Saturday, 1 April 2017

A nostalgic hot spring hideaway - Shima Onsen (四万温泉) Part 1

Last month I was on the train going to work and I suddenly thought "I want to go on a hot spring trip!" so I whipped out my mobile phone and did a quick search for onsen (hot spring) near Tokyo.  A few places that are fairly well known popped up and then I noticed one that I hadn't heard of before, Shima Onsen (四万温泉).  I was curious so I did a quick image search and found pictures of what appeared to be a small country village with a nice old town look and vibe to it.  Throughout the rest of the day, when I wasn't busy, I did a little more research and by that night I had decided that this was where I wanted to go so I jumped onto the Rakuten travel website and booked a couple of nights in a traditional Japanese ryokan (Inn).

Shima Onsen is a tiny little mountain village tucked away in the mountains in Gunma, about 170kms northeast of Tokyo.  The onsen was discovered about 1,000 years ago and the village was established in the 16th century and is widely regarded as the oldest onsen town in Japan.  It has been visited over the years by regular people seeking to soak in the onsen waters that claim to treat over 40,000 illnesses and was also visited by famous animation director and producer Hayao Miyazaki (who was responsible for many of Studio Ghibli's world famous animation movies such as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and The wind rises) prior to the making of Spirited Away.  It is said that that there is a red bridge in the town that was the inspiration for the red bridge that lead to the sento (bathhouse) in Spirited Away.

The day of departure came and I set off for my local train station.  Now there is a particular website that I use to plan which trains to use and it told me to catch the Shonan Shinjuku line from Shinjuku station to Takasaki station (about a 115 minute ride).  Seeing that it was a reasonably long ride and I had a couple of bags with me I bought a green car seat ticket (780 yen extra) for a bit of extra space. 

 To buy a green car ticket you need an electronic ticket called a PASMO or Suica which you can purchase at any train station ticket machine.  I purchased my green car ticket from the green car ticket machine on the train platform and then the train arrived and I jumped into the pretty empty green car and started my adventure (yes, the word adventure is used here for a reason....). You need to scan your PASMO or Suica on the scanner that is above your seat and a light overhead switches from red to green.  This shows the train attendant that you have bought a green car ticket.  A few minutes later the train attendant came through the car with a selection of snacks and drinks available to buy (she also checks each passenger's seat to make sure the green light is on) and I bought a drink and settled in for the ride.



A little over half an hour later the train pulled into Omiya station.  I was pretty relaxed at this point and looked out at all of the poor people on the platform rugged up against the cold winter wind outside.  The train left the station and a few minutes later the train attendant came back through the train and stopped at my seat and pointed above my head.  I looked up and my light had changed from green back to red.  She asked me something in Japanese which I didn't understand so she got her English handbook and asked "Where is your destination?" to which I replied "Takasaki."  She suddenly had this worried look on her face and said "This is now the Utsunomiya line.  You needed to change at Omiya to the Takasaki line!".  Now my train info hadn't told me that and if I hadn't bought the green car ticket then I would have finished up in Utsunomiya (in a completely different part of the country to Takasaki) eating gyoza dumplings instead of enjoying an onsen!

I jumped off at the next station and went back to Omiya where I switched across to the Takasaki line and continued on to Takasaki station.  At Takasaki station I switched, again, over to the Agatsuma line where I ended up in Nakanojo.  Nakanojo is the nearest train station to Shima Onsen and from Nakanojo it's another 45 minutes by bus.  All up it took about 4 1/2 hours (not including the delay due to the train mix up) from my station in Tokyo.

I jumped off the bus and made the short walk to the ryokan I had booked, Ayameya Ryokan (website here in Japanese)



and walked inside.  I was met by one of the owners who was very, very friendly (not a lot of English though) who then showed me to my room.



Very nice indeed!

After setting my stuff down and checking out the room (local tv only, no cable and shared toilet outside of the room, definitely a more traditional place!) I went outside to have a look around the town.  One of my friends, Ikuho chose that perfect moment to send me a message and tell me that I had to go to a particular little shop and try something called yaki manju.  It is one of the local delicacies.  Luckily enough the shop was just around the corner from my hotel so that made the decision easy.  Walking up to the shop



I waited until the lovely old (about 80) lady looked up at me and ordered one yaki manju.  Only a few minutes later it was ready.



I wandered around for a little having a look at my immediate surroundings.  What I found was not too dissimilar to Gujo Hachiman, a small town in Gifu that I visited last October.  Every Japanese person who has seen these photos has mentioned that it brings feelings of nostalgia for them, as though they are looking at Japan 50 or 60 years ago.




