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.

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).

A Japanese Farmhouse Inn

Mount Fuji

On fourth day, I woke up to a sound of a rooster at my brother’s cabin in Yamanashi prefecture.  It was a chilly morning but I headed for a jog in the narrow mountain roads.  As I walk through the dirt road, my brother’s two dogs looked at me with watchful eyes and don’t know what to think of me yet.  I crossed a railroad track and started jogging.  Now the only thing I feel is the weight of chilly air on my shoulders, sound of birds chirping and my breath.  As I started jogging the sun started to rise and in far distance I could see a peak of Mount Fuji with snow on its top.  The sun was finally up and along the road I saw cracked chestnuts and ripe persimmons waiting to be harvested.  Back at my brother’s cabin, I enjoyed a warm bowl of oatmeal and heaping cup of rooibos tea next to a wood burning stove, and how delicious it tasted.  Now my day is in full swing as we took a drive to 200 year old farmhouse that has been converted to an inn.

chesnuts

The farmhouse is about a twenty minute drive from my brother’s cabin, but there were no signs, to tell us that if in fact this is the inn we are looking for.  We parked our car a few yards away from what appears to be a path leading to the farmhouse and started walking.  As we strolled up the hill next to a vegetable garden with daikon radish and leeks, I can see hanging of about 100 or so of peeled persimmons on kitchen twine ready to be dried for the winter.  And along the “nokishita”, or under the roofline of the house were dried Umeboshi are plums that were ready to be pickled.  At this time, I knew that we had indeed found the right place.

umeboshi

The 200 year old  farmhouse has been converted to a  private inn by a professionally trained chef whose family owned the house and farm near by.  At the farm grow their own rice, vegetables and fruits in their garden and raise chickens. He also hunts deer and wild boar and forages for wild mushrooms and young bamboo shoots in the mountains to serve their guests for dinner.  In his farmhouse kitchen, there is a large stone grinder for grinding buckwheat flour for making soba noodles, and a wood burning stove for steaming rice.  I am amazed at the amount of food he makes from scratch from ingredients which are grown on the farm and or foraged in the mountains (one of the only an exceptions is the dried Bonito he uses for traditional soup stocks).  He brews his own soy sauce, pickles seasonal vegetables and fermented soybeans to make miso.

Japanese Farmhouse

The farmhouse serves local sake, craft beers and whisky from the Suntory Distillery nearby.

I have visited the distillery many years ago with my husband and then infant son. This famous distillery is located in the woods at the base of the mountains, and is a must visit during our food tour.  Along with guided tours of the distillery and tastings, there is also a restaurant, delicatessen and gift shop. Right now, Japan is making some of the finest whisky in the world, and this is the place to learn about the history and craft of whisky in Japan.

In the evening, I catch an express train back to Tokyo for more meetings with restaurant owners and chefs.  As I am boarding the train packed with salary men and women, I realize my travels in Nagano and Yamanashi seems like a dream and now it was time to get back to the reality.  I told myself it will only be a short goodbye until I return here next spring.

A Japanese Wasabi Farm & Traveling to Kiso

Wasabi Farm
Wasabi Farm

It was a warm, sunny day as I arrived at the wasabi farm located in a valley surrounded by a mountain range known as the Japanese Alps. From the farm, you can clearly see the dusting of snow covering the North Alps. This farm in an area called Azumino, is one of the largest in Japan and is  also a popular attraction.

It is busy with visitors strolling the paths overlooking channels of mountain water peppered with wasabi plants.  Azumino’s cool temperature and clean source of freshwater is an ideal place for growing wasabi.  The root is planted in soil and gravel under a current of cold, fresh water. The farmers will cover the stream beds with black cloth doing hot and cold months to keep the air and water temperature at 13 degrees to protect the delicate plant.

Child at Wasabi Farm
Child at Wasabi Farm

In the perfect autumn sunshine, we decided to take a rest by sitting along the stream beds and sampled an unusual but delicious wasabi delicacies for sale: Steamed buns filled with wasabi leaves, local chicken and vegetables, grilled wasabi hot dogs, crispy wasabi crackers, and even freshly made wasabi ice cream!! All so delicious.

Steamed Bun
Steamed Bun

After indulging in our delicious wasabi delicacies, we drove down the steep mountain roads to tonight’s destination of town of Naraijyuku. The town is located in an area called Kiso. It is a historical area located along the Kiso river that has served as a postal town and merchant village.  One killometer stretch of Naraijyukuis sits right on Japan’s Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Site and is recognized as a National Asset. All the building at this post town has been kept with the architectural integrity of Edo period of Japan.

Kiso Japan
Kiso Japan

Kiso is also famous for its lacquer dishwares.  Lacquer finish is highly regarded in this region as lacquer sap is collected from trees and then hand applied to wooden dishware by craftsmen.  This land-locked mountainous area is also known for Hinoki trees, a type of Japanese cypress tree.  The wood is used to make the fine, decorative Japanese lacquerware that is so well known. The town’s history, architecture and fine crafts and worthy of a visit.

In the evening, we stopped at a lacquer center and had freshly made buckwheat noodle soup with wild mushrooms and mountain vegetables from the area for dinner.  After dinner we strolled through a nearby a farmers’ market was selling golden persimmons, nameko mushrooms and other regional favorites.

Japanese Bowls

Tomorrow, I will be meeting a professional chef/farmer to make rental arrangements for staying at his private Japanese farmhouse and country inn to make preparations for our Spring culinary travel tour to Japan.

Visiting Tsukiji Fish Market

The last week of October, I spent about three days in Tokyo meeting restaurant owners, going to cooking schools  and checking out ramen shops. I spent the last day of my trip  hanging out at Tsukiji – the world’s largest fish market. The day I visited Tsukiji, it was unusually warm, pleasant and sunny.  I found myself relaxed and carefree as I strolled through the market admiring the shops and soaking up the spirit of the market.

 

Tsukiji Fish Market
Tsukiji Fish Market

On Monday, Tsukiji was bustling with energy, and everyone was preoccupied with their day’s business and driving their turret trucks at full speed. Tourists are everywhere.  The coolers at food stalls were filled with catches of the season such as snow crab, pike fish, squid, salmon, mackerel and shelves with green tea, seaweed, bonito flakes, miso, pickled vegetables, wasabi roots and much more.  As a matter of a fact, “Food Town” is a word used in Japanese to describe Tsukiji as one can find nearly everything you need for making  traditional Japanese food.  This is also where world class seafood auctions take place surrounded by a maze of retail shops and all kinds of restaurants.

Food at Tsukiji
Food at Tsukiji

I had a morning meeting with Mr. Noguchi who assisted me with planning a sushi workshop at near by restaurant for our guests during our tour.  I was in luck that day as Mr. Noguchi treated me to a  private, behind-the-scenes  tour of the market.  As you might know, due to its  years of heavy use and also to make way for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Tsukiji’s inner market is moving this summer to Toyosu, a man-made island near by (if you sign up with us for our April and June trips, you might still be able to see the inner market as a group).

Fish for Sale at Tsukiji
Fish for Sale at Tsukiji

One of the must to do thing at Tsukiji is to shop and eat at one of the many restaurants serving the freshest sushi you can buy. After my meeting with Mr. Noguchi, I squeezed myself into a counter seat at very busy sushi restaurant and indulged on some of my favorites at the market; charred fally tuna, sea urchin, sardine, mackerel and salmon.

Store at Tsukiji
Store at Tsukiji

Hope to see you in Japan.

Happy Travels!

Tanpopo Studio