A Gourmet Husband in Japan!!
Welcome once again to another "exciting" installment of Lachie's international adventures. As regular readers, friends, family, twitter followers, and anyone else who's been willing to listen to me knows, my Gourmet Wife and I have just returned from a two week holiday in Japan, and as the site has been a tad quiet of late I think its high time I made a decent length post about it. And be warned now, it's a fair bit longer than anything that's ever hit our front page before. Here goes.
We flew out of Melbourne ridiculously early on the morning after the annual Hanging Rock Winery Winter/Spring wine lunch, which showed both extremely poor planning and phenomenal fortitude, eventually to arrive in Osaka after a futuristic looking train from the airport. Our hotel was within jet-lagged stumbling distance from dotonbori, Osaka's premier night-life district and given that our arrival day was a public holiday it was understandably packed with people. People with a sense of fashion of which I am still bewildered, and hair styles which had to be seen to be believed. Our first order of business was to find somewhere to eat (naturally), as Sarah was informing me that she had been in Japan for over 3 hours by this stage and had still not eaten sushi.
We were guided mostly on this trip by the Lonely Planet guide to Japan, which steered us to Ganko Sushi, a chain restaurant but one which had a reasonably reputation for value. We walked the entire length of Dotonbori around two and a half times looking for it, but my Japanese reading skills have gone downhill significantly since I last studied the language 15 years ago. Luckily for us, many restaurants in Japan have plastic models of many or all of the dishes served in the windows, while this does sometimes make decisions of where to eat easier, there are times when the plastic model looks so unappealing that I couldn't even imagine what is was supposed to be (the model plastic omlettes looked particularly horrid). Eventually we found somewhere which had decent looking model sushi in the window, and an English menu, and went to sit at the sushi bar quietly cursing the Lonely Planet map which couldn't help us find Ganko Sushi. Funnily enough, the place we picked at random actually turned out to be Ganko Sushi, but we didn't find this out until about a week afterwards. Anyway, the food wasn't bad, and the chef was amusing, and Sarah had finally found some of the raw fish she seems so fond of.
The following morning we headed to Koyasan, a mountain region a few hours south of Osaka by train, cablecar, and bus. The town grew up around the headquarters of a particular sect of Japanese Buddhism and is now somewhat of a tourist destination where guests stay in any one of around 120 temples and monasteries and are looked after by the monks who work and study there. This meant a traditional Buddhist dinner which was, of course, vegetarian. We'd heard good things about this, and assumed that as it's all they'd ever eat, they must have some sort of ancient Buddhist secrets as to how to make it delicious.
I don't want to say it was awful, and some of it was pretty tasty, but there were some elements of the meal which I found to be both unidentifiable and close to inedible. And this isn't just me (the pickiest of the Gourmet Husbands crew) talking, Sarah agreed with my assessment. We tried everything on offer, but this was not exactly our cup of tea (or bowl of Miso if you will). This whole ritual (which included sitting on tatami mats which I don't mind, but was wrecking havok with my dodgy knee after about a half hour) was repeated the following day at breakfast, which was held after a half hour of Buddhist prayer service at 6:30am. For my thoughts on that, see my assessment of the food.
The other (or perhaps main) reason to go to Koyasan is the Okunoin Cemetery, the largest in Japan and built in and amongst the forrest stretching around two kilometers to another temple and mausoleum. Okunoin was probably one of the highlights of our entire trip, it's a pretty amazing place.
The following day we headed back to civilisation, specifically Kyoto, where we were to spend the next few days. I won't go into the details of the vast amounts of temples we visited, but Kyoto is a very old city with many famous old temples and areas all in and around the city. The areas we spent most of our nights in Kyoto were Gion and Pontocho, two of the older and more traditional (ie: not ugly) places in the city. Gion is an old area full of wooden tea-houses and Geisha, while Pontocho is a single narrow street which apparently has a very high concentration of Michelin stars, though you wouldn't know it. I have the feeling than any door with no sign (or at least no Enligh sign) and no menu in the window along this street is the sort of restaurant you can go and spend a month's salary without breaking a sweat. We didn't eat at those ones.
One of the interesting (and fun) places we ate was actually a bar, not far from pontocho. I'm still not sure how we found it, but down a lane, off a lane, over some parked bicycles and up a set of stairs, down a hall (past a tattoo parlour) and there it was. Actually, that's not far off finding places in Melbourne, so maybe it was that which helped. Anyway, it was a place that's popular with both locals and tourists (a bunch of Aussie/Brit backpackers joined our table after a while), and while it's full of smoke, booze, and noise, it's also got good cheap food. Adorning the wood school camp cabin style walls are business cards and graffiti from whom-ever felt the need to put them there. A GourmetHusbands.com one now joins them, and I'll buy a bottle of sake for anyone who can find it and send me a photo of themselves with it. It is for this reason I have not given you the name of the bar, though there are hints.
