Kamesei Ryokan (Nagano, Japan)

One thing that Will and I definitely wanted to experience while in Japan was a stay at a genuine ryokan. After combing the internet for a while, we settled on Kamesei Ryokan.  It’s certainly out of the way, all the way in Nagano, but the hospitality and getting out of the city is well worth the bullet-train ride.

Kamesei Ryokan is located in the city of Chikuma in Nagano, Japan. It’s up north, so the weather was more chilly than it was in Tokyo, but that was okay because it made the steaming, warm, onsen all the more satisfying.  The main reason we picked this ryokan was because its proprietors were fluent in English. This made it extremely easy to communicate Will’s dietary restrictions and they were incredibly accommodating with all of it.

Kamesei Ryokan

The first thing I saw when I stepped out of the train station was a lush mountainside and an arched sign welcoming us into the little onsen town.  The air was cold and crisp, the parking lot had only a handful of people, and best of all, it was quiet — a nice departure from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, which we left an hour behind.

One of the proprietresses of the ryokan was nice enough to meet us at the train station with a mini-van and drove us to their family-owned ryokan. We were greeted with our names written with chalk on the sign in front of the lobby area (they got the wrong character for my name, but hey, it’s the thought that counts).

Kamesei Ryokan

As mentioned before, Kamesei Ryokan is of the more traditional variety.  You take off your shoes off in the lobby, put on the provided slippers, and walk over the tatami to your own room.  Tyler, the American son-in-law of the proprietress met up with us while we were getting settled in and graciously explained the ryokan to us and answered our questions.  He’s also the guy who’ll come into your room and lay out the futons/put them away when the time comes.

While there is a private restroom in each room containing a sink and toilet, there’s no shower or bathtub. That’s because the onsen is the main attraction. Why sit in a small tub in your own room when you can soak in a large one with other naked people?  The ryokan has separate male and female onsens which switch location every night, so pay attention to the signs!  Each onsen room has its own shower area and indoor tub large enough for at least 10 adults to stretch out. One of the rooms also has an outdoor tub that seats about 4 or 5.  Definitely take advantage of the outdoor one if you get the chance. It’s a great sensation to be immersed up to your chin in hot, mineral-rich water while sitting outside in chilly weather.

Kamesei Ryokan

Another main attraction of a ryokan is the food. Because we communicated Will’s vegetarian diet beforehand, the chef specially prepared a mostly vegan spread. The only thing that wasn’t vegan was the tempura, which unfortunately for him had egg in the batter. His loss is my crisply fried gain!  The dinner spread featured a number of small dishes that highlighted the local specialties. Most notable was the delicate, soft, fresh made yuba and the sweet and savory bean paste which was a cross between nato and miso paste spread over a broiled bamboo shoot.  I was also excited to see mini, personal-sized okonomiyaki’s!

Kamesei Ryokan

When Tyler found out that I wasn’t vegetarian, he offered to have the chef make up a small sashimi sampler platter as well as a plate of their local fish, which I enthusiastically agreed to. The sashimi had a fresh, unadulterated flavor, and the little local fish was tastefully plated.

Kamesei Ryokan

Just when I thought I couldn’t eat any more, I stopped to save room for dessert.  I always complain about desserts being too sweet, but this plate of sweet bites was just right.

Kamesei Ryokan

Breakfast had fewer dishes than dinner, but was no less delicious.  It started with some crisp, pickled vegetables, salty mountain vegetables, that wonderful natto-miso paste, and a delicate soup of simmering tofu, mushrooms, and mizuna.  I wish I could eat like this every day.

Kamesei Ryokan

Out of my handful of days in Japan, I’d have to say that the ones spent at Kamesei ryokan were the most memorable. The people who live in this rural town look more healthy, are more friendly, and just seem to have more fun in life than their Tokyo-based counterparts.  Tyler was enough nice enough to invite us along to his weekly music group to watch them practice lion dancing! I think I spoke more broken Japanese to the people of the group than I did in all the rest of my days in Tokyo.

Kamesei Ryokan

It’s true that Kamesei Ryokan is out of the way for people who just want to visit Tokyo, but it’s a wonderful breath of fresh air from crowded subway trains and busy streets.  I’m only afraid that I won’t be able to keep myself from going back next time I’m in Japan.

Kamesei Ryokan
長野/戸倉上山田温泉 旅館「亀清」
〒389-0821 長野県千曲市上山田温泉2-15-1
TEL:026-275-1032/FAX:026-276-1032
Address: 2-15-1 Kamiyamada Onsen,
Chikuma City, Nagano Pref. 389-0821 Japan
*Telephone: (026)275-1032
*Facsimile: (026)276-1032 (24 hours)

Delicate Soba and Changed My Life Coffee in Japan

When I visited Japan, I was expecting fantastic ramen, fresh off the boat sushi, crazy fashions, and crowded walks through Shinjuku. The last thing I was expecting was to be drinking the best drip coffee I had ever had sitting at a tiny, four-person noodle bar, listening to Rastafarian music in a suburb of Tokyo.

