Discovering the Unexpected and Overwhelming while exploring Japan.
Words by Melanie Winter
I had been wearing the wrong shoes. Sandals. No other woman I laid eyes on the whole day had been wearing shoes that didn’t include socks even though the weather was definitely sandal-worthy. I had wondered what it could mean; I was sure the reason would be steeped in spirituality and mystery. But now, as I feel my bare feet touch the spotless wooden floor, I also get a small glimpse into the simple practicality of this tradition. I am very aware that everyone else has socks on. We are led to a room with sliding bamboo doors and I can clearly hear the difference the sound my naked feet make as we all patter behind the hostess. The table is sunken just above ground level and we sit on the floor and slide our legs underneath. I am wearing the wrong skirt for this manoeuvre to appear graceful. Though I am blushing bright pink at being a completely hapless tourist, our hosts are nonplussed and proceed to order the first round of beers for the table.
The extensive menu has a few tantalising pictures, but far from enough to help me make any decisions. Luckily, we are in excellent hands and sometimes it’s best to eat first and ask questions later, lest your brain weasel you out of a new, potentially delicious experience. I try to follow as animated discussions take place over what to order. It is impossible, but the rhythm of the conversation is wonderful.
Halfway through our first beer Kesson asks, “Have you ever tried sake or umeshu?” Orders are placed for not one, but both of these traditional drinks and we cheers on tasting each, “Kanpai!”
Food starts to arrive. It appears that Kesson and Takao have ordered something from every category on the menu. I’m not complaining. Freshly grilled fish (chosen from a platter brought to the table earlier during ordering), sashimi, tako meshi (octopus rice). Never have my tastebuds experienced a more delicate and satisfying tempura; vegetables, fish, prawns all in this light, crispy batter cooked to perfection.
I’m floating in a happy haze of food coma and various alcohols when we step out into the brightly adorned streets of Tokyo, ridiculous sandals firmly back on my feet.
For a culture that places emphasis on order and achievement during the day, a different side appears at night. Perhaps this is the key to their success. On the streets of Kabukicho the hostesses outside the colourful doors to bars and clubs beckon to us as we head to the hotel. They’re open all night and they’re busy with patrons looking for a good time in Tokyo’s Red Light District.
As I close my eyes on my first night in Japan, my brain struggles to shut down from the wealth of ordered chaos that it has processed.
And that was just the beginning.
Japan can be a little overwhelming. The statistics are enough to get the blood pumping especially landing slap bang in the middle of Tokyo, the world’s largest city. The train station closest to where we were staying, Shinjuku, is also the busiest in the world, it has around 100 different entrances to cope with the crush of humanity that flows through each day. It also has numerous shopping complexes including multiple excellent cafes (including US imports Blue Bottle and Verve) and the best Western Brunch in the city at Sarabeth’s (seriously the most picture perfect Eggs Benedict ever seen). Across town, over a million people a day cross the famous Shibuya “Scramble Crossing” which is just one intersection in downtown Tokyo. The language and signage is assaulting at first, though thankfully for tourists English is becoming more prominent in Tokyo with the Rugby World Cup being hosted there in 2019 and the Olympic games in 2020. So yes, when you arrive, it’s a lot.
That initial feeling of being overwhelmed is quickly replaced by that of fascination, awe and ultimately respect. After 24 hours the culture shock begins to subside and you quickly just do what those around you do. After 48 hours, you feel a thrill at moving in a human swarm, you notice that everything works, that people are super mindful and your Japanese phrases start to tumble out your mouth as your confidence grows.
Then there is the coffee. Oh the coffee!
I never thought that the best coffee I’d ever tasted would be out of a french press, but Maruyama Coffee blew all my preconceived notions about this brew method out the water. The prices were such that you think to yourself, well if I’m going to blow that much on a plunger of coffee, then I’m going to have the best damn one in the entire place. And so we did. The Buyer’s Selection Yemen Al-Wadi sourced by Port of Mokha. It was like a coffee from another dimension. A completely unusual flavour profile to anything we’d ever tasted. The flavour notes given were complex cacao, peach, and honeysuckle. My tastebuds were shocked and delighted as the different flavours drifted across my tongue as the coffee cooled.
I never thought I’d see a coffee shop in a train station that sells syphons as their primary brew method. At an outstandingly efficient rate. Select your bean from an array of specialty options and three minutes later your siphon is served!
I never believed that I’d see thousands of vending machines selling coffee (hot and cold) and I never thought I’d see the day where I drank a Blue Latte, that tasted like coconuts and maple syrup. That’s Japan for you. Full of surprises.
Magical coffee adventures on every corner: Deus Ex Machina (And he of the magnificent moustache!), Onibus, Fuglen, Glitch Coffee & Roasters, iki Espresso (one of my favourites tucked away secretly in a suburb!) each with their own personality and neighbourhood to explore. We needed more time!
But time was not on our side and as we wished to see more of Japan than just Tokyo, we decided to catch the bullet train, or Shinkansen, to visit Osaka - which is considered the Foodie capital of Japan. They say in Tokyo people will spend their last Yen on shoes, while in Osaka they will spend it on food! Tokoyaki, fried octopus dumplings, are available on every street corner. Fair warning if you ever get to try them: they are served fresh and they are HOT, take a minute to let them cool before you tuck in. Literally every tourist I saw eat them, myself included, burnt their tongue on the first bite. You can eat Pork wrapped asparagus, Shrimp bread, meat stuffed shitake mushrooms, kobe beef (Kobe is actually a short train ride away from Osaka), skewers of every description or ramen with udon noodles. Absolutely everything we ate was delicious and the coffee was sublime. We also stumbled upon a tiny whisky bar and had the opportunity to taste the famed Yamazaki whisky that had just become impossible to get due to demand!
After eating ourselves into a stupor in Osaka, we headed north to Kyoto, which is considered the cultural home of Japan and is laden with Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines. It is a place of calm and an opportunity to seek some enlightenment. It is a beautiful town, nestled in the valley at the foot of a mountain range covered in indigenous forest. It is also the town where you’ll most likely find Geishas and people dressed in traditional outfits. Surprisingly because this town is a hotspot for tourists, the locals all spoke English which was a nice relief for my brain after trying to get by communicating with and gestures and pointing. The coffees we had in Kyoto felt like they carried a certain spiritual quality to them, most likely a factor of the environment, but also because of the calm and serenity of the baristas making them. Vermillion Espresso, so named because of its location at the base of the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shinto shrine, was a treat. Why vermillion you ask? That’s the colour of the thousands of wooden arches which run up the hills at this shrine.
The best way I can describe how Japan made me feel is through famous sushi chef, Naomichi Yasuda’s approach to sushi (as seen on Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain). When we think of sushi we think about how good the fish is, but Yasuda says that the most important part of sushi is the rice. “Fish is the second ingredient, the main ingredient is rice.” Exploring Japan made me feel that I’d been focusing and placing importance on the wrong things and challenged my world view in such an invigorating way. Japan will stay with me forever and I cannot wait to return.
Thank you to our hosts Kesson Yamamoto and Takao Wantanabe of Blue Diamond Almonds Japan. You made our first trip to Japan a truly unforgettable experience.