Miso Katsu, Salmon Sushi, Green Tea and Cup Noodles: 13.10.2013

Today has been amazing, simply put. We woke in Nagoya and fall asleep tonight with new friends in beautiful Hida-Takayama.

Yuko, our couch surfing host in Nagoya, had arranged with one of her friends for us to learn how to cook miso katsu (pork) at their home this morning. It had turned into a full scale cooking school experience, with Yuko’s friend inviting her friend and cooking teacher, along with his wife, to teach us how to cook salmon sushi. This was pretty much a dream come true for us.

We arrived around 10am and were greeted as if we were family friends; the warm welcome was so lovely and we were served beautiful Japanese sweets and green tea. Then the cooking began…
Yuko’s two friends, along with one of the friend’s husband – who we called “Sense” – are all amazing cooks and they were straight into the cooking action. Sense is a Japanese chef who apparently trained at Kyoto’s most famous restaurant; now retired, he teaches cooking.

We watched as the women seamlessly prepared the various ingredients and dishes, slicing so beautifully with incredible knife skills and Japanese knives, which Jacob was thrilled by.
Once the sushi rice was washed, cooked and seasoned perfectly with seasoning, sugar, salt and water-soaked ginger, sense began his lesson: using chopsticks with the right hand and the left hand to adjust, he showed us how to place the salmon into the sushi making device so that it looked perfect. I definitely did not master this technique. Pushing exactly 200g of beautiful rice into the device and then applying the lid and lots of pressure, out came a rectangular shaped piece of pure, perfectly seasoned deliciousness. Sense showed me how to cut the sushi and clean the knife each time before placing it beautifully onto long leaves and adding pickle for both presentation and taste.

Whilst I was making sushi, the women were preparing the katsu and various delicate and beautiful dishes – both in terms of presentation and taste.

The meal was an absolute feast; we were served an array of vegetable and pickled vegetables, a beautiful pork katsu with a thick, sweet miso sauce and a cabbage salad, a delicate egg soup and the beautiful salmon sushi. We were overwhelmed by the generosity of these people and were just so thankful and excited to be able to experience this. This is an opportunity we would’ve never expected and imagined; we can’t thank our couch surfing hosts or our lunch hosts enough.

After lunch and saying countless” thank yous” and “goodbyes”, Keiji and Yuko went generously out of their way to drive us almost an hour away to a JR train station near-by Inuyama, and we said goodbye; again – it’s always saddening when we have to say goodbye to people who have been so generous and kind. We feel like we are saying goodbye to old friends.

We took the local JR train bound for Hida-Takayama directly, which was a beautiful ride through amazing scenery, mountains and rivers. I love the train journeys in Japan and for the first time in a long time, I was able to sit back, put my ipod in and just enjoy.

Arriving into Takayama after 6pm, it was dark already and the air was cold – a shock to our system after months of heat. The air smelled beautiful and fresh and it felt so incredible to be back here. Too late to explore and on too tight of a budget to afford premium Hida beef for dinner, we checked into our first and only Japanese hostel – J Hoppers – which is honestly the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in. It has awesome communal kitchen, a great living area, big spacious rooms and large, private and comfortable bunk beds with lots of bedding and space. Their facilities are really good and the location is awesome too.

Instantly we made friends with a Taiwanese and Japanese guy in our dorm room and together the four of us walked down to the local supermarket to get our selves some cheap backpacker food: 98 Yen instant cup noodle ramen. Another guy from China joined our little backpacking posse and soon, back in our communal kitchen, there was an even bigger group of us all coming together to cook and eat and drink the free filtered coffee and green tea. It was a lot of fun, and we spent the rest of our evening in the kitchen chatting and laughing.

I’m really happy to be staying here in this hostel; it’s such a different atmosphere and experience to couch surfing. I’m incredibly grateful and having so much fun couch surfing but in a way I’m really grateful we now have the opportunity for two days to simply relax and just be by ourselves, do as we please, sleep/shower/eat when we want and, even though we’re in a hostel in a shared room, have our own space… Couch surfing is fantastic but we’ve been staying with locals for almost a month straight already (with a two day break in Nepal), so a hostel offers another different experience and it’s wonderful to be able to meet such a diverse group of travelers. This place seems great and I already can’t wait for tomorrow morning to arrive.

Castle Japan: 11 – 12.10.2013

The 11th of October marks the half-way point of our Japan trip, and its making me anxious to think that in 10 more days, we have to leave this country that I’ve fallen in love with over and over, more every day.
As well as being the half-way point of our time in Japan, it’s also the half-way point of entire travels: it’s going far too quickly for my liking, but at the same time looking back on our travels in Sri Lanka feels like it happened years ago…

From Nara we traveled onwards by local train to Nagoya, our next destination just a few hours away. Hungry when we arrived into Nagoya station, we knew a Yoshinoya couldn’t be too far away. I stopped to ask the train station ticket master if he knew where.
This little elderly man with a very serious face looked at me for a few seconds, repeated “Yoshinoya,” thought about it for a moment and then suddenly his face turned into a beam of sheer delight. “Yoshinoya?! Gyu-don? Aaaah! Hai, hai,  hai! Go… straight-u. Stair up!… Go…straight-u. Stair down. Yoshinoya!”
Lots of arigato gozaimasus and bows later, we left the cute ticket man smiling and waving at us and headed for our old faithful Yoshinoya for 280 yen gyu-don beef bowls.

