Thu, Sep 27, 2018 - Page 14 News List

Bite the bullet train and head to Japan

Tokyo’s izakaya restaurants, Kyoto’s temples and the stellar views of Mount Fuji make a trip to Japan worthwhile

By Jay Rayner  /  The Guardian

The Hokanji temple stands at dusk in Kyoto, Japan.

Photo: Bloomberg

Getting to eat the good stuff in Tokyo can be a challenge. The problem isn’t finding the right places. The concierge team at the city’s hotels work harder than most making restaurant reservations, and ours at the Mandarin Oriental is no exception. They have sent us to a bustling, wood-lined izakaya, or food pub, down a side street in the city’s

Akasaka district. Here, smoke pirouettes from the grills in the open kitchens, the beer, like the air conditioning, is beautifully chilled and the tables are crowded with locals.

The problem is that the place is so very local, so very Tokyo, that quite reasonably no one here speaks English, and we speak no Japanese apart from the good manners of “hello” and “thank you.” Or so we think. Suddenly our 18-year-old son, Eddie, is sorting the order. He can do numbers and a few other phrases, enough to get an omakase request — roughly, the chef’s choice — under way. We are served blocks of silken tofu under umami-rich tangles of dried fish, plump, gossamer-skinned gyoza and tempura-ed fritters of sweetcorn. Thanks in part to Eddie, we do eat the good stuff.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the trip was based on our two teenage boys’ engagement with Japanese culture from London. Eddie and his 14-year-old brother, Dan, have long been armpit deep in the stuff. They have watched endless anime, read manga and played the games.

They know a good bowl of ramen from the merely mediocre. It should be no surprise that Eddie has picked up some of the language. I suggest to my other half that instead of our usual holiday lazing by a European pool, we should be intrepid and together explore the real Japan before our sons are too old to want anything to do with us. Pat looks at the weather forecast. “You know it’s stinking hot in Japan in August,” she says.

I nod and say: “But ramen? I have my priorities.”

Exploring Japan is not straightforward. In the major cities, many signs and announcements are in English, but an awful lot isn’t. The culture is deceptively complex, and a bit of help can save a lot of time and anxiety. We have a tour company called Inside Japan on our side. They have sorted the itinerary, supplying us with pre-loaded cards for the Tokyo metro, along with Japan Rail passes which enable us to take the famed bullet trains from Tokyo to Kyoto, and finally into the forest around Mount Fuji.

They secure us tickets for a sumo match and one morning we rattle out across the seemingly endless low-rise Tokyo suburbs to a local gymnasium, where we are among the very few non-Japanese in a crowd of thousands. Huge, melon-bellied men wrestle each other for mere seconds amid the slap of chest on chest, in between lengthy bouts of ritual and chanting. It’s utterly compelling.

KYOTO: TEMPLES AND GEISHAS

In Kyoto, one of the country’s cultural and historic centers, we have a traditional townhouse, or machiya, just up the hill from the imposing Hokanji Temple Pagoda. It’s a small, wood-built, two-storey affair with a window looking out on to an ornamental garden and the most delicious air-conditioning. Pat wasn’t wrong: it is 37C in Kyoto, with humidity to match. By day, in the company of a guide, Pat and I attempt the shrines and pagodas, building a sweat climbing the myriad steps, and cooling down courtesy of sugar-flavoured shaved ice. We visit the 1,001 intricate golden statues, housed in the Sanjusangen-do temple, and guarded by 30 carved gods, many of whom look furious about being there.

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