Wednesday, August 27, 2014

40. 綿柎開: "Cotton Flowers Open"

(BGM: "Sayonara Natsu No Hi" by Yamashita Tatsuro)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing 
初秋, Shoshu: "Early Autumn"
Season No. 14: 処暑, Shosho
"The Limits Of The Heat"

Poufs of homegrown cotton decorates an autumn wreath woven by a friend of mine.
Climate No. 40: 綿柎開 
Wata No Hanashibe Hiraku
"Cotton Flowers Open"
(August 23 -August 27) 

The gradual setting in of dry, crisp evening air causes cotton and other seed pods to split and pop open with a snap. On my morning walks, I notice the grass beneath my feet has changed from the lush, vivid green I took for granted to a rusty, tired mat of ochre and tan. Jumping spiders and tiny grasshoppers dash out of my way as I swish through. It's easy to see that despite the heat of the noonday sun, for some species, summer is over and the race to procreate before the frost is in full swing.

Flower Of The Season: 紅葉葵, Momiji Aoi, Scarlet Rose Mallow

A mammoth scarlet rose marrow sways in front of an old country home in Shiga.
This towering member of the hibiscus family can easily grow up to seven feet tall and beyond. I'll never forget the first time I saw one of these comically large mallow blossoms. Thinking it was a child's pinwheel, I had to touch it to make sure it wasn't made of plastic! We know Hibiscus coccineus in the US as Texas star or lone star hibiscus. This flower isn't native to Japan by any means, yet it can be found teetering to and fro in neighborhood gardens from Honshu to Kyushu. Despite its other common name marsh hibiscus, H. coccineus apparently grows in much drier conditions like roadside ditches and along inner city driveways, where I often see them. The racy, bold blossoms of H. coccineus add a tropical touch to any landscape -Nature's final summer fling.

Taste Of The Season: 赤唐辛子, Akatougarashi, Red Chilies

"Crimson pepper pod
  Add two pairs of wings 
   And look! 
    Darting Dragonfly!"   -Matsuo Basho

Chilies drying in the early autumn sun (Shigaraki No Sato, Koka City, Shiga Prefecture).
Native to the Americas, Capsicum annuum first made its way into Asia via Portuguese traders during the 16th century. Powder made from the dried fruit of this plant, mixed with other spices in a formula called shichimi togarashi (七味唐辛子, lit. "seven flavors chili pepper") has been around since the Edo period. Fortunately for us, so have some of the shops that first perfected this classic Japanese condiment!

Passing by Kyoto's famous Shichimiya Honpo shop on Sannenzaka Slope (2004).
In my travels, I've not seen red chilies used in everyday cuisine beyond a flavor spike for pickled vegetables or as a sprinkled topping on soba noodles. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough. Bottles and jars of shichimi sit half-filled on just about every restaurant table I've ever sat at, so somebody must be using the stuff. I'm just never lucky enough to catch anyone in the act of sprinkling it on their food besides me.

A fragrant bowl of shichimi powder in a farmer's market cafeteria (Shiobara, Tochigi 2007).
Shichimi is one of those spice combinations that doesn't go with just anything the way other chili pepper powders do. The average shichimi is blended with nutty sesame seeds, dried citrus rind and sansho peppercorns to sweeten it, which substantially limits the spice blend's versitility. I've personally found shichimi to go best with savory, oily foods like ramen, soba soup broth and gyoza (fried dumplings). It tends to easily overwhelm tastebuds that have been sensitized to the subtleties of Japanese cuisine. But when the flavors work well, the effect is pure magic. (Straight-up, unblended akatougarashi, in either powder or dried pod form, is more appropriate for recipes that require the heat of chili peppers without additional flavors).

A very kind and genki (vibrant) shichimi vendor (Kusatsu Hot Springs, Gumma Prefecture, 2004).
But more often than not, especially this time of year, I see chili pepper advertised as a slimming agent in bath salts, body scrubs and as a major component in pain relief patches. Japanese women and the elderly are very familiar with the ancient practice of taking togarashi to improve blood circulation and aid digestion. It's not uncommon to see shichimi shops dotting hot springs and temple towns such as Kusatsu in Gumma prefecture and Tokyo's Sugamo district. Shichimi is the prescription of choice for health and genkiness (vitality), both cooling in summer and warming in winter. As the old Hippocrates saying goes: "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food."

