Umami days

Umami days

The addictive yet indescribable flavours of Japan

Anjum Hasan
March 30 , 2014
19 Min Read

It's been a long hot summer in Japan. Public spaces—hotels, airports, shopping malls—have been directed by government to maintain air-conditioning at no less than 28 degrees Celsius, and energy conservation, after the March nuclear disaster, is on everyone’s minds. The sarariman (salaryman) uniform of tie-and-dark jacket is off; for once, white shirtsleeves are acceptable.

“For how long does the regulation apply?” I ask our sprightly 60-year-old guide, Sasaki-san. “The government doesn’t tell us anything,” she says with a toothy smile. “They just bow and bow and request us to follow instructions.”

We’re on a coach to Yokohama, driving over the ghosts of paddy fields and old pianos. Both agricultural land and refills have been gobbled up by the ever-expanding megapolis of Tokyo, of which Yokohama—once a famous port city—is now more or less a suburb. I’m feeling the subcontinental’s shock on seeing—from high up on an expressway and through the blear of jetlag—the impersonal, grey, skyscraper perfection of Japan. Sasaki-san reads meaning into the urban anonymity. The huge chimneys belong to garbage incinerators whose heat is used to warm swimming pools for the elderly. We’re passing through the district that was home to the man who, inspired by the mosquito’s proboscis, invented a pain-free hypodermic needle. And that installation of solar heating panels down there is brand new. “Earthquakes and typhoons have educated us to do things very quickly,” says Sasaki-san.

I’ll realise soon that the remark is typical. Almost everyone I meet is eager to put a constructive spin on the triple earthquake-tsunami-nuclear leak disaster. Voices drop when the occasional glimmer of regret or worry is expressed. Nam-Ho Lee, a Korean immigrant, tells me over dinner in Tokyo that he sent his pregnant wife home after the leak because he didn’t want to take any chances. And because, unlike the Japanese, he had a choice. Over another dinner table in the northern town of Sapporo, a young events industry professional talks gravely about families split by the fear of radiation, women and children moving into public housing in towns like Sapporo while men remain in the affected areas, unable to leave their jobs and reluctant to leave their homes. I turn to our dinner companion, the grey-haired director of the Tourism Promotion Department, and ask him if, given their risks, it wouldn’t be best to do away with nuclear reactors altogether. “Don’t you have them in India?” is his considered response. Erm, yes, I say, and then try to mitigate my country’s nuclear guilt by mumbling something about the importance in India of hydroelectric power.

It’s hard to shake the Japanese. They’re used to being on top of things. The childish love of laying claim to the superlative—tallest, fastest, biggest, best—is an adult passion with them. Perhaps Japan is to blame for this competitiveness infecting all wannabe economies. (In Bangalore I live near what is supposedly Asia’s largest mall, though that boast has lately been moderated to ‘India’s biggest’.)

That first day in Yokohama we lunch at a hotel located in Japan’s highest building, the Landmark Tower; we go up to the restaurant in what is the world’s second fastest lift, an ear-popping experience that probably saves us a couple of minutes of the day. The world’s fastest is, sadly, in Taiwan, but it was, please note, built by a Japanese engineer. The islands of Honshu and Hokkaido are connected to each other by the planet’s longest undersea tunnel. And the Tokyo Sky Tree, when it opens next year, will be the tallest free-standing tower in the world. Then, of course, there’s the Shinkansen—not just ultra-speedy but also super-safe. Since the Shinkansen was launched in the early 1990s, it has been the occasion for only two casualties. “And one of the two,” says Sasaki-san with satisfaction, “was a suicide.”

A couple more days in the country and I start to feel that perhaps the Japanese—natural calamities, recession, huge national debt and all—still deserve to be the boss of the playground: simply because they have beautiful manners. That formal, almost ritualised, courtesy is still very much in place. And it ain’t for show either. One afternoon in the old Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa, as I’m taking shelter from the sudden, frantic rain—a typhoon’s outrider—an elderly gentleman asks me if everything’s okay. I point to the green oval of the Imperial Palace on my map and tell him that I’m planning to walk it. This unleashes a torrent of concerned Japanese and an unsuccessful attempt to explain bus routes. Finally my self-appointed protector walks out into the rain in his slippers and deposits me at the information centre five minutes away, making a little speech to the lady in charge. I remember some talk about 35-degree and 45-degree bows and try to do the right thing with my torso, but he’s disappeared.

