A yaki-niku feast

Japan is a fabulous place to eat. No two ways about it. You are never more than a stone’s throw from a fabulous restaurant and tonight was no exception. The tour I am leading (Cherry Blossom in Imperial Japan) has been going fabulously well with gorgeous weather and a lovely group of people. But it is always the meals that help make a tour truly great and tonight we lucked out with a top place. I hadn’t actually planned dinner for tonight yesterday afternoon on a mad dash around I found Gyu-kaku, located on the south-west corner of Sanjo Ohashi (large bridge) – it is in the same building as the Lawson convenience store marked on this map by the bridge. I guess one problem with so many restaurants all around is that choosing is a bit like picking a needle in a haystack. Anyway, this place, part of small chain is quality.

Located on the 3rd floor with some great views of the Kamo River, the interior is all wooden beams and thick wooden tables and stools (I never cease to be amazed how in Japan what a building looks like on the outside has no bearing on what is on the inside). It had the feel of a classic izakaya (Japanese pub). The clientele seemed to be a mix of students, young couples and groups of salarymen and it was pretty lively which is always a good thing.

There is the option to order a la carte but set meals are usually the way forward in Japan and I went for the 2500 yen course with nomi hodai (drink all you like) for an extra 1500. My fears of this not being enough food were ill founded; gyu-tan (ox tongue), karubi (beef), gorgeous chicken with basil, some beautifully soft pork, kimuchi (spicy Korean pickled cabbage). These are just what I can remember. Fabulous. I guess my only criticism would be the drinks were a little slow in coming but given how ‘thirsty’ everyone was perhaps this was a good thing! And keeping a table of 13 thirsty gaijin in ume-shu (plum wine) and nama biru (draft beers) can’t be the easiest waiting job by any means. All in all a great find. Definitely gets 5 stars from me for quality, volume, and atmosphere with possibly 3.5 for service. If you have a chance, go and check it out. Just one word of warning, there is nothing much here for vegetarians so best keep this strictly meat eaters only!

Kitsch, cute, cool, bizarre? Or just plain naf?

Japan seems to have a glut of cruising boats themed around ancient sailing vessels. Today I was on a boat at Kashikojima on the Ise Peninsula called the Espana Cruise, sailing out into the beautiful island-studded Ago Bay. Yet despite a commendable level of effort and attention to detail in the building of this modern armada, I can’t help but feel a degree of confusion as to what these are really for.

Japan is of course the country of kitsch, the king of all things cute and super-cute and cool and kitsch. Walk past any group of Japanese school girls and 9 out of 10 times you will catch the word ‘kawaiiiiiiii’ being delivered in a high pitch voice of true awe and wonderment at how anything in this imperfect world of ours could possibly be quite so supernaturally and wonderfully cute. The Japanese seem to have an never-ending fascination with this cute universe. But amongst all the Hello Kitty merchandise and tiny toy dogs in designer Burberry coats, what is the place of these odd cruising vessels.

Perhaps the most used of these is the infamous Hakone ‘Pirate Ship’ which cruises to and fro across Lake Ashi day in day out, providing passengers with views of the beautiful mountains, and on clear days, Mt Fuji herself. But I have long asked myself, what is the point of the pirate theme? The pre-recorded tape makes it very clear that the operators are very proud of their mock-pirate vessel but why? That is all I ask? Surely the stunning natural beauty of this area is enough by itself. Isn’t the chance to see the sacred Mt Fuji soaring above the surrounding hills more than worth a day out to this, the world’s most visited national park? At the end of the day I am not sure there is an answer. This is one of the inherent contradictions visible day-in, day-out,in any town or city you might visit in Japan: That a country with such a rich and ancient culture of nature worship and love of the natural world can at the same time see nothing strange about a feaux Spanish galleon taking tourists around the stunning coastline to a soundtrack of muzak show tunes! There is, at the end of the day, no harm in it. But this, as much as anything, helps reveal quite what a multi-layered and confusing culture Japan has.

Get beneath the surface – the IJT blog is here!

It has been some time in coming but finally InsideJapan Tours have a blog. And we intend to use it! So much about Japan continues to inspire me. It seems like an age ago (it is just coming up for 9 years) that I finished teaching in Japan and returned to the UK with my fellow company director and good friend Simon King, travelling 5 weeks overland from Hong Kong to London, traversing the great Russian wilderness of Siberia on the trans-Mongolian express before touring on the Beetroot Bus from Moscow to St Petersburg then on to Western Europe. So much time to think and savour the real magic of travelling through strange countries where you can’t speak the language and round every corner is a new experience ready to change your outlook on life and mould you as a person. That was my experience and it is a pleasure and a privilege to be able to assist people from all over the world experience the magic of travelling in Japan.

So what will be writing about? Well aside from my own musings – which may or may not be of interest – this blog will be a forum for debate, a rich source of information on the best restaurants we have discovered recently, the craziest festivals we have attended and a chance to introduce to everyone some of the fabulous people that help make visiting Japan a unique pleasure. Our tour leaders will be posting regularly and as the people on the ground in the thick of the action! We even hope to persuade the girls from our fabulous InsideJapan Nagoya Office team to add their thoughts on the latest goings on in the land of the rising sun.

And if you see something you want to comment on, don’t be shy. We are always keen to hear what other people think, to engage in debate on the issues of the day in Japan and the travel industry as a whole, and also to offer advice to anyone travelling to Japan. This blog is dedicated to Japan, a country that has changed my life, and me forever.

Thanks for reading

Alastair Donnelly
Director, InsideJapan Tours

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