A Taste of Japan
At work in Yanaka, a traditional part of Tokyo where the neon hasn't ventured. Photo - Robin Powell
The cherry blossom is divine, but don't miss these other quintessential Japanese experiences, advises Robin Powell.
Buy a sweet
In most Japanese restaurants the dessert list doesn’t veer far from fresh fruit or ice cream, but don’t let that give you the idea that Japanese don't like sweets. They love them, they just don't eat them after dinner.
Wagashi is the generic name for the traditional Japanese sweets that became a refined art form in the old imperial capital of Kyoto. They are all made from natural, plant-derived ingredients and though they are sweet, they are low in fat. The Japanese consider them healthy choices - and compared with the pastries and donuts also available on every street corner they are. But more importantly they are bite-size works of art, and taste delicious.
A cherry blossom captured in a spring sweet. Photo - Robin Powell
In spring, sakuramochi (spring sweets) start appearing in sweet shops, department store food halls and railway station kiosks. Sakuramochi are reminders of cherry blossom season; balls of adzuki bean paste are wrapped in pale pink sticky rice, which has been pounded until it becomes smooth and stretchy, and then the whole thing is wrapped in the surprise of a lightly salted preserved cherry leaf. Invariably sakuramochi are so beautifully packaged you can hardly bear to open them. Make sure you do. The texture of the soft and yielding, yet slightly chewy rice pastry, and the flavour of the sweet beans contrasting with the slightly sour and salty leaf is totally addictive.
Sakuramochi are delicious sweets sold only in spring. Photo - Robin Powell
Have a bath
Japanese baths are one of the treats of a trip to Japan. To drought-inured Australians accustomed to two-minute showers, sinking up to the neck as water slops over the side of the tub feels like a great indulgence. Taking the waters in Japan is as popular now as it ever was in 19th century Europe, and areas of hot springs are domestic tourism hot spots. But for travellers not certain they want to leap in, naked, to the public hot springs bathing experience, the best place to try bathing Japanese-style is in the baths of a traditional hotel or inn, called a ryokan. The baths here are open to all guests, but choose your time and you are likely to get the bath to yourself, and if you do have to share, it’s unlikely to be with many other bodies.
Slippers on the wooden floors. Photo - Robin Powell
There are two towels in the change rooms - a small one and a larger one. You can take the small one with you to wash but don't take it into the actual bath with you. The big one is just for drying. Leave your clothes in the basket and with your little towel held discreetly walk into the bath area. The bath is only for soaking, not for washing. Washing is done in the showers nearby. There are sometimes shower cubicles, or sometimes just a shower wall with a line of showerheads and low stools and buckets. Soap, shampoo and conditioner are supplied. You sit on the stool and wash before submerging yourself in the hot bath proper. This might imitate a river, with rocks and a waterfall, or be a long pool looking into a garden, or a deep cedar-lined tub. Usually there are two different areas and they swap gender roles every day. Men take the door hung with the blue curtains, women the burgundy or red one. The water is hot, and there is a great exhalation as you sink into the heat and muscles and joints relax. It’s too hot to stay long; most people just stay in a few minutes. After the bath, there are hair dryers, seats, a jug of cold water, shining skin, and a great sense of relaxation.
Photo - Robin Powell
Try a sake
Japanese rice wine is as varied in its flavours as wine made from grapes, but most Australians don't get a chance to get familiar with them unless they come to Japan. So don't waste the opportunity, and don't worry, they are not as alcoholic as their undeserved reputation. Most are about 15 per cent, about the same as a big Barossa shiraz, while some are as low as 13.
Whereas wine is made from simply fermenting grapes, making sake is a multi-step process. The rice is first polished to remove some of its outer layers. How far it is polished is one way of grading sake. The top grade is called dai ginjo and it is made from rice that has been polished so that less than half of the grain remains. After polishing, the rice is washed to remove any starchy coating, then gently steamed until nearly soft. Then comes the hard part. Before they will ferment, the sugars in the rice must first to be converted to glucose, a process achieved with the help of a special white mould. Over a few days the mould invades the grains and then yeast starts converting the resulting sugars into alcohol. Do you need to know this to enjoy sake? Not really, but it does help make clear where all those floral, fruity flavours come from. Of course most labels are in Japanese only so buying in a shop is pot luck. But it's still fun.
A line-up of sake, take a lucky dip approach! Photo - Robin Powell
Even more fun is dropping into a Japanese bar, an izakaya. The bartender/chef/owner who is usually the same person in these very small bars, will help out. Choose a sake cup from the tray offered, and decide if you'd like your sake hot or cold. There are all kinds of versions of the rules about which sake can be drunk at which temperature. You can choose whatever you like. Either way as the sake warms or cools in your cup different flavours will become apparent. You’ll just get familiar with its changing nature and the 180ml serve will be gone. Time to try another one!