DAY 7 (5/7): LIGHTHOUSE, CHOCOLATE & SAMURAI HOMES, Oyama Shrine (尾山神社) and Nagamachi Samurai District (長町), Kanazawa (金沢), Ishikawa Prefecture (石川県), Japan, 2018.05.31
Branded as Little Kyoto, Kanazawa is famed for its century old neighborhoods and buildings. With only a fraction of Kyoto’s tourists, Kanazawa is a great place to appreciate the machiya, or the old Japanese timber townhouses from the Edo Period, and neighborhoods of geisha and samurai. Close to the castle hill, Nagamachi (長町) is the most famous samurai neighborhood in the city with well preserved samurai residences. From Kenroku-en and Kanazawa castle park, It is about 15-20 minutes of walk to Nagamachi. On our way, we made a detour to Oyama Shrine (尾山神社). Moved to its present location in 1872, the shrine is the most prominent shrine complex in Kanazawa, especially the iconic west facing gate structure standing proudly with a mixed style of Japanese, European and Chinese influences. As soon as we stepped in the shrine complex, we saw groups of people setting up art installations in the temple garden. Perhaps the artworks were set up for the upcoming Hyakumangoku Matsuri (百万石まつり). We strolled around the complex and finally came to the unique front gate. Designed by a Dutch architect, the gate is consisted of three levels. The first level presents design features from Japanese and Chinese influences, and the upper levels are inspired by European styles, including the famous stained glass window at the top tier which was once served as a lighthouse.
Exited Oyama Shrine from its front gate, we continued to walk west into the Nagamachi (長町), the tranquil neighborhood famous for its samurai residences. Sitting just a stone throw away from Kanazawa Castle, Nagamachi had a high concentration of samurai residences in the Edo Period. Today, the water canals, narrow lanes, earthen walls, old trees, and traditional gateways still exist. Some houses are still occupied by families of former samurai. Before visiting one of the former samurai residence, the Nomura Clan Samurai Home (武家屋敷跡 野村家), we couldn’t resist the temptation and stopped by a chocolate patisserie shop called Saint Nicolas.
The Oyama Shrine is dedicated to Maeda Toshiie, the first lord of the Kaga Domain.
While we were there, local communities were busy setting up art installations in the temple ground.
Some of the art installations were made of materials that we could hardly imagine. This piece set up laser disks (LD) in an arrangement that resembled a lily pond.
A glassy pavilion seemed like a brand new addition to the shrine complex. It might well become an information centre soon.
We exited the Oyama Shrine through its main gate. Once served as a lighthouse, the top level of the gate features a colourful stained glass window.
During daytime, it is difficult to see the real colours of the stained glass window.
Outside of the gate, a small procession route led us west towards Nagamachi, the neighborhood famous for its samurai residences.
Before going into the lanes of samurai residences, we reached a small street flanked by a small water channel and stopped by Saint Nicolas, a delightful patisserie and chocolate shop.
Saint Nicolas offers a wide range of chocolate, ice-cream and patisserie.
We decided to sit down for a tea break before ending our day with a visit of the Nomura Clan Samurai Home (武家屋敷跡 野村家).
Finding our way to Nomura Clan Samurai Home (武家屋敷跡 野村家), we wandered around the small lanes of Nagamachi.
Unlike the historical districts in Kyoto, Nagamachi of Kanazawa to us was much more peaceful and saw far less tourists.
For 280 years, many top and middle class samurais lived in Nagamachi near the Kanazawa Castle. Although most mud walls were reconstructed in modern days, the charm of the old samurai era remained.
The Onosho Canal is the oldest waterway in Kanazawa. In the old days, it was a means to carry goods from the harbour to the castle town.
