Travel diary part 1 of n is up at rosefoxtravels.
Ohaio gozaimasu! I'm writing this on Wednesday the 21st, en route from Aizu-Wakamatsu to Tokyo by way of Kōriyama. We're in the northern part of the country right now, passing conical hills and huge cloudbanks drifting over snow-capped mountains. It's been so cold here this spring that rather than being too late to see the cherry trees blooming around Tsuruka-Jo, we were actually too early... but I get ahead of myself.
I've been taking sketchy memory-jogging notes on my Palm Pilot. I hope to translate them into a proper narrative as I go along. My apologies if any of it seems to still be in shorthand. There are photos to go with much of this, but Josh didn't bring a camera cable, so I'll add them later when he gets a cable and has a chance to upload them.
THURSDAY APRIL 15
The trip really started five days ago (real days, not calendar days; Japan is 13 hours ahead of New York, so that calculation gets a bit tricky). I went to my various jobs and made sure everything was in order there while Josh worked from home and got the apartment in good shape for the cat-sitter. I left PW an hour early, stopping on the way home to get ham, roast beef, bread, and chicken and tomato salad as well as a bunch of meal bars to make sure we didn't get stuck with the usual terrible choice between airplane food and starvation.
Once I got home, we went out to dinner and then went home to pack. I looked at our schedule and divvied it up into five blocks: three changes of clothes in Ōsaka, four in Fukushima and Tokyo, two in Ōsaka and Matsuyama, four in Ōsaka, four in San Francisco. Each block got its own zippered plastic bag of the sort that sheets and blankets come in. Rather than count on being able to do l*undry at any given point (since the Ōsaka apartment has a washing machine and a clothesline, and there was no guarantee of sunny weather in April), I packed 17 comfortable easily-packed dresses and an assortment of tights, socks, and tops suitable for layering, as well as sandals for warm days, flats for cool days, and Crocs for rainy days. By the end of this process, I felt extremely organized and relaxed, which is always a good way to start a trip. Bag 1 went into my carry-on, ensuring that I'd have clothes for three days if they misplaced our luggage.
We knew we'd be bringing back lots of stuff from Ōsaka, so we originally planned to put my big cloth-sided suitcase into Josh's big hard-sided suitcase, but it wouldn't quite fit. Instead we left each one half-empty, which made them nice and light. Josh also brought his big camping backpack to check through, and of course each of us had the regulation two carry-ons. I tucked our big blue duffel into the suitcases just in case.
By the time we were done, it was maybe 22:00 and the cats were frantic. They know what the suitcases mean, and they don't like it. We spent the next few hours drinking tea, chatting with friends online, and petting the kitties until they calmed down some.
FRIDAY APRIL 16
Around 3 we did a last round of preparations, checking in online (I was amazed that United let us check in for the international leg of the flight) and figuring out how to fit all the food into Josh's carry-on duffel. Josh also made very sure to pack the two pounds of coffee he'd bought at Porto Rico, since he says most coffee in Japan is terrible and he didn't want to be stuck drinking terrible coffee for two weeks. We triple-checked that we had our passports, sufficient toiletries, and chargers for all our electronics.
The cab came to pick us up at 03:30 and we got to JFK right at 4... to find that the United counter opens at 04:30. We stood around in line with other early birds and eventually got up to the counter and learned that they would helpfully check our bags all the way through to Ōsaka. Thus unburdened, we confronted the suddenly enormous line for security. Fortunately I'd paid extra for us to use the first-class line, so we were through very quickly.
To get ourselves onto Japan time, we'd planned to stay awake on the flight to San Francisco. Ha ha ha. Josh was asleep before we even took off. The start of the flight was pretty wobbly and bumpy, but eventually we made it into smoother air, at which point I conked out. I think we spent maybe four hours of the six-hour flight asleep and the other two eating. Getting to our gate in SFO was a breeze, and we snacked some more while waiting for the flight to board, which it did with classic Japanese efficiency and promptness.
I'd forgotten that I had ordered the dairy-free vegetarian meal until it was delivered to my seat. It was some sort of grain mush. I poked at it a bit and went back to the ham and roast beef. Eventually they turned out the cabin lights; we shut our windowshade and did our best to get more sleep. When we woke up four hours later, it was about 08:30 Japan time: perfect! All that remained was to last six hours until we landed. Josh listened to audiobooks while I finished reading Peter Benchley's The Island and started in on Stephen King's It. I read pretty quickly, but that sucker is a good thousand pages long, and I was maybe halfway through when time came to fill out our entry forms. We got to the "address" section and realized that neither of us had the address of the Ōsaka apartment, so I fudged a bit and gave the name of the Fukushima ryokan.
