Category Archives: Japan

Japanese food

The Japanese culinary universe is so vast that to try to describe it all would be a fool’s errand. Every prefecture, every island and every region offers a new discovery. On the other hand, the foods you have grown to love can be found with a remarkable consistency in every new town.

It must be immediately pointed out that the Japanese food in Japan is a completely different animal to what passes for Japanese food outside of Japan. In Japan itself very often a particular establishment specialises in a particular dish for decades. Everything is prepared from carefully selected ingredients. Therefore even very cheap dishes often surprise you with an incredible taste.

A separate chapter in the Japanese cuisine is the kaiseki cuisine, which I described in my post about staying at a ryokan in Kagoshima.

Most photos in this post are made with an iPhone with impatiently trembling hands… so please don’t judge them too harshly for photographic quality!

The story starts with such an ostensibly simple food as noodles. Noodles are helpful as they help a traveller out cheaply, quickly and effectively. In Japan there are three main noodle types: udon, ramen and soba. For my taste, ramen is the best, although I like soba too.

Ramen are wheat noodles, often prepared as a soup with some tasty additions. Here for example you’ve got pork pieces and freshly cut onions as additions:

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From the Japanese notebook: 28 impressions of Japan

Japan is a very strange country. During my trip around Japan I kept writing down in my red notebook the details of its weirdness. Here is a random list…

1. The white gloves, the epitome of elegance, that are worn by the drivers of buses and taxis. With their hands covered in these white gloves they swiftly operate the wheel and the luggage…

2. In many points of major Japanese cities very helpfully you can find the area plans, often featuring an English translation. But it took me several days to decipher the logic of the orientation of these maps. They are not oriented according to any cardinal direction! It turns out that the up-down axis of the map corresponds to the very direction in which you are looking when you face this map. You have to marvel at the utter precision which was necessary to manufacture these maps so that they correspond so precisely to their rather random-looking position in some metro tunnel or on a street corner. Anyhow, this positioning of the map threw me off every time – ­my European brain is too used to put every map into the North-South axis.

3. An entirely different logic of house numbers. We are used to a street with numbers growing along the two sides, usually odd numbers on one side and even on the other. The Japanese city is divided first into areas with names (sort of like our street names). Then this area is further subdivided into numbered sub-areas, usually delimited by actual physical streets or pathways. However there is no particular reason why such and such sub-areas bears a particular number. Inside the sub-area the houses are further numbered, usually in the order as you would encounter them if you were to go around the sub-area, but not necessarily. For example, the address of the ryokan where I stayed in Tokyo was as follows:1-30-12 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan 111-0032. This is to say that it was house nr 12 in sub-area nr 30 in the first Asakusa area. This is how it looks on the map: address.

4. Coming from the United States, several times I critically misunderstood the Japanese traffic lights and entered the road while the cars were moving. In Japan the red lights is shown by two parallel vertical bars. As the green light approaches, the bars decrease in size – ­this way you can always estimate how long you still have to wait. However in America the red parallel bars blinking mean that the red light is just starting and in principle pedestrians can finish the crossing.

5. A fascinating way of indicating time. Instead of saying, that say an onsen is open until 2 am, the Japanese will write: open until 26:00. 25:00 would correspond to 1 am and 28:00 to 4 am etc. I find this very logical indeed.

6. The direction of reading books – ­similarly to Arabic and Hebrew books, the Japanese books are read from left to right. This means that the first page is where you would expect the last. Even opening a Japanese magazine, you have to adjust.

7. Since we talk directions, of course the Japanese could be like everybody else. They just had to drive on the left.

8. In Japan you are not supposed to tip. This culture eliminates all uncertainty. A paradise for introverts.

9. Indeed it is a paradise for introverts in a number of ways. I was speechless when I first saw a Japanese bus – ­where you do not have to have a neighbour at all as all seats are separated by a passage!

10. You cannot go around the Japanese food. I will write about it separately. Here I will just mention the strangest dish ever. This title must go to nattō beans – ­slimy beans fermented in a special bacteria. They say that this is the dish that they use to test if a foreigner (gaijin) has really adapted to life in Japan. Because the beans look really disgusting. I tried them. They taste pretty funky. Not to belabour the point, this is by far the weirdest food I’ve ever eaten.

11. The Japanese sweets are also pretty weird. Often they are not sweet at all. Most sweets are indeed made from bean pasta!

12. After a while you realise that most Japanese dishes are borrowed either from their neighbours the Chinese or directly from the Europeans. But the longer the isolated Japanese had to alter these dishes, the less recognisable they become. Take Japanese pizza – ­nothing like the original.

