The deep-fried diaries

Before you go on holiday in – or rather, from – Japan, your friends and relatives will typically ask you these two questions:

1) What do you want to eat in England / North Korea / Swaziland?
2) What Japanese food will do you think you’ll miss when you’re in England / North Korea / Swaziland?

And when you get back from your holiday, they will ask you these two questions:

1) What did you eat in England / North Korea / Swaziland?
2) What Japanese food did you miss when you were in England / North Korea / Swaziland?

Not only that, but rather than taking photos of the people you met or the places you saw while on holiday, you will instead take photos of the food you ate, and when you get back, rather than asking you about the photos you took of people and places, your friends and relatives will ask you about the photos you took of food. For example, when I showed my holiday snaps to my conversation class students last week, they were only mildly diverted by the fact that I had stayed in a house that was built five hundred years ago, or by the fact that I had driven past the Olympic Park, or by my charming five-year-old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed niece. Instead, we had an extended discussion about Yorkshire pudding: how to cook it, what the ingredients are and what it tastes like.

So in the interests of cultural integration, there follows a detailed analysis of pretty much everything Mrs M and I consumed while we were in the UK over Christmas and the New Year, and to give you an idea of what we will miss the most between now and our next visit, I have marked those foodstuffs which are unavailable in Japan with an asterisk.

Saturday 22nd December

Breakfast: French toast, canned coffee
Location: convenience store en route to Narita Airport

Hot coffee and tea in bottles and / or cans is available from shops and vending machines all over the country, and surprisingly drinkable, particularly when you consider the fact that it may have been kept warm for weeks on end. French toast from a convenience store, on the other hand, is an insult both to the French and indeed to the very concept of toast itself. ‘French sugar’ would be more appropriate, or just ‘Japanese stodge’.

Lunch: sour cream and chive flavour pretzels, pasta and vegetables, chicken and rice, chocolate pudding
Location: Virgin Atlantic flight VS901

Being the Saturday before Christmas, our flight was fully booked, and many of us were taking our children home for the holidays. One unlucky couple had to hold their baby in their laps for thirteen hours straight, but we were lucky enough to land bulkhead seats and what is referred to as a ‘basnet’, ie. a cot-type thing in which to plonk M Jr when she was sleepy, or when our arms felt like they were about to drop off from holding her in our laps. While the service was excellent, the food was disappointing (on the outward journey, that is. On the return journey it was completely inedible – see below), and only partially salvaged by the rather nifty idea of serving dessert separately from the main course, in the form of a chocolate pudding that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the refrigerated section of a branch of M&S.

Dinner: vegetable chow mein, prawn toast*, rice crackers*
Location: hotel room, Kew

We were also served sandwiches, rice balls, some kind of evening meal that I can’t quite remember, and Love Hearts* – yes, those sweets inscribed with romantic epithets like ‘Be mine’ and ‘For ever’. When flying east to west, though, your day is elongated, so that when you finally arrive at your destination, despite your body clock telling you that you ought to have gone to bed, slept for several hours and got up again, you are still awake, and force down an ‘evening’ meal in a vain attempt at adjusting to the new time zone – in this case a Chinese takeaway with Thai prawn toast thrown in for good measure.

Sunday 23rd December

Breakfast: omelette, Weetabix*, yoghurt, wholemeal toast*
Location: pub downstairs from hotel room, Kew

Next to our table at breakfast was an industrial-size toaster that hummed away like an idling Land Rover with the choke on full. Often to be found in staff cafeterias, these are the kind of machines in which your sliced bread is slowly transported along a conveyor belt flanked with heating elements, before popping out at the bottom via a stainless steel slide, at which point it will be slightly under-done. Having been replaced on the conveyor belt, it will then emerge a few seconds later slightly over-done.

Lunch: fish and chips, roast dinner* (pork), venison casserole*, chocolate brownie and ice cream, sticky toffee pudding*, mulled cider*
Location: as above

Fish and chips was the obvious choice for my first pescetarian pub lunch, and while it was just as scrumptious as I could have hoped, my dining experience was spoiled somewhat by the chef’s insistence on serving it not on a plate but on a chopping board. Serving pub food on chopping boards (as opposed to in baskets, Eighties-style) seems to be all the rage at the moment, and the blame, I think, can be laid squarely at the door of Jamie Oliver, who I have been reliably informed favours it at his own restaurants. Much as I admire Jamie’s heroic crusade to save the planet’s schoolchildren from certain obesity, someone really needs to sit him down and tell him that if you are served fish and chips on a chopping board, the fish will probably fall off, the chips will probably fall off, and the peas will definitely fall off.

