Summer Vacation(s)

I’m not even sure where to begin with this post, because I feel like there’s so much I want to tell you, fellow Shichimians. Suffice it to say that the summer was an absolute whirlwind of work, travel, exploration, and plenty of good eats. I can’t hope to write about all of it in detail, but what follows should give you a good idea of what I’ve been up to and what I’ve been thinking about as my favorite season comes to a close.

Japanese dragonfly

It’s now well past Labor Day in the States, but here in Japan summer seems to linger on, with warm days punctuated by afternoon thundershowers. An afternoon glass of iced green tea still seems appropriate, as does the occasional ice cream cone.
Engrish sign

Yet there are signs that autumn is indeed approaching. Pears (both Asian and Western), figs, and the most sweet, delicious grapes have begun to appear at the market. The once-verdant paddies have turned a lovely shade of gold and the rice, plump with summer rain, hangs heavily on the stalks. Now, local farmers have begun venturing out to the fields to thresh the grain and tie it up to dry. And although the days remain bright and sunny, the nights are brisk enough to warrant the use of a blanket. In Japanese there’s a beautiful word for this kind of weather – suzushii (涼しい), meaning cool or refreshing. I think the sound of it is almost onomatopoetic, like a whisper of early autumn breeze billowing through curtains.

Rice grains

For me, these waning days of summer always carry some measure of melancholy and nostalgia. No doubt this is due to an ingrained association between the end of summer and the return to school, that simultaneously dreaded and highly anticipated event. This summer has been a strange yet exciting one – my second one without school to look forward to, my first one spent without ever setting foot in New York, and of course my first one in Japan. In June, during the rainy season, I felt myself longing for the perfect blue skies and warm evenings of New York in early summer. Yet as the rains passed, I realized that the season would slip by unnoticed and unappreciated unless I took some drastic action.
And so I resolved to use every available scrap of time to explore some new corner of Japan, whether it was a hidden neighborhood on the edge of Tokyo or an ancient trail through the mountains of Nagano.

Nakasendo trail

Nakasendo trail

I began with a three-day weekend in Yokohama, which happily coincided with my birthday. The city, though only an hour from Tokyo, felt like a different world, with wide streets, breezy blue-skied weather, and an expansive waterfront. Unfortunately, the highly acclaimed Chinatown felt a little too clean and was packed with touristy restaurants advertising shark fin soup. However, Steven and I managed to have an excellent, mouth-numbing dish of mabo dofu at a Sichuan eatery whose name now escapes me. We also enjoyed walking through the peaceful hillside neighborhood of Yamate, which was originally founded as a foreign enclave. The area’s many Western-style houses serve as a reminder of Yokohama’s unique place in Japanese history.

Nippon maru, Yokohama

Chinatown gate, Yokohama

House in Yamate, Yokohama

Church in Yamate, Yokohama

Following the trip to Yokohama, Steven and I hosted a friend in Matsumoto for a weekend. The three of us rented a dinky little car and drove off into the mountains, with only a vague idea of where we were headed. Along the way, we stopped at a farm stand for local tomatoes and blueberries and at Bunga bakery for superb wood-fired pizzas and breads.  After lunch, we whiled away the afternoon walking along a dammed river whose water was eerily green, placid, and swarming with giant carp-like fish. It was a very “Nagano” day, which ended with a trip to the onsen and soba for dinner.

Bunga Bakery

Nagano, Japan

Walking in Nagano

After returning to the furnace-like conditions of the Tokyo area, I immediately began itching for an escape to cooler environs. An impromptu Saturday afternoon hike up Mt. Takao, located on the very western edge of the city, provided a nice respite from the city, though not from the heat.

Mt. Takao

Mt. Takao Jizo statue

Mt. Takao Tengu

The following day, I rode local trains for two hours and spent a day at beautiful but remote Onjuku beach in southern Chiba prefecture. Before heading to the water, I enjoyed an excellent and affordable set lunch of sushi, miso soup, salad, and delicate chawan mushi at Tanaka Sushi. The beach, which is popular with surfers, was quite crowded and noisy, but the powerful surf and waves made it worth the journey.

Sushi lunch

Onjuku beach

Onjuku beach dweller

Perhaps the highlight of these summer travels was a day hike between the hamlets of Magome and Tsumago, located in Gifu and Nagano prefectures respectively. The road between these two towns was once a highway that connected Tokyo to Kyoto through the mountains, hence the name Nakasendo (中山道), literally “center mountain road.” The central streets of both Magome and Tsumago have been preserved to reflect their Edo period character, which means there are no unsightly power lines, asphalt roads, or concrete highrises in sight.

Magome

Before setting off on the 15+ kilometer walk, Steven and I had a quick lunch in Magome at the restaurant of a local inn. It appeared to be a family-owned establishment, with the daughter taking orders and serving, the mother (and aunts?) cooking the rustic soba noodles, and the 90-some-year-old grandmother making delicious snacks called gohei mochi. These are spheres of glutinous rice, rather rough in texture, that are grilled, coated with a sauce of pounded walnuts and miso, and then grilled again to caramelize the sauce. Chewy, sticky, and subtly sweet, they were easily one of the best things I’ve eaten in Japan.
Gohei mochi

The hike itself was varied in both terrain and scenery and afforded many beautiful views of the Kiso valley. We passed tiny rural villages, airy pine forests, quiet groves of black walnut trees, and rice paddies wedged into the sides of mountains. In Tsumago, we refueled with a refreshing snack of kakigori (finely shaved ice with flavored syrup) before walking another few kilometers to Nagiso, where we relaxed at a yakitori joint before catching the train back to Matsumoto. (There are plenty more photos from this day on my Flickr page – just look for the photos dated August 23, 2010.)
Nakasendo sign
View from Nakasendo
Kakigori

Tsumago house

More recently, we spent a night in the mountains at Kamikochi, one of Japan’s most well-known national parks. Although we weren’t equipped to scale the 3,000-meter peaks that the area is famous for, we took a leisurely 12-kilometer walk through the woods along the Azusa river, pausing along the way to allow snow monkeys to cross the trail.

Kappbashi

Kamikochi trail

Snow monkey

Kamikochi view

Matsumoto electric railway

Though the park was crowded with tourists by day, staying overnight allowed us to appreciate a degree of quiet and isolation that is often difficult to find in Japan. In the remaining hours of daylight, we cooked a simple dinner of eggs and peppers, ate beans and corn, and devoured a bag of pickled greens. For dessert, we shared a can of peaches while sitting on our cabin’s front step. Sleep came shortly thereafter, and we woke with the first light.

************

Recently, I joked to a friend that I’ll manage to publish this post just in time for the autumn equinox, which arrives tomorrow. Wherever you are in the world, I hope you’re enjoying the last true day of summer and relishing its many small pleasures.

3 thoughts on “Summer Vacation(s)

  1. Pingback: Kinpira Gobo, take II « Shichimi (7 Flavors)

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