I also need to sort the problem that I don't do very well with some of the common ingredients in Japanese food. I'm allergic to many kinds of seafood and react badly to soy sauce, so in the past, it's usually been simpler to eat something else. But I refuse to head for Japan with a suitcase full of baked beans, so yesterday I set off for the Japan Centre in central London to see if I could learn a bit about the food.
Since it was a nice day, after months of rain, I took a bus to Camden and walked from there. For anyone who hasn't been to London, Camden Lock is a big "alternative" tourist centre. Some day I'll write about the crazy things in the huge indoor and outdoor markets there, and the amazing food you can get, (though actually I didn't see any Japanese food). Despite its popularity and the march of the dreaded chains (Starbucks - sigh) you can still get cheap and inventive clothing and jewellery in Camden Lock, plus all kinds of novelties and antiquities, and it's always fun to linger by the water on a sunny day, and watch the people and the boats. Here's a huge narrow-boat turning round.
Several of the older buildings along the main road are decorated with enormous coloured sculptures which usually relate to what the shops below are selling. The shops change quite often and so do the sculptures. This caught my eye. It must be new.
Then I continued down past a collection of charming and inventive villas created by the famous architect John Nash in the 1820s with the idea of creating a "romantic suburb." The houses overlook what was once the canal, but it's been filled in now and so they have long gardens leading into a deep valley. When the railway came, probably a mere twenty years after they were built, half of Park Village was obliterated for the tracks. But it's still a desirable place to live, mostly because of the picturesque and fanciful architecture.
Onwards to an area of social housing which has allotments hidden away in the middle square, giving a neighbourly, almost rural feel to this extremely central bit of London just steps from Euston Station.
The flower beds of this estate were planted with a very sweet smelling shrub with spidery little white flowers. Here it is. If you happen to recognise it, please let me know what it is called.
Through Russell Square, with one of London's grandest Victorian hotels in the background. Though wet, the weather has been so mild that daffodils are already out, 6 weeks early, giving a Spring like feel to the afternoon.
From here, it's just a short walk to Covent Garden, popular with tourists. These two little boys were marvelling at how the man (sprayed all over in gold, to look like a statue) could apparently sit so comfortably on nothing except air.
In the piazza, I passed a man playing Chinese folk music on a sheng, which is one of the world's oldest wind instruments. He was really lost in it.
A few steps further and we were in Stanfords, which sells all kinds of maps, books and travel-related things. I have always yearned to buy a length of the fitted flooring in the basement, which is a huge vinyl map of London, but I reckon Stanfords had it specially made, as I've never seen it anywhere else. Since printed books are less popular these days, the store is diversifying into furniture, and I really liked that painted travel chest.
I bought three books on Japan, including one on negotiating the public transportation system in Tokyo, which seems to be at least three times as complicated as the London one.
Like I said, I was heading basically for the Japan food centre, the other side of Trafalgar Square. As it is Chinese New Year, I was pleased to find that Trafalgar Square was decked out with Chinese lanterns and splendid red and gold decorations, with stalls selling firecrackers and Chinese snacks. Right in the middle, there was a big stage for live entertainment.
The show featured little kids plastered in make up, dancing around and singing fairly simple stuff. I think they were professional but they just made me feel a bit sad at the amount of practice they must have had to do, how grotesque they looked in the make up and how their material seemed completely Western. Still, even though I wasn't keen, the audience liked it, and there was a terrific atmosphere in the square, with many of London's Chinese community, as well as the usual huge mixture of other nationalities, having such a good time.
Canada House fronts on to Trafalgar Square, and I was amused to see that the Canadians had put out all their own flags. Someone had put up a Union Jack too. A truly multicultural event and both flags have plenty of red, the Chinese good-luck colour.
The Japan centre has moved since we last visited. Outside, are stalls selling Japanese things, and upstairs, via a long golden escalator, is an excellent food hall with lots of ingredients, cookbooks, ready made meals and some desserts I'd like to try, like black sesame icecream.
Plus some fancy bakery, which I found a bit scary - see below. I think it's a cartoon character but I don't recognise it.
It's a wonderful place. I tried samples of some delicious plum wine, and noticed that there's a cafe. Prices didn't seem that high and it looks like the ideal place for lunch next time I'm in the area. I had stopped off on the way for a coffee, so I didn't want to eat right away, but I bought a bento box to microwave at home for supper.
I've now also found some Japanese restaurants and food shops round where we live, so I'm going to do what I should have done before, and make a real effort to find Japanese food that I like to eat. It all smelt and looked good, so if I steer clear of dishes with seafood or too much soy, I should be OK, shouldn't I?