Sunday, January 25, 2009

11/7/08: Day 8 in Japan - Trains of Japan Part I

As today is a travel day, this entry will focus on the trains that I rode in the first half of my trip.

While most of America is automobile-based society, Japan is heavily reliant on rail. Japan boasts perhaps the most modern and cleanest train system in the world.

I used a Japan Railways (JR) Rail Pass, which allows for unlimited rides for predetermined time frame. For my purpsses, I purchased "Green Car" ticket valid for two weeks for 60,000 Yen (about $570 at the time of the purchase.)

Shortly after landing, I took the Narita Express to go from airport located in Chiba Prefecture to Tokyo Station.

The "Green Car" is like the train version of Business Class, and in many cases, they are reserved seats. For Narita Express, the Green Cars had two rows on one side and single across the aisle. I was assigned a single seat, and here is the view across the aisle.

From Tokyo Station, I transfered to Yamanoté Line (山手線) to make a quick trip to Ueno. Here is the imposing view of Tokyo, right off the platform.

I stayed in Ueno the first night, because it was a departing point for "Komachi" Shinkansen (こまち) to Akita.

Komachi is connected to Hayaté Shinkansen (はやて) destined for Aomori. The trains separate at Morioka Station. I boarded Hayaté when traveling to-and-from Iwaté Prefecture (Nanbu Bijin).

In order to get to Yashima, home of Tenju Brewery, I transfered to the local Uetsu Line (羽越本線) once arriving at Akita City. I rode Uetsu Line quite a bit during my travels within Akita.

Further more, I made one more transfer to even more local train at Ugo Honjo Station. This is Chokaisan Roku Line (鳥海山ろく線). And by "even more local," this train ran on diesel as opposed to electricity (note the lack of wire above the train car). This is quite a transition from the Shinkansen...

I came across a different type of train when heading from Akita City to Tsuruoka (Také No Tsuyu, Eiko Fuji). This is "Inaho" Limited Express (特急いなほ). This train reminded me of the modern Japanese trains... from the late 70's/early 80's.

After Tsuruoka, I took Inaho to Niigata where I transfered to Shinkansen "Max Inabiko" (MAX いなびこ).

What's different about MAX Inabiko is that it is a double decker version of the bullet train.

After returning to Tokyo, I took subways to get to Oakwood Midtown near Roppongi then to Meguro. One thing about Japanese subway station is that it is very clean. Take note, MTA!

Here is the interior of the every day commuter train. Unlike the hard plastic seats, Japanese subways and commuter seats have comfortable cushions.

On my way to Osaka, I went through Tokyo Station. Here is one of their ticket gates. In Japan, they use either mangetic tickets or Suica cards. The tickets are inserted into the gates for verification at both entrance and exits, as fares vary according to the distance traveled. I admit I like the MTA pricing policy of $2.00 for a ride regardless of distance!

To get to Osaka, I rode "Hikari" Shinkansen (ひかり). There is a fasster line called Nozomi (のぞみ), but it is excluded from the Rail Pass program.

Here is the interior of the Green Car for Hikari. It is very modern and sleek, which wouldn't be out of place in Star Trek.

Part II of the Trains set will be available at the end of the trip...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

11/6/08: Day 7 in Japan Part II - Back to Tokyo

After my too brief visit at Eiko Fuji, I was on my way to Tokyo via Shinkansen. The train left Tsuruoka, and headed to Tokyo via Niigata. Niigata is famous for rice, and it's easy to see why - miles and miles of rice paddies surrounded by mountains and cool breeze of Japan Sea.


I checked into a hotel in Meguro area of Tokyo, as I was planning on visiting a certain izakaya famous among saké brewers and fans. But before that, my reunion with former neighbor Namiko-san awaits.

As Namiko-san works for Veuve Clicquot, we were invited to a wine party at Oakwood Premier Tokyo Midtown, a premium newly built long-term builf rental facility. Here I am with Namiko-san and Ludo from Oakwood.


洋子さんは現在シャンパンで有名なVeuve Clicquot社に勤め、その接待でOakwood Premier 東京 Midtownのワイン会に誘われた。これは洋子さんとOakwoodのルドさん。

We had such a good time, that by the time we left Oakwood it was well past 9:00 pm. Unfortunately, we were unable to gain entry to the izakaya as we were late. Thus, we had to find a backup plan, and found Ginza Kan izakaya in the neighborhood.

