Monday, July 24, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 4 : An evening in Katsuura and Minshuku Wakatake

Its proximity to Nachi Taisha, the third Kumano Grand Shrine and the last we had yet to visit,
was the reason for spending our last night at Katsuura -- a coastal town facing the Pacific Ocean.
I couldn't believe we were on our last night -- tomorrow morning after the visit to the shrine,
our Kumano Kodo pilgrimage would be finished. 

We were booked at Minshuku Wakatake, just a few steps away from the Kii Katsuura station.  This plain white building houses about 15 rooms on the second and third floors.   Happily, it also has hot spring or onsen baths as Katsuura is also known as one of the onsen towns in Wakayama Prefecture.

Don't worry if there's no one in the reception area, just ring the bell and one of the owners will pop out from the kitchen.  

The minshuku is run by a young husband and wife team, assisted by a few waitstaff in the dining area.  This cute signboard is proudly displayed on the reception desk. 
I learned the husband is the chef and plans all the meals served to the guests.  

I liked the homespun appeal of Minshuku Wakatake.  Our tatami room had a small section that included a sink and a window which looked out onto the railway station.   Rooms do not include ensuite toilets but there are a couple on each floor.  And of course, baths are taken in the onsen area.

It was still bright outside so we set out to discover what we could of the town.  
A large map  gave us some information  -- aside from its significance 
to the Kumano Kodo, Katsuura is also a major fishing port, a town rich with hot springs, a jump 
off point to several scenic islands and with a train station that links the town to the big cities of Osaka and Nagoya.

Hot springs are abundant in Katsuura and a foot onsen just in front of the station is a nice way to sample the town's mineral rich waters.   The water is pleasantly warm though I could stand to have it a bit hotter.

Like most small towns, Katsuura seems to shut down after 5 p.m.   Most of the stores in the covered shopping arcade or shotengai had closed down for the day.

This logo found in the shotengai aptly shows the town's two main offerings -- onsen and fishing. 

While most of the stores were closed, the restaurants and izakayas were just starting to open their doors for the evening crowd. 

The fishing port of Katsuura is Wakayama's version of Tsukiji.  A significant portion of the tuna caught in Japanese waters finds its way to this port where it is sold by auction, much like its counterpart in Tokyo.

There are a number of large onsen hotels in Katsuura,  easily seen from the boardwalk.  Small ferry boats by the pier bring guests to and from these resort hotels.

We made it back to the hotel in time for dinner which was served in a large tatami dining area.  
Behind Jay, you can see a group of elderly Japanese men who had already sampled the pleasures of the minshuku's onsen and were comfortably attired in their yukatas.  

That short walk around the town made for thirsty work -- good thing that beer was available for dinner. Instead of taking the usual draft beer from the major brewers, I decided to try a bottle of the  local craft beer.    
The label shows the 3-legged crow, the symbol of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage.  
The beer was a golden amber ale, rich and fruity and with a strong white foamy head.  Very nice and  easy on the palate.  

We had all ordered the Seafood Course and were pleasantly surprised to see that sukiyaki was part of the set.  This certainly made the carnivores quite happy.  In addition, there was a tasty miso glazed savoury eggplant side dish, tuna sashimi and a small dish of pickled tuna.  

The main course was tuna collar -- deep fried instead of grilled as I normally have it.   
It was well seasoned,  juicy and not at all oily.

The next morning Jay and I woke up before 6 a.m. to try and see if there was some action happening at the much vaunted fish port.  Unfortunately since it was Sunday, the whole place was closed, no seafood market, no small kiosks selling fresh-from-the-sea tekkadon ... nothing.  We had to leave 
with sad hearts and even sadder stomachs. 

We did discover more free foot onsen right across the fish port.  I can imagine this must be a busy place when the port and market are open.

We did not stay hungry for long.  We came back to the minshuku to find that breakfast had been served.    It was very traditional Japanese breakfast, complete with my personal favourite ... sticky, gooey natto.  These fermented soybeans may be an acquired taste for some but it is a delicacy for me.

Fortified with the goodness of natto beans, the Amigos were ready for the last hike of our Kumano Kodo pilgrimage!


