Tuesday, August 14, 2007



So, that was it for the tour.

I can’t say enough good things about Intrepid who organised the trip and about Yuka, our young but endlessly enthusiastic tour leader. They maintained the perfect balance of included activities and free time so that I was able to navigate the vagaries of Japan’s culture and language and also find my own story as I travelled around Japan.

One story I had not found was the one that most people had said I must not miss. The Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish market.

As a visitor, be it Japanese or from abroad, the market is a must but, unless you know the places to go and the rules involved, it can be a bit intimidating.

I had arranged to meet up with Aaron Davis, an Australian who has been in Japan for any number of years and who gets to the market as often as he can. It meant a 5am start so that we could be sure to see the auctions in action. A bit of a challenge as I had arrived from Kyoto the day before and, in the evening, made the most of my last opportunity to hit the Yakitori bars of Tokyo.

Apart from fluent Japanese, Aaron counts amongst his skills an amazing capacity to retain facts and, as we walked around, he gave an incredible insight into the market, its history and how it works now.

Originating as a market outside Nihonbashi, the fish market has been in existence for over 350 years from when it was set up to sell off the fish not eaten by the nobility.

In the 1920’s, a huge earthquake hit Tokyo and the market was moved from its original position to the current site in Tsukiji. It may have moved, but the same eight families who were in charge before were still in charge when it moved and are still in charge now. They rank amongst the wealthiest in the country, owning as they do, the fishing fleets, the auction houses and the distribution network of the fish from the market to all parts of Japan

As Aaron explained, the fish bought in the market can be in Osaka or Kyoto by lunchtime and one in every seven people in the country will eat fish that was sold in the market that morning in any given day. It is an incredible feat of logistics and also explains why both the buyers and sellers of fish have to be there from 1am in the morning.

Everyone knows about the incredible tuna that is sold in the market, but, to see it in action was a think of extraordinary marvel. Frozen fish from the Japanese seas are brought in by small shuttle ships that go from trawler to trawler allowing the larger boats to stay at sea constantly. The fish is brought in by one of the eight families and then examined by licensed buyers who tend to buy from the same auctioneer.

They buyers have contracts with numerous clients from high end restaurants, department stores and even convenience store chains to provide fish, so the pressure is really on them to buy the right stuff at the right price.

With tuna going for nearly Y5000 a kilo, it is little wonder that they recently beat the $1,000,000 mark for a single fish.

After we had been to the auction area, Aaron led the way to the Inner Market, which is open only to wholesalers. Unlike most of Japanese society, this is not a place where the men hold sway. Here, the woman is in charge. As the men cut fish, the woman sits in a small wooden cubicle and it is she who does the deals and keeps a track of all the cash.

The array of fish is beyond staggering. Abalone and eel sit along side tuna that would cost more than an arm and a leg back in London if, that is, you could actually get fish of that quality. As well as those fish I recognised, must have been about one hundred types, possibly even more, that I have never set eyes on before and which Aaron said had no English name that he had ever been able to find.

Over 30,000 people work in the market and it is, in effect, its own town within Tokyo which means it also houses a vast network of support services from restaurants to feed the workers to shops selling razor sharp knives and a general market to supply the public.

So, after a long stroll through all the areas of the market, we went for breakfast at Jiro’s. Kujiro’s family have been running a restaurant at the fish market for over 300 years, primarily to the local porters and fish cutters. He spoke decent English, and explained that the mornings assortment of sushi fish had not yet arrived which was a real disappointment but offset by a bowl of rice topped with more of that Unagi of which I had become so fond during my stay. It is not to everybody’s taste as the oiliness of the skin and the fatty nature of the flesh is unusual to say the last, but glazed with the slightly sweet sauce it proved to be the perfect breakfast.

After a quick walk through the back streets around the market including a stop for a squid ink ice cream, it was time to head back to the hotel and check out.

I pottered around Ueno for an hour or so before heading out to the airport and off to Hong Kong.

So, that was Japan, a little over two weeks in which I got the impression, I saw a lot and saw almost nothing this country has to offer. In which I tasted amazing things but tasted only a fraction of the extraordinary variety of what is to be found. In which I met the most friendly people but did not even begin to get below the skin of what make the Japanese people tick. In which, just when I thought I had the culture and the country sussed, something else popped up to throw me for a loop and make me realise that I understood the country not at all.

