Samurai Gourmet is the title of a cool Japanese series on Netflix. It’s funny, moving and full of delicious food.
There is an ever growing collection of Japanese series on Netflix: Terrace House, Good Morning Call, Atelier en the wonderful Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. I’d like to talk about Samurai Gourmet (Nobushi no Gurume). This series is based on an essay by Masayuki Kusumi and a manga with the same title.
Salaryman thinks he’s a samurai
In Samurai Gourmet we meet Takeshi Kasumi, a recently retired salaryman. In the first episode it is the first day of his retirement. Takeshi-san still has to get used to having the whole day to himself. Daydreaming his way around the city, in 12 epsiodes he rediscovers his passion for life in general and food in particular.
While he is walking he imagines himself a samurai who can eat and drink whatever he wants. In real life however, sometimes he struggles standing up for himself.
The actor starring as Takeshi-san, Naota Takenaka, plays him with much sympathy. It’s endearing to see how much he enjoys a simple meal and a glass of beer. This series is as heart warming as it is appetising. Apart from Takeshi and his samurai alter ego, you get to know his wife a little, but other than that there are no recurring characters. Takeshi-san visits a different restaurant for lunch in every episode.
Samurai Gourmet is filmed on location in Tokyo, in existing restaurants. They appear under their own name, with authentic dishes that are genuinely on their menu. Every episode contains close ups of ingredients and the preparation of the dishes. Just like in that other Netflix series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, every episode features another favourite dish. When Takeshi-san is daydreaming about the samurai, or about his childhood, you join him in his reminiscing because the location and the actors go back in time as well.
The 12 episodes all last 20 minutes. We recommend you watch it!
The architect Tadao Ando has designed four chapels and churches in Japan. They are known as the Churches of the Wind, Water, Sea and, his signature work, Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church, better known as the Church of the Light.
The Church of the Light was built in 1989, in the town of Ibaraki, in Osaka prefecture about 25 kilometers outside of Osaka city. It is the main chapel of the Ibaraki Kasugaoka Church and a showcase of the self taught (he used to be a boxer) architect Ando’s trademark work.
Ando – unlike his Japanese contemporary Kengo Kuma who specialises in the use of wood – primarily uses reinforced concrete that is very smooth to the touch, with strictly geometric lines. He is renowned for building his structures in harmony with nature, letting in natural light and wind to redefine the space inside the concrete.
“Light is the origin of all being. Light gives, with each moment, new form to being and new interrelationships to things, and architecture condenses light to its most concise being. The creation of space in architecture is simply the condensation and purification of the power of light.” – Tadao Ando
The Church of the Light has a rectangular shape, cut through by an obliquely-angled freestanding wall which divides the space into two parts: the chapel itself and a small triangular entry hall. The narrow aisle slopes gently down towards the altar on the south end of the church.
Behind the altar, the wall has two large slotted openings that form the shape of a cross. Light seems to burn through wall into the otherwise very dark space, facing the churchgoers seated on wooden benches made from the wood that was used for the scaffolding during the construction of the church.
Ando had an ongoing disagreement with the congregation concerning the cross shaped slots. He wanted to let the wind in freely, but the congregation deemed it too cold and covered it with see through plastic windows.
There’s something very striking about Tadao Ando’s work. I love the smoothness of the concrete and can’t resist touching it whenever I visit one of his buildings. The absolute minimalism appeals, as does his use of light and dark. It is photogenic work, or in modern terms… ‘instagrammable’. Concrete is sexy, don’t @ me.
My favourite of his buildings that I have been able to visit is the Chichu Art Museum on the island of Naoshima. Its labyrinthal entrance leaves a lasting impression and the building is more interesting than most of the art inside. Although the Monets are a nice contrast. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden on the premises, you’re not even allowed to take a picture of the sea views from the museum café.
As for the Church of the Light, even as a non-believer, the sight of daylight burning a cross through the wall is something I won’t forget.
How to get to the Church of the Light
Unlike some of Ando’s other churches, The Church of the Light is fairly easy to get to and to visit, although you do have to book in advance.
