Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 4 Happy eating in Shingu City : Masaya Restaurant and Nakakoriten

Shingu City is where Hayatama Taisha, a  Kumano Grand Shrine is located.   It is  the biggest attraction for tourists but many probably visit the shrine then hop on the train or bus to Nachi Taisha, the other Kumano Shrine less than an hour away.
Which is a shame because Shingu City is not without its charms.

After visiting the shrine, we decided to explore the little that we could of Shingu City by heading to
a local restaurant for lunch.  Our Mi-Kumano guides led us through a shotengai, a classic covered shopping arcade which is something you find in older districts all over Japan.

I love a traditional shotengai -- it's retro and vintage and it's where the locals shop . I find it more interesting and irresistible than the cookie-cutter mall or department store. 

The tiles on the shotengai had drawings of various kinds of fish -- perhaps these are what can be found in the waters around the coast of Shingu.  

Shingu City's shotengai was more vintage than most as you can see from this small electronics shop.
They even had video cassette tapes for sale!

This shop sells all sorts of dry goods -- from ready to wear aprons to yarns and thread for knitting or crocheting.

These three ladies gamely posed for me.  They were selling homemade fruit jams and preserves and were very happy when I bought some.

The restaurant was just a few hundred meters walk from the end of the shotengai.  We arrived past lunchtime so the crowds had come and gone.  The restaurant's name is "Masaya",  which means "happy" in Tagalog so I was sure we would be in for a happy meal.

Walking into the restaurant, I thought I had stumbled through the wrong door and landed in the owners' living room.  But amidst the clutter were some tables and chairs so this was definitely the first floor dining area.

Framed photos, paintings, messages and all sorts of memorabilia crowded the walls. Masaya looks like a much visited local restaurant.

We were taken to the second floor dining area where they had thoughtfully placed three tables end to end so we could all sit together.

Our guides had said that while Masaya serves different kinds of Japanese dishes, their specialty was their homemade udon.  I ordered cold udon and a plain onigiri with pickled ginger on the side.  
The noodles were firm and chewy and when dipped in the cold soy based sauce with a sprinkling of tanuki and green onion,  it was a refreshing dish to slurp down on this really warm day.

It also helped to wash down the cold udon with this even colder bottle of Sapporo beer.  Kanpai!

We were all craving for dessert after the meal so our guides decided to let us have a taste of Shingu City's most famous hot weather treat -- kakigori
Kakigori  is the Japanese version of the snow cone but much more refined and delicate in both texture and taste.  It's a nostalgic, old fashioned treat that continues to be much in demand -- specially during the summer months.

This unassuming little kiosk is Nakakoriten -- which apparently serves the best kakigori this side of Wakayama.  

Nakakoriten is run by a husband and wife team.  There are various flavours you can choose from -- melon, strawberry, yuzu, matcha, pineapple, mandarin orange ... too many choices for my indecisive stomach. 

This place is so renowned for its kakigori that even celebrities from Tokyo and Korean K-pop stars have come to pay their respects and of course chill to a glass of flavoured shaved ice. 

Our hot and sweaty bunch of Amigos queue up for kakigori.  No cutting in line!

This tall snowy concoction is made with Japanese citrus and drizzled with some sweetened milk -- surprisingly the flavours blend so well together.  Unlike snow cones,  kakigori ice is shaved ultra 
fine -- which makes it melt on your tongue in a deliciously cold puddle.  

You may order your kakigori in a combination of two or three flavours -- Jay had a strawberry 
and melon kakigori that almost looked like a Christmas ornament.  

I ordered matcha or green tea,  another staple flavour.  It goes best with the adzuki or sweet bean topping, drizzled with some more matcha powder.   
If you are eating in, the kakigori is always served in large glass bowls or goblets, quite an elegant touch. 
Relishing each cold spoonful of the kakigori brought back fond memories of the humble snow 
cones from  my childhood.  Nothing can bring back nostalgia faster than a memory of a favourite taste. 


Thank you to our Mi-Kumano guides for the day -- left to right  Hitomi san, Masako san and of course our kababayan Jennifer san who had been with us since Day 1 of our Kumano Kodo
We would not have had such happy meals here in Shingu City if not for their delicious recommendations.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 4 : Feeling like royalty as I sail down the Kumanogawa on my way to the Hayatama Taisha

Pilgrims have been enduring hardships and walking the Kumano Kodo for a thousand years.  
But in the early days, a select group of pilgrims,  composed of royalty and later on the aristocrat class,  had access to another,  easier way of doing part of the pilgrimage --  they sailed down the Kumanogawa on their way to visit the three Kumano Grand Shrines.
Ensconced in the comfort and luxury of their royal boats, they could relax and just drift down
the river. 
On the fourth day of our pilgrimage and on our way to visit the second shrine, the Hayatama Taisha, we did as the emperors and aristocrats did (although not in such style)  ... we traveled part of the way by traditional  boats along the river. 