OK, so I was joking about the peas, but anyway, barely a week has gone by over the past couple of years when Mrs M has not turned to me and said wistfully how much she longs to eat sticky toffee pudding, so dessert managed to be even more memorable than the main course (over the past couple of years, she has turned to me and said wistfully how much she longs to eat Yorkshire pudding more like once a fortnight).

Incidentally, I can highly recommend staying in hotels above pubs when jet-lagged, as the period of time between stuffing oneself with Sunday lunch and falling fast asleep in front of the telly can be reduced to little more than five minutes.

Dinner: pork pie*, Pringles
Location: friends’ house, Kew

Come the evening we were still stuffed, so made do with a light snack – in this case Mrs M had a pork pie and Pringles were the veggie option.

Monday 24th December

Breakfast: kipper*, selection of pastries
Location: pub downstairs from hotel, Kew

While the Japanese often dry their fish and seafood in the sun, they tend not to smoke it, and obscurities like the kipper are unheard of.

Lunch: baked salmon, baked potatoes, mince pies*
Location: aunt and uncle’s house, Wiltshire

If you go to a festival in Japan you will often find a stall selling yaki-jaga (焼きジャガ / baked potatoes), but they never quite match up to the British version. This may well be down to the variety of potato, but as any connoisseur will tell you, a proper baked potato should be hard enough on the outside that when you tap it with a knife it makes a kind of crinkly knocking sound, and fluffy enough on the inside that you need a spoon to scoop it rather than a knife to cut it. For that extra touch of authenticity, today’s tatties were baked in my Auntie J’s prize possession, an Aga.

Dinner: pasta, pesto, vegetable sauce with Quorn* pieces
Location: brother’s house, Somerset

My brother used to be a vegan, and while he did eventually join me in succumbing to the twin temptations of dairy products and seafood, still stocks his kitchen with plenty of Linda McCartney-style delicacies. One or two restaurants in Tokyo now have ‘fake meat’ on their menus, but Quorn – which fanatical vegetarians refuse to eat because it is a fungus and therefore, in effect, a living organism – has yet to be imported.

Tuesday 25th December

Breakfast: Jordan’s muesli*, Grape Nuts, Shreddies*
Location: as above

I keep on telling myself that I should quit eating cereal, which while it does have more nutritional value than the box it comes in (as demonstrated by Mythbusters), it doesn’t have as much nutrutional value as, say, a couple of slices of toast. The trouble is, cereal is inextricably linked in the minds of British adults with their British childhoods, and ADHD-inducing concoctions like Golden Nuggets, with their multi-coloured boxes, games or cartoons on the back and free gifts inside.

Lunch: cream tea (scones, homemade jam and marmalade, clotted cream)
Location: as above

The cream tea is one British tradition that has made it as far as East Asia, but if you happen to have a cream tea in Japan, the biggest let-down will be the paltry amount of clotted cream it comes with. Clotted cream can be bought over the counter in Tokyo, but because it has, quite literally, been imported from Cornwall, it will be prohibitively expensive and come in a very small tub indeed. In contrast, at the Co-op near my brother’s house a 227g tub of Rodda’s will set you back just £2.15 (for anyone planning a truly epic cream tea, Rodda’s even sell a 907g version).

And therein lies a dilemma: when you have a cream tea, which do you spread on your scone first, the cream or the jam? Most people treat the cream as a kind of butter substitute, spreading it on the scone first, with jam as the topping, whereas my brother insists on cream first / jam second, and as it turns out, his theory is backed up by Rodda’s themselves, on the packaging for whose clotted cream is printed a short explanation detailing the superiority of that very method.

