I must make mention.
Before we went I was slightly puzzled by references to the quality of the food as a reason for travelling to Japan.
We live near and often enjoy Akita, a fine Japanese restaurant with an amiable host who in a most civilised fashion chooses not to work on weekends. (This moment I’ve just discovered he left at the end of last week! Disaster.) The sushi and sashimi are (were) great, tempura classy and the specials (were) always interesting. He also had a wonderful way with eggplant. But we know that. Japanese food is not foreign to Australians.
What I learnt, however, is that Japanese food in Australia compared with Japanese food in Japan is roughly as Chinese food is to what might be purchased as Chinese food in Hopetoun (with apologies in advance to the purveyors of Chinese food in Hopetoun; it’s, what was anyway, the unadventurous Australian palate). For example, just about anywhere you can get really good Mister Donuts … hmm that must be considered a digression.
I’ve been telling people that I saw no sushi in four weeks, not even at Inari. But looking through the photos that isn’t true. I am in a picture sitting grinning dopily outside a sushi shop in Hakone, great big fat ones almost inedible with chop sticks. But otherwise, I saw none. That’s a shock in itself. What’s Japanese food without sushi? Gottabe nuthin …
The variety and complexity of what might be eaten is remarkable. And I think that is the consequence of the traditional cuisine consisting of many small dishes, so you can’t just go, whack, there’s half a kilo of porterhouse. Get into it. A cook, a good cook, is forced to look far and wide for possibilities. And both far and wide appear to have been explored, certainly the fungal fruits of the forest and the mysterious and varied treasures of the sea.
There is a second matter: cooking at ‘the table’ or bench or in your bowl. Just there with you.Two consequences. The first is a very high degree of freshness; the second is that as things like shabu shabu (or for that matter okonomiyaki) cook on, they change. The crispness of the ingredients shifts and the various flavours start interacting with and influencing each other. So you have a different eating experience. It is one of the secrets of hot ramen (noodles, almost as ubiquitous a rice) for example. What you begin with will not be where you end up, and where you end up (which is drinking the ‘soup’) at the joint we went to Osaka was somewhere very special indeed — and that wasn’t a fancy place. That was an after dance class let’s go and get something to eat type place. We had very fair yakitori (literally chicken, but in practice many other things as well, grilled on a skewer) in the same sort of place. Cheap and good.
A third is that dishes are made to be had with sauces, an enormous range, dipping and otherwise, which of course shifts the immediate set of possibilities for grading tastes and flavours. That matters. The French know that as well; but their reliance on the products of the cow is nowhere reflected in Japan (except Kuruizawa).
And you can get anything you like. I have mentioned taking Paco and Ricky to the Mexican restaurant in Hiroshima. Pizza you can buy anywhere; souvlaki stalls abound; and the bakeries are filled with versions of French pastries. One we found in Takayama called itself a boulangerie and its products I would heartily recommend: like French pastries, quite like them, but all with just a little teeny (crrrazy) twist. Flavoured shaved ice was huge, as was the sort of stuff you get in US-influenced cafes (Starbucks, Gloria Jean very popular). We had a lot of cups of coffee but only two really good ones. One, as mentioned, was in Sanjo-dori in Kyoto, and the other one was right here. You go to Takayama as a tourist to, at least, walk down a street of shops that are old, brown and haven’t burnt to the ground and I must confess that I found many things in Takayama more interesting. But in among the sake shops and the expensive cheap tourist thrills was this excellent cafe. Great coffee — and the ‘Amagasane’ which I found impossible to ignore and was duly rewarded. I include it here for aesthetic reasons but also the chance to list its ingredients, and I quote: Green tea flour; Brown sugar syrup; soy-beans flour; Japanese green tea ice creme; Brown sugar gluten snack; Fresh cream; Brown rice flakes; red-bean jam; bracken rice cake + Japanese tea. Now that’s a Japanese treat for you.
This chap had one too in Kyoto. His was different but, more or less mandatorily, still had cornflakes in the bottom of it.
But I want to turn to larger matters and advance a theory.
We stayed in either eight or nine ryokans in various parts of the country. They ranged from the hard core to places that just offered the rather distinct smell of tatami mats. We were sleeping on the floor in our establishment in Hiroshima, for example, but enough schools had been through to knock the edges off.
