My co-workers Susan, Steph and I decided to head to Japan for this Chuseok’s (Korean Thanksgiving) long weekend. We stopped for the night in Tokyo before flying to Kochi where my college teammate Andrew picked us up for a 2 hour drive to Shimanto, a remote town where he has lived and taught English for the last 3 years. Let me begin by saying what a lovely host he was for the 3 of us and surely without his assistance we would have continued to be lost in translation as our solitary night in Tokyo had felt.
Along the way to Shimanto we stopped at Soft Cream, a hole in the wall ice cream store where you bought a ticket from a vending machine to give to the lady behind the counter. This quaint store has what may in fact have been the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten! Andrew got his favorite, Salty Milk while I enjoyed the exotic Black Sesame flavor. Susan opted for an orangey citrus fruit flavor as Steph picked Green Tea. We sampled everyone’s before devouring this lovely treat.
An hour later we arrived at Andrew’s apartment in Shimanto. A beautiful 1 bedroom with a washitsu (traditional Japanese room). Our first day of activities brought us to a pagoda at the top of a nearby mountain. The drive up this windy path brought about our first realizations that we were on a semi-tropical island. Waterfalls by the road criss-crossed algae laden paths as tiny crabs shuffled back and forth. Many bends presented a tight hairpin turn and no way to tell who was coming down the mountain, luckily we only passed one other car in the entire trip.
Once at the top we caught a spectacular view of Shimanto, the river and mountains around us. We lingered for a few moments before climbing back down the stairs and taking a brief ride on the zip lines (just for fun!). We jumped back in the car and took a mini tour of the town. Shimanto’s quiet streets are a mix of modern apartment buildings and traditional Japanese houses. Andrew pointed out many of his students playing the streets. In a city of 30,000 they have 22 elementary & middle schools because Japan’s constitution dictates that all students must be able to walk to school. Some of the schools were run down and old while others had just been renovated. Most of the old schools had renovation plans but it might take a few years for all of his 2,600 students to have a brand new classroom.
Our first dinner in Japan was a spectacular assortment of vegetables, meats and fish at a Japanese fusion restaurant who’s name translates to “Golden Pig” near Andrew’s apartment. Below you’ll see pictures of recognizable gyoza (dumplings), a napiform (root vegetable), many types of fish including fugu (puffer fish) which we got a warning before eating. “If your fingers and toes start to go numb tell us immediately so we can get you to the hospital.” Fugu is puffer fish, a famously lethal delicacy in Japan which requires great care to prepare and serve. We ate oysters, fried chicken skin, pork wrapped sprouts, rice cake filled with veggies and meats, a chicken stir- fry, savory squid-radish delicacy and a delicious fish of unknown origin. Being Japan our meal was accompanied by local beer and of course, sake!
After dinner Andrew’s co-workers and friends joined us at his apartment for a small get together where we exchanged stories about living abroad detailing differences between living in Korea and Japan. The party went into the wee hours of the morning and turned out to be the talk of the town the next day. After all, there were 3 new foreigners who had been photographed all day at the mall and other local hangouts.
Andrew and I woke up early the next morning to catch some waves. The beaches near Shimanto are some of the best in the world and remain a hidden gem largely due to Japanese culture’s desire for white skin. Although he will regularly be one of 3 people on these gorgeous beaches today we found the waters crowded with competitors and spectators for a surfing competition a few beaches down. In spite of the “crowd” Andrew helped me remember what I had practiced last night with David and gave me a mini-surf lesson.
Once in the water I knew that it wouldn’t matter how I surfed, the clear water was just slightly cooler than a bath and significantly warmer than any Korean or New Jersey waters which I was used to. The hardest part turned out to be simply paddling without falling off. I understood the technique to popping up and had tried it a few times on dry land. The only issue was setting up a situation where I could actually pop up. I had to “catch a wave” and could barely align my board in time!
After lots of practice I finally caught my first wave and rode it to shore like a glorified boogie boarder! Paddling back out I managed to catch another a few waves later, by now I felt much more comfortable paddling around and decided to try and stand up on the next run. Riding the wave in I pressed both hands up and pushed off landing promptly in the water. Another attempt and I found myself exhausted from paddling. We took a break on the shore before giving it another shot. In total I rode about a dozen waves in and tried to pop up a handful of times. The good news was Andrew managed to catch the last 2 attempts on film!
