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.

Pulhyanggi: cuisine of the imperial court, Part 1

Pulhyanggi restaurant, Seoul, Gangnam-gu, Samseong-dong

 On my two previous trips to Korea, I've been to locations of Pulhyanggi at least twice. (A friend once took me to a similar style of restaurant for lunch, but I wasn't quite sure of the name).

It's easily the most remarkable place I've eaten in Korea.

I couldn't imagine going to Seoul without eating there again, and I really wanted Hiromi to have a chance to try it, so we made plans to eat dinner there on Saturday night. With the help of our hotel staff, we obtained written instructions to give to the taxi driver, and we went on our way.

The most stunning location of Pulhyanggi is located in Gangnam, a short taxi ride from COEX mall. There are at least a half-dozen branches around the city, including one in the basement of Seoul Tower, but this location, in Samseong-dong, is housed in a building designed with a classical Korean architectural aesthetic, and also features a stage for live musical and dance performances using traditional Korean instruments.

The style of service is reminscent of kaiseki-ryouri in Japan, and Pulhyanggi itself was founded by a former mountain temple monk. At least part of the appeal for me is that I can look forward to having an extravagant, memorable vegetarian meal, although there are certainly more meaty selections on the menu. Ordering is roughly table d'hôte; you select from one of perhaps five multicourse menus, organized by price, and then proceed for the rest of the evening to try to keep pace with the dozens of dishes that come to your table.

Hiromi and I respectively ordered an omnivorous and vegetarian version of the same menu, at roughly KRW 55,000/person ($55-60). There is a more budget friendly choice at about KRW 39,000, and certainly the option to treat yourself to one of several even more extravagant menus, but this price point strikes a good balance.

Some of the early dishes were familiar to us from other Korean dining experiences, but somehow the quality beat almost every humble rendition we've tasted.

Chap chae

chapchae, but better than your mom can make.

No matter how fondly one esteems one's Korean mother's chapchae, it's hard to imagine anyone outdoing this version. I don't know what made it better, but we were surprised to see such a simple dish turned into something so memorable.

Muk

Seasoned muk

One of the many starch-based jellies common in Korea, jealously guarded and consumed by Hiromi.

Salad

 Pumpkin salad

A surprisingly richly flavored salad, perhaps accented with a hint of roasted pumpkin seed oil.

Mul gimchi

Mul gimchi

A remarkably sappari "water kimchi," a variety of kimchi fermented in a large amount of liquid for several days. Although the vegetables in this variety of kimchi are tasty, mul gimchi is appreciated best by taking sips of the mild brine with a spoon. Lightly acidic, complex, and refreshing.

Grilled mushrooms and roasted ginko nuts

Grilled Korean matsutake with ginko nuts

These seemed to be grilled matsutake, although I'm not sure where one finds pine mushrooms this time of year.

This evening's performers

Traditional Korean music and dance performers, with two tourists

Our meal is then briefly interrupted when the staff suggests we might like to pose for a touristy photo with the musicians and dancers.

Tofu with nori and matchstick vegetables

Tofu with matchstick-cut vegetables

I receive tofu with a tasty sauce (perhaps ginger and a little dwaenjang, a.k.a. miso, though the particulars escaped me) and matchstick sliced vegetables, along with another couple of small vegetable side dishes.

Shellfish

Butterflied shrimp? My seafood knowledge has shrunk since I became vegetarian...

Hiromi gets a dramatically plated shellfish dish.

Stuffed tofu

 Korean-style stuffed atsuage

I have a shiitake-stuffed tofu with a slice of sweet potato, deep-fried and served at room temperature.

Jeon

Three jeon

We both share three types of jeon, pancakes with various vegetable fillings.

Fried vegetables 

Korean-style fried vegetables 

Both of us have a course of fried vegetables; Hiromi's had some meat or fish. This is the only not entirely successful dish we tasted, as the batter was heavier and oilier than we would have hoped. The best tempura in Japan is crispy without tasting greasy. These items seemed to be cooked at a lower temperature with a thicker coating. The result was crunchy but slightly tough.

Meatless "Steamed beef"

Kelp-based vegetarian "steamed beef" dish

Apparently made with kelp, this temple-style deception was a surprisingly pleasant meat analog. I think it was fashioned from wheat gluten, but I'm not entirely sure. The server explained that this dish is unique to this restaurant. Hiromi received a parallel course made with actual beef.

