mountains, birthdays, and ninjas: days 4, 5, and 6 ::::Continuing our trip to Japan, today we are leaving from Mount Fuji to a (secret-ish) ninja house. For the first installment, see my “japan 2017 – one…” post.
Day 4 / Mount Fuji –> Nabari arrival: We spend ten HOURS on trains today. On sweet Sky-Girl’s birthday. (Sorry, babe.) We catch rolling hills of rice with generously irrigated land, each plot with carefully lined seedlings. The tufts of leaves are each about as long as the palm of your hand. That neatly pinned green and saccades of open space quickly fade from the kids’ eyes the longer we sit on trains and whisk to transfers. Since the beginning of our trip, last night is the best we’ve slept. The kids actually woke up after 4 AM. The sky begins to get light around then, with hints of pink and gold reflecting on the snow at Mount Fuji.
Before we leave Mount Fuji, we scurry off to the communal bathing and breakfast at our hotel. The lakeview ryokan (旅館) onsen (温泉) (hotel based communal hot spring/bath) opens at 5AM, so we head down, gender separate, to soak and see the view. Onsen are an integral part of Japanese culture, being naked in nature, and revering the healing properties that this and the spring water bring.
Peach, Sky-Girl, and I relax in the warm pool, condensation on the wall of windows providing privacy and softly diffusing the early morning light. The room is the size of a one car garage yet feels larger with the gray light everywhere. Below, no one on Lake Kamaguchiko is yet awake. Docks are lined with numerous colorful paddle swan boats. The lake barely ripples with light breezes, the waters the color of a new morning barely started.
This this is what I should do every day, this mediation of mind and spirit. The calm trickle of water, the respect for quiet, the naked communion next to a mountain revered in Japan. And the hotel-issued yukata (casual kimonos), why doesn’t everyone wear one all the time?? It fits every body type, is easily adjustable, and comfortable.
Breakfast is served in the banquet hall, on tatami and seated. Bento boxes are six sectioned, with many other condiments on the tray. The beauty of Japanese food is the simplicity of each and complexity of the whole. The delicate pickled daikon may be fine on its own; mixed with a bite of sour, salty plum, it is a different beast. I highlighted this in my Japanese ploughman’s lunch post, a much different spin than what we ate at Mount Fuji.
Bento breakfast — no better way to start a day.
Lots of pickled things and fishy things populate my table.
Steam rising from my bowl of miso soup look like the wisps of clouds in the sky over Mount Fuji.
We each cooked a marigold-colored egg and ham over a blue flame. We were the first diners for breakfast. By the time we left, many of the tables you see were filled.
Though Sky-girl requested mochi cake for her birthday that day, we are hard pressed to find one. (It isn’t until days later in a train station on our way to Hiroshima that we eat baumkuchen deemed a true birthday cake. For a four year old, she’s been pretty patient having a birthday cake passed over for a few days.) She is the girl who pipes up with “Me! I want to go! I want to do it!” with just about anything we mention whether at home or here. Grocery store. Tire change. Walking 20 feet to get the mail.
Our sweet girl is a nonstop talker observing the world around her. There are bees outside, Mommy. They can sting you. Daddy, you have white hairs growing. Mommy, I’m pooping. Wait, no I’m not. <pause> I am now. Daddy, that man has a big head. I joke with Eat that she should be a sportscaster, because her constant commentary.
Sky-Girl loves to be close, always touching someone, trying to snuggle. This trip has been the most fun for her out of the three kids because we are always near. Her personal space is small. The creation of her from me and Eat’s genes is more than just her body and DNA, but a magnetic attraction to be close to us.
She stands in foreground of Mount Fuji and holds up four fingers in the now sunny morning. She smiles and poses for the camera. What a memorable birthday, sweet girl.
This is your late birthday post wrapped up into our Japan trip, squirrelly girl. Keep being excited for life around you. Even when I don’t seem all that excited, you help me be more so. Happy Fourth Birthday, Sky-Girl. I love you.
Days 5 and 6 / Nabari –> : After that looooooong day of trains and no birthday cake, we are in Nabari city just south of Iga. The home where we are staying is 150 years old, where we are hosted by a young man named Yuya. The storefront of the house is Cafe Matsukaze, where he cooks. He greets us effusively last night despite our late and dark arrival from missing a train. Everything is very traditional Japanese: bottom on-the-floor seating, the tatami floors, rice paper walls, low doorways and narrow hallways. The front room and adjacent bedrooms open up to the courtyard garden.
The morning gray light is almost off white today, like the spray of a whitecapped wave.
Our garden view from the kids’ bedroom. Rice paper walls separate each room.
Beautifully colored cushions in the corner with varied textures:
The café is open and scattered with wide tables while simultaneously feeling cozy. We sit as Yuya brings us chilled barley tea for breakfast. Ice cubes clink on the sides of the cups, tinkling like the auspicious bells attached to keychains and neighborhood cats.
