JAPAN, MAY 2023
I have conquered nature. I have trampled the laws of earth and heaven. I have stared God in the face and laughed. By this I mean that I managed to get from London to Tokyo without any jetlag. None. None! On my first morning there I woke up refreshed at 7am local time after exactly eight hours’ sleep. Although this was my first flight in nearly five years, I remain a jetlag obsessive, and so nothing could be more satisfying to me than peerless triumph. And my method was a trifle: I simply prepared for two weeks in advance by moving back my morning alarm time 15 minutes a day until by the day of my flight it was 3am, whereupon I ate a protein bar for breakfast and then consumed nothing but glass after glass of water for the next 25 hours until I was in Shinjuku eating ramen.
The Japanese: their habits, their national character
I went a place in the Sendagi neighbourhood of Tokyo called Players Bar R. When you walk in you see a gleaming mahogany bar; a record player connected to a vintage tube amp and two huge speakers; an enormous collection of jazz records; and a shelf of rare Japanese whisky, unfortunately unavailable for purchase because each bottle is tagged with the name of the regular it belongs to. In other words, it’s the coolest place in the world, except in Tokyo it’s not the coolest place in the world, in Tokyo it’s just another neighbourhood bar.
As I ordered a beer, Nina Simone was playing, and the barman, who was in his sixties, asked me ‘Do you like jazz?’ He didn’t speak much English, so rather than equivocate — ‘Well, yes, there are some jazz albums I’m into, but most of them are fairly recent and I wouldn’t say I like jazz in the way that the people who come here probably like jazz…’ — I just said yes. Whereupon he passed me the catalogue of records in his collection and told me to make a request. Seeing the names of dozens of Blue Note luminaries who I had heard of but knew nothing about, I panicked: vaguely I remembered that at some point I had enjoyed an album called Out to Lunch by Eric Dolphy, so I asked for that one, and he put it on.
Unfortunately, what I had not remembered is that Out to Lunch is a transmission from the 1960s avant-garde that has been described as ‘an effort to break our expectations about the very nature of jazz’. In other words, very much not Nina Simone. As Dolphy and his saxophone began assaulting some expectations over the very loud sound system, I looked around thinking, ‘I’m not sure I even like this, so what do they think of it?’ — ‘they’ being the barman and the two patrons other than me — one of whom, to my horror, soon got up and walked out, leaving the other guy, who was sort of nodding along a bit, but in a way that looked more polite than anything else.
I felt that leaving the bar before Out to Lunch had finished would make my choice look even more terroristic, and so, knowing that I was trapped there until all 42 minutes of banging and squawking were over, I ordered a whisky. It was at this point that the barman looked up something in a translation app on his phone, scrupulously copied it out into a notebook, and passed it to me to look at. ‘Please make yourself at home,’ it said.
This incident sums up my time in Japan. I wouldn’t care in the least if some French waiter didn’t like me, but here I was gripped with anxiety because I felt I would rather die than have a single Japanese person find me rude or clumsy… which is completely perverse, since the Japanese are so fathomlessly hospitable and forgiving. It’s very funny to me that Japanese culture is often compared to English culture: sure, maybe both countries are repressed and hierarchical, but the Japanese are repressed and hierarchical and also helpful and nice, which is a really quite significant difference!!! Significant enough in fact that I think the analogy has to be left for dead.
I concede that people who’ve spent more time in Japan, and indeed the Japanese themselves, don’t have such a rosy view of the culture. Scratch the surface and it’s much more complicated. But surfaces are not nothing. By contrast, a well-educated French person may seem quite snooty at first but when you make the effort get to know them you find out they’re really snooty. (I realise the French are coming in for a lot of attacks here, and to any French people reading this, I apologise. Croissants and Jacques Becker are good.)
