A Taste of Japan in London: Sushi School & Beyond
Can you prepare yourself for a total immersion into a country as complex, different and ritualistic as Japan? Probably not. But we’re giving it a go anyway. We are in London for two days to experience some of the food, culture, spirituality and practicalities of life in Japan; without going to Japan or too far out of our comfort zone…yet! And from sushi making to peace pagodas, here’s how we get on..
Scared of Sushi?
I always wondered why Stuart rushed me past sushi bars at airports. Turns out he was terrified. Of a parcel of rice? Who is scared of rice? Not just the food he assures me. The whole experience. The etiquette of what to order and how to eat it. The conveyor belt thing. The raw fish. As someone who lists wasabi amongst my top favourite foods I am partly shocked. And yet I also know what he means. I have peered through the windows of YO! Sushi wondering just how they can tell how many handrolls you are wolfing down, and whether the bill might mirror a small mortgage. Especially in Kensington.
We’re what you call YO! Virgins
It’s hardly surprising. We come from a place where chintz can still feature in hotel lounges and fish and chips on the prom are an exciting Saturday evening treat. In High Street Kensington’s new YO! Sushi, General Manager David Horder takes about two minutes to demystify things. In fact, he explains that Stuart is a common species. They even have a name for people like him. “Yo virgins.” These people get extra help when they first come in. Because there is a lot to learn. How to elegantly take your brightly coloured plates from the conveyor belts and how they are colour coded for price. How to call your waiter for hot food (there is a help buzzer in front of you). And what all the various foods are. “Once we know you are a virgin it’s all about making sure you understand what YO! Sushi is all about,” David assures me.
A family friendly introduction to Japanese food
There are thousands of Japanese restaurants in London. But YO! Sushi is a great first step for a family. It’s a Westernised take on traditional Japanese food, it’s very informal and the menu is like a ‘how to’ of the cuisine. It’s also a real success story in the UK. The first one was back in 1997 and there are now approaching 70 versions across the UK. The restaurant we are at today, on High Street Kensington, is the newest; it only opened eight weeks ago. It’s bright and cheerful and packed tight with young children and families. But that’s how they like it. “We are all about having fun,” says David.
Having fun with rice
You can’t have more fun in YO! Sushi than learning how to make the stuff. We soon find out that sticky rice is what it says on the tin. Head Chef Lewis places a snowball sized sphere of it into my hands. I can see that Cameron is weighing his up for use as a weapon. Meanwhile the sheet of nori (seaweed) that Lewis has given me is as sticky as gaffer tape. This is going to be easy. And it is. With Lewis’ help we roll and mould our rice into a long thin square and then slice it up and discover we have just made our own avocado maki.
We learn the cuts of a salmon and how to make salmon nagiri. We create handrolls that look like savoury ice creams in our sticky fingers. We are ninja sushi makers. In fact we are so good that Cameron pops his tray of avocado maki onto the conveyor belt and I have to grab it back before someone eats it.
Our sushi making experience, a taster of the Yo! Sushi Sushi School, has been bought with points from the IHG Rewards Club scheme. The InterContinental Hotels Group has hotels all around the world, including brands like Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn. If you stay at a hotel you get points that you can then use to buy more hotel nights, or goods and services ranging from flights to gift cards to Red Letter Days. The latter is why we are here today. We have been given a million reward points to spend on experiences of our choosing and we have decided to immerse ourselves in Japanese culture for a whole month in Japan. But first we wanted to see what kind of Japanese experiences our reward points might buy us in London. Starting with a Rewards Point funded Sushi School Experience
Into The Far East
We begin in the The Far East, well the Far East End of London anyway. Nearby Shoreditch has recently adopted the Japanese cat café concept at Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium. But we are headed for the Olympic Park. Tokyo is due to host the 2020 Olympics and it seemed a fitting place to start. Just nearby our hotel is the East End version of London’s Japan store, and we begin our culinary journey at Wagamama where Hannah attempts to get to grips with chopsticks on her bowl of yaki soba as you can see in this video.
