Dating Japan

August 30, 2013 § Leave a comment








Where there’s smoke there’s sure to be a festival.

August 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Here are the essential ingredients for a Japanese festival (Matsuri):


Cool masks, Yukata, fancy stuff.


Expensive Food stands selling stuff that smells good

Obscure story explaining or entirely failing to explain what goes on.


Seeming disregard for potential results of fire in historic areas.

Cute, confused, terrified children


Everything about a festival appeals to P’s love of things dangerous, hysterical, meaty, and costumed. Meanwhile I loiter daintily behind her, un-costumed, pointing my beady eyes at the fire hazards and pork meat.

This week in Kyoto it was Gozan no Okuribi – a festival to mark the end of O-Ban. During O-Ban the spirits return to earth and are able to visit with the living. In a less fantastical summary it’s the time in summer when people tend to the graves of their ancestors and spend time with their families.

Folks here in Kyoto just refer to Gozan no Okuribi as “Daimonji” – which I think translates roughly, somewhat un-romantically, as BIG LETTERS. It happens every year on August 16th at around 8:00 pm

Big Letters is a festival my nervous soul can get behind; it’s peaceful, and requires that crowds stay far away from the flames.

On five hillsides surrounding the city, volunteers from local families light up huge fire symbols.

The first is the Kanji for ‘Dai’ (大) meaning both ‘big’ and ‘ancestors’. From here my understanding of what happens is probably a little reductive: the ancestors pray with priests in the second symbol, which refers to Buddhist teaching (it’s actually two Kanji Myo and Ho (妙 法). The ancestors then travel across the skies by boat (cue giant flaming boat). They travel through the gate (cue giant flaming Torii) and depart the earth. The final hillside is another, smaller Dai, which reflects the first character. The lighting of all five fires ushers the spirits of the ancestors back home.

The festival also marks the end of Summer here in Kyoto. It’s time to return to work or school or whatever it is you do when you’re not spending the hot summer nights re-connecting with the dead. Watching quietly from the roof of a friend’s school, it felt ceremonial and not a little sad.

Last night marked the end of our own holiday; I’m off back to Nagahama to resume the ghastly, endless commute and rejoin my life away from life. To mark the occasion, we met up with a friend and took a haunted ghost train out to Arashiyama . On the train kids cried and screamed while people dressed as ghosts strolled up and down the carriages whaling and posing for photographs. When we reached Arashiyama everyone disappeared into the dark; the usually crowded tourist hub was eerie, empty, quiet as a house. The summer tourists have all packed up and left.

We found a Lawsons, bought some beer (my suggestion) and fireworks (their suggestion) and went down to the river. There were a couple of other groups of people there in the dark, lighting sparklers and crackers. I sat anxiously on the bank, waving my sparkler around while P took charge of lighting our little stash. After a while a few people showed up and sat behind us, smoking quietly, and clapping when we lit the bigger ones. When we were done they said thank you and moved on. In this way we marked our own goodbye.

Kyushu in Six Acts: Part Two

August 15, 2013 § 1 Comment

4. C’mon, C’mon, C’mon now (KUMAMOTO)

We didn’t want to get the bus from Nagasaki back up around and down to Kumamoto; how dull, we said. How dull and sad to go back up an around because it is easier and cheaper and faster. Better to go straight down we said, through the peninsula, to adventure. “It’s a little difficult” said the woman at the Information centre. I understood that much. During our trip I got really good at using the construction “want to go” in childish Japanese. Today, by bus, want to go to Shimabara. “It’s a little difficult. A train, a bus, a train, a ferry…..” What did she know. She only lived there and spoke the language. Better to go through Shimabara – all empty and clean and good. We took the two trains, the boat, the bus. The train to the port was a one carriage deal. We edged around the lip of the coast, close enough to fall in. At every perfect view we declared ourselves to have made the right decision – as if by stating out loud how proud of ourselves we were, we could erase the sense that the lady at the information centre might have been right.

