Category Archives: Food

Travel by Tweet: How to Throw Away Your Guidebook in Japan

I was in Shizuoka City looking to find a nice little bar I’d read about for a celebratory pint (I’d just got a new job), when once again I was reminded how little people know their own cities and towns.

Everyone I asked had little idea about where I was talking about. In fact, at one point I was stood almost beneath the sign of the bar in question, as usual unable to spot anything that isn’t directly under my nose.

Eventually I asked two gentlemen where I could find the bar; not a clue, never heard of it. We were ten feet away.

On my second lap around the block I did eventually spot it and rather embarrassedly walked up the stairs to find ‘Beer No Yokota.’ Fortunately it was more than worth getting a little lost for.

It’s understandable I suppose that people don’t always know their own towns so well. When it’s the place you call home it’s easy to get into a routine, to only dine and drink at the usual familiar places, to discover new places through the recommendations of friends, family and co-workers. In Japan, with the tendency for restaurants to be tucked away on the fourth floor of a non-descript tower block it’s easy to never know a place even exists.

Now this can be a problem for those of us who live in Japan and speak a little/a lot of Japanese. So how much more difficult must it be if you’re in Japan on holiday, what do you do if you’re trying to escape Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka or any other tourist friendly location for a slice of real Japan?

Go with your guidebook?

Hardly.

With the Lonely Planet Japan guidebook devoting around one hundred pages each to the big three of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka it’s easy to understand why other areas get fewer pages assigned to them.

Even then it’s inevitable that otherwise great travel writers are going to miss some local gems when they haven’t got the time to search out every hidden corner of a town.

Indeed even if you’re local it can be pretty tough to get recommendations from Japanese people. Particularly if you’re a teacher out here, as many long-term foreign residents are, then your students will often be reticent to offer recommendations for fear that you won’t like the places they enjoy.

However, there’s another reason why it’s so hard to stray off the well-worn guidebook paths and in likelihood it’s the one you’re worrying about.

The language.

Leaving Tokyo and it’s English menus behind can be daunting for many travelers but even if you haven’t had time to master some few thousand Japanese kanji there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try to enjoy a bit of real Japan. Armed with a couple simple phrases and a little local knowledge there’s no end of places to discover outside of the big three.

So how to go about finding them?

Go local. Get specific.

Not literally.

Digitally.

I discovered Beer no Yokota via the gastronomic musing of one Shizuoka Gourmet

If you’re a craft beer fan like me then you won’t go wrong with the Japan Beer Times a bilingual go-to-guide for all you Hop Heads out there.

Fancy catching some footy while you’re out here? Then take a look at the fan blogs for a quality English resource. My local team, Shimizu S-Pulse is followed by the UK Ultras who offer the complete lowdown on everything you need to know to get to the games and sing along with the fans.

For those of you who’d prefer to spend your holidays in a more healthy fashion taking in all Japan’s beautiful outdoors has to offer then head on to Outdoor Japan.

However, if you want to track down somewhere with a limited web presence, a pretty common thing in Japan, then look no further than Twitter. Once you’ve found one person or company who shares some of your interests then Twitter handily starts recommending more of them to you. On top of that it’s one of the few forms of publicly accessible social media that Japan has truly embraced.

It’s also an easy way to discover real life connections between places as most independent places know the other people running shops and restaurants in their town and follow them on Twitter.

So there it is. A little prep, a little wi-fi and possibly a lot of google translating later you can be sat in a little antique café, eating local ice-cream or supping the local brew.

And when you do, don’t forget to blog or tweet about it so the rest of us can enjoy it too.

 

 

The Japanese and English Cuisine

All this nonsense talk of micro-aggressions and flyjins that hovers about the Internet is nothing but a shallow distraction, a bit of rubbish that shifts attention from the truly awful, the god honest hatred for one thing that runs through Japanese society.

I encounter the disdain, the condescending smile, the knowing looks and pitying glances often in my working life. The respect I’m usually afforded as a teacher despite my few years is replaced by a little chuckle and my immediate relegation from senior or equal figure to foolish foreigner, ignorant visitor to these lands.

I try to laugh it off. I dismiss it as ignorance and not to be taken seriously. In my line of work you really ought to believe that you can educate individuals away from such unworldly views.

Yet, it’s no use. This is a nation reared on a televisual journey through the hinterlands of travel and haute cuisine. Every evening, nay every moment of the day that the TV illuminates the corner of the apartment it acts like some neon kami (Japanese for god), a tiny bacchanalian Buddha and pretentious prophet all rolled into one as it dispenses its unquestionable wisdom to the masses.

