Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tori Ton, Monzen Nakacho

As a second choice to take The Peacocks, this was a bit more gritty than Koto (most things would be, in truth). I've seen Tori Ton for years without going in - maybe it was the 3-foot high doorway that put me off? Turns out they can open a full-size door to let you out if they like you (or does that mean they wanted us gone faster?).

The atmosphere is more or less rough chain izakaya - kinda stylish, but in a well-used way. Big racks of bottles give away the fact that they focus on shochu, and the menu confirms this with a row of 30 potato-based distillations alone. As it was, we stuck with beers (both Ebisu and Sapporo black label on tap) and the fruit-based liqueurs advertized on the wall. You can also ask them about the sake selection; no menu.
Just a couple pictures of food so you can see what you'd be getting into if you went down the rabbit hole here. You can probably guess from the name (sorta like 'chicken-pig') that they focus on grilled meat. We ignored that.

This mentaiko omelette was really good - so fluffy and gooey I thought there must be cheese in it.

This basashi was bad. Not bad like 'OMG, I'm eating a damn horse and it's gross!' bad, but bad like previously-frozen, not thawed, far too lean. Bad as in, not good. There's a big selection of 'alternative' raw foods, so you could have better luck with other items.

As we did with this chicken tenderloin sashimi with plum sauce (I admit, I kinda overdosed by ordering this after already getting the toriwasa. Sorry guys. It won't happen again.). It was really nice - this is why you eat raw chicken. Even the squeamish member of the team eventually came around and tried it, admitting that it was really good. I haven't heard anything about gastrointestinal blowouts, so I think it was OK. I just want to stress, this is not one of those situations where only locals can get away with it (like the way The Peacocks worked themselves up to drinking tapwater in Nam) - the chicken is just fresh, and maybe the birds here don't all have salmonella like they do in the US.

Take that, America!

Koto, Monzennakacho ( 古都 魚河岸料理)

Back when I was young and first started coming to Japan, it was always for winter vacations. Because of that, Japan felt like the country of freedom, the place where I didn't have responsibilities (an odd twist, wouldn't you say?), and that made me love it here. To this day, certain things give me the same feeling, but nothing as strongly as standing on a country train platform, in the morning, on clear, cold days. This is the feeling that brought you trips like Maebashi, Takasaki, Takayama...

My point is that coming to Japan can really make people happy, and it's a pleasure to be around such people. This evening, I had dinner with The Peacocks (sorry guys - everyone has a nickname on this blog. Usually it's something obscure and funny only to me. In this case I know it's an obvious nickname, but it works on multiple levels for me.)  They just moved to Japan after a year in Nam, and I was fortunate enough to be the first person to take them to some real local places. In Monnaka. They haven't yet absorbed the foreigners' idea that Monnaka is beyond the bounds of civilization, and I took advantage of that.

Ferris has walked by this restaurant nine...times...this year and never gone in. For all the wrong reasons. Seriously, it's not even 9 times - more like 90. Every time I take a lap of the neighborhood (the south side, where most of the restaurants are), I have to walk by it. And every time until now I've not gone in. Mistake, I'd say. This evening, we took a stroll and picked it out on the second pass around.

The exterior is what turned me off in the past - it's not really representative of the quality level inside. With a huge tanuki (OK, not quite as big as this one, but just as festive and scrotular) and a certain weathered-wood aspect, I really thought the interior was going to be country-style and normal food. Instead it's mainly small, private rooms, and the food is very well done and refined. One fault could possibly be the price; I'm not totally sure how the bill came out like that, but it's definitely a good place.

A normal starter, crab in vinegar with cucumber and wakame. Good crab though!

Menu? We don't need any damn menus! We're a fish restaurant and you're starting with sashimi, got it? Good. In fact, we were even kinda discouraged from choosing which types we'd like to eat (it's OK to say what you don't want, e.g., octopus for our party). The fish was very good quality; for me, the standouts were actually the tuna (the akami, not the toro), the squid, and the akagai. None of them expensive items, but really, reeally good quality.

Yes, very good quality.

Not sure why I didn:t get some interior shots. I like their homey little counter, fishtank and private rooms. The low dividing screen between our (horikotatsu) table and the other one in our room was a horizontal slice of tree, polished and stood on end. These bowls were pretty.