Ital Soba is located within a short walk from the Higashi-Kitazawa stop at the Odakyu line. It takes a transfer from the convenient Tokyo JR line, but trust, me, it’s worth it. Because of my initial confusion with maps in Japan (they’re oriented relative to what direction you’re looking in, not north/south/east/west like I was used to) I had to step into a veteranarian’s office to ask directions. A nice man who was waiting accompanied me out and actually walked me to the location. Talk about friendly, helpful locals!

Vegan Japanese Food by a Rastafarian

The restaurant itself is tiny and hard to spot if you don’t notice the small Bob Marley card taped to one wall. Owner Koichi Nakajima was just setting up shop, so Will and I thanked the man who walked us there and entered. The interior contained a small bar overlooking the house-sized kitchen and three or four two-seater tables.

Vegan Japanese Food by a Rastafarian

With my broken Japanese, we managed to order soba in cold broth for Will and a zaru soba for me. Everything is made to order there, so we got to watch the master at work. There was no rushing this soba. Nakajima first whet our appetites with a plate full of vegetables which were beautiful in their simplicity. Grilled slices of lotus root, sliced burdock root, a seaweed salad, some macerated adzuki beans, the appetizer set atmosphere of the noodles to come.

Vegan Japanese Food by a Rastafarian

When the soba came, we were instructed to pick a dipping cup from a drying rack sitting on a stool in the corner. The cups came in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Being able to personally choose one added to the comfortable, home-like atmosphere of the restaurant.

Vegan Japanese Food by a Rastafarian

As expected, the soba was cooked perfectly, meticulously, and still retained a nice chew. The dipping sauce, enhanced by the grated radish and freshly grated wasabi, coated each strand of noodle sufficiently without being too salty. Zaru-soba is a simple dish, but it’s exactly that simplicity that shows how much care and attention Nakajima puts into preparing everything that exits the kitchen.

Vegan Japanese Food by a Rastafarian

The soba in cold broth was also prepared well, with tissue paper-thin pieces of seaweed lending a welcome umami taste to the broth. Since everything on the menu is vegan, Will slurped up the bowl with confidence that there was on hidden flake of bonito anywhere.

After my bowl of soba, I sat back with a satisfied expression on my face and Nakajima timidly asked if I’d like to try some of his coffee, made from Cuban beans. Coffee out of soba sounded like a strange combination, but if he could make a coffee as artfully as he did a bowl of noodles, count me in. He asked me if I wanted something sour, or had more bitter in it and I chose bitter. It wasn’t until I took a sip of the coffee that I realized I misheard him and he meant ‘butter.’

Vegan Japanese Food by a Rastafarian

Like the noodles, great care was put into preparing the coffee. Nakajima delicately held the top of the chemex filter over a mug as he slowly poured a steady stream of boiling water onto the grounds. It took a few minutes, but the brew that I sipped blew my socks off. It had a strong, rich aroma and tasted incredibly smooth, without any hint of astringency or acridness. I always complain that brewed coffee never tasted as good as it smelled, but I think this came damn close.

Even though it was a difficult to find, a bowl of noodles (or two in Will’s case), a fantastic cup of coffee, and getting to watch a master at work, is definitely worth visiting Ital Soba in my books.

Vegan Japanese Food by a Rastafarian

Ital Soba (cash only)
4-32-26 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku;
(03) 3485-7785
open for lunch and dinner (closed Tues. and the 3rd Mon. of the month)

Ramen in Japan

I’m still going through my Asia trip photos from May. At least now, I’ve made it to the Japan pictures.

On my first night in Japan, after finding our hotel, which just so happened to be less than a two-minute walk from Shin-okubo station, I was famished. It was late enough that I didn’t want to take the JR anywhere, so I wandered around the busy street looking for something to eat. Luckily, just across the street was a ubiquitous ramen-shop and I finally experienced first hand just how in the future Japan was.

Ramen in Japan

Right by the door is a vending machine, but instead of snacks or drinks in a display case, there were pictures of different types of ramen.  Not knowing how to read Japanese, I just went off the picture. Most of the bowls were in the $7-10 price range, which is about what I’d pay in LA for ramen. After putting my coins in and pressing a button, a ticket was released from the machine, which I was instructed to give to the chef behind the counter.

Because it was so late at night, I was only part of the handful of people sitting around the ramen counter.  It felt silly to hand my meal ticket over to the cook instead of just telling him what I wanted, but I assume this makes it easier when the restaurant’s really busy.

In no time, a bowl of ramen was set in front of me in all its glory.  My first meal in Japan and it was one of my favorite ways of starch delivery: noodle soup.

Ramen in Japan

The broth was rich and porky, the noodles were chewy but not underdone, and the various vegetables and wood-ear mushroom were seasoned perfectly.  One spoonful from the bowl made me wonder, maybe what they say about Japan and ramen was true: you can wander into any random ramen-ya and get a great bowl of ramen.

Even though I was starving, the bowl was massive and I was stuffed by the time I made it halfway through the noodles. To my astonishment, another customer, a slender, young Japanese man asked for a second bowl of noodles to dump into his bowl!  I bow down to you, ramen noodle eating master.

Ramen in Japan