A Travellerspoint blog

Second Amazing Dinner

In the Tiny Village of Tsumago

We have loved our stay in Tsumago--more on that later. But we did take photos of our second dinner there. Alas, it was not quite as complex or visually stunning as our first, but it was very tasty nonethless. First off was shabu shabu, with the same apple/beer fed and massaged beef as the previous night, this time sliced paper thin with some shredded cabbage, onions, and enoki mushrooms.

P1020875.jpg There's a small vat of boiling water on a hot plate at the table and you dump a portion of the veggies in and then take a slice of the beef and swish it around in the water for about 5 seconds--the swishing sound being "shabu shabu"--then pop the meat and the veggies in a most delicious dipping sauce--maybe ground sesame and rice vinegar. Pop it in your mouth--heaven! I would have been happy making a meal of that alone (with rice, of course) There was also what the menu billed as slices of "roast beef", but it was quite rare and delicious.

Second up was the local trout. This time, instead of being grilled, it had been simmered on low heat for 24 hours (!!!) in a mixture of shoyu, sugar, honey and sake. We forgot to take a photo until after we had cut into it.

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Our host explained that it was now so soft that we should eat the whole thing, from tip of the snout to the end of the tail! When we did (it was delicious--almost but not quite a paste, but very rich), he seemed utterly delighted, attributing it to my having Japanese blood and Dick being intimately associated with me!

Then we had tempura veggies, with a little flower blossom made of tempura'd noodles. Yummy.

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[/float] This was followed by wild mushrooms picked by a local farmer. They were roasted until tender but still firm with hot chiles. Quite delicious!

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Finally,we had sweet rice with chicken bits steamed in the husk of a bamboo shoot.

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Our wonderful meal was topped off by slices of fresh persimmon, a few large and luscious grapes, and a delicious homebaked fruitcake.

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After dinner, we went out for a quick walk down the main street of the village, which looks much like it did several hundred years ago.

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It was a magical night--so dark, but clear enough that the starts were out, and in the distance we heard drums. It felt like we were in the middle of a Kurosawa samurai movie!

Posted by pokano 11.24.2012 17:55 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Rent-a-Neko

On language -- theirs and ours

I've had a handful of thoughts about language fermenting throughout this trip. These thoughts revolve about stereotypes, realities, experiences, and stories that attest to what we know and what I've learned about the Japanese, and Pam and me as partners and travelers, and language, in no particular order.

First, a teensy story from yesterday afternoon. We'd just returned to Kyoto from three days and two nights in Tsumago, and were still in the massive, modern Kyoto Railway Station. The station was teeming with travelers: It is both Kinro kansha-no-hi (Labour Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday and 3-day weekend) and the tail end of peak fall colors in the region. Pam had to use a rest room in the big Isetan department store (all ten floors of which occupy one small corner inside the station). I waited for her in front of a display window just outside the main entrance, and did not move an inch, so she could find me amidst the mob.

So there I parked myself, loosely supervising our bags. A chunky, slightly rough looking guy sidled up to me, holding a small open bag of something. We nodded towards one another in recognition that we were standing together in a crowded, bustling place. He said, "Samui." It's cold. I said, "Hai." Yup. He gestured an offer of whatever he was snacking on from his bag -- looked like croissant ends or pieces of donuts. I held my belly and smiled no with a little wag of my head to express that I was already full.

He said, "Doko?" Where you from? I said, "Seattle," pointing at the emblem on my Mariners' cap, then added, "Ichiro." "Darvish" he said, and grinned a friendly grin, as if he'd just one-upped me. Then his cell phone rang. He answered, "Doko?" Seconds later, wagging her phone, his girlfriend swooped in, their rendezvous complete. With a quick exchange of smiles and nods, they disappeared into the crowd. [If you need explication of the Ichiro/Darvish references, you're out of luck. Just believe me when I tell you that it was a clever bit of repartee, which I lost, but it was all in fun.]

