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Trip 13 -- Japan

Message 2: Crickets and silkworms and bears (and temples and castles and shrines)

From: <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Sent: Tue, 09 Mar 2010 10:11:01
Subject: Japan update #2: Crickets and silkworms and bears (and temples and castles and shrines)

Five trains and 15 hours after I left Sapporo, zing, boom, the snow was gone, it was 15 degrees warmer, and I no longer needed gloves and two layers of sweaters. It was still nice to have intact shoes, though. I was back in Honshu, ready to take in its castles, temples, and shrines.

Kanazawa's best attraction is its garden, Kenroku-en (and, for a gadget geek like me, the clock outside the train station, whose digits are made up of spraying water). The garden has the same grandeur as Kairaku-en in Mito, but while the Mito garden was intimate and isolated, with dense patches of forest, the Kanazawa garden had more-varied pathways and points of interest: a high fountain, a tea house, a large statue, a sacred well. Many of the trees had ropes suspending their branches -- a process called yukizuri, to keep the heavy snow from breaking the branches during the winter. The garden is near the remains of Kanazawa Castle, approached via an imposing white 18th-century gate.

Kanazawa also has two atmospheric historic districts: Nagamachi, a street with old samurai houses flanked by two canals, and Higashi Chaya-gai, an area of 19th-century geisha houses. The houses are still in great condition, and I enjoyed a stroll through the narrow streets, trying to imagine the sights of geisha beckoning from the second-floor terraces and the sounds of shamisens (three-stringed guitars) being played inside.

The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in a five-year-old stocky cylindrical glass building, gave me something to do in the early dark hours after the other places of interest had closed. The best installation, worth the price of admission alone, was Olafur Eliasson's "Red-green-blue space," simply a fog-filled room lit from above with light filling the color spectrum. I'd walk around and watch the color seem to change in front of me, or I'd watch someone else fade away in the fog. In another exhibit, Hori Takayuki's origami skeletons of animals, each marred by an intruding object that the animal had consumed (a toothbrush, a lighter, a bottle), gave me pause. Other than that, few of the exhibits compelled me to spend the time to figure them out, but maybe I was just hungry.

Kanazawa's bustling food market, Omichi, is part fish market and part ready-to-eat market, with a few places to sit down. I still couldn't get enough of those huge scallops, which were available grilled on skewers, and I had a wonderful lunch by just walking around and trying whatever seemed appealing. For dinner, I did the same in town, having a couple of small dishes at one place and then letting my ears guide me into a fun-sounding izakaya. I took the only available seat at the bar and immediately made friends with people presenting me with "presents" of small food plates. First it was skewered pork, then a dish of tofu (courtesy of an employee of a tofu company); then I tried the horse sashimi (which seemed a little lighter than beef), and the dishes kept coming, accompanied by much sake and laughter as we tried to understand each other. Alas, I was staying at a ryokan (traditional inn) with an 11:00 closing time, so I wasn't able to join them for karaoke after -- perhaps a good thing!

The Hida train winds its way between mountains toward Nagoya, along the Miya River. It crosses the river frequently, allowing passengers on both sides good views of the green water and white rapids, and the front car has no partition between the passengers and the driver, allowing for a view of the track ahead. Because of all the curves, it's not a fast train; it grunts and groans as if excess weight has been put upon it, but it is a beautiful ride. The usual Japanese punctuality succumbs to nature here, and my train arrived in Takayama 15 minutes late.

Takayama is another beautiful place with old merchant homes and samurai houses, sitting under a hill lined with temples. Part of the city's attractiveness lies in the fact that there are no tall buildings in the center, and most buildings are in traditional styles. Twice a year, a dozen or so three-story-high floats parade around the town. I wasn't there at the right time, but a few of them were on display in a museum -- along with a 2.5-ton portable shrine that required 80 people of the same height to carry it! Many of the floats contain puppets, and a nearby museum provided me with a puppet show exhibiting the various kinds of magic that can be made with strings and pulleys. One concealed woman pulled strings to make a puppet write "Hida Takayama" in black marker -- quite a feat!

