radhardened: (storm trooper hello kitty)
For those of you thinking of coming to visit while I'm in Japan, here's a rough outline of our academic year and the breaks between them, which would be opportune times to come visit:

Aprilfirst semester
May
June
July
summer break
August
Septembersecond semester
October
November
December
winter break
January
third semester
February
March
spring break
radhardened: (casual Katie with tea mug)
(This post is a continuation of a travelogue for a trip I took to Japan back in 2009. Way behind, I know. But I'm determined to finish it.)

This rainy morning at the ryokan we enjoyed a "traditional breakfast" including grilled salted salmon, rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables, tofu, an egg, some fresh fruit, and green tea. I don't have an appetite for large breakfasts, so it was far more than I could eat.

making an air/heat hole in the ashWe piled into a couple of taxis and headed over to Shoyeido for a tour and demonstration of the traditional Japanese Way of Incense. My friends Suzi and Peter happened to be in Japan and were fortunately able to join us there. (Though both they and I live in the U.S., it seems we only meet outside of it!) The company was a little touchy about photos in the processing facilities, if I remember, so I didn't take any photos there where the kneaded/pressed incense was molded into tiny ume blossoms or extruded into spaghetti-like sticks and dried. In a conference room flanked by displays of precious incense woods and ingredients used in kneaded incense, we watched as a company representative prepared a censer that we passed around and smelled—or, rather, listened to, as the Japanese put it—the warmed incense. In an alcove, a craftsman chipped away at pieces of agarwood or sandalwood to make the wood-chip type of incense. There is a connection between the Way of Incense and the Way of Tea, by the way: a piece of incense—the kneaded type in the warmer months, the wood-chip type in the cooler months—is added to the brazier as part of the charcoal arrangement procedure in tea events, and the incense container is considered an object of artistic appreciation to be examined by the guests. As an interesting point of comparison, a week after I returned from Japan my local tea group held a workshop in which we made kneaded incense ourselves. Here are the photos I took at Shoyeido.

We ate lunch at a nice nearby restaurant; this photo fails to do justice to the gorgeous presentation. It was delicious, too. I especially liked the crunchy lotus root and the juicy, broth-infused mushroom.

After lunch a bunch of us headed to the post office to ship boxes of accumulated stuff back home. Given that I'd nearly overstuffed my suitcases when I stepped off the plane ten days ago, this part was inevitable; in fact, some of what I packed in my box was clothing I'd brought that turned out to be unnecessary.

fox statueAt dusk I met up with Peter, Suzi, and a few members of my group to visit Fushimi Inari-taisha, so far my favorite shrine. It's such a popular one that I fear my Japan-o-hipster cred will be revoked for writing that, but I'm fond of the fox statues and the long, torii-lined footpaths. Come to think of it, I commissioned a glass pendant from an Etsy seller using a photo I took there on my previous trip. Here are my pics from this visit.

Exiting the shrine and wandering about the town of Fushimi-ku, we tried but failed to find 380-year-old teashop Matsuda Toko-en. Perhaps it had already closed up shop for the day. We didn't notice many local dining options, so we settled on a run-of-the-mill ramen shop. It was good, but it was no Gogyo.

Our bellies full, we returned to Kyoto Station and took a little time to browse the basement food emporium in the station's Isetan department store. There I found Koyama-en, a brand familiar to me from tins of matcha at my tea school, serving cones of hojicha soft ice cream. That was heaven.
radhardened: (goat)
(Let's see if I can finish this travelogue before it passes the one-year mark, eh?)

At around 5:53 a.m. local time, I awoke in my room at the Palace Side Hotel to a rumbling vibration and realized I was feeling an earthquake for the first time in my life. I'll admit, it was a little thrilling. It was certainly not a major earthquake; it was on the level of mentioning to other group members at breakfast, "Hey, did you feel that earlier this morning?" In other words, no damage, and probably unremarkable for your average Kyoto citizen. I'm curious to know what it rated on the Richter scale; do any of you know how to look up historical seismic information that would answer that question?

After breakfast we all headed to the monthly Tenjin-san 天神さん Market at Kitano Tenman-gū Shrine 北野天満宮. The last time I'd visited Kyoto, this market had been rained out, so it was largely new to me.

