A Japan food road trip, from Kochi City to Kyoto.
Driving on the Left Side of the Pacific Ocean — Feb 9, 2012
The first time I stepped into a car in Japan was at the Kochi City train station. Josh met us in front of the Anpanman Terrace and led us toward his tiny car, a white Daihatsu with enough horsepower to beat a horse in tug of war (if the horse had just taken muscle relaxants).
We followed Josh across the street, looking both ways, in the wrong order. I knew — as I’ve known since a young age, and as I’d witnessed often since landing in Tokyo the day before — that in Japan, cars drive on the left side of the road. I considered that fact as I approached the Daihatsu, and yet, moments after I had walked up to the car door, Josh laughed and said, “That’s the driver’s side.”
A cabbie drove us downtown that evening in a Toyota Comfort. The first stop on our Kochi tour was Hirome Ichiba, a launch pad for nocturnal debauchery and a good place to kick back and shake off new-country nerves. The food court waits for hungry shoppers at the end of the Ohashi-dori arcade, a snaking pedestrian tunnel that cuts across downtown Kochi. The rest of the city’s nightlife huddles on nearby side streets and alleys, destinations that range from dance clubs and karaoke to traditional izakaya, from hostess and snack bars to dives with Western-themed names like “Jack Bauer” or “Honky Tonk.”
“Foreigners aren’t allowed at Jack Bauer,” Josh said, as if he wasn’t aware that was funny.
Hirome — a food court with low ceilings and labyrinthine passageways — is best described as college dining commons with alcohol. We sat shoulder to shoulder with chain-smoking and chain-snacking locals trying their best to earn their prefecture’s reputation as the most alcoholic in Japan. Above the open seating hung enough secondhand cigarette smoke to support a laser light show, and to each side food counters sold a wide range of late night munchies, from ramen and karaage to Indian curry, Chinese stir-fry and even tacos.
We caught up and talked J-land while drinking liter glasses of Kirin, bottles of Heartland, and a green tea-flavored plum wine that Josh insisted tasted like a Jolly Rancher. Then, with a sweeping arm and a prideful smile, he gestured to our surroundings and explained, “It’s not uncommon to see people puking in the corners here.”
This was modern Kochi, a city infamous for its teenage pregnancy rates and staggering per-capita pachinko numbers, but otherwise not unlike the rest of Japan, with a convenience mart on each corner, a Uniqlo in each neighborhood, and enough socks-and-leggings stores to keep warm female legs across the world.
This was also Josh’s newest home, and for most of the week he drove us around on the left side of the road, reiterating memorable tidbits of tourist guides he’d translated and waxing bombastically on Japan over the Daihatsu’s rattling dashboard. The five-cent tour, which costs a lot more after converting to yen these days, included museums, temples, recycle shops, and plenty of delicious eats.
Shikoku is home to foodstuffs like buntan (pomelo), yuzu, sweet potato fries, bread in the shape of a hat, and sea bream. Perhaps the most famous food on this list is katsuo (bonito), which is found across the island in many forms.
Katsuo tataki is bonito seared over open flame and served with rock salt, lemon, soy sauce, garlic, wasabi, and ginger. It was the first local dish Josh introduced that evening at Hirome. It was also our first taste of the Tosa region, quickly washed away by Kirin lager, bacon-wrapped onigiri, and Marlboro Ice Blasts. Like much of our experience in Kochi City, old Japan makes way for the new.
Our second taste of katsuo tataki made a bigger impression. Though on an island, Kochi City is seemingly landlocked, with mountains in every direction, a valley not unlike the suburban sprawls north of Los Angeles. Josh’s little Daihatsu took a tunnel south, finding the Shikoku coast less than twenty minutes away and bringing us to the next stop on the Kochi tour: Tosa Tataki Dojo, a little restaurant where the customers make katsuo tataki themselves.
A small old man took our order at the cutting board. He proceeded to trim three chunks of raw bonito into manageable blocks and handed them to us, speared and ready. He added straw to the fire with expertise and ennui, and he gestured that we submerge our sashimi-on-a-stick into the flames. We submitted ourselves to the mercy of the man with the big knife.
