Thursday 30 September 2010

Intercontinental Breakfast

6.30am, the Ibis Gangnam, Seoul: showered, shaved and suited, Korean businessmen arrive for breakfast.

Shortly after dawn in business hotels the world over, the same tragedy is performed. Actors emerge from the intermission and file unthinkingly down to the theatre. They gather their props, the interchangeable components of the continental breakfast, and take position upon the stage. The script takes no remembering; it has no words.

I am an outsider, and not because of my race. (A couple of gaijin join in the ritual cremation of bread and picking up of croissants with tongs). No, I am an interloper; I've wandered through the wrong stage door. I sit quietly in a corner with my bran flakes, toast, sweetened orange juice and appalling coffee, hoping I'm not spotted.

The worlds we inhabit are so close to one another, they're capable of these brief, awkward overlaps. Breakfast over, we withdraw back to our own dressing rooms, continents apart, and the only thing we really share is the insatiated hunger that dogs our mornings.


After a couple of days trying not to look like an American soldier (difficult with my new haircut, since the Korean barber obviously assumed that's what I was and cut my rug accordingly) I met up with a friend from cooking school, Maria from Korea, and we left Seoul for Okcheon.

It's a small town, in the countryside, with few obvious attractions. The local tourist information office, when Maria contacted them, actually asked why we were coming. Wandering around the dusty streets of the oldest part of town, an odd looking local materialises and offers to show us around. I assume he is either the village idiot, the resident drunk or, in such a small town, maybe both, in a combined role.

He is probably slightly drunk, but he is also very kind and pleasant. With Maria translating, he tells me he used to be fluent in English but with no-one to practice on he's forgotten it all. I assure him it's the same with my Korean. He leads us on a stroll around town, pointing out all the old buildings and curiosities.

Things are growing everywhere. Huge pumpkin patches spread over walls, roofs and houses. Rice fields line the roads. Flowers, herbs, cabbage, lettuce, chillies. What isn't growing is drying; every bit of wall is topped with mushrooms, sliced zucchini, more chillies. Apparently main roads are half taken up with drying rice.

We make it back to our guest house and meet the owner. I ask what I should call him, and I think he replies to the effect of Mr Owner of this House. He likes me, and takes us on a tour of all the things he is making. Out the back, in huge ceramic jars, things are fermenting; kim-chee, soy sauce, paste, rice wine. He has jars of sweet rice honey made with malt, reduced and reduced. Bags of leaves and mushrooms are hanging on every eve. Later on we sit down for a homemade meal and everything we eat is a result of the time, care and love he puts into his food.

Mr Owner of this House

Dinner: made by his wife from the ingredients he has prepared

Korean food takes time, because practically everything is fermented. But paradoxically, Koreans are pretty impatient. Even here in the countryside, where people operate fractionally slower than in Seoul, the modern demand for expediency is marginalising culinary tradition.

There's a market in the newer part of town every five days. Fishmongers, live chickens, and even a few dogs (I don't think they're pets) bring noise and colour. Different types of seaweed abound, as do dried insects, biscuits and rice cakes. It doesn't take long to find someone selling knives, and I add a Korean cleaver to my burgeoning collection. They might lack the grace and finesse of the knives I bought in Kyoto, but certainly make up for it in character.

I, or rather we, are something of a curiosity out here in the sticks. Maria is obviously an out of towner and I may as well have two heads. Most people are really friendly, but one stall holder, an old woman, tells Maria to get lost. She says she will bring her bad luck for being with an American. It's sad really; although she is in a minority, her sentiments betray an unbending adherence to tradition that is creating a notable divide between old and young in Korea. It may be that she is a bigoted old fool who is unable to reconcile her Confucian upbringing with the modern world, or it could just be my haircut.

Monday 27 September 2010

I got Seoul but I'm not a soldier

I must have slept for most of the bus journey from Incheon airport into Seoul. When I finally emerged onto the streets, expecting to have to take a taxi to my hotel, I asked a cab driver if he knew where it was. He looked at me disbelievingly, and pointed over my shoulder. I was standing directly outside it.

