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Traditional Soba at Yamatoan on Mount Yoshino in Nara (Yoshinoyama)

Yoshinoyama (吉野山 or Mount Yoshino) in Nara prefecture is mainly famous for it’s beautiful cherry tree blossoms in the spring. However, I was in the area in the summer as part of another trip, and Google Maps led us to a wonderful soba shop, Yamatoan.

Inaka Soba at Soba restaurant Yamatoan on Mt. Yoshino
Inaka Soba set at Yamatoan (circa. 2020)

The staff are very friendly. Maybe it’s because we went on off-season and they weren’t very busy, but they took some extra time to tell us the difference in “inaka soba” (country-style old-fashioned soba) and regular soba. They also serve “soba yu” at the end of your meal, which the left over warm water that is left over from when the soba noodles were prepared. You’re meant to pour this warm broth into your soba dipping sauce (tsuyu) and drink it like tea.

The shop also had a big jambe drum from Mali… The staff told us that he used to play in a drum circle. I’m saying staff, but, he actually might be the owner, or manager, not sure. The shop also sells high-end hemp backpacks from Nepal. It’s that kind of natural place with a hipster vibe.

Soba restaurant Yamatoan
Yamatoan on Mount Yoshino in Nara (Yoshinoyama)

We cheated and came to Yamatoan by car. If you decide to walk up the mountain to get here, you’ll be sure to work up an appetite and you’ll enjoy passing by the other rustic shops along the way.

Good times! Good food! If you’re in the area be sure to check it out, might be fun.

Soba restaurant Yamatoan
They also have a soba-making workshop!

Links:

Yamatoan Official Website

Nara Sightseeing – Yamatoan

Address: 2296, Yoshinoyama, Yoshino-cho, Yoshino-gun, Nara Pref.

Japanese Shochu – Chihonokura

I’m no shochu connoisseur, but I’ve had a lot of shochu. My relatives drink a ton of the potato-based Kirishima, so I am using Kirishima as the basis of comparison for every shochu I have had recently.

I recently picked up a carton of potato-based Chihonokura from the Shirakawa Suigen area in Kyushu.

Chinokura Shochu Carton
Chihonokura Shochu

Compared to Kirishima this shochu has a much stronger potato flavor. Many people describe the potato flavor of potato-based shochu as stinky, and I think it’s not unfair to use that to describe this shochu. It’s not the stinkiest or most difficult to drink, but when you try Chihonokura there will be no doubt that you’re drinking a potato shochu!

I normally drink shochu with lots of ice. I couldn’t imagine drinking this one any other way, I’m sure I would have personally found it to be too strong.

Personally I won’t be seeking this one out again, but if you’re into the more powerful potato shochu’s it’s worth a try. I was able to easily find this at a regular grocery store in Japan.

Chihonokura Carton Details
Shirakawa Suigen in Kyushu is famous for pristine water, essential for shochu.

Fancy White Bread in Japan at Nogami Bread

Need a fancy loaf of bread? Sure you do! Try Noagmi Bread.

Nogami Bread Display

This double sized loaf on display costs 864 yen, or about $8.50 USD. A smaller loaf is 432 yen. I have had this bread on several occasions, and it’s delicious for sure, but it’s not something I would plan on eating every day.

Apparently Nogami is the first Japanese company to start selling high-end white bread in Japan. Now there are many similar specialty bakeries. Nogami has branches all over Japan. See if there is one in your location so you can find out what the hype is all about!

Famous Signatures at Nogami in Osaka
Famous people shopped here! One of the Nogami Bread shops in Osaka

Links:

Not my video. A Japanese guy from 2016 showing off his bread.
Can you handle this?

