Today we were given a choice of buffet breakfast or traditional Japanese breakfast, which the hotel serves on weekends and bank holidays. Feeling adventurous, we chose the traditional breakfast and were taken to the hotel’s other restaurant where we quickly realised that we were the only gaijin (foreigners) brave enough to try this meal. We were a little nervous as so far, we’d managed to stay clear of having fish for breakfast, but we figured we should make the most of trying as many things as possible while we were here. I’d seen the traditional breakfast advertised on the hotel website and it seemed quite expensive, so I wondered if we’d have to pay a surcharge, but it turned out to be free for guests actually staying at the hotel.
Soon, we were each given a huge tray with rice, miso soup, grilled fish, little fried freshwater fish (I assume it was the same kind as we’d had on our sushi the day before), omelette, tofu, and other delicacies we couldn’t name, along with some green tea. I wasn’t sure how we would cope with such a savoury, fishy breakfast but it was fantastic and we both ate the whole lot, rounding it off with some coffee. The rice was actually the most filling component of the breakfast and the whole meal definitely kept us going for hours.
After such an unexpected but wonderful breakfast, we set off for a day in Kamakura. We both fell asleep on the train on the way there, which seems to happen very easily in Japan. We wandered round a bit when we got there, trying to find the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), but got a bit lost and were both on edge by the time we managed to find the signs we needed to follow. Along the way, we saw the first few large colourful spiders that I would spend the rest of the day trying (and failing) to photograph despite my absolute loathing of those eight-legged creatures. This particular kind has a large body with a green pattern on the back and a red and black pattern on the stomach, with black and yellow-stripped legs. Even I will admit their colours were kind of attractive, if a little scary. Sadly, my camera refused to focus on them and so all my spidey-pics came out blurry.
There were quite a lot of tourists when we arrived at the Great Buddha, which was incredibly impressive. It is 13 meters high and has resisted every earthquake, typhoon and tsunami so far. You can even climb up inside it to the level of the shoulders, for a small fee.
After our visit, we followed the signs for the “Great Buddha Hiking Trail” that led us up some series of steep steps into the hills overlooking the town. The walk was nice but quite strenuous in places and I was soon extremely hot and stick (as usual). Japan is no exception to the tacit universal rule that when you are walking in a forest somewhere, you say hello to any passing fellow hikers. I couldn’t count the number of times we said “konichiwa”. A small child even said “hello” in English, which was very cute. We only passed one other foreign couple coming the other way and Tom heard them say “il y a des étrangers” (there are foreigners). They were the only ones who didn’t say hello.
12 o’clock came and went and by that time we were hungry, so we followed a sign to a restaurant perched among the trees. Unfortunately, the only food it seemed to serve was spaghetti, minestrone and cake, and we really didn’t want Western food, especially after enjoying such a lovely Japanese breakfast. Luckily the restaurant people didn’t seem too offended when we decided to go somewhere else.
Having reached the end of the trail we were following, we made our way down the hill and visited a shrine on the way. It could only be accessed through a tunnel in the rock, but once inside there was an open courtyard and several caves that had elements of the shrine in them. When visiting, you are supposed to wash money there to double its value. We didn’t really know what order we were supposed to do what in, so we just watched and took a few photos.
We then went back into the town of Kamakura in search of food, as it was getting later and later and we were a bit worried places would finish serving lunch. In the end, we stopped at a little place with no signs outside. It turned out to be a café that served only sweet dishes, but we decided to give it a go as we were both starving by now. Tom had the same cubes of translucent jelly (that looked like opals or mother of pearl in the light) as he had on our first night, topped with a sort of chestnut purée and a cherry. I had red bean soup (sweet), topped with rice dumplings (they tasted like the mochi served in Japanese restaurants in Europe, only nicer) and with salty kelp on the side. The menu recommended that the kelp be eaten last, which created a strange kind of liquorice flavour before the saltiness (a bit too strong in my opinion) took over. They served us some free iced tea with our desserts, which was nice. The whole experience was a little strange, but still fun and so we didn’t regret choosing the place. I just wish I’d tried the transparent sweet noodles in matcha green tea that a lot of people seemed to be enjoying.
After lunch, we went on a walk through Kamakura to another shrine that looked smaller and deserted. We stopped at a place advertising smoked cheese and smoked soy sauce ice cream. I was still a little hungry (our desserts had been small) and although it sounded weird, I was still feeling adventurous. Tom wasn’t so sure, but I persuaded him to try it with me in the end.
When I walked into the shop and said I wanted to try the ice cream, the woman behind the counted looked shocked but really pleased. I guess she hadn’t seen many gaijin willing to try such an odd concept. She then gave us a bit of the smoked cheese to try “while we waited” (even though it took her a grand total of 10 seconds to fill two ice cream cones). I took a bite and froze… and am still kicking myself for not forking out 800 yen for a small wheel of that cheese. It was the most amazingly delicious think ever. It was a bit like smoked scamorza (one of my favourite cheeses) but even better. Strongly smoky, but with other layers of flavour in it and a delightfully chewy texture. I honestly don’t know what went through my brain… well I do know, I thought “oh drat, we probably can’t take cheese back to Europe and it’s going to go off by then anyway”, when really I should have thought “I’m going to buy this and scoff it all on the train-journey back to Tokyo.” I am an idiot. Oh well.
The ice cream was also a pleasant surprised (but I remained more enthralled by the cheese for the rest of the afternoon), mellow with some sweetness but not too much. We were both glad we’d tried it.
