A few months ago, shortly before my husband Vishnu and I embarked on our first trip to Japan, I woke up one morning, checked my email and felt my heart skip a few beats. A day earlier, I had written to the travel writer Pico Iyer, who has made Japan his home for nearly three decades now, asking if I could interview him during my visit. I had not expected a personal and warmly worded reply from the man himself.
Preoccupied with his mother’s ill health, Iyer begged off the request but wished me the best for my trip. “I’m so glad you’re going to Kyoto” he wrote, “and in the same radiant season when I first discovered Japan and met my wife.” Having spent my early adulthood using Iyer’s words to imagine worlds I’d never seen, I treasured this reply like a talisman.
Guided by his writing, I had a sketch of Japan drawn in my imagination; as I began my journey, little daubs of colour began to bring this picture to life. On the 80-kilometre train commute from Narita International Airport to Tokyo city, I carefully filed away the vistas that flew past our window. We passed sloped roof homes, with the washing laid out in backyards. This slice of suburbia gave way to bucolic fields lined with trees whose leaves were beginning to turn crimson with the colours of fall. The landscapes were unique, yet not unfamiliar.
If the calm of the countryside and the soundless efficiency of the high-speed train had lulled us into a sort of stupor, we were shaken awake by the sensory explosion of Tokyo. The exacting efficiency of the city’s subway system seemed to spill over onto its streets, where everyone walked with the double quick pace of the purposeful. Skyscrapers loomed above us, their glass windows glinting in the afternoon sun. Even though we were, at first, bewildered tourists navigating one of the most populous metropolises of the world, we soon felt buoyed by its brazen energy.
Later that evening, when our exhaustion had ebbed, we ventured out in search of nourishment. The warmth of a red lantern hanging outside an izakaya, the Japanese version of a casual gastropub, invited us in. Sitting on rickety stools around a small table, surrounded by university students, courting couples and salarymen sloughing off the day with cheap tipple, it began to slowly sink in that after a decade of dreaming, years of plotting and a sudden, impulsive decision, we were actually in Tokyo. As we popped hot, steamed edamame beans—silken, with a touch of salt—into our mouths, followed by big swigs of sake, I felt my disbelief slip away into something headier.
Japan had been on my bucket list long before I had a clear idea of what it meant to have one. The country floated into my imagination when I was an undergraduate student in Mumbai, thanks to The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, Iyer’s memoir of the two years he spent in Japan in the late 1980s, which cemented his lifelong relationship with the country. As much a paean to the changing seasons in Kyoto, the city he has since called home, as it is the tender tale of how he met and fell in love with his wife, The Lady and the Monk immediately drew me into its lyrical yet insightful depths.
Like all of Iyer’s work, this book too is grounded in philosophy. His exploration of Kyoto was guided by the Zen maxim of living in the moment. The vivid imagery brought to life the quiet streets of Kyoto; fashionable young mothers taking their tidy wards to school and cherry blossoms falling softly to the ground in spring. “Above me, lights danced across the hill like fireflies,” wrote Iyer, and I imagined a hillside aflame with the tiny, flickering lights of thousands of paper lanterns during Obon, the Japanese festival of the dead. The book shifted something within me. At the time, I had never travelled abroad, and only had the foggiest idea of what I wanted to do with my life, but I felt the first prickling of thirst for new places.
In Tokyo, our days were dictated by its rhythms. The city seemed to be perennially switched on. At the neighbourhood café that became our breakfast joint, there was rarely a seat free, even in the early morning hours. Office goers claimed the booths discreetly tucked away at the back, chasing their coffees with flaky croissants filled with sesame paste. Late into the night, when the last of the university students were drunkenly staggering home, Cafe Cotton Club, a cheerful and eccentrically-named restaurant near our apartment, would still be dishing out hot, thin-crust pizzas, served unfailingly with smiles.
As a visitor, I felt a keen appreciation for the thoughtfulness that elevated even the most routine experiences. Everyone bowed deeply, like they meant it, for every question asked or service rendered. Most restaurants had a glass showcase filled with plastic replicas of dishes, so you were never at a loss when it was time to order. And even inexpensive earrings from a subway shop were wrapped with care, in the packaging of your choice, with a bow on top for good measure. Twenty years later, Iyer’s observations from The Lady and the Monk still rang true. “Even the poor here… could feel like dignitaries, each purchase wrapped for them like priceless treasure.”
While it was easy to be seduced by Tokyo’s briskness, it was perhaps a measure of how time and travel had changed me that I longed not for the thrill of keeping up, but for the luxury of slowing down. While I may have once courted adventure, all I really sought now was stillness. As much as I enjoyed the electric crackle in Tokyo’s air, I was looking forward to the change of pace that I knew Kyoto would bring.
There may be no better place for quiet introspection than this ancient birthplace of Zen Buddhism. But unlike Iyer, who sought to find meaning in monasteries and temples—a theme that courses through the book—I knew that my wanderings would be in the pursuit of other pleasures.
I discovered my idea of slow living in Nishiki Market, a narrow warren of mainly food stores spread across a whole street in Kyoto. On either side of the covered market, there were stalls selling all manner of culinary delights: from coveted chef knives with sharp blades and heavy, wooden handles; to an extravaganza of funky-smelling kimchi; to fresh, warm rice crackers coated with feisty Japanese shishito pepper; to ground spice mixes presented as prettily as a paint palette.
