Monday, May 28, 2012


This afternoon saw me bid farewell to Jamie, Aiko and Kayamori House and head back to the gritty city of Osaka for a bit of a sayonara session for my final night here in Japan.

A good night spent with some great people.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Picture Perfect

The last three days spent here at Kayamori House have been absolute bliss.

Kayamori House is a farmhouse situated in the mountains near Hasedera Temple, Sakurai, in Nara prefecture. It is also the home of HeadSpace international artist residency, which offers artists a chance to experience - and be inspired by - life in Japan, as well as providing studio space to create various types of artwork, from drawing/painting to sculpture and installation art.

Kayamori/HeadSpace is run by the lovely Scottish born Jamie and his adorable wife Aiko-Chan - who might I add is also a wonderful cook, preparing delicious home cooked meals for those staying at Kayamori.

The farmhouse itself is indeed very traditionally beautiful and with the glorious mountainous surroundings that provide panoramic, picture postcard views, topped off with two very accommodating and lovely hosts, it has been an absolute joy staying here. I hope I get the chance to visit again and participate in a proper residency stay.

The Beautiful and the Bizarre

Thursday afternoon saw me arrive at Kayamori House, in Sakurai, Nara prefecture, feeling very seedy and somewhat sorry indeed. At one point I had even wondered if I was capable of catching the train and lasting the 45 minute journey. Any frustration related to the way I was feeling could only be directed at myself, as it was all self inflicted... Nobody had forced me to consume the copious amounts of sake the night before. Ashamedly, it was all voluntary.

We're all allowed one of those nights here and there... aren't we?

Either way, it wasn't until I arrived at this amazingly beautiful place that I actually started to feel human again. And what a perfect place to recover!

Wednesday started off with a visit to SoHo Gallery in Osaka where I got the chance to meet Celio in the flesh, after several art related online interactions. His gallery itself was a great little space and the current work on exhibition was by an illustrator working in pen and ink, who was actually doing some live drawing at the gallery when I arrived. It was an enjoyable visit - Celio, obviously incredibly passionate about art and artists, provided me not only with his time, but with a wealth of information that will no doubt come in useful when planning future Japanese ventures!

Later that day I met up with my newfound and very lovely Canadian friend, Meg, and we headed to her house to get ready for our chaperone, who was due at 8pm. Ichiro-San, arrived to collect us in a taxi, ever so punctually, and took us to a most impressive and very traditional Japanese restaurant that I wish I could remember the name of.... We did, however, find ourselves in a private tatami room on the top floor, where we were treated to a very exquisite and memorable Japanese feast - consisting of some of the most delicious, not to mention different, culinary treats to ever pass through my chopsticks.... including many traditional Okinawan style dishes, as the chef was from that area. It was my first experience tasting foods such as ootoro and goya, I also got to enjoy a delectable selection of sake from Shiga, Nara and Fukushima.

After dining in such a stylish and sophisticated venue, we somehow ended up in a place at the complete opposite end of the spectrum in what could only be described as some sort of 'tranny hostess bar', where the sake was cheaper and nastier, the Mama-San wore a strap-on and most of the decor was phallic in nature. Each to their own, it's possibly not a place I would visit back home, but as they say, when in Rome... or even Osaka...

I managed to lose, very badly, to Mama-San in a rather risqué game of rock, paper, scissors... and shortly after, our chaperone bid us farewell and the two gaijin girls were left alone in this strange, almost surreal, place.

We were encouraged to partake in karaoke and indulge in a little more sake, and whilst we obliged, our stay after Ichiro-San left was not a long one... just enough to be able to say that was possibly one of the most bizarre outings I have ever had.

Needless to explain why Thursday saw me feeling very average.

Arriving at Kayamori House/HeadSpace Artist Residency was truly a breath of fresh air!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bambi, Brewery and Buddha.

Monday saw me return to Nara. Despite having spent a full day there when Allison was here, there were a few things I still needed to tick off my list, so another trip was necessary to do so. I was also feeling a strong desire to get out of The hustle and bustle of grey old Osaka for a day and see some greenery and the delightful deer that wander around freely in Nara are always an added bonus. They are so elegantly beautiful and always bring a smile to my face.

