Sunday, 8 May 2016

Placeholder post - I am updating the blog but...

I have slackened off over the last couple of years. I have dozens, or more probably, posts half written or ready for posting. I'll post them a few at a time over the next few months. I'll have to finish the 2013 Japan trip first then we've got the 2015 trip to look forward to.
So keep an eye on the post below this one...

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

On the road to Yudanaka Shibu Onsen

Kilometre wise the next leg of our trip isn't far. Just over 130 km. According to Google and the GPS it should take about 3 hours though. Probably due to the depressingly slow speed limits and maybe some windy mountain roads.

The route takes us north and loops around anti-clockwise via the ski towns of Yuzawa and Nozawa Onsen. We stayed and skied in Nozawa the last time we were in Japan in 2010. I was hoping to catch a glimpse on the way through. However we didn't have time to make a detour and check it out. As always we were late leaving and hoped to get to Shibu Onsen before dark - and dinner.

A good half the drive is on big highways that cut through and around some pretty spectacular mountains. There's a couple of big ski resorts on the way. Yuzawa has a number of multi story hotels either side of the highway for example. They certainly get a lot of snow in this part of Japan. Average sized house almost disappear into drifts and the some parts of the road go through canyons of cleared snow that could be 10 metres deep. P1010068 P1010075

Georgia and Michelle slept through most of the interesting part. Well, interesting if you find monstrous snow drifts everywhere fascinating. We stopped for a break near the turn-off to Nozawa, at a Lawson Station in a field of snow. Snow is not the only thing I find endlessly fascinating. I love the variety of products they stock at Lawson.
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Georgia just wanted chips and wanted nothing more than to sit down in the carpark and share her chips with me.
Love the red boots.
Note the bag of goodies from Osenkaku behind her.
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Kan-etsu tunnel (the longest road tunnel in Japan)

I mentioned in a previous post that the best vending machine coffee I've ever had was from a road side stop. Just before you enter the Kan-etsu Tunnel is a road side rest area which includes a ramen bar and a shit load of vending machines including the coffee machine that dispensed a reasonably good coffee and, my favourite, the hot food vending machine.

Wall to wall vending machines
I really dig the hotdogs
Oh my... a decent coffee out of a vending machine
The Kan-etsu Tunnel is the longest road tunnel in Japan. At 11 km it is the about 10th longest in the world. It seems to go on and on and on.

We made a video. An epic 1 min and 4 seconds...

If you click on the map below you can get to Google street view and virtually drive through the tunnel.

View A drive around central Honshu - March 2013 in a larger map

Sayonara Osenkaku

Alas our visit to Takaragawa Onsen must come to an end. After a quick wander around to check out the sad bears in cages, it was time to get back in the car and go. Osenkaku is a great place to stay but those bears are really problematic. It is one thing to hunt and kill wild bears for food but to keep a couple of poor sad bears in tiny enclosures is definitely an issue.



Georgia strapped and ready to go. Bear in hand and the bag of goodies she got with the first dinner in the other.  Lots of little toys in that bag. Half of them are probably choking hazards but it has barely left her side since she got it.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Ethical crisis averted, no bear soup this time for dinner

No bear soup this time but still a feast. After a quick explanation of how and when to cook what where from our hostess it was down to business. Georgia, again, got the kids meal that would feed a small army of toddlers let alone one.


Shabu shabu was on the menu tonight. Thinly slice pieces of steaks and veggies. There was a foil "pot" simmering over a candle of some sort of milky white soup. All we had to do was dump the veggies in, wait till it boiled and then "shabu shabu" the meat. That is, dip the meat in the soup for about the same time it takes to say say "shabu shabu" then dip it in one of the 3 or 4 sauces and eat. So tender. So delish.

Georgia didn't know where to start. Rice, soup, fried things and fruit and chocolate eclair to finish.

You really could just fill up on all the appetizer thingys. Raw fish things...