Dinner: lentil bake*, Yorkshire pudding*, roast potatoes, sprouts, parsnips*, smoked haddock*, sparkling wine, Christmas cake*
Location: as above

A few weeks after M Jr was born, Otoh-san sat me down for a man-to-man chat.
‘Muzuhashi,’ he said, with a serious expression on his face. ‘I just want to talk to you about M Jr.’
‘Absolutely,’ I said, wondering if he was going to ask whether or not we planned to continue living in Japan, or warn me of the difficulty of keeping one’s daughter from falling in with the wrong crowd.
‘You see, there’s something I’m quite worried about.’
‘What’s that?’
‘You’re not going to bring up M Jr as a vegetarian, are you? We wouldn’t want to think she was being deprived of a proper, balanced diet.’

Meat and dairy products are a comparatively recent addition to the Japanese diet – for a period of time prior to the Meiji Restoration, eating meat was actually illegal – but since the war they have taken to them with gusto. As a consequence, the average Japanese is now several inches taller than their ancestors, and I am forever separating the meat from the fish and vegetables in my school lunch. So while I reassured Otoh-san that we will allow M Jr to decide for herself whether or not to be a vegetarian, whenever Mrs M spends Christmas in Somerset, she is in a minority of one, and instead of tucking in to a roast turkey, has to make do with a lentil bake with all the trimmings.

Dessert was Christmas cake, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would, simply because you will find nothing as rich, fruity or frankly dense as this in Japan.

Wednesday 26th December

Breakfast: toast, peanut butter, Marmite*
Location: as above

If you ever find yourself in a Japanese supermarket, there is one particular item that I would urge you to avoid, namely a concoction called Peanuts Cream. Peanuts Cream purports to be a variety of – or at least a viable substitute for – peanut butter, and in reality is nothing of the sort. As well as having a sugar content several times higher than the average jar of Sun Pat, it has the annoying habit of liquifying when spread on toast. As a card-carrying peanut butter addict since about the age of ten, I prefer Skippy imported from America, although what I really crave is the nothing added / nothing taken away, Whole Earth-style variety, which has a layer of oil on top when you open it, and congeals to a consistency like half-dried tile grouting the closer to the bottom of the jar you get.

Lunch: panini (mozzarella and tomato, chorizo), cakes (incl. mincemeat slice*, tiffin)
Location: Butternut café, Exeter

Incredibly, I have had tea and tiffin in Japan on several occasions, hence the lack of an asterisk.

Thursday 27th December

Lunch: Caribbean veg pasty*, cheese & onion pasty*, bread (various), goat’s cheese, cheddar cheese, salad (incl. beetroot*), Kalamata olives*
Location: brother’s house

Whenever my mother made lunch, she would put on a kind of help yourself buffet of bread, cheese, salad, pickles and so on, a tradition that my brother – who lives in the same house that we inherited from her – has continued, so with one or two minor variations, this was what we ate pretty much every day we were staying there.

As I’m sure I have mentioned before, two food items the Japanese haven’t yet mastered are cheese and bread, so I had been looking forward to stilton, cheddar, goat’s cheese, smoked cheese, brie etc etc, and to elaborately complex breads with various combinations of white, wholemeal, rye, cornflour, sourdough, seeds and nuts. As well as a Co-op selling cheap clotted cream and 400g of cheddar for three quid (the same amount would cost the equivalent of more like £20 in Japan), the town where my brother lives has a truly extraordinary bakery, which sells a selection of everything from bread to scones to pasties to cakes, all in satisfyingly Western-style sizes.

‘What’s that you’re eating?’ our niece asked Mrs M at one point during the week. ‘That’s meat, isn’t it?’
Forced to curb her carnivorous instincts for several days on the trot, Mrs M had bought some cured ham from the aforementioned Co-op, and was extracting slices of it from an open packet on her lap before disguising them with mayonnaise.
‘I don’t want to see you eating meat!’ ordered our niece, and my brother had to tell her that actually, Mrs M wasn’t a vegetarian like the rest of us and it was OK for her to bring cured ham into the house.

Friday 28th December

Lunch: scampi* and chips, slow-roasted lamb shank*
Location: Blue Ball Inn, Sidford

This was Mrs M’s chance to eat meat like, as she put it, a genshi-jin (原始人 / caveman).