I had been wanting to pay a visit to Harushika Sake Brewery, but as I had not eaten yet that morning, I decided to hunt down a cafe that I had heard of that doubles as an art space. After walking past it a couple of times I finally found it. What an awesome space. I wonder whether it is used to its full potential in its current location, but good on the owner for setting it up as a space for young artists to have a chance to show their work. I have to say I ate what was possibly the most delicious vegetarian curry that I have ever had - and as I was once a vegetarian for 17 years, that is a pretty big call - it even had avocado in it... Who would've thought to put that in a curry?

With food in my belly, I headed off to find the sake brewery, wandering some beautiful backstreets of Nara and stopping to admire the history and architecture of places along the way. On arrival at Harushika Brewery, I paid a mere 400yen, allowing me to participate in the sake tasting where o got to try 6 different types of sake - including what was described as 'the Master Brewer's "secret sake", as well as a parilla/shiso flavoured sake which was actually quite delicious. After the tasting was over, I was presented with a complimentary choko and headed off to go a mingle with the deer and see the famous giant buddha at Todai-ji. Despite having been to Nara at least 3 times in the past, I was still yet to see the one attraction that 95% of tourists come to Nara to see. I was glad I chose to do so this time. Despite the hoards of school groups and other tourists, both Japanese and foreigners, it really was quite spectacular to see.

I was about to head back to Osaka when I changed my mind and direction at the last minute and just as I started walking in the opposite direction, I was stopped by a group of six Japanese school kids, (3 girls and 3 boys), who wanted to know if they could ask me a few questions. I, of course, agreed, as it was for a school project. The questions were very basic, including "is this your first visit to Nara?" and when I answered "no" they kind of all looked at each other blankly, I suppose they were expecting me to say yes, so for a brief moment they all looked a little unsure as to what to ask next. They did have a list of questions in their exercise books however, so I was asked a few more predictable questions like where I was from, how I like Japan, what my 3 favourite Japanese foods are... When the questionnaire was done, one of the girls asked me to write my name and a message in her exercise book and one of the boys asked if I would have my photo taken with them. With that, he stopped a passing stranger and passed him a camera. So here's me, looking like the ridiculous tourist, making a peace sign in between 3 girls and 3 boys in their adorable school uniforms, (also making peace signs)... but hopefully I helped them to complete their school project!

After consuming a little more sake and admiring a few more deer, I headed back to Osaka where I finished the day with a huge bowl of good old fashioned ramen - (accompanied, of course, by some good old fashioned gyoza).

I must make mention of the lovely exhibition by Japanese artist, Eri Moon, that I went to with my friend John on Sunday night at Ands Tartines Gallery. I got to catch up with some recent aquaintences, as well as meet some new and lovely people.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Spas, Sake and Submarines

I am about to check out of the hotel where I have spent the past 9 nights - (minus one on Jo and Rob's couch). I will be staying with a friend in Osaka tonight then heading off to Nara tomorrow to check out an artist residency space.

Yesterday I took myself to Arima and got my gear off with a bunch of random Japanese ladies and took an enjoyable soak in Gin-no-Yu onsen. The town itself is quite small and easy enough to explore in one day. I got to taste some local (both Arima and Kobe) sake at Sake Ichiba, including a delicious premium sake polished to 80%.

Next to cheese and sushi, hot springs are a great sake companion! Provided common sense is used of course.

I was fortunate enough to be the only passenger on the bus back to Umeda and slept the whole way - feeling somewhat rejuvenated on my return.

Last night I met up with John and Celia for a quick bite to eat before heading to a place John was desperate to show us... Known as the 'Submarine Bar', it was definitely worth the visit and I now see why he wanted to share this hidden wonder - located in a most unassuming and incredibly quiet side street, you wouldn't even know it was there as you enter through a very narrow and dark alleyway that one could very easily walk past and not even see.

The interior basically replicates the interior of a submarine. No expense has been spared in creating this place, which is apparently only a 'hobby' for the owner. He does not advertise and asks that if anyone mentions his bar on the internet they do not give directions or provide a map on how to get there. The bar itself only seats about 6-8 people and then there is a kind of a small elevated area, where we sat, that seats about 6. There is no music played at all in this mysterious and curiously cool bar and the toilet is an experience all of its own - you would not want to be desperate as you have to open two doors - one from the floor up and the other opens out. Words cannot provide justification, unfortunately, nor can the photos I took as it was incredibly dark. It was quite a surreal experience.

