Friday, 3 June 2011
Cheese and Biscuits On Tour - Japan
It's not so much culture shock as culture electrocution. From the moment you arrive in Japan, you are subjected to an overwhelming, indecipherable barrage of population and neon and noise; of train stations like underground cities that stretch for miles in every direction; of restaurants piled on top of restaurants piled on top of shops, squeezed into the most impossibly tiny cracks between impossibly tall buildings; of Zen gardens, raked gravel and the gentle fog of incense; of frantic activity and astonishing order; of service polite to the point of humbling, a thousand variations of smiles and nods and bows that makes human interaction in this most overpopulated of societies not only possible but a constant, life-affirming joy. There aren't enough words in the world to describe just how much it all is, just how much Japan there is in Japan. It's civilisation squared. It's also completely wonderful.
But I imagine you're here to read about the food. Needless to say, at 3 meals a day for two weeks, I will need to be more than a little selective about what to write about, which, considering nearly everything I put in my mouth was interesting in one way or another, is not going to be easy. But like Japan itself I can only hope I can create some kind of narrative out of the chaotic jumble of holiday photographs and sake-sodden tasting notes, and I'll try my best to not get anything too horrifically wrong.
Getting things horrifically wrong, in actual fact, was the one thing I was most terrified of before I landed in the country. Having heard all kinds of stories of complex social rules of engagement, and the numerous seemingly innocuous ways in which a clueless Westerner may inadvertently break them, I spent my first few hours desperately attempting not to offend anyone. I had read somewhere that blowing your nose in public was a no-no, and when the bright Tokyo sun hit my jetlagged eyes and caused my nose to run, I locked myself in one of the many pristine public lavatories in case someone saw me empty my sinuses, contacted the authorities and cancelled my visa. Of course, this turned out not to be true, as a brief but enlightening trip on the JR line amongst a cacophony of sneezing and snorting commuters soon demonstrated.
A bowl of udon in Ueno station (nice and messy, ¥700 ish) and a J.S. Burger in Shibuya aside (¥900 but look, they had free WiFi, OK?), my first proper meal was at Yotaro, a tempura restaurant in Roppongi Hills, organised through the magic of Twitter, the kind intervention of @legbye and a very helpful contact on the ground in Tokyo. You'd think that, armed with a name, a location, a superfast hotel internet connection and a set of detailed instructions from the nearest tube, finding it would be reasonably straightforward but, this being Tokyo, I spent half an hour stalking the alleyways of Roppongi asking in every building that looked like it might sell food until eventually I called my contact, had him call the restaurant, and the chef came running out into the street to find me. Turned out I had walked past it a number of times but assumed it was someone's house. Japanese restaurant signage is very discreet.
The meal was fantastic. Starting with grilled conger eel in miso, followed by beautifully-presented sea bream sashimi with the most incredible yuzu/ponzu dipping sauce, the tempura tasting itself consisted of at least a dozen items - "shrimp sandwich", prawn, whiting, squid, lotus root, Japanese peppers which bore a remarkable resemblance to Padrons, mushroom, aubergine, and another prawn - each fried to order and brought out one by one with instructions to eat them first dipped in salt. Then a whole sea bream was baked in rice and meticulously filleted using chopsticks and presented with a little tower of bouncy pickles and a great clear vegetable broth. I had been told that Yotaro was awarded a Michelin star in the famously star-heavy Tokyo guide and I couldn't resist asking the chef (who spoke excellent English thank God) if this meant anything to the Japanese. "Not really," he replied, "but for a while we had a few more foreign visitors." A land where Michelin means next to nothing. My kind of place.
And so, collecting a couple of members of my family along the way and boarding the bullet train from Tokyo station, to Kyoto. Where Tokyo was impressive in a dazzling futurist kind of way, Kyoto is refined and elegant and effortlessly beautiful. It is a city of ancient temples and ancient lantern-lit alleyways populated by silken geishas and sharp-suited salarymen. The food market was endless and endlessly fascinating; we gorged on fresh fried chicken thighs and a selection of interesting pickles, none of which I could pick out of a line-up, and ate bright red baby octopus, the head stuffed with a quails egg. That evening we climbed a rickety wooden staircase in an anonymous ramshackle backstreet to a sushi restaurant, and ate uni nigiri washed down with copious amounts of house sake. One little custom I very much approved of was the tendency to serve sake in glasses stood in a high-sided saucer, and then to overfill the glass so the sake fills both the glass and the saucer to the brim. Or maybe I just like lots of sake and don't care which traditional Japanese custom I can use an excuse.
Lunch on one of the Kyoto days was, and I'm guessing will forever remain, one of the most unbelievably beautiful places I've ever enjoyed a meal; a steep-sided, moss-covered mountain gorge framed a series of crystal-clear waterfalls, over which were suspended wooden platforms holding tables and cushions (this, like most of the poshest Japanese restaurants, was a cross-legged affair). To the sound of running water and under bamboo shades hung with paper lanterns, we ate exquisitely presented sushi; local vegetables, whole deep-fried river fish, silky sashimi and more of those bouncy, sweet pickles. It was one of those moments so ethereally magical it's hard to believe it happened at all - I can hardly even believe the photos.
