Friday 20 September 2013

Haneda Airport to Minakami (And all the eating in between)

Before our trip, we'd used Hyperdia, an online route search engine for railway travel within Japan, to map out exactly how and when we were going to travel to each of our destinations. On the first day of actual travel, we were armed with print-outs listing all the best permutations to get from Haneda Excel Tokyu to Minakami Station, complete with the exact time each train on the list was due to arrive and depart. With all this information on hand, we agreed to leave the hotel by 8.30 in the morning, to give us sufficient time to walk to the first station and purchase all the tickets for the journey ahead, before catching the first train listed on our optimal route (Which was basically the route that topped the list).

Only, by the time we finally rushed out of our room, we'd already exceeded our planned departure time. It was then that we remembered we needed to call ahead to our next hotel, to ask about the possibility of being picked up from the train station. After a swift checkout, we approached the concierge staff to make the call on our behalf. The lady behind the counter didn't really seem to understand when we mimed calling, and was furiously clicking away at the computer, possibly in an attempt to find an online translation service, but she caught on fairly quickly after we keyed in the number of our next destination on D's phone and all but thrust it into her hands.

The conversation seemed to go on for ages as introductions were made and pleasantries were exchanged, and it was utterly nerve-wracking as we looked at our watches and D thought about his phone bill. As the conversation went on, we were asked if we minded waiting for almost two hours after our train pulled in for our pickup. We told her it was perfectly fine by us, but she made absolutely sure of that by asking us the same question twice more. By the time the call ended five minutes later, all that was conveyed to us was our pickup time of 2.30 pm, and that we please be in the waiting area of the station at the time.

We're still fairly baffled by why the conversation seemed so tortuously long (For us), but we've put it down to being a cultural thing. 

Even with our scheduled buffer so thoroughly depleted, I still had a pre-departure mission to fulfill. Haneda Excel Tokyu is located just off the Departure Hall of Haneda Domestic Terminal 2, which is the location of my absolute favourite sweet potato cake in the world. I have it every single time we pass through, and I wasn't going to miss out on it this time just to catch a train. 

(Obviously, I have my priorities in the right order.) 

As M & D walked at their own pace, I raced down the corridor and narrowly dodged scores of tourists to get to the counter selling my Imokin. Loosely translated to English, it's called Sweet Potato Gold, and is produced by a company called Mangando (満願堂). The little side label proclaims it a 'Specialty of Asakusa' (浅草名物), which is where the original store is located. They've got a number of outlets in Tokyo, but we hardly ever go to the city, so the airport's my go-to branch.

I purchased one piece each for the three of us, because it always tastes better if you only have enough to sate the worst of the longing, but still inspire future longing. The three pieces were bundled up in wax paper before being folded up in the shop's wrapping paper.  

The lovely thing about the Imokin is the way it remains warm for so long. By the time I finally unwrapped it and took my first, glorious bite, we'd already gone through the drama of purchasing monorail, Shinkansen and local train tickets, and were halfway to Hamamatsucho station, from which we'd travel to the main Tokyo interchange. 

The cake is made from specially selected sweet potatoes and coated with a thin but chewy layer of batter that's not so much baked as left to dry. (There was one trip where I spent 15 minutes with my nose pressed against the glass watching a man making them. Good times.) There's something very wholesome about the natural sweetness of the potato as it crumbles on your tongue. 

D still thinks the Imokin tastes better in Winter, but then again he thinks everything tastes better in Winter. Apart from his opinion, it's been named one of the best Japanese Sweets of 2012. When I saw the certificate on the counter, I felt my love was vindicated. 

Surprisingly, we ended up at Tokyo Station earlier than expected after managing to catch a monorail ten minutes prior to the one we were planning to take. Flush with extra time, D abandoned M & me in the middle of the massively crowded station to run off and buy us Round Two of breakfast. 

We got in line for the Non-Reserved carriage, and wound up on the Shinkansen bound for Takasaki without much incident, and after we'd settled down in our seats, D reached into his backpack and pulled out his haul. 

It was sushi from an outlet tucked all the way at the back of the food hall at Tokyo Station. They'd provided small ice packs to help keep the food fresh, and chopsticks and napkins were provided so we could have a civilized meal. 