Ah yes, on language. Prior to our trip Pamela and I both studied Japanese. It was her goal to become modestly competent at navigating her/our way through the basics necessities of travel -- etiquette, directions, reservations, toilet finding, money, counting, etc. Pamela studied really diligently (how else?), and took many more classes than I did. After our first five or six classes together, it became clear that she had an enormous cultural/familial head-start on me, and that my goal had morphed into knowing enough Japanese so as to not be a complete boor. It would suffice if I was able to communicate such minimalist concepts as, "Hello." "Goodbye." "Me hungry." "Me thirsty." "Where." "Where toilet." "Thank you." "Please." "How much." Both of us succeeded in our respective fashions. Pamela's success was not to her satisfaction but was, nonetheless, impressively accomplished when she wasn't too tired -- poised, elegant, and sufficiently well spoken as to confuse many Japanese when they first heard her speak. (One of her pre-departure tutors warned her to "dumb down" her presentation of the Japanese for "I'm an American so I don't speak Japanese very well." She was told that her accent was so good that Japanese listeners would assume, quite reasonably, that she was just being modest.) Bottom line: We were never once bulls in a china shop . . . nor cows in a Japan shop. We've done remarkably well, with my essentially nonexistent Japanese and Pam's remarkably adequate and resourceful version.

Contrary to stereotype, at least in the four main towns/villages we traveled (Tokyo, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Tsumago and Magome) and points in between, lots of Japanese speak some English, usually adequate to assist with the transaction at hand, often with negligible accents, and frequently surprisingly well. Sure, on occasion we were compelled to resort to sign language, or we were clueless about everything available in restaurants without romaji menus, or we couldn't quickly figure out which bus to take. But with Pam's basic Japanese, her knowledge of Japanese food, and ineffably sweet disposition, and my own only occasionally fallible gifts of direction, ingratiation and capacity for presenting myself as a likable fool (hey, I can bow and scrape with the best of them), we managed to muddle through pretty much any and all situations with a degree of grace.

For those who labor under the misapprehension that Pam and I travel in a saccharine-infused bubble, let me straighten you out here and now. We argue, squabble, and bicker. We disagree about how, what, when and where. We tire and pout. Each of us is certain of our rectitude . . . until proven otherwise. And each of us is proven otherwise somewhat more often than we're comfortable discussing.

This is to set up a contrasting scenario -- and here comes a bald-faced stereotype -- concerning not any Japanese ethos (which I can't pretend to explain with any hint of authority), but simply what I've observed in shops, stores, on trains, in buses, in museums, and on the street. People are nice, honest, helpful. Four little illustrations:

In America, after experiencing a traffic delay from a construction zone on a highway, you might see a sign that says something like "End of Construction, Thanks for your patience." In Japan the prevailing such message is conveyed by a clear, highly stylized, sign showing a construction worker bowing to you, the inconvenienced traveler.

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While in the historic, restored village of Magome, I was in need of a cup of coffee and Pamela needed to rest her legs. We found a handsome little gallery cafe, where the setup included two glasses of water, and two napkins.

P1020595.jpgWe ordered my one cup of coffee; Pam didn't want anything. While I sipped my coffee Pam patrolled the gallery; she found many nice things, but nothing we wanted to buy. We both used the restroom. When I went to pay the bill I was astounded to discover that I owed 1120 yen -- about US$14. (By way of comparison, a Starbucks double short latte runs about $4.90 in Japan.) Politely, but with a hint of exasperation, I held up one finger and pointed at the bill which, with most pertinent details printed in kanji, appeared to show two somethings, each at 560 yen, totaling 1120. After perhaps two polite go-rounds, I relented, plunked down 1120 yen, smiled, and we left. For the next quarter hour we wandered up a steep pathway through the village, poking our noses and camera into various passages and side lanes. At some point I heard a rather insistent "Sumimasen" -- "sorry" or "excuse me" -- and turned to face the young woman who had been our waitress. Amid what I took to be repeated apologies she ceremoniously handed me 560 yen. The woman at the cash register had been mistaken.

On the day we left Tsumago to return to Kyoto, we had first to catch a train at the nearby Nagiso Station. Service from Nagiso to our mainline transfer is not frequent, so we had to be sure to catch the scheduled train. As we waited at the Tsumago bus station, time was growing short -- we were down to about 11 minutes before the train was to leave, and the Nagiso bus hadn't shown up. We went over to the taxi stand, woke the slumbering driver, and asked him to take us to Nagiso. No, he said, take the bus. Less than half the price. We insisted. He insisted. The bus came, and we caught the train with at least two minutes to spare.