SATURDAY APRIL 17
We arrived in Ōsaka around 14:20, half an hour early. That half hour was quickly eaten up by the very long line for customs, and this time there was no way to bypass it. I kept reading until it was time for me to be photographed, fingerprinted, and waved through to baggage claim. Our bags were coming around the curve of the conveyor belt just as we got there, so I ran over and hauled them off. We emerged and headed over to the currency exchange to turn our U.S. cash into yen and look for Glory, whose flight from Tokyo was supposed to have arrived just minutes after ours. A few minutes later I spotted her heading our way. She explained that her flight had actually been twenty minutes late, so the timing worked out perfectly.
The next stop was the Japan Rail office to get our rail passes, followed by a quick commuter train trip to Tennoji, the closest major stop to the apartment. While on the train, Glory discovered that her map book had vanished from her luggage, which made us all very sad; there wasn't any truly vital information in there, but it contained many notes from many trips. Otherwise all was entirely uneventful. We somehow managed to haul all of our luggage onto and off of the train and then fit it and ourselves into a taxi. Arriving at the apartment, Glory rummaged for the keys... and couldn't find them. Eventually they turned up in her locked suitcase. We were all very glad she had a spare key for that luggage lock in her purse.
The apartment was musty-smelling, in part because the climate is damp and in part because sewage had apparently exploded out of the toilet at some point since the last time someone stayed there. I gave Glory a disposable glove (what, you don't always carry them with you?) and she scrubbed the bathroom while we started turning on the heat and hot water and seeing what supplies we needed to buy. I hung up the dresses from Bag 1 and set myself up in the one bedroom that has a real bed while Josh and Glory made futon beds in the two tatami rooms.
Around 18:00 we realized we were ravenous and went out to hunt down a yakiniku place that Josh and I had loved on our last trip there. It was easy to find, and we were thrilled by how well we remembered the navigation of the neighborhood. We splurged on top-notch beef, which was fatty but oh so tender, and grilled it over gas-fired "coals" along with an assortment of vegetables. Glory helpfully translated for us as I realized just how much Japanese I'd forgotten (pretty much all of it) and grumped over leaving our phrasebooks at home.
On the way back, we stopped at a little 24-hour grocery to lay in breakfast supplies: bread, butter, orange juice, milk for coffee. We went home and did our best to stay awake, but I'm pretty sure Josh was asleep by 20:00 and I conked out an hour later.
[I pause to change trains at Koriyama; now we're on the Shinkansen to Tokyo.]
SUNDAY APRIL 18
Having gone to bed so early, of course I woke at 4, coughing from the whiffs of mold growing on the back of the closet in my room. I did my best to doze and eventually got up and read until everyone else was awake. We noshed on toast and tea as the sun rose. Thus fortified, we set up the air-cleaner that was sitting in a corner of the apartment and got it humming in my room. We also began preparing to loot the apartment, rummaging through cabinets and dressers to find things to bring home with us or give as gifts.
We soon got hungry again and ventured out, strolling up the nearby shopping street. Nearly everything was closed, since it wasn't yet 08:00 on a Sunday. We walked up to the Teradachō train stop (nearer than Tennoji but not on the main loop line), hoping our favorite little ramen shop would be open, but it was still shuttered. Mister Donut no longer has the sainted pastries that we lived on the last time we were in Japan, purple yam paste wrapped in crispy layers of dough and sprinkled with black sesame seeds; I vowed to learn how to make my own. Eventually we wound up at a tiny little place called Cafe Marguerite, which was blaring American hip-hop radio from speakers over the front door but was at least open for business. Inside they were playing old-time blues, which was much more pleasant. We sat at the counter--nowhere else to sit--and ordered from a pictorial breakfast menu: ham and a fried egg for me, ham-egg-cheese sandwiches for Josh and Glory. The presentation was lovely, with little bowls of salad, tiny cups of yogurt, and delicate glasses of iced apple juice. Rolling up ham and fried eggs and eating them with chopsticks is an interesting challenge, but quite doable once you have the knack of it. To our right, a trio of salarymen chatted and smoked; I'd entirely forgotten that smoking in restaurants is still legal in Japan, and it both weirded me out and made me a bit nostalgic for the smoke-scented New York breakfast counters of yore.