As was the bamboo inside. The mama told us where it came from. I forgot.

I'll just sneak in that they don't much go in for the liquor selection here; in sake, it's just Hakkaisan and Kubota. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and they come in 1.5-go cut glass flasks.

This was a boiled kinki. It was a true pleasure to have newcomers in the audience and be able to say 'Hey, would you like some kinki?' But for the first time, I explained to the mama why we were laughing. She was predictably apologetic, but the fish was unpredictably good. I couldn't believe how soft and fluffy it was. The gobo strips, compulsory with this dish, were a little dull and I'm not sure why. Can't win 'em all.

Well, I was eager to capitalize on The Peacocks' vitality and excitement by going to another place, so we called it at that point. Actually the mama kinda called it for us, with a 'We're closing soon since it's Saturday. Do you want anything else?' (Which seems fair, since the web says they're closed on Saturdays). She mentioned that a lot of people from my company go there, and you can take that as a cue - it's the kind of food and atmosphere that you want if you need something elegant, a bit private, and cost is not much of an object.

They'll make you fugu or turtle courses too, if you order.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Brown Jug, Ebisu

Should you be walking back to the station in Ebisu, you may well stumble across all manner of interesting places. And should it be raining, you may well want to stop in one of them. Be careful not to miss the last train, OK? It's not fun.

The Brown Jug is basically a whiskey bar (and don't call it little, OK? That's not the name, as I see other reviewers commenting.). The menu has 4 pages of Scotch and whiskey, but I don't drink that. Thus I tested the capabilities of the bar with a Signapore Sling - fresh, lightly frothy from the shaker, and pleasantly balanced. Just based on that drink, I'd say it's a good bar.

The atmosphere is pretty much 'whiskey chic', with empty bottles, pictures of Islay, kilts, plastic model haggis and the like. There's a food menu that I didn't have time or space to investigate; on the web it looks like standard stuff that you'd expect if you were constructing a template for a whiskey bar - fry, fish pie, haggis. Haggis? Haggis.

At closing time, they played a version of Little Brown Jug (the Glenn Miller song), so they've got some 'little' spirit even if it's not the name.

I love how they even got a UK web site since they focus on whisky...

Della Collina, Ebisu

Della Collina comes to us via a recommendation from Ponkan, who went there for a work dinner (nice job pulling that one off!). It's a nice modern Italian place, with ambience and service that will appeal to people with certain quality expectations, and nice food at decent prices.

One mildly unfortunate point is that you can't choose from too many options if you get the fixed-price courses (which are cheaper than you'd expect given the quality of the room and service). Three pastas, two mains. The starter was competent, maybe a bit boring (mortadella, roasted pepper, olives), but also included a very nice snapper carpaccio with light dressing. The suited maitre d' was very suave about explaining what everything was (in English, as much as possible)

The best-sounding pasta was a thin linguine with tomato sauce enriched with sea urchin ('enriched' is a word that indicates you're trying hard to write about food. It means the other ingredient was put into the sauce.).  The sauce was very sweet and thus a bit artificial; this tastes good and is not something you would think to do in home cooking. One disappointment was that the uni was fully-cooked; I wondered if it would be possible to stir it in at the end, like fresh ricotta, so it would still taste fresh. I was also reminded of the cold pasta with uni at Yonemura, which I would like to make once the weather is warmer.

Mains were small but pleasing, as they say. The house special is to roll a filet of white fish in kataifi (shredded phyllo dough) and roasted. Nice stuff. There was also veal, very soft, but flavorful. Small, so you could eat them both, but still...

Desserts were not especially interesting, but seeing banana tiarmisu was probably a first for me. Not something that I need to repeat, particularly. And coffee was quite good; for some reason mine had a snowman drawn into the foam on top. All in, fans of Italian would certainly not be disappointed here. All others, consider a bit more carefully.

The web site is very cute too.

Ajigen ramen, Kanda (味源)

Once a week (sometimes twice!) I continue to have lunch with You (not in any kind of Royal sense) for language practice. It's difficult to say if I'm learning much (other than last week when he was very proud to teach me a colloquial expression for 'cleavage'), but it's always good to practice talking.

