Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions

A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

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Farewell to Aomori

jason

Finding washoku in Hirosaki for lunch was actually suprisingly tough... the streets perpendicular to Hirosaki park were mostly full of meaty youshouku-ya-san and kissaten. Finally we settled into an unremarkable department store restaurant floor, which had three choices.

We both had some sort of soba dish. Mine was a sansai soba, or mountain vegetable topped soba. Usually sansai soba in Kanto is a slightly more elegant looking dish with just a few vegetables on top, but this place used a surprisingly generous amount of vegetables.

Sansai soba

Sansai soba

It wasn't the nicest version of this dish I've ever seen. The vegetables probably came in foodservice packs and the soba was a little overcooked. But we were hungry and tired, and this was comforting and warm.

Driven by sunnier weather, we had done our second day of hanami, but we didn't do enough snacking at yatai to feel full. So a couple of orders of noodles helped fill us up.

I also did a little bit of shopping, making my first serious investment in urushi. I really like nurimono, or lacquerware, but I've never really been brave enough to commit to anything beyond some cheap wooden misoshiru bowls and chopsticks. Aomori's style of urushi is very distinctive, and appeals to Hiromi's love for visual drama and my own quirky tastes. I actually have some older chopsticks from Aomori given to me many years ago by a friend, but I bought my first lacquer serving ware and two really nice sake cups... I promise they'll make an appearance on my blog in the future, but I didn't take any photos in the shop.

We headed off to the mountains...

Sublimating valley

Sublimating valley

Dirty snow pocks

Dirty pockmarked snow surrounding trees

Somehow trees absorb just enough heat from the spring sun to help melt away small circles of the old snow.

We made our way to a tough ski destination... you have to trek your own gear up the slope, as there are no mechanical lifts. Our purpose for making this trek was to go to a hyakunin-buro, 100 person bath, with a highly sulfurous composition. Unlike most onsen in Japan, this hot spring spot has only konyoku buro (gender mixed baths) and has been that way for a very long time.

And unlike most konyoku buro I've been to in Japan, it was also very crowded.

You just pay a a small fee for entry... I think about 600 yen per person ($5-6)... if you're smart, you will come with a couple of towels; we neglected this and had to buy some tiny ones.

Hiromi scoped out the other women to decide whether she'd be brave enough to go with just the small towel as cover... After a demographic analysis, she caved in and bought this sort of bathing suit that loosely covers her body. Most of the women in their 20s or 30s, at least the ones without children, wore something similar; older women and women who came with children in tow concerned themselves less with such modesty, though most draped themselves with a large towel when entering or exiting the baths.

The men, for the most part, used their small towels when moving in and out of the bathing area, and some covered themselves when outside of the baths. It's a strangely communal experience, but I think the experience was so unfamiliar to most contemporary Japanese that I'm sure most people were fairly self-conscious most of the time.

In theory, the baths typically had a male and a female side, but the dividing line wasn't strictly enforced; I think it was just to give people some semblence of separation to create a small suggestion of privacy.

On our way out, we had some warm soba manjuu (buckwheat cake stuffed with sweet red bean paste) and some surprisingly decent sumibi-yaki coffee from the onsen gift shop.

We started heading toward Hachinohe again, where we wanted to get a quick dinner in before taking the long train ride back to Tokyo. In the mountains, plows had dug through several meters of old snow, but the roads were clear... as we headed down toward the base of the mountain again, I snapped a couple of photos, though the snow wasn't nearly as high down below.

Layers of old snow

Layers of old snow

I was probably too sleepy to remember to take pictures up higher, where thick layers of old snow were piled up even higher.

When we got back, we had a slightly rushed meal at a little train station robata-ya. I had packed away my camera in my luggage in the rental car, but we had a few memorable things... Hiromi had senbe-jiru, a soup made with puffed grain senbei and chicken, if I understood correctly; it's a regional specialty. I've kind of lost track of everything we ordered, but it was pleasing... I had a glass of a surprisingly whiskey-like aged shochu made with buckwheat. We also had some good tamago-yaki served like nigiri-zushi, grilled shiitake, and some really nice miso grilled yaki-onigiri. I'm such a sucker for charcoal grilled rice balls, because I can never get them quite right when making them at home on an electric appliance.

Everything was shutting down early that night, including gas stations, but somehow we managed to refuel and return the rental car just in time to make our train back to Tokyo.

 

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Fujiya Hotel at Oowani Onsen, Aomori

jason

After our cherry blossom viewing, we retired to Oowani Onsen to rest a bit, with the overly ambitious intention of returning to Hirosaki for night time cherry blossom viewing.