And what does it teach this culinary cult, these devotees of sofa-based exploration?

That not only is Japan the home of the world’s greatest cuisine but that it finds its perfect antithesis in where I call home; England.

Perhaps the humble fish and chips, or fishuandochipusu as it’s known here, is an exception to this rule such is its place on so many bar menus but the rest of my home nations culinary output might as well be poured down the drain the moment we’ve finished over cooking it.

My tongue now having thoroughly bore its way through my cheek I really ought to discuss where this seemingly globally accepted view actually comes from.

While the TV may be the purveyor of the accepted wisdom, it undoubtedly is entrenched enough now that very little could change Japanese minds.  It’s out there, as true to the Japanese as the strike happy, surrender quickly nature of the French is to the English. We don’t always believe it is true, but we certainly enjoy acting like it is.

However, in my opinion, away from Japanese TV there is a simpler geographical reason for this perspective.

Train stations.

Train stations in Japan are the epicenter. They are at the heart of the city. Everything emanates from that point and the better a thing is, the more likely it is to be on the doorstep of the station.

In Kyoto station there is an entire floor devoted to the art of Ramen. Beneath almost every major city station in Japan there seems to be a food court. Walk out of any train station in Japan (except for seriously countryside places) and you will almost certainly discover a decent number of rather good restaurants right in front of you.

Compare that to the train station in London I used to live nearby, Paddington and the contrasts are pretty stark. Directly opposite the main entrance at the crossroads by the Hilton Hotel sits the following; a Burger King, a KFC, a McDonalds, a Garfunkel’s and an Aberdeen Steak House.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with fast food, it does exactly what it says on the tin, if you can’t hold back from the desire to stuff your face with it well that’s your issue, but fine dining it is not. Two minutes past this cavalcade of calorific confidence men sit yet another crappy steak restaurant and two ‘traditional’ English pubs. These pubs however are no fair reflection of British or English cuisine anymore than Kappa Sushi ought to be considered Kaiseki Ryori in Japan (as goodandbadjapan recently noted on his blog – always a wonderful read).

Yet, if you venture a further two minutes down that very same street you’ll come across The Victoria Pub. It’s a beautiful place, has genuinely good food and an ambiance that Hub Pub’s across Tokyo would kill to replicate. Around the corner from that is the Mitre, yet another fine example of a good English Pub. That both happened to be my locals for a short time in my life is something I will always be grateful for.

In reality if anything in England might find its antithesis in Japan it certainly isn’t food, it’s urban planning.

Unfortunately the simple hint, walk five minutes more, isn’t in any guidobuku I’ve ever seen. However, I’ve been correcting this one globetrotting student at a time and bit by bit I think it’s starting to work.

All this is really just my way of saying, if you work in either of the lovely pubs I just mentioned and have been very politely, if quite forcefully cajoled into posing for photographs with some very nice Japanese ladies thoroughly enjoying their holidays, then thank you. You have by plate and by pint managed what I never could; you got them to disagree with the TV.

8DZW4Z69K3P4

Izu with a hint of Jamaica: Craft Ale and Coffee on the Cape

Moving to the Izu Peninsula, within sight of Mt. Fuji, beautiful oceans and fresh fish galore it would be fair to say I had certain expectations. Undoubtedly Izu can fulfill many of these dreamy thoughts. There have been days when Fuji-san has dominated the horizon (the finest and nearest view is from the local supermarket car park, not as romantic as you’d hope aye), evenings when I’ve supped a pint while staring out across a harbour and days when I simply pine to own a car again if only for a weekend so that I could spend it cruising the outline of the cape.

Yet, while Izu can offer all this, many of us spend our days earning a crust further inland, away from the salty sea air and the delightfully clichéd sound of the ocean. Far from the ageing tourist hotspots like Atami, otherwise known as Blackpool-on-the-Pacific, small town Izu is pretty much the same as small-town elsewhere. An assortment of franchises and chains designed to choke the individuality out of the popular, high rent areas of town. A MaxValue, a Kimisawa Combo (McDonald’s inside), a KFC down the street and myriad high street brands Japan. I blogged about these places dominating the night’s sky in Nagano before I upped sticks from the cold to the swelteringly humid. Alas, the absence of planning permission, or seemingly any planning at all seems to have decimated a large part of what could be beautifully idyllic Japan. The contrast between bits of stunning nature, jutting up in the horizon against a backdrop of hastily constructed ephemera is all too painful at times.