He recommended Ajigen, a Hokkaido-style ramen chain with a good number of shops around Tokyo. The specialty is spicy miso ramen, which we consumed, verily. The scores for this place (well, the 24-hour shop in Shibuya that seems like the flagship) are really terrible on ramendb, but I liked it. The soup was quite good - I'm a sucker for spicy, and also for miso, but the underlying soup was good. The noodles were medium-thick, slightly curly, and strong tasting; nothing wrong there. They were out of the cubed pork that it's supposed to come with, so there was just a big slice, but it was very soft. And there were lots of onions on top. So how can you go wrong?

Competency comes at a premium.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

La Maremma, Otemachi

Even the most obvious things still hold some promise...La Maremma is a recommendation that I received early on in my Otemachi career, and only today did I make use of it. The company was better than the food, as Ricky has changed jobs and found what sounds like a dream situation. Let's hope it lasts forever, or at least until his retirement scenario is activated.

Now, you know the food is going to be good here, because it's part of the Restaurant Wonderland group. Their stable includes Mango Tree, Seafood Republic, Oregon Bar and Grill, Nirvana, and Coca, so of course they can also make a good pizza.


Strong points here are that the pizza is baked in a brick oven, and you can get a lot of varieties even at lunch. Ricky sank a Bismarck, while I took the low road with a Diavola. I'm not sure what failed to get me excited about these pizzas. In a weird way, they seemed almost pre-made, and I don't think that's the case. There's nothing wrong with them, and they were cheesey and the sauce was fresh, but if you want really great pizza, there's still nothing for it but to go to Roppongi (I know, I know, or somewhere else with great pizza. But with Savoy's Juban branch handy, Baggio right there(it's been ages since I've been, sad face), and Napule in Midtown, Roppongi does have a serious concentration of pizzarific places. Super!)

Diversity is their strength.

Sake no Ana, Ginza (酒の穴)

[December 2010: I see a lot of people getting to this page as a result of searches on the Google. I wanted to say: there are better places out there, even in the neighborhood. You should check out the Izakayas page. My new favorite is Moromiya, which is practically right up the road. Now back to our regular February 2010 programming.]
Geez, it seems like only last week that I was mentioning The Liquor Hole in a post...and now I've been there. Being another blowout work dinner with Ant and Long (like Gasshomura Santa), this got ugly. And being as it's work, I only manage to take pictures under the guise of annotating what sake I've drunk - almost no food, sorry, I do have a career to consider here. Ant joked that he wanted to be in the book I was writing...joke's on you, big guy - here's your picture on the interwebz! Good thing you don't know about the blog. Nobody tell him, OK? Is this a firing offense?

They keep leaving me in charge of picking the restaurants, and mysteriously we keep going to places with good sake selections. Didn't really occur to me to check out the Likker Hole for this dinner, but as I left Hageten at lunch, I said simultaneously 'Hey look, it's the Likker Hole!' and 'Nuts, I still don't have a reservation for tonight's dinner,' so the deal was sealed.

It's a reasonably-sized place, in the basement of a building in Ginza that actually faces Chuo Dori. This means it's one of the places I've been walking by for 10 years thinking 'Any restaurant with street-level facing on Chuo Dori can't be much good.' Which means I'm a dummy, sometimes for 10 years or more (although I do love the Dunhill Acquarium cafe, and have fond memories of the dear and departed Club Nyx, and they face(d) Chuo too.).

Decor is neutral, if slightly retro/faded (except these awesome copper sake warmers built into the tables! Beautiful.). I'd guess that it's a very well-kept early-bubble attempt to look traditional and modern at the same time. How do I make up stupid sentences like that? Service is attentive, and patient with drunken fools.

Food is neutral in terms of, that's not fair. They have a lot of sashimi, and it was pretty good. We had two separate orders of 3 types each; this didn't exhaust the options either. It was both fresh and reasonable quality, although some of it was a bit blurry as you can see from this sayori (halfbeak, I think, in English).

We had a bunch of different salads and vegetables, croquettes, some grilled meats, this hot-rock steak (the only mediocre thing - it was distressingly chewy) that I think about, a hell of a lot of food went over the table, all of it in a sort of decent-old-izakaya or perhaps high-quality-housewife cooking mold.