Just outside the center of town, up a winding, hilly road, I enjoyed an afternoon at Hida-no-Sato (Hida being the mountainous area containing Takayama, named after the river that flows south). This open-air museum exhibits about 30 traditional houses and other buildings from the Hida region: merchant houses, farmhouses, storehouses, etc., from the past 300 years. Noteworthy features included steep roofs and strong beams as protection from the snow, plus a continuous fire intended to keep out insects, control humidity, and strengthen the ropes holding the wooden planks together. (The museum still keeps a fire going in each house.) Roofs were originally made of wooden shingles weighted down with stones, and a special exhibit described the shingle-cutting process. Other exhibits explained the breeding of silkworms and the use of sledges in the winter.

Mountainous Hida isn't known for its fish, but there are plenty of local specialties. Mountain vegetables and handmade soba (buckwheat noodles) made the perfect lunch. And Hida's beef is top-notch, if not as well-known as Kobe's. At one restaurant, I chose my beef cut from a counter and then grilled it at my table. Every piece was tender and savory. The manager came out and pointed to a photograph of cows. "That's my farm," he said.

I stayed at a temple in Takayama that sets aside rooms for travelers. It was freezing (being up around those mountains and all), but a space heater made the experience comfortable. I did my laundry one evening at the temple. They had a single machine that both washed and dried its contents -- a brilliant idea -- but the electronic display told me it would take three hours and twenty minutes before I'd be able to put on clothes again. At the appointed time I checked the machine, and it had added 23 minutes to the cycle. I had to stop the machine prematurely if I wanted to have dinner. The clothes were perfectly dry, if still very hot, and I enjoyed putting on warm pants and going for a grill-my-own-chicken dinner near Takayama Station.

I'd looked forward to hiking part of the Nakasendo, the old post road that led from Tokyo (then Edo) to Kyoto. The 7.7-kilometer hike (or 8.3 kilometers, depending on which signs you read) from Magome to Tsumago leads to the top of a mountain pass and then descends through cedar and bamboo forest, past many waterfalls, to the post town of Tsumago. The hike took longer than expected, mainly because I found myself transfixed by all those waterfalls and streams, wondering where they led to. And it wasn't until halfway through the hike, in the middle of the forest, that I saw signs warning of bears. This was early March, a time when the hungry bears would just be coming out of hibernation. At my inn in Tsumago, the welcome guide suggested that hikers on the Nakasendo wear bells to alert any bears of their presence.

Most buildings in Tsumago are two stories and are either a couple of centuries old or were reconstructed to look a couple of centuries old. It's basically just one street, with a couple of side and back alleys, and a temple high on a hill with a good view of all those roofs (some are still made of shingles held down by stones) and the Araragi River. There's not much to do but walk along the main street, enjoying the feeling of being transported back to the early 1800s.

I stayed in a traditional house called Shimosagaya, which I chose in part because some Internet research revealed that they served crickets with dinner, though the novelty was tempered somewhat when I found the same crickets at a grocery store a few buildings away. The Shimosagaya was down an alley off the main road, and my room had a terrace overlooking the river. When I had a look around town, I walked the alley along the river and saw a frowning teenager come out of the Shimosagaya. She lit a cigarette and hid her mobile phone from my view. I wondered if she knew I was staying there.

Dinner was early -- six o'clock. I went down to the dining room, and I had the room to myself. There was a big tray with many small dishes: the aforementioned crickets (or grasshoppers -- there's some controversy), salmon sashimi, tempura of mountain vegetables, another plate with mountain vegetables, a whole barbecued river trout, some pickled vegetables, clear soup with a mushroom and a fish cake, soba, rice, and chestnut mochi (rice cake). I took my time, savoring every bite.

Behind me, the family of Shimosagaya ate. From what I could tell, they were six: the parents (the mother welcomed me when I arrived); Surly Teen; Younger Sister (a girl about seven, who found me wandering through the halls and looked at me a little suspiciously); Baby; and Older Brother. They dined in the room behind where I was eating, and their conversation and laughter made me a little lonely staring at the walls in the guest dining room.

