Journey to Japan

IMG_2208 As we prepared to journey to Japan, I had been asking myself, why do we want to travel so much?.. Is it to get away from life as we know it? The desire to meet the unfamiliar? To claim bragging rights of having visited a new place? A craving for wonderment found in a new place where the air smells different; languages, sounds and voices a tantalising mix of the familiar and unfamiliar; tastes open you to delights you never knew existed? Even as I wondered why this mattered so much, we geared up to go away – waiting to be delighted by a culture more alien than any we had ever interacted with and just a bit apprehensive about whether this, Atul’s first trip abroad, would live up to all the hype.  Eager to really really taste Japanese culture closely, we had decided to give hospitality exchange a try. Research had led me to the global freeloaders site which in turn led  me to Juan. With just a request via a message, we had a home to stay in Japan. The idea, that someone could be willing to open up his home to complete strangers who he didn’t know existed till just an email ago, simply out of a love for genuine cultural exchanges and a desire to support traveler’s around the world, was humbling. The perfect start.

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Our first few hours in Japan. Here’s Atul at the Osaka train station. looking to catch the train to Kyoto.

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Still in our travel gear, delighted to start the trip on a yummy note.

Our first meeting with Juan marked what the rest of our time in Kyoto would be like. It is still one of my favourite memories of Japan –  while we were still bundled up in the travel gear that we had travelled across the world in, the first thing Juan proposed was that we go eat dinner! And so, within hours of getting off the plane, we found ourselves gorging on Japanese food and getting drunk on copious amounts of hot sake with a generous stranger. What a fantastic way that was, to arrive!

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Our first platter of sushi in Japan. Check out the generous hunk of wasabi! The tuna was fantastic.

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Charcoal roasted fresh fish. The flesh juicy, sweet and smokey.

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Fish head! My favourite part of a fish, the tasty eyes intact.

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I have always been rather disdainful of tempura but the scales soon fell away.

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Sticky rice with sour plum, spinach and sea weed; served with soup on the side. The last course in an extravagant welcome.

That night, in the thick of bone chilling winter, Juan and Yoshiko insisted we sleep in own warm bedroom while they slept on the floor, on makeshift beds, in an unheated room. They insisted it was since they were more used to the cold than us. Before we knew it, the strangers we were living with had seen us at our most dishevelled, argumentative, clumsy best; fed us, laughed and poked fun and even offered to lent us warm shoes. Long rambling discussions that become debates in wine and sake soaked cold cold nights; walks through the wet winding neighbourhoods in Kyoto; breakfasts of local fruit with fresh cruty bread, butter and honey; nightly Indian cooking sessions as we waxed lyrical over Japanese and Indian food, became the norm. Together for less than a week but it felt we knew each other better than most friends did. In a blink we had become more than friends. But in yet another, it was time to leave.

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Juan and Yoshiko writing down directions for us to find the philosophers path in Kyoto

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Kaiten zushi that Juan and Yoshiko took us to. Incredible fresh sushi somewhat contra-intuitively found on a conveyer belt. Fast food for the sushi conscious. Pick one from the procession that marches by or select a special sushi from the tablet on the table and the one you want is made fresh and zipped to you with frightening speed and precision.

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Juan watching as we leave for Tokyo. Hopefully, we will meet again some day.

Before we left, we were to go to this incredible dinner at Uji, a small historic town near Kyoto, organised by Juan’s students who got to practice their English on us. Cooked by a Geisha who came down from Tokyo, trekked into the surrounding hills and foraged for wild vegetables and herbs that she turned into sublime, serious food. Fresh, real, traditional Kyoto fare.  From the caramelised fish in soy sauce, the okonomiyaki pancakes, crisp and sweet prawn and vegetable tempura, minuscule shrimp cooked with beans, sweet potatoes, yam, to the various kinds of wild greens; the 25 odd dishes that arrived at the table one after the other were beyond anything I could have hoped for. Hot steaming cups of the ceremoniously prepared hira-zake, were a highlight. Not that there wasn’t more sake than blood in our veins by then anyway.

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The ever increasing spread that floored us.

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Cured radish if I remember that right. Look how beautiful that colour is.

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Hira-zake – dried, char-grilled fins of the famously toxic fugu fish, seeping in the hot glass of flamed sake.

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The famous Okonomiyaki – Savoury grilled pancakes made with flour, grated nagaimo (a type of yam), water or dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage and served with aonori (seaweed flakes), katsuobushi (bonito flakes), otafuku sauce and Japanese mayo.

