Monday, November 21, 2011

Tsurunoyu Onsen

When one envisions the quintessential winter scene in the snow-covered mountains of Japan, it might also likely involve soaking in an onsen (hot spring) watching the snow falling quietly around you.  We had dreamed of  enjoying this very experience and so we sought the picture-perfect onsen for our trip to Akita in late January/early February.

While researching the subject using an onsen guide (convenient!), Hiroko was taken with the milky white water of the well-known Tsurunoyu Onsen.  The resort's ryokan (inn) had several rooms with a cooking hearth where your meal is cooked over glowing coals.  Tsurunoyu is one of the country's most famous onsen and therefore a very difficult reservation to secure. Hiroko actually called the onsen to make our reservation in the Spring of 2010!  Since we were going all the way to Akita, we wanted to stay in one of the more rustic rooms to enjoy the whole cooking-in-your-room experience.  Fortunately for us, Hiroko was able to reserve one of these rooms.

When we arrived at the ryokan, it was so dark that we couldn't really see much of our surroundings.  All we knew was that it was very cold and that we were in a place where there was more snow than we'd ever seen. 

The ryokan was old and rustic and known to be originally opened to the public during the Genroku period (1688-1704).  The roof of the main building is still made from straw and is replaced every 6 years!

The main attraction of the resort is milky water onsen.  After dinner in the room by the sunken hearth, we headed to a konyoku (coed) outdoor bath.  After you take off your clothes, you can wash and clean yourself in an adjacent indoor bath, then go outside to walk the path to the main bath.  When we were in onsen, it was snowing and cold.  The water was rather lukewarm, and we were getting too cold to be in the water.  We were joined by a number of other bathers but it was dark and with the rising steam we couldn't see much of them.  The water was very milky and soft, and it was a perfect setting to relax.

Next morning before the breakfast, we decided to soak more in onsen. This time there was no one else quiet...with crisp air, and no snow, it was a relaxing morning bath.  

We explored the grounds of the ryokan after the breakfast since we hadn't been able to see much of anything the previous evening when we arrived.  The snow created an "authentic snow country vista" that was both beautiful and serene.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Visiting Akita Breweries

Throughout our time in Akita we were told by locals that there had been more snow this winter than any since 1973!  All of prefectures on the Sea of Japan side of  Tohoku were being bombarded with continuous heavy snow.  The winter had been so severe that during our time there, even the usually steady JR trains had stopped running due to the wind and snow.  The best and most reliable means of transportation was by bus or automobile.

We were lucky to have brewers generously offer to drive us to their breweries.  It was an Akita brewery relay of sorts.  Saiya Shuzo's Saito-san picked us at our hotel in Akita city.  He drove us from there along a coastal road from which we were able to view the beautiful and dramatic Sea of Japan in its turbulent winter fury, to Yuri Honjo, where we visited his brewery.

He then dropped us off at Asamai Shuzo, makers of Ama No To brand sake.  There, after showing us his brewery, the famous toji treated us to his signature sake kasu dishes, and then we were off to Hinomaru Shuzo to see their kura and visit with the president, Sato-san.  All of this while the snow kept falling the entire day with no sign of letting up.

We left the following day via local train to Akita Konno, one of few koji makers in Japan. From there we were picked up by Ito-san from Akita Seishu Brewery.  We visited his brewery, and his parents historic home most of which was buried under the immense blanket of snow.  Ito-san then drove us the two hours from his brewery to our final destination Tsurunoyu Onsen.

It was snowing heavily and getting dark, but like so many of the brewers who had driven us from kura to kura,  Ito-san forged on effortlessly, zigzagging up the mountains, through blinding snow, on deep snow-covered roads with only a car-length of visibility in his headlights.  But, finally we made it to Tsurunoyu Onsen, the finish line of our Akita relay! 

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!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Wasabi Farm in Nagano

When Hiroko visited Miyasaka Brewery in Nagano, she made a side trip to Daio Wasabi Farm in Azumino, Nagano.  Wasabi is grown in the very clean water of mountain streams and many of us in the US have not seen real wasabi.  Most of us only know the wasabi that comes in a green tube that you buy from a grocery store (which is in fact,  not real wasabi).

Daio Wasabi Farm is a family-oriented working farm, where you can watch the processing of wasabi, walk around to enjoy the beautiful scenic views, and eat soba or wasabi themed food including ice cream.  Opened in 1917, the farm is one of the largest wasabi farms in Japan. The farm is fed by constantly running underground water throughout that is kept at a temperature of 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit (12-14 degrees Celsius). The wasabi is planted in sand and pebble trenches which act like soil.  After allowing the plant two years of initial growth, it is ready for harvesting (removing one of the roots of the plant) year around.