After dinner, I had a walk around town. If Tsumago was beautiful in the daylight, with people selling street food and souvenirs, it was doubly beautiful at night, illuminated only by paper lanterns, some plain, some bearing their establishments' names. It wasn't much after seven o'clock. I walked the length of the main street four times -- for almost an hour -- and saw no one except a man across the river and a man in the back alley; both went into their homes and turned off the lights. Other than that, only the faint chatter inside the homes, the faint clatter of dinner bowls, and the presence of cars tightly parked in driveways confirmed that this wasn't a ghost town. I was sure I was the only guest at Shimosagaya; I began to wonder if I was the only guest in Tsumago!

I waited for Little Sister and Baby to finish their bath and then I had mine, in one of those wonderful hot baths that provide the finishing touch to a night in a ryokan. Then I went outside on my terrace and read "After Dark": Haruki Murakami's novel of psychologically curious characters involving a Tokyo love hotel, a Chinese prostitute, a matter-of-fact woman, and her disturbed older sister. As I read, I looked down and saw Dad and a woman -- maybe Mom, maybe Surly Teen -- have their nighttime smoke in the back alley. I fell asleep listening to the deafening rush of the river, which was made stronger by the hydroelectric power plant a little way up.

I had breakfast alone in the dining room as well, listening to more family merriment behind me. Then I went upstairs, gathered my things, and watched Older Brother have his smoke alone behind the house. I had one more walk around the town -- it never got old -- and then left just as Surly Teen was puffing another cigarette outside.

I followed the Nakasendo another 3.7 kilometers to Nagiso, where I caught a series of trains to Matsumoto. The best part of Matsumoto -- according to the tourist guides -- is its 16th-century castle. During the Meiji era, around the turn of the 20th century, there was a movement to destroy all connections to Japan's feudal past. Most of the castle was demolished, but through petition the main building was saved, and the original layout of the town, featuring a series of moats -- the higher your rank, the farther in toward the castle you were allowed to live -- remains.

The best part of Matsumoto from my point of view was the unusual food. I'd already had the crickets, or grasshoppers, in Tsumago, and restaurants in Matsumoto gave me the chance to try lugworms, silkworms, and bee larvae (in order from crunchiest to squishiest). Most of their flavor came from the sweet soy-based sauce they were stewed in -- when I licked the sauce off, the lugworms tasted more or less like cardboard -- but I did like the silkworms' satisfying initial crunch, followed by a pate-like ooze.

Near Matsumoto is the town of Hotaka, the location of a 15-hectare wasabi farm that's open to the public. Wasabi is a short plant, a little bigger than mint, with veiny leaves, and it's grown in rows of flooded fields. It didn't take long to commit that sight to memory, but there were plenty of activities and sampling opportunities at the Daioh Wasabi Farm. I started the tour off with a wasabi croquette. Then I got to try making suibe, a kind of preserved-wasabi spread made from chopped wasabi stems and roots and a paste called zakekasu. And I had a meal consisting of a wasabi root that I grated over rice -- this was the best and strongest way to taste it, even better than biting into the root directly. I washed this down with wasabi beer, and then on the way out I had some wasabi ice cream.

This was the night that I couldn't get a reservation for the overnight train to Osaka. I'd planned to go to Nagano for the afternoon and then catch the overnight train, but without a reservation I figured I'd better head to Niigata, where the train's journey commenced, and stake out a spot. So I spent just a couple of hours in Nagano, enough to visit Zenko-ji, a temple featuring a particularly liberal sect of Buddhism.

The temple was originally built in 642 but was destroyed by fire almost a dozen times in the following millennium; at that point they moved it out of a residential area and up a hill and added a "Wet Jizo" (fire-preventing protective statue); that seems to have done the trick, as the current structure dates from 1707 and is in good shape. The highlight was a visit downstairs, where I walked along a twisting, pitch-black tunnel until I found a key hanging on the right-hand wall; this promised me a trip to paradise.