The coziness is bolstered by the smell of breakfast cooking and the scent of coffee. Yuya uses a slow-drip coffee apparatus — it makes perfect brew. If I could handle caffeine daily, I’d invest in one of these contraptions. He also has a grinder that grinds the coffee beans just right so as to give the best flavor but not create the dreaded overground coffee sludge. Breakfast is a mix of traditional Japanese and Western, with thick toast with butter and jam, a yolky egg, along with a mandoline-sliced cabbage salad whose dressing I must duplicate. It was perfect with roasted sesame (and possibly peanut), Japanese mayo, rice vinegar, and a little sugar.
We take the commuter train to Iga City (伊賀市, Iga-shi) for the Ninja museum (伊賀流, Iga-ryu). The countryside train views throughout this trip are layered with rice fields in various states of growth. Just outside of Tokyo, well irrigated fields reflected the sky, each seedling a burst of green. They stand in dotted lines on this water, every patch of land used efficiently. In the Mie prefecture, the rice plants are more voluptuous, blending right into the green countryside. The train squeals as it rounds the curves and the kids giggle and whine about the ride remembering how long we spent yesterday on jerky, clickety trains.
(Honestly, these little seedlings remind me of hair transplant buds on a balding scalp. So much potential and maybe a bit endearing.)
We head out of the station to the city center, walking past squid pictures. I love farting or inky squid!
There are ninjas everywhere in Iga, even the bathroom. And that apostrophe is even more tricky than the ninja here:
We nibble on dried octopus walking to the Ninja museum, salty and sweet. It’s not alive, promise! Dried and dead!
Iga is known for its ninja history and ninja school long ago, though the town was established during the Edo period under the Tokugawa Shogunate (where samurai were warriors for the shogun, not the lowly ninja). This shogunate was the last feudal Japanese military government and had a wide control over many areas of Japan that we visit on this trip. The Tokugawa Shogunate was much stricter than former shogunate societies. The highest hierarchy were the lords (大名, daimyo), then samurai warriors, then farmers, traders, and artisans. Because of this rigid system of social caste, there was eventual backlash. Basically it came down to money and taxes, tiffs to rebellions challenging the infrastructure. Some of those sneaky ninja participated in the fighting to take those samurai DOWN!
Side by side comparison of samurai and ninja:
Samurai: upper class and respected, inherited position from father to son, brute strength and skilled fighters on battlefield, special armor, goal was victory and honor.
Ninja: lower class and not respected, recruited from lower class groups, tact and intellect in fighting, stealthy survivalists and learned how to use the element of surprise to attack, no armor but many weapons, goal was assassination.
Ninjas were recruited from lower class groups in Japan to fight against the samurai, especially the corrupt. I imagine the samurai like Rambo (dopey and strong) and the ninja like a scrawny Spiderman (smart and cunning).
The museum highlighted the stealthiness of the ninja, their coveted gunpowder recipes, the deceptive one-story look to a three-floor ninja house, and the secret rooms and compartments within the house (many more than the samurai). Mnemonics were used to remember certain facts, often remembering forgettable numbers by associating them with body parts or food. If there was something a ninja was not supposed to forget, he wound injure his body while recalling the information. (Medical school would have been suicide.)
Ninja slept on their left sides, the heart protected in case of an enemy attack. The museum also talked about ninja argot, which completely confused me. Argot, I thought, why are they so focused on migraine medication? Oh, wait. Ergotamines. Argot. Not the same. Argot, or a secret language, in the ninja world was dynamic and evolving, some originating in secret characters communicating via knotted ropes. There is almost no record of it now.
The character “ga” (賀) is often used in ninja hometowns, such as Iga and Koka. (“Ka” is a similar sounding character and transliterates differently.) People note if you trace the paths of the “ga” places on a map, you may find secret connections to the ninja in the past. The ga-no-michi (“ga” road) no longer exists: it disappeared with the ninja years ago. In food related history, the ninja were very conscious about body odor and its giving them away in stealth operations. They needed to be as odorless as possible. They did not eat meat nor did they eat certain foods that could create odor (or “smell-less”, as the plaque above says) before a mission. The cookies below are touted as “ninja cookies” because they travel well (and are very hard — I almost broke my teeth trying bite into one). Hey, Ninja, I would say, don’t eat these on a mission! Someone will hear you crunching!
We spent a lovely time at a local confection shop finding these jewel-like sugary treats. They each have a sugar crust with a soft gel inside. Each color is a different floral flavor. I think these could be ninja approved.
These ladies were happy to let us sample (and buy more).
Black sesame is also a big thing here, so I couldn’t wait to open these tiny boxes and taste. These walnut-sized cookies were much like less buttery shortbread with a solid sesame flavor. It is said that eating black sesame keeps one’s hair black and skin healthy. (And maybe more ninja like. Shhhhhhhhh!)
Tiny ninja ready to throw star weapons grace the top of the cookie container:
Iga was originally developed as a castle town, around Iga-Ueno Castle (伊賀上野城), also intimately connected to the Tokugawa Shogunate. The city Ueno was founded later and eventually merged with the former Iga to make the Iga we know today. I didn’t take any photos inside except for this simple and beautiful scroll:
After visiting Iga-Ueno Castle, we walked through this serene Buddhist temple on Uenoteramachi on the way back to the train station.