After ice cream, we went to the Hachimangu Shrine dedicated to Hachiman, the patron god of samurai. Some festival was taking place and the way up to the shrine was blocked by a large crowd. We could hear the odd drumming and shouting. As we managed to edge closer, we saw that a long thin path cutting across the main path had been cordoned off. Suddenly there was shouting, then clapping, then a strange “thud” and a man in brightly coloured clothing rode past on a horse. The thudding and clapping continued after the man disappeared from sight down the other end of the path. I leaned forward, waiting, and when the whole thing started up again, I realised that the men were in fact archers shooting at targets from horseback. As far as I could tell, every single arrow seemed to hit the target, judging from the crowd’s reaction. We watched for a bit, then retraced our steps to walk round the outside of the shrine complex, to get to the actual shrine itself. It was huge, with steep steps leading up to the main building on the hill.
We saw several small children in kimonos and traditional dress, accompanied by parents wearing smart suits, so we figured that there might be something happening other than the archery festival. It reminded me a little of seeing kids all dressed in white outside the church near us in Luxembourg, in the spring, all coming out of their confirmation.
After resting for a bit, we headed back through town towards the station, looking in shops (including another Ghibli Studio one that actually had different stuff in it, but also different prices – I thankfully resisted buying anything else). We were both pretty thirsty by this point and so we decided to give Starbucks a go, even though it wasn’t traditionally Japanese… but we did end up having drinks that I’ve never seen outside of Japan! We both had a kind of caramel espresso drink with custard in the bottom, which we liked very much. After that we got the train back to Shinjuku station.
Unsure whether to go back to the hotel or not, we wandered round a block of buildings and into one of the large department stores, this one bearing the name of “My Lord”. We walked over to the floor plan, where they had a list of restaurants.
I couldn’t believe it! There, where I least expected it, was a sign for an okonomiyaki restaurant. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure, so I compared the Japanese writing to the entry in my travel book and to my utter delight, it matched. A store clerk, who’d come over to ask if I needed help (after all, I’d been squinting at a guide book for a couple of minutes), confirmed it and so up we went to the floor where all the restaurants were. Finally I would get to try this dish so many of my friends had been raving about!
My enthusiasm was short-lived, however. As we waited to be seated, I noticed something that filled me with sudden dread. The tables all had hotplates in the middle of them and people seemed to be doing the cooking themselves. I learned later on tables with hotplates are customary for all okonomiyaki restaurants, but at the time I thought only the do-it-yourself kind had them. I’d read in a guidebook that some places cook the okonomiyaki for you, while others just give you the ingredients and let you get on with it. The guide had suggested avoiding the latter as uninitiated people might have difficulties. We were certainly uninitiated, as neither of us had eaten the stuff before, let alone seen how it was done.
The waitress who greeted us seemed a little unsure about what we were doing there, and that only served to make me more nervous. We were shown to a table, however, and given three menus all in Japanese. We stared at the menus for quite a while, stealing covert glances at the other diners, trying to guess what was going on. It was only when I looked utterly confused and tried to ask a question (hoping against hope that there might be some option to have it cooked for us) that a different waitress thought to bring us a menu in English.
I felt a little frustrated as it would have saved a lot of time and fretting in the first place if the first waitress had given us something we could understand. Even on the English menu, there were no instructions on what to do. In the end, we took the plunge and pointed at the photo of a cheesy-looking okonomiyaki that looked simple but tasty.
We’d asked for one each, but it turns out the waitress thought we wanted one between the two. When she finally brought our food, she mixed all the ingredients thoroughly in a bowl and formed a pancake (which contained noodles, pork, cabbage, cheese and egg) on the hotplate. Luckily, a couple of teenage girls at the table next to ours were one step ahead and so I was able to watch and copy (more or less) what they were doing. We let the okonomiyaki cook under its special domed lid for 4 minutes, then flipped it (without destroying it, I’m proud to say) and cooked it for another 4 minutes (an egg-timer was thoughtfully provided). I then spread some brown okonomiyaki sauce and some liquid cheesy sauce of the kind they serve with nachos in the US on top of it, cut it up and put it on our (ridiculously small, why??) plates. I’ve since discovered that all okonomiyaki plates are that size, even in London, which makes no sense to me as I have no desire to let my pancake burn to a crisp on the hotplate while I eat one piece at a time. And piling them up on top of each other is not exactly easy, especially to eat with chopsticks afterwards…
The whole thing tasted oishi (yummy) but I couldn’t shake the feeling that we weren’t having the real thing, mostly because I’d made it. I also left feeling a bit hungry still, as we’d only been given the one okonomiyaki. On the way back to the hotel, feeling rather bemused, I bought two onigiri (rice balls, one plain and one with salmon in it) and ate them in the room.
Then my moodiness grew and I succumbed to what I’ll call a fit of “foreigner’s feeling of inadequacy”, which had slowly been building up inside me since the start of our trip. It might just be me (perhaps it’s not), but after three days of feeling like a giant sweating hulk of a girl (whose hair is always messy and whose face is often tinged with red), sitting on the metro next to elegantly dressed, mostly skinny Japanese women, I couldn’t face it anymore. I absolutely adore Japan as a country and I was already dreading leaving at that point, but that place does tend to make a plain Western girl like me feel horribly gauche and inadequate. I’d studied Japanese etiquette and the different “dos and don’ts” over and over again before our journey and was so far trying to apply them scrupulously. We were also both making an effort to try to speak a little Japanese everywhere we went. Yet every time I saw a Japanese person looking at me, I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious and wonder if they were judging me, especially in a negative way. They might think I’m a little weird (which is normal, and really… I am weird), but the possibility of their disapproval made me feel sad. I’ve never had such a strong impression of not fitting in somewhere purely based on my appearance (and I’ve lived in Switzerland, where skinny girls abound and multiply) and it was a humbling experience. So I went to bed that night with a rather bittersweet feeling of being a bit lost in this strange land, and not knowing who I was or what I wanted anymore.
Photos – 2014 © Zoe Perrenoud (unless otherwise specified).