Snapshots of Japan | A Meander Around Yokohama’s China Town

Yokahama China Town is said to be Japan’s largest. There are others in Nagasaki and Kobe – all three were among the first Japanese ports to open to foreign trade and many Chinese traders settled there in the years to follow.

Nagasaki is the oldest of the three, established in the 17th century, and is said to retain more of an authentic Chinese character. I hope to visit next time we travel to Kyushu on a future trip.

Yokahama didn’t open to foreign traders until 1859 but grew to cover a larger area. Today there are around 250 shops and restaurants in the district, mostly catering to the tourist trade.

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Choyo-mon gate and the streets just beyond

There are four tall and attractive gates at the entrances to Yokahama China Town, and a few more within the area. We entered via the East Gate, Choyo-mon.

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The main roads in Yokahama China Town

The main thoroughfares are reasonably wide, and thronged with visitors.

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Side streets in Yokahama China Town

These are crossed by much narrower streets that are far less busy.

Most of the buildings contain restaurants, cafes, fast food outlets, grocery and kitchen equipment stores, Chinese medicine specialists and souvenir shops.

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Panda-shaped steamed buns

Some of the street food snacks are very cute – panda-shaped steamed buns, anyone?

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Pandas are also a popular theme for souvenir shops and even local murals.

My favourite snack was the jian dui (known in Japan as goma dango), served piping hot in a little paper cone. I love these chewy hollow balls coated in sesame seeds and with a pellet of sweet red bean paste inside and this was a really tasty one.

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Kanteibyo Temple

There are two main temples in China Town – Mazu Miao, a large and rather grand new temple that opened in 2006, and Kanteibyo, closer to the centre of the neighbourhood. The original Kanteibyo temple was built in the 1870s but has been rebuilt multiple times since then after being destroyed by the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 and by two fires in the 1980s.

These Chinese temples are very different in style and decoration to most of the Japanese Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines we have visited, much more ornate and colourful.

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Our hotel was in Bashamichi, just a couple of quick stops on the metro from Motomachi-Chukagai Station, at the eastern edge of China Town. We love taking public transport in Japan; it’s so wonderfully efficient and well run. We also enjoy the different designs of train carriages, local advertising posters, and even listening to the Japanese announcements that we can’t understand.

Of course, the port area of Yokahama is fairly small so you could easily walk to and from other tourist sites such as the Ramen Museum, Landmark Tower and Cosmoworld amusement park.

You may like to check out previous posts about my travels to Japan.

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Travel Quote Tuesday | Confucius

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

Applicable to so much more in life than travel. Simple advice from Confucius.

(c) Kavita Favelle - Confucius - Japan

Before our first visit to Kyoto, I had read about this idea of visiting too many temples, becoming ’templed out’, if you will. But for us, that never happened. In the city of a thousand temples (and shrines), we visited only a fraction and yet we enjoyed every one so much. Each is quite different to the other, and every one is beautiful and fascinating. So too is the observation of those who come to worship, or simply to admire, as we did.

This is Fushimi Inari-taisha, known for its senbon torii (thousands of gates) winding up the mountainside – and there really are thousands of them, painted bright red, as is the tradition!

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Snapshots from Japan | A Perfect Day of Cherry Blossoms at Hikone Castle

Planning a trip during Japan’s famous sakura (cherry blossom) season can be hit and miss, especially if you are moving around the country a fair bit. Peak blossom time can vary year on year by at least a week or two which means that the few days you have in a given location could fall too early or too late to be there at just the right time.

The good news is that your chances of seeing sakura are not as poor as that may sound.

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First views of sakura blossoms at the moat around Hikone castle

Firstly, there are many different varieties of cherry tree in Japan all of which flower at different times; some flower far ahead of the most common yamazakura variety and others burst into bloom much later. So chances are you will still be able to enjoy the beauty of cherry blossoms in one or more place you visit.

Secondly, I’d suggest that you plan an itinerary that includes visiting some locations on their usual peak blossom dates, but also takes you to others earlier and later than the peak sakura usual dates. This way, whether the blossoms are running early, late or right on time, you will see them at at least one of the places you visit.

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Approaching the entrance to Hikone Castle

The itinerary for our recent four-week trip included just one night in Hikone. Although I was keen to visit the castle, I chose it primarily as a handy location to pick up our first rental car for a drive through Shiga Prefecture.