Critter Of The Season: とんぼ, Tombo, Dragonfly

An akiakane (Sympetrum frequens) rests on a weathered bench (Toride, Ibaraki 2010).
These swirling, dipping masters of flight are so dear to me that I don't even know where to begin. My first encounter with Japanese dragonflies was a complete surprise to say the least: I was walking down a crowded Sapporo street headed for the famous Ramen Yokocho when I noticed people pointing to my chest and giggling. I looked down and there on my lapel, perfect as a beaded brooch, sat a lovely scarlet dragonfly, its iridescent, honeycombed eyes staring up at me almost wistfully. Smiling, I walked a whole 'nother block with that critter on my jacket, proud to wear such a glamourous piece of spontaneous living jewelry. As I was about to turn the corner, I looked down again and it had flown off. But for some reason, I felt blessed.

Making friends with the akiakane dragonfly.

Japan has around 200 species of dragonfly, coming in nearly every color of the rainbow, from yellow to purple. But the akatombo (red dragonfly) is the quintessential insect of autumn, swarming around parks and parking lots by the hundreds, especially in areas where rice paddies are prevalent. But as we've been seeing with swallows, fireflies and other creatures dependent on natural watershed habitat, the number of akatombo dragonflies has been decreasing with the loss of rice paddies nation-wide. The more the Japanese diet slowly changes from locally-grown rice to processed wheat products like noodles and bread, the faster the rice paddies disappear. In the meantime, more territorial, brownish-colored akiakane dragonflies like the one here perched on my finger have overrun much of akatombo's habitat.

I've only seen the beautiful, blood-red akatombo three times in my life and I'd love to see more. So over the past few years, I've made it a point to keep Japanese rice as my primary staple food. We do what we can for the environment, right?

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

Friday, August 22, 2014

39. 蒙霧升降: "Thick Fog Descends"

(BGM: "Yogiri Yo Konya Mo Arigatou" by Ishihara Yujiro)

Shichijuni-kou (72 Seasons) Calendar Listing 
初秋, Shoshu: "Early Autumn"
Season No. 13: 立秋: Risshu
"The Start Of Autumn"

Moody morning fog after a late night's thunderstorm (Mt. Noro, Hiroshima Prefecture).
Climate No. 39: 蒙霧升降 
Fukaki Kiri Matou
"Thick Fog Descends"
(August 17 -August 22) 

More misty magic on a Mt. Noro bike trail (Kure, Hiroshima).
We've been having tremendous downpours and thunderstorms nearly every day this week. Ignoring the prefectural mudslide warnings, we headed out one morning to drive up our favorite extinct volcano and found ourselves enshrouded in dense, white fog flowing up and around us, so thick I could feel the tiny beads of water collecting on the fine hairs of my lower arms. There's a pleasant expression in these parts for being bathed in this kind of mist: "forest bath" (Jpn: 森林浴, shinrinyoku). Hubby said he felt like passing out, the air was so pure. I found myself getting buzzed on the cleansing, camphor-like fragrance oils of cedar and pine sap that were carried on the mist. The sensations were a hundred percent worth the risk of getting up there. Free aromatherapy!

Flower Of The Season: 木槿, Mukuge, Rose of Sharon (aka Rose Mallow)

A slightly faded Rose of Sharon after a noon rainfall (Takehara, Hiroshima).
I'll never forget the first time I asked about the Hibiscus syriacus, which are blooming everywhere around me, now. These tall, broad-leaved shrubs with bright, floppy flowers resemble hibiscus to a tee. They even have the Latin classification of hibiscus. But the average Japanese granny on the street will adamantly tell you that the mukuge is definitely not a hibiscus. According to Japanese taxonomy, the mukuge is classified as a type of hollyhock.

(Sigh). Here we go again. 

