Monday, August 13, 2007



I am not going to lie to you.

By the time we got to Kyoto, I was all shrined out. Which is a bit of a shame as Kyoto is officially “ The Home of 2000 Shrines” It is littered with the buggers, everywhere you look, you will find the tell tale red signs that something or someone is being revered.

They range from the truly magnificent to the tiny and discreet. Not that I found out about any of that as I was at the point in my trip where, if I had been asked to see another temple or shrine, remove my slippers and bang a bell, I would have been seen running screaming down the street in the direction of the nearest nut house.

Castles, mind you were a different matter. I have been a sucker for castles, ever since I saw Pippin Fort on Camberwick Green and, when Yuka said that our trip to Kyoto included a stop to see the famous Hameji Castle, I was there with Samurai knobs on.

Fortunately, at our station, the gang were able to secure a locker big enough to fit my stupidly large backpack in, and I was able to join them as we spent a pretty fantastic hour or so wandering around this 16th Century wonderland with its secret hidey holes and defences against potential marauders of which, it turned out there were none such were its credentials for impregnability.

After another rapid train journey to Kyoto (which proved a little much for some of us) Yuka sat us down in the lobby of the last Ryokan of our journey and began to explain all the shriney excitement that Kyoto had to offer. She must have noticed me glazing over and, when after the meeting, I sidled up to her and asked if she minded if I gave it all a bit of a miss, she did not seem in the least bit surprised.

So, the next day, while the group headed for the bus stop for a day of visiting famous and important sights, I had a bit of “me” time, which started with a session at the launderette.

Strange as it may seem, but sitting for an hour or so watching my smalls go around, can be incredibly therapeutic and so it proved to be here as I read my book, sipped on a bottle of something or other I have bought from the nearest vending machine and just chilled out.

After I had dumped my laundry back at base camp, I was ready to head off and do a bit of a non-shrine based explore of my own which inevitable led me to the Nishiki Market, an enclosed strip where Kyoto comes to shop for some of its finer delicacies.

Kyoto, as well as being well known for its Shrines, is also considered one of the places in Japan for food and, in some cases, high end restaurants outside Kyoto claim to serve food in “ The Kyoto Style” meaning that they adhere to the levels and standards of those found in that city.

The market, while not huge, is a delight and much more of a shrine to the things I hold holy than anything with incense and a bell. For me, the smoke of a small grill topped with small, delicate fish to be served doused with sauce is a important a sign of our relationship with the divine as any church.

I spent an hour or so wandering up and down the strip, looking at fine lengths of Yuba ( soy milk skin) tiny crabs for frying and eating in one bite, vegetables pickling in rice ”brown” and enough other things that I did not have a clue about to keep me from regretting not seeing a temple or two.

Even more so when I pottered off for lunch.

Yuka had recommended a Kai-ten place for lunch called Moshashi, near the Kyoto City Hall. She was not wrong when she described it as being the best of its type in the city. I tried about eleven plates from the conveyor belt and every one was a mouthful of fresh excellence. One plate, I found out later, was a sashimi made of horsemeat which passed me by entirely as it melted in my mouth. Other plates were the more standard nigiri and sashimi and included more of that stupendously good Yuba.

By now, it was as hot and sweaty as a Yokazuna’s loincloth and I was about as smelly, so I followed a path to my other secret shame when I am on holiday and should be doing something much more historical. I went to the cinema. In this case, I went to see the new Harry Potter movie which was being shown in the local cinema in English with Japanese sub titles. Was it any good? Of course not. Was it any more edifying than seeing a whole heap of historical artefacts? Of course not. But, as I sat in the cool of the cinema in a reclining seat with an unfeasibly large tub of wasabi popcorn and a diet coke, I could not have given a Samurai’s knackers. I was in bliss.

Even more so that evening when the ever game Drew joined me for another journey through the land of The Izakaya.

Near our inn, there were three likely possibilities and Yuka had taught me the words, Tori-Karage “fried chicken” so I was armed with everything I needed to get by.

Well, at our first port of call, I tried out my one little bit of Japanese and, wonder of wonder, we got served with some pretty fine fried chicken. We also got served with some Chicken ovaries on skewers accompanied by some embryonic eggs that rather threw us until we tasted them.

But it was the next stop that will stay in my mind for a long time. A small bar with no door but a front covering of plastic to keep out the flies. As we pressed our noses against the plastic, there was the unmistakeable smell of superb frying and the sound of hordes of garrulous salary men enjoying their after work drinkie.

We just had to go in and, although it was packed to the gunwhales, the staff managed to squeeze us into a small table by the entrance and provide us with a couple of draft beers and some more of that fried chicken. If possible, this was even better than any I had tried on the trip so far. Crispy, meaty, moist and chewy. Everything good fried chicken should be. If they served chicken like this in London, I would find it hard to keep the chiselled body of the middle aged Adonis I sport at the moment, I can say for a fact.

