O kaeri nasai

I never seem to get bored of revisiting Japan. It’s as if the airport terminal itself calls ‘O kaeri nasai’ (‘welcome back’) as I step off the plane and into immigration. Even after the long flight, arriving at the unreasonable hour of 4.30 a.m. into Haneda, I feel childishly excited about the fortnight ahead. After dumping my bag at the hotel it is still only 5.45 a.m. What should I do for the eight-and-a-half hours before I can check-in? Well there is one thing that you can only do very early in the morning and that is to visit the largest wholesale market in Japan – Tsukiji – where the ocean has deposited its contents into polystyrene containers on markets stalls, down a labyrinth of small alleyways. I had been here once before, in 2008, and I was a bit nervous at ruining what was a marvellous memory with a less good experience. On top of that, I had heard that the authorities were much more strict about letting tourists into what is a vital trading area for restaurants and shops across Tokyo. But with nothing else to do, I decided to risk it.

Tsukiji is the size of a small town. It is separated into two main areas: the Inner Market (Jonai Shijo) and the Outer Market (Jogai Shijo). The Inner Market is the wholesale market for the professionals, and that is where the fish auction takes place. The Outer Market retails some of the produce sold in the Inner Market. Trying to make myself invisible, I tiptoed into the Inner Market as modestly as I could.

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I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way but I was keen to see for myself, once more, the amazing variety of sea creatures. Stacked high were boxes of sea urchins, which have to be eaten very soon after harvesting. They are terribly expensive.

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These look to be freshwater eel (one of my favourites) but I’m not 100% sure. There are so many varieties ands sub-species on display, you realise very quickly how little you know.

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After they have been auctioned, prize tuna are transported on trollies to waiting vans of restaurants, shops and hotels.

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Some of the tuna are cut on a bandsaw before transportation. This is not a job for the careless!

Tsukiji is not laid back at all. It is very busy and fast-paced. Little transportation trucks zoom around the place at top speed and you really have to watch out that you don’t get run over.

After about 20 minutes walking around the inner sanctum, I was (very politely and with repeated apologies) shown a sign by a security guard which read in English: “No general admittance until 9 a.m.”. Apologising in return, I left for the outer market where there are several restaurants. There I had my first Japanese food of the trip. A sushi breakfast with chawanmushi (a savoury egg custard – delicious!) and miso soup with prawns.

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Food is a very important part of any visit to Japan and I was craving the tastes for which I have become somewhat familiar. On leaving Tsukiji, I saw a market holder selling Japanese chestnuts. ‘Kuri’ as they are called in Japan, flavour all sorts of different dishes, both savoury and sweet. Perhaps above all else, this is the thing I miss most.

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In Nikko, just by the Kegon waterfall (see below) I tasted huge chestnuts that were prepared in a giant pressure cooker that looked a bit like a torpedo.

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I also tried ‘kuri monaka’ for the first time: sweet chestnut and chestnut paste sandwiched between layers of crispy rice cake. It is almost as if the rice becomes a kind of pastry.

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It would take too long to give a full breakdown of all the delicious things I tasted in Japan but here are a few highlights. One place that I always try and visit in Tokyo is Daikokuya Tempura in Asakusa. I have only ever had one thing here: tendon, which is tempura over rice with a special ‘house’ sauce. The batter is somehow crispy and chewy at the same time.

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I also ordered a plate of Japanese pickles.

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No problems finishing that.

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Daikokuya also have possibly the best phone number in the world:

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After a couple of days in Tokyo I headed south-west for the island of Kyushu. I then slowly worked my way back up north-east. The train journey from Tokyo to Nagasaki was extremely fast and extremely efficient but nevertheless took the best part of a day, with two changes. I needed to store up on provisions. One of the ‘ekiben’ (eki = station / ben = bento, or lunch box) that I took with me was this herring on rice. It was delicious. Very lightly marinated in a kind of vinegar with an extraordinary melty skin.

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Once in Nagasaki I had to try the famous regional dish ‘champon’. Nagasaki was for a long time the only trading point between Japan and the rest of the world and it has soaked up international influences. Champon is a kind of Japanese version of a Chinese noodle dish. Unlike Japanese ramen, the noodles are cooked in the soup, so they are very flavoursome.

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Other Nagasaki treats are the famous steamed dishes served at Yossou, which has been making chawanmushi (yes it’s that savoury egg custard again) since 1866. The present building dates from 1927 and is lovely.

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The classic menu is the ‘twin steamed dishes’, one chawanmushi (on the right) and another of shredded omelette, ground beef and tiny shrimp over rice.

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Another bowl cleaned.

