Nara – too much venison walking around uncooked

Nara was once the capital of Japan.  In 710 AD it became the country’s first  permanent capital city, losing the title to Kyoto 75 years later, due to the corruption of the Nara clergy … plus ça change, as we French speakers say.

As it’s a city that’s so steeped in history and culture, I felt it would be the best place to indulge in a night in a ryokan – something that’s been on my list since I arrived.  A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, and very different from the usual hotel experience.

For a start, you’re given a summer kimono when you check in that you can wear around the hotel.  Being Japan, it comes with instructions on how to wear it, and I was told that ladies must tie the sash in a bow and then move the bow to the side –

– phew … managed to do that quite successfully.  I’m a bit pink here after my soak in the hotel’s rooftop public bath – lovely view of the pagoda in the park.

And …

I got my first pair of tabi, which was very exciting.  I’ll have to wear them with my flip flops when I get home – they were a bit wasted in my hotel slippers.

Then there’s a kind of silk jerkin that you wear over the top of the kimonoto go into the restaurant for dinner –

The problem was that with everyone wearing the same thing –

– it looked rather like we were all in prison.

Although, of course, the food was immeasurably better than it would have been in jail.  We had seven courses comprising beautifully presented little morsels –

– all perfectly designed to complement each other, with a balance of flavours and textures.

The breakfast next morning was equally spectacular –

– so I rolled out of the ryokan afterwards, practically spherical, ready to see the sights of Nara.

The Great Buddha is the number one attraction, and is a Unesco World Heritage Site.  I fought my way through the crowds to get to the temple which, incidentally, is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world –

Wherever I go in Japan, no matter which day of the week, there are always hordes of school children trooping around – I don’t think the poor little sods ever get a day off … and in full school uniform too.  The kids at my school in England would have mutinied if they’d been told to go on a school trip on a Sunday in uniform.

The Giant Buddha, which practically bankrupted Japan when it was first built in 746 AD, is over 16 metres high –

According to my guide book, it’s made of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kilos of gold – and it’s a very impressive sight.

Interestingly, one of the pillars in the temple has a hole in it which is exactly the same size as one of the Giant Buddha’s nostrils, and it’s believed that if you can squeeze through the hole, you will attain enlightenment –

Presumably you attain enlightenment at a later date, because none of the successful squirmers looked remotely enlightened as they lay on the floor panting.

I hung around for a bit because I could see a plump boy in the queue, and I was hoping he’d get stuck –

– but disappointingly, he finally managed to squeeze through with a lot of puffing and grunting.

Giant Buddhas aside, what Nara is really known for these days is deer – the native sika deer, which look very Bambi-inspired.

In the central park area and surrounding streets there are thousands of deer wandering around, waiting hopefully for you to feed them with ‘dear cookies’ –

As soon as you buy a pack, they rush at you, all trying to get more than their fair share –

So, naturally, there are rules on how to feed the deer –

and repeated warnings of what might happen if you don’t follow the rules –

– so you can’t say you haven’t been warned.

And everything in the town is deer-themed; even the wooden votive tablets in the shinto shrine –

I rather like Exasperated Deer and Quizzical Deer –

The temple has deer lanterns –

Even the traffic barriers conform to the theme –

And I was forced to the sad conclusion that you can’t improve an ugly baby by giving him a pair of cute Bambi antlers –

In fact, the only thing missing in this deer-saturated town is a delicious venison casserole.  And the Japanese reluctance to eat venison has led to an over-population of deer, which destroy trees by eating the bark and devour farmers crops, threatening their livelihood and leaving no food for other wildlife.

If you lived in Europe, my little friend, your days would be numbered.





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Osaka – home of the pot noodle

Osaka is famous for being the foodie capital of Japan, so I was surprised to learn that it is also the home of the pot noodle.  It was a bit like discovering that Angel Delight is a popular dessert at the Dorchester, or that Raymond Blanc invented the turkey twizzler.

Anway, once I knew that Osaka has the world’s only Cup Noodle Museum, I had to go.

Momofuku Ando created what he called ‘instant ramen’ in a shed in his garden in 1958, and the guide book contains an important message for all of us –

I consider myself to be pretty creative, so am planning my first world-changing invention in the very near future.

The museum is sadly lacking in English translations, so we couldn’t do the quizzes or read about the history of instant ramen, but we could admire –

the instant ramen tunnel –

– not only wall-to-wall noodles, but also wall-to-ceiling noodles – very impressive.

But the best part of the museum is creating your own pot noodle to take home.

First you design the cup –

and then you queue up to fill it with dehydrated deliciousness.

First the noodles –

– and then your own personal selection of toppings –

and then it’s sealed up and you’re good to go –

– with strict instructions that it must be eaten within a month.   I haven’t tried it yet, so can’t report on its deliciousness or otherwise.  To be honest, I can’t read the instructions, so I don’t know how much water to add – being functionally illiterate is very challenging.

There’s lots of other fun stuff in Osaka too – like editing your own glamour pics –

sake tasting –

and admiring strange men sitting around with random creatures –

This might at first glance look like a junk-filled old pushchair –

– but it’s actually a customised mobile rabbit-home.  I feel sure that the chap in the mask created it in his little shed with only ordinary tools, following in the footsteps of Momofuku Ando.


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The Ginger Ninja

I’ve had quite a cultural weekend, one way and another.

