Saturday, August 7, 2010

I think we have an em-urchin-cy

Road trip, day 4.

With one of us looking sheepish and queasy, we struck out east to the Pacific coast with Aoife in the driving seat, crossing the border into Miyagi prefecture (yes, like Mr Miyagi). It was a real scorcher. Seeing our first beach, we couldn't contain our excitement and stopped the car to take a morning dip. Or rather, we adopted our standard swimming formation, i.e. me, Tim, and the girls actually swimming, Adam wading around with his trousers rolled up like a true Brit, and Graham sitting in the the shade somewhere. Compared to the lake, the water was surprisingly chilly; I guess the ocean has quite a bit of thermal inertia. On the plus side, we were more buoyant. Tim complimented me on my floating skills, which I think might have been an indirect way of saying I'm fat.

We drove on, hugging the jagged coastline in what must have seemed to person X like a deliberate attempt to make xem lose xry buffet breakfast. When the call went up for lunch, I directed us to the first place I saw with the symbols for 'fish' and 'eat'. Walking in, I had some misgivings. The place appeared to be a fishmonger's that had cleared a bit of space and set up a couple of tables for customers to eat at. But what it lacked in presentation it made up for in unbelievable quality and value. For 1000 yen each we got a generous sashimi (raw fish) set with rice and miso soup, and they kept chucking extra freebies our way. This started off with the routine appetiser of cucumbers and miso paste, but they quickly upped the ante with some fearsome-looking hoya, which the Archos tells me are sea squirts. Raw, naturally. But then they wheeled out the really big guns, plucking some sea urchins from the tank, cracking them open to expose their edible orange innards, and serving them up to us with their outer spines still moving as their primitive nervous systems gave up the ghost.

You'll recall that raw sea urchin was the only thing that my guests had been unable to eat so far, so it was with some trepidation that we sampled these delicacies. However, the real deal is far more palatable than the low-grade stuff they use at Kappa Sushi; I'd go as far as to say it's quite nice.

For me, the star of the whole show was the raw octopus (rawctopus?). This is something that I usually tend to avoid, as it can be tough and rubbery. But when you're eating at a fishmonger's that's within sea-squirting distance of the ocean, you get the very freshest stuff, and this was beautifully tender. The only thing I didn't like about the meal was that I fear it has permanently damaged my enjoyment of dodgy 100yen sushi.

I should point out that person X, in xyr fragile gastric state, opted out of the seafood, but they gave xem rice and soup for free anyway. They went even further above and beyond the call of customer service when we, seeing that someone was eating riceballs, tried to order some. It turned out that she worked there and the riceballs were not on the menu, they were simply her lunch, but she gave them to us anyway. As we were about to leave, they insisted that we go upstairs to see the free exhibits. The place was in fact a triple threat: a fishmonger, restaurant, and museum of marine fossils all rolled into one. Sure enough, I noticed that its name translated literally as 'fish dragon hall'. It stands out as a shining example of how well things can go when you ignore the guidebook and improvise.

We drove on, soaking in all the beautiful little coves and trying not to imagine dolphins being slaughtered in them. Our travels took us to the city of Ishinomaki, whose claim to fame was that a celebrated manga artist came from there, a fact that they were milking for all it was worth: there were life-size statues of various comic book characters all over the place. As it seemed like the thing to do, we went to the manga museum, which was shaped like a fat flying saucer. Because it was closing soon we didn't pay to go into the exhibition, and the free part wasn't really up to much. The gift shop did however have the most comprehensive selection of Hello Kitty merchandise I have seen to date, although sadly the fabled Hello Kitty 'massage wand' still eludes me.

We had one eye on potential places for dinner, but nothing jumped out at us so we pressed on to our hotel for the night. It was a good thing we didn't eat, as a quick look in my holiday dossier reminded me that dinner was included at this place. And what a dinner it was. As is the Japanese style, it consisted of many little dishes. In fact, I counted twelve, which has to be some kind of record. It was all excellent, but the highlight was probably a flat fish that they had taken the unusual step of cooking. The atmosphere was really nice too; Aoife accurately described it as being like visiting the Japanese granny you never had.

The place we were staying was on the less touristy east side of Matsushima, a bay containing over two hundred pine tree covered islands (the name literally mean 'pine island(s)') ranging from a couple with houses and schools on them to those that barely have space for one pine tree. It is widely held to be one of the three most beautiful spots in Japan, and there are four specific points to view it from, each with a supposedly different character. We started day five with a short but punishing uphill walk to take in the 'magnificent view'. (The others are 'beautiful', 'enchanting' and 'grand' - maybe something is being lost in translation.) We then hit another beach, and this one had the added attraction that a bunch of fighter jets were doing an aerobatic display overhead. Since the Japanese military is basically forbidden to do anything more violent than a nasty Chinese burn without America's express written consent, I guess they have a lot of time for training.

We pressed on to the heart of Matsushima. It is a bit of a tourist trap, and we had to fend off some hard sells of lunch. I was glad it was a thursday, as I imagine the place would be hellish on a summer weekend. People weren't up for the boat tour, so we paid a couple of hundred yen to cross a bridge to an attractive private island for a stroll.