And then there was today's charming, if not downright zany, occurrence. A twofer, if you will. Many days earlier, at a restaurant where the staff spoke very little English but was truly friendly and solicitous, the chef and waiter showed us a "point and choose" food book -- a Japanese/English visual dictionary of food. It was very well done, and we wanted to buy it. As I was out and about today, I stumbled into a large, three storey book, CD, DVD, software and electronic gaming store. In addition to sales, they also rented DVDs. I asked where the English and travelers' book collections were, and was sent to the second floor. When I found the English language book collection, here's what I actually found: about 60 feet of shelves housing books in Roman script -- mainly but not exclusively English -- arranged absolutely randomly. Spanish computer manuals next to Dick Francis mysteries next to children's books, with the occasional Cyrillic volume tossed into the salad for extra spice. I threw up my hands and walked away. But not before having another moment of inspiration.

On our Singapore Air flight to Japan we saw a surprising little jewel of a movie, a quirky Japanese "art" film called, in English, "Rent-a-Neko" (Rent-a-Cat). In this film, a young woman has set up a business renting out her cats, which she hawks from the back of a little wagon, calling out through a bullhorn, "Rent a Neko." Yes, in English and Japanese -- Rent a Neko. In picaresque fashion the film then tells a little story about each rental. Pam especially was charmed by it, researched its availability in the U.S., and was discouraged to discover that it didn't appear anywhere other than the IMDB website. Says I to myself, hey, why don't I buy it in this store, and gift it to her. Surely I'll score some points for that.
This little blog entry began with my confession that my Japanese isn't, shall I say, very good. So I walk up to what I take to be the video rental desk and, by voice and sign language and pointing, explain that I'd like to buy a DVD called "Rent-A-Neko." Confusion ensues. After all, this store neither rents nor sells nekos. The clerk said as much -- "no nekos." I explain that this is a DVD, and I don't want to rent it, I want to buy it. The staff huddle and confer with one another. They break their huddle; a clerk approaches me. "No nekos here," she says. A bit wild-eyed, I suppose, I start to pick up nearby DVD cases, point at the title lines and exclaim, "Rent A Neko." "Rent A Neko." Is it possible that my voice has become louder each time I repeat "Rent A Neko?" The clerk takes me over to a shelf, and points up and down at about a thousand DVDs; all the titles are in kanji. The situation is clearly hopeless. In the U.S. I would have been inclined to give the clerk a pat on the shoulder, or even a cursory hug, apologize, and leave. Here, I could only apologize, and retreat from the store.

Posted by pokano 07:38 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Amazing Dinner

But, Alas, No Photos!

We're taking a short break from Kyoto, up in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, in a tiny town called Tsumago. Tsumago's claim to fame is that it was a post town on the old Nakasendo Road between Kyoto and what was then known as Edo, now known as Tokyo. To keep the town from dying, its residents have restored it to its Edo-period appearance, and it has become a popular tourist destination. The big thing to do is a 6 or 7 km hike through the woods to the next town, Magome. Dick may do that tomorrow. I'll have to pass because of that darn tendonitis in my legs.

We are staying at a very nice, old-fashioned (supposedly in business for 100 years!) minshuku (kind of like a ryokan) in town, Fujiota. Our room is super comfortable but you can tell the place is old because the hallways are freezing and so is the common bathroom.

We are the only foreigners here at the moment and just had the most amazing dinner in Fujioto's dining room. Unfortunately, we forgot to bring the camera, so I'm going to have to do this from memory and you, dear reader, are going to just have to imagine it.

First course: grilled whole fresh char (like trout), caught today locally

Second course: selection of local specialties, including marinated sweet chestnut; the most delicious "chicken McNugget" we've ever had; a slice of some kind of roll--not sure what was on the outside, but the inside was green tea soba and omelet; a small bit of shoyu-flavored bits that looked suspiciously like rear-end of bees--turned out it was wasp-larvae (aka in Pam terminology, "the bees' knees)okra, and one more thing I don't remember. The "bees' knees" were surprisingly good--better than Mexican fried grasshoppers!

