My recent visit to Japan was illuminating in many ways.
Received wisdom is that Japan is hideously expensive for everything, but that's just not the case. We forget just how costly the UK has become. In Japan, £5 will buy you a good one-course meal, and you'll have a wide variety of options to choose from. A larger meal that is a bit of treat will perhaps cost £30, but that will buy you a 20-dish tempura banquet. Here you can easily rack up an £80 bill for two in any old rubbishy wine bar.
Another striking facet of Japan is that it is almost impossible not to eat healthily there. Contrary to all that 5-a-day (or is it 7-a-day now?) propaganda, the Japanese aren't particularly big on fruit and vegetables, but they do eat loads of fish, seaweed and fermented pickles, quite a bit of fatty meat - and they don't have our ruinously sweet tooth. Levels of sweetness, even in Japanese cakes and sweets, would barely register with our sugar receptors. After a couple of weeks there, mine began to adjust, and I realised just how out of hand the presence of sugar in our food has become.
A strong aesthetic sense runs through Japanese culture, and at the table, it expresses itself in beautifully refined presentation. Most meals, even breakfast, are a series of neat little bowls containing small amounts of quite filling, and very natural-tasting things.
Although the overall portion size is quite small, the food is exceptionally satisfying. Japanese people eat gracefully, and don't keep going until their guts are groaning. It's rare to see anyone overweight in Japan, and the fitness in old age of its citizens is impressive.
Within days of my return to Scotland I had withdrawal symptoms and was craving Japanese food, so it was off to Nippon Kitchen in Glasgow - which in retrospect, I now see has a foolishly extensive menu you'd not encounter in Japan. There, restaurants often specialise in one type of dish: sushi, shabu shabu (hot pot), donburi (rice bowl), okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), noodles and much, much more.
I felt a surge of optimism when I walked in because Nippon Kitchen smells quite Japanese, by which I mean it had an appetising aroma of fresh fish, seaweed, soy sauce and rice, emanating from its sushi/sashimi bar on the ground floor. Being realistic, it wasn't likely that Nippon Kitchen would match the highest standards you'd meet in Japan, but I had hoped for something better than we got.
Let's start with what it did well. Nippon Kitchen uses proper Japanese rice and has got the hang of cooking it so that it is slightly tacky, but not stodgy, with each grain smooth, polished and separate, just as it ought to be. No complaints about the sushi either. The rice was not refrigerated as it is in its lamentable supermarket and takeaway incarnations, but room temperature and fresh, as was the fish. Miso soup was fine too, the tempura batter competent.
But the meal started going horribly wrong with the grilled beef skewers slathered in a gloopy, worryingly shiny teriyaki sauce. The beef was lean, slack, watery and chewy, so very un-Japanese: the Japanese like their meat tender and marbled with fat so it offers no resistance.
Soft shell crab was given the deep-fried karaage treatment, but while in Japan it would be light, crisp and delicate, here it looked as appealing as a squashed turkey twizzler. Eel on our donburi rice bowl was swamped under a starchy, sweet-yet-salty substance that resembled those strangely glossy butchers' marinades.
My heart sank when the vegetarian bento box arrived. Coarse, ungainly, short on colour, unrefined, it constituted an Attila the Hun take on a Japanese culinary art. Flaccid vegetable gyozo looked like something kept warm on the counter of a chip shop. Edamame beans had a jaded khaki hue. A threatening-looking bowl of wallpaper paste-thick curry sauce smelt like a 1960s Vesta Curry and rapidly developed a thick, cloudy skin.
Any Japanese person who encounters such food must long to put up a placard reading: "Please don't judge Japanese cuisine on the basis of this!"