When he said turn it, we turned it. When he waved us away we raised our spears in victory, until the old man took them from us to slice and plate our culinary masterpieces. We were nothing but the poles that held the spit, but we did a damn good job.
The katsuo tataki at Hirome, like sushi with rougher edges and a tad extra salt and citrus, was a suitable snack for an evening of beer and dialogue. But our ocean-side lunch was better for its freshness, both from the sea and off the flames. A crisp, smoky flavor kissed each bite, and the smell of burning straw filled the room like incense, setting the mood for a good meal and allowing us a moment to experience old Japan without the new.
Old Japan was often the topic of discussion in the car. Longer drives came with history lessons, as I read aloud the Wikipedia pages of famous samurai born in the region, or games of Pilgrim Punch, a clone of Punch Buggy triggered when pilgrims are spotted walking alongside the road in traditional garb.
On our second day in town Josh took us to Kochi Castle, a museum at the center of the valley with its original architecture intact, an ageless eye in a hurricane of pachinko and Yoshinoya. Standing at the top of the castle tower, looking over the mountainous Tosa domain, I could see past the malls and fast food chains. It was easy to imagine Japan without cars, without bacon-wrapped onigiri, and without bars named after Fox television shows.
I could even imagine a feudal lord in his castle, taking a bite of katsuo tataki, gesturing proudly and decreeing, “It’s not uncommon to see people puking in the corners here.”
The Shikoku Mountain Blues — Feb 17, 2012
Into the mountains, a few hours north of Kochi City, was a house on stilts, balancing over a ravine, abandoned. A handful of rickety structures leaned into the hillside nearby, the homes of old hermits who tend their own rice paddies and manage to survive without driving to the convenience mart in town.
We didn’t see any people as we passed. We hadn’t seen anyone since Okawa, a riverside village that Josh had called home for three years and that Wikipedia calls the “the smallest town located on the four main islands of Japan.” It was just the three of us in the Daihatsu, chugging up a snowy incline in the middle of nowhere.
“There was an exiled emperor who lived in this area,” Josh said, gesturing to the mountainous horizon where patches of fog and drifts of snow covered myriad shades of evergreen. The trivia fit the mood.
Later we stood outside the car, breathing warmth into our palms. Then, after hours without seeing another person, a stranger appeared out of the fog. He walked toward us, carrying rope in one hand and waving with the other, while two Hokkaido dogs skipped at his heels. We waved back and wondered: What the Hell was he doing out here, atop our empty mountain?
“Guess which one’s the mother,” he said, gesturing at his dogs with a glowing grin, and Josh translated. We guessed wrong, and the dogs smiled at us with panting tongues and rolled in the snow.
Josh pointed up an icy road and asked where it led. The stranger took one look at the Daihatsu and its 12-inch wheels, then replied, “Don’t go that way.”
He asked about us, where we were from, and what we were doing there. Josh answered on our behalf, while we stood and smiled, until the stranger said — in English, with effort — “Do you know Fuji?”
We teetered back onto our heels. Then we all laughed.
A few hours earlier we had lunch in the town of Motoyama, about halfway between Kochi City and Okawa. After an hour of winding one-lane roads, through pastures of grazing red beef cattle, the Daihatsu came across the four-thousand-person town sitting on a river bend. More specifically, we’d arrived at Fuji’s little piece of the Shikoku mountains.
The weather couldn’t decide between snow or drizzle, so it took turns. Fuji led Mele and me to his gallery, a storage bunker on the riverbank decorated with spray paint. Two dogs bounded at our ankles. One had a mo-hawk shaved into his fur. The other had the same style, inverted.
Fuji pointed to one of the dogs as it leaped past us. “I named him Minke, because,” he said, in passable English, and winked, as if to say: Get it? Get it? We didn’t.
This was the man whose local celebrity was heralded even at the tops of mountains, Fujishima Koichi — a local artist who doubled as a restaurateur, musician, documentarian, and jokester (though in our experience, the jokester eclipsed the others).