See those ear lobes? They are the sign of being all-hearing, having wealth, wisdom, and compassion.
The red votive bibs dressing temple statues are placed as an act of devotion, as are variations of hats and collars. Specifically here, the hats and collars cover Kannon Bosatsu, the God/Goddess of Mercy who is usually related to children and motherhood, and Jizo (地蔵, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva), the god guardian of children. These statues are often dressed by parents praying for a baby or by parents praying for the recent death of a child. Koyasu Kannon (子安観音) and Mizuko Kuyo Kannon (水子供養観音) are patrons connected to safe childbirth and to children dying from stillbirth, miscarriage, or abortion, respectively. Shinto history explains the kami (spirit, or sacred force) Koyasu gave birth to a healthy son when her house was burning down.
We took the short train ride back home to prepare for dinner. Because it’s always about FOOD (especially when the kids are hangry and tried of trains). We headed to a nearby restaurant with old favorites like agedashi tofu (揚げ出し豆腐). The diaphanous dried fish flakes wave in the steam like wiggling fish.
Here, tofu is lightly fried after being dusted with cornstarch, then served in a hot tentsuyu (てんつゆ/天汁) broth which is made of dashi (だし), mirin [(味醂 or みりん) a type of sugary rice wine], and soy sauce (しょうゆ, shoyu). Dashi is an integral part of Japanese cuisine, something you may have tasted in miso soup as a starter before your Americanized sushi. Umami (うま味, literally “pleasant savory taste”) one of the five tastes of Japan, that savory burst of satisfying flavor your tongue longs for found in meats, mushrooms, and long cooked tomatoes, is assertive and welcomed here. The broth made with kombu (昆布, edible kelp) and shaved preserved, fermented skipjack tuna (kezurikatsuo, similar to shaved katsuobushi 鰹節). Bonito flakes are a common substitute, which I usually use in the U.S. for lack of finding anything else. The fried tofu is then topped with finely chopped negi (ねぎ, Japanese green onion or Welsh onion), grated daikon (大根, white radish), and katsuobushi sprinkled on top. We LOVE this. We eat this in almost every Japanese restaurant we can find it and compare notes. (Strangely one of the memorable best, still at Toro in Lincoln Park in Chicago. Dayum, that was GOOD.)
After dinner, we creep back to the house, like ninja. But like noisy ninja with body odor. Fail!
Day 6 / Nabari –> Hiroshima arrival: Yuya serves us the same breakfast today before we head to Hiroshima. We spend most nights and mornings furiously reviewing train schedules and routes on Google maps, screenshotting the details as wifi is spotty when traveling. The kids stagger their playing together, antagonizing each other, and outright whining this morning. And they are always, always hungry.
Many of the Japanese snacks we sample we’ve tried before, either via grandparents or Asian grocery stores in the US. The allure here is partly the unknown. I can’t read Japanese and rely solely on photos on packaging or translucent wrapping to know what we choose. It never disappoints, except for the fact they vanish quickly.
Typical rice crackers (煎餅) we ate were flavored with furikake (振り掛け / ふりかけ, a mix of seaweed, sesame, salt, dried fish flakes), shrimp, and usually savory. We use a lot of furikake in our house, eating it on rice, topping ramen with it, and putting it on our favorite snack smoky popcorn (try it!!).
See, the dried fish and almond love each other! (This is my favorite snack and a great source of calcium.) *best buds*
We also tried momiji manju (maple leaf pastry derived from mochi), a local pastry to Miyajima (the island off of Hiroshima — more on that in the next post). We tried fillings of red bean paste, lemon, and sweetened cream cheese. When we spend time on the train, we tend to eat to pass the time.
We arrive this night in Hiroshima after a looooong walk to the apartment from the train station famished and sweaty. There is a restaurant close to the apartment, just around the corner on Tokaichimachi. Cold chicken skin salad greets us. I love the salty, vinegar sauce it sits in, with the subtle crunch of the negi (Japanese green onions).
From bottom right clockwise: yakitori abounds with chicken heart, pork, chicken thigh, and vegetable; takoyaki (たこ焼き or 蛸焼, octopus dumplings make an appearance again!); fried chicken cartilage [nankotsu (軟骨) karaage]:
Some menu options: nope, I can’t read any of ’em.
We are definitely tired tonight, after the trains and a long walk, the food pushing us into an easy sleep. We dream of Fuji and ninjas in Iga and Nabari…we visit Hiroshima next. Be prepared for a huge history lesson, one that many American readers may have missed in school.
One year ago: plum-cardamom jam
Two years ago: sugar cookie dreg cookies
Three years ago: scallops with mexican corn salad (elote)
Four years ago: angel food cupcakes with mascarpone frosting
Five years ago: pepper-glazed goat cheese gratin and napa weekend restaurant review
Six years ago: cornish pasties and lemon-lime gummy candy
What a beautiful post! Thank you so much for sharing this… What an amazing mix of food, family, culture and travel. I can’t wait to read your next post!
Coming up this weekend! More calm than your Croatia. Eek!