DAY 6 (6/6): CROAKING FROGS AND MOONLIGHT REFLECTIONS, Gokayama (五箇山), Toyama Prefecture (富山県), Japan, 2018.05.30
The stay in Ainokura proved to be more than worthwhile. We got the chance to take refuge in a 350-year old gassho-zukuri house and dine right by a traditional Irori (囲炉裏) hearth in the atmospheric dining room. The stay also allowed us to experience Ainokura in the evening, when most tourists were gone. After dinner, it stopped raining. We went out to take in the tranquil atmosphere under the silver moonlight and shimmering stars. Wandering on the winding paths, we were totally surrounded by rice fields and the croaking sound of frogs.
The owner of Gassho Minshuku Nakaya used the traditional Irori (囲炉裏) hearth in the dining room to prepare the smoked ayu fish for our dinner.
Seasoned with sea salt, the smoked ayu fish were the star delicacy of our dinner.
Pickle, deep fried, and soy sauce veggies, carp sashimi, local rice, and smoked ayu fish left us more than satisfactory after a long and wet day in the Japanese countryside.
Outside of Gassho Minshuku Nakaya, the village path was lit with dim street lamps.
The mirror-like rice fields reflected the beautiful gassho-zukuri houses.
With clouds and moonlight, it wasn’t the best time for stargazing.
Loud croaking sound of frogs came from rice fields in all directions.
The village paths were pretty much deserted after dark, except a handful of tourists and local villagers.
The sky was getting darker as we wandered around the village.
We could see a bit more stars as the last twilight faded.
In the dark, we walked uphill a little bit to a lookout that we visited earlier in the day. From there, we took a photo of the night sky over Ainokura just before the moon emerged behind the mountains.
Across the rice fields and river valley, the moon was about to emerge beyond the mountains.
The silhouette of mountains and silver moonlight depicted a lovely reflection in the rice fields. We were grateful to enjoy a moment of absolute peace just before moonrise.
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).
DAY 4 (3/3): MOMENTS OF ESCAPE, Tsuruya Ryokan (つるや旅館), Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉), Nagano Prefecture (長野県), Japan, 2018.05.28
At 2pm, we returned to Tsuruya Ryokan (つるや旅館) to check in. Although there were hiking trails venturing further out of Shirahone Onsen, we weren’t in a hurry to go out. Instead, we opted for spending a relaxing time at the ryokan. Since there weren’t any restaurants available, we made ourselves delicious local cup noodles bought at the souvenir shop on the main street. Our room was spacious and decorated in traditional Japanese style. The air was filled with fragrance of the tatami. Yet the thing that delighted us the most was the large window looking out to the dense vegetation. We ended up spending the entire afternoon reading novels, devouring local snacks and enjoying the ryokan’s hotspring bath from time to time.
Near the bus stop of Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉) , a sign board indicated the availability of onsen bath at each ryokan for outside users.
At 2pm, we checked in at Tsuruya Ryokan (つるや旅館). The ryokan is located adjacent to a lush green ravine.
Shirahone Onsen remained quiet during weekdays. The lobby of Tsuruya Ryokan was airy but felt a little empty.
Our room was a comfortable Japanese style room came with traditional furnishings.
Through the large window, we could just stare at the lush greenery and circling insects all day long and wouldn’t get bored.
It was the perfect time to open a bottle of beer from the Japanese Alps.
The Nissin cup noodles we bought from the souvenir shop came with flavor of local miso, and it was undoubtedly one of the best cup noodles we ever had.
Adjacent from the onsen bath, the drinking room offered two water sources: local spring and the famous milky hotspring of Shirahone Onsen. The mineral rich onsen of Shirahone Onsen is drinkable and said to offer a number of health benefits.
The bath facility at Tsuruya Ryokan was neat and clean. Outside of weekends, it is quite possible to enjoy the bath all by yourself.
Similar to many traditional ryokan, the indoor bath at Tsuruya Ryokan is a large wooden pool filled with the milky hotspring.
The outdoor pool was definitely my favorite. It felt divine to breathe in the cool fresh air from the Mount Norikura (乗鞍岳) and enjoy the lush green scenery while submerging into the milky hotspring of Shirahone Onsen.
Like many ryokan, dinner and breakfast were included in the booking. For dinner, we had Hida beef sushi as one of the appetizers.
Yaki-zakana or grilled local fish was another tasty dish.
Sashimi of various types, including carp fish, was a delightful alternative to the grilled fish.
In the next morning, we had some delicious steamed local vegetables and hotspring congee for breakfast.
Soap made with the milky hotspring water of Shirahone Onsen was a decent souvenir.
After a day of pure relaxation at Shirahone Onsen, it was time for us to get moving again. There were only a few buses leaving the onsen village each day. We took the 10:15am bus to leave Shirahone Onsen.
We get off at Sawando Iwamidaira (さわんど岩見平) and crossed the road to wait for a bus heading to Takayama (高山), our next destination.
