Posts Tagged ‘Kyoto’

SOTM World Tour – Japan

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

DSC_0279Our arrival in the land of the rising sun was delayed a little after the China Eastern Airways plane we were on broke down in Kunming.

This left us stranded for 24 hours in China, but the airline put us up overnight and a day later than planned, we were in Tokyo, baby.

Japan quickly became one of my favourite countries, and Tokyo one of my favourite cities. There, I’ve said it. The landscape is everything you expect it to be – Bladerunner without the pollution or missing simulants.

DSC_0039The environment is spotless – while you frequently struggle to find a bin, you’ll find it harder to spot discarded rubbish in the street. Just doesn’t happen. I recall being in Seoul and seeing a young guy there toss his cigarette packet wrapper into the road, and thinking how that would never happen in Japan.

Also, people there bow. A lot. I mean, really often. If you buy something from a convenience store, the chap might well bow to you. There were department stores we popped into and there would be a fellow by the door, greeting us in Japanese and bowing. Seemed to be the main part of his job.

The society is as painstakingly polite as you expect it to be. And it’s also not massively tall – hence I banged my noggin every day I was there. On doors, buses, trains, roofs. Once I drew blood and saw stars, I cracked it that hard on a door-closing mechanism. No wonder I don’t have any hair.

One of the highlights of the city is the fascinating Shibuya crossing, a series of giant zebra-coloured paths in the beating heart of Tokyo, mimicked by the recently revamped crossing at Oxford Circus in London.

DSC_0248If you want to people watch as they scurry from one side of the thundering traffic to the other, then this is the place to be.

DSC_0057Just around the corner we had incredibly tasty noodles in soup, and the chap serving us agreed to pose for me. I really like this image, not least because I was keen to capture his wellies and feel like I got something of his personality in the shot as well.

DSC_0319Kate and I were both quickly taken with the amount of vending machines dotted about the place – while we disappointingly didn’t see any knickers on sale, which I’m told is true but never managed to verify for myself, there were drinks available everywhere.

In the record heat that Japan was experiencing during our stay, those easily available beverages came as both a relief and necessity.

DSC_0004After a few days we popped over to Kyoto on a train which cost more than many of the flights we’ve taken so far on this trip. Eye-watering.

Having said that, it afforded more leg room than any transportation I’ve ever been on and departed/arrived at the exact minutes it was supposed to, despite those times being some hours apart.

Kyoto is a splendid city, and while the amount of temple-hopping we did in Japan made me introduce a three-temple maximum in any city, the ones we saw will linger long in my memory.

I’ll also never forget the 100 degree heat in which we sweltered. Apparently it even reached 103 in Japan when we were in Tokyo, a record for the country’s recorded temperature history. Bet those vending machines were doing a roaring trade.

The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, is a delight. On a brutally hot day, it appeared before us even brighter than the sun.

DSC_0187You can pay your respects by leaving incense at one of the temples at the Golden Pavilion’s complex.

DSC_0217But my favourite temple was the leafy Daitokuji complex of temples.

One of them in particular was silent, its thick foliage fought bravely against the invading waves of heat, and it was everything I wanted a temple to be – small, intimate, thoughtful.

DSC_0347It was such a relief to be in a cool garden that day, with the temperatures again close to triple figures.

DSC_0468This large water bowl was brought over from Korea.

DSC_0360And if you look round temples in Japan, you’ll frequently find spruce cemeteries which are very reverential to those who have passed away.

DSC_0375These chaps look old but are still clearly used in rituals by relatives of the dead.

DSC_0380While in Kyoto I was put in touch with the charming Fumi, a very sweet lady who made very excited noises when I told her I worked for the BBC, doing no harm to my ego at all.

It was, as she explained in her SOTM story, her dream to live in Kyoto, even if her friends queried her decision.

While we were in Kyoto, Kate and I made friends with a charming couple, the lovely Miu and dashing Micheál. They helped out with a couple of Japanese SOTMs that I picked up in a bar they took us to, and they also posed for their own. Micheál chose a very thoughtful story, and this is Miu’s photo.

05092013As always with any SOTM photo on this blog, click on it to see the original post and see the story behind those words (and the translation).

Kyoto is a charming city, quite like a dream.

DSC_0392Now for one of the highlights of our trip, a rather fishy experience.