Last year, after it dawned on me that the folks around here don't really care for people who are sure of their knowledge enough to argue about beautiful things like flowers, I learned to simply push aside my need to be correct. It's much easier to learn to enjoy the differences in thought than to resist them. My Korean husband knew nothing of the mukuge's classification, but said he cherished it as his national flower and a symbol of eternity and abundance (Hangul: 무궁화, mugunghwa). I found his attitude of humility refreshing, though I was perplexed at how a plant with flowers that last only a day could symbolize eternity.

(I guess some tasks, like resisting the urge to ask questions, are easier said than done. My, aren't these flowers lovely?!)

Rose of Sharon blossoms permanently folding up after their one day in the sun.

 Taste Of The Season: 蛸, Tako, Octopus

Sweet, savory octopus samples at Nishiki Market in Kyoto (2002).
When I lived in Alaska over a decade ago, the only octopus anything we could enjoy commercially was either in nigirizushi (finger-pressed sushi) or small packages of boiled unborn octopus fried in Korean BBQ sauce from our local Asian market. Alaska is blessed with large populations of edible octopus in her oceans but culturally, octopus was one of those "iffy" foods reserved for the brave. You'd have to go directly to a fisherman to buy one of these heavy, writhing cephalopods, since they're mainly used by Alaskans as bait for catching halibut (a gigantic species of flatfish). Low demand ensured you could never find fresh octopus at supermarkets like Fred Meyer's or Safeway.

Tentacles of suitcase-sized, fresh-caught octopus (Jagalchi Market in Busan, South Korea, 2005)
When I arrived in Japan, I was dazzled by the myriad ways octopus was used in everyday cuisine: stewed, pickled, fresh in sashimi, boiled and chilled in salads, dried and sprinkled on top of piping hot rice -countless options! The springy, rubbery flesh and mild, salty taste of octopus in season goes perfectly with the bitterness of late summer cucumbers, their most common flavor companion.

The octopus is said to be one of the most intelligent creatures of the sea, able to figure its way out of all kinds of mazes, puzzles and traps. Long ago, however, the Japanese figured out the invertebrate's love of hiding in small spaces and devised a deceptively simple contraption for catching them: a baited cyllindrical clay pot lined with a mesh net and a trap door. These takostubo (蛸壺, octopus pots) can be found piled and stacked up against seawalls in cities all along the Seto Inland Sea, where octopus is part of the local daily diet. Just looking at these pots helps me to remember the warm seas of summer.

"Octopus traps
  Fleeting dreams
   Under summer's moon." 
                           Matsuo Basho

Octopus traps (Tomonoura Town in Fukuyama, Hiroshima).
Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Real Happy Place: Namiki Café (Kure, Hiroshima Prefecture)


(BGM: "Natsu No Omoide" by Ketsumeishi)

Approaching Namiki Café from the road...
Isn't it funny how the most inspiring places can come to you completely by chance? That's exactly how we found Namiki Café, and it went a little something like this:

(Rewind a few months...) One clear, crisp afternoon in May, my Hubby had the itching desire to explore some new coastline that we hadn't seen before, so we jumped into the car and headed towards southern Kure. The road was wide and smooth all the way up until Yasuura, where we took a turn towards the Kanda Dockyard and suddenly found ourselves on a frighteningly narrow single lane jungle road with blind corners at nearly every turn. We kept going straight not only to see where the road led, but because there was absolutely nowhere to turn around and head back. We were locked in! When it finally opened up into Shichiura Beach beyond Kawajiri we felt delivered, surprised to have made it through in one piece. (Yes, it was that harrowing. I never exaggerate). 

We drove on towards the shore, past old storage shacks and cabins, fruit trees and gardens; the only thing missing from this scene was a lemonade stand! Beyond a gate of living sculpted pine tree was a standard government-issue concrete structure similar to the kominkan community centers we always see in these small communities. But this building was unique; it was painted in the most vivid array of dreamy, psychadelic colors as if straight off the boardwalks of Santa Barbara, California. Where the heck were we?

Namiki Cafe in Kure, Hiroshima. (Stunning mermaid painted by Hiroshima artist Kodama Kozue).
Quirky signs and curious paintings covered just about every structure: the chicken coop, the outhouse, the café...(café?). Some of the art looked deliberate and some resembled graffiti. But all I could think was awesome! Did we stumble upon a private clubhouse? Was this an artists' commune like we have back in Alaska? I worried for a moment whether or not it was okay to be on their property (like a good American should), but Hubby found the mystique of the place pulling him in like the Death Star tractor beam. 