A long shower failed to wash away the lethargy from my 5am start. I couldn't face the prospect of travelling into the centre of town, and chose instead to wander around Itaewon where I'm staying. It feels very different to Japan - more westernised for starters. American chains like Taco Bell and Quiznos sit behind market stalls peddling novelty socks and knocked off t-shirts. Bars are either upmarket, opening onto the street, or seedy looking, up discreet staircases that say things like "Western Bar".

There are a lot of foreigners; Indians, Americans, Europeans. Italian restaurants, curry houses, burger joints. It is the most ethnically diverse place I have been in Asia. I keep hearing the sounds of people clearing their throats and spitting. And the further I walk, the more Americans.

I peel up a side street and there's a change of mood. I have never, for a second, felt scared in Asia. Never felt like I'm walking down the wrong street or I need to be on my toes. A Korean guy walks past and looks at me strangely. It's disconcerting, but not really menacing. I can't work it out. I drop back down, and am amazed to find a huge second hand English bookshop; the penny still not dropping as I peruse the shelves.

By the time I find a decent looking place to eat something Korean, I've worked it out. The guy in the restaurant asks me where I'm from - "England", I reply. "Not soldier". He smiles; "You don't look like soldier", he reassures me. Outside the window a big black guy in US army fatigues folds his arms and leans back on his car. The Yongsan Garrison is a grenade's throw away. I devour a bowl of deliciously sweet, rich beef bulgogi and remember why I love Korean food so much.

I've almost certainly been drinking too much lately. I need a night off. Fortunately, the prospect of getting drunk in a "Western Bar" full of squaddies, hookers and the occasional spitting local makes an early night a pretty easy pill to swallow.


Whatever the little itch that unsettled me on Friday really was, I felt pretty sure a trip out to the Mount Fuji National Park would scratch it into oblivion. Four hours after strolling knowledgeably through the human circus that is Shinjuku station, Dave and I, replenished by udon noodles, were off on our rented bikes (ladies' bikes) around Lake Kawaguchi while the majestic cone of Fuji-san, resplendent in the afternoon sun, watched over us. Glorious doesn't even come close.

Halfway round and we kicked up our stands outside a cafe and sipped coffee in the shade. The wake boarders cavorted on the lake and the clouds rolled in and over the old volcano, never quite lingering long enough to upset his venerability. We breathed in the unbelievably fresh, clear air, and sat in awe.

Sitting there you can't help but think about the innate beauty of the world. There is very little left in me now that can say with any honesty or conviction, that I would rather live within the confines of a city than the countryside.

Which made the trip halfway up Fuji the next morning a little disappointing. The road ends at the fifth station where a grotesque cluster of appalling souvenir shops and third rate restaurants dig their claws into the side of the volcano like a mangy, reticent cat. My respect for the US National Park Service grows silently inside; they would never allow anything this ugly to tarnish such a special place.

Things improve as we drop below the tree line and escape the hordes. The summit is obscured but it doesn't matter; we pick our way along pathways over the volcanic ash as the mist envelops us. The drifting cloud, the cold, the trees; all these things combine to conjure a sense of magic and enchantment. The spirituality is tangible.

Looking at the great cone from a distance, or standing on the slopes, you could be forgiven for being impressed by its permanence. But the mountain yields to the seasons, and changes its appearance in line with their whims; the first snow fell just this week. And you might just forget too that the earth has rumbled underneath this spot for millions of years, and belches forth its fury every few centuries or so, just to remind us that things don't stay the same for ever.

Friday 24 September 2010

A question of perspective

I seem to suffer these strange lulls when I stay in the same place for more than a few days. It happened in Buenos Aires, again in Texas and it's happening now in Tokyo.

Maybe it's staying in an apartment. Having a set of keys, going shopping, knowing your way home. Whenever I have stayed still for too long, I've got the feeling that I am somehow wasting time. That something, maybe me, is suffering.

Today I experienced a strange kind of nausea, at the train station. When you're travelling, everything new you have to try to make sense of, makes sense to someone. Not knowing where you are going, being unable to communicate, you just take your time and don't mind looking stupid as you attempt to work it out. Emerging from the underground into Shinjuku station is like being blindfolded, spun around in darkness and thrust into the centre of, well, Shinjuku station.