Despite all that food, I don't remember overeating. Part of this may have been the presence of Ant's gold Amex, hovering over the table like a benevolent genie and making us order round after round after round of high-end sake. Fortunately I felt much better the next morning than I did after the Gasshomura experience though I understand my colleagues did not. This place appears in the Gauntner guide, which describes it as 'expensive'. I don't think that's fair - they have selections from Y600, and they top out under Y2000. These prices are for 1 go, and for brands and levels that I know, the markups were fair (less than I paid in Nagano, for example).

Following are some things we drank. I think I got pictures of all of them, but I really can't be sure.

I thought this was from Umenishiki, but research is making me doubt myself. I don't see it on their web site (which is fun for the whole family, with lots of English, and beer, and a lemongrass liqueur). Plus the logo on the label is clearly from this liquor shop, Hirashima, in Kita Kyushu. I'm going to leave it a mystery in the interests of getting my errands done today, but if you see this reasonably-priced sake somewhere, please drink it (and ask about its provenance for me).  Oddly, Ant knew it well, but kept referring to it, loudly, as 'The Blueberry'.

Daiginjou from Tedorigawa, as you can clearly see from the label (and I was able to read just now to look it up, woo hoo!). No memory.Oddly, looks different now on their web site.

Hououbiden, a ridiculous name (something like "Phoenix's Beautiful Field", except I read recently that a houou is not actually a phoenix).This junmaiginjou is for some reason not ranked (maybe because it's a fresh-squeezed nama and possibly not produced in large enough quantity?), although The Book does have 4 Hououbiden junmaiginjos in the top 100. Another reliable brand, from Tochigi.

You probably know these already from recent and irritating posts on my part - left, Denshu, right Kokuryu.That Denshu is actually the #1 tokubetsu junmai, and it's killing me right now that I can't remember it. The Kokuryu is the #32 daiginjou. Tiresome, all these rankings. I should remind you, they're just 'popularity', not 'quality', but I find sake to be so subjective and hard to predict...I dunno.  Note how the pictures get crowded from here? Yessss, a slippery slope, and moistened with sake.

Left, Liquor Hole's original daiginjo. I thought it was a little overpriced at 14 holes (oh, I forgot to mention until now that everything on the menu is priced in 'holes'). Middle, Hokusetsu's (don't feel bad, even the Japanese member of the group misread that. I maintain that breweries use obscure kanji and onyomi out of perversity) YK35, #24 daiginjo in the book and a seriously cut-down starting rice - 35% Yamada Nishiki. Right, the Aiyama Daiginjo 50 from Isojiman (amazingly, tied for #24 with the YK35). I tried the two on the right, and they were both about as great as you'd expect.

How do you know when things are out of hand? It's easy! When Jon orders the Ishidaya on the right, one of the super-luxury marks from Kokuryu, you know the evening is shot. #5 junmai daiginjo in the book, $100 at retail for this 4-go bottle, and I remember it very fondly despite the obvious complications (cf the 5 pictures above). This is a bit like ordering the old Bordeaux at the end of the night, or at the second party. [Nov 16, 2010: I've just seen this on the menu of another famous store, and it was Y6k per go, $300 per bottle. Scarcity value. I'm even more glad I didn't pay for this dinner.] The other bottle here is the square-bottled junmaiginjo from Kumamoto's Korou.

I think it's appropriate that I close this post with a bit of embarassed silence.

Thank you.

Shut yer Likker Hole!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hageten Tempura, Ginza (ハゲ天)

A bit of offbeat inspiration to work on some artsy projects made me run down to Ginza and the stationery-art megastore Itoya during lunch. While I would have been slightly under an hour getting back, I figured I couldn't pass up the opportunity to eat in a different neighborhood and just went back a little late. Walking back to the station, I passed yoshoku stalwart Rengatei - who had a line to get in and thus lost my business. Sad for them, really. Across the street was a tempura outfit, and they were awarded Grand Prize for the day, my lunch money.

