Japanese Food – The High Quality Stuff!

My most read blog post to date – The REAL Japanese Food – highlights the everyday junk you will find in Japan in attempt to dispel the pervasive image of delicate sushi being eaten at every meal. So it’s only fair that I take your saliva glands on a tour of the more traditional stuff, especially the over-the-top feast we got served at a luxury ryokan (Japanese-style hotel with baths).

Back in Janaury, Calle and I snagged ourselves a bargain – a bargain so good that you’ll think I’m lying. Let me explain…

Tanabe is a small, rural town, in Wakayama prefecture, to the south-east of Kyoto. It’s a depopulating area with agriculture as its main industry. As a result, the Tanabe Tourism Bureau is striving hard to change this quiet, mountainous region into a must-see tourism destination. Combine these factors with the Japanese government’s attempt to gain back all the tourists scared away by the tsunami and earthquake, and you’ve got a lot of money being thrown into new tours for tourists.

Of course, someone has to go on the “trial” tour and provide feedback, namely, a questionnaire at the end. Of course, Calle and I were more than happy to be the test subjects. Especially when we got a three-day tour, all transport and accommodation (farm-stay and top-quality ryokan) for a mere 10,000円 (that was about £85 at the time, currently £76.60). Whatever the conversion, the tour was practically free.

Lunch: rice, pickles, stewed veg, tempura, miso soup.

The tour got off to a good start when we were informed that we would be eating in a very good quality restaurant in central Tanabe. Not the fanciest of lunches, because we wouldn’t have time. But it was more than substantial. Tempura, stewed vegetables, rice, soup and pickles. Although tempura is, by its nature, deep-fried and battered, the quality was really evident – the flavours of the vegetables and shrimp stood out, and the batter was crisp and non-greasy. I’m making myself hungry just thinking about it.

Tempura. Those shrimps were fantastic!
Veg, egg and “fish cake” stewed in an awfully bitter sauce. I was not a fan but it looks pretty.

Our evening meal was with with a Japanese family – the “farm-stay” part of the tour. Dinner consisted of yet more tempura (you can definitely have too much of it – in fact, you get sick of it very quickly!) but also these amazing rice cakes. The rice has spinach and some other kind of leaf in it. It’s topped with grated egg and minced chicken / salmon. Intriguing and more tasty than it sounds.

Chicken rice cake

We also got given some chicken and shrimp sushi (due to a misunderstanding of Calle’s “vegetarianism”. Chicken and shrimp is OK, right?!)

Egg and shrimp sushi and minced chicken sushi

But I want to particularly commend my host mother on the breakfast. I’ve always been a breakfast person. Within half an hour of waking, I’m ready to turn to cannibalism unless someone feeds me quickly. I can pretty much eat anything in the morning. Fortunately, my host mother was a woman who understood my desperate needs and prepared a feast, including freshly baked bread and the most delicious pumpkin soup.

Pumpkin soup – warming and delicious!

Next up…dieters, get excited by the best diet food in the world – こんにゃく (konnyaku). It’s a gelatinous substance made from the corm (fleshy, potato-like bulb) of a potato-like plant. Virtually tasteless, it’s about 97% water but incredibly filling, making it a great diet food. Of course, your body may also be nutrition-starved…

Konnyaku with a miso sauce

Check out the other delights:

Crisp, fresh salad
Rice wrapped in cabbage – surprisingly good!
I’m not a tea drinker but I loved this!

Finally, the ryokan. 

Reception area

Fujiya Ryokan is a luxurious ryokan with an outdoor bath and two indoor baths (and ping-pong that cost 250円 per 30 mins – rip-off!) It’s located almost opposite the Kawayu Onsen, a natural wonder where 73degC spring water flows into the river and is cooled to ~40degC, making it bearable enjoyable to humans. We could glimpse this wondrous bathing area from our bedroom window but sadly, by day, it looks a little like a gravel pit. At night, however, it was very relaxing to sit in it and gaze up at the trees and moon.

Kawayu Onsen

Our room was a perfect example of interior design – minimalist and simplistic. I find the style too sterile for my liking – although I feel it works very well in a hotel context.

Our room
Calle is Guardian of the Window

Plus we arrived to a snack and hot tea. And we got to wear Japanese bathrobes!

Tea and snacks! The snacks were a sweet rice puff bar with some kind of dried fruit – sounds naff, but they were really addictive!
Well, this is a fetching ensemble! (Yes, I know the shoes shouldn’t be on the tatami!)

Of course, the most important aspect of our stay was the food. Now please don’t judge me too harshly. But I didn’t get the fish dinner, I got beef. I love beef (gyuniku in Japanese). I love gyuniku so much that an unfortunate essay on “My favourite things” in beginners Japanese class earned me the nickname “Gyuniku Girl”.

