Shougatsu, Takayama & Shirakawago

2 & 12/13 January 2008

In Japan Christmas is not really celebrated (it is not even a holiday), but new year (shougatsu) is a huge event. It starts with going to a temple in new years night and (or at least some time in shougatsu) and continues with eating for 3 days. Traditionally, all food is prepared in the old year and stored, so also the houswives have holiday. The osechi-ryouri consists of a variety of foods kept in a tower of boxes.

Anyway, this year I (and Tobi & Mae Rose) were so lucky as to be invited by one of Hasegawa-san's friends, who is a home-cooking teacher who prepared tons of great food, among which some we had never had before like sea cucumber and fish testicles served in soup. Next to that there was of course the normal stuff we all eat for new year ;-) such octopus tentacles, sushi, sashimi (sushi without rice underneath), sweet potato, beans (as the word for bean (mame) has also the meaning of honest, devoted, hard-working, active, healthy, ...), sukiyaki (meet/vegetables in bouillon), and lots of other stuff...

We were really taken well care of, 3 days without doing anything but eating... We learned a new word "onaka panpan" meaning that you are about to explode and really cannot eat anymore (normally for "I am full" you say "onaka ippai", but panpan is stronger). We used it a lot as normally when most of the dishes were getting half empty and everyone was full, our host would announce the next course (whereas nobody had expected there would be still another one). Actually, as most of the people left and cleaning started, it was typical to hear "Oh yeah, I forgot, I still had some ..." and then the name of some big dish that was still in the fridge.

But we had great fun, and it was a real experience to see how the Japanese celebrate this most important event in the year, and also to taste so many delicious dishes of course.

As some friends of the home-cooking teacher had a photo studio close by, we all went there in our official wear and had some photos taken.

Mid January we went to the UNESCO world heritage village Shirakawagou. We took a bus tour (leaving Shinjuku early in the morning, so we had to wake up around 6!) including a stay in an onsen(=spa)-hotel in Takayama. Here you see the bus driver putting chains around the tyres before getting on to some relatively small and snowy mountain road.

In Takayama, where we stayed the first day, we went around town with the 4 of us and visited a sake (japanese rice wine) brewery where we had a tour and got to try amazake, which is a type of sweet rice porridge, made from the pulp left over when filtering the rice wine just before bottling.

Takayama has some old streets with traditional shops selling sake, miso, rice crackers etc. pretty nice to see

The next day we would leave the hotel at 8, meaning breakfast at 7, but it is a onsen-hotel, so before breakfast you should enjoy the spa, meaning waking up aroun 6 again! That is what they call relaxing here... Anyway, when we arrived in Shiorakawagou, it was snowing a bit from time to time and everything looked really nice. We took the shuttle bus op to the viewing-point at the edge of the city and walked down (they said it was not possible and there were signs that is was dangerous, but we knew japanese cautiousness and it was probably a trick to get more people paying for the shuttle bus back into town anyway).

The traditional houses here have very steep thatched roofs to withstand the heavy showfall. They are called gasshou-zukuri, meaning a structure resembling hands folded like in a prayer.

It also snowed in Tokyo this year! Last year there was no snow at all (officially there was, but only locally and very short) which was very unusual, so this was my first opportunity to take some "cool" pictures around here. This is the view from my door, for those who didn't recognise it yet.