I'm looking for a particular bus terminal. I've got a guide book telling me where it is, and maps and signs everywhere. I think I know where I'm going, but a few twists and turns later and I'm losing my bearings along with my patience. I spend ten minutes trying to reconcile the map on the wall with the one in my hand, before I notice it is oriented east-west as opposed to north-south. I turn my head on its side, and things begin to make sense.

There was no sign of where I was meant to go, though there were signs for just about everything else. I resigned myself to the futility of my situation and, desperate for a new aspect, wandered north, or was it west, to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, which has an observation deck on the 45th floor.

There's nothing like looking down on a city from a great height to put things in perspective, and I quickly begin to see through to the heart of my malaise. From each window I see the same thing: 35 million people in the largest metropolitan area in the world, stretching far beyond the horizon in every direction.

You can't take taxis in Tokyo; they're too expensive. You can't walk; it's too hot. You take the train or the subway. Which means traipsing through vast underground networks of tunnels, staircases and corridors. Fathoming exits and platforms, under the constant watch of endless vending machines and bizarre posters. And everywhere there are people. Millions and millions of them, all being squeezed through the same tiny aperture.

Rejuvenated and refreshed, I take the elevator back to the first floor and find the tourist information. With much smiling, they furnish me with a map, and I realise my guide book was wrong. I walk, happily now, to where I need to be, buy my tickets and ride the subway home, where I fall into a deep, tired sleep. When I wake up the bus tickets are next to me. In the morning they'll carry us out of here, to the countryside. I think not a day too soon.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

A fishy business

The streets of Tokyo are pretty quiet at four o' clock in the morning. Just roadworks and taxi drivers, until I near my destination. Then suddenly, as if from nowhere, emerges a hive of crazed and staggering activity: Tsukiji. 60,000 people selling 2,000 tons of seafood a day; the biggest fish market in the world.

I'd arranged a guide to get me in beyond the usual tourist places. Unfortunately, he declined to wait beyond 4:04, thus doing himself out of 7,000 yen. Without him to take me behind the scenes, I had little option but to queue for the tuna auction, passing the time taking photos in the darkness.

Eventually the slightly oppressive guards usher us into the waiting area and issue fluorescent vests. They may as well give us bells to hang round out necks. We remain in this room for a good half an hour, which only serves to increase the sense that we are a) prisoners and b) about to suffer some horrific trauma.

No need to worry - the tuna auction itself is pretty crazy, but despite the menacing looking hooks being wielded, no-one gets hurt. The tuna are all frozen and glistening white, their tails already hacked off and an incision made enabling the buyers to inspect the quality of the meat. There is much milling around and perusal of fish; careful scrutiny of the flesh, prodding with hooks and silent consideration. Everyone knows everyone else; they chat and joke, but keep their opinions to themselves.

Eventually a bell is frantically sounded, the auctioneer climbs atop a small box and the business begins. I've been to plenty of bloodstock auctions in my time, and watched Bargain Hunt on TV, but what follows is slightly different. The quiet looking auctioneer shouts faster than the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. I'm watching for bidders, but they are almost impossible to detect; only a quick scribble after the fact betrays the purchase. Another guy paints a name on the fish itself, which is then hooked and hurriedly removed. As the auction progresses across the room, more guys come on with barrows and trolleys and set about removing the tuna to be sawn into manageable chunks.

The whole thing is over in a flash, and we are rudely bundled out of the room, stripped of our orange vests and left to fend for ourselves, in daylight, mercifully, in the insane world outside the door. The market men have swapped the bikes they rode in on for little motorised carts that whizz in and out of one another. There are millions of them; how they don't crash into one another, and everyone else, is a mystery. Huge mountains of polystyrene boxes line the road. Everyone is doing something.

It's just gone 6am, which means time for breakfast. I pull up a chair at Sushibun, that's been here for 160 years. The sushi is excellent, of course, hand pressed in front of you, but the miso soup with tiny clams is out of this world. Which is a relief, because it is obscenely expensive.

