Niigata Echigo Yuzawa

Just one hour from Tokyo on the shinkansen, Echigo Yuzawa is a fun get-away to a snowy paradise. There are mountains for skiing, and even play areas for kids to sled. Even ski gear and snow boots can be rented, so no need to go up with heavy bags. We left sunny Tokyo and after passing through a long tunnel near our destination, was surprised to be arriving in a winter wonderland.

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Yuzawa Ski Park Resort

We used Yuzawa Ski Park Resort with a free shuttle from the station. After arriving we signed up for a kids’ ski lesson and rented a sled.

Yuzawa Kogen is walking distance from the station. We took a cable car from the base to halfway up the mountain where there was a blizzard and we were in the clouds.

We stayed at Taki no Yu and had our own private onsen (photo above right) in our room. The kid-friendly ryokan had Purare-ru train set in the lobby.

The cuisine was very good. Below are photos of the small dishes for the okayu breakfast (left photo) and the appetizers for dinner (right photo).

Taki no Yu. Request the Kikyou Room for the private onsen in the room. The water made my skin feel soft and the temperature was not too hot. The rotenburo, outdoors onsen, was set in snow. Soaking in a hot tub while snow falls down is so relaxing. The room we stayed in had two beds and a separate tatami room for futons. It said it could sleep up to seven, so a good option if traveling with family.

http://www.yuzawa-takinoyu.com/rooms/#con_kikyou

The station has a large shopping area for omiyage including regional food products, knives, fresh produce, and rice. Niigata is famous for Koshihikari grown in Uonuma. There are several restaurants including a sushi-ya, soba-ya, and a nice cafe for mattcha latte and soft serve made with local milk.

Ponshukan is a saké tasting room for a flight of five saké starting at 500 JPY.

There is a visitors’ center in the station that is a warm seating area and has free wifi as well as some brochures in English.

For the return shinkansen we picked up two bentō at the ekiben stand in the station. Both bentō  include a heating unit under the bentō that heats it up in five minutes. There is a big selection of cup saké sold at the station.

Echigo Yuzawa would also be an easy day trip from Tokyo. Round-trip tickets are less than 15,000 JPY. One tip, ask for seats on the second floor of the shinkansen for better views. Another tip, many roads and sidewalks have running water to keep the snow from accumulating. Be sure to go with waterproof shoes, or rent a pair of boots at the information center just outside of the station.

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Niigata – Sake Tasting at Echigo Yuzawa Station

Echigo Yuzawa is a short shinkansen ride from Tokyo station, just over an hour. We left Tokyo on a sunny morning and when the train shoots out of the the Niigata mountain side of the tunnel, we were in a snowstorm. It was like a dream come true.

Echigo Yuzawa station has a special sake tasting room with over a hundred sake, shochu, umeshu, and Japanese wine, all from Niigata. The tasting starts at 500 JPY. Visitors are given a small sake tasting cup and five tokens. It’s a fun way to get a grasp on Niigata sake. There is a box with hot water for warming up the sake. Some great offerings including Hakkaisan, Kakurei, and Kubota. There were several seasonal offerings as well.

Even if Echigo Yuzawa is not your final destination, if you are passing through, I would suggest getting off the train and spending an hour in the station at this sake tasting area and visiting the many shops selling regional products.

Ponshukan

Echigo Yuzawa Station, Niigata

http://www.ponshukan.com/05_1.htm

Celebrating with Sparkling Sake

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Mio Sparkling Sake by Takara Shuzo

Small occasion to celebrate this evening. Not worthy of champagne, but deserving of more than a can of craft beer and calling for something with bubbles. Mio is a sweet sparkler from Takara Shuzo. It’s low in alcohol, only 5%, like a beer, and sweet so a nice aperitif to dinner. It paired perfectly with chunky Kinzanji miso which is inherently sweet.

The bottle is only 300 ml, so perfect for two people to share before a meal. It’s hard to tell that it’s saké and to be honest, it is more like drinking 7-up. But it’s fun and we love it. Best of all, it is sold at our neighborhood 7-11 so we could pick it up at the last minute and cool it down in ice water before dinner.

http://shirakabegura-mio.jp/about/

 

Nunohan Ryokan – Suwa, Nagano

When deciding where to stay while traveling in Japan there are many considerations for type of stay. When we can, we try to stay at local ryokan inns with onsen hot springs. Nunohan was put on my radar by a friend who lives in Suwa, Nagano.

We loved it. The ryokan is kid-friendly, had lovely cuisine, and my requirement for any stay a rotenburo, outdoor onsen. For dinner we included a flight of local saké with the full course kaiseki. Breakfast (photo on left) included freshly made tofu, grilled salmon, and much more. The rotenburo and onsen was big and spacious.

Nunohan is on the banks of Lake Suwa. Here is the view from our room. We loved taking a walk on the lake, kind of reminded me of being back in Minneapolis, but this lake is much bigger than the ones in the Cities and here we have mountains.

Nunohan has been in operation for 160 years.