We had been having a kind of ongoing competition to see who could find the most weird / horrible thing in a vending machine. Adam had been making a strong showing with 'Miracle Body', which appeared to be 500ml of potent stimulants, and 'Cola Up', which was bad cola with chunks of jelly in it. But I think I outdid him when I purchased a creme caramel in a can. I'm not talking about a creme caramel flavour drink; this thing had to be sucked out. It was not very thirst-quenching.

Having got our fill of Matsushima, we headed back home to Yamagata. We took the mountain road, which was an adventure in itself. Some of the roads around these parts really are bonkers. Joy had to make extensive use of the semi-automatic mode, but fortunately she seemed to be blessed with an uncanny ability to only meet oncoming traffic where there was a place to pass.

The reason for this mountainous diversion was to take in the Okama crater lake, which is becoming old hat to regular readers. All I'll say is that I'm starting to have serious doubts about its claim to having five colours; it's been green three out of three times I've been there.

For dinner we went to a huge shopping centre on the outskirts of Yamagata City and had some shabu shabu - always a crowd-pleaser. We concluded the evening by crashing the mall. Tim bagged a couple of excellent Engrish T-shirts. The first had a cartoon picture of a cat's paw, and said "A sensitive tongue to heat". I impressed myself by knowing what that was all about: in Japanese there is an idiom, 'to have a cat's tongue' meaning that you have trouble eating hot food. The second T-shirt, however, mystified me, and I suspect that it defies explanation in any language. Beside a shape vaguely resembling a running man, it said "Digestion: there is no royal road". Your guess is as good as mine.

While Tim was doing this, Adam and I hit the arcade. In one corner it had a few pachinko machines, and since this was a far less threatening environment than a proper noisy, smoky pachinko hall, I decided it would be a good opportunity to initiate him to this quintessentially Japanese pastime. We quickly squandered a few hundred yen and walked away, failing to see the attraction. Having since looked into this, I get the impression that when these machines pay out they pay out big (somewhere in the region of 5000yen) but to stand any chance of getting that prize you need to be in for the long haul, investing (on average) rather more than 5000yen.

Adam fancied trying his hand at the other quasi-gambling games. You know those crappy penny falls machines, where 2 pence pieces get shunted along by sliding platforms? The Japanese have raised these to an art form. They are typically arranged as octagonal or decagonal islands with the familiar platforms around the outside, and all sorts of crazy balls, tubes, chutes, rails and screens in the middle. If your tokens fall through certain slots, various sub games like video slot machines can be activated. Should you win this, then something exciting happens, like a ball being released onto the platform. Should you pump in enough money to push that ball over the edge, one can only dream of what might happen next. I have to applaud the way they have taken a fairly boring game and skillfully injected just enough intrigue to make it fiendishly addictive. Like Peggle, but more expensive.

And that concludes the road trip portion of the holiday! To celebrate, I'd like to offer you a game: guess which of my friends (Adam, Aoife, Graham, Joy, Tim) became obsessed with each of the following things on holiday. Flickr might give you some clues, as might future posts, I guess.

Plum wine (three people)
Japanese insects and the size thereof (two people)
100 yen shops (two people)
Vegetable patches
The dietary supplement Calorie Mate
Sweating shortly after having a shower


  1. And some guesses:

    Plum wine - Tim, Joy, Aoife

    Japanese insects and the size thereof - Graham,Adam

    100 yen shops - Tim, Aoife

    Vegetable patches - Joy?

    Fabric - Aoife?

    The dietary supplement Calorie Mate - Adam?

    Sweating shortly after having a shower - Graham?

  2. Shabu shabu is the thing where you cook meat and vegetables yourself in a kind of cauldron at your table. Not to be confused with yakiniku, which is similar but with a grill, or sukiyaki, which is more like a stew.

    Your guesses are very good, only two mistakes. I'm guessing you've seen Adam's Calorie Mate stockpile by now.

  3. I think it was Tim who discovered Cola-Up originally actually. Also, I object to the way you've written that to make it seem like the interest taken in the penny falls machines was mine alone.

  4. Don't be afraid of your obsessions - that's the Japanese way isn't it?

    Also, I went to a volcanic lake once, and there was a similar claim that it changed colours. Apparently this was due to the whims of a lake monster that lived there.

  5. I've managed to put some (ahem, 200) photos up on Facebook. Everyone should be able to see them, even if we're not friends

    I'll do another album for Tokyo

  6. or maybe this one, if the other doesn't work

  7. Those Hello Kitty massage wands are available at sex shops in Akiba. Check it out next time you're in Tokyo!!

    They don't give much pleasure though!


  8. You've exposed me for the prude that I am! I'm too scared to go into sex shops.

  9. Aoife, those photos are excellent, and put mine to shame.

    #131: Tsumami means a snack to accompany drinking, and isn't usually cause to run for the hills. A tsunami is a wave caused by an earthquake.

    #185 really makes me laugh.

    #189 is so sweet! I'll have to send it to Marie.

  10. And guess who Mr X with xyr fragile gastric state was??
    Laughing at your comments about your floating skills by the way Finlay.
    Hmm, plum wine....