Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 2 : Minshuku Nakano -- small town Japanese hospitality at its best

When travelling through Japan-off-the-beaten-tourist-track,  away from the bright lights and the big cities -- don't look for a Hilton or a Holiday Inn because there won't be any.  Not even a Best Western.
At best,  you'll probably find a small  business hotel,  part of a Japanese chain.
In the remote towns and hamlets, your best bet would be to stay in a minshuku -- Japan's version of the home stay.   It's couch surfing Japanese style, long before couch surfing became popular. 

After that muscle-straining, sometimes fingernail-biting 9.7 kilometre hike over the mountain
passes, we finally reached Chikatsuyu. 
It was comforting to see these two large figures of the tanuki, that mythical beast modelled on
the Japanese racoon.  It meant a warm welcome was waiting inside as these creatures are found in front of restaurants, bars and in this case, in front of Minshuku Nakano, our rest stop for the night.

Minshukus, for those who have yet to stay in one, is a family run operation  -- these homes accept  travellers and offer rooms with or without meals.  As a guest, you stay with the family, eat at their table, use the shared bath and experience authentic Japanese culture up close and personal.
Some minshukus may be very old houses and some may have just a few rooms.  They are modest and affordable and more often than not, your window into how the Japanese truly live. 
Minshuku Nakano was a relatively modern residence with five rooms -- maybe the owners' 
children had grown up and moved away and something needed to be done with all that space.

An older, one story structure is attached to the minshuku -- perhaps this was the original family home and where I suspect, the owners continue to stay. 

When you enter a Japanese home, it is imperative to remove your shoes. You do this right past the door, at the small entryway called the genkan.  Mind that you don't put your shoes on the wooden floor, only slippers are allowed on this area.

Minshuku Nakano has 3 tatami style guest rooms on the ground floor.  Since we were the late stragglers, we had to climb these steep wooden steps up to the second floor where there were
two more rooms. Our entire group of 10 occupied the whole house for this night.

Here's our tatami style bedroom -- spare but cosy, with a small t.v.  Later after dinner we would lay out our futons which were kept in the closet. 

Nakano san had asked us what time would we want our dinner to be served.   7 p.m seemed reasonable as the couple would still have to wash and clean up after us.  Minshukus are normally run by the family themselves, without any outside help.  
We came down promptly at 7 to this appetising spread laid out on the tables in the living room.

It was  a home cooked meal done by Mrs. Nakano herself.  Each place setting was meticulously arranged -- the Japanese are perfectionists when it comes to food presentation.   Each one of us had sashimi, a grilled fish, a pot of pork and mushroom nabe or hot pot and side dishes of tomatoes, eggplant and beans. 

Ayu or sweetfish is common in the area and I asked Mr. Nakano if the small grilled fish was an ayu.  He said that this red spotted fish is called an amago, a type of salmon.  Since he is an avid fisherman, he caught this fish himself.  
When we arrived, Mr.  Nakano was grilling the amago in the irori -- a traditional indoor sunken pit 
that is used for both heating and cooking.  The irori is no longer such a common sight in most homes and  I was happy to see an actual one in use.  

This nasu or eggplant with miso sauce was easily my favourite of the evening. The lightly broiled eggplant was sweet and instead of the usual miso glaze, Mrs. Nakano's version had a salty-spicy 
miso based paste.  Umai desu yo!

Good food and good friends deserve a bottle of beer -- thankfully, the minshuku has a stock of beer and you can order a bottle (or two)  to go with the meal. 

After the very satisfying dinner, time to head to the bath.  The minshuku has separate facilities for men and women -- one toilet and one bath for each.  Right outside the bath area is a lavatory where you can brush your teeth while someone else is using the bath.  Very efficient and saves time for everyone.

The typical Japanese  ofuro or bath has a shower area where you should very thoroughly soap and wash your entire body before you sink into the hot tub.  
The bathtub is covered to keep the bathwater warm.  Of course it would be ideal if you could be the first one in the bath but in case you find it a bit odd to soak in pre-used bathwater, you will just have to contend yourself with taking a shower.

The futons were clean and smelled so fresh -- Jay was asleep once his head hit the pillow.
O yasumi nasai!

I woke up very early to see this view from outside our bedroom window.  Perhaps these are the very same mountains that I trudged through yesterday.   

This part of Chikatsuyu is quiet and the houses are spaced well apart.  I love that the mountains are so near -- surrounding the village and keeping it "hidden" and seemingly far away from it all.

I took a quick walk around the village -- some of the homes had plots of vegetables with leeks and onions growing by the roadside.

This very hard working lady was cutting the grass growing by her small rice paddy -- she said a friendly "Ohayo!" as I passed by before getting back to her task.  

By the time I returned to the minshuku, breakfast was ready.  A slice of grilled salmon was augmented by egg and slices of sausages -- it was a western/japanese blended breakfast!  

We were ready and out of the door by 8 a.m. to start our third day of walking.  Like the gracious and hospitable hosts that they were,  the Nakanos stood patiently by the front yard to properly see us off.  They were still standing there, waving when I turned the corner and walked down the road.

Lessons learned : Minshuku Etiquette 101
1. Always change to the house slippers when you enter the doorway.
2. Leave the slippers outside your room, do not use them on the tatami mats.
3. When using the toilet, leave the slippers outside the door.   There will be slippers inside, specifically for use in the toilet. 
4. If you plan to use the ofuro or common bath, clean yourself very well with soap and water before soaking in the tub. 
5. It's early lights out in the minshuku and guests are normally expected to check out after breakfast. 

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