Our recent adventures in Japan began in Osaka and the area known as the Kansai. This region of southern Honshu, Japan’s largest and most heavily populated island, comprises the historic and cultural center of the country. The Kansai includes the cities of Osaka, Kobe, Nara and Kyoto. Anyone who is thinking of visiting Japan for the first time should make sure to explore this fascinating area, where trendy modern street food and fun mingle with ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, castles and traditional arts, crafts and cuisine, still alive in the Kansai.
Our home in the Kansai was the lovely St. Regis Osaka Hotel, where we began every eventful day with a magnificent Japanese breakfast, served on a wooden tray with individual items in small portions artfully arranged in local ceramic dishes of various colors and shapes. With some variety from day to day, the Japanese breakfast at the St. Regis included a traditional savory egg custard called chawan mushi, sashimi (ultra-fresh raw fish with wasabi, and soy sauce,) baked cod, Japanese pickles, rolled egg omelet, rice and nori (dried seaweed.) A sumptuous breakfast buffet, featuring fresh fruit and juices, Western style egg and meat dishes, a full English breakfast and French pastries was also available for all guests. Additional Japanese breakfast items from the buffet could be added to the traditional breakfast tray. Among these items were gobo (matchstick slices of seasoned burdock root,) natto (fermented soybeans,) and onsen eggs, (soft boiled eggs with soy sauce traditionally cooked in the boiling waters of Japanese hot springs spas.)
We left the breakfast table well-fortified for our whirlwind six-hour walking tour of Osaka, old and new. We started with Osaka Castle.
This magnificent medieval castle was built in 1583 by the famous Samurai war lord, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. The castle has been destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout history. The first time we visited Osaka Castle years ago, I noticed a discreet little sign in English noting that the current castle is entirely reconstructed due to a fire in1945. I took this as a polite way of saying that Osaka Castle was bombed by the Americans shortly before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the Second World War. The moat and some of the massive stone wall fortifications of the original castle are still intact, and this architectural gem with its gilded roof sits on a hill in the center of Osaka, surrounded by a lovely park and garden, including flowering peach, plum and cherry trees and azaleas, which were in bloom when we visited. The beautiful pond and waterfall are a favorite spot for wedding photos for newlyweds.
Another of Osaka’s historic treasures is the National Bunraku Theater, where the medieval Japanese Puppet dramas are still alive. Japanese puppet drama is a poetic literary form which originated in Osaka in 1680. It evolved as a form of low-cost entertainment for working class adults, and like Shakespearean drama, which was also popular entertainment for ordinary people, Japanese puppet drama produced some of the finest literature in the culture. Japanese puppet drama uses highly realistic puppets, a master puppeteer who remains on stage dressed in black and simply fades into the background as the puppets come to life, a chanter who narrates and speaks for the puppets in various voices, and a shamisen player who provides musical accompaniment.
Chikamatsu Monzaemon, who was born in 1653 and died in Osaka in 1724, was the greatest Japanese dramatist of the puppet theater, the Shakespeare of Japan. His most famous work, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, was written in 1724 based on an actual event, described by the play’s title. The poignant poetry of this tragic drama rivals the beauty of Romeo and Juliet. Osaka’s National Bunraku Theater has a small but impressive museum which includes original puppets, musical instruments and scripts used in puppet performances over the years. When Wayne and I visited the museum on our walking tour of Osaka, we were the only ones there. Clearly this little historic treasure has not made its way into the guidebooks.
The puppet theater museum also contained several original woodblock prints, called Ukiyo-e. These colorful posters, often used as advertisements for puppet and Kabuki plays and other popular entertainment, have now gained world-wide fame as emojis and other types of computer-generated art. One of the most famous of the Ukiyo-e artists was Katsushika Hokusai, who lived from 1760 to 1849. His masterpiece is a series of prints called “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” which features his iconic bright orange image of Japan’s favorite mountain. Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” is even better known, showing up on tee shirts and posters everywhere on earth and living in the cloud as a popular emoji.