Deep fried things...

Cold things in sauces...

And a seafood fish soup thing just to push you to bursting...

But there is always room for sake. Always.

Minakami - Sakurai Shokudo

Lunch isn't included in the tariff at the ryokan so we decided to go for a drive, between dips in the onsen, to Minakami for lunch and site seeing. Minakami is a small town servicing the local ski resorts and tourism industry. Many of the shops in town definitely cater for tourists selling souvenirs and local produce.

It was a really cold day. The temperature must've been hovering around zero degrees. We'd had a near blizzard the night before so there was plenty of snow around. The car was parked undercover but the snow had blown in sideways so there was a decent cover over the car.
Powdery sticky dry snow
On the drive to Minakami we saw what looked like a bear. Holy shit a bear! But after watching it for a while we decided it was a Japanese Serow. A type of goat-antelope.
Japanese Serow - The tiny black dot in the centre

Sakurai Shokudo
We wanted some hot, like ramen, for lunch. As usual we'd left it pretty late so most of the restaurants in town looked like they'd finished for lunch. But we found a small place run by a couple of women. Probably mother and daughter. They were very welcoming and plonked us down at a table near a heater. Georgia is always centre of attention. While we read the menu, thankfully with pictures, they gave Georgia things to play with like the toy that played Happy Birthday.

We haven't had a dud ramen yet in Japan and today was no exception. Huge steam bowls of tasty delicious ramen. Perfect for a cold day although we were starting to steam in front of the heater. The service from the two women was outstanding and very friendly. We've been overwhelmed with some of the hospitality shown in Japan. We should be used to it by now but I hope I'll ever take it for granted.

The ladies saw us off with bows and smiles and we wandered up the street looking for souvenirs.
Sayonara ladies
Minakami main drag

Old steam train in the snow

Stop for supplies again

Airing the Johnson in the Onsen

The main reason you come to an isolated Ryokan like Osenkaku is the outdoor onsen (rotenburo). Sure luxury ryokans have their own appeal - the food is often outstanding, the peace and tranquillity is divine, but the rotenburo is why we're here. We're also at Osenkaku in particular because it has a number of mixed bathing onsen. That is, you can nude up and take a dip with members of the opposite sex. Generally onsen are separated by gender. I always imagine nymphs cavorting in the onsen but in reality the whole experience is family friendly. The main game is to sit yourself down in the hot water and soak up, what the hotels claim, are the therapeutic and healthy aspects of bathing in volcanic springs. Really though there is nothing more relaxing than a long soak with your family in a gorgeous hot outdoor onsen with the snow gently falling.

The rotenburos, there are 4 (3 mixed sex and one women only), are nestled in rocks either side of the river that rages down the valley. There are warnings posted around the place about swimming in the river. The river is prone to flash flooding so it can be dangerous. The river is also fed by snow melt so it would be too bloody cold for my liking anyway. Two degree river water or 40 degree hot spring water? Hmmm, decisions decisions. It is a few minutes stroll, at most, from the hotel down to the Rotenburo past a collection of the most eclectic snow covered artifacts and and knick knacks imaginable - and of course the ubiquitous vending machines. At the rotenburo there's a small hut with male and female change room where you strip down, grab your tiny little towel and then head for the water. We usually bathed in the large main onsen. We could then not crowd other people and hopefully not disturb them having a drowsy soak with our excitable toddler. We were usually met with smiles and nods. I think most people were delighted to see us with a little girl there.