People in Japan wear pristine white face masks so they don’t blow their common cold germs into your face. The expected thing to do when drying laundry on your balcony is to hang the sheets on the outside and keep the underwear screened. And in Tokyo’s silent subway cars, where no one makes a dash for empty seats and no one indulges in even the most discreet PDA, babies too throw only the mildest of tantrums.

So when Sasaki-san, talking about Tokyo’s biggest tourist attraction, said, “From Disneyland we learnt to make queues”, I thought it quaint. Despite the West and its influences being so obvious, sometimes it’s just a distant realm from which the Japanese have learnt a few useful things—like drinking animal milk and eating meat other than seafood, practices which began only after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Perhaps the most westernised of the islands is Hokkaido, once home to the indigenous Ainu tribe till it was settled by the ethnic Japanese from the Meiji era onwards. My first glimpse of Hokkaido is all neat Western-style homes in muted colours, large suburban supermarkets and ubiquitous drug stores.

Hokkaido’s mission seems to be to improve on the perfection of Japan, a mission in which nature is a close accomplice. “No typhoons here,” says our new guide, Hase-san. “They usually stop and turn back just before reaching Hokkaido.” The island has excellent produce—corn, potatoes, wild mushrooms, seaweed. Folks here make their own sake, brew beer, maintain vineries. Hokkaido’s milk is world famous, the meat of its sheep is to die for, the ramen noodles are special, the sushi is extra fresh, and as for confectionery, the capital city, Sapporo, has this modest ambition: “When someone in the world mentions ‘Sapporo’, the first response is ‘Sweets’. This is the dream that Sapporo is soaring towards.”

Equally famous is the Sapporo snow, all powdery and pretty. Winter sports are big here, as is what seems to me the Sisyphean endeavour of making carefully sculpted snow replicas—to scale—of the world’s architectural landmarks. But better than snow—especially in the summer when all there is to see are deserted ski jumps and little museums with photographs of snow-related pleasures—are the island’s famous hot springs, onsen. Jozankei, south of Sapporo city, is like one big hot spring broken up into a series of spa-hotels each with their own precious onsen water pumped directly from the source. Ours is somewhat old-world, with big stuffed sofas and brightly coloured toy- and candy-grabber machines. It’s the kind of place where one could imagine an Agatha Christie novel creakily unfold. The corridors are full of the well-to-do elderly in their cotton yukatas and slippers, their major preoccupation very likely being how many baths they can fit into a day.

Back in the city of Sapporo, which is like a mini-Tokyo with its skyscrapers and bright neon, there are no power-saving worries in evidence. Even though the newspaper is full of sobering news about the dozens of school buildings still lying devastated after March 11, and the hundreds still living in shelters in Miyagi Prefecture, here things exude contentment. Hotel buffets have long, snaking queues, waiting cab drivers read their manga, couples walk by swinging paper bags of Mori Moto sweets. Life, especially with a pint or three of the fantastically crisp Sapporo Classic inside, feels good.

Meanwhile, the running discussion among my desi travel companions has been, not the wonders of Japan, but the great Indian perennial: the vegetarian versus non-vegetarian debate. Among the vegetarians some eat eggs and some don’t; among the non-vegetarians some don’t eat beef, some can’t eat shellfish, some won’t eat their fish raw, and so on. Every meal time is preceded by confusion and doubt, enriched by poor English on one side and unclear pronunciation on the other, not to mention the fact that the Japanese consider seafood part of a vegetarian diet, but not milk.

Eventually it comes down to the Man Who Eats Everything presenting the Man Who Only Eats Vegetables with a desert island conundrum. “If you were alone on a desert island and only had a goat, would you eat it?” Mr Vegetarian’s answer is, “If you were alone on a desert island and only had a human being, would you eat it?”

In the event—despite times when I spy some of my companions, defeated by Japan, sticking to dry bread and fruit—they are spared too much pain because our hosts have a slew of Indian dinners lined up for us. This, once I am over the stunned disappointment of having to eat blood-red and bloody hot CTM in a country famed for the freshness and lightness of its cuisine, is occasion for a discovery. The Japanese like Indian food. Or the spicy, chicken-and-paneer-heavy version of it.

Chilli powder has travelled far. In a very middle-of-nowhere, Indian-cum-Japanese restaurant abutting the outdoor Houheikyo onsen, I spot a bowl of it at the entrance—a decorative touch. Of course, strange things do happen when cuisines migrate—the following line in the restaurant brochure gives me pause: ‘Nan’s shape comes from the face of an elephant, India’s God.’

