Archive for the ‘Onsen/Ryokan/Spa’ Category

A White Christmas Two Months Late

February 12, 2008

What: Mid-winter ryokan getaway trip
Where: Seiryuusou ryokan, Shimonita, Gunma Prefecture (about 3 hours from Shinjuku station)
When: Saturday February 9 to Sunday February 10, 2008
Why: Thaw out, eat, wash away the grub of Tokyo

The food:
In general, the food was unpretentious and featured local ingredients native to the region – big, thick, sweet green onions, mountain animals and konnyaku (a kind of jelly made out of potatoes). I am not a huge fan of konnyaku – but having konnyaku sashimi was delightfully unexpected. Of course, a winter dinner would not be complete without nabe. In this case, it was inoshishi (boar) nabe. In addition, under the recommendation of the owner, we ordered the seasonal special: deer sashimi. This meal was not PC, and was only for one who can handle game meats.
Breakfast was modest (we were baffled by the lack of a fish dish) but alive with local ingredients. Most notable, for me, was the natto – the beans were firm and the taste robust.

The onsen and atmosphere:
There were two onsens – indoor and outdoor. The indoor bath was made completely of wood – therefore, no ugly tiling or slippery rubber. With a huge window overlooking a frosty river scene, I knew I would have to savor the soaking for all the times that I am and will be sitting on the seventh floor of a building in Ginza.
The outdoor bath was breathtaking. After indulging in the ryokan’s homemade sake brew, I hung out in the outdoor bath. With fine flakes of snow landing on my face and the rest of my body happily engulfed in hot onsen water, I was convinced the Japanese were geniuses at the art of vacationing.

Places like Kyoto and Hakone are beautiful, but the more I live in Tokyo, I realize that Japan is full of treasures without the crowds.

Deer Sashimi
The dinner, with inoshishi nabe (top middle), konnyaku sashimi (top right)

Breakfast natto

Frosty beautifulness

Entrance to Seiryuusou

Shabu Shabu Heaven in Hakone

January 17, 2008

While I was in Tokyo, we went down to Hakone. Hakone is sort of like Hamptons for New Yorkers. About 90 minutes from Tokyo, easy getaway, and instead of ocean, there are tons of onsens (hot springs).

Ryokans (traditional inns) are famous for their 13 course dinners, which you eat in your room. It’s prix fixe and we were fed till we couldn’t move, but conveniently we were in our own room so we could just collapse after we finished.

Our menu included bunch of small kaiseki style appetizers.

Top left, mini chawan-mushi (sort of egg pudding, with shrimp and chicken inside), top right is sweet pine nuts. Front items are not that memorable, but the one on the left was something I have never eaten in my life.

It was chestnut cooked in VERY strong coffee. You think it tastes like dessert, right? But being an appetizer, it was bitter from the coffee, and subtlely sweet from the chestnut. It was such a shocking yet refreshing flavor.

Of course the main course was shabu shabu. Look how beautiful these guys are! The Japanese cow raising business is an art form. If I get reincarnated, I would want to be a cow in Japan. Drink beer everyday, getting a belly massage every day, what more do we want, right? It totally melted in my mouth like butter. I don’t want to eat it everyday, but it’s the best!

Onsen Report

August 4, 2007

Despite the year’s first and hardest raining typhoon hitting on the same day as the first day of our one-night onsen trip to Yugawara, we got to the ryokan in one piece (after a lot of wrong turns – Japanese maps do NOT help in any way, also given that they don’t name the goddamn streets here. It’s better to ask the man who’s frying up chicken nuggets at the rest stops – all of them.)

I don’t know if it’s because I am getting older or getting lazier, but rolling around on a tatami mat, taking an onsen bath (hot spring) every few hours and eating epic 3-hour meals in your room is so my idea of the best way to vacation. This particular spot had both public and private baths. The private baths were superb (out on the veranda-ish with a wooden roof).

Anyway, my report comes in the form of pictures, as usual.