Since my collection of obijime (the colorful rope-like belt that goes over an obi) was sorely lacking in the flat type of obijime that are appropriate for chado, I picked up a handful of used ones that are inexpensive but will require tassel restoration to get them in shape to be worn. That'll be a good winter project. Of course, I probably said that last autumn, too. :)

I also bought the intriguing used kyō-yaki tea bowl pictured at left despite not knowing what the design on it means. I threw a few dollars at Mechanical Turk (love the motto: "Artificial Artificial Intelligence") to get some Arabic readers' takes. I got readings including
  • ش
  • ع
  • ثا ‎
  • شا
though it's possible I'm misinterpreting some of the responses that included Romanizations instead of actual Arabic characters. In the end I think I agree with [personal profile] hasufin's reading of it as a stylized form of the Arabic word 'شاي', which means 'tea'. As he says, that would fit both epigraphically and make sense in context.

Tenjin-san isn't as large as Kōbō-san, and it didn't seem to have the variety of vendors either, including original craftsmen and artists and food. It seemed more heavily antiques-oriented. When I finally found the food vendors, who seemed to be segregated from the rest of the market in their own aisle, I ate some sweet potato fries before leaving with some other group members to move our luggage from the hotel to the Rikiya ryokan. It was a nontrivial physical effort, between all the treasures I'd accumulated so far, the ban on cars (including taxis) along Rikiya's street that day, for what reason I don't recall, and the lack of an elevator at the ryokan. Once we got our luggage moved, I laid out my futon and took a nap. But when I awoke I had a headache and nausea, so I sadly skipped the group dinner outing. Not my favorite day in Kyoto. :/
radhardened: (special occasion kimono)
I'm excited to announce that I'm planning to apply for a one-year term of study at Midorikai みどり会, the non-Japanese students' division of the (Japanese Ministry of Education accredited) Urasenke Gakuen Professional College of Chado 裏千家学園茶道専門学校 in Kyoto beginning in April 2011. I'm incredibly lucky to be in a position to be able to do this, if I'm accepted. I'd be taking an unpaid leave of absence from my employer, who is to my relief and gratitude supportive of my venture. I've got a couple of leads on trusted people to take care of my two kitties while I'm out of the country, since I'd be staying in a student dormitory (with a 10 p.m. curfew!) which I have no expectation will allow pets. Wish me luck! I'll keep you all updated on my application status.
radhardened: (storm trooper hello kitty)
On Saturday morning we went to a hands-on roketsuzome workshop at Yamamoto Roketsuzome やまもとローケツ染め. On my last visit I'd made a panel depicting Mukai Kyorai's Hut of Fallen Persimmons. This time I traced a design of an Ōharame 大原女, a woman who peddles flowers or firewood from pastoral Ōhara, to produce this panel. There are no longer Ōharame as such, but we had seen women dressed in Ōharame costume in the Jidai Matsuri parade a few days earlier. Here are my photos from this workshop.

Afterwards we went to the Nishijin neighborhood, famous for its weavers, where we visited a yuzen dyeing workshop. Kimono made of yuzen dyed fabric are exquisite works of art, with prices to match.

From there, Julia—the other chado practitioner in our group—and I ducked into a wagashi shop—it was either Oimatsu or Tawaraya, I don't remember. We were just in time for a demonstration of wagashi-making at what I'd describe as a small sushi bar for wagashi, where each customer chooses one of two types and watches the confectioner make it before partaking of it with a bowl of usucha. Watching the wagashi being made was just as much fun as eating it. The lighting was too dim for my camera, but if I figure out which shop it was, I'd go back and do it again with pictures. Maybe I'll just have to visit every wagashi shop in Kyoto to make sure I find it. :)

We caught up with the rest of our group at the Nishijin Textile Center, where we watched a kimono fashion show (my photos). It was interesting to compare the models' movements and poses with those I'd expect at a Western-style fashion show. We checked out the center's store after the show, but I missed the museum and weaving demonstration, which I guess were in other parts of the building.

That evening I visited a former chado classmate from back home who had since moved with her husband back to Kyoto and given birth to a daughter. They fed me a delicious feast of a dinner, including her father's homemade pickles. Between her family and her career as a medical researcher—back when she was in the DC area I was the only student in our session without a doctoral degree—she doesn't have much time for chado anymore, but it was nice to catch up.
radhardened: (living room)
This post is a long, long overdue continuation of my travelogue from last fall's trip to Japan.

