Eating in Hiroshima

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It was lunchtime and the okonomiyaki shop was bustling but I got a seat at the counter. Everyone wants to eat okonomiyaki in Hiroshima. Okonomiyaki, literally ‘what you want, grilled,’ originated in Osaka and is sold all over Japan nowadays; but Hiroshima has a version of its own, known to some as hiroshimayaki.

The chef smeared a circle of batter on the plancha grill in front of me, sprinkled on katsuobushi (flakes of dried tuna), then added several handfuls of chiffonaded* cabbage. To that, he added bean sprouts, sliced squid and a couple of thin slices of belly pork, followed by another drizzle of batter.

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He arranged yakisoba noodles on the plancha into the size and shape of the hiroshimayaki, then deftly flipped it onto them with a pair of spatulas. The towering pile of cabbage cooked down to something more manageable and he pressed it down some more with his spatula.

He cracked an egg onto the plancha, smeared it into a circle as he had the batter then flipped the hiroshimayaki again onto the cooking egg.  He flipped it a third time when the egg was cooked, drizzled mayonnaise and an unctuous, Worcestershire-sauce-based dressing over the top, buried it in sliced spring onions and sat an egg yolk on the top.

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It was very good, if very bad for me. I was thankful that I had mostly eaten fish, rice and lightly-cooked vegetables the rest of the time I had been in Japan. I paid, waddled out and caught the tram, where an old lady stood with a big cardboard box roped to her back and walloped the same three people with it every time she turned round to look out the window, but they were too polite to say anything.

Somewhere around 70% of Japanese oysters are produced in Hiroshima and they appear on menus all over the city. I had them twice in one day, five for lunch deep-fried in panko crumbs and served with a miso soup, a bowl of rice and a delicate salad made with sliced cucumber and leaves, then another five in the evening braised in a broth with udon noodles and sliced spring onions.

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I never got to try Hiroshima-style tsukemen, made with cold ramen noodles and served with a dipping sauce made with soy, red chillies and sesame seeds, but I had the same sauce with gyoza dumplings.

I ate in a traditional restaurant, where each diner, or group, had a room of their own and a sliding door portioned them off from the other diners. There was a low table and cushions to kneel on and a button to press when you were ready to order, which presumably sounded a buzzer at the bar and, at any rate, had the waitress knocking on the sliding door within seconds.

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I ate well in Hiroshima, but then I ate well all over Japan and only had one disappointing meal – in an izakaya in suburban Osaka – in the month I was there.

© Richard Senior 2016

*thinly sliced

The Gardens of Kanazawa

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Japanese gardens are landscapes in miniature.

Rocks symbolise mountains, streams represent rivers and ponds stand in for seas; water cascades from one pond to another in allusion to mountain waterfalls. Every stone is carefully chosen for colour, shape and size, and placed with precision in clusters.

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Just as much thought goes into to the placement of suteishi (‘discarded’) stones, which are meant to seem random and express spontaneity, for even the spontaneous is meticulously planned in Japan.

On the backstreets of Kanazawa, there are old Samurai houses with gardens no bigger than you would find behind a modest house in the English suburbs. Yet, without seeming cramped, they incorporate streams filled with koi carp, lanterns, pagodas, mini-boulders, arched bridges, cedars and firs.

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They are not gardens in which you could kick a football about or set up a barbecue and have friends round for burgers and beers on a hot summer’s evening, but the idea would assuredly horrify in Japan, in any case. They are gardens to gaze at, gardens to cheer the soul.

Kenroku-en is just a few blocks away but on a wholly different scale. It is a public garden – once part of the grounds of Kanazawa Castle – which undulates over 114,000 Sq m and is reckoned one of the three most beautiful in Japan. The name means something on the lines of Garden with Six Attributes, a reference to an ancient book which posited that the ideal garden would have the six attributes of “spaciousness & seclusion, artifice & antiquity, water-courses & panoramas”.

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At the highest point, there is a view through the cherry blossom across the city and the hills to the mountains; fish eagles soar overhead. Nearby is the pond known as Kasumiga-ike, which stretches over 5,800 Sq m. An old wooden tea house sits over the pond on  pillars.

