Border Lines

Berwick, North Northumberland: Food-Travel-Culture-Community

Haiku-ing in Japan

I’ve always wanted to visit Japan. Fascinated by bonsai, tea ceremonies, geisha, sushi and a culture that seems so very, very different to anything I know and truly understand. Well, I’ve been lucky enough to spend 12 amazing days in this extraordinary country. Between my marvellous London Daughter, Lonely Planet and Instagrammer HungryNYC, we have soaked up food, culture and Japan-ness in liberal quantities. The fact is, you really do need a leader on a tour like this: someone who knows that you have to collect you Japan Rail passes from the station before you do anything else; and that you can reserve seats on Shinkansen if you arrive half an hour or so before your bullet train departs; who’s checked out about dumplings and sushi and fluffy pancakes and teppanyake and sprawling markets; who knows about naked bathing in onsen (hot spring baths); and who’s had the foresight to book tickets for the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo before your trip (no tickets are sold at the museum).

I decided to record our trip with daily haikus. I wasn’t totally religious about my application of the exacting rules of haiku which The Poetry Foundation summarises as:

‘A Japanese verse form most often composed, in English versions, of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. A haiku often features an image, or a pair of images, meant to depict the essence of a specific moment in time.’

Frankly, Matsuo Bashō, the great 17th-century Japanese writer, has nothing to worry about. According to my guide book (not a patch on Lonely Planet) Bashō was so moved by the building of Shin Ohashi (that’s New Great Bridge) in Edo in 1693 that he wrote this:

How grateful I feel

as I step crisply over

the frost on the bridge

Nevertheless, my haikus captured the essence of our days travelling from Osaka to Koya-san, Nara, Kyoto, Hakone, Tokyo and back to Osaka. If you’re going to Japan (or, actually, if you’re not!) I can highly recommend a daily haiku.

Day one: Osaka

A lid is lifted

on a paintbox of colours

our senses are blurred

Jetlagged, we stumbled from our hostel into the streets of Osaka. In Dotombori, neon signs were stacked on neon signs. We hoped for okonomiyaki (a kind of-everything-in, cooked-at-your-table omelette – more later) and tako-yaki (octopus dumplings). In the event we were slightly overwhelmed by this first stop in Osaka but started our Japanese odyssey with a senses-overload wander around the breathtaking Kurumon Ichiba market, too dazed to take pictures or try the sumptuous and frequently startling food that bubbled, sizzled and winked at us as we passed. However, we did have a cracking meal at Mimiu Honten a traditional-style restaurant where we had their famed udon suki and a bento box of delights.

Day two: Osaka to Koya-san

For a country known

for reserve and zen Japan

is very noisy

In Japan there is a sound or melody for everything. Pedestrian crossings make bird sounds, music plays over tannoys, recorded voices speak over one another, there’s a tinkle and bing-bong when a train is arriving and when it’s departing, when the doors open and when they close… you can even play a sound in the toilet to mask any embarrassing noises you may make!

20171017_110958

Day three: Koya-san to Nara

Come to prayer early

on Koya-san you may hear

one hand clapping there

The journey to Mount Koya from Osaka is pretty amazing. Using our pre-booked World Heritage Ticket we took the  Nankai line which dawdles away from the tightly packed city and begins the steep ascent up the mountain. The final vertiginous climb is courtesy of a cable car included in the ticket. In Koya-san we explored Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and stayed in the most welcoming gorgeous guesthouse where the boys tucked themselves away in capsules. We walked, after dark, through the amazing and vast Okuno-in cemetery to Kobo Daishi’s (founder of the first temple on Koya-san in 861) mausoleum following lantern-lit paths. We went again early in the morning for daily prayers at Kobo Daishi’s temple: we didn’t achieve enlightenment but we did find a pleasing sense of spirituality.  

Day four: Nara

Myriad platefuls

sparkling scented in your lap

breakfast Nara-style

 

No pagodas here

cries the woman who has eyes

but no map to see

In Nara we wandered the quaint back streets of Naramachi filled with traditional merchant houses, saw the black and bronze Buddhas encased in the Daibutsuden temple – the largest wooden structure in the world; and we answered questionnaires from just about every school child in Japan. Our favourite foods will be pored over in classrooms across the country! We all loved the many dishes that makeup a Japanese meal: the rice, the meat or fish, the pickles, the omelette and tofu and the miso soup – we won’t mention the miso soup in the lap mishap. In Nara, we got our okonomiyaki (delicious – although not cooked at our table), had lunch at a little café in the woods, met a clueless tourist, and had our first encounter with people dressing up in traditional costume to enjoy ‘a fun day out’. 

