Teppanyaki

On our way home, we let our hair down and go out for dinner a few times. Just cheap places, mostly okonomiyaki. We get three different meals in 3 different cities. We get to try okonomiyaki in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo.

Although the technique varies from city to city, from restaurant to restaurant. The general taste is pretty much the same, because most of the ingredients are the same. The overriding flavour is that of the brown okonomiyaki sauce and cabbage. The sauce, which is not unlike brown BBQ sauce and the smothering of kewpie mayonnaise add a very distinctive character. These tend to be the dominant flavours.

There is however, a noticeable variation in texture from place to place. In Osaka the texture of the batter is a little bit creamier. In Tokyo, it was a bit more dense and solid in texture. In Kyoto we saw one place where so little batter was used, that it was mostly the egg holding the whole thing  together. Yet in another, there was plenty of flour in the mix.

Of course, I realise that you can’t just eat half a dozen meals and say that these represent the whole of each locality. We were eating at the markets and in cheap cafes and restaurants while in transit around the country. So what I write has to be taken with a sprinkle of bonito flakes and a pinch of salt!

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It was an amazing series of taste and textural experiences in a short period of time. The  Tokyo version was quite firm with what seemed like a lot of flour in the batter. I noticed that when the chef flipped it over to cook on the other side, the thing bounced a bit like rubber! Very dense indeed. I watched the other chefs cooking other varieties for other customers at the long teppanyaki grill table, and they were all of the same dense texture.

I Kyoto, the batter was a lot thinner and the resulting texture was a lot more fibrous with the cabbage showing a major influence on the finished dish. There is a very slim layer of batter applied to the hot plate first. Then a big pile of cabbage is placed on top. a dressing of some sort of liquid is ladled onto it and after some time a little hole is made in the pile and an egg is cracked into it.

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Some more batter is ladled onto the cabbage pile and then the whole thing is flipped over and the other side is cooked. If bacon is to be included, it is added on top just before flipping over.

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While in Osaka, the texture was soft and creamy. I’m told that they use a local mountain potato or yam, that when it is grated, it turns directly into a thick, sticky liquid and it is this that defines the taste and texture. I don’t know, so I can’t say. This is just what I was told, so I’m repeating it.

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At the Toji markets in Kyoto we make a point of always having the okonomiyaki from the same stall. It’s a hot day this time around and the pancake goes down very well with a chilled beer. It’s a filling cheap and cheerful respite from the crowds and all the hussle and bussle and delicious with it.

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In Arita, down in Kyushu, we were served a special okonomiyaki, made at the table of our friend, for a dinner party of mixed international visitors. This was the most rewarding to eat, because of the circumstances and company. We are very fond of the friends that we have made here in Japan and we value their friendship highly.

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Traveling South to Kyushu

We say a temporary good-bye to Kyoto with its cherry blossoms all finishing up. Mostly on the ground. Its raked gravel gardens and Maiko make-over girls. We’ll be back, we always seem t find an excuse to return here.

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We take the long train ride south to Kyushu. We leave Kyoto, and after a while the concrete high-rise scenery starts to diminish slightly and is replaced with low-rise. After a very long while we realise that the buildings are far less common and there is farm land starting to appear. It’s not that there isn’t any farmland near the bigger cities. There is a small, very small, plot of rice being farmed only 1 kilometre from Kyoto’s main central station. Amazing!

As we rumble on, we pass through farming districts and extensive fields of golden crops already for harvest with their heads golden of bearded barley ripening in the sun. I can’t imagine that harvest time for these crops is very far off.

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We also see farmers out in the flooded fields with their mini tractors and rotary hoes, working up the inundated mud, presumably preparing the silt for the coming planting of the rice crop. Ploughing now, if you can call this ploughing, is to kill off the weeds and any competition for the young rice seedlings that will be planted soon.

When I was last here 6 months ago, they were smack in the middle of rice harvest in the autumn. We arrive in the far south in Kyushu, not too far from Kumamoto, about an hour away. Everything here is OK, different strata or geological sequence? We only had a level 2 shake up here. So the kilns are still standing and all the pots are still on their shelves.

It’s all foggy, rainy and damp when we arrive and the hills are coated in a beautiful mist.

Our first visit here is to a place near Karatsu on the North West coast. We visit an old pottery studio that has existed in this little secluded valley for a couple of hundred years. The old lady tells us that her family have always been potters here since the arrival of the Korean potters 400 years ago. The war Lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi launched 2 failed invasions of Korea in 1592 and 98. Each time he captured and brought back prisoners of war. Some of whom were potters. One in particular found and developed the first porcelain pottery in Japan in 1616. Exactly four hundred years ago this week.

She is a sweet old thing and at 83, has seen a bit of life. Her son is now the resident potter here. She tells us that there were once 300 houses in this valley, most of them making pottery and farming rice and vegetables. Now there are only 5 houses here and only one potter.