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.
Walking out of Tsukiji Metro Station, our attention immediately fell to the monumental Tsukiji Honganji Temple (築地本願寺) across the street. Design in mixed styles including Indian Buddhist, Islamic and Hindu, as well as Western Neoclassical influences, architect and Tokyo University professor Chuta Ito intended to steer away from the traditional East Asian timber architectural traditions. Instead, he traveled to India numerous times to visit temples, and brought home design touches from the birthplace of Buddhism. The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed the temple’s predecessor. The current Honganji Temple was built in the 1930s, and soon became a prominent Jodo Shinshu (浄土真宗) temple in Tokyo. We climbed the main stair and entered the main hall through an elegant doorway with beautiful stain-glass transom windows overhead. We were surprised to see a full house of audience in the cathedral-like main hall (even with an organ). Apparently there was a concert going on. A female vocalist was performing some kind of Western opera inside the temple.
The unique facade of Tsukiji Honganji Temple hardly revealed its true identity of to us.
The elegant stain glass transom over the doorway depict the Buddhist icon of lotus flowers.
There was a concert inside the main hall of Tsukiji Honganji Temple.
The architecture of Tsukiji Honganji Temple presents the trend of cultural fusion back in early 20th century.
Across the street adjacent to the Tsukiji Honganji Temple, we picked a small lane leading into Tsukiji Jogai Shijo (築地場外市場) or the Outer Market. Encompassing a few blocks adjacent to the Tsukiji Jonai Shijo or the Inner Market, the Outer Market is a popular tourism attraction. Catered for the public, small shops selling all kinds of culinary-related goods from dried seafood to kitchen knives and food stalls offering a wide range of snacks such as sushi and grilled egg, the pedestrianized lanes of the Outer Market is truly a foodie’s paradise. On this piece of reclaimed land (Tsukiji literally means reclaimed land), the eateries and shops of the Outer Market had long been providing a diverse range of food to the people of Tokyo since the Showa Era (1926-1989). The entire Tsukiji Market was in fact a consequence of the Great Kanto Earthquake, which devastated Central Tokyo in 1923 including the Nihonbashi Fish Market. The fish market was relocated to Tsukiji and began to operate in 1935 as one of the three major markets in the city. Already the largest wholesale seafood market in the world, the Tsukiji Market is running out of space for further development. Work of relocating the market has been undergoing for sometime. After several delays, it seems that the market is really moving to its new home in Toyosu (豊洲) this October. But that didn’t affect the bustling Outer Market as these few blocks of shops and eateries (and the loads of tourists) would likely to stay even after the move.
Street vendors appeared blocks away from the Tsukiji Market just outside the Metro Station.
A large fish painted on the building facade probably reminds tourists the direction of the market.
A relatively new market called “Tsuki Waza” will remain at Tsukiji even after the relocation of Tsukiji Inner Market.
The Tsukiji Outer Market is consisted of a few pedestrianized streets of shops and restaurants.
Katsuobushi (鰹節) is the dried, fermented and smoked skipjack tuna or bonito flakes commonly seen in Japanese cuisine.
Akiyama Shouten (秋山商店) specializes in katsuobushi. We couldn’t resist but got ourselves 500g of the flakes.
There are many small shops with all kinds of dried seafood and seaweed.
While it only occupies a few blocks, one can easily get disoriented in Tsukiji Outer Market.
Apart from the small shops, there are also indoor shopping arcades of food stalls.
We ended up get our first snacks from a street BBQ vendor.
Apart from seafood, spices can also be found in the Outer Market.
Tamagoyaki (玉子焼き) or grilled omelette is another popular snacks available at Tsukiji.
We saw about four to five stalls specialized in tamagoyaki. We tried two of them and they both tasted good.
After free tasting of black beans from Kyoto region we ended up get a pack home.
After all, tuna is still the king in Tsukiji. Quite a long queue of people were waiting for fresh tuna sashimi in front of this shop.
New indoor shopping arcades have been established in recent years at the Outer Market, perhaps as a gesture of confidence for the future of Tsukiji after the relocation of the wholesale Inner Market later this year.
Everyone who has visited Tokyo would probably admit that he/she was spoiled by the abundance of dining options while staying in the Japanese capital. For us, it was actually quite challenging to pin down a place to eat near our hotel in Shibuya, because there were simply too many options (6,866 restaurants in Shibuya alone listed on the tourist website Tripadvisor). We began our trip research about two weeks prior departure. We checked guidebooks, searched travel websites and read online blogs, and came up with a short list of places to visit and eat. The name Kaikaya By The Sea (開花屋), a popular seafood restaurant at Shibuya, came up multiple times during our research. Tempted by their highly recommended seafood, we made a table reservation at Kaikaya for our first evening. After our visit to Ueno and St Mary’s Cathedral, we made it back to Shibuya right on time to Kaikaya By The Sea at 18:30.