Third course: "salmon" sashimi--our waitress said it wasn't really salmon but something like a pink steelhead. It was kind of chewy. Served with the usual shredded daikon, shiso, shoyu and wasabi.

Fourth course: seasonal soured pickles, which was really sunomono with thin strips of what our waitress called "calamari". A calamari by any other name is ika, of course (or to the non-Japanese speakers: squid). Our waitress explained that because we were so far from the sea, the local way of preparing squid was to slice it very thin and pack it in salt.

Fifth course: seasonal boiled vegetable: A yuzu-flavored thick, clear sauce over a melony-cucumbery-summer squashy like thing with mushrooms and a brined cherry blossom on top. The brined cherry blossom evoked strong memories of the taste of sakura mochi. Yummm!

Sixth course: Tempura: a couple of sweet, thin green peppers, some sweet potato chips (like potato chips), and some onion kakiage, PLUS red and pink puffed rice stuck to the thin strands of kombu and fried, to make it look like a cherry tree with pink and white blossoms. So sorry, no photos. If you saw some of our earlier photos that featured fish paste made to look like a cherry tree in bloom, this looked like that.

Seventh course: It's a good thing we skipped lunch. Our waitress cooked this course at our table, on individual grills. It was mixed veggies (definitely corn, another one of those thin, sweet green peppers, perhaps a few snow peas, maybe some thinly sliced cabbage) and thick slices of beef, cooked on top of a miso-smeared magnolia leaf. Where to start? The beef, our waitress explained, had been raised on apples and beer and massage. We should all be so lucky. Now I want to know, what kind of apples? What kind of beer? Swedish or deep tissue? It was superb! But perhaps even more interesting was the magnolia leaf and the miso. The sight of it brought up from the core of my brain memories of 30 years ago, the first time I was in Japan. I remembered the miso in the leaf and had even bought a package to bring home. It's a local delicacy, and I know we did not go to Tsumago (or did we?) 30 years ago. Anyway, this is no wimpy miso. This is an assertive miso, a miso that stands up and wants to be known! Delicious!

Eighth course: Local chicken osuimono soup: clear chicken soup with a very flavorful chicken meatball and a thin slice of matsutake, the first we've had on this entire trip, plus julienne of Japanese leek and some kind of herb artfully tied in a knot.

Ninth course: Still with me? And of course, this does not count the ever present rice, which we had with the miso beef. The ninth course was something called "gohei mochi." Or mochi on a stick. It's not really mochi, because it's made with regular, not sweet, rice. It's glazed with a mixture of shoyu and ground walnuts and ground toasted sesame. Very good.

Dessert: Matcha flavored chiffon cake, made fresh by the cook this morning, plus an intense but refreshing coffee jelly with cream, plus two quarters of a red apple, each carved to look like a bunny.

We're going to be here one more night. Hopefully we'll remember to take the camera to dinner tomorrow.

Posted by pokano 11.21.2012 02:47 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Home, Sweet Home

Jizo-An, Our Jizo-An

Machiya, sweet machiya: Our little home in Kyoto is , indeed, small (+/- 300 sq. ft.), but adequately equipped for a fairly complete life.
The kitchen: We can microwave things (albeit at a paltry 500 watts), toast in a toaster, make coffee in a auto-drip, boil water in T-Fal electric kettle, chop and slice on a 120 sq. inch cutting board, prep on a 2 sq. ft. counter, wash anything we'd like in a capacious stainless steel sink with built-in drain board, refrigerate in a 3+ cubic ft. refrigerator (that includes a mini-freezer compartment complete with a mini-ice cube tray that taunts us by making very petite cubes of water that never actually become ice), and an induction heater hot plate(!!!) with a frying pan and a 2+ qt. sauce pan. P1020300.jpgThere are also two of most everything one would need to serve two people, and four wine glasses. Our dining table/desk, however, has but two comfortable straight-backed chairs. The kitchen also sports a recycling center -- one section for combustibles (see previous reference to neighborhood dioxin dispersal systems). the other for true recyclables.

Our home has been provided with abundant cleaning supplies (for kitchen and elsewhere, including vacuum cleaner, duster, rags, towels, sponges, brushes, chemicals/solvents/sudsing cleaners, dish detergents, toilet bowl unmentionables, etc.

