Sunday, November 18, 2012

Japan Trip - Robin, Chino, and Nagano

After visiting Nara, Bobby and I headed to Chino, Japan, to visit one of our best friends. Robin has been living in Japan on and off for the last 13 years and works as an English teacher. Robin has visited us in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara many times, so it was finally time to pay him a visit in Japan! Chino is in the Nagano Prefecture (the same Nagano that hosted the winter Olympics in 1998). We spent the whole weekend with Robin, touring the local area, eating a lot of great food (including a fantastic dinner cooked by Robin), and shooting the breeze while playing cards. Though Robin may live far away, we actually have almost daily contact with him via chatting and often play online board games with him on the weekends.
We arrived at Robin's home quite late on Friday night, so we went to bed right away. After shivering through our sleep (it was a lot colder in Chino than Nara, since it's in the mountains), we started Saturday with a driving tour of the local area. It was a clear enough day that we could see Mt. Fuji from a field near Robin's home. Unfortunately, our cameras weren't able to capture the mountain, so you'll just have to see the mountains behind Bobby and me instead.
We also visited Lake Suwa and took a nice walk. Rather, it was a nice walk until we came upon this foot message/torture walk. The stones are arranged in various patters and you walk over them without your shoes. Robin is just playing cool; trust the look on Bobby's face.
All of that painful walking builds up an appetite, so we headed to a sushi train place for lunch. We ate some surprisingly good sushi at this place (sushi trains are on the low end of sushi restaurants, and the quality is usually not the best).
This was a new dish to me: sushi with bacon! We didn't get it, but one dish that we did get was a natto (fermented soybeans) roll. Let me start by saying that Robin, Bobby, and I have all eaten natto in the past, and we all agree that it is the most disgusting thing on earth. Seriously, it's awful. Bobby describes the taste as dirty gym sock. But, for some reason (we could blame the altitude, but both Bobby and Robin are from Colorado, so they have no excuse), we all dared each other to eat a roll of natto sushi. Robin was somehow able to swallow his roll, but neither Bobby nor I could match Robin's iron stomach/lack of taste buds. It was awful. It's going to take at least another 10 years before we're willing to dare each other to eat natto again.
Now I must mention that Robin knows Bobby and me well: he had the whole weekend planned around meals. It's nice to have friends that understand you so well! After our sushi lunch, we did some more driving around the area and did some grocery shopping, where Bobby and I bought 2 big pastic bags full of Japanese candy and green tea. Then it was finally dinner time. Robin made a reservation at a fantastic Japanese grill restaurant. This restaurant specializes in local game, so we were in for a real treat.
We started the meal with something simple: cow tongue.
We then moved onto deer. Good thing these animals are no longer considered messengers of the gods.
Next was my absolute favorite, horse meat. This actually might have been the tastiest thing I ate during our entire trip. If you get a change to eat horse, please do so. It's delicious.
We also had some bear meat. Can you see the beautiful fat surrounding the muscle? It melted just like duck fat.
Unfortunately, it wasn't as delicious as duck. Bear is quite gamey and is not something I'd order too often. We also had ram, beef, and pork. This meal was such a delight! Great choice, Robin!
After consuming all of those wild animals, we retreated backt to Robin's cold home. Luckily, Robin has this nifty heated table, called a kotatsu. There is a heater under the table, so when you put your legs under the low table, it's quite warm. Robin has even had guests sleep under the kotatsu (though every single one of them has gotten sick after doing so...). This was the perfect place for us to play cards, eat candy (I did mention that we like to eat, right?), and drink sake and whiskey.
On Sunday, Robin drove us to the city of Nagano, where we visited Zenko-ji, a temple founded in the 7th century.
The temple is supposedly the home of the first Buddhist image to arrive in Japan in 552 ACE. However, it's not possible to see the actual image (and it may not even be in the temple).
Image or no image, this was a beautiful temple and the surrounding grounds and shrines were lovely.
Bobby and I are on the stairs leading to the main hall.
And here were are in front of the main hall.
The fall colors were just beautiful, and there were many Japanese tourist in town to see these very colors.
I think these are prayer attached to woven sandals left for Buddha.
Like I mentioned in the Nara post, we were in Japan during Shichigosan, when Buddhist parents take their children of a certain age to the shrine in order to receive blessings. Here you can see brother and sister dressed in traditional Japanese outfits.
Many of the mothers were also dressed in kimonos.
This pretty little girl stands in front of Bobby and Robin.
Kimonos only offer a small amount of space for the legs, so you must take small steps in them. It was a bit difficult for this mother to keep up with her son.
After all of that temple and shrine viewing, we were ready for some lunch. We found a nice soba restaurant, where we dug into the buckwheat noodle. Though they can be found throughout Japan, the most famous soba noodles come from Nagano.
We also ordered some fried tofu. This dish was so good! I wish I could make fried tofu like this.
After our lunch, Robin drove us back to Chino, where he taught us about some traditional Japanese dishes that he cooks.
After a great weekend with Robin, Bobby and I headed out of the mountains and into Kyoto. We took the bullet train, the Shinkansen, between Nagoya and Kyoto. With a maximum speek of 300 km/h / 186 m/h, the 130 km/80 mile trip took only 35 minutes!

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