Nine-sectioned dish assembled by our server

Korean nine-sectioned dish assembled by our waitress

A classic dish of the royal court, the nine-section dish is simply thin crepe-like pancakes and various vegetable fillings (one is generally meat or seafood, but they prepare a vegetarian alternative for me).  Our server prepares all four pancakes for us a la minute, though when I visited this with Korean colleagues several years ago, the staff only prepared the first one or two as a demonstration, as we could be expected to figure out the rest.

Nine-sectioned dish pancakes

These are then eaten with a white-colored, slightly sweet and slightly acidic dipping sauce.

Seems like a lot of food, no?

We were already fairly satiated, especially after two other hearty meals on the same day. But we hadn't had rice yet...

See Part 2...

 

Last days

I ended up scheduling a little more time for this trip than necessary. I had anticipated seeing a more public venue in Japan where the dragon beard candy company was planning to sell their product, so that I could witness, and hopefully learn from, a Japanese-style product launch. Their retail partner apparently recently rescheduled the event, so unfortunately I won’t get a chance to see it.

However, changing my return flight would have been more expensive than taking advantage of the remaining time. My original plan was to go to Shiga prefecture to do some ceramics hunting, as it’s one of the major ceramics centers I still haven’t visited and a substantial influence on Mashiko ware. Shigaraki ware tends to be fairly rustic, like Mashiko-yaki, so I had hoped to see more. Unfortunately, scheduling the trip turned out to be more complicated than I had hoped, so Hiromi arranged for a quick trip to the western coast of Shizuoka prefecture’s Dogashima, a small island in Izu.

This area produces a lot of wasabi products, and some citrus fruits like dekopon and a local variety of mikan (mandarin orange); I would guess that daidai could be found somewhere nearby in the right time of year.

We stayed in a hot springs inn with an oceanfront rotenburo (outdoor bath). Because of the structural design all of the rooms also featured ocean views… essentially the hotel was built against a cliff.

On the way from Yokohama, initially clear skies gave way to clouds and unexpected stretches of heavy snow, and clear skies returned as we approached our destination. Izu was chillier than Tokyo had been in the morning, and gusty winds limited our outdoor adventures. As we reached the hotel, the winds rose to a level that made opening the car doors a fair challenge.

We tried to brave the weather and enjoy the rotenburo before sunset. The men’s hot springs baths were set roughly 15 meters from the water, but as the waves crashed against the walls below, a salty spray would occasionally reach my lips as I looked out into the water. Just as sunset approached, one of the kashi-kiri onsen rooms became available, which was just above the women’s rotenburo. Hiromi had reported that one of the women’s baths was constantly besieged by cold ocean water and remained mostly unused. As some of the stronger waves launched columns of seaweed onto the roof below us, I could imagine it wouldn’t have been very comfortable to be in the way of some of the heavier spray.

Dinner was the usual ryokan style extravagant presentation, though the house seemed a little heavy-handed with their katsuo-dashi, enough that even Hiromi took notice, though she gleefully consumed the various crustacea and bivalves she was presented.

I hadn’t met Hiromi’s parents before this trip, and my awkward Japanese made conversation a bit challenging, but everything was pleasant enough. We stopped at her home on the way to and from Izu, as she needed to handle arrangements with the car.

Monday night Hiromi and I found a pleasant little Korean restaurant located atop a small Korean deli/grocery. Though it probably cost about twice as much as it would in Korea, we ate a perfectly suitable meal of kimchi dubu jjigae, pa chijimi, and chap chae, accompanied by a small bottle of low-alcohol Korean-style nigori-zake (unfiltered sake), a plate of small vegetable side dishes, and followed by some yuja-cha and soo jeong gwa. It was roughly 6000 yen, which is quite modest for Japan, along the lines of an okonomiyaki restaurant.

Juggling my luggage on the return turned out to be a bigger problem than I had hoped. In spite of asking most companies I met with at FoodEx to send me samples by post, I still ended up with a few bottles of yuzu juice, sudachi juice, and various other samples, as well as a couple of items for personal consumption I bought at Izu. Worse, the pamphlets I accumulated took up an obscene amount of space, most of which I actually wanted to keep.