Meeting Nepali cooks and wait-staff in one Indian restaurant after the other, one might be tempted to think of this as Japan’s version of UK’s Bangladesh-led Brick Lane food revolution, but the story runs deeper. The Indian curry, or karii, that apparently comes closest to the real thing is to be found in a restaurant called Nakamura-ya in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. This is where freedom fighter Rash Behari Bose took refuge from the British in the early years of the twentieth century. A forerunner of the more famous Bose, Rash Behari eventually settled down in Japan. The restaurant’s curry, and karii’s popularity in Japan, is supposed to have originated with him.

I like this story till I find one I like even better. In the little seaside Hokkaido town of Otaru, we’re taken to see the clock tower, once the location of Sapporo Agricultural College’s military drill hall. Reading through the exhibit information, I find that the supper menu in the year 1881 included ‘curry and rice every other day’. I think of the Indian traders who started arriving in the harbour town of Yokohama from the 1860s, and imagine their food dispersing as far north as Otaru, some 900 kilometres away.

Once we’re back in Tokyo and on our own, photographer Sanjoy and I get busy—gobbling seafood, crisscrossing the city on the metro, walking till we’re sore, keeping ourselves going in the sticky heat with vending machine colas, and saying “Sumimasen” to the sarariman waiting for the light to change, before checking if we’re on the right street.

Crammed into two days, Tokyo becomes montage.

Roppongi throbbing on Friday night, teenyboppers tottering in stilettos, girls handing out flyers for strip clubs, and whole rows of African men lining the pavements, waiting. I’m not sure I want to find out what for. An American yells at one as he strides across the zebra crossing. “You asked me the same thing last week, man!” “What about this week?” the guy replies, unfazed. “Are you good this week?”… At the Meiji Jingu shrine, a priest walks around wrapped in his own thoughts, oblivious of the crowds, carefully picking up a fallen leaf, scanning the sky for a sign… After being dwarfed by the grey high-rises of Aoyama Dori, the nearby Takeshita Dori, with its discount stores and young crowds, is a blast of colour and life. The girls sure know how to dress up. This season it’s all tiny, distressed denim shorts, flowing tops and retro platform heels… Sitting in a roadside eatery in Asakusa, watching the chatty rickshaw pullers and couples in kimonos go by. The Taiwanese waitress tells me she works two part-time jobs and is teaching herself Japanese on the side. I have kinpira gobo made of burdock root and carrot, and the fish-meat based satsuma agé, because she says both are her favourites. I wish I could smuggle some home… In Shinjuku’s old-world Golden Gai area we meet a friend in the smallest bar I’ve ever seen, housed in a traditional, wooden two-storied structure that could have once been a brothel. Walking around the backstreets, we come across even smaller bars hung with pretty red lanterns, no more than a bench squeezed up against the one-person counter, some two hundred of them packed cheek by jowl in an area which was once off-limits for being yakuza (Japanese mafia) territory, but is now hip… In Akihabara, sweet-faced teenage girls stand on street corners, dolled up to look like English maids, trying to entice pedestrians to their cafés where they’ll play out some servant-master game. They turn away when Sanjoy points his lens. I wonder when Japan’s going to give up on its long-running fantasy about the sexy yet submissive female.

On my last morning in Tokyo, my hotel bed shakes me awake. I realise, sleepily, that I missed the mandatory earthquake drill on my first day in the country and now can’t think what to do except scramble under the bed. Then I relax; it’s only a tremor. The Japanese are used to the small ones. As for the big ones, I remember the words of the Japan Airlines officer at Delhi airport. “Don’t worry, the big ones only come once in a thousand years and this millennium’s big one has come and gone.”

The information

Getting there

Japan Airlines (in.jal.com) flies from Delhi to Tokyo four times a week, to be increased to five flights from early November. Economy return fares inclusive of taxes are approx. Rs 40,000. JAL also offers the Japan Domestic Air Pass which can be utilised for any domestic flight for ¥10,000 per sector.

There are frequent flights between Tokyo’s Haneda airport and Sapporo. Round-trip fares are approx. ¥25,000. The two cities are also connected by train though services have temporarily been disrupted because of the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Visas

For the list of documents required and contact details of the embassy (in Delhi) and consulates (in Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Mumbai), check in.emb-japan.go.jp. The visa form can also be downloaded from the website. Tourist visas cost ¥430; visa processing takes about three days.

Currency

The Japanese currency is Yen; ¥100 is Rs 60.