Indeed, when I first found myself in my new town there was something of an initial, niggling worry. You see in my last town I’d been utterly spoiled. One of my former students and her husband run one of the nicest coffee shops you could ever hope to come across. A rich variety of blends from across the globe fill glass jars on shelf after shelf above the polished wooden counter, classical music plays in the background and whenever I visited, my two younger students, the children of said coffee shop owners would play a continual game of peek-a-boo with me from behind a door, bemused by the fact that their teacher existed outside of a classroom but too shy to come say hello.

However, when I walked around the place I now call home for the first time I was confronted by a raft of snack bars, pubs (the seedier Japanese variety, not the British version I know and love) and supermarkets. Few signs of originality or charm were visible. I even asked a passer by if there was a decent place I could get a cup of coffee while I sat and studied, preferably not at the Starbucks imitation snack bar. The response was a rather long, ‘ummmm, ahhh, sorry I haven’t a clue.’

But all was not lost, because I struck upon gold soon after. Specifically Jamaican, green, gold.

No, not marijuana…

Somehow, amidst the sea of convenience stores, supermarkets and national brands there is a Jamaican style kitchen here. Not exactly what you expect to find in small town Japan but a welcome addition nonetheless. Evidently there is a small but burgeoning community of late twenty-somethings in this area, united by a shared love of reggae. Thanks to their passion for all things Jamaica, I get to wash away the day’s worries with a bottle of Red Stripe beer and Marley in my ears. On top of that, you couldn’t hope to meet a friendlier bunch of people. In an otherwise non-descript, off the conveyor belt small town in Japan, places like this make all the difference. It’s no longer identikit; it’s individual.

And what’s more, they seem to have friends, because every time I find another one of these gems, these little oases in a desert of family restaurants, the owner goes ahead and recommends yet another one to me. A small bar in Shizuoka City led me to the home of Baird Beer in Numazu. My local Jamaican place led me to the local Irish pub where I get to sip pints and watch the footy at two in the morning. While my local coffee shop, a beautiful, eighty-year-old café sells a guidebook to every single one of the independent restaurants, coffee shops, cafes and bookshops scattered around Shizuoka Prefecture.

When I find the coffee shop, microbrewery and bookshop on the edge of the bay, I’ll be sure to let you all know. If only so you know, I won’t be back for a while yet.

Neon Nagano

Japan is littered with modernity. Quite literally littered, as when one drives through Japan at night one gets the impression of a land where technology, bright flashes of light and commercialism were merely dropped along the edge of the road with little thought to the world they were creating here. Indeed planning permission would appear to most people to be an alien concept to the Japanese. While the biggest cities are full of impressive architectural accomplishments it’s hard not to feel that Japan’s more rural cities were dragged into the blueprint for a modern Japan as something of an afterthought.

Last weekend, driving from my relatively quiet city, where the centre of town can charitably be said to be rather quiet, I drove along a major Nagano route heading for a neighbouring city where a friend of mine lives. In the daylight I know driving in Nagano to be a breathtaking thing. The countryside appears to endlessly stretch out to a horizon that is so beautiful that from time to time I wonder whether in truth I might be the victim of a Trumanesque hoax, that someone has in fact painted this skyline, a vast and beautiful deception where every winter armies of workers abseil down the face of a giant metal dome in order to paint the mountaintops white.

However, at night it’s a different story entirely. Where once fireflies and the stars were the only thing to light up the night sky, now an endless stream of neon runs alongside the rivers and roads in Nagano’s valleys. All the stores are the same wherever you go along this long stretch of road, Department store followed by McDonald’s, supermarket by pachinko parlour, glasses store (sporting a giant neon pair of spectacles of course) by the same shoe shop you saw 5km earlier. All marked at regular intervals by a Familymart, a Lawson’s or Seven/Eleven.

I’ve said before that Japan has managed to deal with globalization in a fascinating way, picking and choosing what aspects of culture and commerce that set up shop here. But when confronted by this long line of identikit construction and expansion it’s hard not to feel that in some places they let the flood barriers collapse.

While on that road returning home I might have been more saddened by the show of lights were it not for a few things. I had spent part of the previous evening at an open mic music night in a small town. The place was filled with a mix of Japanese and foreigners alike all enjoying the music, whether the lyrics were Japanese or English. My friend and I swiftly followed it up with a few beers in an Indian themed bar where the food was warm and the owners welcoming. Finally finishing our evening by devouring one of the best cheeseburgers I am ever likely to taste at a bar covered in Americana bric-a-brac.

