Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Viaggio in Giappone: da Tokyo a Izumo

I've stopped blogging for a while for some good reasons. At first, I was finishing up some stuff from my work at Berkeley. Then my mom came to visit me for 12 days. It was really nice to have her here, and I could write a few posts about what we visited in that period. Finally Matt and I just came back from a wonderful trip to Japan, lasted 13 days. We had so many diverse experiences that I want to write down a few of them before I forget. So, I hope you'll enjoy this series of posts about Japan (some of them may be written by Matt), and please bear with me if I still haven't posted the roundup for the last Fresh Produce of the Month.

We landed in Tokyo, Narita Airport, on July 15th -- my birthday! For the first two nights we were hosted by a Japanese family (Yukiko & Carlos), living in the Shinbuya district of Tokyo. We found this family through the really nice website 'Japan Cycling'. This is a great resource for anybody who's interested in biking in Japan. There are many suggested bike trips, a forum where you can post questions, and lists of people who are available to give you information, guided tours, or even host you for a few nights during your trip to Japan. We were hosted by two different families, and were going to be hosted by a third, had our trip plan allowed that. We found these experiences incredibly rewarding, and received much more than a bed to sleep.

So, for the first night in Tokyo, Yukiko had planned a Japanese cooking lesson for us! It was a wonderful birthday present for me. More details about this in a dedicated food post. The morning after, she brought us for a bike ride in Tokyo. This was a great experience, part of the 'Tokyo Great Cycling Tour' that she runs together with a few other people, highly recommended if you want a guided 1-day bike tour in Tokyo. We started at 4:30 in the morning, in order to get to see the tuna auction at the famous Tokyo fish market. At this time of the day, lots of frozen tuna arrives at the market.
And at 5 am, the auction starts.

I had never been to an auction before, but Matt told me that it was quite similar to auctions in the US.
Shortly after, we had our first really good sushi. The sushi at the Tokyo Fish Market is one of the best you can have, and apparently early in the morning is the best time to try it. Here is our proud sushi chef, holding a shiso leaf.
And here is some of the fish he used for sushi. It was definitely the best sushi we ever had, and still is.
During our bike ride through Tokyo, we discovered how multifaceted this city is: small canals running between skyscrapers..
.. Hidden shrines..
.. And very tall buildings with lots of signs on them (we just found out these particular ones are ads for bars, on the left side, and loan companies, on the right side).

This is a typical shot of old, sacred Tokyo, together with modern Tokyo:

Later, Matt and I walked through downtown Tokyo, again wandering through a mixture of small alleys..
.. and large boulevards

just a few blocks away from each other.

On the third day, we rode a train to Yokohama, where we met our second host family, Yoko and Hideo. Yoko brought us around Yokohama all the afternoon looking for bikes. The quest for bikes turned out to be a lot harder than we thought, and it will be the subject of another post. Anyway, after many hours spent both in Tokyo with Yukiko and in Yokohama with Yoko, we finally got the two bikes: a red Louis Garneau that I used

and Matt's first Corvette.

The evening with Yoko and Hideo was very pleasant, and we had some cultural food exchange: the day after was going to be 'eel day', so Yoko prepared 'Three style eel', and I made some 'peperoni con bagna caoda' for them. I thought I would do something new for them, but to me surprise, they perfectly knew what 'bagna caoda' was, as soon as I mentioned the name of it... This was the first time I realized how well Japanese people know about Italian cuisine. Here are Yoko and Hideo, cheering with us:
We also had a very nice traditional Japanese breakfast with them the day after, and we planned a little of our bike trip together. Then, we packed our bikes, and left on the shinkansen train for Okoyama, where we were to get on another express train for Izumo.

You can see a sketch of our trip here:
The transfers that we did by train are the black lines, whereas the bike rides are in red (obviously, much less straight than these lines :) ).