I don’t think I’ll get enough sleep on the airplane, so returning to Seattle time is likely to be as painful as usual, alas.

Catastrophic failure, just in time

So my laptop hard drive has been complaining about little problems from time to time, and I decided to run a scanning and repair tool that came with my Dell (the Symantec equivalent of Chkdsk) on Sunday.

When I got home from a friend's birthday party across Puget Sound in Kingston, I saw that the appropriate magic had happened and I tried rebooting.

No luck.

Thanks to a late night call with a Dell tech support person I deleted my primary partition, losing a number of nice food photos and a few semi-important documents, along with some pet software projects that I haven't recently backed up. I don't think the losses were tragic, but they are disappointing nonetheless.

Dell sent out a replacement hard drive, but we were cutting it really close... Hiromi and I were leaving for Japan on Tuesday. It was destined to come via overnight service, but we wouldn't know if it would arrive before we had to leave.

I managed to bring my machine up to a semi-usable state, went to bed around 2am, and had a suitably restless night.

I think I had a similar fiasco a few years back just before an international trip, and about 7. I seem to be very hard on my machines.

 

Anyway, just minutes before we absolutely had to call a cab in order to get us to the airport on time, DHL stopped by. I was lucky I was able to get things semi-working without the new drive, because I wasn't looking forward to spending the first day or two of the trip installing software. I decided to chance the hard drive melting down more permanently, and left the replacement equipment behind.

 

We're in Tokyo now, and I rented a cell phone through Docomo. We thought I'd be able to get a local SIM card for my nifty new iPhone 3g, but Softbank's rental counter had a little apologetic sign in Japanese indicating that this wasn't an option right now. Apparently their web site had jumped the gun, or they had some problems, or they just don't want the support headaches yet.

The rental rates seem to have gone up. I had been getting nice 250 yen/day rates from Softbank on recent trips, but their best deal today was 525 yen/day. I caved in and got the cheapest domestic-only phone plan from Softbank at 300 yen/day, since Hiromi has her Japanese cell phone service still and we'll mostly be together on this trip, except when we're not.

I'm a bit tired. It's hot, but not as bad as I had expected, yet. I've always done my best to avoid summer in Japan, except for a brief business trip about 7 or 8 years ago. It's steamy, but it doesn't feel too hot right now. Even so, I think I need a shower.

Arrived, partially recovered

Over the holiday weekend I had the good fortune to be nearly unreachable, except via my prepaid Japanese cell phone, as I attempted to recover from jetlag in the hot springs of Hanamaki in Iwate prefecture, not far from Morioka. Monday was also a national holiday in Japan, so this was something of an international three day weekend... not completely work free, as I was always on the lookout for something interesting to import, and found lots of nifty stuff, but it was relaxing enough and helped me get enough sleep to be reasonably productive for the rest of the trip.

Alas, it meant also that I was blissfully unaware of some problems with some logistics issues with a few things that are being moved around right now, and I also discovered another couple of minor and major fire drills unrelated to products, but almost all of those were resolved in a few hours last night after I arrived in my weekly rental apartment in Shinjuku.

I need to take off to meet with a supplier... When I return, I'll talk about what I ate the last few days...

And we're back...

I just returned home from the long return drive about an hour ago... The weather today was beautiful... I apparently was just a few hours too late to witness the results of the minor Mt. Saint Helens eruption today... still somewhere in Oregon when I heard about it.

The trip was mostly productive. I sold a fair amount of ceramics to a suitable spot, and got agreement for a chain of several other stores to carry the candy. The direct sales from this trip probably covered most of the expenses from this trip, and I established a couple of relationships that will probably have future benefits.

I'd write more, but I'm exhausted. I didn't consume any measurable amount of caffeine today, either.

Asamushi, Onsen Ryokan, dinner

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)

Pursuing my passions

After years of working a well-paid, challenging, and ostensibly prestigious job which was often interesting, occasionally satisfying, but rarely fulfilling, I’ve decided to move on.

