Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Surviving Saitama

I mentioned earlier that I went to Saitama this weekend and it was a lot of fun. People in Tokyo like to rag on Saitama. They jokingly refer to it as Dasai-tama. (Dasai means lame in Japanese) Sure, maybe you wouldn't want to live there if you're young and like to party but the area has a lot to offer in terms of weekend excursions, nature and history. I've never been to an onsen, or Japanese hot spring, so my friend offered to take me.

I started off the day taking the Shonan-Shinjuku line from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to Omiya Station, the biggest hub in Saitama. It took 30 minutes and couldn't be easier. From there, I met my two Japanese friends and headed to a rental car dealer to pick up the pink Toyota Fritz above. If you've ever wondered what the majority of people in Japan drive, it looks a lot like a Fritz.

Cute car...but it's just not that cute when you have a semi-nervous/rusty driver at the wheel. Aside from showing me how great onsens are, the other reason for this trip was for my Japanese girlfriend to dust off her driving skills. I really didn't think twice about this, but WHOA...it got dicey here and there. A few things I learned in the car:

  1. Freeways are expensive in Japan. We drove for about 20 minutes on the freeway and had to pay about $20. Ouch. 
  2. If you slow down on the freeway for traffic, you turn on your warning signal. Safety first! 
  3. When you rent a car that cost $22 a day, don't be surprised of the rearview mirror falls off the window. 

 First stop, Nagatoro for a boat ride down the Arakawa River. This was pretty fun and an unexpected addition to the trip. It turned out to be a really nice day to float down the river. Parts of the ride were a little bumpy, but the combination of smogless air and lush green mountains put me in a state of chill.

Next up? Off to Chichibu for lunch and some hot baths. We arrived at a small ryokan tucked away in the mountains of Chichibu. At first, things looked a little grim as we walked up to a run down building, cobweb covered building. But hiding right behind it was a charming little inn that served up one of the most satisfyingly delicious meal I've had in Japan thus far. Whoa. 

Why so yummy? Everything tasted really good, but beyond that, it was the perfect snapshot of what makes Japanese food so good. It was light but filling and had balance. The meal started off with hot green tea and grilled fish caught in the local river. Then fresh soba, a local specialty, with fresh mountain veggie tempura. We got 3 kinds of sauce for the soba. The dark sauce in the bottom right is regular mentsuyu sauce. To the right is a special local sauce made from walnuts. Aove these two is ground Japanese Mountain Yam, torojiru. This was new to me. I've seen it used on TV shows, but this was my first shot at eating it. It doesn't taste like much, but the texture is unlike anything I've eaten before. It's super gooey and slides right down your throat. The way to eat it is to pour (not easy) some into the dipping sauce, then dip your noodles and eat. It was also nice to eat tempura that went beyond plain onions, green beans and yams. Half of the fried veggies were unrecognizable to me and my friends, but they all tasted great. 

See mom, I ate it all! For dessert? A piping hot bath outdoors with natural spring water. Different onsens claim that their water has a special healing power. Our bath water was supposedly good for whitening your skin. Aside from being completely naked (no bathing suits allowed) in front of my friends, it was very relaxing and I look forward to trying out other onsens in the area. A few notes about public bath houses in Japan: 
  1. If you're modest about nudity, onsens may not be for you. 
  2. Baths in Japan, even at home, are not about cleaning yourself. It's about relaxation and is a very big part of Japanese life. Even at home, you shower first, then get into the bath. Bath water is often shared between family members and roommates. 
  3. You must strip down to your birthday suit and bath yourself thoroughly before entering the baths. Nooks, crannies, the works. The bath area is in front of the bath so everyone can see how well you cleanse. 
  4. Never dunk your head below the water. 
  5. A lot of guidebooks will tell you that you cannot go to bath houses if you have tattoos. That is a slightly outdated rule. This was a roundabout way for bath owners to turn away yakuza members without actually having to say it was because they were gang members. 
  6. Bring a small towel with you to help wipe away sweat and cool yourself off. It can also help shield your bits from the other bathers.  

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