So, Friday was our trip to Ōhara 大原, a rural village north of the city of Kyoto that had been one of the high points of my previous trip to Japan. As we did last time, our group loaded into a few taxis to get there. Our first destination was Sanzen-in 三千院 Temple with its beautiful gardens and Jizō (地蔵) statues. It wasn't very crowded, so we wandered the temple grounds at a leisurely pace, enjoying the tranquility and stopping for a cup of shiso tea at a little rest area.

Our group dispersed as we left the temple. I had a cone of chestnut soft-serve ice cream as I drifted along the pedestrian walkway. Heading down the hill, I was happy to see this cat, whom I recognized from my previous visit even though he wasn't sitting on a scooter this time. He's such a personable kitty; apparently he's a fixture at his caretaker's jewelry stand. Pickled vegetables are a specialty of Ōhara, so I stopped at a pickle stand for some vacuum-sealed pickles to bring home as well as an aisu kyuuri, a cucumber pickled in seaweed flavored ice water and served on a stick. Crunchy and refreshing! I picked up some more food souvenirs—candied yuzu peel and a kinako-based confection—and hot-off-the-grill senbei as I walked down the hill to join the group for lunch at Sawada. Lunch, including tofu dengaku and red shiso-topped rice and more that I forget, was tasty.

After reading that last paragraph, you know why I go to Japan, right? :)

Before I go on to our afternoon, I'll interject that I recently discovered a show on NHK World TV—which I'm lucky enough to be able to pick up over the air if I point my antenna out the right side of my townhouse—called At Home with Venetia in Kyoto. It appears to be an English-language adaptation of 猫のしっぽ カエルの手 京都 大原 ベニシアの手づくり暮らし. I'm now addicted to this show about Venetia's idyllic Ōhara lifestyle, living in a renovated farmhouse, cultivating a productive garden, visiting her local artisan friends with jars of homemade jam in hand. Apparently my tour group's organizer tried to include her garden in our tour at some point.

Anyway, on to the afternoon, when we walked over to the natural dyeing workshop at Ōhara Kōbō (大原工房). This workshop features in an episode of At Home with Venetia in Kyoto. Here's the episode in three parts: part 1, part 2, part 3. I dyed a linen shirt for my mom in pink and orange.

Here are my photos from Ōhara.

Somehow it wasn't especially late when we got back to the city, so Barbara and I headed to Ippodo's KABOKU Tearoom. We each had a bowl of Sayaka-no-mukashi usucha and a delectable sweet (hers, mine). We stopped in a paper shop and then a used bookstore, which was my downfall. I think I managed to double the weight of my luggage by picking up old books on gift-wrapping, chadō, shodō, and, serendipitously enough, Sanzen-in.

Wandering over to Teramachi Street, we stopped in Koizumi Gakki, a music store selling recordings as well as instruments ranging from erhu to djembe to Jew's harp to didgeridoo... a fascinating assortment. I asked the store clerk, in my halting Japanese, if they had any CDs of traditional instrumental music, particularly Ryukyuan music, and he opened up some half dozen cases to let me listen to different albums. I'm not sure how Barbara managed the patience to wait for me through all that sampling. Eventually I decided on NISUMURA: Traditional Songs from Nishihara, Miyako Island 宮古西原 古謡集 and MYAHK: Traditional Songs from Miyako & Tarama Island 宮古 多良間 古謡集. Props to that super-friendly and -helpful store clerk. If you're in Kyoto and you like music, I recommend this place.

For dinner we sat down in the nearby Lipton Tea Room. I had mushroom and sea bream pasta followed by this matcha parfait to top off a day of amazing eating and exploring.
radhardened: (cat ears)
On Thursday morning, before our group gathered to watch the Jidai Matsuri parade, I walked to the Teramachi shopping area to try to find a kimono rental shop I'd seen the day or two before. For around 3000 yen, if I recall correctly, you can rent a kimono (and accessories) for the day, and you can get help putting it on, too—necessary in my case. But I didn't remember the name or location of the shop, so, fueled by a hot bottle of milk tea from a vending machine, I wandered up and down, back and forth as the district slowly opened up for the day. Too slowly for me. The still-closed shops were entirely shuttered, so you couldn't peek in any windows or read the signs in many cases. As the meet-up time approached without my having identified the kimono rental shop among the growing fraction of shops that had opened, I had to give up and head back to the hotel. I'll have to try again next time I visit Kyoto.