It certainly worked, for not only did I have a good meal in Niigata including "whale-tongue bacon," but I had four seats to myself on the overnight to Osaka. The Kitaguni is probably Japan's least-inspiring train. It pulled in 30 minutes before departure so that passengers could claim seats, and I was ready to pounce, along with a few others. All the non-reserved seats were in groups of four, two by two facing each other. The seats weren't particularly comfortable to sit in, and the train seemed old and dirty. But I needn't have worried. Taking a cue from another passenger, I lay across two seats with my legs perpendicular and my feet on the facing seat, and I passed out until an announcement woke everyone up at 6:00, shortly before our arrival in Osaka.

I based myself in Osaka for three out of the next four days (the third day I'd spend at a very special ryokan in Kyoto) at a dirt-cheap hotel only a minute's walk from a JR station and two subway lines in the south part of Osaka. The Hotel Chuo was certainly good enough at 2500 yen a night, including a refrigerator, free LAN access, and a TV screen in the elevator that continuously showed a 10-second loop advertising the hotel's in-room-video service. The Chuo had friendly managers, too. One gave me a towel as soon as I walked in and insisted I shower before my room was ready (maybe he was hinting at something). The hotel was a few minutes' walk to Den Den Town (Osaka's main shopping area for electronics) and two subway stops from the main nightlife area, or a 25-minute walk after the trains stopped for the night.

Osaka is very close to Himeji, Kobe, Nara, and Kyoto, and that first day I took in Himeji and Kobe. (So did a couple of other tourists -- an Indian man and his non-Indian wife or girlfriend -- whom I began to notice following the same route as I was. I've seen surprisingly few tourists in Japan who weren't from eastern Asia.) Himeji is Japan's finest castle, and the six stories of the main building feature straight sides and graceful curves -- a nod to power and beauty. It was built in 1580, shortly after firearms were introduced, and so the walls feature holes appropriately shaped to allow for guns and arrows to be shot through them.

Kobe doesn't have many tourist attractions except for its beef, but it does have a Chinatown with overpriced street food. I made the mistake of assuming that everyone was queueing up for the best dumplings in town. I waited a few minutes along with everyone else. They were pretty good, but not 270-yen-for-three-little-ones good. But then again, the Americans did destroy the old Chinatown in 1945 and it was only rebuilt in 1981, so I figured it would be noble of me to buy something there.

Kobe also has a posh, hilly area called Kitano. I was surprised cars could make it up those narrow, steep roads, most of which eventually fizzle out, allowing only walkers and the hardiest of motorcycle riders to continue upward. And much as it was fun to check out the upper floors of elevator buildings in Sapporo, it was fun to walk up some of these little streets in Kitano and see what was there.

One street contains the Ohel Shelomo Synagogue. I didn't expect there to be a Jewish presence in Kobe, but I peeked in and, as it was Friday, I asked the people inside if there was a service that night. "Six-thirty," one said. "Shabbat shalom."

During the intervening hours I rode the cable car up the mountain behind Kitano for pretty views of Kobe and the sea to the south. As I entered the cable car to go up, the couple including the Indian man were coming back down.

Ohel Shelomo seemed to be an Orthodox temple -- the one woman and (I assume) her daughter were relegated to a back area -- but they didn't object to my carrying my bag inside. The synagogue is 40 years old and most of the congregation -- which was about 14 people on Friday -- were men in their late 20s or early 30s. One was from Israel and had come to Japan to learn martial arts. Another was from Seattle and had a business helping expatriates settle in Japan. They were the second-generation congregation, as it were; the original members had been wealthy and founded the synagogue in Kitano because they lived nearby, but the current members couldn't afford the area.

The service was all in Hebrew and lasted about an hour; the congregation members took turns chanting, except when everyone sang together. It was a festive service -- the group singing was done with vigor, sometimes with people walking around and clapping in emphasis. The acting rabbi gave a commentary about the Torah portion, but they never actually produced a Torah.