Visitors aren't supposed to enter the main market until after 9am, but I'm not about to wait around for two hours when I'm this tired. And besides, I have already decided that I don't feel comfortable wandering around taking photographs, so am going to keep the lens cap on. Instead, I'm going to do something that should make for a far better experience all round: I'm going shopping.

Once people realise you are actually going to buy something and have overcome the shock, they're very friendly. The prices are very reasonable compared to the outside, and the seafood unbeatably fresh. An afternoon in the kitchen later and the day ends with a meal of tuna sashimi, scallops in mirin on sake soaked edamame beans, calamaretti with shiso oil, marinaded salmon with sansho pepper and Japanese potato salad. All of which makes waking up at 3.30am seem almost worthwhile, though I'd rather not do it every day...

Tuesday 21 September 2010

A walk in the park

It doesn't matter where you go in the world, Sunday afternoons are always best spent down the park.

The first thing we see on our way into Yoyogi park in Tokyo is some kind of rockabilly dance off. The natural gaiety of this hilarious scene is tempered slightly by the suspicious looking yakuzu tattoos, and the bottles of Jack Daniels they're chugging down, but it's still pretty funny. They must be sweating their nuts off.

Things become a little more civilised further into the park. There are people everywhere. Some guys blow giant bubbles, and we sit for a while watching the sheer joy on the faces of the children as they chase and burst their beautiful shapes.

In between these two extremes comes everything else; lovers relax in the shade, families play simple games. Pretty much everyone seems to be drinking. People are playing baseball, badminton, frisbee. Huge groups rehearse dance routines, chant, or do strange martial art drills. Everyone is enjoying themselves openly, unashamedly and in their own distinct ways. It's the human side of the big, busy city.

It doesn't feel so different to London. Pop down Victoria Park on a summer Sunday and it's a similar thing. Well, almost. You probably won't see too many of the local hardnuts throwing shapes at the entrance to London Fields, and somehow that slightly priggish, reserved Englishness will manage to shine through alongside the occasional ray of sun. But it's still Sunday, and the easy air of gentle relaxation, sympathetically imbued with a slow but steady stream of alcohol does just enough to anaesthetise any thoughts of Monday morning.


The best part of a tedious hour on the streetcar, ten minutes on a creaky old ferry, and the energetic throng of downtown Hiroshima is swapped for the languid streets of Miyajima.

Islands always feel so much further from the mainland than they actually are. An hour on the tram just gets you to a different part of town; those ten minutes bobbing across the water carry you to another world. Feral deer greet you from the ferry terminal just to prove the point.

The main attraction of Miyajima is the Itsukushima Shrine, a sprawling temple that floats on the water's edge. You can climb up the steps to a five storey pagoda, or tread the boardwalks as they hug the contours of the cove.

The shrine's big drawcard is its torii, or gate, that sits out at sea. It is one of the classic Three Views of Japan as first identified by Hayashi Razan in the seventeenth century. Accordingly, every man and his camera is here to capture the sight.

I arrogantly eschew everyone else's vantage point and go for a walk round the cove to scope the best angle. The sun is on its way down, and when it's not shining on the torii you don't get the benefit of its amazing colours. Everyone else is looking at the shady side.

I try and lure a deer into the foreground of a shot from the sand, but without any food to bribe him, it's difficult. He just looks at me contemptuously and seemingly threatens me with a snarly glare for taking his picture.

I'm looking across at the assembled masses with their tripods wondering why the hell they're bothering when it dawns on me (or should that be dusks?) that the sun is now setting behind me and they are snapping marvellous shots of it with the torii in the foreground. By the time I make it round there it's too late, but it was a crap sunset anyway and I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been worth it. Everyone settles down to wait for the lights to come on. Sitting patiently for the last throes of daylight to extinguish themselves doesn't appeal too much, so I fortify myself with a good feed and return an hour later when it is pitch black, the lights are on, and everyone else has gone home.

Saturday 18 September 2010


Without warning, one fine Monday morning sixty-five years ago, the lives of the people of Hiroshima either ended suddenly or were changed, like the world, for ever.