DAY 7 (2/7): A SEAFOOD PARADISE – OMICHO MARKET (近江町市場), Kanazawa (金沢), Ishikawa Prefecture (石川県), Japan, 2018.05.31
Since the old days in the Edo Period, the Omicho Market (近江町市場) has been the biggest market in Kanazawa (金沢) for over 280 years. With 170 shops, Omicho Market is very popular among both the locals and tourists. Anyone who is interested to get a taste of the fresh seafood from the Sea of Japan will never be disappointed with the market. Depending on the season, Omicho Market is always a seafood paradise: snow crabs, shrimps, oysters, squids, sea urchins, and all kinds of fish from the Sea of Japan near Ishikawa Prefecture (石川県), with Noto beef (能登牛) and Kaga vegetables (加賀野菜) from the region as delightful bonus. In fact, the Sea of Japan just off the Ishikawa Prefecture is where the warm Tsushima current and the cold Liman current intersect, resulted in an abundance of nutrients and large concentrations of fishing ground for a diversity of fish and shellfish. Being the largest market in the capital city of Ishikawa Prefecture, it is obvious why Omicho Market is one of the best places to sample seafood in Japan. Most tourists will either sample fresh seafood or seafood snacks from the market stall directly, or walk into (often after certain amount of queuing time) one of the small seafood eateries near the market entrances or on the 2nd floor. After dropping off our backpacks at Pacific Hotel, we quickly walked over to the market for a short stroll. It soon turned out such a stroll in the market would happen at least twice per day during our stay in Kanazawa.
Spanning across several covered lanes, Omicho Market is one of the largest markets in Japan.
Noto beef (能登牛) refers to the high qualify strain of Japanese black cattle with their longest and final breeding process held in Ishikawa Prefecture. Every year, there is only about 700 cattle shipped, making this rare wagyu beef almost exclusive to the region.
Many shops in the market specialize in regional fruits, produces or snacks.
Traditional Japanese sweets are also available in a number of shops, including this one that sell traditional sweet rice cakes made with sticky rice and red bean paste.
Thought of course the main draw for visitors to the Omicho is always the seafood.
For seafood, a winter visit would have an advantage with snow crab season.
Oysters from the region are also popular among tourists.
Outside of winter, crabs from the Ishikawa Prefecture are still available.
The crabs are sold in a range of prices depending on size.
Crustaceans remain the most eye-catching items in the market.
Without tasting them, even looking at the crabs was a feast for our eyes.
At last we couldn’t resist but ordered some oysters and a prawn.
Both the local oysters and prawns were super fresh and sweet.
Before taking a bus a few blocks south of Omicho Market where the city’s main tourist attractions could be found, we stopped by Curio Espresso and Vintage Design Cafe for a quick lunch.
With fantastic reviews on the Internet, our coffee didn’t disappoint us.
The hummus, bread and soup were also more than satisfying.
DAY 6 (1/6): MIYAGAWA MORNING MARKET (宮川朝市), Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山), Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県), Japan, 2018.05.30
Before leaving Takayama we made a brief visit to the Miyagawa Morning Market. Everyday from 6:30am to noon, market stalls selling farm produces, local crafts, snacks, and souvenirs will be set up at the Jinya-mae Market in front of Takayama Jinya and Miyagawa Market along the Miyagawa River. These two morning markets have become popular tourist attractions. We arrived at Miyagawa River at around 6:15am, while a number of vendors were setting up their stalls. We took our time strolling along the river, and were delighted to see a few rows of koinobori (鯉のぼり), the colourful carp windsocks, over the water to celebrate the Children’s Day (子供の日) on 5th of May. They were meant to bring good health and bright future for children. As more vendors got their stalls ready, we turned to the delicious snacks for breakfast. Steady rain began soon after we had our first snacks. We hastily finished them and got ourselves a few local products (miso, dried mushrooms, spices, etc). After returning to our guesthouse to pick up our backpacks, we made it just in time to catch the 8:25am bus for Shirakawa-go, our destination of the day before moving on to stay the night at Ainokura of Gokayama.
The sky was grey and Miyagawa River (宮川) was calm as always. We thought the market stalls wouldn’t be up and running right at 6am so we took our time to stroll along the river.
It was delightful to start the day with a close encounter with a wooden Daikokuten or the God of Luck near the Kaji Bashi Bridge.
Colourful koinobori (鯉のぼり) or carp windsocks were set up (probably for a few weeks around the Children’s Day on 5th of May) over the Miyagawa River (宮川).