Running through the middle of the city was a river with banks lined with snow.



It was not snowing at this point, but the weather forecast was predicting snow over the next couple of days, so I was hoping not to be disappointed.  I wandered back to the ryokan and decided to go and check out the onsen.

Now I should pause here and let you know that most onsen and sento (public bath) will prohibit people using their facilities if they have tattoos.  It is for good reason.  Tattoos in Japan are closely associated with the Yakuza so in order to prohibit the mafia from using their facilities, they make it a blanket ban for everyone.  I have a tattoo which is a big reason why I don't often go to onsens.  A lot of my Japanese friends, however, told me that I can cover it with bandage tape so that it is hidden and then it is not a problem, so this is what I decided to do for this trip.  Covering up said tattoo, I went down to the onsen area.  Now this ryokan had both an indoor



and an outdoor onsen.



Now, I will also mention here that there is pretty strict etiquette regarding using both onsen and sento.  Here is a link to a guide on how to enjoy sento and onsen from the good people at Japan-guide.com.  Theirs is quite a comprehensive website that I often use.

After enjoying a nice relaxing soak I decided to head out to find some dinner.  The time was about 7:30 when I left the ryokan and I was surprised to find only 2 restaurants in the area open.  This is a heads up to be careful about what time you go out for dinner or to get some drinks.  Shima Onsen is essentially a relaxation place, not an entertainment town.  There are no bars and the town shuts down quite early as most visitors are in their hotels enjoying hot springs.  There are a couple of liquor stores where you can buy supplies to enjoy back in your room, but these are also closed by early evening, so make sure you visit them early!

I flipped a coin and opened the door of the winning restaurant 



and walked in to find..........nothing!  There were no customers, and no staff!  Glancing around the room I noticed a button on the wall that looked like a buzzer so I walked over and pushed it.  Hearing a faint buzz come from somewhere behind closed doors I hoped that someone had heard.  About 2 minutes later an older gentleman (in his 80's) wandered through the door, took a double take then recovered and asked me to sit down wherever I liked (not a lot of foreign visitors to Shima Onsen I guess, but this was what I had wanted when I selected Shima Onsen as my destination!).

I looked up at the menu board to make my choice.



While I couldn't understand everything on the menu, I could understand enough to order some food.

After placing my order, the owner wandered off and prepared my meal.  He had kindly turned on the television for me and I was treated to a Japanese wildlife documentary.  Pretty soon my food came out.





I started devouring it (it had been quite an adventurous day and I had worked up quite an appetite) and the old man proceeded to sit down a few metres away and started watching TV.  After a few minutes he started chatting away with me in Japanese.  Now I could only understand about 30% of what he was saying but I was acknowledging everything he said so he figured that I could understand so he kept on going!  We had a fabulous conversation (with very little input from me) and before I knew it the bowl was empty.  I paid the lovely gentleman who thanked me for coming and told me to come back anytime.  With a contented belly and a smile on my face I headed back to the ryokan for another soak in the onsen.

I think I will finish this update here.  There should be another one or two posts about Shima Onsen to come so please look out for them.

Thanks, as always for reading, leave me a comment below to say Hi, and I will see you soon for part 2.  Bye.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Perfect tempura at the Hilton Hotel Odaiba

One of my students, Natsumi worked at one of the restaurants in the Hilton Hotel Odaiba and I had been meaning to go there one of these days to eat at her restaurant.  Well she recently told me that she was changing jobs soon so the decision was made to go and have lunch at Sakura restaurant at the Hilton Odaiba.  I asked Tetsuya if he was willing, being a former chef, he is always willing when there is food involved.

I met Tetsuya at the hotel and we made our way to the restaurant and were lead to our seats.  Now the Sakura restaurant has 4 different areas.  The main restaurant, the teppanyaki counter, the sushi counter and the tempura counter.  Natsumi had recommended the tempura counter as it was the one with the best view.  She certainly wasn't wrong!




Soon after being seated our tools were placed in front of us!



Soon after came a small appetizer.  



Tetsuya asked what it was and the answer came back, "Shirako" with no other explanation.  I had heard this word before and I was wracking my brain trying to remember what it was.  "Don't ask," Tetsuya said, "just eat".  Suddenly I remembered that my food and wine writer friend, Eriko (my gourmet tour with Eriko can be found here) had recommended that I try this food.  Now if only I could remember what it was.  Suddenly I remembered.........fish sperm.......  Tetsuya and the restaurant staff looked with bemusement at my horrified realisation and continued watching intently as I picked up half of it and slowly put it into my mouth.  "How was it" I hear you asking.  Well, it kind of tasted like fishy cheese.  Just that sample proved to be enough for me though...