The path spirals down the hill, named Sazae-yama – or Turban Shell Hill – after the pattern on the shell of a type of sea snail which is a popular local delicacy. The ground either side is carpeted in moss and dotted with fallen blossom.

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It leads down to another pond, Hisago-ike, fed by a six-metre-high cascade from Kasumiga-ike which tumbles down through the trees and rocks with a soothing hiss. Mallards glide across the surface, smearing the reflection of the deep green fir trees and soft pink cherry blossoms. Herons take to the air with a little jump from a rock. Koi carp teem at the edges. Bees buzz the blossom.

The path meanders through the gardens, ushering you into secret spaces, opening out into vistas (spaciousness & seclusion), past fir trees with their roots exposed, and wooden props under the branches of the oldest and biggest to stop them breaking in heavy snow, and cherry and plum blossoms and Japanese maples and stone lanterns and pagodas thickly coated with moss, which is welcomed for the impression it gives of great age (artifice & antiquity) over humped-back bridges across streams lined with iris and azaleas, offering glimpses again of the mountains (water-courses & panoramas).

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Every rock, every tree, every lantern seems so perfectly positioned that to move any one would ruin the harmony of the whole garden. It is a profoundly peaceful place: a place where anxieties melt away and you feel a rare lightness of spirit.

© Richard Senior 2016

Kaiseki Cuisine on a Miserable Night

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The rain hammered down and smudged the neon which fizzed from 20-foot boards on the buildings either side of the road. Black-suited salarymen scurried along with their umbrellas tilted like lances. Girls clattered down the pavement in inappropriate heels. Eerie green lights emerged from the gloom as taxis shushed down the street, contemptuously splashing the people who had chosen to walk.

My 7-11 umbrella had collapsed on one side and I needed to get out of the rain. I ducked through the door of the first restaurant I came to, which happened to be a kaiseki place. It could just as easily have been McDonalds.

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Kaiseki cuisine, at a glance, is the Japanese equivalent of a dégustation at a Western fine-dining restaurant: a set menu of small dishes to showcase the skill of the chef. But it is deeper than that. There is a philosophy underlying it, a spiritual dimension, more layers of symbolism than a gaijan* like me could hope to understand.

At its heart is the idea of creating a meal the customer can enjoy with all five senses. The emphasis is on balance: of tastes, of textures, of colours, of techniques. Uncooked dishes are juxtaposed with cooked; grilled with boiled, fried with steamed. The presentation is artful, yet simple, with none of the smears, foams, emulsions and jellies which are the stock-in-trade of Michelin-starred chefs in the West.

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My appetiser – more appetising than it might sound – was thinly sliced pickled sea cucumber, served in a scallop-shaped dish lined with a pair of shisho leaves. A lot of thought goes into the choice of tableware.

The main courses, then, began with sashimi: the simplest of dishes but arranged with understated perfection, three pink slices of tuna, a small square of brilliant white flounder, a silvery tranche of horse mackerel overlain with a jumbo shrimp, peeled but with the head and tail left on, all glistening under the lights and garnished with a small mound of wasabi and the green leaf and yellow flower of Kerria Japonica, mimicking the design of the plate.

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A sequence of cooked dishes followed that – the ying to the yang of the raw fish – in the established order: boiled, then grilled, then fried.

First, jumbo shrimp and white fish fillet gently braised with tofu, spinach, aubergine and enoki mushrooms and kept warm at the table on a fondue burner which looked like an artwork in itself.

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Then a section of pike with the skin nicely crisped on the grill, served on a pine leaf carefully aligned with the pattern on the plate.

After that, a tempura of courgette, squash, okra and another of the jumbo shrimp for which Kanazawa is famous – Kaiseki chefs obsess about using local, seasonal produce. A vibrant plate contrasted with the neutral colour of the tempura.

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Snow crab claws came with a fat slice of steamed courgette in a kidney-shaped bowl with a smaller round bowl of vinegar-based dressing.

