Did you have a wonderful Christmas and New Year period or I suppose I should say “Holiday Season” for our American readers (all two of them)? I certainly did. My Christmas time activities are a private affair, largely because it would just consist of a list of the various ways I gorged myself like a pig, however I will be posting something about my New Year festivities shortly.
My resolutions this year by the way are:
1. Study for the official Japanese Language Qualification level 4 or 3. I haven’t decided if I stand a shot at 3 yet but 4 is practically worthless.
2. Join the gym (yes, pretty obvious).
3. Consistently get at least two blog posts on the site a week and attempt to get more.
Before I talk about the New Year first I want to talk about the very last thing of interest I did last year. A trip to the onsen town of Kinosaki.
Kinosaki is a very small town roughly North of Kobe on the opposite coast of Japan. It is famous for two things, Onsen and crab. Both were in enormous abundance when Fran and I visited last year.
The start of our trip was a very long train ride. It is quite easy to get spoilt by the trains in Japan which are both fast, comfortable and amazingly frequent. When the Shinkansen turns a journey that spans the entire length of the country into something that can be done in half a day it is a little easy to lose all sense of perspective when it comes to rail travel. Alas, Kinosaki is such a small and out of the way spot that there is no shinkansen access to it. This leaves the traveler with two options for getting there. Take the regular JR at regular JR prices but change trains frequently and spend about five hours on them or reserve a seat on a special train that will cost as much as the shinkansen and go direct but only move at regular JR speed taking about two hours to get there. Being the laziest traveler in the world I opted for the latter.
And I must say the scenery was spectacular. Japan is all about its coastline, everyone lives here and it’s just one big continuous urban sprawl along the southern coast. On my rare trips into the inside of the country I am always taken aback by how much space there is and how much untamed raw nature is left in this country. Japan really is a land of dichotomies. It doesn’t have proper suburbs it just moves from city to dotted villages in the blink of an eye.
The scenery itself was wonderful. Great grey mountains, fierce looking forests and rice fields up to the horizon. However, it was a touch monotonous in its wonder being all of the same character for the entire journey. We did get very excited when we spotted snow on the mountaintops and the roofs of people’s houses but sadly as we came back down from the mountains any sight of snow began to vanish and Kinosaki itself was woefully un-Christmassy.
That said the town was absolutely delightful. It was pretty small and focused on two main roads. One running away from the station and one crossing this road that consisted of two pavements each opposite a river. The river street in particular was really lovely, a page straight from a Japanese history book. Lined with willows and lit by lanterns at night with wild herons living in it. It was simply too perfectly quaint.
As I said Kinosaki is famous for its onsen and its crabs and the assault of crab imagery begins as soon as you get there. Visitors to the town start their trip by being assaulted by a giant crab monster.
And the main street is lined with market stalls and vendors with boxes of live snow crabs wriggling out in the open waiting to be bought.
We wandered down the street taking in the absolutely gorgeous architecture. Everything is done to a very traditional Japanese style and the streets feel positively ancient, even though they’re not.
Eventually we got to our ryokan, a kind of traditional Japanese Inn.
To anyone considering a trip to Japan or currently living here I cannot recommend ryokan enough. The standard practice for a ryokan is to stay in a Japanese style room with tatami mats on the floor, all the chairs and tables at floor level, a sacred alcove with a scroll and plant in it, and the futon beds packed away. Each night a maid will come into your room at an arranged time and unpack and lay the futon. Meals are eaten in the room and again are brought to you at an arranged time by a maid. The level of service is incredible. Quick, efficient but also really friendly. We had a nice chat with our maid about football as he got our beds ready.
And as for the meals, wow. I can honestly say without hyperbole that our meal the first night in the Ryokan is the best meal I have ever eaten in Japan. True to the theme of the town dinner consisted mainly of many variations on snow crab. So we ate:
Snow crab sashimi (i.e. raw snow crab)
Grilled snow crab
Snow crab nabe (snow crab in a hotpot stew)
Tsukemono (Japanese pickles)
Kaiseki (various arranged small side dishes such as a small piece of tofu with a sauce on it, a prawn, etc)
And to top it off just a whole crab there to be used as we saw fit.
This in addition to the usual extras like rice and miso and dessert.
The Ryokan claims that the menu offers 2 and a half crabs per person but it feels more like 20. It takes an incredibly long time to eat and by the end of it you are fed up of crab but my god is it good. Really, mouthwateringly taste bud glorifying, kiss the chef good.
The next night we opted for the not quite so impressive but still pretty amazing Beef menu. This consisted of more sashimi and kaiseki, a kind of savory custard with food in it called … a bowl of cold soba noodles with dipping sauce, an absolutely wonderfully done tempura set and finally sukiyaki with tajima beef.
Tajima beef is one of the many variants of Hyogo beef (which is what Kobe beef is generally known as.) Like all the Hyogo beef family Tajima beef is incredibly soft and tender and beautifully marbled. Japanese beef is not usually used to make steaks but rather it is served in thin slices and eaten in a traditional Japanese stew such as nabe or sukiyaki. Sukiyaki is a kind of do it yourself hotpot, similar to fondue. Everyone sits around a bowl with some stock bubbling in it and takes it in turns to drop vegetables, tofu, fu, meat and other things in it. Watch it cook for a few seconds, dip it in raw egg and then eat it. Rare tajima beef cooked in such a fashion is a rare treat that hits every taste in your mouth at once. Mine is watering just remembering it.