You’ll have to sign up via their website weeks in advance and it is not open every day. Days of opening are decided one month in advance. Visiting hours are between 1.30pm and 4pm. Entrance is free, but church staff will ask you for a donation upon signing in. Nobody checked whether I had actually booked in advance or not.
Tadao Ando is a very famous and popular architect throughout Asia, he has designed many buildings in South-Korea and China. When I visited in November 2017, there were a lot of – mainly Asian – visitors. Everybody will be taking pictures. People will stand at the back, north end of the aisle first, but will eventually walk towards the south wall. Take your indoor pictures early if you want clean shots of the building.
Directions: From Osaka take the JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line to Ibaraki Station, a 14-minute ride. From there you can take a local bus. It is 12 minutes on the number 2 Kintetsu bus, the ride costs around ¥220. Get off at Kasugaoka Park Bus Stop (Kasugaokakouen) from which it is a 1 minute walk north-west towards the church. The bus driver will provide a map with walking directions upon request.
Or you can walk, as I did. It’s a little under one hour.
The “Colorful Japan” exhibition which opened today at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam showcases a selection of 226 of the more than 800 Japanese posters in their collection.
The reason why the Stedelijk Museum has such a large collection of Japanese posters can be attributed to Shigeru Watano (Osaka 1937 – Amsterdam 2012). Watano started working for a Dutch graphic design studio in 1966. He designed the Japanese logo and all the Japanese language graphics for the Dutch pavilion at the 1970 Expo in Osaka. He also contributed to the succes of Dick Bruna’s Miffy on the Japanese market. The Stedelijk Museum benefitted greatly from his connections with the Japanese design community and Japanese graphic designers started contributing their work to the Dutch museum on his request. “Colorful Japan” is the museum’s way to posthumously thank Shigeru Watano for his commitment.
It is an impressive collection. There are booklets available that contain background information on each of these posters. You can also download it (pdf) from the museum website.
Sometimes Japanese sensibilities make it difficult to discern what a poster might be advertising. A poster of little boy holding out a handful of cigarette butts isn’t a PSA about the dangers of smoking, but tells smokers to clean up after themselves. Sometimes posters are quite abstract and the actual advertisement too small to make out. Japanese visual culture is less direct than Western design, the image doesn’t always seem to match the subject.
If you go see it, try and keep count of all the rabbits…
Colorful Japan Exhibition at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum runs from 7 September 2019 until 2 February 2020.
Going to a baseball game in Japan had been at the top of my bucket list for a while. Baseball is Japan’s most popular sport. Not sumo, not judo, but baseball. They’ve been playing it since 1872. The professional branch in Japan is called “Nippon Professional Baseball”. There are two leagues, with six teams each. Many Japanese players join the Major League in America, so the sport is played at a high level.
I wrote about Yokohama and its baseball stadium before. I’d walked past the stadium a few times, and sometimes there was a game on. I’d gone to a tourist information centre in Tokyo to try and buy a ticket for a game. “Sold out”, they said, but I got the impression they thought it would be too complicated to help me since none of the staff spoke English and my Japanese wasn’t good enough to change their minds. I’d also tried to buy tickets from the somewhat old fashioned looking japanballtickets.com website. I thought their handling fees were a bit steep and their navigation and site design a little complicated.
Looking for tickets to a baseball game in Japan
Just before my departure in April 2018 I saw that the Asia-specialised booking platform Voyagin were selling Japanese baseball tickets starting from the reasonable price of about 30 euros (ticket + handling fees) to about 100 euros. I had succesfully used their platform before to make a reservation at a sushi restaurant, so I felt confident they would be able to arrange baseball tickets as well.
The baseball season in Japan is 8 months long, starting in April. A game lasts about three hours. Do not postpone buying tickets for too long, popular games sell out quickly.
Booking tickets to a baseball game
Booking baseball game tickets was easy. After I’d put in my request I was contacted by Voyagin staff. The supporters stand of the home playing Yokohama BayStars was sold out, was I willing to switch to the general admission stand? No problem. I very quickly received confirmation and instructions on how to pick up my ticket. And I got some money back, since the general admission stand was cheaper than my first choice. With my booking code I was able to go to any 7-11 ‘konbini’ store, where my ticket was printed for me. By the way, it turns out you can buy your baseball and other event tickets from 7-eleven without pre-booking.