Before dawn on August 6th 1945, three B29s took off from the island of Tinian bound for Hiroshima. The first of them was the Enola Gay; its cargo the three metre long A-Bomb known as Little Boy. It was dropped at 8.15am, and detonated 600 metres above the city centre. Everything within a two kilometre radius was instantly destroyed, and 70,000 people lost their lives. Those that didn't die in the blast suffered horrific radiation burns; many threw themselves into the river and drowned.

Yoshito Matsushige, a photographer, tried to document events in the hours that followed:

I fought with myself for thirty minutes before I could take the first picture. After taking the first, I grew strangely calm and wanted to get closer. I took about ten steps forward and tried to snap another; but the scenes I saw were so gruesome my viewfinder clouded with tears

In the aftermath it was impossible to tell who had lived or died. Ledgers detailed deaths and injuries; survivors scribbled notes around the city hoping that lost loved ones would see them and know they had survived. By the end of 1945 the death toll was around 140,000, and it grew over the years that followed as a result of the radiation. Over 225,000 people living in Japan today are hibakusha - survivors. One cannot even begin to imagine the scars they carry, inside and out.

There is little the Peace Memorial Museum can do to obscure the terrifying reality of what actually happened that day. The imagery is brutal and deeply disturbing: Pictures of burned bodies; a rusty tricycle that was buried in the yard along with its two year old owner; charred clothes; a melted child's lunch box. The testimony of survivors, and descriptions of the aftereffects; keloid scars, cataracts, tumours, leukaemia, in-utero deformities. Haunting drawings of the hibakusha line the walls.

One building was so close to the hypocentre that the downward force of the explosion meant its infrastructure, unlike all the people inside it, survived. Its eerie skeleton and the dome that once shimmered on its shoulders stood defiantly in the midst of the ruined town.

In 1966 it was decided that the A-Bomb Dome, as it had come to be known, would remain in perpetuity as a monument to those who died and a lasting call to peace. Today it nestles in the heart of a vibrant, proud and modern city.

The wish that emerged from the suffering was not revenge or recompense; simply that no city should ever suffer the same fate. There is no greater measure of the courage and dignity of a race of people, and those who survived, than this. A flame burns in Peace Memorial Park, and will only be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon on Earth has been decommissioned.

Hiroshima testifies to the indomitability of the human spirit; in both the shadow of insurmountable horror, and the striving for peace. Razed to the ground, its inhabitants dead, brutally injured, traumatised, orphaned and poisoned, the city rebuilt itself. Human beings are capable of anything. Plunged into the darkest depths, they can climb out, and emerge even more determined to make the world a better place.

Many of the scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project objected to the A-Bomb being deployed without prior warning. That it was used at all owed as much to considerations of the post-war world as anything else; Japan was already in disarray. Political and military expediency triumphed over morality, and a story that began over the White Sands of New Mexico reached across the Pacific and turned a different colour.

Shortly after the bomb was detonated, in the northwest of the city and beyond, it began to rain. People's roofs, shaken by the blast, were leaking, and the water streaked down their walls. The rain was black; the stains it left will never wash away.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Memoirs of a Geezer

Kyoto lies at the very heart of Japanese culture and history. A place of extraordinary beauty, with over 1600 temples, 400 shrines and 17 Unesco World Heritage sites. All of which seems unlikely when I step out of the station to be confronted by just another city.

As well as all the eating and cooking, I'm aware that I have quite a bit of sightseeing to squeeze in, so visit a couple of sites near my ryokan. The temples of Nishi-Honganji and Higashi-Hohganji contain some of the largest wooden structures in the world - all joinery, no nails. As you walk about them they emit high pitched creaks, like you're crushing a mouse with every step. Their ages vary depending upon when they most recently burned down, a fairly routine hazard judging by their chequered histories.

Nijojo Castle, Kyoto

West of Kyoto, the suburb of Arashiyama contains a few hidden treasures away from the main drag. The gardens of Tenryū-Ji are widely regarded as among the best in town. They utilise a technique called shakkei, meaning 'borrowed landscape', to incorporate the backdrop of the mountains into their aesthetic.

