A series of unfortunate events …

There’s a very strict code of conduct associated with being Japanese; they’re the greatest rule followers I’ve ever known.  But unless you’ve grown up with these rules, it can be very difficult to a) remember them, or b) notice them in the first place.  But I suppose that the good thing about being a foreigner is that you have no idea whether or not you’ve offended people, and the polite Japanese are unlikely to say anything to you.

My first mistake last week was when I accidentally pushed the emergency alarm button instead of the flush button in the public loos at the station –

I realised my mistake as soon as the alarm sounded, and my initial reaction was to rush off immediately – but the problem was that I couldn’t find the flush button.  I know that toilet etiquette states that leaving behind any evidence whatsoever of your visit is a heinous crime, and if I’d dashed off without flushing, I would have had to ritually disembowel myself with the nearest sharp implement – probably my Daiso ceramic fruit knife.  So I raced around the cubicle randomly pressing every button I could find, until I finally found the flush, just as I heard pounding feet approaching.  I opened the door, trepidatiously, and saw a very out of breath railway offical standing outside.  I know that the depth of the apologetic bow must match the severity of the crime, so my forehead practically touched the floor as I muttered ‘sumimasen’ (a very useful word for a foreigner, I’ve discovered) and then sidled towards the door as quickly as I could.

Faux pas number two happened as I was enjoying a stroll around the zen gardens of a temple.  It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon and I was looking up at the imposing entrance gate –

– when I heard an ominous crunching under my feet.  I looked down and discovered that I’d strayed off the path and was walking on the raked garden –

– and had left several footprints in the otherwise perfect design.  Having read about the years of training and then hours of toil that go into a zen garden, I dashed away immediately before I could be identified by my footprints.

Then I was supposed to wear this Ku Klux Klan headdress to try on some clothes –

I put it on and took a photo, and then promptly forgot about it while I was trying on the clothes – so I took it away in my handbag in case they could tell that it hadn’t been used while clothes were pulled over my head.

And shoes are another minefield.  If you’re Japanese, you automatically know when you have to take your shoes off and when you don’t, but for foreigners it’s a nightmare.  No shoes in the fitting room in a clothes shop, no shoes in parts of the pub with matting on the floor, but shoes fine on the wooden floor in pubs,  no shoes on wooden floors in temples and shrines – but you have to wear shoes when there isn’t a wooden floor.  I wanted to walk across a bit of concrete in my socks to save putting my shoes on for ten seconds and then having to take them off again – but the strict woman in charge of the old merchant house I was visiting wouldn’t let me set foot on the concrete floor without shoes – so I put them on, plodded across it, and then took them off again.

There are also special bathroom slippers that you put on to use the loo in temples, museums, public baths etc – and apparently Japanese people also have them in their homes.

When you wear them, you must always take them off backwards so that they’re facing the right way for the next person to slip them on when they arrive – AND – the worst possible thing you can do is to go back into the public area still wearing these shoes – it’s the Japanese equivalent of having your zip undone and a wodge of damp toilet tissue sticking out of it, or trailing an incontinence pad across the floor behind you, that’s caught in the bottom of your tousers.

I think I’ve got away with it so far, as I’ve always realised before I got anywhere too public, and scuttled back along the corridor to take them off again.  But I know that shoe etiquette is not in my DNA, and the time will come when I’m publicly shamed.  Hopefully I won’t understand the scandalised comments, as I have no idea what the Japanese for ‘uncouth’ or ‘brazen’ is, but I do know that ‘Gaijin’ is a derogatory term for foreigners, so I expect I’ll hear that.

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Investigating the Nagoya food scene

Every country has its own love-it-or-hate-it foodstuff.  In England it’s Marmite, in Malaysia it’s Durian, and in Japan the polarizing comestible is called natto.  It’s made from fermented soya beans and, according to Wikipedia, ‘is an acquired taste  because of its powerful smell, strong flavor and slimy, sticky texture.’

After coping with the smell of durian, and then the strong flavour of stinky tofu in Taiwan, I reckoned natto would be well within my capabilities, so I went off to the supermarket to buy some.

