steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Voyage to Japan 2: 31st March-1st April

The last day or March took me from Fukuoka to Kyoto. The weather was drizzly, and much of the day was taken up with travel, so I'm squishing this and the next day into one entry.

I've noticed that every mode of transport has its own jingle in Japan. The shinkansen plays a melancholy melody as it comes into the station, a minor-key variation on the "Ah, that there were no such things as partings in this world!" refrain. The subway trains in Kyoto, by contrast, strike a rather threatening note as they glide into the station, like a villain entering from stage left. I remembered it from last year, and indeed Kyoto was the first place I'd been on this trip that I'd already seen. That changed the timbre of the experience: the desire to see and do new things was complicated by a wish to relive old memories - setting up a rivalry for my very limited time. I tried to split the difference, but the first evening I made sure that I visited my favourite eatery of last year, Isshen Youshoku, where I had okonomiyaki (as they call it, though it's more like a tonpeiyaki in my book - but more importantly it's great). Unfortunately the picture I took came out very poorly, but here's one I made later, to give you an impression of the varous stages of its preparation:


One reason I began this travel journal was that I knew that things that astounded me when I first saw them would become familiar over time, and I wanted to record them in their raw, zesty freshness. I remember how amazed I was in 2013 when I first went to a place (Taiwan) where people wore medical masks as a matter of course. Now I barely see them. With masks perhaps that doesn't matter, though I still think that they're an interesting phenomenon (and a golden opportunity for public health researchers: has the widespread use of masks in recent years actually led to an appreciable decline in the incidence of airborne disease or respiratory conditions in the countries that use them?). But there are other things I would be sorry to have fade totally into the background colours of the everyday. Although I've flown many times, I always make a conscious note of how amazing it is to be able to fly, and thus fulfil the dreams of mankind over the millenia: to do less seems a kind of disrespect to our earthbound forebears. I was dazzled the first time I saw a woman in a kimono in Kyoto (about two minutes after I first arrived): now I'm used to them, but maintaining the capacity to appreciate them is the main task, without pretending that they're a novelty. I suppose it's that stage of a relationship after headiness of being in love when you have to find out whether you actually like each other on a daily basis. Still, meeting a woman in a kimono in a hundred-yen shop, or seeing one sit down to a McDonalds burger (both of which happened this time) still has the power to induce a frisson of dissonance.

By the way, everywhere I go I see pictures of Hello Kitty in various forms of traditional Japanese dress. This reminds me of Youtube video I saw not long ago accusing Westerners who wear kimono of cultural appropriation. But then, since Hello Kitty is meant to be an English cat, is she guilty of that too? Or does the fact that the makers of Hello Kitty are Japanese (albeit they themselves were ripping off Dick Bruna's Miffy) make it all right again?


I decided to go shopping rather than stand in the rain, and my first port of call was a long, covered food market. Pictures are better than words in such a case:


The last photo shows some katsuobushi blocks, along with the plane used to shave them to produce bonito flakes, which are such a basic ingredient of Japanese cooking, both as a topping and (for example) as a component of dashi stock. I've long coveted one, but they're hard to obtain in the UK, and exorbitant in any case.

(Reader, I bought one.)

The next day I mooched around the shops in the morning, admiring the expensive rice cookers (too much either for my purse or my suitcase), and the array of masks available to you, your partner, and your baby, in a variety of colours, styles and materials:


Then to a local restaurant I'd read about, where they served very good sushi - but some of it (I'm looking at you, cartwheel-sized nori-wrapped things) were simply too big to fit in my mouth, and if slightly dismantled for easier munching fell apart completely, in a most inelegant way. I was suddenly rather aware of being the only gaijin in what was a small place where everyone else was not only Japanese but apparently on the kind of intimate terms only to be achieved by eating sushi together on a daily basis, with exquisite grace and refinement. In short, I became a little self-conscious.


The weather had cleared up enough by the afternoon for me to visit the shogun's Kyoto pied-à-terre, Nijo Castle - replete with squeaking "nightingale floors" to sound the alarm should any intruder walk on them. At least, that's what the carpenter explained when the shogun complained about them. No photography allowed inside, alas, but on the outside I rather liked the gate, which looks not unlike a samurai helmet to my untutored eye:


Oh, and here are some cyclads wrapped (so the notice explains) in their winter coat of rice straw, something you too may wish to consider for your cyclads next time there's a sharp frost:


I was tired in the evening, and still pretty full from the sushi, so although I was in such a gastronomic centre as Kyoto I decided to try something light in the form of chicken teriyaki burger from the MOS a few doors down from the hotel. I think it's fair to say it was nothing special, but eating it in my hotel room with a can of beer was fun. And I needed my energy, for the next day I was to tackle Fushimi Inari Taisha, and its thousand vermillion torii!
Tags: nippon notes, real life, voyage to japan
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