Wednesday 24 January 2018

Kyushu: Foodie feasts, futuristic technology and seven-star trains in Japan

Holidays in Japan

The city of Nagasaki is in Kyushu - the large southernmost Japanese island
The city of Nagasaki is in Kyushu - the large southernmost Japanese island
John is taught how to separate noodles on a loom-like machine in Shimbara city

John Masterson

John Masterson spends a week on the southern island of Kyushu, and falls for the Japanese way of life.

After a week in Japan and some of the best food I have ever eaten, mostly in small bites with chopsticks, it seemed obvious that the dishwasher was invented there. My average lunch used enough dishes to fill a wheelbarrow. But no. It was an American, Josephine Cochrane, in Illinois, in 1886. Japan does not know how much they are in her debt.

I loved the Japanese way of eating. I feasted on squid, snails, beef, pork belly, octopus, chicken, mackerel, salmon, tofu, sea bream, lobster, trout, rice, soy, noodles, mushrooms, soup and eggs. Virtually no dairy. I never saw cheese and didn't miss it. I did not see one obese Japanese person in the whole week. Not one. It is partly diet. And partly attitude. A Japanese woman explained to me that it matters how you present yourself to others. It works.

My first stop was Nagasaki which, for obvious reasons, is very well known. I was to spend a week in Kyushu, which is the large southernmost Japanese island. On arrival we headed straight to eat in Chinatown where I was introduced to Champon. Lots of vegetables and seafood are stir-fried at high heat and then poured into soup, noodles added and the whole lot is cooked together. It was delicious washed down with a Kirin beer.

Our next stop was nearby Dejima which is an area of Nagasaki that was hugely important for trade from the mid-seventeenth century and was operated by the Dutch. This port was Japan's window to the world.

Nagasaki is a smallish city and it was a short walk to the Peace Park and the Atomic Bomb Museum. It is chilling to stand on the spot where the bomb was detonated in 1945. Today it is thronged with schoolchildren who come to hear first-hand accounts of that August morning from survivors. I met one 82-year-old woman who had been standing beside her sister. She was fortunate. Her sister died instantly as did 35,000 others.

John is taught how to separate noodles on a loom-like machine in Shimbara city
John is taught how to separate noodles on a loom-like machine in Shimbara city

The effects of the 15-hour flight and nine hour time difference were kicking in so we headed up the twisty mountainous road to our hotel that overlooked Nagasaki Harbour. The Garden Terrace Nagasaki is a model of Japanese comfort and clean design. Here came my introduction to Japanese toilets. These are serious machines. When you open the bathroom door the seat lifts in anticipation. When you sit down you discover it is heated, and even after a week my first reaction was that there was someone hiding in the room. All that before you explore the control panel that can wash you here, there and everywhere. Hours of endless fun!

During the week I went into a computer and phone and electronics shop, and yes, they had an entire section displaying the very latest toilets.

Down the twisty road again for a magnificent meal in Sakamotoya where we were served by ladies in traditional dress. I was slowly getting used to all the bowing. It is a very polite society, something I found very attractive. Back up the hill to the hidden treasure of the Garden Terrace which is the guests' lounge with a range of libations on the house. Sipping a Ballantine's while admiring the pool and harbour was a good way to end day one.

Next morning we got on the bus for a leisurely drive to Unzen. The views were constantly changing and interesting with mountains and the sea as backdrop. We stopped at a touristy spot, Kashima, overlooking Chijiwa Beach. The market did not take credit cards so I ended up borrowing money from our guide to buy one of those waving cats that I could see a home for. We stopped in Shimbara city which is the home of So-men noodle making and watched the Heath Robinson set up that ensures every noodle has the same texture. I was taught how to separate them on a loom-like machine and such is the attention to detail that the final stage of the process is a man with tweezers taking out any imperfect noodle. Lunch in Unzen was at the beautiful old-style Kanko Hotel and by this stage I was beginning to pace myself.