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We got to Kumamoto, checked in to our dive of a hotel, and turned on the AC. Not long after, P officially tapped out and put herself to bed. Alone, I walked around the charming town. People were out cooling off on the streets. Some said hello as I passed. I might have stopped or had a drink somewhere. Instead I got lost finding a supermarket. They were closing. I dashed around. I got lost in the dairy section. I came away with a curious assortment of raw fish, kimchi, tortillas, bagged salad, and cheap camembert. I got a little lost again walking home. All in all I might have been gone an hour, maybe longer. The choices I’d made at the supermarket seemed like a meal until I got back to the hotel and proudly laid everything out on the bed. Sometimes the trouble with travel is that you are forced to make too many choices in a given day. Come 9.00 in an unfamiliar town, you can’t choose between the fish or the cheese or the kimchi so you buy it all and think maybe, something good will come out of the confusion.

The next day, the castle, another bus ride, a cable car.


5. We’d Roll and Fall in Green (ASO SAN)

We went to a Volcano and looked at the crater. In the white smoke and wind I made P dance like Kate Bush, crater side. It was that kind of mood. The hillsides on the way up, through the National Park, were impeccable and green. I’d have like to get out and about up there, but we planned badly as usual, and spent the best part of the day getting up and down the volcano, messing up our buses, and not quite getting things right. It was beautiful and strange. I kept saying, somewhat unhelpfully, that I felt like we were in a foreign country. This could be Scotland. We could be on the West Coast. This is like the Lake District. Everything green is familiar.






6. Where’d All the Good People Go (KAGOSHIMA)

We had to get back down off the volcano and the only way to do that AND make it to Kagoshima that same night, was to return to Kumamoto and navigate once more through the central bus station – Kagoshima Kotsu Center – a place P described variously as purgatory, hell, the shittiest place in Kyushu and a kind of festering rabbit warren of horror. But we got out. On the bus we drank beer. In the shadow and excitement of the volcano we’d forgotten to plan more than three hours ahead. Somewhat disoriented, we talked ourselves into splashing out and booked an expensive hotel for what would be our last night on the island.

A moment later, I mapped the journey from our bus’s arrival spot to the hotel and found it’d take us an hour to get there. We would reach Kagoshima at 10.30 that night, only to have to navigate a trip up to the mountains to stay in a hotel we shouldn’t have forked out for, miles away from the city we wanted to explore. A moment after my map delivered the sorry information, my phone battery died. We were on the bus, hurtling down the expressway, totally crestfallen.

The astonishing joy of what followed is a moment I will remember for the rest of my days. I type this truth without irony or hyperbole.

I got of the bus. I walked around a little. I looked for a place to plug in the phone to look at the map to find the way to the hotel we should never have booked. I turned around. P said “Is that our hotel? I think that might be our hotel?”

I said “huh?”

She said “Hmphahgh?”

I made another gutteral, confused noise.

The Solaria Nishitetsu Grand Hotel stood directly on top of the station we’d arrived at. It took us all of two minutes to roll our bag up and announce, somewhat hesitantly, our names to the man who checked us in without fuss. Our room had a view of the Ferris Wheel at night, and we walked out on to the street only to find we were about a minute’s walk from from a little warren of fantastic food stalls and ramen restaurants. Kagoshima is famous for it’s black pig or “Kurobuta” pork (かごしま黒豚). P declared it the best bit of pig she’d ever eaten. I wish we could remember anything about the name of the restaurant, or the chef, or the street, but it was one of those stalls down there, in the good part of town, where all the good people have gone to. I ate the sashimi.

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We asked our chef what time he closed and he said midnight, but he added that a place around the corner stayed open until 3.00 am. It was a kind of Hawaiian themed Pizza joint where you could watch from the bar (the whole place seated about ten people…) as they tossed the dough around and threw it in the oven.

