I can’t leave Japan tomorrow without pulling together some of the visual highlights of the past five weeks. There is so much more to see and experience here, I hope we can return sometime soon.
For the past month, we have been accompanied on this trip by a pocket-wifi device. We posted it back to the supplier last night and are now reliant on paper maps, city signs and helpful subway staff to help us navigate Tokyo in our last couple of days here.
First stop today was Hama-rikyu Gardens, once the site of a shogunal palace.
Next was Tsukiji Market where hours after the early morning tuna auctions we lined up for a sushi feast before hearing to the Outer Market to check out the action.
Over to Akihibara to find ourselves way outside the age profile in Electric City on a Saturday afternoon.
For a change of pace, the JR rail line took us to Nippori to wander around Yanaka Ginza, one of the old shitamachi districts of Tokyo where pre-World War Two streetscapes still exist, having been left unscathed by bombs. The city’s lower classes lived in this district of alleyways, flowerpots and stray cats, although it’s fair to say that gentrification has taken place in recent years.
Two Australians walk into a bar after 8.00 pm on a Tuesday. Everything else within proximity of their hotel seems to be closed, but this one has a flashing OPEN sign and seems to indicate it’s a dining and drinking establishment.
The four customers at the bar, enjoying cigarettes and their own bottles of sake which the bar retains for them, turn their heads simultaneously. This is not a usual occurrence in this side street of Izukogen.
Still, the barman calls his wife who emerges from the kitchen with the Japanese word for welcome. The two are seated at one of the two tables. It is explained to them by one of the bar patrons that this is mainly a bar, and only a set meal is served. “That’s okay”, the visitors say as they order one set each and a beer for the non-driver.
It is busy in the kitchen if the emergent sounds are anything to go by. The drinks arrive and soon, an egg salad appears. The food keeps coming. Yakitori next, followed by more beef than these two have seen for the past 4 weeks in Japan. Fried rice accompanies the feast.
In between courses, the host runs through some cities in Australia she knows. When they zero in on Brisbane, she mentions jacaranda trees and the time of year they flower.
Someone is diving into her Japanese notes to keep the conversation flowing. A dessert of watermelon and orange pieces finishes the meal, followed by a “presento” of non-alcoholic beer for the driver.
The couple is us, and we were made to feel most welcome. This was no set meal that our host prepared. This was Japanese hospitality. We left with bows and hugs and a photograph of another memorable night in this country.
Dining Bar, Mitsuko. Izukogen, Japan.
This is what last night’s dinner looked like. The luxury hotel we stayed in was booked months ago at a very economical price. The cost for two to dine in their restaurant was more than we paid for the room. The Gyoza Center is well patronised in the area by travellers keen to get some good gyoza from a family-run take-away business. A drop-in to a convenience store on the way home and we were set to smuggle dessert and a bottle of wine to our room.
The same went for breakfast this morning. We started the day in the cafe of the Hakone Open Air Museum, thus rendering us fit to walk around the extensive and impressive gardens and halls of this sculpture park.
The Picasso Pavilion contains some of the artist’s less familiar works. It is the first time I have ever seen any of his gemmail pieces where layers of coloured glass are overlaid with a clear glue to produce a mottled stained glass effect.
One of the most impressive works in the Museum is Symphonic Structure. A staircase allows you to climb up the inside to get a closer view of the sculptured glass work.
There are many notable names represented in the collection, including Alexander Calder and Henry Moore. Here’s a small selection not by Calder or Moore.
A journey down the east coast of the Izu Peninsula afforded big sea views and a change from the winding roads around Mt Hakone. We stopped off in Ito, right near the railway station in search of lunch.
Some of our best meal experiences have been random. If the price is right and the plastic models or menus look promising, we’re in.
In the company of two others seated with us at the counter, we watched while the chef prepared and assembled nine sushi plates from scratch for the customers who had already ordered. His parents were preparing other dishes, serving up miso and waiting on customers.
After our meals arrived, another customer entered and sat beside us. Once her glass was filled with sake, she started to chat, our broken Japanese and English helping to make a connection. The next thing we knew, the man at the counter was offering us one of his raw fish dishes to eat. It felt like a Netflix episode of Midnight Diner (Tokyo stories) except for the fact it was lunch time.
By the time we left, it was bows and handshakes all around. The elderly woman escorted us out of her very small restaurant and called out as we stepped up the road. “Nice day have!” We did have, and she helped to make it so.
We are in Izukogen for the next two nights overlooking the ocean and pulling back a tad on the pace of travel. On Thursday, it’s back to Tokyo until we leave for the Mongolia leg of this amazing trip.
A wander through the long covered laneway that is Nishiki Market was a feast for the eyes and the tastebuds.
Wood-ear mushroom and cod cake sticks, roe-filled grilled squid, chestnut mochi and custard filled hedgehog pastries were our chosen treats.
The following photographs feature fresh wasabi, Yuzu Bettara (pickled Japanese radish with Yuzu and chilli dressing), sea urchins, super-sized oysters, quail egg-filled tiny octopus and the cleanest of apples.
Kyoko Muraji runs her small ramen restaurant in Gion on the principles of Omotenashi, a form of hospitality that anticipates customer needs and provides a relaxing atmosphere.
We selected the Black Ramen and the Chicken Lemon Ramen. Dinner is served around two square communal tables with a maximum of 16 persons at a time.
This morning we took a train to Okayama and the Sukara Shinkansen to Osaka.
Osaka Castle and its associated buildings were built in 1583 by General Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Things didn’t end well for him when the castle was destroyed in 1614 by an opposing Shogun and his armies.
After the history lesson, we took the subway to Shinsaibashi and wandered around the neighbourhoods in the vicinity of the Dotombori Bridge. As the evening was approaching, the shopping precinct switched up a notch with the noise and neon that comes with a vibrant night club and karaoke scene.
Osaka is the home of Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki and other food delights including the famous blowfish which requires a skilled knife chef to extract those parts of the fish that won’t kill you.
Did I mention the rain?
At lunch today, before we visited to the Castle, we were given a lesson in how to manage soy sauce and chilli oil for gyoza. The woman sitting beside us in the cheap and cheerful establishment reached across to our table and gave us a welcome education.
Tonight we are in a cool semi-backpacker location near Bentencho Station about 20 minutes by subway from the centre of the city. We have a turntable and vinyl records, specifically Freddie Mercury and the Nolan Sisters, at our disposal.