Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Par for the course while venturing along a walking course in Japan?

"Bear" is not a word one wants to see on a sign in the woods! :O
 
A horde of schoolchildren tripping along the trail
 
A stretch of trail I wondered whether one could pass

On my first visit to Gifu prefecture a few years ago, I spent time in the picturesque village of Ogimachi over in Shirakawa-go.  Among the more memorable experiences of that visit was my spotting a snake for the first time ever in Japan.  Arguably just as memorable was a Japanese friend I told of this occurrence telling me that, in her home country, this was seen as a portend of good luck.

To be honest, I not completely convinced that this is true, or even if she was just telling me that to comfort me!  In any case, since then, I've come across more of these reptiles on two more occasions in the Land of the Rising Sun (including the largest snake I've seen in the wild to date while hiking down Bitchu-Takahashi's Mount Gagyu) along with skinks and other wild critters that many visitors to Japan, the vast majority of whom tend to stay in the urban areas of the country, never do.

Although I do like making critter spottings when out in the countryside, I must admit to not being a great fan of snakes and also not caring to encounter any bears in the wilds of Japan!  Happily, I've yet to come across the latter over the course of my travels in Nippon for even the sighting of bear warning signs (along with those for snakes) can stress me out some!

While I did end up enjoying trekking along Takayama's Higashiyama Walking Course, the portends actually weren't great early on since I came across a "bear attention" sign close to the trail head in Shirayama Park!  In retrospect, I should have expected for there to be bears in the area since Yamanosachi Uribuoya's Masato Wakidani had told me that he hunted bears as well as deer and wild boar in the mountains near Takayama.  Somehow though, I hadn't expected that the range of those animals could be so close to town!

Something else that I hadn't thought to expect was that the area would be one where schoolkids would be taken out on an excursion.  But a horde of excited schoolkids being herded along by their teachers was precisely what I came across just a few minutes after I passed by the "bear attention" sign!  And even while a part of me reasoned that the safest part of the woods probably would be where the school party was (since any bears would undoubtedly want to stay away from the loud noise emanating from the otherwise pretty well-behaved children), I still was glad when the school group went a different way from me at a point when the trail we were on forked into two.  

As it so happened, the direction I was going led me through a section of trail whose side looked to have been rendered dangerous by a recent landslide.  But just as I was mulling whether it was safe to pass along, another person came by and blithely went along it.  And, after doing so and seeing what lay in store for me further along the Higashiyama Walking Course, I'm so glad that I didn't get put off going on it by the triple threat of bears, school parties and dodgy sections of trail! :)  

Monday, November 12, 2018

Takayama's Higashiyama Walking Course takes one to temples and shrines galore! (Photo-essay)

Before I visited the mountain town of Hida-Takayama (or just plain Takayama), I had heard that it was known as the Little Kyoto of the Mountains/the Japanese Alps/Hida/Gifu.  To be honest though, I think that Kamakura deserves the "Little Kyoto" label more and, if anything, Takayama -- with its traditional wooden houses in the old part of town, some of them still private residences while others housed interesting shops and eateries -- reminded me more of Naramachi

But if there were a section of Takayama which would call to mind Kyoto, it'd be the temple- and shrine-filled town outskirts which I passed through while going along Takayama's 5.5 kilometer Higashiyama Walking Course.  Takayama's Higashiyama is far less full of tourists -- or any other folks, for that matter -- than Kyoto's Higashiyama (for the record, Higashiyama means  "Eastern Hill(s)/Mountain(s)" in Japanese).  So while its buildings are less physically impressive, the area's quiet feel more than compensates in terms of making it an attractive space to spend time exploring... :)

Tree trunk, bell and bell tower in a corner of
the Shorenji temple grounds
 
Superstitious folks thinking of going along Takayama's Higashiyama
Walking Course should be aware that it takes people right through,
not just along, a couple of temple graveyards! 
 
