Think of the primary visual signifiers we associate with Christmas. Not the ones relating to, y'know, Christ or anything like that: the other ones. The jolly old man with a white beard. The red and white colour scheme. The consumption of poultry. Put them all together, and they sort of explain why one of the major traditions associated with the festive season in Japan is KFC. Yes, that KFC. The Japanese may not celebrate December 25th as a holiday, but on Christmas Eve families make a point of buying massive boxes of fried chicken to eat at home that evening. Based on that one piece of information, my niece thinks that Japan sounds like the best place in the world to be in December. Your mileage may vary.
What's Japan like on Christmas Day? You're about to find out, as part two of our Japan 2014 journal finds us taking the train out of Tokyo and heading towards the Tohoku region, the area of the country that was hit by the tsunami in 2011. By accident rather than by design, this page is going up on the fourth anniversary of the disaster. It doesn't get more festive than that.
Once off the boat, we start to explore the town. There's still evidence of the damage caused by the tsunami: for example, the derelict Orgel Museum, whose collection of annoying music boxes appears to have been permanently wrecked, even though the tourist office is still advertising it as an attraction. Still, at least the 7-Eleven is still open, allowing us to experience a new thrill - being able to get cash from their ATM, after a decade or more of only post office ATMs being available for international visitors. They seem to work okay, but be warned that The BBG had some dodgy transactions appear on her card a week or two after this, although she's not entirely sure of the correlation.
During lunch (see below), we comb through the various tourist leaflets we were handed on arrival, and The BBG spots a useful elevated viewpoint that we should investigate. However, the tourist map is too sketchy to give us a coherent walking route, and the map we find on a street sign marking it as an assembly point in the event of flooding is even worse. Eventually, a little old lady passing by on a motorbike takes pity on us and accompanies us more or less all the way there, even though it's in the opposite direction from where she was heading. The view is actually pretty great, and well worth the effort, but it's still bloody freezing up there. Less energetic view-seekers should instead consider paying the 200 yen toll to cross the red wooden Fukuura Bridge over to Fukuura-jima. It's a good island to walk around: small enough that you can circumnavigate it via one of three colour-coded paths (stone, woodchip or dirt), long enough that you feel like you've achieved something at the end of it. The nature park bits are obviously a bit rubbish at this time of year, but the nearby islands actually look better from there than they do from the boat.
We get the train back to Sendai, where we're staying for the next two nights, and find our way onto the subway. It's a less complex affair than Tokyo's - just one line, with a second on the way in 2015 - but perhaps its angular SS logo should have been thought through a little more carefully. When we get out at Kita-Yonbancho we find that the snow has started coming down seriously, making the ten minute walk to our lodgings at Bansuitei-ikoiso a bit of an arse. But it's our first traditional ryokan of the trip, and the staff are delightfully welcoming, as they are at all these places. The hot communal bath certainly feels great after a day of travelling.
The next day - coincidentally, the Emperor's birthday, and therefore the one day of our trip that's an actual public holiday - involves a lot of sightseeing structured around the route of the Sendai Loople tourist bus. The hard part turns out to be walking through the snow from the ryokan to the bus stop outside the Mediatheque, which requires two sets of strap-on shoe spikes and a lot of patience. Once we've paid the 620 yen for a day pass, we get to make a circular journey round several tourist landmarks, many of which give you a discount if you show your Loople ticket. We get off at Zuiho-den mausoleum, the final resting place of town icon Date Masamune (his image is everywhere, most cheekily riding a snowboard in a tourism advert): Aoba-jo, the site of the ruined Sendai Castle, now the location of an ambiguously-advertised CG recreation as well as a splendid set of views: and the rather pretty Osaki Hachimangu shrine.
We eventually leave the bus back where we started, at the Mediatheque. It's a fascinating arts centre, its facilities apparently completely open to all: people are sitting around reading, or attending a lecture on the role of the media, or catching a free film to celebrate the holiday. A bunch of five young people are sat around a whiteboard brainstorming something as if they own the place, which I guess they do. The centrepiece exhibition (which finished in mid-January) is an extraordinary part of their ongoing 3/11 memorial project - the Mediatheque was hit by it too, as some terrifying post-earthquake photos testify. A series of short films on aspects of the disaster and the subsequent reconstruction is projected in a collection of recreated domestic rooms, which I guess we have to assume no longer exist in this form. Towards the end, the weight of people's memories of the day becomes huge, as the documentation moves away from video to written and artistic responses. We initially plan to tear round this exhibit in the 20 minute gap between two Loople buses, but end up missing the bus we were aiming for to give ourselves more time there, and wishing we had enough time to miss another.