The service ended at 7:30 and then they asked me to stay for dinner in the back hall. There was a sumptuous array of 14 Israeli dishes on the tables -- hummus, tahini, carrot salad, avocado salad, and the like -- and they had been so welcoming and easy to talk to; how could I resist? "Just for a few minutes," I said.

"What's the rush to get back to Osaka?" the man from Seattle asked. "There are plenty of trains."

"Well, the truth is...I have dinner reservations."

I'd reserved a place at Wakkoqu, a renowned Kobe-beef restaurant near Kitano. I was supposed to be there at 8:00. I apologized for having to depart, and I wanted to discreetly leave a 1000-yen donation to the synagogue, but all I had were big notes. So I took out all the change from my pocket -- 850 yen -- and put it in the donation box as I left. The coins clanged their way down, pachinko-style, rousing the diners. I thanked them for their hospitality and we exchanged gracious good-byes.

It was already 8:00. I ran to Wakkoqu, fearing they'd give away my table, and I burst through the door at 8:15.

I was the only customer in the restaurant.

They sat me in the center of a long table facing the grill -- Wakkoqu's chefs prepare steaks right in front of the customers. I tried to remember whether this was the place I'd been to 17 years before. The rounded table edges and the grilling areas looked familiar, but maybe all the big steakhouses in Kobe look that way.

Prices for Kobe steaks are sky-high, but once every 17 years I figure it's worth it. I asked whether the waitress recommended the sirloin or the tenderloin, and she said the sirloin was better. Then she asked if I wanted "a little more fat," and she directed me toward the special sirloin. It was 13,700 yen, and I paired it with a $10 glass of California red wine that was so skimpy I did a double-take.

As soon as the waitress took my order, she left for the night.

There was soft classical piano music playing in the background -- an abrupt change from the boisterous meal over at the synagogue. The chef came out and prepared a few dips for the steak: plain salt, plain pepper, vinegar, and mustard and soy sauce. First he grilled some garlic, a good topping for the steak. Then he cut the steak into pieces along the fat lines. He cooked the meaty pieces and cut them up for me; then he cooked the fat separately, grilling it until it was crispy. There was one special piece of meat that he saved for the end, sort of a crown on the whole cut; it seemed to have a fuller taste than the rest, but it was the last piece to savor, so maybe that was in my head.

It was delicious, but I would have preferred a leaner cut -- all that fat seemed to get in the way of the meat. And I don't have the most discerning palate for steak, but the Hida beef I'd had in Takayama was certainly comparable -- and about $100 cheaper. I do know that if I find myself in Kobe on a Friday night 17 years from now, I might just head on over to the synagogue and indulge in Israeli food. I'd certainly have better company.

Nara was Japan's capital for 75 years in the eighth century, until a scandal involving a priest and an empress led the court to move the capital to less-dodgy quarters in Kyoto. Buddhism flourished in Nara, and there are many shrines and temples. One temple is the world's largest wooden building, and its highlight is a 50-foot-high bronze Buddha. At one shrine I caught the end of a Shinto wedding. And I saw the couple with the Indian man again.

The park containing these buildings also has more than a thousand deer. Most of them are used to being around tourists. To get away from the crowds, I took a pathway toward something called the Deer House. It seemed to be an empty wooden building -- maybe the deer were all outside. The pathway seemed to end, so I walked along the building, trying to get back to the main road. Suddenly I heard a noise, and I looked through the narrow opening between the slats in the fence on my right. There were hundreds of deer, all frozen, staring at me. I took a few more steps and looked through another opening, and they remained still but had turned their heads to follow my moves. It wasn't until I was beyond the fence and out of their sight that they started to move again.

Osaka is a very built-up city -- so built-up that a highway runs right through the middle floors of a building. The city has a few shopping arcades, some specializing in categories of merchandise. Den Den Town had six-story buildings of consumer electronics, most of which I was familiar with. Then there were smaller stores of audio-visual supplies, CDs and DVDs, and all the nuts and bolts required to put things together. One store sold shelving units for stereo systems. And there were a few giant stores devoted to kids' toys and anime, including one called Astro Zombies of Rockin' Toyland.