Next, the chef brought out a sample of what he would be cooking up for us.  I nice selection of seafood and vegetables.



Now I am not a big lover of shrimp / prawns so he had included some extra fish for me.  As he began cooking, Tetsuya asked him how long he had been working in this restaurant.  "22 years, since the hotel opened".  Wow, our food was certainly being cooked by one impressive chef!

First up, Tetsuya was served some little tempura shrimp legs.




while on my plate, whiting (シロギス).



Now whiting are a hugely popular fish variety in Australia and they have a very delicate, light taste.  This took me back to my childhood when I used to catch whiting with my Uncle and Grandfather!

Next up was some canola flower.




These had a nice fresh, herbaceous, light oily taste to them.  This was my first time to eat these and they were good.

After that came some lotus root (レンコン).




Lotus root is a vegetable that I love, the starchy crunchiness was wonderful so this disappeared pretty quickly!

At about this point I realised that the chef was preparing each ingredient separately and timing the serving with perfection, a short wait after the previous one, just like a good sushi chef does. He would start preparing each one as we were enjoying the previous one.


Next up was a scallop (
ホタテ貝).




I am not a big eater of scallops so I am not really qualified to comment on the taste of this one.

This was soon followed by a slice of onion (玉ねぎ).




Now, I had never had tempura onion before now, so this seemed to be a strange choice, but it really worked. The onion had been cooked to perfection, retaining enough juiciness and crunchiness that, combined with the crisp tempura coating, made this one of the highlights!

And here's another quick shot of the onion (with that wonderful view....).





Next the chef serve up some lightly battered squid (いか). As with the shrimp and scallops, I don't eat a lot of shrimp but the crunchy texture of the batter contrasted nicely with the chewy texture of the squid.



Next was a little piece of shiitake mushroom.




This was followed by some tempura eggplant (ナス).



This was so soft and tender, the chef had cooked this one to perfection. I noticed at this stage that he was watching us eating and starting to prepare the next item accordingly. Each required different cooking times and he was timing everything to perfection.

Next up was a Japanese favourite, loved by so many people here, sweet potato (薩摩芋).  The chef told us not to season this with anything, just to eat it straight.  While not a big fan of sweet potato, I would have liked to dip this one in a sauce, but I'm sure fans of sweet potato would love it!




After that came some saltwater eel (穴子).  Freshwater eel (鰻) is more common in Japan, but this one was a good match for tempura.  Soft and tender and with a delicate flavour.




With that item, we had reached the end of our course but suddenly Natsumi came out and told us that the chef wanted to prepare us an extra dish for free!  We settled on a rice dish with chopped up tempura pieces mixed in.



The condiments were seaweed, eucaly (I am guessing this comes from the Australian eucalyptus tree, please correct me if I am wrong) and sesame seeds.  These were promptly thrown in top of the rice bowl.




After polishing this one off, we were served with desert, mochi balls with sweet red beans (sorry, couldn't find a Japanese translation).



And just like that, it was all over.  It had been an amazing dining experience.  The chef was an utter professional and delivered a complete dining experience.  My thanks goes to Natsumi and her chef at the tempura counter at the Hilton Hotel Odaiba.  We had a great time!



Well, that's it for another post.  I highly recommend going to the Hilton Odaiba, Sakura restaurant for a high class dining experience.  I thoroughly enjoyed it!  Thanks for reading.  Please leave a message below and sign up for email updates on the right side of the screen.  Also, please share the post if you know anyone who would like to read.

Take care, and see you next time.


Cost: tempura course - 5,000 yen.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Step Back in Time - Nihon Minkaen Folk House museum

First of all, sorry for the long break.  I took a couple of months off of visiting places for the blog.  Work got a little crazy busy and also my sister and her partner came to visit around Christmas time so I spent some nice times showing them around My Japan.  Also, during that period, the domain name lapsed and I hadn't realised it.  Luckily no-one else snapped it up and I was able to get back on line!!

Having said that, I am back and already have things to write about!!  Hang on for another year of exploring Tokyo and Japan and finding more hidden gems.

People who regularly read my blog know that I love Japanese traditional architecture and I am always on the lookout for places to visit to enjoy it.  I have visited places near and far to enjoy it including Gujo Hachiman, Hida Takayama, Shirakawago, Magome and Tsumago, Narai, Shibamata and Kawagoe to name but a few.  Almost one year ago I visited an outdoor museum, the Tokyo Edo Open Air Museum (blog posts for which you can find here and here) and at the time, one of my old workmates, Jason, recommended another, similar place to go and visit, Nihon Minkaen.  I had previously tried to head there on a Monday a couple of months ago only to find it closed (Apparently a lot of museums are not open on Mondays in Japan).  I recently had another free day (which was not a Monday!) and decided to head there again for a look.