Unfortunately, we can't do that: the Loople bus stops have signs on them announcing that the service is terminating early today, without actually explaining why. Some research in the information section at Mediatheque eventually reveals that for one day only, there's going to be a Christmas parade down the main street, which is currently drenched in fairy lights as part of the Sendai Pageant Of Starlight. Promotion for the parade has been atrocious, though: you'd assume there would be posters everywhere for something like this, but the only information we've found has been a one-line summary of times buried in a listings freesheet. In fact, the word 'parade' turns out to be a little misleading. For the first twenty minutes or so, yes, there's a march down the length of Sendai's main street featuring Santas, cheerleaders and marching bands. Then there's a long period of confusion as the lights are turned off and nobody seems to know what to do next. Eventually, it becomes clear that the street has been subdivided into several performance areas, and the various cheerleader groups and marching bands are doing individual turns in each one. We spend a nice hour or so wandering between them all, but eventually your appetite for pre-pubescent Japanese girls wearing tiny skirts in freezing cold weather hits a wall, surprisingly.
The next day is Christmas Eve, and it's time to leave Sendai again. Before we can do that, though, we have to pay our respects to Japan's festive dining traditions. As expected, Sendai Station's KFC is rammed with people picking up family boxes for eating tonight, so much so that all non-chicken options are off the menu. Sadly, this means The BBG has to sit there glumly picking at a bag of chips while I have a standard two piece chicken dinner, possibly the first one I've eaten sober in several decades. She's happier at Italian Tomato, which is serving a selection of Japanese holiday cakes, along the lines of the one made by Shonen Knife in our official Christmas Day message. We go for slices of the traditional strawberry cake, with bizarrely sweet (verging on chemical) strawberries.
Matsushima Bay is not just one of the official 3 most scenic places in Japan: it is also famous for oysters which are grown in the bay. Given that oysters are a winter dish, it made sense to have some while we were there, and so for lunch we both had the oyster burgers at the Matsushima Fish Market. At a mere 350 yen each, these were incredibly good value, and were extremely tasty. There were plenty of other options available at the market, but I’d highly recommend these.
Back in Sendai, we decided to wander the entertainment district of Kokubuncho in search of dinner. The local Sendai speciality is beef tongue, which is no good for me. We had to find somewhere with seafood available, and we picked the izakaya Dai-syo. It still comes as a bit of a surprise whenever I get reminded about smoking still being allowed in bars and restaurants in Japan by being seated next to a smoker. Still, that wasn’t too big a problem, and we were still able to enjoy our meal. We ordered a selection of scallop sashimi, grilled flatfish, oysters on sticks, jumbo yakitori, grilled garlic aubergine, jacket potato with butter, and grilled riceball, all washed down with some beer - in fact, we’d tried to order more, but the waiter stopped us, as we were hugely over ordering. That was good of him, even if it did mean that Spank didn’t get some of his original choices, as we were ordering them in the order they were written in the menu. Everything we had was pretty good, and the prices reasonable.
I was hoping we’d be able to find a craft beer bar in Sendai, and we had a stroke of luck when we stopped off for lunch at the Crepuscule café inside the Sendai Mediatheque. It turned out that the café is a bit of a beer specialist, and it had a map leaflet showing all sorts of other beer specialist bars in Sendai, which is how we discovered Good Beer Market Enn. This turned out to be a pretty tiny place, and when we arrived we were the only customers - and in fact the whole time we were there, only one other person came in, who definitely seemed to be a regular. We soaked our beers up with a selection of beer foods, sharing some extremely tasty chips in salty seaweed flakes, some raw veg sticks with 2 types of mayonnaise, and also some dried fruits, which we were rapidly coming to see as a Japanese craft beer bar typical snack. I was particularly taken with the chips being served with the seaweed, which is something I’d not had before, but which worked very well. The dried fruits were also very good, and I especially liked the presentation of the raisins being still on the vine, which is something I had never seen before. Spank finally got to try some beef tongue, served here in red wine, which he tells me was excellent, while I chose the octopus in beer batter, which was also very good. We stuck entirely with Japanese craft beer, including a couple of Tohoku local beers (a Tohoku Damashii Iburi Ale, and a Iwate Kura Red Ale) and a couple from where we’d come from (Fujizakura Heights Beer Sakura Bock, and Sankt Gallen Yokohama XPA). The last of those was probably the star of the night, although all four were fine beers.
Spank has already talked about our “traditional” Japanese Christmas lunch at KFC and Italian Tomato, but our other meals in Tohoku, of a more traditionally Japanese nature, were all provided by our excellent ryokan in Naruko Onsen, Yusaya. As the meals were the typical huge selection of beautifully presented high class dishes, it’s difficult to highlight any one thing we had. Everything was excellent, and by booking through Japanese Guest Houses, I was easily able to specify my requirement for no meat. We did decide to have some local booze to accompany our Christmas day dinner, and so we had some local sake and an extremely interesting and delicious mountain grape drink, which was more like a local beer made with mountain grapes than a sparkling wine, both in terms of ABV (5.2%) and feel. The mountain grapes added a light fruitiness to the taste, and it complemented the food very well indeed.
