Bella Travel

Turning Japanese in Rural Kyoto

“Welcome to Oharanosato,” said the Japanese Guest Houses website, “Located far north of central Kyoto, this modern ryokan is a little old and run-down”.  But the website was being modest; the white pagoda-style building I’m standing in front of is anything but derelict.  “Old and run-down” to the Japanese must be brand-spanking new to everyone else.

Lost in translation: learning Japanese

The solid wood door glides open and a middle-aged Japanese couple with kindly faces appear and greet me with warm ‘good afternoons’.  But that’s where mutual understanding ends.  As they begin to reel off long streams of Japanese my heart pounds in terror.  I assumed they would speak a little more English and it appears they thought I would speak Japanese. I just smile and nod profusely as though I understand and it seems to do the trick.


Japanese etiquette: room for error

Before I settle in my hosts give me some lessons on footwear.  In Japan there are shoes for outdoors and slippers for indoors.  Simple enough.  Yet there are times to wear the slippers and times not to wear the slippers.  They must be put on as soon as entering the ryokan, yet should not be worn in the bedroom or the breakfast room on the tatami mats.  There are a separate set of slippers to be worn in the toilet.  Gulp.

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Best Little Noodle Bar in Tokyo

My eight day stay in Japan may not be long enough to discover good noodles.  Currently my list ranges from rubbery convenience store soba in Osaka, to mushy gelatinous udon in rural Kyoto.  

So when I arrive in Tokyo, a city of over 12 million people, who eat noodles for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between, I have high expectations.  Surely the odds of finding good noodles are with me? 

On my first evening, after sight-seeing in the district of Shibuya, I duck down a side alley and into the first noodle bar I find.  When my order arrives I’m faced with a greasy soup of undercooked udon (thick wheat noodles), fatty chicken and floating burnt cabbage.  The empty booths, desperate waitress and bar’s outlook onto naked neon women were a warning but not one I heeded. 

Local tip offs are a godsend in this kind of situation.  According to a restaurant owner near my hotel, the best noodle bar in Tokyo can be found in the Ginza district. It is called Sakata.   The name acts like a drumming mantra all day on my sorry palate,  ‘Sakata, Sakata, Sakata’.  For someone unwilling to eat below par noodles ever again, it’s an irresistible beat. 

Night time in Tokyo

But Sakata is a well kept secret. 

At 7pm, as per the restaurant owner’s instructions, I catch the Yūrakuchō line to Ginza-itchōme station and exit through gate 4.  An hour and a half later I can feel the streets of fashionable Ginza through the soles of my shoes.

After three different sets of directions, I’m still none the wiser as to Sakata’s location.

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