Fujiya Hotel has insanely roomy washitsu, or Japanese style rooms. The washitsu, which features tatami flooring, consists of a large dual-purpose room and a smaller one that might sleep a couple of children. But wait, there was more! For those who don't love Japanese-style bedding, or for particularly large parties, two twin beds are available in another chamber off the hallway.

We felt like we could live there... it was probably slightly larger than the weekly apartment where we were staying in Tokyo, and that was one of the roomiest places I've ever rented in Tokyo.

We chose to have a late dinner after a long bath. Both the men's and women's bath offer rotenburo, but the water wasn't especially warm, and it was more comfortable to bathe inside. They also had a sauna room, which I stepped into briefly before realizing I should have taken off my glasses first... I popped into the cold water for a bit and started turning my attention to dinner.

Menu

Fujiya Hotel Menu, Onsen hotel in Aomori

We ate in the hotel's dining room, which meant dinner was a little less intimate, but close to the kitchen, allowing for some surprisingly fresh, well-made food.

This menu reflects Hiromi's meal, and closely parallels my pleasingly customized one. Although

Grilled bamboo shoots

Grilled takenoko, bamboo shoots 

It's springtime, and I had a lot of fantastic grilled bamboo shoot dishes on this trip. But this was far and away the most visually dramatic, and one of the best tasting. I think it's seasoned with little more than salt and soy sauce and perhaps a hint of butter. I really enjoyed it and will be longing for this simple, elegant dish until I can find my way to Japan in springtime again.

The bamboo sprout's skin also decorated a dish made with soramame (fava beans) and potatoes.

Mango puree with shrimp

Mango puree with shrimp

This was Hiromi's, and at first I was a little bit jealous, but eventually my own version served with shibazuke instead of shrimp came. I can't say I've ever seen mango on the menu at a Japanese inn...

O-Sake

Joppari sake (stubborn sake!)

Apparently this sake's name, joppari, means stubborn, which fascinated Hiromi so much that she had to try it. It also happens to have a pleasingly complex flavor, even as it drinks rather smoothly.

Yakimono on urushi

Yakimono

This fish-like fillet for Hiromi is actually kabocha atop ham and cheese, with a few pine nuts. I believe it was served with a grilled scallop and a carved vegetable.

Aemono

Blanched and dressed with gomadare, sesame sauce.

Zenmai

Zenmai

More mountain vegetables, in a simple but pretty ohitashi.

Salad

Another example of Aomori-ken's fascinnation with Western food, this salad featured mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, cheese, and a fairly intense vinaigrette.

Terrine

Hiromi's featured youshoku dish, featuring cooked and cured ham and mint, koku no mi (the red berry sometimes put on top of okayu) or capers. 

Wagyuu

Wagyuu

Hiromi also has a grilled wagyuu dish featuring local beef, cooked on a ceramic plate over a small flame.

Kiritampo nabe

Kiritampo nabe

In place of the beef, I have another variation of that northern Japanese specialty, kiri-tampo. This is a simple kiritampo nabe, or hot pot dish. Since I can't have this in the US very easily, I'm pleased to have another chance to taste it.

Oh, and a very nice chawan-mushi, or savory egg custard, arrived at just about the same time as this was ready... Alas, it didn't photograph very nicely, but I'm a sucker for a vegetarian interpretation for chawan-mushi. It seemed to take advantage of some seasonal vegetables as well.

Kinoko no foil-yaki

Kinoko no foil-yaki

A simple grilled foil parcel of various mushrooms...

Ringo to sansai to shiitake no tempura

Ringo to shiitake to sansai Tempura

Ryokan tempura is often a little bit dreary, as it tends to be made quite far ahead of service... However, this one was served close to the end of our meal and was still mostly fairly warm. It featured tara no me (one of many Japanese mountain vegetables), fuki (butterbur) sprouts, shiitake, and, most interesting of all, a slice of apple. I've had heavy American fast-food fried apples before, and I have to admit having a soft spot for them, but this was surprising. The fruit was unprocessed, and fried just a short time, so it remained crisp and gently tart, and had the same light crispness that the rest of the tempura featured.

Kamameshi and Suimono

Kamameshi Suimono with sakura no shiozuke and mushrooms

Rice is cooked at our table... Hiromi's is a seasoned kamameshi with bamboo shoots and I think some pork. Mine was plain, but rice cooked in this kind of pot always tastes better. We also receive a simple clear soup with thin slices of mushrooms and salt-cured cherry blossoms.

Apple sorbet, in apple

Apple sorbet in fruit shell

This was a very good apple sorbet inside an apple shell... It's Aomori, after all, and apples are a big deal here.

