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Inspiration, Stories, Travel

Exploring Kiso Valley

Taking time out from Tokyo and looking forward to a few days of open spaces and quiet time I take the train south to Nagoya and on to the Kiso Valley. I plan to spend two nights in Tsumago, a post town on the Nakasendo Way from where I will take a day walk to Magome, the next town along the route.

The Nakasendo Way (central mountain route) which links Kyoto with Edo (present-day Tokyo), was one of five highways that were centrally administered routes, or kaido, connecting the capital of Japan, Edo, with the other provinces during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). These official routes were for the use of the Shogun and Daimyo (Feudal Lords).

Much later the Nakasendo highway became a popular pilgrimage route. Today there are still long stretches of the highway that remain much the same as 200 years ago.

Tsumago is the 42nd of 69 post towns (juku) along the Nakasendo Way, that provided food and lodging for travellers. Designated by the Japanese government as a Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Site in 1976, Tsumago is one of the best-preserved post towns along the trail.

I stay the first night on the edge of Tsumago, less than 5 minutes-walk from the start of the trail to Magome. My accommodation is at a minshuku, a family-run inn. There are only 3 rooms, which is typical at many small inns. My room has shoji screen walls with a sliding door and the floor is tatami. There is a seating area with a low table and cushion on the floor. A flask of hot tea is waiting for me. Opening onto a narrow balcony which overlooks a beautiful pond and garden, the sound of water makes the setting even more peaceful. I arrive in the early afternoon and spend the rest of the day enjoying the sun and talking with guests who have just walked the trail that I plan to set off on, in the morning.

Dinner is served in the main room of the inn. Three low tables are set, with floor cushions. We are served a typical home-cooked dinner with several dishes including tempura, grilled fish, noodles and of course miso, pickles and rice. Many of the ingredients are local, with fish from the nearby river and mountain vegetables. Sake is offered from a large bottle. All of us happily accept.

While dining, my room is quietly transformed into a bedroom with futon and fluffy duvet. I am a little dubious about sleeping on a futon. I have bad memories from the 1980s when futons were very fashionable but also incredibly uncomfortable. I needn’t have worried as this futon was surprisingly snug and comfortable, even the tiny pillow filled with rice.

The following morning, we are served a breakfast of fish, rice, miso and pickles. I feel well fortified for my day of walking. The walk between Tsumago and Magome is 8km. Taking advice from fellow guests, I decide not to head off until after 10am, in the hope that I will be able to enjoy the trail on my own without hordes of other people. This also means I get to linger a little longer, enjoying the peace and quiet of this lovely family inn before saying goodbye to my hosts. Monday is their day off so sadly I cannot spend another night. They have, however, kindly offered to deliver my luggage to my accommodation for this evening.

From Tsumago I follow a cobbled path up through hinoki (Japanese cedar) forest. Sun filters through the trees, it is perfectly quiet. The only person I see is an ancient, wizened old woman, bent double, walking downhill to the village. The first clearing I come to has a couple of dwellings and small terraces of rice, blue sky and clouds are reflected in the water.

At points along the trail there are large bells, mounted on sturdy posts. A sign encourages you to ring the bell to “scare the bears away”. In the distance, I hear the sound of a bell ringing as people pass, the sound becomes familiar along the walk.

There is a tea house, around half-way just before the Magome Pass, where walkers are welcomed to rest and drink tea. Surprisingly there is free wi-fi available. I decide not to stop and continue on to Magome. The approach to Magome weaves down past small-holdings and gardens and onto the town itself. It is June and the gardens are filled with peonies and irises. I stop to admire one garden, filled with hundreds of bearded irises. A tiny lady stands up from her weeding to wave and smile at me.

Magome is a welcome sight, I am starting to feel peckish. I check the menus of places as I pass and settle on a family run soba noodle restaurant. Here I enjoy a simple lunch of zaru soba, cold noodles with dipping sauce. The noodles are delicious, and I finish with tea before heading out to explore the rest of Magome. On the far edge of the town I am somewhat surprised to find Hillbilly Coffee Company, a pocket-size coffee shop with a beautiful espresso machine operated by a Japanese hipster. The espresso is exceptional, and I order a second cup, enjoying it while sitting on a bench outside in the sun.

Hillbilly Espresso in Magome

The walk back to Tsumago will take around two hours and I set off mid-afternoon. I don’t linger as much on the return trip, as dusk is approaching. There have been rare sightings of bears on this trail and I don’t want to meet one in the fading light. After a fairly steep climb out of Magome, the walk is mainly downhill.