A couple of guys came and squeezed in beside us. “We’re in our Yukata. It’s special you know,” they said. One was a medical student due to graduate soon, the other worked for the local government. I had a whiskey and another beer and the whole of Kyushu struck me as the friendliest, happiest, most laid back place in Japan. We would spend the next day naked at a pricey onsen, watching Sakurajima throw her temper around and smoke and billow across the bay. Everything up to this point felt like a journey to get to the perfect place – we spent most of that last day planning our next trip to Kyushu. Beppu, Yufuin, the onsen towns – another week lounging in Kagoshima, under the volcano.

Kyushu in Six Acts (Part One)

August 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

1. What Good Is Sitting Alone in Your Room (OSAKA)


My moment of doubt came at about 2  in the morning. We’d just seen the drag show at Explosion – a gay club in the Kita ward. We were out on the street humming ‘Cabaret’ and contemplating the guilty use of our third and final ‘free drinks for foreigners’ coupon, when P decided she needed to kick off her heels, put on her jandals, and fall asleep on my lap. In all fairness she’d been up since 7, climbing around a hillside shrine in 32 degree heat. But we still had five and a half hours to kill before our flight, and sleeping was not part of my grand vision.

I planned the holiday on the morning of our departure day – using an assortment of websites, an old Lonely Planet and a vague notion of where Kyushu was in relation to Japan (it’s at the bottom). P was off hiking around Fushimi-inari shrine; I was under strict instruction to come up with a way for us to get out of Kyoto. My way had to involve a trip to Ikea and some time to say goodbye to a friend in Osaka. The original idea was to just get on a train – but it turned out a train to Fukuoka was either going to cost us 18,000 yen, or take us 9 hours of local-train torture. That was mad.  Peach had flights to Kyushu for 11,000 yen, and flights home a week later for 7000.  It fell into place quite simply: hit the town in Osaka, party all night, and get the train to Kansai on time to catch a 7.30 flight.

All P needed to help liven her up was a spot of Kareoke. At 4.00 am she howled some Kate Bush at an unsuspecting crew of our peers. We left the room abruptly, saying our goodbyes with our feet halfway out the door, pointed in the direction of the exit to the taxi to the train to catch the flight to the bus to our next destination.

2. Somewhere In My Youth (or childhood…) I Must Have Done Something Good (FUKUOKA).


We arrived in Fukuoka in thunderstorm. It was 8.30 am. A thick and constant sheet of water poured from the sky, interrupted now and then by a dramatic clap of thunder. My plan: lay in the park all day with a coffee and a good book and wait for our hotel to let us check in. The reality:  we roamed the riverbank and lakeside like lost, drenched kittens. It was a magical place. A river of giant lily pads stretched for miles. We followed them along – heading in the direction of the Modern Art Gallery. On finding the gallery closed we went instead to the Ohori Keon Japanese Gardens. We were the only people there. The rain poured harder. We found a pagoda and looked out at the water. I re-imagined a Japanese version of ‘The Sound Of Music’ but I wasn’t sure if we were the Captain and Maria, or Ralph and Leisel. Or Leisel and Maria? But we were none of them, and we had nothing to escape from, and I’m not actually that interested in ‘Sound of Music’ slash fiction role plays.

In a blur we visited the Asian Art Museum. I had to ban myself from sitting down for fear of falling asleep on the art. The Vietnamese paintings on silk were soft and inviting. I could have slept on those.

At the hotel check in opened at 3.00 pm. We checked in at 3.05 and collapsed like falling rocks onto the bed. For dinner we somehow got ourselves up and headed out to the row of Ramen stalls (yatai) in the Nagahama area. I ate what would be the first of many adventures into the realm of meat: Hakata Ramen – topped with slivers of yes – local pork, and washed down with a cold beer.  I took some small comfort in knowing that Kyshu takes pride in its carefully reared pigs. I’ll admit that the broth was incredible.