They are in the middle of packing the kiln when we arrive. It’s a well-loved old nobori-gama wood fired, 3 chambered climbing kiln.

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They pack the pots on rice husks to stop them sticking to the kiln shelf during firing, as rice husk is composed mostly of silica, which is refractory. It also creates a shiny ‘flash’ of colour on the exposed clay at the foot of the pots.

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Later, we travel home to Arita via the ‘Hitakata’ ancient kiln site. This little valley once had a number of korean potter families working and farming here. But they are all gone now and only the archaeology remains. This site has been fenced off now to stop looters from stripping the site of old artefacts.

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It was one of the first Korean kilns built here way back in the late 1500’s. It is set in a beautiful forested glade with a small but fast flowing stream nearby. Quite idyllic! This kiln was built without the use of fire bricks. It was constructed out of rammed earth. The local soil here doesn’t look particularly refractory, so it probably had a short life and needed to be rebuilt often.

I can’t read the Japanese on the information board, but the illustration shows 9 steps or doorways into the tunnel-like chamber. My teacher back in 1973, the Japanese potter Shiga shigeo, to whom I was apprenticed,  trained near Kyoto after the war and his teacher,  Saburo Saito had a 3 chambered climbing kiln, all made from rammed local refractory clay and home-made bricks. I was told that the fire-box needed rebuilding after every firing and the first chamber arch was likewise re-built after every 2nd or 3rd firing. This was the traditional way back them and is still used by some potters even today, if they are keen on reproducing the old effects.

Janine and I made all of our own fire bricks to build our wood fired kiln. The current kiln has had twenty firings and is still going strong. However the time will come when it needs to be pulled down and rebuilt.

Such is the way of the world.

Nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect, and nothing lasts!

Fond regards from Steve and Janine in the shaky isle of Kyushu.

The Shosei-en Garden

We decide to make the pilgrimage to the shosei-en Zen garden before we leave Kyoto.

This garden has a very long and chequered history. It started its life as a beautiful orange grove , called the ‘Kikoku-tei’, somewhere in the Heian era around 800 to 900 AD. Built by the son of Emperor Saga. In the 1600’s the Tokugawa shogunate ‘acquired’ the land and passed it to the Higashi Hinganji Zen temple. Perhaps to appease their conscience?

Anyway, whatever its past history, god had her own way and it was completely burnt to the ground in 1858, and then just to prove that she really meant it. She did it again to what was rebuilt 6 years later. Get the hint!

In the early years of the Meiji restoration around 1870 to 1900 Everything was rebuilt and restored to what we can visit today. A beautiful, tranquil space, right in the middle of Kyoto, just a few hundred metres from Kyoto’s busy main station.

There is a very pretty tea house on the lake – lovely !

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San-syou Pepper

I love San-syou pepper. It seems to be quite hard to find in Australia. We can get some that is already ground, from the Japanese supermarket in Sydney, but it is quite old by the time that we get to it and has lost a lot of its flavour. I’ve always been happy with it, but I didn’t know how good it could be fresh.

We are lucky enough to stumble onto a place where they are preparing some fresh san-you pepper. We get to see, smell and taste the whole seeds, as well as the freshly ground san-you pepper directly after being ground.

I didn’t know that it has a high citrus note in the aroma when it is fresh. It’s great stuff. It’s hot and spicy and so delicious. Be careful however, because if you get too greedy like me and take too much, then it suddenly overdoses the taste buds in the tip of my tongue and my tongue goes numb. It’s powerful stuff. Restraint is the key.

A little goes a long way.

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We Go To The Markets

We go to the markets in the grounds of the Kitano shrine and see some amazing thing, but not what we expected.

On our way to the bus station we see men at work.

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At the markets, we see how okonomiyake is really cooked here in Kyoto, or at least one of the versions of it. best of all we get to eat it and it is delicious.

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We meet the amazing cat lady and her fashionista cat.

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We see lots of old pots, a few of which I buy. But only the smallest sake cups, as we still have 5 weeks to go and I don’t want to be carrying too much.

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We end an amazing day with a meal of fish grilled over charcoal. Oishi des!

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Templed Out

The Lovely and I continue our temple sojourn around Kyoto. From Gold to silver, from dry  to wet. From gravel to moss, from austere tea house to dense bamboo thicket. We’ve come to visit the Bling-By-The-Lake again. It is cosily nestled into the side of the hills that surround Kyoto on the North Western side. There are people everywhere here today. They come in waves that coincide with the arrival of the bus or trains. However, there is always the possibility of finding a quiet place and moment to take in the atmosphere and be still while being there with it.