Andrew invited us all to watch a parent observed lesson at the local elementary school at around noon. He was volunteering his time to help his coworker Yoshi Sensei (for the kids), Jun Yai (for everyone else). Their open house included a lesson of the teacher’s choice and Yoshi Sensei picked English class to show off to all the parents. It was quite fun watching the English & Japanese native teachers go through a days of the week song and “how’s the weather” game while the little munchkins did their best to chorally respond and pronounce this vastly different language.
Later that day the 4 of us took a road trip through the monkey-filled forested mountains towards the Cape Ashizuri . Rain began a torrential downpour along the drive and we hoped it would be clear at our destination. We arrived at Ashizuri-Uwakai National Park, the first Japanese marine park shortly after coming out of the many tunnels to a sheet of rainwater and found that the storm hadn’t reared its head in this pristine nature reserve.
We enjoyed a leisurely hike along the rocks spotting dozens of fish, hundreds of snails and thousands of creepy looking insects. The landscape was unlike anything I’ve ever seen as the rounded rocks jutted into the waters as parallel paths of us to follow. Their layered colors reminded me of marbled breads and surrounded this beautiful scenery. Unfortunately the underwater observatory was closed by the time we reached it but along with a glass-bottom boat they provide some significant tourism to the coastal region.
Our last meal in Shimanto’s remote town was a sushi restaurant directly across the street from Andrew’s apartment. On the outside it looks like a tiny hole in the wall covered with curtains. Upon pushing the black cloth aside a rotund interior immediately expands before you. The kitchen is surrounded by a bar of single customers but we are led upstairs to find a second bar with couples and a single table set aside for our small group. The owners & chef know Andrew and are happily chatting away with him in Japanese when we are seated and begin looking at the menu.
Moments later an elderly Japanese woman comes over to deliver a broad smile and English menus; possibly the first time they have ever been used. She apologizes in Japanese to Andrew saying that there might be some mistakes on the menu but we are all very appreciative. As we ask for a round of beer and discuss what food to order Yoshi Sensei (Jun Yai), the teacher from earlier in the day arrives and walks over to join us!
Susan and I peruse the menu looking for something unique and “crazy” when we both happen upon whale. Japan is widely criticized by organizations around the world for its whaling industry and Japanese catch flak for their taste in endangered fish such as whale. This political controversy gives us cause to pause and think before telling Jun Yai that we would love to try some. He orders a round of other dishes and one by one we are brought a raw wasabi octopus, 2 types of lightly seared tuna and moray eel. These delicacies are all locally caught in the Shimanto River which Jun Yai proudly points out. Next came our whale, a jellyfish salad and river seaweed clumps. The whale was tasty but we decided not delicious enough to warrant ordering a second round so we got some more seaweed and what we think was swordfish.
Surprisingly many of the fish dishes here were cooked, often battered and fried. In spite of what was a more recognizable preparation they were unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. The jellyfish salad reminded me of a sweet & salty jello while whale tasted like a fishy steak. Up next was a sweet potato croquet and fried river shrimp. These small creatures get popped in whole and go down with a delicious crunch! The last item on the menu was a perfectly fried chicken. Unlike in Korea we didn’t have to worry about too much oil or any bones. About halfway through the meal we were presented with a hot & cold sake and by the end the owners asked us to come try their pulley system for bringing food to the top floor.
We thought the feast was over when suddenly Andrew asked for 5 orders of Miss Shimanto. Despite being named after the town, Miss Shimanto is a dish unique to this restaurant that consists of sweet potato mixed with seaweed as a bed for vanilla ice cream! It was the perfect ending to a perfect day here in Shimanto.
The next morning we awoke early and headed for the train. We had 5 hours on a local train before being able to transfer to Japan’s famed Shinkasen, more commonly known as the “bullet train.” Along the scenic route we passed deep blue rivers filled with rapids and rafters, rice paddies, lush evergreen forests and iconic Japanese landscapes filled with traditional houses and tall apartment complexes.
We must have just made the train because once onboard the Shinkasen the train began accelerating almost instantly. Walking through nearly a dozen reserved cars we lightly swayed back and forth in the aisle from the centrifugal forces caused by the acceleration of this superexpress train. It felt as it looked, like a spaceship speeding over land, through tunnels and past even more rice paddies. Finally at our seats the best thing I could relate our journey to was flying high in the air in an airplane but in fact this 300 mph journey screamed across the surface of the Earth along specially designed tracks in an amazing feat of modern engineering.