My most read blog post to date – The REAL Japanese Food – highlights the everyday junk you will find in Japan in attempt to dispel the pervasive image of delicate sushi being eaten at every meal. So it’s only fair that I take your saliva glands on a tour of the more traditional stuff, especially the over-the-top feast we got served at a luxury ryokan (Japanese-style hotel with baths).
Back in Janaury, Calle and I snagged ourselves a bargain – a bargain so good that you’ll think I’m lying. Let me explain…
Tanabe is a small, rural town, in Wakayama prefecture, to the south-east of Kyoto. It’s a depopulating area with agriculture as its main industry. As a result, the Tanabe Tourism Bureau is striving hard to change this quiet, mountainous region into a must-see tourism destination. Combine these factors with the Japanese government’s attempt to gain back all the tourists scared away by the tsunami and earthquake, and you’ve got a lot of money being thrown into new tours for tourists.
Of course, someone has to go on the “trial” tour and provide feedback, namely, a questionnaire at the end. Of course, Calle and I were more than happy to be the test subjects. Especially when we got a three-day tour, all transport and accommodation (farm-stay and top-quality ryokan) for a mere 10,000円 (that was about £85 at the time, currently £76.60). Whatever the conversion, the tour was practically free.
The tour got off to a good start when we were informed that we would be eating in a very good quality restaurant in central Tanabe. Not the fanciest of lunches, because we wouldn’t have time. But it was more than substantial. Tempura, stewed vegetables, rice, soup and pickles. Although tempura is, by its nature, deep-fried and battered, the quality was really evident – the flavours of the vegetables and shrimp stood out, and the batter was crisp and non-greasy. I’m making myself hungry just thinking about it.
Our evening meal was with with a Japanese family – the “farm-stay” part of the tour. Dinner consisted of yet more tempura (you can definitely have too much of it – in fact, you get sick of it very quickly!) but also these amazing rice cakes. The rice has spinach and some other kind of leaf in it. It’s topped with grated egg and minced chicken / salmon. Intriguing and more tasty than it sounds.
We also got given some chicken and shrimp sushi (due to a misunderstanding of Calle’s “vegetarianism”. Chicken and shrimp is OK, right?!)
But I want to particularly commend my host mother on the breakfast. I’ve always been a breakfast person. Within half an hour of waking, I’m ready to turn to cannibalism unless someone feeds me quickly. I can pretty much eat anything in the morning. Fortunately, my host mother was a woman who understood my desperate needs and prepared a feast, including freshly baked bread and the most delicious pumpkin soup.
Next up…dieters, get excited by the best diet food in the world – こんにゃく (konnyaku). It’s a gelatinous substance made from the corm (fleshy, potato-like bulb) of a potato-like plant. Virtually tasteless, it’s about 97% water but incredibly filling, making it a great diet food. Of course, your body may also be nutrition-starved…
Check out the other delights:
Finally, the ryokan.
Fujiya Ryokan is a luxurious ryokan with an outdoor bath and two indoor baths (and ping-pong that cost ２５０円 per 30 mins – rip-off!) It’s located almost opposite the Kawayu Onsen, a natural wonder where 73degC spring water flows into the river and is cooled to ~40degC, making it
bearable enjoyable to humans. We could glimpse this wondrous bathing area from our bedroom window but sadly, by day, it looks a little like a gravel pit. At night, however, it was very relaxing to sit in it and gaze up at the trees and moon.
Our room was a perfect example of interior design – minimalist and simplistic. I find the style too sterile for my liking – although I feel it works very well in a hotel context.
Plus we arrived to a snack and hot tea. And we got to wear Japanese bathrobes!
Of course, the most important aspect of our stay was the food. Now please don’t judge me too harshly. But I didn’t get the fish dinner, I got beef. I love beef (gyuniku in Japanese). I love gyuniku so much that an unfortunate essay on “My favourite things” in beginners Japanese class earned me the nickname “Gyuniku Girl”.
To my delight, this is what greeted me when I took my place at the dinner table.
This is prime quality beef, as can be seen from the beautiful fat marbling. The Japanese really understand the need for fat in the meat to infuse it with taste, whereas people in the UK seem to commonly make the mistake in trying to find the leanest joint.
I had to quickly boil the beautiful beef and the accompanying vegetables and dip them in a soy-based sauce. The method supposed to emphasise the natural and delicate flavours of the ingredients, which I am all for – I wouldn’t want anything strong to mask the taste of the beef. But couldn’t everything have been boiled in some kind of broth? Surely salt in the water is a basic necessity? As a result of this minimalism, I was a little bit sad as the potential of the beef wasn’t realised.
Fortunately though, I was also served this:
Have a look at the other delights we got served:
At breakfast, it really was fortunate that I could eat anything at any time in the morning.
Overall, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the ryokan experience. I’m not someone who likes relaxing. And I don’t like lounging around in baths. Hot springs normally make me feel very faint. But with careful “heat management”, good company and good food, I could easily go again. In fact, the plans are currently being made…