Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Japan 2013: Matsuyama Reunion

We all slept in a bit today, probably because of the traveling day yesterday. Charlie & Brendan had their showers & then we had our conbini breakfast of pastries, juice & tea. The plan was to meet-up with our friends, Tomoko & her mom Nobuko-san, this morning at our hotel at around 10:00, so we went down to the lobby to wait for them around 10:00.
Hotel Patio Dogo lobby

Tomoko was out first Japanese teacher, whom we met 8 years ago. She was studying for her Masters degree at the U of R & we met her through a mutual friend when I'd mentioned we were looking for someone to teach us Japanese. We quickly became friends & in our 2 years studying with her, Tomoko gave us a wonderful foundation in Japanese language & culture. We visited Japan for the first time after  these 2 years of lessons, & her mom, Nobuko-san, kindly invited us to stay with her for part of our trip. Tomoko's sister, Keiko-san, & family (including 2 sons, a bit younger than Brendan) live next door to Nobuko-san, so Brendan got to meet some Japanese kids, too. It was amazing to stay with a Japanese family & do some sightseeing with them.

Tomoko left Rochester for the University of Minnesota 6 years ago, after graduating from the U of R, to start PhD studies, but we've stayed connected & she's visited us for New Years a few times as well. Brendan & I got to see her last summer on our brief trip to Japan (she spends part of her summers here), but Charlie hasn't seen her in a couple years. We also stayed with Nobuko-san (who lives in Mizumaki, a small town outside of Fukuoka City, on the southern island of Kyushu) 2 years ago on our last family trip here. As it turns out, Tomoko's father was from Matsuyama & they have relatives here. So when we mentioned that we were going to visit Matsuyama, Tomoko & Nobuko-san arranged to take an overnight ferry from Kyushu to Matsuyama & stay here for a few days. Tomoko says that the ferry is for people who want to visit Dogo Onsen- they can sleep on the boat, then arrive in time for a morning visit to the onsen, some gift shopping, then take the boat back home later that day. That's exactly what they did- except they checked-in at their hotel rather than took the boat back home :)

When they arrived at our hotel, a little after 10:00 am, they were fresh from the onsen. They had cute little baskets that the onsen gave them, to carry their things. We were so happy to see them! Many photos were taken :)
Nobuko-san couldn't believe how tall Brendan had become! She was sure he must be in college, but we assured her that he's "co-co ni-nen-sei" (3rd year high school student- in Japan, high school starts at 10th grade & lasts 3 years).  We spent some time catching-up & then decided to take the streetcar to Ropeway Dori (the ropeway is a ski lift thingy that is one way to get to Matsuyama Castle) & look for a place to eat. Tomoko's Matsuyama friend, Yuka-san, had emailed us some restaurant ideas, & 2 of them were there. The streetcar station was a short walk from our hotel, & about 10 minutes in an air-conditioned trolley.
baby birds in a nest over a store near our hotel
Karakuri (mechanical doll) clock that "comes alive" every hour

 Nobuko-san & I continued to catch-up on things during the ride. She speaks no English, & when my Japanese got stretched too thin Brendan would look words up for me on his iPhone app :) But she & I generally get by without too much trouble.
Matsuyama streetcar, right across from Ropeway Dori
Ropeway Dori (dori means "street") is a narrow street off the main road with lots of little shops & restaurants. It was hot, but pleasant out, so it was a nice stroll. We decided to try a place called SohSoh for lunch. It's noted for it's heathy dishes with lots of local vegetables- perfect for our crowd. Tomoko said that the kanji for the restaurant's name means "grass" (it's the kusaki part of kusaki-zome, which is the word for natural/plant-based dyeing inJapanese).
Lunch was delicious! The food wasn't the usual soba-udon-tempura. There was brown rice & lots of side-dishes that were so yummy! Most were veggie-based, so it wasn't too hard to get a meat-free lunch for Brendan.

