What I ate in Shikoku

I haven`t done any food related posts yet, which is surprising since food is such a big deal here. Every area in Japan has its own food speciality that is part of its tourism and many people will visit a place just to eat its local dish. Just like in Italy, a lot of value is put on regional differences, and some dishes can only be had in the places where they were created. I had read up about the foods typical to Shikoku because I knew that after my trip I would be asked by my co-workers if I ate them.

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For our first few days in Shikoku we survived mainly off rice balls bought in convenience stores as we were doing our pilgrimage and visiting different attractions. The first fancy dish we had was at the cafe on Inujima where we had soba noodles with kabotcha (pumpkin) and anko (a sweet paste made from red azuki beans that`s very common in traditional Japanese confectionery), served with pickled daikon (a kind of turnip) and green tea. It was nice but very sweet and not particularly filling. Unfortunately, this was not a day that we were going to be sated. When we were on Teshima, we were more concerned with getting to our remote guesthouse before it got dark than finding somewhere to eat. So that meant when we got there and saw that there was nothing, all we had to eat were the remains of our store-bought supplies.

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We soldiered on until lunchtime the next day, luckily the amazing views of Teshima kept us enthralled, until we got to Uno Port and stuffed ourselves with pizza followed by a dainty dessert.

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From then on however, we had a host of new foods to try everywhere we went. In Ritsurin park in Takamatsu I had a mid-morning snack of cherry dango (a kind of dough made from rice) that were heated around a grill and served with a slather of anko. I had eaten the top one before I remembered to take a picture.

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Takamatsu is famous for its udon noodles which are supposed to be firmer than the ones you get elsewhere in Japan. I just got a regular serving of udon but the picture below is of Jenny’s which was flavoured with yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit, that was absolutely delicious.

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We had our greatest culinary experiences in Kochi, and we were welcomed to our guesthouse with a sake-testing event. Kochi is the capital of sake-drinking in Japan and the owner of the guesthouse used to work at a sake brewery in Hyogo prefecture. I’m not a big sake drinker, but I enjoyed trying the different types and it was great to learn a bit about it as well. The process of making sake is different to other types of alcohol, and different types of sake are made depending on how much of the hull of the rice grain is polished, and if the rice/water/mould mixture is filtered, pasteurized or if more alcohol is added to it.

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The next day at the food market in Kochi was a literal feast. There were so many kinds of foods there that we didn’t know where to start. The photo above shows a shop selling whale, which I abstained from. Kochi’s most famous dish is katsuo no tataki, bonito fish that is quickly seared over a straw fire right in front of you. It’s sprinkled with salt granules and served on a plate with onions, spring onions, garlic and a yuzu dipping sauce. I got the set which came with rice and miso soup. It was so good.

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We also had some deep-fried gyoza which are dumplings filled with a pork and herb mixture. Most commonly they are just pan-fried so that they’re only crispy on one or both sides, but these ones were crispy all over. Gyoza are great comfort food and I think of them as the Japanese (or Chinese) version of sausages.

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On to Ehime prefecture which has a hard time keeping up with its culinary neighbour as the food it’s known for is the mandarin orange. I did have a nice meal in a ramen shop in Matsuyama where I had tantanmen, noodles in spicy broth with minced pork on top. Quite a lot of Japan’s cuisine is from China, although they don’t like to admit it.

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And finally, although this wasn’t technically in Shikoku, at our guesthouse in Onomichi, we had the Japanese classic dish of curry rice. Japanese curries aren’t like any others you’ll find because they were actually influenced by English cuisine! Back in the Meiji era when India was still part of the British Empire, the Navy would add curry powder to their stews, so Japan took this on as curry, which is why it’s more like a stew than a curry.

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This is just the food I ate on my trip, some of which were regional specialties, others are ubiquitous Japanese fare, but Japanese food is a lot more varied than people might think. Sure, the flavours can be milder than in other cultures, but they do like to experiment.

Setouchi Art Festival

Jenny and I are art buddies, as we both studied History of Art in university, so I knew that we had to visit Naoshima, a small island on the Seto Inland Sea between Shikoku and Honshu. It was turned from a rural backwater into the setting of world-class contemporary art by the Benesse Corporation, the Japanese company that owns Berlitz Language Schools. There are permanent works on Naoshima and the surrounding islands, but this year the Setouchi Triennale Art Festival is on as well, which means more art and better transport to the islands. Some works are free to view, some cost ¥300 and the museums cost ¥1000, but for the festival you can buy passports for one or three seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn) which allows you to visit most of them for free once, and gives you discounted entry to others. I bought a two-day ferry pass for ¥4000, and the three season passport, ¥5000, because I knew I wouldn`t get to see all that I wanted to and it wouldn`t be difficult to get the train down from Kanazawa for a weekend during the Summer and Autumn. What`s great about the passport too is that you can get stamps at each of the works, which is very addictive. We felt like we were doing the art version of our temple pilgrimage.

