Friday, November 27, 2009

A Long Boring Ramble About Travels in Ise, Kyoto, Hyperreality

Ouvrez un guide de voyage: vous y trouverez d'ordinaire un petit lexique, mais ce lexique portera bizarrement sur des choses ennuyeuses et inutiles: la douane, la poste, l'hôtel, le coiffeur, le médecin, les prix. Cependant, qu'est-ce que voyager? Rencontrer. Le seul lexique important est celui du rendez-vous.

Open a travel guide: usually you will find a brief lexicon which strangely enough concerns only certain boring and useless things: customs, mail, the hotel, the barber, the doctor, prices. Yet what is travelling? Meetings. The only lexicon that counts is the one which refers to the rendezvous.
Roland Barthes
Beyond such "boring and useless" facts, hampered by the foreigner's inability to identify and interprete signs and signifieds, writers of travel guides often resort to perpetuating a hodge-podge of traveller's myths and misinformation. Afterall, the insular arrogance of some parts of the English-speaking world can scarcely contemplate the possibility that in this day and age, there remain places in the world where the English language is still non-valid as lingua franca. Booking rooms and reserving a table at restaurants armed with a vocabulary consisting only of "sumimasen", "biru", and "Yatta!" is part of the experience, the curse/grace of Babel (Genesis 11). Survivors will feel like real travellers with suitably exaggerated stories of Indiana Jones-like exploits for the grandkids.

So there are no rendezvous, no meetings; only misses.

Anyway, here are boring and useless things that someone might actually have some use for:


Japan National Tourism Organisation
JAL's Guide to Japan
ChannelNewsAsia's Japan Hour
Frommer's Japan - Preview in Google Books

Mie Tourist Guide - admit it, you tourist.
Ise-City Tourist Industry Society
Mie JETS - because they're a happening bunch, y'know

Kyoto Visitor's Guide
Deep Kyoto
Open Kyoto
Kyoto Travel Guide
Visit Kansai
Kyoto Inside
Satano's Kyoto Visitors blog

Misa Travel - offered fairly decent fares on JAL from Singapore to Kansai Airport, Osaka
Airline Quality - for a quick glance at the reviews for JAL, especially in light of its impending bankruptcy
JAL Fleet - to determine the aircraft for the Singapore - Kansai route
Seat Maestro - for seat choices available for that aircraft.
JAL International Flight Check-In Service - to check-in and select your seat 72 hours in advance
JAL Entertainment Network - to check how much you need to stuff into the iphone for inflight entertainment.

Snack, JAL 722 Breakfast, JAL 722
"Hamburger" Lunch, JAL 721 Good coffee and Japanese snacks, JAL 721
Meiji ice-cream, JAL 721
FlyerGuide (Meals) and airlinegrub - to check how much decent food you need to stuff into your carry-on hand luggage. Both returned zero hits for JAL. Inflight meal, Airplane Food, Airline Food Flickr groups were of course uncurated.

Kanku Lounge and Lockers, Kansai International Airport
Kansai Airport - where to shower after/before your flight, buy last minute gifts for Aunt Mildred and reading material for the flight/ride. There's Daiso for fixed-priced livingware, Kokumin for discount cosmetics, Muji To Go for mobile travel accessories and Uniqlo on Level 3, and Yojiya for those famous facial oil blotters and Royce chocolates inside the international departure area.

Office-going Crowd
Jorudan is a useful train route finder. Japan Rail's Japan Rail Pass might be useful for some routes. But for those travelling around the Kansai region (Ise, Nara, Osaka, Kyoto), the Kintetsu Rail Pass might help squirrel away a nice packet for more of that nice wagyu.

To figure out what clothing to bring.
Japan Meterological Agency - Weather Forecast
Japan Meterological Agency - Typhoon Warning
Japan Meterological Agency - Earthquake Warning
Yahoo! Earthquake Warning
Japan Meterological Agency - Tsunami Warning
Japan Meterological Agency - all warnings and advisories

Trip Advisor is great for locating hotels, B&Bs/inns or specialty lodging within a certain area. Lists of sometimes useful people-power reviews as well. gathers reviews for backpacker beds.

Once lodging is identified, the moderns will take reservations by email (this allows them to babelfish your email or grab a passing English-reading youngster). The traditionals will take reservations only by phone or fax. If we're getting all native like, say, an English-dubbed Akira Kurosawa film, Japanese Guest Houses provides a free reservation babelfish service for booking ryokans. Some B&Bs and guesthouses also use Welcome Inn Reservation Centre exclusively.

