Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The wonderful Shirakawago in the winter

When mum and I decided to take a last minute trip to Shirakawago last summer we weren't expecting such a beautiful spot, see my other post about Shirakawago in the summer. The only thing we weren't able to do back then was to stay in one of the farmhouses aka "minshuku" (they get fully booked early in the summer) so I was so excited that I had the chance this weekend to return for a winter wonderland scene and to stay in a real minshuku! So we set off on the bus from Kanazawa on Saturday, an easy 1 1/2 hr trip (¥3010 rtn) and the heavy dumps of snow started to re-appear as we climbed up the mountains through the mile long tunnels.

Got to Shirakawago, well Ogimachi in fact, and found our thatched minshuku (Japanese farmhouse style B&B) stayed called Yoshiro, a bit spit and sawdust but ran by an old Japanese couple who turned out to be so sweet that it just made it a "real Japanese experience" that you could simply never get staying in an impersonal hotel. More to that later.

So Yoshiro has only signs in kanji so both myself and Maylee were wondering whether we were just walking into someones house! (they rarely lock doors to these places) We knew we were in the minshuku when we heard the lady out the back shout "irasshaimase" (welcome) and she then appeared and took us to our tatami mat room complete with kotatsu (a table with built in heating device underneath and blanket) ready for our cold tootsies! After a quick cup of green tea (which I'm now starting to like...) and a biccie we headed out.

In Shirakawago there are about 3 or 4 gassho style houses converted into small museums. We went to Nagaske (since I visited the others on my last trip) Each one charges a small entry fee of ¥300 and you get a translated leaflet with a bit of history. The house belonged to the Nagaske family wgh were doctors for the Maeda Lords in Ishikawa Pref.

The 2nd floor is packed with medical instruments, gifts from the Maeda family as well as tools for raising silkworms.

In each of the gassho houses, usually in the middle of the living room downstairs stands an "irori"- an open fireplace used for heating (an absolute necessity in these winter months) and sometimes cooking.

Amazing that they can erect these gigantic houses with not a SINGLE nail! See ropes binding foundations together.

Met Raquel and Ayako at Yoshiro and had a good catch up under the cosy kotatsu (thats the table not a bed!) until it was time for din dins. As soon as we walked into the small tatami mat restaurant the old lady had us get to work stoking up the irori fire!

What could only have been her elderly husband then bought out these wonderfully prepared trays of food, just check it out!

OK I'll try and take you through the food here-
Top right: boiled spinach, slices of daikon (a huge white Japanese radish) & marinated fried chicken
Top left: mountain vegetable tempura
Top middle: Sato-imo (里芋) a tiny Japanese sweet potato
Middle left: Kinkan- a Japanese kumquat/tiny orange- (金柑), zenmai (an edible fern, the stuff that look stringy green beans but brown) and sutake, mini bamboo shoots.
Middle centre: Chopped tomato
Middle right: Silk tofu sprinkled with katsuobushi shavings (鰹節) which are dried fermented & smoked tuna flakes!
Bottom left: Grilled river fish called Iwashi (like a sardine)
Best of all that I forgot to take a piccie of (oops) was the hida beef (local speciality) & onion cooked on a mini stove we had each. Then came out a huge Japanese teapot of green tea.

The food was soooo yummy and after stuffing our faces we were just about to retire to our room when the little old lady (fairly mute up until now) comes out with her shamisen! You couldn't get more of a real Japanese experience. She played and sang some traditional Japanese songs and then asked us where we all from (2 Americans, me British and 1 Japanese) She then started playing again.

It took a while to figure out she what she was playing (kind of 'out of tune' sound) but then realised she was playing the Beatles' Hey Jude! (ironically Ayako, my native Japanese friend was the first to figure that one out..) and we all sang along. She then started belting out the American national anthem. Classic! We then had a try at playing but it's so difficult because unlike a guitar a shamisen doesn't have frets so its amazing that they know where to put their finger.

