A Wine Lover’s Diary, Part 463: Japan, Part 2

Canadians in kimonos

Saturday, September 21: Breakfast at Ryokan Seryo is a serious affair with cooked salmon, pickled vegetables, rice, hot tofu and tea.

We took two taxis back to Kyoto and checked in to the Kyoto Tokyu Hotel. Deborah and I opted to go to the flea market in the grounds of the Toji Temple. To get there we purchased a day bus pass. It was a sweltering day (31°C) as we walked around the hundreds of stalls selling everything from old kimonos to bric-a-brac, street food, one-off clothes, pottery, hand-crafted jewellery, ugly hats and pine needle sprigs, charcoal, samurai swords, coins, etc.

Then we went for lunch at Takashimaya. The food court in the basement is amazing. Gorgeously presented and wrapped food. Cantaloupes that cost $63. I bought a bottle of Japanese wine to bring home – Chateau Mars Cabernet Merlot 2009.

In the evening our group attended a Geiko/Maiko experience at an Ocha-ya (tea house) in the geisha district of Gion. Geiko is the Kyoto term for geisha and maiko is a geisha-in-training. We had to walk up a narrow alley off the main street to find it. We took off our shoes before moving upstairs to a room where we sat at a low table, legs stretched out or folded under us. We were presented with a tray of candied walnuts, marinated cucumber, sticky rice wrapped in aubergine skin with mustard, clams in a sweet sauce, and a sweet glutinous paste wrapped in a leaf. Then the geiko and maiko dressed in elaborate kimonos entered and introduced themselves: Tsunemomo (“Call me Momo”), who is 26, and Tometoiuyu, who is 16 and has only been studying to be a geiko for one month. She spoke excellent English, having spent four years in New Zealand – by herself! A third woman, middle-aged, named Miyako played the shamisen (a three-stringed triangular guitar) and waited on us, filling our glasses with beer or sake at every possible occasion.

Momo and Tometoiuyu perform a traditional dance

The food started arriving: egg custard with ginkgo nuts; eel and crab; pike, tuna, squid and eel sushi; cooked octopus and crab; tempura. The girls danced to the shamisen and more food arrived, all the time our glasses being refilled: fried hamo sushi; soup with eel, mushroom and cucumber; and finally a dessert of glutinous rice paste with sweet bean paste and green and black grapes.

Then Tometoiuyu asked us if we wanted to play a game called which turned out to be a drinking game called konpira: using an upturned sake cup each player, kneeling opposite each other at a low table, had to touch the top of the cup with a flat hand in turn or remove it from the table. If the cup is taken you had to put your fist on the table in its place. If you put the flat of your hand you lose and had to chug-a-lug a glass of wine or sake. All of this to the accompaniment of the shamisen as the rhythm of the music gets faster and faster. Needless to say, much alcohol was consumed which, I guess, is the point of the game in terms of financial gain for the house. When the meal was over we were told that our taxis had arrived.

We left thinking, through some miscommunication, that our bill had been prepaid. We were almost at the taxis when the woman owner and the two girls came running after us. The bill was exorbitant and the ocha-ya did not take Visa. We didn’t have enough cash to cover. So we tried to find a 7/11 with an ATM machine but with no luck. After some negotiations we managed to muster a little under half the bill and promised to get the rest to the manager through the friend who had booked the evening for us. At 9pm the two girls went on to their next engagement and we returned rather sheepishly to our hotel.

7/11 breakfast

Sunday, September 22: After a breakfast of white bread sandwiches at a 7/11 five minutes from the hotel (7/11’s ATM has become my bank), we met our guide, Reiko Kanari, who took us by a series of three buses to the Kinkakuji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its three-storey golden pavilion. It was founded in 1398; its two upper floors were covered in gold leaf. An unbalanced monk burned it down in 1950 and it was rebuilt to the original design in 1955. Forty pounds of gold were used to make the gold foil hat covers the walls outside and in. In the grounds is a 600-year-old fir tree supported on a bamboo trellis that looks like a ship at sail.

Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

600-year-old pine tree

Our next visit: Ryoanji Temple with its dry landscape garden created by a Zen monk around 1500. The rectangle measures 25 meters by 10 meters. The raked white gravel (to express water) is set with “islands” of 15 rocks, strategically placed so that you can’t see all 15 from any single perspective. Fifteen is the number of perfection in Buddhism, being the number of days between the new moon and the full moon. In Kyoto there are 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines.

Entrance to Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Next stop, the moated Nijo Castle, another World Heritage site, built in 1603 for the first Tokugawa Shogun. Lunched at Kyoto Mamemachi, whose specialty is tofu. Kyoto is famous for its tofu because of the quality of its water. We had soy bean curd cooked with vegetables, a salad with taro root, eggplant, bonito flakes, bitter green pepper and soy milk crust; tempura of vegetables and green tea; dessert – tofu flan with peeled grapes. The tofu, green onion, bonito flakes and ginger followed by rice with pickled vegetables and seaweed.

Pickled vegetables

After lunch we walked through the vast Nishiki covered market to get to Fukuju-en, a tea shop on four floors. The company has been in business for 120 years. Here we experienced the traditional tea ceremony. Which meant climbing into a tatami-floored room through a small hatch once we had removed our shoes. The woman in a kimono who performed the ceremony with exquisite precision was 72 years old but could have passed for late 40s. The tea ceremony was introduced into Japan in the sixteenth century, originally performed by monks at midnight to keep them awake. We were first given a plate of sweet gelatinous cakes dusted with green tea powder to mitigate the bitterness of the green tea to come. When served your bowl of tea you have to turn to the person next to you and say, “I’m drinking my tea before you,” and then you turn to the tea-master and say, “I am enjoying your tea.” Once you have consumed it you have to slurp up all the foam noisily.

Fukuju-en tea master about to perform the tea ceremony

Back at the hotel, we had a quiet evening, picking up a sandwich at our local 7/11.

Monday, September 23: Left the hotel at 8:30 am to take the train to Nara, an hour’s journey. Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan. Here we visited the Kasuga Grand Shrine. Nara is famous for its deer park, where hundreds of deer roam the parks and public spaces. They challenge you for food and will eat the maps out of your hands. If a motorist kills a deer he or she has to pay a fine. There are stands selling wheat cakes for the deer. The proceeds go to hospitals to care for pregnant deer.

Deer in Kyoto’s deer park

Metal lanterns in the Kasuga Grand Shrine

Todai-ji Temple, a World Heritage Site, is the largest wooden structure in the world. It was built around a 45-foot bronze statue of the Buddha. On the façade is a window that is opened once a year to expose the Buddha’s face. The hand positions, one raised, one extended, palm open, signifies, “Don’t be afraid. I will save you.” Outside the temple is a wooden statue of an ugly monk in the lotus position. It is said if you rub a part of his anatomy where you have pain and touch that part of you, you will be cured. In the grounds are avenues of 2,000 stone lanterns and 1,000 hanging metal lanterns.

Todai-ji Temple, the largest wooden structure in the world

Todai-ji Temple Buddha

Monk with curative powers (outside Todai-ji Temple)

Garden of Three Thousand Lanterns

Relaxed fawn

We lunched at Fukutoku udon noodle shop (beef noodles and tempura), then took the train back to Kyoto to visit the Heian Jingu Shrine (built in 1895).

Kyoto train station

Japanese garden

Monks at prayer

Three little maids from school

Deborah and I went on to see the Manga Museum, which is housed in a former school. There are rooms filled with manga comics and books dating back to 1945. These graphic stories are central to Japanese culture and cover all aspects of life. There are even gay and lesbian porn manga comics. According to Wikipedia,

The medium includes works in a broad range of genres: action-adventure, romance, sports and games, historical drama, comedy, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, suspense, detective, horror, sexuality, and business/commerce, among others. Since the 1950s, manga has steadily become a major part of the Japanese publishing industry, representing a ¥406 billion market in Japan in 2007 (approximately $3.6 billion) and ¥420 billion ($5.5 billion) in 2009.

Manga cartoon character

Dinner at Kikunoi Restaurant for a kaiseki banquet based on seasonal produce, prepared by Chef Yoshihiro Murata. The wine we ordered was Bechar Fiano d’Avellino 2011.

