Thursday, November 24, 2011

Kumano Kodo: The Food

I was very surprised at the awesome food I was served at the Minshukus along the Kumano Kodo.  I was especially impressed with Minshuku Tsugizakura where I felt like I was eating from a 5 star restaurant.  I'm no food critic, but everything tasted excellent and the presentation was really beautiful.  Mr. Yuba was both an excellent chef and host.  Here's a bit of what I ate.

 This was starters.  Plum wine, sushi, mushrooms, coconut mochi, and some fruit.

 Lightly cooked shashimi.

 Various soups.

 Whole fish and some sort of zucchini like vegetable.  I ate the whole fish, bones organs and all, except for the head and tail.  It actually tasted sweet.

 Green Bean, shrimp, zucchini tempura

 Miso soup, rice, pickled vegetables

Desert was shaved ice with frozen fruit

Breakfast was lots of pickled things, more miso soup, and some eggs.

Dinner at Minshuku Yunotaniso was similar to the previous night's dinner just not as interesting and not quite as delicious.

The Kumano Kodo

As part of my Japan experience I wanted to do some sort of cool outdoor activity. My Rough Guide mentioned a series of trails called the Kumano Kudo which seemed like a perfect candidate. The Kumano Kodo is actually a set of ancient pilgrimage trails which recently became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They wander down from Kyoto to a network in the Wakayama peninsula where they link several important shrines. About a month ago I started researching what it would take to put a hike together and slowly came up with a plan.

Damage from landslides

Last Tuesday I took a 2 hour train down the coast to Tanabe and then hiked for two 7 hour days deep into the mountains of Wakayama. I didn’t even bother trying to get people to come with me. I was kind of excited about doing this alone. I figured I would see people along the route, but after 14 hours of hiking I actually never ran into anyone on the trail. There are a few small villages on the route and I saw a couple people there, but otherwise I was alone. I was prepared for cold weather and the possibility of rain, but the weather was absolutely beautiful. I couldn’t have asked for better hiking days.

Endless Stairs

Along the trail there are several shrines and lots of little statues and monuments strewn about the woods. Sometimes there’s a placard telling you what they mean, but sometimes you’re just left to wonder. I was amazed that all these artifacts just lying around in the woods. The trails have a lot of fairy steep ups and downs. You pretty much go straight up the mountains and then straight down. I guess ancient Japanese pilgrims didn’t believe in switchbacks. There are a lot of seemingly endless staircases. The forest is dense in most places so I wasn’t always aware of my surroundings, but every now and then I’d hit a ridge or a clearing and I’d see just how lush and beautiful the surrounding mountains are. I passed a number of natural springs and some beautiful little streams. I didn’t see much wildlife, but I nearly stepped on a couple of snakes.

 Little Statue

 Shrine Ruins


Shrine to ???

The first night on the trail I stayed in a little Japanese Inn called Minshuku Tsugizakura that’s run by a former chef and his wife. I was really impressed at how friendly they were and the food was absolutely amazing (I’ll talk more about the food in a later post). I’ve stayed in a few of these traditional inns before(Ryokan and Minshuku) and it’s always an experience. They have straw tatami mats, sliding paper doors, Japanese style spas, and in the evening futons are rolled out for beds.

Minshuku Tsugizakura

 Room Decoration

 Actually 3 separate rooms separated by sliding doors

The next day I had to take a bus to bypass part of the trail that was damaged from Typhoon Talas. I saw several signs of damage mainly from massive landslides and a few washed out bridges. Toward the end of the second day I reached one of the major shrines, Kumano Hongu Taisha. I’m not sure what I was expecting after hiking for so long, but it was actually a little underwhelming. The main hall was under construction, but even if it had been open I’m not sure that there was all that much to see. I guess it’s one of those things where the journey really is more important than the destination. There is a massive Torii gate near the river. It’s the largest Torii that I’ve ever seen and it towers above the trees. I was really surprised at how few people I saw. I was the only customer at both of my Inns. I can only guess that it was a down season although I can’t see why since the weather was so perfect.