Hageten's honten, since 1928, occupies a whole building in za Ginza (I realized while I was eating that they have a branch in Tokyo Station's basement, which is one of the few places down there I haven't tried, and now I realize that they have 33 branches nationwide, so I'm glad I ate at the original!.).  They maintain the Ascent to Heaven / Game of Death thing where things get more fancy as you go up floors in the building - kushiage in the basement, no-reservations sets and bowls on the ground floor, then progressively fancier styles and prices on 2 - 4.  The first floor is decorated sparsely; before I realized that there were 4 others, I couldn't understand why the sign and entrance were so grand and the room so small. It's very clean though, in that way that greasy restaurants like fry or yakniku will sometimes compensate for the food by getting everything spotless.

When you consider that a normal ten-don at a chain place like Tenya will set you back Y800, the Y1500 for this doesn't sound bad at all. A big shrimp, an option to change out the second shrimp for a strip of eel )which I took), a piece of whiting layered with shiso, a patty of small fish, and some vegetables, plus salad, pickles, soup...I didn't finish the rice, still felt a bit stuffed, but really enjoyed it. The mushroom tempura in particular was awesome. I don't like to say things like 'bursting with flavor', but it kinda was.

The only interesting feature of the dining room is this very pretty wall. It's fully covered in plexi to keep the grease from building up. That gives the place a weird temple-like feel - one art feature, but basically you concentrate on the altar where the chef fries things, and then concentrate on your vittles.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Kirei, Ueda (亀齢)

It's come to my attention that many readers have not visited a sake brewery.  I tried to visit one in Ueda (Wadaryu), but failed since they were closed on Sundays. Thus I went to this one, which turned out pretty well - met the brewer, tried some daiginjo fresh from the tank, generally pleasant experience. If you look at the pictures, you'll get most of the value that you'd get from a real brewery visit (or at least it'll ruin any surprises that you might otherwise have had). With that...

it's sake o'clock! (yeah, this was in their showroom, and it was 3:30 when I visited).

Okazaki Brewing has been in business since 1706. I don't think all of the buildings date to that time, but there's no reason some of them couldn't. This is in the preserved section of Ueda (Yanagicho, I think it was), which is a nice cobbled street 10 minutes north of the station. The kanji are, as usual, unpronunceable. I wandered around the shop for a couple minutes until an older woman showed up, and after a chat she suggested that I might like to look around.

The brewing warehouse has an oddly small door; I don't think this is due to people being 4 feet tall in 1706, but you never know. Inside, 3 or 4 guys were lounging around watching TV in a heated room. They looked at me skeptically. My guide took me to the back, where the chief brewer, Midori, was working on some daiginjo. Midori showed me a few things...

Like these tanks. This is what you're going to see at most small breweries, I imagine - just some big tanks, percolating away. Midori insisted that I climb a ladder and have a look into one of the active tanks.

Think of this as an action shot since it shows actualy sake, actually fermenting. If I could post a video...there still wouldn't be any action, because it was a mellow sort of fermentation
The daiginjo is made in a separate room, in this small tank.

I'm reminded in looking at this of the master at Omasa Komasa, who went on at length about the various proprieties of filtering the sake. Rather than using a pressing machine, I think they had just put some plastic and a board on top of this, and were getting 'free run' sake instead of the harsher flavor that you might get if you squeezed the bejeezus out of the rice...

Using a machine like this. It's funny - the long, narrow shape is the same as the tanks that used to be used for pressing before machines (when they would cantilever a big rock on top of boards in the tank, and the sake would pour out of a spout at the bottom).

Not that I was expecting bar service, but I wasn't going to complain about the Chief serving up some of the still-sparkling daiginjo that she was hand-bottling. It tasted like all the other things they make at Kirei - a bit sour, and with a very characteristic taste that I imagine is a combination of their choices in rice (Miyama Nishiki, it says on one of their sites) and mold. It's not my favorite thing, but of course it's still lots of fun!

Back on the Shinkansen platform, I was very puzzled by this poster. I doubt that you'll be able to shed any light on it, but at least you can join me in puzzlement.

Shuzo Collection, Togura (酒造コレクション)

It was nice walking back from Kamiyamada to Togura - just across the river, but it's a big river and was a decent walk on a brilliantly clear day (if you've followed this whole series, I'd also like to mention that the hill at the end of the stretch of water in this picture is the Throwing-Away-Old-Women mountain mentioned previously).  I actually wasn't planning to go to Shuzo Collection since it seemed a bit far from the station, but on the day I was feeling good and didn't mind walking more.