After breakfast, we caught a train from Teradachō to the center of town. I was still coughing, so we stopped at a newsstand and bought some cough drops. We later found that the newsstand clerk, perhaps annoyed at breaking a large bill for such a little purchase, gave me Korean change, which is pretty worthless. Oh well; I guess I paid $7 to learn the lesson of checking my change rather than just shoving it in my purse, which seems a reasonable price, really.
Hiroshi texted us directions to Kinokuniya, the big bookstore, and we headed there to discover that they have bilingual atlases of Tokyo and Kyoto, but none of Ōsaka. All the Japanese-only atlases weren't really worth bothering with. We had to hunt to even find Ōsaka train maps. Given that the store is in Ōsaka, we all felt this was a bit ridiculous. I picked up a couple of pocket phrasebooks and a cute little book of mnemonics for katakana and hiragana (ku is the beak of the cucKOO bird: く; ni looks like a KNEE: に; ha looks like a capital H on top of a lowercase alpha-style a: は), and Josh got a charming traveler's restaurant phrasebook that explains a lot about Japanese food, so at least the trip wasn't a waste.
On our way out of the shopping center, we passed a yarn store. Of course Glory and I had to go inside. I bought expensive, gorgeous silver and black glass buttons for finishing my current project, and some lovely silk and paper yarn for a colleague. Glory got shimmery yarn for making a scarf for a friend. Josh was very, very patient. He got his turn when we passed a shop selling French presses; after much deliberation, we selected one with a pink holder that nearly matches Glory's hair.
Glory thought the giant five-storey Muji store was nearby, and the store clerk was happy to give us directions. The directions were, unfortunately, useless. Undaunted, Glory stopped a gaggle of teenagers and asked for help, and they said they were going that way themselves and would be happy to escort us. I found myself greatly missing our teenage friend Lorelei, who I'm sure would have been taking piles of notes on the girls' clothing, makeup, and hair.
The teens left us at a building that turned out to have a Muji shop on the top floor; it wasn't the monster Muji but we were happy to go look around anyway. It looked for a minute like their men's clothes might fit me, but they weren't quite right. I bought two kinds of tea and Josh got a neck pillow and a little six-compartment pill box. On the way out, we spotted a travel shop and I picked up plastic zip-top bags for our toiletries, since Josh didn't have one and mine had split in transit. I also found a little gift for my mother.
It was past noon and we were getting hungry and footsore, so we stopped at a random noodle shop for lunch. It turned out to be amazing! Josh got curry udon that was out of this world. My udon soup with beef was delicious. They came with little dishes of homemade tofu that had the texture of top-notch fresh mozzarella; I confirmed that I don't really like even very good tofu, and Josh and Glory were happy to share mine.
We walked back to the train station and went a few stops over to Doguyasuji, an old shopping street full of cooking supply stores. I was starting to get cranky from too much conversational time, so while Josh and Glory ogled beautiful knives, I went a couple of stores down and looked at wooden spoons. Amazing how much better I felt just from five minutes to myself! When Josh caught up with me, he bought two for stirring French presses. I also got a tiny plastic sushi keychain for a friend and reluctantly tore myself away from some of the most beautiful wooden rice bowls I have ever seen. I may eventually go back for them. They were only ¥540 and oh so pretty. What will I use them for? Don't I have enough little bowls already? Who cares, and no.
Now our feet were really hurting. After a few wrong turns, we found our way to the train and went back to Tennoji, taking a taxi home from there because the short cab ride cost about the same as three bus fares and none of us felt like figuring out which bus went where we were going.
The rest of the afternoon is something of a blur. I know we rummaged through more boxes, selecting things to take home or give to friends, until the mold got too bad and I started coughing again. I know I played a video game while Josh napped. I know Josh eventually woke up and we did a three-way room swap: his bedding into the smaller tatami room and Glory's into the larger, since she's sharing it with Hiroshi when he comes to join us, and then Josh's things into the bedroom and mine into the smaller tatami room, since he thought the Western-style bed would be easier on his back and he's less sensitive to mold than I am. We also packed for the next leg of the trip, which for me meant putting Bag 2 and a couple of layering shirts into my big backpack. I do so love being organized.
