To Okayama

The day began with breakfast at the hotel. It consisted of a massive spread of all foods American plus all foods Japanese. I opted for the latter: a hearty miso soup, burdock, tiny bits of piquant, lightly pickled cucumbers, umeboshi, a bowl of rice, and a small piece of smoked fish. The kelp had a peculiar flavor that I couldn’t identify and didn’t like. Otherwise everything lived up to expectations and nearly compensated for missing sushi at the fish market.

It continued to pour, so we made our way to the train station, hoping to leave the rain behind. At the main Tokyo station where we caught the bullet train, we encountered teaming masses including a large Australian group (family?) toting heaps of luggage who alighted at Kyoto, as did many others.

The Shinkansen lives up to its name, with the gleaming white trains that speed through the countryside and run on time. We had bought passes from Japan Rail, which gave us reserved seats. By the time we left Tokyo and environs, the sky cleared. The view became so magical I almost cried. Mist rose off the slopes, hillsides covered with evergreens of an intense shade of green that rivaled anything I saw in Ireland. I heard a voice, “Now, you’ve come home.”

Every few miles a group of ancient looking stones would appear, tucked into the hillside or in a field. Very occasionally I could make out a bouquet of flowers, but for the most part, these graves have been abandoned. Those tiny cemeteries did bring tears as I contemplated the centuries that some had stood with family to care for them. Now all the caretakers are gone, too.

Away from the hillsides, rice paddies formed a patchwork of yellow, green, and brown interspersed with the glint of water rivulets. Some fields stood bare. Others had with bundled tufts – mini teepees – in rows. It was many miles before I saw any people working or any harvest equipment. It appeared that a tiny workforce could manage large expanses.

The rail trip took four hours with a transfer at Kobe onto an even more luxurious train.

The toilets on these trains and in the stations are odd: Every one was immaculate with heated seats, a bidet and drying function, but no soap on the sinks, and in some cases, no towels or other means to dry one’s hands. In places where there are multiple stalls, toilets have a button that produces a flush sound to mask the actual bodily function. And we can’t even get to clean.

We knew we had left major tourist areas in Okayama because English-language signs disappeared.

The Crowne Plaza was across the street from the train station with an extremely helpful staff. Since the restaurant we wanted was closed, they made a reservation for us at Akari. We were supposed to walk fifteen minutes and cross a river, which we never saw.

We did stumble on a cute pedestrian mall with a vintage clothing store where the signs were all in English. The proprietor? clerk?, who spoke very limited English, directed us back the way we had come. We eventually found the restaurant’s tiny entrance by matching the phone number on the sign with the number the clerk had supplied. Without that clue, we’d still be walking up and down the street.

Akari proved to be utterly traditional. We sat at a low table (with a spot for one’s legs, thank heavens). Shoji screens separated the dining areas, a good thing because someone across the way was smoking a cigarette.

We ordered a dish with salmon, mackerel, and sea bream, plus veggies. After a pause of fifteen minutes or so, the waiter appeared with a cast iron pot above a propane cooker, a tray with the fish and piles of mostly cabbage plus broccoli, green pepper, tree ears, squash, potato. Two sauces added flavor: ponzu, the usual citrus flavor, or chili that snuck up but never became painful. We cooked it ourselves, though the waiter did check on the timing for us.

All in all an excellent meal. While it lacked the variety of breakfast, dinner at Akari offered subtlety and the contrast of scent, flavor, texture, sound, and color that defines the best of Japanese cuisine.

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