Sōgenchi garden, Tenryū-Ji

Sadly it feels just a little too crowded though to truly convey the sense of tranquility the architect, Musō Soseki, had in mind when he created it back in the fourteenth century, but it is beautiful none the less. From the gate of Tenryū-Ji, a path leads through a huge bamboo forest. The most delicate shades of blue and green, and the sheer height and wispiness of the stems belie their incredible strength. The temperature cools a little, and even the tourists seem to go quiet in the imposing shade.

Through the forest lies the villa of Ōkōchi-Sansō, built by a movie star as his private retreat. The entrance fee of ¥1,000 keeps a lot of the tourists out. Intricate bonsai trees, raked gravel, stepping stones through the moss and the occasional panorama of Kyoto and the surrounding hills punctuate my quiet stroll around the stunning gardens.

Gardens at Ōkōchi-Sansō

Back in the city and I feel obliged to head for Kiyomizu-dera, perhaps the most famous temple in town. It is absolutely pissing down by now. Everyone else seems to have an umbrella, including all the cyclists, and it is only when I finally relent and buy one that the rain abates. Walking up the hill, I know what I'm in for: hordes of sightseers and schoolkids.

I shouldn't complain though. The temple is stunning, and its setting, perched on the edge of a hill as the city slopes away below, only adds to its majesty. After a little walk around the grounds, I spot some iron gates leading to a massive cemetery. No less beautiful than the temple itself, and completely devoid of people (live ones anyway), it has the feel of a very special place.


It's getting late by the time I make it to Ginkaku-ji, and I'm the last guy they let in before they shut the gate. The wabi-sabi aesthetic is said to have originated here - beauty in the simple, imperfect and transient, rather than the elaborate or luxurious. All the tourists have gone home for the night, so I am left to wander for the last twenty minutes in peace as the rainclouds darken. The gardens here rank among the most beautiful places I have been in the world, and I emerge feeling completely purified by the experience.

The gardens at Ginkaku-ji

This is the real attraction of Kyoto for me; the tranquility that flows through life here like water. It's not just in the temples and gardens, and in fact they are seldom empty enough for it to prevail. But it's walking through narrow back streets to a soundtrack of clattering dishes and twittering birds as old ladies water their pot plants. And it's the calm and politeness that they just can't seem to hide.

From the bus home last night I saw two people ride their bicycles into one another. No one took any notice, just another passing thing in the daily routine. A stand off ensued as they both paused to let the other go first, before riding off in the rain under their umbrellas.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Knives for show

We all have our weaknesses. Imelda Marcos had her shoes. Elton John's sequin merchant would rub his hands with glee every time the big man called. Tiger Woods couldn't birdie the same hole twice in a row, and me, well, when I strolled down Nishiki market in Kyoto the other day, the guys in the Aritsugu knife shop probably wondered why the till had started shaking.

My knives, the one's I'm mimicking Gordon Ramsey with in the top right of your screen, are German Wusthofs. They're great, but now I'm in Japan, I feel obliged to add to my collection. The Japanese knife making tradition has its roots in sword production for samurais. When sword carrying was outlawed in the late nineteenth century, the craftsmen stepped up their production of cooking, carpentery and garden tools. Modern Japanese knives utilise the same sword making techniques that have been around for centuries. Aritsugu go back 400 years.

The bad news for them is that they only succeeded in flogging me a ginger grater. It's a lovely shop but my mind is wandering back to Morocco in January and this place, right on the market, feels like too much of a tourist trap to just wade in.

The multitudinous maps and guide books suggest a number of walking tours of Kyoto. Today I took the path less travelled - a tour of cutlers. I began in Hayakawa, a little one man band marked by a pair of giant scissor outside, where the guy looked up my home town in his atlas. His knives were of an obvious quality but none sat too happily in my hand. Shigeharu was next, and these were definitely a step up. That said, I didn't get comfortable with any of them either, so resigned myself to reluctantly return to Aritsugu.