Yoshino TayuFrom around 11:30am to 1:30pm we watched the annual Jidai Matsuri parade from front-row seats on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Here are my many photos. It was a treat to be able to see the parade from such a great vantage point.

After the parade, I think I engaged in some combination of napping and lounging on the hotel's street-side patio with a hot dark chocolate drink from a vending machine.

Later on I and another group member headed to Shijo Street to browse the big department stores. My favorite floor is always the sprawling basement food floor. In Daimaru's basement I bought a takeout package of simmered mushrooms and lotus root. They don't particularly accommodate people who want to eat their food right there, so I had to stake out a bench near an escalator, but then I realized I didn't have any eating utensils, so I ventured into the maze of aisles to find a pair of chopsticks. I need a navigation system for these floors, because I get disoriented so easily. Eventually I found my way back to the bench with both food and chopsticks to eat it with, and I had a delicious snack. I picked up an adorable little glass jar of chestnut Dokidemo Purin (Whenever Pudding) for later.

In Takashimaya, we went to the top floor to see an exhibition of gorgeous ceramics and kimono. On a lower floor, I picked up a CD for a friend back home and wondered whether its 3000 yen price tag is typical.

Next we went to Nishiki Market and browsed the mostly-food shops there. In contrast to the department store food floors, this is the place to get fresh food, especially seafood and vegetables. It would be great to have a food-specialist tour guide for this market; for each item I recognized, there were five I didn't. Here's a photo-filled overview of the kinds of food you can buy there. I didn't buy any food there, but in an unusually non-food shop I picked up a couple of purse rings and a cute cotton furoshiki that, knotted together, comprise the handbag I've been carrying lately.

For dinner a group of us met at Gogyo, a ramen shop that diverges from the common slurp-in-a-hurry-while-standing-up model with its quiet atmosphere, dramatic lighting, full-service format, and gourmet ramen. I don't mean that it contains any exotic ingredients, just that it's sooooo delicious. If you aren't familiar with Japanese-style ramen, purge any thought of instant noodles from your mind. It's rich and complex and fresh. I especially recommend their miso ramen. If there's any downside, it's that it's not vegetarian at all. Even without the pork, the broth probably was made with at least one kind of animal.

After the ramen we were served hot cups of corn tea. Corn tea! I'd never heard of or tasted it before, but it was the perfect drink for after a hearty bowl of ramen—light and subtly sweet and simple.
radhardened: (cat ears)
Photo by nobrinskii
On the 21st of each month is Kōbō-san 弘法さん, a temple market at Tō-ji. (Here's my travelogue entry from my previous trip, in 2007.) Like last time, most of the other people in my group were shopping for vintage kimono and obi to use as fabric, rather than to wear, but the other tea person in the group, Julia, had an eye out for kimono to wear for tea ceremony. She pointed me to a pretty lavender iromuji (single-color kimono suited to tea ceremony) in one seller's pile. I don't have any lavender or purple kimono, so it would've been a nice addition to my wardrobe, but just as I was about to buy it we noticed a stain around the outside-right-thigh area that would be especially prominent in a normal tearoom if one is the host. It's unusual to see an iromuji at a market like this, and apparently even more so to see one that isn't stained, which is why I've given up looking myself in that environment. So rather than look for kimono at these markets I look for tea ceremony utensils, souvenirs, crafts that catch my eye, and yummy "festival food".

Among the autumnal treats available were hot-off-the-hibachi roasted ginkgo nuts and chestnuts, the latter only spotted after I had a bag of the former. Only some of the roasted ginkgo nuts had cracked open; the others were really hard to get into. Maybe a nutcracker is in order next time. Somewhere along the way I got a skewer of chewy yomogi dango, and by early afternoon, chocolate-filled dorayaki, hot of the griddle, really hit the spot.