It was after we fished out the 9th packet of soy sauce that D realized the lady selling the sushi was asking him how many sauce sachets he wanted per box, and not how many people were eating. 

The drinks and snacks lady who came around didn't have a cart as this was a double-decker train, but was hoisting two massive bags on her shoulders. We lightened her load by a can of beer (For D) and a bottle of water (For me).

The sushi (And D's chirashi) was excellent. I usually hate squid because of the rubbery texture, but I had no problem with the piece in my box. It was a very decadent breakfast, and by the time we finished the train had barely pulled out of the next station (Ueno, still within Tokyo).

As we neared Takasaki Station, out the windows I saw a white figure atop a hill and my mind immediately went to Godzilla. It was actually the Takasaki Kannon, which is seen as a guardian of the city. The station itself is full of Daruma dolls that originate from Takasaki - the dolls are supposed to be representations of a Buddhist sage, but are now used more as a good luck charm for wish fulfillment. 

Takasaki's the gateway to Gunma Prefecture, an area Northwest of the Kanto Region. All the major train lines run through Takasaki, and we were taking a local train to get to Minakami. 

Local trains are pretty slow going. Our journey to Minakami took 65 minutes compared to the 49 we spent getting from Tokyo to Takasaki. We spent out time looking out the window and marvelling at the views. 

We'd arrived around the time of the rice harvest, so we saw a good mixture of patches of gold gleaming in the sun, as well as harvested stalks hanging out to dry. In some areas, we even saw small harvesters going around the fields. We're city folk through and through, so seeing all these things always seems terribly exciting to us.  

Our train journey saw us passing range after range of hills and mountains. What we saw out the windows across from our seats were so very picturesque. 

Minakami Station was the end of the line, so the people who alighted after us didn't bother sliding the manual doors close. 

Our first view of Minakami was of the parking lot outside the station, which didn't inspire much enthusiasm. 

Thankfully, when we emerged we found a small shopping street that was full of signs and banners featuring the local mascot. Oide-chan taps into Minakami's status as a hot spring resort area, so she's the young proprietress of a hot spring inn. She's meant to be part of a hospitality campaign to attract tourists to the area by highlighting special local features. We mainly saw her image being used to peddle fresh Dorayaki, soft pancakes traditionally filled with red bean, but now more adventurously sandwiching things like Mango and Fresh Cream.  

We spent some time going up and down the small row of shops and scoping out the area since we had time to spare. 

Eventually we found our way to the local tourist information centre, where we asked for lunch recommendations. Unless we were prepared to take a 15 minute hike with our bags to a nearby street, our best bets were the ramen joint just next door, or the soba store up the street. 

Out on the street, we ended up talking to an Australian gentleman who had a burger place further along, and found out that the soba store was closed. He told us to try the ramen though, so ramen it was. 

Ramen Kimura (きむら) is the kind of place where most of the customers are locals. It's a small space that doesn't really bother to make itself look appealing, but it was enjoyably quaint all the same.

We were seated with a smile and quickly brought glasses of cold water, which were very welcome in the heat. I ordered myself a bottle of Mitsuya Cider, a non-alcoholic Japanese soft drink that I've been obsessed with for ages. I don't even know why I like it, but I order it every chance I get. 

Nowadays, the fashion seems to be ultra-rich, super heavy broths for ramen, so the straightforward clear shoyu broth was a welcome surprise. 

Serious ramen aficionados probably won't find the noodles here impressive at all, but for us it was perfectly serviceable. We actually quite enjoyed it, because when it comes to ramen we're heathens with no taste. (Ajisen's trashy Tom Yam ramen holds a special place in my heart. I know. I also judge myself.)

It's not the kind of place you'd bring people to if you want them to have a really good meal, but you'd probably go on your own thinking "Yeah, it was alright." All the other customers in the time we were there followed the same modus operandi: they came, they slurped up their noodles, and they left. No one lingered, and most people turned up alone.  

At the end of the meal, we still had an hour to spare before our pickup was due, so as we left Kimura I declared that we would go to a cafe we'd passed by that had a sign saying 'Free Wifi!'. M & D readily agreed. (Our internet addictions run deep.) It had been a good start to our adventures, and now we wanted to chill somewhere and makes sure BB was still alive in our absence. 

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