After a sing along we went back to our rooms and as always in a ryokan the little bed fairies had been busy. Our beds were all out ready on the floor but weirdly each one had a huge bulge at the bottom. We all had no idea what the bulges were (including Ayako) and they turned out to be mini plug in kotatsu heaters to heat the beds! I guess like our equivalent of a heated blanket except these things are wooden boxes (see photo below on left side). Hmmm fire hazard?

They obviously get in the way a bit but very cosy to have your feet next to.

The next day we were woken up at 6.34am by our neighbours in the next door room playing music. Don't expect peace and quiet staying in Japanese ryokans/minshukus, the rooms are only separated by thin wooden screens.

After another wonderful breakfast we had a stroll around the village, tried out one of Japan's infamous rice burgers, (yep packed rice instead of a bread bun- great for those on a yeast free diet like I'm supposed to be!) and then headed home.

Shirakawago is one of my favourite places so far in the Ishikawa/Gifu area. For anyone in Kanazawa wondering where to go, don't hesitate. GO! It can be easily done as a day trip (the village is actually really small) or if you want to stay a night make it a gassho farmhouse like Yoshiro for an authentic experience (Cost for 1 night dinner B&B was ¥8000 including a heating charge of ¥300, about £55) I reserved through the tourist info office in Shirakawago. Some of them speak English or send them an email

Monday, February 22, 2010

Snowboarding near Kanazawa: Raicho Valley, Toyama Pref

OK the only thing to save you from mild depression whilst enduring a winter on the West coast of Japan is the fact that you can ski/snowboard every weeekend! I'm afraid I'm writing this post a tad late (over a week, eeek, i can't keep up) but last Sunday, Valentines day to be exact Maylee and I decided to drag ourselves out of bed at some ungodly hour to go skiing.

Japanese music on the ski lifts, brilliant idea!

There are quite a few ski resorts near Kanazawa, about a 40 min drive away (which I will write about when I've been) but we decided to get really adventurous and head to a resort near Tateyama mountain in Toyama Prefecture. (Tateyama by the way is the tallest peak in the Northern Alps 3,015 m to be precise so I thought the snow would be better and the resort higher)

The train ride up to Tateyama

Anyway we caught the 6.30 train to Toyama (40 mins) and made a quick change onto this teeny little train bound for Tateyama (60 mins). Despite being half asleep it was actually a really scenic ride up to Tateyama, the train chugged across huge valleys and cut up through the beautiful mountain forest and lucky for us it was a perfectly clear sunny day. The first sunny day we've had here for weeks!

Arrived at the tiny Tateyama station and had quick panic about what to do but the wonderful thing about being in Japan is that locals ALWAYS help you out even if they don't speak a word of Japanese.

Little bus station opposite Tatayama station

There's a little bus station office so we asked for "Ski resort" and were promptly given 3 leaflets. If you can manage "Ichiban iie ski no tokoro doko desu ka?" (Which is the best ski place?) which we did they will say Raicho Valley and quite literally take you to the bus (well we later found out theres only one bus that takes you to the 3 resorts) doing a daily loop.
All easy so far, we were quite surprised. This must be a right locals spot since the only other people on the bus were 2 old men with their traditional ski boots obviously going for a Sunday ramble.

Got dropped off at Raicho by which time all the locals were helping us and telling us when to get off.

The skiing area isn't huge to be honest but I think I've been spoilt with the French Alps a bit and was expecting a dizzingly high mountain and a ton of runs. Luckily Raicho Valley and (big breath...) Gokurakuzaka are actually joined up resorts (or at least we managed to do both by accident?!) so between the two resorts theres about 10 runs. Great for a day but don't book for a week.

Anyway, this was so exciting for me, my first time on a Japanese ski resort. How different would it be? Well hiring my board/boots was an experience not really sure how much the total package was (it turned out to be ¥2500- 17 quid for board/boots)

The guys in the shop were super super friendly (and insisted in having their pic taken- see above) not like those nasty grumpy French frogs we're all accustomed to! (they even give you a complimentary drink after) Day lift pass was ¥4000 (about 27 quid)

Board boots on and already cutting the circulation to my toes, sun shining, no suncream, pocket hand warmers in (the best invention ever, why don't they sell them anywhere thats cold?!) and we ready to go.

