Five Questions: Shuji Tanaka of Izumi En

Japanese Chef and Inn Owner

Shuji Tanaka of Izumi En

Mr. Tanaka (he likes to be called Shu chan), is the sixth generation farmer/community gardener/inn owner/chef at Izumi En.

His house and the inn sits on top of the hills in beautiful mountainous town of Kobuchizawa in Yamanashi prefecture. One can walk through a picturesque Japanese garden in the back of one hundred year old house and find a community garden. Busy professionals from Tokyo rent plots of land in the garden as way to get out into nature and relax. His farm-to-table breakfast is to die for!

Pouring local white wine from the Shikishima Winery. Shikishima Winery is known for making wine with tartaric acid-free filtration.

What inspired you to start a business?

When I was younger, I wanted to work in finance, especially trading stock. However, my family was scammed (financially but he did not explain further), I agreed to help them maintain the family business. About 18 years ago, my parents sold their business and invested in this house (owned by my uncle who died suddenly), we made many upgrades so it could operate as inn and serve customers.
Typically, the house and the farm is run by the eldest male member of the family. In my case, my uncle who was the oldest, but he died suddenly. My mother inherited the family business and I decided to help out. My sister, parents and myself operate the business together.

What is important to you when running your own business?

To enjoy work and life.

Japanese Breakfast at Inn

What is the hardest thing doing what you do. Happiest moment?

My philosophy is that if one thinks something is hard, then it becomes hard and difficult. Therefore I keep positive attitude towards work. I consider my work “stress-free”.

What part of Japan or Japanese culture would you most like to share with a travelers or guests from another country.
I want people from the other country to understand that Japanese way of thinking is based on the old culture of “hyori ittai or ura omote” in another words two-faced. Many of our culture and values are build on our history and the way we think. Things in Japan are often not able to explain in terms of “black or white”. Some cultural norm here has deep roots and history and might not be accepted by foreigners, but I want people to understand this is who we are.

Japanese White Wine From Yamanashi

What is your favorite food?
I lover raw liver, especially beef liver. It is ashamed that the government/health department banned raw consumption of liver after recent e-coli outbreak.

This interviewed took place after me, fellow travelers and Mr. Tanaka over some wine from Yamanashi (did you know Japan has great wine!). Mr. Tanaka has a great sense of humor is also extremely knowledgeable about history, politics and pretty much everything else he cares about. He loves to ski, go on horse back riding and speaks some English. Thank you Mr. Tanaka for opening up to us and sharing a good time with us.

Visiting Matsumoto Day 2

Street in Matsumoto, Japan

On my second day in Matsumoto, I woke up early due to jet lag, or perhaps I was too excited about the hotel’s award winning breakfast. Japanese people take breakfast seriously and so do I. A well-dressed Japanese salaryman beat me to the breakfast line this morning but I was only the second person there. This hotel serves mainly western style breakfast along with a few Japanese dishes.  Starting out with a good cup of strong black coffee, I loaded my plate with fresh mizuna salad, local apples, sauteed broccoli with bacon, an omelet, sweet raisin bread and vegetable soup. As I finished my breakfast, a Japanese phrase came to me, “haraga hetteha ikusawa dekinu-One shall  not go into battle on an empty stomach”, and that was exactly how I justified my big breakfast.

My to-do list for was long for the day. Feeling stuffed, I walked along the river viewing sakura blossoms before my visit to Matsumoto castle – one of  Japan’s most scenic castles. It was built in 1504 and is a considered national treasure. Matsumoto castle is a spacious six story black and white castle with an inner and outer moat and  a beautiful view of the Japanese Alps. It attracts many tourist form within Japan and well as across the world.

On the other side of river outside of the castle, I found Marumo, an “arts and crafts” cafe my artist brother in London recommended. Marumo Ryokan and Cafe was built in 1956 by Sanshiro Ikeda, a founder of Matsumoto Mingei Furniture who was highly inspired by Yanagi Muneyoshi, a philosopher and a founder of the Japanese Folk Art movement.  The cafe was filled with local antiques and folk art inspired furnitures and I felt as if I fell back in time.

Traditional Wooden Japanese Shoes

Later, I walked along Nakamise Dori an old merchant and warehouse street filled with local craft shops.  One should not miss Chikiriya, a well known Mingei shop started by Taro Maruyama of the Matsumoto Folk Art Museum.  Beautifully arranged on the store shelves are local ceramics, colorful glassware and toys made with wood and bamboo.  It’s a perfect place to get gifts for friends and family back home.

I enjoyed strolling around this small castle town as it’s filled with nostalgic folk art, culture, crafts, music, hotspring and more.  No wonder why people have been coming here for an artistic inspiration and relaxation, just what we need for our next “Art and Culture Tour of Japan”.  By the mid afternoon, I enjoyed meeting and finalizing plans with our partners in Matsumoto, and they are all very excited to be a part of this upcoming tour.

Visiting Matsumoto

Matsumoto Castle

Journey to Matsumoto for the Art & Culture Tour, Day 1

After watching movie 42 grams with a glass of Prosecco and chicken dinner on my flight from Mpls to Haneda Japan, my attempt to fall asleep failed. It was a full flight but nothing out of ordinary, but you know how it is, the anticipation keeps you awake (and in my case, a gentleman who wrapped himself in toilet paper in his seat during the flight!!) .

On this trip, I was headed to art and craft city of Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture to make arrangements for our upcoming Art & Culture Tour. The town was carefully selected because we were looking for non-traditional tourist towns with an emphasis on the arts, like back home in Mpls. Sometimes tourism becomes focal point for large historical towns and this can make it difficult for creativity, new ideas, and smaller businesses. But here in Matsumoto, slightly off the beaten path, people are hungry for new inspirations, they are friendly people and there is beautiful landscape and natural hot springs. This town is also home to many famous artists.

Nakamachi, Matsumoto, Japan

I will be spending one and half day with 4 appointments, photoshoots, and places to check out. Slightly overwhelmed by number of appointments and places to visit, I was humbled for this opportunity as I have been simmering this project on the back burner for a while.

I arrived in Matsumoto city in the evening after 12 hour flight and three hour train ride. As soon as I settled into a comfortable seat by the window of an express train bound to Matsumoto, I set an alarm so I could dose off for couple of hours. But despite my well calculated plan, my excitement about the trip kept me awake. I have visited Matsumoto before but very briefly and always looked for another opportunity to come back.

Manhole Cover, Matsumoto

My hotel was nestled in between restaurants only five minutes away from the train station. Tired and hungary, I settled for a quick bowl of soba (regional buckwheat noodles) with spring vegetables and headed back to the hotel to (unsuccessfully) catch up on my sleep.

Guide to Yokohama

Yokohama, Japan

Named one of Trip Advisor’s top Japan destinations for 2018, Yokohama is the starting point of the Tokyo Ramen Crash Course and, according to the Yokohama Ramen Museum, home of the first speciality ramen restaurant. Besides a hands-on learning experience at a ramen academy, we’ll also visit two famous ramen museums in Yokohama. The Yokohama Ramen Museum for a little history, tasting and shopping, and then over to the CupNoodles Musuem to learn about the invention of instant noodles.

Yokohama is Japan’s second largest city, and is only 30 minutes from Tokyo. An early port for trade, it remains an international city and is home to a historic European quarter and the largest Chinatown in Japan. Besides ramen, there’s plenty to see, so let’s take a look at a few popular attractions in Yokohama.

7 Things to Do in Yokohama

Cup of Noodles Musuem

1. Yokohama Cup Noodles Museum

One of the stops during the Tokyo Ramen Crash Course , where we will immerse ourselves in invention of instant chicken ramen. This spacious, interactive museum is a crowd favorite and learning about the persistence and tenacity of Momofuku Ando is an inspiration for young and old. If you’re a noodle fan, this is a must see.

Address
Yokohamashi Naka-ku Shinkou 2-3-4

Hours
10:00 am to 6:00 pm

Yokohama Ramen Museum

2. Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum

As part of the core curriculum of the Tokyo Ramen Crash Course , we’ll be making a stop at the Ramen Museum for history, tasting, and shopping. On the top floor there is a gallery covering the history of ramen, and in the basement there is a themed food (ramen) hall set in the 1950’s – the golden age of ramen. Here you can sample all kinds of ramen from famous chefs throughout Japan.

Address
Shin-Yokohama, Kohoku-ku 2-14-21

Hours
11:00 am to 10:00 pm

3. Yokohama Cosmoworld

A family-friendly amusement park with an iconic ferris wheel in the heart of the business district of Minato Mirai.  This amusement park has no entrance fee and is divided into 3 areas based on age. For thrill seekers, there is the Wonder Amuse Zone, and for kids and families Burano Street Zone and the Kids Carnival Zone. The giant Ferris Wheel has 60 seats and takes about 20 minutes to ride. In the evening, it lights up the Yokohama skyline. Cosmoworld is conveniently located in the central district of Minato Mirai.

Address
Yokohamashi Naka-ku Shinkou 2-8-1

Hours
Weekdays: 11:00am – 9:00pm
Weekends: 11:00am – 10:00pm
Closed on Thursdays

4. Kirin Yokohama Beer Village

Yokohama is also home to the beer giant Kirin. The brewery has a storied history with its founding as Spring Valley Brewery by a Norwegian-American in 1885. Spring Valley had a short life and was eventually purchased by investors, including influential Nagasaki resident Thomas Glover, and the Kirin brand was launch in 1888. Recently, the Spring Valley brand has been revived as craft beer line. Besides seeing the brewing process, you’ll get a chance to watch 2000 cans beer being filled every minute on the packaging line – something you won’t see at a smaller scale brewery.

Brewery tours are free, but are in Japanese. They last about 80 minutes and are available from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm daily, except for Mondays. Reservations are recommended.

Address
1-17-1 Namamugi, Tsurumi-ku, Yokohama 230-8628

Chinatown, Yokohama, Japan

5. Yokohama Chinatown

Yokohama was one of the first ports open for foreign trade in Japan and developed a large Chinatown as traders and merchants from China settled in the city, This tourist friendly district is a short distance from Minato Mirai and is home to colorful temples and gates. The main attraction in Chinatown are its popular shops and restaurants.

Address
Yokohamashi Naka-ku Yamashitachou

Red Brick Warehosue, Yokohama

6. Red Brick Warehouse

A historic Meiji era (186-1912) government warehouse used for trading that has been fully restored and is now home to numerous shops and restaurants. From the warehouse plaza you can see Yokohama port and Minato Mirai. The Red Brick Warehouse, with its orange illumination, is especially scenic at night.

Hours
11:00 am to 10:00 pm

Address
Yokohamamashi Naka-ku Shinkou 1-1

Yamate, Yokohama, Japan

7. Yamate & Motomachi

Western merchants and traders also settled in Yokohama and made their homes along a bluff in Yamate. Here you’ll find historic homes with blends of European and Japanese architecture. There are a number parks in the area such as Harbor View Park, Motomachi Park, Yamate Park and the Foreigners Cemetery

Just below the bluffs of Yamate, the street of Motomachi has a European flair and is a popular shopping destination.

Minatonomieruoka Park (Harbor View Park)
114 Yamatechō, Naka-ku, Yokohama-shi, Kanagawa-ken 231-0862, Japan.

Motomachi Shopping Street
1 Chome-1 Motomachi, Naka-ku, Yokohama-shi, Kanagawa-ken 231-0861, Japan

Getting to Know Japanese Whisky

Japanse Whisky Samples

A Brief Guide to Japanese Whisky

Japanese Whisky is hot stuff right now. In fact, I learned first-hand during a recent trip to Japan, how hard it is  to get your hands on certain premium whiskies. As I write, distilleries large and small are ramping up production to meet the surging demand and interest in Japanese Whisky.

All this attention can be traced back to the early part of this century when Japanese whisky began earning international acclaim, In February, 2001, Whisky Magazine organized a blind tasting competition, and the Yoichi 10 year Single Cask won the highest honors. Curiously, about the time Japanese whiskies were winning fans at international tastings, the domestic market was in a slump, and most of the distilleries, big or small, were cutting back on production. And this pretty much explains why it’s darn tough to get your hands on a bottle of the 25 year Single Malt Hakushu unless your prepared to tap the equity in your house.

The Fascinating History of Whisky in Japan

While Americans were the first to bring whisky to Japan during during Commodore Perry’s opening of trade, the style and soul of Japanese whisky is positively scottish.

The latter half of the the 19th century in Japan,  known as the Meiji Era, was a time of profound social and economic change. During this period, imported whisky become available in Japan – for those who had the money. After mock versions of whisky using shochu, a locally distilled liquor usually made from sweet potatoes, started selling well, serious attempts were being made to produce a locally distilled whisky.

The father figure of whisky in Japan is a man named Masataka Taketsuru. His fascinating life served as the inspiration for a widely popular television drama in Japan.  Aftering growing up in the family sake business, he earned a degree in chemistry and fermentation, and infuriated his father by taking a job in the rapid growing industrial alcohol industry instead returning to the family business.. As you can imagine, for this time period,  he was pretty much a rebel.

Taketsuru was eventually dispatch by his employer to learn how to make authentic whisky in Scotland. While in Scotland Taketsuru gained an apprenticeship at a distillery, produced a legendary notebook on making scotch and fell in love with a local girl name Rita. They quickly married and returned to Japan to pursue his dream of making whisky. Taketsuru was soon working with Shinjiro Torii of Suntory Whisky, and was instrumental in establishing the first distillery at Yamazaki. He eventually left Suntory to establish is own whisky company, Nikka, in Hokkaido.