Afternoon tea: white chocolate caramel slice*, lemon and redcurrant slice
Location: sea-front café, Sidmouth

The weather while we were in the UK, it has to be said, was atrocious, and with just three sunny days in three weeks – not to mention flooding and almost constant rain – it’s a wonder more people weren’t suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. This was the scene on Sidmouth sea front…

…so after battling against the elements for little more than ten minutes, we ducked into a café for tea and cake, which included a variation on the aptly named millionaire’s shortbread.

Dinner: baked potatoes, butter, grated cheese
Location: brother’s house, Somerset

Saturday 29th December

Elevensies: gingerbread house*
Location: as above

For some reason I had never come across a gingerbread house until this Christmas, and they seem to be all the rage, partly, it would seem, because Ikea have been selling a flat-pack version, which if it’s anything like their furniture probably requires several hours of hard graft, a degree in engineering and an Allen key to assemble. My brother had bought a handmade one for Mrs M as a Christmas present (a gingerbread house, that is, not an Allen key), and after putting it on display for a few days, I suggested that our niece might like to ceremonially demolish it.

Afternoon tea: rice crackers*, raisins, fruit juice (carton), tea (vending machine)
Location: Minehead Community Hospital

A good friend of ours – who is still going strong at 92 years old – fell down and broke her hip late last year, and we went to visit her in hospital, where after just one month of rehabilitation, she was already up, about and walking around the ward. When the time came for refreshments, the vending machine tea I bought in reception was utterly foul, and while styrofoam cups are the main cause of a crap cuppa – my theory is that the polystyrene itself begins to melt into the tea as you are drinking it – despite being in a paper cup, this tea still had that indeterminate chemical-y taste, combined with an extra, gag-reflex-inducing hint of UHT.

For snackage, we made do with what our friend J had lying around her hospital room, which included a packet of so-called rice crackers. Rice crackers in Japan – aka senbei (煎餅) – are a many, varied and often delicious snack item, my own favourites being kuro-mamé senbei (黒豆煎餅 / black bean rice crackers). Rice crackers in the UK, however, are a flavourless and indeed joyless thing, with the texture of polystyrene and the flavour of cardboard, and only popular for two reasons: firstly because they are healthy, and secondly because they are gluten-free. It just so happens that three very good friends of ours – including J – have a gluten allergy, thus making their food choices rather difficult, but fobbing them off with food barely fit for a pet rabbit is frankly unfair.

Dinner: Thai takeaway (incl. prawn crackers*, spring rolls, jasmine rice*, red curry, sweet and sour deep-fried red snapper)
Location: brother’s house, Somerset

Thai food is surprisingly hard to come by in Japan, whereas the town in which my brother lives (population approx. 1500) is blessed with a very good Thai restaurant. When you order a takeaway, they even throw in a free bag of ‘posh’ prawn crackers – ie. thinner and less oily than the standard variety, and light brown instead of the usual white.

Monday 31st December

Afternoon tea: speciality hot chocolate, tea
Location: Starbucks, Sedgemoor Services

At Sedgemoor Services on the M5, it is possible to avoid the over-priced cafeteria in favour of an over-priced Starbucks, although when the girl behind the counte…sorry, I mean the barista told me they were running short on mugs, I did manage to blag a large (ie. bucket-sized) hot chocolate for the same price as a medium.

Dinner – king prawn korma, vegetable bhuna, popadoms*, pilau rice*, peshwari nan*, onion bhaji* (delivery), Snickers bar (vending machine)
Location: Premier Inn, Gloucester

Our lodgings were at the Premier Inn, Gloucester: a snip at fifty quid a night and with enough space in our double room to sleep a family of ten (one of the double rooms down the corridor really was sleeping a family of ten, although that’s another story). Instead of going out on the town for New Year’s Eve, we ordered a takeaway curry, ate it while watching The Best Of Come Dine With Me and were fast asleep by 10pm. A word of warning: although the nice man behind the reception desk was kind enough to provide us with plastic cutlery and paper plates, a single one of the latter was, as I discovered, not quite up to the task of supporting a popadom, an onion bhaji, half a nan bread, a large dollop each of korma and bhuna, and half a tub of pilau rice.