Interesting weary-body-laying places to check out:

Asakichi - a ryokan that has been in operation since the 1700s. Travelling ninjas! Resting samurai! Perhaps Genji too on his way to meet yet another lover! (Ok, but he'd have to have waited 500 years for the inn to be built)

Hoshidekan, Ise, Japan
Hoshidekan - a 80ish-year-old minshuku (family-operated ryokan), all wood, old glass, tatami and papered sliding doors, was a 7 minute walk from the Ise-shi train station and served macrobiotic food.

Hoshidekan, Ise, Japan
The innkeeper was hospitable, very friendly, crazily energetic grandmother who, of course, spoke no English so gesture-o was the language of choice.

Tea set, Hoshidekan, Ise, Japan
Through insistent gestures after I'd stumbled in from the cold, she made it clear that it was imperative that I get me into the wooden hot bath she would heat for me (with no Chihiro to assist). And later, she came to the room bearing hot water, green tea leaves, a tea pot, a cup and a handful of organic (“Natur-o! Good! Eat!”) cookies.

Hot Tub, Hoshidekan, Ise, Japan
A hot dip before bedtime proved rather addictive so it became a habit to come back to the shared hot stone tub on other evenings to soak away the events of the day like perpetually almost-missing trains, hiking through the most wonderful forests, the usual trails and trials of gluttony.

Window, Hoshidekan, Ise, Japan
Sleep after was deep and easy on a very comfortable and clean futon with a buckwheat pillow as headrest. The wooden sliding doors and old glass windows rattled quite a bit in the blustery wind but heater was more than adequate at keeping drafts away. And at dawn, the "moon window" filtered the morning light through the room.

Map of Kawasaki Area
Map of "Kawasaki - Living Historic Town"
Behind Hoshidekan, in the Kawasaki area, a row of old merchant shops along the Setagawa River, was good for a morning walk and later, when the shops opened, a nibble and a cuppa.

In keeping with the Disney-fication:
Iori - stay in a salvaged and restored machiya (townhouse) thanks to Alex Kerr
Chourakukan - a simulacra of a European manor whose stint as a "ladies' hotel" ended in 28 January 2008 and has now been renovated as a "resort hotel" with only 6 deluxe rooms. Twin bedded rooms are Y70,000 per night including a full course dinner of European fare at "Le Chene" and breakfast.

and simultaneously (or consequently?), the design-consciousnessness of the age:
Mume - a boutique hotel with 7 well-designed rooms along the Shirakawa River.
The Screen - a listing by Tablet Hotels says much about the modern design-curation, service and general lux-ness of the place.
9H - opening only in December 2009 but already anticipated by Superfuture as "a next-generation capsule hotel created by designer masaaki hiromura and interior designer takaaki nakamura".

Condé Nast's gives its take on a limited but good selection of restaurants together with a pointer to the relevant websites. Half the job done to getting that elusive email address for reservations. profers a more wide-ranging selection in English. Suspicious of tourist traps? Goggle Translate works rather well on domestic reviews at 食べログ especially if you're looking to be "Drilling in the passage parlor shop slang" during your "Banquets, parties and blind dates". Feel free to select from Viking and Hormone food groups. This is Sparta!

There's also Gourmet Navigator in English. Or benefit from the adventures of the Kyoto Foodie.

So the Barthean exercise in signification is delightfully clever in its meaninglessness in relation to reality. (Though one would be tempted to reply to his wistful "The haiku wakens desire: how many Western readers have dreamed of strolling through life, notebook in hand, jotting down 'impressions' whose brevity would guarantee their perfection?", with "Now consider Twitter".)

Yes, "reality". Based on the generally accepted and working assumption that there is a knowable reality that can be objectively verified, and that we can make statements which are coherent and intelligible in themselves about the objects and situations about which they purport to speak.

Perhaps Japan's hyperreality (though an interpretation equally Barthean in a traveller-response way?) exists not on the simplistic virtual reality AI plane but in the artificial myth of the actual, tricked, it would seem, by the prosperous fecundity of the land.

Where to start? Just about everything we ate here was of excellent quality.

An entire bovine family tree might have been wiped out from our consumption of dairy-related products. And a mighty tasty family it would have been too:

A misreading of signs (milk container = milk) meant the unwitting purchase of the first of many yummy yoghurts.

