Guid­ing lights

Fiona Harari dis­cov­ers a per­son­alised al­ter­na­tive to or­gan­ised tours in Nagoya and Ky­oto

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Sa­cred place: Fushimi Inari shrine in Ky­oto

Dur­ing the next few hours we are guided through a tem­ple, past some en­closed mar­kets, to a tiny cafe where an old woman and her mid­dle-aged daugh­ter serve up gen­er­ous por­tions of okonomiyaki pan­cakes from an enor­mous hot plate. Just be­fore our tour ends, Reiko leads us to a nearby shop that sells noth­ing but sea­weed in var­i­ous guises. Without her knowl­edge we sim­ply would have walked past.

A few days later we are in Ky­oto, a city we saw a lot of on our 2007 visit, so we are un­sure what to sug­gest when Kayoko, the vol­un­teer who re­sponds to our email, writes back to say that she will be show­ing us around. Hav­ing lived in Eng­land for two years when her hus­band was trans­ferred there for his job, Kayoko set­tled with her fam­ily near Ky­oto 11 years ago and she is keen to show vis­i­tors her adopted home. For­tu­nately for us, she is or­gan­ised and decisive.

Armed with our pro­posed tour date, she notes what we have seen pre­vi­ously, checks the weather fore­cast and even con­sults our ho­tel’s shut­tle bus sched­ule be­fore email­ing back a pro­posed itin­er­ary: the Fushimi Inari shrine (with its thou­sands of red torii gates), the nearby sake mak­ers and a short train trip to Uji, with its beau­ti­ful old stone bridge and the mag­nif­i­cent By­odo-in Tem­ple. It turns out to be a mag­nif­i­cent day, freez­ing but blue-skied. We are in the midst of the cold­est fort­night on the cal­en­dar, Kayoko in­forms us, as we take the first of our day’s train rides and alight just a short walk from the Inari Shrine. Here Kayoko de­lights our daugh­ter by con­firm­ing that her beloved inari sushi is in­deed named in hon­our of this sa­cred place.

In Uji, we am­ble along the pretty river­front and en­ter the cen­turies-old By­odo-in Bud­dhist tem­ple. Once a lav­ish villa, it is best known for its mag­nif­i­cent Phoenix Hall and is so cher­ished that it fea­tures on the Y=10 coin.

Then we head for lunch. Meal times seem to bring out the diplo­mats in our vol­un­teer guides. Un­sure of our tastes, Kayoko sug­gests a sushi bar in Uji or per­haps a bowl of noo­dles some­where. Al­most as an af­ter­thought she men­tions Tsuki No Kura­bito, a tofu restau­rant in Fushimi, a charm­ing neigh­bour­hood filled with old wooden mer­chant houses and sake brew­eries.

Given that she’ll some­times end up lunch­ing at McDon­alds at the re­quest of her charges, her ret­i­cence in sug­gest­ing a tofu restau­rant to an Aus­tralian cou­ple with a pair of kids in tow is not sur­pris­ing. But we are grate­ful for the sug­ges­tion.

Fushimi is lovely but in a city that seems to ooze charm and at­tract tourists in equal pro­por­tions, there are com­par­a­tively few Western­ers to be seen on this win­try day. We stop at the door­way of what looks like many other lovely old wooden build­ings in the area, only big­ger. Plac­ing our hats, gloves and shoes into a wall of beau­ti­fully carved lock­ers, we are led to a semi-sunken cor­ner booth where our icy feet thaw out on the spe­cially warmed floor.

Eas­ily missed: En­closed mar­ket in Nagoya

Check­list

Groups of din­ers are sit­ting at low ta­bles, sip­ping sake and sam­pling plat­ters of sashimi. But we have eyes only for tofu. Kayoko trans­lates the en­tire menu and, when we opt for the house spe­cialty of cook-your-own tofu, she care­fully trans­lates our wait­ress’s detailed ex­pla­na­tion of how we are to ap­proach our meal.

The tofu should not be touched un­til it is cooked. It’s not ev­ery day you see a 10-year-old swoon­ing over a spoon­ful of bean curd. But the sense of the­atre here, as bub­bling milky liq­uid turns to tofu be­fore our eyes, en­trances us all.

This will hap­pen when the tea light keep­ing it warm fi­nally ex­tin­guishes, at which point the first spoon­ful should be tasted. It should eaten un­adorned to ap­pre­ci­ate the full taste of the tofu. The sec­ond spoon­ful should be sprin­kled with one of three types of salt set to one side of the ta­ble. Af­ter that you are on your own. It is the sim­plest meal but, thanks to Kayoko, one that none of us will eas­ily for­get. A full list of good­will guides can be found at: www.jnto.go.jp/eng/ar­range/es­sen­tial/list— vol­un­teerGuides—a-n.html. Guides are not pro­fes­sion­als but they will be pro­fi­cient in English. Rules and re­quire­ments vary be­tween or­gan­i­sa­tions; gen­er­ally, try to or­gan­ise a Good­will Guide at least two weeks be­fore your ar­rival and re­mem­ber that while guides work on a vol­un­tary ba­sis, you pay their trans­port costs for the day, en­trance fees and meals they share with you.

www.jnto.org.au

Lo­cal knowl­edge: Nagoya’s re­con­structed cas­tle, just one of many places to visit with a vol­un­teer guide

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