Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Japanese food wonders

Arriving in Fukuoka I had a great start to a stay in Japan. The weather was wonderful, sunny and 25 degrees -- quite a difference to Beijing that had already started getting cold. And the country is spotlessly clean, which still doesn't seize to amaze me, partly because they have very few rubbish bins. So I guess people just carry their garbage with them for miles, or then they don't snack while walking like yours truly. Either way, I started up my walk and as soon as I ended up at the first shrine I got to witness a school children's sumo wrestling competition! It was fun, I've never seen sumo wrestling live nor such young and small wrestlers. But they still had cheerleaders!

The destination of my walk was unsurprisingly a vegetarian restaurant. Or at least what was at the time listed as a vegetarian restaurant in happycow (they've included my update by now), Ruru. I was served a very nice Chinese style vegan lunch, well, vegan by my request, but when I went back there the next day I was told they don't have vegetarian food at dinner time. But at the time I was happy about it, not knowing of their meaty dinners. Their service was fine though, and when I was told they didn't have dinner for me they did give me even a map to the other supposedly vegetarian place in town, the macrobiotic cafe. But it was closed at the time.

The nicest thing about Fukuoka though, IMHO, was the park near the restaurant. It was so lovely to just sit there in the sunshine and watch the water birds and the joggers going by. I read later it was designed to resemble the West Lake in Hangzhou, China, and indeed there is a bit of a resemblance to a miniature West Lake. Wouldn't have minded just sitting there for a few days.

And here's my favourite Japanese invention. Yes, it's a toilet seat, but notice the faucet at the top. Thing is, when you flush the toilet, the new water to fill the tank comes via this faucet, so you can wash your hands with it before it makes it to the tank. Saves water, and the water will be clean enough for flushing the toilet even after one has washed their hands in it. Brilliant!

A night bus onwards to save a little money (transport costs a ton in Japan!) and I arrived in Hiroshima. I was quite happy to see everything was within in a walking distance from the bus station -- and no, I don't mean just my walking distance, things really were nearby! The castle was ok, and the a-bomb dome... well, to truly get the meaning of the dome you have to visit the museum in Peace park. Even after all this time it really is moving. They have pictures before and after the bomb, as well as videos and artifacts and wax people who look so much like zombies from movies you'd think they had just made those up. But then you see the old pictures and realise that really is how the survivors were. It's scary, and may well make you cry. Much recommended visit though, especially to politicians and anyone in favour of nuclear weapons.

However, despite desperately wanting a shower I didn't stay in Hiroshima, possibly because of another disappointing restaurant visit. I went to Shichida Life Cafe, which happycow also listed as vegetarian at the time. It's a buffet but most of their foods did contain meat or fish. Rice and tofu for lunch, not highly exciting and certainly not worth the price. Instead I took the afternoon bus to Kobe, night buses were full. It's kind of disturbing about the Japanese night buses anyway, they go slower so that they wouldn't arrive too early, but the way they go slow is by stopping somewhere in the middle and keeping their engines running! Goodness, why not just turn the engine off when the bus is going to stand there for an hour or two?!

The bus arrived too late for the hostel, so I decided one should try the capsule hotels in Japan. I found one, got my capsule at a cost a bit higher than a Japanese hostel (which means the price of a fancy 4 star hotel in most of Asia) and was delighted to find that the capsule was actually relatively spaceous and comfortable. Besides, you get a spa for the same price, several hot and cold baths and a sauna. Pretty nice actually, but these places are usually for men only.

I failed to find any food in Kobe either (and the Japanese put whey even in flippin' peanuts! Not all of them, but some brands list that in ingredients. Don't ask me why, I'm just happy they use Chinese characters so I can recognise it), so I just took up and went to Kyoto as I saw a large number of entries in happycow. Finding accommodation was a bit challenging though, apparently it was the start of a long weekend due to some public holiday and everything was full. I did find a place eventually though, and it was quite a nice Japanese style hostel too, called Roro or something of the kind.

But the real find of Kyoto came a couple of hours later. I went on a search for the first vegan restaurant on the list, Café Proverbs 15:17. It's located right at the crossroads at Hyakumanben, near Kyoto University. However, I didn't see it at first and decided to ask a group of students. University students surely speak English, no? I asked them, and the answer came immediately: no. So I went to a second group of about 10 students and asked if any of them speak English. "No" came back right away. But I decided to be persistant, showed them the address and asked if they'd know where it is. One girl got up and showed me the way, speaking perfectly good English. Japanese politeness, eh?

In any case, the café is absolutely amazing, one of the best restaurants I've ever been to anywhere! It's totally vegan, the food is so good the thought makes my mouth water right now despite eating tons just a moment ago, and they even have yummy cakes for dessert! At dinner time you get to choose from 3 alternative set meals of the day, I was really tempted by the tempeh sandwich but went for the soymilk ramen instead, in a decision to have something Japanese for once. I can't stress too much how good the food is, and the service is wonderful also. Wish I could eat there every day.