I have three obsessions that I’ve indulged outside of work for the last 7 years or so. One is an uncompromising passion for cooking and eating good food. Another is a love of travel. And third is a wallet-thinning habit of collecting Japanese and Korean ceramics and craftwork. Beyond that, I have a long-neglected impulse to write and create, which, most likely due to excessive comfort over these 7 years, rather than inadequate time, I have mostly failed to pursue and develop.

My goal over the next few years is to explore each of these passions with an eye for making a reasonable living doing the things I love the most.

This is a life-altering transformation. My job at Microsoft, working as a test lead in software internationalization, has allowed me to live comfortably while I regularly invested at least 20% of my income. Now, for the first time in years, I expect many months during which I’ll be slowly eating away at my reserves.

My plan for the next year is to take advantage of my safety net while taking a lot of personal risks. I've established a small business entity focused on importing foods, gifts, and other things that I am excited about.

I’ll travel, but with the objective of generating some kind of return from each trip, either in a financial sense or in the sense of personal growth. I'll be exploiting my ceramics obsession by buying ceramics and craftwork, but with the intent of using my eye to bring back items that could be introduced to the U.S. market for resale. I’ll also at least occasionally be working in restaurants as a cook and waiter and whatever else will teach me what it will take to make a successful business serving food. I expect that I’ll create some opportunities to write and to create again. Within a few years I intend to have established enough of a network to be ready to start a small café/restaurant, and on the way, I will focus on building up my import/export business.

This journal is the document of my transformation.

At least once a week, I’ll be telling part of my story. I intend to be pathologically honest, but I promise to do my best to avoid sentimentality, wistfulness, or excessive self-indulgence. I don’t promise to be authoritative, profound, or even important. But I do promise, more than anything else, to live.

Last day in Tokyo, at Wai Wai, Italian-Japanese Izakaya

May 8... I had a relatively quiet last day in Japan, and met a friend for a quick lunch while Hiromi started the first day of work after Golden Week. After lunch, I made my way to Yūrakuchō to look for some additional self-indulgent snacks and treats to bring back to Seattle. I made my way back to my usual favorite spots (Hokkaidō Dosanko Plaza, Mura-Kara-Machi-Kara-Kan) and discovered, downstairs in the same building, a shop selling Wakayama specialties and another focused on Toyama products. I ended up taking home some umeboshi, some yuzu yubeshi, and some high-powered umeshu, and a few other treasures.

I met up with Hiromi mid-afternoon, because she had a medical appointment and had to leave the office a bit early anyway. After she finished with that, we met in Ginza and went to Printemps, where we both ordered a really nice, this-month-only, Matcha Mont Blanc. We then slowly headed back home, rested for a few minutes, and made our way to a restaurant we'd been planning to try all week.

Wai Wai

Wai Wai

Wai Wai, or 和伊・和伊, is a Japanese-Italian Izakaya that cutely uses country-appropriate Kanji (Japan and Italy) as ateji for a word that usually means something like "noisy" or "noisily".

Seated

Hiromi at Wai Wai

The space looks tiny if you peek inside... There's only a U-shaped bar adjacent the kitchen, and maybe a small table or two. But it turns out that they have a half dozen or so tables upstairs, and that's where we were seated. The booths have small noren hanging to create some semblence of privacy.

Agedashi Mozzarella

Agedashi Mozzarella

This was fascinating. In fact, seeing this dish on the menuboard outside Wai Wai may have been what triggered us to try this restaurant.

They transformed a typical izakaya dish of fried tofu in a seasoned dashijiru into a clever, but not over-the-top, fusion dish. Deep-fried basil, mozzarella, and tomato make an appearance, along with the typical agedashi accompaniments of ginger, oroshi-daikon (grated daikon), and negi.

While the flavor isn't much a surprise, and any crispness quickly faded as the dish made its way to our table, the combination was quite successful. It's hard to go wrong with basil-tomato-mozzarella, and the mild broth added the same kind of complexity you'd get from parmesan or a more Italian style soup stock.

Nama-yuba

This was the most Japanese of the things we ordered. It's an elegant presentation of a simple dish: fresh yuba, made from skimming the surface of slowly simmering heavy soymilk, served with soy sauce, ginger, wasabi, and chopped scallions, which you add to the yuba to your own taste.

I ate most of this, as Hiromi ordered for herself some chicken thighs, grilled with something like sansho.