I ate incredibly well, from the simplest skewers of bits in the Yakitori bars of Piss Alley to the formal setting of our Kaiseki meal in Takyama. But, most of all, as EAT MY GLOBE was meant to be, the food brought me in touch with people. Not just people like Koji in Tokyo who treated me to my first meal in Japan, Tokomo in Kyoto who stood patiently by as I made a pig’s ear of my attempts at Maki Sushi or Yuka who stood equally patiently by as I stumbled off a bullet train with all the grace of a drunken elephant. But, also, Drew, the game, untravelled Australian who became my Sancho Panza in a quixotic search for good things to eat, John, the New Zealander whose beer glass never seemed to empty and who made sure that no one else’s did either and Devesh and Surat, who managed to persuade the Japanese that Vegetarianism was not akin to child molestation.

When I set out on this trip, I thought that it would bring me in contact with lots of local people from each region I visit. It has certainly done that. But, it has also brought me in touch with other visitors whose reasons for visiting places are different from but equally as valid as my own. They are proving to be just as much, if not more, a part of the story than I had ever anticipated.

Japan certainly did not let me down.

Let’s see what Hong Kong has to offer

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.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Well, of course that’s what you think of. There is no way that the devastating effects of 6th August 1945 and the after effects of the A-bomb are not going to inform every person’s conception of what Hiroshima was and, indeed, is.

And, of course, they inform every aspect of this amazing city too, from the quiet monuments to the dead and to peace to the shape and nature of the town where much of the city has been rebuilt along its old lines.

Good food apart, it may be obvious from the last couple of entries that Hakone and Takayama were not my sort of towns. Predicated on tourism, if for the Japanese rather than the westerner, they had a fake air about them which did little to beguile me. Hiroshima, on the other hand, was exactly my kind of town. Just the sort of place you think of when imagining modern day Japan.

Lively, bustling and frenetic, it still managed an air of civility about it that was perhaps missing in Tokyo. I think, Tokyo included, of all the places we visited, Hiroshima gave me most of what I was looking for. Certainly, it offered some of the best food I tried on the trip.

What I was not looking for was perhaps, the toughest journey of all. It took the best part of a day’s travel to get from one city to the other and, lots of short train journeys made sure that we were never on one train long enough to be able to settle down before having to clamber to the back of the carriages, hike our backpacks on and route march to the next train.

Our small, basic inn was a welcome sight when, eight hours later, we trudged wearily up to its front door. A welcome that seemed less warm when it transpired that it was also home to any number of American College students and, let’s just say the Golden Arches they were asking reception about did not belong to any shrine. Got to just love them.

Yuka, however, knew just how to cheer us up. Food and plenty o’it.

Hiroshima, amongst its many claims to fame, is the spiritual home of Okonomyaki, to all intents and purposes an pancake which, while being cooked with great skill on a hot plate is layered with a huge range of fillings including noodles, meat, vegetables and seafood. It is not fine food by any manner of means, but for hungry travellers, it was everything we needed.

So well know if Hiroshima for this delicacy that it even has an okonomyaki district which houses the greatest density of store fronts serving them than anywhere else in the whole of Japan.

After a quick beer in a neighbouring bar, we all decamped to one place which Yuka declared her favourite and sat watching in awe as the meal was prepared in front of us. A thin layer of batter spread out like a crepe is then layered with ramen or udon noodles, then shredded white cabbage, strips of pork, shrimp and vegetables, before being topped with an omelette and flipped one last time.

Served with a hot sauce and a cold beer, it is little wonder that it has become hugely popular.

It is fair to say that our spirits were much revived by then and someone, again, I totally deny the fact that it may have been me, uttered the fateful word “Karaoke”

Now, as I am sure you all know, Karaoke is very serious business in Japan with outlets of many floors being dedicated to the pursuit of folk, young and old singing out of tune to songs from the 80’s.

We chose “Big Echo” which allows you to rent out a private room housing about 12 people to sing to your hearts content while they provide you with free drink.

It was a dangerous combination and, if I am honest, no one came out of it with much dignity left intact. Although, it will come as no surprise that my rendition of “ You Are My Sunshine” is still being talked about as far as Yokahama.

It is just as well that the next day was a totally free day with no group activities. This allowed me to take a leisurely walk around the peace memorial park and the Hiroshima Peace Museum before visiting the A-Bomb Dome.

The Japanese attitude to the A-Bomb is an interesting one. In many ways they are quite matter of fact about it and openly put down the war and its tragic ending to “mistaken domestic policy” The view of the Americans too is quite understated with little blame attached merely a view that it should not happen again.

Whatever ones views about the dropping of the bomb (our group was split between those who thought it was politically and strategically expedient to those who saw it as a war crime) the human reality is hard to avoid and provokes incredibly strong emotions.