Our expedition started at the Kawabune River Boat Tour Center where we had reservations to the 10:00 a.m. sailing.  To get there,  we took a bus from Yunomine and got off at the bus stop at Hitari.   Then we got into a shuttle bus for the short ride to the riverbank where the boats were waiting for us.  

Part of the safety regulations had us wearing bright orange life jackets.  We were also given native straw hats (which looked so much like our own salakot) as protection from the heat of the sun.

The flat bottomed boats are modelled after the original ones that used to ply these waters, centuries and centuries ago. As a nod to modernity (and faster travel time) the boats have been outfitted with powerful motors. 
Each boat can carry just eight people, including the guide and the boatman.  
While pilgrims of old took days to sail down 40 kilometres of the Kumanogawa, we would 
journey over 16 kilometres and take just 90 minutes to do so.

As in every river, lake, pond, brook, stream, etc that I have seen in Japan, the waters are crystal clear. 
As we sailed through the twists and bends of the river, the water changed colour but it was always beautifully translucently clean ... in the shallower portions, I could see all the way down to the rocks at the bottom.

Our guide was multi-lingual.  As we were a mix of Japanese and Filipinos,  he switched his commentary from Nihongo to English with great ease.  

While the boat was equipped with a motor, we did pass through some rapids where the skill of
the pilot was put to good use.  Would you believe that our pilot, this man in white standing at the back of  the boat, is more than 80 years old?  He was so fit and looked cool and hip.
Our guide said he had been doing this for almost sixty years.  

There are quite a number of interesting and unique rock formations that we passed through.
One large pile of rocks looked to me like a large sleeping puppy.  

We got out of the boat for a brief look-see  and our resident professional geologist and
amigo Mike,  could not resist scrambling up  for a photo.  

It was great to be out in the middle of the river, surrounded by the splendour of Mother Nature.  
And being on a boat was definitely less tiring than walking.

The perfect soundtrack to this blissful boat ride was the sound of wild birds. They would fly high above our boats and sometimes gracefully skim the waters.   They were so swift though and wouldn't keep still for a photo.

We saw this lone fisherman on the riverbank.  I wonder what kind of fish live in the Kumanogawa?

As we neared our destination, the boat slowed down to a stop and our guide whipped out a small native flute.  He serenaded us with a lilting melody that he said was what the royal party in the olden days would have listened to as their boats traveled down the river.
It was like sailing back in time.

Our boat ride ended quite near our goal for today -- the second Kumano Grand Shrine, the
Hayatama Taisha.  The shrine is located by the Kumanogawa in Shingu City.
We were met by our local Mi-Kumano guides and Shingu City residents Masako san and Hitomi san.

Shinto venerates all of nature.  The past four days, our pilgrimage had exposed us to the beauty,
the majesty and yes, the power of nature.
The kami or gods are everywhere.  I am sure they are present in this sacred tree, a  nagi-no ki that is over 800 years old.  It is one of the significant sights in  Hayatama Taisha.   Long may it continue to thrive. 

There is a small building guarded by a fierce looking statue.  This is where Hayatama Taisha's historical and cultural artefacts are kept -- many of them are considered as National Treasures of Japan

The entrance to the main shrine of Hayatama Taisha is vividly vermillion and as in all Shinto shrines, is adorned with a thick shimenawa hanging from its posts.  It is customary to purify yourself at the temizuya and bow before you cross the threshold. 

Hayatama is a most important shrine because this is where the gods Kumano Hayatama no Omikami, Kumano Musubi no Omikami and Ketsumi Miko Omikami are enshrined. 

The gods originally descended atop a steep hill within the Hayatama compound.  There is a shrine there called Kamikura jinja but to reach it, you need to climb over 500 steep and uneven stone steps.  However, for pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo, it is mandatory to visit only the Hayatama Taisha.  

We take our requisite photo in front of the shrine and with this, we have completed two thirds of our Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. 

There are minor shrines within the compound like this one, which is located near the main entrance.

From this point,  it was just a few steps on to the sidewalks of Shingu City.  As I crossed the small bridge,  I looked back at the torii guarding the entrance and bowed deeply -- bidding the gods farewell. 
Having visited two of the three Grand Shrines, my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage was nearing its end. And yet somehow,  I just wanted to keep on walking.   

Lessons Learned

1. The sun can be quite fierce  on the open-air boats, don't forget your sunblock (as I did).
2. You can't bring your backpacks and handbags on board the boat, for obvious safety reasons.  They will put your things on the shuttle bus and give them back to you at the end of the ride.  Bring a small plastic bag to keep your camera and gadgets  in so they won't get wet.


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 3 Yunomine Onsen : Where I have a hot and steamy time in centuries-old, World Heritage site Tsuboyu Onsen

On our third night on the Kumano Kodo, we were booked in a ryokan in Yunomine, an onsen 
town close to the Grand Shrine of Hongu Taisha.  
Onsen is a Japanese natural hot spring that contains all sorts of minerals -- depending on what
these are, the water can be good for the skin and for body aches and pains.  
I think one reason why the Japanese have such smooth, lovely skin is their fondness for  onsen
A regular soak in a mineral rich bath would do wonders for anyone's complexion. 

