Japan - A Country of Contrasts

7 September 2018

As a chef, Japan was a country I longed to visit. I was and still am amazed at their knife skills and simple but fresh food. Since 2018 is a BIG year for birthdays  - I am turning 50 this year (I know I look so young) and my mother-in-law is turning 70, we thought let’s do a family trip to Japan to celebrate these milestones.

Japan has been one country that I have not heard one bad word about. Actually on the contrary, people of all cultures rave about this country - mindfulness, food, temples, beauty, trains, organisation, markets, skiing and the list goes on.  As you can imagine the bar was set very high for us!

So did it meet our expectations?……. Well read on and find out!

 We flew into Tokyo, stayed one night and went straight to Kyoto, the land of temples and amazing monuments - this city was by far my favourite city in Japan. We stayed in a traditional Japanese restored Machiya House, which previously served as both a residence and place of commerce for merchants and craftsmen. The house was quaint with a small garden, beautiful ambience and serene streets. We lived like locals!

The next 5 days were spent experiencing traditional Japan. We paid our respects and gave thanks to the many temples and shrines from Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine, Kinkaku-ji: The Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Sanjūsangen-dō Temple to the Kyoto Imperial Palace and Nishi Honganji Temple.

Our highlight was Samarai Joes walking tour. We first meet "Samurai" Joe outside Kyoto's City Hall. He's easy to spot  thanks to his flowing black kimono, wispy grey beard and hair pulled back into a traditional samurai top knot. Over the next few hours we got an intriguing insight into contemporary Kyoto life. We visited around a dozen stores – small, family-run establishments selling everything from exquisite ceramics and handmade paper to sweets and jewellery.  En route, we sampled a variety of local delicacies including freshly made inari sushi (triangles of rice covered in tofu), green tea-flavoured boiled sweets and insanely strong cups of sake!

Shinkansan was so efficient, comfortable and extremely fast, I thought TGV was good, but Japanese trains are another level! We did side trips to Osaka, which we loved and wished we could have spent more time there, Nara and Hiroshima. Hiroshima understandably has heaviness and sadness about it, the museum brought back many many sad memories from such a tragic day in history.

One people, one race?

Japanese people are one of the most socially and ethnically homogenous groups in the world, which felt very strange especially when you live in a multicultural society like Australia. I do understand the insular life given their history but I am not sure this is a good thing.

Talking to young local Japanese people gave us a good insight into why they are such a “closed” culture, however, I do feel like the youngsters are rebelling which may not be such a bad thing.

Japanese food: Is it a foodie heaven?

When it comes to Japanese food, the words simplicity, clean, fresh, delicate, tasty food come to mind, hence why we were super excited about trying the local delicacies.

Our favourites were Unagi, which is a river eel grilled over charcoal and lacquered with a sweet barbecue sauce, the Ramen houses were understated but fresh and tasty, eating Shabu-shabu with my son- thin slices of beef swished around with chopsticks in bubbling broth. It’s a decadent dish, with platters of marbled meat brought to the table for diners to cook themselves. It takes only a moment – one mouthful at a time.

We searched high and low for the best Yaikatori and finally found it in a deep underground hole in Oasaka, god knows how we found it but we did! It was probably one of the best eating experiences we had, again, simple, fresh and tasty just what I expected Japanese food to be.

Our culinary highlight was Oedo Ayatori Restaurant in Shin Juku, it is the quintessence of Japanese cuisine the food is simply out of this world, the service is exceptional as you will be greeted by a big charismatic owner who is warm and friendly and very knowledgeable on all thing Japanese. The atmosphere is modern but also traditional with its unique robatayaki which directly translates to “fireside cooking,” robatayaki is a traditional style of coal grilling. It is a rustic style of cooking, where food is grilled over an irori, a sunken hearth that once featured in many Japanese houses. A must if you are ever in Tokyo.

My wife was obsessed Okonomiyaki which a savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients, we found a local café where you can make it yourself, so you can imagine she went a bit crazy!. She also loved anything Matcha, Matcha ice cream, matcha cake, matcha sweets matcha, matcha, matcha….

We were disappointed with the Sushi and Sashimi, even at the fish markets where we expected it to be fresh and delicate but it was far from it. For the Fish Markets itself which supposed to be one of the highlights of Japan, we woke up at 5am expecting to be amazed at the operation and produce but instead found the place dirty and people rude. Tourists were only allowed to enter at 10am, when they were cleaning up? Again it didn’t meet our expectations. Actually food bloggers and critics that rave about this place need to visit “Rungis Market” in Paris sorry but it is still the best in the world in my eyes.

Overall the food was good but in my opinion, like the country itself, it lacked a lot of love and soul.

Our highlights were definitely the chaos and colours of Tokyo streets, the serene beauty of the temples, the organisation and precision of the trains and the many beautiful memories we had as a family.

 My family and I did analyse why we all felt so disheartened, disconnected and disappointed with Japan as a whole and it really came down to warmth of the people. For us, people make a country, you can be in the poorest of cities and still feel the warmth of the people and unfortunately this is what let us down. (Dare anyone call the French rude and arrogant again?)

Would we come back again? Maybe in 10 years’ time when the younger generation make some much needed changes in society but until then its Sayonara from me!