Puppet Ponyo posing near the Bentendo of Dairyuji 
that's Takayama's closest equivalent to  

 
The kind of temple that would have charged for admission into its grounds 
if it were situated in Kyoto or Kamakura but didn't in Takayama
 
Peek into the main halls of the temples and you'll get
rewarded with beautiful visuals like this :b
 
If I didn't know better, I'd easily imagine that this image 
had been taken in Kyoto (or Kamakura)! :)
 
Daioji's two-storey, 18th century Sanmon Gate was the 
most impressive structure of its kind that I saw in Takayama
 
 Looking downhill towards the town center from 
just within the grounds of Higashiyama Shinmeijinja

Sunday, November 11, 2018

An enjoyable evening at a local Takayama izakaya

An izakaya that doesn't look super foreigner friendly from the outside

Despite it looking to the contrary, an English menu is available! :)

An eggplant dish offered there that may not have looked 
the greatest but actually was super delicious! :b

Check out eateries and bars on side streets rather than main roads.  That's one of the pieces of advice I give to visitors to Hong Kong who tell me they want to eat in non-touristy places.  And that same 'rule' is one I often follow when visiting Japan with great results, like the wild game eatery I came across on my second night in Takayama and a nearby izakaya without any English on its outside that I decided to check out the following evening.        

If truth be told, I would have hesitated to enter Wada if it hadn't been highly recommended in my copy of The Rough Guide to Japan since not only was there no English menu apparent on its exterior but also no pictures that I could use as a guide.  But upon finding my way to it and sniffing the great smells that were emanating from within it, I walked in without any hesitation and was happy to snag a counter seat from where I could see and smell a cook grilling all sorts of goodies as well as commanding the front space of the very local and noticeably non-chain izakaya.

Upon ordering a glass of nama biiru (draft beer) to start things off, I was intrigued to find a beer robot go to work on pouring my beer in a corner of the otherwise pretty old school-looking izakaya.  Similarly intrigued by me were the people seated on either side of me at the counter: on my right, a Filipina woman who, after I got into conversation with her, told me that she had lived in Japan for some two decades and was visiting Takayama from Nagano with her Japanese boyfriend; and on my left, a Takayama couple who told me they were truck drivers and were most eager to give me recommendations as to what to order at a place which they regularly frequented.

Although I was provided with an English menu upon my request, I decided to trust my new truck driver pals and let them order a couple of dishes for me.  The first one that arrived in front of me, grilled naso (eggplant) topped with miso, egg and spring onions, was incredibly yummy.  The second one was too but the order of grilled tonton (pork knuckle) was so substantial that I insisted that the fellow who had recommended it to me also had to help me finish it!

If the ice hadn't already been broken some time before, it truly was after that -- and we ended up trying each others' drinks and food and having an altogether pretty social time together, much like my experience at Matsuki Sushi on my first evening in town!  What with my having encountered friendly fellow diners on three consecutive nights in three quite different Takayama dining establishments and also the wonderful ticketing office staffer at Takayama Jinya who presented me with a lovely Funassyi note, I got to thinking that this mountain town may well be the friendliest place in all of Japan!  

It's a measure of how much I enjoyed the company of my fellow diners at Wada as well as the food on offer that I managed to have a good time there despite it being one of those dining-drinking establishments where smoking (still) is allowed.  In fact, for much of my meal, I found myself sitting in between diners who were smoking away like chimneys: one of whom asked if I minded (upon which I had no heart to tell him that I actually did; and it also helped that he was vaping more than smoking smoking for the most part); another of whom didn't even think to ask if I -- or anyone else, for that matter -- had a problem with his lighting up for pretty much the entire time that he was in the izakaya! :O

Saturday, November 10, 2018

On the nihonshu trail in Takayama and Hida-Furukawa :)

A well-stocked liquor store in Hida-Furukawa
 
The greenest sugidama I've seen to date!
 
Sake tasting in Takayama
 
In the years since my first memorable night at Sasagin back in the summer of 2012, I've become quite the fan of the Japanese tipple known as sake to much of the world but more specifically as nihonshu in Japanese (since sake is the generic word for "alcohol" in the native language of the residents of the Land of the Rising Sun).  These days, my favorite bar in Hong Kong specialize in nihonshu and this very Japanese alcoholic drink has become my drink of choice when eating a variety of foods (most of them Japanese but I've also found that nihonshu pairs very well with certain cheeses!). 
 
