This was my third trip to Japan, and I still haven’t had enough of this clean beautiful country with the most appealing sceneries (Well, any scenery with a white snow wash is considered appealing to me!! So I’m totally biased towards winter, if you don’t fancy winter you may discontinue reading the rest of this post, because I will talk about winter a lot!); the most agreeable food, and the most cultured people as opposed to some “uncultured swine” found in some other countries (my own included, shamefully! Lol)
People from cities and rural areas alike, are generally polite, soft-spoken and helpful even though you could not speak Japanese, they would still speak to you in full Japanese, accompanied by much amusing animated body language and facial expressions. It was almost a comical affair, watching my partner “talking” to a local Japanese. 😉
As for me, well it is indeed very lucky that I do happen to know some basic Japanese, though about 80% rusted in the 18 years since I learned it. I realised that this is the trip that I really made use of my old rusted and terribly broken Japanese language, compared to previous trips. What a shame! 🙁 Nevertheless, broken or not, I’m still very thankful that I do know some little Japanese. As this trip mostly covered rural towns and remote mountain villages, majority of the locals do not speak a word of English. I was very surprised, even in a Unesco World Heritage Village such as Shirakawa-go, restaurants, retailers and the owners of the guesthouses speak almost no English. Hence it is essential to understand and able to speak and read some basic Japanese, if you don’t want to waste too much time getting lost, or navigating your way around, or researching the places you are visiting, or the food you want to taste, or simply communicating with the locals.
Japanese western style, business hotels are about the most cost efficient deals you can get for a reasonably comfortable stay in Japan (not to be compared with hostels standards of course). Small room with tiny bathtub and some with tiny bed, but has everything you need, and extremely clean, even by my somewhat OCD standards! Heck, they really take their cleaning job very VERY seriously, as in you can’t stay inside your room from 10am to 4pm as they took that long to clean!! The rooms generally have everything you need, standard items including pajamas, slippars, heaters, even pillows of various shapes and sizes to customise to your odd-shaped heads, a seat warmer in the toilet and a mobile remote control ass-washer, with cute tiny function buttons and features more than your typical air conditioner! They even have free onsen in certain hotels. The only disadvantage is that big sized people or travelers with big luggage will find it hard to navigate around the small room and bathroom, and there is always a high platform curb between toilet and room. I can only assume that this is to accommodate for the heating elements and the very hi-tech toilet facilities. Oh, and the free daily breakfast was absolutely superb. I can’t say if the quality and variety is the same as other Japanese business hotels, but definitely for the one I stayed at in Takayama.
Well since we have one day in Nagoya, we decided to explore the city a little.
Atsuta Jingu – temple with a big forest ground.
Nobody comes to Atsuta Jingu without eating its famous Kishimen! A big food stall in the middle of the forest ground that sells only one thing – Kishimen (flatwheet noodles). After a long cold walk in the forest, it’s a good idea to get a bowl of steaming hot soupy noodles! Yummy…Slurrppp! 😛
Osu Kannon Temple and Shopping Streets
Oasis 21 and TV Tower, Sakae
It seems that an article about Japan is incomplete without mentioning its delicious food. So here are some local specialties of Nagoya and the Hida Region in Central Japan:
Kishimen – flatwheet noodle (refer pic above).
Misokatsu – fried pork chop in miso sauce, served with sliced cabbage & pickles.
Hitsumabushi – Grilled unagi (eel) on rice served in a special wooden barrel. On our last day at Nagoya, we have about an hour before catching a bus to Takayama. We decided to try this famous Nagoya specialty though it cost a bomb, as unagi has always been our favourite Japanese delicacy. Alas! The queue to enter the restaurant was a mile long (rethorically). But we really do not want to miss the last opportunity to eat this delicacy, so we waited in line and risked missing the bus to Takayama instead. The things we do for food, lol! 😉 So, we waited anxiously for 45 minutes, and left with about 15 minutes to order and eat.
And then…… we discovered a full page on the menu with “Instructions on how to eat Hitsumabushi!” Holy cow! You are not supposed to gobble it down, but to follow the step-by-step on how to properly savour the dish. We breezed through the instruction page (English sucks, we didn’t understand what it said, so we googled it instead), and very quickly, did all the things there in 10 minutes, photo taking included. It was a rushed meal, but I didn’t forget to taste the hitsumabushi! It was delicious indeed, even if you ignore the whole fancy condiments combo or eating instructions and just taste the unagi for what it is. Mouth watering, mmmm….. 🙂
Hida Takayama & Gokayama
Hida beef (Hida gyu) comes from the black haired Japanese cattle breed that’s been raised for 14 months in the Gifu Prefecture. Claimed to be the best beef in Japan, I was told that this is the one thing that cannot be missed if you come into this region. I normally don’t take beef, but I made this an exception and tried a few varieties of this “melt in your mouth” beef.
There are many variations and presentations of this Hida Gyu – nigiri sushi, steak, stew, gyukushi (grilled skewer), gyuman (beef-filled steam rice buns), sukiyaki, teppanyaki, grilled with miso on magnolia leaf on a clay stove, shabu-shabu, etc.
Takayama Ramen – Using Chuka soba (Chinese noodles), a curly textured noodle with a light soy sauce based soup boiled with chicken broth and pork bones, with few pieces of char-siew on top of it.
Mitarashi dango – a popular snack found in every corner of every street. Soft sticky rice balls skewered and painted in sweet soy sauce. Some variations are in green.
Miso – fermented soybean paste. Used not only as a condiment but as a side dish, soup base, main flavour for rice accompaniment, and an important source of protein.
Hoba miso – Miso laid and roasted on a big piece of magnolia leaf over a clay stove, with slices of onions and shitake mushrooms on it. Usually taken together with rice and pickles. A standard dish of a Ryokan breakfast.
Wild mountain vegetables – we have this every morning as part of breakfast.
Sake – brewed Japanese liquor made from fermented rice.
Gokayama Tofu – this is a specialty of the Gokayama region. Made with Gokayama’s crystal clear mountain waters with no preservatives. This tofu is known to have an unusually firm texture which adds flavour to it. It won’t lose its shape even if it is bound by a rope.
Ice cream – Well this is obviously not a specialty to the region. 😉 Everyone knows how heavenly it is to have an ice cream on a hot summer’s day, but there’s nothing quite like having an ice cream on a freezing cold and snowing winter’s day! This is the one thing we have almost everyday at every town.
My ice cream accumulating snow as I stopped for a minute to take a picture. It seems that I couldn’t finish this ice cream in half an hour, it just doesn’t melt, in fact it gets bigger and bigger every second with the heavy snowfall!