Nihon Minkaen opened in 1965 in Kawasaki, only 30 minutes from Shinjuku on the Odakyu line.  It, as with the Tokyo Edo Open Air Museum, opened to preserve the history and the beauty that traditional Japanese architecture is renowned for.  As opposed to the Tokyo Edo Open Air Museum which showcases a broad range of Japanese architectural styles over the years, Nihon Minkaen displays old Folk houses from around Japan.  It displays some of the beautiful Gasshou Zukuri style houses that are typical of eastern Japan as well as other farm houses and merchant houses (the number of exhibits currently sits at 25).

I arrived at Mukogaoka-yuen station 


and set off on the short 20 minute walk from the station to nearby Ikuta Ryokuchi Park where the museum is located.  Stepping straight inside, I grabbed a ticket and went through to the indoor area which has some displays showing and talking about various regional architectural styles.




As you can see from the last photo, there is plenty of information in English both at the displays and also at the front counter where you get your ticket.

Moving through this area I stepped outside to the main section and immediately felt a surge of excitement as I could see the first of the buildings just ahead.  There is a path to follow that winds its way through all of the exhibitions.  Being that it is located in a park, you are surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature which only adds to the experience!

First up was a large early 19th century house that had originally been located in Fukushima prefecture which is located about 240km north of Tokyo.


Very nice!

The walk through the area was really nice and while I won't show you all of the buildings, I will show you a selection of them.  While I was there, there was some reconstruction of the pathway that you follow and also some reconstruction of one of the exhibits so some of the nostalgia is interrupted by construction equipment.

This next one is a lovely Gasshou style farmhouse built in the early 18th century which was originally located in Toyama prefecture on the Sea of Japan east coast of Japan.


This style of architecture is distinctively identified by its steep sloping thatched roof.  This area of Japan is renowned for its heavy winter snowfall (some of the heaviest in the world) and the steep roof helps the snow slide off.

This next farm house was built in the late 18th century and it's original location was Yamagata prefecture, almost 300km north of Tokyo


The epitome of rustic, don't you think?

Next up, a village headman's house that was built in the late 17th century.  This one did not have to be relocated very far at all as it was originally located in Kawasaki city, where the museum is also located.


This next one was also originally located in Kawasaki and is a small shrine that was built in 1863.


Next up, another village headman's house built in the late 17th century from nearby Kanagawa prefecture.


I just love the old wood used in all of these buildings.  Of course you would have been in a bit of trouble had a fire broken out, but the the use of something as natural as wood gives all of the buildings a wonderful earthy look!

This next grand building was originally located in Shirakawago, a place famous for the Gasshou Zukuri style of building.  It was originally a farmhouse before being moved in 1958 to near Kawasaki station where it was used as a traditional Japanese restaurant.  It was subsequently move to the museum in 1970 and is currently used as a soba restaurant that feeds the museum visitors.  Talk about interactive displays!


I will mention here that you are able to enter all of the houses to see what the interiors look like.  While you may not be able to walk through the entirety of the house, you can see what some of the rooms in each look like.






A real glimpse into the past.  Life was very different!

Wandering around such a beautiful and historic place was a damn good way to spend an afternoon.  It was nice and quiet and peaceful.  The surrounding park was shielding the sounds of the city outside and it felt like a calm, serene hideaway hidden in the middle of metropolis.






Before too long, it was time to step out of the cocoon and back into reality.  Thoroughly satisfied I made my way back to the station amongst the cacophony of city noise.  Yes, I had enjoyed those last couple of hours......

I recommend putting aside a good couple of hours to leisurely stroll around the museum and to fully enjoy it.  Obviously, different seasons will present different looks, vibrant green in summer and beautiful reds and yellows in autumn, but it is definitely worth a look in any season.

Admission cost: Adults - 500 yen
                          Students - 300 yen
                          Junior High School students and younger - free

Hours: March - October - 9:30am - 5pm
            November - February  - 9:30am - 4:30pm
Official website:  http://english.nihonminkaen.jp/

Thanks for reading!  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did visiting it and I hope you also get the chance to visit at some stage int he future.

Please leave me a message below and sign up for email updates when I upload a new post, or bookmark the page and I hope to see you back here soon!  Until next time, bye!