By 20:30 we were all tired and prone to griping. Glory fretted about it being too late and all the restaurants being closed; I snarked that she was the one who wanted us to pack before we went out because we'd be too tired when we got back (even though I knew she was perfectly correct in this assessment). Fortunately we're all adults and capable of taking deep breaths and going to get food RIGHT NOW.
Glory and Josh had been wanting to go to a little sushi place near the apartment, where the owner knows and loves Glory and Hiroshi. I was a little skeptical, since I generally don't love sushi (or most seafood). I wasn't all that hungry, though, so I agreed to go and try whatever they said was good, privately figured I could always have a meal bar when we got home or something.
I'm not sure how to describe the front of this place. It mostly looks like a run-down flower shop. From the outside you can't even tell that it's open, and there are flowerpots everywhere; this is a common outdoor decoration in that neighborhood Ōsaka, but they're so haphazard that they could just as easily be junk left out for the trash collectors. Then you slide the door open and walk in to find a beautiful counter made from a single enormous piece of wood, and tables up on a platform from which you can easily watch the sushi chefs behind the counter preparing your meal. It's tiny, but really well arranged, and we immediately felt at home there even before the chef came out to greet us with cries of delight.
Glory inquired about non-fish options and learned that they had beef--gorgeously marbled and laid out on the sushi bar for us to marvel at--which we promptly requested, along with two orders of shishito, little bitter green peppers with just a hint of heat. She and Josh requested an eight-piece sushi assortment as well, and chawan mushi. I was very skeptical of the chawan mushi, which Glory described as egg custard made with fish stock, so she only requested two bowls, one for her and one for Josh. They also split a bottle of sake. Remember this; it will be important later.
The beef arrived first: 100 grams of absolute top-quality steak, marinated in soy and sake, grilled for just a few moments on each side, and carved into elegant pieces. This was not a thick American steak, but a slender cut, perhaps a centimeter thick. It was magnificent. I dipped it into the little dish of salt and black pepper and nearly fainted with joy. The texture was indescribably tender. I think I'm going to be very spoiled for steak after this trip.
The shishito were also grilled and served with a bit of soy sauce and whisper-thin shreds of dried bonito on top. The shreds waved and curled in the heat from the peppers, always a magical effect. We devoured them with great delight.
The sushi assortment included toro, maguro, unagi, uni, ebi, ikura, a couple of pieces of whitefish that none of us recognized. I ate the unagi and pronounced it delicious. The rest vanished with almost alarming speed, and Josh ordered an extra serving of tako while Glory requested more uni.
Josh and Glory rhapsodized over the chawan mushi until I agreed to taste it. WOW. The custard was ethereal, and the stock richly flavored without any of the briny fishy taste that always triggers my "this has spoiled and I shouldn't eat it" reflex. Embedded in the custard were pieces of mushroom, fish, chicken, shrimp, lobster, a delicate little crab claw. I could have eaten the whole thing myself, but I settled for splitting the crab with Josh, since he had given me most of his share of the beef.
While we were savoring the chawan mushi, the server brought a single piece of uni sushi, which Glory thought was the one she had ordered. Then the server vanished and returned with two pieces of tako for Josh and two more of uni for Glory. Apparently the chef had sent the first piece of uni over as a gift. We expressed effusive gratitude.
Finally, we were given bowls of miso soup, simple and perfect.
Now I must zoom out from the close focus on the table, because while we were enjoying this spectacular meal, we were also making a friend of sorts. An extremely drunk man in a red track suit was sitting at the bar (just across the very narrow aisle from our table) with a shaggy-haired woman who seemed to at least be his close friend. They had been drinking steadily for the entire time we'd been there. Not long after we settled in and Josh and Glory were starting in on their sake, Red Track Suit Guy lurched to his feet and turned around to regard us with a friendly if unsteady gaze. He spoke maybe two words of English, and was so far gone he could maybe manage four more words of Japanese. Fortunately, a young woman sitting behind Glory spoke some English and was kind enough to help translate once she saw us struggling to surmount the twin barriers of language and intoxication.
Red Track Suit Guy wanted to know where we were from. Singapore and New York, we said. Ah, New York! he said. I have a friend who lives north of New York... uh... somewhere. Boston? Connecticut? No, no. Albany? No, no. It snows a lot there. Aha, I said: Canada. YES! he exclaimed. Canada! That's it! North of New York: Canada!
We cracked up. Our translator and her friends burst into fits of giggles. Red Track Suit Guy also started laughing, though I'm not sure he knew what was so funny. Maybe he was in that state where everything was funny.
