Friday, September 30, 2011

JR is Not Running?!

After some spirited drinking the night before with Aisawa-san, president of Take No Tsuyu Brewery in Tsuruoka (Yamagata prefecture), we set out the next morning for Akita.  We were scheduled to visit Kodama Brewery outside of Akita city in the afternoon.  At least that was our plan.  Although everything was covered with snow, it was not snowing in the morning when we left our hotel and despite dragging a bit from our hangover, we arrived at Tsuruoka station before 9am.  

"Due to snow, the train service from Tsuruoka to Akita is suspended."

"Wait?  What do you mean?  We need to get to Akita city now!" Hiroko begged.  A station master said, "I am sorry, but the train service is suspended."  Hiroko asked what she should do, and the station master told us not to go to Akita.  

But, we needed to get to Akita.  We had an appointment with Kodama-san, and we were determined to keep it.  Trying not to be panicked, rude New Yorkers, we just sat and listened to what other people would do.  

Then, as if our prayers had been heard, the JR announced that they would have a shuttle bus going from Tsuruoka to Sakata city, the next town.  Without knowing what would happen when we got to Sakata, we boarded the bus around 9:30am.  

Going slowly and stopping at every local station, we arrived Sakata station around 11:30am.  Our hopes were again dashed when we learned that there was no train service from there to Akita.  By that time, we gave up on visiting Kodama Brewery. 

"How do I get to Akita city?," Hiroko asked.  A young station man said, "you can't go to Akita."  Hiroko asked again, "I know the train is not running.  My question is HOW do I get to Akita."  He said, "you can't go.  Don't go to Akita."  

That was not the answer that we were looking for.  Why was it that, for them, a "how" question became "yes or no" question?  We didn't want to go back to Tsuruoka again if possible, and we didn't just want to wait at the station for a shuttle bus that might or might not run.  Since circumstances had landed us in Sakata city where we had  not planned to be, it was a perfect opportunity to explore a new city.  

Hiroko said to the station attendant, "Can you keep our luggage?" Ours are too big to fit in a coin locker."  , "What are you going to do?  Where are you going?" he replied.  Hiroko answered that we were hungry and would love to tour the city since we had nothing else to do.  With a puzzled look the attendant asked, "Are you coming back?"  We couldn't figure out why he thought that we might we abandon our luggage. 

We stopped at the station's Tourist Information window to ask for a map of the city and recommendation of a place to go for ramen.  Sakata is famous for its ramen, especially wonton ramen.  He told us where to find the best place to try, so off we went. 

It was a very chilly, but beautiful day, and we still couldn't quite believe that JR trains were somehow suspended.  With 3-foot deep snow covering  the sidewalks, we wound our way through Sakata, carefully navigated our way across a bridge, and found the ramen shop Mangetsu.  Mangetsu is known for specializing in wonton ramen, and its popularity was apparent when we got there.  Cars parked outside, people were going in and out, we arrived just in time to snap up the last table.  

We ordered wonton ramen and spicy ramen.  Since we were tired and hungry from our extended trip, we started slurping our noodles as soon as the steaming bowls were put in front of us.  With the wonderfully delicate wonton skin and the ramen noodles done to the perfect degree of chewiness, the famous Sakata dish exceeded all expectations.  Who could complain about inconvenience with a delicious, supremely satisfying bowl of ramen in front of you?

After our lunch, we visited the historic Sankyo Storehouses where rice was stored.  It was a picturesque scene, with the blue sky, white snow, and dark buildings contrasting and emphasizing each others' colors.  

When we went back to Sakata station before 3pm, the station man came running towards us.  "There will be a shuttle bus scheduled to depart for Akita city at 3:30pm!"  While we waited to board the bus, Hiroko updated Kodama-san, and we decided to meet him at the restaurant where he had made a reservation for dinner instead of at the brewery.

We boarded the bus and enjoyed the dramatic scenery driving along the Sea of Japan coastline.  It was white everywhere, but it was not snowing.  We were wondering why the JR had suspended service when we saw so many cars on the road.  (Later we learned that since a train accident seven years ago that they would stop service for strong winds.)

Finally, at 6pm we arrived at Akita station!  Our journey which had begun before 9am  when we left the Tsuruoka hotel became a 9-hour adventure in getting to Akita city.  When we finally saw Kodama-san, we were just happy to be in Akita with him enjoying his great sake together. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Where is Aisawa san from Take no Tsuyu Brewery?

We left Sendai city early in the morning to take a bus to across a mountain range to visit Take no Tsuyu Brewery in Tsuruoka city, Yamagata.  Sendai didn't have any accumulation of snow, but the scene began to change as we climbed higher in elevation.  As the snow fell harder and harder, the scenery became whiter and whiter, and the limited visibility made us more than a little nervous about being in a bus on a winding mountain road in a blinding snow storm.  We saw a snow plow ahead of us trying to clear the highway.   Despite the threatening conditions, our driver maintained a deliberate, steady pace, without skidding which bolstered our confidence and made us realize that he'd done this many times before. 

Aisawa-san from Take no Tsuyu Brewery had told us in advance where to get off the bus.  When our stop was announced, we looked out the window expecting  to see the bus stop, but the only structure that we could see was what appeared to be only a small hut that certainly didn't look like a bus stop to us.  Despite our doubts, we got off anyway. Was this really a bus stop?  Were we supposed to meet Aisawa-san here?  How could he come to pick us up in all this snow?  We no saw no sign of  other cars or for that matter, anyone at all.  

Finally after 20 minutes or so, Aisawa san showed up in his 4-wheel drive SUV.  We couldn't believe how much snow there was and that he was driving as if it was no big deal. 

Barely visible in the tundra-like setting, Take no Tsuyu Brewery sat in a grove of trees situated in the middle of a field.  The brewery is a relatively old building, and when we arrived, the kurabito were taking a break after steaming the rice for a tank of Junmai Ginjo.  As we were helping with the next steps of the brewing for the day, we were interviewed by three newspaper reporters from a variety of local media.  Aisawa-san showed us the proper method for stirring the mix of water, yeast, koji, and rice using a wooden paddle while newspaper men took pictures of us performing various tasks at the brewery.  

After lunch, we visited Kamenoi Brewery known for its Kudoki Jozu brand of sake which is also in Tsuruoka. Imai-san, son of the president (and former NYC student/resident) greeted us and showed us around the brewery.  Kamenoi Brewery has a newly renovated kura with new thermal tanks and all the latest equipment and technology.  Imai-san offered us a variety of freshly brewed sake to taste including some of the still fermenting moromi directly from the tank.  It had a very distinctive banana aroma and creamy alcohol taste. 

We will always fondly remember our time in snowy Tsuruoka, where we had a wonderful snow country experience!