We're Not In Kansas Anymore

Trip Start Sep 05, 2010
Trip End Dec 22, 2010

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Where I stayed
Japan Inn Masuya

Flag of Japan  , Nagano,
Thursday, October 21, 2010

Up at the crack of dawn this morning so we could visit the Tsukiji Fish Market, the famous fish auction house in Tokyo. The guide book said if we got there by 7am we would still be able to see the auction, but this turned out not to be the case.  We were there just before 6:30am and by the time we found the auction floor at around 7am, they were all packed up.  Not to worry though, we still got to see the big tuna that had been purchased at the auction and the fisherman preparing it.

This has been one of the highlights of the trip for me, it was an amazing place.  I have never seen so much seafood in all my life.  The market was absolutely enormous!  One part of me (the food and culinary enthusiast) was just marveling at the array of seafood and the freshness of the produce.  Some of the fish, whilst dead, were still twitching!   The other part of me (the environmentalist) couldn't help but think that the amount of seafood going through the market is just unsustainable.  No wonder we are running out of fish in the sea.  I had to try not to think too hard about that and just enjoy the spectacle.  The tuna was HUGE!!  We saw fresh and frozen whole tuna and then got to watch as the fishermen used band saws and hatchets to cut through the frozen fish and enormous blades and swords to cut through the fresh fish.  Then there was everything you have ever imagined would come out of the sea and things you couldn’t have ever imagined.

The guidebook said that in Dec 2008 they closed the market to tourists because the fishermen complained that they were in the way and distracting.  I have to say, I am glad they did not keep this in place because I feel privileged that I have been able to see it, but I can certainly see why they feel that way.  This is a true working market and there are mini trucks zooming all over the place moving fish from seller to buyer, as well as buyers roaming around the market picking out their produce for the day.  There are also the guys cutting all the tuna and other big fish for sushi and for sales and whilst we tried really hard to keep out of their way, it was difficult.  The alleys were very narrow with Styrofoam boxes everywhere.  Trying to keep out of the way of the trucks was difficult and I could see that they would get peeved by tourists standing around taking pictures while they are doing business.  We did the best we could not to be "those tourists" and hopefully we succeeded.  I guess we’ll never know.

After looking through the market and seeing such fresh produce, the next thing to do was to try it!  The best sushi shops in Japan are touted to be next to the market and I was not going to miss out on the opportunity to have the best sushi I have ever tried.  Unfortunately it was a breakfast for one, as Rich was not taking part, but he was ok with letting me go for it and went for a bit of a wander by himself whilst I ate my fish breakfast.  I didn’t go for the most famous sushi shop as the line was way too long, but I went for the one next door, which I am sure is just as good and also had a shorter line.  When it was my turn to go inside I was asked if I wanted the set, or to order individually.  I asked for the set and was promptly bought some green tea and a bowl of miso soup.  I was given 12 pieces of sushi and the only one I didn’t eat was the sea urchin roe, as I don’t like that.  But the rest was fantastic, the tuna melted in your mouth.  I have never had fish for breakfast and probably wouldn’t do it again by choice, but it was definitely an experience and one I am so pleased I got to try.  The sushi was definitely the best I’ve had (sorry Brian, your Dad is a very close second), but how could it not be when the fish is that fresh?  Also of note, this is the first time I have ever seen, let alone had, real wasabi.  The wasabi you get in any Australian or American Japanese restaurants is actually horseradish made into a paste and dyed green.  Real wasabi is so rare and difficult to grow, it is extremely expensive and is rarely used in restaurants, at least outside of Japan.  I was really excited to try the real thing and it too was awesome!