A Visit to Awajishima Circa 2004

In 2002 I took a trip from Osaka to Awajishima. The trip was awesome and was suggested by a reader of my blog at the time. I was lucky enough to be hosted by an exchange student friend who was living on Awajishima, so I had a local host of sorts. The trip was a few hours one way. First we took a train to Sannomiya, and then grabbed a long distance bus for about an hour and a half. The last stop on the bus is a town called Fukura, which is where my friend was living. I’m not sure if that’s still the best way to get there, so check the Awajishima Access link below to plan your trip.

A picture of one of Awajishima's famous whirlpools
One of Awajishima’s famous whirlpools called Uzuoshi うず潮

We arrived late Friday night so we would have Saturday and Sunday to enjoy. Due to the unbelievable whirlwind of activities that we did on Saturday, I think I can say that we did almost all of the main attractions that Awajishima has to offer. Here’s a summary of our tour.

#1 Nushima (Nu Island)

Nushima (沼島) is a small island about a 10 minute ferry ride from Nandan-cho, Nada. Nushima has a famous rock called Kamitate Gami Iwa 上立神岩。

Kamitate Gamiiwa Rock
Kamitate Gamiiwa Rock 上立神岩

It also has this cool area with hundreds of continuous Torii gates. Sort of like Fushimi Inari in Kyoto but with fewer tourists and a different style of torii gate. Apparently they give luck to the many fishermen in the area.

Torii Gates on Awajishima
Torii Gates on Awajishima

Also, here’s some trivia. Apparently in Nushima there is a story that explains how the island, and the rest of Japan were created. When god was creating Japan, he jabbed a sword into the earth. When he was pulling up the sword some of the stuff that was clinging to it dripped off. That first drip is Nushima. Kamitate Gami Iwa is the spot where the sword stuck. The other drips were Awajishima and the rest of Japan… So Nushima came first. Apparently there is a similar story in Awajishima with the names reversed. The ferry’s don’t leave Nushima back to Awajishima so often, so be sure to track the schedule carefully. If not, you might have to run up and down the hills of the island at break neck speeds to avoid screwing up the rest of your day. Then your muscles will be sore… Not that… it… happened to us or anything… Ha Ha Ha!(恥)

#2 Awajishima Monkey Center (モンキーセンター)

After Nushima we went to Awajishima Monkey Center. Awajishima Monkey Center was probably the second most famous thing in Awajishima next to the Uzushio (渦潮) at the time.

Awajishima Monkey Center
Awajishima Monkey Center (2004)

The monkey center was nice because the monkeys were just kind of walking around freely. There is a designated spot for feeding where the customers go behind a fence and give them peanuts. This is so the monkeys understand that random people are only going to give them food when they are behind the fence so they don’t ask for food other times.

Monkeys at Awajishima Monkey Center
Monkeys at Awajishima Monkey Center

#3 Nazo no Paradise (ナゾのパラダイス)

Nazo no Paradise is this erotic museum with other random mystery stuff like UFOs. It was freakin’ strange. Apparently the place tries to remain reasonably legit by keeping old school Japanese erotic prints. You know what I mean. They also though had strange statues…

Statue from Nazo no Paradise
Statue from Nazo no Paradise

#4 Awaji Ningyou Jyoururi (人形浄瑠璃)

That Kanji is difficult. It wouldn’t even come up on my cell phone on first try.

Awajishima Doll
Awajishima Doll

These dolls are famous and the performance is an art. It takes three people to control one doll. The right arm and head are controlled by one person, the left arm by another, and the feet by the last person. The doll’s hands can move, eyes can blink, head can turn, and all of the arm joints move freely.

During the performance there were two Japanese ladies on the side, one playing the shamisen, and one singing and reading the lyrics. It’s amazing how they all work together to bring the dolls to life. Pictures were not allowed during the performance. The men controlling the dolls wore all black and black hoods as to not distract from the action of the dolls. 

#5 Awaji Farm Park England Hill (England no Oka, イングランドの丘)

Farm park was a sort of nature and farm inspired theme park. There is something similar in Osaka called Mother Farm. Check their website for some of the possible activities. I wouldn’t recommend a trip to Awajishima just to visit Farm Park, but if you’re already in Awajishima and have kids it can be a nice healthy diversion.