Red Track Suit Guy eventually clapped Josh on the back a few times and sat back down with his friend. We thanked the translator for her help. The chef came by, said hello, asked after Hiroshi, asked how we were enjoying the meal. We sang its praises in two languages and he bowed several times, looking very happy. He went back behind the bar.
The server brought over a bottle of sake and said it was a gift from Red Track Suit Guy and Shaggy-Haired Woman. They turned around and waved at us and raised their glasses: Kampai! Kampai! I toasted with my water glass, since it was all I had. Everyone drank. Red Track Suit Guy got up and went over to the fellow sitting on the other side of Shaggy-Haired Woman and started talking at him. (I have no idea whether they knew each other.) Shaggy-Haired Woman didn't seem thrilled, but she busied herself with eating, as did we.
[Another pause. Now in the hotel room in Tokyo. Beds! Real beds!]
We reached the end of our meal and got some delicious watermelon for dessert. Glory felt we ought to repay the gift, so she asked the server if she could send some sake over to Red Track Suit Guy and Shaggy-Haired Woman. No, the server said, they keep their own bottle of sake at the bar and just drink from that. We also thought that maybe sending more alcohol over to someone so obviously soused would be a bad idea. Instead, I suggested we buy them some watermelon. The server brought it over and told them it was from us, and Red Track Suit Guy jumped up from his conversation with his neighbor and thanked us effusively. With some help from our friendly translator, he even invited us over to his house. Glory hastened to explain that we were leaving for Tokyo very early in the morning. For some reason she neglected to mention that we would be coming back to Ōsaka.
Josh did give the guy his card, and I took a hilarious photo of them together. We thanked our translator, who said, "Don't mind him. He's just... very drunk." I said, "Yes, that's the same in every language!" and we had a good laugh together before settling the bill and escaping. We stopped at the store to get sugar for the coffee-drinkers (Glory had thought there was sugar in the house, but it turned out to be artificial sweetener, which Josh can't stand) and then staggered the few blocks home and pretty much immediately went to bed. By 23:00 we were all unconscious.
[This concludes this evening's portion of our program. More soon.]
Ohaio gozaimasu! It's Sunday the 25th and I'm in the air, flying from Matsuyama to Ōsaka after a lovely day trip. Josh has kindly given me his window seat, since I slept through the last flight; the view of the island is lovely.
I'm nearly a week behind, so let's see about catching up.
MONDAY APRIL 19
Still jetlagged, I woke at 6 and hid in my room for a bit, reading It, until I heard other people moving around. We broke our fast with toast and tea; I tried the chocolate tea from Muji and was disappointed by its general lack of chocolateness. We all showered and dressed, checked that everything was packed for four days away, and got ready to head to the train station. Since we'd gotten up so early, there was plenty of time to make the early train to Tokyo.
I was starting to feel frustrated with how little Japanese I remembered, so on our way out the door I ran out to the balcony with my laptop (that being the only place I could get a clear signal from the neighbor's unlocked wireless network) and downloaded a free online Japanese textbook and a couple of grammar references. It took maybe thirty seconds. I love the internet.
We caught a bus to Tennōji and took the commuter train to Ōsaka station, where we waved our rail passes at the JR office and got reserved seats for the Shinkansen. There was plenty of time to stop and get breakfast pastries; I acquired a curry sausage (not curried, but curry in a sausage-like shape) wrapped in dough, a pocket of egg and ham and cheese, and a soft mochi-like ball of black sesame dough with a yam filling that went some way toward scratching the itch for the Mister Donut pastry of blessed memory. Once we'd eaten, we went down to the train. It took a mere three hours at super-fast speeds to get to Tokyo, where we had half an hour to transfer. We stopped to acquire bento boxes: Josh and I shared one with grilled beef, very tasty pickles, and lots and lots of rice. The next Shinkansen took us to Fukushima.
Since we'd arrived on the early side, we decided to check our bags at the station and head off to Hanamiyama ("the mountain of going to see the flowers"), where the cherry trees were in perfect full bloom. Smallish lockers were ¥400 each, but there was a convenient tourist bag check office near the bus stop that was happy to take four pieces of luggage for ¥100 each. We were warned several times that the luggage office closed at 18:00 and the last bus back from Hanamiyama left the mountain at 16:55, though it was quite possible to take a taxi after that if we wanted to.