After a few days of exploring Kyoto's temples and the odd market, we activated our JR rail pass and headed to Hiroshima via Himeji. On this:
I was probably more excited than I should have been to ride on the shinkansen. I'm by no means a rail enthusiast, in fact I hate trains in Australia, but look at that thing! It's not a train, it's a space ship on rails!
Anyway, we planned to spend a few hours in Himeji because it has what is regarded to be Japan's best castle. Unfortunately at the moment it looks like this:
And it will continue to look like that until about 2015, so if you're in Japan...maybe give it a miss. Later that day we made it to Hiroshima, we spent the afternoon doing the Peace Park and museum etc, then headed for dinner at a rather up-market izakaya. After they tried to sit us in the "Western" section (with tables and chairs, but in a concrete room, we politely declined and were sat on raised platforms in the long bar room. The food here was of a kind I'd expect at an izakaya back home, with a little more finesse and attention to detail than the more casual izakayas we'd been to in Kyoto. Note that I didn't say it was better, or worse, it was just interesting to see the difference. It also had the most ridiclous bathroom I've ever seen.
The following day was spent in Miyajima, where of course Sarah had to try the BBQ'd oysters they're famous for (I had a beer), but dinner was back in Hiroshima - this time for Okinomiyaki. Okinomiyaki is generally referred to as a Japanese pancake, although the shape is about the only real common ground, and a thin battered base thing. We'd had some in Kyoto, but the Hiroshima style ones include noodles and we preferred these versions. The place we went was again off an alley, then up some stairs, to arrive at three floors of Okinomiyaki stations. Basically a big stainless steel grill plate with a cook in the middle and around a dozen or so chairs around. Unsure how to pick one out of the three floors worth of places, we looked at one which had locals in it and some free seats, sat down and got stuck in. Made to order in front of you, you get whatever you want on them, if memory serves ours had pork, prawns, and ... fine I guess memory doesn't serve me that well. But they were awesome (and filling).
This marked the end of our first week in Japan, we headed to Tokyo (on another Shinkansen) the following morning. There, once we had negotiated Tokyo's world famously busy train station, we made it to our hotel just near Ginza - an upmarket shopping district we didn't actually get much of a chance to explore.
An area we did explore was the famous Tokyo markets, which includes the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world (who'd of thunk it?). Quite simply it was terrifying. Pallet trucks and forklifts and boxes and men with massive knives everywhere. And the trucks don't stop for people, you get the hell out of their way.
Eating in Tokyo was a lot of fun. Unlike previous holidays (specifically our US adventure a few years back) we weren't doing fine dining, nor had we planned in advance where we were going to eat. That's how we ended up in Yakitori joints under the train line, and the famous Piss Alley. Piss Alley is a collection of Yakitori places and other izakayas which serves much better food than the name might suggest, I believe the name originates from a time when proper drainage systems weren't installed, but times have improved. Although I read somewhere (which I now can't recall, so don't ask for the source on this), that the city of Tokyo is considering demolishing this area. If that happens it'll be a damn shame.
After a few more days in Tokyo we were almost at the end of our holiday, so we had to head back to Osaka for our final night. But we weren't eating in Osaka. We'd done most of the eating on this trip on the cheaper side, but our last night in Japan wasn't going to be like that. We jumped on a train and headed for Kobe. For one reason:
Ahh, the world famous Kobe steaks. More than I'd ever paid for a steak (I think with the exchange rate it was over $100 for 200g), but it was simply astounding. I've never had a Wagyu steak, and so had nothing to really compare this to, but wow. Soft, juicy, delicious. Cooked in front of us, there was a little theatre to go along with it, it's a night I'll remember for some time to come.
The next day, after another brief look around Osaka and a trip to Osaka aquarium, we were on a plane back to Melbourne. Our time in the land that gave us Iron Chef was over. It was a pretty amazing holiday, and it was so much easier than I thought it might be (language rarely proved a barrier, most signs are bi-lingual, as are most people we dealt with), and the transport system couldn't be better. It's a trip I'd happily recommend to others, which included the other half of the Gourmet Husbands crew, who are going in December.
I've obviously had to skip a lot of details, but for those interested you can check out the 230 photo album on picassa.