On our final day we went to do shiohigari, which is “clamming.” You go down to the beach when the tide is back, and dig for clams. Then you take them home and eat them up. Fun for the whole family!

Shiohigari in Awaji
Clamming on Awajishima
Shiohigari in Awaji
Clamming on Awajishima – BYOB (Bring your Own Bucket)

充実した一日だった。

Links around the web

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Harajuku Circa 2002

When I was relatively new to Tokyo I visited Harajuku summer 2002. Here’s some photos and memories from that time.

Harajuku is just about a 20 minute stroll from Shibuya. If you plan to visit, just get to Shibuya and you can walk to Harajuku and through Omotesando as well on the same trip.

Takeshita Doori 2002
Takeshita Street (2002)

Harajuku used to be famous for clothing shops, crepe, and the extreme fashions of the people who hang out there. The vibe has changed a bit since 2002. Nearby Omotesando is a clean fancy street filled with high end shops and fancy restaurants. Harajuku station itself is scheduled to be remodeled and expanded and will no longer be a cute little station resembling a cabin of sorts. I haven’t been in a while, but I’m pretty sure that Takeshita street still gets super crowded. Some things will never change. Probably a much higher percentage of out of foreign tourists now though.

Back in 2002, as soon as I got to the station area I noticed the crazy fashion statements that were mentioned in every Tokyo guide book at the time. The pictures speak for themselves. The locals welcomed the photos, and posed and looked directly into the camera for me.

Harajuku Fashion 2002
Harajuku Fashion 2002
Harajuku Fashion 2002
Harajuku Fashion 2002
Harajuku Fashion 2002 - Two girls
Harajuku Fashion 2002
Harajuku Fashion 2002
Harajuku Fashion 2002

The gathering was organized and set around a specific time. Was it Sunday mornings? Local photographers came out to take pictures, and everyone came out with their suitcases filled with gear for their outfits.

Harajuku Station Area 2002
Harajuku Station Area 2002
Harajuku Station Area 2002 Photographer
Harajuku Station Area 2002 Photographer

Have you been to Harajuku recently? What’s changed? Is the vibe around the station area and entrance to the park generally the same? Now when I go to Japan I generally go to Osaka, so it’s been a while since I’ve been to Harajuku too see if these folks still come out!

I can’t believe it’s been almost 20 years…

Harajuku Fashion 2002
Harajuku Fashion 2002
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Minoh Beer – Craft Beer from Osaka. And eat some leaves.

If you’re looking for a quality local craft beer from Osaka you must try Minoh Beer.

Minoh Beer - Weizen
Minoh Beer – the Weizen

Minoh beer is probably the easiest Osaka-based craft beer to find. You might be able to find it in a restaurant or craft beer bar. You can certainly buy it online from their shop, and you can occasionally find it in a random grocery shop. You may also have luck finding it in large cities outside of Osaka as well.

Minoh is a town in Osaka famous for its waterfall and beautiful foliage in the fall. The first time I went to Minoh I didn’t know about Minoh Beer and was mainly going for a nature-filled getaway from the hustle and bustle of Osaka. Some links about Minoh follow this post.

Minoh beer has been around since 1997. It is unique in that it is owned by three sisters. They have a relatively large line of beers and have won many awards. There is a Minoh Beer Warehouse in Minoh where you can tour and buy souvenirs. I haven’t been there… yet.

Here is an image of the Minoh Beer pamphlet (as of Feb 2020). You’ll see a pilsner, a weizen, a pale ale, a stout, a double IPA for their main line. They also have several seasonal offerings, including a Yuzu White for the winter season that I have never tried! Good to see that their product line continues to grow. More images of the pamphlet are at the bottom of this post.