ぬのはん Nunohan

〒392-0027  長野県諏訪市湖岸通り3-2-9

Tel:0266-52-5500(代) Fax:0266-52-5636

http://www.nunohan.co.jp/index.html

Kinukatsugi Satoimo – Boiled Taro Root

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Kinukatsugi sato imo – boiled taro root

Kinukatsugi are small taro root. All of these fit in my hands. I had been served this in the past and wanted to try them at home. There is a lot of dirt on the skin, so they need to be washed and scrubbed thoroughly. Then a slice is made on the top 1/5 to 1/4 and placed in a steamer. Steam for 15-20 minutes or until tender. Garnish with sea salt and serve with saké.

These are fun to eat. Pick up and squeeze into your mouth. The meat falls out of the skins. The texture is thick and a bit slippery, which I love. I know its not for everyone. This slippery texture is one that many have a hard time with. I grew up with it. It reminds me a bit of nattō. Kinkukatsugi are only in season for about two months.

Nagano Masumi Brewery

We love Nagano. It’s just north of Tokyo, easy to access by train, and here you’ll find delicious food and great sake. Suwa is a city that is accessible from Tokyo by train, about two hours from Tokyo on the express train, Azusa. Not the shinkansen, but it passes many stations along the way.

Here is some information on Suwa, a city that sits between a lake and the mountains. There are five sake breweries all within walking distance of the city center, and all conveniently located near each other. You’ll see the breweries in the map below around C2 and D2.

http://en.go-centraljapan.jp/lsc/lsc-upfile/pamphlet/01/40/140_1_file.pdf

In the city of Suwa, we like to stay at a ryokan with an onsen (hot spring bath). In the city there are a few sake breweries where visitors can come in for a tasting. Our favorite sake brewery in Suwa is Masumi. Masumi’s rich history dates back over 300 years.

The tasting room is beautiful. The sake is oishii. The portfolio is big, including some fruit sakes like yuzu and ume (apricot).

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Flights of sake at Masumi

The sake tasting room is spacious and there are several sakes to taste through. If the sake is too heavy to carry, it can always be shipped to your home or hotel. The staff are friendly. Masumi is exported, so this is good news if you come across a sake that you like. There is a good chance you can also buy it overseas.

Masumi Miyasaka Brewing Company 真澄 宮坂酒造

Nagano-ken, Suwa-shi, Motomachi 1-16 長野県諏訪市元町1-16

http://www.masumi.co.jp/english/

 

 

Talking About Drinking on Television

Today Japan welcomed a new sumo champion, Goeido. It’s most interesting as in this tournament had he not done well he was going to be demoted. Well, he rose to the challenge and went 15 days undefeated. Bravo!

The television cameras were on Goeido just before the awards ceremony and the announcers filled in with some banter. Following is the conversation (that I could catch) between a former sumo wrestler, Mainoumi, and an announcer. I love that in Japan talking about drinking is normal and not shunned upon.

Announcer (A): 舞の海さん、Mainoumi-san…

Mainoumi (M):はい、Yes…

A: 豪栄道は酒飲むの? Does Goeido drink sake?

M: あ、飲みます。Yes, he drinks.

A: 飲むの? He drinks?

M: え、Yes.

A: あ、そう。。。Oh, really?

M:  気合が入ると良く飲みますよ。When he gets into it, he can drink a lot.

A: 今日は美味い酒は飲めます。。。I bet he’s going to drink really good sake tonight.

M: そうですね。Yes…

A: 遊びに行きたい。(it sounded like the announcer said that he wants to go over to Goeido’s celebration party this evening.)

I had to laugh when I heard this. Such a great commentary on how we approach drinking in Japan.

Congratulations to Goeido. The first time a sumo wrestler from Osaka has won in 86 years. Omedetou gozaimasu! I hope you are drinking very good sake tonight.

*** FYI, sake can refer to Japanese nihonshu (the fermented and brewed rice drink) or to any alcoholic beverage. However, as this is sumo, which is a very traditional sport, when the announcer asked if Mainoumi if Goeido drinks sake, I assume it means nihonshu.

 

Japan’s Most Challenging Food

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Chinmi. I am not a fan, not one bit. But my husband, Shinji, loves having some type of chinmi in the fridge at all times. Usually we have one or two types, but we recently traveled and Shinji picked up some along the way. Chinmi is fermented seafood, often including the guts or other parts of seafood like the liver. It is very intense and one only needs to eat a little bit of this when sipping on saké. But even if I am drunk on saké I have a hard time swallowing this. We did a tasting recently. Well, Shinji did a tasting and I took a tiny bit of each. Remember, although I was born in Tokyo, I grew up in Minnesota and this is as foreign to me as it is for many overseas guests.

