The delicate petals of the cherry blossom trees are seen as a sign of hope in Japan, but also serve as a reminder of the fragility of life with their short life span. Whilst we were in the country, severe earthquakes hit in the south, claiming lives and people’s homes. Our high rise hotel in Osaka swayed with the tremors like the boughs of the cherry trees across the country, a reminder also of that fragility. My heart goes out to those who were affected.
In two wonderful weeks, we explored so much, but not enough! Already I am keen to return and see more of this tremendous country. From temples and toriis, to karaoke and Harajuku girls, Japan is a country full of incredibly diverse culture and customs. The food too delights in its diversity. Whilst many in the West will immediately think of sushi and teppanyaki when imagining Japanese food, and we have experienced the best of both whilst here, there has been so much more that we have enjoyed. From melt in the mouth Kobe beef cooked on a sizzling stone in front of us in Kyoto as a geisha scuttled past, to an endless variety of pickles at a Ryokan in Miyajima, to deliciously fried Kushikatsu with friends in Osaka, we’ve been on a culinary journey across the country.
Flavours too were endless excitements. Wasabi, ginger, soy and citrus made regular appearances, much as I’d expected, but the range of pickles; salty, sweet, sharp and sour, was immense. Pickled cherry blossoms made it into my suitcase and I look forward to experimenting with a wider variety of other pickles when I am home. Cherry blossom jelly, camellia petal dessert, matcha bread and snow crab sushi were among other more unusual delights. Seasonality is a big focus in Japan, something that resonates strongly with me as you’d expect. I quickly lost count of the number of dishes that contained, or were inspired by, the blossom, and many of the places we ate emphasized the importance of using local, or at least Japanese, produce. With a climate that is not too dissimilar to the UK, many of the vegetables and ingredients are the same as those that I use at home. Asparagus, sweet potato and aubergine all featured regularly on menus, along with vegetables we see less of in the UK; daikon (large mild flavoured radishes), bamboo shoots and lotus root among them.
Not only does the food here taste amazing, but eating is so much of a ritual. Every dish is prepared with love and care and beautifully presented. Flowers and shells regularly adorned our plates, many of which were colourful, patterned ceramics, or intricately lacquered wooden bowls. The numerous kitchen shops in every city we visited were testament to the art of food preparation. Rows and rows of every possible kitchen tool you could imagine (and many more). I could easily have taken an entire extra suitcase home of all the dishes and utensils I came across!
As we prepare to fly back West I will be taking with me some wonderful memories, hundreds of photographs and loads of new ideas and inspiration to add some Asian flavour to my recipes in the future. I’m inspired to add more pickles, fresh fish and flowers to my dishes and will be taking the essence of the Japanese spring back to my English spring recipes!
A small selection of the best places we ate and visited:
Narisawa restaurant. Experimental Michelin 2* cuisine. Absolutely fantastic in every way!
Tsukiji fish market: active market with an endless array of stalls for anything food related at very good prices
Tempura Matsu restaurant: tiny theatrical food in Kyoto suburbs, served on antique dishes
Itoh Dining restaurant: Kobe beef in Gion backstreet. Lovely spot by the river
Nishiki market: long street of food stalls. Great to tasting different things!
The place to have fried food! Try kushikatsu (anything you can think of fried in batter on a stick), takoyaki (more fried stuff, this time batter in ball form with octapus) or okonomiyaki (a sort of pancake with fillings), all generally cooked in front of you or at street vendors.
Kuromon Ichiba food market: shops packed to the rafters with kitchen tools
The place to go for oysters and maple leaf shaped manju (cakes with bean paste filling).