Originally the windsocks were used by samurai warriors during battles. In modern times, koinobori or the carp windsocks are meant to bring strength, good health and courage to children.
It was a pleasant scene to have a few rows of colourful koinobori over the calm water of Miyagawa River (宮川).
Some signs said the market opened at 6am and some said 6:30am. Even at 6:30am, not all stalls were set up and visitors were scarce. The grey weather and rainy forecast just made things worse.
Time was still quite early and there weren’t that many visitors around.
We would have to imagine if it was a little later in the day and with finer weather, the market would be much busier.
We would love to get some local produces but we just couldn’t bring them along with us for the rest of the trip.
An old man let us try the samples of the dried shiitake mushrooms. The sample tasted gorgeous and led us to buy a bag of the dried shiitake mushrooms. This bag of dried shiitake turned out to become the best dried shiitake we had ever had at home.
Seven-favored spices is a famous local product. We got a mini bag of spices from the old lady.
After 7am, more stalls were opened as well as the souvenir shops along the opposite side of the pedestrian walkway.
A few stalls were selling beautiful flowers and plants. We would soon found out that flowers were inseparable with village homes in the Japanese Alps area.
An old lady was selling all kinds of miso (味噌). We picked up a pack of Hoba Miso, a regional sweet miso wrapped in a dried hoba leaf (magnolia). Traditionally, the leaf was meant for wrapping the miso and cooking it over the fire.
Local honey vendor was about to open his stall.
Our first snack at the market was the takoyaki or octopus dumplings.
Watching how the takoyaki was made by the vendor was an interesting event in itself.
After takoyaki, we moved to the next stall for fish-shaped mini cakes with various sweet paste.
The takoyaki vendor recommended us to try the award-winning custard pudding at NOIX de COCO (ノアドココ). It was a fabulous suggestion. The vendor was friendly, the pudding delicious, and we got a chance to take a photo of the cute pikachu wearing a pudding hat!
Steady light rain continued and more visitors arrived at the market, but it was time for us to take the bus and move on to our next destination: the traditional gassho-zukuri village ares of Shirakawa-go (白川郷) and Gokayama (五箇山).
Unless you are a vegetarian, almost all visitors who come to Takayama would sample the Hida beef (飛騨牛), the renowned wagyu beef (和牛) famous for its fine marbling, soft texture, juicy quality and rich aroma. Since winning the “Wagyu Olympics” in 2002, the reputation of Hida beef has risen on par with the legendary Kobe beef (神戸牛). First introduced in the 2nd century AD from China, Japanese cattle were raised mainly as working animals until Meiji Restoration in 1868, when foreign cattle were imported into Japan and cross-bred with the local cattle to produce the four main breeds of wagyu: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn and Japanese Polled. Out of the three strands of Japanese Black, the Tajima bloodline is probably the most well known. Only pure Tajima bred, raised and slaughtered in Hyogo Prefecture (兵庫県) will be certified as the famous Kobe beef. In the 1980s and 1990s, Kobe beef was introduced to the world and made a huge impact for its exceptionally high quality. Yasufuku, a bull from Hyogo Prefecture was considered to be genetically ideal for creating offspring with high quality meat. It was introduced to the Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県) in the 1980s, and produced 39,000 offspring during its lifetime. Yasufuku is also known as the father of Hida beef (飛騨牛). Today, all cattle of the Hida beef are bred and raised in Gifu Prefecture. In Takayama, there are multiple ways to appreciate the Hida beef, from high-end steakhouse to takeaway beef sashimi.
Opened in 2001, French Restaurant Le Midi is one of the most elegant restaurant in the city to sample Hida beef.
A side store of Le Midi offers takeaway snacks.
Custard pudding topped with local honey is one of the shop’s signature dish.
Other than pudding, Le Midi’s Hida beef burger is also highly popular among tourists. The Hida beef hamburger and custard pudding were the first two snacks we tried in Takayama, and already we were quite impressed.
Across the street from Midi, we also picked up a Hida beef skewer from Kyoushi (梗絲), one of the restaurants in Takayama specialized in Hida beef sushi.
Even the imitation display of the Hida beef snacks looked mouth-watering.
In the historic Kamisannomachi Street, the Hida beef sushi from Hida Kotte ushi (飛驒牛壽司) is perhaps the most anticipated street snacks in Takayama. Visitors can choose to enjoy the sushi at the seating area in the souvenir shop behind the sushi counter.
Hida beef sushi combo on rice crackers were truly amazing. We finally got a taste of beef that would “melt” in the mouth.
Near the railway station, there are butcher shops such as Yamatake Shoten (山武商店) offering a comprehensive Hida beef experience from picking the meat to devouring the grilled meat all under one roof.
For dinner, we chose Hidagyu Maruaki (丸明) to have Hida beef yakiniku (焼肉).
At 7:15pm, we put down our names on the waiting list at Hidagyu Maruaki (丸明). In less than ten minutes a staff came out and removed the waiting list and put a sign at the front door to stop any newcomer.
After an half-hour wait, a staff led us into the yakiniku dining hall.
We ordered a highest grade Hida beef (最とび飛騨牛) and a A5 Hida beef sirloin. The yakiniku dinner was basically a DIY barbecue experience.
The highest grade Hida beef (最とび飛騨牛) was full of marbling.
A5 Hida beef sirloin.
At the restaurant entrance, photos of Hida beef breeders were displayed on the wall.
Bar codes of the Hida beef for the night were also on display.
Certifications and newspaper articles about Hida beef breeders were displayed at the shopfront of Hidagyu Maruaki (丸明).
Surrounded by mountains in the Gifu Prefecture, Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山) or simply Takayama (高山) is a delightful destination for all tourists who have make the effort coming to the central mountainous region of Honshu. Takayama serves well as the base for travelers to visit the surrounding attractions, from Kamikochi and the Japanese Alps to the east, to the gassho-zukuri villages of Shirakawa-go (白川郷) and Gokayama (五箇山) to the north. Takayama is best known for its morning market at Miyagawa River (宮川), high quality sake and world famous Hida beef, but the most remarkable thing for most visitors is how well the historic Sanmachi Suji District (三町筋) has been preserved. Wandering in the historic heart of Takayama makes us felt like going back in time to the Edo Period (1600-1868, 江戸時代), when the city was a wealthy and prosperous merchant city. On the other hand, a visit to the castle ruins at Shiroyama Park (城山公園) on the mountain next to the historical centre reminded us the city’s shogunate past in the Sengoku Period (1467-1568, 戦国時代).
We arrived at Takayama from Shirahone Onsen at around 12:30pm. Our hotel J-Hoppers Guesthouse was just a few minutes away from the railway station.
Our tatami room was simple and clean, with a window overlooking the city’s post office across the street.
Just a short walk from J-Hoppers brought us to Sanmachi Suji (三町筋), the historic district that most tourists linger when they come to Takayama. Most tourists wandered around Sannomachi Street, the atmospheric street flanked by old timber houses.
In the charming historic district, even the street gutter can provide a lovely picture.
One of the most enjoyable activities to wander around Sanmachi Suji District is to sample the diverse local snacks, from beef croquettes to mochi. The rice cracker of Senbeidou (手焼煎餅堂) on Sannomachi Street is also popular with tourists.
At Sanmachi Suji, one of the most popular shop we encountered was Ohnoya Paste Shop (大のや醸造). Ohnoya had been around in Takayama for the past 250 years selling soy sauce (醤油) and miso paste (味噌).
At Ohnoya, we bought a bag of aka miso (red miso 赤味噌), a bottle of yonen (4 years) shoyu, a soy sauce made from aka miso, and a bottle of kibiki shoyu, a special soy sauce made with a traditional recipe.
A poster on a shopfront reminded us the famous Takayama Matsuri or Takayama Festival. Held annually in spring and autumn, Takayama Festival (高山祭) is often considered one of Japan’s three most beautiful festivals.
During the Takayama Festival, the city’s splendid festival floats (yatai) would be paraded throughout the historic streets. Throughout the year, the floats are stored in special storehouses scattered across the old town.
On Sannomachi Street, we walked by the beautiful gate of Fujii Folk Museum, a small museum with exhibits of artefacts and local art pieces.