The 15:40 bus dropped us off at Hanamiyama at 15:55 and we stopped to use the bathroom (where there were old-fashioned hole-in-the-ground toilets) before setting out along the path up the mountain. We saw hundreds of other tourists there but very few gaijin. A map showed us three paths; we chose the middle option, a 45-minute walk not counting the trip between the gate and the mountain itself. The path was steep and occasionally muddy, but the trees were magnificent, and we declared the effort well worth it. Josh and Glory took lots and lots and lots of pictures, which I'll link to once they're online.
We made it down just in time to catch the 16:55 bus, picked up our luggage, and found the little two-car local train that took us up to Iizaka, a tiny onsen machi (hot springs town) in the mountains. The station was full of some of the biggest mosquitos I've ever seen. Glory called Iseya Ryokan to say we had arrived, and we got in five minutes of swatting bugs, taking pictures of funny signs, and watching people stroll around town in their yukata (onsen bathrobes) before the car from the ryokan showed up. It was a very quick drive up to the ryokan, where many bowing people greeted us, showed us where to leave our shoes, checked us in, and took us up to our shared room.
[A pause while the plane lands; now in Ōsaka Itami airport, sitting on the floor near a power socket because for some reason my laptop didn't charge properly yesterday.]
For a tatami room in an onsen ryokan, it was quite big. A large, low table occupied the center of the room. One closet held yukata, towels, and other bathing supplies, and another had a supply of futons (perhaps half the thickness of American folding-couch-style futons) and big down quilts. Behind a set of sliding doors was a dressing area with a water closet at one end and a full shower on the other--very luxurious! Another set of doors hid a tiny Western-style boudoir with two chairs and a table. We arranged for dinner at 6:30, and Josh stretched out on the floor to nap while Glory and I read our books in the boudoir.
Promptly at 6:30, a cheerful voice called out from the corridor, and a woman came in with two enormous plastic tubs and began setting out delicious-smelling appetizers--a sweet custard with flecks of gold leaf, a shrimp in the shape of a bird with a little spine from the tail for its beak, a tiny bowl of golden jellyfish tentacles, sweet konbu wrapped around something or other, two little fish cakes, a salad--and an enormous boat of sashimi. Glory offered her a tip, which she adamantly refused. She vanished and we sat down at the table... to realize there were no chopsticks. Had she forgotten them? Maybe she was flustered over the offered tip? Our stomachs rumbled as we sat for a few minutes, staring at the food and debating whether she was coming back. Finally we called down to the front desk and asked for chopsticks, and a minute later the woman returned with two more enormous plastic tubs full of even more food. And chopsticks. Oops.
I'm not sure I can even remember everything we were served. There was grilled fish with a stalk of young ginger, tender and sweet and delicious; piles of top-quality sashimi served in an elegant wooden boat; chawan mushi, not quite as delicate as what we'd had at the sushi place but very good; a flame-heated iron dish of shishito, red and yellow pepper, fish, a scallop, a crab claw, and a piece of the most tender squid I've ever eaten, all simmered in butter; tempura fish, shrimp, and vegetables; delectable pickles that were cleverly colored and shaped to look like sushi; salad; miso soup; plenty of plain white rice; hot tea. I'm probably forgetting something. Needless to say, we stuffed ourselves.
It would have been clever to bathe before dinner. We were not clever. It took some time of sitting around and digesting before we were able to stand up, but we eventually headed down to the baths.
[Now on the bus to the Ōsaka train station.]
There was a large bath for men and a smaller bath for women, plus a huge rotonborou (outdoor bath) that had a very strict schedule of men's times and women's times. These baths contain natural hot water from underground springs and are for swimming and soaking, not washing. Before getting into the bath, one scrubs oneself thoroughly with soap at stations equipped with sinks, handheld showers, and little stools and wooden buckets. The ryokan provides soap or you can bring your own; it also provides little wash-towels that have the name of the ryokan and can be taken home as souvenirs. (Glory has a big collection of them and uses them for dishtowels.) As with anywhere in Japan, there's very specific etiquette around footwear: we were given slippers for walking around in the hotel, left them at the door of the bath and went barefoot in there, put them on again to walk over to the door to the rotonborou, and then changed to clunky wooden flip-flops for walking outside.