I went to Kyoto because I had a ticket to see a kabuki play at the Minamiza theatre, which is the home of kabuki.  It’s a wonderful old building, which has been hosting kabuki performances for 400 years –

– and I was pleased to learn that it was renovated and made totally earthquake proof last year.

Kabuki is a type of stylised drama, where specific actions are used to depict specific emotions, and there are very elaborate costumes and make up.  It always been considered the theatre of the people, and not highbrow like Noh theatre.  But the play I went to see wasn’t at all traditional – it was brand new and based on a very famous manga character, a ninja called Naruto –

As you can see from the poster, he has unusual colouring for a Japanese, and that’s because he has half a fox sealed up inside him, giving him strength and cunning.

Mind you, he wasn’t the only one with unusual colouring; the girl Ninja has pink hair – and there was no mention that she had part of a flamingo secreted in her large intestine –

– and several of the other characters had obviously been reading Hairdressers’ Weekly, which has been advising its readers that aqua and pewter are the summer shades for 2019.

Anyway, it was a jolly good show, with lots of ninja acrobatics and wizardry, culminating in a fight under a huge waterfall, the full height of the stage, which was pouring out gallons of water per second, and the actors got utterly soaked as they wrestled and splashed – all very thrilling and dramatic.

With typical Japanese efficiency, foreigners can rent an audio guide which somehow gives a recorded commentary in English that keeps pace with the live action on stage – all very clever.

It’s a long show – nearly four hours with two intervals – and the timings for each act are clearly shown on posters, and they are accurate to the millisecond.

You can buy bento boxes to eat during the interval, which looked delicious and definitely an improvement on the bag of Maltesers that’s usually on offer in an English theatre.  There’s plenty of comfy seating for the intervals, and you can sit there and wield your chopsticks until it’s time to go back for the next act.  All in all, it was a very civilised experience.

My other cultural experiences this weekend were fortuitous rather than planned.  As I walked around Kyoto castle, I heard bells in the distance.  When I went to investigate, there was a whole procession of men doing very manly skipping with an enormous pole –

Some had a better technique than others –

– and I had to jump out of the way at one point when one of the poles started swaying dangerously.

Each group was wearing its own uniform, and some were a little more unusual than others –

The crowd all clapped politely as each group lowered the pole at the end of the skipping, and I wished I knew what they were doing.

At the Daitokuji temple in the afternoon, there were also strange happenings.

I saw lots of monkishly dressed men hurrying along the paths –

And there was a young chap standing outside one of the temple buildings waving a vicious-looking sword –

And something was definitely happening in the main hall of the temple –

– and I wasn’t the only one on the outside, trying to see what was going on.

In another part of the temple complex there was chanting and dancing –

With their acrobatic moves and vivid hair colour, I wondered if they might be related to the ginger ninja –

But then disaster struck, and I realised they weren’t –

– even in the toughest battles, the ginger ninja’s hair always remained firmly on his head.


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Bears and eel chips

Shogun Ieyasu was a canny chap.  When he became Shogun in 1603 he forced all the great lords to spend every second year with him in Edo, or Tokyo as it is now.  This meant that they spent huge amounts of time and money travelling with their vast retinues along the road between Kyoto and Edo, and consequently had no time or money to be plotting to overthrow the shogun and take his place.

It also means that this ancient route, called the Nakasendo Way, has a series of picturesque old post-towns which used to provide accommodation and food to these travellers.  There are walking trails – often with the original shogun-initiated paving stones still in place –

– and we decided to walk between two of the prettiest towns in the Kiso Valley, not far from Nagoya.


After a stroll through the first town, Magome, which has lovely views and lots of cute houses –

– we started walking through the woods.  And, as they say, If you go down to the woods today …

… you’d better ring that bell hard.

And just in case that wasn’t clear enough –

– there are added visuals to reinforce the message.

There’s a bell every few hundred metres, so we rang them all very hard and I kept a firm grip on the emergency whistle attached to my backpack.  But fortunately no heroics were needed and we had a bear-free day.

Halfway along the route there’s an old house where quaintly-dressed retainers serve tea –

And there’s a traditional irori fire pit, which makes for an authentic, if smoky, experience –

But we soon realised that we weren’t the first Brits to have had tea there –

When we finally arrived in Tsumago, I was thrilled to find that there was a dressing-up opportunity – a small hall with a stage and several traditional outfits just begging to be worn and paraded for a photo opportunity.

The dilemma … how to choose between a kimono and a samurai outfit?

The solution … fusion fashion –

Another problem … four people and three outfits.

The solution … improvisation –

I don’t think anyone would be able to tell that one of these outfits is not traditionally Japanese.

Now that the summer is officially here, the famous Nagoya speciality – eel – is on the menu.  So we went to a recommended eel restaurant to try it and the first thing you see are the eels cooking over hot coals –

– with a large vat of special sauce bubbling away beside them.

I love the way that the ordered and orderly Japanese have rules on how to eat pretty much every dish available – no freestyling here, thank you very much.

It’s not the first time I’ve been given a detailed handout on how to eat something –

So when my eel arrived –

complete with all the necessary components for every stage of the eating process – I obediently divided it into quarters as instructed.

And I have to report that the plain eel, grilled, sauced and served with rice was my absolute favourite.

And what of the eel chips?  Well, they’re actually made from the discarded backbone, which is fried until crunchy –

The general consensus was that they tasted a bit like pork scratchings, only not porky.

But I couldn’t help thinking that they looked rather like a plateful of centipedes –

I’ll definitely be having eel again, but I may give the eel chips a miss next time.


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