Time slowed down to a delicious crawl as we walked, pausing to explore a store dedicated solely to sesame products. Our noses led us to a teppanyaki stand, where skewers of seafood were being grilled. After an oddly comforting snack of savoury, sticky rice cakes made of mochi or glutinous rice flour, paired with sweet red bean paste, we stopped to buy some genmaicha tea from a modest stall. The polite proprietor perked up immediately, wielding his limited English with enthusiasm.
“I went to India for honeymoon,” he said, with a grin. “Agra is very beautiful place.” When we asked him for directions to a famous teahouse nearby, his face fell with disappointment. “It’s late now… teahouse might be closed.” Still, hoping to locate the teahouse, we wandered out of Nishiki Market, the helpful stranger abandoning his store at closing time to help us find the way. “I’m really sorry,” he said regretfully, “I think teahouse is closed.” This small gesture of warmth stayed with me.
In a culture that prizes propriety in public, these spontaneous interactions mattered more to me than the blemish-free experiences that I knew I would be offered in the Michelin-star restaurants that are sprinkled like fine salt all over the country. It was in the open markets and humble izakayas that I formed the most unvarnished impressions of Japan.
Often, while searching for a restaurant we had read about, we would give up midway and dive into the nearest izakaya. It wasn’t like I wouldn’t go the extra mile for exquisite sushi—but to me, it seemed like the stories lay elsewhere, shared between people over platters of chargrilled shishito peppers and chewy, creamy gingko nuts, in smoky bars that were rarely written about.
It was in one such basement bar in Osaka that we made our first Japanese friends. Eager to try okonomiyaki, the meat-and-vegetable pancake that the city is famous for, we decided to ask a group of middle-aged men, unwinding with beers after work, for suggestions. After pondering the issue with an almost comic seriousness, they decided that the best way to introduce us to Osaka’s okonomiyaki was not by pointing to a restaurant on a map, but to take us there, all the while apologizing profusely for their limited English. We wound up in a tiny restaurant with three tables, the sort that no guidebook would mention. Despite some obvious language limitations, we successfully shared three okonomiyaki, palm-sized pancakes made of beef, scallions, and other toppings, soft as putty and grilled at the table.
Racing to catch the train back to Kyoto, after a flurry of photographs and promises to keep in touch with our new friends, I realised that this was just the sort of random rendezvous that fuels my wanderlust. I had come to Japan hoping to tread Iyer’s path, but somewhere along the way, I had resolutely drifted on to my own. With food as my vocabulary and curiosity as my guide, I had forged a unique bond with the country. Iyer’s words had set me afloat in search of new worlds, all those years ago. But my own words had oared me along.
Japan’s food scene is far too complex and varied to fit into one trip—or even two. While the country teems with Michelin-starred restaurants, even everyday experiences are usually of a high standard. Here’s a list of what I tried and loved.
Tempura chefs in Japan spend several years perfecting the technique of making the deep-fried yet delicate fritters. At Tokyo’s Tempura Tsunahachi, each piece of vegetable or seafood is treated with a delicate touch and meant to be eaten simply with flavoured salts or some grated daikon radish dipped in soy.
The Japanese have long had a passionate affair with French pastry. This translates to seriously flaky croissants with Japanese fillings such as sesame paste and matcha, but also elegant desserts at homegrown patisserie chains such as Sadaharu Aoki.
Don’t leave Japan without trying one of the country’s unique spins on ubiquitous KitKat. One of my favourites was the houjicha flavour, with the toasty aroma of the green tea that is roasted over charcoal.
Several artisanal stalls in Nishiki Market sell spice mixes such as shichimi togarashi, a seven-flavoured condiment laced with chilli, sesame, and orange peel, and others starring yuzu (a sharp, local citrus) and mild shishito peppers. Buy these as souvenirs and use them to liven up soups and salads.
Loud, smoky and casual, izakayas offer the unique opportunity to see the famously proper Japanese let their guard down. Ask for sake or umeshu (Japanese plum wine, usually diluted with soda), and wash it down with steamed edamame beans or gingko nuts (pictured), yakitori (skewers of grilled meat or vegetables), and yakisoba or bowls of saucy soba noodles drenched in soy.
Whisky lovers have long known that Japan produces some exquisite blends. One of the best places to try a variety of Japanese whiskies is Zoetrope, an intimate bar in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.
One of the more unusual items I tried in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market was a savoury mochi or glutinous rice cake. Stretchy, toasty, and slightly smoky, the rice cakes have a gentle sweetness, and they are topped with everything from cheese and sesame to a sweet red bean paste. It’s also worthwhile trying mochi ice cream, or sweet rice cakes with an ice cream filling.
In a country where even subway sushi is surprisingly good, top-draw sushi restaurants are nothing short of a revelation. At Midori Sushi in Tokyo, the lines snake well outside the restaurant. But the wait is made worthwhile by the expertly assembled sushi, tightly packed with flavour and wasabi punch. Try the meltingly tender eel if it’s in season.
Appeared in the July 2016 issue as “Unvarnished Tables”.
is a food and travel writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Having called Mumbai home for several years, she recently decided to go on a real-life adventure. Colombo is the first pit stop of many she hopes to make in the years to come.
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