Before dinner, Hiromi had thought we'd go back to Hirosaki, but I think we fell asleep no later than 9 pm. We somehow woke up again, but it was already approaching midnight... too late to seriously consider the 25 minute trip back to Hirosaki Park, but not too late to head to the outdoor ceramic onsen tub on the same floor as our room.

Asamushi Onsen breakfast

jason

So my low-protein dinner transitioned into the extreme opposite in the morning... not only did everyone have a pot of tofu, made right at the table in bunrai nabe style, but we also had this surprisingly nice egg dish.

Where's the egg, you ask?

Well, it's on the side. There's a little negi, soup stock, and miso, and we mix the egg in using waribashi... Within a couple of minutes, the flame underneath the seashell cooks up the egg.

Hiromi's version of the egg dish also featured some dried scallops.
Dekitate toufu

Fresh and creamy tofu, served with a little negi and shouyu for dipping.

Of course there's a fair assortment of tsukemono (pickled vegetables), some yamaimo, a little hijiki... a very complete, very substantial breakfast.

Our breakfast is served with a little houjicha, roasted green tea, which somehow seemed a very homey way to start the day.

Asamushi, Onsen Ryokan, dinner

jason

We stayed at an onsen ryokan (hot springs resort) called Asamushi in Aomori city.

Most Japanese ryokan, given sufficient advance warning, are reasonably accommodating of vegetarian needs, though they don't always quite understand them. Usually things work out, with occasional use of non-vegetarian soup stock or a garnish of katsuobushi. In some cases, the food ends up being a bit ascetic.

Ryokan also tend to veer toward the fairly esoteric, so some of these dishes I've never seen before.

My spread

My spread

I was mostly happy with the taste of the food at our first ryokan this trip, but the meal ended up being surprisingly devoid of protein... usually there's at least a bit of tofu or some egg dish, or sometimes some yuba. This time, though, there wasn't even a hint of that. Even my nabe dish was little more than a suimono, though I think Hiromi's had a little tofu. The actual dishes were actually quite nice, but I felt a bit low in energy after the meal, which rarely happens when I eat at ryokan.

Hiromi's spread

Hiromi's had a bit more seafood, of course.

Hiromi's spread 

A few side dishes

A few side dishes

These were some of Hiromi's side dishes. 

Youshoku?

Apparently Aomori has a fondness for youshoku, or Western food, as we discovered later in Hirosaki. I think this presentation, offered to Hiromi, was meant to be a kind of cute deconstructed pasta dish. My version had some grilled bamboo shoots with a miso sauce.

Spring nimono

One of Hiromi's dishes, this features fu (the cute cherry blossom shaped wheat gluten item), kagomi, shrimp, and takenoko (bamboo shoots).

Itadouri no ohitashi

Itadouri, Japanese rhubarb or knotweed, one of many spring sansai (mountain vegetables). While not technically rhubarb, it has a slightly acidic bite to it. When lightly dressed, it's slightly vegetal and gently bitter.

Fuki no tou

Fuki no tou, the sprouts of butterbur. This is particularly common in spring in northern Japan, but it's also found, and eaten, frequently in other parts of Japan.

Ohitashi

A simple dish of blanched greens.

Tsukemono

Or so I think...

Kagomi no aemono

Kagomi no aemono

More mountain vegetables...

Unidentified sansai

Unidentified sansai

I don't quite recognize this, but I believe this is the mountain vegetable that we spotted along the river...

Sansai Tempura

Sansai Tempura

I always seem to end up with tempura at ryokan... even if they aren't serving it to everyone else... It seems to be a typical substitution for a sashimi course. This one features some mountain vegetables, mostly kagomi.

Some more vegetables with sakura

Some more vegetables with sakura

I think this is was a mustard-flavored aemono, but my memory is failing...

Daikon to negi no suimono

Daikon to negi no suimono

A light clear soup with daikon and negi.

Living nama-shirasu

[YouTube:wgDAdsp7peQ]

As a special treat for Hiromi, the ryokan brought a small dish to our room featuring these nama-shirasu, which were still alive and kicking.

I've seen Hiromi refuse to taste something only twice. The first was bundaeggi, and she pretty much says all bugs are off limits. The second was this. I'm not sure the taste or aroma would be terribly shocking, but it seemed just a bit too disturbing for her. Actually, strangely, I think it bothers me less than it does her... and I don't eat any fish... Though I guess the point is moot.

Note the splashes of soy sauce along the side of the bowl are the work of the fish, not of sloppy plating.

Living nama-shirazu

(Video Link, in case video embedding doesn't work for you) 

After dinner, I ate some kurogoma ice cream to get at least a little hint of protein, and Hiromi ate a really nice apple sorbet.

 (See also: Breakfast at Asamushi)