So it's our first night in Japan and we pop out to a local restaurant in Urawa. There is a menu, held by Carys in this photo, and a hand-held, table-top device in front of Jon. I chose the photo of Carys and Jon. There exists one of Liz and I, who thought we were doing quite well after being awake for over 24 hours but the picture suggests our eyes were only open by a millimetre. You have done nothing to deserve seeing it.
We order our food by intranet. A selection of waiters and waitresses bring the meal to our table, delivering it with a sing-song Japanese speech which we don't hear anywhere except restaurants the whole of our trip. Jon and Carys tell us there is a formal, almost oldie-worldie, style of speech in a restaurant, not used elsewhere and especially in traditional Japanese restaurants, so the staff are saying something such as, 'Kindly bless us with the joy of consuming our delectable food.' We did. It was lovely. Small portions of several fish, vegetable and tofu dishes to share.
In a sectioned-off area of a large department store these children were being taught to cook. I'd guess they were aged about 5 to 7. They sat perfectly still and attended to their teacher as we watched through the glass. Love the chefs' hats. They seemed so proud to be wearing them. Pride in performance is a theme we noticed again and again. Whatever people were doing they did it with pride, as if it were the most important task in the world.
There is as much space given to tofu and other bean-curd products in a Japanese food store as a medium Tescos in England would allocate to cheese. Most of it is delicious. My experience of tofu is that it depends very much on the flavour of its accompaniments. In fact there is more subtlety and complexity than that.
That said, bean curd did provide us with the one 'won't swallow' moment of our holiday, although we did taste.
The white, central bowl in this illustration contains natto. Natto achieves something quite remarkable. It is a dish that is unpleasant to all five of the senses. It looks disgusting, like regurgitated porridge with green pesto. It smells ghastly. As you remove a spoonful of it from the bowl a squelchy noise can be heard not unlike pulling a wellie out of mud. To the tongue it feels like wallpaper paste with tadpoles in it (you may be getting an idea here and you'd be right). It tastes of very little with added salt. Best avoided. It was available as one of the options at breakfast in our two hotels. Then again so was pasta with meat sauce and an unimaginable attempt at a British sausage.
One style of restaurant, a bit Indonesian, is to griddle your own pancake from selected ingredients, although it turns out they don't trust westerners with such a task and bring it to you in aluminium foil and simply use the griddle in the centre of the table as a hotplate. Here I try to get hold of a piece of egg, fried cabbage, prawns and a sort of barbecue sauce. Mayo was an option but we all turned it down. It was a bit sickly but a fun time. Note the extreme concentration of the inexperienced pancake quarterer.
Food at simple, station-based outlets is marvellous. I have already mentioned I had a wonderful, avocado and shrimp hot sandwich which I will remember until my dying day.
The presentation of packaged food in a food-court or supermarket is brilliant. Here is a bento box - a packed lunch of sushi if you like - the sort you can buy at a station before a journey. The bullet train is so smooth you can eat this safely, with chopsticks, at 220 mph. The major distinction between this and a British version is that the rice is several times more sticky and gorgeous and the fish is immaculately fresh. Oh and the wasabi (Japanese horseradish) takes a wire brush to your sinuses. To compensate, you can drink the water from the taps in most places.
On our final day we visited Asakusa - a shrine with a bustling hinterland of shops, restaurants, take-away food stands and market stalls. We watched this guy making buckwheat noodles in a restaurant window. He started with a huge ball of dough and then, constantly changing up to the next size of rolling pin, produced a single, thin sheet which he folded and cut by hand. Brilliant dexterity. We had to go in and eat and the food was lovely. I had my noodles in a duck broth. My companions suggested that the paste in a jar in the centre of the table was black-bean sauce. It was black and it was sauce. I should have been more guarded as the bowl was small and the spoon tiny. One taste took the plaster off the walls of my previously wasabi-brushed sinuses. The paste contains delayed action chillies. An hour later and I had a lovely sorbet-style blackcurrant ice cream which I could feel heating up inside me as it went down. The only joy is that I digested whatever it was entirely and felt no ill effects as it came out the other end. Either that or it has been inside me for a fortnight and is biding its time.
Our conclusion would be that, as ever, the key to great cooking is great shopping. Simple ingredients. Fresh ingredients. Not very many ingredients. The Japanese get a lot of this right. In fact they only get it wrong with attempts to placate western stomachs in hotels. And with natto.
I've noticed this week that I've put fewer herbs and spices in my cooking and let the ingredients speak for themselves. Why bother to get a fresh, organic veggie box delivered every week if you're going to keep things in the fridge for ages then disguise the flavour?