After both swooning over this chicken, we went for a stroll to Kyoto Station, a controversial building which, because it was designed by a Gai-jin is was not welcomed by one and all. It is in fact, fabulous with twelve stories of open plan being reached by a series of escalators with stunning views until you reach the top where you get a truly panoramic view of the city.

The young un’s like it too as there is one area, supposedly out of bounds, where local love birds go to do what local love birds do naturally.

We tried one more bar on the way home for some more skewers which were not up to the standard of the rest of the evening and headed back to the inn where the ever reliable John from New Zealand had raided the vending machine and was sitting beatifically with a heap of cans in front of him, some of which, remarkably, had not been opened.

It was, despite crossing the threshold of nary a shrine, a very, very good day indeed.

So was the next day, but for a whole different set of reasons.

It was a free day for people to go and do whatever the hell they fancied. Most had more shrines on their list, but Yuka had arranged for me to meet the rather lovely Tomoko Osashi, a housewife from Kyoto and member of The Women’s Association of Kyoto whose aim it is to form links with other women’s groups around the world through the medium of cooking.

Well, despite some of my more nefarious activities, I can’t claim to belong to any women’s groups although there are, I believe quite a few dedicated to me, ahem. But, this did not seem to phase Tomoko in the slightest when she turned up at our agreed meeting place by a local post office to find a middle aged, balding ( if still gorgeous) man rather than some demure housewife from Basildon.

After the short walk to her home and after I had put on a pair of beguiling pink slippers which were two sizes too small, she began to give me a morning of cookery lessons which included much tut tutting at my ham fistedness and much deft twirling of chopsticks on her part.

By the end of it, I had learned the correct way to make miso soup with soft tofu and local greens (it is all down to the quality of the dashi apparently) How to make a dish of spinach with sesame seeds and how to properly roll maki sushi “ roll first, no press, now turn over and roll, roll, roll” and, best of all, the secret to perfect Tempura which is

Ta Da!

Well actually, it is to use Tempura powder.

All a bit of a let down. According to Tomoko, no housewife in Japan makes their own batter anymore. For two reasons, one being that it can be a bit of a faff. The other, more importantly, being that the end result, according to most people, is better with the ready made powder which gives a result with a crispier end result.

I must have looked a but unbelieving and crestfallen, because, she suggested we do a comparison. She, of course, knew how to whip up her own Tempura batter with the pre-requisite lumps and we made the same items ( sweet potato, shrimp, aubergine) from the two types. A blind tasting showed her to be 100% correct. I am definitely going to go in search of this stuff when I get back to London.

After a few hours, we sat down to enjoy the fruits of, well, her labours. I mainly photographed the event for posterity with a bit of stirring in between when I could not do any real damage.

But, between us we had combined to create a meal that did not disgrace the home of a Japanese housewife.

A particular favourite, was a chirashi Sushi, which is made up of the rice remaining after the Maki Sushi has been made (Nigiri sushi, the fish on top of a pile of rice is seldom, she explained, made at home but in restaurants) and is, to all intents and purposes a rice salad mixed with egg, off cuts of fish and herbs. It is served in the wooden dish into which cooked rice is poured to be cut and fanned before the sushi is made and is a favourite dish to take to a party.

By early afternoon, I suspect I had outstayed my welcome, so I said a cheery “ta-ta” to Tomoko who remained polite on the outside, but must have been give a hearty cheer on the inside at seeing the back of me.

I must admit to succumbing to a touch of monument action on the long walk back to the inn. But, true to form, it was a castle (the impressive Nihjo Castle in fact) rather than a shrine and, after about an hour of wandering around its gardens in the 40o heat, I was ready to head back to my air conned room and have a bit of a kip.

As it was our last night on the tour, we went out for a group meal which involved a bus ride and a deeply unimpressive and hugely expensive meal which left us all feeling considerably less than whelmed.

But, it was memorable for me at least ,as I tried to persuade my companions about the existence of “ Sumo Cheese” a delicacy from Tokyo that is made when the Yokazuna, after his moment of victory, takes a bath in milk that quickly sours because of the sweat from his body. The solids are separated from the milk by straining through his used loincloth and the cheese is compacted by the sumo sleeping on a board that presses the remaining liquid from the cheese.

I tried my best to persuade them and I saw a momentary look of belief in Yuka’s eyes until she caught the glint in mine and the game was up.

I am sure somewhere, however, that I can persuade some gullible soul about the existence of this fine item of food.

On the way back to the Ryokan, as we were all hungry, I persuaded everyone to stop into that local bar again for some beers and some more of that fried chicken.

It may not have been the end of my time in Japan, but it was the end of my time with this particular group of travellers. So, it proved to be an excellent full stop to what had been a hugely enjoyable couple of weeks.

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