I make Tsumago in good time, passing by my host from the minshuku who is stacking firewood near the inn. He waves out and enquires about my walk. I then wind my way down through the town to my lodgings in the main street of Tsumago.

I am greeted warmly by my new host and shown to my room which looks out over a courtyard garden and pond complete with large koi. Dinner is served early and again I am treated to a meal of multiple dishes which go well with a flask of local sake.

By day Tsumago is a busy tourist destination, with buses arriving in the morning and departing at dusk. Very few stay overnight and in the evening the town is quiet, there is only one bar which is closed up by 8pm. After dinner, I go out for a walk. My host gives me a paper lantern to carry, to light my way. He tells me they used to be lit by candles but now have a battery-operated bulb.

I am the only guest at the inn tonight and when I return to my room, sliding doors have been opened to an adjoining room and a futon set up. After a soak in the cedar bathtub I am eager to hit the futon for another blissful sleep.

The next morning, I wake early, to ensure I have time for a walk through Tsumago before catching the train to Kyoto. After another delicious breakfast, I set off exploring the back streets, I find gardens filled with peony roses and small vegetable plots.

All too soon time is up, and I head back to the inn to get my luggage. My host walks me to the bus stop, he bows deeply before waving me off.

Tsumago is a very special place where time moves slowly. After two nights here, I feel completely rested, ready for a different kind of adventure in Kyoto.

Kiso Valley Tips

How to get there

From Tokyo catch the Shinkansen to Nagoya, change here to the JR Shinano limited express train to Nagiso. There is a bus service from Nagiso to Tsumago, tickets for the bus can be purchased at Nagiso train station. The station staff are very helpful and will let you know departure times and where to catch the bus from. They will even store your luggage if you want to have a look around Nagiso while waiting for the bus. A taxi to Tsumago is approximately ¥10000. 

You can walk from Nagiso to Tsumago along the Nakasendo Way, this takes about 1 hour. Ask the station staff for directions.

The trip from Tokyo to Tsumago takes around three hours.

Where to stay

Accommodation in Tsumago and Magome is mainly at ryokan and minshuku and is very limited, with most places only offering 2 – 6 rooms. The best way to find accommodation is through Japanese Guest Housesas very few places have websites or speak English.

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Inspiration, Stories

Dining at the temple of Den

 

 

You know when your expectations are so high reality can never live up to them. That was how I felt as I approached the entrance to Den in Tokyo’s Jingumae.

I have been following the career of chef Zaiyu Hasegawa for some time, from an up-and-comer to now #2 in Asia and #11 in the world, along with two Michelin stars.

His approach to food follows traditional kaiseki and seasonality but with a modern approach and whimsical touches.

Sue and I had been lucky enough to meet Zaiyu at a Belles Hot Chicken pop-up he hosted with Morgan McGlone last year. He was warm, charming and very approachable. There is a slight impishness about him, someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

And here we are again, this time with a hard-earned, actual reservation that took 382 phone calls to secure exactly two months to the day before our booking.

As we enter we are greeted excitedly by Emi, Zaiyu’s kimono-clad wife, they remember us from last year. Zaiyu smiles and waves out from the kitchen. They recall how Sue was much more interested in Zaiyu’s cute chihuahua Puchi Jr and said before we leave Puchi Jr would say hello.

The restaurant is small, seating today perhaps 20 guests with a private room for another four. There is a long counter table running parallel to the kitchen with diners seated only on the side looking into the kitchen. We are seated at one of only two separate tables.

We are offered beautiful cloth napkins which have been chosen to complement the colours we are wearing plus a choice of a complimentary sake or sparkling wine. Of course we take the sake.

From here the nine course menu unfolds. Each dish is presented and described by Emi, Zaiyu or any one of the 9-strong kitchen and front of house brigade. They are equally well-versed in the provenance of the ingredients and how they are prepared.

You can see how proud the younger members of this restaurant family are of the food they have cooked for you. At restaurant Den they embrace the philosophy of ‘omotenashi’, selfless hospitality, making diners feel a part of the family.

With no written menu we furiously write notes and photograph each dish then sit back to admire and appreciate the presentation and the beautiful crockery before taking a first bite.

