Five days, two 150 year old Ryokans, The height of Cherry Blossoms blooming, 9 tasting menus, The Ritz and a train or two.
Let me break the experience down into pieces . . .
Japan in general . . .
After being in Shanghai a year you start to ignore and forget the daily things that used to seriously piss me off when I first arrived. The pushing into elevators when people haven’t come out, the lack of courtesy walking down a street and the snort and spit on the pavement.
When you go to Japan though, in my limited experience, you quite quickly start to realize what a humble and polite people they are (this may get me kicked out of China but still). They are gentle, kind, helpful and endearing! They have a way about them that feels like you are consistently somewhere you are wanted, liked and appreciated!
The way they express things and the way they talk is calm and to the point but in a loving way. There expressions are charming yet ancient and their outlook on life is everlasting!
Ryokans and Hotels . . .
To stay in a Ryokan is something quite special. The two I chose were Seikoro and Sumiya as they are quintessential representations of the ancient culture and civilization of Japan. When you arrive and are greeted you immediately feel the humble nature of the people and the history and heritage in the institution that has been around for 150 years.
You sit, slowly take off your shows and slip on traditional Japanese in door slippers. You transition into a world long gone, instantly.
The room is simple, cozy and leads onto the most exquisite Japanese garden outside. The seats are on the floor and in the afternoon are quickly removed and replaced by your bed. Western luxuries exist but are hidden away for those who don’t want the distraction.
Wake up is early, if you want or rather is expected, with a traditional style bath (they prefer you to use the communal baths as this is customary – for R10 000 a night I really preferred my own bathroom, call me a snob but I’m just not a fan of the communal showers since my boarding house or prison days) which consists of sitting on a midget stool while washing and hand showering and then climbing into a hot deep wooden bath – this process can be repeated several times.
While you are getting ready your room is re-transformed into a seated breakfast room with and array of dishes in every shape color and form, freshly prepared, clean and healthy (more on this later) served by what us Westerners term a butler, a term that has been horribly bastardised from the noble profession it once was (thanks Downton Abbey). This was a quiet, humble, educated and traditional women (who did sound a little like Mogwai from Gremlins when she spoke)
You head out for the day to what I will explain a little later and return for evening green tea, authentically made in powder form and mixed into a sweet, bitter combination of intense flavor accompanied by a sweet biscuit. No extreme cookies or cupcakes of decadence, the main focus is the simplicity of elegance and natural beauty, I guess this could be a framework for Japan in general.
Dinner is then served in the same quantity and variety as breakfast . . .
Then you head out for the blossoms and temples by night!
After four days in Ryokans the change to the Ritz Carlton in Osaka was happily anticlimactic if that makes any sense. It was nice to get to the absolute decadence of a corner suite at the Ritz but it was completely over shadowed by the quiet peaceful elegance of these small 150 year old establishments.
Never the less a when you get out of the full sized standing shower and put on those massive Ritz white robes it’s hard not to appreciate it!
I live to eat, I always have (except this week I’m currently on a liquid only detox for the first time in my life) but this trip was never planned around the eating and yet somehow it managed to be a massive highlight. Like I said every morning and night in the Ryokans was a feast of tasting menu perfection.
First though a surprising stumble around the neighborhood to see a nighttime feast of blossoms down one of the streets meant we stumbled across a quaint looking restaurant, being 10 at night and they were still open we stumbled in sat down (actually they only took cash so they made one of there 7 chefs walk us ten minutes to an ATM) and quickly realized this was something special. As soon as a restaurant tells you they have one menu for tasting, they have 10 seats and 7 chefs you know something magical is happening. We managed to get a table at one of the best restaurants in the country called Guilo Guilo off the street while the friendly Aussies next to us booked 2 months in advance and could only get a 10pm seating. Sometimes I feel I’m destined to eat!
Epicurean splendor ensued . . .
From there in to 8 Ryokan menus was absolutely hedonistic-ally fantastic. This is pretty much what every breakfast and dinner looked like from then for the next few days!
As a treat, as food markets always are, we hit the ‘kitchen of Kyoto’ or Niishiki market for a few hours. This single street that spans 8 blocks houses every fresh, dried, smoked and cooked thing possible to purchase (including a little delicious donut surprise!). I decided to partake in the sweet teriyaki baby octopus on a stick complete with pickled quale’s egg stuffed in its head!
After escaping roughly 100 courses later we thought we could slow the consumption rate by getting to the Ritz and quietly sneaking off to a local sushi place. Needless to say the suggestion from the concierge was closed and turning to city guides for advice in a sudden rain storm proved to be fruitful as we were directed to XEX, again by coincidence and again one of the best in the city, for another tasting menu!
By this point I had been so full for so long I could barely take pics of the ice bar, fresh sashimi and another 10 courses. It was only lunchtime!
After passing out from lack of blood to the brain for a few hours it was on to what was supposed to be the ONLY pre planned culinary event. The Michelin starred IPPOH tempura restaurant. Complete with private room, private chef and a tasting menu through every kind of tempura possible, of course coupled with a few bottles of saki and once again served by a humble women in traditional dress.
The blossoms . . .
I can barely explain a cherry blossom tree if you haven’t seen a real one. I don’t mean a half arsed one that exists in most places in the world, I mean a tree so packed with blossoms it looks like it’s going to explode into a cloud of white and pink fluff!
These trees are mesmerizing in their pearl white and candy floss pink and as they blow in the wind they shed these beautiful flowers. I have seen few things in the world this surreal and beautiful.
There are a few highlights.
Philosophers walk is a canal that stretches about 3 kilometers and down almost all of it are these perfect blossoms lining the canal and falling slowly down into the water creating a white blanket over the water.
Maruyama Park is another magical place. Below the trees everyone sets up picnics or for drinking games or to relax with their family, mostly students drinking games, then the restaurants setup tables to lie down, drink your body weight in Asahi beer and stare up at the magical white blossoms with the sun shining perfectly through. Not a bad place to spend a day!
Lastly Kiyomidzu Temple at night is enthralling, it sits on a cliff overlooking the city and the scaffolding built hundreds of years ago supporting the entire structure is made without a single nail, did I mention the Japanese are genius designers in every respect. The Temples lit up at night are unbelievable to go along with the lit up blossoms all around the mountain.
As a final word on these amazing trees I have to say that the biggest surprise is how they look at night. The trees are all lit from below at night making every street look like an old black and white movie. There cannot be many more places on this earth better to be for 10 days during Cherry Blossom season!