Flipping through my Photo file I came across pictures of Owakudani or the Great Boiling Valley in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. Not exactly ‘roofs’ but views of the burning valley and sheds from the Hakone Ropeway.
Owakudani or Jigokudani is centered on a crater formed by the last eruption of Mount Hakone some 3000 years ago. It is still sizzling, scarred with clouds of steam bursting through the crevasses. The entire gorge, engulfed in acrid sulfur smell, makes for a risky walking venture, there is a walking trail from the Ropeway station into the valley dotted with steam vents and bubbling pools. Black eggs or Kuro-tamago cooked in the sulfuric hot waters and said to prolong one’s life by seven years, are temptation amidst the burning sensations.
Access to Owakudani is via the Hakone Ropeway from either Sounzen Station or Togendai Station on the shore of the fabulously clear Lake Ashi. We took the Ropeway from Sounzen and stopped at Owakudani and then proceeded to Togendai. On a clear day one has a spectacular view of Mount Fuji and vagaries of nature… the still fiery autumn colors and then, next minute, the theatrical boiling Jigokudani.
I had visited Owakudani in November 2010 courtesy JNTO, Japan
Our favorite chant in school was ‘Yellow,Yellow dirty fellow’ on seeing any child in yellow. But with time yellow/gold came to be associated with brightness and richness bringing cheer to the beholder.
The very epitome of ‘golden’ is Kinkakuji Temple or ‘Golden Pavilion’ in Kyoto. The top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf.
The benign expression is what floored me. The souvenir porcelain called “Shigaraki Yaki Tanuki’ good luck charm which I found in souvenir shops on way to Kiyomizu-dera temple, Kyoto. A bearer of Eight lucky omens, the hat is for protection from unexpected disasters, the smiling face for affability, the big bold eyes for seeing the world for what it is and the big belly for being bold. No wonder I saw a larger version in a Japanese restaurant in Houston, Texas, USA.
The surprising part is that I am not a food person but gastronomic interjections have always been lurking in the background. In the 1970s while in the midst of understanding the nuances of the Romantic poets P B Shelly, Keats and William Wordsworth ( for Bachelors at Allahabad University) I would willingly miss lectures to gormandize on Sweet & Sour soup followed by Chicken noodles twirled in Chicken sweet ‘n’ sour.
Indian-Chinese food, especially the three mentioned dishes, was the ultimate in food luxury, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut were nowhere near Allahabad’s ambit, with restaurants and roadside food stalls were in business, forget the authenticity. Even our helper dreamt of returning to his native village in Bihar to open a noodle shop,even Maggie noodles would do and worked hard to invest in woks, ladles and packets of Maggi noodles. The ‘Genuine Fake’, as a salesperson on Nathan Road (Kowloon) would say, was gaining popularity.
Marriage and travels did not lessen the craving for Chinese food, in all its avatars, and my first choice in whichever part of India or world I would be in, would be noodles and Chilli Chicken or Sweet & Sour and second choice Indian Mughlai preparations. Our five-year stay (1995-2000) in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman was a diversion with Middle Eastern cuisine, especially Lebanese shawarma*, taking precedence.
In July 2008 I found my self winding down from Hong Kong International Airport to Kowloon. The lights and traffic could not wrap away the distinct aroma that trailed us on our walks in the malls, lanes and markets of the Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. My initiation into the wet markets, discovered by chance, was lamentable and urbane in turns. Initially, the raw meat smell forced me to walk away from the forked hanging pigs, the bloated ducks, the flowing tanks of unknown fish, prawns, scallops, colored crabs, clams, oysters and carts of dried sea food and chicken claws. My curiosity over rode my olfactory senses, guiding me to the markets and lanes of Sai Kung, North Point ferry station, Peng Chau and Cheng Chau islands, Tai Po, to Hung Hom lanes and Yau Ma Tai food streets and food vendors.