Breakfast was not served in our rooms but rather in a shared banquet hall. It was nowhere near as amazing as dinner but it was still impressive and very, very Japanese. Fish, rice, miso, pickles, tofu and the odd bit of veg. Lovely.
The other major difference between a Ryokan and a hotel is that the baths/showers are shared. Now, before visions of school showers or camping pop into your head I should probably say that the baths are shared but private. The Ryokan has 3 and each one consists of a really very hot mineral bath, an area to clean yourself and a vanity mirror. In Japan the tradition is to clean yourself thoroughly and then get into the bath which is purely for relaxing purposes. And very relaxing it was too. There is nothing that soothes a long train journey and a heavy dinner than a nice hot bath. Particularly one that stays hot and is run by someone else for you.
But who needed hotel baths when we were in an onsen town! Well we avoided the onsen experience on our first night but the next day we got up bright and early, ate breakfast in the ryokan, had a bath and then got dressed to go out and, what else, have another bath.
I must say it’s a holiday idea I could get used to. Get up, eat have a bath, get dressed, go for a wander, have another bath, eat a delicious crab sandwich, have yet another bath, wander back to the ryokan to play some board games and eat a fantastic meal then get dressed up to hit the town and have…yet another bath.
To some people that may sound like the most boring itinerary on earth but it is incredibly relaxing. Rather than a hectic sightseeing holiday it is a properly relaxing break from work. I cannot recommend it enough. Even then some of you are thinking “a bath may be all well and good but four in one day?” Surely that’s boring. Well it might be but the trick is that in onsen you take sort but frequent baths in different places. Onsen are hot, really, very hot. Much hotter than you’re thinking I assure you. Being in them is a wonderful experience but after a short while it becomes too much to bear. So you get out, cool down and dry off. And then have a short walk to a different bath which offers a different view. The short but frequent baths all add up throughout the day until by the evening your limbs feel like spaghetti wobbling in the breeze.
Fran and I hit four different baths out of the seven that Kinosaki has to offer.
This was a “cave bath”. Basically a rotemburo (or outdoor bath) set into some rock so that it has a roof. It was lovely, not too hot and very atmospheric.
Set quite far away from the others up the mountain somewhat but closer to the natural hot springs. A lovely rotemburo in a relaxing setting with birdsong and other natural features to help relax you.
Fran and mine’s favourite. Decorated to look like the imperial palace in Kyoto this has a two story rotemburo that is excellent. A perfect temperature and a wonderful setting. It also has a steam room and a kind of stone chair heated by hot water to help vary the experience a bit.
The fanciest and most impressive of all the baths. The onsen is split into two sides, one of which is themed after a Turkish bath and the other which is traditionally Japanese. Which gender can use which bath switches daily. I had the Mediterranean and Fran the Japanese. With the exception of a massaging shower in the Turkish bath (which was lovely) and a penguin sauna in the Japanese one (a kind of walk in freezer which was mostly just cold and not very pleasant in Fran’s opinion) the features are the same on both sides. An indoor bath, a jacuzzi, a bath with powerful massaging jets, a rotemburo, a sauna, two steam rooms and a few showers. We stayed in this bath longer than any other moving hot to cold, hot to cold, steam to shower to bath. It was really invigorating and the best of the lot. The only points off are for the slightly cheesy theme.
Finally the major appeal of the town was experiencing something so very Japanese. The town was not brimming with people but it had a decent crowd there. In fact it had just enough people, not so many that it felt crowded and people got in your way but not so few that it felt quiet and desolate. Instead there was a constant feeling of lots of couples doing exactly as you were. Eating when you were, bathing when you were (but at enough different baths that they never felt full) and finally getting togged up in the evening in Yukata and Geta and hitting the town.
Yes, here I am.
There isn’t a whole lot to do in Kinosaki at night (beyond take another bath) but one thing it does offer is really ancient arcades full of pachinko machines that appear to pre-date world war two.
Pachinko, for those not in the know, is a kind of Japanese fruit machine/pinball hybrid. You buy a set of balls and feed them into a machine. The balls fall down the machine and into slots. Depending on the value of the slots you get more balls back. The idea is to get more balls than you started with. You then exchange these balls for a “prize” and then immediately exchange the prize for cash (a way to get around Japan’s ban on gambling). Theoretically there is some kind of skill element but Fran and I had no idea how that was meant to work. It all looked like a load of balls to us.
Disenchanted by Pachinko we had a go at a popgun game which was ludicrously easy. The idea is to use a cork firing gun to knock over some statues. However despite looking like a rifle you hold it in one hand and can lean as close to the statues as you like. Being a mutant gaijin I used my gibbon like arms to reach over about 6 inches from each of the statues. I thus got a perfect 10 out of 10. I figured this was just pathetically easy but I felt significantly happier when I noticed the small crowd of onlookers who were amazed by my accuracy and when Fran missed three times. We won a flute by the way, which Fran won’t let me play.
More than the games though simply the atmosphere of being there, at night, by a river lined with willows and lit by lanterns dressed in Yukata and surrounded by other people all dressed the same. Hearing the clip clop of geta on the road and the laughs of young couples. It was like being transported to another world entirely, of traveling back in time. And nothing intruded to spoil the moment, no cars or bars or other noisy reminders of the modern world.
There was only one downside to the experience and that was cost. Our Ryokan set us back a cool 90,000Yen. About 450 pounds each for our two night stay. However this did include entrance to all the baths, our food, towels, our Yukata, etc, etc so basically this price accounted for the entire vacation. And anyone I only mention this for the sake of being complete as I am of the opinion that it represents good value for money. It was pure bliss and it stands out as one of the best experiences I have had in Japan.