Japan is volcanic, and sulphur springs are a big attraction. You can see the steam coming out of the sides of the mountains from quite a distance and as you get nearer there is a strong smell of sulphur. It is eerie to walk along pathways above the bubbling rocks and pools. Apparently they were used for a rather cruel method of execution in times long past. Nowadays, the water is piped into hotels and where we stayed in Taishoya Hotel there were people constantly wandering around in robes before bathing. You bathe naked, with men and women having separate areas. This was a traditional hotel and my first impression was 'where is the bed'? The futon was put in place while we ate. I enjoyed my sulphur steep and then we ate, I dressed in my yukata, a male version of the kimono, and wooden sandals. This makes a lot of sense because you are forever taking off your shoes on entering rooms in Japan.

We had stopped off at the splendid Fuchiyo Sake brewery on the way so we ate and drank well. I had always thought sake was a spirit but it is a rice-based wine and they refer to the process as brewing. It is at the strong end of the wine scale and served in small glasses and you tend to drink it as you would a liqueur.

I am very un-Zen-like so the diary for the next day filled me with apprehension. Again we wend our way up a twisty mountainous road with views and arrive at a monastery where the monk in residence and his wife live with their four children. He is a charming man and we go through the concentration routine. The whole atmosphere of the place is contemplative, thoughtful, humorous, and I can now see why they say Buddhism is the atheists' religion.

We lunched with the coolest chef in Japan at a ramen restaurant in Kurume where this artist with noodles put on a display of acrobatic cooking. And the food was good too. We moved on to a beautiful mountain walk to a Kora Taissha Shrine which overlooks Kurume city. Each side of us were magnificent tall straight bamboo. At the top there was a drum of wishes. The bad ones were left hanging on trees. I got the best luck possible for 2017 - love... work... health... life... It will be fantastic. I kept inserting the 100 yen (82c) coins until I got what I wanted.

Our final two days were a real treat. We were on the Seven Star train which is fast becoming one of the bucket list trains for Orient Express-type people and has a six month waiting list. I enjoy five-star life but could I do seven-star? Well, yes. The Seven Star Train has seven carriages and a dining car and lounge and 12 double suites and two suites for three. You can do four-day or two-day trips and our two-day took us 745km from Hakata station in Fukuoka. This is the brainchild of the man behind the bullet train. His request was simple: "Build me the best train in the world with the best service and use local craftspeople and materials as much as possible." They did, and spent three billion yen (€25m) in the process.

We headed off in the morning and then stopped at Arita where we went to visit the Kakiemon Kiln where the current man in charge is the fifteenth in a direct line of sons to run the business. The porcelain on the train is made by this company. Back in the dining car I had the dinner of the year with a wonderful Barolo followed by a Hibiki 21 (very expensive whisky) - on this train there are no bills. I slept in what is really a hotel room on a train. Next morning I ate a hearty breakfast only to be called back to my table to be told I had forgotten dessert!

Back again to some hot springs on the way home to Fukuoka. We stopped at Lake Kinrin which has steam rising from it and was packed with Sunday Japanese tourists. Given that food was available we headed for our final lunch at the Kamenoi Best Inn where I won't mention the magnificent food but I will forever remember their homemade ginger beer which whisked me back to childhood.

We returned to Hakata station which had all the lights up for Christmas, a band playing and mulled wine on tap.

I would have liked to stay for Christmas.

Getting there

Kyushu, located in the south of Japan and roughly the same size as Switzerland, has eight airports and is easily accessible on flights from Europe via Tokyo, Hong Kong and Incheon (Korea) among others.

Finnair also offers direct flights from Helsinki to Fukuoka; Kyushu’s biggest city.

Kyushu is known for its expansive and untouched nature, its active volcanoes, unique culture as influenced by its relations to the West and mainland Asia as the historical gateway to Japan, locally produced fresh food and a wide variety of interesting and unique onsen hot springs (30pc of Japan’s hot springs can be found here). Kyushu is still relatively unknown, and offers great experiences which cannot be found anywhere else in Japan.

www.welcomekyushu.com

www.cruisetrain-sevenstars.com

TAKE TWO Top attractions

Best possible taste

Tray after tray would appear with small bowls with different things to taste. All were presented with full certainty that how the food looked was as important as how it tasted.

Zen for the un-Zen

I am very un-Zen. I like my desires. The master is a charming man who helps us concentrate with six firm slaps on the back with a wooden paddle. I was glad I had my heavy Levi’s jacket on.

Sunday Indo Living

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