The baseball game in Yokohama
In 2018, on my birthday, at long last I was at a game between the Yokohama DeNa BayStars vs Yomiuri Giants. My seat was on the right side of the pitch, parallel to the pitcher’s plate. It was fantastic. Long before the match started, it was lively around the stadium. Outside the stadium there were many stands selling food and merchandising.
Fans were queuing up at the ‘Dream Gate’, a special gate where they were going to meet the players after their warm up. All Japanese teams have their own mascotte. The Baystars character is a chipmunk-like animal called DB Starman. You can buy him in all shapes and sizes, before, during and after the matches. There’s a shop in the stadium as well, it’s open even when there’s no game on. Inside the stadium there was a lot more food. Things you expect at a baseball game, like popcorn and hamburgers. But Japanese food as well. Once seated, there’s a lot of entertainment on and off the pitch. Cheerleaders and a life size DB Starman. Between innings there was plenty of entertainment too.
The fans are super organised. Many of them were wearing team colours. The stadium was sold out and during the match people were singing, letting go of balloons – all synchronised – and waving banners. Every player has his own song that people would sing when they were up for batting. Eventually, the home team, Yokohama DeNa Baystars won 5-0 and that made for an incredible atmosphere.
I can whole heartedly recommend going to a baseball game in Japan. Even if you’re not into baseball. Even if you’re not into sports. You’ll get a completely different, fun take on Japanese culture.
If you’re not into Japanese food, you may have a problem while you’re there. Watching videos about Japan, I’ve seen and heard comments from travellers who didn’t really like any Japanese food, didn’t know what to order while they were there and would end up eating at McDonalds. McDonalds! I think that’s a shame. There is so much variation in Japanese cuisine. Something for everyone, you would think.
Japanese food variety
When imagining Japanese food, the average Westerner probably thinks of sushi, maybe sashimi. Maybe miso-soup. The staff restaurant of my very Dutch employer has been serving “miso-soup” recently. It doesn’t even begin to approach the real thing, but still. You are probably familiar with ramen, these days. More and more ramen shops are opening all over Europe. But maybe your knowledge of Japanese food ends there.
Japanese cuisine is quite varied, and with some exceptions, not particularly spicy. The flavours may be different from what you are used to, but they’re often subtle and not particularly dominating. Even Chinese restaurants in Japan seem to favour mild flavours compared to what I am used to in my country, The Netherlands. The spicing appears to have been adjusted to suit the mild palates of the Japanese.
The Dutch are potato eaters. You won’t find that tuber in Japan much. Even if you think the potato belongs with a certain dish, steak for example, you’ll find that it is served with rice in Japan. If you are dying for some potatoes, your best bet is to go to one of the better hamburger joints like Shake Shack, they serve pretty good fries with their hamburgers.
Sometimes, Japanese cuisine uses ingredients you wouldn’t put in your mouth, coming from a Western culture. Raw egg, for example, scares a lot of people. In the picture below you’ll see a Japanese breakfast option, tamago kake gohan. The idea is to mix the raw egg with your- lukewarm – rice. The result is a rather mild kind of savoury porridge that you then add flavour to using soy soy or other sauces and spices.
A bun full of noodles
I think that even difficult eaters can find something to their liking in Japan. A schnitzel (Tonkatsu) of fried chicken (Karaage), most non-vegetarians should be ok with that, right? And the Japanese version of spaghetti (Naporitan) shouldn’t be too much of a problem: pasta with tomato ketchup, onion, bell peppers, sausage and bacon. Sounds like the child menu, or what? I should thin most people will have eaten chicken satay. Japanese Yakitori isn’t that different. It doesn’t come with peanut sauce and you can choose from the various parts of the chicken. Avoid the scary bits, pick chicken thigh (‘momo’) and you’re good to go.
Another easy to digest meal for Westerners is Gyudon, a bowl of rice with beef, simmered in soy sauce. Or Yakisoba, the Japanese version of fried noodles or bami goreng. In Japanese convenience stores (konbini) you’ll often find Yakisoba Pan, buns filled with noodles. Looks weird, but very easy to eat.
If you are preparing for your trip to Japan and you want to know more about what you can eat over there, Dutch readers should take a look at the foodwiki on Thuisbezorgd.nl. You can learn a lot from their Japanese Japanese pages. Read their foodwiki page abour Yakisoba. Or their article about Gyoza, a tasty snack that doesn’t look out of place among Dutch bitterballen or vlammetjes.
The Japanese architect Tadao Ando has been asked to work on an extension of the Kröller-Müller museum in The Nederlands. Internationally, Ando is probably the best known figure in Japanese architecture. “Ando designs extremely meticulous buildings that show respect for nature and are enormously spacious”, said the spokesman for the Kröller-Müller museum on Architectenweb.
For me, urban architecture is one of the motivations behind my little love affair with Japan. In 2017 I went to Ibaraki (near Osaka) to see Ando’s world famous “Church of the Light”, his museum on the island of Naoshima and the incredibly impressive retrospecitve exhibition “Tadao Ando: Endeavours” at the National Art Museum in Tokyo. This Spring I will take a guided tour of buildings in the Omotesando neighbourhood.
“Four Facets of Contemporary Japanese Architecture”
Are you interested in modern architecture? Then maybe you’ll enjoy the “Four Facets of Contemporary Japanese Architecture” course designed by Tokyo University. Ando and other en andere luminaries in Japanese architecture are featured in this course. You can do the course for free on the edX website.
History of Japanese contemporary architecture
In this course you will learn about the history, ideas and concepts of contemporary architecture in Japan. The course covers four subjects and five generations of architects. Part one is all about theory. The course teachers are, among others, Professor Kengo Kuma who designed the beautiful “Culture Tourist Information Center” in Asakusa and the famous Starbucks at Dazaifu Tenman-gū (with its 2000 wooden batons creating a diagonally woven lattice stretching out beyond the building’s facade) and Professor Yusuke Obuchi of the faculty of architecture at the University of Tokyo.
Via the medium of video they teach you about the grandfather of Japanese modern architecture, Kenzo Tange. Other architects, like Arata Isozai and Terunobu Fujimori are interviewed on location, showing their impressive buildings and talking about the way they work and their influences inside and outside Japan.
One of the most fascinating notions discussed is that Japanese architects aren’t bothered by European prejudices or rivalry: French architects are supposed to ignore Von der Rohe, and German architects pretend they don’t know Le Corbusier. Japanese architects are therefor said to be more objective about Western architecture.
At the time of writing, the University of Tokyo is offering three different architecture courses on the edX website. Some of the material is archived, but you can still review it.
Since my last trip, the “best ramen in Japan” is the Mukashi bowl at Kurume Taiho. Near the Tenjin station in Fukuoka, I ate the most impressive bowl of soup in my life.
I can’t say I am an connaisseur, not yet. But I really like ramen. It took a while. I’m not that keen on soup, so the first few times I went to Japan, I didn’t even try. What could be so special about a bowl of soup, I thought. That changed when I landed in ramen restaurant in Kyoto by accident. We were tired and hungry and we couldn’t find anything else, or couldn’t make up our minds. I don’t think Kyoto is known for its ramen, but that first experience with a bowl of ‘chasumen’ (with extra slices of pork) was good enough to convert me. Unfortunately the meal didn’t sit well with my travel buddy, unused to eating pork. But it was instant addiction for me. What a heart warming meal that was.
My favourite type of ramen is tonkotsu shio. Not shoyu, not miso, just shio. The taste of salt. Preferably with a broth so thick it’s almost liquid pork. Pork is my favourite type of meat anyway. I wrote about tonkatsu, the Japanese schnitzel here before. Contrary to Japanese custom, I am totally willing to leave part of the noodles and just feast on the broth. Japanese people do it the other way around. They’ll leave part of the broth because the fatty, salty soup isn’t that healthy for you. But I just can’t leave it like that.
Through watching a video by vloggers Simon and Martina, I learnt that tonkotsu ramen is originally from the town of Kurume. ( I choose to believe their story, I didn’t verify it.) They filmed their experience at Kurume Ramen Seiyokeno. Kurume is close to Fukuoka, down in the West of Japan. I’ve been to Fukuoka twice, but didn’t have time to go down to Kurume. But I found out there are branches of Kurume based shops in Fukuoka itself. That’s how I ended up at Kurume Taiho, near Tenjin station (Google Maps), and that’s where I ate what I consider to be MY “Best Ramen in Japan”.
My Best Ramen in JapanTM is an “acquired taste”. Not everybody is going to appreciate it. Kurume Taiho ramen isn’t just a pretty fatty bowl of food, it also happens to be a rather funky soup. I’m sure that’s partly because of their use of literally all the parts of the pig, nose to tail. But later in the day I noticed that drops of the soup that had fallen on my jacket smelled of rotten fish.
That rotten fish smell was very familiar to me as a Dutch/Indonesian. Maybe you know it too, the “terasi”, fermented shrimp paste, that’s used in very small quantities in Indonesian cuisine. I suspect Kurume Taiho to be using something similar in their ‘tare’. Tare is the seasoning that determines the flavour of the ramen: salty, sweet, sour, spicy and/or umami. The tare can contain anything apart from shoyu or miso. Mirin, dashi, vinegar, sake, garlic, etc. And at Taiho, it’s pretty strongly flavoured. So strong, that maybe it’s a good idea NOT to smell your soup before you eat it.
Rinds in the ramen
Less scary than fermented fish for the average tourist and probably easier to recognise, are the yummy bits of pork rind that Taiho puts in their bowls of Mukashi ramen. I hadn’t seen that before. In the picture below you can see the rinds floating on the right hand side. You also see the menma (fermented bamboo shoots). Some nori, spring onions and a soft boiled egg to top it off.
So now I have a problem. I want to go back to Fukuoka. For the soup. And it’s going to happen: in April 2018 I will travel via South-Korea’s Busan to Fukuoka by ferry. A pit stop at Taiho’s is on the itinerary.
This is the Kurume Taiho website. If you’re not planning to go to Fukuoka, I was at a place in Osaka that was very good: Zundouya near Shinsaibashi. Less ‘funky’, but very tasty. Zundouya has shops all over Japan. I like it more than the better known Ichiran and Ippudo.
Ramen in the Netherlands
These are my top 3 favourite ramen shops in Amsterdam:
Ramen-ya, Oudezijds Voorburgwal, Amsterdam
Fou fow, Elandsgracht en Van Woustraat, Amsterdam
Tokyo Ramen Takeichi, Vijzelstraat en Amstelveenseweg, Amsterdam
A visit to Enoura Observatory in Odawara was the unexpected highlight of my sixth trip to Japan. Enoura Observatory lies at the foot of the Hakone mountains and looks out over Sagami bay with panoramic views of the Boso peninsula and Oshima island. It is an art gallery, an installation, an exercise in architecture, a place to perform, an open air museum, a citrus orchard, a bamboo grove and a garden. The structures and connecting corridors are placed to catch and reflect sunlight on the days of the solstice and equinox. Not unlike the prehistoric tombs of Newgrange in Ireland, where on the day of the midwinter solstice the sun illuminates the floor of its main chamber.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, photographer and architect
The creator of Enoura Observatory is Hiroshi Sugimoto. A famous photographer who also makes sculptures, installations and has been working as an architect. You may not be familiar with his name, but you might have seen his work. Sugimoto shot the picture named “Boden Sea” that was on the cover of the album No Line On The Horizon by U2.
Odawara Art Foundation
In 2009, Sugimoto started the Odawara Art Foundation, its aim to promote Japanese culture to a wider audience. For years he searched for a place on the coast to realise his dream. With a 2014 grant he was able to build his multidisciplinary complex on a hilly piece of land in Enoura, in the Kataura area of Odawara, some 60 miles West of Tokyo. The project opened to the public in 2017. It has a 15th century entry gate, a gallery, a tea house, a stone stage, a glass stage.The buildings and installations are largely made from found objects and material from Sugimoto’s own collection:
“It is a combination of all my training and experience gathered here — everything,” the Japanese artist says. “(It brings together) my photography experience and the landscape design. (Plus there’s) the conceptual side: the sense of my time and personal history, and human history. Then maybe the history of the universe.”
Enoura Observatory is a place of peace, quiet and serenity and the proprietors want to keep it that way. The whole complex is 38,000 m2, 10,000 of which has been cultivated. There are only two three-hour admission times per day, people are let in in small groups only. This way it’s ensured that each guest has enough personal space and time to enjoy the area. According to calculations, every visitor has about 600 m2 of personal space during his or her visit. I can attest that it is possible not to see most of the other guests in your time slot, especially since the addition of the bamboo grove in 2018.
Your visit to Enoura
There are several ways to get to Enoura. I took a train to Nebukawa station on the JR Tokaido line. When you buy your ticket for one of the two admission times, you can also book a ride on the shuttle bus from Nebukawa station to the Observatory.
On arrival you are given a guide book which lists the origin of many of the objects you’ll see, and a list of rules. You can’t touch anything, you can’t use tripods and you’re not allowed to make phone calls. There’s no shop, no restaurant. There is a vending machine and designated locations in which the eating and drinking is allowed. Everything is geared towards the optimal experience of art and nature. Silence is king. You have the mountains behind y0u, the sea ahead of you. The deep orange colour of a rusty platform contrasts with the clear blue sky. Light plays an important part throughout the observatory. Sugimoto is after all a photographer. Light shines through the cracks, through holes in the walls of dark corridors, it reflects in the many glass objects and surfaces. There is so much to take in at Enoura Observatory that the three hours you are allowed in pass very quickly. Eventually, you’ll find all the people in your group will gather at the stone theatre and glass stage overlooking the bay, somehow drawn to it or each other. You wait for the gong to be struck, signalling the end of your visit to Enoura. The shuttle bus will take you back to the station.
Plan your visit to Enoura Observatory
Visiting Enoura Observatory is by appointment only. Visiting hours change season by season, check the Odawara Art Foundation website for the most recent information. You can book your time slot on the same website, from three months in advance.
The closest train stations are JR Tokaido Line Nebukawa Station en Manazuru Station. There is a free shuttle bus from Nebukawa and there are taxis from Manazura.
At the morning market in Hakodate (函館朝市, Hakodate asaichi), Hokkaido you can catch your own squid, have it cleaned and turned into sashimi for your breakfast. In the video above you’ll see how that works.
Hakodate is the third largest city in Hokkaido, the most northern prefecture of Japan. It lies at the foot of Mount Hakodata from where you have a wonderful view of the city and its surroundings. You can drive your car all the way to the top, or take a cable car.
Architecture in Hakodata sometimes seems very Western, it reminds you of Greenwich in Engeland. Or Philadelphia. You’ll notice it in the Motomachi area and in the harbour. You’ll see a lot of red brick, which you won’t see in the rest of the country. Cruise ships doc at Hakodate daily. The many tourists who spend a day on shore go to the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse, to shop for all kinds of souvenirs. But what Hakodate is really known for is its market and its fish: tuna, squid, salmon roe, sea urchin and – often gigantic – crab.
Hakodate morning market
At a one minute walk from the station of Hakodate (JR Hakodate, not the bigger Shinkansen station at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto!) you’ll find the morning market which is open from 5am until 2pm. There are some 300 stands with food and a lot of fresh fish in particular. Look for the stand where you can fish for your own breakfast, you can’t miss the large acquarium full of squid.
Catch your own squid
Buy a ticket and you are given a rod and then you can do your thing. Some catch one within seconds, but if you are unlucky, it can take a while. Once you catch your squid, staff will offer a bucket to drop your squid in. She will take it to the table where a professional is filleting your catch. It’s a fascinating and somewhat gruesome process because the squid keeps moving even though its head has been chopped off. The tentacles may wander off by themselves. Within a minute your squid is handed back to you on a plate as slippery, rubbery sashimi. You can sit down at one of the tables to eat it. There are chopsticks, soy sauce and ginger on the tables. Even on your plate, parts of the dead animal keep moving, the soy sauce triggers convulsions. These are automatic reactions to the salt in the sauce. The cells in the muscles that react to electric impulses are still working despite being disconnected from the brain. It’s a little creepy. What does the super fresh raw squid taste like? Primarily like the sea.
