We’d eaten ekiben, bento on trains, several times in the previous couple of weeks. But that has evolved far away from traditional bento packed in urushi (laquer) boxes. After exiting Toshogu and Rinno-ji in Nikko, we found a very charming building with a nice restaurant. It was quite late. A family group at a nearby table had ordered an afternoon tea with cakes. Clearly the bakery downstairs served the upstairs restaurant as well. The menu had a bento, and both of us decided to try it out.

Our breakfast had been rather small, and we’d survived the long walk through Toshogu and its surroundings only because we stopped at the food stalls outside Rinno-ji for a mid-morning snack. There was shioyaki, fish on skewers in a wavy pattern, dango, sticky rice balls (these would be grilled and dipped in a sweet soy sauce to be made into mitarashi dango), and wraps. The Family had decided to have a fish-filled wrap and I’d picked the mitarashi dango.

Our bento arrived soon enough. Our waiter set the boxes in front of us, then placed two bowls next to each, before taking off the laquered cover to reveal the many compartments inside. One of the bowls held miso soup, the other, rice. The bits of fish, pork, pickles, two kinds of sea weed, the fingers of salad, and the datemaki (sweet rolled omelette) were a quick guided tour of the landscape of Japanese food. We would explore it at length in the next week, but we were happy with the tour.

Eating on Bullet Trains

Japan’s Shinkansen, the Bullet Trains, remain iconic although there are many different superfast trains around the world now. The first Shinkansen ran two weeks before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Since then, running times have been shortened substantially by changing the shape of the nose of the locomotive from a bullet cone to the duckbill that you see above. I enjoy train rides in Japan, and prefer them to flights. Getting from Hiroshima to Tokyo by the Nozomi super-express that you see above took us 4 hours. A flight would have taken an hour and a half; not enough of an improvement to really matter.

That wasn’t our first bullet train ride on this trip. We decided to go from Kansai airport to Hiroshima by taking a Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka. That came with the completely superfluous opportunity to buy a little box of Ekiben, a lunch box to take with you on the train. We did not need this, but who can pass up an opportunity to eat a few pieces of Sushi at tea time? The box we chose had two pieces of each kind of Sushi, making it easy to share.

Travelling from Hiroshima to Tokyo we had a much wider choice of ekiben. We took our time choosing. The Family got the mixed spread in the upper panel: pickled ume (plum) and veggies, lotus stem and some mushrooms, a little pork patty, half a boiled egg, seaweed over rice. I looked around and took a more meaty selection. We took out our lunch boxes at about the same time as a family across the aisle, and out of the corner of my eye I saw that they had a much more elaborate meal. Perhaps we should have looked harder, but I was happy enough with this meal.

We have a sweet tooth. So after an hour or so of happiness I reached into my backpack and extracted an omiyage that I’d picked up at the station. Omiyage are gifts that you bring back from travels, so I must have stretched the definition a bit by presenting this packet to The Family and me: freeze dried strawberries infused with white chocolate. Like many Japanese sweets it was more tart than sweet. I don’t know what to call this specialty from Nagano prefecture, so in keeping with the daruma doll motif from the package, let me just call it daruma ichigo.

Around the world in 30 days (2)

After that first day walking around Tokyo, I had a week of work before some more tourism. This work week introduced me to the pleasures of bento (this was 1990, and the box had not yet spread through the US), vending machines which gave out cans of hot tea (in four flavours: matcha, Darjeeling, Oolong, and Assam), and karaoke, which had then just taken over Japan. Finally, on the weekend, I joined a busload of my colleagues for a trip to Nara.

We rolled through crowded highways towards the town of Nikko. What I knew about it was that it had the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the person who unified Japan after decisive battles starting in 1600 CE. There was more to Nikko than this, as I discovered when we stopped at the 97 meters high Kegon waterfall. Autumn had coloured the forest in lurid colours. One of my colleagues told us the story of a young man who committed suicide here in the early years of the 20th century after carving a poem into a tree trunk. He was able to show me an English translation of the poem later. I thought it read like something that Camus could have written.

We got back into the bus and drove on to Lake Chuzenji. The traffic was bad. Alain, sitting next to me, said “This road trip is a nightmare.” We spent the rest of the halting progress talking about the grammatical gender of dreams and nightmares in French. Chuzenjiko was beautiful in this season, when the surrounding forests had turned into a lovely gold. But we had lost too much time in the bad traffic, and we had to move on to the main sight.

I’d already seen a shrine to the Meiji emperor, so I had a picture in mind of a Shinto shrine. But the Toshogu shrine was much more than that. The huge complex has beautiful wood carvings, and a lot of gold. That, and the location made it stunning. I spent a long time wandering through the warehouse area and came to a carving of the three monkeys, a theme which I’d thought of till then as Indian. The Kathasaritsagar was collected in the 11th century, but the stories may have been in circulation for centuries before that. Perhaps some were taken to China by Xuanzang four centuries earlier, and eventually entered Japan.

This was my first inkling of the long hidden connections between many different Asian cultures. Stories of elephants had clearly been carried from India with Buddhism. I saw these wonderful carvings of what must have been imaginary beasts to the Japanese woodworkers who made them. It reminded me of the strange lion carvings which I saw in various parts of India where no lion had been seen in historic times.

The main part of the shrine begins with the Yomeimon, one of the most decorative gates I’ve ever seen. Today I would have taken many more photos of the gate. But I see only this one photo in my album. I remember that this was taken with a roll of 100 ASA Fujicolor which I’d inserted into the camera the previous night. The 24 shots had to last me the whole day, and there were so many details which caught my eye!

This carved wooden peacock on the Yomeimon was one such detail. I liked the beautiful colour of the wood quite as much as the intricate work. The gate was rebuilt in 1818 CE after a fire. There is a lot of such rebuilding in Japan, and there must be a well developed branch of restorative art. I wonder how much creativity each restoring artist is allowed. How much of this peacock is the work of the original woodcarver, and what has each restorer added?

My memory tells me that once I passed the gate I walked through a long avenue surrounded by tall trees with seasonally colourful leaves. But I only have a photo of this place: presumably where Ieyasu was interred. My intention to capture his shrine was waylaid by my impulse of capturing the colours of the leaves, the result is the photo you see above; my final photo from Nikko.

I was going to leave Japan after another day of work, so this also turned out to be my last photo from Japan on that trip.