Tuesday 1st January

Breakfast: buffet (incl. crumpets* prepared on industrial-sized toaster)
Location: pub next door to Premier Inn, Gloucester

Breakfast was served – or rather, left on a table for us to help ourselves – in the pub next door, where the staff hadn’t quite finished cleaning up after a the previous night’s revelries, and from the look of the vomit-encrusted men’s toilet cubicle, I surmised that one of the party-goers had also eaten curry for his final meal of 2012.

Lunch: soup, salad, bread, cheese
Afternoon tea: lardy cake*, chocolate biscuit selection box*
Location: friends’ house, Forest of Dean

If I was a proper vegetarian, I wouldn’t eat cheese, as much of it contains rennet, or to be more precise, cow’s stomach. I also wouldn’t eat lardy cake, which contains, er, lard.

Dinner: veggie delight sub, turkey and ham sub
Location: Subway, Gloucester

There are now more branches of Subway in the world than there are branches of McDonald’s, which I have to say is a good thing, as I’d much rather eat a veggie delight (ie. cheese sandwich) than a filet o’fish. Also, the young lad behind the counter at this particular branch was very friendly. He asked us what we had done on New Year’s Eve, and having returned the question, I expected a reply along the lines of, ‘Oh yeah, man. I was larging it with my mates. We went to this club, right, and I was so pissed I can’t even remember what I was doing when it turned midnight. Still got a hangover now, bruv!’ Instead, he confessed that he had been safely tucked up in bed after spending the evening with his two children. If you’re wondering whether this made me feel old, you’d be right.

Wednesday 2nd January

Elevensies: ham and cheese slice
Location: Malmesbury

A brief rant: vending machines in Japan – and in other countries, I assume – a) work, b) accept bank notes and c) give change. Vending machines in the UK a) don’t work, b) don’t accept bank notes and c) don’t give change. Vending machines at car parks in the UK, moreover, a) do sometimes work, but b) don’t accept bank notes, c) don’t give change and d) don’t reflect incremental payments in the tickets they dispense. So for example, in Malmesbury town square, one hour of parking will set you back 40p and two hours will set you back £1.20. But even if you put in a pound coin (because naturally, you do not have enough change to put in exactly 40p or £1.20), YOU STILL ONLY GET A TICKET FOR ONE HOUR’S WORTH OF PARKING, EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE PAID MORE THAN DOUBLE THE AMOUNT FOR AN HOUR. End of rant.

This, by the way, is M Jr window shopping at the bakery from which Mrs M purchased her ham & cheese slice.

Lunch: pumpkin and sweet potato soup, tuna melt panini
Location: CJ’s café, Chippenham

On the way into Chippenham from the A350, we passed a large and very busy tattoo parlour, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the town.

Dinner: filo pastry, pesto and goat’s cheese ‘pizza’, baked potatoes
Location: uncle and aunt’s house, Wiltshire

Thursday 3rd January

Lunch: smoked salmon, wholemeal toast*, oatcakes*, brocolli soup
Afternoon tea: lemon cake
Dinner: roast lamb, cheese and broccoli bake

With so many vegetarian relatives – including one of her sons – Auntie J had assumed that Mrs M was a veggie too, and was so pleased when she found out otherwise that she immediately sent Uncle C to the butchers to buy a cut of lamb, which she Aga-ed just enough to turn it brown on the outside and keep it pink in the middle. (My cheese and broccoli bake was of course green in the middle.)

Friday 4th January

Breakfast: crumpets* (square), bran flakes (Waitrose own)
Location: as above

Lunch: sandwiches (with crusts cut off and incl. smoked salmon, roast beef), scones, jam
Location: friends’ house, Berkshire

It was a close thing, but the best scones we ate all holiday were, ironically enough, probably the ones made for us by a Japanese friend of Mrs M’s – in fact, what with the crust-less sarnies, cups, saucers and teapot, the only thing missing from this authentic afternoon tea was a fancy cake stand.