Disappointed that there was very little sign of cherry blossoms in Hakone – one of the most popular sakura-viewing destinations in Japan – we were utterly delighted to discover that the cherry trees of Hikone were at their very best during the few brief hours we spent in the small city.

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Even on a rainy day, the castle walls and gate were impressive

Located on the shores of Lake Biwa (Japan’s largest lake), Hikone is most famous for its castle, one of only four in Japan to be designated as a national treasure.

Construction was completed in 1622 and the castle served as the seat of the local daimyo (feudal lords) until the feudal system ended in 1868. Visiting Hikone Castle gives a wonderful insight into life for the nobility during Japan’s feudal era.

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Views from the castle gate and after climbing the hill towards the main keep

What makes Hikone Castle special is that the majority of what you see is original, having survived in tact since it was built. A number of other castles in Japan are virtually completely new builds, the originals having been destroyed by fire or other natural disaster, often more than once in their long histories.

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Views of and from the main keep

Happily for us, Hikone castle’s extensive grounds are planted with many cherry trees, most of which were in blossom during our visit and just as enchanting as I’d dreamed.

The cartoon character above is the castle’s mascot, Hiko-nyan; every organisation, tourist attraction and business in Japan seems to have one!

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After our tour of the castle, we also visited Genkyuen Garden, a traditional Japanese garden built within the castle grounds in 1677.

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We also stopped for a delicious and inexpensive lunch at a small restaurant specialising in wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets). They also offered a short menu of udon noodle soups.

The noodles were simple and delicious, with a perfectly cooked egg, a slice of tofu and some sliced fishcake.

My favourite was the traditional Zenzai dessert I tried. In my lidded bowl was a sweet syrup of azuki beans topped with two chargrilled rice cakes – I loved the soft chewy sticky texture of the rice cakes against the sweet earthy beans and syrup, though Pete wasn’t such a fan.

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Collage Hikone Castle Sakura Blossom

Have you visited Japan during sakura season? What are you top tips and what was the highlight of the trip for you?

You may like to check out my other posts about my travels to Japan.

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Travel Quote Tuesday | Maya Angelou

I love the writings of Maya Angelou – she had such an incredible talent for describing the human condition, for capturing the very essence of human behaviour, feelings and motivations in the most poetic of ways. A prolific poet, writer and civil rights activist, she died in 2014 at the grand old age of 86, leaving behind her the most incredible body of work and influence.

Travel as a way to dispel prejudice and bigotry, to forge understanding and friendship across borders, to make a huge world seem smaller… is surely one of the most wonderful things about travelling.

(c) Kavita Favelle - Maya Angelou - Japan

One of the little details we noticed and loved on our first trip to Japan and all our visits since, is the beauty of Japanese kusari doi (rain chains). These take the place of vertical drainpipes, hung beneath the hole in a horizontal gutter, rain water falls into the top vessel in the chain and pours gently down from one to the next, all the way to the ground. The individual pieces are often shaped like flowers or lanterns.

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Travel Quote Tuesday | Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru was the first Prime Minister of India and ruled from India’s independence in 1947 until his death in 1964. He was a central figure in politics both before and after independence and ‘is considered to be the architect of the modern Indian nation-state: a sovereign, socialist, secular, and democratic republic.’ (Wiki) He was a prolific writer, and had a number of books published including historical accounts of Indian history, his autobiography and a collection of letters he wrote to his daughter when she was a child at boarding school.

This quote is a wonderful reminder of the need to have a positive attitude in order to appreciate and enjoy the wonders of the world around us.

(c) Kavita Favelle - Jawaharlal Nehru - Hikone Japan

For our third trip to Japan, earlier this year we travelled in spring – our first two visits had both been in autumn. Serendipity resulted in a visit to Hikone Castle during the peak of Sakura (cherry blossom) season.

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Want to Learn About Sake? My Sake Guide For Beginners

Today is World Sake Day. Kanpai!

Sake is a drink I’ve been learning more about over recent years and I’ve come to really appreciate it. I seek out new sakes whenever I can.

Here’s my beginner’s guide to sake.

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Images from
shutterstock.com

 

What is Sake?

Sake is a Japanese alcohol made from rice.

