Where did the time go?! I officially finished my elective on the 7th of August, and after a great send off (and a not so great bike incident), I was on my way to Kyoto. I arrived in style by the Shinkansen, also known as the bullet train, and the journey only took half an hour.
My last week in Nagoya was great fun, with barely any time to stop and do any writing. On Wednesday evening after the lab, my supervisor brought me to his regular sake bar to try some real Nihonshu. In Japan, sake can refer to all alcoholic drinks, whereas Nihonshu is more specific to the rice wine we associate with the term sake. It was an intimate venue which seated six to eight people, and as usual, I let Dr Aoki do the ordering. I have liked almost everything recommended to me by Japanese people – they are the experts in their own food. Maybe not chicken gizzards though. And I was also offered basashi – horse sashimi – which I politely declined. I don’t think my sister would talk to me if I ate a real life raw horse. The bar was staffed by two hostesses who poured drinks and cooked the food in front of us, and as usual, I spent most of the time discussing food and drink with my boss. “Koray wa nan desu ka” was my single most used phrase my entire time in Japan. I would point to food or other weird things and say bluntly, “What is this?”, or “What is that?”. I must have sounded like a child when they first began to talk, but it was effective. I hadn’t tried much sake apart from the times I was out with the vascular surgery team, so it was nice to try a range of types and the difference in taste between each one. Dr Aoki was explaining there are some excellent sake’s available now, but it wasn’t always the case. In the past, tradition ruled over taste and quality, and a few makers held a monopoly and were slow to adapt and improve. A younger, new generation of makers stepped in to experiment and produce sake superior to the old generation. I had no idea what I was drinking though, as all the labels are in kanji. Even the Japanese people found it difficult, as the characters are often stylised. The more kinds I tried, the more I started enjoying it. I particularly like sake because you have a small flask at a time, so if you don’t like one kind then you aren’t stuck with an entire bottle.
A White and Green Day
Before I left Nagoya, I still had some food goals to accomplish. I cycled home on Thursday by way of Higashiyama zoo and my favourite French bakery, Blanc Pain. I wanted to get back again to get some bread for the morning, and to say goodbye. The owner was very welcoming last time, and gave me some of their sourdough bread on the house. I had planned on having a snacky evening instead of one big meal so that I could eat more that night. I was met by the owner, Ako, when I arrived and asked if I could sit and eat in the bakery. Kind as always, she offered me a drink on the house, and I picked a sausage bread/pastry thing and a Matcha éclair to eat (everyone loves matcha), along with an iced chocolate. We talked some more about how she ended up opening a bakery, and how she had met her husband, and she told me she had been living in France and training as a pastry chef. It was only when she came back to live in Japan that she met her husband, working in another bakery making bread. They had an idea to combine their efforts and have a Boulangerie and Patisserie, hence the name, Blanc Pain. Unfortunately the bakery had to close at 7 pm, and staff were starting to get things packed away. I got up to pay, then also picked out some olive bread to buy for tomorrow. After I had paid for my snack, Ako told me that none of the bread could be sold as it was after closing time, and had to be thrown out. Given how passionate she was about baking, it really hurt her to throw away perfectly good bread, so she asked me if I wanted any. The next thing I knew, she produced a carrier bag and started filling it with bread and pastries. I only had one more day left in Nagoya, but she gave me enough to last a week. I left on a high note, hoping that I will one day again encounter Ako and Blanc Pain. Who knows when I’ll get back, or if she’ll make it to Northern Ireland. It would be nice to show her traditional Irish cooking and bread, and send her back with the inspiration to Japan.
My food quest didn’t end there, it had only begun. I had come to trust the recommendations of Teru, one of the researchers in the lab, as he sent me to a fantastic ramen place serving Kyoto style noodles in a thick pork based soup (tonkotsu). The next suggestion he made was “matchasta”, or matcha (green tea) spaghetti, at Café Mountain. It just so happened to be that Café Mountain was relatively close to where I was staying, so I had planned to visit it for some time. I don’t know what I expected, but there should have been a clue in the name of the joint. I ordered the amakuchi matcha ogura spa, and a mountain of green spaghetti arrived, topped with whipped cream, red bean paste (anko), a cherry and a slice of peach. It started off great, and the combination of the red bean paste, cream, fruit, and pasta went together really well. It wasn’t long before the sickly sweetness got to me though, and with only a small amount of fruit to cut through it, it almost made me sick. By the end it was just sweet spaghetti and cream and I was really struggling to finish it. As a novelty and in a small quantity, I rather enjoyed it, but having to finish a massive plate of the stuff was too much. It wasn’t cheap, either. Then there was the bike ride home. Cycling on an incredibly full stomach is never good news, but I made it back, safe in the knowledge that I would never have to eat that again.