The funkiest, most glorious chicken coop I've seen in my life!
I told Hubby we should consider turning back, but he ignored my pleadings and parked the car anyways. We both treaded lightly on the crunchy gravel towards the café, passing drunken fellas staggering their way towards the outhouse. I let Hubby cautiously step first through the open front door and we were greeted (somewhat) by two nonchalant dogs, the mascots of Namiki Café.

"Nana." :-)

"Sakura." :-)
Once inside, we noticed people of all ages laughing and chilling in this casually pimped-out pad. The walls, shelves and tables were decorated appropriately with seashells, musical instruments, beach art and lots of books. A wide smile spread like sunrays across my husband's face and I instantly felt at home, reminded of my favorite artsy-fartsy, sea themed hangouts back in Homer, Alaska

Namiki Cafe's unpretentious, laid-back interior.
The colorful and inviting bar at Namiki Café.
The kind, accommodating staff encouraged us to sit wherever we wanted. Hubby spotted a railing-free open deck facing the sea. On it sat black metal garden tables with matching loveseats, which my man immediately claimed for us. Just five seconds after sitting down, I felt as if my whole life had reached its pinnacle. This was plenty for me. I didn't need a single thing more as all my tensions lifted off my skin, evaporating with my sweat into the hot summer air. This entrancing view, these happy people and well-behaved doggies contentedly shuffling to and fro -it was paradise! Again, the Hubby and I had inadvertently stumbled upon yet another earthly heaven while searching for something completely different. I started to feel overwhelmed by our excellent fortune.

If the tide comes in high enough, fish swim underneath the patio. Now that's waterfront dining! :-)
The corners of my mouth stretched upward in a grin as I sat there comfortably, watching other guests playing freely like little children, leaving all inhibition behind. In the distance, three brave young boys in black swimwear took turns leaping off a metal platform into the crystal aquamarine seawater, while giggling college students played volleyball on the beach. (I hadn't seen Japanese people this relaxed since the Earth Garden Aki Festival in Tokyo!) It was a redeeming sight to see!


The chief cook, a gracious young lady with impeccable color sense and a glittering smile, served us cups of ice water along with chilled, fragrant shibori hand towels. Behind me bubbled a large aquarium filled with turbo snails, some beautiful pink and black wrasses and a pufferfish wearing a resentful expression. (Tank occupants change with the seasons). The lapping of waves upon the shore in time with Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's haunting vocals made certain that every one of my senses would become engaged. This was going to be a much-savored treat, indeed!

Pink and black striped wrasses curiously inspect my smartphone.
The whole place vibrated with a natural, playful energy I hadn't felt in a long, long time. Back inside the café, I couldn't ignore the shelf displaying several books by my favorite Japanese author and world-circling philanthropist Takahashi Ayumu, writer of Dear. Wild Child and Love & Free. It didn't take me long to feel some of his inspiration curling in the air around Namiki Café.

"Freedom" (c) 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All Rights Reserved.
But we couldn't sit here staring at the sea forever. This was, after all, a dining establishment! Time to order something, I guess.

This welcoming smile made us feel right at home! 
Fortunately for us, we didn't see the menu inconspicuously placed under the table. From the kitchen above us, a dashing sun-kissed gentleman (whom I actually mistook for an American ex-pat), kept flashing me his disarming smile as he scrubbed and prepped the grill. Making sure his voice reached us from over the wall, he asked us about our stories and shared with us a little history of the place. (He was a sheer delight to converse with!) The owner (Mr. Youjiro Tomie of Hiroshima, owner of BAR Swallowtail), who just happens to be his son, took over this beachside café seven years ago, breathing new life into it with hip art and creative touches.