The A- Bomb Dome is the last surviving building in Hiroshima which survived the blast and is now preserved as a monument to the dead. I will not deny holding back a few tears as I walked around there and the memorial to the 140,000 who died on the day itself ( another 100,000 died in the following two years from their wounds and radiation poisoning) which stand as gentle reminders to future generations.

After walking past a small monument on a side street which marked the spot above which (at 600 metres) the bomb exploded, I needed to forget about the war and all its horrors for a while and see what the rest of the city had to offer.

In terms of shrines and temples, of course, very little as it was all destroyed. Some have been rebuilt but they offer little and Hiroshima Castle in particular was a bit of a dud with, perhaps, the dullest exhibition in history (about the local baseball team, The Hiroshima Carps) within its walls leading me to begrudge the thirty minutes and 300yen I had spent there.

Instead of the temples and gardens, I went in search of food and, in particular, the local speciality of grilled conger eel known as Anago. I found it in the small fish market located next to Hiroshima station. Unlike Unagi, this eel is grilled whole before being doused in a slightly sweet sauce. A stunning combination of crispy skin and fatty flesh that I can still taste as I write about it.

It’s not cheap with a portion coming in at nearly 1500yen, but it was worth every last penny and was one of the highlights of my trip to date.

Just enough to whet my appetite, so I stopped in at one of Hiroshima’s many fast food joints for a spot of lunch. Fast food in Japan is huge business and there are a number of chains which have built up to feed those who want to eat and go in the space of 15 minutes. In many, you choose from a menu outside before you set foot in the place, buy a ticket for the corresponding meal from a vending machine inside the front door and hand it to the server when you sit down at the counter. About a minute later your meal is in front of you with some free water and green tea and you are all set.

This time, I chose a particularly peculiar Japanese speciality, curry & Rice or “Kurry Riasau” which can trace its roots back to British naval visitations in the 19th century. This curry though would be unrecognisable to anyone from India and, indeed, the UK. It is sweet with chunks of meat and sometimes fruit in it and the Japanese love it. It is their comfort food. Their hangover food and their chicken soup.

Me? I thought it was just a little odd but, not as odd as the $100 square melon I saw at a department store I saw on my way home. Definitely one for the 'foreigners are funny" collection

After a long day’s walking, I had an early night and, after a quiet unmemorable supper, I had an early night.

Just as well as, the next day, I decided to subject myself to some unplanned exercise. Myajima Island is a short journey on a JR line train and a ferry from Hiroshima, but definitely worth a visit for its stunning views and primarily for The Tori Gate, considered one of the three most important sights in Japan.

The whole island is treated as a shrine and, although people now live there it is still not legal for babies to be born there or for people to die there. The Tori Gate, sitting out in the harbour was a symbol of the gateway to the shrine and, despite being torn down by the occasional Typhoon ( the current one has been there since 1875) remains one of Japan’s most treasured possessions.

I was being quite well behaved at this point and walked with the group as we went “ooh” and “ah” and took some pictures of the gate as it appears to float in the water. But, then there was another shrine to visit, shoes to be taken off and more purifying of hands and bells to be wrung.

Not for me. So, I took this opportunity to leave the rest of them and go and explore the island which fortunately had a lot more to offer.

In food terms, there are quite a few things that are unique to the island including small cakes filled with the inevitable red bean paste, that are shaped like the maple leaves that can be found all over the island, fried oysters (I like them, they don’t like me) and long skewers of minced cuttlefish deep fried.

All of these were worth trying. What was not worth trying was a tub of a rather frightening cold substance I bought from one of the vendors on the main shopping drag. A strange mix of Uni (sea urchin) squid and a sweet tomato sauce. It tasted as I would imagine a bowl of snot and ejaculate might taste and it took me at least four cans of diet coke to get the taste of the one and only bite I took out of my mouth. The thought of it still makes me quiver as I write.

OK, the exercise. Mount Misen rises high above Myajima Island and is considered, like so many mountains in Japan, sacred. So, I decided to climb it.

Silly really, I had nothing on but training shoes and the roads to the top are not the most user friendly. Also, in 90o heat and almost 100% humidity, the steep ascent became less and less of a good idea the further I went.

After nearly two hours of climbing upward, I finally reached the top. It was, after all that, worth it and the views from the island, quite magical as the mists gathered around me.

There is little to report for the rest of the day except my first encounter with Panchinko, that rather mystifying little game that so enthrals the Japanese. A game involving a large number of silver balls that bounce around a vertical board in a way that all the Japanese seem to understand as soon as they come out of the womb, but was still a mystery to me even after a few attempts. While my neighbours made deft hand movements on a small dial to control the movement of the balls mine just seem to arrive and disappear in rapid succession and my game was over almost as soon as it began.