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In Fukuoka the thing to have is Tonkotsu or ‘Hakata’ ramen. (Hakata was once an independent town and is now a district of Fukuoka.) Tonkotsu ramen usually has a thick, cloudy white coloured broth made from boiling pork bones, fat, and collagen over high heat for many hours, which suffuses the broth with a hearty pork flavour and a creamy consistency.

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In Kyoto, right next to my hotel, was a taiyaki stall. While there are some shops in Europe that sell taiyaki (frozen, or oven baked) there is nothing like the real thing. I had been craving this taste and I had 4 taiyaki from this stall in 2 days. Delicious. Taiyaki literally means ‘baked sea bream’ but that only describes the traditional fish shape and not the taste. They are basically sweet waffles filled with various fillings. The only ones I am interested in are the ‘original’ ones that have red bean paste inside, made from sweetened adzuki beans.

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And while in Kyoto I also revisited the famous soba noodle restaurant Honke Owariya. First opened in 1465, Owariya has preserved and promoted traditional Japanese tastes for 528 years! Soba are thin buckwheat noodles served either chilled with a dipping sauce, or in a hot soup. As it was the end of the season for Kyouyasai seiro (Kyoto vegetables), that is what I opted for.

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And after that very refined and delicate taste something more hearty and meaty. I went to an ox tongue restaurant. Tongue is not for everybody but this is something that my mother used to give us as kids and that we used to love but that nevertheless I never buy or cook.

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A very nice typo in the English menu ‘Lady’s Set’. The meat is not thick or thin but ‘think’.

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Heading north to Nikko one famous local speciality is yuba, which is the skin that develops on top of tofu as the soy been milk is boiling. The skin is taken off and used separately. Here it is rolled up and served in a dish of hot udon.

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I travelled to Nikko with my friend Goh. He arranged for us to stay in two different hot spring resort hotels where the dinner is included as part of the package. These ‘kaiseki’ are multi-course dinners where you have a little bit of lots of different things. The meal in the first hotel was served in our room, ryokan style. As we were relaxing in the hot spring baths our room was prepared, and when we came back the meal was spread out before us. After eating they take everything away and lay out the futons.

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The following night the dinner at the second hotel was even more delicious. Here we went to a small private dining room. This sounds kind of exclusive but actually everyone has their own little room to eat in. The menu went something like this:

Five assorted appetisers (I can’t remember them all but they are on the central tray in the picture below. You can just make out a tiny persimmon (or ‘kaki’) in the middle that is in fact a flavoured egg yolk. You can also see something that looks roughly like a sweet chestnut in its prickly shell but is in fact an entirely edible chestnut flavoured savoury.)
Pungently cooked lotus root
Sashimi of trout, shrimp and yellowtail
Yuba (soy milk skin), taro, aubergine with shrimp and kidney beans
Grilled charr
Nikko local pork shabu-shabu  (thinly sliced meat that you briefly cook in boiling water)
Mizuna ohitashi (Japanese mustard) with sesame
Chawanmushi (it’s the egg custard again!)
Beef stew
Soup with a crab ball, mitsuba (Japanese wild parsley) and yuba
Dessert with wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionary) and fruit

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It looked and tasted beautiful. There were a lot of dishes to clean and it took some time and it was entirely delicious.

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The following morning you return to the same private dining room for breakfast.

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All the dishes were Japanese, apart from the bacon and eggs (!) which you cook on your own private oil burner. Personally I found the inclusion of this western style dish totally unnecessary (as I did the mini beef stew the night before) but it seems to be somehow a nod to foreign guests.

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Of course I did more than just eat. There were a few places that I was particularly keen to visit on this trip. As already mentioned, Nagasaki was once the only trading point for the entirety of Japan. It is a fascinating story. In 1636, in order to prevent the spread of Christianity in Japan, a 15,000 square meter artificial island was constructed by order of the Shogun, on which the Portuguese were interned. In 1639 when Portuguese ships were banned from Japan by the National Isolation Edict, Dejima became uninhabited for a short time. Two years later in 1641 the Dutch East India Company Trading Post in Hirado was moved to Dejima. During the long period of isolation, which only ended 218 years later in 1859, Dejima was the only way in or out of Japan and it was from here that limited imports and exports took place.

Dejima is the setting for the 2011 novel by David Mitchell, ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ which follows the story of one Dutch trader who came to Japan to make his fortune. It is a highly evocative introduction to the history of this tiny island.

Although the surrounding sea has now been reclaimed and forms part of the new Nagasaki harbour, in recent years there has been a drive to restore and recreate the buildings on the island to how they were in the early 19th Century.


The island was heavily fortified and ingress or exit without permission was a capital offence.