The most badass basket in town! I swear if it ever stops raining this year, I'm doing this!
We asked about all they had here and he listed off some of the many fun activities and services available at Namiki Café. We were dazzled by the options: rental rowboats, swimming gear, BBQ kits, day-use private rooms with hammocks, all sorts of balls and pool toys available for use and of course, the dog park. Guests could even rent fishing gear, catch a fish and the staff would clean it and turn it into a full-blown meal! And for an unbelievably reasonable fee, it was even possible to stay the night in one of the rooms above the café, fresh egg breakfast included! The only thing they didn't offer was camping space. But further down the beach it was okay to pitch a daycamp tent, providing you picked up after yourself and kept an eye on the tides. This place really had everything! (And if it didn't, I had the feeling the staff would bend over backwards to make sure every request got filled, somehow).

Rowboat rentals available (the push out to sea by the owner is free!). 
I spotted more than a few concepts found in Takahashi Ayumu's writings in effect around here: an environment-friendly approach to business (recycling, re-using, incorporating community produce, etc), a fun atmosphere of play and joie de vivre, a deep-rooted love for humanity, and the feeling of freedom passed on to the customers. Patrons at Namiki Café could fully personalize their dining experience, making it completely their own through hands-on participation.

One love. 
A brief walk around the grounds of Namiki Café helped me to clearly see the effects of this harmonious philosophy in action. Honeybees buzzed peacefully on patio flowers. Goshawks and herons fished undisturbed in tidepools teeming with fish. Grandparents introducing curious children to tiny hermit crabs and other intertidal lifeforms crawling over the sands. Namiki Café had achieved a virtual garden of eden for all to share and enjoy for the mere price of a cup of coffee. And I could sense these joyous vibrations flowing through everyone and everything around here, pulling me in with it like a current. The sensation was exhilarating. 

Tiny life in the seagrass at low tide.
Blazing sunlight heated up the sand around us and all our talking had finally made me hungry! The entertaining, simply-drawn white and blue menu offered an interesting mix of egg dishes (made with fresh eggs from just across the lawn), noodles, an unusual collection of original pizzas, traditional Japanese entrées and other specialties I could forever delve into and never re-emerge.

(Fast-forward to the present moment). From that fateful day in May, I became a hopeless fan of Namiki Café. Over the course of the next few months, we tested various samplings from their menu. Everything we ordered was carefully prepared and arranged, with attention paid to pure, natural flavor. I found the food at Namiki Café a welcome change from the usual.

Rich, smooth creme brulée topped with a cherry from Yamagata! 

Gomen, Sakura. This is people food! :-)
Fresh cheesecake lovingly made with eggs from their own hens. A slice of HEAVEN! 

Scrumptious (!!!) thin crust pizza with fresh tomatoes, savory sausage chunks and herbs. Divine!
Rejuvinating sweet-and-sour perilla (shiso) juice drink, homemade, of course!

A refreshing array of pickles, part of the "taiken lunch."
We even treated ourselves one day to the "taiken lunch." The grillmeister prepared our season-specific fish and served it up alongside hot rice steamed in a traditional kama, some tsukemono pickles and soup. The taiken (体験 do-it-yourself) part of the lunch consists of picking your own egg from the chicken coop, shaving fragrant katsuobushi from a rock-hard filet of dried bonito fish and assembling your own rice bowl topped with raw egg, said fish flakes and a dash of soy sauce. For fans of Japanese food made in the traditional way, this is one experience not to be missed! The whole meal was a lot of fun and really inspiring (would be perfect as a brunch, too!).

The owner (Youjiro Tomie) showing us Hubby's fish: a shimmering pink sea bream.
Juicy, decadent turbo snail grilled tsuboyaki style over glowing hot coals.
And of course, what's a day at the beach without a barbecue? For just five-hundred yen, you can bring your own food and use Namiki Café's BBQ equipment. We celebrated a birthday with a Namiki BBQ spread, making sure to call in advance so they could have everything ready when we got there. For the reasonable price of a standard set lunch, they chose for us a well-balanced mix of fine meats, seafood and vegetables which we grilled right at our own table. Single servings of seafood in season (such as the spring turbo snail pictured above) were available if the meat ran out.