Women had the rotonborou until 20:50, so Glory and I enjoyed a very nice long soak among flowering trees and women who carefully avoided making eye contact. We delicately left our eyeglasses on a nearby rock because one isn't supposed to stare at other people while bathing. Etiquette around communal nudity is fascinating stuff. Josh headed to the men's bath for a soak indoors. We returned to find the dinner table moved to one side and futons laid out on the floor, covered in starched linens and down comforters. Josh went straight to sleep; I stayed up long enough to finish my book, got an extra comforter to provide padding (the futon + floor combination being quite deadly for one's back, especially with a pillow that appeared to be stuffed solely with some sort of dried grains), and conked out around 22:00.
[Now on the Shinkansen to Kyoto. It takes 14 minutes, so I'm not sure how much more I'll be able to write out.]
TUESDAY APRIL 21
We woke at 6 and Glory went down to take another bath; Josh and I took advantage of the time alone. Around 7 I wandered down and enjoyed another brief soak in the rotonborou before dressing and packing (leaving my book behind to lighten the load a little). Breakfast was served at 8 and I don't even remember what was in it; I just remember that it was enormous, and there was an onsen egg, very soft-boiled with an amazing orange yolk, that had been cooked in the hot spring water. I'll have to consult the photos for the rest.
We were up early enough to catch the 9:15 train back to Fukushima, where we switched to the Shinkansen to Kōriyama and then got on a red-painted train decorated with pictures of a red animal that we thought was either a dog or a cow. We were later to learn (after many jokes about "Dog-cows say 'moof'!") that this is the akabeko, a red bull that gave its spirit to the Buddha after helping to haul materials to build a temple in Aizu-Wakamatsu. The akabeko is something of a mascot for the region, and local craftspeople make little akabeko toys with bobbling heads.
[Now, much later, on a local train from Kyoto back to Tennōji Station in Ōsaka, which will give us 45 minutes of blissful rest after a long hard afternoon of shopping. Ow, my feet.]
At Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, friendly people at an information booth gave us a pamphlet and schedule for a tourist hop-on-hop-off bus that hit all the local hot spots, including the train station, the local castle, a couple of sake breweries, a botanic garden specializing in medicinal plants, and the onsen machi that was home to our little ryokan. The only snag was that the buses didn't go to the onsen part of town between 11:00 and 15:00, I guess because most tourists are out sightseeing around then, and we had just missed the last one. We considered going to lunch with all our luggage and then continuing to the ryokan, but I talked Josh and Glory into taking a taxi straight to the ryokan and dropping our luggage first. We were pretty burdened with clothes etc. for four days of travel, so it wasn't a hard sell.
The taxi was pretty quick and not too expensive. The ryokan looked like just another storefront along the main street of the onsen machi, with flowerpots in front of the sliding wooden doors and an understated blue fabric banner that presumably proclaimed the name of the business. We went in and admired the fireplace set into the middle of the floor (a style called "robata", which means "fireside"). A woman rushed out to greet us and apologetically explain that our rooms wouldn't be ready until 16:00. She was happy to guard our luggage until then, and when we said we wanted to go to a restaurant that Hiroshi had recommended, she immediately offered to drive us there. The hotel's car turned out to be a really smashing Toyota that looked vintage but had all the modern amenities. We were very impressed.
The hotelier dropped us off at Takino, where we had a truly excellent lunch of wappa meishi, sticky rice steamed with various toppings in a single bamboo container. Mine included pork and a sweet-salty garnish of cooked egg crumbled so finely that it looked like minutely grated cheese; Josh got fish and Glory had vegetables. We got set lunches, which included pickles and miso. Much tastiness. As we were leaving, I successfully asked for the location of the bathroom, feeling very vindicated in my purchases of language learning books and decision to spend most of the train ride studying up on grammar.
We strolled down to the castle, but the cherry trees were not yet blooming--apparently it's been very cold this spring--and a sign informed us that the castle tower had been torn down in the early 1900s and rebuilt in 1965. We decided to skip it and started walking towards Oyakuen, the botanic garden, which I really wanted to see. After just missing the tourist bus and realizing that the garden was most of a kilometer away, we decided to take a taxi; it cost a mere ¥500 and gave us a few minutes' much-needed relief from standing and walking.