My terror of putting a foot wrong in Japan came not, I think, from any sense of the country as a minefield of rules and expectations, but rather from the feeling that it would be horribly ungrateful to test the good graces of these people who’ve already given us so many gifts. By which I don’t just mean Masaki Kobayashi and Elden Ring, Tadao Ando and Neon Genesis Evangelion, Rei Kawakubo and shiba inus, but rather a much more general impression that the Japanese improve everything they touch — an impression that is compounded with every minute you spend in the country (including even the time you’re in the airport, a place that we tend to bracket off from our first impressions when travelling, but in this case an opportunity to experience the unbridled joy of operating a Japanese ATM).
Again, even as a Japanophile, I know it’s important not to pedestal-ise the Japanese too much. Otherwise you can end up shrinking them into something distant, untouchable, not fully human, the way men who haven't known many women growing up often regard women. (Not me, though — I'm actually the only living man who went to boys' schools for twelve years who ended up with a totally healthy attitude to the gentler sex. You can tell from my books!) On this trip I read Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami and Bending Adversity by David Pilling, both in their different ways good antidotes to this caricature of modern Japan as a place which has optimised all dysfunction out of existence.
One such dysfunction, as Pilling discusses, is the country’s somewhat gouty economy. Teizo, a volunteer tour guide and former banker who spent a few hours with me one Saturday, explained to me that the Japanese pursuit of perfection, though so attractive to outsiders, is from some angles a symptom of their economic problems; Japan must improve its worker productivity, and in a higher-productivity economy, it may no longer be realistic for someone living in Tokyo to devote himself completely to serving the finest imaginable bowl of miso ramen at an eight-seat ramen bar that’s open five lunchtimes a week.
Of course, that sounds like a tragedy to me, and I won’t be the first person to point out that certain economic metrics seem to miss the point of human existence. All the same, I suppose a high-productivity economy with robots cooking the noodles is still better than what we have in the UK, a low-productivity economy and Pret for lunch, all of the downsides with none of the upsides.
I was a bit disappointed by the food in Japan. I know, I know, that’s blasphemy! Part of it is, my expectations weren’t just sky high, they were out past Neptune, and Japanese food for me was merely somewhere in Saturn’s rings. I’m not saying the food I had was bad — of course I’m not saying that — Japanese food culture is clearly wildly superior to anywhere in the white Western world. But I didn’t feel the same sense of blinding revelation that I did when I first visited Thailand or Mexico or South Korea. I don’t know to what extent this was just personal taste (I happen to prefer khao soi to ramen etc.), to what extent it was bad luck (although it will surprise no one when I say that I do research where I’m going to eat pretty extensively) and to what extent it was that Japanese cooking just exports better, leaving less room for revelation — by which I mean that (for instance) before I visited Mexico for the first time I’d never had anything remotely resembling the barbacoa tacos they sell in the Mercado de Abastos in Oaxaca, but before I visited Japan for the first time I’d already had some pretty good ramen, some pretty good sushi, and so forth. Yes, nearly every bowl of ramen I had in Japan was better than any bowl of ramen I’ve ever had in the West, but it didn’t feel like an entirely different category of thing.
My favourite meal was at Dosanjin, a soba restaurant not far from the famous Gotojuki Temple where they have all the cat statues. Dosanjin is almost a parody of what you want a restaurant in Tokyo to look like: a beautiful room looking out through floor-to-ceiling windows on to an even more beautiful private garden. Along with your basic scallop and vegetable tempura I had two seasonal specials: minced duck in burdock miso and their famous sudachi soba, sudachi being a citrus fruit from Tokushima prefecture in the south of Japan. All of that was great (it’s true what they say about tempura being different in Japan; it didn’t feel like the vegetables had been deep-fried so much as they had just grown like that). But the high point was after I’d finished the food.