Ever since we had Okinawan black sugar one day earlier this year in tea ceremony class, I've been a fan of it, so I picked up some from a vendor here in loose and block forms. I decided I'd like to set up a tanzaku display in my house, and to that end I bought four embroidered tanzaku—momiji (red maple leaves), ume, fuji (wisteria), and ayame (iris). I bought a red coral necklace on a fabric cord that I just recently shortened to a length I prefer; I wondered at the abundance of red coral for sale there as jewelry and as loose pieces. I also wonder whether the harvesting of this coral destroyed a living reef habitat. I picked up a keychain with bells and bottle-gourd-shaped wooden beads; a dictionary suggests the motif might be called 千成り瓢箪. For equally aesthetic and practical purposes I bought this pocket watch. The kanji around the outside are numerals, some of them the less-common formal variants. The hiragana on the inside are a mystery to me, though.

tea ceremony stuff bought at Kōbō-sanHere's the tea ceremony stuff I bought, in the photo to the right. In the back are two secondhand kyō-yaki tea bowls, one with an ume design for early spring and the other with a kaede (green maple leaf) design for early autumn. At the same vendor I bought the red ceramic lid rest in front and the black lacquered natsume on the right, the gold design on which I don't recognize.

The most special piece, though, is the ceramic natsume with the vertical stripes that I bought new from the potter. I'm kicking myself for not catching the potter's name, though—he didn't have a business card—since provenance is pretty important when it comes to tea ceremony utensils, or at least nice ones that you'd like to use for special gatherings.

As an aside, there were a few vendors at the market who were surprisingly pushy, getting in my face and insisting that I buy their wares when I was only looking. One even grabbed my arm, a move that took me aback in a place like Kyoto. I don't know what to make of those experiences, which were new to me on my third time visiting Japan and at which the other group members were surprised when I recounted them. Maybe I was looking especially timid that day? Maybe the depressed economy has made a few vendors desperate for sales? I don't know.

some food on a stickWe wrapped up the day with a group dinner at Kushihachi, as on the last trip, and it was a blast. Here's a shot of their English menu. Fried food on a stick is a classic. Along with the popular items we tried a few of the seasonal ones: the chestnuts had a dessert-like sweetness, and the matsutake were good but probably best enjoyed with a subtler preparation. My favorites were shiitake and lotus root. We drank heartily and chuckled at the cryptic "pork tranklements" listed on the menu. I'd certainly recommend this place to any tourist visiting Kyoto.
radhardened: (cat ears)
JuliaThis was the first day of the group tour part of my trip, and as we did last time we began by walking through Kyōto Gyoen (the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto), stopping at Nashinoki-jinja, and then along the Kamo River. Preparations were already underway for the two-days-hence Jidai Matsuri, which begins at the Imperial Palace and proceeds two kilometers through the streets to the Heian Shrine. Folding chairs for spectators were being set up in rows, and flora were being pruned even more diligently than usual. When one member of our group wondered if some strips of paper tied to nearby branches were omikuji, trip coordinator Nancy speculated that in this case they were more likely markers for specific branches that landscaping workers would trim.

We wandered up Teramachi Street a bit, trying to find a washi shop that someone knew of, but we didn't find it. We did stop in at Ippodo's main shop, where we sipped some delicious hojicha samples. I'd never really noticed or appreciated hojicha before this trip, when I encountered many pots of it. I wonder whether it's served more often in the autumn or whether I was just oblivious to it before. As the Wikipedia entry says, "The roasting replaces the vegetative tones of standard green tea with a toasty, slightly caramel-like flavour." I bought 100g of it, some of which I'm enjoying as I type this, and which I'm happy to share as I did at a cookie-exchange and tea party earlier this month and as I plan to at a Tea Night at HacDC next month. It isn't expensive—just note that it's very quick-brewing, like 15-20 seconds.

lunch at Ganko Takasegawa NijoenWe had a lunch reservation at Ganko Takasegawa Nijoen. As Kansai Food Page notes, "This sprawling building was once the private mansion of one of Kyoto's leading merchants, and its beautiful garden and riverfront setting make it a popular spot for parties and banquets." In a private room with a garden view, we were each served a casual kaiseki meal in a lacquered box with a drawer. The set meal included soup, sushi, grilled fish, tofu, pickled vegetables, yuba, a savory custard, maybe tamagoyaki... my memory has faded. Dessert was a fruit sorbet. After lunch we strolled in the aforementioned beautiful garden.

weavingIn the afternoon we headed to the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts "Fureaikan". We breezed through the gallery to get to a demonstration on weaving, including ikat. I'd like to learn more about weaving—along with a thousand other things—but not knowing much about it yet, I didn't really understand what I was looking at, and there wasn't any English-language signage. It was easier to understand and enjoy the permanent exhibits on traditional handicrafts like lacquerware, dyeing, woodworking, and ceramics. These exhibits featured examples of finished works, looping videos of the craft-making, and in many cases examples of the work at various stages in its making. It was amazing to see the beauty that can result from the application of age-old techniques to simple materials by experienced craftspeople.