Giant Torii from far away 

Giant Torii, closer

Kumano Hongu Taisha entrance

 Kumano Hongu Taisha

After visiting Kumano Hongu Taisha I had to do a killer hike over a mountain to get to my final Inn. It was a really hellish trail that went straight up and then straight down. It was getting dark and I was pretty exhausted. After a long day, going down is almost as bad as going up. I finally reached a small mountain town called Yunomine Onsen. It’s a one street town sandwiched between two mountains. It’s hard to call it a town since it’s just literally two rows of houses lining a natural spring river. The whole town smells a little like sulphur due to the hot springs. There is a little wooden shack that sits in the middle of the stream called Tsuyobu. It’s the only spa on the World Heritage list in the world and pilgrims have used it for centuries. I tried to be one of those pilgrims, but the water was too damn hot. I stayed at another Japanese inn called Minshuku Yunotaniso and had another wonderful meal. The next day the staff dropped me off at the bus stop and I started my journey home.
 Yunomine Onsen

 Tsuyobu Spa

Bus Stop Home

I get a real rush from hiking alone like this. I know I’m not actually doing that much, but it feels like I’m making some sort of huge accomplishment. I was happy to see a whole new side of Japan. It was basically the exact opposite of Osaka.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

What's Cooking?

Since eating out everyday is pretty expensive and unhealthy, I've been spending a fair amount of time cooking.  I probably cook three to four meals a week.  Unfortunately, I don't have a lot to work with and shopping at the supermarket is a bit of a guessing game, so I mostly cook variations of stir fry.  It's pretty easy.  I just cook some meat then throw in some vegetables and sauce.  I always use the hot plate in the lobby kitchen since I have zero cooking utensils in my room.  Plus I get to socialize before and after dinner.

 The setup

 Stir fry pork, green beans, green peppers, and persimmon

Stir fry beef, carrots, onions, green beans

I have developed my own version of yakisoba which is a Japanese fried noodle dish.  I fry the noodles and then add shrimp and vegetables.

 My weird version of yakisoba

I tried to cook salmon a few times, but it never turned out very good.  For some reason, the salmon I get at Safeway seems to be better than the stuff I get in Japanese supermarkets.  I did find a small fish market which sells fresh fish so I have had mystery fish a couple times.

Mystery fish, carrots, green beans, and cucumber

I don't have breakfast very often, but I do sometimes eat cereal and bread as a midnight snack.  For lunch I'm almost always getting a bento lunch from the local corner store.  My bento lunch could be sushi, katsu, fried chicken, gyoza, or something like that.

When I do eat out there's a couple good options around the guest house.  I found this awesome hamburger place called Any's Burger which makes a pretty messy burger.  There's sauce everywhere so I usually end up using a knife and fork.  I get ramen from a place that might be called Ghost Ramen.  I experimented with different dishes for a while, but I think I found my favorite so now I get the same thing every time.  There's also don-katsu place where I get don-katsu and a huge whole friend shrimp with the head and legs still attached.  I've been to a couple super expensive sushi restaurants where the sushi is really fresh and delicious.  Plus you get to sit at the bar with the chef doing everything right in front of you.  I like going to a few Japanese restaurant chains where you get a ticket from a machine and give it to the waiter.  It's really easy since I can just look at the pictures on the machine so I know what I'm getting.

I've had street food a few times.  Takoyaki, octopus dumplings, are Osaka's specialty, but I'm not a super huge fan.  I always enjoy chicken on a stick.  My favorite street food has been nikumaki onigiri which is rice wrapped in pork.  It's basically bacon wrapped rice and it's delicious.

I've been to a couple Japanese fast food restaurants like Sukiya where you get a bowl of rice mixed with cheese and really fatty, thinly sliced beef.  It's better than it sounds, but it kind of gives me an upset stomach.  Then there's the late night Mc Donald's runs (All the McDonald's in Osaka are 24 hours).  I was hesitant to go so much, but the fact that Glen goes all the time makes me feel like it's ok for me to go too.  Of course it would probably be a mistake if I started doing things just because Glen does them.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


I was sitting in my Japanese lesson the other day when all of a sudden this loudspeaker started blaring from outside. It got so loud that I couldn’t concentrate on the lesson so I had to ask my teacher what was going. She said that it was a “right wing” propaganda vehicle.  The activists were complaining about Japan’s failure to act on territory disputes with Russia and in particular Korea. The Korean consulate is very close to my school and on certain days these guys just circle around the block sending out their messages. There are a bunch of other consulates in the area, but only the Korean consulate needs armed guards. I’m surprised the protesters can get away with it since Shinsaibashi is such a famous upscale area. You can’t ride your bike or smoke on Midosuji, but apparently broadcasting super loud nationalistic messages about Korean “sheep” is OK. My teacher said that Japanese people don’t complain about these noisy protesters since they have some sort of association with yakuza and are technically protected under the constitution. In a culture where standing out is looked down on it’s kind of surprising to see something so purposefully obnoxious.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fushimi Inari Shrine

This past weekend I took a day trip to Kyoto and saw the Fushumi-Inari shrine. The shrine is dedicated to the god of rice and is made up of thousands of bright orange torii lining a series of mountain trails. I arrived in the late afternoon to overcast skies and a light drizzle which caused mist to rise off the hillsides. It made for a pretty cool atmosphere. Fushumi-Inari is just outside Kyoto’s city center, but it feels very remote as you start going up the heavily forested mountain.

Torri Cave

One of the little shrines along the way

The sheer number of tori is pretty striking. In some places they’re spaced so close together that it feels like you’re walking through a cave. There are a couple of main paths, but they branch off to small shrines and teahouses along the paths. Since it was raining, there was hardly anyone around and most of the teahouses were closed. Sometimes I would walk for 30 minutes without seeing another person. After spending so much time exploring around the bustling streets of Osaka, it was very peaceful to wander through the woods without being bothered by anyone. As the trail got steeper, it started to resemble an endless staircase and my walk turned into a little work out.

My walk through the torii

The sun went down just as I got to the top of the mountain and started my return trip. It got dark pretty quick and started to get a little spooky. I walked down misty steps accompanied only by the calls of birds, the chirps of insects, and the bubbling of small streams. I was a little nervous about tripping on the steps, but I took my time and eventually made it back to civilization. All in all, it was about a 2.5 hour hike. Very cool.

The Trip Back

Shrine Entrance

Thursday, November 3, 2011


The other day I was craving some bibimbap so I went to this little Korean restaurant around the corner. The only customers were me and a couple of older Japanese businessmen. The businessmen were having a really good time. There had an empty wine bottle and were working on a bottle of whiskey so I figured they had already had quite a few drinks. I sat alone, finishing off my bibimbap, when the two guys asked if I wanted some whiskey. I told them I was ok, but pretty soon they had the owner bringing over a glass and then they motioned me over to sit at their table. So, I headed over and they poured me another glass of whiskey. They didn’t speak any English so it was pretty difficult to talk to them, but they were enthusiastic about attempting to communicate. They gave me their business cards and I gave them mine. It turns out that one of the guys is the CEO of a construction company. They asked me all kinds of things. They wanted to know if I was in the military and how many countries I had been to. They were particularly interested in China. When I ran out of Japanese they started dialing numbers and handing me their phones so I ended up talking to several of their coworkers and one if their sons in attempts to translate. One of them started singing Elvis and Beatles songs. A young Japanese couple walked in the bar and somehow the businessmen convinced them to translate things for us. I felt sorry for the couple, but then the guys started passing them drinks as well. I was sitting with these guys for over an hour and they were being totally ridiculous. They refused to let me pay for my meal and eventually a cab arrived to pick them up. I thanked them for everything and then they were off. It was an unexpected adventure.

In other news, I found this gnarly Japanese Band called Maximum the Hormone and I’ve had a lot of fun listening to some of their stuff.