Wednesday, 20 September 2017

One of Japan's top 100 castles - Hachioji castle (八王子城)

At the end of the last post I left a message inviting people to leave me a message with a letter of the English alphabet and a number.  What I would then do would be to find a train line in the Greater Tokyo area beginning with the letter provided and then find a station along the line that matched the number (train stations here recently have been given a designated number to assist foreign tourists make their way around.  I would then try to find something in the area to write about.  The first person to leave me a message was Ms B.  She left me B 22.  I searched long and hard around the Tokyo area for a train line beginning with the letter B, but no luck.  Sorry Ms B but I had to move on to the next letter in the alphabet, C.  Immediately I thought of the Chuo Line.  Now station number 22 happens to be Hachioji.  Next problem, what is there in Hachioji?  I started searching and found that Mount Takao is located in Hachioji city but I have already written about that (post can be found here).  A little more searching and I stumbled across Hachioji castle.  "What is this?" I mused, having not heard of Hachioji castle before.  I little more searching and I realised that this was it.  I was going to visit Hachioji castle!  I was also to find out that not many Japanese people know of Hachioji castle, even people who have lived in Hachioji city for years.  What a hidden gem!

Hachioji castle has a very short history, and a very violent finale.  Construction of the castle started in the 1570's by Ujiteru Hojo of the powerful Hojo clan.  The Hojo clan controlled most of the Kanto area which is comprised of Tokyo, Kanagawa to the south, Chiba to the east and Saitama and Gunma to the north.  Possessing such a large tract of land gave them a huge amount of power.  Their main castle was located at nearby Odawara but Ujiteru built Hachioji as a defensive fortress.  Located at the top of a mountain, it was thought that it would be much easier to fend off enemy forces.

Skip ahead to 1590 and another guy by the name of Hideyoshi Toyotomi was well on his way to unifying all of Japan under a central rule.  One of the final pieces of regional power left to fall was the Kanto area.  He marched 150,000 men to Odawara, surrounded the castle and started a waiting game.  He didn't attack the castle, just lay siege to it.  What he did do was to send a force of men around the Kanto area taking down each of the smaller Hojo family castles, slowly whittling away their power.  Our friend, Ujiteru Hojo heard this news and quickly made his way back to Odawara castle leaving a force of 1,300 men protecting Hachioji castle.  Hideyoshi Toyotomi sent two of his military commanders, Toshiie Maeda and Kagekatsu Uesugi, along with a force of 50,000 soldiers to take down Hachioji castle.  It fell in less than a day. This victory was influential in finishing the resistance of the Hojo family at Odawara caslte and they surrendered the next month.  A couple of weeks ago I paid a visit to Hachioji castle.

The nearest station to the castle is Takao station and while technically not station 22 (it is 24) it is within Hachioji city.  I met up with friends Tetsuya and Jarrett at Takao station and headed out the North exit to where the bus stop is.  We jumped on the bus (which is clearly marked in English "For Hachioji castle" and within 15 minutes we had arrived at the entry point to the castle.

We started in toward the castle and the forest was thick around us.

This is in the area where the front gate of the castle used to be.

Walking through here I could imagine the Hojo soldiers viewing the sight of the massive Toyotomi army marching toward the castle gates.  I could imagine them retreating from the front gates back into the main castle area.

The path kept winding up the hill toward the castle proper

eventually arriving at the last obstacle before reaching the castle, Hikihashi.

It was one final obstacle as the bridge was built so that it was easily collapsible, thus forcing attacking enemies to find an alternative way across the river to get to the castle, effectively buying the inhabitants a little extra time.  In this case, it was futile as Toyotomi's men soon found a way in, as did we.  We had it a little easier than those 427 years ago as those who had reconstructed the bridge in recent times kindly made it sturdier and non-collapsible.

Reaching the other side, we made our way up the stone stairs just as Toyotomi's men had 427 years ago.

and into the grounds of the main castle building.  All that remains now are a few foundation stones and the foundation of the main castle residence where Ujiteru Hojo lived.

The silence was mystical and mesmerising, while at the same time, sombre and haunting.  Just a handful of people wandering around wordlessly taking in the atmosphere of this place, this place which had been, historically, a crucial part of one of the most significant episodes in Japan's history, the re-unification of Japan under a centralised rule.

Turning around, I noticed a path leading back into the forest behind the castle so I wandered in to have a look.