The interiors are a mixture of European and Japanese style, that nevertheless somehow hang together.






I was particularly interested in the karakami designs. A technique originally brought over from China during the Heian period, karakami is Japanese paper that has been printed with woodblocks. The beautiful thing about karakami is the imperfections in the repetition. As each section is printed individually, no two are exactly alike. (Although karakami still adorns traditional Japanese buildings there is only one karakami shop left in Japan. It is Karacho in Kyoto, established in 1624. They are still printing from some of the ancient woodblocks.)









Another interesting pattern in Nagasaki was this trompe-l’œil bollard painted directly onto the road. From the driver position it looks real!


And on the subject of driving, what about this petrol station for an ingenious solution to the inevitable problems of manoeuvring in small spaces: put the petrol pumps on the ceiling.


And it was in a car that my friend Kyo took me to the top of Mount Inasa to watch the sun set. In the space of 30 minutes we saw the day turn to night in a dramatic diorama below us. This is the famous ‘Issenmandoru no yakei’, the 10 million dollar view.




Then we took a trip to the least aptly named place on the planet: The Supreme Paradise (surely it would be possible to sue for false advertising), one of the big pachinko halls on the outskirts of Nagasaki. When we had met earlier in the evening, I had asked Kyo what he had been doing and he replied that he spent much of the day playing pachinko. Although I had passed many pachinko parlours before, and maybe even stuck my head in the door, I didn’t really understand what it was all about. As far as I was concerned you might as well throw your money into the slots in the drain guards as throw it into a pachinko slot. “It’s my medicine,” Kyo said. “OK then,” I replied, “let’s go and taste your medicine.” Well, I can honestly say that I had all my preconceptions confirmed and then double underlined, in bold, in CAPITALS. The deafening noise of metal balls dropping through the machines is only marginally better than the rancid smell of cigarette smoke that pervades the vast series of aisles of similar looking machines. You put your money in a slot. Metal balls fall through the machine. Sometimes you win more balls. Sometimes you win less balls. Balls can be exchanged for money or prizes. More often than not (of course) you lose. Well, judge for yourself.

One of the highlights of my trip to Nagasaki was the visit to Hashima, more commonly known as Gunkanjima or ‘Battleship Island’. I had heard about this island when I was a resident artist at ARCUS in 2008 and was extremely interested to visit it. Up until very recently trips to the island needed to be arranged in stealth with a local fisherman but since it was put on a list of tentative industrial sites that might be given World Heritage status, limited organised tours now take place.

Hashima lies about 19km from Nagasaki harbour. Coal was discovered there in the early 19th Century but full-scale mining did not begin until 1890. As the amount of coal being excavated grew, so did the population. The island was enlarged with some land reclamation and the first concrete high-rise buildings in Japan were built in 1916 to house the residents. At its peak 5,300 people were living on Hashima, which gave it a population density 9 times greater than that of Tokyo at the time. As the demand for coal fell, so did the population and in January 1974 it was closed for good. In April the island was depopulated and left to the elements.

Hashima was recently featured in the James Bond film ‘Skyfall’ as the hideout of the bad guy. Despite this global audience, I was the only westerner on the tour and the tour-guides scrambled around in a cabin on board the boat to find an English information sheet.

Actually it was touch and go whether or not the tour I had booked would go ahead because of an incoming typhoon. Although we got very wet towards the end of the trip, it went on as planned and I was extremely glad.

Before you land on Hashima you make a brief stop on Takashima, which is the location of Mitsubishi Mining Company’s main coalmine, the extremely tiny but sweet coalmining museum, and a model of the Battleship Island. Unfortunately the entire talk about the island which centred around this model was in Japanese. I caught the odd word and was so impressed with myself for deciphering something (oh, that means ‘school’, and that means ‘hairdresser’, and that means ‘pachinko’, well done Joshua) that any attempt and making sense of them was lost.


Then the boat takes you to Hashima itself. It really does look like a battleship from the distance. I had a very powerful sense of wonder and awe arriving there. It really felt like a point on a pilgrimage and almost certainly somewhere that I was visiting for the first and last time.


Although you can’t wander around the abandoned buildings and your route is severely restricted, you do walk around a bit and have a chance to see up close the magnificence of neglect. It also gives you a strong sense of what it must have been like to live as so many people in such a small place. Whole families lived, worked, studied and were entertained on this tiny rock.







