I’ve always loved Japan. I used to dream of it after watching too much anime and borrowing my dad’s novels by James Clavell. I would read Gai-jin and Tai-Pan and watch endless episodes of Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, which in retrospect didn’t help my naive impressions of Japan. I was transported by historical, fictional and cartoon versions of the country. In my head it was a world of meditation gardens, of white herons and of geishas in many-coloured kimonos.
All the different forms of ‘my Japan’ distorted and intertwined themselves into a seething mass of rights and ritual, tea ceremonies and Yakuza; of hari-kari, seppuku, samurai, ninjas and honour and heritage; of maple trees, unagi, bamboo, antiquities and ancient history.
This bewitching country has always been top of my travel wishlist, wedged improbably and inelegantly between Vanuatu and Ushuaia, and, in 2011, I managed to make it there, at the tail end of a long trip with The Boy.
It was everything I had expected, if possible more and, I suppose, in measures it was less. It was shockingly expensive – we struggled to eat reasonably and to pay for the metro tickets after the soft introduction of bargain basement Thailand and Vietnam. It was staggeringly beautiful – the floating torii gate that appeared to me like a living doorway between the earth and heaven in Miyajima will stay burnt into my mind’s eye forever.
The Torii at Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima – Heaven’s Gate
Never have I felt more Godzilla-like as I wandered around Shinjuku and was surrounded by pocket-sized, lilly-white lovelies in Oscar-worthy make-up, pristine silk blouses and kitten heels. The business men in their sharply tailored suits and hair so stiff it looked like lego glanced at my dusty boots with politely-concealed distaste as my feet, feeling ashamed of their shabby appearance, tried to hide behind my travel-stained backpack.
Japan was, to be truthful, also in turns a very strange place. Men would read explicit hentai – cartoon porn – on the metro on their daily commute and there were new breeds of bizarre hotel like the Cuddle Café, where patrons would pay by the hour to sleep and be hugged by a stranger. I wrote a little about the oddities of Japan in a previous post about mental bentos, but, despite the intermittent other-worldliness of Japan, it’s a place I still yearn to return to, if only for the incredible food.
Last night Jun Tananka, a chef of Japanese heritage, transported me straight back to my 2011 trip with his plates of miso salmon, umami lamb and tempura shitake mushrooms. As I scoffed these delights I reminisced about the similar morsels that I had once eaten at the pop up sushi stands that stood alongside Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo like rows of painted beach huts.
There will be more on that tomorrow, as I try to put Jun Tanaka’s flavours into words, but for now here’s a collection of my Japan in pictures, from down town Tokyo and the deer-filled park in Nara to Osaka’s bright lights, Hiroshima’s prayer cranes, Kyoto’s temples and the bamboo forests of Arashiyama.
Paper prayer cranes in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, each crane has a special significance, which you can read more about here.
The torii, Miyajima, off the coast of Hiroshima. Once, not so very long ago, women weren’t allowed on this island and old folk would be shipped off it to die to keep this shrine island pure from death and contamination.
Kinkaku-ji Zen Buddhist temple, Kyoto. The top floors of the temple are coated in gold leaf. It was reportedly the home of retired shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and made a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after he died in 1408.
I know I’m not alone in my love and fascination for Japan. In fact, Frankie, a wonderful writer and blogger I met last year while dog mushing (which you can read all about here), also dreams of visiting as you can read in her 2014 travel wish list. I would love to hear from people who have been to Japan and what their favourite places or experiences were.
Fingers crossed, there will, hopefully, be more to come on the food and the fish market in Part Two: Jun Tanaka’s Japanese Feast.