The Japanese use a different set of knives to westerners. The most famous is the sashimi - a long single edged knife for carving raw fish. I'd love one, but they're the most expensive of the lot and let's be honest, it's not like I'll be using it a lot. My 10 inch Wusthof chef's knife is pretty tasty, and would definitely shit up any would be intruders, but I've come to find it a little cumbersome for everyday tasks.

So I am debating between a rectangular bladed vegetable knife called a nakiri that I really like the look of, or a more traditional santoku. My favourite though is the deba - a short, stocky, pointed cleaver for chopping and filleting fish. It combines raw power, backed by an absurdly thick spine and huge weight, with a delicate single edge for filleting.

Trudging my way back to Aritsugu I spotted another place out of the corner of my eye; Kikuichi Monji. The usual nonsense ensued as hundreds of knives were taken down from their cases and perused by my sweaty hands. The minute I pick up their deba though, I know it's all over. It's unspeakable beauty is matched only by the price tag.

I make an executive decision that I'm better off with a santoku than a nakiri since I am used to using that shape of blade. After holding and making chopping motions with about another hundred knives, I finally settle on one made of the highest grade brushed cobalt vanadium steel. I resist the temptation to keep buying more for now, but with another few weeks in Japan and countless more cutlers to be walked past, I can't honestly say that I've finished yet.

Beyond sushi

I apologise in advance if this gets boring, and I'm sure the novelty will wear off, but I suspect I may enjoy more than a few exceptional meals in Japan.

My first night in Kyoto, I had the kaiseki menu at Isshin Kyo on the recommendation of some friends whose opinion in such matters I greatly respect. I'm pretty sure they're not about to let me down when the first of my eight courses, Assortment of Delicacy, arrives:

The mirin soaked fish eggs take the prize, though the competition was stiff. The clear broth that follows comes with "Tsukimi Tofu". I later discover that Tsukimi means "Moon Watching". Because September is the month of the harvest moon, Japanese chefs pay homage through their food. So I have a full moon shaped piece of tofu, with crescents of yuzu peel for company, in my soup. Is there anywhere else on earth where food and culture embrace one another in this way?

Tsukimi Tofu

The rest of the meal is brilliant. The best thing is that one of the chefs who speaks English (a recurring theme now) comes out to chat. He shows me how to make the shabu shabu hotpot, and we talk about food, cooking and travelling.

If I want to really begin to understand Japanese food, though, I'm going to have to do more than just eat it, so take a walk through the Nishiki food market. In between tasting all the pickled vegetables, realising that the papery smoked stuff the other day were bonito flakes and eating a small octopus whose head had been stuffed with a quail's egg, it occurred to me that if I lived in this country for a thousand years I still wouldn't comprehend one millionth of their cuisine.

But I'm not about to let that put me off. A little later on, with three others for company, and I was in the home of Emi Hirayama for a cooking lesson.

Emi makes green tea

We made an autumn salad, delicately balancing the constituent parts with our chopsticks; pike eel spring rolls; grilled yellowtail marinated in mirin and miso soup. But really the best thing is beginning to understand Japanese ingredients and how they are used. Now I know how they make bonito flakes, and that they are a lynchpin of Japanese rice, stocks and soups. Other ingredients blow me away; like sansho peppers, insane bursts of intense citric heat. It's a start.

Assembling an autumn salad

Emi is a wonderful lady, and the joy she gets from sharing her culture and cuisine with foreigners is obvious. I even went back today and made Japanese sweets with her, a laborious process, involving absurdly glutinous concoctions of various rice flours and starches, with red bean paste. The rewards don't quite seem commensurate with the effort, and if an order came in for fifty daifukus I'd probably just throw in the tea towel.

Making daifukus

But all that hard work certainly builds up an appetite. In contrast to the fine dining at Isshin Kyo, I pull up a stool in the local noodle bar. I choose my dinner from a vending machine that issues a meal ticket, and sit and watch as the two chefs get to work. Neither of them can be any older than 21 but they work quietly and brilliantly - one on the noodles and one on the sauce. The bowl they present me, that only cost a few hundred yen, is just as good as anything else I've eaten since I got here.