Kansai: The Japanese region that makes you feel like a time-travelling Dr Who

One day we’re washing down dried squid with sake as our scenic cruise boat snakes its way through Osaka’s gritty underbelly to the B-grade horror movie set of a district where people famously eat themselves bankrupt.

The next we’re meandering along the moat of a 16th century castle destroyed after the samurai uncle of the man who built it heard he was plotting a coup.

On a first-time visit to Japan, I am continually struck by the country’s ability to make you feel like a time traveller who’s forever being surprised.

On a whirlwind four-day tour of the Kansai region, the birthplace of much of modern-day Japanese culture, our group of three Kiwi women goes from queueing for takoyaki (octopus dumplings dolloped with mayo and unami-heavy takoyaki sauce) on a street adorned with giant mechanical sea creatures to staying in a centuries-old temple which once housed monks said to perform secret rituals such as hanging off cliffs in the surrounding mountains.

READ MORE:
* Five things New Zealand could learn from Japan
* Flight test: The arduous paperwork is worth it to travel to this epic destination
* NZ dollar-friendly travel: The best-value destinations for Kiwis right now

Nara Prefecture locals’ taste for a funky fish dish that is the precursor to modern sushi and a robot dancing the flamenco in a knife museum are just a couple of the things that have us laughingly scratching our heads along the way.

Arriving in Tokyo on a Sunday night, we spend a night at the luxe new Mesm hotel, drinking in the views of waterfront skyscrapers glittering like a geisha’s jewellery box, before catching a bullet train to Osaka, delighting at the station staff bowing at departing trains and full-frontal views of Mt Fuji.

The third-largest city in Japan after Tokyo and Yokohama, Osaka, our Japanese guide tells us, likes to think of itself as the most fun.

Osaka’s Dotonburi district has a carnival – or B-grade horror – vibe with its oversized crabs and octopus and crowds queueing for local street food speciality, takoyaki.

Nomadic Julien

Osaka’s Dotonburi district has a carnival – or B-grade horror – vibe with its oversized crabs and octopus and crowds queueing for local street food speciality, takoyaki.

Less conservative than other parts of the country, it’s known for its prodigious appetite for eating, drinking and generally having a good time. Osakans are so food-obsessed they have a word to describe it – kuidaore (to eat oneself bankrupt).

We give the Osakans a good run for their money on that front, picking up some fresh tuna at the Tsuruhashi Fish Market en route to the tiny townhouse where a local woman does her best to teach us to make sushi.

It takes up to 10 years to become an itamae (sushi master) so we are given a head start with plastic containers to shape the pre-cooked rice.

All we have to do after popping out the small slabs of rice is wrap a piece of seaweed around them and stick some raw tuna, salmon, avocado or fish roe on top.

Somehow we struggle to master even that, but the results are still addictively edible. No-one’s going to give us jobs in a sushi restaurant any time soon, but I tell myself they have a non-uniform artisan look.

Our next stop is a cherry tree lined section of the Yodo River, where we set out on our privately chartered sake- and squid-swallowing cruise.

Sitting on cushions on the front deck of Ofune Camome’s small motorised boat, we sample three versions of Japan’s potent national drink as we make our way past the gilded 16th century Osaka Castle and turn into the Dotonbori Canal.

Discovering the super-salty dried squid and sardines strung up over the sake table provide a delicious accompaniment to the rice wine, we pass beneath a highway bridge, entering what feels like a hidden urban underworld.

Takoyaki (octopus dumplings) are typically served drizzled in mayo and takoyaki sauce.

Lorna Thornber/Stuff

Takoyaki (octopus dumplings) are typically served drizzled in mayo and takoyaki sauce.

Lined with modern buildings sandwiching the odd traditional wooden home and store, the canal can’t compete with Venice’s in the beauty stakes, but has an edgier vibe – and an ending that’s purely electric.

Arriving in Dotonbori, the city’s gastronomic and entertainment hub, we are bombarded with neon-lit billboards trying to see us goodness knows what. I feel like I’m floating in a Japanese Times Square.

Back on dry land, we wind our way past the mechanical crabs and giant octopus balls designed us to tempt us into restaurants, stopping to queue for local delicacies such okonomiyaki which, with its pancake-like base and savoury toppings, is often referred to as Japanese pizza.

Walking back to the W Osaka hotel, our digs for the night, we settle in for a 10-course feast at Teppanyaki MYDO, where groups of guests gather around what are essentially their private chefs. I marvel as the young woman behind the grill transforms sizzling scallops, sirloin slices, lobster tails and seasonal local vegetables into fine-dining takes on local street eats.

Teppanyaki MYDO at the W Osaka hotel turns out fine-dining takes on local street food specialties.

Lorna Thornber/Stuff

Teppanyaki MYDO at the W Osaka hotel turns out fine-dining takes on local street food specialties.

The gooey gluten-free mochi (rice cake) smothered in roasted soybean powder and caramelised brown sugar has had me googling recipes for something similar ever since.

Hitting the road the following morning, we have a brief stop in Sakai, where we admire ancient burial mounds which rival the Egyptian Pyramids in size, and wonder what a robot whose sole skill seems to be to perform dances from around the world is doing in a museum dedicated to the city’s more than 600-year history of making knives.

The fiery autumn leaves become an inferno as we approach Mount Yoshino, where some 30,000 cherry trees attract thousands of camera-clicking visitors each spring. Part of the Unesco-listed sacred sites and pilgrimage routes of the Kii Mountain Range, Yoshino is a hub for Yamabushi monks, who undergo strict tests of endurance in the mountains in an effort to attain enlightenment (think meditating under freezing waterfalls and hanging off cliffs).