Ski slopes at Raicho Valley, Toyama Pref

The snow was absolutely fab in the morning and I was fine on the board despite getting a bit worried I was going to be terrible since I haven't boarded for 2 years. Like a duck to water I tell you!

The slopes were pretty busy but probably because it was a Sunday AND a beautiful day. The funny thing about ski-ing in Japan is that they play music everywhere, on the chair lifts and on the slopes. It's great! The only thing they don't do which I love so much in France is put the deckchairs outside of the restaurants. You see the Japanese don't care about getting a tan unlike us pasty Brits always desperate for a bit of colour.

My tonkatusu & curry lunch on the slopes!

Lunch time was just a joy. Japanese tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) with rice and a beer basking ourselves in the glorious sun outside and watching the skiers come down. (we found a picnic bench) Who could ask for more?

Chopsticks on the slopes!

After lunch we repeated a few more runs and then found a few jumps where we could watch each other crash and burn. Tried to ride fakey (opposite foot going down the mountain for all non boarders!) for a while but it tired me out so much. Brilliant day though and its made me want to go more.

We caught the little bus back to Tateyama station and after a few loops of the ski area he dropped us off. We were back in Kanazawa by 7pm exhausted and pulled muscles just kicking in. I have to admit I couldn't MOVE the next day ; )

Dying to go again but next time we'll check out Ichirino and Seta which are a 45 min bus ride out of Kanazawa, thats unless the snow melts away. Watch this space!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The day the jellyfish became a cloud: Cool restaurant in Kanazawa

Dining for 2 overlooking the floodlit garden

Well after 10 months of living here I thought I'd sampled my fair share of some of the wonderful eatieries in Kanazawa but none that could quite match this little hidden gem. I say hidden because this really isn’t a restaurant any tourist or gaijin resident of Kanazawa would simply stumble upon, unless you get totally lost down the back streets down the back of the samurai district and even then you wouldn’t know it was a restaurant!

And I say gem because, well....I’ve not been to anything that mixes contemporary cool with the traditional so brilliantly, it made me feel totally untrendy! My only caveat here is that I’m not a tourist in Kanazawa, I live here on a measly ALT wage and quite possibly there are many other top hidden gem restaurants in Kanazawa that I just can’t afford to go to. Cue the boo hoos...

So a few weeks ago I was sat in a bar with my friend Maylee and she showed me this cool little wooden ketai chain (like a keyring for mobile phones) explaining that a work colleague had taken her to this fab restaurant with a wickedly bizzare name..wait for it.... "The Day the Jellyfish became a Cloud" (くらげが雲になる日 or in romanji : kurage ga kumo ni naru hi) that had a member/loyalty scheme. Basically the first time you go to the restaurant you get given a blank key ring and a first timers menu, the 2nd time you get the next menu up with a few more dishes added and even cooler they engrave your little wooden key ring with a kanji symbol. Not just any kanji either, it’s the first kanji symbol for the The Day the Jellyfish became a Cloud.

Anyone looking for a break from Japanese cuisine but still wants modern Japanese style and ambience then this IS the place well that’s if you can find it, hehe.

I mean even as you enter through the Japanese courtyard it’s hard to know whether you’re not wandering about in some randoms garden...blink and you’ll miss the sign outside and no signs for anyone who walks into the courtyard. Just follow the stepping stone path to the right and through the door to the deceptively large and beautiful Japanese garden all lit up, it gives you a good feeling of a place.

Floodlit garden, sorry only had my mini camera

Although Maylee had been once before she started walking across the garden but I had an intelligent moment (first time for everything) and noticed that she was making fresh footprints in the snow and questioned whether that was the right way. It wasn’t!

Anyway round the back we found a tatami screen door, no sign or anything, and cautiously entered. Yep this was it, hallelujah. After literally unchanging..well shoes off, coats off, and then multiple unpeeling of layers we had a chance to marvel the inside of the restaurant.