It comes in a little polystyrene box with some soy sauce and super-hot Japanese mustard to jazz it up, and it has the weirdest texture of anything I’ve ever eaten – it’s very slimy, but sticky at the same time, and separates into a million tiny strings when you lift a forkful –

– a bit like saliva, or lots of tiny baby hairs.  And once you get through the slime, it has a bitter flavour.  I was undecided at first, but when I found out that it’s the latest superfood and really good for you, I persevered.  Then someone recommended natto with avocado – presumably the Japanese hipster breakfast of choice – and I loved it – so I’ll be researching natto stockists when I get back to the UK, to feed my new addiction.

One thing that’s been puzzling me since I arrived is the reputation that Japanese food has for being healthy.  Apart from natto, they seem to eat only protein and carbs and an awful lot of sweet stuff.  Eating out is generally reckoned to be cheaper than cooking at home, and I think that’s partly due to the exorbitant cost of fruit and vegetables.

At my local supermarket you can buy a beautifully wrapped, single stick of celery –

which costs approximately £1.  No wonder they separate it into sticks – at those prices nobody could afford a whole head of the stuff.

Similarly, apples are individually packaged and cost somewhere between £1.50 and £2 each.  And why are they so big?

In a country which tends to serve small portions, it seems perverse to grow apples until they’re the size of your head.

And apples are cheap compared to some other fruit.  I saw this melon in the food hall –

very nicely packaged, you might say – and so it should be … 10,800 yen is £77.27 at today’s exchange rate.

But if you really want to impress someone, you have to give them cherries.  This box –

– contains 40 perfect and beautiful cherries, and will set you back £154.55.

I know they’re intended to be bought as a gift and not scoffed in the car on the way home from the shops, but even so, I can’t help wondering who would buy them, and whether the recipient would fully appreciate the gift, unless you left the price tag on.

The best way to eat fruit is probably in a sandwich, along with custard and whipped cream –

– I haven’t summoned the courage to try one yet, so can’t report back on their deliciousness or otherwise.

In contrast, sushi is much more reasonably priced – and I have a cheap and cheerful sushi restaurant just around the corner, so had to try it out.  The ordering is all done via ipad –

and the sushi arrives on a little train which whooshes along a track next to the tables –

It’s all absolutely delicious.  This is the tuna – my favourite –

and costs less than a pound per two pieces.

In the interests of research, I also went to a posh sushi place, where there’s a conveyer belt of ready-made sushi –

and a chef in the middle, who makes things to order.  Here she is –

– putting the finishing touches to our seared scallops.

You can also get a fantastic selection of sushi at even the most bog-standard supermarket –

After two years in Malaysia, it’s nice to be in a country where drinking isn’t frowned on – and to celebrate my birthday last week, we went to a typical Japanese-style pub called an Izakaya.

We sat on tatami mats – no shoes – but there is a footwell, so we didn’t have to sit cross-legged all night.  We were surrounded by salarymen, all out for Friday night drinks, and the atmosphere was loud and buzzing –

I thoroughly approved of the size of a gin and tonic –

Most Izakayas in Nagoya are famous for chicken wings –

– and they’re so moreish that they must be coated in MSG or cocaine –

The menu also offers some unusual offcuts –

– and I like their straightforward approach to wine –

But I decided to try the sake, and managed to expertly ping an edamame bean straight into the glass –

A jolly good evening was had by all – and the bill was less than £20 a head … about 5 cherries-worth.

If I meet anyone looking for careers’ advice, I shall advise them to start a cherry orchard in Japan.

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The philistine’s guide to Japanese culture

I’ve now done some reading up on Japanese culture and history, so I feel slightly less ignorant than I did a few weeks ago, when I went to the National Musuem.

Ooh! It’s Morecambe and Wise, I thought –

I now know that they are, in fact, 6th Century tomb figurines.

And what I initially assumed was a statue of Windy Miller from Camberwick Green –

– is actually a nobleman in formal clothing.  But in my defence, they do look very similar

And a Satsuma glass bowl –

– isn’t meant to hold small oranges; it’s a special type of cut glass dating from the 18th Century, from the former province of Satsuma in southern Japan.