Before heading up to the Shiroyama Park (城山公園), we stopped by a sweet bun shop.
The sweet buns looked pretty and tasted delicious.
While wandering the historic centre, we passed by the interesting Takayama Shōwa-kan Museum (高山昭和館). Named as one of Takayama’s top attractions in Lonely Planet, the museum showcased objects dated back from the mid 1950’s to 1960’s Japan.
What looked like an antique shop across from Takayama Shōwa-kan Museum (高山昭和館) was in fact a hairdresser (バーバー文助) decorated in a vintage look.
On our way to Shiroyama Park (城山公園), we passed by another old miso shop (丸五味噌(醤油)屋).
After our walk up the Shiroyama Park and Higashiyama Walking Course (東山遊歩道), we finally reached the beautiful Miyagawa River (宮川).
The hotel staff at J-Hoppers recommended us to check out the 1200-year-old ginkgo tree (銀杏) at Kokubunji Temple.
The 37m tree is a designated natural treasure.
Hida Kokubunji Temple (飛騨国分寺) was originally built in 764 AD by Emperor Shoumu. Over the years, the structures had been reconstructed. The three-storey pagoda was rebuilt in 1821 to replace the earlier five-storey pagoda that was itself a replacement of the original seven-storey pagoda.
Together with the pagoda, the bell tower at Kokubunji Temple is also a fascinating old timber structure.
With a population of less than 250,000, peaceful Matsumoto (松本市) is renowned for its beautiful mountain views, in particular the Hida Mountains to the west. Coming from Tokyo, we could immediately sense the relaxing air of the mountain city as we stepped out the train station. We spent 5 hours in Matsumoto, visiting the castle, art museum, and performing arts centre. All three sites were within walking distance from the train station, and we were able to cover everything on foot. Near the castle, we passed by small weekend markets where vendors were selling snacks, handicrafts, straw hats, accessories, local produces, artworks, etc. Our brief stay in Matsumoto provided us a moment of transition between busy Tokyo and tranquil Kamikochi (上高地) in the Japanese Alps.
At 09:40 we arrived at Matsumoto Station (松本駅) by JR East’s Super Azusa.
It was Saturday morning. Most shops near the station had yet open their doors except this sake store. Sake, the popular Japanese rice wine, is in fact quite famous in Nagano Prefecture, where clean water, good sake rice and cool weather can be found.
With red polka dots all over, the Town Sneaker bus is undoubtedly designed by Yayoi Kusama (草間彌生), the world renowned artist from Matsumoto. This inner city loop service is a convenient way for tourists to get around the city.
In front of the newly opened Shinmai Media Garden, a lively street market captured our attention. Designed by Toyo Ito, Shinmai Media Garden is a shopping centre with an interesting trade mix, including a local beer restaurant, cultural workshops, rooftop cafe, restaurants, apple cider shop, lifestyle store, small exhibition spaces, etc.
At the street market, we could find different local products from handicrafts to snacks.
Even doughnuts were made with local ingredients.
Straw broom (houki) of Matsumoto (松本箒) is a famous traditional handicraft of the city since the late Edo Period 150 years ago.
This minimalist building right by the Metoba River is a small retail complex with a barber shop, restaurants, and fashion boutiques.
Behind the retail complex stands the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum, which hosts a collection of timepieces donated by Chikazo Honda and other local citizens.
Nawate Dori, also called Kaeru Machi or “Frog Street”, is a small street near the castle famous for its traditional shops. Frog sculptures can be found along Nawate Dori. Made by students of Tokyo University for Arts, this sculpture of frog samurai is one the most impressive.
Some say the abundance of frog sculptures at Nawate Dori is a result from the typhoon incident in 1959, which flooded the area and forced the original Kajika frogs of the Metoba River leaving for higher ground and never returned. The frog sculptures have since become replacements to retain the original spirit of the place.
The streets of Matsumoto were full of surprises.
The abundance of nice boutiques and delightful cafes at downtown Matsumoto reveals the youthful energy and desire for a cozy lifestyle.