While I still do have a taste for (good) beers, I do drink more nihonshu than beer these days both in Hong Kong and Japan.  And, increasingly on my Japan visits, I like to track down specialist nihonshu bars, keep a look out for particular brands of sake to drink (including a few that I've yet to find in Hong Kong) and have even made a pilgrimage to my favorite sake brewery far up in the mountains of Yamaguchi prefecture!  
 
In addition, certain towns being known for having sake breweries most certainly adds to their attraction for me -- and while it really is true that my primary reason for wanting to go to Obuse actually was not sake, I was perfectly happy to visit its sake breweries when I was in that picturesque town!  By a similar token, I was attracted to Takayama for more than it being home to six (or seven?) sake breweries.  Still, I did make a point while there to visit a good number of them and taste at least one of the varieties of nihonshu which they brewed!  
 
Strolling around that Hida mountain town, I saw a number of liquor stores, all of them looking well-stocked with nihonshu, and got the distinct sense from them as well as the existence of the sake breweries, that Takayama's quite the nihonshu town.  If truth be told though, the only locally brewed sake there that I cared for was that from the Funasaka Sake Brewery (which also is home to a nice restaurant where I had a delicious Hida beef set lunch).  And I didn't have much hope that the quality of the sake brewed in nearby -- and smaller -- Hida-Furukawa would be any better until a chance meeting with a fellow nihonshu enthusiast at Yamanosachi Uribuoya, the wild game specialist eatery that I dined at one evening in Takayama.  
 
Hirakawa-san, a Sapporo man on his third visit to Takayama, told me of his having visited Hida-Furukawa earlier that day and decided that the Watanabe Sake Brewery there produced his favorite sake in the region.  Intrigued by his high praise of their nihonshu, I decided to head to that neighboring town the next day -- and I really would like to thank him for his recommendation.  Let's put it this way: I liked the junmai daiginjo I tasted at the brewery so much that I ended up coming away with a bottle of it that I've managed to safely transport back to Hong Kong!

For the record: that's only the second bottle of sake I've ever transported back to Hong Kong, and only the first that I've bought in Japan.  (The first was given to me by the Asahi Shuzo's brewery's CEO when I visited his brewery!)  And I have not yet drank it because I've been told that it's actually too fresh to be in optimal condition.  Come January 2019 though, I'll be opening that bottle and sharing it with my friends -- and when I do so, I'll definitely think fondly of Hida-Furukawa but also Takayama, where I got the recommendation to go to check out the sake brewed in Hida-Furukawa! :b  

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

On a cliff (or two) by the sea

Panoramic view from a cliff by the sea

 On another cliff by the sea (click on both the two 
photos above to view enlarged versions of them!)

Puppet Ponyo posing -- no lie! -- on a cliff by the same sea :)
 
For those who've been wandering: I'm not yet done documenting the Japan trip I took last month.  But I have been wandering about over the past few days in a different country -- again with Puppet Ponyo in tow but, this time around, with also three other/human companions; hence the recent "blog silence".
 
I wonder whether anyone can correctly guess which picturesque part(s) of the world our recent trip took us.  In any case, all shall be revealed in a week or so -- after I'm done putting up the remaining Japan travel posts that I want to share.  And in the meantime, here's letting people know that I'm back and hoping that this blog's regular visitors -- particularly the Ponyo fans among you -- will enjoy today's blog post's images. :)   

Friday, November 2, 2018

Away from the crowds in Hida-Furukawa (Photo-essay)

I can easily while away whole days wandering about Takayama old town -- and did, in fact, do just that a couple of times on my recent Japan trip.  What with my having budgeted to spend four nights in that mountain town, I could have spared time to do what lots of visitors to the area do and head over to Shirakawa-go and/or Kanazawa -- but eschewed doing so since I had visited there back in 2014.

