MY toilet is called Toto and so, too, is the name of my potential paramour. From my heated throne, I ponder whether Toto, the man, would also be prepared to warm my bottom before blasting it with a jet of water. I suspect one final, perky puff of deodorising spray, just like my toilet serves up, is a step too far in any relationship. I am in Osaka, surfing both the porcelain bowl and Japanese Tinder, in a bid to better understand this mysterious culture and potentially meet a mate. It is my first foray into the Land of the Rising Sun and I am intrigued by everything, from the views, to the loo, to the deadly fugu.
I discover a delicious dichotomy of weird and whacky characters, best digested with fabulous fishy dishes and chased down by ice-cold Asahi beer. The rumours are true, Japan’s famous brew does taste better up here. And, it appears, so too do Australian women, if my popularity on Osaka Tinder is any indication. Look, I don’t want to brag, but I’m receiving more Super Likes than Super Woman. Toto aside, Nori, 48, whose name reminds me of a delicious Japanese roll, is only 13km away from my hotel, but can speak no English. My Japanese is limited to a hearty “Hai!”, a phrase you’ll hear often in this colourful country, but, like a circle, has no real beginning or end. There appears to be a bounty of blokes, but it comes with a catch. For while this is a quirky culture on one hand, it is also deeply conservative on the other.
My Inside Japan tour guide Richard, a boisterous Brit and Zen Buddhism devotee, tells me if I were to marry a Japanese man, I would be compelled to take his surname. If I were to have children, and return to the workplace, I would be demoted to secretarial work. And at work drinks, as a woman, I would be expected to pour everyone’s beer before someone acknowledged my “lowly status” and finally served me. A thirsty girl, I am horrified at the prospect. But there is also much to love about Japan.
I am sitting with Richard and two colleagues in Osaka’s Temma area, home to tiny standing bars and intimate yakitori restaurants, discussing Japanese life. (Richard’s also even poured my beer first). Want an example of Japanese hospitality? Not only is my party of four dining in Yakitori Mame, which has been recommended to Richard early in the day by a man known only as Uryu-San, when it comes to our first drinks, this mystery man has already paid for them. Richard says this is typical of the people of Osaka.
“This is the kind of thing that happens in Japan. I’ve heard stories of customers on tours, who, when they have had some free time, may have become lost. They are accosted by a local who tells them it’s too far to walk, and has not only hailed a cab for them, but jumped in and taken them to the destination, and paid for the taxi ride,” he says.
To really understand Osaka, head to the edgy district of Shinsekai which means “new world” in Japanese. Frequented by locals who say it’s modelled on Paris and New York’s Coney Island, the area was destroyed during World War Two, but has been rebuilt. It’s a stone’s throw from Japan’s tallest skyscraper and home to a number of fascinating standing bars. You’ll even find Osaka’s mascot Billiken here, who is hailed as “The God of things as they ought to be”. It is here that I delve into my first Japanese vending machine, and this one specialises in “erotica”. I insert my $5 and am rewarded with a pair of saucy white g-strings which I shove into my winter coat, and mistake for a tissue for the rest of the day. Things are off to a sensual start.
We amble a mesmerising maze of streets, pausing to pay homage to Jizo, a roadside deity which protects expectant mothers and travellers, before we arrive at Hell Temple. I stick my head in a hole where I’m told I can hear the sounds of hell. Disappointed, I detect nothing. I undertake an electronic survey to determine whether I am going to heaven or hell. I scrape into heaven. Just. There is hope for me yet. Later in the trip I return with my Aussie colleagues to Shinsekai and to Spa World which turns out to be my idea of hell. Picture wall-to-wall naked Japanese women, for whom a trip to the waxer has never occurred, and three prudish Aussie girls, clutching on to their towels, the size of a face washer. What I’ve seen, cannot be unseen. And I will be establishing a waxing clinic in Japan in the near future.
We push on to Kyoto, where I dive into my second Japanese vending machine experience. This one predicts “love fortunes”. I reach into the bowels of the beast and extract my fortune. My guide, Aya, translates my future. Apparently I am “unlucky in love” (I did not need to part with $2 to discover this); I need to “change my attitude” to love; and best of all, I need to find someone who is either 120 years older or 120 years younger than me. Not only that, I need to cook them a barbecue…inside my house. Love just got a whole lot more difficult and dangerous.
Aya, 42, confirms what I already know.
“It is hard to find a good western man. Japanese men look after their women and if they get sick, they look after them,” she says.
“But that is changing. Japanese men are getting worse and that’s the western influence. But Japanese men are not as good looking as western men, because they are short.”
Our jaunty Japanese journey continues, on to the traditional Japanese spa town of Kinosaki Onsen. Here, there’s seven different types of onsen, whose waters are believed to contain different healing properties. I head straight to Goshono-Yu, which is said to bring good luck in finding a marriage partner and preventing fires. If I am to believe my $2 vending machine reading back in Kyoto, I will need all the luck there is in finding a partner with a 120-year age difference, plus some fire prevention when I cook him that barbecue inside my house. I’m convinced these waters are working.