She's blown the gaff a little there, so let's get back to the chronology. From Sendai, it's a short hop on the shinkansen and a 45 minute local train to get to Naruko Onsen. As we approach, we see snow both falling and settled, and brace ourselves for what it'll be like at our destination. Apart from the eggy stench you normally associate with a hot spring town, the big surprise is that it initially turns out to be raining, with the streets more covered in slush rather than snow. We get a warm welcome from the staff at the Yusaya ryokan, with an almost instant invitation to use their open-air bath - one of the attractions that made us decide to spend Christmas Day here. It's not really obvious until it's too late that the bath is several hundred metres up a snowy hill from the ryokan, which we have to cover wearing the odd combo of yukata, umbrella and wellies. Still, once we get there, it's a lovely combination of hot water and cold view.
Bathing turns out to play a large part in the next two days, which is what we'd planned all along. Aside from the outdoor pool (bookable in half-hour sessions throughout the day), Yusaya also has two baths inside the ryokan itself, split by gender as is traditional. In a peculiarly sexist touch, during the daytime men are given the larger bath of the two, with women confined to a smaller one. They do let the girls run free in the bigger pool eventually, but only after bedtime (well, between 9pm and 8am). The large bath is definitely better, with a small normal-temperature pool accompanied by a larger superheated one filled with opaque water that apparently makes your skin feel like an eel's. In addition, for the five hours of the day that Yusaya's own baths are shut for cleaning, they give you free vouchers for the public bath next door. The facilities are more basic, but you're getting what feels like a more authentic experience, with a small warm pool and a large hot pool to choose from.
Our room at Yusaya overlooks the public bath, and we get a ridiculous amount of zen enjoyment from simply watching the snow slowly melt on its roof. It's possible that this may have just been an extreme reaction to spending two days in a hotel with no internet access. (Apart from when I crack on Christmas Day and tweet the above open-air bath photo over my phone's 3G, paying three quid for the privilege.) Spending a couple of days forcibly off the grid does help you appreciate the simpler things, it's true. Most of the time, we're happily confined to Yusaya, just eating, bathing and sleeping. The bedding arrangements at Yusaya are weird - layers upon layers of quilts and blankets, and only one sheet that doesn't quite cover the full bed - but they work, as we stay warm the whole night despite the freezing weather outside. It only occurs to me long after the fact that the lack of sheets may be based on the assumption that you're wearing your yukata in bed, an assumption that is completely wrong in our case.
We don't have internet, but we do have a TV, so we catch a couple of Japanese gameshows during the short gaps between baths and meals. NHK's Christmas Eve highlight is called something like Real Japanese People, which is like a more interactive version of Family Fortunes. The contestants are shown short dramatic sketches, and asked what the public's response to questions about them will be. That public response is collated as a live vote right there and then, with experts on hand to providing real-time analysis as the results come in. It's all done with web and teletext voting, but I bet if someone tried a version using premium phone lines they'd make a fortune. Similarly, TV Asahi's six-hour Christmas Day marathon is reminiscent of another Western hit, as Entertainer Survival Award dumps various Japanese celebs on a desert island and watches them fend for themselves. The cast includes a couple of vaguely familiar faces - movie star Shido Nakamura (as seen in Letters From Iwo Jima), and sumo wrestler Toyonoshima. As with many Japanese celebrity-based gameshows, the main source of comedy appears to be laughing at the contestants' stupidity. But it's still a lot less sadistic than I'm A Celebrity: rather than forcing the celebs to eat shit on camera, here the contestants work in pairs to make a nice meal out of whatever they can forage. Nakamura's home-made ramen didn't look bad at all.
There's one more Japanese telly programme worth mentioning, because there's a story attached to it. On previous visits, we've become slightly obsessed with the asadora soaps, little 15 minute bites of melodrama that play on NHK every weekday morning at breakfast time. The current asadora is Massan, the lightly fictionalised story of the first man to manufacture whisky in Japan, who married a Scotchwoman as part of his research. (This is what episode one looked like.) So, on Christmas morning, I'm watching Massan while sat in the little balcony area of our room, and thinking that if they wanted an English title they should have gone with Whisky Business. And then suddenly, I feel a faint wobble in the balcony - like a heavy truck just drove past, although the streets are currently deserted. Within a minute there are on-screen newsflashes, and a special report at the end of the soap confirms it: we've just sat through a Christmas earthquake. Nothing like the size of the one that hit this area in 2011, and thank the new-born Christ for that. But there's usually a point at Christmas where the jollity briefly gives way to something darker, and that was mine.
Two days of all baths and no internet are all well and good, but it's probably enough to be getting on with. So watch out for the third and final part of Rising Monkey 2014, in which we find out if there's anywhere to get decent beer in Kansai.