FooDiva's Japan Trail
If you’re reading this, no doubt you’re as much of a foodie as I am, or else you’re just plain nosy. Either way, please read on.
My travels are just beginning, and with a passion for eating (and the odd tipple, in particular anything bubblelicious), please join my gastronomical journey starting with:
Appetiser – Japan: Given that Tokyo has more Michelin-star restaurants (191 to be precise) than any other city in the world, Paris-included, it’s no surprise food is high on everyone’s agenda including your very own FooDiva’s. From tuna sashimi, straight from the fishermen’s catch at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market to Wagyu and Kobe beef where cattle are not only fed on grain and beer, but massaged, and ‘fugu’ blowfish which if not prepared corrrectly can poison you, ready yourselves for a mouth-watering tale. My journey will call on Tokyo first, onwards to Koya-san for a buddhist temple vegetarian experience, Kyoto, Osaka and their numerous surrounding townships, and last but not least Hiroshima.
More to come later this week….until then…sayonara.
Tuesday, 17th August, 2010, 6.40pm, Tokyo: Konnichiwa from Japan! Well apart from the hotel’s great bar with the most stunning view of Tokyo Bay (thank you Conrad!) that we checked out last night on arrival (note, I would certainly recommend warm sake for jet lag – you sleep like a baby).
Anyway I digress…well apart from that, our foodie experience didn’t get off to an authentic start. We woke up early to check out the world’s largest fish market for a sashimi breakfast, but it was closed (due to some public holiday yesterday). Good to see it’s not only Dubai that has temperamental public holidays. That’s now scheduled for tomorrow – if I can get up early. So we resorted to a Western breakfast, very nice anyhow (at Cerise by Gordon Ramsay I should add.).
We stumbled upon the New York Bar & Grill at the Park Hyatt where Lost in Translation was filmed…I guess I was hoping to bump into Clooney more than Bill Murray. And for the lads out there, definitely no Scarlet Johansson lookalikes…
By the way, for my veggie friends, there’s plenty of choice here…..Aveda has a cute organic cafe that we popped into for some respite from the tremendous heat here. Bring back my lovely Dubai air-conditioned environment.
I realise this is a foodie blog, but it would be a shame not to highlight some of our other leisure activities, or at least do’s and don’t for other travellers: Do go up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building’s observation tower – not as high as Burj Khalifa but you certainly see more and it’s free! And if you’re lucky you might see Mount Fuji on the horizon. Don’t bother with the Meiji shrine, it may be a real heritage site, but it’s not well maintained…leave the culture for Kyoto. Check out the Omote-sando area for a Parisian designer shopping and cafe feel – Japanese architecture at its most modern, some truly impressive buildings on a tree-lined boulevard. And Ginza, the other shopping paradise – the Apple shop is just as good as New York’s. If you’re a storage freak like me, pop into the biggest Muji you have ever seen.
Anyway, a Japanese experience awaits us tonight. Let’s hope the restaurant is open – more later inshallah. Sayonara.
10.40pm: Finally a taste of real Japan – they eat early here, restos close by 9pm…ironically a bit like the US. Luckily we made it in time, and for a six-course ‘Kaiseki’ feast at Kazahana restaurant – almost like works of art on a plate. Some absolutely yummy, and others…well only nice to look at. Highlight was the melt-in-your-mouth kobe beef teppanyaki. Portions are teeny, no wonder they are so skinny here, Mireille Giuliano (note, best-selling author of French Women Don’t Get Fat and a huge fan of mine) would be proud – I could have eaten two Kaiseki’s. Sea bass and tuna sashimi were good but am hoping tomorrow morning will be better.
Wednesday, 18th August: Looks like I did not beat the jet lag after all…with a few hours sleep, at 5am we rose for Tsukiji fish market. I have heard and read so much about this market over the years, it was top of my to do list. Thankfully it’s a few minutes walk from the hotel, no chance of getting lost with that smell around. It really is the world’s largest of its kind. I have never seen anything of this scale before, where life size tuna battle it out with live lobster and scallops. Name any fish, it was there. We also had our own battling to do, trying to avoid the mini vans as they delivered their catch to the stalls. We surfaced alive, ready for our fish breakfast.