Day five & six: Nara to Kyoto

Ancient kimonos

hang on pre-fab walls wings spread

like huge butterflies

 

Sensation-drenched streets

demand all attention but

beware bikes behind

 

Through orange arches

to the mountain top to find

peace, truth and nice view

It rained while we were in Japan. A lot. However, dealing with rain is so normalised, it’s almost a pleasure to carry an umbrella. There are machines that dispense plastic covers for your brollies when you enter buildings and shops, and racks outside temples and restaurants to leave them in and collect them when you’re done. Above all, in Japan there are beautifully kept toilets everywhere;  most have heated seats and a funky control panel that includes an in-built bidet. Bliss. In Kyoto, we loved Nishiki Market full of (to our eye) weird and wonderful offerings, we met up with my niece and her friend who happened to be in Japan at the same time. We trailed through hundreds of orange shrine gates (and rain and cloud) on the pilgrimage loop of Fushimi Inari-Taisha – I pushed the extra footsteps to witness the ‘nice view’ which, although murky, was at least vaguely visible (the whole sky was muffled by the time we descended). And we managed to escape Kyoto on the fabled bullet train before Typhoon Lan arrived. The niece and her friend were not so lucky. But drowned their sorrows in beer and fluffy pancakes.

 Day seven: Kyoto to Hakone

Naked laughter wrapped

pink under trees and hot springs

soothes body and mind

 

Waiting for Fuji-san

the typhoon below the cloud

could go either way

Every holiday has a blue day. Our arrival in Hakone-en was ours. The cloud was low and the typhoon gusts building. We were deposited in a weird and rather bleak development focused around a hotel complex, The Prince Hakone, on Lake Ashinoko. Planned walks and excursions on the Komagatake ropeway for views of Mount Fuji were abandoned (were we even in the right place to see Fuji-san???)and we ate a rather sulky and dispiriting bowl of noodles (our only mediocre meal) wondering what we were doing  here. What a difference a day makes!

Day eight: Hakone to Tokyo 

As far as the eye

brimful to the horizon

Tokyo is aglow

 

Wide high-rise squat streets

bo peeps moist dumplings scenes of

Ghibli animé

 

Tax-free Uniqlo

and BIC Camera bliss-out but

watch for Oliver

We headed straight for Roppongi Hills for panoramic views of Tokyo skyline and sunset photos of Fuji-san . Perhaps the most surprising hit of the holiday was the Mori Art Gallery (entry included in the ticket to the tower view). We returned to the Shibuya district and committed sushi gluttony at Uobei Sushi: good-value , high-octane and your dishes are fired at you on mini bullet trains. The Ueno-Yanaka walk was a gorgeous nostalgic blend of market, cemetery, temples, shrines and galleries and a glimpse of how Tokyo once was. BIC Camera was impossible to pass for some members of our party and The Husband revelled in a whole floor of techno toilet seats! We saw cosplay stores and various costumed individuals, but the most eye-catching business around dressing up seemed to be in basement stores where young girls dressed and made-up to take social media photo posts – I think!

Day Eleven: Tokyo to Osaka

Row on row of fish

for sushi, fish for noodles

you taste very nice

 

The bullet departs

Tokyo for Osaka and

melodies come too

Before leaving Tokyo we had to visit Tsukiji fish market – another odyssey into food extremes – and seek out ikura don (salmon roe rice bowl). With samples being touted and attention-grabbing shouts, this felt like the most touristy market we visited – but was nonetheless thrilling. In Osaka, we met with my niece and friend for our final night. Our huge blowout consisted of teppanyaki in an izakaya (pub/eatery) Robatayaki Isaribi cooked in front of us and handed out on a huge wooden paddle – it was loud, fun and simply delicious. We could eat no more. Nevertheless we made a mad dash to grab the last three of Uncle Rikoro’s wibbly-wobbly cheesecakes

20171026_19351220171026_18234520171026_202405

 Day twelve: Osaka to Helsinki to Heathrow to Newcastle to Berwick-upon-Tweed 

Anchored in Finnair

view captured in oval frame

reflections released

Japan. So many things to digest (literally and figuratively) and an on-going desire to eat Japanese food. Forever. So many questions (including the need for a definitive answer about the face mask thing). A longing for a techno toilet, for a rigorous outdoor shoes, indoor shoes and toilet shoes policy everywhere. Also, a craving for one of those marvellous little van/cars that are so practical in such a space-hungry country. And so cute. 

Single Post Navigation

2 thoughts on “Haiku-ing in Japan

  1. barbarahenderson on said:

    Sorry to be banal after all the haiku etc. But tell me what the cheesecakes are like! In Toronto there were huge queues every day outside the Japanese cheesecake shop but we never had time to queue up to try one. What’s so amazing about them?

    • Ha,ha! Not banal at all. The whole Japanese fluffy pancake and souffle cheescake has become quite a thing. They are light and fluffy as air. The one we ate warm had quite a pronounced eggy taste. We preferred the one we ate cold which kept its airy texture and was less eggy on the tastebuds. I enjoyed them enough to want to try to cook high-rise fluffy pancakes here in Berwick. I’ll keep you posted.

What do you think? Go on - tell me!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: