We slept well in the ryokan. The blanket was heavy and almost weighted and even though we couldn’t figure out how to work the heat, it was comfy. We woke up early and groggily made our way downstairs in time for breakfast. Turns out an early Japanese breakfast would continue our streak of awakening prematurely. The main downside to a ryokan is that you have to sit on the floor everywhere, including at meals, which is rough on my back and legs. I feel like a creaky old man after sitting on the floor. The breakfast was traditional and consisted of rice, miso soup, salmon and a few small plates with pickled vegetables and oden and other little bites. There was also a fried egg. It was tasty and definitely substantial.
After breakfast I got dressed warmly and went for a walk by the little river, which was so quiet and peaceful. All you hear is the wind and water and the occasional far off car. There’s green everywhere, even on a kind of gray day, and it’s really picturesque. I talked on the phone for a while as I walked back and forth and appreciated the view.
I got cold eventually and walked back, where I waited for Jake to finish his call, and then we bundled up as best we could and walked through town, which was so quiet, towards the Taikodani Inari shrine, one of the biggest inari (fox) shrines in Japan. The entrance is just past the edge of the town center, and you walk towards the hill and then up a path that winds back and forth underneath more than a thousand red torii gates to the top of the shrine. There was almost no one there (although apparently Tsuwano gets quite busy with daytime tourists, maybe in warmer months), so we had a nice walk up through the gates, got a nice view of the town, with its characteristic red roofs, and the surrounding hills, and checked out the shrine.
From there, we kept walking to the bottom of another hill, where there is a chair lift that take you up a steep climb to the ruins of Tsuwano Castle. The sleeping older guy manning the lift, however, told us it was closed (for the winter) and that we could possibly walk. He spoke no English so we weren’t entirely sure. We wandered back to the shrine and asked around and a guy working at the shrine gave us a map and showed us how to climb. By then, I was hungry, and the walk would have been steep and taken over an hour, so we decided to skip it (I think it’s just a nice view, mostly) and head back to town instead.
We walked back to town and down Tonomachi main street, where we marveled at the size of the koi fish. Streets don’t really have names here, which makes finding addresses impossible. I would be completely lost without Google Maps, honestly. We passed a handful of sweet shops and then saw a sake brewery was open (I think it was called Uijin), so we went in and tasted a few sakes. Everything is so local, from the rice used to make the sake to the bottling. I bought a bottle of the one I liked the best. Jake really liked it, as he’d never done a tasting before (I guess he is only 20), so we walked to the next brewery (Kasen, maybe) and did the same thing there. Their “premium” sake, or highest quality varietal, was our favorite, so we bought a small bottle of it for about the same price as the larger bottle at the first place.
Alcohol has seemed cheap to me in Japan, especially in comparison to New York or a similarly expensive city. Beer is cheap, shochu is really cheap, and sake seems cheap. Other liquor and wine seems reasonable too, although I guess it depends. This local sake was such a bargain. For about $13 each we bought the two bottles of high-quality sake. One was a Junmai Daijingo, the highest category of sake, and the other merely a Daijingo. The premium one was so smooth, and both were fruitier than I normally like, but they had complex flavors and were balanced, so I was happy. The third sake brewery, with a big barrel outside, was still closed, so, hungry, we walked to a little soba place that was empty except for the owner. He served us tea and we had hot dipping soba made from 100% buckwheat (often not the case), which I’d never tried before. I think I prefer one or the other to this hybrid, but the noodles were cooked well and it was interesting, and he brought us the soba-ya, the water the soba was cooked in, to pour into the dipping sauce and drink after.
After lunch, we met Emma and she drove us about 15 minutes to Hori Teien Garden, a house and gardens dating from Edo period Japan. The main house was big and traditional and the gardens were nicely kept, with a little pond by the house. Across the street there were tiered levels of gardens, with ceramic tables on a couple of them. The climb led up to a grave and big, door-like slab of wood, which could have been some kind of tablet but almost seemed like a hidden collectible in a video game level. The gardens were wonderful, even in winter, except for the road that cuts in between the house on one side and the tiered garden on the other.
We returned to Tsuwano and Emma went to run errands while Jake and I wandered around the old town and sampled the various sweet shops that seem to appear every few steps. We got cookies from one place and then across the street tried genji-maki again. I got a little chewy ball with edamame paste and beans inside, which looked cool and was pretty interesting. I also bought a little box of sugary rectangles, which turned out to be made from red bean paste, agar and sugar but mostly are just dense and chewy and sweet. We sat in the shop and drank mamechan tea, the town specialty, which is somewhere between black and herbal. Not my favorite. We talked to the young shopkeeper; she spoke pretty good English and was interested in where we were from and what we were doing in Tsuwano.
Eventually we met Emma and walked to dinner. There is a strange obsession here with Italian (maybe other cuisines, but especially Italian) food, and we didn’t have a better option, so we thought it would be appropriate to eat at the local Italian restaurant, Pino Rosso, apparently run by a chef who trained in Italy. The Japanese love Italian food, and the food was good, if a little off. The pizza was tasty but not really pizza. It was lacking something indescribable (as well as the char that marks a good pizza), and had a super thin crust. It was kind of like a really thin flatbread. I had a good penne all’ arrabiata and a side of spinach with garlic and oil (I asked for a second order and was told they were out) and a glass of the house red wine, which was organic and from Italy but was only about 3 sips worth of wine. I think people drink small portions and slowly here.
We had cake for dessert and then went back to Emma’s house, where we hung out and watched her bake bread, and drank the sake we had bought earlier. Both were delicious, and it was nice to just relax and hang out. Drinking sake is like drinking wine, and pretty enjoyable. We went back to the ryokan pretty late and passed out.