Then there was a bamboo box with green tea soba noodles, coiled as neatly as the ropes on the royal yacht. (I messed up the presentation before I snapped the picture below.)

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Finally, then, to round out the meal, there was a light dessert of two strawberries with a dipping sauce.

It all seemed to work much better than tasting menus ever do at home. There, either each plate is gone in two mouthfuls, just as your palate has registered the flavour combination, or dinner becomes an endurance test after the third course and, at the end of it all, you struggle home feeling as if you might explode. Here, it all seemed to be weighted just right. I neither felt cheated nor stuffed.

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What is more, by the time I had finished and paid, it had stopped raining and I could abandon my crippled umbrella and walk back to the hotel without getting wet.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally “outside person” – someone who isn’t Japanese

Cycling the Shimanami Kaidō

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I set off too late from Hiroshima, then got the wrong train, and it was going on for lunchtime when I reached Onomichi. But I decided to skip lunch because I wanted to cycle at least some of the Shimanami Kaidō between the eight islands, from Honshu to Shikoku, across the suspension bridges over the Inland Sea.

I have since read about travellers planning and training for the ride for weeks and basing their trips to Japan around it, but I am too spontaneous, too chaotic for anything like that. I had found out about the Shimanami Kaidō by chance a day or two before when looking for something else in the guidebook.

It is a 70km (43 mile) route, end to end, and my guidebook reckoned it would take somewhere around eight hours to ride, which to me seemed too pessimistic. I reckoned four or five.

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The rent-a-bike point was hidden in a car park but I found it eventually and chose a cheap ‘mountain bike’ over a selection of old ladies’ shopping bikes. I revised my estimate to five or six hours when I saw it, dropped my daybag into the basket and rattled along the waterfront to the ferry across the Onomichi-suido Channel. I had picked up a map of the route but it was, in any case, marked with blue and white lines on the road. It would be hard to get lost.

If I wanted my deposit back, I would have to return the bike to Onomichi before 6pm, but the deposit was only ¥1000, or £5.89. (The hire cost was half that, which made it a cheap afternoon’s entertainment.) I saw when I skim-read the back of the map that I could drop off the bike at the end, or at points along the way, and take a bus back; and that was all I needed to know, for the moment.

The bike was too low-geared to go anywhere fast, but the route was flat – or at least so it seemed after the merciless hills of northern England – and the sun was hot and it was a perfect day for cycling. The route took me through a slice of Japan which you rarely see as a tourist, neither the sleepy towns of old wooden houses, nor the bustling cities of neon-lit skyscrapers, just workaday hamlets with a few houses and shops, a filling station, then nothing until a big-hammer factory, and nothing again for the next ten minutes.

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I tracked diagonally across Mukaishima Island and came out at the waterfront and followed its contours round towards the Innoshima suspension bridge. The blue and white lines led under the bridge and round a corner and then twisted back on themselves up a steep hill which spiralled to the cycle lane of the bridge suspended beneath the roadway.

Two hours in, I had worked across Innoshima Island and traversed the Ikushi Bridge, with orchids lining the approach road and big barges trundling underneath and the sun glinting off the water. I was on the fourth island of eight and seemed to be making good time.

There is apparently a temple worth seeing on Ikuchijima Island but I was too focussed to detour to it, and in any case I had been to Nikkō, Nara and Kyoto already on that trip and would not feel cheated if I never saw another temple. There were, as well, a few curiosities at the side of the road: an old bus in faded psychedelic paint in the style of Ken Kesey’s Furthur and a group of life-size dummies seated in a row as if they were waiting for a bus.

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It took me somewhere around an hour to get to the next bridge, 36 kilometres from Onomichi, a little over half way to Imabari. I had, it seemed, been wildly optimistic to think that I could finish the route in four hours but about right with the more conservative six. I was not sure why the guidebook thought you needed eight, but then the map said eight to ten and I have since read that some travellers spread the ride over a couple of days.