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Ofcourse, there are other beautiful vistas beside the lake and its bling. We walk around the lake and up through the gardens. This thins out a lot of the visitors straight away. The whole place is so well kept. I starts me wondering how many gardeners that it takes to keep a place like this clean and tidy as well as weeded and pruned?

It doesn’t take long to find the work going on all around us, but very discreetly, just slightly out-of-the-way, but there in plain sight, if you take the time to see.

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We take the opportunity to take tea in the garden. No one else seems interested in this simple pleasure today, so we have the garden to our selves.

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We take the walk between the Golden Temple and Ryoanji Temple, famous for its raked gavel garden. It’s an easy 15 min stroll. The crowds thin out toward lunch time. Everyone seems to go off to have lunch.

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We spend some time here taking it all in. It is certainly serene. Although people are coming and going like gentle waves and tides all the time. It is possible to just sit and stay focussed and let it all pass.

I leave with a sense of quiet.  I go to the loo and see this warning on the ‘sharps’ disposal bin in the cubicle. “While applying your make-up, don’t drop your baby in the sharps bin. Or if you do, don’t try to remove your lost child by hand, you might get jabbed. Do not drop your cigarette butts in the ‘sharps’ bin after the baby”. What kind of world is this? Why would this warning be necessary, unless it has happened once? It’s a jarring juxtaposition with the raked grave outside.

IMG_2972Next, we go to the silver pavilion, which isn’t, but it has a lovely garden. The Silver Pavilion is situated right across town on the other side of the city nestled into the hills on the North Eastern side.  We take the time to do the full walk. It’s a very beautiful garden and looks all the more impressive now in spring, after some rain and a warming climate. The mosses are glowing and wet under the forest canopy. The last time I was here, it was autumn and quite dry, so the mosses were very thin on the ground.

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As we leave the Silver Pavilion precinct we encounter the all the usual marketing and merchandising. Selling us some object that we don’t need to clutter up our lives to celebrate the non-acquisitional nature of true buddhist philosophy! Actually, I’m not a Buddhist. I don’t believe in reincarnation or the cycle of life. I believe that we are here just once. So make the most of it now! While saying that, I do still find comfort in the concepts explored in Zen. Be here now! The past is finished and gone, so don’t dwell on it. The future hasn’t happened yet, so don’t worry about what hasn’t happened and may not happen. There is only Now. Live to the full. I attempt to live this way, but mostly fail. Still, it doesn’t hurt to try.

We take our leave ‘karate’, empty-handed and head out along the Philosophers Path. This is a lovely winding, gentle walk along the canal, from the Silver-less Temple back toward the city. The cherry blossom is still lingering on some late trees and the petals drop down into the water and float along  with the steady current of the canal in a soft pink carpet.

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This walk culminates back near the Nanzen ji temple, so we make our way there. This is one of the first Buddhist temple sites Established in Kyoto. It is quite extensive and is a National Cultural Asset. It was established in the mid twelve hundreds and subsequently burnt down and re-built in 1600. It also has a raked gravel garden with rocks and mosses, but not as imposing as Ryoanji. However, because this temple is quite out-of-the-way and a long walk from anywhere. There are very few people here. So it is very quiet and peaceful.

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It’s been a very full couple of days of long walks around this lovely city. We finish up by visiting the Kodai-ji Temple in the evening to experience the gardens under artificial light. There is a bit of a projected light show in one of the pavilions, but the best part is the garden walk up the hill and around the extensive site. Very beautiful with the almost full-moon rising. A lovely day and night and we have the sore feet and legs to prove it. What more could you want?

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reflections on the pond.

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Crouching dragon, Where’s the tiger?

We end the day with well-earned gyoza, Kimchi and a beer.

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The Temples of Kyoto

We have a lot of good cabbages coming along just now so we decide to have a cabbage pancake, our version of okonomiyaki from Japan. We slice the rest up finely into a cabbage salad with sesame and shiso dressing.

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We follow this delight from our garden with sushi in Tokyo.

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Followed by a full Japanese delightful mixed meal in Kyoto.

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We spend a day walking the temples of Kyoto. We re-visit our favourites, because they make us feel somehow centred and located in a place that we know as familiar, but also because a half hour spent sitting quietly there is very relaxing and grounding. There are temples here dedicated to anything and everything. There are temples featuring gold, silver – or the lack of it, rock, gravel, bamboo, water, moss. You name it there is a temple or shrine here dedicated to it.

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Gold in water, Gold in spring, Gold in winter, Gold inside and out.

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We spend a couple of days visiting a lot of them. It’s so good to revel in the non-acquisitive nature of buddhism.

There is an ancient tree in a shrine by the side of the road. It is very old and needs a little bit of health-care. There are a team of workers and flying arborists, trimming, lopping and preserving what can’t be lopped. It will give this old tree a new lease of life.

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I’m so pleased to be back in Japan.