The living room, which is underneath the stairs to the upstairs bedroom, consists of a somewhat saggy upholstered loveseat and a credenza upon which sits a 32" television which, as it is related to the ice-cube tray, we've never figured out how to make deliver ice cubes or a t.v. signal.P1020299.jpg

The bathroom sink is in a cubby off the kitchen/dining area with a sink and mirror. P1020302.jpg The water closet has a toilet with heated seat, but no buttons, so not much fun. Jizo-An WC

Jizo-An WC

The bathing area consists of a shower and enormous cast iron teacup into which only smaller people or multiple teabags can be fitted.P1010778.jpg

Upstairs is the bedroom, with a tatami floor and a raised western-ish bed, one tansu dresser, and a large closet. P1000733.jpgP1000734.jpg Up and downstairs are both equipped with heating/air con systems. Off the bedroom, through a window accessible by a stool, is a very small, narrow balcony, at one end of which is a perfectly competent washer/dryer -- all in one machine.

The stairs to the bedroom are distinguishable from a step ladder by the width and breadth of the steps. P1020296.jpgThat said, we always hold onto the banister for dear life when ascending or descending, Pam tends to crab walk up and down, and I take the trek seriously.

Finally, our little machiya's access lane off a narrow roadway, is also the route to five other little homes. It is narrow -- 5 1/2 feet at the most, less the dimensions of any of the many potted plants, storage cabinets, bicycles, ubiquitous fire buckets, etc. P1000941.jpgOn one occasion we had a guest who parked her motor scooter in the lane, quickly creating quite the neighborhood kerfuffle until the situations was remedied.

Posted by pokano 06:16 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Arashiyama and the Good Samaritan

Plus Some Unfortunate News

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. In the last few days I developed what we think is tendonitis in both of my lower legs. Our landlord sent over a great acupuncturist (she makes house calls!), but this is the kind of condition that only rest can cure. So my walking will really be limited for the rest of our trip and we have had to curtail many of our best laid plans.

We were able to go out to Arashiyama, however, with the help of a Good Samaritan. What, you are thinking, is a Good Samaritan? The Good Samaritan Club is a group of Kyoto college and university students who volunteer as English speaking tour guides! All you have to do is sign up for one and pay his or her transportation/entrance fee/food costs.

Our first Good Samaritan (we are scheduled to have a second one on Monday) was Yuki, a freshman from Osaka who commutes 2 hours everyday to go to college in Kyoto. P1010637.jpg His ultimate goal is to become a firefighter. Despite his protests to the contrary, Yuki spoke quite good English and helped us take the train including a transfer out to Arashiyama. He also made us reservations at Shigetsu, the temple restaurant at Tenryu Ji.

Arashiyama is on the outskirts of Kyoto. Among other things, it is famous for Togetsu Kyo, an historic bridge often seen in samurai movies.P1010580.jpg Yuki explained that Togetsu refers to something like walking across the bridge in the moonlight.

The bridge crosses the Katsura River. It was a beautiful day, and the river was being used for fishing and boating, mainly by poling since the river was apparently really shallow.P1010587.jpg P1010565.jpgP1010574.jpgP1010598.jpgYuki said the fisherman was fishing for ayu. The fall colors were amazing.P1010570.jpg

Some of the boaters were school students. We watched from the shore as a motorboat pulled aside their boat to sell them lunches.P1010606.jpgP1010609.jpgP1010613.jpgP1010622.jpg

Arashiyama is also famous for its bamboo forest.P1010641.jpg Even though the forest was filled with tourists (we were there on a Friday, so there would certainly be even more people there the next day), it was still eerily beautiful.P1010646.jpg

Our lunch at Shigetsu was wonderful. Each party had its own tatami room inside the temple grounds.P1010673.jpg Lunch was vegetarian temple cuisine and was very yummy.P1010672.jpg

On our way out of the temple, we saw a large group of people dressed in traditional costumes that looked like they came straight out of the Tales of Genji.P1010740.jpgP1010741.jpgP1010742.jpgP1010743.jpgP1010744.jpgP1010747.jpgP1010749.jpgP1010750.jpgP1010753.jpg We never did find out what they were doing.

Posted by pokano 11.17.2012 15:27 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

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