Once I’d got to grips with the rudiments of Japanese history – the different eras, the roles of the Shogun and the Emperor, the finer points of Kabuki theatre –

and the inspired, traditional practice of shutting your children in a small box –

– it was finally time to head out into the country and acquaint myself with rural Japanese culture.

I headed up into the Japan Alps for a weekend of fresh air and culture.

It’s only a couple of hours by train from Nagoya, and there are snow covered peaks and not a pair of lederhosen in sight.

Takayama is a beautiful town dating from the Edo period, which I now know was from 1603 to 1868, and it has some lovely old buildings –

– including six sake breweries – and some beautifully preserved, old merchant houses which are open to the public –

I tried the local speciality –

which is miso paste and onion cooked on a leaf over a charcoal brazier.  It was interesting, but I think once was enough.

There are some famous villages near Takayama, where the houses are known as gassho or prayer-hand houses.  To pray in Japan, the hands are placed together in a steep triangle, with the fingers together and the palms further apart, and the houses in these villages are the same shape –

It’s a practical design if you have to contend with heavy snow every winter.  They’re nestled in a very attractive valley –

– with the snowy peaks forming a backdrop.

I was very glad to be visiting in summer and not winter, after I saw this sign on one of the houses –

The traditional toy from this area is a faceless doll, known as sarubobo or monkey baby.  It has no face because you’re supposed to project your own feelings onto it, and imagine its features and expression –

I imagine this one was rolling its eyes and saying ‘OMG – another bloody tourist …’

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Tokyo food tours

I’ve come to appreciate, during my travels, that signing up for a food tour in a new place pays back dividends.  The guide takes you to all sorts of wonderful hidden-away spots, explains the whole food scene and generally equips you with enough know-how to go solo afterwards.  So when I got to Tokyo I signed up for two food tours, in different areas with different specialities on offer.

I turned out to be the only participant for the first tour, so Yokio and I got to be best friends after several bottles of sake –

But we started with a very special fish – blow fish or puffer fish sashimi –

I remember reading an article years ago about Japanese businessmen who pay a fortune and risk death just to eat raw puffer fish served by a beautiful geisha.  It sounded like a sort of Japanese roulette.  But Yokio assured me that none of his clients had died (yet) from the puffer fish, so that was reassuring.

Using chopsticks, we had to add spice, spring onion and daikon radish to each piece and then roll it up, which required a fair amount of dexterity –

– it was chewy and succulent – but for me the highlight of this restaurant was the drink they served with it –

– it’s sake with a flambé of dried roasted puffer fish fin – and it smelt and tasted divine.  The fin was removed before drinking, but I kept picking it up for a quick sniff.

Stop number two was an Izakaya – which is a traditional Japanese pub – and this one had been family owned for several generations –

We tried Hoppy, which dates back to after the war, when people were too poor to afford beer.  They drank an alcohol-free beer substitute and shoved a whole load of cheap alcohol into the glass first, topping it up with the Hoppy.

I’m not really a beer drinker, so it tasted fine to me, but I’m sure real ale fans wouldn’t approve.

The last stop on our tour was a very well-known restaurant, which serves dojo loach – a Tokyo speciality.  It was a beautiful traditional place which has been there for over 200 years, with tatami mats on the floor and waitresses in old fashioned outfits.

Our waitress knelt beside our little table to cook the Dozeu Nabe for us.  It has sake, soy sauce bonito soup and Japanese leek along with the loach – and of course we had to have more sake to go with it –

You should always have cold sake, not hot, I’ve been told several times now.  They heat up the poor quality stuff, and save the best to serve chilled.

We staggered out and tottered down to the subway, and both agreed that it had been a great evening – as far as we could remember.

The second food tour took in an area called Golden Gai, which is a small area of six narrow lanes which is packed with over 200 tiny bars and restaurants- some are so small that you can only fit five people inside.

 

Our guide took us into a bar for a drink and it was like travelling down a birth canal –

We started our food tasting with skewers – or yakitori – in a restaurant that had the cutest wash basins ever –

and the yakitori weren’t bad either .

Then it was on to the next place for ramen. You should always slurp in Japan when you eat noodles in soup – a bit like wine tasting, they believe the flavour improves if you take air in with the broth.  There are four main types of ramen in Japan, and this one was tonkotsu , or pork bone broth – delicious and filling.

