Day 13: Onsen and simmering sashimi in Takayama

Trip Start Nov 23, 2011
Trip End Dec 15, 2011

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Flag of Japan  , Chubu,
Monday, December 5, 2011

Started the day by preparing to bid Yokohama farewell. Yokohama remains my second favourite city in Japan (behind Kyoto), not because of the attractions in the city, but because of its convenient location and laid-back and comparatively uncrowded populace. 

Stupid ramen museum aside, Yokohama is a good place to base yourself in Japan, especially if you dislike Tokyo as much as we do.

Didn't even bother with the Toyoko Inn breakfast this morning, after the uninspiring offering yesterday. Instead we took the extra time to grab some extra rest, and took our time packing. Starbucks and a convenience store provided breakfast, then it was onto Shin-Yokohama station to book the train tickets for the 4 hour train ride into the mountains to Takayama. 

We emailed the Takayama ryokan to inform them of our arrival time, and they offered to pick us up at the station. Pretty good of them, considering the Ryokan is on literally the other side of town from the train station (call it 30 minutes walk, partially uphill). 

So when Veronica attempted to book the shinkansen tickets to Nagoya, only to be told that there were no seats until the 3pm train (which would have got us to Takayama after 8pm, factoring in an hour train change at Nagoya) we were less than pleased. The poor guy spoke no English, so when probed a little further as to ticket availability by Veronica and her now fairly concerned husband doing his best to make Japanese sounding noises, confusion reigned. Eventually we broke through the communication barrier, to learn that there were no blocks of 4 seats together with a window view, and only blocks of 4 aisle seats were available on our desired train. I think Mr Ticketing San understood "AISLE IS FINE! DON'T CARE! BOOK THE DAMN SEATS!", because we soon had the tickets in hand, and could relax again.

The trip from Yokohama to Nagoya took us past the base of Mt Fuji. If you've ever seen a classic Japanese tourism photo of the Shinkansen speeding past Fuji San (e.g., that was the line we took today. The best shots of Fuji were partially obscured by cloud, but still pretty spectacular nonetheless, and the photos I managed to snap don't do it justice.

Aside from Fuji, the train trip to Nagoya was dull. The novelty has worn off Shinkansen rides now. A relatively quick train swap at Nagoya station, and it was onto the slow local train up into the mountainous hida region. Admittedly it was a very pretty train trip, but we'd seen it all before on our last Japan trip, and pretty or not, it is still over 2 hours stuck on a train, so we were glad when we finally arrived. 

We met up with the hotel guy at the train station, who was standing in wait like a chauffeur, holding a sign with the name of the hotel. After warmly greeting us, he helped us with our bags to his goddamn van. Not a great start to our Takayama stay, for me at least. Climbing aboard the van, and helping Veronica with the bags, as she and the girls got on first, I stepped into the van rather briskly, and bashed my head on the top of the van's doorway. Hard. All 3 girls laughed at me. Chauffer San was the only one that showed any concern or compassion. After bravely shaking it off we all got into the van. Chauffer San checked that my head was ok, then looked at the van's door frame, I assume checking for the big gaijin shaped dent, then he closed the door. I quietly asked Veronica that if she sees blood, or if I pass out, to kindly let me know. Neither happened, thankfully, but I now have a significant lump right on the top of my head.

Arriving at the ryokan, and Chauffer San carried our bags inside, almost falling over after underestimating the weight of my pack. Greeted warmly, and in surprisingly excellent English, we removed our shoes and were given slippers to wear while in the hotel. I've got the biggest size slipper they stock, and my entire heel hangs over the back of the slipper onto the floor. Kinda pointless, but not to worry.  

Shown to our room, which was very considerately heated to about 40 degrees Celsius, our host explained the details of the hotel such as dinner, bathing and sleeping arrangements, and then we were left with our welcoming tea set out on the table in the middle of the room. The centre table was also covered in a blanket, with a heater running flat out underneath the table to create a little teepee of pure heat, which you are supposed to sit under to drink your scalding hot tea, while the top half of your body slowly roasts in the super-heated air conditioning. I'm not sure why the Japanese have their rooms/trains/restaurants so hot, but again the stifling heat was unnecessary. Once our host had left the room, we switched the air conditioning down from high heat, turned off our under-table header, and opened a window to bring the ambient air temperature down to a breathable level.  

 The ryokan that we are staying in is set right in the backstreets of Takayama, at the base of a mountain range, and is set among the traditional private houses and several temples. We decided to go for a walk to get out of the room before it got too dark and cold (I'm still getting used to sun-down at 4:30pm, and complete darkness at 5pm). Walking through a few of the scenic little alleys and temples, it was hard to determine whether they had been preserved with a very traditional look and feel for the sake of tradition, or for the benefits of the tourists. Probably both. 

After only half an hour, the sun was setting and the temperature was rapidly dropping, so we returned to our room. Bath time! 
One of the main attractions of staying in a traditional ryokan in this area, or any other area with natural hot springs, is the onsen, or volcanic hot spring water baths. We got our towels and facewashers and headed down to the the basement as it turns out. Still feels kinda weird to walk into an open room with a series of baskets, strip off and stroll naked into the bathhouse, where you wash yourself completely and rinse off before entering the bath. Luckily both the male bath and the famale bath was empty, so we had our respective bathrooms to ourselves. After washing and rinsing, I lowered myself into the onsen water, and remembered why I'm not a big fan of onsen bath's. One is not a boiled egg. 