I could still, just about, have turned the bike round and headed back to Honshu before the rent-a-bike terminal closed, but I was enjoying myself too much for that. The other terminals, I saw when I read the back of the map properly, closed at 5pm. There was an outside chance that I could get all the way to Imabari on the edge of Shikoku and find the terminal in time, but it was no more than an outside chance.

There were three other terminals along the way, so there was no need to give up just yet. It was a lovely ride along the waterfront on Omishima Island and across the arched bridge to Hakatajima, where I caught up with a group of serious cyclists with sprayed-on lycra and bikes made from carbon fibre and fresh air and passed a couple of them; but there was too much face to be lost in being overtaken by a tourist in street clothes on a pig-iron mountain bike, so they clunked down a gear and streaked past me.

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I decided as I snaked through the national park to the west of Hakatajima Island to drop off the bike at the next terminal, just before the Hakata-Oshima suspension bridge, the last but one before Imabari. I only had 20km left to ride to the end of the route, and plenty of energy, but by then it was clearly too late to get there before 5pm.

I imagined the bus interchange to be a big building with helpful things like timetables and an information desk, but it was actually just a turning circle with a few wooden shelters. There was no one else around. In a few of the shelters, there were photocopied sheets with bus times on them but the destinations – naturally – were only in Japanese. The last bus going anywhere seemed to be at half-past five.

At somewhere around twenty-past, a bus pulled in but the driver denied that he was going to Onomichi.

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Of course I had no contingency plan and I thought I would be lucky even to find an English-speaker within reasonable walking distance, let alone a hotel or a taxi firm. If it came to it, I supposed I would just have to walk back to Honshu.

But then, at something to six, the bus turned up.

© Richard Senior 2016

Learning to Love Osaka

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Osaka, at first glance, is a hard city to love. It seems to be 140 square miles of concrete, sardine-packed with tower blocks and criss-crossed with flyovers.

But the cherry blossoms along the Ō-kawa River temper the brutality of the concrete. The river parts and flows either side of Nakanoshima island, where the first mile or so has been landscaped and turned into a public park. It is a tranquil spot, lovely to walk through with a gentle breeze blowing off the river, and as you gaze at the lawns and the trees and the rose gardens, you might not even notice that the island is hemmed in by soulless office blocks.

Beyond the park, there is a hint of what Osaka might have looked like before the War in the 1912 Central Public Hall with its red and grey brick, stained glass and cupolas and the 1904 Prefectural Library with its monumental steps and columns.

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The classical castle nearby was rebuilt in the twentieth century, but then so were most of the castles in Japan; if they were not burned down in the tumult of the Meiji Restoration, they were flattened in World War II. It is still impressive to see, and worth paying to go in for the museum with its samurai swords and suits of armour, screens and fans, woodcut prints and ancient scrolls, and the panoramic view from the top.

The Umeda Sky Building is the high-tech, modernist equivalent of the castle, designed, like it, to dominate its neighbourhood, to awe and intimidate, to exude power and wealth; and it has the best views in town. The lift scoots you almost to the top, then an elevator takes you through plate glass nothingness to the roof.

To the south and east, Osaka seems everlasting with office and apartment blocks fading to infinity. To the north, they are interrupted only by the broad expanse of the Yodo River, emptying out into the bay to the west.

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At night, a million squares and circles of light glow in the windows, yellow lights swirl at street level, red lights pulsate on the rooftops, neon hoardings shimmer in blues and reds and greens, and the spokes of the giant Ferris wheel out on the harbour glow orange if the next day is set to be sunny, green if cloudy and blue if it is going to rain.

Amerika-mura (American village) got its name from shops selling second-hand Levis and Zippos and trades on it with Uncle Sam and Statue of Liberty models bursting from shop fronts and local interpretations of American fast food.

The vintage shops and street style stores blast J-Pop from the doorways to deter over-25s and to try to encourage the sullen girls in clumpy shoes and over-the-knee socks and giggly boys with spiky yellow hair to look briefly away from their smartphones.