But not so filling that there wasn’t room for sushi afterwards – my absolute favourite over here.  This was posh sushi – you can tell because the wasabi is added to the sushi, rather than mixed in with the soy sauce.  The tuna sushi was amazing, but the octopus was surprisingly good too.

We had more sake, and I learnt that you must never pour your own sake – your neighbour must pour yours and you must pour theirs – just to add an extra complication to the event.

I was also pleased to learn that it’s quite acceptable to eat sushi with your fingers, you don’t have to use chopsticks.  And real experts put it in their mouth upside down, to allow the full flavour of the fish to linger on their tongue.

So then I was ready – upskilled and keen to try out the local food scene by myself.  I had yuzu flavoured mochi, which was very good –


But decided against the candy floss, which was large enough to conceal a medium-sized child –

And my greatest achievement was going into a restaurant in a spa town and ordering a bowl of the most wonderful seafood, served with rice and seaweed and lots of tiny little pots  of random nibbly bits –

I was very proud of myself – if there was an exam in Japanese eating, I feel sure I’d get a top grade now.

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The dawn of a new era

The new Emperor of Japan ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne today which signalled the first day of a new era.  Whilst they do use the year 2019, they also use their own system based on the number of years the Emperor has been on the throne.  When I got my ID card, I was surprised to see that my date of birth was 34.  When I queried it, I was told that I was born in the 34th year of the Showa Era, which was the name for Hirohito’s reign.

So today is the first day of the Reiwa Era – beautiful harmony – and the cause of a ten-day-long public holiday … hurrah!

The first week in May is called Golden Week, and there are three public holidays, which can give a 5-day break if they fall on the right days, but the extra days this year have doubled that.  So I hopped on a train to Tokyo to make the most of my unexpected free time.

It is soo crowded here – I’ve never seen so many people in the same place before.  I used to think Oxford Street was crowded in the run-up to Christmas – now I know that it’s simply a little bit more lively than usual.

This is a popular shopping street in Tokyo –

– you can see our guide waving her flag below, so we can all fight our way through the crowd in roughly the right direction.

And this is the longest queue I’ve ever seen –

– it’s a two-way  queue which snakes its way around the perimeter of a large Shinto shrine.  There are thousands of people all standing patiently – no jostling or queue jumping, of course.  We asked what they were queuing for ( … The Dalai Lama?  Ariana Grande?) and it turned out they were all waiting for a date stamp from the temple, officially recording the new era.  Oh well, if you’ve got ten days to burn, you can spend one of them standing in a queue for 18 hours, I suppose.

Today was also an auspicious day to get married.  We saw two weddings within half an hour at the shrine –

the bride’s father looks very uncomfortable in his suit at this wedding –

he can’t seem to lower his shoulders below the level of his ears – I don’t think the bride will be very happy with the photos.

There’s a huge installation of sake barrels in the grounds of the shrine –

Sake manufacturers consider it an honour to donate a barrel to the shrine – and they do get a bit of free advertising out of it.  Our guide told us that they’re all empty though, as Shinto priests are allowed to drink – unlike Buddhists.  And these priests have very cosmopolitan tastes … there’s also a display of 60 barrels of the finest Burgundy –

– presumably all empty too.

I went to see the Palace gardens, and the azaleas were magnificent-

all clipped into very tidy hedges, which were a riot of colour.

Following my tried and tested method of joining a queue if I see one  (although not an 18-hour stamp queue, I do have my limits) I joined a queue in the gardens, and it turned out that I was queuing to take my turn to squat in the grass –

and photograph this flower –

Any ideas as to why?  Everyone else seemed very excited by it.

Another busy place today was the maid cafes.  I’d heard of them before, and seen a video clip, but some of the maids were out on the streets today touting for trade –

I picked up a menu, and the Japanese obsession with cuteness hit me right between the eyes.  In fact, kawaii was one of the first words I learnt when I arrived, they all use it so much.

This is not a children’s menu –

– so adults go into these places and  order an omelette and rice shaped liked two (platonic) bears in a bed, or a ‘bunny in the forest’ ice cream.

Think I’ll be giving this one a miss.

 

 

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