To my delight, this is what greeted me when I took my place at the dinner table.

Look at that beef! And the beautified mushroom.

This is prime quality beef, as can be seen from the beautiful fat marbling. The Japanese really understand the need for fat in the meat to infuse it with taste, whereas people in the UK seem to commonly make the mistake in trying to find the leanest joint.

I had to quickly boil the beautiful beef and the accompanying vegetables and dip them in a soy-based sauce. The method supposed to emphasise  the natural and delicate flavours of the ingredients, which I am all for – I wouldn’t want anything strong to mask the taste of the beef. But couldn’t everything have been boiled in some kind of broth? Surely salt in the water is a basic necessity? As a result of this minimalism, I was a little bit sad as the potential of the beef wasn’t realised.

Fortunately though, I was also served this:

“Roast beef”

Have a look at the other delights we got served:

One large shrimp
Home-made udon – delish!
More konnyaku – this time with wasabi
The obligatory pickles to go with the rice. Includes an umeboshi – pickled plum, a speciality of the Wakayama prefecture.
Aubergine gratin – the only fail of the evening. Cheese isn’t common in Japan. Being able to cook well with it is even less common.
I’m allergic to strawberries 😦
What would be considered cheap sponge cake in the UK but is apparently luxurious in Japan. Cake blog post coming soon…

At breakfast, it really was fortunate that I could eat anything at any time in the morning.

Strong, bitter, green vegetables with fish flakes
More pickles
Tofu *sigh*
Mushrooms with sesame
Baked egg with broccoli

Overall, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the ryokan experience. I’m not someone who likes relaxing. And I don’t like lounging around in baths. Hot springs normally make me feel very faint. But with careful “heat management”, good company and good food, I could easily go again. In fact, the plans are currently being made…

Mystery Solved – Lion Beating!

Do you remember this mystery constellation? It was twinkling at me from the ceiling of my local department store that plays fake organ music at random intervals. (See here).

Well, fortunately, I now know that this man is not clubbing a monkey to death. He is Orion, the hunter. And he is clubbing a lion to death (which, er, makes it so much better!) Thanks to Catherine Harris for solving the mystery!

A week of “pu” / poo

The image of the polite Japanese shimmers in the Western imagination and is justified to a certain extent. But please remember. That businessman repeatedly bowing, that serving lady thanking you sixteen times ….they were children once. And children are always children. And farting, passing wind, blowing off – or however you want to call it – is always funny.

I teach two little sisters on a regular basis. They fart a lot. I sniff at them, asking “Who is smelly? Is it you?” and watch them squeal and blame each other. Great fun, if a little unpleasant on my nostrils.

This week, however, involved a lot of “pu” or poo, and it was only partly due to my puerile sense of humour. I work at a school in Osaka and Kyoto for just two hours a week where my job is to “play with the children in English”. This means I get to do skipping, play hide-and-seek, watch Doraemon, play soccer, play dodgeball, cut and stick, eat weird snacks like salty crackers with whipped cream and play tag (in which, I am always oni…the evil demon that has to chase the kids). This week, I was participating in a treasure hunt for letters that would spell out a clue. The key letter was プ which is pronounced “pu” or just like “poo”. A fervent discussion erupted among the children as to exactly where the “pu” should go, if it comes first or last…..and I really wanted to tell them what it was in English. But I withheld myself.

Poo re-emerged in one of my adult classes, an amazing listening lesson called A History of Drinks from Pearson Longman, where students have to put drinks in order of the oldest to newest. In a fervent discussion on healthy drinks, one lady piped up about some kind of fruit drink that “help you poo”. The other two ladies exhibited confusion which rapidly turned to shifting uncomfortably in their chairs.

I decided to take charge. “I think it’s better to say – ‘It’s good for your bowels.'”

“Bowels? What are bowels?”

Cue: pathetic drawing of the small and large intestines and more shifting in chairs.

“Remember to pronounce it well and to spell it properly. Don’t miss the “e” or you’ll be talking about bowls! Hahaha.” *silence*

Less than three hours later, poo came back with a vengeance. I was preparing some notes for a class with two nine-year old girls. Their English is pretty weak but I couldn’t have been more astounded when I found a portrait of myself on the board with “pu” written next to it.