Next day it was time for sightseeing in Kyoto. After a few temples and shrines I went to the old imperial palace, and only when arriving at the gardens it dawned to me much of it wasn't open to the public as there still is an emperor to be usign the place! Silly me. Oh, along the way I had lunch at Mikoan, which was a perfectly fine vegetarian café but it's unlucky to be in the same city as Proverbs... that's way too hard to compete with! So dinner at Proverbs it was, and it didn't disappoint.

However, I felt I should hurry to Tokyo to apply for the Vietnamese visa as I had read it might take up to 10 days to process, and took the night bus over. But arriving in Tokyo I realised this was that mysterious public holiday and the embassy would be closed. Never mind, on to the imperial gardens then. I was happy to see how clean the waters were even at the heart of possibly the biggest city in the world. However, they didn't let me in to have tea with the emperor, so I had to go on and find veggie restaurants again.

I'm happy to say there really is a plenitude of choice in Tokyo. I decided to go try Pure Cafe, but instead I found Brown Rice café. It was fine, and had vegan things clearly marked, but ever since the thought of the tempeh sandwich at the Proverbs I really wanted a sandwich or a burger or something and I had read there'd be good ones at Pure Café. So despite having a perfectly fine lunch at Brown Rice I kept searching for Pure. And failed, but instead I found the vegan bakery, der Akkord! It's a macrobiotic bakery actually, and I'm still a little unclear as to what exactly does macrobiotic mean, but at least this place doesn't use any yeast, baking powder, or sugar, among other things, like animal products. Which effectively means it doesn't have that finger-licking yumminess of Sticky Fingers but strikes quite a different chord with a sturdy European flavour. Very nice bread, but the apricot pie didn't really win me over.

Next day I went off to the embassy then, but got up late and only ended up there at lunchtime to find it closed for lunch. So I decided to take a lunchbreak too and walk over to Vegan Healing Café since it didn't seem to be too far, despite the light rain. It's a cozy little place, seemingly quiet but as there's only one person working each day it apparently is busy work nonetheless. The food is vegan and fine, but resembles homecooking to me, nothing really fanciful. Oh, and if anyone working there ever reads this, do add some berries or something on top of the soycream cake, it'd make it so much more appealing!

Back at the embassy I filled up a form, handed in my passport and was told to wait. Half an hour later they gave me back my passport, said here's the visa and it'll be 12000 yen! (Or something of the kind, not 100% on that price.) Yes, it's expensive, but a super fast service, forget the 10 days. And I can get that reimbursed, it was the kind I was looking for, so no problems. For dinner I was thinking of Little Maman, but I think I was there too late and it was closed, or then I just couldn't find it.

Next day it was the turn of Café 8. Now this is the place in Japan that can really compete with Proverbs, the food was heavenly and they too have things like New York style cheesecake for dessert! And it's completely vegan. It felt terribly expensive though, and I started noticing how fast my budget was running down. In retrospect, however, the food wasn't much more expensive than elsewhere in Japan, it was the optional extras that really cost. Like a pot of tea costing over 600 yen! So yes, go there, eat and be happy, and if your wallet allows have the dessert too, but go somewhere else for tea. Same for other drinks. Water is good and free.

Following day I found myself back at Vegan Healing. Ok, I'll be honest with you, this had more to do with the nice girl working there than their food. Beside it being great to have someone to talk to, she was also the first Japanese vegan I ever met, so that's quite something. She recommended the nearby Meiji shrine for sight-seeing, so I headed there after lunch. It was ok, but when it comes to shrines I think the first one you see is really exciting, the 2nd also quite interesting to compare with, but after the third shrine the interest goes down. If there isn't for religious reasons of course. However, the surrounding park is lovely, so I quite enjoyed it.

Then I went back to the hostel to do some work at last. This had after all turned into much more of a real vacation than planned. I also looked into the return options and realised there'd be no way to make it to the Beijing-Hanoi train leaving on Sunday afternoon with the ferry arriving in Tianjin at noon on Sunday, and the train would be the easy way to cross wherefore I felt I should use it since it would be work time rather than adventure time. Besides, my shoes, bag, and computer were all breaking down, so a pit stop in Beijing and visiting all the friends for a weekend made sense. So I booked the ferry from Osaka to Shanghai leaving the following Tuesday. This was on Thursday, and I meant to go out of town for Friday and the weekend would have the Tokyo Vegetarian Festival, while I would have to leave Tokyo Sunday at the latest, so... That's how my excuses went, and silly as it was, I went back to Vegan Healing for dinner. I just wanted to see that girl there one more time before I leave, in case I wouldn't run into her at the vegetarian festival (which I indeed did not). Well, in any case, the fried soy meat thing is probably the best dish that café has.

