Sunday, October 4, 2009

Shintaku, Murakami (新多久)

Sunday, after leaving the lovely onsen, we went a bit farther north and out almost to the coast and the town of Murakami. This is a good model for tourism in the time of swine flu; the town has really pulled together to maximize the interesting elements and create enough attractions for visitors to make a solid day of it. The main shopping street has a good number of preserved buildings, the temple district has as number of nice properties and also some old houses, and the people are friendly and eager to talk about all of it. On the other hand, Murakami does have a number of natural advantages - the preserved neighborhoods are accompanied by a set of 19 preserved floats (yatai) that form the basis for the annual big festival (July 6/7 this year), there are two sake brewers in the town (Shimehari Tsuru and Taiyo; you can visit the breweries easily on foot like we did), and every year the sake (in this case salmon, not rice wine!) spawn near the town, leading to a strong local industry in dried salmon.

We tried to eat at one of the lovely old buildings in the temple neighborhood; really, it looked like a preserved samurai house but said 'kappo' on the outside. The master seemed pretty surprised and happy to see us, but said all their customers were reservation-only, and he didn't have anything much to give us. He recommended Shintaku, a few streets away. Even though they've rebuilt recently (in Heisei 11, if I overheard the waitress correctly), the building has a cool old-style appeal. And is black.

Pretty difficult to make out the kanji from their logo, isn't it?

I'm leaving these pictures big because they're nice; the noren was blowing in the breeze and seemed very alluring and welcoming at the same time. I like how the lettering is printed in gray, giving the impression that it's reverse-printed and showing through the cloth.

Inside, they had this gold screen set up. It's their 'entry' in the town exhibit whereby every shop and public building was showing at least one screen. This is the sort of maximization I mentioned - really, every shop had at least one, even the rice shop. Some, like the obviously-wealthy tea shop, had a good half-dozen screens as well as various gilded boxes and jeweled incense burners set up in their back rooms for inspection (these being shop-houses, the back rooms are really the original living rooms of the house). I have pictures of tons of screens if you're interested, as well as the gorgeous interiors of some of the houses!

They were nearly full for lunch on this Sunday - tourists or locals, I dunno. We felt a bit fortunate to get seats at the counter, with the view pictured here. I was thinking about straightening this picture with an editor until I realized that it's the scroll that's a little off-level.

Lunch didn't feature any options, unfortunately (unless you had booked a table in the upstairs room, in which case you could get both a la carte items as well as the local Murakami beef). But there was little unfortunate about this multi-level bento. Left, sashimi and boiled items; right, various grilled and fried things. Rice in the wood-lidded bowl, soup in the very pretty laquer bowl at the back.

One of the fish was definitely awa, which is a local thing (and continues to confuse me since it also means 'bubble'). The boiled things were very good - the seasonal 'color change' leaf made of raw wheat gluten, the grilled and boiled tofu skin, the pumpkin croquette...all very nice.

The menu pictured in back was, disappointingly, not food at all - just a list of the sake they offered. And almost all of it was from the two local brewers!

Again, some local stuff. Not sure about the provenance of the salmon eggs (back left) or the cooked salmon (middle right) because the master at the reservation-only place told us that he wasn't serving any as it wasn't the season yet. I AM sure that the purple chrysanthemum petals are a Niigata thing (you've seen them appear at practically every other meal this weekend, barring the coffee shop one!). And the salmon was excellent - the technique was called 'fry-pickle', I believe (yakizuke), which means that after grilling the fish through, you leave it submerged in soy sauce for a while and then serve it cold. It was terrific; worth trying that at home. Other things...the croquette right in the middle was nice but I can't remember what it was (so not that good) and the fish fillet with little bones attached was also nice.

Took me a second, but I DO remember what this was. I knew it was good, but it took 30 seconds to realize that it was rum ice cream with black pepper. Weird idea, great taste. Maybe it's a local specialty?
Either way, there's plenty special about Murakami. If you can pass through for a day, or even stay overnight (making sure to eat in one of the upscale kappo) you definitely won't be disappointed.

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