Dinner at Kikunoi restaurant: deep-fried tilefish course

Kikunoi menu

Tuesday, September 24: Took the bullet train to Hiroshima and checked into the ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel before heading off to the ferry with our guide, Jasmine, to the island of Miyajima with its emblematic torii gate set in the shallow water. This village is, apparently, one of the three most scenic places in Japan. There are deer here too.

Bullet train to Hiroshima

Otorii Gate, entrance to Miyajima

We tour the Itsukishima Shinto shrine (another World Heritage site) which, like Venice, is built over water, set on pine stakes driven into the bed of this inland sea. There is a wedding happening in the shrine – the bride and groom are dressed in ceremonial wedding garb. In a temple there are beautiful, elaborately designed sand mandalas made by Tibetan monks.

Traditional Japanese wedding dress

Off on honeymoon

Sand mandala made by Tibetan monks

Pagoda, Miyajima island

For lunch, a local speciality – okonomiyaki, a crepe with different fillings, with cabbage and Chinese noodles topped with an omelette doused in a sweet, spicy, garlicky sauce.


Walking through the Omotesando shopping arcade we saw the World’s Largest Wooden Rice Scoop, made from a 270-year-old zelkova tree. It measures 7.7 metres long and weighs 2.5 tons.

World’s largest rice spoon

In the afternoon we took a boat back to the Hiroshima Peace Park, a memorial to the atomic bomb victims. The symbol of the destruction that is left standing is the dome, a government building on the river near the T-shaped bridge that was the original target on August 6th, 1945.

Hiroshima Cenotaph with the Dome in the background

The T-bridge in Hiroshima, the intended target for the A-bomb

The bomb was dropped at 8:15 am and exploded at a height of 600 metres above the ground, killing 140,000 – half the population of Hiroshima. Touring the museum was a sombre experience. At the entrance is a large stone inscribed with a message from Pope John Paul II on his visit to Hiroshima in February, 1981. We saw a tree that stood within 1350 meters of the hypocentre of the blast. It had been transplanted outside the museum. We checked into the ANA Crowne Plaza and dined in their Unkai restaurant on the fifth floor: shrimp tempura and rice with a bottle of Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais 2011.

Hiroshima manhole cover

Wednesday, September 25: Today, Fukuoka and Hakata. At Fukuoka station we linked up with our guide, the lovely Noriko Mitsuyasu, who lived in Toronto for a few years. After checking in to the ANA Grand Plaza Hotel we visited the Tochoji Temple. Originally built in 806, it houses the largest wooden statue of a seated Buddha in Japan.

Next stop, the Dazaifu Tenmangu folk museum where we viewed a film of the annual Hakata Gio Yamakasa Festival, which happens in July. Twenty-six men in competing teams, wearing a skimpy cloth panel over their privates, take turns running a two-ton float around the Kushida shrine and through the streets along a 5 km route. All the while spectators throw water over them to make the pavement slick.

A model of the Yamakasa event

We dropped in to Noriko’s family’s tea shop, Mitsuyasu Seikaen Chanho. Tea has been the family business for twelve generations. Lunched in a noodle house and then took a train to Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine and the Kyushu National Museum. The Komyozenji Temple has a lovely zen garden. Here we had the first rain of our trip.

Zen garden

In the evening we had dinner at a yatai – literally translates as “night table.” It’s really just an open shack on the sidewalk with 10 stools around a counter. The raw food is displayed in a glass cabinet and the owner and his wife prepare it on a grill and a hot plate. We ordered sake and Asahi Super Dry Beer and the following barbecued dishes: shrimp, pork gristle, tongue followed by cooked whale, and noodles. We kept ordering and must have made the restaurant’s day because the wife gave us all disposable lighters!

Yatai – the Night Table in Fukuoka

Thursday, September 26: Took the train to Arita, a 90-minute trip, where we hired a jumbo taxi for the days touring. Arita is the pottery centre of Japan. You can tell where there is a pottery factory by the tall brick chimneys that stands over the kilns.