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A little to the east, the Shinsaibashi-Suji shopping arcade extends for a dozen blocks with all the world’s high street chains mixed up with noodle shops and pachinko* parlours, soundtracked one minute by J-Pop, the next by Vivaldi, and always  by the staff in the shops shouting irasshaimase! when customers enter and arigatou gozaimashita! when they leave.

Shoppers jostle down the street with three bags hanging off each arm, mothers propel push-chairs, teenagers snigger in unruly groups, tourists stop and whip out their selfie sticks and the crowd eddies round them. At the end of each block, a road cuts through and the honking cars surprise you.

The mall empties out by the Dōtonbori Canal, where there are monster neon adverts wrapped round the ends of the buildings. The oldest and best-known is the marathon runner, who has been advertising the Glico confectionary company since 1935.

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There is a crab restaurant round the corner which states its business with a massive 3D model of a spider crab above the door with claws that wave and eyeballs which extend in turn like pistons. Other restaurants along the street have taken up the theme and there are big puffer fish lanterns, an octopus, model gyoza dumplings, a giant hand holding nigiri-zushi and a life-size model cow.

There are bars and bowling alleys and amusement arcades. In the doorway of one, a salaryman, with his jacket off and sleeves rolled up, danced like your dad to the music from a game.

But just steps from all the sensory overload of Dōtonbori is a quiet corner with a temple dedicated to Fudo Myo-o, the deity of fury, where worshippers stop, pray and throw water over the diety’s statue, which is thick with moss from years of soakings.

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There are cobbled alleys lined by izakayas** with nothing but the traditional red paper lanterns to advertise themselves, no mechanical crabs, no illuminated puffer fish, no model cows. I ate very well in one of them, sitting at the bar watching the chef prepare the food and serve it to me on a long-handled peel like bakers use to take loaves from the oven.

Sake was once served in a small wooden box called a masu, but the practice fell out of fashion. Izakayas, though, sometimes put a glass inside the masu and let the sake overflow into it to show how generous their measures are. Here, the chef, who was also the barman, carried on pouring until first the glass and then the masu overflowed.

I had misjudged Osaka. The ugliness I saw at first was nothing like as all-pervasive as I feared. While it is no Kyoto, it has a sprinkling of traditional sights, and a whole lot more which could not be reduced to items on a list of Top Things to See…, but which is rewarding to see nonetheless. Above all, though, it has an infectious joie de vivre which I never saw matched as I travelled through Japan.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Japanese pinball

**Bars which sell food – loosely like Spanish tapas bars

Decoding the Tokyo Metro

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It looked like a multi-coloured version of the squiggle people do when they are trying to get a pen going.

It might have been a wiring diagram for a Toyota Camry had it not been for the words “Subway Map” in the bottom right-hand corner. They were the only words in English: the station and line names were all in Japanese.

I compared it with the subway map which came with my guidebook, but it might as well have been for a different city. Neither seemed to reconcile with the map in the back of the leaflet I had picked up at a station I passed through earlier. It made no sense.

I got off at Shinjuku and went through to the ticket hall to try to find a better map. I remembered then why I had heard of Shinjuku: it is officially the busiest station in the world. Some 3.64 million people pass through it every day, roughly equivalent to the entire population of Los Angeles, or the combined populations of Birmingham and Greater Manchester.

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They all seemed to have arrived at once. I stood, bewildered, with my guidebook in one hand and my baffling map in the other, looking from one bank of searing neon to the next as busy people in suits knocked me this way and that.

There were fifty-one platforms to choose from, and two-hundred exits to leave by if I decided to bugger that and get a taxi. Somewhere amid the mass of humanity, under the kaleidoscope of neon, behind all the cheerful jingles to announce that a train was arriving or leaving, on one or other of the Yamanote Line, Chūō Main Line, Chūō Rapid Line, Chūō Sōbu Line, Shōnan-Shinjuku Line, Saikyō Line, Odakayu Odawara Line, Keio Line, Keio New Line, Maranouchi Line, Toei Shinjuku Line, or Toei Ōedo Line was the train I needed to take. There was only a 50:1 chance of getting it wrong.