Oyakuen was quite lovely. The medicinal section was being planted as we walked by, so there was very little to see there, but the central pond and traditional garden were beautiful, and we enjoyed a restful stroll along the single path. In the middle of the pond was a tatami-floored hut with a thatched roof, which was really neat; I'd never seen thatch that close up before. We also saw ducks and some impressively large koi, all of which looked hopefully at us as we walked by. We had no crumbs to give them, but it was entertaining to watch the ducks pecking at the koi to keep them back just in case there might be something to go after. As we neared the end, we saw a real triumph of arboreal manipulation. A cherry tree leaning over at almost a 60-degree angle had been hollowed out along one side, with large holes through the other side--but we knew it was a cherry tree because it was flowering, somehow still alive despite the dramatic surgery. There was even a clump of daffodils growing through one of the big holes in it! Truly impressive. We took lots of pictures.
In the gift shop, we bought medicinal tea that's supposed to be good for stomach trouble. No idea what's in it, but it certainly tasted good in the shop, and was very soothing. We refrained from buying anything decorated with akabeko. It was now past 15:00, so we sat outside for about 20 minutes and caught the tourist bus to the onsen machi. It dropped us off at the edge of town and I successfully led us up the hill and along the main road, past a beautiful river, to our ryokan.
Entirely silent earlier, the front room was now full of salarymen sitting around the robata and drinking tea. Many pairs of shoes were lined up by the door. We added our shoes and went to greet the hotelier, who led us to another room with its own robata. We sipped tea for a bit while admiring the various artifacts of various earlier eras--an iron kettle-hook over the fireplace that was at least 500 years old, a wind-up Victrola with a pile of Elvis records--and then were shown up to our room on the third floor. The building was small and charming, with only nine bedrooms and shared single-sex restrooms on the third floor and baths on the second floor. The woman taking us to our room pointed the way to the baths and said the one for men had a blue curtain and the one for women had a red curtain. Remember that; it will be important later.
Our room was again quite large. This time the central table was covered with a blanket, and an electric blanket lay underneath; Josh and I were thrilled to sit down on floor cushions and stick our aching feet under the table to warm up. Behind a screen was a tiny boudoir with two chairs, where Glory settled herself, and a sink, so we could brush our teeth and apply makeup and so forth without going out. The woody-sweet scent of fresh tatami mats was everywhere. Josh and I opened our laptops and discovered to our delight that there were two unlocked wireless networks, one belonging to the hotel and another from some nearby home. Signal was weak, but we found the best places to sit and latched on like starving infants while Glory went down to the bath.
At 6:30 we repaired downstairs for dinner and were shown to yet another separate room with a large rectangular central fireplace full of ash, a mound of perfect coals in the center. Bamboo sticks braced in the ashes held three small fish and three large cubes of firm tofu over the the flames. The fish had been elegantly skewered to look as though they were still swimming. As we settled ourselves around the table, a server came over to take our drink orders--and spoke to us in pitch-perfect English, with an American accent no less! We were delighted and asked where she was from: Manila, she replied. She was Filipina-Chinese and had moved to Japan after marrying a Japanese man. We later overheard her speaking what sounded like equally excellent Japanese, and she said she also spoke Tagalog. We were very impressed.
While we waited for the fish and tofu to cook, we were given small dishes with slices of what looked like raw beef... but was in fact raw horse. Yes, I ate it. On the whole I'd say I prefer raw beef; the horse didn't have much flavor and was rather tough.
The fish were served whole, and our server explained we were to eat them from head to tail: bones, guts, fins, and all. Since those fish only eat algae, they're considered safe to consume in their entirety. Glory did just that, while Josh and I pleaded gaijin and opened them up to pick out the sweet flesh and leave the rest. I did try a fin, which was crunchy and salty and very nice. The cubes of tofu were surprisingly tasty; I'm not usually a tofu fan, but I liked this incarnation of it.
Our server then grilled three spiced chicken patties, which were served with a delicious sweet sauce and a raw egg that one muddled with chopsticks and used as a dip. I was actually more grossed out by the idea of raw egg than I had been by the idea of raw horse, but it was very tasty. Next came boneless chicken thighs, likewise grilled over the coals, perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper. We were also served bowls of kama meishi--steamed rice with meat and vegetables mixed in--and miso soup. Dessert was pieces of gloriously sweet orange.
During dinner, a woman came in, gave us a folded paper crane, bowed, and left. (We assumed she worked for the hotel, but who knows?) Our chopsticks had come wrapped in paper, and Josh tore his into a square and handed it to me; I folded it into a carnation. Glory took her chopstick wrapper, placed folded tip money inside, put the paper flower on top, and handed it to our server the next time she came by. She appeared utterly charmed. We all felt very pleased with ourselves.