Another skeleton of a building that I saw in Japan was the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, more commonly called the Atomic Bomb Dome. The former Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall has been kept as close as possible to exactly how it was the moment after the impact of ‘Little Boy’ at 08:15 on 6th August 1945. The terrible beauty of this monument serves as a powerful and modest reminder of the horrors of atomic warfare. I visited the Peace Museums in both Nagasaki and Hiroshima and found them both extremely disturbing and important. To be honest I have not given all that much thought to nuclear proliferation but visits to both these museums underlined the absolute necessity to work towards disarmament.


Although I was glad to have visited this gruesome history I was also pleased that I could leave it behind. From Hiroshima I headed up to Kyoto for a couple of nights. The historical sites in Kyoto are perhaps the most extraordinary cultural places I have ever been to. This city of temples, palaces and gardens, teams with World Heritage sites that surprise and amaze. On this second trip to Japan’s former capital however, I was interested to take a more relaxed approach and to try and get a sense of the modern day city.

As I was walking along the Kamo river I spotted in the distance some movement in a window on the opposite bank. I steadied my camera and zoomed in…




…and closer


…and closer, until I could make out that this was the famous geisha house in Pontocho dori. Five geisha were entertaining just one single man. These places are notoriously expensive even just for a cup of tea so goodness knows how much this was costing him.


It was completely engaging and I stood there watching for nearly 40 minutes. I even walked over the bridge and onto the embankment so that I could pass directly underneath the window for a closer inspection. It all looked very seductive and yet they seemed to spend a long while dancing and singing a kind of party game. Not so much traditional dance or playing the shamisen but more, well, something you might imagine at a children’s birthday. (Perhaps after all this is simply beyond my cultural comprehension.)

For the final days of my trip I headed north to Nikko, Japan’s huge national park that spreads over four prefectures. As well as the incredible scenery there are famous shrines and temples, including Nikko Tosho-gu, the Shinto shrine dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. The main buildings you see today were completed in 1636. Some critics consider the decoration ‘too Chinese’ and gaudy and not really in the traditional Japanese style. It certainly is much more ‘bling’ than any other temple I have seen in Japan.






More typical for the Japanese, perhaps, is the fact that amongst all the gold and ornament, one of the most famous of the myriad of carvings, is this extremely modest life-sized sleepy cat, which rests on a lintel above a gateway.


The shrine to Ieyasu is away from the main temple complex and for many years was only allowed to be visited by the Shogun himself. IMG_2749




Above the former stable, monkeys play, including the three wise monkeys that hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil. They are very cute.




Close by is the Rinno-ji temple complex which includes the Sanbutsudo (Three Buddha Hall). When we first saw this weird prefab building in the temple complex, Goh and I were a bit confused. Then we realised that this new structure was built around the Sanbutsudo while it is being restored. It was extremely interesting to step inside. What we learnt is that on discovering termites in the wood, the authorities had to act swiftly to preserve this ancient monument. You can go inside to see the process. IMG_2778

They have deconstructed the building tile by tile, slat by slat, and pin by pin. They are checking and treating each piece of wood and then laying it all out like the most complex of 3D puzzles. Once the preservation has finished, they will then reassemble  it all. It was incredible to see, and brilliant that they let the pubic in to witness some of what they were doing.





These temple complexes are located in the most beautiful surroundings of picturesque nature.

And at the same time all the sites are extremely popular with tourists. Mostly Japanese tourists. Hoards of them. One of the most famous of nature’s gifts to Nikko is the Kegon waterfall. By far the best way to view it (but at the same time equally irritating) is to queue for the elevator which takes you down to a viewing platform. It felt a bit weird to be queuing for nature but nevertheless it is worth it.


The viewing platform takes you directly in front of the falls. Somehow it is possible to ignore all the people around you and to focus your attention on the sound, smell and site of the water dropping nearly 100 meters as it exits from lake Chuzenji.


Another place of interest in Nikko is the Tamozawa Imperial Villa which was built in 1899 as a country retreat for Emperor Taisho. It is also where the current Emperor Akihito was evacuated as a prince during the Second World War. After the war it was neglected but was restored in 2000 and opened to the public. It is one of the largest remaining wooden buildings in Japan. Although much of it is beautiful it is actually quite an odd mix of Western and Japanese styles; many of the rooms are carpeted in pretty hideous European patterns and there are incongruous chandeliers hanging in simple wooden beamed spaces. The building itself is however, an evocative labyrinth of corridors and rooms and the surrounding gardens make it feel like a very special place.







Part of the pleasure of writing this blog is that I get to remember the sights, sounds, tastes and sensations of the places that I go. It is always also a compromise because so much is left out. I am hungry to remember it all. I know that many of my Japanese friends find their country a difficult place to make the life that they want for themselves. It remains for me, however, one of the most intriguing and enriching places I have been. Simplicity and sophistication coexist.