Saturday, August 19, 2017

Japan: Honshu 1 - Hirosaki to Hiraizumi

13 July - Hirosaki

Hirosaki Park and castle
Hirosaki izakaya
Hirosaki downtown

At Hirosaki, first stop in Honshu, the main attraction is a large local park with historic castle tower and botanic garden. Here we are staying at Dormy Inn, a Travelodge-type chain of hotels, but very Japanese. It’s as bland as could be, but in Japan all is oriented to personal comfort - there are slippers, pyjamas (in lieu of the traditional yukata), and a very nice rooftop onsen. The buffet breakfast is fabulous, and there is free ramen in the evening, all for the price of a cheap guest house (about $125/night). Dormy Inn is quite close to the park, and also close to the downtown area full of bars and restaurants. After a brief walk in the park we find a little yakitori joint where they seem quite thrilled to have gaijin tourists. It’s as basic as they come, we have to point to the skewers we want, but the chicken livers are delicious!

14 July - Hirosaki

Hirosaki Castle tower

So it’s hot. Damn it’s hot! The heatwave continues and 34C is forecast today. We climb the castle tower, skip between shady spots at the Botanic Garden, lunch in a beautiful old European-style tearoom at the Fujita Memorial garden, it’s cool and the food is good - smoked salmon buckwheat crepe, apple pie, apple juice (Hirosaki is Apple city!). The garden is gorgeous too - if only we could see it in a drizzly mist instead!

Fujita garden 1
Fujita garden 2
Fujita garden tearoom
Playing dress-up in Hirosaki Park
After the garden, back to Dormy Inn for onsen and siesta - aaaah. For dinner tonight, we check out a small food court recommended by the Rough Guide. We manage to locate the ‘Home Cooking’ shop, run by mother and daughter. They and patrons are in a frivolous Friday night mood, and happy to indulge a couple of poor gaijin, thought there is not two words of English between them, nor two words of Japanese between us. We eat edamame, tempura corn, scallops in egg, squid fritters, and a weird dried cod/raw egg dish. Other customers insist that we try their food, and top up our sake glasses. It’s all a lot of fun and quite yummy and costs us about $20 each.
Next - we head to Tazawa-ko, where the forecast is cooler, and wet. Phew.

15 July - Tazawa-ko

Tazawa-ko - drizzly lakeside

We have arranged a bus stop pick up at the slightly remote location of Tazawakohan, lakeside at the deepest lake in Japan. It’s a warm and sunny lunchtime, and we envisage walks and swims in the lake. Tazawa-ko (Lake Tazawa) is in a very scenic area, but the weather turns, and some welcome rain arrives, so we will not have much chance of sightseeing or swimming. As it turns out it is not anyway such an easy place to walk or swim. There is no footpath along the narrow road bordering the lake, and very little access to the lakeside, unless we go into the village 15-20 minutes away.

The place we are staying in (‘That sounds good! Cafe and Inn’) is a jazzy hippie guest house over the road from the lake, and our loft apartment has lovely lakeside glimpses through the trees. Just as well, as we are captive to the weather for the next day. The place also has a small private onsen that we can book to bathe together - what a treat, for me at least!

16 July Tazawa-ko

Tazawako dining room/bar
We are captive not only to the rain, but with no access to the town, also to the guest house restaurant. Fortunately it is beautiful, fresh, veggie-based home cooking by Yuli, a little on the pricy side, but a welcome respite from all the fast-food picnics. And the breakfast is just gorgeous! (See my post re Breakfasts). On the first night friends of Tatsuya, our host, come to celebrate a birthday and play some jazz. We so wish we could speak Japanese and join the party! Over two days we eat: Veggie gratin, veg soup, octopus salad, braised pork, home made bread, margarita pizza, and spaghetti al vongole (the best!).

Yuli - Tazawako cook and hostess
On the train again ...

17 July - Hiraizumi

Historic Hiraizumi
Our very solicitous hosts ...
... and the lovely apartment
Old-style - Hiraizumi town centre

At Hiraizumi, a small, neat and old-fashioned town with deep history, we are unexpectedly met at the train. That personal level of welcome and service continues at the guesthouse. Unexpectedly it is a single apartment of two large rooms attached to a family house (we are the only guests). We have our own toilet and basin, but the bathroom is (as usual) shared. There is loads of space, but in traditional Japanese style - almost no furniture. ‘Where am I to sit?’ asks Chris. We have to pass through our hosts’ private space to shower, or even to go out, and they are endlessly attentive: Can we drive you? Let us show you the way! Where have you been? How was it? Can I change your sheets? Oh, how kind and lovely they are, and I can’t help wishing they would leave us alone!

Hiraizumi was once the area selected for development of ‘The Pure Land’ of Japanese Buddhism, and while it has a population of less than 8000, its cultural sites have UNESCO World Heritage status. The incredible array of temples mostly long since destroyed, but the gardens, with some stone foundations, remain, as well as the famous ‘Golden Temple’ of Chuson-ji. The guest house is close to two of the historic temple sites, Motsu-ji, which still has some temple buildings, and Kanjizau-in, with a ‘Pure Land’ garden bereft of temples. We explore the two sites, and in the park find a nice spot (where young boys are fishing) for drinks later.

Then - look for a dinner place, but it’s Monday night in a small town and almost everything is closed. I find a likely restaurant on google maps, and it too is closed when we reach it. However, a family-type restaurant over the road is open, and we have the usual job of selecting dishes (tempura/noodle set and pork/noodle set) by pointing at the pictures. (Set means a complete meal including rice, soup and accompaniments). We do wonder how limited our choices are by our lack of language, but it’s pretty good, washed down with a local sake, for less than $20 each. On the way home, a storm arrives and we are drenched - no park drinks tonight!

18 July - Hiraizumi

It’s going to be hot (again!) so we set out early for Chuson-ji. It’s just opening up, and all is cool, quiet, damp and lovely. The Golden Temple is taken care of early. It’s impressively golden, under cover in a custom-built controlled environment, and no photos allowed. The rest of the day is a blissful meander from mossy rock to rustic shrine, to crumbling lantern, with the odd fire hydrant thrown in. There's also an excellent museum nearby that illuminates the history of Hiraizumi, like most histories it is complicated so look it up if you are interested!

By 2pm we are home, after a good soba noodle soup, feeling very satisfied. Our host recommends a restaurant for dinner - it is the one we found closed yesterday! It turns out to be in the family home of a young, well-travelled and articulate Japanese chef, who is running his small restaurant mostly single-handed. We eat snapper and vegetables and a veg and pecorino spaghetti. It’s excellent.

Early morning at Chuson-ji Temple complex
Cool and green at Chuson-ji
Chuson-ji souvenir seller
Suburban rice paddy on the way to the restaurant
Our first meeting with Matsuo Basho ...

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