After sitting in the indoor bath, simmering away to an unnatural all-over flourescent pink, I got rather bored. Even the calming bird noises piped in through speakers into the bathroom (seriously) didn't keep me entertained, nor did it help me relax. My bath was relatively long, and sufficiently deep, so I decided to do a few laps. After what was probably 5 minutes of the most childish behaviour ever to occur in a Japanese onsen, I looked up to see that there was also a bath outside. Cool! What could be more awesome than strolling completely naked out into the freezing cold air outside to sit in the buff in a square outdoor wooden bath? Lots of things, as it turns out. If I thought that the indoor bath was hot, the outdoor bath was positively boiling. I could stand it for about 5 minutes after which I had to hoist myself out of the bath and sit on the side, letting only my southern extremities boil in the insanely hot water. The girls were also in their outdoor bath, so I was at least able to talk to them over the partition which separates the 2 outdoor baths. 

After sitting back in the indoor bath to reacclimatise to the temperatures of earth, I got myself out, dried, dressed, and returned upstairs to the room. The girls returned soon after. Much, much pinker than when I last saw all of them, and all 3 complaining that they just wanted to go to bed.

Unsure of which cupboard our beds were in, and with dinner still to come, we relaxed for a little while before heading downstairs to begin the always entertaining game of "Identify the foodstuff". A game also known as "what the hell am I eating?".
Kaiseki cuisine, done right, is one of the worlds great delicacies. I've had traditional kaiseki a few times, but my problem is that I cannot determine what "done right" is. The stuff that I recognise (beef, seafood, rice etc) I can adequately judge whether it is good or not. When I'm faced with a raw orange and pink slice of something resting on something green, which is floating around in something white with black dots, I'm less certain of whether what I'm eating is a good or bad example of whatever it is. And that pretty much summed up the meal tonight.   

We went down to the dining hall (which isn't as intimate as the in-room dining of the ryokan we stayed at on the last trip) and were seated around the table with our initial meal offerings already laid out. Looking down at the dishes, and remembering I'm not the most adventurous eater, I became a little apprehensive. The spread of food looked good, and attractive enough. There was a pile of sashimi (with a bonus wet-the-bed flower on the plate that my daughters found hilarious), some salmon, a covered bowl of miscellaneous stuff, which turned out to be pumpkin, a horrible rainbow mushroom and some sort of spinach or green stuff in satay sauce..which was delicious. Nobody else wanted their satay grass clippings, so I ate everyone elses too. A bowl of pickled things, a bowl of fish and fish flavoured beans, a bowl containing a cherry and some other stuff that I couldn't identify, and a central tray of salmon, olives and broccoli with mayonnaise rounded out the initial dishes.

The hostess came in and lit our burners. Each person had a burner filled with hida beef, vegetables and mushrooms, all sitting in a soy broth. After the hostess left the room, I quickly picked up all of my chunks of sashimi (fish, squid and a raw prawn) and dumped it in my simmering broth to cook it. My daughters appreciated the hillarity of this, while Veronica kept an eye out for the returning waitress to warn me of her return so I could act naturally while committing the crime of cooking my sashimi. The beef was chewwy, as you would expect boiled beef to be, but my (now cooked) seafood was quite tasty.

 The food then kept coming. Plates of tempura, including a tempura branch and tempura leaves. I would have assumed that this mistakenly fell into the batter and was accidentally cooked, if there wasn't one on Veronica's plate as well. The children were however devoid of battered branch. Must be an acquired taste. Out of curiosity I ate my branch. It tasted exactly how you would expect a battered and deep fried branch to taste. Woody. And leafy. 

Not long after the tempura arrived, so to did the little soup-pie things. These were little pie dishes, covered in flaky pastry, housing a watery soup with miscellaneous stuff like prawns and mushrooms floating in it. Good, without being great, but at least it was identifiable (if you don't try to identify the soup). Desert was a jelly (apple jelly I think) with various fruits in and around the jelly, all covered in a suspicious and slightly off-putting looking white liquid, sort of resembling coconut cream. Sort of. In any case, I ate the deserts, which were very good. Several of the dishes on my plate (and everyone elses) went untouched such as the mackerel and beans (which just made the beans smell like bad fish) and also the plates of pickled something-or-other remained untouched on all 4 trays. 

Returning to the room, all of our beds were laid out, and stuffed with plug-in wheat packs, which is a terrific novelty, but in reality it just makes the square under your butt overly hot. None of the electro wheat packs looked like they were overly safe, nor did their method of deployment (Veronicas bed and my bed were both plugged into a double adapter sitting *under* my fouton), so preferring to avoid death by electrocution we turned them off and pulled them out of our beds.  
Tomorrow we've got a lazy day exploring Takayama and Hida-No-Sato, a traditional village of steeply roofed thatched huts. I'm a little apprehensive of what the breakfast offering will be. I jokingly said that it will probably be the fishy things that we didn't eat tonight, but in all honesty I'm secretly hoping I'm not correct.
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