Fiona Harari discovers a personalised alternative to organised tours in Nagoya and Kyoto
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
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.
Local knowledge: Nagoya’s reconstructed castle, just one of many places to visit with a volunteer guide