Getting around

Tokyo is vast, though each of its several neighbourhoods are in themselves eminently walkable. If you’re planning to move around a lot, buy the Tokyo Furii Kippu one-day pass for ¥1,580, which allows you unlimited travel on JR trains (except JR express), Toei subways, Toei streetcars, Toei buses and Tokyo Metro. Street signs, maps and subway information are in both English and Japanese.

Sapporo city centre is built on a compact grid basis with Odori park running through it east to west. It is easy and enjoyable to navigate on foot. The public transport system includes three subway lines, as well as street car and bus services. On a multi-purpose ¥1,000 one-day pass, you can travel on subway, streetcar and bus. (See welcome.city.sapporo.jp/english/info/transport.html for details.)

Jozankei, on the southern outskirts of Sapporo, is one hour’s drive away. Take Jotetsu Bus or Donan Bus from Sapporo Station to Jozankei Bus Stop (¥750). Or take the subway to Sapporo’s Makomanai station and from there take the Jotetsu Bus to Jozankei Bus Stop (¥800).

Otaru is approx. 30km northwest of Sapporo. If not driving, take the train. The Sapporo-Otaru Welcome Pass (¥1,500) gives you unlimited use for a day of JR trains between Sapporo and Otaru as well as Sapporo’s three subway lines. A round trip from Sapporo on a regular ticket costs ¥1,240.

Where to stay

Tokyo We stayed at the swanky Royal Park Shiodome Tower, near Ginza and the Tsukiji Fish Market (from ¥25,410; rps-tower.co.jp). More affordable, very comfortable and also excellently located is Asia Center of Japan in Akasaka (from ¥10,290; asiacenter.or.jp). Roppongi with its vibrant nightlife is walking distance and the Meiji Jingju Shrine is not too far. For the authentic experience try a traditional Japanese inn, such as Ryokan Asakusa Shigetsu (from ¥14,700; shigetsu.com).

Sapporo We stayed at the Keio Plaza Hotel, which had spacious but impersonal rooms (from ¥18,000; keioplaza-sapporo.co.jp).

Jozankei We stayed at the friendly Manseikaku Hotel Milione with several swimming pool-sized onsen and huge buffets (Japanese-style rooms from ¥16,800; book at japanican.com). For a more traditional experience try the picturesque Nukumorino-Yado Furukawa (from ¥12,000 per person; yado-furu.com).

What to see & do

Tokyo has a bustling street life and its worth spending most of your time out of doors. Head to Harajuku to check out street styles: Ometesando Dori and the nearby Takeshita Dori are full of the fashionable young—the one high-end, the other more hippie. If you want a break from the crowds, the peaceful, tree-lined avenues to the Meiju Jingu shrine are nearby. A visit to Asakusa is a must. Visit the Sensoji temple, stroll, shop and eat in the quaint alleys nearby, or take an Indian-style rickshaw for a canter. Go bar-hopping in Shinjuku which on a weekend night is jaw-droppingly crowded and wonderfully intense. Don’t miss the Golden Gai. Roppongi is worth checking out for its buzz but the sprawling concrete expanses of Roppongi Hills are easily given a miss. Visit the famous wholesale fish market of Tsukiji for a seafood breakfast. Take a bus to Yokohama, check out the cruise ship in which Charlie Chaplin once travelled, ride up in the world’s second fastest elevator to Landmark Tower for the view, or spend time in the many museums including the Silk Museum and Yokohama Archives of History.

Sapporo If you’re a snow-lover, visit in winter. The snow festival transforms the city centre. And the Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium is probably worth watching when the skiers are in action. In summer, make a day trip to nearby Otaru which is famous for its glassworks. Visit the Kitachi Glass Emporium with its crystal-lit café. Walk along the pretty Otaru canal, take a gondola up to Mount Tengu for the view, eat at one of the town’s famous sushi bars, and visit the Tanaka Sake Brewery—if you patiently watch how sake is made, you’ll get to taste some afterwards. For the onsen experience, head to Jozankei. Hotels here come equipped with their own gender-segregated onsen. You could also try the outdoor versions. The Houheikyo onsen (approx. 30 minutes by car) can fit 200 people. If that’s not enough, walk through Jozankei town trying the free footbaths. You can also bring your own eggs and cook them in the boiling water.

Top tip

There are a staggering 2,500 branches of the Daiso ¥100 stores spread across Japan. Usually occupying several floors and stocking everything from Japanese snacks to hardware to crafts, Daiso is a good reason to carry an empty suitcase to Japan.


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