I asked Fuji why his gallery was called Mojoyama Mississippi. Fuji responded, “Mojo, I like. I wanted ‘Mojo Motoyama Mississippi,’ but my ex-girlfriend, she said it was too long, so,” and he shrugged apologetically.
Inside the bunker, walls and tables were covered in art, finished and unfinished, his own and the work of friends. In the main room hung a series of his portraits: photographs of bums in London, of potheads in Amsterdam, and of blues musicians in Chicago, Tennessee, and of course Mississippi.
In one corner a pack of painted couches faced a homemade stage, flooded with red and blue lights. Every month or so young folk might come by and watch Fuji wail a little blues on his guitar. In fact, Fuji has road tripped through America’s South on more than one occasion, using his talents with a guitar as currency to hang out on porches in boondocks from Mississippi to Memphis, proof that even though Fuji is from a little town in the mountains of Shikoku, he’s got soul.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Like when he giggles and snorts, points to the stage and tells my future wife, “You’re an actress. Go! Act!” Then laughs at himself and chases a dog.
It’s the vehemence in which Fuji expresses himself that makes him so unique. In the drab town of Motoyama, where the majority are over sixty-five years old, it’s delightful overkill. Fuji broadcasts his passions on his sleeve, on his rented storage bunker, and all over the brightly colored Missy Sippy Café.
“Why is it called that?” I asked Fuji as we crossed the street toward the restaurant. He responded, “My ex-girlfriend, she didn’t like ‘Mississippi,’ so I said, how about Missy… Sippy?” And he left that as answer, shrugging apologetically.
Stepping into the café was like stepping into someone’s home, except in this house, the walls and shelves reflect the inside of Fuji’s head. Album covers from Mississippi John Hurt to Memphis Slim emulated wallpaper while blues memorabilia and artifacts from Fuji’s travels decorated the rest of the interior.
We sat at what felt like someone’s dining room table, listening to blues on vinyl. In one corner fire crackled in a wood-burning stove, around which Minke and his friend slept in piles. Other rooms had couches and futons for friends to sleep off the alcohol or to stay overnight, in case the snow kept falling and the roads to Kochi City closed. At Fuji’s, Japanese etiquette met Southern hospitality.
While there are hints of the Southern in Missy Sippy Cafe’s food, mostly its Fuji’s eccentricity that shined on the menu. Devised from construction paper and scissors, the list was small but interesting, with a multicultural spread of samosas and spring rolls and something called “Brown Nose Hamburg.”
We ordered a Japanese-style curry and “Chicken George’s Plate,” stove-top dishes that have been described to me as Japanese comfort food, but seem more like diner fare with a couple extra spices from the pantry. Those added flavors are enough to set Missy Sippy Cafe’s food apart from the regular carousel of Japanese cuisine, another reason why the Kochi expat community tends to gravitate toward Motoyama around mealtime.
Fuji joined us for tea and cookies after the meal, teasing Josh and giggling to himself. We sat back, digesting, and I thought about where we were, in the middle of the Shikoku mountains at a blues-themed café, with snow falling outside. Even if I’d come across Missy Sippy in West Oakland I would have balked. I had to wonder, what the hell was this place doing here, in the Tosa countryside?
This wasn’t just a piece of dixieland in Japan. This was one man’s miniature kingdom, a vibrant landmark in its own right, Shikoku’s very own Mt. Fuji. The Tosa mountains’ exiled emperor was Fujishima Koichi, unapologetically keeping his own traditions alive.
Whether the Cherry Blossoms Are in Bloom — Mar 9, 2012
I leaned my head against the Shinkansen window, snacking on train station fast food. Japan passed by at 300 kilometers per hour while I counted golf ranges and Ferris wheels at an astonishing clip. Then the track doglegged, and there was Mount Fuji, emerging from sparse countryside and hogging the view. Even the regulars paused, looked up from their Sudoku, and watched as the volcano passed by in slow motion.
Moments later Japan returned to full speed.
Life slowed down again in Kochi. Josh got lost en route to everywhere, occasionally stopping at his nth favorite soft serve place for another impromptu dessert. Even the tourism took its time; we’d be the only ones there, pondering the spirits in front of a 3,000-year-old robot tree, or holding lanterns up to macabre paintings in the dark.