Genemon kiln

Our first visit is to the Genemon Kiln, the oldest in Arita, where we are shown the exquisite (and expensive) works created by their artists. Fourteen generations of potters have worked here. The 13th generation potter was designated a Living National Treasure. The company’s manager, Tsunehisa Aiga, explained that pottery created for the aristocracy and government officials was limited to four colours – red, yellow, green and blue – while pottery made for commoners had a full range of colours. It was only after watching the painstaking craftsmanship of the potters and artists who decorated their work that I understood why these works of art are so expensive.

Hand-painting plates at the Genemon kiln

Lunched at a local restaurant famous for its koi dishes. The first dish was a small bowl of eggplant, cucumber and deep-fried koi mixed with raw egg and spicy miso sauce. This was followed by a large bowl that was filled with a circle of flaked koi sashimi shaped like a flower and set on a bed of crushed ice with a miso leaf and shaved daikon in the centre. (Felt a little bad about eating those overgrown goldfish but they were delicious.) Next, a pot of egg custard with cooked shrimp and ginkgo nuts, mushroom, fishcake and chicken, followed by a plate of deep-fried koi as addictive as potato chips. Finally, a bowl of miso soup with koi and koi roe.

Flaked koi

After lunch we visited a modern kiln, Hakusan, the company that supplied EDO restaurant in Toronto with its dishes. Most of the staff at Hakusan are deaf; they have a policy of hiring the hearing impaired, whom they train to create their range of pottery. Finally, we visited what looked like a pottery mall, a whole avenue of stores on both sides, including one that had incorporated designs by John Lennon and Picasso in their plates and cups.

We then drove to our ryokan in Saga, where we were greeted with green tea and a sweet of bean paste. Changed into a kimono for dinner. The menu, 11 courses beginning with a tiny glass of plum sake, tofu and vegetables, squid with citrus, octopus and salmon, sesame tofu with eggplant; sashimi of cuttlefish, kampachi and mackerel; soup with fishcake and crab, skin of tofu and enoki mushrooms; plaice with mashed potatoes laced with red pepper, marinated walnuts and lotus root; sweet potato and chicken with aubergine covered with wheat gluten; tempura of sweet potato, lotus root, shrimp cake and Korean carrot; Saga beef, which we cooked ourselves in a heated pot with butter, and mushroom and green pepper; a small bowl of pickled vegetables; miso soup, and  a bowl of rice; a cup of roasted green tea; dessert – stewed plum with Asian pear and a lychee glaze.

The gang at the ryokan

Friday, September 27: A traditional breakfast of soy milk, vegetables with kiwi salad, hot tofu with a creamy rice vinegar dressing; and then came the Western breakfast of scrambled eggs and ham with toast.

Took the bus from Saga to Nagasaki. Nagasaki is a beautiful city built in the hills, resembling San Francisco with its steep, winding streets. Our first visit is to Dejima, a 15,000-square-metre, fan-shaped island that was created in Nagasaki Bay. In 1634 the Shogun had the island constructed by digging a canal. It became a ghetto for the Portuguese merchants. The island became the single entrance to Japan for Portuguese and Dutch traders in the seventeenth century until the Meiji period began in 1868, when the country was opened up to foreigners. The traders could only access the mainland through a single narrow doorway. Ultimately, the island became the home of employees of the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch were not allowed to hold any religious services on the island for fear of them proselytizing the Japanese, and they celebrated Christmas clandestinely as the winter solstice.

When our group of seven Canadians arrived at the Dutch sea captain’s house, we were greeted by smiling officials, who announced that one of us was the three millionth visitor to the house since 2006. First we thought it was a TV show gag but when we were ushered upstairs there were three TV cameras and twelve photographers and journalists waiting to interview us. Leslie, speaking on our behalf, was presented with a traditional coffee cup and a pass that gave us two free lunches in the restaurant and the opportunity for each of us to dress in kimonos, which we could wear for 30 minutes as we walked around the compound.

Three millionth visitor celebration

For lunch in the Dejima International Club Restaurant I ordered a beef curry.