I spent an enjoyable day in Nara on Monday but will have to save that post for another time as it is nearing 'check out' time.

This country continues to fascinate, frustrate and inspire me.

A few more pics from my day in Arima…

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Get on your bike! Japan, May 2012

Alone in Kyoto

Yesterday I got up early and decided to head to Kyoto, yet again, this time to climb Diamonji-Yama. Previous to this visit to Japan, I have climbed Diamonji at least 3 times and felt it was high time to make the trek once again. I was so keen to make the climb that I actually forgot to eat! Fortunately I didn\'t forget to hydrate or carry water with me as it was incredibly humid from a very early hour.
I had forgotten how deceptively steep parts of the hike are, once at the peak however, it was just as I remembered - the view is incredible and well worth the post climb 'jelly legs'.
I sat at the top for about an hour, just taking in the sights, watching the hawks circling above and the city buzzing below.

In desperate need of fuel upon decent, I made my way over to Pontocho, Gion, and decided to try the 'yuzu' restaurant that Michael had pointed out to me two days earlier. I was keen to try the yuzu dumplings and not knowing how big they were, ordered a noodle soup as well. The soup was nothing to write home about - other than the fact that I discovered, (after eating two thirds of it), it had chicken mince in it. I don't really do chicken... For several reasons... Needless to say I spent the next few hours listening to pessimist versus optimist quarrel inside my head! The dumplings, however, were AMAZING! The sake wasn't bad either.

With a few hours to kill before Yoramu opened I headed over to the Heian Shrine area and paid a visit to The National Museum of Modern Art. Entry was free as they were in the process of installing a new exhibition. They had the gallery collection on display and that alone was worth the visit. The collection, all Japanese artists, included works by Toshiko Mitani, Yoshinara Hideo, Tetsuya Noda, Jiro Yoshiharae, Kimiyo Mishima and an artist who I have renamed 'The Japanese Cy Twombly': Sekine Seinosuke.
Whilst I was in the area, I decided to venture across the road to see what was on at Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art. I was told it was a 'print' exhibition. Not too sure what to expect, for 500 yen it was worth satisfying my curiousity... The exhibition, for me, albeit 'interesting', was neither inspiring or very memorable.

Throw in a little random Geisha spotting…

My second visit to Sake Bar Yoramu was a more memorable experience than the first - or perhaps I should say 'more enjoyable'. Despite being alone this time, it felt much less intimidating upon arrival than last Saturday night. Yoram welcomed me back and I refreshed his memory as to what I had tasted last week, and despite absolutely loving them, requested I try something different this time.
Yoram's selections, (as he wrote them), were:
Kinkame 60 - Muroka Nama Genshu
Kagatobi Ai - Junmai Daiginjo Muroka Nama Genshu
Miyako Bijin - Yamahai Muroka Nama Genshu

Initially, the second choice was my favourite, but by the end of the tasting, number 3 had fought its way to first place... I never really took a shining to the first one - it was not unpleasant, just not something I would order by choice.
Wanting to end my experience on a high, I told Yorum which sake I enjoyed the most last week and suggested he selected something different, yet just as amazing, for the grand finale.
His selection was: Yorokobi Gaijin (how appropriate?)
Yoram's notes state: Aged 7 years, unrefrigerated, Nama Zake.

It was a lovely selection, and a nice sake to finish on but I still think the winner was in last weeks selection. I must say though, every sake I tried at Yoramu was, in its own way, delicious and all were incredibly different. I would definitely recommend this bar to anyone who is curious about, or a connoisseur of, sake.
After bidding farewell and threatening to come back should I visit Japan again, I realized it was earlier than I had first thought so I decided to see if I could find a small and fairly new Japanese sake bar that Michael Baxter had mentioned, called Madoka - not far from Nishiki Market. I found it without a problem and ventured in. Greeted with a friendly 'Irrashaimase, hai dozo', I took a seat at the bar and feared my limited Japanese may not be enough to communicate any request. We managed and although I really didn't need another drink, I sampled a premium sake before calling it a night and catching a train back to Osaka. My minimal Japanese limited me from finding out too much about the sake I was drinking but I photographed the selection for good measure.

Oh... One last thing, Michael was correct to make mention of the toilet at Madoka... not only did it have a light inside the bowl, it actually played classical music to you once seated! Is there such a thing as too much attention to detail?