Matsumoto has a decent student population with its universities, junior colleges, secondary and elementary schools.
At 14:45, we hopped on the Alpico Kotsu’s Kamikochi Line at platform No. 7 at the station. The 14.4km train ride took us as far as Shin Shimashima (新島々駅) in half an hour, from where we switched to the Kamikochi bound bus for the final leg of the journey.
At Matsumoto Station, we picked up two bento boxes from a convenient store. They were tasty and decent looking, perfect for a relaxing train ride.
As soon as we stepped out of Shin Shimashima Station (新島々駅), we could see the bus parked outside. It was a smooth transfer as we boarded the direct bus for Kamikochi.
On the way to Kamikochi, we often passed by picturesque rice paddies.
The bus ride took about 60 minutes through mountain valleys and small villages. All we could hope for was pleasant weather in Kamikochi, where we would make day hikes to explore the mountains.
Due to the fact that this world-largest fish market is running out of space for future development, and that the site of the existing Inner Wholesale Market is sitting on prime real estate land, the Tsukiji Inner Market or Jonai Shijo (築地中央卸売市場) is scheduled to be relocated to Toyosu (豊洲) in this October. Handling over 2000 tons of seafood per day and employed over 60,000 staff, relocating the Tsukiji Inner Market is no small feat. Not catered for public visitors and tourists, the wholesale area is not an ideal place to wander around. No tourists are allowed before 11am according to the rules, and there is a limited number of quota for watching the famous tuna auction before dawn. Outside of the wholesale area, a few small lanes of restaurants are extremely popular with tourists. There are about two dozens of small sushi restaurants serving fresh fish just a stone throw away from the wholesale area. No wonder the most popular restaurants such as Sushi Dai (寿司大) and Daiwa Sushi (大和寿司) are infamously known for the long queues, with some bloggers mentioning in the range of one to three hours of wait.
This time, we didn’t enter the wholesale area of the Inner Market. We didn’t want to stand in the way of the busy staff.
We walked to the lanes of eateries and sushi bars to hunt for a place for breakfast.
Japanese grilled omelette or tamagoyaki (玉子焼き) could also be found in the Inner Market area.
In 2014, we came to the Inner Market in early morning and had a bowl of chirashi for breakfast.
Other than chirashi and sushi, there were also other options such as curry and tempura.
The line for Sushi Dai went all the way to the other side of the building out onto the adjacent lane. It seemed like a two hour wait at least.
This time, we picked Daiwa Sushi (大和寿司). Daiwa Sushi occupies two stores so we thought the queue wouldn’t be too long. We wouldn’t mind queuing for a while to have a chance to taste the fresh nigirizushi or hand pressed sushi (握り寿司) from Tsukiji Market.
At the door of Daiwa Sushi, a staff was responsible to monitor the queue and direct the entering customers when seats became available in the restaurant.
Through the window, we could see a senior itamae (chef) and his apprentices busy preparing nigirizushi for customers.
We ended up queuing for a little over an hour before finding ourselves sitting at the bar seats of Daiwa Sushi.
The interior was down to earth. We sat by the corner right by a photo depicting the catch of a huge tuna.
There was only one nigirizushi (握り寿司) set option to order. Nothing fancy about the sushi, but the freshness of the fish and the vibrant market atmosphere made all the wait worthwhile.
After the sushi breakfast, we hopped to Aiyo Cafe next door for a cup of coffee.
The interior of Aiyo revealed a strong vintage atmosphere.
The entire shop seemed frozen in time since mid 20th century.
The staff were very friendly and spoke some English.
We had a good time exchange a few words with them while taking a short coffee break. After all, we were a little sleepy after the red-eye flight.
At another lane there were restaurants that offered Western cuisine. We thought of trying but were too full after the sushi breakfast.
We walked by an interesting sliding door panel leaning against a low wall outside the row of restaurants that offered Western food. Was the move to Toyosu already underway for some restaurant owners we did not know.
Judging from the mini figure that actually moved continuously as if devouring a bowl of delicious noodles, the door might belong to a ramen restaurant. After the sushi and coffee, we decided to move on to Roppongi for a dose of design culture.