That evening we wandered the Teramachi Street shopping arcade, with its souvenir shops and 100 yen shops and coffee shops and trendy clothing shops and かに道楽's giant animatronic snow crab in the middle of it all. Nancy showed us CHICAGO, a vintage clothing store with Western clothing on the first floor and Japanese traditional clothing on the second floor. We stopped for a snack at Lipton Sanjo Main Shop, where I had a delicious Japanese chestnut Mont Blanc parfait. What I don't understand is their tea, a black tea that tastes to me as though it was brewed ten times too long. Even with cream and sugar, it's so bitter it's hard for me to drink, much less enjoy. But it's clearly made the way it is intentionally and consistently, probably carefully even. I suppose it counterbalances the sweetness of the desserts served there, but that seems a theoretical point.
radhardened: (cat ears)
the sun shines on AinokuraWhereas Sunday in Ainokura had been drizzy-to-rainy, when I awoke Monday sunlight streamed in through the shōji. Breakfast was relatively simple: rice and nori, variously prepared mountain vegetables, miso soup. I packed up and headed out to the bus stop, pausing along the way to photograph the village in this more flattering light. The tourist buses hadn't started arriving yet, so I had the place nearly to myself. When a survey-taker spotted me, I obliged by responding to questions about what attracted me to Ainokura and various demographic questions. I was proud that I could get along in Japanese at least well enough to respond to basic survey questions, even if I'm far from fluent. With a complimentary packet of tea in hand, I strolled down to the bus stop... and my spirits sank as I realized I was late for the bus to Shirakawa-go. I waited around for a little while just in case that bus was late, but no luck.

I would be able to catch that bus later in the day, but I'd be forfeiting the reserved ticket I'd bought for the Nohi bus ride from Shirakawa-go to Takayama (required for that particular ride), and I wouldn't make it to Kyoto in time to meet up with my tour group at the appointed time. I decided I had to get to Shirakawa-go pronto.

I walked back up to Ainokura's welcome post and explained my situation to the man on duty, who helpfully called a taxi for me. The ride wasn't cheap, but I sucked it up, and I was impressed that the driver—a woman, and without white gloves!—knew the shortcuts necessary to get me to Shirakawa-go on time for my ticketed bus ride to Takayama, which was uneventful. At Takayama, I caught the Hida back to Nagoya. During that scenic ride, I turned on my cell phone again and this time it picked up a signal. I checked my e-mail and feed reader, trying to be judicious about data volume since T-mobile charges $.015/KB for international data roaming, which can add up if you're not more careful than I turned out to be.

I rode the shinkansen, smooth as ever, from Nagoya to Kyoto. At Kyoto Station I transferred to the local Karasuma Line. If I had remembered all the stairs I'd have to drag my luggage up and down in the local subway stations, I would have spent the few extra bucks to take a taxi instead. Note to Kyoto tourists, including my future self. :)

Finally I made it to the good ol' Palace Side Hotel, where I checked in. It was a relief to be in a familiar place, on schedule, and not need to move my luggage for a week. Down in the lobby, I met up with the group and we headed out for dinner at nearby Kurikuma. If memory serves, I ordered the curry udon just as I had two and a half years ago when I was there, but this time with tofu. It was a hearty, comforting meal finished off with a scoop of matcha ice cream that was entirely earned by my luggage-wrestling throughout the day.
radhardened: (cat ears)
Sunday dawned in Takayama. After breakfast at the Best Western I boarded the Nohi bus to Shirakawa-go, which was another scenic ride, this one about an hour long.