Miu and Mike took us to a seafood restaurant which had all manner of creatures slithering around in tubs and buckets. I felt like I was Sebastian Crustacean at one point.

Then, it turns out we had ringside seats for a mahoosive tuna that was due to be carved up by a chap who apparently is a bit of a celebrity chef.

Here he is – and check out the guy’s face bottom left. Maybe he thought tuna slices are born in a can.

DSC_0511The chef really made a show of cutting up that fishy beast, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

tuna2The monster from the deep was hoisted onto the table by these two chaps. Apparently it was worth about 1 million yen (£6,300, $10,000).

tuna1Expose a giant tuna to a chef’s cleaver…

tuna4…and this is what happens.

tuna3But this wasn’t the only thing I ate that night. Oh no. We all got given what’s known out there as Japanese turban shells, also called the horned turban, a species of sea snail. I ate mine, despite it not looking exactly like all the others served to our table, raising both my suspicions and alarm.

Mine was longer, greener, and looked even more alien than the other examples of how this unusual creature usually appears. In eating it, I felt quite like I was doing something to an extra terrestrial’s nether regions which I’d certainly regret in the morning. But down the hatch it went.

I can only describe its taste as “of the sea”. This photo further explains what I thought of the whole experience.

foodDuring all the evening’s palaver, especially when the chef was wielding his expert cleaver, there was a table of young women who were as impeccably dressed as you’d expect – Japanese women begin the most fashion conscious, and attractive, in the whole world. Seriously.

These ladies loved having their picture taken and posed every time I took a shot. The chef also played up to them and gave them slivers of fresh tuna, which he also did us (as the only token foreigners in the joint).

Finally I got in on the action myself. They all squealed when I sat down and posed with them, and I definitely think I was in there (Kate nodded sympathetically when I told her this).

girlsAfter that we popped off to Kobe, as Kate was insistent that we try the Kobe beef. There didn’t seem to be much else going on in this town, at least in the short time we were there, but we queued for a place which served beef that has since hit top spot on the list of “Best Things I’ve Ever Put In My Mouth”.

beefAside from drooling over this delicious dish, I discovered something interesting about Kobe beef. I’d been told by a number of people that one of the main reasons it is so good is that the cows are fed alcohol, are massaged and are played soothing music.

Aside from hearing it on occasion myself, I recently heard this from two travel bloggers, one of which was informed by a Japanese man who was “a serious foodie”, lending it some credibility.

But frankly I doubted this theory – if that’s all there was to it, why weren’t farmers in East Anglia employing the same methods? So I looked it up.

After about four minutes of searching I found the official Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association, which oversees the export of Kobe beef around the world.

It has a Q&A dispelling all those techniques as pretty much a myth, very rarely executed and certainly insignificant to the quality of their cows’  meat. The real reason for the meat’s legendary quality is actually down to years of careful cross-breeding.

Chalk that one up under “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”.

We also went to Osaka, which is incredibly futuristic in its appearance and fascinating to stroll through.

DSC_0718Its streets are a maze that you’ll really want to get lost in.

DSC_0745When the sun sets, the neon signs come out to play.

DSC_0771This woman’s expression captures the essence of Osaka. I don’t know what caused her to raise her hand to her mouth, but it might be the light-bulging splendour of the city’s fluorescence. It really does look like a post-apocalyptic metropolis designed by Psy.

DSC_0782Speaking of which, I think I found his brother.

signAfterwards we headed back to Tokyo one more time, until our departure. It was during this time that we found my favourite part of Japan – a tiny splodge of narrow streets called Golden Gai, which is home to around 250 tiny bars. And I mean three-to-six seat tiny.

DSC_0874The doorways are like a lucky dip – you really don’t know what you’re going to find out behind each one.

There’s a bit of a steep cover charge for most of the places, and some are local joints for local people, but it’s definitely foreigner friendly. We ended up in an American-themed bar run by Captain Ken, who loved Americana.

With Kate suddenly the celebrity guest, we toasted America and Shinji Kagawa, the Japanese footballer who plays for Manchester United and is a big star in his home country.

I loved Golden Gai. It’s clean but shabby, chic, cramped, like a work of art that sells booze. So much is crammed into this small labyrinthine spot that you could return again and again and still find something, or someone, new each time.

DSC_0954After Japan we went to South Korea, where I had an encounter with some schoolgirls. I don’t mean that in an Operation Yewtree kind of way.

Find out more next time.