Dinner: bread rolls, crab paste, cured ham (all Waitrose)
Location: Premier Inn, Richmond

Saturday 5th January

Breakfast: eggs Benedict*, eggs Florentine*, 1 x smooth cappuccino, 1 x rich cappuccino
Location: Carluccio’s, Richmond

Maybe it’s because we are accustomed  to Starbucks-style frappa-cappa-macha-latte-ccino chocolatey-caramel-y-whipped-creamy milkshake-style caffeine-based beverages, but even the supposedly smooth version of  Carluccio’s coffee was strong enough to have an Olympic athlete test positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

Oh, and another mini-rant: as a self-confessed skinflint, I feel so much happier living in a country where there is no tipping. Tipping in the US is a matter of course, but the rules regarding tipping in the UK are irritatingly vague. On this occasion, I might have left a tip but didn’t have any cash, and was presented with neither a ‘Would you like to leave a tip?’ option on the credit card machine, nor a conveniently obvious receptacle for leaving one in cash. I also didn’t want to place two quid (too obviously stingy) or a fiver (too ostentatious and frankly too much) directly into the hand of the waiter at the till, who in any case was a different waiter from the one who had served us. To be honest, the whole experience can be enough to spoil a perfectly decent meal, as you are liable to leave a restaurant paranoid that the staff there hate you, and either guilty for or uncertain about whether or not you have remunerated them sufficiently. Whilst I do take great satisfaction in not leaving a tip at a restaurant whose food and / or service I have deemed to be rubbish, the most agreeable method , I think, is to have an ‘Optional service charge of 12.5%’-type thing at the bottom of one’s bill, and just as importantly, on the credit card machine, thus allowing one to discreetly give as much or as little as one wishes. End of second rant.

Lunch: fish and chips, Adnams ‘Cheer Beer’*
Location: Anchor Bankside, Southwark

This was one of only two opportunities I gave myself to abandon my family and get raucously drunk. Well, OK, have a couple of pints of bitter and a quiet chat before sobering up with a coffee and heading back to the hotel.

Dinner: Sainsbury’s sandwiches (tuna and sweetcorn, egg and cress), Jaffa Cakes*
Location: Premier Inn, Richmond

I have often been heard to mock the Japanese version, but nothing can be quite as awful as a pre-packed British supermarket sandwich.

Sunday 6th January

Breakfast: croissant, pain au chocolat, 2 x cappuccinos
Location: as above

As you can see, my Carluccio’s croissant was, quite literally, as big as M Jr’s head.

Lunch: trout, grated apple and celeriac* salad, fried salmon, olive mashed potato, cress salad
Location: friend’s house, Clapham

Our friend T has eaten at several Michelin-starred restaurants in his time, and owns a selection of fancy-looking cookbooks, so the lunch he prepared for us was, as expected, excellent – he even laid on a proper starter containing an obscure vegetable we had probably never eaten before.

Dessert: mince pies, brandy sauce
Location: friend’s house, Richmond

Another warning: shop-bought brandy sauce may cause the consumer to exceed the legal drink-drive limit.

Dinner: falafel* wrap, fattoush salad
Location: Premier Inn, Richmond

The kebab shop we found near Richmond station was living proof of the old adage that the best way of judging the quality of a restaurant selling foreign food is whether or not its customers are foreign – in this case, a whole family of Turkish folk, children included, were eating dinner at a table in the corner. The falafel kebab in particular was delicious, so that rather than a half-open pillow case of pitta stuffed with salad and kebab meat, it was cylindrical and rolled up in wrapping paper, like a kind of edible Camberwell Carrot. The one thing that let the place down was the guy behind the counter, who in most respects was perfectly normal. Make the mistake of looking into his eyes, however, and you would be overcome with a feeling of abject terror. They were so bloodshot it gave the impression he had been awake non-stop for at least a week, probably as a result of taking part in something deeply sinister, like human organ trafficking or an armed jewel heist. Either that or he was a real-life vampire who would literally syphon off our baby daughter’s blood and drink it with lemon juice and Tabasco if we took our eyes off her anything for more than five seconds.

Monday 7th January

Breakfast: cinnamon roll, croissant
Location: Sainsbury’s, Chingford

The café at Chingford Sainsbury’s is on the first floor, and while we were eating our breakfast, most of the customers made their way to and from it via the lift rather than the stairs, which tells you pretty much everything need to know about the town.

Lunch: ciabatta sandwiches
Dinner: tamarind-based starter, curry (various incl. cheese, peas, spinach, aubergine, peppers), basmati rice* cooked with onions and spices, apple pie and cream
Location: friend’s house, near Cambridge

Our good friend S is second-generation British-Indian, and we asked – actually, begged would be a better word – her to make us a curry when we came to visit. She duly obliged, and also made a delicious starter of tamarind sauce, crispy semolina egg-shaped cracker-type things and what she described as black chick peas, all of which you have to down in one before the tamarind mixture melts its way through the crispy semolina egg-shaped cracker-type thing.