Friday and out of town in Tokyo, I went over to Kamakura which is a lovely little town totally littered with temples and shrines and has also a huge bronze Buddha. He has windows in his back. And you can go inside. Wee. Anyways, the temples are beautiful and the best thing is the hiking path around there, the place is totally worth a visit! Dinner time I was back in Tokyo, however, so I went over to Nagi Shokudo. It's a cosy vegan café with pretty nice food, although I must say whatever they were having at the next table looked more exciting than mine. Oh well.

Saturday was the exciting time of the Vegetarian Festival. I was happy to see lots of people and stands of various veggie restaurants, cosmetics companies, shops, and animal rights organizations there. Really good turn-out, and way way more than I would ever have expected in a country like Japan! There was so much yummy vegan foods and nice people to talk to that I spent pretty much the whole day there, and ate tons!

In the evening, however, I just had to go find Pure Café. I was on a mission to try many veggie places in Tokyo as a friend was asking for recommendations for another friend who'd be visiting Tokyo soon. And I was still craving for a sandwich. I found their website and they have a map there, making it rather easy to find. The place is nice, and I finally got my sandwich! It was almost worth the wait, and I only say almost because it had been a long time. The sandwich was good, really good.

Sunday morning I went back to the festival to pick up some things for the road. Just a quick visit this time and on to the railway station. The thing I most crave for about Japan though was at the festival now: the Loving burger, made by the Loving Hut. Goodness, so juicy and tasty! Anyway, I figured I had to try the shinkansen, the Japanese bullet trains, at least once and this would be my last chance. However, had I realised how much it's going to cost overall before buying the first part of the ticket I probably would've changed my mind. Sure, they're fast trains, but way overpriced.

Anyhow, I arrived in Kyoto and you don't have to be a genious to guess where I went then. I had a huge meal with desserts and everything, and after hearing Proverbs is closed on Mondays I also bought one of those sandwiches I had been craving so much for the road, or the ferry as it turned out to be.

On Monday then I took a walk around Kyoto and realised it definitely is the nicest city in Japan. Or at least of those I visited. Lots of temples, lovely rivers, nature, and yes, great food. Since my favourite place was closed I went to Kairas, with the notion of soya ice-cream. The food was nice, as was the ice-cream, just again, there's too good a competitor in the city for anything else to be taken very seriously. Oh, and I found out where to get money: in Japan the ATM's don't accept international credit cards, the only place where I could withdraw money had been the Visa office in Tokyo. But the hostel in Kyoto let me know the ATM's at 7-11 do take international cards, so I was saved, as my budget was long gone by this time and the ferry must be paid in cash also.

So, for the last night I took a train to Kobe, because I wanted to try the soychicken pizza mentioned in the happycow site. And possibly the onsen as well. But after a couple of hours of searching and finding the right block, I just couldn't locate the restaurant! I'm pretty sure it was closed, at least for the day, maybe even for good, because at least the English name wasn't anywhere to be seen and there was only one (closed) café without an English name in the block. Of course they don't have house numbers so it's not easy to tell which is which. As for the onsen, I decided to go there but after buying a train ticket I changed my mind. It was after all late already and I should've been working, so I turned around and decided to try the fare adjustment machines. Don't do the same, they just steal your money. The fare adjustment is there only to pay more, if you've paid too much, they give you a ticket of zero yen to replace your money. Greedy bastards.

Anyway, after a night of some working and more sleeping, I took a train to Osaka and got to the port in time. Two days on a ferry, I had bought some noodles from the vegetarian festival to take along but nonetheless I was happy to find it was a Chinese ship. For that means I can actually eat in the restaurant: one can talk to the staff and in any case, I don't have the same fear of everything having fish sauce when it comes to Chinese food. The ride to Shanghai was quite nice, mostly, apart from the few hours on the second day when the sea was quite stormy and to my surprise I found out I do, after all, get seasick under certain conditions. I think it was mostly due to the fact that I was stupid enough to go to the toilet, closed space doesn't do good. Whenever I could breathe the sea air my stomach would be calm. Anyways, China for the next entry.


Jingle:) said...

long blog and interesting Japanese journey!Thank you for share:)

Luaay said...

so?u recommend Japan for low cash bastard like me or not?:)

Jari (travelling-vegan) said...

Haha, I think Vietnam would be a better deal for you. :-)

Anonymous said...

Looks like you have given up your fruit diet?

Anonymous said...

OMG, I totally agree about Cafe Proverbs. My husband and I are vegetarians and we lived in Sakyo-ku (the northeast area of the city) for a year, so we went there like seriously every week. I miss it so much. I just tried replicated the teriyaki tofu steak tonight. I miss the soymilk ramen too! :'(

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Jari (travelling-vegan) said...

Yes, unfortunately the fruit diet had to go. As I predicted before, the beans and mushrooms lured me back. I miss it sometimes though, may get back to it later.

And Cafe Proverbs, gosh, I miss it so much! Must get back to Kyoto... Share the recipes if you manage any good replicas! The soymilk ramen wasn't my favourite but quite nice.

Kate, welcome!

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