Sunday, 25 January 2015

In pursuit of castles - Matsumoto

Japan is a country full of castles.  Not your average European style castle, not that there is anything wrong with European castles, but Japanese castles are different.  They have a certain dominant air about them, standing tall over all that surrounds them.  There is a reason for that.  These castles were built initially as defence posts and were built next to strategic locations.  They also became homes for the local Feudal Lords, so they needed to stand tall, impress and intimidate.  There were once an estimated 5,000 castles across Japan.  Today that number stands at about 100 as most many have been destroyed over the years due to fire or fighting.

I had been meaning to start going around to some of these castles as they are truly amazing structures to see and finally the opportunity came along and I chose Matsumoto castle as the first one that I would see. 

 Matsumoto city is located in Nagano Prefecture, about 2.5 - 3 hours by train from Tokyo.  Mountains of the Japanese Alps line both sides of the valley that Matsumoto city is located in.  The city dates back to the 8th century and is Nagano Prefecture's second largest city behind Nagano city.

Setting out from home, I made my way along the Chuo line from central Tokyo and got off at Tachikawa to change to the Azusa Limited Express that runs along the Chuo line.  I bought a Non-Reserved ticket from the ticket machine (there is an English button which is really helpful!) and jumped onto the train as it arrived.  I recommend going for the Reserved seat ticket (only 320 yen more) as there was a lot more space in the Reserved seat cars than the Non-Reserved cars.  Unfortunately I didn't have a window seat so I couldn't take any photos of the countryside as we flew past.  A couple of hours later I arrived in Matsumoto and was greeted with a blanket of white.





It had snowed for the 2 days before I arrived and the temperature was a good 6 or 7 degrees colder than I had left behind in Tokyo.

I walked off to find my hotel which was located less than 10 minutes walk from the station, and about halfway between the station and the castle.  I had booked a room at the Hotel Matsumoto Yorozuya which is one of the standard business hotels or budget hotels that you find all across Japan.  They are no frills hotels with great prices.  Good for a base from which to explore the area you are visiting.  If you enjoy spending time at your hotel when travelling, then this option is not for you.  When I checked in, the lady behind the desk spoke English quite well.



The double rooms are about 15 square metres and have everything you need




including a remote control for the toilet with English instructions!!



I was going to have to check that out later (!) as I had exploring to do.  Dropping off my bags I walked back about a block toward the station where I had passed an interesting little temple / shrine combination.






It looked really nice covered in snow, although I am sure the monk responsible for the gardening would not agree with me!

Now this is a sight I don't see in Tokyo!




Right next to the temple was a small shrine, resplendent in vibrant red.




I love the detail that these carvings always have!


I left the temple and shrine behind as I had read about a nice little shopping street nearby that I wanted to check out.  Using my extremely helpful map (in English!) that I got from the tourist information office inside the station (come through the ticket gate and you can't miss it.  If you come to a Starbucks, you've walked too far.) I walked off in the direction of the shopping street.  I should say "I carefully walked off" as it was icy and slippery underfoot in places.



About a 10 minute walk (5 under normal conditions!) along the river later




I came across this........



I suddenly had flashbacks to earlier in January when myself and my brother Matty travelled out to Lake Kawaguchi and saw some other strange animals at the bottom of Mount Kachi Kachi ropeway!  Looking up I found that I had arrived at the beginning of the shopping street.



The shopping street is called Nawate street and is lined on both sides by white shops, all of the same style so that the street keeps a nice pristine manicured look to it.  You can buy all kinds of things from the shops along the street such as flowers,



watches and antiques,




dog flower pots.......


food,



and Godzilla.



It was late afternoon and there were not many people around so it was a nice, relaxing walk along the street.













I came across a ceramics shop that had all different kids of ceramic cups, plates and bowls.  In Japan people quite often have ceramic beer cups which they keep in their refrigerators and drink beer from.  The cold ceramic cups keep beer colder for longer.  Now I am a sucker for a nice ceramic beer cup (I often buy one when I travel out of Tokyo to another city) and I couldn't help myself and walked out of the shop with 2 of them!




