Saturday, August 08, 2009

Cicloturismo in Giappone II: da Sakaiminato a Tottori

We left Sakaiminato with a medium-heavy rain, which stayed with us for about one hour in the morning. It wasn't cold, so it wasn't too bad---it just made us wet and somewhat dirty. We stopped for breakfast at a fast food place recommended to us by Keisuke. The chain, called Mos Burger, makes Japanese variations of burgers. We tried one made with a bun of rice, teriyaki beef or veggies, and nori:
Quite good!
We kept biking for a while along highway 9. This wasn't as pretty as 431, but it was very well structured for biking, with large shoulders or ridable sidewalks:
At some point, however, we didn't realize that highway 9 had branched (just before a largish climb) onto a divided highway where bikes weren't allowed. A car pulled over, and the driver was very worried we were on such a dangerous road (70 km/h speed limit). With gestures he got us to understand that we had to go back. We didn't want to backtrack, and it seemed from the map that there might be direct path back to highway 9. Indeed, Matt found a small road that brought us through verdant hills, with orchards.
This road in the hills turned out to be the best part of the trip that day. It brought us down to this beach:
And on the side of the road, we saw one of the many small cemeteries that we met a bit everywhere during the trip:
Every small group of houses in the countryside had one of these graveyards nearby. This is quite different from both Europe and US, where there are larger, centralized cemeteries. I liked this idea of looking at life and death as two inseparable aspects, instead of segregating the dead, almost as if we were scared by them.

From there we kept going east, passing some rural villages like this:
In the evening, we arrived at Tottori. The timing would have been good, had we known where we were going to sleep. It took us a while to realize that Tottori sand dunes wasn't as commercialized as my guide book said, and there were no hotels there. In the end, however, some very nice people reserved a hotel for us, after some struggles solved by an electronic dictionary. So around 8 pm we headed to downtown Tottori, looking forward to a long shower.

Tottori surprised us with its lively nightlife. Many young people were out, and there were lots of places to eat. We really liked it.

Here and there, we saw an Italian restaurant. Matt thought we should try one.
I resisted: Why go to an Italian restaurant in Japan, where the food would probably be bad? The point, Matt said, was to see what would happen if an actual Italian showed up in an Italian restaurant in a city where we had not seen any westerners. It did seem like an interesting idea.

So we randomly chose "Il piatto doro" (yes, unfortunately misspelled; it should have been "d'oro"). The restaurant was on the second story of a building and there was no plastic pasta outside, so we really had no idea about how it would be inside. When we arrived, we saw a small room, with seating only at a long, wide wooden bar, behind which there was a blackboard with the daily menu and shelves and shelves of wine bottles. It was run that night by just two people, the chef and a host. Just the right atmosphere for a small enoteca-like restaurant. The kitchen was at the end of the bar, separated from the dining area by a glass window.

When we sat down, I said, "Watashi wa Nihongo ga sukoshi wakarimasu. Demo, watashi wa Itariajin desu". This generated lots of surprised 'ooooohh', which are so typical of the Japanese expressive way of speaking. A habitue of the restaurant immediately ordered a bottle of wine and offered us two nice glasses of a really good barbera (a red wine from Piemonte!). Then, we had some grissini (breadsticks), and when I mentioned that they were made in my hometown we were given a lot of them as a gift for the trip.

After a small consultation, we decided we would have a pizza margherita. The chef asked if we wanted it Neapolitan or Roman style. This was already quite surprising: he evidently knew the difference in crust thickness and softness of the two styles! To make sure we understood each other, he showed me an Italian cookbook in Japanese with pictures of what each style should look like. We opted for Neapolitan, my favorite. We were told there would be some waiting, because the oven had been off. We enjoyed our wine and breadsticks, and the suspense.

Finally the pizza came. (I'm very sad I didn't bring my camera so I don't have pictures). The crust was perfect: puffy and soft at the borders, and very thin inside. The sauce was a bit lacking in salt, and there was too little cheese, even though it was good. However, overall the result was quite good, and I complimented the chef in all honesty.

We started chatting about Italian food, and he asked me my favorite dish. I thought and then replied 'gnocchi alla bava' (a type of gnocchi with really good cheese), and I started describing how hard I thought gnocchi were to prepare. The chef then disappeared, and we kept drinking more and more of the house wine and the barbera that the habitue kept offering us. Shortly later, the chef had prepared some gnocchi for us, even though they weren't on the evening's menu. They were amazingly good! They tasted like potatoes and were very soft. My respect for Japanese interpretation of Italian cuisine became very high after that. We left really happy, and quite drunk.

The morning after we were still tired from the long ride of the day before, so we decided to just bike and walk around Tottori. We changed hotel, opting for a very inexpensive Japanese style hotel. This was our bedroom:
As you can see, it was a tatami room, and we had Japanese futons as beds. They are quite comfortable, especially if set on the tatami. The place was clearly a little cheap (the walls were made in a strange foamy material), however we were offered some red bean mochi and green tea:

This experience was very meaningful for us, because we were partially inspired to go to Japan by an article we read in Bicycling magazine. The American author had biked throughout Japan, and reported about the read bean sweets and green tea offered at a hotel as an example of strange Japanese food. He said he was able to 'gobble them down' only because he was so hungry from riding. Ah, these open-minded American tourists . . .

We spent the morning walking around Tottori's downtown, and asked for a recommendation for lunch at a coffee bean store we had visited. The suggested restaurant served us the best ramen we had during the whole trip:
Even the cabbage was really good in that soup.

In the afternoon, we went to the Tottori sand dunes. We made our way there on a bike path along a river:
And we arrived a few km from the dunes, on a beach, so we walked to the dunes. The dunes are quite large, with sand compact and dark brown. The little arrow in the picture here points to a man, if you can see him. He was playing golf.
Back in Tottori, we wanted to try Udon Taira, which had been recommended to us by the chef and habitue at the Italian restaurant. As part of the recommendation, we had learned how to order two bowls of tempura udon. Unfortunately, Udon Taira was closed that day. We were really sad, but what could we do? We asked our landlady for another suggestion. She suggested an 'oishi' (delicious) restaurant just down the road, which we went to. We didn't consider that she most likely wasn't exactly the best person to ask for restaurant suggestions to, considering that she probably rarely went out to eat. In fact, the place turned out to be a chain restaurant, where the food looked quite good:
But instead, the food was the worst of our entire trip. Just to give you an example, the brown bowl contains tofu with Hershey syrup.
To redeem the food, we went for Matt's favorite dessert, which he just discovered in Tottori the night before: Japanese green tea donuts, prepared at 'Mister Donut'. The sign of the store said 'from SF Chinatown', and as we learned, this chain indeed started in the US (more on the East coast, actually). However, there aren't many Mister Donuts left in the US, and of course they never served green tea donuts. The Japanese 'Mister Donut' donuts we tried were actually very good, said by someone who usually dislikes donuts.
We are quite sure now that Japanese can make pretty much any food from any cuisine in the world, reinterpret it and improve it. We felt the same with bread: there are so many types of breads, even though they are not typical of Japanese culture, and they are almost all really good.

To conclude this post, here is the route of our second day of bike touring. It was about 110 km, including ups and downs to find the hotel.

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