Last week I took a long-awaited trip to Tokyo. It’s a city where I previously tried to find work, and made for a fascinating holiday destination, if only for the oddness of the place. I’m a very safety-conscious person (in other words I worry obsessively about every little thing that could go wrong in any given situation), but even I had no idea there were so many dangers in travelling on public transport – I’ve never seen so many safety posters or alarming warnings in my life. Street maps were another peculiarity, as none of them were oriented north. This led to many frustrating sessions of rotating our guide book, tilting our heads and peering around in bewilderment.
Amidst all this oddness was a really interesting city, and a surprisingly beautiful one – we visited the lush, tranquil Imperial Palace Gardens and Meiji shrine garden, both sheltered from the skyscrapers and city life just a stones throw away. And it’s always special to visit a place with such a marked culture and identity. We spent four hours watching traditional kabuki theatre (with an audioguide to translate) with stunning costumes, and visited the quirky, magical Ghibli Museum, by the studio who make films like Spirited Away. And of course, there was Mount Fuji. Hopes to hike up it were dashed as it’s closed for the season, but we thought a bus tour halfway up would be an acceptable substitute. Alas, it was such a miserable, cloudy day that we could see neither the top of the mountain, nor much of a view below: very disappointing. But on the plus side, it was amazing to get some cold, fresh air after the pollution of HK.
As much as I enjoyed the exploration, there was one notable downside: the food. I know Japan isn’t famed for its vegetarian dishes, but I am blessed with a beau who is a meticulous planner and itinerary-maker, so we were well-prepared and had a list of veggie-friendly dining options, and I thought we would manage. But nothing is so straight forward in Japan. Restaurants had closed down, or the streets had no names and formed a veritable maze (none of which was helped by the afore mentioned mysteriously-oriented street maps). My first meal in Japan was a margherita pizza with lettuce and mayonnaise thrown on it; at the Ghibli Museum I was given a mountain of green salad leaves. Desperate times, indeed.
But there were highlights too: Chaya Macrobiotics, a really lovely chain of restaurants with fish for my omnivorous fellow and delicious vegetable curry for me. Our trip up Mount Fuji came with a bento box lunch – I had miso soup, tofu steak, and gorgeous fresh vegetables. And, best of all, things ended on a high with a completely vegetarian tasting menu at Tamana Shokudo on the final night. Despite them having an English website and taking our email reservation in English, we arrived to looks of panic from the staff as they had no English menu and limited means of communicating with us. We chose our menu rather blindly as a result, but it was sublime. Whilst we were tucking into the second course, one member of staff approached us with such a look of concern I feared he was about to reveal that it wasn’t tofu at all, but human flesh – instead, he was merely checking that we were satisfied. And that we certainly were!
It’s a shame the food wasn’t more consistent, because it was clear from these successful meals that Japanese food is very much adaptable to the herbivores amongst us. Inspired my trip, I rustled up this easy and tasty dish for Sunday supper. It takes ridiculously little time and effort, yet the flavour packs a real punch.
Grilled Miso Aubergines
Serves 2, from BBC GoodFood
2 small aubergines, halved lengthways
1 tsp olive oil
2 tbsp miso paste
2 tbsp mirin (or Google to find mirin substitutes – I used apple cider vinegar, as we had it in)
large pinch golden caster sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp sesame seeds
4 spring onions, shredded, to serve
rocket, to serve
1. Heat the oven to 2o0C. Score diagonal lines on the aubergines and brush with the oil.
2. Place on a baking tray and roast for 20 minutes.
3. Preheat the grill to high. In a small bowl, mix the miso, mirin, sugar and lemon juice. Spread this paste over the roasted aubergine halves.
4. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and grill for 2-3 minutes.
5. Serve with spring onions and rocket.