13. Japan is choke full of coffee shops. These often look very sophisticated, even glamorous. But what I found most surprising about them was the fact that in each café inevitably there was a partition for smokers, and indeed it was full of smoking people – ­often there were more smokers than non-smokers.

14. The Japanese are quite obsessed by all things French. For them French is the ultimate synonym of elegance and refinement. And to be frank, the fantasy objects made à la française in Japan are already so excessively elegant, that oftentimes in my opinion they exceed and surpass the supposed original. Thus I am not surprised by the stories about how the Japanese are shocked when they visit Paris, seeing how it is nothing like they imagined, but in fact rather dirty and brash. I profited fully from this Japanese obsession and visited regularly a coffee shop network called Vie de France, where you could have wonderful pain au raisin and of course proper latte – ­and thus to escape the crazy Japanese sweets for a bit.

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Japan consists of four large islands. The most important island is Honshu, where all the famous cities and industry are concentrated. Hokkaido is the Northern island, large and sparsely populated, only really mastered by the Japanese in 19th century. The island of Kyushu in South West is historically important for Japan, as many major events in Japan’s history took place there. Indeed it is projected that humans came to Japan via Kyushu in the first place. And finally the island of Shikoku to the South of Honshu, the smallest of the four, mountainous, the least industrially developed, probably having preserved the most authenticity of old Japan. Out of these four islands, I visited three – ­I skipped Hokkaido as it was already quite cold there. On Kyushu I went to Fukuoka and Kagoshima, whereas on Shikoku I visited the town of Matsuyama.

Matsuyama is famous in Japan for its public onsen called Dogo-onsen. It is considered the most ancient onsen in Japan. On the streets of Matsuyama you often see the Japanese travellers in yukata kimonos with a tiny basket slowly heading towards Dogo. I stayed in Matsuyama in a simple ryokan which even had its own onsen, but the admission to Dogo was also included in the price of the night. With great pleasure I therefore visited Dogo several times.

This is how it looks. You cannot make photos inside, but it has to be said that this onsen is truly wonderful and very traditional. There are even some special rooms purpose built for the emperor in case he decides to visit.

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Ryokan Onsen Kaiseki

This post is about the experience of staying at a real ryokan in Kagoshima, which included an onset bath as well as a kaiseki-style dinner.

Let me start though by describing what kinds of hotels exist in Japan.

The theory of Japanese hotels
There are two main types of hotels in Japan: business hotel and ryokan.

Business hotel
Business hotel is reminiscent of a small and rather impersonal Western hotel. As a rule, the room in such a hotel will be very small, but fitted like a LEGO toy with a whole list of items, which is quite invariable. There are things that you would expect in a hotel: a usual bed, a TV, a small table where you can work on a computer (internet surprisingly tends to be provided by a cable modem, in-room wifi is rare).

Every Japanese business room, no matter how small, will also always have:
– ­a hair dryer;
– ­flashlight;
– ­three bottles (soap, shampoo and conditioner);
– ­a small disposable toothbrush with a minuscule tube of toothpaste;
– ­a small disposable hairbrush.

As a rule you will also have an en-suite bathroom, very small, which would include a bath tub as well as a technological miracle called “Japanese toilet”, which will often have a heated seat as well as a special tube that comes out to wash and dry your intimate parts.

Traditional ryokan
The other type of the Japanese hotel is called ryokan. This is a completely different style of accommodation. The rooms in a ryokan will be somewhat bigger, but will have virtually no furniture to which we are used to. The floor is covered with tatami mats. The walls are represented by sliding partitions from wood and paper. Oftentimes the bathrooms are shared. The ryokan room will not have a chair, but rather a low seat as well as a low table, you are meant to sit essentially on the floor. Instead of a bed you sleep on a special Japanese mattress (futon), which is put directly on the floor. When it is not used, the futon is kept in a cupboard behind a partition. It is not all that convenient to sleep on a futon, in fact it’s quite hard, so I found it tiring to stay in ryokan all the time – ­and consequently interchanged ryokans and business hotels, to experience both comfort and tradition.

As Japan is essentially four volcanic islands, she possesses quite a number of hot springs. Ryokan is often built right next to a spring and includes an onsen. An onsen is a Japanese bath. The focus of an onsen is the hot water bath, filled with the water straight from the spring, often very hot indeed.

Ryokan can differ significantly in terms of class. I described above the simple ryokan. High class ryokan will be quite different. It will have large rooms, sometimes with a view to a private garden, which you can admire while meditating in your room. You might have a private bathroom. You don’t have to open and close the futon yourself, the personnel will do it for you. Of course there will be an onsen in such a ryokan. And finally – ­most pleasantly – ­a high class ryokan will include an elaborate breakfast and dinner service in the kaiseki style, the high style of Japanese cuisine.