These places were the product of globalization at its best, a place where two cultures can meet and get the best from one another. Do I wish these places were only a short walk from my own apartment? Yes, of course. But then they’d probably build it next to a department store and since you wouldn’t be able to see it behind that behemoth it’d need something bright and colourful so you wouldn’t miss it… maybe a splash of neon would do the trick.

Dear Colonel Santa

Pulling at plastic wrapping, contorting the fragile cardboard box within, peering intently at the numbered squares adorned with cartoon images of reindeer and a fat man in a dapper red number, with a look firmly plastered across their faces that said, “what the hell is this thing?”

It was an advent calendar. Something that for my whole life I’d taken for granted. A fixture of my childhood for which the theme of the box chosen, based on either the cartoon character on front or as I got older the chocolate within, was taken with great care. The very thought that someone might have no clue as to what it was had never occurred to me in the slightest.

I’d always considered certain things to be at the forefront of globalization, dispensed across the global by Coca-Cola and McDonald’s; I figured most of the commercial aspects of Christmas to be among them. Then again, I hadn’t a clue as to 99.9% of Japanese holidays when I arrived here so the double standard was perhaps unfair.

But there is one extenuating circumstance. I didn’t just describe the look of kids but of senior citizens.  Which in a way, when I think about for more than a mere moment makes considerably more sense, despite my initial surprise. Children for one are simply pleased with something new, bright and colourful which they are told has sweets inside. Adults tend to question the purpose of packaging a bit more. Children simply want to know the rules of this mysterious new object and how to extract chocolate from it.

Then there’s the element of media saturation. Anyone who has grown up in a developed nation over the last fifty years has been literally drowned in American pop culture. Christmas just like Valentines day in Japan, is exported commercial opportunity pure and simple.  However, my assumption that globalization alone could spread global awareness of western traditions missed a vital element in its brief calculation, people don’t buy every piece of crap they see.

Almost, but not quite.

In order to sell stuff at Christmas you generally need to get consumers to see it with a certain nostalgic tint. I don’t buy overpriced mulled wine at Christmas purely for the taste after all. I buy it in pubs in England because it’s there and not far from it is a roaring fireplace, which when working in cahoots somehow convince me that Christmas has ever been thus, so thus I must buy.

Which leads me back to Japan where one such company has managed this in a big way, KFC. The Colonel Sanders chicken factory in Japan has managed something quite impressive. If you want to eat fried chicken at a KFC on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day you’ll need a reservation. It’s really that popular.

So how exactly has the purveyor of, in England at least, relatively cheap, late night, saturated fat and grease (delicious though it may be and particularly enticing after, say the sixth pint of the night) become a household name for all things Christmas in Japan?

When it comes down to it, I thinks its just because Colonel Sanders looks an awful lot like Santa Claus. That and some Coca-Cola-esque advertising tends to help.

The Benefits of Lonely Travel on a Friendly Planet

I’ve had some peculiar moments in Japan (as you have no doubt noticed already) and they have almost always come from the kindness of strangers. Now I’ve never really addressed why they are quite so kind before, but indeed there is a simple reason for it; more often than not, I travel alone.

I noticed as far back as on my trip around America with a good friend of mine, that a certain kind of person was simply more likely to attempt to engage you in conversation if you were by yourself. On some level you are simply more approachable. Also, the person about to randomly introduce his or herself might simply be more comfortable revealing their inner eccentric when in the presence of fewer people. Less potential embarrassment all round.

In Portland, my friend’s trip to the bathroom left me alone for the few minutes in which I struck up a conversation with the bartender as to why the fine brew I was currently quaffing was not available on Blighty’s fair shores (the answer is that production on the scale of Budweiser most often inevitably leads to an inferior product, therefore they were happy in Portland), the next thing I know the guy next to me was asking whether I fancied a tour of the very brewery I was stood in. Informing him that I’d have loved to, but alas, the tour closed two hours ago he quickly handed me his business card and replied, “no problem I’m a brewer here, let’s go.”

The friendly brewer then proceeded to lead my friend and I through every stage of the brewing process. Embarrassingly, I was so pleased with this I hugged the tiny brewer while we were stood in the hops fridge. As we reached the end of tour my friend and I wondered, how could this get any better?

“So here’s the beer lab.”