After that, a walk around Nagarekwa, the red light district with its girly bars on umpteen floors and small bars offering Yakitori. I stopped at one to eat a bit of Pig's heart, well you are forced to aren't you and then headed back to the hotel to join some of the others who had emptied the nearest vending machine of its beery contents

The next morning saw one of the more remarkable encounters of our trip. Yuka had arranged for us meet with Keijiro Matsushima. A man in his 80’s who was one fo the few remaining survivors of the A Bomb. Again, people’s political opinions aside, to hear an account of the day of the bombing from a man who, fifteen at the time, witnessed the resulting fall out, the casualties on the day and the ongoing horrors of radiation poisoning was something that no one on the trip will forget and, I have to admit, there were tears welling up even amongst the most hardened of us.

It was a fitting end to the trip. So, after our morning, we headed back to our hotel and collected our backpacks for the last leg of the journey to Kyoto, home of 2000 Shrines and the best Izakaya of the whole trip.

Friday, August 03, 2007


OK, let’s start with a pop quiz.

How much for a bunch of grapes? £3? £5 for really nice ones. Wrong. In fact, in Japan, as wrong as wrong gets. Let’s try £30 shall we? And, that is for a very small bunch of grapes at that.

Ah, the joys of Japanese department stores.

And, indeed, the joys of travelling in Japan.

Another arduous journey (including the stop that allowed me to spot said grapes) this time from Hakone to Takyama, a small city that is renowned for its preservation of a neighbourhood of 17th Century houses and its morning markets

As in Nikko and Hakone, we were staying in a traditional inn, but this time perhaps the nicest of the whole trip and the most set in its ways, requiring slippers to be worn at all times and for us to ponce around in our robes for a good part of our stay. You love it you know you do.

For all that, it was comfortable with delightful rooms and a well appointed bathing area which I made full use of despite my fellow male travellers complaining of getting a full view of “ the last chicken in the shop”

The town itself was rather pretty and Ye Olde Worldy streets definitely worth a visit, particularly for the Sake breweries we made certain to visit.

As the picture shows, I may well have bonded with a 10,000 litre vat of the good stuff.

But, that is not why I shall remember Takayama until the end of my days.

The first reason is that, included in our trip were two Keiseki style meals prepared at our inn by one of the best regarded chefs in the region. Formal dress was obligatory ( where, of course, our guide looked great and we looked like the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and we were served myriad courses of small portions representing the very best ingredients of the region from their hand harvested mountain vegetables and herbs, to locally caught river fish to more of that exquisite Yuba.

Best of all, however, was the second reason I shall always remember Takayama, Hida Beef.

We all know Kobe beef, but few people outside Japan are aware of its cousin, Hida. From the same breed, Wagyu as Kobe, it is regarded by many as its superior because of the marbling of fat. I can’t claim enough expertise to make a true comparison, but, when cooked slowly over a tea candle with a small amount of broth and a few local vegetables it is a taste I shall carry with me for a long time.

More so because I had the good fortune to bump into the wealthy local butcher in a bar the evening of our arrival and he invited me to come and take some pictures of his shop. Now, this was no ordinary butcher’s shop. This was serious stuff with the head cutter in action slicing the local delicacy as if it were the finest sashimi.

The third and fourth reasons I shall remember Takayama involve a small izakaya in a small alley way near out ryokan.

I am, as you may realise by now, fairly happy to walk into any bar, even if I don’t know the system, and try and figure it out. So it was here. On our first night, oafter our Keiseki meal, I was still pretty famished and persuaded most of the group to come with me on a bar crawl. After a couple of non descript places with non descript food, we wandered into our last bar of the evening and I spied THIS

Ok, look at the picture for a while and then, when you have settled down, come back to me.

Calm now? Good.

Well. It was every bit as good as it looks. In fact, I can say hand on fatty heart, it was the some of the best belly pork I have ever tasted. So good that I persuaded my less enthusiastic chums to try some. They did and they agreed. Man, it was good. Fatty, crispy, sweet, sour, chewy, tender. It was God in pork form and it was mine.

So good, in fact, that the next day, I persuaded Drew to meet me for a pre Kesieki drink and a plate of porky goodness. Even better we complimented it with a few pieces of equally stunning fried chicken.

I love this country.

I was so happy that, as the last picture shows, I even let them persuade me to go bowling. I totally deny the fact that I may have suggested the idea and had a screaming hissy fit until they all agreed to come.

But, don’tcha just love the shoes?