The Japanese consider several days in a high class ryokan the best possible vacation. Already from my last trip I really wanted to stay in such a ryokan if only for a couple of days. However it turned out rather complicated. The minimum price for such a stay is 100 dollars, often it is several times more. But whatever the price, in November and December Japan experiences the peak of the tourist season, and the best ryokan are booked out for many weeks in advance! You also have to take into account the fact that as the ryokan experience involves a whole unwritten etiquette, not every ryokan will agree to accept a foreigner, as the owner might not speak English and might find it stressful to deal with a foreigner. Particularly one travelling solo: the tariffs in ryokan are traditionally per person, rather than per room.

Often you can only get in touch with ryokan by emailing or faxing them – ­they are not present in the usual reservation systems such as You could also call, but bette speak Japanese then. Finally after a number of failed attempts I found a ryokan in Kagoshima which met my specifications and was ready to accept me.

My room:

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A walk around Osaka

Osaka is the second largest city in Japan (if we consider Yokohama as part of the Tokyo agglomeration). But contrary to other famous Japanese cities, Osaka does not boast a huge number of tourist attractions. It is known as a business city as well as for its food. I will write a separate post about the fantastic Japanese food. Here are simply some photos from a one day walk around Osaka.

Let’s start from the main (if not the only) Osaka tourist attraction, which is Umeda Sky Building. This futuristic edifice offers panoramic views over the whole city. It is also an object of pilgrimage for countless couples in love, who leave there locks with their names and just have to take a seat on this little bench and look at the city enjoying their harmony:

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It is hard to find a clear answer why Americans dropped the bomb specifically on Hiroshima. It was indeed a key military object in that it was a port through which the Japanese troops were sent overseas. However towards the end of the war the American planes had such an overwhelming control of the skies that any city could be easily destroyed using conventional bombs. Tokyo for one for practically levelled by incessant bombings. At a certain moment the American High Command on the contrary created a list of cities where conventional bombing was forbidden – so that in case of a possible atomic bombing the results would be most obvious. On this list was also Kyoto (16 UNESCO World Heritage sites). Later after some reflection Kyoto was removed from the list. Hiroshima however remained as number 1. One of the theories is that it was thought to be the only city without POW camps (which turned out wrong).

On 6 August 1945 the first atomic bomb in the history of humanity was dropped on Hiroshima. This action led to the deaths of 140000 persons, from the first second to years later, due to explosive wave, heat, fires and radiation.

In today’s Hiroshima no visible traces of the bombing persist. The old quarters are all built up with modern buildings. But one building remains as it was right after the attack. It was one of the rare concrete buildings in Hiroshima. The models showing the situation after the explosion the city looks like a grey ashen desert in every direction – and only this building stands in the middle, like a monument. The hypocentre of the explosion was just a couple of metres away.

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Magical Nara

I decided to publish my impressions of Japan out of chronological order, but rather in the order as they come to my mind. I am right now in the city of Kagoshima, at the Southern end of the Southern Japanese island of Kyushu. This post though is about a wonderful place called Nara, where I was just a short time ago. Before Nara I visited also Tokyo and Kyoto, in fact revisited as I already went to both of these metropolises on my last year’s trip to Japan. So this time I only visited some selected sites. However I decided to spend most of my time in the less known Japan. And so I visited Nara, Kagoshima, Fukuoka, Matsuyama, Hiroshima, Osaka…

Nara is the ancient capital of Japan. In the prehistorical times the capital was moved every time the emperor changed, due to shintoist taboos. Later as the Yamato tribes settled and buddhism grew in influence at the imperial court, it was decided to found a permanent capital. Two other places were briefly tried, but finally the emperor chose Nara, which gained the status of the capital in the year 710. Nara was built in imitation of China’s glorious capital of Chan’an (today Xi’an), then the largest city in the world by population. Nara’s plan was also based on the cardinal points and the main temples and palaces were placed based on a system also involving cardinal points. Nara remained capital only for 75 years, as due to complicated palace intrigues the capital was moved to Kyoto, which remained capital for more than a thousand years.

However Nara still possesses many important Japanese cultural sites, of which eight are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Mostly these are Buddhist temples. The imperial palace did not survive until our times, however archeological excavations are taking place in its location and some parts of the palace have in fact been restored.

My visit however started from the Isui-en garden. This is the most famous garden in Nara. In the season of falling leaves it leaves a truly magical impression.

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