16 August  Wings over Japan and a right royal meal


Once Val and I had agreed with Stephen that we were coming to visit him in August, he and his fiancée Yasuko decided to marry while we were in Japan.  See 23rd August for the nuptials.  Subsequently, Yasuko’s parents, who live in Kagoshima, the southernmost city of mainland Japan, invited us, at their expense, to fly down to meet them.  So it was that we made our way to Haneda airport on the outskirts of Tokyo for the nearly 2-hour flight to Kagoshima.


I was the cause of a minor incident at the airport.  Wherever I travel, I carry my trusty Swiss Army Knife with me.  It has been useful in many places: harvesting the fruit of the prickly pear on a hike across Semi, one of the Greek islands; disabling the microphone concealed in my hotel room in a Leningrad hotel in the communist era; fixing cameras and  opening more than one bottle of wine and many tin cans all over western Europe.  I usually place it in my checked luggage when I fly with it, but this time it was in my hand luggage, and to be honest, I had forgotten it was in there.  Naturally it showed up on the X-ray security check.  The security man called his supervisor over, and he approached me, bowing low.  He was extremely sorry for the inconvenience, but for security reasons, which he was sure I understood, I would have to hand it over to the flight crew, and collect it when I returned.  (To save having to repeat the story, the same happened on our return flight from Kagoshima, since I once again forgot to pack it in the checked baggage.  Idiot.)


The JAL flight was smooth and comfortable.  On the in-flight movie screen, they showed the view from a camera placed somewhere near the nosewheel of the plane.  It was a very exhilarating view of take-off, but was switched off once we climbed above the clouds.  On the way, Val was excited to see the top of Fuji poking through the clouds from her vantage point by one of the starboard windows.  After she had taken a number of photographs, I was invited across from my disadvantageous seat in the centre block, only to discover that Fuji was now obscured by the wing of the plane.  However, I was willing to accept the collective testimony of Val, Stephen and Yasuko that Fuji-San had indeed been visible only moments previously.


Having arrived at Kagoshima, we were met by Yasuko’s father, who loaded us and our luggage into his car and drove us the 20 miles or so to our hotel in central Kagoshima.  On the way, he and I discovered that we are very similar in age.


We disembarked and registered (with much bowing) at the Hotel Chisan in the centre of Kagoshima.  This was a comfortable western-style business class hotel.  That evening, we took a taxi to the Sun Royal Hotel, overlooking Sukurajima, the volcano that dominates the coastal skyline of Kagoshima.  We were greeted with much bowing and shaking of hands by Yasuko’s parents and her grandmother and taken up to the 13th floor.


There we were entertained to one of the most sumptuous meals it has ever been my pleasure to eat.  When we left, we saw some of the head chef’s many awards for haute cuisine.  He certainly deserves a Michelin rosette or two for his French-inspired cooking.


We started with pâté de fois gras garnished with a salad, itself garnished with – I kid you not – gold leaf!  It looked – and tasted – spectacular.  This was followed by a pale consommé (the chef’s signature dish, made from special veal and chicken stock) with slivers of some kind of shellfish (maybe abalone) in it.  It was served in a sort of champagne flute, and we were provided with a curious implement to use.  It was a rod the length of a knitting needle, with a small spoon at one end and a two-pronged fork at the other.  The really unusual thing about it was that the whole device was made of gold.  This dish was, without doubt, one of the sublimest flavours I have ever tasted.  It was what I call “desert island” food.  If I were shipwrecked never to be rescued, and had an infinite supply of just one food to eat for pleasure, this soup would be ideal for the purpose.


The next dish was a platter of three fish dishes: bream, crab dressed with caviar, and scallop.  This was followed by a plate of the tenderest and most flavourful beef, accompanied by – I think – tongue and some cooked vegetables.  A fruit dessert and coffee ended this memorable meal.


There was a certain amount of photography that went on during the meal, and I made a little speech promising that Val and I would cherish Yasuko as our own daughter.  We had brought presents for Yasuko’s parents and grandmother.  We gave a little teapot and some top-quality “English” tea, together with some shortbread biscuits sold under the Prince of Wales’ Duchy of Cornwall brand to Yasuko's mother.  We gave Grandmother some Japanese sweet bean paste confections.


We had anguished quite a while about what gift to give to Yasuko’s father.  We wanted something masculine and typically English.  Then we had a brainwave.  We knew that he enjoyed watching baseball, so figured that he would like something sporting.  Sporting … masculine … English ergo cricket!  So we went down to Leicestershire County Cricket Club’s shop at Grace Road (http://www.leicestershireccc.co.uk/indx2.htm) and bought him a cricket pullover in Leicestershire colours.  In view of the summer heat in Kagoshima, I wasn’t at all sure he would wear this, but apparently it cools down considerably in the winter.  We also asked one of our friends who is a Leicestershire committee member if he could obtain an autograph or two of the players.  Autographs are collectible things in Japan.  John excelled himself.  He provided us with a Leics. CCC year book, and had obtained the autographs of almost every player on their pictures, as well as autographs of some England players from other counties who happened to be playing against Leicestershire at the time.  He also obtained a miniature cricket bat, again covered with signatures.  These we gave to Yasuko’s father.


Stephen asked him (in Japanese) whether he had heard about the game of cricket.  “Yes,” he replied, “it’s a cross between baseball and hockey.”


We returned to central Kagoshima, and Val and I wandered around the entertainment district, which is next to the hotel, for an hour or so.  Actually, we were looking for a bar or coffee shop that didn’t look as if we might get mugged in, to no avail.  (I’m sure they were all safe, really, but we didn’t have the courage to go in.)  It was terribly hot and my shirt was soaked.  The only particularly noticeable thing was a rat making its way from one restaurant’s rubbish bin to another.  It looked warily at us as it scurried past.  Somehow, I was disappointed that it didn’t bow.


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