Yamura Milk and Milky Coffee
Finally, success with a refreshing bottle of Yamura milk at a snack shop in the Okage Yoko-chi area, near the Inner Shrine of Ise-Jingu.

Supermarket Milk, Kyoto
Shelves of milk! (The "non homo milk" was tempting.)

Hiruzen Jersey Milk

A bottle of cold milk to accompany a Henri Charpetier Mont Blanc
Another successful purchase of a bottle of cold milk to accompany a well-balanced Henri Charpentier mont blanc.

Beef shop, Oharai Machi, Ise
The beef shop along Oharai Machi (おはらい町) outside the Ise Inner Shrine served

Beef sushi, along Oharai Machi, Ise Grilled Beef, Oharai Machi, Ise
beef sushi lightly grilled and the best grilled wagyu so far. But that's because we had yet to encounter the Iga cow.

Iga Beef Shop, La Foret, Iga
We would have been more than happy to eat a whole cow at the Iga beef shop at La Foret, 7 minutes from Iga-Kanbe Kintetsu Station.

Beef bento, Iga Beef Shop, Iga Beef grill, Iga Beef Shop, Iga
The grilled beef bento was good but sizzling meat over a charcoal fire, even better.

Korean BBQ place, Matsusaka, Mie, Japan Beef about to be put on the grill, Korean BBQ place, Matsusaka, Mie, Japan
The marinade at this Korean BBQ place 1 minute from Matsusaka Station would have made any meat taste good. But on beautifully-marbled slices such as these, red meat heaven. Doubt these were Matsuzaka cows of the beer, massages and piped-in Mozart fame but still happy meat for sure.

Hafuu, Kyoto Filet, Hafuu, Kyoto
The auf wiedersehen to wagyu at Hafuu (471-1 Fuyacho Dori, Kyoto).

Supermarket Beef, Japan
The sort of omiyage I'd like to bring back but would, sadly, not have been widely appreciated.

The fruits of the seafood were received with equal thanksgiving:

Eel place, Oharai Machi, Ise Persimmons drying outside eel place, Oharai Machi, Ise
Grilled Eel Tempura Eel
Grilled and tempura-ed eels along the river off Oharai Machi.

Matoya Bay Cruise Ise Lobsters, Matoya Bay Cruise
Cracking open Ise lobsters, Matoya Bay Cruise Sweet Scallop, Matoya Bay Cruise
Turbanshells, squid, prawns, Matoya Bay Cruise Fish, Matoya Bay Cruise
Seafood brunch on the Matoya Bay Cruise featured flailing Ise lobsters, waving abalone, incredibly sweet scallops and wonderfully firm-fleshed fish.

Yes, waving abalone.

Toba Aquarium Mr. Cuttlefish, Toba Aquarium
Sealions, Toba Aquarium Sealions, Toba Aquarium
Ray, Toba Aquarium Manatee, Toba Aquarium
This was so that when we got to the Toba Aquarium after, the spectre of uncarved sashimi floating in tanks no longer haunted us.

Seafood Omiyage?
Seafood omiyage?

The carbs, we were constantly assured, benefitted greatly from the miraculous water of the region:

Soba place, Ise Soba place, Ise
5 minutes from Ise-shi Station, along a little road by the am-pm combini, there was a sparse space equipped for the enjoyment of a jazz quartet, the playing of a multitude of records and white soba with yam sauce. The soba tea was itself a revelation.

Ramen place, Ise Pork bone soup-based Ramen, Ise
This char siew not only had the advantage of lacking the BO of the deceased swine, it also did the melting away in the mouth trick.
Ramen place, Ise
Ramen shop 2 minutes from Aeon mart in Ise.

Outside Yoshimura, Arashiyama Window seat view at Yoshimura, Arashiyama, Kyoto
A window seat facing Mount Arashi and the Togetsu Bridge, and a steaming bowl of eel soba at Yoshimura, Arashiyama.

Udon, Yamamoto Menzo
Yamamoto Menzo (34 Okazaki, Kyoto) - smooth thick udon and

Yamamoto Menzo Tempura Veg with Curry Powder Seasoning on the Side
delicate veg tempura, with curry powder seasoning on the side.

Gogyo Ramen, Kyoto Gogyo ramen
Gogyo ramen (452 Yanaginobaba Dori, Kyoto) - pork bone soup-based ramen flambeed in lard. Paper bibs provided. Yummers + sore throat.