Seaside BBQ anyone? :-)
All of these options were more than satisfying, but we'd only scratched the surface! Namiki's summer outdoor food stand "Umi-no-Ie" (pronounced /ooh-mee-noh-ee-eh/), dishes up other items on the menu such as curry & rice, udon noodles, fish & chips and yakisoba -perfect for hungry kids weary from a fun day in the water. Namiki Café's bar also has a full line of coffees, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. What more could anyone want?

Namiki Café's outdoor food stall Umi-no-Ie (海の家, Lit: "ocean house").
Obviously, the one thing I always want here is simply more time to enjoy. Minutes melt effortlessly into delicious, relaxing hours at Namiki Café. Helplessly fixated on the ever-changing sea and intrigued by the festival of flavors dancing in my mouth, it's tough for me to notice the time until the hungry cry of a kite soaring overhead snaps me out of my private reverie on cue. When the sun tucks itself in behind the mountains, it's time for the café to close up for the evening. It seemed like decades since I last felt relaxed enough to spend hours in a café without having some task to do like cramming for test. But this place was indeed magic! (It wasn't just me, either. Other patrons have told me they've also experienced the same time-slip effect at Namiki Café, spending up to five hours when they'd only planned on minutes! Thank goodness the staff are so patient).

Detail of wall art by Kodama Kozue.
Anyways, I think I've finally found my "happy place," and it's a place anyone can experience and return to again and again (providing everyone drives slowly down that harrowing jungle road). Once there, allow the feel of the place to really sink in, and you'll know what I mean. Peace.

Darling little ghost crab digs a home by the balcony steps at Namiki Café.

Namiki Café Information
Operating Hours: 10:30am to 6:30pm, year-round and even on rainy days! :-) (Closed on Fridays and certain holidays).
Parking Fee: (Depends on what services you use. Check with the staff).
Facilities: Café, bar, BBQ stalls, seasonal outdoor food stand (open 10:00am to 5:00pm, summer only) rental party rooms (check for availability), dog park, private beach (roped off for safety), volleyball nets, rental rowboats, life vests and other floatation devices, rental swimwear, rental fishing gear, basketball hoop, kiddy pools (summer only), upstairs B&B, BBQ equipment rentals, pay shower, Western-style toilet (in the café), Japanese-style toilets (by the parking lot), and much, much more!
Dog Park: Open from September to June. (Check with staff for rates).
Address: 737-2503 広島県呉市安浦町大字安登 1048-160 波輝カフェ
(In English: Namiki Café, 1048-160 Yasuura-cho, Oaza Ato, Kure-shi, Hiroshima-ken 737-2503)
Access By Car: It might be easiest to plug the above address into your car's navigation system or a navi app and just follow it. Their website also has comprehensive instructions with photos that clearly show (in Japanese) how to get there.
From Kure City: En route to Yasuura, head down Highway 185 past the Mt. Noro turnoff. You'll see a mint green WANTS drugstore on your left and a 7-11 on your right. Turn right at this intersection and you'll see a sign for the Kanda Dockyard. Follow this very narrow road along the coast through a tiny hamlet of Kawajiri, straight through into the woods up the hill. From here there will be cute little Namiki Café signs you can follow. (It's about a 10-minute drive from the 7-11 intersection to the café).
From Akitsu (Higashi-Hiroshima): Facing Kure, head down Highway 185 to the Yasuura Bypass East Entrance intersection (marked by a Family Mart on your left). Turn left onto the Bypass. Follow this highway up the hill for about fifteen minutes, past the Royal Hotel (on your left) until you see Resutoran Momo (レストラン桃), again on your left. It's the tiny U-turn immediately after that (on your left), marked by a blue sign for Mt. Noro. Follow this narrow, winding road down the cliff to the tiny hamlet of Kawajiri until you meet the seawall and turn left yet again. Follow this road straight through to the woods (the Namiki Café signs should be visible at this point). Keep going straight, passing two small beaches (one with a pink flamingo pedal boat). You'll eventually see Namiki Café on your right.
Access By Train & Taxi: Take the JR Kure Line from Hiro, Onomichi or Mihara to Yasuura Kawajiri Station (安浦川尻駅). From there, you can take a taxi to Namiki Café, but be sure to show the driver the above address in Japanese.
Telephone (Japanese Only): (0823)-87-5512 (Since they have lots of property to cover, the staff might not always be able to answer the phone).
Insider's Tips: When it gets really busy during summer weekends, the staff might ask that you carry your own empty tableware to the bar counter. Rented and borrowed items should be returned as well and not left on the beach. (It's only fair since they offer so much). Since omeletts take too many eggs to make, they're only available on weekdays. Also: If you order the BBQ, Nana and Sakura might give you wistful, begging stares for handouts. If you choose to feed them, they will proceed to gently nudge your thigh with their chins and paws until you donate more. (They won't bark or bite. They're very mellow). It's hillarious and endearing, but might make you feel guilty for eating your order. ;-)
For More Information: Check out Namiki Café's homepage or "Like" their Facebook page! Namiki Café holds various events and specials throughout the year, so it's worth checking frequently for updates.