In my original trip planning, I had hoped to stay at a gasshō-zukuri (合掌造り, literally "clasped-hands" style) inn in Shirakawa-go. I don't remember where I first heard of this rustic village in the mountains where people still lived in thatched-roof A-frame farmhouses and ate around sunken hearths, but seeing photos like this and this convinced me this was a place I wanted to visit. The traditional inns in a village like this don't have online reservations, so the easiest way for a less-than-fluent foreigner like me to book a stay at them is to use a site like Japanese Guest Houses that acts as an intermediary. That intermediation comes with a delay of about a day between when you request a room and when you get a response as to whether one's available at the inn you want. Possibly this wouldn't be a problem normally, but it turns out Doburoku Matsuri, an annual festival involving unrefined sake, was taking place in Shirakawa-go October 14-19. I assume that's why I couldn't find a single vacant room in Shirakawa-go that weekend over the course of a week of back-and-forth with Japanese Guest Houses. So I found another scenic village in the region with gasshō-zukuri houses. This one, called Ainokura (相倉), was a little smaller and more remote than Shirakawa-go, with the implication that it's also less tourist-choked. Ainokura was another bus ride beyond Shirakawa-go.

Once I got to Shirakawa-go, I had less than an hour to haul my heavy luggage from the Shirakawa-go bus stop up to the Ogimachi bus stop on the other side of the village, in order to catch the Kaetsuno bus to Ainokura. I muscled it up there in what turned out to be plenty of time. I was a little anxious waiting at the bus stop because it wasn't labeled (and there was no bench or shelter) and no one else was waiting there. Loads of private tour buses rumbled by, but when the appointed time arrived and the Kaetsuno bus was nowhere to be seen, I was worried. Trains and buses (and people) in Japan are never late, are they? This one was running a few minutes late after all—maybe because it was raining—and I boarded it with a sense of relief. For much of the ride I was the sole passenger, though eventually a few more people got on. Since this was the first time for me riding a local bus on my own in Japan, I thank JapanesePod101.com's Riding the Bus 1 and Riding the Bus 2 lessons for explaining to me how it works and the phrases to use.

I got off the bus at Ainokura-guchi and spent several minutes wondering which way to walk from there. Once I figured it out, it was about a ten-minute walk from the bus stop to Ainokura with heavy luggage. Note to travelers: take advantage of Japan's good luggage-handling services, if you're making any side trip where you'll have to haul your luggage, and have the bulk of your luggage sent ahead to the place where you'll be spending most of your trip (in my case that would've been in Kyoto). It'll save you an awful lot of difficulty.

Once I got to the inn where I would be staying that night, Goyomon, I entered with the expectation that at noon I was too early to check in. But this was a friendly place where "check-in time" is not a rule. I was shown to my tatami room, where the proprietress put my luggage before serving me tea and sweets in the main room by the irori.

me in AinokuraI had the whole afternoon to explore Ainokura. I walked up the side of the mountain to the conjugal zelkova tree. I visited the folk life museums in the village. I visited Jinushi shrine. I photographed. I wandered. I visited a gift shop, where I bought some grain soup mixes, a CD of traditional village folk music, some rustic sweets similar to the ones I'd been served by the proprietress at Goyomon, kaishi embossed with a gasshō-zukuri design, and a cup of delicious yuzu ice cream.

I returned to Goyomon where there was more tea. As trout roasted on sticks in the sunken hearth, a couple from Hokkaido arrived to check in to another of the inn's rooms. They were very friendly; we chatted for a while. There are four guest rooms at Goyomon, so between me and the Hokkaido couple, the inn was operating at 50% of capacity. As usual for a Japanese home, there was no central heating, so the guest rooms each contained an electric heater to ward off the chill.

By this point I was satisfied that I'd seen most of the village and was a little tired, but there was time before dinner, so the proprietress generously drove me to Kuroba Onsen, about twenty minutes away by car.

Mind you, I had never been to an onsen before. I had been to Spa World, a Korean bathhouse here in the states, with some friends, so I had some experience being naked in a women-only bathhouse space. But this was in Japan, in a fairly remote area where I would be the only Westerner as well as completely on my own. This would not be a place catering to people new to the bathhouse experience and its particular etiquette. And from my understanding there is still some prejudice about foreigners being "dirty" and therefore undesirable at onsen. If that was the case here, it was too subtle for me to notice it. I paid my money at the front desk, disrobed in the women's changing room (I would call it a locker room but there were no lockers—yay for high-trust societies—only baskets on shelves), and entered the bathing area. I washed myself at one of the seated shower stations before entering the bath itself—that's probably the single most important point of etiquette/hygiene to know about Japanese and Korean bathhouses. I alternated between the indoor and outdoor baths, both of which were nearly empty of other patrons and thus quiet and relaxing. After an hour Goyomon's proprietress picked me up and drove me back to her inn.

