Japan: Oishi!

The tick and fizzle of battered prawns gently frying set my stomach rumbling. Squat shop fronts lined narrow Sunamachi in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Scarlet lanterns and golden streamers hung from every lamp post. The mushroom parade of umbrellas ruffled in hurried apology as lone cyclists slowly picked their way through the crowd. Bicycle bells are too rude for Tokyo so every front wheel that gently noses into the back of your leg is a surprise.

“This is the Tempura King,” our guide, Miyu, said.

A stocky man in a white chef uniform stood proudly behind a stand bursting with golden battered morsels in all shapes and sizes. Neat black Kanji script displaying names and prices looked more like poetry than price tags. I guessed at what might be hiding in each deep fried coating – that green thing could be green beans, the orange one was probably carrot, and that non-descript white thing was probably radish. It was usually radish in Tokyo.

“Please, have anything you like,” Miyu said, her head dipping in an almost unperceivable bow.

Sunamachi is a shopping street, teeming with 100 yen shops selling toilet plungers, coat-hangers and greetings cards. Kitchenware spills out of shop fronts and fresh fruit and vegetables sit in cellophane as if frozen in time, because Japan has not yet cut free from the obsession with packaging.

“Japanese think it is more hygienic this way,” Miyu explained.

This street is not on anyone’s bucket list. There’s no historical lure like the Imperial Palace, no picturesque wooden roofs like Asakusa shrine. There is, however, food. Street food. And people. Normal people doing normal things, like shopping for toilet plungers and greetings cards.

I bit into the crisp tempura.

“Good?” Miyu asked.

I nodded.

“Then you should say Oishi, it means yummy.”

We drank tea the colour of algae, mixed with a bamboo whisk until it was frothy. An old iron bell tinkled in the shop as men and women popped in to pick up bags of tea and greeted the owner like an old friend.

At a small stand where faded J-pop posted peeled from the walls, sleek fish flopped in plastic tubs. A teenage girl cut fresh sashimi at lightning speed, looking down when she handed it to us. It tasted like fresh water. Orange fish roe popped salted explosions on my tongue.

“Oishi!” I said and the girl behind the counter beamed and dipped her head.


Further along the street, past a little shrine where stone fox faces smiled down at you, two large women in chef whites ladled out Japanese hotch potch. They gave us a plastic sandwich bag full of hot stew. It was miso-thick with a soy tang and huge lumps of radish and lotus that burned the roof of my mouth.

“Oishi!” I said and the two women laughed as if I’d said the funniest thing in the world.

Though it was well before the yard arm, Miyu guided us into an open-faced warehouse of sake bottles. The chill of early April crept in through gaps in the temporary-looking walls. Salarymen in crumpled business suits that looked like they might have slept in the train station skulked around the flourescent sale signs. Prices ranged from 100 yen to 20,000 per bottle. Miyu filled a couple of plastic shot glasses with the clear liquid. It smelled like something you would use to cleanse a wound. The sake burned my throat and sloshed around in the pit of my stomach.

“Oishi,” I winced.

A crispy minced tuna cutlet dipped in a sweet teriyaki sauce soon soaked up the early morning sake. We waddled to a stall selling yakitori – meat on a stick grilled fresh in front of us. I forced each piece of sticky, glazed chicken into the last remaining corners of my stomach.


“Oishi,” I wheezed, convinced that I was filled up to my throat with food.

“We have one more stop,” Miyu said.

I hoped it was just to buy a toilet plunger or greetings card.

The stall sold Japanese sweets. Little globs of green clung to cocktail sticks. It looked like the kind of thing you’d eat in space, or in a dystopian future where food is not to be enjoyed but purely for nutrients. There was no room left in my body. If I ate anything else I would have to sacrifice an organ to fit it in.

“Honestly, I can’t,” I said to Miyu as she held up a green tea mochi sweet.

Her face fell as if I had just insulted her own cooking.

It tasted a bit like grass, and felt like a slug sliding down my throat. It wouldn’t go down, but stuck somewhere in my chest. My face had probably turned the colour of green tea because Miyu’s eyes were wide. But I held on and eventually the final piece of Sunamachi Street sat in my stomach with everything else.

“Oishi,” I said. But I’m not sure Miyu believed me.