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 4 Happy eating in Shingu City : Masaya Restaurant and Nakakoriten

Shingu City is where Hayatama Taisha, a  Kumano Grand Shrine is located.   It is  the biggest attraction for tourists but many probably visit the shrine then hop on the train or bus to Nachi Taisha, the other Kumano Shrine less than an hour away.
Which is a shame because Shingu City is not without its charms.

After visiting the shrine, we decided to explore the little that we could of Shingu City by heading to
a local restaurant for lunch.  Our Mi-Kumano guides led us through a shotengai, a classic covered shopping arcade which is something you find in older districts all over Japan.

I love a traditional shotengai -- it's retro and vintage and it's where the locals shop . I find it more interesting and irresistible than the cookie-cutter mall or department store. 

The tiles on the shotengai had drawings of various kinds of fish -- perhaps these are what can be found in the waters around the coast of Shingu.  

Shingu City's shotengai was more vintage than most as you can see from this small electronics shop.
They even had video cassette tapes for sale!

This shop sells all sorts of dry goods -- from ready to wear aprons to yarns and thread for knitting or crocheting.

These three ladies gamely posed for me.  They were selling homemade fruit jams and preserves and were very happy when I bought some.

The restaurant was just a few hundred meters walk from the end of the shotengai.  We arrived past lunchtime so the crowds had come and gone.  The restaurant's name is "Masaya",  which means "happy" in Tagalog so I was sure we would be in for a happy meal.

Walking into the restaurant, I thought I had stumbled through the wrong door and landed in the owners' living room.  But amidst the clutter were some tables and chairs so this was definitely the first floor dining area.

Framed photos, paintings, messages and all sorts of memorabilia crowded the walls. Masaya looks like a much visited local restaurant.

We were taken to the second floor dining area where they had thoughtfully placed three tables end to end so we could all sit together.

Our guides had said that while Masaya serves different kinds of Japanese dishes, their specialty was their homemade udon.  I ordered cold udon and a plain onigiri with pickled ginger on the side.  
The noodles were firm and chewy and when dipped in the cold soy based sauce with a sprinkling of tanuki and green onion,  it was a refreshing dish to slurp down on this really warm day.

It also helped to wash down the cold udon with this even colder bottle of Sapporo beer.  Kanpai!

We were all craving for dessert after the meal so our guides decided to let us have a taste of Shingu City's most famous hot weather treat -- kakigori
Kakigori  is the Japanese version of the snow cone but much more refined and delicate in both texture and taste.  It's a nostalgic, old fashioned treat that continues to be much in demand -- specially during the summer months.

This unassuming little kiosk is Nakakoriten -- which apparently serves the best kakigori this side of Wakayama.  

Nakakoriten is run by a husband and wife team.  There are various flavours you can choose from -- melon, strawberry, yuzu, matcha, pineapple, mandarin orange ... too many choices for my indecisive stomach. 

This place is so renowned for its kakigori that even celebrities from Tokyo and Korean K-pop stars have come to pay their respects and of course chill to a glass of flavoured shaved ice. 

Our hot and sweaty bunch of Amigos queue up for kakigori.  No cutting in line!

This tall snowy concoction is made with Japanese citrus and drizzled with some sweetened milk -- surprisingly the flavours blend so well together.  Unlike snow cones,  kakigori ice is shaved ultra 
fine -- which makes it melt on your tongue in a deliciously cold puddle.  

You may order your kakigori in a combination of two or three flavours -- Jay had a strawberry 
and melon kakigori that almost looked like a Christmas ornament.  

I ordered matcha or green tea,  another staple flavour.  It goes best with the adzuki or sweet bean topping, drizzled with some more matcha powder.   
If you are eating in, the kakigori is always served in large glass bowls or goblets, quite an elegant touch. 
Relishing each cold spoonful of the kakigori brought back fond memories of the humble snow 
cones from  my childhood.  Nothing can bring back nostalgia faster than a memory of a favourite taste. 