There are a handful of sushi bars just as you exit the market – all in a row, and all with queues. We picked one where we could distinguish the fish on the menu (name begins with Y). The norm seemed to be sushi, but I opted for sashimi, yes at 7am – I guess that’s jet lag for you. Fatty tuna (toro), salmon and yellowtail (hamachi) for me. The fatty tuna was so tender, I think it was on a par with last night’s kobe beef. Even mum tried it too! Washed down with lovely japanese tea. By the way, the Japanese do not add wasabi to the soya sauce….but eat it separately. Hot! After a few slices, I was done – as much as I love sashimi and could eat it most days, I tend to prefer it for lunch or dinner. By the way, these sushi bars remain open until 2pm, even though the market closes at 9. Yo
u need to get here soon though, as they are moving the market outside Tokyo next year apparently. Real shame as it’s a huge tourist attraction, and so accessible for the city’s many hotels and restaurants, but that’s the real estate market for you.
Another of the city’s renowned foodie attractions, are the food halls that grace the basement of every department store – just check out the immaculately displayed fruit selection. You really don’t want to spoil the line-up. Great deli-style dishes for take-away.
Popped across to the Imperial Palace gardens or estate I should say today, visitors can enter the gardens and walk over the bridge, but the palace building needless to say is out of bounds. Tokyo is an easy city to walk around if you can bare the heat, otherwise jump on the metro.
Friday, 20th August, Koya-san: Hello…hope you have not missed me – now back online after a busy couple of days…first things first HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAD! When I last signed off, I was heading off to sample Japan’s gastro-pub culture in the form of an ‘izakiya’ as they prefer to call it (Wednesday night). After a quick metro ride, and a very confused taxi driver, we arrived in Tokyo’s Shibuya district (a bit like Piccadilly Circus or Times Square). ‘Kaikaya’ which translates to ‘By the sea’ is hidden away in a little residential side street. By the way Tokyo’s Luxe Guide is the best – I live by them on all my travels. Customers are greeted with shouts of ‘Irrasshaimase’ before being seated at communal tables. Such a buzzing pub like atmosphere with a mix of Japanese and expats, it’s an incredible experience. Just made it in time before 9.30pm last orders – I am amazed at how such an international metropolis manages to eat early…better for digestion I suppose. Waiters double up as chefs, and were ever so accommodating. Menu was in English thank goodness, and as the name suggests fish is the order of the day. I ordered their signature special, a shank of tuna cooked a la spare ribs with the proverbial steamed rice – my mother opted for a sizzling octopus and spring onion dish. OMG, my tuna was divine, I realise I keep on repeating myself but it was so succulent and tender, three days later I am still dreaming of it. Warm sake was the perfect accompaniment, as were the two friendly Japanese gents seated next to us. The Japanese are the most hospitable and polite people I have ever met, despite the language barrier, they will approach you and ask if you need any help…whether it’s directions or for translation. Other nationalities please take note.
As an aside, on Thursday we left Tokyo behind for a day trip to Hakone, famous for its sulphur springs, onsen, and views of Mount Fuji. A tad touristy but picturesque and nice to escape city life for a few hours. It’s also the home of the Gotemba Premium Outlet Mall which if you have the time is worth a visit. Good buys in Japan are definitely anything electrical, as well as the home-grown Japanese designers and cosmetic brands. Naturally, European and US brands are ridiculously expensive. By the way, the ‘shinkansen’ bullet trains make train travel blissful.
With only a few hours left in Tokyo, I had to take in the spectacular night-time views from Conrad Tokyo’s 28th Floor bar one last time. You could sit there for hours mesmerised. A couple of glasses of Veuve and a hot Brazilian guitarist as entertainment…what more could a girl ask for.