Hard core (from the gaijin perspective taking various gorgeous aspects for granted): must have tatami mats in rooms; sleep on a futon on the floor (really hard core you make up your bed yourself); this is kept in a cupboard out of sight so when you arrive there is perhaps a low, very low, table with two cushions and nothing else visible. Must take off shoes at the door to the street; must wear slippers (provided, if not for necessarily for big feet) around the establishment, bare feet or socks on the tatami mat in your room leaving slippers outside the screen of your room (you can work out where people are that way without having to resort to coarse gestures); take off your clothes and have an onsen (bath); wash yourself very very thoroughly prior to getting into the bath; don yukata (all purpose robe); sit in your room till dinner time (illustrated here by self luxuriating in the comforts of our room at the Heianbo ryokan in Kyoto) when you will be personally summoned and sat at your own low, very low, table on a cushion which might have a backrest.
Most approved position: tibia under fibula, gluteus maximus on heels (long practised adherents. Murder). Ok positions: a sort of elegant swan kneeling with legs to the side (attractive young women); alternatively, legs crossed, back bent over tucker. (Mr McRae, for a while until screaming with pain). Gaijin position: two legs straight out with a back prop (Ms McRae), or even a hole in the floor under the table (at Sosuke, bless them). Chairs were offered in an alternative dining room in the rather fancy ryokan at Kuruizawa (see elsewhere for commentary on Kuruizawa) which it must be said were the choice of the Japanese also staying there. I wanted to do the right thing; but a chair … just so … chair-y. So, somehow … well adapted.
Anyway, good but challenging. But you could muck things up pretty easily. At Tsumago, which was probably the hardest core, I made the appalling error of taking my boots off sitting on a block of wood immediately outside the door and coming in in my thus defiled socks. There just wasn’t enough room — I didn’t mention space; hard core rooms, four and a half mats, 2.7m x 2.7m — to do so in the shoe-taking off area. The older madam of the establishment had hard work containing her apoplexy/horror/disdain. Oooo we had to creep around there.
There’d be a lot of ways to get things wrong in Japan. I took the opportunity to explore at least some of them thoroughly on the basis of the locals’ general politeness and consummate awareness of the potential barbarity of guests. Imagine if you’d been Commodore Perry. It must have been dire.
Anyway, again, good but challenging. So here’s the theory. Apart from the general feeling of cleanliness and well being and being part of a rather larger plan run by an invisible hand, the payoff for observing the rules is what happens when you are called for dinner — the feast. This was just some of what we were offered at Tsumago. From centre top: in the pot. Ah terrible, forgotten, don’t know, could have been rice but probably wasn’t; dried pickled trout, eat it all head best part; vegetables with something special done to them; pickles; duck with asparagus, fungus and something like a dried cherry; a little lime-flavoured salad; deep fried grasshoppers (could have been for the tourists, or not; not something I usually have at home); daikin radish and sashimi: raw horse meat, wagyu beef and something I left behind; tempura-ed vegetables and HUGE prawn (always huge; they must get them from the Mariana Trench or somewhere); cold ramen; Japanese wine with a brilliant perfumed nose; dipping sauce; seaweed salt. And later would come rice and meso soup and I think green tea and vanilla ice cream with fruit here. A feast, always beautifully presented.
It was like this in all the serious ryokans.
Another menu (Iseya at Kuruizawa):
• fugu with citrus soy sauce on grated daikon radish;
• boiled and seasoned vegetables (taro, butterbur, carrot, burdock, maitake mushroom (a great treat), kidney beans, squash, spicy konjac);
• boiled crab with lettuce, mixed herbs, lemon and fried lotus;
• chawan-mushi (which we had quite a lot) a hot eggy custard in a cup cooking pieces of shrimp, chicken, mushroom and gingko nut;
• sashimi of tuna, scallop, sea urchin and yuba (tofu skin) with a special sauce for the yuba (a big tick to yuba, had some great yuba);
• to-ban-yaki, meat and vegetables grilled in a dry hot pot at the table, sizzled together — and that’s what the the first thing in the pot above is of course;
• tempura of dried fried shrimp, apple, scarlet runner bean, and Manganji pepper.