Sakura and Nana hope to see you there!
Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Zekkei-No-Yado Hot Springs (Izumo, Shimane Prefecture)

(Zekkei-no-Yado Goshoranba Ryokan, Ottachi Town, Izumo City, Shimane Pref.)

(BGM:  "I've Got You Under My Skin" by Frank Sinatra)

The main facade of Zekkei-no-Yado Goshoranba Ryokan, facing the gorge.
People go to hot springs for different reasons. Some (like me), concentrate on the water's therapeutic effects. Others, like my husband, look forward to the differences in atmosphere and ambiance. Fortunately for us on this trip to Shimane, we found a place that appealed to both of us, with an entrancing view of an ancient, slowly-eroding gorge. The name zekkei-no-yado means "lodge with an indescribable view." The name could not be more fitting.

The sign reads: "Zekkei-no-Yado Goshoranba Rotenburo" (rotenburo= open-air bath).
The lodge itself is sandwiched in the middle of a loop between the two opposing one-lane roads of Route 184, a narrow but lovely course that winds and twists along the Kando River. We arrived just at the peak of rush hour traffic and parking was a little harrowing with all the giant trucks violently wooshing by. But somehow we made it. Gazing up the massive cathedral of bare rock looming above us, I knew we were in for a treat!

The very kind, silver-haired gentleman who collected our fee allowed me to rinse off my sandy feet with a garden hose before heading for the baths. Peeking inside the warm, welcoming entrance to the lodge, my eyes lit up at the bouquet of gaily-colored yukata robes spread out on a smooth, age-worn shelf. Female guests staying overnight could choose their favorite kimono (and if they couldn't decide, "color assistance" was available!) The lodge advertised traditional cuisine with local game and greens. Pheasant and wild boar, fresh river fish, mountain vegetables in season -no wonder this place has a four-star reputation! Too bad we were short on time and could only enjoy the outdoor bath. But we were psyched up, regardless. A quick sprint across the street and down the hill, serenaded by the chirps and whirrings of cicadas in the late afternoon haze and I'd arrived at my mountain retreat.

Shrubs and a cement path leading to the women's bath.
Toilet (left) and a rentable private family bath (right).
I was a little silly and forgot to take pictures of the very neat, tidy and newly-built dressing room. (Here is a video taken by a Japanese guest of the men's rotenburo bath. The layout is very similar, but without a separate smoking room). My feet felt really groovy on the clean, smooth bamboo mats underfoot. The pleasing fragrance of fresh-cut lumber filled my nose. (This place must've been remodeled fairly recently. Lucky me!) I was thankful for the free, generously-sized lockers and baskets to put my things in as I organized my towels and prepared. Rotary fans kept the dressing room cool and dry, a refreshing oasis free of drippy summer humidity. Bath goodie bag in hand, I open the door into paradise: Aaaahh!! :-)

Horizontal panorama of the women's bath from the dressing room entrance.

Three spigots were situated in the corner so I couldn't accidentally get any soap into the tubs (smart design!) The wooden stools were too short for me so I just knelt down old-fashioned style on the floor and used the shower and plastic bath bucket provided. The lather I whipped up from the shampoo frothed rich and creamy enough for my nekoge (猫毛 cat fur-thin) hair; I didn't need to supplement with my own conditioner. Peeking out the window behind me, I couldn't help myself: the imposing view of Tachikuekyo's monolithic andesite spires was so awe-inspiring that it sent me scuttling all dripping wet to the locker to grab my phone for a few photos! Wowee zowie! Talk about a "gorge-ous gorge!" (Sorry, I couldn't help myself).