The toro here was amazing. I spread it out through the meal – saving it for moments when I felt like melting and dying. One of the very very unfortunate discoveries I made since living in Japan is that I am allergic to uni – sea urchin. I used to not be – but only would eat it once a year in bottled (cooked form). Then about half a year ago I ate a huge helping at Tsukiji for lunch after discovering I really loved it. This, I think, triggered an allergic reaction in me and I have since tried uni (cooked and uncooked) three times – just to make sure. And paying the price every time…

Fried Hamo – Hamo is a white fish. This was delicious and was also something I spread out through the meal. But much to my dismay the last bit I had to leave behind because I had filled my stomach beyond the tj maxx. (NOTE: the images here reflect less than half of what was actually served. I was distracted by the array to take photo ops every time a new morsel arrived).

This was the most artful edible that night. I had had enough shochu, however, to mistake it for matzo ball soup when the nice lady brought it to the table – upon which I had to explain to my unexposed-to-most-things-Jewish Japanese eating mate aka boyfriend what the hell I was blubbering about.

“Huh?” yeah, that’s me BEFORE the full Asian-people-get-red-in-the-face-when-they-drink effect. The room was beautiful, as you may or may not be able to tell from this photo.

Drinks: there was before-dinner japanese sake (served in the tiny cups in the foreground), my oolong-hai ingredients (this is what I drink here in Japan – shochu with oolong tea), beer, and the shochu bottle.

Yuzu sorbet. This reminds me, after reading the last Umami post, I’ve been praying for Pinkberry to make it to this side of the pacific.

Nothing like Japanese style breakfast. It settles the heart.

I don’t like raw squid but this was much too photogenic not to take a picture of.

When in Monterey…

May 4, 2007

I’m from Monterey, California (home of the world-famous — and deservedly so — Monterey Bay Aquarium) which is one of the most beautiful places on earth (the breathtaking landscape was featured in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo), but the problem with the beautiful places on earth are that they are usually turned into tourist traps — everything is outrageously overpriced and cheesy. Same goes with the restaurants. There is no lack of fancy schmancy dining on the peninsula, but like most fancy restaurants, you are paying for the attitude or the view, and not the quality of the food.

If you ever find yourself in Monterey, California, and want a great meal, I would strongly urge you to skip the Fresh Cream, Sardine Factory, Fandango, and Anton & Michel’s (all of which are the kinds of places kids go on prom night) and head to NaRa Korean Retaurant in downtown Monterey (420 Tyler St). My mom and I always eat here whenever I visit her — at least once, and sometimes twice per visit! OK, so it’s not an all-out Korean BBQ place where you grill at your table, but they cover all the basics and they do it well. Bulgoki, Jap Chae, Bibimbop, Sundubu — all solid — complete, of course with all the kimchi and other appetizers.

The most amazing dishes, though, are the two sea bass ones — which, due to recent hikes in sea bass prices, they did not have for the last year or so. But serendipitously, when I was home just a couple weeks ago, they DID have the sea bass! Here is the Grilled Sea Bass:

It’s grilled with this viscous spicy-sweet sauce made from daikon and chilis, served with healthy slices of zucchini and daikon. Totally delectable. We also got the Spicy Sea Bass Soup, which is like a kimchi jige except with luscious chunks of sea bass, and the Japchae, a great standard noodle dish. (I just realized all my photos are blurry so I’m not uploading the others… sux) It’s totally a cozy place that prioritizes food over decor (they put tennis balls on the feet of the chairs to prevent scratches on the lino floor, and there’s a gigantic plasma TV usually on CNN). I don’t think anything on the menu is priced over $20 — this homey place is a favorite among the locals, and is usually packed with language student-soldiers from the Defense Language Institute practicing their Hangul.

So if you’re ever planning a trip down (or up) the coast, here’s a suggested itinerary: hit the Aquarium and work up your appetite for seafood before heading over to Nara. (And then later you may want to relax in the hot springs at Esalen and get a seaside massage!!)