Caeser Salad and Crepe

This salad replaces the typical crouton with a sculptural crispy crepe, which you're encouraged to break up and scatter over the salad.

Tsukemono

Tsukemono/Marinated vegetables

Marinated vegetables, or short-term pickles, featuring Western vegetables, including red bell peppers.

Quattro Formaggi to Hachimitsu

Quattro formaggi to hachimitsu

Four cheese pizza drizzled with honey. Like most pizza in Japan, it has an impossibly-thin, cracker-like crust. With the honey it would have served as a great final cheese course, but we weren't quite done yet...

Yakionigiri no ochazuke with an Italian accent

Italian-style yakionigiri ochazukei with anchovies, parmesan and basil

Ochazuke is a popular way of finishing a meal at an izakaya... there are two main tracks of ochazuke, one of which is the near-literal interpretation of tea poured over rice, with some pickles and furikake as accompaniments. Another is with a soup broth, and this version clearly is in the latter school.

As accompaniments, some chopped basil, parmesan, and anchovies are provided; they've been served separately to accommodate my vegetarian habit.

Up close

Ochazuke up close

I'm wasn't quite sure which herb was used, but I think the rice has been mixed with a chiffonade of parsley along with some toasted sesame. Because the ball of rice is grilled before being incorporated into the ochazuke, the rice ball is called yaki-onigiri. Topping the yaki-onigiri is an earlobe of wasabi.

Any number of variations of ochazuke exist. I've made a yaki-onigiri ochazuke before, myself, though with a decidedly more Japanese flavor profile.

This dish was really smart. Well balanced and comforting, it avoids most of the cliches found in American "fusion" cuisine while still playing with foreign (to Japanese) flavors. I think it's successful because it's firmly grounded in one culinary tradition, while judiciously adapting ingredients found in another... So many fusion dishes in the US seem to have a poor understanding of all of the source cuisines they are borrowing from.

Cream anmitsu!

Cream anmitsu with tapioca in coconut milk

I think I haven't had a chance to have kuriimu anmitsu for quite a while. We had a small dish of anmitsu served with a quick set meal at a kissaten in Mashiko, but for some reason, Hiromi and I haven't found our way to any place featuring anmitsu for quite a while.

The ice cream version of anmitsu, called cream anmitsu, can be found at old-school kissaten around Japan, but it seems not as easy to find as it was even six or seven years ago.

Not your obaachan's anmitsu

Not your grandma's cream anmitsu

Usually anmitsu comes with fruit, anko (sweet red been paste), and wasanbon (blonde cane sugar syrup), kuromitsu (black sugar syrup) or occasionally a simple sugar syrup. Occasionally the concept is combined with kakigouri, the shaved ice dessert; a few years back I ate that in a little shop in Takayama in Gifu prefecture.

Since we were in a slightly quirkier restaurant, the dish had been altered a bit further... in place of a more common syrup, it was served with tapioca that had been simmered in sweetened coconut milk. That transformed this treat into a Japanese-by-way-of-Southeast-Asia treat, and it worked suprisingly well. Since cream anmitsu is sometimes made with green tea ice cream, perhaps Chockylit's coconut matcha tapioca topping would be equally suitable...

We meandered the few dozen meters to our weekly apartment and started halfheartedly attacking our luggage.

The next day, it was time to go home...

Seattle Sakura

Sakura-branch

A weekend ago we made a trek to Washington Park Arboretum to do Seattle-style cherry-blossom viewing. That means completely devoid of public drunkenness, which would of course be de rigeur in Japan… Seattle style cherry-blossom viewing involves a moderately brisk trek across a large, uncrowded park, perhaps after a dose of coffee.

Sakura-bunch

Seattle’s cherry blossoms tend to be a bit earlier than  most of Japan, but April 4 is sort of the officially appreciated day for cherry-blossom viewing, so my sluggishness in posting these works out to have a slightly commemorative effect.

shidare-zakura

Now, if only we had a little blanket, a lot of shochu, some cold snacks, and no laws against drinking in public parks, we might have a complete hanami experience…

A Little Respite in Gunma-ken

We departed Japan on Sunday, but not without a valuable trip to Takaragawa Onsen, a hot spring ryoukan in Gunma prefecture.