Instead, the only excursion I ended up taking from Takayama was to the even smaller mountain town of Hida-Furukawa just 20 minutes or so by train to the north.  And while I covered quite a bit of ground in town and took a whole bunch of photos, I ended up only spending half a day there because that town's picturesque old center was actually in a pretty compact space and, if truth be told, I found the town too quiet for my liking on the Sunday that I visited! ;b

By the river's edge in Hida-Furukawa
 
On Imamiya Bridge looking toward Shinshuji, 
one of the town's three main Buddhist temples
 
Puppet Ponyo in front of Honkouji
 
Honkouji's beautifully decorated main building is 
the largest wooden building in the Hida region
 
 It really is something when you turn a corner and are presented 
with the sight of something picturesque like Enkouji :)
 
The Watanabe Sake Brewery, whose sake I decided was my favorite
among those produced in Hida-Furukuwa and also Takayama!
 
The busiest street in town in the (short) time that I was there! ;D
 
Not that I'm complaining but I honestly didn't expect
a town this picturesque (yes, those are carp in the canals!)
to be this bereft of tourists (and people in general)!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Wild game revelation at Takayama's Yamanosachi Uribuoya!

A game meat specialist dining establishment in Takayama!
 From left to right: skewers of regular venison, 
venison sausage and deer steak in a special sauce 

Wild boar bacon wrapped around asparagus -- yum!

Long before I set foot in Takayama, I already knew about its reputation for being a great place to dine on Hida beef.  And even if one didn't know that beforehand, the sheer number of restaurants offering that premium wagyu there makes that fact darn near unescapable once you start wandering around town!  On the other hand, it wasn't until my second evening in the mountain town that I discovered the existence of at least one dining establishment in Takayama that specializes in wild game.

Using what I know about Japanese towns and cities, I figured that the more interesting restaurants in town would not be located on a main street but, rather, in a side street or alley.  And after coming across one of those yokocho filled with tiny bars, eateries and also -- at least in Takayama -- game booths, I got to thinking that it would be worth trying out at least one of these establishments. 

Wild game specialist Yamanosachi Uribouya was supposed to be my first stop of the night.
But after tasting the food served up by hunter-proprietor-cook Masato Wakidani and enjoying the friendly company provided by the folks I was seated closest to in that cosy establishment (which probably could have had 10 people in there at most!), I ended up having my entire dinner there!

While I've had venison a couple of times before, I never was a big fan; finding the meat to be too, well, gamey tasting.  An American friend of mine living in Hong Kong had assured me though that fresh deer meat tastes quite a bit less gamey and really good.  So I figured that it was worth giving it a try again -- specifically by ordering Yamanosachi Uribouya's skewers of venison, venison sausage and deer steak.  

When my platter arrived, I opted to start with the skewer of venison and found it to be interesting and better than I expected.  Prior to biting in the venison sausage, I had expected it to be similar tasting to the "regular" venison.  Instead, it was different and so surprisingly delicious that I was moved to exclaim thus to Wakidani-san, who appeared to be very pleased to hear as well as see my reactions to the food he had served.  And here's the kicker: the skewer of deer steak (lightly basted with a secret sauce) excited my taste buds even more than the venison sausage!  

Deciding there and then that this would be my last as well as first place for dinner that evening, I ordered another glass of draft beer, additional skewers of venison sausage and deer steak, and also some vegetables in the form of a side dish of tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and a Shiitake mushroom skewer (which also proved to be pretty tasty) for variety.  And while I eschewed the chance to try some bear meat (which also was on offer), I plucked up the courage to additional order skewers of wild boar bacon wrapped around asparagus and quail's eggs -- and found them to be the most delicious things I tasted of the night! 

As my previous food posts for this trip have shown, I ate a lot of good stuff on this recent Japan trip.  So I reckon it's saying a lot when I state that I actually think the single best meal of the trip wasn't that of unagi, hitsumabashi style, or Cochin chicken in Nagoya, or even any of the meals in Takayama where Hida beef was the star of the show, but, rather, this revelatory wild game feast at Yamanosachi Uribuoya!