Oct 12 2017

Autumn in Japan

A soft autumn mist hangs over the river. From my Devon window I watch oak tree leaves glistening red in the persistent rain, they glow with warmth against the steel grey sky. The cherry trees try to compete, cornus, viburnum, acers too; pink, orange, yellow, everything in the valley is riotously fading into autumn. The swallows and geese have left. Apples cover the ground, a Labradors delight. Tomatoes are cleared from the greenhouse. Chutney is made. The vegetable garden is stripped of its bounty. Winter beckons.
Summer flew by in a flurry of garden openings, friends, family, rain, sunshine, fun and laughter. And suddenly it was autumn and time to go to Japan. Bryony arrived to house-sit, packing was completed, doggies and donkeys kissed goodbye, sheep checked, chickens counted and we were in the car en route for Heathrow.
A long flight and a two hour journey on the Shinkansen from Tokyo found us standing on Maiboro station in western Japan. Another hour’s car journey and we arrived in Hino in Shiga Province, just north east of Kyoto. The little old town sits on the flat plains under the shadow of huge black mountains surrounded by rice fields and spared, we were assured, from frequent earthquakes.

Six months ago our son, Tom and Nolly moved into an old merchant’s house, one of several in the town, built around 1780. The merchants stored their goods and housed their families in these beautiful old houses while they, themselves, travelled up and down the country following the Shogun.

The house has been empty some twenty years so very careful restoration was called for. By chance Nolly was at Art School with a local Buddhist monk who introduced them to a builder specialising in the old skills and traditional craft necessary to bring the house back to life.

The garden needs help too. Some lovely traditional planting has survived and some has not. We had a wonderful time planning and planting; part Japanese, part European. A busman’s holiday, you could say, but oh what fun we had!

I particularly loved the second hand plant nursery which furnished us with a large number of pot bound trees and shrubs just longing to be liberated!

We had wonderful days exploring too. A visit to a fishing village on the shores of the beautiful lake Biwa just north of Hino, a boat trip in the old town of Omihatchiman, Temples and Shrines, craft galleries and old traditional shops full of hidden treasures.

We visited Shigaraki, one of the five famous Japanese pottery towns up in the mountains. A tour round the old kilns ended with traditional green tea with a potter’s wife. And Hino itself boasts a gallery of sensational work by Bernard Leech.

And, of course, we ate amazing food! Nolly is a wonderful cook producing meal after meal without any apparent effort. We ate thin sliced local Hino marbled beef and sausages made from pigs fed on German cake! We had salads with figs, tomatoes and parmesan cheese, chicken grilled with soy sauce covered in leeks and mild green peppers.

We had yam with nori and soy sauce, octopus cooked with lotus root, hot red peppers and crushed garlic. There was salted and fermented Crucian Carp stuffed with rice and cured in barrels, delicious baked Sea Bream, plates of noodles topped with glistening fish row; I could go on!

Tyzo came to stay, the Bonito Man. We met him in Dartmouth last year at the Food Festival. He bought with him his special dry tuna or bonito and we enjoyed an extraordinary BBQ in the kitchen. The two storey room has a chimney in the roof. I watched in wonder as the smoke rose up through the rafters and out into the night sky without filling the room at all!

A second similar feast was arranged by the builder craftsman and his foreman who arrived with a huge ice box of deliciousness. They proceeded to light said BBQ again, this time with blow torch and hairdryer. A hilarious afternoon followed with much laughter, Saki and a taxi home for them at 7pm.

I visited butchers whose cutting skills are quite different to ours, wonderful fish shops offering fish from the Sea of Japan that I don’t recognise. I went to French patisseries with a Japanese twist. I bought homemade rice crackers from an old lady in a tiny purple shop and visited a friend with a shop selling beer, saki and Japanese wine. Hino has an enormous supermarket and the best home store I’ve ever visited. Nolly laughed when I came out with huge bags of gardening gloves and big, brown paper bags for storing rice: the latter beautiful enough to hang on any wall.

And then suddenly we were on that bullet train; in Tokyo again swirling around Shinagawa station in perpetual rush hour. We were in the airport, on the plane and six thousand miles later, home in Devon.

And now a brief respite, but not for long: some sixteen Japanese arrive next week for the Dartmouth Food Festival. This will be their fourth visit. They will run cookery workshops, a stall in the Market Square and host a Japanese dinner for sixty at Alfresco’s Restaurant. I can’t wait!

And finally they will join us for dinner here at home at Bramble Torre: my privilege to cook for them!

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