We knocked back, as in declined, the rice, miso and pickles on offer and had some fruit for dessert. A masterpiece. Simply a masterpiece.
And that’s what people who talk about liking the food in Japan are talking about. Not sushi.
I might draw your attention to the inclusion in the menu above of fugu or blowfish.
Fugu contains lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin in its organs, especially the liver, the ovaries, and the eyes. The poison paralyzes the muscles while the victim stays fully conscious. The victim is unable to breathe, and eventually dies from asphyxiation. There is no known antidote. Ha. Some consider the liver the tastiest part but it is also the most poisonous. Serving the liver was banned in restaurants in Japan in 1984. Love all this. Japanese. The Emperor is forbidden by law from eating it. Since 1958, chefs have had to have a license procured via a three-year apprenticeship to prepare and sell fugu to the public. Only about 35 percent of the applicants pass. Archeological evidence indicates that Japanese have been eating fugu for 3000 years. Japan mate. The picture of fugu sashimi at the left comes from the net. That about 150 bucks worth. Hoe in.
What did it taste like? I think maybe salty rubbery jelly, which is one taste and two textures. Can’t help. Sorry.
Finally, an event which must be mentioned. We were in Kyoto for a week and I had prepared two ideas for Kyoto to entertain us. One was to walk the Yamanobe-no-michi. [See the post ‘Two walks’.] The other was to eat at Kanga-an. The Time-Out guide called it an unmissable experience and it did sound something completely out of the box. So we went, four of us, Myrna and I, Kaori and a friend. Kanga-an is a temple tucked away in the back streets of Kuramaguchi in the northern suburbs of Kyoto. Yes a temple, and also once the house of the Imperial family with a garden of singular style and proportion. (Please note: I forgot my camera. Some of these pics have been stolen from the net, others were taken with Myrna’s phone.) The types of meals referred to above are kaiseki, a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. Today, and I’m quoting, kaiseki is a type of art form that balances the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food. To this end, only fresh seasonal ingredients are used and are prepared in ways that aim to enhance their flavor. Local ingredients are often included as well. Finished dishes are carefully presented on plates that are chosen to enhance both the appearance and the seasonal theme of the meal. Dishes are beautifully arranged and garnished, often with real leaves and flowers, as well as edible garnishes designed to resemble natural plants and animals.
And that’s all so true. This is exactly what happened at Kanga-an. You could have forgotten about eating and just looked and touched or strolled round the garden. There aren’t many experiences of this type available.
We had 13 dishes. My research tells me that these may have borne some relationship to these ideas, all of which have Japanese names: an appetizer similar to the French amuse-bouche; the second course, which sets the seasonal theme. Typically one kind of sushi and several smaller side dishes; a sliced dish of seasonal sashimi; vegetables served with meat, fish or tofu, the ingredients simmered separately; a ‘lidded dish’, typically a soup; flame-broiled food (especially fish); a small dish used to clean the palate, such as vegetables in vinegar; chilled, lightly cooked vegetables; a substantial dish, such as a hot pot; a rice dish made with seasonal ingredients; seasonal pickled vegetables; a miso-based or vegetable soup served with rice; a seasonal dessert, may be fruit, confection, ice cream, or cake.
How artful is that. How considered. And you can see these things are reflected in the menus above.
I haven’t mentioned that we were sitting, the only diners present, in unbelievably comfortable chairs.
Just to add a little thrill to your appreciation of this while you’re sipping your sake with gold leaf floating in it, none of the 13 dishes at Kanga-an had any meat, fish or animal product in it. I’m looking at the menu in front of me but I don’t think I can usefully tell you what the dishes were. The amuse (s)-bouche were sweets with very high quality green tea. The tempura included orchids. We had white miso soup, an unusual dish I think.
Did 12 courses of vegetables and one of fruit pall? We probably could have done with eight, but as I say, you could just watch and marvel.
And just to prove we really were there, sitting on the step on departure (aahh I haven’t mentioned departchiki, the food halls of department stores, or the food possibilities in railway stations or …)
You’d go to Japan for the food.