Thursday, June 8, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 1 : A luxurious interlude at Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge

Our first day's walk from Takijiri to Takahara was gruelling -- at least it was for me, an on-again-off-again hiker.  It would be more dramatic to say that I crawled in on my hands and knees into our lodgings for the night but tired as I was, I still managed to saunter in upright on my own two feet.

It was dusk when we got to  Takahara -- a tiny mountaintop village with an elevation of 317 
meters and the temperature had dropped a few degrees.  
Chilly as it was, a warm welcome awaited us as we walked into The  Kiri-no-Sato Takahara Lodge.  A government-built facility but now privately managed, this boutique hotel is rustic and pleasant.  
Local Japanese wood -- perhaps from the very same trees that I had walked through in the forest,  
is used extensively throughout -- reminding me of Alpine mountain lodges and Swiss chalets.  

A hospitable touch was this jug of cold water infused with herbs from the hotel's organic garden.  
Refreshing and instantly revitalising!

I was not prepared for this view that awaited me when I opened the door to our room for the night. 
I literally gasped -- what a glorious sight!  
The Hatenashi mountain range, framed by the masses of rhododendrons was a gift of grace that healed my spirit and nourished my soul.

All rooms in this small hotel have a small wooden deck, equipped with lounge chairs so you can step out and inhale the fresh mountain air.  And of course, fill your eyes with the incomparable scenery.

I'm sorry but you'll have to suffer through this self indulgent photo.  Jay and I were both absolutely overwhelmed with the view.

I could barely tear myself away from the room but dinner was to be served at 7 pm.  We were a big group of 10 and the staff did a good job of seating us all together. 
By the time I got to the dining room,  everything was meticulously laid out.

Dinner was a showcase of traditional Japanese dishes. It was a tasty and tasteful collection of small and delicious morsels, a study in contrasting textures and flavours.  
To start with, an assortment of  tsukemono or pickles, with the ingredients picked from the lodge's organic gardens.  The salty-tart flavours are meant to whet your appetite and open up the palate. 
Two kinds of sashimi and boiled shellfish reminded me that even if Takahara is in the mountains, 
it is part of the Kii Peninsula and the nearby towns are known for fresh fish and seafood.  
A delicate creamy tofu with an unmistakeable peanut flavour was a surprising touch.
The main course was sukiyaki -- with tender mouthfuls of umami rich wagyu that just melted in the mouth.   We each had individual cooking pots -- each one lit up by the attentive waitstaff at the precise moment before they brought out our bowls of steaming hot and fragrant rice. 
Everything was done to perfection!

As we were nearly done, these small plates came out from the kitchen.  Assorted bits of vegetables -- beans, radish, sprouts and ferns were coated with batter and lightly fried,  tempura style.  
The hotel proprietor came by to assure us that these were foraged from both the gardens and the mountainside right before they were cooked.   
Instead of the usual tempura sauce, he encouraged us to use the sea salt on the side -- it did bring out the natural sweetness and freshness of the vegetables.

At the end of the table, standing on the right is one of the most convivial and gracious hosts that 
I have ever met.  
Jian san owns and runs the Lodge , on a long term lease from the government.  He is Japanese and speaks English fluently although with a French accent.  This is  because he lived and studied in Paris for many years.   
Jian san brings a definite fusion of European and Japanese touches into the hotel. 
He made sure that everyone in the dining room was well attended to -- stopping to chat and give each guest his full and undivided attention.  

After dinner it was time for onsen!  While each room has an en suite toilet, baths are taken in the onsen  -- segregated between males and females.  Taking advantage of the fact that I was first in the bath and all alone, I sneaked this photo.
The onsen is spacious and very clean -- ideal for four or even five people to share. 
The water was deliciously hot -- Jian san said that the water comes from the natural springs at
Wataze Onsen near Hongu and it is brought all the way into Takahara.  
I enjoyed a long and much needed soak -- all the little knots and kinks just melted away. 

A common feature in Japanese inns, hotels, ryokans, minshukus, etcis the vending machine. 
More convenient and certainly cheaper than room service,  it is indispensable for any late night drinking plans.  This particular one was stocked with among other things, cold Kirin Beer and 
was conveniently located right outside the bath area -- how could I resist its glowing blue lights?

Jay doesn't drink but our millennial Amigo Mayk does.  Kampai!

Our affable host Jian told us that Takahara is also known as the "Village in the Mist" (which is what Kiri no Sato means).
At certain times of the year, the entire valley is covered with mist and clouds. 
The next morning, I woke up at 5 to try and see if I would see this phenomenon but only a thin wisp was hovering above the Hatenashi mountains.  It was still amazing though to wake up to this view.

Jay and I wandered out to the open air terrace just outside the dining room.  Mismatched benches 
and this table was the ideal spot for a  pre-breakfast cup of coffee.  

Used cork from empty wine bottles are strewn on top of this log.   I was tempted to add the pull tabs from our cans of Kirin beer to this quirky but stylish arrangement. 

I met this charming Japanese lady whose husband had celebrated his birthday the night before 
(I know because the waiters brought out a cake and sung to him).  
From Yokohama, she and her husband were also doing the Kumano Kodo and I would see them again at various stages of our hike.

The normal Japanese breakfast is composed of fish, rice and some side dishes.  
We were served a fatty smoked mackerel,  sweet with woody notes.  It came with a tart dried plum or ume which is grown in the area, the ubiquitous crunchy tsukemono, a slice of tamagoyaki or rolled omelet and my favourite hijiki salad. 
This healthy meal would fortify us for the long walk ahead.

One group photo in front of the Takahara Organic Lodge before we set off.  Rejuvenated by a restful night in splendid surroundings, we were ready to move on.  

Lesson learned : This is such a lovely place that I would love to come back.  It would be a perfect place to relax for a night or two and spend the time exploring the small picturesque villages in the area.  It is reachable by public bus from Kii Tanabe station. 

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