The last destination of my trip is up at Mt Koya, considered the most significant site in Japan for Shingon Buddhism. Even more fascinating, it’s home to 1000 monks, who no longer believe in celibacy and even like a drink. They call sake “wisdom water” and beer “bubbled wisdom water” up here and from the way I imbibe, I’m a wise woman indeed. Interestingly, women were not allowed on the mountain until the 20th century, which I believe makes me a hot commodity on this minus two degree day. Late at night, I lay on my basic mattress in my temple lodging and surf Temple Tinder. But the pickings are slim. Where are all the manly monks? The next morning, I join the monks in their 6am prayer service. There’s a deity in the temple devoted to love. I make a silent offering (desperate plea) and head back down the mountain. I’m heading home to stoke up the barbecue and wait for my 120-year-old mate.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Inside Japan Tours, https://www.insidejapantours.com whose specialist English-speaking guides will show you the real Japan, armed with insider knowledge and experience tailored to your interests.
Qantas has several direct flights between Australia and Osaka including from Sydney and the newly-introduced Melbourne route. Fly Business Class, and you can also experience their new light-weight crockery range, which translates to more than 500,000kgs of fuel savings each year. http://www.qantas.com
MONDAY, bloody Monday and I am in the sort of mood other people normally reserve for dentists and funerals. I despise Monday so much, that if there was an Olympic sport for this kind of thing, I would be the reigning gold champion. With such contempt do I hold the first day of the working week, that I am utterly convinced no one else on this planet could hate it as much as me. Except for my good friend Matthew, who is the silver medallist in this sport. Our email conversations on Monday run along the lines of “Only 51 more weeks until holidays”. But not this Monday. You see yesterday we hatched a plan to escape to Japan, if only for a few hours. Yesterday, we went to Sake Restaurant Brisbane.
For those who have been hiding under a rock, and clearly I am one of these people (in my defence, it’s not like I ever go on a date), Sake opened in November 2010. In true Brisbane style, this riverside establishment not only survived the 2011 floods at its Eagle Street pier location, but has thrived during the past five years, winning a coveted Queensland Good Food Guide Chef’s Hat every year since it opened. And it’s easy to see why.
Apart from the fact Matthew likes to match my Monday complaining (I am the Edamame to his Sapporo), he is also a Japanese aficionado, known to enjoy the food as much as the skiing there and hence, he makes the perfect lunch companion on this occasion. A creative way to experience the menu here is to indulge in the “omokase” which, loosely translated, means “we create the menu for you.” In fact, around half of this restaurant’s guests choose this option, leaving it in the hands of head chef Daisuke Sakai and his team to make magic.
Drawing inspiration from the new winter menu, we were treated to a number of dishes, starting with a scallop tiradito with yuzu lemon and rocotto chili; and spicy tuna rice, tuna sashimi with crispy rice blocks.
A wagyu gyoza with ginger, chives and butter ponzu followed; as did tonkatsu pocket buns with panko crumbed pork belly, spicy miso sauced on a steamed white bun.
Our last two savory courses consisted of grainfed wagyu teriyaki cooked medium rare with sautéed shiitake, buckwheat and yakiniku sauce; and Osaka sushi roll with prawn, sweet ginger, egg sheet wrap with okonomiyaki barbecue sauce, and dancing bonito flakes.
The outstanding flavours and texture of the spicy tuna rice made this dish a clear winner for both of us due to the clever crunchy base. For my money, the salty wagyu teriyaki was a close second, while Matthew enjoyed the tonkatsu pocket buns, describing them as upmarket sliders. The Osaka sushi roll prawn promised much, but fell short due to its overpowering ginger, and had the chef possibly deconstructed this dish, as I ended up doing, the beautifully distinct taste of the egg wrap became evident, as did its other individual elements.
A really nice touch is the wine list, with an Austrian white from near the Austrian/Hungarian border and which tastes somewhere between a Riesling and Chablis, a perfect pairing to this menu. The restaurant has also sourced a rare Japanese white wine – Gris de Koshu – which comes from a Japanese grape, and is also a great drop for this kind of food. As the name suggests, Sake is home to numerous drops of the potent Japanese rice wine with 30 varieties of sake on the list. While Monday is pretty dire in my opinion, I did resist reaching for the sake bottle, instead, admiring the sake barrels on the wall, which I am told are used for traditional opening ceremonies.
Matthew had to rush off for a meeting before dessert arrived, but not before he ranked the experience a 9/10. As someone who hosts business lunches of his own, he found the private space in which we were seated, the varied menu, and the use of local produce such as Hervey Bay scallops, impressive. I was all set to give the restaurant an 8/10 (we both agreed the thumping lounge club music in the background was a distraction), until dessert arrived. Even the name of this dish, on this melancholy Monday, made me smile. And the “nihon nemesis” – a delicate chocolate cake with raspberry, matcha raspberry sorbet and honeycomb, was enough to brighten even the darkest day. With stunning service, fabulous food and such creative cuisine, this restaurant is worthy of a 9/10 and a repeat visit. Just like Monday, I’ll be back.
The Global Goddess was a guest of Sake Restaurant – http://www.sakerestaurant.com.au