Jane Lawson is an Australian “Japanophile”, cookbook author, food & travel writer and publishing consultant -recently turned culinary tour guide.
With so much on her plate (awkwardly poor pun, I know), I was lucky enough to catch Jane to ask a hanful of questions about why Japan is so special when it comes to food…
I’ll lead with the obvious question; Why Japan?
Thankfully, Japanese language was on the curriculum in high school and culture was always part of the lesson – that’s what got me hooked! I started travelling to Japan at age 15 and over 30 years later I’m more in love with the place than ever.
Why has Tokyo become one of the world’s premier dining destinations? Is it merely the weight of numbers in terms of population, or are there other reasons?
Naturally, the numbers of both residents and tourists come into it – however, the Japanese are very good at making pretty much everything so supremely well that it is the quality of the spectacular variety that is quite astounding. Let’s not forget excellent service, innovation, being able to access certain foods and alcohol more easily – and at much better prices than many other countries too.
When introducing foreigners to Japan, do you find their preconceptions are typically challenged or validated?
In short – challenged. In a good way. I’ve been trying to convince people to travel to Japan since I was a teenager. For a long time no-one was interested… there was always the response of ‘ Really?? What’s so great about Japan? Why do you love it so much? It’s the last place I’d think about going’ etc.
Finally Japan is getting the recognition it deserves as a tourism destination and every man and his dog is saying ‘I can’t believe I didn’t come here earlier! It’s my new favourite place in the world!!’ And that makes me smile… and sigh a little bit that it’s taken so long but I’m really happy that I finally have people saying ‘I get it! I get why you have been banging on about Japan for so long!’.
No-one can know what it is like to experience Japan until they see it for themselves. Although I’ve been doing my best – it’s quite difficult to truly paint a detailed picture because it really is a complex, layered and unique country, to use an overused word, but it truly is – having been so cut off from the rest of the world for so long in its history the culture developed in a very special way, without much outside influence for an extended period and things just work so differently here.
Foreigners often comment on how much visual and mental stimulation there is and the vast contrasts in various areas – take Tokyo and Kyoto for a basic example. They talk about how very clean it is and how public transport always runs on time and how people will go out of their way to help them. They talk about the beauty of the gardens, the peace in temples, the architecture both traditional and contemporary. And the food of course.
Everyone I know who has recently travelled to Japan is desperate to return before they have even returned home. Once they bump into the surface they soon realise how much there is to scratch off to find all the treasure that lays beneath.
After working as a chef in Sydney for many years, what was missing that made you decide to move towards writing about food?
I loved writing from a young age – in fact when I was in primary school I would tell people I wanted to be a writer when I ‘grew up’. Then life happened and I moved into cooking (which I’d been doing since the age of 8) as I love food and creating it – but a dodgy spine meant I couldn’t continue to work as a chef and eventually I moved into food publishing and then writing.
That’s simplifying things a bit … it was many, many years before I was writing anything other than recipes and a bit of blurb. Honestly I didn’t have the confidence to stretch myself with writing until I was much older. And I plan to keep stretching myself.
Describe the lightbulb moment which gave birth to becoming a “culinary tour guide”…
I was returning back to Australia after around 3 years living in Kyoto researching and writing my book Zenbu Zen – Finding Food, Culture and Balance in Kyoto – and I was desperate to find a way to continue sharing the wonders of Japan (and at the same time ensure that I could return to my ‘second home’ on a regular basis of course!). It occurred to me that sticking with what I know best might be a good way to do that so I started working on a plan for intimate, cuisine based tours (and yes, in a former life I’d worked for Jalpak – an inbound tourism subsidiary of Japan Airlines).
I knew that I wanted to introduce people to amazing food and food culture and that it would need to be for small groups only in order to dine at all those incredible little places that only seat a handful of folk. My long understanding of the culture and relationship with local restaurateurs and home cooks meant access to certain establishments was easier for me than it would be for many other foreign tour businesses – and that would assure the tours were more attractive to food-obsessives. And Voila!
Zenbu Tours was born to provide luxurious, delicious and in-depth Japan travel experiences. We are just heading into our 5th year and my husband, whom I met in Japan, is now co-hosting the tours with me so our small groups of 8 – 10 are very well looked after indeed.
Aside from culinary matters, what inspires you to delve deeper into Japanese culture?
Gosh, where do I start?! I love the Japanese appreciation for the small things – like when a particular plant starts to bud or blossom when a truly seasonal vegetable is about to come into the market for just a week or simply bowing recognition as you cross paths on a quiet walk.
The Japanese ability to find calm and beauty in the tiniest pocket of a crowded, over stimulated city. The dedication to anything a craft-person turns their hand to. The incredible architecture – mostly I’m interested in the traditional style of homes, old shops, temples and shrines etc – but the contemporary stuff based on tradition is utterly stylish and the really modern skyscrapers in larger cities are gob-smacking – you can’t help but admire it in awe.
Visually, Japan has so much to offer in so many ways. The arts and crafts from textiles (Kimono, shibori, indigo, weaving, silk love!) to ceramics (hand-made works of art for the everyday) to fine art and everything in between make me want to cry. Happy, appreciative tears of course. The history and the antiques! The fragrance – temple incense, flowers, dashi, roasting tea. And the people, of course, the hospitality, the generosity and the knowledge they are happy to share. OK, you had better stop me now….
Where is home – Sydney or Kyoto?
Sydney right now… but we always talk about moving back one day. Kyoto is most definitely my spiritual home and if it was easier for us to be there on a more permanent basis – we would be –and our fur-baby Yuki too of course! Fortunately, we’re in Japan for several months of each year.
Someone is visiting Japan having never been to the country before. For whatever reason, they have time to sit for only one Japanese meal. What should it be?
Argh! How could you ask me this?? I’m not going to name a place because it is impossible to choose just one but I would suggest they find a Ryotei – truly revered by locals but not necessarily well known – and experience Kaiseki cuisine.
I choose this because the diner will have the opportunity to linger in a traditional space, over a wide range of beautifully executed and presented Japanese foods plus sample the finest quality sake, tea, rice and pickles on the side and experience omotenashi (Japanese hospitality ) at its most extreme! If they sit at the counter it is theatre too.