Just shallow enough

Most of the time we were in the rotenburo we were there alone but occasionally a few more people would take a dip while we were there. Sometimes you have to make eye contact to avoid seeing dangly or jiggly bits but every one is there for the same reason you are. To perve. No, not really. Quite a broad cross section of Japanese society takes the plunge. We bathed with older retirees and young families or couples. A Japanese man, probably in his 30s, struck up a conversation with us in his halting English. We chatted about the ryokan food and bears and the anniversary of the tsunami which had occurred exactly 2 years to the day prior to today. Initially I thought he was saying that there had been another earthquake today. He must have thought I was an idiot for not knowing of the the big one 2 years earlier. But I did realise my mistake and I hope we sorted it out. The only other westerners we saw in the onsens while we were there were a group of 3 or 4 guys from somewhere in Europe (they weren't speaking English but I couldn't quite hear the language).
30 something degrees in and snowing out

Georgia loved the rotenburo. There was a bucket for, I guess, pouring water over your head and Georgia had a ball scraping snow off the rocks into the bucket and watching the snow melt. She enjoyed putting her head back and trying to catch snow flakes in her mouth. She just loved the whole experience of just splashing around and soaking in the water with us. In fact it was a struggle to get her leave.

Breakfast at Osenkaku

The night had been pretty blowy and windy but we were rugged up like the proverbial bugs. I think we had a minor blizzard over night, or at least a big dump. There was plenty of fresh snow on the ground and in the trees. But except for the wind and the creaking of the building you'd never know. The futons were comfy and warm. Georgia loved being on a futon for a while but she became restless and was more comfortable back in her travel cot.
Futons: so comfy
Breakfast at Osenkaku is almost as good as Dinner. Again, too much food if anything. We had a choice of western or Japanese breakfast and a kids breakie for Georgia. Way too much for one little girl - sausages, omelette, salad, cereal, jelly and a banana. I think I want hers tomorrow. The Japanese breakfast is very good, Michelle loves her Japanese breakfasts, but sometimes I just need a bit of cereal and toast.

I know I keep saying it but you will not go hungry at a ryokan like Osenkaku.

Egg, salad and rice

After breakfast the most important thing we have to do is relax and relax hard. So it is back to the onsen for a leisurely dip before we think about lunch.

Family of 3 with one in the oven

The stroll to the rotenburo

Some of the eclectic... um... art you'll find on your way down to the rotenburo.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Bear soup?

After a dip in the Onsen, more on that later, we got back to our room just in time for dinner. A woman brought a trolley loaded with trays of food and started laying the trays on our low table. We have to sit on the floor, but we have seats of a sort. Basically a chair with the legs cut off and a cushion. Not the most comfortable seating arrangement in the world depending on your flexibility. I have the flexibility of a chair. The word dinner does not give justice to this meal. It is a feast. I felt full just looking at it. It was intimidating. As each dish materialised I regretted having that Kit-Kat earlier, then lunch, and then breakfast seemed an overindulgence. As a matter of fact I was starting to wish I'd left some room after dinner the night before.

There was the usual vast variety of food you get in Ryokans. Cold foods, soups, veggies, meats, fish (sashimi and dried), sauces, dips, tofu and rice. There was a cooker to cook something, probably the meat and veggies. It is all exquisitely prepared and the attention to detail is amazing.

I started with a broth containing some kind of tasty but unrecognisable meat. It was quite delicious. Later we were chatting with someone in the onsen and they asked us if we enjoyed the bear soup. Bear soup? When I'd read about Osenkaku I'd thought that bear soup, a local speciality, was some kind of euphemistically named dish. Like buffalo wings. Oh dear god. That delicious soup with unrecognisable but tasty meat was bear. Local bear hunted in the mountains. If I was at a restaurant and they served bear I would be horrified. I certainly wouldn't order it. But what is done is done. And it was tasty. Poor bear.

There was nothing in the way of ethical dilemmas for the rest of the meal. Unless you're vegan of course. Georgia was served a kids meal. The kids meal was as overloaded with tasty goodness as the adult meals. In fact an adult could have been well and truly satisfied with the kids meal. The kids meal also came with a gift pack. A bag full of goodies. Toys, lollies, puzzles. Georgy was extremely happy with her gifts.

Georgia tries on her Yukata...

Before we headed to the rotenburo Georgia tried on her yukata.