I'm going to apologise here for the lack of food photos. I think I've gotten far enough into our trip that the fabulous food is becoming such a normal occurrence that I don't remember to take photos! Arrgh! But- wow! The food here is so great! (After living in the US for so many years, Tomoko says she agrees with me :)

After lunch we strolled & shopped some :) More prezzies to take home! We decided to take the Bocchan Densha back to our hotels, which is a special train that looks (& feels) like the trains that ran here in the early 20th century. Tomoko looked-up the schedule, so we had some time for dessert at the only Starbucks in Matsuyama (we think :). It was Tomoko & Nobuko-san's first time at Starbucks (I don't know how Tomoko has avoided it so far, living in the US for so long...).
Nobuko-san & Tomoko deciding what to have
Charlie & his macaron (Japanese-style macaroon)
Then we went to wait for the Bocchan Densha!

I did some research, & it turns out that Bocchan (usually anglicised as "Botchan") is the name of one of the most famous novels in Japanese, written by Souseki Natsume in 1906. It's a story about a young man from Tokyo (the titular Bocchan, which means "young lord") who finishes university & is assigned to teach in Matsuyama, far away from anything modern or familiar. The story explores the issues around Japan's rapid modernisation in the late Meiji era (post-black ships). The Dogo Onsen features prominently in the book, & there are various characters who are archetypal- the person with strong morals, the left-leaning person, the weak-willed person, etc. We've seen wooden cutouts (the kind with a hole for your face) all over town with these characters on them & now I understand :)

The Bocchan Densha (densha means "train") was quite the experience:

It looks like a steam engine but is run by electricity on the same tracks as the streetcars. The seats are polished wood & it's a very bumpy ride! There's no air conditioning, but they have uchiwa fans you can use (I'm holding one in the picture :)

On the way back to the hotel Charlie took some more great pictures of the Dogo. Tomoko had showed us a map of the place that they'd been given when they went this morning, & the first floor is the baths, the second is the place to change clothes & have a rest & refreshment (Nobuko-san had a little nap there this morning) & then the 3rd floor is reserved for special events. The whole building is open to the air, with bamboo mats flapping over the openings.

Tomoko & her mom went back to their hotel for a little rest in the afternoon, & so did we. Charlie & I also did some breakfast & omiyage shopping . We all got together again at 6:00 pm to go get some dinner. Tomoko asked at their hotel & they recommended an udon restaurant about 10 minutes walk away. It was cooling down a bit, so the walk was pleasant. It was a combination tables-tatami room restaurant,  but we went for tables. The food, once again, was great! I had cold udon noodles in broth (with a little quail's egg to break into my broth) & kakiage tempura made with shrimp & onions (kakiage is like a big fritter). We were able to get veggie-only tempura for Brendan, & Charlie gave me the enormous shrimp from his tempura (after taking a bite out of one & admitting it wasn't too fishy- he doesn't like seafood much because it tastes fishy to him). Once again, the only picture I remembered to take was the leftovers:
But I got a nice shot of the plastic food in the entryway:

Nobuko-san had asked me during dinner if we do the plastic food thing in the US & I explained that seems to be only Asian restaurants that do it. Here there's plastic food versions of everything- even ice cream :)

And here's an after-dark picture of the restaurant.

The walk home was lovely. The little street we were on had a canal running alongside (looking for all the world like it was coming from the Dogo- runoff?) & then eventually under the sidewalk, & we could hear the pleasant sound or water running the whole way back to the arcade. We browsed a bit & then had some iyokan (local version of the mikan orange) soft ice cream cones for dessert. Yum! (for any of my friends who know how terribly lactose intolerant I am, Japan is the magic place because none of the dairy products here bother me! How do they do it?!?)

We said ouyasuminasai (good night) to Tomoko & Nobuko-san at our hotel, & we are looking forward to meeting Tomoko's friend Yuka-san tomorrow for a day of sightseeing by car.

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