Leaving the bright lights of Tokyo we headed to Koya-san on Friday morning – one taxi, three trains, one cable car, one bus, lots of walking with three sets of luggage (I don’t travel light), and seven hours later – we arrived at our Buddhist temple. Koya-san is a monastic retreat up in the mountains of Kansai’s Wakayama-ken (nearest city is Osaka). Needless to say, it’s an extremely peaceful respite complete with cedar-lined avenues, and a much cooler clime. We lodged in a ‘shukubo’ temple, called Eko-in. Luckily we asked for en-suite, otherwise we would be bathing with the whole of the temple in the public bath. Dinner is always served at 5.30pm in your room – at the rate I am going, dinner with soon merge into lunch. Buddhist vegetarian fare is called shojin-ryori, exquisitely presented as you can see – but all I could stomach was miso soup, some luke-warm vegetable tempura, steamed rice, a slice of watermelon and of course my now-daily sake tipple. Thank Buddha, mum brought some emergency supplies. Our after-dinner entertainment will be a tour of Japan’s largest cemetery, it’s meant to be magical, if at all possible – catch you later if the ghosts don’t spook me!
Saturday, 21st August, Kyoto: Well the ghosts did not gobble me up last night. The cemetery is definitely the highlight of Koya-san – not only is it Japan’s largest (2km long) but the favourite of many high-ranking individuals, including corporations that purchase tombs in advance for their senior team! That’s some HR perk, multinationals take note. I slept soundly and nightmare-free on my tatami floor bedding, to be woken by the Buddhist drums for a 7.30am breakfast in our room. Looked exactly the same as dinner (hence no more photos) so could not stomach.
Anyhow moving on swiftly to my first foodie experience in Kyoto – ‘okonomiyaki’ which literally translated means ‘cook what you like’. Otherwise known as a Japanese pancake or pizza, it’s a mix of crepe and omelette I would say, stuffed with beef, prawns, egg, spring onion and many other ingredients. It’s actually a Hiroshima dish, but Kyoto has its own version – I’ll let you know the difference nex
t week. It is absolutely delicious, very filling and I think I will try and make it when I am back. Will post the recipe if it tastes any good. Quaint little cafes around Kyoto specialise in this one dish – I tried it in Gion. Oh by the way we spotted a few geisha’s or maikos (apprentice geisha)! Geisha spotting is a bit of a tourist attraction, and small crowds gather in Gion’s entertainment district to catch a glimpse of them scurrying to an appointment – pure magic when you see them!
Dinner tonight was a modern Japanese restaurant ‘Kesako’ in the heart of Gion, off Higashiyama-ku – a very quaint district full of 17th century houses converted into restaurants and shops. There are literally hundreds of restos to choose from and all look fabulous, but when you’re looking for an English menu, the numbers dwindle. Given my okonomiyaki starter, I went straight to main with the Kyoto beef – not as tender as the Kobe from the other night, but on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say 8 so still pretty good. It’s gonna be tough eating beef back in Dubai. Swopped my usual sake for a refreshing Bellini, I know it’s not very local but I had a Cipriani craving. Ciao for now.
Monday, 23rd August: Other than Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, my other foodie driver for visiting Japan was green tea. Rather than a traditional, and quite touristy tea ceremony, yesterday I opted to visit Kyoto’s Kaboku Tea Room which is part of the Ippodo Tea Company, specialist tea suppliers since 1717. Here visitors can choose and prepare their own tea (you have a choice of 40 different types of green!) using traditional Japanese methodology, guided by the excellent tea-room assistants. We brewed and tasted Gyokuro and Bancha green teas – each version brewed in a different way. I guess my Western palate was more acclimatised to Sencha, of which I purchased three different types at their shop next door. It’s also the easiest to brew, and best drank relatively hot. They also do mail order. http://www.ippodo-tea.co.jp/ Thank you Wallpaper guide. The tearoom and store are located on Teramachi-dori, a beautifully quaint street with lots of antique and quirky shops mostly with French names…so you get the picture – definitely worth a ramble.
If you’ve had enough of Japanese food like mum did last night, try out the Garden Oriental restaurant – Italian with an Asian twist if that’s possible. Renowned as Kyoto’s most trendy restaurant, it certainly lives up to expectations. Set in a grand old house amongst a maple-tree-filled garden, the setting is stunning, as was the food. As you can probably now expect, I have to highlight the Kyoto beef carpaccio – utterly bellissimo.
Earlier today, we stumbled across the market Nishiki – mainly a foodie paradise, but local craftsmen also sell their wares. Like all markets, it’s huge with everything from fish, vegetables, rice, nuts and local sweets to sushi and hot savoury delicacies – as per usual all immaculately presented. Very atmospheric, and as it was a week day not too hectic. We lunched on a two-tier bento box with miso soup, sashimi, tempura, sushi rice and lots more that I can’t name!