Because that was when they brought me a little teapot full of the water the soba noodles had been cooked in, and told me to sip it from a cup, adding, if I wanted, some of the soy sauce I’d been dipping my tempura in. Now, when I say Dosanjin is a soba restaurant, I mean in this case that they source buckwheat seeds directly from a farm on the coast, then shell them, grind them, and make the noodles fresh each morning (I could see the machine from where I was sitting). And this soba water — well, it took me straight back to my childhood in Shinshu in the 1950s, when my doting grandmother would make soba noodles for me even as I could see her arthritic fingers were growing more and more…
No, obviously I didn’t have a childhood in Shinshu. In fact I have no nostalgic connection to soba whatsoever. But at that moment, it felt like I did! This soba water hit me on what I can only describe as an autobiographical level. It made me want to start writing earnest personal essays. I could not believe how good it was, given that it was basically just pasta water! The only other time I’ve experienced this was in Xi’an, another place with a big emphasis on hand-making the noodles on site, where at one hole-in-the-wall restaurant they, likewise, brought me a cup of wheat broth afterwards; I would love to know if this practice has a common ancestor somewhere or whether it developed independently in China and Japan. Anyway, that was fantastic too, but the Dosanjin one was even better, because adding those few drops of soy rounds it off so perfectly.
This was only my second full day in Japan so it did cross my mind that I was just getting carried away with the excitement of it all. But a few days later, in Takasaki, I had lunch at a well-liked local soba restaurant, where they also gave me a teapot full of soba water afterwards, but this time the soba water tasted of absolutely fuck all! So I know I wasn’t just imagining how special Dosanjin was. Meanwhile, in Osaka I went to yet another excellent soba place called Enishi, and there they bring you your cup of soba water at the beginning of the meal and then top it up as if it were a cup of coffee, but that wasn’t as good as either.
There’s one more thing to add about Dosanjin: how expensive are you imagining this meal to be, what with the hand-made noodles, the seasonal specials, the immaculate room, did I mention the restaurant is decorated with ceramic works by the late master potter Yukio Kinoshita etc. etc.? Well, guess what — my lunch cost me the equivalent of £23.64 all in. Unbelievable!
After Tokyo I travelled up to Karuizawa, a resort town in the mountains where a lot of wealthy Tokyoites have second homes. I was there because the Picchio Wildlife Research Center run flying squirrel tours in the bird sanctuary nearby. The tour lasted an hour and in my imagination that entire time would be spent standing in the pine forest gazing up in wonder as dozens of flying squirrels soared and swooped and looped-de-looped. But after we arrived at Picchio (a low curved building with panoramic windows overlooking an artificial lake; of course the Japanese make their wildlife research centres look as elegant as their soba restaurants) our guide sat us down for enjoyable but quite protracted lecture on the world of the flying squirrel, using both videos and props. And I started to feel suspicious. Because it almost seemed like stalling for time. Why were we not already out there watching as the very stars were extinguished by the unbroken canopy of airborne mammals? Well, I soon found out. The guide led us to one of the nest boxes that Picchio have placed in the woods, where a video feed from inside showed a flying squirrel nursing her two kits. Flying squirrels are, like Japanese trains, extraordinarily punctual, so we only had to wait a few more minutes until the mother left the nest box to gather food, as she does every night exactly half an hour after sunset. And then…
The briefest image that the human eye can perceive is one that lasts for about 13 milliseconds. I don’t know how long it took that flying squirrel to glide from that nest box to the nearby copse of trees into which she immediately vanished forever, but I don’t even really have any memory of motion in that drizzly half-light, just of two or three flashes of something overhead. It’s one of those memories so gossamer-thin that I can now never even risk watching a YouTube video of a flying squirrel because I know the video would irreversibly overwrite whatever I have in my head. I had made a 24 hour round trip to Karuizawa for this experience that lasted well under a second.