Saba shiokara. Pacific mackerel is super salty, you can taste the crystals, of what surely must be salt. There are small pieces of the filet, making this the most appealing by appearance. We picked this up on a recent trip to Tottori to Sakai Minato port.

http://shop.sakaiminato.net/product.cgi?no=255

Aka Hoya. Red sea squirt is very chewy and a little funky. While it is called red, the color is a bright orange and the aftertaste lingers, way too long, and not in a pleasant way.

http://shop.shizengumi.net/?page_id=878

Surumeika koji zuke. Koji-fermented squid was my favorite of all in this tasting. It is slightly sweet, and has the texture of koji, meaning tiny bits of softened rice. We picked this up from Sakai Minato port on a recent trip to Tottori. I would have this again. You gotta love how the website suggests serving suggestions, like on crackers with cheese. That would make it even easier to eat.
Katsuo shuto. Fermented skipjack tuna innards. This is one of the most famous types of chinmi that is from Odawara, just south of Tokyo. It is rich in umami and has a thin chewy texture, like chewing on a balloon. This is one of the more easier chinmi, meaning it is palatable, if you are drinking a lot of saké.
English website for this product:

Awabi Toshiro. The liver of the abalone made the biggest impression. My notes from the tasting are as follows, “Will not go back there, ever, even if I am drunk.”

Ayu no uruka. Ayu is a freshwater sweet fish that is gorgeous when simply salted and grilled. However, this 3-year fermented chinmi is super salty, creamy, gross, way too funky. I come back to this word as nothing else comes to mind. Why would anyone eve think to eat this? Seriously…
It was the worst food tasting I have ever done in my life. Nothing will top this. We found two that I like and will have again. Hopefully none of these others will be in our fridge again.

Steak and Saké – Sakura Masamune

Sakura Masamune Bonds Well with Beef

Sakura Masamune – Bonds Well with Beef

Working for two years at Nihonbashi Takashimaya’s depachika was an education. I was in the saké department. In Japanese saké refers not only to nihonshu, but to all alcoholic beverages. While I was hired as a sommelier and my chief responsibility was wine, I also had to be able to sell saké, shōchū, beer, and spirits. I learned so much about retailing in Japan, from packaging to gift-giving. One of the big take-aways was marketing of food.

Marketing of alcoholic beverages in Japan sometimes veers away from the traditional to offer unique ideas on pairing food with beverages. So it was no surprise when my Japanese cousin gave me this bottle of saké from Kobe from Sakura Masamune. The saké is called Bonds Well with Beef and is packaged in a wine bottle. Kobe is famous for its wagyū marbled beef. It’s a fun concept and especially smart for the saké brewery to do this as there are many restaurants in their area where this would stand out on a beverage list.

I was curious to see if this saké would actually pair well with a steak. We usually don’t eat wagyū at home as it’s better to leave that to restaurants that specialize in it, like Ginza Dons de la Nature. At home we usually have a US steak simply cooked in a cast iron pan.

The saké did surprisingly well with the steak, better than I had imagined. Sakura Masamune is a reputable brewery with a rich history of over 400 years. The rice is Yamada Nishiki, one of the most popular rice varietals for making saké. It was brewed in the kimoto method which is a traditional style that produces richer saké. The saké was slightly dry and had a nice acidity, which was great for steak. I imagine it would have been even better with a fatty wagyū.

In Tokyo I’ve seen this saké sold at some department stores. Best to call ahead if you want to buy this to make sure it is in stock. At home we usually drink wine with steak, but it is fun to add this into the mix every now and then.

Sakura Masamune Bonds Well with Beef – technical details in English

http://www.sakuramasamune.co.jp/english/bondswell.html

 

Ogikubo Takahashi Soba 高はし

Takahashi is a about a ten-minute walk from Ogikubo station on the Chuo line, but worth the journey through the residential area west of Tokyo. I was meeting a girlfriend for lunch on a Tuesday. For whatever reason, many soba shops are closed on Tuesdays. But my friend had been to Takahashi before and we were in luck as it is open Tuesdays. On a side note, many hair salons are also closed on Tuesday. So frustrating…

The shop is just off of a main street and in a residential area. The menu is only in Japanese, so best to go with a Japanese friend, or have your hotel call ahead and arrange a menu.

Takahashi has a nice selection of sake as well. Dassai from Yamaguchi is on the list. This day we went with Tefu from Kokken in Fukushima. It is made with Miyama-Nishiki rice and is unpasteurized. The junmai sake is soft and food-friendly, a lovely partner to soba.

The shop brings out some deep-fried soba noodles with our sake. We started with goma-dōfu (sesame tofu), which was quite firm. The soba sashimi was cut into long strips and was a nice hint as to what was coming. The tempura included both shrimp and vegetables.

My friend was excited as fresh nori soba was on the menu. It was my first time to have it and it was lovely. A generous amount of soft nori that is reminiscent of the ocean is on top of the handmade soba. The nori soba was the seasonal soba. Can you imagine, nori having a season? It does, and it is just now ending its season, so get it while you can. Our table overlooked the soba processing room, but by lunchtime the master was done rolling and cutting the soba.

Highly recommend Takahashi, but be sure to go with a Japanese speaker or arrange your menu ahead of time. The menu is only in Japanese and don’t expect any English here. I also love that it is a bit of a walk from the station as the other customers there obviously made the trek for Takahashi-san’s soba.

Takahashi 高はし

Suginami-ku, Ogikubo 2-30-7 杉並区荻窪2-30-7

closed Wednesday and the third Tuesday of each month.