Minoh Beer Pamphlet 2020
Minoh Beer Pamphlet (Feb 2020)

This time I tried this Billikin Beer from Minoh Beer that I had never had before. It’s a light fruity beer that I think would be delicious on a hot summer day. It’s also the first canned beer from Minoh that I have tried.

Minoh Beer - Billiken Beer
Billikin Beer from Minoh Beer

What else is going on in Minoh?

I was digging through the archives of my old blog and found these words that I wrote about Minoh when I visited in 2005.

One of the local foods available in Minoh is called Momiji Tempura.

Momiji Tempura in Minoh
Momiji Tempura in Minoh – Deep Fried Leaves

As you probably know Tempura is a way of deep frying lightly breaded foods so that when they are done they have a light brown crust of tasty goodness around them. You can tempura anything from shrimp to ice cream.

In Minoh they push tempura to the limits and throw their famous maple leaves into the mix. Maybe they have too many and are trying to control the population? Beats raking them I guess. Crunch.

Momiji Tempura just tastes like an extra crunchy tempura snack. You can’t really taste the leaves… The Tempura coating is more crunchy than usual tempura. You can pop ’em like potato chips. Fun for the novelty I guess.

Hey. Japanese time. Did you know that the kanji for TEMPURA is really tough? Tough like “soy sauce” and “rose” are tough. Japanese usually write the PURA in Hiragana. 天麩羅!!! Learn to write this, and dazzle your friends next time you go out for tempura.

On another note of randomness… Apparently momiji trees are normally red, and then when fall comes they turn green. Opposite of most trees. This explains why I could have red momiji leave tempura in April… Fact or fiction?

Back to beer and Minoh related links:

Minoh Beer Bottle Cap
Minoh Beer Bottle Cap
Minoh Beer Pamphlet 2020
Minoh Beer Pamphlet 2020
Minoh Beer Pamphlet 2020
Minoh Beer Pamphlet 2020

Isuien Garden in Nara – Don’t skip it

The area around Toudaiji and the Deer Park in Nara is constantly packed. If you’re looking for something that is less crowded, don’t skip the beautiful Isuien Gardens.

Isui-en Garden
Isuien Garden

One creative feature in Isuien Gardens is their use of stones tied with rope to indicate areas that guests should not enter. This is great. The stones are aesthetically pleasing, blend in with nature and the parks scenery, and are still easy to spot.

Isui-en Garden Stone
Stones tied with rope indicate no-go zones for visitors.
Isui-en Garden Stone
Beauty stone STOPS YOU IN YOUR TRACKS
Isui-en Garden Stone and Path
Beautiful Scenery at Isuien Garden

Isuen Garden is a short walk from Kintetsu Nara station. You can easily do the garden, Todaiji, and the nearby famous deer park in the same afternoon or morning.

There is also a nice little tea house in the garden where you can take of your shoes, sit on tatami, and enjoy some tea and traditional Japanese sweets (or soft cream).

Visiting Isuien shocked me into really feeling like I was “in Japan” again. It’s amazing how much the environment can change once you enter the garden grounds. As there were hardly any tourists when we went, it was quiet, free of any litter, and seemed that everything was in place. We were there in the morning and could hear what sounded like a bullfrog, and there were small bugs suspending themselves on top of the pond. Really a great environment. If you’re in Nara, don’t miss it!

Links:

Isuien Garden [Wikipedia]

Japan Guide: Isuien [Japan-Guide.com]

Official Isuien Garden Website [English / Japanese]

Review: The Chess Game at Japan Toys R Us by Portable Series

I was looking for a cheap tiny chess set to use with my kid while hanging out at the in-laws. Something that I could leave behind tucked away in a corner that wouldn’t take up much space. Something not heavy that I could bring on short overnight trips. Something so inexpensive that I wouldn’t cry if it got lost.

The Chess Game by Portable Series
The Chess Game by Portable Series. Made in Japan. Like 5 USD.

This is fine. It cost less than 550 yen when I got it in February 2020 in Osaka.