Even random street munchies were good:

Tofu Shop Freshly fried tofu, Kyoto
fried tofu from a shop we happened to pass by in the backstreets near Nagomi-Ryokan Yuu, Kyoto. The dipping sauce provided just the right counterbalance of saltiness.

Issen Yoshoku, Kyoto Issen Yoshoku, Kyoto
Okonomiyaki, Issen Yoshoku, Kyoto Okonomiyaki, Issen Yoshoku, Kyoto
okonomiyaki at the very kitschy Issen Yoshoku (Shijo Dori, Kyoto).

Kansou, Kyoto Kansou, Kyoto
a tin of Hokkaido bear meat braised in bamboo shoots at Kansou (12 Kawabata Dori, Kyoto), where you take your pick of bar snacks from a shelf of tins.

The advent of Nippon confectionery/wagashi, according to the Kyoto Confectionery Museum, was heralded by gifts from Chinese diplomats. Never did we meet a sticky starch-azuki bean combination that we didn't like:

Mochi, Okage Yoko-chi, Ise Mochi, Okage Yoko-chi, Ise
Mochi in hot sweet azuki bean soup, Okage Yoko-chi, Ise

Akafuku, Oharai Machi, Ise
Akafuku, Oharai Machi, Ise -
Obachans in Kimonos, Inner Shrine, Ise Jingu School kids, Oharai Machi, Ise
if you came before the crowds, the shrine-visiting obachans in kimonos and the kids on a schooltrip,

Akafuku, Oharai Machi, Ise
you could have the pleasure of a platter of sweets and a quiet cup of hot green tea on tatami mats inside where it is warm, or on a platform outside, overlooking the river, and watch bonsai being trimmed.

Mochi and chestnut in sweet azuki bean soup, Ohara
Mochi with chestnut in another sweet azuki bean soup, Ohara.

Dairy-based confectionery were apparently brought in by Christian/Catholic missionaries. Later when they were persecuted, killed and driven out of Japan, the stuff stayed on and prospered.

Ampersand, Ōsaka Namba Station
Ampersand chocolate cream buns at Ōsaka Namba Station were fat and pillowy and buttery.

Henri Charpentier Mont Blanc
Henri Charpentier Mont Blanc (Isetan food basement, Kyoto Station)

Ghost, Kyoto Ghost, Kyoto
Chocolate and apricot confection, Ghost (somewhere between The Screen and Ippodo, Kyoto)

Kikunoi, Kyoto Inside Kikunoi, Kyoto
Tofu, maitake mushroom, siitake mushroom, yuzu. Kikunoi, Kyoto Chestnut and kuwai (arrowhead root) chips, maple leaf-shaped squid coated with egg yolk and sea urchin, anglerfish liver, mibuna with shimeji mushrooms, pin needle-shaped tea and buckwheat noodles, sake-glased gingko nut, dried mullet roe, duck liver pate
Tai (red sea bream), tsubasu (young amberjack), pickled chrysantheneum petals, wasabi. Kikunoi, Kyoto Baby tuna, soy-marinated egg yolk sauce. Kikunoi, Kyoto
Red wakasa tilefish steamed with millet, baby daikon radish, yuzu peel, chrysantheneum sauce. Kikunoi, Kyoto Miso-marinated sawara (spotted mackerel) wrapped in cedar, japanese taro, miso. Kikunoi, Kyoto
Miso-marinated sawara (spotted mackerel) wrapped in cedar, japanese taro, miso. Kikunoi, Kyoto Anago (sea eel), turnip, kintoki carrot, mibuna, yuzu. Kikunoi, Kyoto
Salmon roe rice, napa cabbage soup, japanese pickles. Kikunoi, Kyoto Caramel ice-cream, buckwheat flour sponge cake
There was nothing undelightful for the palate: from the crunch of humble sweet pale green apples that filled the room with a crisp fresh lingering fragrance to the slow-mo savouring of a kaiseki meal under the hands of Chef Hiroki Maruyama at Kikunoi.

The liquids did not let Team Kyoto down either:

Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery
"For relaxing times, make it Suntory time"
the Yamasaki and Hakushu 12 year single malts after the whisky tour at Suntory Yamasaki Whisky Distillery were fantastic for the rainy walk back to the station, though the latter was perhaps somewhat too clean.