Although it is referred to in English as rice wine, the process is more akin to brewing beer, where you convert starch to sugar and then convert the resulting sugar to alcohol. In wine making, it is a simpler process of converting sugars that are already present in the fruit. Of course, brewing sake is not entirely like beer making either as the sake production process is quite distinct.

Wine is typically around 10-15% ABV. Beer is usually lower, with most beers coming in between 3-8%, though there’s been a trend towards ever stronger beers lately. Sake is brewed to around 18-20%, but often diluted to around 15% for bottling.

Until a few years ago I’d only ever encountered cheap sake served warm and was not a huge fan. However, since trying higher quality sakes served chilled, I’m an absolute convert.

In terms of typical flavours, my vocabulary is woefully lacking, but for me the core flavour is a subtly floral one – perhaps this flavour is intrinsic to rice and rice mould? The balance of sweetness and acidity varies though classic sake is not super sweet. Sometimes it is fruity and sometimes it has a more umami (savoury) taste. I am often able to detect clear differences on the palate but unable to define them in words – clearly I need to drink more sake!

How is Sake made?

Sake is made from rice, but usually from varieties with a larger, stronger grain that has lower levels of protein than the rice varieties that are typically eaten.

The starch sits within the centre of the rice grain, surrounded by a layer of bran, so rice is usually polished to remove the outer layer before being made into sake. The more the rice is polished, the higher the percentage of starchy centre remains, but of course this is more expensive as it needs far more rice to produce the same volume of alcohol.

After polishing and being set aside to rest, the rice is washed, soaked and steamed. kōji rice mould (Aspergillus oryzae) is sprinkled over the rice which is left to ferment for several days. This mould helps to develop the amylase enzyme necessary to convert starch to sugar. Next, water and yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) are added and the mixture is allowed to incubate. Water and yeast are added multiple times during the process. The resulting mash then ferments at 15-20 °C for a few weeks.

After fermentation, the mixture is strained or pressed to extract the liquid, and the solids may be pressed again to extract a fuller range of flavours.

In cheaper sakes, varying amounts of brewer’s alcohol are added to increase the volume.

Sake is usually filtered again and then pasteurised before resting and maturing, then dilution with water before being bottled.

These days you can also find unpasteurised sake and sake in which the finer lees (sediment) are left in. I’ve even had some very thick and cloudy sakes where some of the solids have been pureed and mixed back in to the final drink.

What are the different categories of Sake?

Because the most desirable bit of the rice is the core of the grain, the amount of polishing is highly relevant. Labels must indicate the seimai-buai (remaining percentage) of the original grain.

Daiginjo means that at least 50% of the original rice grain must be polished away (so that 50% or less remains) and that the ginjo-tsukuri method – fermenting at cooler temperatures – has been used. There are additional regulations on which varieties of rice and types of yeast may be used and other production method restrictions.

Ginjo is pretty much the same but stipulates that only 40% of the original rice is removed by polishing (so that up to 60% remains).

Pure sake – that is sake made only from rice, rice mould and water – is labelled as Junmai. If it doesn’t state junmai on the label, it is likely that additional alcohol has been added.

So Junmai daiginjo is the highest grade in terms of percentage of rice polished and being pure sake with no brewer’s alcohol added.

Coming down the scale a little quality wise, Tokubetsu means that the sake is still classed as ‘special quality’. Tokebetsu junmai means it’s pure rice, rice mould and water whereas Tokebetsu honjozu means the sake has had alcohol added, but is still considered to be a decent quality. In both cases, up to 60% of the original rice grain may remain after milling.

Honjozo on its own means that the sake is still rated above ordinary sake – ordinary sake could be considered the equivalent of ‘table wine’ in France.

Other terms that are useful to know:

Namazake is unpasteurised sake.

Genshu is undiluted sake; I have not come across this yet.

Muroka has been pressed and separated from the lees as usual but has not been carbon filtered. It is clear in appearance.

Nigorizake is cloudy rather than clear – the sake is passed only through a loose mesh to separate the liquid from the mash and is not filtered. There is usually a lot of sediment remaining and it is normal to shake the bottle to mix it back into the liquid before serving.

Taruzake is aged in wooden barrels or casks made from sugi, sometimes called Japanese cedar. The wood imparts quite a strong flavour so premium sake is not commonly used for taruzake.

Kuroshu is made from completely unpolished brown rice grains. I’ve not tried it but apparently it’s more like Chinese rice wine than Japanese sake.

I wrote about Amazake in this post, after we tried it in Kyoto during our first visit to Japan. Amazake can be low- or no-alcohol depending on the recipe. It is often made by adding rice mould to whole cooked rice, allowing the mould to break down the rice starch into sugars and mixing with water. Another method is to mix the solids left over from sake production with water – additional sugar can be added to enhance the sweetness. Amazake is served hot or cold; the hot version with a little grated ginger to mix in to taste.

Sparkling, Sweet and Flavoured Sakes have become increasingly popular as sake brands look for ways to appeal to new demographics to widen their customer base. Sparkling and sweet sakes are often marketed to women but worth seeking out as a light, refreshing and summery alternative to the classic styles. Fruit options, such as peach, plum and yuzu are also popular.

 

I hope this guide helps you to understand more about this wonderful drink and you are encouraged to seek it out and try for yourself.

If you are interested to read more about Japanese food and drink and travelling in Japan, please check out my other Japan posts.

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A Taste For… Miso | Japanese-Style Miso Cod

Are you familiar with umami? Discovered (and named) by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda back in 1908 and known as the fifth taste group (alongside sweet, sour, bitter and salty), umami is most commonly translated as ‘savoury’ or ‘meaty’ and is a flavour profile that most of us enjoy in our food, whether or not we could name or identify it. Although it occurs naturally in many foods – including mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, chinese cabbage, asparagus, sweetcorn and shellfish – many cultures have become adept at creating umami-rich foods by cooking, curing and fermenting; these include cheese, green tea, fish sauce and yeast extract.

Miso is one such umami-bomb – an ingredient at the core of Japanese cuisine.

Miso Cod on Kavey Eats (overlay)

Made by fermenting soybeans, salt and additional grains such as rice or barley with a mould fungus known in Japanese as kōji-kin, the result is a thick, salty and intensely savoury paste used as a seasoning throughout Japanese cooking.

There are many different varieties available in Japan, often broadly divided by their colour. The most common misos are red and white, made with soybeans and rice. White has a higher percentage of rice than its red counterpart and is the mildest and sweetest. Red, aged for longer, is stronger and saltier and darkens with age through red into brown. Some vintage misos are almost black in colour.

There are other types that are made with different grains such as barley, buckwheat, rye or millet.

Regional differences also play a part; in Sendai the locals prefer their miso slightly chunkier, so the soybeans are coarsely mashed rather than ground; in parts of Chubu and Kansai there’s a preference for darker, saltier and more astringent miso. In Eastern Japan, mild and sweet pale misos are the favourites.

Fermentation of foods has been prevalent in East Asia since ancient times. Grains and fish were fermented in the Neolithic era and there are records describing the use of Aspergillus moulds in China as far back as 300. BC Fermented soybean products may have been introduced to Japan from China at the same time as Buddhism in the 6th Century CE.

Until the late 19th century, Japan’s population ate mainly fish and vegetables. Since miso is high in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals, it became an important nutritional element of the Japanese diet, especially for Buddhists following a strictly vegetarian regimen.

In Japan, miso is obviously a key ingredient in miso soup (for which it is combined with dashi stock) but it also features in sauces, marinades, pickles and dressings (such as the tofu, sesame and miso dressing for green bean salad that we shared in our last issue). It is even used in sweet dishes; miso mochi – chewy dumplings made from rice flour – offer a delightful balance of sweet, salty and savoury.

Miso also lends itself to fusion cooking, offering a great way to add saltiness and savouriness to your dishes. Combine with honey, mustard and oil for a salad dressing; whip into butter and spread on fresh bread or melt over steamed vegetables; thin with water and brush onto meat before grilling or barbequing; stir half a teaspoon into porridge instead of salt; or add to a bean casserole for extra flavour. Whenever you need a kick of umami, miso is the perfect ingredient.

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Miso | image via shutterstock.com

Japanese-Style Miso Cod

This simple marinade works beautifully with cod but can also be used with other fish such as salmon. It’s also delicious on aubergine or firm tofu.

Serves 2

Ingredients
2 tbsp white miso paste
2 tbsp mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
2 tbsp sugar
2 fillets of sustainable fresh cod, skin on

Note: White miso has a slightly sweeter and milder flavour than the red version, which suits this recipe well. However, you can use red miso paste instead; use a touch less in that case.

Method

  • Preheat your grill to a medium-hot setting.
  • Heat the mirin, white miso paste and sugar in a small saucepan, over a gentle heat, until the sugar has completely dissolved.
  • Place the fish fillets skin side down on a piece of foil.
  • Spread the paste generously over the surface of the fish, top side only.
  • Grill until the fish is cooked through and the paste is bubbling and starting to char. Depending on the thickness of your fillets, this will take 5-8 minutes.
  • Serve with rice and green vegetables.

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Where to buy miso

Search the major supermarkets. Most now offer miso pastes in their speciality ingredients ranges (though these may not be available in every branch). Do check the ingredients – some products are actually ready made marinades or soup blends (with additional ingredients added to the miso). For use in recipes, you need a plain miso.

If you have an oriental supermarket within reach, you’ll usually find a decent selection at lower prices. Online stores also offer a wide choice.

Try clearspring.co.uk (organic), japancentre.com, souschef.co.uk, waiyeehong.co.uk and wingyip.com.

 

This piece was written in 2014 and first published in Good Things magazine. ©Kavita Favelle.

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Visiting The Suzuhiro Kamaboko Museum

Have you heard of kamaboko? It’s a type of surimi fishcake from Japan. Surimi is made by creating a paste of pureed white fish paste that is flavoured, formed into different shapes and steamed to cook. In Japan there are many surimi products which are sold both fresh and dried for consumers to add to their soups, hotpots and other dishes. You may already be familiar with one surimi product that is consumed around the world – imitation crabsticks, made from coloured and flavoured fish paste.

Kamaboko is a large loaf-shaped surimi fishcake that is cooked whole, most commonly by steaming, but it can also be fried, grilled or poached. It us usually served sliced, either on its own or within other dishes.

Suzihiro, a traditional manufacturer of kamaboko, have created a centre where visitors can learn more about the history and manufacture of kamaboko. Originally a retailer of fresh fish and seafood, Suzihiro began making kamaboko in 1865, expanding their local customer base to Tokyo during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many Tokyo customers would purchase Suzihiro kamaboko on their journeys to Hakone’s onsen (hot spring bath) resorts.

Kamoboko Museum and Market in Kazamatsuri Japan. On Kavey Eats-105223 Kamoboko Museum and Market in Kazamatsuri Japan. On Kavey Eats-105551

The Suzuhiro Kamaboko Museum is located in the Kazamatsuri district of Odawara City, in Kanagawa Prefecture. Visitors heading to Hakone from Tokyo can easily make a stop at the museum, which is right next to Kazamatsuri Station, on the Hakone Tozan Line between Odawara and Hakone-Yumoto.

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As you exit the station, the path from the exit will lead you straight to a large modern building which houses the Suzunari Market, an indoor food market selling a wide range of food including plenty of fishcake products as well as other local delicacies. There are a few eateries within the space, plus plenty of takeaway food to enjoy fresh. There are also products to take home, some of which are designed as omiyage – the customary gifts that Japanese travellers bring home for friends and colleagues.

Kamoboko Museum and Market in Kazamatsuri Japan. On Kavey Eats-103957 Kamoboko Museum and Market in Kazamatsuri Japan. On Kavey Eats-104537
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A coffee shop overlooks the station, with a small garden area between. To one side is a store showcasing and selling ornate Suzihiro kamaboko products. If you exit the market building onto the main road and turn right, the next building along houses the Suzuhiro Kamaboko Museum.

Kamoboko Museum and Market in Kazamatsuri Japan. On Kavey Eats-103051

Admission is free. There are also paid activities to try your hand at making simple surimi products. These run at set times; contact the museum to reserve in advance if you want to participate.

There is very little information in English so having a good translation app on your phone will make it easier to understand the exhibits detailing the history and manufacturing process.

Best of all though is the opportunity to watch, through enormous glass windows, skilled workmen and women crafting kamoboko in the large factory kitchen.

 

Thanks to Robb at WhereInTokyo for his tip to visit the museum. You can see more photos of the museum exhibits on his site.

You may also enjoy my previous posts about my travels to Japan.

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Miyama Futon & Breakfast | A Glimpse of Rural Japan

On our latest trip to Japan, I was determined to get a glimpse of rural Japan.

We had very much enjoyed our previous insights into traditional Japan – staying in ryokans (traditional Japanese inns, often with quite an age and history to them) and visiting many century-old temples, shrines and castles.

But until this trip, we had not overnighted in a rural location, nor in a traditional village house.

Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture is probably the best known tourist destination for those wishing to see quaint villages of gasshou-zukuri (traditional thatched-roof houses), but I had read that the villages become very crowded in high season. And the limited options for overnighting – in a handful of guesthouses with small, low-ceilinged rooms and shared bathrooms – didn’t appeal.

Thanks to a suggestion on a travel discussion website, I started investigating a stay in Miyama instead. Located about an hour’s drive north of Kyoto – just 45 minutes on the train – Miyama is a rural mountainous region of forests and agricultural land. Within the area are over 200 kayabuki (traditional, thatched-roof farmhouses), the majority of which are still residential dwellings. These kayabuki are not quite the same as Gifu’s gasshou-zukuri ones in shape – Gifu roofs take the form of two huge rectangular panels meeting in a steep apex with a plain and squat ridge of thatch across the top, whereas the thatched roofs in Miyama are wider at the bottom than the top, pinching in about two thirds of the way up, and feature a decorative criss-crossed wooden cap atop the ridge.

Miyama Thatched Cottage in Kyoto Japan on Kavey Eats-065037

What really decided me on including Miyama in my itinerary was finding Miyama FUTON & Breakfast (a play on the European bed and breakfast label).

Built around 150 years ago and known as Hanabusa, the house is typical of rural Japanese architecture of the period, influenced by the local climate and lifestyle. Our hosts told us that they think the house was built by a local merchant who made his living as a repairman. It is now owned by Hario Nishio, one of only 50 traditional master thatchers in the entire country – thatching is a dying art as new homes are rarely built with thatched roofs and many owners of older properties choose to convert the thatched roofs to tile for ease of future maintenance.

The idea of offering this traditional home as a holiday rental is to encourage visitors (both Japanese and international) to experience and enjoy the local area and traditional crafts, and of course to admire the beautiful thatch and other features of the house. Guests are offered a range of activities such as walks in the local forest, guided bike rides, cookery lessons of various kinds and a bamboo craft workshop by an expert thatcher.

On arrival guests are met by one of the association’s concierge staff – at the nearest train station for those without a car, or at a local supermarket (more akin to a farmers market than the typical corporate store) for those who are driving. We made our way to the supermarket without difficulty and Taka greeted us before helping us to choose and buy ingredients for our evening meal – local deer meat and locally grown vegetables, mushrooms, tofu and rice.

Shopping done, we followed Taka’s car to the association’s reception office where we filled in the paperwork to check in, purchased some local beers and paid for the bamboo craft workshop we’d arranged for the next morning.

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Local area including a dilapidated thatched house undergoing renovation (not where we stayed), blossoming fruit trees and a Buddhist temple, just behind the house

Finally we were lead to Hanabusa house, sat in a tiny hamlet of dwellings nestled between the hills behind and rice paddy fields and a small river in front.

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The house is really striking. We’d spotted and admired it from the car on our way to the supermarket but hadn’t guessed it would be our home for the night!

A vivid lime-green moss covers most of the thatched roof and some of the tile canopy beneath it; the colour echoing the spring growth in the nearby field. Below the canopy are simple wooden walls and straw mat window coverings.

Already delighted when we pulled up outside, stepping through the sliding door is when my heart really started fluttering.

The door leads through to an earth flooring that extends right through to the back of the house where it opens out into a kitchen dining area. The kitchen is a modern western style with a western dining table provided. The rest of the ground floor is on a raised wooden platform; we remove our shoes before stepping up to reach the tatami-floored sleeping room and tea ceremony room plus the wooden floored living room with it’s large sand-filled irori (Japanese hearth) which we are invited to use for heat and cooking. There is also a lovely glass-walled corridor with views onto the small but pretty back garden.

On the other side of the earthen flooring, to the left of the main entrance is another raised wooden flooring area. A gorgeous wooden stair case leads up to the next level, and behind it on the ground floor are a small sink area, modern bathroom and toilet.

Upstairs is impressive – completely open plan, the flooring is a mix of wooden and tatami, furnished with a few chairs and lamps, the steep straw roof above is open, giving an impressive view of how the thatched roof is constructed. There’s a steep ladder to go up another level onto a small loft platform, also floored with tatami.

With so much space downstairs, we didn’t make much use of the upstairs living areas but they do mean the house is spacious enough to sleep up to 10 or even more.

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This set of images are by Miyama Futon & Breakfast, collage by Kavey Eats

Outside, there’s a round chicken house and small garden, and a modern storehouse.

Keen to settle into the house after our quick tour of it we were surprised when Taka lead us outside to visit the storehouse, until we saw inside. Here, he introduced us to the beautiful suikinkutsu – a traditional Japanese musical garden ornament made by burying a bucket or large jar in the ground. As he poured water slowly into it, we listened using a long bamboo pole, until we heard beautiful bell-like music as the water splashed off the shaped tiles lining the suikinkutsu. Beautiful!

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The only negative about our gorgeous rental was that it was cold! I don’t think anyone had been staying there for a few days before us, so it hadn’t been heated at all. We put all the electric heaters on full blast, but it did take quite a long time for the chill to recede enough to relax.

I particularly loved cooking our meal of local ingredients in the kitchen and over the irori.

We had chosen our local produce at the farmers market style shop where we’d met Taka – deer meat, mushrooms, leeks, some aburaage (deep fried tofu slices) and rice.

I browned the meat briefly on the stove top, then added a simple stock I made with soy sauce, mirin and brown sugar mixed into water. Taka had already helped Pete to light the charcoal earlier, so by this point they were good and hot. Pete transferred the pot to the hook over the irori and we left the meat and stock to cook slowly. After a while he added chopped mushrooms and leeks. Once everything was cooked, he brought the pan to the table and I stirred in the aburaage just before we ate. Once we’d fished out and eaten all the meat and tofu, I poured some rice into the stock and Pete rehung the pot over the hearth until the rice was cooked through.

All in all a delicious dinner, enjoyed with a local sparkling plum drink for me and some local beers for Pete.

Having made up our futons earlier, using three mattresses and two duvets each, we had a good night’s sleep in our peaceful and beautiful house.

The next morning, we woke up early to use the bathroom and get dressed before the breakfast team arrived. It took them quite a long time to make, bustling away in the kitchen while we chilled and read our books at the dining table, but our breakfast of locally made sausages, eggs, salad, fresh bread, yoghurt, juice, milk and coffee was delicious and a great start to the day.

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After breakfast, we came outside to do our pre-arranged bamboo workshop.

Our teacher, professional bamboo thatcher Fumio Kanaya learned his trade from master thatcher Hario Nishio, the owner of our lovely rental house and president of the association through which we booked it. Before we came outside, he had already set out lots of tools for us and several poles of bamboo in varying shades of black, brown and green. These were arranged within the open garage next to Hanabusa house.

On a simple bamboo table were some small items also made from bamboo, for us to look at and decide what to make . We agreed to make little helicopter toys and toy whistles, and quickly set to work.

Taka and another colleague from the association were there to translate, and take a few photos, though we persuaded them to join us and have a go at the projects too. I am pretty sure they had as much fun as we did!

Protective gloves were provided as the knives to carve the bamboo were super sharp, though we quickly got the hang of it and to my surprise, there were no injuries!

It was hugely absorbing and surprisingly relaxing working with the bamboo; so much softer than the wood I remember carving and chiselling in my high school woodwork class three decades ago. Once the helicopter blades were carved to shape, we sanded them smooth, drilled a hole in the centre and shaped a slim rod to provide a handle. Testing them outside we were thrilled when they caught the air and spun slowly to the ground!

For the whistles, we also used saws, chisels, and hole cutting tools, though Fumio advised us not to glue the two pieces together until we got home.

Lastly, with offcuts from one of the largest diameter bamboos, we made some very simple sake cups, the natural segmented shape of the bamboo doing most of the work for us.

As we worked, we learned a little more about the association.

Where once thatched houses were prevalent across rural Japan, they have increasingly fallen out of favour since the mid-20th century. Mr Nishio had travelled to Europe and noticed how Europeans tend to  attach a strong value to the remaining thatched houses, often sold for a premium because of their beautiful appearance (though only to those willing to take on the maintenance). But in Japan, we were told, most people have not yet come to appreciate the beauty of thatched roofs. So one of the core aims of the association is to share the beauty of traditional Japanese thatched roof homes and the skills of the craftsmen who make them.