More interesting to me was the Doguya-suji arcade, lined with stores selling cooking supplies. Osaka's main street food is takoyaki (golf-ball-sized pieces of octopus), and its main substantial meal is okonomiyaki, which is like an egg-and-cabbage-filled giant pancake that can be customized with additional fillings such as octopus, pork, scallops, and cheese, and topped with a sweet sauce and mayonnaise. So if I had the space in my backpack, I might have returned home from Doguya-suji with a takoyaki fryer, an okonomiyaki grill, a contraption for making taiyaki (fish-shaped sweet waffles), an ice slicer, a red lantern to put outside my restaurant, and a few signs saying "Open," "Closed," and "Toilet." And maybe a few pieces of plastic sushi to lure customers in. They're expensive at around $10 per piece, but they do last longer than real sushi.

Sapporo had its elevators, Kobe had its hills, and Osaka's Dotombori district has its alleys. Narrow alleys with red lanterns and colored lit-up signs at night, all beckoning me to go investigate. It was hard to penetrate the Osaka nightlife, because almost every place, it seemed, was a restaurant or charged a big entry fee or didn't have anyone inside. Sometimes even the places charging big entry fees had no one inside, making me wonder how they stayed in business.

The solution was to go out hungry and make a night of trying different foods. That didn't happen after my two-dinner Israeli-and-Kobe-beef evening, but the following night I got the hang of it. I started with some takoyaki near my hotel, then had an okonomiyaki by the Dotombori River.

And then I found my hangout in Osaka: a tiny sushi bar called Sushi Ichiban, down a narrow alley. It had room for only about seven people to stand, and the sushi was cheap and no-frills. The fish were listed on a board, and each serving of two pieces was 200, 300, or 400 yen. Each order was served on a plate colored according to the price, and the waiter added up the bill by counting the plates of each color. There were boxes of serve-yourself radish and a few jars of soy sauce with brushes -- you just painted it onto the fish. And there was beer and sake, too. A TV was tuned to a corny comedy program. It was run by two friendly guys, Mi-san and Katchan. I vowed to return there a couple of days later if I could find it again.

In between I'd spend a day and a half in Kyoto -- not nearly enough to do it justice, but I got a good sampling of temples. The highlight for me, though, was a night at a ryokan called the Tawaraya. This was a treat from my parents, who stayed there 28 years ago. The Tawaraya is an almost-300-year-old ryokan that's been in the same family for 11 generations -- and I am now a second-generation Tawaraya guest. It's located on a street called Fuyacho, which is named after Japanese wheat gluten, called fu (as in tofu) -- long ago, this was a food-market area.

The Tawaraya makes a point of feeling as little like a hotel as possible. There isn't even really a reception area -- just a small concierge desk around a corner as you enter. I took off my shoes and a man whisked them away, offering me slippers. It was too early to check in, so I was brought to the "lobby" -- really just a small seating area -- where I was served tea and asked questions about my meal preferences. Any allergies? Do you like fish? What time do you want dinner and breakfast? What would you like to drink with dinner? Do you want a Japanese breakfast or a Western breakfast?

After communicating that I'd dine at 7:00 (close to the latest option of 7:30) with cold sake and have a Japanese breakfast at 8:00, I prepared to go outside and my shoes magically reappeared, facing toward the exit. It was raining lightly, and a man offered me an umbrella. "No, thanks," I said, as I put my hood on. The umbrella man bowed as I left. When I had gone 30 or 40 paces, I looked around. He was still there, and he bowed again.

I had lunch by sampling things at the nearby Nishiki Market. The skewered eel liver was noteworthy, but the real thrill was checking out all the local pickled vegetables, most of which I'm sure I won't see outside of Kyoto. Many vendors had toothpicks or tongs for sampling, and the colors and textures of the various radishes and seaweed were as varied as the temples I'd see that afternoon.

