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.

Osenkaku Ryokan, Takaragawa Onsen

We drove across the river and right up to the entrance of Osenkaku Ryokan. The building is big for the middle of nowhere. The main entrance to the hotel has large Japanese style sliding doors that open into a huge open foyer. Timber everywhere. Polished timber floors, timber beams, timber holding up timber with timber supports. A couple of guys emerge to welcome us. They're dressed in what looks like blue karate uniforms. If they'd tumbled out like ninjas tossing throwing stars I wouldn't have been surprised. The illusion is shattered somewhat when I notice they're wearing rubber Crocs.
View from our room
View down the river from our room

One of the guys is the hotel concierge and he welcomes us to the hotel. He helps us unload our bags and directs the other guy to park our car. Inside we take off our shoes, because in most traditional style Japanese hotels you have to take off your shoes. Our shoes are whisked away and we're given huge western sized slippers to wear. 99% of slippers are sized for dainty little Japanese feet and we, Michelle and I, usually have to squeeze our humongous clod hoppers in. Osenkaku though has a few larger sized slippers. Georgia even gets slippers the smallest child size but they're too big for her. She still wanted to wear them though and shuffled around awkwardly.

Next we go through the tea and registration ceremony. We're served green tea and biscuits while we fill in the registration form and hand over our passports for copying. Then we're shown to the stacks of Yukata. Yukata are casual kimonos and are generally worn in Ryokans. I found one big enough for me, Michelle one big enough to wrap around her pregnant belly, and a cute little pink one for Georgia. Our bags are loaded on to a trolley and we're taken up to our room, up a clanky elevator and down creaky a hallway in the East Building.

We have a Japanese style tatami mat room but we have a bathroom and toilet. The toilet comes with its own slippers, not to mention the usual heated seat. We also get dinner served in the room. Our beds aren't laid out until after dinner. The futon fairies usually turn up after dinner and roll out the futons. We have a corner room so we have views up the river and across the river. If we lean out of the window we can see down river to where the rotenburo are. Rotenburos are outdoor onsen -  outdoor hot spring pools.

Map of the hotel and rotenburo
The rotenburo are the main reason we've come to Osenkaku. Many ryokans have rotenburo but they're usually segregated by sex. Osenkaku have four large rotenburo and three have mixed sex bathing. Oh yeah. Sexy time in the hot tub. Except we have a 2 year old. And Michelle is 26 weeks pregnant. And there are other people around and... Okay, probably not much sexy time in the hot tub but a good long relaxing soak is something we've been looking forward to for 3 years. There's plenty of snow on the ground so we'll also get to sit in a rotenburo in the snow. Awesome.
One of the hallways

The only down side to staying in these isolated relaxation resorts is the remoteness. That is, no internet and no mobile phone coverage. We're deep in a valley so no signal. I think I will survive for the 2 nights we are here though. The room does have a tele so if I get desperate I can flick it on and try to decipher what is happening in the world.

We're informed dinner is at 6.30. We think we have time to take a dip in the rotenburo.

On the road to Takaragawa Onsen

One happy traveller
On Google maps it looked like there were two ways to get to Takaragawa Onsen from Nikko. A shorter northern route over the mountains and a longer southern route that looped around west then north to Takaragawa. Some roads across the mountains are closed in winter. We knew this from the last time we visited Japan. There were two roads into Shirahone Onsen, only one was open to traffic in the Winter. I had a sneaky suspicion that would be the case here so we decided to go to the visitors information centre in Nikko and ask. I think the guy there said he didn't know about the northern route or it was closed. His English wasn't great and my Japanese is non-existent. Either way he did indicate that I should take the longer southern route.
Supply stop

We were kind of disappointed we couldn't take the mountain route but it was better to be safe than sorry. We would be spending plenty of time in the mountains anyway. Or we hoped so. We'd also be leaving Tochigi Prefecture and going to Gunma Prefecture.

Most of the way was freeway/tollway/expressway again until we turned off for Minakami. Then we hit snow, real snow, for the first time. It wasn't snowing but there were still huge drifts each side of the road and covering trees and houses. Finally we were back in the snowy countryside of our last trip to Japan. I know if you're from a climate where you get big snow drifts an blizzards every Winter it can be mundane or a pain in the arse but for us from sunny Australia, where we rarely see snow like this, it is a Winter wonderland.
Come on Michelle, don't be shy
That's better. Starbucks iced latte found in all good convenience store fridges

The town of Minakami is in a long narrow valley that stretches for miles. It is on the train line so even though it feels isolated it is reachable from civilisation. We stopped at a Yamazaki, Bread & Food, to pick up supplies. Isolated Ryokans can be limited in the junk food they carry, if any, so we wanted to stock up on chocolate and snacks and yoghurt and bananas for Georgia. We've been looking for gloves for Georgia too. We tried in Australia and it was too soon. By the time we got to Tokyo it was too late. We're hoping, in a ski resort (Minakami is a ski resort), we might be able to finally find gloves in small child sizes. Now that there is so much snow on the ground gloves will be essential.

After passing though Minakami we're directed off the main road up a slight incline and winds into the hills. The road we're following has a concrete centre line with what appears to be brass or metal plugs. I can only assume they stick lane dividers into the holes which are every few metres? God know why though, because the road is fairly narrow. After a few bends another another steep valley opens up but there is more of a flood plain.The river appears wider at this point but it is hard to tell where fields begin and the river ends because it is all covered with snow and ice. We drop down to valley floor and cross a bridge into the tiny snow drift covered hamlet of Fujiwara. We take a left at yet another valley fork and follow the river to Takaragawa Onsen. This valley is steeper and closer. It is almost more like a canyon. Takaragawa Onsen is the end of the road and seemed to be only a collection of a couple of hotels. I'm not sure if all the hotels are the one complex or not but our hotel is called Osenkaku Ryokan. The car park of our hotel is the end of the road as far as our GPS is concerned. It looks like one road in, one road out. The hotel is perched above and along the river, the Takaraga, that cuts through the valley.

Shinkyo Bridge - The Sacred Bridge, Nikko

The last thing we wanted to do in Nikko before hit the road is go and gawk at the Shinkyo Bridge (Sacred Bridge). The bridge is a heritage listed site and is part of Futarasan complex. It has been rebuilt many times over the centuries but it has retained the current design since 1636. Originally only messengers of the imperial court or royalty could use it. Legend has it that in 766 a priest and his followers were stopped by the fast flowing waters of the Daiya River. He prayed and the god Jinja-Daiou appeared who released two snakes which then formed a rainbow bridge.
Mae comes everywhere

It's only a couple bucks (Y300) for an entrance ticket because when push comes to shove it is only a bridge and what can you do, cross it? Sort of. It is closed at one end. Probably keep off the freeloaders. We were wondering if they open the other end when a couple of monks, or priests, turned up to pray or invoke a blessing. Georgia was amused by they way they threw their hands in the air and clapped. The monks wandered off and I didn't think much more about it until one of the caretakers seemed to be indicating to us we should get off the bridge. I hadn't thought the ticket we bought had a time limit to it. Maybe, I thought, only a certain number of visitors were allowed on at the one time? Then I saw the wedding party.
The end of the bridge leads to the trail up to Futarasan

We were being moved out of the way so a wedding ceremony could take place on the bridge. The priest blessed the happy couple couple and their wedding party and then they all trooped on to the bridge. The bride and groom were both dressed in traditional wedding kimonos. I don't know if they're actually called kimonos when it comes to wedding garb, but we'll go with that. They shuffled slowly across the bridge while the priest prayed and gesticulated then they exited off the other end where they had more photos taken.
Love messages?

It was all pretty interesting to see and I guess it is something you don't see every day unless you live in Nikko and frequent Shinkyo Bridge. I doubt you'd see many Japanese wedding parties holding a ceremony on the Nowra bridge.
Monks doing monkly things before the happy couple turn up.

Georgia was sitting on a log watching as the wedding party went through the ceremonial duties before marching on to the bridge. A couple of women in the wedding party dropped out of the queue to squat down in front of Georgia to say hello. It was amusing to us that Georgia was distracting them from their ceremony. I know I've mentioned it before but Georgia attracts a lot of attention. Even buying entrance tickets to the bridge took longer than what would be a normal transaction because the ticket seller wanted to say hello to Georgy. We are flattered that our little girl attracts so much attention but it is sometimes embarrassing. She takes it all in her stride but it can be a little bewildering for her.
Hooray. Just like the monks.

Unfortunately we'd messed up our timing to get the most spectacular photos of the bridge. We should have come here the previous afternoon to get the setting sun lighting up the bridge. So we're stuck with the flat morning light. Still, it is quite a pretty bridge in any light, even if it isn't glowing a brilliant red with in the afternoon sun. If we had made it the previous afternoon we probably would have missed seeing the wedding. Sometimes one experience can trump another.

Wedding party.

Priest doing priestly things.

Georgia attracting attention from wedding party.

Time to hit the road.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Yoro-No-Taki, Nikko

When we drove up the main street of Nikko we saw a sign advertising a bakery so we decided to walk up the street and look for it and also see what sort of restaurants were available. We didn't need anything fancy but more Yuba would be nice. Nothing immediately jumped out as "you must eat here" but there were a couple of bars that seemed to serve food. In the end we chose Yoro-No-Taki.
I would like... SUSHI!
Tuna. Yummy.
Fried Tofu.

Yoro-No-Taki is a pub / restaurant. I think it is part of a chain or franchise. We were seated and handed big glossy menus. One was even in English. It was all pictures anyway.  Yoro-No-Taki seemed to have just about every Japanese cuisine covered from sushi to yakatori and everything in between including some western style dishes. So we decided on a bit of this and a bit of that. It was essential though to start with some sashimi for Georgia. And beer. Beer for me.
Hello little guy... Fried prawn.
Chicken Yakatori.

Like any casual dining places that serve everything it comes out with mixed results. Nothing horrible. Just standard fare with a couple of highlights. Very inexpensive. Dishes range from about Y200 up to maybe Y1000. We ended up getting a few dishes. Sashimi, fried prawns, bbq pork, chicken yakatori, fried tofu and two delicious desserts. Creme brulee ice cream. Exactly what it says. Creme brulee on ice cream. And mango ice cream.
You're looking at me...
You're still looking at me...

Unfortunately the couple next to us were smokers and lit up between and during courses. That's the problem with some Japanese restaurants. Smoking is still legal. They were what we've found to be typically nice Japanese though. Always willing to try their limited English on us and chat to Georgia. As usual Georgia was too shy to respond. She just stares. It is quite funny really to see someone making faces or talking to Georgia and her just sitting there with a blank look on her face wondering who this strange person is. Georgia will generally say good bye and wave to anybody who has tried to talk to her though. She relaxes when we leave so she will smile, say bye-bye and wave.
Do you want dessert Georgia? Um...
Creme brulee ice cream.
Mango ice cream

If you're looking for something reasonably priced in down town Nikko you can't go wrong with Yoro-No-Taki. Cheap, good food, friendly service and good country ambience. Except for the smoking.

As we neared our hotel we noticed somebody still had their light on. I wonder what idiot had done that considering there are signs up saying turn off the lights when you leave. Ah... Oops.

Viva Hotel lit up like a light house. Oops.

Oh, and we never did find that bakery again.