Ginza Kan is modern-Japanese in style, and menu is presented in Japanese paper.

As enjoyable the time spent at Ginza Kan, we were still somewhat disappointed. Best solution was to try some of their sakés.

The food was delicious. This particular dish is minced chicken skewer. We didn't stay out too long, as I was tired from my trip. Next stop is Osaka.

Monday, January 19, 2009

11/6/08: Day 7 in Japan Part I - Visiting Eiko Fuji Brewery

Shortly after emerging from my morning onsen session, I was greeted by Kato-san from Eiko Fuji Brewery. Although Eiko Fuji is a recent entrant in the NY market, it is one of my favorites.

We arrived at Eiko Fuji after driving 30 minutes northwest towards Shonai Airport. Greeting us was an building from different generation.

As I needed to head to Tokyo by afternoon, I was pressed for time. Upon arriving, Kato-san took me on the tour of the premises. The steamer was the first stop, right by the entrance.

The brewery is spacious to a point where Kato-san kept saying that Eiko Fuji is not the most efficient operation. Thus, brewers had to run to koji room before rice cooled off. Located right next to the koji room is Yabuta press.

Fermentation tanks.

Storage tanks.

More sets of fermentation tanks.

Machine for labelling bottles.

Area for bottle storage.

After the tour, I was guided to the guest room. There was a bottle display right by the entrance; the "Ari Kato" labels on the right is for exclusive distribution in Japan.

There is an old brewery sign displayed in the first tatami room.

In the second room, I noticed a nice room divider with gold fan motif.

For this tasting, Kato-san prepared four selections: traditionally styled Banryu Honjozo, mellow yet clean "Jungetsu" Junmai, clean and dry "Shinki" Junmai Ginjo, and highly aromatic and deep "Kozakaya No Hitoriyogari" Daiginjo. The only regret was that I wasn't able to enjoy a long drink with Kato-san.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

11/5/08: Onsen Hot Springs


I've mentioned onsen hot springs several times in the past. It is rather unusual concept in the US, and it goes beyond the idea of "public bath."

(For obvious reasons, I do not have photographs for this entry...)

Japan is an island nation with considerable volcanic activities. Although this creates some major isues (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.), the Japanese can take consolation in enjoying natural hot springs as a byproduct of these dangerous heat-induced activities.

As the soil composition varies based on location and depth, the mineral composition of the onsen varies.

Onsen facilities have multiple areas. The first is the locker room, where in addition to changing, you can also groom yourself. Once in the onsen area, the first place where you would need to go is the washing area. As bath is communal, it is important that each bather go to the washing area and thoroughly wash their bodies.

Once cleansed, bathers are ready to enjoy the amenities, which may include bath with different mineral compositions, area with jacuzzi-like jet stream, soft bubbles, steam room, spa, cold bath, and if lucky, outdoor "rotenburo." Again, it is important to note that after going into the steam room or spa, one need to shower off sweat before re-entering communal bath.

On 11/4/08, I stayed at Hotel Grantia in Akita City. One night stay included single room, set dinner, breakfast buffet, and unlimited access to the hot springs for a very reasonable price of $70. Here is the Japanese site.

In this particular onsen, the color is rust due to the composition of sodium (natrium). The bath temperature is 92.5F with Ph level of +7.5. These properties are said to be ideal to treat fatigue, muscle ache, joint ache, and indigestion, among others. Naturally, I spent considerable time in the evening and following morning relaxing!

Here is the floor plan. Scrolling over dotted areas will open the photographs.

The following night, my stay at Také No Tsuyu allowed me to visit Yupoka Onsen on the adjoining property. As you may recall, construction of Yupoka resulted in a certain accident. Nevertheless, Aisawa-san was more than happy to take me there in the evening of the 5th and morning of the 6th. The entry fee was about $4.00 per visit, and in the morning, I ordered "breakfast set" ($9.50) which also included buffet-style Japanese traditional breakfast.

Unlike the onsen at Grantia hotel, the water was clear. Although I was given about one hour on my each visit, the time seemed to fly very quickly. Perhaps my best memory was sitting in the outside "rotenburo" during the evening, with a lone pine tree and being bathed by a moonbeam from a full moon. Only thing lacking was a bottle of Hakuro Suishu...