Kaikaya By The Sea is located west of Central Shibuya, in a small street west of the shopping centre of Shibuya Mark City. The “fishy” mural under the shop awning introduces a sense of seaside relaxation to the small urban alleyway of Shibuya.
The restaurant vestibule is decorated with lots of visitor photos.
The setting was causal and relax with interesting sea and food related decorations throughout the interior.
The door handle reminded me of a bowl of seafood soup.
From his years of surfing, the owner of Kaikaya By The Sea maintains close connections with fishermen working by the sea. Fish is brought in fresh directly from Sagami Bay (相模湾).
The menu at Kaikaya is quite creative and diverse, from local Japanese sashimi to fusion seafood dishes, and so as the visitors from local customers to foreign tourists.
Kaikaya By The Sea is cozy and full of personal touches of the owner.
An English leaflet introduces a few of their feature dishes. We ended up trying the Tuna Spareribs recommended by the staff.
Our first dish was a plate of very fresh assorted sashimi.
The second dish was broiled live tiger prawns prepared in Hong Kong style. Again, freshness was the key and we could clearly taste the sweetness of the prawn meat.
Then came the in-house specialty tuna spareribs. They are actually baked marinaded tuna jaw. The dish was quite a pleasant surprise to us as we didn’t know what to expect.
Six pieces of fatty tuna (maguro toro) sushi, pickled ginger and fresh wasabi root. A leaf shaped grinder was given for us to DIY the wasabi paste. The toro was so soft as if melted right after we put it into our mouth.
Fresh octopus with rock salt and fresh lemon allowed us to taste the freshness and tenderness of the octopus.
Despite we had already eaten a lot, we couldn’t resist and asked for the dessert menu.
Outside the kitchen of Kaikaya By The Sea.
It was already dark by the time we finished our delicious seafood dinner.
We took a causal stroll in the area and found our way back to Central Shibuya.
We then walked through the shopping centre of Shibuya Mark City and Shibuya Hikarie to return to our hotel and called it a day.
After leaving our luggage at the hotel, we took the Ginza Line Metro to Asakusa (浅草) to purchase the limited express train tickets for our upcoming Nikko day trip in two days’ time. Then we decided to begin the day with some leisure time at Ueno Park and its museums after our red-eye flight. With lush greenery, old trees, historical shrines and several museums, Ueno Park is a good place for a pleasant stroll. From online research, we came across a beautiful restaurant called Innsyoutei (韻松亭). Housed in a century-old timber building in the heart of Ueno Park, Innsyoutei serves a causal version of Kyoto kaiseki cuisine made with seasonal ingredients. We decided to check it out before our museum hopping.
The original timber house of Innsyoutei was built in 1875. A little over a decade ago, the building underwent a major renovation. This rustic tea house has long been a landmark in Ueno Park, where visitors would stop for light refreshments. The renovation maintained the original building layout, but replaced much of the timber structure with materials savaged from other old buildings in Kyoto and Shiga Prefecture.
The traditional restaurant complex is full of the beauty of Zen.
Innosyoutei (韻松亭) literally means “rhythm of the pine pavilion”. This poetic restaurant remains popular with park visitors, especially during hanami (花見) season when the timber house is surrounded by clusters of cherry blossoms.
Once entered the vestibule, we were immediately greeted by the fragrance of the incense.
We took off our shoes at the vestibule, and were led to the dining hall on the upper level.
The wooden stair is accompanied by a beautiful railing made of bamboo.
Covered with tatami floor mat, the dining hall was well lit with natural light coming from the large windows at both ends of the room. Sitting on zabuton (floor cushions), guests gathered at low tables on the tatami to enjoy their Hana-kago-zen (flower basket meal).
Outside the large window, we could see lush green everywhere.
It was not hard to imagine the beauty of the space during cherry blossoms when the lush green would be replaced with clusters of pink flowers.
We sat down at a low table and ordered our lunch sets with much anticipation.
The appetizers soon arrived. We were immediately impressed by the presentation and the taste of food.
We ordered two different set meals of seasonal fish and vegetables. The food was beautifully arranged and presented like two flower baskets with eye-catching colours. The dishes were made of various vegetables skillfully prepared to bring out the distinct flavors and textures of the ingredients.
Tofu, eggplant, beans, and mushroom might sound simple. Yet when they were individually prepared with different flavours of sweetness, sourness and saltiness, and were tasted in a certain order of sequence, the experience would become much more complex and sophisticated. Sometimes, we might not be able to tell what the actual ingredient was just by the look, and would get a pleasant surprise after the first bite. Every of our bite became an opportunity for a pleasant surprise, and was full of anticipation.
A cup of creamy yogurt-like custard beautifully served.
The meal finished with the traditional delight, a mochi (rice cake) kind of dessert wrapped in a leaf.
We unwrapped the leaf with high anticipation and were rewarded with a perfect gift to end the wonderful meal.