Okay, back to my Japan trip:
On Sunday we took a train to the town of Murakami, in the northern part of Niigata prefecture, which has both a type of cattle and a preparation of salmon named after it. We sampled both at lunch, prepared by a chef who both hand-selected the salmon that was hanging outside to dry and prepared Murakami beef in a stew, in raw squares to be grilled at our tables, and cooked sous-vide with a ponzu mousse.
Even during salmon season, the local variety isn’t eaten fresh. Although it’s highly prized, it’s only prized after it has been salted and dried for between one and ten months. I'm still trying to ascertain which species of salmon it is. It’s not king or sockeye, and the locals seemed inclined to believe that it was chum, but I’m not convinced the language barrier was breeched, so I’m doing further research. I bet it’s either pink or chum, which generally are eaten canned in the States.
We also had wasabi shoots cooked in dashi; tofu mixed with macha, white sesame, kudzu and sugar; and more great things I don’t have time to mention.
The grilled Murakami beef was served with wasabi and salt on the side.
I cannot recommend enough eating beef with wasabi.
After lunch we strolled around Murakami, which was conveniently holding a sort of doll festival, and finished up our tour at a facility where salmon was being hung to dry.
Then it was off to an onsen in Shibata. An onsen is a hot spring, but it’s also the resort built around it. Public bathing is a longstanding custom in Japan with many trappings that either are not as complicated as people like to imply or were completely lost on me.
During the bus ride up we stopped by a different onsen to look at it. Our hosts seemed to want us to know that we were to bathe before going into the hot springs and that we were to enter the springs naked, but they didn’t want to actually say those things. I’m not exactly sure why, but I sensed that pointing out such obvious things were embarrassing and awkward, which I guess I understand.
Then when we checked into our own onsen, Tsukiyoka Seifuen, I was visited by two men from our Japanese entourage and a maid from the staff to instruct me in the art of wearing a yukata, the traditional clothing to be worn to and from the baths and generally throughout the facilities. I began to fear that learning to wear such garb would be more difficult than learning to speak Chinese or even tying a bowtie.
But it turns out that a yukata is a bathrobe. It's tied with a sash rather than a belt, and it doesn't have any loops to guide the sash, but it's a bathrobe, with an optional jacket. I thought maybe the knot with which one tied the sash might be complex, but no, it's a regular bow, normally worn on the right side if you're a man, although some people wore it in the back. No big deal.
Here are Naren, Akiko and me in our yukatas. I’m on the right.
The onsen is quite obviously the father of the Western-style spa, with relaxation and non-formality a requirement. So we all wore our yukatas to dinner — seated on the floor, which I suppose has the potential for embarrassment when wearing a bathrobe, but we managed. Dinner was sashimi served in hollowed-out ice globes, cooked seafood garnished with cherry blossoms and other nods to springtime, tofu flavored with a vegetable called yomogi and topped with kaiwari greens, chawan mushi, braised Echigo pork — another Niigata delicacy — tempura, fish stew and on and on. One difference between onsens and spas is that overeating seems to be encouraged at onsens.
In our private dining room, apart from tables and tatami mats, an uncharacteristic bar with sake and a motley selection of mixers. Naren eventually took this as a cue and began to prepare sake cocktails, which went over well.
Our hosts had noticed that Naren enjoyed staying out late drinking, and that I didn’t mind either. He had said that a quiet, early night at the Onsen would be nice, but they seemed to think he was just being polite and they trundled us into a van — still dressed in our yukatas — and took us to the local izakaya, where we ate Japanese cucumbers with miso and raw squid with raw quail egg and drank sake and beer. I also had shochu with hot water and salted plum, something I'd learned to enjoy from Yasuo Kusano, the Northeast Asia bureau chief of Asia Times, where I worked in Bangkok.