A superb place with a orori (traditional fireplace) in the middle centrepiece, urban Japanese style, a long dining bar and a unique 2 seat dining set up exclusively overlooking the beautiful garden. How romantic, check it out! Even the table accessories were very cool. See pics

Menu was quite simple, about 5 choices of noodles and curry “pan asian” according to Maylee who was now looking at her members menu…I was so jealous, she had more choices! I opted for the Beef noodles which were sensational and really woke up the taste buds again. Awww fresh lemongrass and coconut, close your eyes you’d think you’re in Thailand. Well sort of.

Anyway didn’t want this to turn into a long, gabbling post but if you’re in Kanazawa and fancy a wonderful “pan Asian” dinner (especially if you’re a couple) then this is the place to go. Oh and apparently they’re open every evening apart from Sunday 5pm-10pm.

I could only find websites and blogs with more photos in Japanese but feel free to have a look at these fab pics

What are you waiting for?!

PS Google map below

View The day the jellyfish became a cloud restaurant in a larger map

Sapporo: Hitting the bars and clubs, night 2

Ready? 3,2,1 drink!

Tonight we decide on a different strategy considering we got so lost and had no idea where to go last night. Before hitting the wonderful steakhouse we did our homework courtsey of Maylee's iPhone and headed to the Electric Sheep Bar (although we'd been trying to find the Electric Ship Bar for ages until realising it was a typo!)

Ahhh bliss, this place was a LOT more civilised cocktail bar/eatery full of the trendy local crowd (not Russians off a navy ship) plus it was on the 9th floor so good views over the Sapporo streets which meant we could smugly watch the poor buggers walking through the blizzards.

They also had a "nomihodai" offer on which roughly translates as "drink as much as you can". Think one of those all you can eat buffet but for drink, the only difference being that with the nomihodai there's a time limit, 90 minutes to be precise. So we set Maylees countdown timer on her iPhone and got stuck in. The poor bar guy, we were definately out to get our 90 minutes worth. No sooner has he bought us 2 drinks we were ready for the next round to the point that we even tried to order multiple drinks at a time (to save his feet right?) but he politely told us this wasn't allowed.

Ah so that's why its called "electric"- the drinks are lit up in funky electric colours. Not sure where the sheep bit comes from.

Don't worry we were in too bad a state when we left, they simply must have watered the drinks down. Great bar though for atmosphere and views, we had gone up in the world compared to the previous night thats for sure ; )

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sapporo Snow Festival: Eating wagyu beef, kind of..

All this cold and we fancied a big piece of steak. Well Hokkaido is famous for the fact it has cows, horses and actually just animals unlike some places in Japan.

Maylee found a Steakhbouse serving wagyu, you know that famous Japanese beef? Its almost a delicacy here, renowned for its flavour but more so by breeding techniques such as massaging the cattle and adding sake to their feed.

Reservation made, a quick download of the address onto her trusty iPhone (all in kanji, you see its not as simple in Japan trying to find places when you can’t read the kanji!) and we were on our way to Steakhouse Ushitei in town.

For those thinking about going to Ushitei a reservation isn’t needed, only if you’re in a big party. It was quite a casual place but really friendly staff and an English menu. Unfortunately for us poor earners (ok me not Maylee) the wagyu steaks way too expensive at Y 6,500 for 250g which is about £45. Oh to earn proper money again!!

Anyway, we ordered the 350g hamburger steaks instead forgetting that in Japan hamburgers don’t usually come with the bread bun, the salad, onion and gerkin! Yes in Japan they come as they are, a hambuger steak with sauce. It didn’t matter as we ordered some rice as accompaniment and I can honestly say it was soooo gorgeous.

We then asked her if the burger steak was wagyu and she said no. only the steaks. Shit! We’d gone out of way to find a wagyu steakhouse and didn’t even eat the real macoy..

Ah well we made ourselves feel better by remarking on how much money we had now saved for hitting the bars in Sapporo for a second night running.

