Onsen tour with Maarten & Pascal

March 15/16 2008

With Maarten and his friend Pascal we rented a car and headed west. We stayed in some onsen ryokans, traditional japanese guest houses with hot spring baths. It costs around 10.000yen per person per night including dinner, breakfast and free bathing. Dinner normally consists of many many small dishes of all sorts and all together going to an onsen ryokan has the image of ideal relaxation. I needed that.

Planning for the tour had taken a lot of time, finding out where to go, how to get there, whether that would be possible in a day, choosing a route where we could also do some sightseeing and last but not least finding some nice onsen ryokans (several nice baths, good food, practical location, reasonable price) and of course almost all websites are in Japanese... Altogether I was a bit affraid that even the onsen ryokan would not be relaxing enough to make up for all the preparation work... But we had 4 days, 3 nights and in the end it worked out great!

I also added the tour route, ryokans and sightseeing spots to the file with locations for Google Earth.

We rented a Nissan Note just in front of Takadanobaba station here in Tokyo, which is located quite practical. We had made the reservation via ToCoo, which was quite convenient as all their information is available in English.

Maarten only had obtained his driving permit in the Netherlands a few months ago, so he adapted quickly to driving left. The car had automatic gears (most have here), and after wondering a few times why I walked straight to the "driver's side" of the car that was also no problem anymore. The biggest problem was actually that, when Maarten wantend to change lanes or to turn a corner, he was cleaning the window, as winkers and wipers had also been exchanged. (Btw, after driving 1/3 of his total experience on the Japanese roads, he just told that he also started cleaning windows before turning now he is back in The Netherlands :-p ). Anyway, he brought us where we wanted to go safely and without any problems or scary moments.

After a few stops at parking areas along the highway (stretching legs, drinking, watching Mt. Fuji), our first real stop was at Takashima castle, next to the Suwa lake (along the Chuo Highway). It is not original, but rebuilt and we didn't enter as we all had been in Himeji castle and we would still go to Matsumoto castle (which are both original and quite famous). Instead of driving back to the highway, we followed the lake shore to the next interchange.

Our next stop was Narai-juku, an old post town. Tsumago-juku and Magome-juku in the Kiso valley a bit further south are a bit more famous, but it was too far for us on this trip and probably still too early in the year to be really nice (nature around there should be nice and there is a short hiking course between the 2 cities). So we just went to Narai-juku, saw the shrine, lots of wells with buckets in case fire would break out, tasted and bought some sake at a sake shop...

saw the big wooden bridge and had lunch.

The characteristic of a post town is that is really shaped along the travel route, so the village is very long and practically has only one row of houses on each side.

That evening we stayed in Asama onsen, a spa resort next to Matsumoto. The yumotoya ryokan was nice, with good food (among which sashimi of raw horse meat) and 3 baths. One at the 1st floor, with quite some cedar wood that gave of a nice smell, one at the 4rd floor which has a big glass wall that makes it very bright inside and a wooden outdoor bath, and a private bath at the 6th floor (this one) with view over the village and Japanese alps. The first 2 are single sex baths and which sex is allowed changes at midnight. The private bath can be used whenever empty and can be locked from the inside.

It is said that you should not bath more than 3 times a day and that one dip should not be longer than 10 minutes, because you will dehydrate and may get some other trouble because of the salts dissolved in the spring water (e.g. sulphur). In the onsen ryokan you normally take a bath before dinner, one after dinner and one more just before breakfast. Most of the time in the onsen ryokan you wear the Yukata (bathrobe), also during dinner and breakfast.

We had planned 3 things around Matsumoto for the next morning: the castle, a sake brewery and a wasabi farm. First on the route was the castle. The weather was nice and warm, we walked around, entered, climbed to the top, enjoyed the view, ...

We had 2 options for a sake brewery. One would be old (but the description did not make clear whether they were still brewing or it was more like a museum in an old brewery) and the other one was a modern brewery (info about both breweries in English). We decided to go to the old one first, if there was nothing to see (taste) we could always do the new one later.

We arrived just after a tour bus. They all got some story about the history of the brewery and would taste later. We could have joined, but I thought it would be better to walk around to the back of the brewery and see whether there was some other brewery staff to talk with. There we came to the shop (lots of tasting, but not for Maarten again...) and pascal started talking (I had to help translating a bit sometimes) and at some time his questions became so difficult that the brewer himself was called in. This way we got ourselves a private tour throught the brewery by the one and only brewer (the bus group missed all this) and we asked/translated lots of questions about the process.

We asked him how he learned brewing. From the age of 13 he had been helping his father and got some experience. Then he studied sake brewing in some university for agriculture in Tokyo. He had some general courses about alcoholics, so he knows a bit about beer and whiskies as well but specialized in nihonshu (japanese rice wine, what we call sake, but sake actually just means alcohol in japanese). Apart from sake, that university offers also courses (or even studies?) in making soy sauce, vinegar and miso... We still thought alcoholic beverages was a nice one, at least Maarten would already have enough credits to fill all his tasting practica ;-)

The brewery gets polished rice from some factory in Nagano (the outer part of the rice is removed, the more is removed, the deeper the taste of the sake will be). A part of the rice is steamed and while still hot spread over these wooden tables, millet is added and it is covered with the blankets. It ferments over 2 days and the humidity and temperature have to be checked every 1.5~2 hours, and at the end of the process also the taste and smell of the rice. Therefore, 2~3 months a year, the brewer stays with the fermenting rice and wakes up every 1.5~2 hours and thus has no real sleep for days and days.

At some moment the fermenting rice is put in the wooden crates that give of a little smell/taste. They are made of sugi (japanese cedar, the hinoki, japanese white cedar would be smelling too strong). The crates he uses are about 50 years old now and were also used by his father and grandfather. They are one of the most important parts for getting the taste right, so they are handled with care. If one breaks, only the broken part is repaired, because new wood would give off a very different (too strong) taste.

When the fermented starter is ready, 1000kg polished rice, 2000 liter water and a bit starter is put into a tank and the actual sake making process starts. Depending on the desired taste it stays there for a few months to several years. The white sheets you see hanging are the filters (see next picture)

This is the filtering machine, to get nice clear sake (i.e., to remove the rice parts). The filters that go in are haning to dry (see previous picture). After that it is just a matter of pasteurizing to stop the fermentation process and bottling.

The last sightseeing stop around Matsumoto was the Daio wasabi farm (English). Wasabi needs a constant flow of clear and fresh water and therefore it is often grown in the mountain areas. The water flows steadily and because of some differences in height of the main flows, the water oozes through the gravel dams, olong the wasabi roots, to the lower flow. It is definitely some masterpiece of large scale precision civil engineering.

This farm is quite big and set up as a tourist park with some restaurants where you can get wasabi ice cream, wasabi noodles, wasabi pizza, etc etc. There are also some shrines and view-points and old water mills. Actually, the area was used as film set for Akira Kurosawa's movie Yume (Dreams).