On occasions food masqueraded as outings on the stony trails of Ng Tung Chai waterfalls scrunched between bare rocks and tropical vegetation on the northern slopes of the cone-shaped Tai Mo Shan in Kowloon; on tram rides to the Peak and its surrounding attractions; ferried us to Discovery Bay, Lamma, Lantau, Peng Chau and Cheng Chau, Tung Lung Chau (off Clearwater Bay) and Tap Mun the Grass Island on the northern part of Sai Kung ( would be asked whether I had tried “iceless” cold milk tea, sun-dried fish and boiled squid and shrimp); on the Buddhist path to Diamond Hill and the Nunnery, the Monastery of Ten Thousand Buddhas (Man Fat Sze); the Jumbo Kingdom floating restaurant in Aberdeen; Tai Ho, where I had gone to watch the Dragon Boat Race, famous for its gourmet delicacies the Loh Mai chee glutinous handmade rice balls stuffed with sesame and peanut paste or Cha Gwoh rice dumplings stuffed with mixture of Chinese herbs; Po Lin Monastery for its popular vegetarian fare and the concrete jungles of Central, Causeway Bay, Shueng Wan, Kowloon, Wan Chai for their pubs, cafeterias, fast evolving eateries and Michelin starred restaurants.
The Chin-India cuisine was replaced by Cantonese, Anhui, Fujian, Hunan, Szechuan, Jiangsu, Shandong and Zhejiang cuisine originating from different regions of China. The closest to Indian-Chinese is Szechuan, spicy and oily, though by now I was developing a taste for soup noodles and dim sums. In Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai I stuck to McDonald’s and KFC. The one time I tried traditional Chinese cuisine was a post wedding lunch at a village near Taizho situated south of Ningbo on the eastern coast of Zhejiang province, Mainland China. We had accompanied the groom’s friends and family to bring his wife from her parental home and were treated to a lavish wedding feast prepared by village cooks in the backyard. I had never tasted or seen so much exotic fish and would ask my friend the names every time a new dish was served.
My one grouse is that I can never walk into a Chinese food place on my own as the menu is mostly in Cantonese. Somehow learning languages has never been my forte and in six-years stay could manage ‘wai’ or Hello and that too because it is the most frequently used word. The goof up happened in Shanghai where I tried all possible actions, flapping wings, quacking, doodling to get across the ‘chicken’ word to the waitress. The girl, probably in a rush, as it was nearing closing time, came with our order that looked and smelled beefy. Our doubts confirmed by a young man had to be content with side veggies. Another impossible venture is using chopsticks as my fingers seem stuck in the ‘two left feet’ syndrome no matter what the encouragement or admonishment, ‘See…it is so simple..place it between thumb and fingers and voila the grain is in your mouth’. I wish it was so easy.
In between there were trips to USA, Canada, Japan and I preferred to try local temptations than the five-star presentations. In Hiroshima it was the ‘Japanese Pizza’ the ‘Okonomiyaki’ a thin layer of batter and a generous amount of cabbage on top of yakisoba noodles. One can opt for toppings of oysters, squid and cheese with bonito flakes, green laver and okonomiyaki sauce and optional extras, mayonnaise, pickled ginger, and seaweed. We were seated at a counter facing the chef preparing the okonomiyaki on a large griddle and could see other eaters drooling as he speed-chopped, layered, topped and presented the precursor of a snack called ‘issen yōshoku’ or “one-cent Western meal”.
‘Poutine’ was another luck-in was in Calgary, Canada, on a cold, snowy day. ‘Poutine’ or simply piping hot crispy fries and cheese curd cut into pieces dunked in gravy of choice, to meld in a unique flavor. Initially, I was hesitant in trying it out but then the first few bites had me scrapping till last bite.
Every city has its own aroma, sometimes familiar, and six years down the line the ‘Chinese Takeaway’, in words of Betty Mullard* has become more than a city to explore, it has become a way of life via the gourmet trail.
‘ Another luminous example of antiquity is the Golden Pavilion or Kinkauji from the period when there were no cameras to capture its golden glory reflected in the still waters of the Magic Pond or Kyoko-chi. The tourist pictures do little justice to the real structure and a visitor can just gawk at the play of colors, burnt amber, fiery reds, vivid yellows, amidst the surrounding foliage of Kinugasa-yama Mountains in the background. The eight different sized islands or famous rocks in the Pond personify the Buddhist scriptures ‘Land of Happiness’ and for the harried visitor a natural stress buster. Hayashi Yoken, a recalcitrant monk, had burnt down the Pavilion in 1950 and the present Golden Pavilion is a replica of the original, with extra gold added to the two floors.
I walked around the Japanese Garden, retained in its original form, with natural springs, moss gardens, waterfalls and bridges, the Dadoniji Stones, try plunking coins in the stone bowls for luck, the Sekka-tei tea house and the Fudo Myo, a mini temple in honor of the god of fire and wisdom. The bushes around the temple, ornamented with tiny pieces of paper containing wish-fulfillment messages, are the links between past and present.’