Day 5: Takumi no Sato & Minakami

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Alright, well, I guess working full time and studying for my masters at university means I'm just too busy these days to write the long detailed posts I used to.

I'll just have to keep it brief. 

Takumo-no-sato bus stop
So, without any further ado, or delay, I shall continue on using a more abridged format.

Actually, one more thing, I used to spend a lot of time formatting the text around the images, with mixed success.

So I'm going to simplify that aspect as well. Right. No more ado, I promise.

This morning we got breakfast from the hotel and then left Tokyo for the last time this trip on an early morning shinkansen to Jomo-Kogen.

We were staying in Minakami for the next two nights and we were going to spend today at Takumi-no-sato (たくみの里) which is a little village in there general area where you can take part in all sorts of handicraft activities. 'takumi' even actually means 'skill' or 'artisan' (and 'no-sato' essentially means "village").

The Japan Rail Pass didn't pay off for us this trip, so we instead just bought our tickets from a vending machine at Tokyo Station. Since without the pass reserved seats are extra, we just got unreserved tickets. Unless it's crowded it's also generally better I think to get unreserved as you don't have to worry too much about missing your train.

Once we arrived at Jomo-Kogen we found some lockers to store our luggage and made our way over to the bus stops. It took us a couple of minutes to work out which stop had buses that passed Takumi-no-sato.

Perhaps because it was a bit of a rainy day, and still quite early, we found the village to be pretty empty when we arrived.

Although there were lots of signs and maps around the place, they didn't really agree with each other and were confusing enough that we got lost for a little while. One of the main issues we had was one of scale- had we gone too far along a certain road, or was it a lot further down?

Turns out it was a lot further down, and we eventually arrived at our first destination: Japanese Paper Making (washi paper).

Washi Japanese Paper making shop
The way the village was set-up was that there were a bunch of buildings that each specialised in their own craft activity.

One of the maps we had listed the different crafts, which seemed to be grouped by some unknown criteria. I think some were more official than others.

No one else was in the washi paper building, so it was a bit scary, but we bravely entered and I talked to the shop owner.

I think he may have spoken a small amount of English, but I spoke to him in Japanese.

Our friendly instructor
There was a bit of confusion at first but I managed to work out that we had to pay for postage of our paper as it takes a few days to dry.

This was a bit complicated as we were moving frequently, but we worked it out by picking a hotel where it should arrive a day or two before us to be safe.

Making the paper was more wet than we were expecting.

Basically the idea was to fill up a box with goop (plant fibres), and then dunk some mesh into this goop.

Our masterpieces!
A thin layer of goop sticks to the mesh, and this process is repeated until you have a thick layer. However if you didn't apply the goop uniformly, the guy would hmmm mmmm, tilt his head and make you do it all over again.

I was terrible and it took me about nine attempts to get it right!

Then Kate had a go and got it during her first try!

Learning with her eyes I think.

After we had made the paper we then were able to decorate it with some leaves and cut up bits of paper.

The man teaching us encouraged us towards the little bits of paper and showed us a few he'd cut up himself. I didn't pick those ones but did compromise with some alpacas. 

Once we were satisfied with our decorations we signed our names for identification (removable), said goodbye and left our paper behind to dry for a few days.

The next place we went to was  where you could paint some walnut shells.

This place was a lot scarier than the last and the shop owner nowhere near as friendly. He didn't speak a word of English so I did my best with Japanese again.

The most confusing thing was he didn't really give very good instructions about what we should be doing at any given time, so it took us forever to paint our shells and was pretty awkward.

He did a lot of sucking in of the breath in a sort of "Hmmm".

Now, to be clear, although I said he was much less friendly than the last guy, he wasn't unfriendly.

The painting itself was pretty straight forward, we could pick three shells each with a different engraved design, delicately paint all three, but then only take home the one we judged to be the best.

One place I struggled with the language was I picked one of the shells that had some Kanji on it, a zodiac constellation.

The wallnut painting store
I didn't really notice this and the shopkeeper asked me if I knew about "seiza".

Now, seiza is the formal Japanese way of sitting with your legs and feet tucked completely under yourself. The closest English translation to this pose is probably "punishment". In any case I was like "yes I do know about seiza".

Well, seiza also means constellation, but once my mind was stuck on the style of sitting, there was much confusion until I worked out he was talking about star signs.

Apparently he wanted to make sure I had picked the right one for my birthday.
One final thing of note was that I could hear announcements from van that was driving around warning people about the approaching Typhoon (there was a Typhoon approaching).

Anyway, by the time we had finished painting it was past lunch time, so we next hurried over to one of the buildings near the entrance for a lesson in soba (buckwheat noodle) making!

Unfortunately the first place we went to had just finished a session and we were told the next one wouldn't start for another hour!

Fortunately the lady directed us to one of the other buildings where would could start right away, as it was more of a turn up and go situation.

Cooking area
Unfortunately we couldn't actually start right away as the register lady was engaged with another lady working the bill for a large school group.

This went on for ages and it seemed like the teacher couldn't reconcile her budget with the cost of the activity.

There was a lot of back and forth but eventually the (hopefully not maths) teacher worked out her mistake and it was our turn.

Apart from us there was one other group (some young kids) though we each had our own table and were taught independently, with the instructor walking between tables.

Most of the soba making we did was lots and lots of kneading!

Three hundred kneads to be exact, which we had to do in sets of three and count each one.

To make this easier we each took turns doing sets of twelve and counting.

After we finally finished the kneading we then had to cut up the dough into uniformly cut slivers- noodle shapes.

Kate's were much neater than mine!

With the cutting done it was time for our noodles to be cooked, and a lady came over and asked if we'd like to add some Tempura! The options were all vegetables (no ebi/prawn) and we picked the recommended mixed summer vegetable set.

The Soba we made! With delicious Tenpura
After a short wait it was time to sit seiza style and eat our meal!

Now, we were staying a ryokan (Japanese Inn) tonight which had an included buffet dinner, it was already 2pm, and we'd made a very large amount of noodles.

To add to this the friendly staff gave us some complimentary udon to try (and some tourist books). So we were concerned about spoiling our dinner.

I actually preferred the udon, so mainly ate that, and Kate ate the soba.

The tempura vegetables were really delicious, especially the pumpkin and mushrooms.

After finishing our meals we thanked the staff and waiting quite a long time for the next bus back to Jomon Kogen Station.

Once at the station we had to really rush to get our bags as the bus from there to Minakami left pretty much at the same time as our arrival time. Thankfully I think the driver saw us rushing around and didn't leave without us.

The bus took us to Minakami train station, which is on a different railway line to the Shinkansen.

It had started raining by the time we arrived and we were not looking forward to the long walk down to our ryokan: Hotel Juraku.

Thankfully there happened to be minibus with our hotel's name on it waiting outside that station!

The guy was really friendly and took us down to Juraku right away, this was the first hotel shuttle bus we'd used and it was really fantastic to not have to walk in the rain.

Our positive experience with the bus was a bit dampened at the front desk when we found out we had to pay extra because we were too young. Apparently we'd booked the "Silver" plan which is for older people, although there was absolutely no mention of this on the booking confirmation printout we had, I even indicated that we had entered our date of births into the booking form.

Eventually we just ended up paying the extra amount (2,000 yen/$20), as it wasn't worth arguing the point. After that we were asked our plans for tomorrow as we needed to elect a cleaning time, and they were concerned we might not leave due to the Typhoon. I think we picked 10:00.

Japanese style room, there was a good view from here over the river
With that sorted out we were guided to our room and had the hotel amenities and map explained to us.

We had a great view of the river from our rooms window and a delicious treat on the table!

After settling in a little we went to relax in the onsen baths and then made our way to our designated food hall.

Wow. As expected of a ryokan, dinner was amazing!

Unlike our previous ryokan experiences where we'd had a set meal (with lots of items), Juraku instead had a huge buffet area filled with heaps of high quality food.

Some of the items on offer included, big legs of crab, sushi, whole fish on a stick, tempura, vegetables, pizza, burgers, meat, chips, soups, a big chocolate fountain, lots of delicious desserts and many other things.

Ice cream vending machines at Minakami Station
I really enjoyed the sushi which was freshly made by a dedicated chief. I didn't enjoy the fish on a stick so much... I think Kate really enjoyed the crab!

There was all you can drink alcohol vouchers available here, though we decided to maybe do that tomorrow as we were staying for two nights.

After eating way too much we went back to our room, but later ventured back out as we'd read that there was nightly mochi pounding (a technique of hitting rice with a hammer to make it delicious).

Unfortunately the area it was supposed to be held was deserted and we instead caught a glimpse of a large group in one of the dining halls.

The guest of honour looked to be (from his clothes, posture and well, girth) at a least moderately famous sumo wrestler.

We figured this was the reason we couldn't find any mochi pounding and sure enough in the elevator back up we saw words to this effect on the wall.

So instead we went to bed.

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