Mrs M was intrigued to discover that S even gives her two-year-old daughter spiced warm milk before bedtime – a little like chai without the caffeine – which as well as tasting good is supposed to ward off colds.

Tuesday 8th January

Breakfast: cereal (granola, Grape Nuts, Shreddies*)
Lunch: pasta, salad
Dinner: fajitas (incl. vegetarian sausage-based filling for herbivores)
Location: as above

Wednesday 9th January

Elevensies: sushi (M&S)
Location: platform at Richmond Station

After gorging herself on English fare for over a fortnight, Mrs M was finally starting to miss Japanese food (see above), so today we had two helpings of sushi, one from M&S and the other from Wasabi. Not up to much when compared with the real thing, but it was a relief to eat something that hadn’t been anywhere near a deep-fat fryer.

Lunch: smoked haddock fish cakes*, salad nicoise*, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs
Location: Patisserie Valerie, Old Compton St.

Patisserie Valerie, incidentally, was another restaurant where I failed to leave a tip.

Dinner: sushi, chirashi-zushi (Wasabi)
Location: Premier Inn, Richmond

Thursday 10th January

Breakfast: full English breakfast*, vegetarian breakfast
Location: café, Clapham Junction

Despite being the same price, the full English came with bacon, sausages, fried egg, baked beans, hash browns (or rather, a hash brown), half a fried tomato and fried mushrooms, while the veggie came with just scrambled egg, baked beans, a hash brown and half a fried tomato. Surely this amounts to discrimination?

Dinner: scampi* and chips, crisps, chilli nuts*
Location: Cittie of Yorke, High Holborn

My second helping of beer-fuelled hell-raising (ie. quiet chat over a couple of pints of bitter) was at this fine old pub near Chancery Lane tube. The Cittie of Yorke is owned by Samuel Smith, so the drinks are ludicrously cheap by today’s standards, and it used to serve a perfectly edible plate of nachos. Despite retaining the name, brewery and décor, however, under new-ish management the food has taken a nosedive, and while my friends toyed with a meagre portion of sub-standard nachos (served on a plate so hot that it almost scorched its way through the table and landed on the floor), my scampi and chips had the unmistakeable taste and texture of a meal which has been microwaved from frozen, as per the instructions on the packet. The evening was rounded off with one of those snack products you can only find in an English pub, namely chilli peanuts, which tipped me over from feeling merely bloated into a state of full-blown indigestion.

Friday 11th January

Lunch: fish and chips, vegetarian larder board
Location: The Anchor, Wisley

At last it was time for Mrs M to sample Great Britain’s great British dish, which on this occasion came with a traditional – indeed, some might say great – slice of bread and butter, and mercifully was not served on a chopping board. As I should have guessed from its name, the vegetarian larder board, on the other hand, was served on a chopping board, from which several of its constituent parts lost their balance and fell onto the table.

Dinner: homemade ciabatta, cheese and cucumber sandwiches
Location: Premier Inn, Richmond

In his time, Uncle H – with whom we ate our pub lunch – has run various restaurants, fish and chip vans and food stalls, and his current craze is for baking his own bread (apparently, the old-style method involves mixing the flour with water and leaving it to stand, which releases the natural sugars in the flour, meaning there is no need to add sugar to the dough). So for our final night in the hotel we were given a goody bag containing still-warm, hand-made ciabatta. The only mistake I made was to refuse Uncle H’s offer of a knife (I had assumed there was one among the plastic cutlery given to us at the Premier Inn, Gloucester), and was obliged to spread the butter on our sandwiches using a spoon, which is just as tricky as it sounds.

Saturday 12th January

Breakfast: coffee, tea, fruit juice, croissant, mozzarella & tomato panini
Location: Eat, Heathrow Terminal 3 departure lounge

Even more than fish and chips, the items that we ate and drank the most during our three-week trip were probably good, old-fashioned English breakfast tea (milk no sugar and strong enough to stand your teaspoon in) and the good, old-fashioned, er, French croissant (ideally flaky, buttery, fresh from the oven and as big as a baby’s head).