I returned to the Tawaraya to check in at 2:00, and I was shown to my L-shaped room on the second floor. It's the only place I've ever stayed where I was given a map of my room. This is because they try to make it still feel and look like it did 300 years ago, so anything introduced more recently is concealed. The telephone was hidden under a yellow cloth. The TV set came out from behind a sliding door in the wall. The remote control for the heating unit was in a closet, and I had to guess where to aim it. A man brought up a modem and spent five minutes assembling it so that I could have a LAN connection. While he did that, a woman served me tea and we confirmed my meal times.

The bottom of the "L" was the dining area by day and the sleeping area by night; the side of the "L" was a sitting area with a depressed, heated niche for my legs and a window looking out onto bamboo trees and the eave across the way. At the top of the "L," separated by curtains and a sliding door, were the toilet and shower and my own private bath.

Other than that, the room was pretty bare, except for a hanging scroll, two flowers in a vase attached to the wall, a raised altar area with an incense burner, a shelving unit for a tea set, a space heater, and a pretty wooden box in the corner that turned into a reading lamp at night. The room was elegantly understated and comfortable.

Fortunately the Tawaraya is a place to spend the night, and not a place to spend the afternoon, so I got to head out and visit all those temples, or as many as I had the energy for. There are 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites in Kyoto. How could I choose?

Luckily, a few of them are located along a convenient route in the eastern part of the city. Higashi Hongan-ji also claims to be the largest building in the world; Kodai-ji had impressive gardens; Shoren-in has some fine interior paintings; Chion-in is an example of grandeur all around. And Kiyomizu-dera had lots of auspicious activities to ensure a prosperous life. I walked through a twisting, dark tunnel -- symbolically entering the womb of "the merciful mother" -- and, at the end of the maze, turned a glowing stone bearing the fate-improving Sanskrit "hara" character. I rubbed bronze statues for good luck. I forwent a drink of holy water, mainly because the line was very long, and I didn't close my eyes and walk ten meters between two love stones to ensure a successful love life. As they say, sometimes success in love requires guidance, and I didn't have an English-speaking navigator handy.

On the way back to the Tawaraya, I walked through the Gion district, an area of traditional entertainment in secluded two-story bamboo-hidden houses, and saw "the whitened face of an apprentice geisha slipping like a ghost into a waiting taxi." That's how Pico Iyer describes it in "The Lady and the Monk," in which he ups and moves to Kyoto to become a monk with little more than the shirt on his back. (Don't worry, Mom and Dad, I'm not contemplating the same!)

I arrived back at the Tawaraya hoping to have enough time to shower: this would be food that demanded the respect of a clean diner. I had 20 minutes to spare, but there was a knock on the door. Were they early? No, they had seen me come in and were bringing me tea. I took my quick shower and slipped into my yukata, and then the dinner began.

It was a two-hour, seven course affair served in my room by a woman in a green kimono. She'd knock every 20 minutes or so and I'd wonder what kind of tray she'd be carrying and what was in the little dishes. She'd kneel on the floor and explain them, sometimes going out and returning with clarification if necessary.

First up: an aperitif of sweet white sake, and a tray of three little dishes: lightly battered shrimp with lima-bean like green beans and a miso paste; a mousse made of peas; and a warm, congee-like tofu custard with bits of fish inside. Then, some hirame (halibut) sashimi -- not the most exciting fish, light and a little chewy. The third course was a clear soup with a disc of tai (snapper) cake wrapped around yuba (that tofu skin I had in Nikko).

Next came a box with three skewers of dengaku (hot, fruity miso-cake skewers); cooked ainame (greenling) wrapped around a kind of celery; fukinoto (Butterbur sprout -- a mashed, leafy green similar to spinach); and shoga (a gingery red scallion). Then another box with steamed rice mixed with clams and topped with shredded egg.

Then a steaming bowl of soup arrived, containing wakame (seaweed), takenoko (bamboo shoots), and shirauo (whitebait). Winding down, there was octopus sashimi with a mint vinaigrette and a small broccoli-like vegetable, some pickled vegetables, rice, and tea. Dessert was ichigo -- strawberries in a sweet, transparent, gelatinous mold.