Monaka filled with foie gras, sweet potato and pickled cucumber

Chawanmushi with oyster, kutzu-thickened dashi broth with soy, sake and butter

Dentucky chicken, a signature dish, the wing is deboned and stuffed with chestnut, maitake mushroom, rice and ginko nuts

Sashimi of Kue, giant groper from Shizuoka, aged five days and served with vinegared seaweed

Kamo and negi, duck breast with Japanese spring onion, eggplant and Jerusalem artichoke flower petals

The famous Den salad with 20 vegetables, raw and cooked, with kombu dressing

Soup with red konnyaku, daikon, winter melon, big-eyed red snapper and yuzu

Chef Zaiyu serves donabe rice to guests

Donabe rice with ikura, pickles and miso

Persimmon, grape and pomegranate with cream cheese mousse and rum jelly

What a spectacular feast – the gorgeous seasonal ingredients, the quirky twists in presentation, while still adhering to a traditional format. The simplicity of shojin ryori – buddhist cuisine, the multiple courses of samurai cuisine and the luxury of imperial cuisine.

The service is impeccable and sake recommendations just to our taste. As I look around the dining room there is always someone ready to catch my eye and if I look toward the kitchen Zaiyu-san looks up and beams back at me.

As each guest rises to leave Zaiyu and Emi leave their stations to have a chat, thank them for coming and then escort them out of the restaurant where they wave until the guests have disappeared from sight.

 

 

We, however, have one treat left. Puchi Jr is woken from where he sleeps behind the front desk and brought out to say hello. Puchi Jr gives us each his own special badge and a Puchi Jr shaped cookie.

While Sue coos over Puchi Jr I talk to Zaiyu about New Zealand and the wonderful fishing which I know he loves. I invite him to come to New Zealand one day.

We thank our gorgeous hosts for a wonderful evening as they lead us out.

Next time, they say, we can just email when we want to return.

Next time we will.

For more information follow the link to the Den website

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Inspiration, Stories

Sunday Star Times Feature

EATING TOKYO

It’s packed to the rafters with restaurants and cafes – it’s a foodie’s heaven
but on a visit to Tokyo where do you start?

We couldn’t be more excited to share a photo story from today’s Sunday Star Times, put together by Bernadette Courtney, about her week with Eating Tokyo. Follow the link to check it out,

We still have a few places available in May 2019.
For full details on availability http://www.eatingtokyotours.co.nz/tour-details/

 

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Inspiration, Stories

Tokyo Part-timers

 

Recently we were interviewed by the Sunday Star Times for the Expat Tales feature. It was great to have the opportunity to make recommendations in the city we now call our second home. Check out the full interview here

Funny story – On the flight up to Tokyo for our May 2018 tours we sat next to a lovely woman who was stopping in Tokyo for 4 days en route to London. She told us she had read an article in the Sunday paper about two expats in Tokyo and had booked a walking tour in Yanaka, an area they had recommended. We had to fess up that it was us. Of course we then had a great conversation about Tokyo and recommended lots of other things to do during her short stay.

 

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Inspiration, Stories, Travel

Kamakura

 

Excitement is high as we approach Tokyo Station for our overnight trip to the seaside town of Kamakura.

We had read that it is just an hour away from Tokyo by local train and costs just $12.

We head straight to the ekiben to select our bento boxes for the journey. We need little excuse to scoff one of these amazing little meals even though it is 10am and we have lunch planned in Kamakura.

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Stories, Travel

Hiroshima

Hiroshima.

Say this city’s name and your thoughts immediately go to 6 August 1945, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. Images of a city and its people devastated, destroyed.

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Stories, Travel

‘Not eating’ In Tokyo

This story is written by a guest who came on the very first Eating Tokyo tour earlier this year. After the tours, we sought feedback from guests in order to refine and improve our offering for future guests. Trish provided us with this story as her feedback. We thought we would share it with you …

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Stories, Travel

Kiso Valley

These photos were taken in and around the Kiso Valley, specifically in Tsumago and Magome. They are from the travel blogger Local Milk and inspired us to visit this untouched and ancient part of Japan. Stay at the Fujioto Ryokan, a beautiful inn with exceptional food – highly recommended, though we didn’t get a chance to try it ourselves. Next time.

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Stories, Travel

Otoshi

Otoshi is a custom peculiar to Japan and we in the West have nothing like it. It is the surprise dish you receive when you take your seat at a bar or izakaya. Otoshi means ‘to pass’ and is something to eat between placing and receiving your order.

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