But I'm not going to pretend that every moment of every meal in Kyoto or elsewhere was that easy. In my own arrogant bloggery way I assumed I was sufficiently battle hardened to unusual ingredients and textures to be able to casually throw down my neck everything coming my way in Japan. In fact, oh so naively, I initially relished the opportunity to challenge myself and for the first couple of days actively sought out anything that looked like it might not go down without a fight. I'm not sure when exactly the last of that confidence was completely crushed; perhaps with a shockingly bitter whole fried fish in a multi-course foraged menu in Kyoto which was like swallowing a mixture of soil and bones; perhaps with an entire, raw baby squid I blithely assumed was marinated or treated or something (I mean come ON) only to have the poor recently deceased thing burst in my mouth like a bag of fish guts and provoke a swift but decisive reaction from my oesophagus; or perhaps it was the warm cod's sperm. Yes, probably the warm cod's sperm.
The thing to remember, of course, is that while the occasional dish or ingredient was challenging or, yes, sometimes downright revolting, the experience of eating the meal in such special circumstances - inevitably gracious service, stunning interiors (the Japanese must be the world masters at interior design, everywhere we ate looked like it was from the pages of a glossy magazine) - meant that you always came away satisfied. Occasionally though, a restaurant would test my good will to the limit. One night in Kyoto, in yet another effortlessly pretty, lantern-lit restaurant hanging over a quietly flowing canal, we were presented with a harmless-looking bowl of spinach/egg roll, a pretty selection of seasonal vegetable and edible flowers, topped with what looked like a lump of fish mousse of some kind. The waiter explained, in Japanese, the ingredients (fortunately we had a translator with us by this point), said translator (actually my brother-in-law's brother who has lived out there for nearly four years now) passed on what he thought we needed to know, and I merrily scooped up all of the "fish mousse" in one go and swallowed it. Try and imagine, yes, a fish mousse, but one that has been made from last year's catch and left in the sun for most of the time in-between to gather flavour. It tasted like no food should ever taste, grimy and funky, with the texture of porridge and the inescapable musky notes of fish sex.
"What the hell was that?" I gasped as, somehow, mercifully, the last of it wobbled down into my stomach.
"Oh that's cod's sperm. I didn't want to say anything in case you were squeamish. I don't like it."
I didn't much like it either. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I found it pretty bloody disgusting. I also didn't like the fact it reminded me of its presence in my gut every time I attempted to wash away the taste with a swig of bland Japanese lager. Still, I guess that's what's known as a Life Experience.
After the always entertaining but occasionally terrifying experience of eating out in Kyoto, Osaka seemed much more my cup of tea. The city is known for Takoyaki, fried balls of octopus meat in thick batter, often dressed with brown sauce and mayonnaise and always, always delicious. We came armed with lists of recommendations for the "best" Takoyaki but quite honestly, everywhere we ate, from the most unpromising city-centre tourist trap to a standing-room-only streetside stall, was never less than excellent. An average-evening's restaurant hop also often involved a serving of Okonomiyaki, a sort of pancake containing meat and veg and basically anything you fancy. Cooked on a hot plate built into the table, coated in more of that sharp brown sauce and mayonnaise and squirling bonito flakes, it's a theatrical, hugely enjoyable way to eat and we made the most of every opportunity.
More high-rise and less beautiful perhaps than Zen-like Kyoto, though no less interesting for that, Osaka was probably my favourite stop in Japan. The Shinsaibashi shopping area was continually interesting, every restaurant or stall seemed good and friendly enough to spend the day in, and despite the fact that hardly anyone spoke English (even fewer than in Kyoto, which is saying something), accomplishing anything seemed remarkably easy. One night we found ourselves in the suburbs eating the greatest ramen I think I've ever had in my life, accompanied by a dozen crispy gyoza dumplings, and yet I didn't get the impression this particular ramen joint was a destination or better than any number of other places. The minimum standard of eateries in Japan is simply astonishingly high; it is no exaggeration to say you will eat well (if you have a strong enough stomach) anywhere, something you can't say about many countries. And even if you don't eat out, the supermarkets and department store food halls are a wonder in themselves. Where else has a single melon on sale for £100, and yet in the same room two thick chunks of unbelievably marbled Wagyu steaks for £15? I indulged myself one night towards the end of the trip - because I'm worth it - and cooked up a couple in a friend's flat. They were, of course, superb.
There's a lot more left to be said. This continually enthralling country will resist all best efforts to summarise it sufficiently - I wanted to talk about silky udon in Shikoku, the breathtaking Imperial Villa in Kyoto, cold soba for lunch, fish ice-cream, fermented sushi that tasted like blue cheese, pork shabu shabu in Shinjuku Tokyo - but perhaps I should call this post before long-winded spills over into self-indulgent. You can click here and here to see the rest of the photos I took on the trip, and there are even a few shaky videos here if you don't suffer too badly from seasickness (or haven't just "enjoyed" a dish of warm cod's sperm). Now I'm back in the UK, nursing my broken bank balance and surrounded by the pile of anthropomorphised snacks I swept into my carry-on luggage in the 7-11 at the airport, memory has only served to gold-plate my experience in Japan, to frame and polish and mount it as one of the great journeys of my life. Perhaps you only really enjoy a moment once it's passed. Unless, that is, the moment in question involves warm cod's sperm.