Why Izumo? Every Japanese person we met asked this with an accompanying 'ooooohh' expressing deep surprise. Well, Izumo has the oldest and one of the largest shrines in Japan. Also, it's on a flat part of Japan, from which we could easily bike eastwards, towards Kyoto. Finally, in Izumo there is the 'e-dashi' store that Matt recently ordered katsuobushi from, and we really wanted to meet their owners. The part of this story relative to katsuobushi will be written by Matt in another post. Here I will just say that the visit with Hiromi and her family was really memorable. We got to spend time as a family for a whole day and a half. They brought us out for breakfast and lunch, and we visited the Izumo Taisha (shrine) together. The Taisha is huge.
This is the front entrance, leading into a forest.
Before approaching the shrine, you must ritually wash your hands.

Once at the shrine, you should throw a symbolic offer in a box right outside, then bow and clap your hands, and bow again. These ritual movements should be repeated a precise number of times, and performed together with the person you love for a blessing for your future life together. Matt and I tried -- although our attempt was rather clumsy, and we earned some laughs from the people in line after us.

The shrine has a number of smaller temples, and in a particular spot people buy omikuji, little pieces of paper with writings that predict good things happening to you in the year to come, or things you should pay attention to. Here was mine.

After you get your omikuji, you should then tie it to a tree closeby, for the good things to become true. Here are Matt and Hiromi's husband Haruo tying theirs.

And here is how one of the trees looked like, with all the omikuji tied to!

Another good-luck action you can do is throwing a coin in the air, so that it gets stuck between the straw of the huge knots hung in front of another temple. This is a pretty hard thing to achieve, because the straw is very thick, so the coins mostly bounce back. However, Matt was able to get his coin in at the first attempt! I gave up after a few times, instead.

After the visit to the shrine and a dashi-making lesson that will be described later, we were planning on leaving by bike to Matsue. However, a tremendous rain stopped us, and therefore we spent the evening in the really pleasant company of Hiromi and her family, tasting some more wonderful homecooked Japanese food.

The day after, we were finally ready for our first day of serious biking. Right before leaving, though, Matt realized that something very important was missing: his keys! These not only included the Berkeley house keys, but also the only copy of the bike lock that we just used to tie our bikes together in front of the hotel. The lock was a pretty serious U-lock, almost impossible to pick. And, it was a national holiday, so no professional could help us. Our savior turned out to be Hiromi's friend Mairin, who had already been of great help translating our English into Japanese and viceversa the day before. Her husband, aka Superman, took our bikes to his shop, and with an electric saw he cut through the U-lock in less than thirty seconds.
So here we are, finally, really ready to leave -- Matt and Hiromi, at the two ends of the group, are holding the two pieces of the broken lock.

[To be continued]


Simona Carini said...

It sounds like you two had a good time in Japan.

Unknown said...

Thank you for coming a long way.
I remember that day vividly:)
Hope we will see you again in the future.


from izumo

chemcookit said...

Simona: Yes, you're right!!

Dear Haruo and Hiromi,

It was a wonderful day for us too! We are very grateful for all you did for us, and really really happy we got to meet you, Akihiro and Keeichi and your friends. Matt will post something about the dashi lesson soon.

Take care,


gastronomichael said...

What a nice post. For over 30 years my focus was on Japan, and then I fell in love with Italy. It is always refreshing to share the impressions of someone who is experiencing Japan (or any other country) for the first time as one tends to forget the thrill of it and to overlook some of its fascinating elements. All the best, Mike Moyle

chemcookit said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks a lot for your comment.
I am right now in Italy. Weird, after Japan, I see Italy with new eyes. I think it's the first time I enjoy Italy this much. Maybe it's because I decided I'd bike a little bit also here, and I see landscapes in a very different way. Or because for the first time I realized how unique this mixture of wonderful natural landscapes and small Medieval and Renessaince towns is. I will write some posts about cyclotouring in Japan and Italy soon.

Unknown said...

Happy belated birthday, Marta!

What a wonderful trip you had!