In Search Of A Perfect Japanese Curry

I never eat hospital food. I used to, some twenty years ago, if my break coincided with their irregular hours. The food was cheap, plentiful, and grey – including the vegetables. One evening as I searched for something to eat, I turned the wrong way coming out of the lifts and found myself outside the morgue. I never ate in the cafeteria again.

Luckily, every hospital nowadays has a private café, usually near the entrance and doused in sunlight. There are even express lines for those flourishing a hospital ID. The range of food extends from sandwiches and pies to offerings such as Persian rice salad or glass noodles. Last time I waited for my coffee I noticed a Japanese curry.

Until discovering the works of Haruki Murakami, I never thought of Japan as a land of curries, my knowledge instead restricted to sushi, sashimi, sake and Iron Chef. (Nor had I had associated Japan with truck stops, but in Kafka on the Shore I found both.) In Murakami the curries fed both body and soul; the curry I ordered tasted brown. So began my quest to find a true Japanese curry.

 

Continue Reading →

Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama – The Night I Walked into a Fairytale

             

 

He led me to a bridge, carrying in his arms with him certain dive-droppers or water-fowls, bound to perches and about every one of their necks he tied a thread, lest they should eat the fish as fast as they took them. He loosened the dive-droppers from the pole, and within less than the space of one hour, caught as many fish as filled three baskets; which being full, my host untied the threads from about their necks, and entering the second time into the river they fed themselves with fish, and being satisfied, they returned and allowed themselves to be bound to their perches, as they were before.

 

So wrote the Franciscan monk Friar Oderic, as he wandered barefoot across Asia in 1321. Little, it seems, has changed. Arashiyama may be but twenty minutes from Kyoto, yet I felt I’d strayed into an enchanted world long gone. The night was warm, filled with the chirping of crickets and frogs. Against the darkness of the surrounding hills, lights twinkled from restaurants hiding on the other side of the bay. Coloured lights lit the narrow streets, and lanterns hung amongst the trees leading down to the water.

Continue Reading →

A Train Station In Japan

100_0066

 

The Zen of Japanese Trains

 

100_0058
Waiting on an empty station

Without warning, the train pulled to a stop and refused to move. I had no idea where I was. I hoped I was still en route to Koya-san, Japan’s holy mountain. Here sleeps the Kobo Dashi, revered for bringing Shingon Buddhism to Japan, and who has spent the last one thousand years waiting for the Buddha of the Future. Monks still bring food twice a day to his mausoleum, the Oko-In.

Catching a train in Japan boarders on a leap of faith. At every station the signs are a complex system of interlocking lines in a rainbow colours, and what little I could read proved no help. I was never entirely convinced that either the train or myself knew where we were headed.

Continue Reading →

Rediscovering the Elegance of Travel

A Traveller Not A Tourist

Lugging my bags over the cobbles of Venice I vowed never to travel again with an ocean

The perils of heavy bags in Venice
The perils of heavy bags in Venice

of luggage in tow. The essence of elegance is, after all, simplicity. To travel lightly and so leave a small footprint benefits not only the environment but also the soul.

The problem was amplified by the fact I was in charge of my mother’s bags as well as my own. And it was raining – the only rainy day of the whole trip. There is always a time when travelling when you have to manage your bags yourself – not just over cobblestones, but lifting onto trains or buses, boats, or struggling to the second floor of a hotel with no elevator. The boot of a hired car is rarely spacious, and I don’t like tripping over bags in a hotel room.

So now I have some basic rules:

i) if I can’t lift my bags myself, I’m taking too much.

ii) if I can’t lift my bag over my head (to put on a rack in a train, for example) I am taking too much. Taking a bag down from a height can be just as difficult as lifting one.

iii) if I have to put down my carry bag and rest after 10 minutes of walking, I am carrying too much. Airports and railways involve a lot of walking.

Continue Reading →

10 Non-touristy Things To Try In Japan

i) Watch Cormorant Fishing

 

100_0363
A cormorant boat, Arashiyama

He led me to a bridge, carrying in his arms with him certain dive-droppers or water-fowls, bound to perches and about every one of their necks he tied a thread, lest they should eat the fish as fast as they took them. He loosened the dive-droppers from the pole, and within less than the space of one hour, caught as many fish as filled three baskets; which being full, my host untied the threads from about their necks, and entering the second time into the river they fed themselves with fish, and being satisfied, they returned and allowed themselves to be bound to their perches, as they were before.

                        So wrote the Franciscan monk Friar Oderic as he wandered barefoot across Asia in 1321. Little, it seems, has changed. A fat orange moon climbed into view as I crossed the Togersu-kyo, or Moon Bridge. Small balls of fire floated across the bay: the fishing had begun. Continue Reading →

A Taste Of Japan – Unusual Ways Not To Break The Budget

Osaka, Japan
Osaka, Japan

A shout stopped me halfway along the street. Behind me, on his bike, was the concierge from the ryokan; he had pedalled after me, worried I would get lost.

With family in tow, I was following his suggestions for breakfast. Considering the language barrier, he’d given remarkably precise directions, complete with a hand-drawn map ­– yet still he worried we might lose our way, and kept weaving his way behind us until we reached the restaurant safely. Then, with a smile and wave, he rode away, if not quite into the sunset, at least to be swallowed by the crowds.

Along with the map, the concierge had also written some suggestions ­– in Japanese – which I handed to the waitress. With a bow she led the four of us over to the ubiquitous vending machine and pressed a selection of buttons. Out came not a meal, but brass-coloured tokens. The waitress ushered us to our chairs with another bow, then disappeared into the kitchen with the tokens. Soon the meals appeared, steaming bowls with variations of noodles and vegetables – and mine with a raw egg cracked on top. I always seemed to get the meal with the raw egg – but then, there is little I won’t eat, at least once.

A restaurant in Koyasan, Japan
A restaurant in Koyasan, Japan

Continue Reading →