Reaching the station, I started north toward where I thought it was located and eventually came to this sign. Which told me that I should turn around and go back to the 2nd traffic light. Which is right in front of the station. Which means I'm a big dummy sometimes.

Back at that light, I was looking around for the museum, admiring a nice old warehouse that I had seen from the cab on the first night and taken pictures of when I walked by it 30 minutes previous. I asked an old guy where it was. After professing not to understand anything I said, he admitted that he did, indeed, speak Japanese. Then he professed to have no idea about any sake museum, and shuffled off as rapidly as possible. At which point I realized that the nice old warehouse was the place I had been looking for, and we had been standing in front of while I asked where it was and he professed not to know. Which means I'm a big dummy sometimes. All that bathing must have addled my brain.

Well, Shuzo Collection is a sake museum in an old brewery, and they have a nice soba restaurant attached (it's called Kaya, but I don't feel like posting separately). This makes is quite possibly Togura's #1 attraction from my point of view, except for the onsen of course.

The museum is pretty self-guided, in the sense that there are absolutely no people in it (staff or patrons, while I was there). I assume the water pouring out of this mossy spout was what they used/use to make the sake, and the dipper was there to let you drink it? Anyway, that's certainly what I used it for.

Nice to wander around - must be cool in summer, because it was a bit warmer in winter. Actually this weekend seemed like the last throes of winter. It's already warm and spring-y in Tokyo.

There's a fine line between clever and stupid, and without post-processing, I'm afraid this clever shot is over the line.

Of course, there are only so many times you can tour a sake brewery, and I've had my fill of them over many years of Japan trips and living. I got through at speed and went off to lunch. How could you say no to a face like this? Many soba restaurants, not including this one, use the word 'an' in their names, meaning something like 'hermitage', and I think meant to connote a certain purity and austerity in their approach to the noodle. Not many places have entrances worthy of a hermitage, but this sort of does.

My understanding of their brewing and sales was a bit limited, but they did have half a dozen sakes for sale in the gift shop. And soba has become something that I prefer to drink a glass of sake with. They have two main labels for sale there, Nishinomon (西乃門) and Unzan (雲山), and I much preferred the Nishinomon brews (aside: I hate how crappy food writers use the word 'brew' to refer to sake. Not sure why it's so objectionable to my delicate sensibilities. It just smacks of facile thesaurus use.) and ordered up a quite-reasonably-priced glass of their daiginjo to go with lunch. After the last two nights, one glass was more than enough. By the way, the blue pottery on the left, again invisible without post-processing, is the local specialty; the glaze is made from powdered swallow intestines or something equally exotic. I embiggened the picture so you could better gaze at the vessels crafted to hold the brews.

Their menu said this 'soba sashimi' was their original invention, so I had to try it (and I had seen it on two other menus earlier in the weekend, so I was interested). It did what it said on the tin, which was to provide one with a thick, chewy, soba experience and a vehicle for wasabi and sauce. Just think of it as a thick lasagna noodle, not quite cooked (a fresh noodle though, so there's no dry bit in the middle). A nice idea; I'm not sure if the world is ready for something like pasta sashimi though.

Here's the main event, the 3-color soba set. Good noodles, thin and strong, but the sauces were the interesting part. The white one is grated potato, the a gluey and slimey substance that I more or less hate. For this, the procedure I followed was to dip the noodles, get 'em gooey, then dip again in regular tsuyu (I think this was wrong, and you're supposed to mix the tororo with the tsuyu, but I didn't want to ruin my tsuyu). Surprisingly not disgusting. On the right though, the third sauce was excellent - sort of a thick walnut milk. Never occured to me to have nuts with soba before, but this seemed so natural and delicious that it can't be uncommon. Walnuts are another local specialty.