I struggled with a combination of maps and signs, got on a train and counted off the stops. Then – to my astonishment – I was back in Ōimachi, right where I had started two hours before. All of the maps agreed that that was impossible. But there I was.

For a good two days, I tried and failed to understand why all the maps seemed so very different, how two stations could be adjacent on one map and have five or six stations between them on another. I followed signs through stations the size of airports, which took me up through three levels of platforms, out through shopping malls and down the street, round the corner, to a different station entirely. It all remained a mystery.

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Then I found out that there are two separate subway networks, the four publicly-owned Toei Lines and the nine privatised Tokyo Metro Lines, and another dozen or so networks of mass-transit railways, some owned by the state, some by private companies, which connect with, run parallel to and operate in much the same way as the subway network but are not technically part of it; then there are a further sixteen suburban lines. There are different maps for different networks.

It all made sense then and, in time, I could use the system without a map and a vacant expression. I thought that I ought to have got a certificate or something.

At rush-hour it hardly matters whether you know where you ought to be going. A Tokyo commuter crowd is like a fast-flowing river. Only the strongest can swim against the tide: the rest are swept along with the current, forced round obstructions and out into the open sea.

If the crowd transfers to the Hibuya Line, then so do you; if it takes Exit A, then you take Exit A as well; and if the crowd stops off at a department store to buy a tie then you need to think quickly what colour would go best with your shirt.

© Richard Senior 2015

Station image: “Rush hour at Shinjuku 02” by Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rush_hour_at_Shinjuku_02.JPG#/media/File:Rush_hour_at_Shinjuku_02.JPG

An Onsen Town

Yamananka Onsen

“The Japanese have the same attitude to bathing as Frenchmen reserve for eating: they do it with a mixture of connoisseurship and physical abandon. A bath can be enjoyed alone, but it is more often taken with many others, keeping up with the latest gossip while scrubbing one’s neighbour’s back” – Ian Buruma, A Japanese Mirror

Yamanaka Onsen was deep in the mountains. It had rained and the road was damp and the mist clung to the peaks of the mountains. In the bottom of the gorge, a river followed the road in a series of undisciplined curves. It was a striking, mineral-rich green and flowed rapidly after the rain. A truss bridge stretched high across the river, triangular in section, violet in colour, describing a lazy S-shape. It led to a path through a park filled with cherry blossoms, and alongside the river, past a waterfall to a shrine and a 2,300 year-old cedar. Ryokans were clustered around the river on the edge of town.

It was the middle of the morning and the main street was all but deserted. There were no customers in the old wooden stores. It was early, yet, for the sake brewery, the tea-house and the soba noodle shop; and there were no tourists, but me, to browse the shops which sold the lacquerware for which the region is famous.

The town was built around hot springs and the two public bath houses, one for men and one for women, are centrepieces of the plaza.  The waters, at a temperature of 48.3 degrees Celsius and rich in calcium and sodium sulphate, are said to relieve “muscular pain, joint pain, shoulder pain, bruises, chronic digestive diseases, haemorrhoids, over-sensitivity to cold, fatigue, arteriosclerosis, cuts, burns, chronic skin diseases and motor paralysis”.

I slipped my trainers off and went in, only to be stopped at the door and made to understand through urgent, embarrassed gestures that the smaller building across the plaza was the men’s bath house.

I had come unprepared, as ever, and had to hire a towel and buy a sachet of shower gel. There were lockers in the foyer for shoes and valuables and, with those locked away, I went through to the wood-panelled changing room and folded my clothes into a basket and slotted it onto the shelf. It is illegal to be untidy in Japan.

It was a bright, spacious bath house with a pitched wooden ceiling and high windows running the length of the room. The walls and the floor were tiled in muted colours; there was a tiled pillar in the centre of the bath with a plinth you could sit on and lean your back against it. Around the edge, there were shower heads and mirrors set low. I took a plastic stool from the stack, sat down and showered, then padded across the room to the bath and slid into the hot water. The idea is to soak for a while, get out, shower off and soak again. I have no idea whether it does anything for the conditions it is said to relieve, but it is without doubt relaxing.