Our  first evening in Nagoya was wonderful, spent with our new couch surfing hosts Yuko and Keiji (and their very pretty persian cat Lulu).  Yuko is a really lovely woman with a bright smile and a generous nature. We talked about our plans in Nagoya, and when Yuko mentioned that Nagoya is not so much a tourist destination, I explained we decided to come here because Jacob wants to see a real Japanese castle. With that, Yuko looked puzzled and then explained that, like Osaka castle, Nagoya’s castle is made of concrete and is a reconstruction. Oh…

She then mentioned that there is a very old and very real Japanese castle just an hour or so drive away in a place called Inumaya, and that her and Keiji would take us the following day by car if we wanted. We hadn’t been expecting to have the day with our hosts (it’s been very rare for our hosts to have the whole day off to spend with us to-date), nor did we expect such an incredibly generous offer, but this was really exciting for us. I really enjoy having time to actually spend with the people who are so generously hosting us, so that was a really amazing offer for more than just the fact that we’d get to see a real castle. Yuko and Keiji hadn’t been to this castle either, so it would be new for them too.

Talking more about food and our love for coffee and Japanese food, and about what is ‘famous’ in Nagoya. Apparently it is  Nagoya culture to eat breakfast in cafes and, when you order a coffee, breakfast is usually free!? Yes, I know, it’s a concept our Melbourne-set minds can’t comprehend: you mean, we get given food free with our coffee? Free? As in, we don’t pay for it? How…? Why…?
Yuko declared that the following morning, she and Keiji would take us to their favourite café for breakfast and coffee. Excellent – we desperately need a coffee and are already salivating at the thought.

Our only full day in Nagoya the following day was sounding pretty fantastic already.

We woke the following morning feeling refreshed and absolutely ready for coffee; we were all a bit excited for breakfast (possibly Jake and I were a little more excited for coffee and free food than is normal, but we’ve been traveling for a while and until Japan, coffee has been pretty hit-and-miss and free food has been non-existent.) Who doesn’t love coffee and free food!?
The breakfast and the coffee was pretty awesome and it was really lovely to be surrounded by people enjoying the cafe culture that we love and miss. I guess it was a simple experience but one we’ll remember.

After breakfast, Yuko and Keiji took us to Seto – a neighbourhood close by that is famous for its beautiful ceramics. We first visited the community centre where a fair/community market event was taking place. It was marvelous – we wandered around all the little stalls selling handmade craft items, gifts, foods and home-grown produce. It was a real community; women and children were performing dances, children were painting at a big painting table, there was a little stall where women were teaching people to sew little trinkets with recycled kimono cloth, and everyone was socializing with their friends and community members. Yuko introduced us to one of her friends who was there, and we walked around the stores where people greeted us so warmly. One stall all offered me a beautiful little gift: a set of tiny hand-made Japanese-style shoes made from kimono material. It was so wonderful – a really ‘local’ experience; people were so generous and kind and I wished I could show my appreciation in return.

Yuko, Keiji, Jacob and I spent some time wandering around some beautiful ceramic shops, browsing at the perfectly sculpted cups and tea pots, sake sets and crockery, gorgeous decorative pieces and colourful glazes, insence holders and choppu sticku holders, cooking pots and various cooking items. I wished we had endless amounts of luggage space, money and bubble wrap!… it was tempting until I reminded myself of the logistical issues.

From Seto we traveled by car for over an hour to Inuyama. Keiji enjoys driving – like Jacob – and it was a really lovely drive out there; the scenery along the way was beautiful.

We walked through one of the main streets of Inuyama; a quaint street that headed towards the famous Inuyama Castle, lined with little food shops and gorgeous Japanese souvenirs, ice cream stalls and beautiful houses and buildings in tradition Japanese style. The castle peered down on us from above as we walked up towards it, and it was a spectacular sight.

At the castle entrance we took off our shoes and began to climb stair case after stair case, up and up and up; the stairs were so steep and so slippery, it felt as though everyone there was moving through the tiny space at once to get to the top where we could walk around the balcony area and enjoy the impressive views over Inuyama. Spectacular.
The castle was so stunning and it was really surreal to try and imagine how this must’ve been hundreds of years ago when it was in use. I can’t imagine, but it was still so fascinating. Inuyama castle was a real highlight for us, especially Jacob who had been so excited to visit a real Japanese castle. We had no idea about Inuyama before we met Yuko and Keiji, and to be taken here and experience this with them is something we will always be grateful for.

The weather was perfect today – another blessing – and after our castle visit we were able to enjoy the area surrounding it. We stopped in at a museum that houses several floats used for an annual festival here. The floats were massive and beautiful; how amazing it must be to watch these festivities in all their glory.

Finishing off our adventure in Inuyama, we stopped off at Komeda Coffee – a chain of coffee houses that are famous all over Nagoya area – to enjoy a massive coffee with ice cream. Indulgence at its best, but a “must-do,” we are told. Another Nagoya experience ticked off the list, gladly!

The drive home was lovely; we really enjoyed it. Stopping off at a near-by supermarket, we wandered about the isles enjoying everything in our sight; we love the Japanese supermarkets and looking at all the different products, and were excited to stock up on ingredients for tonight’s “Takoyaki Party” – Sense Keiji was teaching us how to make takoyaki and we were both very eager students.

Our evening was spent preparing and making takoyaki – an evening we thoroughly enjoyed. We grilled so much takoyaki and Sense Keiji taught us well – we hope we did him proud.

We went to bed this evening full of takoyaki and happy after the most amazing day with two wonderful hosts.