I was amazed when Nick announced that his first choice destination for our virtual weekends away was Japan. He had never so much as mentioned a desire to Go East but the food appealed and I was ready to go too. This trip also captured the imaginations of friends who had actually visited: Helen up the lane had been for the Rugby World Cup and brought Japanese tea cups, a guide book and an art gallery catalogue along to inspire us. My Foodie Friend Janie had also visited and had lots of ideas about eating – if only she hadn’t said the words that Presentation is Everything when it comes to the food…
I guess everyone starts in Tokyo and we did too. What a crazy place! Terrifyingly, jaw-droppingly busy and yet such efficiency in terms of travel and the use of space. A YouTube video on the post-war evolution of Japan emphasised how important the train network is to the smooth running of the country – and of course we did a few Bullet Train journeys which were quick and exciting and always on time.
We took several tours around Tokyo with our travel bloggers but were most moved by our Netflix Find of the Year – Queer Eye in Japan. Queer Eye is a make-over programme but of the complete person and not just the home. Nick says he would never have thought that five gay guys doing make-overs would move him so much or be so life-affirming! Anyway, Queer Eye had made a short series in Japan which we watched and were amazed at the tiny homes that people have, and also the expectation of achievement heaped upon people at the cost of their personal skills, especially in developing relationships and finding happiness. The importance of quick foods was obvious in such tiny apartments with minimal cooking facilities. We had actually watched all the episodes in preparation for our travels which was just as well as we didn’t stay in Tokyo – as we climbed into bed in the spare room (for the Being Away experience) we had already taken the bullet train to Kyoto.
Kyoto City is definitely on the tourist trail and so many travel vlogs that we watched featured the incredible Avenue of torii gates at the Fushimi Shrine in southern Kyoto. The most dedicated of ‘our tour guides’ got up early to get shots without the thousands of tourists that flock there each day. It was here that I tried to brush up on my sushi skills for lunch.
In Kyoto we explored staying in a Ryokan Inn, a very traditional style of hotel with many eating and bathing experiences and very definite expectations of behaviours. They hotels looked wonderful and the Onsen bathing made me hanker after a hot-tub… We had got pretty organised before our trip buying Japanese teas, beers and whisky, all of which we thoroughly enjoyed, taking the tea from the cups that we had been loaned. The beers were excellent. I respect the Japanese whisky industry but they tend to be very smooth and I like mine a bit more meaty and edgy.
Kyoto was the centre of Japanese kimono making. There are amazing videos on the V&A website from their recent Kyoto to Catwalk exhibition that are well worth watching – we loved them. This is the link to the first one.
Back to the travel videos and this time we went more off the beaten track to explore wilder and quieter Japan. The advantage of virtual travel is that we were able to flit about, finding solitude and staggering beauty in northern Honshu before flitting back to the beautiful Ilya Valley in Shishoku in the south. We also learned about the Jomon period in Japan, which embraced the era of the Neolithic and main archeological sites in Orkney and was utterly fascinating.
Sunday saw us touring Osaka and looking at street food videos, and then staying with the food theme and heading to Hokkaido, the most northerly island of Japan, to try their delicacies. In fact, our main meal was based on Queer Eye viewing and was a stir fry of vegetables topped with an omelette. Any thing goes for the stir-fry.
Part of the reason that we stayed an extra day was that we found Sue Perkins programmes on BBC iPlayer about her experiences in Japan. They were completely different from what we had discovered for ourselves but echoed the need for high achieving at the cost of inter-personal skills. If we have whetted your appetite for Japan, do look at them. We were sorry not to find Monty Don’s excellent series on Japanese gardens but did watch some videos about their development and philosophy on YouTube. Like Zoom, how did we ever live without it? This was a fabulous trip. Who knows, we may go again!