Eating a plate of shivering limbs is nice, but the real party starts with the bowls of donburi that you can order from the many restaurants at Donburi Yokocho Ichiba, the food hall part of the market. Donburi is warm rice topped with another ingredient. Can be anyhing. Chicken or beef, tempura, and so on. But this is Hakodate and we’re at the fish market, so we’re talking kaisendon here. Kaisondon is rice with sea food: gorgeous salmon roe, creamy uni (the stuff that comes from sea urchins), plump sweet shrimp and crab meat, rounded off with s shiso leaf and a squeeze of wasabi. Yum.
Uni is an acquired taste. It can be bitter if its kept too long. No such thing in Hakodate. Straight from the sea in my bowl, it tasted salty, briny and a little sweet.
So you don’t like fish? Try Lucky Pierrot (ラッキーピエロ), Hakodate’s over the top answer to McDonalds. Their hamburgers are tasty and the restaurants have their own peculiar look.
Tasting sake in the sake and rice museum inside the Echigo-Yuzawa station in Niigata prefecture is a fun thing to do if you are passing through.
This isn’t a tea ceremony type of thing, but self-service: there are more than 100 sake machines available for you to operate by yourself. For 500 yen you can buy 5 coins and the loan of a sake cup. There are 117 different kinds of sake to taste, 95 of which from Niigata itself. This and the funny way its presented, makes a visit to this sake- and rice museum (which is really just a way to pull in customers to the liquor store…) worth while. Kanpai!
Bathing in sake
I first heard of this sake attraction via Only in Japan, a YouTube channel. Niigata prefecture is known for its sake. The tasting storeroom is part of the station’s Ponshukan, a souvenir shop, restaurant, sake- and rice museum and onsen in one. Onsen? Yes, drinking sake isn’t enough for you, you can bathe in it for an extra 800 yen. The sake is added to natural onsen water (41 degrees Celcius) for you to simmer in.
I’m not that keen on onsen, but I like to have drink. Niigata wasn’t really on my route, but because you can go to Niigata in just over 3 hours, I made a day trip out of it from Tokyo in 2016. Ticked another Shinkansen line off the list: the Jōetsu Shinkansen.
Take note: the sake and rice museum is NOT in Niigata and not even in a suburb of it. Echigo-Yuzawa is 140 kilometers away from Niigata and thus closer to Tokyo.
You can skip Niigata itself, unless you are on your way to Sado Island. I thought I’d take a look at the Sea of Japan (next stop Vladivostok), but after walking from the station for an hour it turned out to be less exciting than I thought. There was no beach, just a sad parking lot full of cars with their engines running and their drivers taking a nap. Back on a bus and train, I headed back to Tokyo with a quick stop in Echigo-Yuzawa, just for the sake tasting.
Ski-resort and souvenir shopping
Echigo-Yuzawa is dead in Summer, but very busy in Winter when its a popular place to ski, with no less than 20 resorts. That’s why the station has an extraordinarily large souvenir shop. The omiyage (souvenirs) consists of regional food, knives, rice and, of course, sake.
You’ll recognise the sake and rice museum, where by the way you can also taste different types of salt if you’re so inclined, by the large sign that explains what you’re supposed to do. If not, you’ll stumble over the life size plastic drunken salary men posed in front of the museum entrance. The sign says: “I drank too much yesterday so now I have hangover. Please take it easy.”
Inside the museum you are immediately confronted with the sake machines. Take it easy? But there is so much choice! What to do?
Thankfully the museum – which isn’t really a museum – has a list of the most popular sake. The local Echigo sake is the most popular. Would you believe it? Anyway. I’m not a sake connaisseur and the five cups I tasted all tasted great. I did notice they all had different flavours.
If you want to have a go at this sake tasting, it takes 90 minutes to get to Echigo-Yuzawa from Tokyo. Take the Joetsu Shinkansen in the direction of Niigata. Your JR Pass is valid on this route. A single journey will cost about 6500 yen.
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