Sapporo Snow Festival: Best snow sculptures

Some of the giant snow sculptures truly defied belief; towering more than 10 metres in height and made entirely of packed snow. The larger statues apparently take about 2000 cubic metres of snow.

There was a true to size replica of the Baekje Royal Palace in Korea (both pictures above above) , a mini Tokyo disney resort scene with a stage in front for performances, a German church and a castle! Yep all made out of snow.

One of our favourites was an animal scene apparently representing the two notable zoos of Hokkaido. There were twin polar bears playing with their mother, an incredibly detailed snow leopard as well as penguins, orangutans and an Eagle.

This photo isn't mine. My camera and I had a big row so couldn't get one of the entire animal scene

So how the heck do they make these enormous snow sculptures? Well, apparently they start with putting up a huge wooden frame which they then pack down with snow. once the packed snow is hardened the frame panels are removed and they start carving. Most of the carving happens at night due to warmer daytime temperatures making the sculptures fragile.

Japanese girly pop band dancing in shorts in front of ice sculpture!

Sapporo Snow Festival: Snow sculptures in a blizzard

Woke up with a good old cracking hangover, nothing a bit of traditional Japanese breakfast of fish, rice, pickles and miso can’t sort out”! Weather, sub zero but actually sunny. Wow, it all looks so welcoming! Decided to head out to the Tsudome site (snow tubing and mazes) and then come back and see the snow sculptures at Odori Park after. My idea and in hindsight it was a crap idea.

We spent the most part of the morning trying to find the bus stop then we managed to get on the wrong bus, each of us relying on the other that we knew where we were going, it was hilarious. By the time we got off the wrong bus and had boarded the right bus heading in the right direction a huge snow blizzard had started to the point that I didn’t really want to get off the cosy bus!

We stayed about an hour there, the snow tubing was brilliant fun and there was this place where a snowmobile dragged inflatable tenders around a track, now that's a great alternative to sledging, I’ll have to tell Ben!

Got back for the snow sculptures but our timing was not great as the blizzard had decided to hit the city. I’ve never seen anything like it, I couldn’t even lift my head up! Could but only because her glasses were blocking out the snow!

Check out these scenes....

Watching the Sapporo snowboarding competition in a blizzard

Bloody hell, this snow blizzards giving me a right headache

Yep Maylee is under there somewhere...

Japanese girl in mini skirt in snow blizzard

Oh and of course we’re in Japan so you’re still going to see a handful of people with their mini skirts on and no tights (and some kind of weird tail thing going on)

Near the bottom of the Odori Park we came across the international snow sculpting competition which including competitors from the US, Holland, Sweden, Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong, China etc. Each team (it looked like) got given a block of packed snow a few feet high/wide and a set time to create something amazing.

Well...the Dutch decided to do nothing with theirs (is there enough snow in Holland for them to even have professional ice carvers?!) and so instead handed out snow gifts, basically a snow brick hacked off and wrapped up with some ribbon, with an underlying message about the icecaps melting. Personally I wondered if they just knew they wouldn’t win so went for the easy option instead of slaving away on the ice? Ok that’s me being totally cynical.

Over to the Finnish sculpture and a very cute family in the sauna scene, the Singapore team and a wonderful flower display, China working on an amazing Buddha image and then to the US....

Well we all know the US usually excel in all competitive events but I was sneakily chuffed to see that the US sculpture was absolutely dire, a guy from Portland trying to sculpt some grapes which didn’t really look like grapes. To rub salt into the poor guys’ wounds his neighbour, the super talented Hong Kong team, had carved what could only be described as a Chinese looking dragon masterpiece. Well see the pics and maybe you’ll see what I mean.

Sour grapes.....

Walking on a bit we stumbled on what my friends know as a personal favourite of mine; an international outdoor food hall. Brilliant. Since the Japanese don't do anything but chipolata sized Frankfurter plastic tasting sausages I just couldn't resist a fat meaty Brazilian sausage on a stick....

He looks friendly but I wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of this guy.. check out knife