A gondola ride saves us from a strenuous hike to Kinpusenji Temple, one of the most important sites of worship for the monks whose religious code, Shugendō, dates back to a time when mountains were believed to be deities.

The Unesco-listed Kinpusenji Temple in Yoshino is one of the most important sites of worship for ascetic monks who undergo tough physical and mental tests in the surrounding mountains in an effort to reach enlightenment.

Lorna Thornber/Stuff

The Unesco-listed Kinpusenji Temple in Yoshino is one of the most important sites of worship for ascetic monks who undergo tough physical and mental tests in the surrounding mountains in an effort to reach enlightenment.

In the carved, dark chocolate-coloured main hall, we join other visitors in kneeling before larger-than-life 1300-year-old statues of fierce blue-skinned deity Zaō Gongen, praying we don’t have to do anything as extreme as the monks to find inner peace.

I experience something like it as we enter the temple turned ryokan (traditional-style inn) where we will spend the night. Built by Shōtoku Taishi, a crown prince who reigned between 592 and 628AD, Chikurin-in Gumpoen was once a place of rest and reflection for the long-suffering monks.

While those who walk its maze of corridors these days are pleasure-seeking tourists, it retains a zen-like aura: Guests pad about quietly in the supplied slippers and yukata robes and rooms are sparsely furnished yet somehow have everything you need (including a good wi-fi connection). Exploring the 33,000 square metre garden with its carved shrine, stylishly lopped cherry trees and pond reflecting their blazing autumn leaves, I feel like I’ve stepped into an illustrated edition of a Japanese folk tale.

Sitting cross-legged around a low table in a private dining room decorated with gold-flecked screen prints that evening, we cook slivers of buttery beef on mini teppanyaki grills, and eat them alongside chawanmushi (savoury custard flavoured with sake and dashi), sashimi made with fish from a local river, prawns, bamboo shoots, and bowls of newly harvested rice. And wake to an equally epic feast the next morning.

It’s a testament to the ryokan’s powerful sedative properties that, as a chronic insomniac, I sleep through the night on a futon. Or rather futons (I’d taken the advice of the repeat ryokan visitor in our group and stacked them Princess and the Pea style for extra padding).

After a quick bike ride around Lake Biwa, with its Instafamous “floating” red torii gate and infamous fermented fish dish narezushi, we head to Ōmihachiman for our second scenic cruise.

Developed in the late 16th century after the allegedly traitorous nephew of samurai leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi built his ill-fated castle there, Ōmihachiman’s location along important trade routes saw it become a wealthy market town in the Edo Period (the late 17th to mid-19th centuries).

The burnt timber buildings from the period, some of which are adorned with calligraphy, remain remarkably well-preserved, and one of the best ways to take them in is on a cruise of the Hachiman-bori canal.

A cruise down the Hachiman-bori canal is the best way to admire its historic buildings.

Lorna Thornber/Stuff

A cruise down the Hachiman-bori canal is the best way to admire its historic buildings.

Driving deep into the wooded mountains of Miyama that afternoon, we admire the kayabuki (thatched farmhouses) that characterise the area in the village of Kayabuki no Sato before having a go at the Unesco-recognised thatching technique ourselves.

We’re so bad at following our saintly patient teacher’s translated instructions on tying knots and stacking bundles of hay on bamboo scaffolding that he admits, when pressed, that we’re the worst thatchers he’s ever seen. Albeit, he graciously adds, the most fun (our hopelessness regularly has us in hysterics).

We spend the night in our thatching teacher’s boyhood home – a 150-year-old kayabuki nestled in a mountain valley. In typical ryokan fashion, Miyama Futon & Breakfast serves as a kind of spa for the senses; soothing my chronically stressed-out city soul.

With little more in many of the downstairs rooms than the tatami mats on the floor, the mind focuses on the things that are present: the smell of the straw roof overhead, the beauty of the misty mountains through the window pane.

The mountains of Miyama, north of Kyoto, are known for their kayabuki (thatched farmhouses).

Lorna Thornber/Stuff

The mountains of Miyama, north of Kyoto, are known for their kayabuki (thatched farmhouses).

We’ve just finished stacking our futons when the 70-year-old grandmother who will teach us to cook a traditional meal arrives with her assistants and, while much is lost in translation, watching them work is a Japanese food fan’s dream come true.

Once again, we prove terrible students, struggling to devein prawns and get ginkgo nuts out of their shells.

Thankfully our teachers are able to correct our mistakes, and the meal we eventually sit down to would surely have satisfied a small army of the sword-wielding samurai ryokan were originally designed to accommodate.

There is a big pot of tofu, daikon and potato skewers for dunking in a delicately sweet mirin and miso sauce, and steaming bowls of chawanmushi, miso soup and sea bream and rice.

Dinner in a private dining room at Chikurin-in Gumpoen in Yoshino.

Lorna Thornber/Stuff

Dinner in a private dining room at Chikurin-in Gumpoen in Yoshino.

The day’s surprise: that even a ryokan as traditional as this one has a cheek-warming toilet with an inbuilt “shower” and “dryer”.

Getting there: Air New Zealand operates three non-stop flights between Auckland and Tokyo a week. The frequency will increase to six times a week from December 12, 2022 before returning to a daily service from February 13, 2023. The Shinkansen bullet train runs regularly from Tokyo to Kyoto, 30km south of Miyama.

Carbon footprint: Flying generates carbon emissions. To reduce your impact, consider other ways of travelling, amalgamate your trips, and when you need to fly, consider offsetting emissions.

The writer was a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO).


Source link

Up to 80% OFF Black Friday Early Access @ tomtop.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: