Saturday, April 10, 2010

Out of Tokyo and into the Alps

One of the greatest things about Japan is the food, and the simple, often poo-pooed Ramen that is  overlooked by most foodies. Keep in mind, I say "most, not all. Ramen is very complex, very diverse and one of the most prevalent and cheap meals that you can find in Japan. Okay, not prevalent, but there is always some variation of noodle - soba, udon or ramen - easily found in any city in Japan, each with their own variation. What we are looking at in the first picture is the Ramen Museum. Yes, EVEN Ramen has its own museum. There are nine listed restaurants on the museum pamphlet and at least three others that are NOT on the map provided. You might be laughing right now, but honestly, it was perhaps the best museum I have ever been to... well, the tastiest is perhaps the most correct. A lot of times when I mention Ramen in the US, I get comments about the instant varieties that are sold 10 for $1.00. This is so, so, SO far from the reality. The reality is that it might take years for someone to perfect the recipe of the Ramen shop they are working in. The broth alone is a combination of ingredients ranging from Kombu, Katsuobushi and water to make the Dashi and then ingredients are added to that base. Depending on the chef, they might add pork bones, Miso, salt or Shoyu (Soy) Sauce depending on the flavor they are trying to get. Each region of Japan has their "own" version, and while none is better than the other, you might find yourself gravitating to a certain style based on your personal preference. 

Whew! Apparently, I can go on and on about the simple joys of Ramen (yes, I realize I capitalized it throughout the entire paragraph - it is that important!), but an easy way to sell it would be to say that a simple Ramen meal in Japan might range from $12 in Tokyo to $6 in smaller regions of Japan. With those prices in mind, I want to point out that, at the time I was there, a master chef was selling his version for over $150 US. I couldn't bring myself to trying it... although, I regret not doing so in hind sight. 

You can't go to Japan without trying to see Mt Fuji. Well, it was good that I could arrive at dusk to take this shot, because the next day it was under the cover of clouds containing rain and snow. 
From Mt Fuji I traversed the Japanese Alps to the town of Matsumoto. En-route to Matsumoto I passed through several thermal clines. At one point on the east side of the Alps, I was chilled, hungry and thirsty, so I ducked into a small town to find a little coffee and perhaps a bite to eat. As I rode around looking for something to eat, I couldn't quite find the right place to stop (this was a problem most of the time) due to my lack of knowledge for written (and spoken) Japanese. I ended up scoring after a complete circle of the town. I stumbled across a coffee house that served... spaghetti. Yes, spaghetti! I found out as I continued onward, this is not an uncommon theme. So, I'm cold and need to warm up from the inside, so I order my coffee. About 5 minutes later the waitress comes back and brings me water and bread and then asks me for my order. No coffee. More water is poured, food is served, I am warmed up and don't need the coffee anymore. Once she cleared the plate, she brought the coffee... about 45 minutes too late... AND, it was Sanka (or equivalent) - HORRIBLE! The spaghetti however, was very good, although a little out of my comfort zone. One note about the meal, it was spaghetti with crab. Sounds great, huh? Well, it was, but I didn't expect to get the ENTIRE crab (shell and all) on a bed of pasta and covered in sauce. It was VERY hard to get to the shell without making a mess of my table and myself. 

Further past this town I started to ascend into the Alps. Well, the entire day has been about the "mizzle". "Mizzle" is my word for mist and drizzle. It is just enough to keep a person damp all day long. When I hit the Alps, the mizzle turned into rain, which turned into sleet, which turned into "yuki" (Japanese for snow) - a word I am typically very fond of... but not on a motorcycle! As I was climbing the pass through the snow, I heard in my mind the lyrics to Harry Chapin's song Taxi rolling through my mind, "... and the snow turned into rain." I suppose that was my way of wishing for warmer weather - perhaps weather that wasn't a harbinger of something more than a wet snow. About 45 minutes later I found myself ready to call it a night, so I pulled into a business hotel just 30 minutes from my destination hoping that the morning would be a bit warmer. I didn't even mind the four flights of stairs I had to schlep my gear up.

As you can see, the next day brought me clear skies. Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan's National Treasures. It was finished in the 16th Century and is original except for some renovations done in early 1900s.  
Cherry Blossom (Sakura) season was what drew me to Japan at this time of year and as you can see, I hit it spot on. Well, within a few days, but I got to enjoy Hanami (literally flower viewing) in most of its beauty. 

One of the funny things about signs in other countries is translation. Well, in this case, even the proper translation wouldn't account for a sense of being out of time. With a brand new (looking) sign, how do you explain the Betamax portion? I felt like I discovered a "flux capacitor" to take me Back to the Future.
Another head scratcher in Takayama was this building. With a Star of David and Masonic symbols adorning the entire building, I was a bit stumped. After a considerable web-search I came up with it being the Sūkyō Mahikari Main World Shrine the head quarters for a Japanese new religious movement borrowing elements from Buddhism, Shintoism and Shamanism (amongst others).

Overall, Takayama was, perhaps, my favorite city for its quaintness and small town feel. The old town hasn't changed, the people are friendly and I had one of the most enjoyable dining experiences during the month I spent there. At a Sushi restaurant I engaged in a conversation with a couple to my right and we "talked" entirely using hand gestures and our iPhones. Nothing like passing phones between people (and then down the bar and to the chefs) to communicate with all the nuances of the written word:-). Dinner was followed by the most amazing ice cream. It was a subtle Sakura (Cherry Blossom) ice cream. It had just a hint of cherry and the aroma of fresh flowers... Too bad it is just a seasonal taste. I could easily get used to that flavor!
Snow covered passes between Takayama, Shirakawa-go and Gifu. The winding roads of the Alps are interwoven with tunnels surpassing any that I have seen before. One tunnel was 14km in length descending several thousand feet. I entered the tunnel at 32 degrees F and one point in the middle of the tunnel it was over 80 degrees F and I was spit out into 54 degree weather. One tunnel divided into a Y going off into another direction. Other times I would be out of a tunnel only to enter another in 25 meters. It seemed like I would never see the daylight when I reached Gifu - at least I was dry!
The following is Shirakawa-Go, famous for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. It was truly a fascinating day.

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