me at Goyomon 五ョ門Then dinner was served: koi-no-arai (fresh, raw carp), nameko-jiru (soup with nameko mushrooms), su-no-mono (mountain vegetables dressed with vinegar), kogomi no goma-ae (young fern with sesame paste), tempura, iwana-no-shioyaki (salt-grilled brook trout), ka-no-mono (pickles), and nimono (a simmered dish with Gokayama tofu, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and wild vegetables), and probably some other dishes that have escaped my memory. It was delicious, of course, and there were so many courses that I was stuffed by the end of the evening. The couple from Hokkaido shared some traditional sweets they'd brought as a nontraditional end to the meal, while the proprietress demonstrated the playing of a sasara, a traditional folk instrument. I'm surprised I didn't just fall asleep after that, but I stayed up a little while watching an ice-skating championship on TV that was of particular interest to the other guests. When I finally retired to my eight-tatami room, I slept soundly on a futon and a buckwheat chaff pillow.

Here are the pictures I took in Ainokura.

I'd also like to point you to Paul's Ainokura blog post. I don't know Paul, but he traveled to Ainokura about a year and a half ago and stayed at Goyomon, and his photos and description are excellent. If you're wondering what those dishes I described above look like, follow that link. I didn't see his writeup before my trip, but looking at it afterward I can say our experiences were very similar.
radhardened: (cat ears)
On Saturday morning I awakened bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, hopping on a Meitetsu train—Airport Rapid Limited Express "μ-SKY" if I recall correctly—to get from the airport to Nagoya Station. In Nagoya I breakfasted on a glass of milk and a matcha roll. Riveting details, I know. :)

From Nagoya Station I rode the Hida to Takayama, a scenic ride that takes a few hours. I had some company on this ride, though, in the form of an older salaryman-type who was inebriated enough to spontaneously chat with this gaijin. He was traveling with a tour group, another member of which eventually reined him in and apologized to me, but not before we had a winding and not-entirely-comprehensible conversation about things to do in Gifu, our jobs and families, politics, and who-knows-what.

carved eel (?)For me Takayama was just a stopping-over point on the way to an out-of-the-way village, but in the interest of not rushing around insanely I would spend the rest of the day and night in Takayama before venturing farther afield. A few weeks prior I had failed to find any available lodging in Takayama more exotic than Best Western, so once I got to town I dropped off my luggage there and headed eastward down Kokubunji Street, across the Miya River, and into the historic district. I bought some sashiko supplies and an umbrella to fend off the impending rain. Amid stands selling dango and aromatic senbei hot off the grill, souvenir shops peddled the town's well-known wooden crafts and sarubobos. Even though it was cool and rainy, I stopped by one of the snack stands for a soft-serve matcha ice cream, the first in a glorious line of soft-serve ice cream I would consume on this trip. :) After some more walking and browsing, I headed back to the hotel for a nap. In the evening I was feeling more hungry than discerning, so I plopped myself down at a little donburi joint in the neighborhood of the hotel for a bowl of ebidon, which turned out to be ebi katsudon. Back at the hotel, I sucked up the last of the Internet access I'd have for a few days—weeks if we're talking access from my own laptop—to e-mail T-mobile about my not-yet-finding-a-signal-in-Japan-as-promised GSM cell phone and turned in for the night.

Here are the pictures I took in Takayama. While I'm thinking of it, I want to complain about the poor resolution of Yahoo's (and thus Flickr's) maps of Japan. It makes geotagging from within Flickr difficult.
radhardened: (cat ears)
Now that I've finished uploading the pictures from my recent trip to Japan, it's time to start writing the blog entries. The first day was so short that this is sort of a warm-up entry. :)

I arrived at Chūbu Centrair International Airport around 5 p.m. local time on Friday. The group part of the trip wouldn't start until Monday evening in Kyoto, so I had the weekend to myself. Though my flights were uneventful, I was weary from the travel—the queues and security checks, my already-heavy luggage, the lack of private space—so I was glad that I'd reserved a room at the conveniently-located Centrair Hotel. After checking in I enjoyed a hot bath, admired the cleverness of the compact room layout, plugged in to the internets, bemoaned the poor planning that had led me to overstuff my suitcase on a vacation where I knew I'd be acquiring more stuff, and went to sleep, but not before seeing this cute commercial (or maybe it was another one in that series) on the TV:

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