Wayne and I were delighted by Osaka’s quirky mix of ancient and modern, blended in a vibrant and complex cultural web. There are yakuza, Japanese gangsters who don’t carry guns, in Osaka, as well as elegant geisha, young women who receive years of rigorous training in music, dance and dignified comportment as companions for men at social functions. We were fortunate to observe a lovely geisha dance performance while we were in Osaka. We also enjoyed a delightful tour of The Osaka Aquarium, the largest aquarium in the world. The concierge at the St. Regis Hotel arranged for us to have a private guided tour behind the scenes, at an additional cost. It was well worth it! Two young women escorted us through the inner workings of the giant tank containing two huge whale sharks as well as hammerhead sharks, manta rays and hundreds of other Pacific Ocean species. We got to watch right from the top edge of the tank as two young divers, each with a bucket of krill and chopped shrimp, dived in and hand fed the two massive sharks. Both of the whale sharks were accidentally caught by Japanese fishermen and will be returned to the ocean when they get bigger, although they are both already huge. Their backs had a beautiful spotted pattern like a kimono. It was an unforgettable privilege to see these glorious creatures so close.
We loved all the displays at the Osaka Aquarium, especially the river otters, the seals, penguins and coral reef habitats. It was fun as well as educational on our guided tour to chat with the divers after the shark feedings, (Wayne and I both speak a little Japanese,) visit the kitchen and the giant freezers where a busy staff was preparing food for all the various marine animals—including vegetables and dead mice for the river otters and meatballs for the giant sun fish.
We took another walking tour that evening to explore Osaka’s famous street food and after-hours entertainment. Osaka is the self-proclaimed foodie capital of Japan, a well-deserved honor as we discovered. We saw young people standing in long lines to purchase tako-yaki, the most popular street food “invented” in Osaka. Tako-yaki might be translated as octopus dumplings. This is finger food purchased from street vendors, and it must be eaten while it is still warm—fried balls of chopped octopus and dough, soft, savory and delicious, but certainly not gourmet cuisine. Kushi-yaki is another local Osaka favorite and the ultimate tasty junk food, generating even more long lines than the octopus dumplings. Kushi-yaki is essentially balls of Panko breadcrumbs with various fillings such as shrimp, oysters or other sea foods (remember Osaka is a port city!) and served on a stick like a salty lollipop.
Kushi-yaki is the perfect snack for young people strolling around in the evening looking for fun. Fun in Osaka might include drinking a few beers and shooting arrows at an archery range, (what could possibly go wrong?) or shooting air rifles at boxes of cookies, which are the prizes for anyone who can knock them over. People of all ages in Osaka also enjoy playing vintage game machines from the 1970s. We also saw elderly gentlemen gambling on games of go, the Japanese version of chess, using guerilla warfare strategies rather than the European-style front line military techniques on which chess is based.
Regardless of the type of trendy or traditional entertainment that goes on in Osaka, food is necessary. Osaka is the go-to city for sushi, ramen noodles, sashimi, and another Osaka original, okonomi-yaki, a fried egg and cabbage omelet that can also include anything else that happens to be in your refrigerator. Osaka is also proud to be the city where the rotating sushi bar (some designed as little train cars on a revolving track, each car carrying one or two pieces of sushi,) was invented.
While Osaka is fun city, the other and smaller cities in the Kansai, especially Nara and Kyoto, are better known for their ancient and beautiful Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. These two cities are the guardians of Japan’s glorious past, filled with art, literature and elegance.
The Shinto religion in Japan pre-dates historic records. It is not based on theology or a set of moral teachings. Instead, Shintoism is a world view that emphasizes the sacredness of the passing seasons and all aspects of the natural world. In Shinto, trees are sacred, as are mountains, rivers and all plants and animals. Spirits, known as kami live in every element in nature, even in rocks and volcanoes. Shinto shrines, which can be identified by tall wooden entrance gates called Torii, are everywhere throughout Japan, and because of Shinto’s historic reverence for life and nature, Japan remains a place that values gardens, pure air and water, and children are taught to respect the environment. The Japanese emphasis on cleanliness grows out of this tradition of respect for the world around us.
Buddhism was introduced to Japan from Korea and China around the year 552 of the Current Era. This philosophy originated in the Sixth Century BC through the teachings of the historic Buddha, Prince Siddhartha, who was born in Nepal, and whose message of loving kindness, spiritual discipline and control of the ego quickly spread throughout India, China, Korea and Southeast Asia. Today there are 300 million Buddhists in the world.
Buddhism found a comfortable home in Japan, and Buddhism and Shintoism have co-existed in Japan harmoniously for centuries. It is a common practice today for weddings and the presentation of newborn babies to take place at Shinto shrines and funerals to be held at Buddhist temples. Buddhism first thrived in Nara, which became the first capital of Japan in 768, and then Kyoto, Japan’s capital during the glorious Heian Period from 794-1192. Every visitor to Japan should spend some quiet time experiencing the ancient Todai-ji Temple in Nara and the breathtaking Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto.