Our hotel for the night, the Staybridge Suites Stratford City, is over the road from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, with amazing views from the terrace. In fact staff member Debbie tells tales of many balmy Olympic nights where she didn’t want to leave at the end of her shift, and where the balcony bounced with the weight of 100 excited guests packed onto it. The Staybridge doesn’t have any Japanese undertones; it is an American style experience, with a welcome food and drinks social three times a week and free breakfast for all guests. The ethos is ‘home from home’ – you can cook in your suite on an in-suite kitchen, and no one minds the kids running around in the communal Den or Pantry areas.
Food for the spirit
While food was an essential part of our Japan in London experience, it wasn’t the whole deal. Japan is about ritual and culture and spirituality and we find these in two of London’s most famous parks. The first place we go to seek enlightenment is in the Kyoto Garden at Holland Park. This is a traditional Japanese garden, put together by an eminent Japanese designer, and paid for by Japan’s Chamber of Commerce to thank the British for their friendship over the decades. Its most recent addition (opened July 2012) is the Fukushima garden; a space gifted to the British people to thank them for their help in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. This extension provides a peaceful spot to sit and think but both gardens are delightful, populated by fish and water features, trees and flowers and bamboo fences tied with string into ‘oboe’ knots.
A Japanese garden in London
We meet with gardener Marc Sinclair who is solely responsible for their upkeep. He explains how the gardens are shaped organically, as traditional Japanese gardens tend to be. No straight lines or sharp edges here; just a ‘borrowed view’ at every rest stop. You are naturally led around the stony path to a water feature where you would traditionally purify the mind and body of all the clutter of daily life before moving on to a zen meditation stone that represents Bhudda.
Marc explains that this is year one of a ten year project in the garden. Soon the paths will be expanded and new areas built. I ask if he likes bonsai. “I do now” he laughs, naming for us some of the native Japanese trees in the garden like the ‘cloud tree.’ Many of the rocks were imported from Kyoto, although some came, intruigingly from Glasgow. “The Japanese designers come every four years or so and they’ve just been last week which is why the garden is looking so pruned,” he smiles. Marc says regretfully the English climate doesn’t support the mosses that thrive in Japan, so he has found a substitute called Mind Your Own Business. “It’s quite impressive on the main entrance behind the bamboo fence.”
The Buddha of Battersea
You won’t find bamboo or mossy cladding over at London’s other startling Japanese landmark. Gold and stone are the dominant materials here. But the message is the same. Peace and harmony. The Peace Pagoda, which had its inaugural ceremony in 1985, sits on the banks of the Thames in Battersea Park and is one of eighty across the world and only three in the UK. It is dedicated to the realisation of world peace and a ‘symbol of light in the darkness’ – most particularly the darkness of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Peace pagodas were built as a prayer so the world ‘may be saved from nuclear annihilation.’ It’s a sobering thought, but a beautiful monument, with Buddha looking serenely out to The Thames and Albert Bridge. Hannah teaches us to meditate on the steps; a skill she learnt at school. We vow to learn it properly in Japan, our heads now spinning with things Japanese.
On Our Way
Ah, yes, Japan. No time to waste. We are due at Heathrow, for a night in the Holiday Inn, another of the InterContinental Groups brands. This towering hotel lies just a few minutes away from Heathrow airport; in fact if it was any closer it would be in Terminals 1, 2 and 3. That’s lucky, as we have a flight booked to take us to The Philippines where we will be exploring the islands to produce some content for Expedia before we head further East to the land of sushi and temples. But alas, even after a visit to the pagoda there is no peace in our twin and triple. And everyone is hungry again. If they had a ball of sushi they would be using it as a weapon for sure. This family is almost, but not quite ready for Japan.
Disclosure Note:This post is brought to you in a collaboration with InterContinental Hotels Group as part of a promotion of their Rewards Club scheme. The views and experience remain, as ever, entirely our own.