Ekiben are special bento boxes for train travel. They are the traveller’s friend, and saviour of the non-Japanese-speaking tourist. Pop into any train station or supermarket and hunt through the shelves of refrigerated delights for something that vaguely looks like something you will eat.
Many cheap and cheerful eateries in Japan have a system whereby you place your order at a vending machine outside the door, then present the wait staff with your meal ticket when you enter.
Also known in the west as “Japanese pizza”, this create-your-own-adventure snack is a staple in Osaka and Kansai province, but the people of Hiroshima claim to serve the best okonomiyaki (or “hiroshimayaki”) in the country.
I’m not a huge fan of Japanese food. My palate is much more attuned to the more robust flavours of their Indian, Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian neighbours. I recognise and appreciate the Japanese approach to food, their clean palate, their appreciation of texture, their focus on impeccable presentation, but it’s never my first choice when eating out.
Sweet Grass Bonsai Nursery and Garden Cafe
357 Barkly Street, Footscray
Sweet Grass occupies a small patch of land that used to be an old-fashioned local garden centre. About a year ago, they sold up and slowly we saw something emerging from this unremarkable-looking site. A Japanese torii or gate; tall bamboo fencing; could that be Japanese panelling they were putting up around that sorry-looking verandah outside the office building?
So this week, a quiet stroll to this new little place five minutes from our house uncovered a beautiful, unusual little cafe. Predominantly a bonsai nursery and showcase for the young owner’s landscape gardening business, Sweet Grass is an oasis of peacefulness hidden from the busy road. We sat in the late morning sunshine on the verandah, surrounded by cane furniture, painted panels of Japanese women in kimono, and the most beautiful bonsai lining the path alongside us. No food here, just a page-long list of coffees and teas including three types of green tea, plus a good choice in alcohol-free cocktails.
We chose the Japanese green tea with roasted rice. Hau, the owner, served up a big pot with some chocolate snacks on the side to tempt us. We sat in the sunshine taking in our lovely surroundings and commenting on the workmanship of both the garden and the bonsai themselves.
Hau, himself from Vietnam, showed us some photos of the “start to finish” work that transformed the old garden centre. Most of the photos featured Hau himself in pride of place, working hard on the landscaping and the carpentry.
Without being asked, he topped our teapot up with fresh water as he described how important the bonsai are to him, pointing out one or two plain-looking branches planted in lacquered pots, and telling us how he would bring them to life over time.
Every bonsai in the garden has its own story, Hau said. He showed us one bonsai that has a forked trunk, one part dead, the other part still living and vibrant. He told us a local lady often borrows this bonsai to take to cancer patients in the hospital, to show them that like trees, humans are strong and resilient, and that we will survive even the cruellest injury.
Another bonsai, standing tall on its own podium, is called The Cascade. Bowing gracefully to the earth, the youngest part of the trunk then turns upwards, guided by the wire Hau had twisted around it to bend it to his will. This one, Hau explained, shows us all that even if a big downturn or disappointment happens to us, things will always get better in time.
Somebody had suggested to him that he write down the story of each bonsai so that people could read each one in turn, but Hau didn’t think much to that idea. I have to say I agree: no written words could instil the sense of story-telling and passion we got from hearing these stories from Hau himself.
We will have to go back many times, drink more tea and learn the stories of all the bonsai living down the street from us.