A short stroll away is the Kyoto Design House with some really pretty creations – and some even appealed to my handbag fetish!
Kyoto is temple-tastic, no visitor would ever be able to visit them all – just pick and choose your favourites. By far the most striking is Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), which as the name suggests its golden exterior gleams in the sunshine. A very close second is Sanjusangendo which houses 1,001 life-sized statues of the Kannon Bodhisattva – very impressive. Each statue is hand-carved from cypress wood in the 12th and 13th centuries and covered in gold leaf – no photos are allowed but do google it. Ryoanji temple is famed for its dry rock garden, but the lily-pond garden is by far prettier – almost like Monet’s Giverny garden. The highlight of Tenryuji temple is the Sagano Torokko Ressha – a bamboo grove which is truly breathtaking and so serene to meander through. A couple of others to mention are Kodaji and Hokanji’s Yasaka-no-to pagoda. I’ve had my share of temples now to convert to Buddhism.
We were meant to brave Osaka tonight (only 20 minutes on the shinkansen from Kyoto), but laziness took over and with only one last night left in pretty Kyoto we decided to stay put. Fuyacho Sanjo called instead – a 100-year old ‘machiya’ (traditional house) converted into a petite eaterie serving a modern take on traditional Kyoto-ryori dishes. We ordered duck in sesame sauce, grilled chicken, deep fried prawns with avocado, and tempura vegetables with steamed rice of course. Every morsel was delicious…as with the whole of Japan, portions are teeny, so don’t listen when they say it’s enough for two. Just order double! We were asked to select a china cup for our sake – a really nice touch. Chefs who cooked infront of us were ever so friendly and obli
ging with our never-ending questions. Smiling is second nature here.
We’re off to Hiroshima in the morning so forgive me if my next tale is a tad depressing. Sayonara.
Tuesday, 24th August, Hiroshima: I doubt I will be good company these next couple of days whilst in Hiroshima…we visited the Peace Memorial park today, as well as the Atomic Bomb Dome, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Approximately 140,000 people died in 1945 as a direct result of the US attack on 6th August, the world’s first atomic bomb. Mostly Japanese, but 10% Koreans as well. The photo here shows the A-Bomb Dome, which was where the bomb fell. The building was a government Public Works office, and all civil servants inside at the time were instantly killed. Thousands of lives were lost due to radiation contamination. And they still managed to rebuild the city from scratch. Very moving, and so depressing I am not sure I can stomach much food, let alone blog about it. It just does not seem appropriate.
We’ll be visiting Miyajima island, just off Hiroshima tomorrow to see the famous floating shrine, and then it’s onwards to China for our main course. I’ll be in touch.
Wednesday, 25th August: I was not planning on blogging today, but much to my surprise, we discovered a couple of lovely foodie options on Miyajima island (30 minutes by boat from our hotel)…I guess my appetite returned….
A beautifully decked-out cafe that roasts its own beans and brews its own coffee, Saravasti – much to my mum’s delight she was able to enjoy her morning cappuccino on a Japanese island. And secondly, with oysters a real delicacy here, we stumbled upon a specialist eaterie, Kakiya, and lunched on deep fried oysters – gosh they were so fresh and delicious. Even mum who would not normally touch them, loved them. From what I have seen, if you’re as fussy with your food as I am, opt for Miyajima over Hiroshima – you certainly have more choice.
Miyajima’s cultural asset is the vermillion torri (gate) of the Itsukushima-jinja shrine – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is ranked as one of the three best views in Japan. Makes for great photos as you can see. It’s best seen at high tide where it appears to float. Along with some cheeky deer that grabbed and ate mum’s map (yes unbelievable), it’s a great day out meandering through the island’s quaint streets and numerous temples including a stunning five-tiered pagoda.
I don’t hold much hope for dinner tonight in Hiroshima, so I will say my last Japanese sayonara. It’s been a fabulous, culturally fascinating ten days (and I still have an appetite for more sashimi!). By the way I forgot to mention, salmon (and its sashimi) is not as readily available as other fish here…it’s considered too cheap! Gotta love the country.
FooDiva’s off to Shanghai tomorrow to begin her Chinese adventure – until then.