Was it worth it? Three days earlier I’d had lunch at Udatsu Sushi, a Michelin-starred sushi counter in Nakameguro. Udatsu Sushi offers a lunchtime omakase menu for 13,500 yen, which sushi obsessive regard as a fantastic deal for a restaurant of this quality. I’m inclined to agree because unfortunately I had a second omakase in Tokyo that much more expensive and nowhere near as good. Just seeing Hisashi Udatsu make nigiri was riveting; it had a prestidigitatory quality where no matter how closely you watched you simply could not follow what he was doing with his fingers. And somewhere in the middle there was a run of four of these nigiri — mackerel, sea urchin, squid and lean tuna — that were by far the best pieces of sushi I’ve ever had, or probably ever will have. But everyone knows nigiri has to be eaten in one bite. And so I found myself hunched over, staring at nothing, desperately trying to prolong the experience of each of these mouthfuls, gripping them like a clenched fist, the full unfolding of each taste almost more agonising than pleasurable because that unfolding only heightened the anticipation of its loss. The rest of the meal was pretty good, too, but it didn’t really stick in the mind, so in effect I booked a month in advance and sat there for almost two hours in order to eat four mouthfuls of food.
Well, this is what holidays are about, right? In a recent Vogue interview, Margot Robbie reveals that she queued for three-and-a-half hours to eat at an udon place in Tokyo (which is not named in the article but probably has to be Shin Udon in Shinjuku). Although I am certainly the type of person who might do that kind of thing, I actually, in practice, don’t do that kind of thing, because I can’t imagine queueing all that time for something that’s over so quickly. And yet you get to enjoy your bowl of udon for at least a few minutes, so arguably it’s more rational than either the flying squirrel tour or Udatsu Sushi. The Japanese are known for their appreciation of fleeting pleasures; the reason to value cherry blossom season so highly is precisely because it’s so ephemeral. In the words of the eighteenth-century poet Yosa Buson, ‘The cherry-blossoms having fallen/ The temple belongs/ To the branches.’ But even cherry blossom season lasts a couple of weeks, which is plenty of time to write a haiku! I think my rule in future is that I’ll consider any fleeting pleasure that lasts at least fifteen syllables. But nothing that lasts less than one.
The Sanja Festival in Asakusa
I haven’t seen that many tabis since the last time I had dinner at Toklas!!!!!! (Sorry, I just really wanted to make that joke.)
I do want to note here, for anyone wondering how all this extremely carnivorous content fits with the novel I’ve just published, that at home I eat no more than two or three non-vegan meals a month. But when I’m travelling, all bets are off. If that makes me a moral weakling, so be it.
Soba: Dosanjin in Tokyo and Enishi in Osaka, as described.
Sushi: Sushi Udatsu in Tokyo, as described.
Ramen: my favourite of the many bowls I had, bearing in mind that for reasons outlined above I didn’t go to any of the famous and oversubscribed ones, was probably at Do Miso in Kyobashi, Tokyo. I also want to mention a place called Kubo Champon in Tottori, which had the richest chicken broth I've ever tasted, although as it says in the name, it's champon, which is technically a different dish that I've never tried outside Japan.
Yakitori: Toriki in Shinagawa, Tokyo. If I’ve ever had better fried chicken it’s not coming to mind. Please note that there is also a Michelin-starred restaurant called Toriki in Kinshicho, and that may well be good too but it’s not the one I’m talking about. At this Toriki, which is very much not Michelin-starred, they don’t have room for a deep fryer behind the bar so when you order karage a phone call is made and some time later a woman comes through the front door with a plate of it under some newspaper. I also want to mention Sumisu in Osaka, not so much because of the food — although the tsukune I had was excellent — but because it’s open 7pm to 5am and even at 7:30pm on a Saturday the atmosphere was effervescent so I cannot even imagine how much fun this place is at 2 in the morning. Osaka and Tokyo, like Seoul and New York, are cities that very much seem built around giving people what they want, as opposed to London, a city built around grimly withholding it.
Ice cream: Hio Ice Cream Atelier in Setagaya, Tokyo. This place is only open Saturdays and Sundays between 1pm and 6pm, so in addition to the terrific ice cream there is a considerable sense of accomplishment in having managed to get some.
Patisserie: Acidracines in Osaka.
Bar: Players Bar R in Tokyo, as described. Rogin’s Bar in Osaka, which you can read about here. Bar Comptoir in Okayama.