Friday wasn’t just my last day. A pharmacy student had been doing research in the lab for some time and had just finished up his work in preparation for moving into hospital pharmacy. The lab had organised a send-off lunch, and ordered sushi from a place in nearby Motoyama. It was great stuff, and I ate a lot of it. And the eating didn’t stop, as slightly later in the afternoon I was sent to get kakigori (shaved ice) with the pharmacy student from a popular place a few stops away by subway. I had pretty low expectations, as the last shaved ice I had resembled a slushie rather than a dessert. How wrong I was. We arrived at the place and people were queued out the door. While we queued, I had a look around at the fruit they had for sale. It was rather reasonably priced – £35 bought you a melon. I’m sorry, but that is plain insanity. Fruit is quite popular for gifts in Japan, and like everything else, spending more is often better. For £35 I would be expecting some sort of magical melon though, or a really nice pencil. Like a pencil that you draw a cow, and the cow comes to life, that sort of pencil. If you don’t get that, I suggest you retake Black Books 101. The kakigori itself was quite cheap, and fantastic. They blended fresh fruit and used it to coat the shaved ice, with pieces of fruit on top, and a core of ice cream. I thought it would be difficult to flavour all of the ice, but I was wrong. I had ichigo, or strawberry, and it was delicious. The perfect remedy to the Nagoya heat. I arrived back to meet up with Kei, another researcher, and go for a private piano session on the conference centre’s grand piano. Like many pianists, Kei talked himself down saying he wasn’t that good, but his playing was masterful. It was all building towards a fantastic end to my time in Nagoya and the Aichi Cancer Centre Research Institute. All I had to do then was sell my bike and meet up with Dr Aoki in his bar of choice for the real end to the placement. But things didn’t go as planned. I had no trouble with the bike the entire time I rode it, but when I got on this time it felt different. Strange. It’s almost as if…no…it can’t be. There was no indication of anything wrong before, and I had always checked how much air was in the tires. The front tire was as flat as a pancake. I had only left myself ten minutes to get down to Motoyama to meet the guy and sell the bike, but that wasn’t going to happen. I had my puncture repair kit but no pump, so I hailed down a group of passing orthopaediac surgeons (as you do, or probably shouldn’t as I discovered later) for help. They managed to get a pump but we couldn’t get any air into the tire. I had thought it was a Schrader MTB valve inner tube (read: it was a Schrader valve), but the doctors convinced me that it was the Woods valve type but missing the inner valve. This made no sense whatsoever, but they were convincing enough and I was desperate for a quick solution so I could offload the bike before leaving for Kyoto. The solution was: bring it to a bike shop. Bike shops close after 7 pm, and they were talking to me at around two minutes to 7. That’s what I like to call, not a solution. I despaired, but in the end I decided to abandon the bike at the hospital and head on to the bar. It could be fixed (hopefully) in the morning when I could be bothered. This meant having to cancel the sale I had arranged earlier, which wasn’t ideal. I tried to explain the situation to the potential buyer but he didn’t want to understand at all, and ended up just giving me abuse. I had run out of time to sell it, and that was that. I wasn’t a miracle worker, and I didn’t want to sell it in the condition it was and lose money after fixing it up.
It was a downer, but I still had a great night. I met up with Dr Aoki and Teru and we made our way to Cask, a rather nice whiskey bar. The owner is the bartender, chef, and overall host so it can take a while before you’re served, but he really knows his stuff. He has a number of old casks which he stores whiskey in, and rotates the selection regularly, so the whiskey takes on the character of the cask and the previous spirits. I’m not a huge whiskey fan, but even I can recognise that Japan is producing some really good whiskey. Super smooth – much easier to drink than the entry level Suntory I bought earlier in the trip. The food was great, too. We split a katsu sandwich, Nagoya Neapolitan pasta (the Nagoya part refers to the addition of scrambled egg and served on a hot iron plate), and fish and chips (wedges, in reality). Good food, and good whiskey. A good night all round.
I made my way back via the university campus and borrowed a valve from an abandoned bike, thinking that was the main problem. I can’t remember if I talked about abandoned bikes before in Nagoya, but there are a lot of them at the university. People just abandon their bikes after leaving university, and leave them locked, rather bizarrely. I don’t want this, but please don’t steal it? When I got back to the house I arranged to sell the bike to Bert whether I fixed it or not, as it was too much hassle to rely on meeting someone early in the morning to sell it before my onwards journey. I made my way to Aichi Cancer Centre for the last time, pump in tow, hoping to god that I could fix it and cycle home. This time I wasn’t going to be as stupid and took the wheel off to thoroughly examine it. The valve was a Schrader MTB style one after all! I knew it, but I was too easily swayed by the consensus opinions of roaming surgeons. I pulled out the inner tube and identified the problem instantly. There was a rather large puncture about 1 cm from the valve, causing all the problems. I don’t know how exactly it got there, but it explained the odd behaviour. When we were trying to inflate the tube the previous night, the air was going in and staying as the tube must have been pushing against the tire and sealing itself, but as soon as the pump was removed, it lost all of the air again. I pulled out my trusty 100 yen bicycle repair kit (50p), and set to work. The puncture was fixed, the tire inflated, and I was on my way. If I got another puncture on the way home I would’ve probably thrown the bike into the reservoir. I needed to get it off my hands and it was becoming a hassle. So I made it home, sold the bike, packed my case and was on my way to Kyoto!
Now I’m only two weeks behind or thereabouts. Writing is hard when you’re making the most of every day. I have plenty more stories, and I’m sure I will have even more by the end of the trip.