An onsen town is where volcanic activity has resulted in a proliferation of hot springs.  Yunomine, 
a small and quiet village nestled in between the mountains along the Kumano Kodo is  
one of Japan's oldest onsen with over 1,800 years of history (and a lot of bathing) behind it.
It's also home to the only UNESCO World Heritage cited onsen -- Tsuboyu Bath.
This was one onsen I definitely had to try. 

We were booked in Iseya Ryokan, conveniently right in front of the bus stop.   Like the minshuku
the ryokan is a Japanese-style lodging but is bigger and more upmarket.  Minshuku are traditional mom-and-pop family operations. Ryokan are more like small luxury boutique hotels -- it's very much worth the experience to stay in one. 

The ryokan will always have a traditional tatami room and most have a small balcony where you can relax and enjoy the view (and yes, a few ice cold beers). 

All the ryokans and accommodations in Yunomine have their own private baths  for their guests.  
If this is your first time in an onsen, a sign posted outside the bath states the rituals and rules of 
onsen bathing. 

Refreshed after our bath, Jay and I ventured out while there was still some light left in the day.  
You might be thinking ... "How very crass, they're wandering around in their nightgowns!".  
Yes indeed, yukatas provided for each guest in both minshukus and ryokans are worn to bed.
But paired with the happi coat -- the short, broad sleeved jacket that one wears over the yukata,  
these are normal for guests to wear as they stroll outside the ryokan.  People walking around in yukatas and happi coats are a common sight in onsen towns like Yunomine. 

The river Yunotani flows clear and swiftly through the village.  The wooden structure you see on the left is the public "cooking onsen" where you can boil eggs, vegetables, potatoes in water that comes from the underground hot springs of Yunomine.  Right behind it is a statue of a jizo --  the guardian of the hot spring waters.

The light was fading fast and lights were coming on along the main street of Yunomine.  All the buildings on either side of the road are ryokans or minshukus and on this weekday night, things 
were pretty quiet, unlike on week-ends when  crowds fill up all the accommodations.

In the distance are the mountains along the Kumano.  Yunomine is one of the most picturesque and quaint onsen towns I have been to.  

After dinner,  we set out to try Tsuboyu Onsen.  Because this is such a popular site, 
and the only World Heritage onsen, visits are scheduled by 30 minute time slots.  
You are given your time slot at the ticket office which is right by the town's public bath and for 
770 yen,  you get entrance to both.  
Since it was a weeknight with not too many people, we were lucky that we hardly had to wait.   
We were number 21 and number 20 was already in the bath.  The ticket seller told us that during week-ends a two to three hour wait was considered normal. 

Ancient pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo made Tsuboyu a popular stop, purifying themselves in the 
hot  spring waters before visiting the three Kumano Kodo shrines.  
Local legend states that a prince in the 15th century who was near death was miraculously cured 
after a bath at Tsuboyu.  I am sure it will do wonders for me too.  

Tsuboyu  is very small -- good for just 2 people,  three would be a tight squeeze.  Use the 
bamboo dippers to clean yourself with the water from the faucet before you get into the bath.    
Bring your towel from the ryokan to dry yourself after.  
If you find the water too hot (and yes, it is), open the faucet for cold water to run into the bath.  
The wooden pole you see hanging on the wall is to stir the water to cool it down somewhat.  
And of course mind the clock to remind you to leave when your 30 minutes are up.  

Don't worry about someone barging in on you -- the door has a secure lock.  

The pool is small and the waters were extremely hot -- we opened the faucet and let some cold 
water flow but it was still hotter than normal.  It is said that the colour of the water changes depending on the time of day but since we only went once, I have no way to verify this.   
It was a milky blue late at night. 
There was a faint smell of sulphur but it was not unpleasant.  I was told that the waters 
are good for all sorts of diseases like rheumatism and even diabetes. 
I normally like a very hot onsen so Tsuboyu was perfect for me.  Although I did get out a few 
times to cool myself down with a dipperful of cold water before getting back in for a hot soak. 

We faithfully followed our allotted time of 30 minutes.  Tsuboyu is open from 6 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. 
and we were one of the last to use the bath.  This tanuki was waiting for us when we stepped out in the cold night air.

Bright and early the next morning, we posed in our yukatas by the Yunotani river.   In an hour, we'd 
be on the bus out of Yunomine.
After that restorative bath in Tsuboyu, I felt purified and ready to continue on my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. 

Lessons Learned:

1.  I was so sleepy after soaking in Tsuboyu that I missed using the public bath.  If you go, you can use the public bath first while waiting for your turn at Tsuboyu.
2.  If you plan to go to Tsuboyu in the morning,  you'll have to be an early riser.   The ticket seller said that people start to queue as early as 4:30 or 5  in the morning.