3. The Whole Blooming Sky Went Up Like and Apricot Pie (NAGASAKI)




Nagasaki snuck its fascinating historical nose into my well through out plans;  lured by the promise of history we abandoned the relaxed idea of heading to the island’s National Parks and onsens. Instead we bought our 10,000 yen SUN-Q-BUS pass and took the 2 hour bus trip to Nagasaki to spend one precious night there.

Long before the utterance of Nagasaki as a word inevitably and permanently attached to the words Hiroshima and to bomb, Nagasaki had a fascinating past. It was the only door into Japan. From 1633 (ish) to the period of the Meiji restoration in 1868, Japan closed itself up like a fan. The shougun was particularly angry with the Spanish and Portuguese traders and missionaries for converting people – especially in Kyushu – to Catholicism. So he declared Japan closed to foreign influence and trade: Nobody in, nobody out. You could not leave Japan or trade outside her borders – and the penalty for illegal trade or travel was execution. There was only one exception: Dutch and Chinese traders could trade in the port of Nagasaki. From 1638 the Dutch had to do their trading from a small purpose-built island called Dejima. Apparently the  ultimate restriction to this little island was the result of the shogunates’ discovery that the Dutch had been using their own calender – strictly illegal!

The island is currently in the process of being lovingly reconstructed. You can wonder through the reconstructed buildings of the trading post and look at old scientific equipment; in the reconstructed dining hall there’s a reconstructed scene of a reconstructed Christmas feast – complete with plastic roasted pig’s head and plastic glasses of red wine. I wanted there to be actors in period costume roaming the halls, explaining how lonely it was trapped on the island with 15 Dutch men and one Japanese courtesan. But there was just one man dressed in a yukata, carrying a sword, posing for photographs with the shining, authentically sweaty tourists.

They’ve painstakingly re-worked every detail of the trading post using archival and archeological information. The sleeping quarters of the Dutch officials are decorated according to the manifest of contents of the room as listed for auction.  Old photographs, maps, plans, letters, and even a scale model of the island built by one of the inhabitants, have been used to re-craft the building in their original dimensions.  In short, I was falling all over myself in excitement – though perhaps I was not as excited as P. She rushed around the trading post, Western-style houses,  and other historical sights with a mad zeal that lead, inevitably to heat stroke and collapsed exhaustion. But before the collapse, there was lunch at a small, wonderful, French and fusion cafe Garcon Ken – where we made the foolish mistake of drinking white wine in the middle of the afternoon.


We made our way out of Nagasaki that afternoon, sweaty, dehydrated, and muttering about the madness and wonder of Japan’s closed borders: 200 years of isolation from the Enlightenment, from Colonial expansion, from the changing and shrinking world of that time. What might Japan be like today if the missionaries hadn’t all been ousted?

Curious Store Names of Fukuoka’s Canal City

August 6, 2013 § Leave a comment


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August 2, 2013 § 2 Comments

It has come to my attention that we are foodies.  I guess in Wellington if you throw a stone up in the air it will either come down on the pavement, or on a foodie, or on someone who doesn’t quite yet see themselves as part of the foodie scene –  but is mico-brewing a pilsner in their garage and harvesting their own olives. In Wellington, if you hope to entertain any kind of conversation with young childless urbanites, becoming interested in what you eat and drink is going to happen. I think in New Zealand there’s also a lot of access to great ingredients and a lot of emphasis on good, fresh eating.  From the Marae to the backyard barbie, to the Ponsonby Street local, people take pride in their food. Nobody is a stranger to a good BBQ with fresh corn and a classic coleslaw.

Even the smallest of towns will have at least one rogue cafe that serves the latest in upside-down drip-deed micro-squeezed buddhist-blessed uber-blend rainforest coffee, and a chicken, brie and cranberry panini that’s been on the menu since the 90’s but is too popular to remove (nowadays it’s on home-made gluten free bread with locally sourced everythingness). None of this surprises or alarms me. It’s simply part of life.  There’s probably some connection to social and economic developments that one ought to delve into here: we wait to have children and can’t afford houses so we spend our money on expensive olive oils as substitutes for babies; our excessive affluence has led to a generation of indulgence where Gouda and Dhukka are to us a champaign and dancing were to the flappers of the 20’s; we don’t know what war is….we have no clue about the real world….that sort of lark.