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Delicious, sweet red beans. My favourite sweet flavour of the east.

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More of the wild greens and perhaps, turnips?

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Tiniest possible shrimp cooked with beans

Despite the glorious, exciting food, the best part was the company. Mostly above 50, curious, chatty and effervescent, this was very different group from what I had imagined ‘students’ to be like. There was a whole lot of talking. Much of it, all at the same time. Enthusiasm firmly undeterred by the entangling of accents, expressions and gestures.. endless chatter collapsed into giggles as the evening moved into a haze of sake, food, sake, more food and more sake.. and then it was actually time to leave.

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The only picture of the group which we managed to capture without the sake soaked motion blur

The beautiful, painstaking marriage of simplicity and perfection we tasted in the geisha’s food was apparent in every thing we saw in Japan. I couldn’t help but wonder how they had managed to figure it all out. Why was the sticky rice so perfectly sticky yet chewy? What led them to discover sake (yep being drunk does make me philosophical)? How did they learn the precision that is a perfect cut of sashimi. The unmatchable symphony that the sushi at the Tsujiku market in Tokyo plays in your mouth…

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The sushi chef at the incredible Tsukiji market in Tokyo. The precision, attention to detail and focus with which the Japanese chefs work says a lot about their attitude towards food.

The perfection that was Unagi.

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Another favourite is the barbecued eel or Unagi. I first had this in baltimore (US) and fell in love. The authentic Japanese version was a whole other level of bliss. Sweet, smoky and savoury, the soft flesh all but melts into your mouth.

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Gyoza – steamed chicken dumplings in a clear stock, served with greens. We weren’t even hungry when we had this. But even as we started to protest, it disappeared into the words we were forming.

The fabulously designed Shinkansen

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The Shinkansen train that took us to Tokyo and Atul fell in love with. He wanted to get one back for us to keep as a pet.

Teriyaki chicken that was soft, succulent, melt in your mouth fantastic.

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Another fantastic meal we chanced upon in Kyoto. Various cuts of chicken, skewered, grilled on coal and served with simple but perfect sauces and toppings. Later, we so regretted not eating more here.

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The Japanese often use raw eggs as a finishing sauce and every time, it transforms the dish. Here, the yolk is used as a dip for the steaming hot skewer of minced chicken teriyaki style. So simple and yet so so good.

The stark brilliance of the temples and gardens that were at once ascetic, sensual and deeply spiritual.

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The beautiful temple of Kinkaku-Ji made of solid gold, Kyoto

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In the grounds at the Kinkaku -Ji, or the Golden Pavilion Temple

More than anything else, how did they create the bowl of fresh, thickly cut udon ladled with the rich, milky soup and beautifully sautéed tender meat; made creamy with the raw egg poured directly into the steaming bowl, that was be so absolutely perfect on a cold winter day in Kyoto.

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Steam fills the room as the chef boils the freshly made and cut udon. And this is the Japanese version of fast food!

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This was our favourite udon joint for the whole of our trip. Tokyo is so famed for its food but for the two of us everything about Kyoto eclipsed Tokyo. The food, people, spaces…

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Juan was rather disdainful of the udon probably because of its sodium laden richness. But for us, this was manna. We still crave for a bite of the thick ,silky noodles enveloped in the sweet, flavourful, rich soup contrasted with crunchy bites of tempura. The perfect bite!

In each of these cases, a small list of ingredients combined with an eye for detail created experiences that were much larger than the sum of their parts – simple, yet complex and perfect. Like the beautiful earthenware perfect in every line of its form and texture. As Atul once pointed out, even the sewer covers were intricate in their detailed carvings of traditional scenes. And who but the Japanese would think of a button for music that would play the flush sound at will, politely obscuring forever those terribly embarrassing moments when everyone in the next room learnt far too much about your digestion.

A possible answer occurred to me as we walked down Kyoto in the powdering rain on our last evening there. Ambling down the lovely philosophers path on the tiny banks of a stream punctuated with beautiful serene Buddhist temples, we chanced upon a man sitting on a tiny bridge that arched over the stream. Alone, a diminutive figure hunched in the rain, hidden under his umbrella. He was painting what looked like a postcard. Curious, we stepped closer and were struck by the detailed handiwork and the evocative mood of the scene he was painting. Complicated gesticulation and many smiling bows later we realised that it took him more than a whole day of sitting in the rain to create a small postcard. But what was stunning is that he drew the same thing on most days. Over and over again, in painstaking detail. Flipping through his folder of hand-painted beautiful intricate postcards that were replicas of each other, I felt I had stumbled on a priceless key to the Japanese hallmark of perfection and simplicity – the Zen value of mindful repetition. Work becomes a voyage of discovery and each repetition an attempt to go beyond yourself. Perfection is a given. As someone who has a rather low threshold of attention and boredom, thrives on complex cooking challenges and looks at cooking as a series of techniques and recipes to be cracked before moving on, this was revelation.