Lunch: sweet and sour chicken and rice, pasta with cheese and vegetables, Gü Black Forest pudding
Location: Virgin Atlantic flight VS900

Our flight home was half-empty, which made looking after M Jr easier than it had been on the way out, but while the service was as good as ever, I can say without hesitation that the food was quite the most revolting of the entire holiday – yes, even worse than pre-packed Sainsbury’s sarnies.

Mrs M’s sweet and sour chicken came with what purported to be rice, but may well have been something else entirely. Upon initial examination, it was dry and hard, but once you put a fork-full of it in your mouth, it underwent a mysterious transformation, so that after an initial hint of something at least faintly rice-like, it turned to a kind of heavy, starchy powder, like un-mixed Polyfilla or an unmade Pot Noodle.

Live in Japan for a year or two and you will come to appreciate the joy of eating rice on its own: fluffy, light, ever-so-slightly transluscent, just sticky enough to eat using chopsticks and with little specks of yellow among the grains, this is what Japanese farmers spend so much time cultivating, and what Japanese people eat as many as three times a day. Virgin Atlantic rice, however, was an abomination, and probably had most of the passengers on the plane wondering how it was possible to take something so simple, so pure, and turn it into a substance that was barely fit for repairing the cracks in a patio.

Afternoon tea: cheese Danish
Breakfast: ‘omelette’, boiled potatoes
Location: as above

Actually, the breakfast ‘omelette’ was very nearly as bad as the rice.

Over and above the stuff we stuffed ourselves with, we also brought back a whole suitcase of goodies to hand out to as presents, including Jaffa Cakes*, Bakewell tarts*, Mini-rolls*, Mini Eggs*, fruit cake*, Viennese whirls* and twenty packets of tea, because even though M Jr didn’t have a seat to herself, she was still entitled to 23kg worth of check-in baggage. Taking a baby on a plane and then halfway round the UK was less arduous than we had been expecting, and after spending so much time staring at us as we ate, just a day or two after we arrived back in Japan, M Jr took her first taste of solid food – rice, naturally, cooked, mashed and mixed with warm water.

Washing machine 洗濯機

Back in the days when I was still a bachelor, I would do the laundry as little as was humanly possible – ie. about once a fortnight for clothes and once a month for hand towels, tea towels and so on. Like her mum, however – and particularly now that we’re a family of three – Mrs M does a truly heroic amount of washing. She claims – with some justification, it has to be said – that my bath towels acquire a mouldy, grandad-style stink after just two or three uses, and partly because of this, makes a point of washing every single towel in the house every single day.

Our second-hand top loading washing machine (top loaders are still the norm in Japan, and while they won’t flood the room if you open the door in mid-cycle, can strip a shirt of its buttons within weeks) cost a paltry 9000 yen back in 2011. With a capacity of just 4.5kg, though, Mrs M often found herself doing three loads a day, so in order to save her some hard labour, the other week we went to K’s Denki and bought a brand new, front-loading Hitachi BD-V3500.

The last washer-dryer I bought in the UK – from John Lewis, no less – cost less than three hundred quid, but here, even this almost-bottom-of-the-range model set us back 100,000 yen, which is about 750 quid at the current exchange rate. If nothing else, though, it’s an impressively enormous gadget: where British washing machines are designed to fit snugly beneath a kitchen counter top, here they are installed stand-alone in utility rooms or on verandas, as you can see from this photo of our glamorous product model M Jr.

Because our old top-loader took little more than half an hour to complete a cycle, Mrs M and I used to mock the slowness of British machines. The BD-V3500, however, is similarly sluggish, and should you make use of it as a tumble dryer too, a complete cycle can take as much as three hours. On the plus side, it can be programmed up to twelve hours in advance, has a special crease prevention feature, an ultra-gentle hand wash equivalent cycle, and often tells you what it’s doing in the soothing tones of a female voiceover artiste.

The first time M Jr was confronted with its monolithic presence she was genuinely frightened, but she will now sit and watch the drum spinning and the lights flashing on the control panel for as long as you leave her there – in fact, if she was a little taller she would probably climb on board and go for a spin.