When did my own personal foodie streak start to develop? Was it after working at the wine bar in Wellington, or the  beer bar in London? Was it after I started insisting on always making my own pizza dough (it’s cheaper, tastier, healthier, and more fun, and it only takes a moment!)? Was it when I shacked up with an Italian American food expert whose comprehensive knowledge of the history of tomatoes is frightening?  What about that time she and I came dangerously close to granola-dykedom by making our own muesli and taking ice-cream containers of it to work to keep in reserve for emergency breakfasts? Was it making my own cheese? I can’t pin-point the exact moment of transition. It was gradual. It is only now, in a world removed from that foodie-culture, that I realise it’s not normal to think that a perfect day is a day where you spend hours at home rolling out and drying off your sheets of home-made lasagna pasta. Not everybody sees food this way.

The point is I had no real perspective on this until I travelled. It has taken coming to Japan for me to truly understand what an important part of my identity food is.  To sit down to a shared meal that you have worked together to create is one of life’s pleasures in every culture. I miss sitting around in my sister’s kitchen sipping on a good glass of wine and helping her expertly whip up a pasta sauce. I miss choosing which place to go to for brunch and knowing the menus of my favourite cafes. I miss talking to the bartender or waitstaff about their favourites. I miss going to the store and knowing at least half of the wines on the shelf and which ones I need to try. I miss BBQs at my parents house.

I miss going to a restaurant and being able to read the menu.

Having finally admitted to myself that this ‘foodiness’ is not a snobbish affectation but in fact a genuine source of happiness and pleasure in life, I am resolved to stop apologising, and start eating.

This week P and I took some steps toward re-kindling this thing that makes us happy: last weekend I took her out to brunch at Calori in Kyoto – on Sen-bon dori. It’s about a half hour walk from our Kyoto house and easy to identify because of the big ‘ol rainbow flag flying above the door.  The meal included an amazing and refreshing cucumber gespacho to start. We promised to return – hopefully for some or other lesbian movie night. On leaving I declared immediately that I needed to get my hair cut to look exactly like the trendy, friendly owner’s. This straight-laced hair cut is holding me back.

For P’s birthday I hit the international food store in Zest mall and picked up some good cheeses and olives. We sat on the tatami floor and drank a German Pinot. We sighed. We smiled. It was the first good glass of red wine I’d had in months. I missed my old life. I sniffed and slurped and commented on it. I was happy. I was not embarassed to admit that I’ll take a good wine I know something about, over an excellent sake I know nothing about. Habit is comfort.

On the evening of P’s Birthday we headed out to what is now one of my new favourite restaurants in Kyoto: CAMERON. We found out about it via the always-helpful Deep Kyoto site.  We did champaign to start – some Miso-marinated smoked, blue and camembert cheeses, fresh warm bread, a salad (drenched in slices of ham but still great). P ate the game of the day: a bloody looking deer declared delicious. I had the fish of the day (not a lot of Vegetarian options so I rocked my new versatile pragmatic self and went with fish) cooked in a an orange, caper and brown butter sauce. My mouth melted. etc. I don’t know. I can’t write restaurant reviews. We did a dessert plate, a couple of glasses of wine, and a whiskey each to finish, and the entire meal came to a curiously cheap 11,000 yen. Go there.  It’s nice.

We spent the meal discussing our time in Japan thus far (enlightening); our plans for the future (undetermined); our goals (travel more, eat more, travel more) and our love of food (mutual). Why have we been willing to waste our time here in Kyoto when there are so many fantastic restaurants and cafes to sample? Can’t we admit that what makes us happy is wasting what little money we do have on things that don’t last. No more things. Only food. Only perishables. Only experiences.



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