A Traveler’s Guide to Japanese Distilleries

Japanese Whisky Tasting

Suntory Hakushu Distillery

One of the main stops on our culinary tour of Japan, Hakushu is located in the pristine mountain wilderness of Yamanishi and  is surrounded by a large nature and wild bird sanctuary. Shinjiro Torii believed this was essential to preserving the environment and quality of water as this is the most important ingredient for good whisky.

Tours are available almost everyday except for major holidays. The distillery has hiking trails within the bird sanctuary, a restaurant with an outdoor patio, tasting bar, gift shop and is also home to the Suntory Museum of Whisky.

Suntory Yamazaki Distillery

Surrounded by mountains and at the intersection of two rivers, Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery is the birthplace of whisky in Japan. It is located between Osaka h4and Kyoto. In 1984 the single malt Yamazaki was released, and the distillery now produces a 12, 18 and 25 year single malt as well as limited releases.

Tours are available and the distillery is known for its library of 7000 bottles of unblended malt whisky on display.

Nikka Whisky Distillery in Japan

Nikka Yoichi Distillery

Located on the northern island of Hokkaido at a latitude similar to Toronto Canada, the Yoichi distillery has mountains on three sides and the sea of Japan on the other. Taketsuru was well aware of the difficulty starting  getting a distillery off the ground, so he wisely set up an apple juice operation to keep the company afloat until the whisky was ready to sell.. The company still produces apple juice and apple brandy but at a different location. The distillery resembles a little village and each step of the whisky making process takes place in a separate building.

Guided and self-guided tours are available at the Yoichi distillery.

Mars Shinshu ( Hombo Shuzo ) in Nagano

The highest distillery in Japan is located in Nagano prefecture between the southern and central alps of Japan. This location was chosen for its cool temperatures, slow maturation and soft water.  Tax reforms on malt and a slump in demand hit the distillery hard in the early 90’s and production was paused for nearly 19 years. However, the pot stills were dusted off in 2010 and the company is now producing smooth and elegant whiskies. Thirty minute tours are available.

How to Drink & Taste Whisky

Like wine, tasting whisky starts with a look at the color and the aromas of its nose. You can drink whisky straight, but adding some water will open up the whisky and reveal some of the more intricate flavors such as caramel, wood, smoke, dried fruit, and spice. Most whisky in Japan is consumed with just ice, as a combination of whisky and soda water known as a highball or with a little water and ice ( mizuwari).

5 Useful Tips When Traveling to Japan

Japanese Yen

#1 Comfort First

Walk, walk, walk. You will be surprised how much you might walk in Japan. So comfortable shoes are a priority. Also, save yourself the hassle and wear shoes that can be easily taken off and put back on. At a traditional Ryokan, people’s homes, some temples and restaurants, it is customary to take one’s shoes at entrance ( Genkan ). And to save yourself from embarrassment, bring along clean socks without holes.

#2 Cash Matters

Many shops, restaurants and hotels accept credit cards, but it’s always a good idea to carry enough yen for smaller purchases. Save your credit card for larger purchases like hotels, gifts and some meals. I make an estimate of how much I plan to spend each day for transportation, food, treats, sightseeing, etc and carry enough cash in my wallet for the day. It’s also a good idea to keep the rest of your money in your main bag ( so you don’t have all your eggs in one basket ).

The banks at the international airports are great places for exchanging foreign currencies. You’ll most likely get a competitive rate and save yourself the hassle of searching for a bank or cash machine in town during off hours.

#3 Have A Friend ( or Join Our Small Group Tour )

I love having people take me to places when I’m in another country. Travel books and the internet are wonderful resources, but nothing is as good as having a friend who can take you to places that can speak the local language. After hitting the major attractions, it’s time to enjoy Japan like locals do. Take a few days exploring on your own, then join a small group tour or have a friend take you around for a richer experience.

#4 Walk on Left Side

When you first arrive you may not even notice your walking on the wrong side. Walk and drive on left side seems to be obvious in Japan, but people take it seriously. Japan is a nation of law and order. When riding an escalator or waiting at train stations, follow the arrow sign on the ground and line up with everybody else. When your arrive try to quickly get in the habit of walking on the left, and you’ll save yourself the trouble of getting in the way of other people or the busy traffic!

#5 Push or Not to Push

(This tip is for people riding trains and subways in busy time mainly in metro tokyo.)

At busy train stations during rush hours, instead of security personnel, you might see metro workers brandishing folding sheets of plastic they use to push people into already crammed trains. Do not feel threatened by their presence, but just go with the flow. You also have an option to wait for the next train which probably will be as packed as the last. Hold your belonging in front of you and just follow everyone else and remember that everyone else wants to get to their destinations just like you. For this reason, it’s best not to land in Tokyo during rush hour with luggage.