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At the awe inspiring Eikan-do temple at the end of the philisophers path in Kyoto

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A lone woman feeding stray cats on the philosophers path

We soon left Japan to come back home but even as we saw the islands shrink below the soft clouds, I knew this voyage wasn’t one that I was ready to end. Back in Mumbai, months after we have travelled, the journey hasn’t broken off yet. It plays itself over and over as I now see everything with new eyes. Myself, my relationship with work, with food. For the first time, the familiar shloka “Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana resonates at a personal level. As days pass by, everyday brings with it a new thought about the value of repetition. And a new approach to work. It took me the journey halfway across the earth to discover something in my own world I never understood before. And now I know why we need to travel.  More than to find new places, perhaps the reason we travel, is to find ourselves.

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These flash fried baby shrimp are another testament to the Japanese value of simplicity. Simply cleaned, deepfried, salted and served with a squeeze of lime, these are divine. Crunchy, sweet, salty and so so fresh they are the perfect compliment to a glass of beer. Back home, I rustled this up with the freshest possible shrimp I got hold of at the four bungalows market and it was almost as good. Give it a shot and unless you are the type to be squeamish about the shells, you will love it.

Comments

  1. says

    Are you kidding?! That looks like an adventure that you’ve just had and I am SO jealous!
    I can’t wait to save up now….and let me warn you – you may receive a highly irritating email from me in the near future, pestering you for details.

  2. says

    What a beautifully written post, Reshmy! You took me all the way to Japan with you and I had goosebumps when you concluded your post and wrote about why we yearn to travel. :*)

  3. merlyn babykutty says

    I simply love your pics…My profession as a crew is travelling around the world and exploring… After seeing these pics…. It’s my next dream destination to Japan…

    • says

      How lucky you are to be in a profession thats all about travelling! You must must must go to Japan. It’s hands down my favourite destination and the most inspiring (and delicious) culture I have experienced!

Trackbacks

  1. […] PS: Atul clicked this picture when we were on our way back to India from Japan. The day was breaking away from our last night in Japan. We had spent this night on a bus, traveling from Tokyo to Osaka and across the aisle was a beautiful, calm, contemplative lady, quietly staring out the window. And as the sun came up, I couldn’t help thinking about how much Japan had made me look at life differently. […]

  2. […] It’s been a while since I have been intrigued by all that’s been going around about the food at the Guppy Pop Up at Olive (Mahalakshmi racecourse). As an incurable Japanophile who is perpetually starved of options for Japanese food in Mumbai, Guppy’s been on my list of restaurants to visit. So when Gauri (who handles PR for them) wrote in to ask if I would like to out their Spring Summer 2015 menu, I replied that I wanted to visit but only if it meant I could write a review that was honest to my experience – meaning including the bad and the good. I was pleasantly surprised to receive an appreciative note for my candidness and all set for a trip down the delicious memory lane that was our last visit to japan. […]

  3. […] It’s been a while since I have been intrigued by all that’s been going around about the food at the Guppy Pop Up at Olive (Mahalakshmi racecourse). As an incurable Japanophile who is perpetually starved of options for Japanese food in Mumbai, Guppy’s been on my list of restaurants to visit. So when Gauri (who handles PR for them) wrote in to ask if I would like to out their Spring Summer 2015 menu, I replied that I wanted to visit but only if it meant I could write a review that was honest to my experience – meaning including the bad and the good. I was pleasantly surprised to receive an appreciative note for my candidness and all set for a trip down the delicious memory lane that was our last visit to japan. […]

  4. […] It’s been a while since I have been intrigued by all that’s been going around about the food at the Guppy Pop Up at Olive (Mahalakshmi racecourse). As an incurable Japanophile who is perpetually starved of options for Japanese food in Mumbai, Guppy’s been on my list of restaurants to visit. So when Gauri (who handles PR for them) wrote in to ask if I would like to out their Spring Summer 2015 menu, I replied that I wanted to visit but only if it meant I could write a review that was honest to my experience – meaning including the bad and the good. I was pleasantly surprised to receive an appreciative note for my candidness and all set for a trip down the delicious memory lane that was our last visit to japan. […]

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