The Todai-ji Temple in Nara, also called the Daibutsu (the Big Buddha) is the largest bronze statue in Japan. A charming deer park surrounds the temple where the enormous statue of the Budddha resides. The lovely spring day when we visited, there were lots of deer everywhere and children hand feeding them “deer biscuits” that were available in the many shops and snack stands surrounding the temple. Since Todai-ji is one of the most famous Buddhist temples in the world, many visitors were there, and a sense of quiet reverence pervaded the atmosphere. The huge bronze incense burner at the entrance to the temple was going strong, sending smoke blessings over all of us as we entered the Great Hall and looked up to the Big Buddha with his giant gold halo and his Bodhisattva (Buddhist Saints) guardians in two corners of the cavernous structure.
Wayne said that he remembered coming to see the Great Buddha with his parents as a child and how much he loved feeding the deer. Today the deer were in molting mode, shifting from their winter coats to their summer coats, with tufts of fur coming off their backs, and the children seemed to be having as much fun feeding them as Wayne did, all those years ago.
There is a beautiful Shinto shrine, the Kasura Taisha, in the same park as the Todai-ji Temple. The shrine was established in 768 and remains a lovely place where a deep reverence for nature is everywhere apparent. When we visited, the stone lanterns in the garden area were covered with moss, and wisteria petals were falling onto the moss. A one-thousand-yea-old cedar tree stands near the entrance to the shrine, and an eight-hundred-year-old wisteria was in bloom, though the petals were falling. There were lots of deer at the Kasura Taisha also, and there was a snack shop where we bought the shrine’s signature snack—wisteria flavored soft-serve ice cream, a lovely lavender color and a pleasant subtle flavor.
The next day, a beautiful spring day in Kyoto, we visited the Kinkaku-ji Temple. This masterpiece of architectural elegance was constructed in three stories in the traditional Japanese palace style, and in 1397 it became the retirement villa of the Shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Upon his death in 1408, this mountain palace became a Zen Buddhist Temple, the top two floors of which are entirely covered in gold leaf. It is also a UNESCO World heritage site.
The gracious city of Kyoto is filled with many other lovely Buddhist Temples, including the glorious Kiyomizu, as well as gardens and traditional wooden houses. A quiet serenity pervades this clean and ancient city. The culinary art of the Kaiseki meal, a leisurely form of dining that includes a sequence of small individual dishes served artistically on masterfully produced ceramic ware, is still alive in Kyoto. So is the art of the Geisha. Kyoto is one of my favorite cities in the world. If I could only visit one city in Japan, it would be Kyoto.
As we say goodbye for now to the Kansai, the old and new in fun-loving Osaka, historic Nara and gracious Kyoto, I am happy to share with you the recipe for a simple treat served at traditional Japanese hot-springs spas, the Onsen Egg. As I mentioned, we enjoyed Onsen Eggs at the breakfast buffets of both the Shangri-La Hotel in Tokyo and the St. Regis in Osaka, and Wayne makes them for us at home in his sous vide cooking pot. Next month we will conclude our adventures in Japan with a cruise southern islands and waterways. For now, itadakimasu! Enjoy your food!
4 large eggs
For the sauce:
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ¾ cup dashi (Japanese fish broth available in Asian markets in packets)
Thinly sliced green onions for garnish
sous vide cooking pot or medium sized cooking pot, small cooking pot, cooking thermometer, 4 small attractive bowls for serving
Makes: 4 servings
Make the sauce:
- In a small cooking pot, bring the mirin to a simmer. Add the sugar and stir to dissolve. Add the soy sauce and bring the mixture to a simmer, not a hard boil. Set the mixture aside to cool.
- Prepare ¾ cup of hot dashi following the instructions on the package. (Simply add a packet of dried dashi to the designated amount of hot water.)
- Add ¼ cup of the soy sauce mixture to the ¾ cup of dashi. Reserve the remaining soy sauce mixture and refrigerate both as you prepare the eggs.
Prepare the Eggs.
- Fill a sous vide pot or a regular cooking pot ¾ full of water. Heat the water to 167 degrees F. Maintain this temperature throughout the cooking time, using a cooking thermometer and adjusting the heat as necessary to maintain the correct cooking temperature.
- Add 4 eggs in their shells and cook for 13 minutes. Remove immediately and chill in an ice bath.
- To serve, crack as much of the shell as necessary to release each egg into a small decorative serving bowl. Use a paper towel to remove any egg white that has remained too runny or uncooked.
- Pour about 2 tablespoons of the dashi sauce over each egg and serve immediately.