Wednesday 3 March 2010

Japan was AWESOME!

Just back from a week in Japan. 26 hours' travelling to arrive at my first stop in Arashiyama on the southeast outskirts of Kyoto.
Arashiyama is a world heritage site, with many ancient shrines. It receives many, many tourists in the course of a year and yet, at this time of year, there are no restaurants open in the evening.
I travelled with my buddy, Jim Robertson, the publican of The Kempock Bar in Gourock. Arrived at my hotel Kyoto Ranzan, obviously very tired, and asked at reception if the hotel restaurant was still open (this was 9.15 p.m.). Was informed that there were NO restaurants open in Arashiyama, there was only a convenience store and suggesting that we go there and eat its offerings in our rooms. Naturally, I did not believe this and we went out for a walk.
Everything was shut up for the night and I was beginning to despair of getting anything to eat - we had not eaten anything since around 10 o'clock in the morning - when we saw some lights. The convenience store! We grabbed a couple of bento boxes containing sushi & some fruit and beer and headed back to the hotel.
The next day, we visited Yamazaki distillery and were conducted around by Makoto Sumita, the distillery's Deputy Executive Manager: a very big mash tun and washbacks and a stillhouse containing a dozen stills of various shapes and sizes, permitting them to produce a wide variety of flavours within their whiskies.
I tasted 12 years old Yamazaki matured in American oak, 12 yo Yamazaki matured in a Sherry butt, 12 yo Yamazaki matured in a Mizunara (the Japanese oak, Quercus serrata) cask and 12 yo (the standard offering on the shelves), Yamazaki 18 yo and yamazaki 1984Limited Edition.
The tasting revealed the difference that Mizunara casks make. For tasting notes see that section on my website.
That night, I determined to find an open restaurant! We had seen a great number of restaurants in the area over the course of the afternoon and I could not understand why, when there were obviously a lot of tourists around despite it being early in the season, they all seemed to close at 4.30.
I was successful! I found what must have been the only restuaurant open in the area, a kushi-age restaurant and we were their only customers all night, so we got great service with an explanation of what everything was and how to eat it. Great! Deep fried food! A very Scottish diet!
17 train journeys in 7 days and everyone of them ran precisely to time!
Back over to Tokyo on the bullet train. One of these 1800 seat trains travels down the tracks every 7 minutes and our experience was that they travelled at 60-70% capacity.
Tokyo was an experience in itself. Their planning department doesn't seem to be particularly effective, there is no continuity of building style, each house is (often) totally different from its neighbour and they are built cheek by jowl in an almost shanty town style. Such proximity would not be permitted in Britain. Having said that, the streets were very clean, no chewing gum stuck to the pavements, no cigarette ends/polythene bags/crisp packets blowing in the wind.
It was expensive though. The sterling/yen exchange rate didn't help, but I got the impression that the cost of living is expensive in Japan.
We had dinner with Kiyotoshi, Keiko and Takamitsu Shimamura from Scotch Whisky Sales Ltd. and Junichi Fukutani, who translated the last edition of "The Malt Whisky File" into Japanese. Sushi - again. They fed us beer, followed by sake and that was followed by shochu. I got tyhe distinct impression that our hosts were trying to see how much we could drink as they were not either eating as much, or drinking as much as they were. A very enjoyable night nonetheless and Jim & I dropped into an Italian wine bar for a bottle of wine to finish the night with.
Whisky Live Japan was on the Sunday and we jumped onto the Yurikamome line at Shimbashi to the Big Sight exhibition centre. The Yurikamome line is an automated system without a driver, like London's Docklands Light Railway. the view it gives of Tokyo's waterfront area is fabulous. It is a pretty wonderful piece of engineering, especially when one thinks about the now dumped plans for the Glasgow Airport Rail Link and the chaos which has blighted Edinburgh's streets since work started on that city's tram system - and this tram system now looks as if the build will overrun by 2 or 3 years!
Whisky Live was amazing - 5,000 visitors all very serious about whisky. I was walking around the exhibition and people were coming up to me and saying, "Ahh, you are John Lamond!", pulling a copy of "The Malt Whisky File" out of a bag and asking for my autograph or asking to be photographed with me. Felt like stardom! It was reallya buzz.
Went to dinner with Shusaka Osawa and his staff from Liquors Hasegawa - in a Chinese restaurant. Again very different from the UK version of a Chinese retaurant.
For relaxation, after all this excitement, Jim & I split a bottle of wine at a Breton retsaurant just along the street from our hotel in the Ginza district.

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