Monthly Archives: April 2013

Experiencing Beppu’s Hot Springs

Steam literally rises from the ground in Beppu, a town known for its wonderful hot springs. I was eager to give the onsen (hot spring) experience a go after having heard about it from a colleague from work whose wife is Japanese.

The train ride from Shimonoseki to Beppu wasn’t very long but did involve a few changes. I’m very happy to have purchased the JR Rail Pass as making my way around would’ve been much more difficult without it.

When I arrived at the Beppu station, I managed to catch the right bus and found my hostel pretty easily. The owner was very nice and explained all the amenities about the place. I had an entire unit to myself, which included a tv, toilet, small kitchen, washing machine and anything I might need.

I suppose people who come to Beppu stay for more than one night so these things would come in handy. The only thing the room didn’t have was a shower or tub. For this you had to use the public bath or go to a more expensive bath/hot spring.

Since I’d been traveling a lot, my first action was to do two loads of laundry and hang them up to dry. Then I set off to explore the town. I had a map but mainly used the tried-and-true technique of letting the paths take me where they may. I brought my onsen supplies, which included soap, shampoo and a towel, for when I found one.

Not too far away, I found a public bath housed in a not-so-special looking building. There were separate entrances for men and women and no fee to enter. I decided to try it because it was probably used by locals instead of tourists. I went in and there were a bunch of grannies having their afternoon bath. Like everything else I’ve done in Japan, I managed to figure out the protocol by watching and mimicking those around me. Usually, it’s a good way to go.

Near the entrance, there’s a wall full of cubby holes for you to store your things, which is like lockers at a gym. I left most of my things there, stripped and took my toiletries with me. Upon entering the bath area, you pick up a small bucket or dish that you use to scoop up the hot bath water and wet yourself. Then, you scrub up and get all clean, making sure none of that “dirty” stuff gets into the bath. Once you rinse off, you can come into the main bath and relax in the hot water.

I must have looked out-of-place because one of the grannies mimed instructions to me and smiled encouragingly when I did something right. It’s not that I didn’t know what to do but that I was just uncomfortable doing it. There is no situation at home in which I would get naked and wash myself in front of half a dozen strangers, and I simply felt bizarre doing it. But, I quickly got over it and got on with the experience. Feeling a bit awkward and out of your comfort zone is the essence of traveling to foreign places.

Before long the baths were just too hot to withstand and I decided to continue exploring the town. I stumbled upon a tourist information center and was happy that they spoke English there. After chatting for a bit about Hawaii and why I was visiting Japan, I inquired about a place where I could eat some lunch (it was already about 2 p.m.). They recommended a place that sold toriten teishoku, a dish of battered chicken pieces that is famous in this area. It was really delicious!

Before heading back to the hostel and escaping the heat of the day, I stopped in on a grocery store and picked up some snacks. I spent a lot of time going through the aisles just looking at all the different things they had. I went back to relax at the hostel in air-conditioning while trying my snacks, folding my clothes and watching Japanese tv. Two of the three were very interesting experiences.

Around 8 p.m. I decided to head out to Hyotan, a more upscale and touristy onsen. When I arrived, I had to put my shoes in a locker and buy a ticket from a machine for entrance into the onsen. I gave the ticket and the locker key to the attendant, and in return she gave me a second locker key. This key belonged to a locker inside the women’s locker room (Hyotan has men-only, women-only and family sections) where you could leave all your things.

Hyotan was much more developed than the public bath I tried earlier. The atmosphere and decor reminded me of being in a rain forest. There was a special area in which you were to get cleaned up before entering the baths. It was interesting how there were stations with stools and mirrors. I skipped using the stool though as I couldn’t get past the fact that so many other butts had sat on it before me.

Once you’re clean, there is a selection of pools to try. The water in the pools differed in heat level and some had massaging waterfalls or were enclosed outdoor spaces where you could see the stars. The setting was very relaxing, and I can see why so many people enjoy visiting onsen. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really get comfortable. Floating around naked with no one to talk to was just a bit weird. However, I suppose the opposite, floating around naked talking to a friend, would be considerably weirder.

In the end, I’m happy that I tried the different types of onsen. It’s an experience that is truly Japanese. But I can’t say I’d give it another go in the future.

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Eating Poisonous Fish in Shimonoseki

I’ve leaped out of a plane and thrown myself into a canyon with only a rope attached to my legs. I’ve camped among wild dingoes and repelled into an underground cave. Eat a poisonous fish? Hell yeah, I’ll give it a shot.

Trying fugu, or pufferfish, in Japan was one of the very few things I promised myself I would not leave without doing (the others were to eat Kobe beef and experience an onsen or hot spring). So, I headed to Shimonoseki, which is pretty much at the tail end of Honshu. And Shimonoseki is a far cry from Tokyo, that’s for sure.

Why would I go there? Well, back when I was in Nagano, I asked the hostel owner where I could get the best fugu. She said Shimonoseki, and just like that I worked it into my travel plans. It turns out that Shimonoseki is known as the “Fugu Capital” so I suppose she didn’t steer me wrong.

When I arrived, I immediately dropped my bags off at my hotel. Yes, this time I booked into a real hotel because I couldn’t find any hostels. I also couldn’t find any English-language websites and had to ask for help from one of the hostel owners. He rang and booked the room for me – a single with ensuite bathroom. Nice! As this is Japan, it also came with pajamas, slippers, toiletries and the works. I love, love, loved it! Best of all, the price included breakfast the next morning.