I kept following it deeper into the tangle of trees and undergrowth

further deeper until the path started fading away

and I began to feel as though I might just about to have my own Blair Witch moment so I turned around and made my way back along the path and back into the clearing.  Heading off to the right I made my way down a path that led me away from the main area of the castle ruins.

In front of me was a worn path

that led to a waterfall.

It was here on that fateful day, in 1590, that thousands of soldiers and regular townsfolk fled to get away from the oncoming forces.  It was here that they took their own lives rather than be captured or killed by the enemy.  Exactly how many people died here that day is unknown, lost in time.  Some reports say 50,000 people died here (although that number may have been inflated by the sands of time).  Legend says that the river water ran red for 3 days after.

A memorial to the fallen, perhaps.

I made my way back down to the entrance of the castle area, again, surrounded by silence, a silence that cloaked what had happened all those years ago.

I think I will end this one here.  There is more to the castle are than I saw, I just had to leave when I did to get back to the bus stop to catch the bus back to the train station.  As it turned out, we had missed the last bus and had to walk back to Takao station!

Thanks again for reading and I hope you enjoyed that Ms B.  That one was for you.  Please leave a comment below and tell me what you thought of this post about Hachioji castle.  Also, feel free to sign up for email updates when I put up a new post.  See you next time.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Dining at an icon - oyakodon at Tamahide

It's not often that you hear of a restaurant that has been open for 257 years (at the time of writing, having opened in 1760).  It's even less often that you get a chance to eat at such a restaurant.  My chance came recently.

Tamahide is a well renowned, family owned (currently in its 8th generation) restaurant in Ningyocho, Tokyo.  Having said that, one fine point about Tamahide is that, despite its fame, the prices have been kept very reasonable and it is thus able to be enjoyed by everyone.  One mention of the name and you get knowing nods of the head and beaming smiles from Japanese people.  It is well known for its longevity, but more well known as the restaurant that invented the dish oyakodon.  The name oyakodon literally translates into "parent and child rice bowl".  When you hear what it is made of, it makes perfect sense.  Oyakodon is pieces of chicken and egg (and sometimes onion) that have been simmered in a blend of soy sauce, mirin and other things, depending on the chef.  The resulting sauce is a fine balance between salty and sweet that complements the dish nicely.

The lucky day arrived and I jumped on the train to Ningyocho where I met good friend Tetsuya (who used to be a chef and thus was also looking forward to the experience).  Tamahide is located only a couple of minutes walk from A2 exit of Ningyocho station so it didn't take long before we arrived and the regal building that has housed Tamahide since 1760.

At a place with the reputation of Tamahide, it is quite usual to find long lines of people waiting to enter the restaurant but this day, the line wasn't too bad..

However this wasn't to be a problem for us as we had arranged reservations.  Outside the restaurant there are a couple of signs that point out the story and the history of Tamahide.

We went inside the restaurant and were quickly escorted by the staff up to the second floor.  The decor was beautiful traditional Japan!

Pretty soon after our host, the owner / manager came out to say Hi.  We didn't need to order as she had already organised our course.  Soon after the food began arriving.  First up was some ground / minced chicken that tasted like it had been cooked in soy sauce until the soy sauce had reduced away and soaked into the chicken meat.

Beautifully salty.  Next was some pickles followed soon after by the beer.  What a perfect combination!

As soon as we had finished that, the pièce de résistance, the main dish, came out....

The oyakodon was served with a collagen soup which went down well.  I could feel my skin becoming more tight and beautiful with every sip!

Finally, after every last morsel was gone, they brought out desert.

Nice and light at the end of a nice meal, the perfect way to finish it.

So, how was it?  It was damn good!  The two things that stuck out the most to me were the light fluffiness of the eggs and the tastiness of the chicken.  The taste of the chicken seemed to intensify with every chew.  And the ting about the restaurant that stood out the most was the fact that despite their reputation and fame, the humbleness and modesty and omotenashi (Japanese customer service and hospitality) remains strong at Tamahide.  I was very impressed and well recommended.

So that's it for another post.  Please leave me a comment below, I reply to all comments left.  Also feel free to sing up with your email on the right hand side of the page to get updates when I post.

Finally, I am going to start trying a new project.  I want you to leave me a message below and I want you to leave a number and a letter of the English alphabet in your message.  What I will then do will be to find a correlating train line around Tokyo and a matching (as near as possible) train station on that line and do a random blog post about the area.  That should be a lot of fun, and a mystery adventure each time!  Please get involved and get me busy!!