Following my breakfast, we stopped at Starbucks for Rich to pick up a cinnamon roll for his breakfast, then checked out of the hotel and went to the train station.  We caught to bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano and then a local train from Nagano to Yudanaka.  The purpose of this trip was to get to Shibu Onsen in the Tokyo Mountains.  Shibu Onsen is a hot springs town where people go to bath.  The hotel we are staying at (a traditional Japanese Ryokan) is a hot spring hotel that has a number of onsens (baths) that are fed from the local hot spring water.  The other reason to come here is that there is a local park where Japanese monkeys (Macaques) also bath in the hot springs and this is what we came to see.

It was clear however, even when we got to Nagano that this was going to be a whole different kettle of fish than what we had experienced previously.  In the major cities almost everyone speaks some English, there are a decent amount of English signs and we found it reasonable easy to get by.  At Nagano, there were no English signs at all and we were lucky that the guy at the ticket window spoke some English, or we would not have had a clue which train to get on or how to buy the ticket.  When we got off in Yudanaka there were no signs in English and we had no idea where to go.  We knew we were supposed to take a taxi, but we didn’t know how to get one or how to tell them where we needed to go.  Thankfully, out of the blue, came a guy who spoke some English and said he was a volunteer for the town and was there to help poor schmucks like us.  I want to write the town with our gratitude because this guy saved our bacon.  He could read English, hailed us a taxi, told the driver where to go and we got to our hotel with not too much drama.  This was a Godsend because the hotel had no English signs out the front and we would never have found it on our own.  To the town of Yamonouchi and their volunteers…thankyou!!

Once we got to the hotel, we were so far out of our depth, it wasn’t funny….actually it kind of is and we have laughed about it ever since.  We weren’t entirely sure we were at the right hotel, but they seemed to check us in, so I am assuming we were.  We were asked to sit at a table and a lovely lady in a Kimono then spent quite some time with us sorting out our stay.  Her English wasn’t great, but enough for us to mostly understand, but it took a while.  She explained the onsens to us and how they worked for men and women.  She showed us where the monkeys are and we worked out a timetable with her so that they would drop us off and pick us up and take us to the train station.  I tell you, service in this country is outstanding….Australia, you could learn a thing or two!  She asked us when we would like to have our dinner and where we should go and gave us a map of the town so we could explore.

She then took us to our room where we sat on the floor at the table.  She poured us tea, gave us a cake and then presented us with Yukata (robes), our room key and some additional information.  She then left us to our own devices and when she left the room we just looked at each other and thought “what have we gotten ourselves into?”  We decided to go explore the town as we hadn’t had lunch yet and it was 1:30pm.  Everything was shut though, so we ended up having ice cream and then bought some cup of noodles to have in our room.  I also bought an apple, as we’d seen loads of apple trees on the way on the train and the apples here are enormous!  The best looking apples I have ever seen, I had to try one (it was delicious by the way). he walk was really interesting, as the water from all of the springs runs through aqueducts between the buildings and under the ground and you can actually see the steam coming off the water as it flows past.  Amazing! At 5pm we had booked a private onsen, which meant we could go in together, instead of being segregated in the normal onsens and this was heaps of fun.  I’m sure we broke all of the rules, but we enjoyed it and felt relaxed and jellified afterwards.

At 7pm, we were collected for dinner and taken into a private dining room.  It was set out beautifully with about 6 courses, which they explained to us and said they would be bringing more.  We ended up having a 12 courses traditional Japanese meal (keiseki) and would really like to tell you what we had, but I didn’t know what most of it was.  We did the best we could (I was really proud of Rich for trying so much new and strange food) and we made a good dent in it. There were multiple soups, noodles, a beef dish, pickles, tempura and a bunch of stuff that we truly could not identify.  It was a cultural experience unto itself and we were glad we did it.  We hope we didn’t break too many rules or offend too much!!

When we got back to our rooms, the futons were out and I have to say they seem more comfortable than the other beds we’ve had so far.  Tomorrow we are back in Tokyo for one more night after seeing the monkeys, but it was great to get out of the city and see some rural/agricultural Japan.  Just seeing all of the veggie gardens and apple trees on the way in the train was really cool and interesting. 
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