Japan: Capturing Kibune

The view out to the green mountains dripping with mist was the perfect scene in which to contemplate Descartes, Plato or anyone else from my Introduction to Philosophy textbook. The only sound at Kurama-dera temple was the cheep and pip of birds in the trees. The tang of burning incense floated on the air. I’d put on a long swishy skirt that morning so I could better drift about philosophising up in Kyoto’s mountains. I leant against one of the lanterns that looked like a little red birdhouse, stared across the mountains and thought about the meaning of it all.

Click, whirr, clunk, click. My mum’s ancient camera broke the tranquility.
“Lovely view,” she crowed at me.
Click, whirr. She poked the camera in my face.
“Urgh, mum, you broke my train of thought,” I said. “Get a picture of me philosophising over here instead.”
I swanned over to the pagoda-style temple, leaned against the paper sliding doors and put on my best pondering face. Leaning is the key to being deep and thoughtful. My mum was busy beetling around taking pictures of the lanterns.
“Mu-um! Take a picture!” I wheedled, tranquility well and truly broken.
A man in a navy uniform and white gloves scuttled over to my mum as if she was raising a gun, not a camera.
“Please, no photo!” he said, bowing.
My mum bowed back and I flushed scarlet.
“Right,” my Dad said in his train announcer voice, “shall we press on?”
He didn’t have time for drifting around or cultural emersion. ‘Shall we see if we can get to Kibune over that ridge?’ became ‘we must get to Kibune as fast as possible.’
I hadn’t even got a picture of me next to the temple and, if there wasn’t a picture, how would people know I was even there?

My dad strode off into the ancient trees, nose in the detailed map he’d carried with him everywhere like a security blanket. At the dinner table he would unfold it across little plates of sushi. The rustle of paper would attract the attention of Japanese people who came over to help pore over the map, as if my dad was lost in the seating plan of the restaurant. I was mortified when he sounded out Japanese words to the smiles and delight of everyone around.

Kibune 2

Click, whirr, clunk. A snap of golden sunlight falling across exposed roots, withered like old ladies’ hands.

“Konichiwa!” my mum said, ten decibels louder than I’d heard anyone speak in Japan. A Japanese man in a business suit beamed back at her. I looked at the ground. Why couldn’t my parents just float through this country like me, without making a scene everywhere? I saw a huddle of stones bearing neat Japanese script that looked like something out of Spirited Away.
“Mum! Take a picture of me here!” I said, leaning against the tree and looking wistfully away from the camera.
“Ok,” she said. “Smile!”
I didn’t.

I slouched and slumped my way up more stone steps. My dad stalked on ahead, my mum wandering, clicking and clunking with her camera behind him. She snapped pictures of me staring at the ground, my mouth a straight line of sulk while I wished I was there by myself. I was 18, an adult, too old for stupid family holidays.

Kibune 1

At Kibune we stopped for tea and sushi at one of the restaurants perched on wooden decks over the river, the rush of a small waterfall at our feet. My dad got his beloved map out again and attracted a group of locals like butterflies to a buddleia. An elderly man with a kind face broke into laughter at the table opposite us. He was watching my mum fail to pick up her sushi with her chopsticks. I put my head in my hands. The elderly man caught my mum’s eye and, in a flourished gesture, abandoned his chopsticks and popped a bit of sushi in his mouth with his hands before smiling at her and miming ‘photo?’

“Oh! Arigato!” my mum laughed, and gestured for me to give the man my camera. He shook his head and pointed at my mum’s old clunker.
“Smile!” he said. He must have been looking at me.

The sun began to set and, in the dusk, paper lanterns were lit all around the village. I tried to snap some photos of the scene with my fancy digital SLR, but everything just came out as blurry tracks of light, like the erratic scribbles of a toddler. Click, whirr, click.

We flicked through my mum’s photographs back home, freshly developed with that slightly sticky feel to them. My blurry attempts at art and creativity had already been loaded to a hard drive and forgotten about.
The ones she had snapped of me sulking through the forest painted me as the pensive philosopher, contemplating the roots of trees worn smooth with footsteps. The final picture of the three of us smiling away in that restaurant, the only one where I genuinely looked pleased to be there, is the only one I’ve kept and framed.