After Shikoku, Japan sped back up. No longer did we march to the sputter of Josh’s Daihatsu. Instead we kicked up dust with the rest of the tourists, racing up and down escalators, catching trains or bounding up and down temple stairs, chasing postcard culture.
Alas, in Japan, all postcards lead to Kyoto.
Kyoto is beautiful city — even its seedier districts glow with orange lanterns and old Meiji Era charm — but Kyoto is also tourism hotspot ichi-ban, with a way of life governed by whether or not the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
Our impression of the town was amplified by our newfound dependence. Without Josh holding our hands, the buck passed to a Lonely Planet guide to play sensei, and the thankless bible herded us through a gauntlet of high-traffic vistas.
…and destination dinners. We browsed expat blogs and braved random walk-ins, but we also deferred to the guide’s must-eats. Oft times we were thankful for its wisdom, as in the case of Nishiki Market in downtown Kyoto, and most of all when we stepped into Misoka-an Kawamichi-Ya.
Misoka-an is a local landmark, a 300-year-old soba restaurant in a converted merchant’s house. The hostess led us through a honeycomb of small rooms, each flanked by gardens and interconnected by outdoor stepping stones, to our table. We took off our shoes, tiptoed over shiny wood floors, and shrugged at each other.
It was like a private tour of one of Kyoto’s temples. Why not? Misoka-an was old enough and, like any supercentenarian eating establishment, just as crucial a pillar of local culture.
An old man took our order. The process was eased by a menu with English translations and a self-awareness weathered by Kyoto’s large just-visiting population. Likewise, our hosts were not impressed by the discolor of our skin or fazed by our linguistic ignorance. We were just another pair of customers.
Yet, despite impersonal service, despite the German family we bumped into on our way out, and despite the meal’s presence in the canon of Kyoto tourism, Misoka-an remains unspoiled. Noodles handmade for over three centuries trump the old adage that places where tourists eat probably suck balls.
Those handmade buckwheat noodles shined brightest in the Nishin Soba. As a dish its simplicity was overwhelming: just broth, soba, and a chunk of dried herring that had been marinated in soy sauce for so long that its flavor seemed to reflect all 300 years.
The meal wasn’t just delicious. Time slowed, tempered by an experience that rivaled the sight of Mt. Fuji, and I forgot about the masses of tourists outside. In my mind they were replaced by sakura trees making it rain colors in the dead of winter.
Tony Bourdain-esque hyperbole aside, our two weeks in Japan alternated between the norm — frantic, crowded exploration — and those brief moments of glorious perspective, when the clock stopped long enough for history to take front and center, and we remembered just how other-side-of-the-worldly our experience rated.
Standing inside the Daibutsuden qualified as one of those moments. The world’s largest bronze Buddha stared back at us inside the world’s largest wooden building, and our interaction remained unaffected by the fact that we shuffled feet in a crowd of the similarly curious.
But outside the hustle and bustle of Japan returned in full force. Kyoto’s marching masses had followed us on a day trip to Nara, sucking the air out of Japan’s more memorable temples. Even the adorable Nara-koen Sika deer, like the local economy, had become accustomed to the generosities of out-of-towners.
After saluting Buddha we visited another Nara specialty — and another Lonely Planet recommendation, an easy stop for tourists between Nara-koen and the train station. Like the deer, Shizuka has kept its belly full because of people like us, tourists looking for something meaningfully local and ignoring the fact that locals would probably never bother.
In this case, the Nara artifact was one particular dish: kamameshi.
Japan’s answer to Chinese clay pot rice is an iron pot dish in which Nara boasts specialization. As with Misoka-an’s nishin soba, Shizuka’s kamameshi‘s intrinsic value is simplicity, and our meal felt down-to-earth despite its less-than-local patronage.
We hopped back on a train, back to Kyoto, for more temples and more food at uncomfortable speeds. We dove back downstream with the rest of the tourists, embracing and rejecting our roles, practicing the pilgrimage diet. At times it was exhausting, but every once in awhile we’d look out over a forest of bamboo, or a bowl of udon, and time would pause just enough.