The other side of the project is to counter the migration of young people from the area to large towns and cities. Many younger Japanese do not want to follow the traditional rural life of their parents and grandparents, and non-agricultural job opportunities here are few and far between. By bringing tourism into the area, the association hopes to encourage young people to live and work in the area, both locals and those from farther afield.

A few hours later, our workshop was done and we carefully packed up our efforts and said our goodbyes.

I would recommend a stay here to anyone wanting to experience the more rural side of Japan. Two nights will give you more time to explore the area and book more of the activities offered by the Miyama FUTON & Breakfast team – I’d have loved to do the mochi making workshop and one of the cookery classes too. There are also nature walks in the nearby forest and bike tours of the area. Make sure you visit nearby Kayabuki no Sato, a cultural heritage site featuring a large cluster of over 30 well-maintained traditional thatched roof houses, one of which is a Folk Museum open to the public.

You can visit Miyama via public transport, especially if you’re happy to hike or bike once you get here. For us, having a rental car was perfect and allowed us to enjoy the area at our own pace before heading onwards to Kyoto for the next part of our itinerary.

With thanks to all at the association, especially Taka and Fumio, for making our stay so special.

Click here for more posts about our experiences in Japan.

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Snapshots from Japan | Kinubiki Noodles in Moto-Hakone

Hakone is one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations, famous for its onsen (hot spring) resorts and natural beauty, not least the views of Lake Ashinoko and Mount Fuji. This mountainous town sits within the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park; only 50 miles or so from central Tokyo the area is visited by national and international tourists alike.

There are many small towns – villages really – within Hakone, high up in the mountains and serviced by one of the stations of the Hakone Tozan railway line between Odawara and Gora. We stayed in an elegant, high-end ryokan in Miyanoshita but there are many other places to stay such as Hakone-Yumoto, Tonosawa and Gora. The Tozan railway journey between Hakone-Yumoto and Gora is particularly scenic.

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The pirate ship tourist boats

Alternatively, you can stay down by the lake. Moto-Hakone sits on the southern edge of Lake Ashinoko, from where you can catch tourist boats and ferries to Hakone-machi (fairly close by) or to Togendai and Kojiri at the lake’s northern end.

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Moto-Hakone

On our free day in Hakone we took the Tozan line from Miyanoshita to Gora, then the steep little funicular from Gora to Sounzan. Usually we’d have taken the ropeway from there but part of it was not operation because of volcanic activity in the area, so we took a bus down to Owakudani where we were able to use the ropeway for the rest of the journey down to the lake. There we boarded one of the pirate ships and crossed over to Moto-Hakone for a little light sightseeing. Later, we hopped on a local bus back to our base in Miyanoshita.

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Hopping aboard the local bus in Moto-Hakone

The main attraction of Moto-Hakone, other than the lake views themselves, is Hakone Shrine which sits in the forest just at the outskirts of the small urban area and port. The stone steps up the main shrine and down to the torii gate that sits out on the water are very steep, making access difficult for those with limited mobility.

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Hakone Shrine

After our walk in the forest, we picked our lunch spot Kinubiki-no-Sato based on its menu – I’d never encountered their kinubiki noodles before and wanted to try them.

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Kinubiki noodles in broth

The restaurant specialises in noodles and offers three types – udon (wheat noodles), soba (buckwheat noodles) and the special kinubuki (noodles made from wheat mixed with sesame). You can have these with various combinations of other items such as tempura, and as with soba, they can be served hot or cold.

My best guess is that the name of the noodles refers to their beautiful silkiness, but I can’t find much reference to them at all, so I think they may be a dish created and named by this restaurant.

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Katsudon with small bowl of kinubiki

Pete ordered kinubiki in broth. I went for katsudon (breaded and fried pork and egg over rice with onions and a savoury sauce mixed through) with a small side of kinubiki. We both enjoyed the kinubiki noodles though we didn’t feel the taste of sesame came through much at all. Their texture, and the two broths they were served in, were simple and delicious.

Have you come across kinubiki noodles before? Was it at the same little restaurant in Moto-Hakone or somewhere else? What did you think?

You may like to check out my other posts about my travels to Japan.Save

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