After dinner, I retired to the study for about 15 minutes so that they could clear the dinner set and table and lay out my futon for the night. The study contained lots of books on art and architecture, the 2951-page Funk & Wagnalls dictionary from 1927, and a magnetic Scrabble set from the 1950s (I happen to have the same set). I leafed through a book on photos of old Hong Kong until I was summoned back to my room, where I had a bath and lay down for a very peaceful rest.

Breakfast came all on one tray: seaweed salad, pickled vegetables, two whole cooked sandfish, and a most interesting three-part box. One part contained a steaming broth with tofu, shiitake, and yuba; another contained a cylindrical pitcher of dashi (bonito broth); and the third held a fire for keeping everything warm. (I saw this same kind of contraption in the Doguya-suji kitchenware arcade in Osaka for $300!) On the side were shredded radish, nori (seaweed flakes), aghe (bread-crumb-like flakes), and scallion, to add to the soup. There was a yogurt drink to wash this all down; miso soup with tiny clams; and, of course, rice.

I said good-bye to the Tawaraya, and they bowed as I left. I had a little walk through the park around the imperial palace and then walked up to Daitoku-ji, a park that contains several Zen temples and a bamboo forest, before heading back to Osaka.

For my last restaurant-hopping meal in Osaka I started with kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi. I tried it at a place in New York about 10 years ago and wasn't impressed, but it was much better in Osaka with a full room of diners and a full belt of 130-yen dishes, most with two pieces of sushi. I was planning to have just a couple of dishes and move on, but, you guessed it, I let the frenzy get the better of me. The guy to my right was clearly a professional; he grunted urgently and frequently, and I always feared he would take the plates that I wanted. The immediate gratification was addictive. Want the yellowtail? Get it before it spins away! Wait, are those scallops? Don't you dare reach for them; I'm grabbing them! Hey, here comes some eel!

Eleven dishes later, I went onto the street for an outdoor okonomiyaki, and then I found a tiny Malaysian bar-restaurant called Kenny's Asia. I didn't eat, but I tried some Japanese whiskey. Then it was time to try to find my sushi bar again.

I'd written down "Turn at Gamba," but that wasn't quite it. So here's how to get there, if you're ever in Osaka. Going west along the north side of Sennichimae-dori (the street above Namba Walk, with a highway above it), about halfway between Nipponbashi and Namba stations, just west of Sennichi-mae Arcade, there's a men's-clothing store called Gamba. Take the next right into a tiny alley. About three storefronts up on the right is Sushi Ichiban.

Mi-san and Katchan were there again, and they recognized me. "Oh, hello!" Mi-san said. He introduced me to a couple new fish that he thought I'd like.

"I'm thirty-seven," Katchan said. "How old are you?"

"Thirty-five," I said.

"Twenty-five?" Mi-san said, counting on his fingers. I was flattered, hopefully at his disbelief rather than his uncertainty with English.

Katchan said, "And Mi-san is forty, fifty--"

Mi-san cut him off with his hand.

"What's your job?" Katchan asked.

"I play the piano," I said, demonstrating in the air.

"Oh! Star master," he said. He mimicked playing Beethoven's Fifth on the sushi bar. "Bah-bah-bah-baaaaah!"

"Tonight is my last night in Osaka. Tomorrow I'm going to Beppu."

"Do you have business there?" Mi-san asked.

"No, I'm on holiday. I'm going to the hot springs."

"Ah!" Katchan said. "Beppu has hot girls."

"That's good to know," I said.

The sushi bar started to fill up -- it took only a few people to accomplish this. That night the TV was showing sumo wrestling. A man in a black leather jacket came in. "Cowboy!" Katchan said.

Well, again, I wasn't very hungry, and I thought I'd have just a plate or two. But not surprisingly, I had seven. "That's all," I said. "Time to go home." We exchanged good-byes and I walked down the alley to the subway.

I'm going to miss that little sushi bar. I felt like I'd become a regular, and I hope it's still there, with the same people, if I'm ever back in Osaka. But it was time to head south to Kyushu and try to summon the spring.


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