Vertical panorama from the main womens' bath. (Jealous?) ;-)
My rapture was about to be tested, however: Mid-summer in Japan means biting critters -everywhere. And being right next to the very pristine, slow-flowing Kando River, this onsen gets a few Japanese giant horseflies, no doubt visiting from the dairy farm several kilometers down the river. Two of these devilish giant hornet-sized flies took too much interest in me, and no amount of shooing would scare them off. I tried spraying them at point-blank with hot water and the can of all-purpose insect repellant I found resting on the stone steps. Neither worked. But I discovered that if I submerge myself up to my neck and wrap my small bath towel around my ears, they wouldn't bother me. I was right! The buzzing stopped! I was free!

(Instead of bothering me, however, they simply used my head as an island while I enjoyed my bath. Oh well).

I could finally lay back and savor this mind-quieting environment. Warblers and thrushes trilled for me a tranquil melody of sweetness against a symphony of gently-flowing river water and post-typhoon summer wind. The silky-soft, piping-hot water soothed my aching muscles faster than usual as I tasted strong salt around the edges of my mouth -too strong to be from me. I was bathing in a salt spring! It seemed like years since I last soaked in one of these!

An inspired sign describing the water's general mineral composition and health effects.
The above signboard read that the onsen was actually a reisen (冷泉 cold springs) with a high salt and iron content, which implies that it's probably pre-heated before being added to the tubs. The water was perfectly hot and I imagine would feel incredible in the cold, bug-free bliss of winter. But for now, I was satisfied with the pleasant pain of the salt gently stinging my fresh insect bites, cleansing them. (The two bites hurt only slightly. Fortunately, no blood was drawn, today).

The porous peaks of the Tachikuekyo Gorge kissed by welcome sunlight.
Zekkei-no-Yado lodge boasts the best possible view of Tachikuekyo in town. At night, the stony spires come to life, awash in spotlight, perfect for ethereal nighttime bathing. Guests can sport their kimono, clomping in wooden geta sandals over the nearby bridges, soaking up the cool night air and sounds of the season. (Sure sounds heavenly!)

It may have been the peak of the stickiest, most humid time of the year. But thanks to the hot, briny waters of Zekkei-no-Yado, my skin emerged from the bath clean, smooth and radiant. I inspected the two hickey-shaped love bites bestowed upon me from the horseflies and was glad that they prefer the taste of cow blood to mine. They won't stop me from coming back to this delightful hot springs, though.

Zekkei-no-Yado Spa Information:
Outdoor Bath Operating Hours: 6:00am to 10:00 pm (Open 7 days/week)
Bath Fee: Adult 500 yen, Child 300 yen
Facilities: rotenburo (open air bath), showers, dressing room with rotary fan, family bath (by reservation), Western-style toilet, liquid body soap, shampoo, plastic buckets, lockers (free), blow dryer. (Bring your own towels).
Drink Machine (across the highway): soda, colas, tea, coffee, sports drinks, energy drinks, water
Parking: Space for about 20 cars.
Address/Access: 693-0216 島根県出雲市乙立町立久恵5269 (Shimane-ken, Izumo-shi, Ottachi-cho, Tachikue 5269. Postal Code: 693-0216).
Telephone (Japanese Only): 0853-45-0211
Specified Water Type: ナトリウムイオン泉・弱塩泉、ナトリウム・塩化物強温泉、令鉄線 sodium chloride (salt) springs, cold iron springs.
Insider's Tip: Come here in the fall when the autumn leaves are at their best!
For More Information: This website (in Japanese) contains more information on available plans, access and lodge information.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this blog is for entertainment purposes only. The author cannot and will not be held responsible for any information contained in this blog used by a third party. The author makes no claim of the effectiveness of onsen therapy nor suggests the use of various minerals for the treatment of any disease to any third party. Please do what the author did and check with a licensed health care practitioner before attempting any form of self-treatment for any medical condition.

Copyright 2014 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.