After a quick lunch at a Meguro-station cafe on Saturday, Hiromi drove us through a mysterious maze of toll highways about three or four hours, but I managed to sleep through about two hours of road time, oblivious to my surroundings. Only when traveling internationally do I seem to magically acquire the ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime.

For me, a stay in a ryokan is an opportunity for an extravagant simple meal, but it also offers an ideal bathing experience…

We stopped briefly at a highway service area for a snack, and after resting a bit upon arrival, we made a quick trip to the rotenburo (outdoor hot springs bath). This hotel’s rotenburo is one of the largest konyoku-buro (mixed baths). Although in other konyoku-buro, people generally enter the onsen naked, people at this onsen are advised to cover themselves with a towel (men with a tiny towel, women with a larger towel), as one sign indicated, so that “nobody has to be embarrassed” using the konyoku-buro.

We didn’t feel comfortable really photographing the baths themselves, of course, but here’s what we found along the way…

Lukewarm spring water

Nuruisen

The irouri as ashtray

Irouri-ashtray

In old Japanese houses, people sat around the irouri to share dinner and discuss the day’s business. For the contemporary onsen-goer, it seems to be a destination for an ippuku (rest, but actually a euphemism for a smoking break).

Tengu

Copper tengu

This hall is filled with tengu and tanuki, mystical creatures with exaggerated body parts.

In the ryokan eating area

Jasonatryokan

After soaking a bit we sat down to dinner. In this particular ryokan, most floors have two or three eating areas, at least in the steerage class, although in the most expensive rooms they serve fancier meals in the room.

Shokuzen-shu

Shokuzenshu

The apertif seemed to be some sort of shiso-based shochu infusion, heavily sweetened and only lightly alcoholic.

Kinoko sumibi-yaki

Kinoko no sumibi-yaki

Sumibi-yaki, char-grilled foods, seemed to be the theme of our stay. For a spring meal, the selections we were offered were surprisingly full of various “wild” mushrooms, but we had some fresh spring bamboo shoots as well.

Mmm-flames

Each table has a small shichirin, or clay grill, placed atop a concrete trivet with a wooden base to buffer against heat damage to the table.

Note to us

Ryokan-notetous

Each diner receives a note describing tonight’s menu. You can see from the “yamame” (small fish) and “joushuugyuu” (local beef) items that this is Hiromi’s menu.

Mame

Mame, slightly savory

A rare sweet-savory bean side dish, apparently typical for this area. Most of Japan prefers beans as a dessert, but this dish is prepared with enough salt to make it a pleasant side dish for a savory meal.

Maitake no itame-ni

Maitake-itameni

Several standard side dishes, such as ohitashi (blanched vegetables), pickled vegetables (nozawana, for example), and other obligatory ryokan fare, such as nabemono, were also featured. I had a cold dish with a kind of abura-age in clear soup, as well.

Sleepy Hiromi

Hiromi sleepy

After the meal, Hiromi became a bit sleepy.

On the banks of the river

Onthebanksoftheriver

We somehow managed to fall asleep around 9 in the evening, but the next morning, we awoke to this view outside our room’s window.

The bridge to the hot springs

Takaragawa bridge

We took advantage of the hot springs once more in the morning… a bit of snow started falling upon us while we were bathing.

Breakfast

Asagohan-takaragawa

Breakfast included miso soup, salad, bamboo leaf-wrapped nattou (fermented soybeans), more of the sweet-savory local beans, yogurt, an orange segment, and a soft-boiled egg, as well as some pickles and nori, not pictured.

Grilled potatoes, green beans and carrots

Youfu sukiyaki

This marks the first time I’ve been served ketchup at a ryokan, but my breakfast featured a sort of Western-themed sukiyaki, in lots of butter, meant to be dipped in ketchup.

Shake no sumibiyaki

Shake-sumibi

Salmon for Hiromi. We had a lot of fire at our table.

Breakfast window view

Breakfast snow

From our seats at breakfast, we could see the tall winter accumulation of snow that hadn’t yet sublimated or melted.

Display hearth

Display irouri

I’m guessing this irouri, not terribly well ventilated, doesn’t get much use in practice.

Goodbye!

Takara onsen

We had to rush back to Narita airport, where we met Hiromi’s parents one last time, and started the long journey back home.

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