Me: Is that me?
Student 1: Phoebe sensei, Phoebe sensei!
Me: My name’s not “Pu” – it’s Phoebe.
Student 1: Phoebe, Phoebe! Poo! Poo! Shite iru? Poo! [mimes pooing a little too skillfully] [giggles]
Me: [taking board pen] Yes, I know poo. But it’s spelt like this. P-O-O. POO!
Student 2: Phoebe, Phoebe. Look! Poo! [points at piles of dung she’s drawn] [giggles]

It’s amazing how many things transcend cultural boundaries.

When I said that Hina Matsuri was everywhere….

I meant everywhere. It works its way into your food…

Savoury cracker set with the ohinasama dolls...crackers include pink "sakura" ones because everything in Japan called "sakura" (cherry blossom) if it hasn't got "cute", "love" and "happy" already written on it.

Throw the dolls in the river!

Watch the dolls float away!

March 3rd – Hina Matsuri AKA Doll Festival AKA Girl’s Day in Japan

Since Valentine’s Day left the poor shop windows bereft, hina matsuri displays have been appearing. The simplest sets feature representations of the Emperor and Empress in traditional garb, sat side by side on a red floored setting, with various other traditional items, including sake, rice cakes and lanterns. The more elaborate include tiers that stretch from floor to ceiling. Here are some I found in the Isetan department store. Take a good look at the prices, convert them if needs be, then decide if you’d pay over half your monthly salary for the set.

Only Y630,000...

As with the commodification of everything in Japan, the dolls have been hard to miss. Seemingly innocent stickers lurk even inside ropeway compartments. I’ve had to make some of these out of tissue paper and card with the kids at school. (In fact, mine were very popular because I gave them spectacularly emo hair cuts with jagged fringes.) But actually, I’ve found this festival to be very charming, perhaps because it’s purely Japanese in origin.

It was today that the doll-delirium came to a head. When they were thrown into the river.

No, not the super-duper expensive ones. That would be just a little too stupid. Small, light, purpose-built ones were floated in baskets down the river which runs through Shimogamo shrine. This is part of a ceremony where people pray for the health of their children. The day also acts an excuse for parents to dress their daughters up in school uniform or traditional dress and take photos of them with a giant hina set, laid on a stage for the purpose. Needless to say, the kids were very very cute and snot-free.

Brother and sister cuteness alert!
The mini Emperor and Empress get ready for their photo shoot"

Our day continued on a very traditional theme as we decided it was time for some plum blossom viewing. Check out the glorious blossoms at Kitano Tenmangu shrine, which should be on all Kyoto visitors’ to-see lists.

Stunning plum blossom!
Crazy bull is unmoved by beautiful blossoms
Kitano Tenmagu and Plum Blossom

I may have this before but I really appreciate the overt appreciation for natural beauty in Japan. It causes me to look at the world around me with new eyes and re-examine things I would have walked past with only the briefest of glances. However, I can’t appreciate Ryoanji and it’s 15 rocks with raked rubble. Yes, it’s supposed to be one of the finest examples of a Zen rock garden. But I obviously can’t appreciate rock gardens. My inner zen is non-existent or only revealed when I’m in a more growing-things-filled environment. At 500円, Ryoanji is a total rip-off. To add insult to injury, you can wander the rest of the garden for free!

Enthralling. Inner Zen alert.

Aqueduct Adventures

Nanzenji Aqueduct

On a rather miserable January day, my friend Mimi and I decided it was time for some exploring, super-cold weather or no. So we headed to the Nazenji temple complex in Eastern Kyoto. I haven’t visited the main temple yet but this is on my to-do list and I recommend anyone visiting Kyoto to investigate this area.

Sitting at the foot of the eastern Higashiyama mountains lies a remarkable aqueduct. I say remarkable because it’s architecturally dissimilar to anything I’ve seen in Japan so far. Maybe it’s just because it reminds of Victorian railways bridges in England, but I want to cuddle up to  it as if it’s a precious relic from my past. I also associate it with the graffiti on the bridge between Junction 16 and 17 (clockwise) on the M25. Anyone know the one? See below.

Copyright: Sebastian Ballard

Regardless, it makes for really fun photos through the arches.

Wild Mimi appears! Go Pokeball, go!

And there’s a delightful, if dangerous walk, along the channel to the south (there’s a sheer drop behind me).

Along the aqueduct...

We also visited Nazen-in where you can wander a small garden for 300円. I absolutely adore Japanese gardens because, even out of season, they manage to charm with their intricate layouts and twisty trees. I imagine this garden really comes into its own during spring and autumn.


Lastly, no outing is complete without food or cake of some kind. So we stopped at Kyoto City International Foundation (KCIF / Kokoka) and got a coffee and cake set for an incredibly reasonable 500円. This cake is pleasantly chocolately – if a little dry – and was definitely satisfying after my adventures.

Chocolate makes life amazing