Whisky Library, Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery Whisky Library, Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery
(Now this is a library I'd like to spend some time dipping into.)

Ippodo Tea Company, Kyoto Ippodo Tea Company Kyoto
the green tea from Ippodo,

Ogawa Coffee, Sanjo, Kyoto
the good smooth coffee from Ogawa Coffee (90 Sanjo, Kyoto) where Akihiro Okada was apparently brewing on account of it being a Friday,

Coffee Shop Hirose, Arashiyama Coffee Shop Hirose, Arashiyama
and even the breakfast cuppa from Coffee Shop Hirose, a small siphon place 1 minute from Saga-Arashiyama station.

But enough already about the palate. For the eyes, the warm, blazing, autumn colours of the koyo season. Shame on this insipid simulacra of the Real:

Fallen Maple Leaves, Akame Falls, Mie
Akame Falls

Tokufuji, Kyoto Tokufuji, Kyoto

Philosopher's Path, Kyoto
Philosopher's Path, Kyoto

Near Sanzen-in Temple, Ohara Near Sanzen-in Temple, Ohara
Near Sanzen-in Temple, Ohara

Akame Falls Akame Falls Akame Falls
For the muscles, long happy walks in the mountains, forests and streets.

Greenwich House, Kyoto
For the ears, good jazz while squashed up against cheering strangers in Greenwich House (577-5 Shinkyogoku Dori), a dive that could seat maybe 12 excluding the jazz quartet.

Busker outside Takashimaya, Kyoto
And after Takashimaya had closed for the day, a girl with her keyboard outside entertaining regular fans.

And also:
Sagano Scenic Railway, Arashiyama
train rides! (Sagano Scenic Railway (or Sagano Romantic Train!), Arashiyama)

Honzu River Boat Ride, Arashiyama Honzu River Boat Ride, Arashiyama
boat rides through the mountains! (Hozu River Boats, Arashiyama)

Tonkatsu don, jasmine tea and the yoghurt that was mistaken for milk
Suntory Natural Mineral Water, Creme Brulee, Blue Cheese Ritz, Chocolate Biscuits Eclair
Tonkatsu don, milk, Hershey's chocolate-covered ice-cream Hokkaido Milk Chocolate Jagabee Chips, Chocolate covered almonds
Meat bun, Hot Royal Milk Tea Onigiri
Creap Creamer McVitie's Salt & Chocolate Biscuits!
Lipton Christmas Milk Tea, Another Yoghurt Disguised As Milk
combini, supermarket raids!

Royal Milk Tea Hot Kirin Special Afternoon Milk Tea
Yuzu jelly drink Fruity yoghurt drink
Lemon hot drink Boss
vending machine raids (and a fascination with hot drinks dispensed therefrom)!

"Wicked" Bakery, near JR Ise-shi A chocolate danish, hot milk cocoa
Elephant chocolate cream bun Assortment of sandwiches from Sizuya Bakery
bakery raids! Because despite proper meals, we were constantly hungry. Especially during the many train rides.

Olympus E-Pen, Bic Camera
The camera that was not purchased
Bic Camera, Osaka - so many levels of

Do we shell out for travel, for food, for experience, for stuff because of the independent enjoyment of the things themselves or because they reference a pre-sold lifestyle, coded into our thoughts and hearts by the modern myths perpetuated by commercial media? Are we purchasing the representation of something rather than the thing itself? Are our lives therefore, merely hyperrealised, anticipated, programmed experiences.

What is real? What is truth? What is the taste of Tasty Wheat?

Choosing the charming slavery of Plato's cave is well and good if ignorance (feigned or authentic) is of no benefit to anyone and instead allows you to enjoy the hyperreality of a good steak rather than the yucky reality of breakfast slop.

But in this world at least, with its (beyond reasonable doubt) objective reality, remaining in the tranquilised cocoon-like trap of an iconoclastic false realm has dire consequences. It is because of this that Christ came, it is because of this that we preach the gospel of the Real and insist, not out of arrogance but because of truth, that there is only one narrow road to salvation.

"How was the trip? Did you enjoy yourself?" Well, there was no rendezvous, no meeting in a sense, but a deeper appreciation of the mercy of One who created all this and who lets his sun shine and his rain fall on both the good and the wicked, who gives bountiful produce to those who do not acknowledge him.

Yet at the same time, in the face of such beauty and delight, the consciousness of the dreadful reality that this is but the present patience of a good God who will one day judge the world:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23)

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