See you next time!

Cost of the food course at Tamahide: 3,300 yen.  

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Tour of a Japanese sake (日本酒) brewery - Ishikawa sake brewery (石川酒造)

My sister Kylie and her partner Paul along with 2 of their friends recently came over to Japan for a week and before coming I asked them what they would like to do while here.  One of their requests was to have a tour of a sake brewery.  Now, sake requires clear, clean water which usually comes from areas sparsely populated, ie, mountain areas so my initial reaction was "a sake brewery, in Tokyo, with English??  Not wanting to shoot down the idea so quickly, I did a search for "sake brewery near Tokyo" and to my pleasant surprise the first hit was an article that outlined 3 sake breweries in and around Tokyo that offered tours and tastings in English!  I selected the one that was nearest to central Tokyo (advertised as 45 minutes from Shinjuku by Chuo line), Ishikawa sake brewery (English website here).  I sent an email to them and received a prompt reply and after a couple of days, had settled on a date and booked a tour.

Arriving at Haijima station we jumped into a couple of taxis (a 730 yen trip) and made our way over to the brewery.  As we arrived, my heart did a little skip of joy as the look of the buildings was quite old and the architecture quite traditional.

Going inside we met Kaiko who was to be our tour guide.  The tour started with the sake brewing warehouse.

Kaiko explained that the building was built in 1880 and had survived that Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and , unlike a lot of wood buildings in Japan, had never burned down, being built with fire resistant adobe materials.

Hanging above the door was a sight that I had seen many times here in Japan but did not truly understand what it signified.

Thanks to Kaiko, I now do know what it is!  It is called a sugidama or sakabayashi.It starts off green in colour and is hung above the door to let customers know that a new batch of sake is under production.  When it turns brown, this signals that the sake has aged sufficiently and is ready for drinking.

We next moved inside the building and the first thing I noticed was how cool it was inside!  I mentioned this to Kaiko and she explained that the brewing process, similar to beer, needs a controlled temperature to function efficiently.

We left the brewery warehouse and walked back out past the offices

past this (which, I think is talking about the river that flows through the area, the Tama River)

and stopped here 

where Kaiko explained that they get the water used in the brewing process from 150 metres underground!  She said that we were welcome to fill up pet bottles with the water.

Next up were a couple of trees that we were told were about 400 years old!

Next up was a massive old cauldron that used to be used for steaming the rice near the beginning of the brewing process.

Following that was another huge old cauldron that Kaiko told us was used by the brewery to brew beer in the late 19th century.

As we headed over to where they brew their beer,

Kaiko told us that the brewery first started brewing their beer in 1887, making them one of the pioneers if the young beer industry in Japan.  Unfortunately, 2 years later the brewery sold off their brewing equipment.  Fast forward 111 years and the decision was made to revive their beer brewing efforts and they now produce a variety of craft beer.

That beautiful little red machine in front of the building

Is an early 1970's Subaru that still runs!  You might be able to make out, on the front passenger side, the early style air conditioning that was used at the time!

The final stop on the tour was at an old well where the brewery used to draw their water from.

Listening carefully, you could still hear the water dripping away 20 metres underground.

This was also in an area that had a number of tables and chairs and Kaiko informed us that there are often events held here where the CEO, who plays the harmonica, often performs for guests.

And at that point, the official part of the tour finished.  We then went back to nearby the cellar shop

where we did some tasting and were able to buy some products.

The brewery also has 2 restaurants on site, an Italian restaurant and a Japanese restaurant so we decided to enjoy lunch in the Japanese restaurant which was beautiful inside and out.

Here are some of the dishes that we ordered.  Some Japanese pickles,

some fried tofu,

some delicious minced chicken patties that had crunchy chunks of lotus root in them and were then wrapped in a seaweed sheet, dipped into tempura batter and fried,

and my main dish which was a nice, bowl of soba noodles in soup with a couple of pieces of fried tofu on top.

What a delicious way to finish of a very informative and interesting tour.  For me, the buildings on the brewery grounds were a highlight.  Some of them are officially listed as Tangible Cultural Properties of Japan, which basically means that they are Japanese Heritage buildings

So, if you live in Japan and have a free day coming up, or if you are visiting Japan and would like a unique experience, get in touch with the Ishikawa brewery and have yourself a tour!

That's it for this post.  Thanks, as always for reading.  Please leave a comment below and sign up to receive email notifications when I update.  Thanks again and see you next time.