It's hard to resist trying their wasabi ice cream. As Hiroko watched, a man at the service stand grated fresh wasabi and sprinkled it on wasabi soft serve ice cream.  The ice cream has a hint of wasabi flavor, and with the fresh wasabi it was a perfect combination of spicy and sweet! 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Koshu Wine

Recent media exposure for Japanese wine made Hiroko curious about the taste of koshu wine.  The only Japanese wine she had tasted previously was sweet and mediocre at best.  Since she wanted to try koshu wine which had recently received some good reviews in the U.S., she took advantage of the opportunity when she was in Japan in late January to visit the Grace Wine winery which is located on the way to the sake brewery,  Miyasaka Shuzo in Suwa, Nagano.    

Misawa Winery is located in a hilltop of Akeno with a beautiful view of the nearby mountain range visible on a clear winter afternoon.  Winemaker Masaichi Sodeyama met us at their shop/tasting room and gave us a tour of winery. 

The vineyard was started in 2002 by Shigekazu Misawa, the managing director of Grace Wine, to expand and create a world class quality wine.  He has planted French varietals including Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, along with the indigenous Koshu. 
The Koshu grape, which came from Central Asia via China, was first cultivated in Japan about 1,300 years ago.  We tasted Koshu wine from Triibira vineyard.  It had a light and crisp taste with a lingering tartness and a very refreshing quality that Hiroko was surprised to discover. Mr. Sodeyama told us that their wine pairs well with lighter style Japanese food, and it seemed that sashimi and vegetable dishes might be a good match.  We tasted a variety of white and red wine, and were surprised to find that they were very good.  However, when considering the price, it may be a little too expensive for the simple wine that it is. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sendai City

We loved Sendai!  It is the capital of Miyagi prefecture and the largest capital in Tohoku region.  Sendai is very cosmopolitan, but not huge like Tokyo.  It is famous for gyutan (beef tongue) and lots of drinking establishments.  

We were shocked and saddened to hear that the city and surrounding area had suffered major damage from the earthquake on March 11, 2011.  What happened to Isshin?  What happened to Genji?  What happened to Aguraya?  We had wonderful sake and meals at these izakaya in Sendai, and we hope that the people we met there are safe.  

Isshin Kagenkan, specialized in Miyagi sake and atsukan (warm) sake.  A do-it-yourself sake warming device is found on each table.  

 Sendai's famous gyutan (grilled beef tongue) at Isshin Kagenkan.  Isshin was not  a gyutan speciality restaurant, but their thick-sliced gyutan was delicious. 
Cute and knowledgeable wait staff Tomomi-san at Isshin Kagenkan.

Genji, which opened in 1950 is a Showa era retro izakaya at Bunka-Yokocho.  After World War II, the area revived and thrived.

Okami-san at Genji.  Tsukedashi (small dish) comes with one drink order. There is a maximum of 4 drinks  (sometime more).  We first ordered a beer which came with a small plate of Tororo (mountain yam) with raw egg.  This first round cost 1000 yen.  The raw egg was so fresh and sweet that it tasted like vanilla custard when mixed with the tororo.  Second round was Aramasa Namazake paired with fresh homemade tofu.  Cost was1000 yen.  The tofu was so fresh and had great soy bean flavors. The beauty of this place was the drinks always come with food.

 Owner chef Sato-san at Ajitsukushi Aguraya, in Kokubucho-Dori.  The izakaya was recommended by Mr. Aoki of Kanetake Aoki sake shop which is just outside of Sendai city.  The Kokubucho-Dori is a famous entertainment street where you can find izakaya and bars to night clubs.  

 Food, sake, and shochu menu are posted at the ceiling of Aguraya.  They offer a wide range of sake and shochu.

 Drinking Onumaya Tokubetsu Junmai, local Miyagi sake.  Once pasteurized sake.

The entrance to Aguraya on the 3rd Floor of Abe Fort Building. 

Isshin Kagenkan
3-3-1  Kokubu-cho, Aoba-ku, Sendai, 980-0803

2-4-8 Ichiban-cho, Aoba-ku, Sendai, 

Ajizukushi Aguraya
Abe Fort Building 3F
2-1-10 Kokubu-cho, Aoba-ku, Sendai, 980-0803