….brain explodes…

“and here’s your free six pack of unlabelled IPA.”

…oh dear Christ almighty…

So you see, I have much faith in the kindness of strangers, at least when said strangers have the opportunity to introduce themselves.

Japan certainly hasn’t let me down in this respect.

On my second trip to Shizuoka City to see a friend of mine, I found myself in need of a place to kill a few hours time and more importantly to get some grub in me. Not remembering the city all that well from my previous visit I attempted to wander in the direction of a hamburg restaurant I’d visited last time. Eventually, I tracked it down and found myself sat in a fairly empty slice of Germany, hamburg and spaghetti parked in front of me (some food combinations in Japan remain thoroughly beyond me). I was about half way through my meal when the only other customer, an elderly Japanese man started to talk at me. I say talk at me because I barely understood a single word of Japanese at the time, essentially any question asked of me that didn’t precisely match my text book was lost on me. But we persisted, each making efforts to bridge the gap, me with scraps of Japanese from my notebook, him through sheer bloody persistence.

One question he asked was fairly simple, ‘do you like cake?’ I nodded. The next thing I know a slice of cake appears in front of me, courtesy of the kind old man. I thanked him once and then again as he was leaving, at which point he asked me, ‘Do you like tea?’ Once again I answered in the affirmative, not expecting another slice of generosity. I hadn’t realized at this point just how prepared Japanese folk always are for gift giving. Sure enough, he reached into his backpack and pulled out a brick of green tea, handed it to me, smiled and was on his merry way.

It’s good tea too.

 

 

Kyoto in the Company of Teenagers

Beneath Kiyomizu Temple there is a corridor where only a single speck of light exists. The rest is bathed in utter darkness, as if a thick black curtain has descended and left you blind to the world. To navigate through this impenetrable night one must keep a hand running along a length of rope, beaded with wooden balls, skimming your fingers as you wade through step by step. This is Tenai-meguri and one’s journey into it is figuratively the journey into the womb of Daizuigu Bosatsu, the mother of Buddha who is said to be able to grant wishes. One might imagine such an experience to be vaguely spiritual. The immersion in utter darkness, the total loss of a sense one relies upon so greatly. This might be so. In the darkness I might have found tranquility, an inner peace or perhaps a touch of revelation…

“Aye! Where you gone? Oh you’re behind me… wait so who’s in front of me… what’s that? Wait is that my foot or your foot? … argh a wall!”

A blood curdling scream.

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah… turned out to be the curtain at the exit.”

You see I had foolishly attempted a Zen like experience in the company of ten Yorkshire teenagers.

Perhaps I should explain. A good friend of mine is a Girl Guide Leader back in gloriously green Yorkshire. Which roughly means that she attempts to control a horde of teenage Yorkshire lasses on a weekly basis. How she manages to do this and retain a semblance of sanity I do not know, as teenagers of any ilk, never mind northern lasses, are a hard bunch to look after. If it isn’t self evident, when I say ‘look after’ I actually mean, ‘protect the general public from.’ It was in this role that my friend had brought her young charges to Japan and invited me to catch up with them for a day of sightseeing.

Now despite what the above may say, I don’t want you to think unkindly of this bunch. I was actually thoroughly impressed with their efforts in Japan. Thinking of how I might have reacted to Japanese culture as a teenager brings a wince to my face, in contrast each of these girls threw themselves into the experience with gusto. Noodles were devoured at pace, okonomiyaki as if consumed through a straw (so I was informed) and the bitter, thick tea of a tea ceremony was drunk with a smile and a respect for the effort and tradition involved in its creation. They even managed to ask some very insightful questions about Japanese culture… once they had got over the initial shock of their guide leader running to hug me upon my arrival.

By the end of the afternoon, after a long day spent under the hot summer sun it was however, rather obvious that the poor girls were beginning to wane. I couldn’t blame them, jetlag, culture shock and endless sightseeing are exhausting individually and they had at one point or another in their journey gone through all of them. So, arriving at a food festival on the banks of the river they looked rather less interested than before. I on the other hand had turned into a demented toddler, bouncing and grinning like an idiot at the thought of an endless variety of Japanese food. One variety in particular had been on my mind all day as I was slowly steam cooked in the unabating humidity; kakigori (I admit to being a simple creature). Quickly I found a source for my fix of strawberry flavour and shaved ice. Smiling, with a cup of delicious kakigori in hand I turned to find myself surrounded. Funny how teenagers get a second wind when dessert is available.