There were a couple of locals bathing, perhaps connoisseurs but thankfully not acting with the physical abandon which Ian Burumu mentioned in the extract above. They politely ignored me and I politely ignored them. We had no language in common to gossip, in any case; and I was not going to scrub anyone’s back.

© Richard Senior 2015  

Staying in a Japanese Ryokan

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“Two person?”

“One.”

Two person.”

“No. There’s only one of me.”

He huffed and searched through his papers until – like prosecuting counsel presenting a witness with an incriminating letter – he showed me the message from the booking site. “Two person!”

Well that must be a mistake.”

“Hmph. Two person.”

It was a small ryokan* up a quiet side street in Nagasaki. The owner, it seemed, would never quite forgive me for only being one person, but reluctantly showed me to the room.

I had left my trainers at reception and changed into the Crocs supplied to walk through the building and now changed from those to the slippers inside the door of the room. There was a separate pair to change into when using the toilet.

The hallway led off to a small bathroom and a separate toilet with all the accessories you come to expect in Japan, the heated seat, the hot water jet, the sound effects to spare your embarrassment. Beyond them, through a sliding screen, was the main tatami-mat room. At the other side of the room, there was a paper screen on a wooden lattice which filtered the light from the windows overlooking the street. Behind it was a narrow room, like an indoor balcony, with polished wood floors, a fridge, a garment rail and space to put luggage out of sight of the main room.

There was a low table and a cushion to kneel on and a kettle, tea pot and cups for green tea, and a neatly folded futon and traditional clothes. The walls were painted a peaceful taupe and were bare except for discrete ornaments in the alcove. Even the mirror attached to a small set of drawers was covered with a drape so as not to disrupt the harmony of the room. “Owner does not say a busybody,” it said in the information pack.

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A bell sounded as I went downstairs and the owner, who does not say a busybody, came out of his office and supervised me while I laced up my trainers. He was a taciturn, expressionless man and it was unnerving to have him standing there, silently, as if watching to make sure I did not slip behind the desk and steal the petty cash. I suppose it was just his idea of customer service.

Another bell sounded when I came back in, and the owner – still not saying a busybody – stood and watched me take my trainers off. He did it every time.

He had been in the room while I was out and straightened things up. He must have despaired of my gaijin** untidiness. Clothes strewn about, now perfectly folded; a discarded t-shirt placed on a hanger; scattered books, stacked. A dropped towel replaced with a fresh one. Even an empty carrier bag crisply folded into four.

I changed into the yukata, like a long, thin dressing gown with flowing sleeves, tied the obi sash around it and pulled the haori jacket on over the top, then made a cup of green tea, and laid out the futon for the night.

Each evening when I came back to the ryokan, the futon had been neatly packed away, the yukata folded, the tea replenished and whatever clutter I had brought into the room tidied behind the screen.

When I checked out and got the bill, the prices had all been scored through and replaced in neat manuscript with lower figures. The owner had given me a discount because I was not, in fact, two person.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Traditional Japanese inn

**Foreigner

Eating at Yatai in Fukuoka

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There are few sights in Fukuoka, although there is a handful of heritage buildings, a pleasant park and the remains of a castle, as well as the endless scope for immature sniggering at a name which begins with ‘fuck you’. But there are well over a hundred yatai.

At nightfall, outside the big stores on the main shopping streets, vendors drag trailers up onto the pavement and convert them, Transformer-style, into pop-up restaurants. Yatai, they call them.

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From the outside, they look like workmen’s huts, or makeshift shelters for the homeless, with walls and a roof made of rough wooden sheets and opaque plastic windows. Some are open at one side, some have a curtain made of fabric or plastic, while a few have a proper door.

It is hard not to feel as if you are intruding when you push the curtain aside and take your place at one of the half dozen or so stools round the counter. You will almost certainly be the only foreigner. The other customers will probably be suited salarymen stopping off after work for a snack and a few glasses of shōchū. The chef is unlikely to speak any English; if you are lucky, there might be some English on the menu, and if very lucky it might make sense. A lot of the time, though, you are reliant on pointing, miming, taking pot luck or asking for something which you know they will have.