They had soba pudding on the menu, yet another original invention of the store (errrrr...). I held off on getting that while in the restaurant, but while buying my take-home sake (they had 330ml bottles of daiginjo, a rarity, and it was the one I liked and drank with lunch) I got one to occupy 30 seconds of the potentially interminable wait for the train. As it was, I only had to wait 20 minutes out of the hour between trains at mid-day, which was a blessing. You may be shocked by this photography - I know how edgy it is that I put the pudding on the ground to take this - but I was not shocked by the taste. It tasted like soba, and the texture was like pudding. Again, does what it says on the tin, if you'll grant me leave to use expressions that give the mistaken impression that I'm English.

What ho! and all that rot. Topping noodles, old boy!

Onsen, Kamiyamada

The Chikuma River valley is narrow here, which makes for some nice views. On the west side, right above Kamiyamada, there's a big Kannon temple (a branch of Nagano's famous Zenkoji) that's lit up a bit at night. If you're feeling industrious, you can walk up there from a road at the south end of Kamiyamada's onsen district. I'll spare you the picture showing the two signs at the bottom of the hill - 'Watch for Falling Rocks' and '18% grade' - and just throw in a picture of the temple. It was pretty dull as these things go, so I don't recommend it. The other attraction up there is the (very ruined) ruins of a castle, but once I got there I realized that there was an admission fee, and in a fit of pique I just left.

Back down on the ground, I took yet more pictures of faded objects. These retro signs were great.

It's not actually a restaurant, but out of completeness I wanted to include the two onsen that I visited. This is in addition to the surprisingly nice natural onsen at the low-end business hotel where I stayed. On the first night, when I asked someone to recommend an onsen, he said 'Eh, you should just stay in the hotel. That's a nice bath.' True, but not that nice. This sign is nice too, but no relation to either onsen.

First, and better of the two, Zuishou ('Good Sign'). When I had my morning coffee on Saturday, this was the place the old woman recommended. I think they described themselves as a 'super sento', meaning it's a community bath but with lots of extra features. True enough!

Very much in the country sento mold though. You don't get a lot of the frills that you might from a ryokan. That said, Zuishou had indoors a big bath with lots of rock features and a small waterfall, a small jet bath, and a dry sauna. Outside there was a normal rotenburo, a shallow bath with banks appropriate for laying down for long periods, and two pot baths (hot and cold, I think). It also bears mention that the water was exactly to my tastes. Judging by the fact that the 42 shown on the thermometers at the other place I went seemed a touch hot, I'd say these were 41 or 40. Note to self.

I liked the lobby - a touch of Nagano ski country chic. Didn't investigate the food hall, which I assume has nothing worth writing about (though I often write about things that aren't worth writing about), but I did investigate and covet the 1.8l bottles of fresh apple juice. I toyed with the idea of taking one home, or drinking it on the spot, but no.

As I was completing my final decompression phase in the lobby, a woman who was clearly the manager (age, dress, manager) came over and said 'So, did you talk to a woman this morning?' I couldn't figure out what she meant, but she tried again and it became clear that the woman at the coffee shop who recommended the place to me had been her neighbor, and was currently eating lunch in the dining room. Not a big town. Mama brought me a glass of the apple juice that I had been admiring, so I can sort of justify writing this up.

That was Saturday. Sunday morning at opening time, I went to Kame no Yu (Turtle Spa, more or less). This was a bit less grand (and half the price, but no need to quibble over Y300). Inside there was a smallish, punishingly hot bath as well as a two-person jet bath. Outside was a funny semicircular rotenburo and a hot kamaburo. In the interests of getting my yu on, I spent a long time in these baths, getting out of the roten to stand around watching my skin smoke in the cold air (8 or 9 degrees) and look longingly at the crumbs of snow remaining on the rocks around the yard. A particularly nice touch was the encouragement they provided to keep people from climbing on said rocks - barbed wire.

That was too much yu, and I was well and truly boiled. Needing to rest up before walking back to the station (I figured 30 minutes minimum; it was more since I got lost), I had a restorative milk while forgetting to take any better pictures. It wasn't as nice as Zuisho though. Funny, this was Yatsugatake milk. I'm pretty sure I've been there, but I can't figure out what the place is called. You know where they have the little museum dedicated to the European guy who came to Japan and introduced dairy farming? Around Kobuchizawa? Wringing any bellz? No?

Maybe this will be more familiar - old buildings!