Anyway, I asked the reception desk where I could try fugu. They suggested a place just around the corner. However, for the life of me, I couldn’t find the restaurant. So, I just kept walking to explore the area and eventually arrived at Karato Ichiba Fish Market.

This place is incredible – and this is coming from someone who isn’t a big fan of seafood. There were so many vendors selling all types of seafood – raw and cooked – that you are spoiled for choice. When you first enter, you’re hit with the distinct smell of fish, which usually turns me off completely. But, for the sake of trying fugu, I soldiered on.

You could find anything your heart desired at Karato Ichiba Fish Market. They had great slabs of fresh sashimi (raw fish), odd-looking shelled creatures, sushi topped with fish eggs, eels and, most importantly, fugu. I was looking for a small tray of fugu sashimi because I wasn’t too keen on paying a lot and not being able to finish it. Let’s put it this way – I’ve tried sashimi numerous times and have yet to find one I enjoy.

When I finally found a tray with just a few pieces of fugu, I was wandering around and an old woman (who is apparently a very good hawker as well) suckered me into trying a sample of the deep-fried fugu (fugu karaage). I popped the piece into my mouth and just about died from the utter fried goodness of it all. So I picked myself up a fried fishy and looked for a seat.

Above the market, there’s a few restaurants where you can eat at proper sit-down tables with the atmosphere that comes with it. But, when you buy your food from the market, you get your seafood on styrofoam trays. You’re able to select your own food and put it on your tray, and in the end, you’re charged per piece. It’s quite fair considering you get to select the things you want and don’t have to pay for unnecessary items.

Around the second floor, there are also chairs and benches upon which you can relax with your tasty treats, and I found myself a quiet corner to discover the delicacy of fugu. First, I tried the sashimi version alone and found it more chewy than other raw fish I’ve tasted. It could be because the slices of fish were extremely thin instead of the nice, thick cuts of regular sashimi. I think this may be a negative point for some, but for me, I enjoyed the thin layers a lot better. The taste of the pufferfish was actually very mild. I couldn’t smell the usual fishy scent, and the texture of the meat was interesting.

Next, I tried it with the packet of sauce that was provided. It turned out to be a type of shoyu or soy sauce. A bit sweet, it added a new twist to the fish’s flavor. I enjoyed the flavor of the shoyu so I ate the rest with of the fugu with the sauce on it.

After I finished the raw fish, I dug right into the fried fish. The entire fish looked like it was deep fried as it still had its bones, tail and fins. But, because the toxins are found in the fish’s internal organs, I know the chef must have already removed them. The meat of the fish was very tender and a bit salty due to the seasoning on the outside of the fish. I loved the fugu prepared this way and would recommend that people try it.

After a bit of a look around, which included an open-air reenactment of a battle that I couldn’t understand, I decided to head back to the hotel. When would I get a chance to spend some alone time in such a nice accommodation? I could take a relaxing shower and watch Japanese tv! On the return trip, I stumbled upon Sea Mall, which was once the largest mall in western Japan. I traipsed through it and had some Chinese for dinner and a wonderful crêpe for dessert.

With my belly content, I was finally able to head home and enjoy my single-room splurge to its fullest extent. Shimonoseki and fugu turned out to be a good add-on to my trip. It’s someplace I never even knew about before coming to Japan but was wonderful in the end.

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Food on Miyajima

Good cuisine is found throughout Japan, and Miyajima is no exception. Since I took an early train from Hiroshima to Miyajima, I decided to have an early lunch at Home Sweet Home and try okonomiyaki for the first time. This dish, which is similar to a savory crêpe, is famous in the Hiroshima area.

After selecting a simple version of okonomiyaki consisting of cabbage, meat, noodles, egg and a few other items, the order was given to the cook who fired up the grill. She placed two ladles of batter on a flat metal grill (reminded me of a U.S. burger joint where the cook has 10-15 burgers cooking at once). When the batter has solidified a bit, the cook added layers of ingredients and placed a second layer of cooked batter on top. To flatten the okonomiyaki, the cook pressed down on the mountain of food with two metal spatulas. It came out looking like an omelet.

As I understand it, the layering technique of ingredients is common in Hiroshima-style okonomiyakiOkonomiyaki made in other regions pre-mix the ingredients before placing them on the thin batter. As the ingredients finished cooking, the cook doused the top with a special sauce, which was thick and brown and turned out to be sweet. Last, but not least, a liberal sprinkling of shredded nori garnished the top.

Another interesting fact about Miyajima and food is that a monk invented the first rice scooper here. The shamoji is wooden and doesn’t alter or impair the taste of the rice. You can find souvenir rice scoopers throughout Miyajima and an extremely large version of one on display.

Miyajima is also famous for its momiji manjū, cake-like sweets that are shaped like the maple leaves found all over the island and filled with a variety of flavors. Traditionally, the filling is an, a sweetened paste made of azuki beans, or custard. However, as I’m not a huge fan of azuki beans, I opted for the chocolate-flavored manjū and couldn’t have been happier. It tasted like a small piece of heaven.

Because the manjū is popular with visitors, there are several shops that sell them. I’m not sure if there’s a difference in taste between the vendors, but the prices were about the same. Many of the shops had a small factory set up in the front window so you could watch them make it for you fresh from batter to finished product. It was a bit like watching Krispy Kreme donuts being made, especially because I had to refrain from drooling in both instances.

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