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There is more or less bound to be ramen, and Fukuoka has its own take on this iconic dish. The thick, unctuous broth is made with pork bones and caramelised onion and ginger, and cooked at a boil instead of a simmer, and served with thin noodles, red ginger, green onions and little puddles of black garlic oil. There will be yakitori, meatballs, gyoza dumplings and mentaiko, another speciality of the city: spiced and lightly-seared cod roe.

The first time I ate at a yatai, I sat with a group of salarymen, ties askew and several shōchūs into a bibulous evening, and one of them spoke excellent English – he modestly denied it – and guided me through the Japanese-only menu with suggestions on what to order. The next time, though, I was on my own but for a hit-and-miss app which could sometimes decipher Japanese script and, if it could not, just made something up. I hoped that the “fishermen with morning mist” was good and went well with the “toolshed drunk in water”. The weave of my t-shirt meant “eight,” the app told me in passing.

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The yatai stay open into the early hours but I dare say they are much like a British kebab shop later on when people tumble out of bars and decide they have to eat. They are packed up, then, and magicked away in that brief hiatus between the latest drinkers shuffling off home and the earliest commuters marching in to work.

Once the sun comes up, there is no sign that the yatai had ever been there.

© Richard Senior 2015

Tsukiji: An Improbable Tourist Attraction

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Big sheds, grim concrete, rusting steel, walkways painted in industrial blue. Bustling vendors in oilskins and wellington boots; porters scudding around on motorised carts. Polystyrene confetti, puddles of melted ice. Stacked crates. Reefer trucks. Everything, in short, you would expect of a municipal fish market, right down to the smell.

But it is not just any municipal fish market: it is Tsukiji Fish Market, by common consent one of Tokyo’s Must See sights. The guidebooks explain, as if with a trumpet fanfare, that it is the World’s Largest Wholesale Fish Market. What next, you might wonder: Asia’s Deepest Sewage Tunnel?  Japan’s Oldest Scrapyard?

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The Lonely Planet Fundamentalists are there at five in the morning, half an hour before the trains start to run, clutching guidebooks flagged up with Post-it notes as they queue in the hope of joining one of the two groups of sixty let in to watch the tuna auction.

The frozen fish are laid out on pallets. Sceptical restaurateurs peer at the eyes, lift the gills, shine their torches into cavities. The auctioneers jump up on boxes, ring handbells, doff their caps and shout and bounce excitedly, like contestants in some incomprehensible game show.  Bidders raise hands casually as if acknowledging a friend, and porters hook the sold tuna and drag them away, then return for the pallets, and hose down the floor as another auction starts across the room.

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After nine, when the market is quieter, tourists are allowed into the wholesale areas and march fully armed with SLR’s and telephoto lenses across the flooded cobbles, down the aisles between the stalls barricaded with teeming fish tanks and Styrofoam boxes, and stop to watch the fishmongers butchering tuna on trestle tables with knives like swords, and fire off a few shots of chopping boards dripping with blood and hoses left running and boxes stuffed with silvery bass and orangey snapper and brilliant white squid and octopus tentacles as thick as your arm and coiled eels in buckets of water. The stallholders struggle past them and ignore the staccato clicking of camera shutters and the tourists kneeling to get selfies with severed tuna heads. Mercifully there is no room for star jumps.

It is an improbable tourist attraction, but compelling.

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By eleven, the vendors start to pack up and close their stalls and the tourists put their cameras away and join the queues outside the sushi restaurants, where they stand for an hour or two or three and some get bored and peel off to browse the stalls selling knives and pans and bags of dried fish, and the door occasionally slides open and the tourists look briefly hopeful until it slides shut again. There is room inside, at a squeeze, for around a dozen at the bar and tables. The sushi chefs work centre stage, slicing, moulding, plating up; another, stage right, stirs a vat of rice with a paddle.

How fresh is the fish?” someone behind me in the queue asked a regular. “Well, it was swimming an hour ago,” came the reply.

© Richard Senior 2015