The Chess Game by Portable Series

The fold up plastic board can store the pieces, and it comes with a trifold instruction manual. The manual is Japanese only and unnecessary if you know how to pay chess. You have to punch the pieces out from the plastic mold yourself, but it wasn’t difficult and I didn’t break any pieces in the process. I’ll probably get a small bag of some sort to put the pieces into before putting them inside of the board to prevent everything from rattling around like cheap a cheap baby rattle.

The Chess Game by Portable Series
You need to break the pieces apart yourself

The pieces are easy enough to tell apart. They are extremely light hollow plastic. Not satisfying to move at all, but hey, didn’t buy this for that feeling anyway.

The board has indented plastic spaces to prevent the pieces from sliding around, but the spaces are circles that are much larger than the bases of the pieces.

The Chess Game by Portable Series
Plastic indentations keep the pieces from sliding around. It’s not magnetic.

As it was so cheap this was a worthwhile experiment since I’m trying to keep up my kid’s interest in chess. I mainly set up one move checkmate situations and other chess puzzles that I find online, and my kid enjoys solving them. Soon I think we’ll be able to play a game together! For that sort of training, this cheap set is worth it. If you’re looking for a permanent travel set that you enjoy playing games with, keep looking.

Shochu Culture with expert Stephen Lyman

Do you want to really geek out on Japanese Shochu? Check out these two videos featuring Stephen Lyman, America’s leading expert on Japan’s national distilled spirit: shochu.

Deep-Swig of Shochu Culture with expert Stephen Lyman
Japan Society NYC – Shochu: Japan’s Best Kept Secret

Shochu is a nice, distinctly Japanese drink. Like whisky, different shochu labels have memorably different tastes and qualities. You can drink shochu on the rocks, split with warm water, with seltzer water, you can even do hot water and put an umeboshi into the glass.

As you’ll learn in Stephen Lyman’s videos, shochu is almost exclusively produced and consumed in Japan. Most shochu is made in Kyushu, and much of it is from relatively small distileries. Exploring the world of shochu might be fun! Give it a shot.

Drinking in general is not good for your health. However, among all the possible alcoholic beverages you can consume, Shochu isn’t the worst. In fact, Stephen documented his weight lost results when switching to a “shochu diet.” Apparently shochu has far fewer calories than other drinks. Another plus of shochu is that it is normally cheaper than whiskey or sake. A nice bottle of shochu, in Japan, will rarely exceed 4000 or 5000 yen. Very good bottles can be had for about 3000 yen. Very reasonable.

Still curious? Need more shochu info?

Interview with Stephen Lyman on Nomunication.jp: https://www.nomunication.jp/2019/06/18/kampai-samurai-stephen-lyman-shochu/

Wondering which Shochu were introduced in Stephen’s (@shochu_danji) interview with @jjwalsh? Here they are!

Chusonji in Iwate Prefecture

I had the opportunity to visit Chusonji in Iwate Prefecture winter 2017.

You can read a lot about Chusonji online, and I recommend that you do. If you’re looking for an impressive Japanese temple to visit that is far enough off the beaten path that it isn’t crowded with tourists, this is a great choice. Chusonji and the entire town of Hiraizumi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so quality signs in English abound.

Iwate prefecture is up north at least three hours from Tokyo by train. Many visitors chose to fly. A visit is difficult to recommend for a first visit to Japan, but if you’ve been before and are looking for something different I would recommend taking a look.

I happened to be in town in December, so it was freezing cold and covered in snow. Here are some of the photos that I took. Note, some of the most famous locations do not allow photography, so these shots are not representative of the entire site.

Chusonji Temple Grounds
Chusonji Temple Grounds in December
Chusonji Temple Grounds
That water is cold…
Chusonji Temple Grounds
Tourist with umbrella for the snow at Chusonji
Chusonji Temple Grounds
Chusonji Temple Grounds

Links: