Sunday, August 13, 2006

Lucky stars

Apologies, but it’s gonna be a long one….I’m just back from a two week break in Japan with a colleague (and a subsequent week in bed with an evil Japanese cold!). The trip was part work as we were attending a conference and as the flight was already paid for we stuck on some holiday. We didn’t get off to a good start as our bags were left behind in transfer in Istanbul and as the next flight was 5 days later we spent the whole conference in the same clothes (three cheers for free t-shirts and hotel slippers!). This was a bit nerve-racking, especially as we had to present our work in a seminar. But of course everything went fine, we met lots of new people, caught up with old friends, ate lots of wonderful food and finished with a lovely leaving dinner complete with Japanese dancing (and they made us all participate! Lots of embarrassing pictures for the next meeting I think).

Friday, when the conference was over, we travelled to Fukuoka with two friends (Yumie and Manami) I met working here last year and there were our bags (I’ve never been so excited at the sight of clean clothes!). Bags and all, we piled in Yumie’s family car along with her mother and after a great Tempura lunch, drove off to the mountains where we had the most amazing three days. We stayed in an apartment annexed to the Rikuro Okamoto museum, which Yumie’s father designed as they are good friends. They treated us to a lovely home-cooked meal of raw katsuo marinated with soy and ginger, somen noodles with orka, cucumber and dipping sauce, tomatoes with sesame dressing and boiled taros you dipped into soy and ginger. It was so fresh, delicious (o-ish-ii!!) and beautifully presented (didn’t take many pictures as I wasn’t sure they’d appreciate my fascination with photographing my food) and after a lovely dessert of uirou (traditional Nagoya sweet) we went outside to look at the stars.

After a traditional Japanese breakfast of rice, miso soup and several dishes (not too keen on the pickled fisheggs but the rest was tasty) we set off to visit the ruined Oka castle. We climbed up and enjoyed stunning views of the surroundings, followed by a lovely lunch at Tajimaya in Takeda city. Lunch was perfectly presented in a two tiered lacquered bowl where lifting the top layer revealed a lovely collection of chicken and vegetables simmered in soy broths, along with fresh fu (wheat gluten), kuzu kiri (transparent arrowroot noodles) with a miso, yuzu vinegar and pickles. Lifting this layer showed the accompanying sticky rice with chestnuts and there was also some clear broth to go with it. We then visited the associated sweets shop where they had beautiful sweets made from sweet bean paste and big displays of Obon sweets (this is the festival where dead relatives are remembered and these sweets are displayed at the house altar). The rest of the afternoon was spend driving around visiting scenic bridges, waterfalls, a winery and Guernsey (in Japan!?) farm where we had the hugest, creamiest ice cream straight (almost) from the cow.

One Sunday we had another great day visiting one of the tops of mount Aso, a volcano that is still active. The crater was amazing, so barren yet beautiful in this lush green landscape of rice paddies. We then descended and had our own little volcanic lunch of a Dengaku set. We got a mountain of glowing coals in the centre of our table and 6 skewers each with a variety of vegetables, tofu, fish and a mini-crab to grill to perfection. Once done, the waitress came to smother the skewers with a Dengaku glaze (Miso-fermented bean paste, stock, Mirrin-sweet cooking sake, sugar and in this case Yuzu-citrus fruit) and you then ate this along with pickles, rice and soup. This was a real treat as I am a self-proclaimed Miso-monster. I love the stuff and would have it every day if I had the chance. Stuffed (keko desu!) we continued to Yumie’s uncles sake brewery were he gave us a guided tour of the place. I never realized it was actually made like wine from a mix of steamed rice with water (his saying was good water = good sake = good times) and even though some of the details were “lost in translation” we got the general idea. We then purchased some bottles and went back home for another feast that included horse sashimi (a local delicacy), a variety of sweets for dessert and some sake tasting which was really really nice! I was pleasantly surprised as the stuff I’ve had before was always quite strong and harsh whereas this just melted in your mouth. I was kicking myself I didn’t buy any more and the 300 ml taster bottle disappeared quickly. We then retreated outside again and as the sky was sooooo clear saw about 10 shooting stars in 30 min and had a stunning view of the Milky Way.

The next morning we were woken up (slightly in shock) at 5.30 by Yumie’s mum as outside a truly rare sight was to be seen around the volcano. They call in Unkai when the old crater around the current tops fills up with a sea of clouds and we were lucky enough to witness it! So off we drove in our pyjamas to the nearest viewpoint and it was truly stunning, the world was just so peaceful and pretty. We then went back to bed and after a lazy breakfast said goodbye to Manami and went to the nearby onsen town of Kurokawa. Onsens are Japanese mineral hot-spring baths and this town contains many, they are all beautifully designed. So we spent a while soaking in the turquoise water surrounded by the smell of cedar (the building material of the onsen) enjoying the view outside and then retreated to the associated restaurant for a delicious lunch where we shared a portion cold soba noodles and then had Yamaimo rice with many accompaniments. Yamaimo is a strange vegetable as it looks like a potato but once grated it turns into this white slimy slush. You mix this into your rice and slurp it with delight…however, I didn’t really go for the sliminess but our Japanese hosts gladly took care of leftovers. But the rest of the dishes were delicious as always and the black sesame ice cream we had for dessert was lovely. After that we packed up and headed for Fukuoka, which was a bit of a shock after the peaceful mountains but it seemed very vibrant and alive. We caught up with Yumie’s father and all went to a yatai (food stall) to have ramen, the trademark food of Fukuoka and it did taste very good although it was a bit hot in the weather (38 degrees Celcius and 80% humidity).

On our final day in Fukuoka, Yumie’s mum taught us how to make matcha (powdered Japanese green tea) according to the rules of tea ceremony, which was a real treat. For dinner, Yumie’s father taught us how to make his family recipe of cold miso soup, a quick summer dish with lots of fresh vegetables and fish to keep the farmers going. The luck didn’t stop there as it turned out there was a hanabi festival where they shoot off lots of fireworks. Unfortunatly, on the way there my camera died ☹ so no pictures of the stunning 90 minutes display. It was beautiful, especially as we were surrounded by lost of ladies and girls all dressed up in pretty yukatas (summer kimonos). Also no pictures from our subsequent 4-day stay in Kyoto I’m afraid. But then, I didn’t get to make the most of it as my colleague was short of cash and just not very interested in Japanese food so I had to contend myself with a shopping trip to Nishiki market and didn’t get to eat any of the beautiful Kaiseki food Kyoto is famous for. However, I did manage to buy this stunning looking book so will hopefully be able to recreate some of those lovely dishes at home with all my edible souvenirs! And I thank my lucky stars that I have such wonderful friends over there that have given me an insight into their culture, home and kitchen....hopefully we'll meet again soon.


dianedundee said...

Hey Eva!
What a fantastic post! It sounds like a wonderful trip (apart from lost clothes and Japanese colds!) Look forward to hearing about it in the flesh!


Corri_chan said...

Sounds like you had a great time! I have never been to Aso, even though I only live a couple of hours south.
Pretty impressed you braved the onsen!
Quite a few foreigners I have met have a problem stripping off ;-)

Eva said...

It was great, I can definitely recommend it….and I love onsens….maybe its being Dutch but we’re not a very prudish country and I think they’re the most relaxing thing ever!