Bust of Thomas Blake Glover in his garden

Thomas Glover’s house

Our next stop was Glover Gardens. Thomas Blake Glover, a Scot, lived commonlaw with a Japanese woman who had been married to a samurai. A tea trader and arms dealer, Glover brought the first steam train to Japan (1865), built the country’s first dry dock, and founded the Japan Brewery Company that would later become Kirin.

Kirin Beer label from 1889
Kirin Beer label from 1889

The moustache on the dragon on Kirin’s labels is said to replicate Glover’s. Glover also helped found the ship-building company that would become Mitsubishi. His house, a meandering bungalow set high above Nagasaki, has a magnificent panoramic view of the city and its harbour.

Funatsu chef Kazuhiro Matsutake

For dinner we went to Kazuhiro Matsutake’s Funatsu restaurant, a tiny place with ten stools at the counter and a small private room behind the kitchen. Kazuhiro, the father of Hitomi, our guide in Tokyo, was EDO’s original chef in Toronto 23 years ago. With a bottle of Casillero del Diablo Chardonnay 2012 we had the following menu: salted ginkgo nuts, shrimp tempura and a salad with chicken and shrimp; waygu beef; conger eel with a miso and egg white dressing, Chinese lettuce, tofu skin and burdock; steamed crab with soy vinegar; soup with a fish and shrimp cake and mushrooms; green tea; rice and salmon cake with bonito flakes. And finally, Asian pear.

Saturday, September 28: Taxied to the bus station to take the bus to Nagasaki airport for the flight to Tokyo. Taxied to our hotel, the ANA InterContinental Tokyo Bay. Abandoned our luggage, as we couldn’t check in until 4 pm.

Jamie Paquin and wife Nozomi of Heavenly Vines

Deborah and I made our way by train over to Jamie Paquin’s store Heavenly Vines – “the world’s only all-Canadian wine store.” Jamie has CBC radio playing all day in his tiny store, which is filled with wines from Ontario and BC, floor to ceiling. He has 160 different labels. With his wife Nozomi, he is spreading the word about Canadian wines to the citizens of Tokyo. We shared a bottle of Pearl Morissette Cabernet Franc 2010 with them and two local wine writers for Winart Magazine – Au Takizawa and Megumi Nishida. Jamie showed us a magnificent wine store called Wine Market Party in Yebisu Garden Palace and another shop in a department store selling seriously priced imported wines. Finally checked into our room, which has a great view of the river and the skyscrapers of Tokyo.

Sunday, September 29: Deborah and I took the train to the Tawaramachi stop to see the hardware and kitchen stuff along Kappa Bashi Street. Block after block of shops that sell everything for restaurants and home kitchen, even stores that sell the plastic meals that restaurants display outside to attract customers.

Lunched at Grano Delicatessen in the bus station, and then made our way to the Imperial Hotel. This fabulous building was originally designed and constructed by Frank Lloyd Wright, including all the furniture and fittings. Even the coffee cups. It was the only large building to survive the great earthquake of 1923. As a result, all construction methods in Japan changed, using the hotel as the role model.

Walked around the gardens of Hibiya Park, across the road from the hotel. Dined in one of the yakitori stands that run under the railway arches below the train tracks from Yurakucho station toward the Imperial Hotel. Happy Hour at Manpuku Shokudo, one of the yakitori stands we dined at, runs from 3 pm to 8 pm; a Sapporo beer costs 180 yen. I ordered spare rib stewed with honey and Deborah had garlic shrimps.

Then we took a train to Ebisu to meet Jamie Paquin at OliVino Wine Bar. We were joined by Jamie’s friend, Pablo Kuntz, a Canadian now living in England who commutes to Japan to sell ceremonial Japanese swords (www.uniquejapan.com). The wine bar’s owner, Hiroko Numajiri, opened a couple of bottles for us: Ecard Savigny-Les-Beaune “Les Narbentons” 2009 and Manoir de Gay 2007.

Monday, September 30: Today we fly home. Had breakfast at a coffee shop before taking a train to the Ginza for some last-minute gift shopping at Mitsukoshi department store. A 2 pm limo bus took us to the airport for our 5:30 pm flight to San Francisco and on to Toronto. An amazing trip and a wonderful experience all round.

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