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After our temple walk in Tokushima, we spent the night in Takamatsu and the next day took a ferry to Inujima, a tiny island, very close to Honshu. In the early 20th century a copper refinery was built on the island to try to keep industrial pollution away from the big cities in Honshu, but it closed down not long after and the population steadily dwindled until it reached the fifty people that currently live there today. The smeltery was turned into a museum that uses solar energy and natural air currents to regulate the internal conditions of the building with minimal impact on the environment. The museum contains artwork by Yukinori Yanagi based on the motif of Yukio Mishima, a very interesting writer in post-war Japan who committed ritual suicide in 1970 after a failed coup d`etat. I read his book Spring Snow while we were traveling around, and he was used in this setting because he had been wary of the effects of modernization on Japan. The picture above shows one of the works which is a large glass box containing his final speech before his suicide, deconstructed to form vertical lines of gold characters suspended from the top.

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Because Inujima is so small we were able to see everything on it in the morning before getting a ferry on to Teshima, a bigger hillier island. The guidebooks recommended renting electric bicycles for exploring the island but when we arrived they were all rented out so we got the bus to the Teshima Art Museum, which is a bit of a misnomer as it is really just one art space that is the art work. It`s such a simple design yet the atmosphere is quite amazing inside and little streams of water flow around the concrete floor. My desription doesn`t do it justice at all, but I would recommend it as one of the most serene architectural spaces I have experienced.

We wanted to get to our accomodation before it got dark because there were no lights on the back road that led to it, but there was so much else we wanted to see on Teshima that we decided to rent bicycles in the morning and explore the island before getting the ferry to Naoshima. The day we arrived had been rather overcast and threatened rain, but in the morning the weather was gorgeous and the view of the island and the surrounding sea was just stunning. The electric bikes were a godsend too because the hills are really steep and it just means you can press a button to give your pedals an extra push.

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Despite studying history of art I don`t really know anything about contemporary art, in fact, it`s because of this that I feel very ignorant about it because I lack the hindsight that`s needed to analyse art historically. But I do love going to see contemporary art because a lot of the time its fun, interactive, multimedial and it allows you to experience things in a new way. It`s like going to an intellectual funhouse.

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Because the Teshima Art Museum was closed on Tuesdays, the direct ferries weren`t running to Naoshima so we had to get a ferry to Uno Port on Honshu and then another to Naoshima. Our stop at Uno port allowed us to see a few other works like one of Yayoi Kusuma`s pumpkins (above), this one you could get into and look out through the spots, and this fish (below) that was made out of rubbish.

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When we finally did make it to Naoshima it was getting late, so we rented ordinary bikes and cycled across to the Honmura Art House Project where works of art were installed in old houses in the village. It felt like a treasure hunt because we were trying to get to see as many works before they closed at 4 o`clock. Afterwards we cycled down to the Benesse House, the original contemporary art museum on the island, but we didn`t go in because we wouldn`t have had much time before going back to return the rental bicycles. But our trip wouldn`t have been complete without seeing this, another of Yayoi Kusuma`s pumpkins:

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Private sponsorship seems to play a big part in the Arts in Japan, and many great art museums were founded and funded by private companies. In my last post I looked at the Otsuka Museum in Tokushima prefecture, and some of the best museums I have been to are private institutions. The Mori Museum in Tokyo was created by a property developer and it holds temporary exhibitions ranging from contemporary artists to ukiyo-e, and the Miho Museum near Kyoto houses the collection of Asian and Western antiques belonging to an heiress of the textile industry in a stunning building designed by I.M. Pei (who designed the pyramid at the Louvre). Last year when I went to Tokyo for Golden Week I went to the Mitsubishi Ichiokan Museum, owned by the Mitsubishi Company, and the National Museum of Western Art, which although it is public institution, its collection was amassed by an industrial magnate before he went bankrupt.

Art has always been a sign of wealth and class, and private institutions really know how to publicize their art because in essence they are selling themselves. There is a big difference in the image and administration of publicly and privately funded institutions, and I would need to look into it more to say which I think is the best way to run a cultural institution. The biggest controversy currently in the museum world is the creation of the Louvre brand (like the private Guggenheim brand) which has been franchised to the city of Abu Dhabi. It`s due to open in 2015 though at present there is an exhibition of its permanent collection, and also there are plans to open another Guggenheim Museum in the city in 2017. Exciting times for art in the Middle East.