The friendly shop owner (who spoke English well) also gave me a piece of paper which explained the frog statues that I had been seeing along the street.



Now I understood!

Also along the street is Yohashira Shrine which was built about 200 years ago.  A nice shrine with a large resident population of pigeons.





Yes, I did cleanse my hands from the fountain and yes, the water was extremely cold!

After having reached the end of the street I started walking back and saw an interesting alleyway that demanded my attention



so I set off exploring this, probably less well known section, area of the city.

All across Matsumoto (and countless other cities in Japan that receive a lot of snow and rain) there are these drains that channel melted snow and rain into the river system.  There is definitely no shortage of water in Japan!



Those wet patches on the ground were not wet patches, but icy patches which nearly caught me out!



Some interesting buildings in this area.  A German restaurant,



some really nice, old style buildings




and this vine crawling it's way up the side of a building, still a couple of years off completely dominating the wall.



Walking out of the alleyways I suddenly found myself looking at the reason I had come to Matsumoto.  It's beauty was breathtaking and I just stood there for a couple of minutes admiring it's magnificence and grandeur!



I didn't take another step closer though as Matsumoto castle was for tomorrow.  Reluctantly I turned around and walked back to the hotel.

Thanks for reading this first part of my trip to Matsumoto.  There will probably be three parts, stay tuned for the next couple (over the next week or so).

See you next time.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Tokyo's answer to Okonomiyaki - Monjayaki!

Most regular readers will be familiar with my love of Okonomiyaki (the Hiroshima variety especially).  Tokyo, not to be outdone has it's own version that is called Monjayaki.

Monjayaki (or monja as it is commonly known) started life as a kids snack in the early 19th century, but it looked a lot different to how it looks today.  In the beginning it resembled a rolled up crepe with some simple toppings.  In the 20th century, the current day monjayaki was developed around the Tsukishima area of Tokyo.  There is a street near Tsukishima station nicknamed Monja Dori or Monja Street (it's real name is Nishinaka Dori) that is lined with over 70 monjayaki restaurants.  There is even a  monjayaki souvenir and tourist office located at one end of the street.



So, how does monjayaki differ from okonomiyaki?  Mostly in appearance.  A lot of the ingredients are the same, but okonomiyaki is more like a pancake whereas monjayaki looks like.........well, maybe the nicest way to put it is it looks like a sloppy pancake.  Others are not so kind when describing what it looks like..........

I have a friend, Masa (who introduced me to sumo food, chanko nabe last year) who lives at Kachidoki, right next to Tsukishima, and I had been meaning to catch up with him for monjayaki for quite a while.  Last weekend we finally organised to do it, so myself and two other friends from work caught the train to Tsukishima to meet Masa.



We set off down Monja Dori to the restaurant Masa had chosen (owned by the father of a friend of Masa's son).



Monjayaki restaurants, like most Osaka style okonomiyaki restaurants, have a hotplate in the middle of your table to cook your food.  We let the experts (the restaurant staff) cook ours for us.  The ingredients come to your table piled up in a bowl.



At first the meat is put onto the hotplate and cooked.



Next, the rest of the dry ingredients are added.



They are tossed around on the hotplate until partially cooked.



After that, a hole is created in the middle of it all,



into which the wet ingredients are poured.



This is then mixed around until the liquid starts to thicken.




At this point, it is then all mixed together.




The final product looks like this.......



You then scrape up a small bit of the monjayaki with small spatulas and enjoy!  As the monjayaki stays on the hotplate, it thickens even more and the last part is the part that has stuck to the hotplate.  It is nice and crispy and crunchy!




Monjayaki



goes very well with this!



This night we also had some regular Osaka style okonomiyaki.



Tokyo is the gourmet capital of the world with 267 Michelin star restaurants (more than any other country), but monjayaki proves that gourmet doesn't have to look gourmet.  While there may be no monjayaki restaurants with Michelin stars and it might not look the most appetising, it is truly unpretentious and delicious!  I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants a unique and different dining experience!

Thanks again for reading, I hope you enjoyed reading about monjayaki, and I hope you do try it when you have the chance!  See you next time.