Sunday, January 29, 2006

Deadly fish and the Japanese bathing experience

Hello again everyone,

We realise we haven't been doing a great job of keeping the blog up to date, so here's a monster blog post to catch up.

For the most part it has been back to our regular Hiroshima lifestyle after the Christmas & New Year vacations. Back to work for me, lots of trips on our bikes and more adventures to the supermarket. Although laid up for a week with a bad flu, Therese is back to full fitness now and has been keeping herself busy with Women's Club stuff, Japanese lessons and has even started a course in art history. She has also been teaching her Japanese teacher how to bake scones- a tough life!

This month also brought the 30th anniversary of my entry into the world - scary stuff. Hard to believe that I really am that old, but thankfully I've taken it quite well - no birthday blues or anything like that. In saying that, the first sign of a mid-life crisis arrived when I decided to buy myself a guitar. For those of you familiar with my musical ability, you can stop laughing now.

To celebrate my birthday, I took a couple of days off work and Therese and I headed off to the old samurai town of Hagi, on the north coast of the main island about 2 hours from Hiroshima.

A view of Hagi

A typical street, with the old samurai and merchant houses

Some of the elaborate gates and roofs

Hagi is a historic town, that was the base for many of the wealthy families and their samurai who protected and ran their businesses. Many of the traditional houses remain, which makes it a really interesting place for a stroll, taking in the old buildings.

After exploring the town, Therese and I checked in to Ryokan Tomoe, where we were staying for the night. Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns and our Ryokan was one of the most luxurious in Japan, lots of Japanese Prime Ministers have stayed there and even the Emperor has visited. The rooms have tatami flooring, with simple decoration and your meals, which are included in the price, are served in your room. Every room has a wonderful view of a traditional Japanese garden, it is all very "zen" and feels so calm and relaxing. On arrival guests are advised to enjoy a traditional Japanese bath, this involves sitting on a small wooden stool and using a shower head and wooden bowl to give yourself a good scrub. Only when you are absolutely spotlessly clean are you allowed into the piping hot and very deep Japanese bath. It may sound very odd but it feels really good. Guests are then expected to change into Yukata, a light cotton robe which is very comfortable. The hostesses (who are dressed in traditional Kimono) will then bring dinner to your room and serve it to you - it was definitely a little strange to be sitting on a chair with no legs at such a low table. The whole dinner process takes about 3 hours.

The entrance to Ryokan Tomoe

Therese in her Yukata

We had requested Japanese food, but we had no idea of what we were having. The menu wasn't much help as the only thing we managed to translate was 'melon'.

Our personalised menu

When our first round of courses arrived though we were in for a shock - the large platter in the middle of the table was lots of slices of the famous - and potentially deadly - blowfish, or fugu.

Fugu- tasty but deadly...

Reassured that our Ryokan was fairly reliable, we tried some. It is tasty, but not enough that I would risk my life for it. We had read in the paper that so far this season nine people in Hiroshima prefecture had died from trying to prepare their own fugu. One of Japan's most famous actors dropped dead at a Fugu banquet in 1975 only minutes after eating the fatal fish.

Anyway, after we had finished our selection of sashimi, including the fugu, our next course arrived, then the next, and the fact we counted 15 courses in all. Even with Japanese portion sizes, we were still stuffed.

By the time dinner was over, we were definitely ready for bed. Our hostesses made up our bed for us - futon mattresses on top of the tatami mats. I'm not sure I could sleep on it every night, but it was pretty comfortable.

Bed on the floor

Breakfast next morning seemed to be just a continuation of the previous night's dinner, with yet more fish (raw and cooked), rice, tofu and miso soup. It was certainly different to be eating that sort of food first thing in the morning, and though it was all tasty, I think I'll stick to cornflakes. By the time Therese got round to tasting the fermented soy bean paste cake it was almost all too much.

Me tucking in to breakfast

After another short stroll around some more of the sights of Hagi, we headed back to Hiroshima via the small town of Tsuwano in the middle of the mountains. Tsuwano, like Hagi, had quite a few traditional Japanese houses, and strangely a Catholic Church that had no pews, only tatami mats on the floor.

Some views of Tsuwano

Tsuwano also has one of the largest Shinto shrines in Japan, so we decided it was worth a look.

All in all we had a wonderful break and enjoyed our Ryokan stay so much that we intend to make Japanese baths a regular feature in our lives - we even bought a small wooden stool and bowl so we can do it in our own apartment!

Will write again next week, take care.

Ps. It has been great to know that all our friends in Kelvedon and Westminster have been keeping up to date with the blog, keep logging on!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Happy 2006

Hello again and a very Happy 2006 to all our blog readers. It been a while since our last post and there's loads to tell. We've been 'down under' for our big holiday of the year, and spent Christmas on the beach in Sydney. Following that our friends Anne & Paul came to visit and spend New Year with us.

Back to the beginning; on 16th of December, Therese and I flew from Osaka to Sydney on our Australian adventure. Neither of us had been before, so we were both very excited. We spent the first half of the holiday in the Blue Mountains a couple of hours outside Sydney. We based ourselves in Katoomba and stayed at the Kurarra Guest House. From there we went bush walking, explored the Jenolan Caves and spent a day on horseback at the Megalong ranch. Check out the photos below.

View of the 'Three Sisters' from our bushwalk trail

Govett's Leap

Some of the scenery near the Jenolan caves

The Three Sisters at dusk

Christmas Day on the Beach

The Harbour Bridge on Christmas evening

From there we headed back into Sydney, for some Christmas shopping and more sightseeing. We stayed in a cosy hotel, the Russell, just minutes from the Harbour Bridge and Opera house. Apart from the obvious sights and shopping, we went to the aquarium which was really impressive (lots of sharks & tropical fish) and took a day trip out to the Hunter Valley, one of Australia's biggest wine regions, and spent a day going round the wineries.

Christmas Day was certainly different - going to Mass in shorts & T-shirt, before heading off to the beach, but it was really enjoyable and very relaxing.

After travelling back to Japan on Boxing Day, Anne & Paul arrived to spend New Year.