Thank you to our Mi-Kumano guides for the day -- left to right  Hitomi san, Masako san and of course our kababayan Jennifer san who had been with us since Day 1 of our Kumano Kodo
We would not have had such happy meals here in Shingu City if not for their delicious recommendations.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Kumano Kodo Day 4 : Feeling like royalty as I sail down the Kumanogawa on my way to the Hayatama Taisha

Pilgrims have been enduring hardships and walking the Kumano Kodo for a thousand years.  
But in the early days, a select group of pilgrims,  composed of royalty and later on the aristocrat class,  had access to another,  easier way of doing part of the pilgrimage --  they sailed down the Kumanogawa on their way to visit the three Kumano Grand Shrines.
Ensconced in the comfort and luxury of their royal boats, they could relax and just drift down
the river. 
On the fourth day of our pilgrimage and on our way to visit the second shrine, the Hayatama Taisha, we did as the emperors and aristocrats did (although not in such style)  ... we traveled part of the way by traditional  boats along the river. 

Our expedition started at the Kawabune River Boat Tour Center where we had reservations to the 10:00 a.m. sailing.  To get there,  we took a bus from Yunomine and got off at the bus stop at Hitari.   Then we got into a shuttle bus for the short ride to the riverbank where the boats were waiting for us.  

Part of the safety regulations had us wearing bright orange life jackets.  We were also given native straw hats (which looked so much like our own salakot) as protection from the heat of the sun.

The flat bottomed boats are modelled after the original ones that used to ply these waters, centuries and centuries ago. As a nod to modernity (and faster travel time) the boats have been outfitted with powerful motors. 
Each boat can carry just eight people, including the guide and the boatman.  
While pilgrims of old took days to sail down 40 kilometres of the Kumanogawa, we would 
journey over 16 kilometres and take just 90 minutes to do so.

As in every river, lake, pond, brook, stream, etc that I have seen in Japan, the waters are crystal clear. 
As we sailed through the twists and bends of the river, the water changed colour but it was always beautifully translucently clean ... in the shallower portions, I could see all the way down to the rocks at the bottom.

Our guide was multi-lingual.  As we were a mix of Japanese and Filipinos,  he switched his commentary from Nihongo to English with great ease.  

While the boat was equipped with a motor, we did pass through some rapids where the skill of
the pilot was put to good use.  Would you believe that our pilot, this man in white standing at the back of  the boat, is more than 80 years old?  He was so fit and looked cool and hip.
Our guide said he had been doing this for almost sixty years.  

There are quite a number of interesting and unique rock formations that we passed through.
One large pile of rocks looked to me like a large sleeping puppy.  

We got out of the boat for a brief look-see  and our resident professional geologist and
amigo Mike,  could not resist scrambling up  for a photo.  

It was great to be out in the middle of the river, surrounded by the splendour of Mother Nature.  
And being on a boat was definitely less tiring than walking.

The perfect soundtrack to this blissful boat ride was the sound of wild birds. They would fly high above our boats and sometimes gracefully skim the waters.   They were so swift though and wouldn't keep still for a photo.

We saw this lone fisherman on the riverbank.  I wonder what kind of fish live in the Kumanogawa?

As we neared our destination, the boat slowed down to a stop and our guide whipped out a small native flute.  He serenaded us with a lilting melody that he said was what the royal party in the olden days would have listened to as their boats traveled down the river.
It was like sailing back in time.

Our boat ride ended quite near our goal for today -- the second Kumano Grand Shrine, the
Hayatama Taisha.  The shrine is located by the Kumanogawa in Shingu City.
We were met by our local Mi-Kumano guides and Shingu City residents Masako san and Hitomi san.

Shinto venerates all of nature.  The past four days, our pilgrimage had exposed us to the beauty,
the majesty and yes, the power of nature.
The kami or gods are everywhere.  I am sure they are present in this sacred tree, a  nagi-no ki that is over 800 years old.  It is one of the significant sights in  Hayatama Taisha.   Long may it continue to thrive. 

There is a small building guarded by a fierce looking statue.  This is where Hayatama Taisha's historical and cultural artefacts are kept -- many of them are considered as National Treasures of Japan

The entrance to the main shrine of Hayatama Taisha is vividly vermillion and as in all Shinto shrines, is adorned with a thick shimenawa hanging from its posts.  It is customary to purify yourself at the temizuya and bow before you cross the threshold. 

Hayatama is a most important shrine because this is where the gods Kumano Hayatama no Omikami, Kumano Musubi no Omikami and Ketsumi Miko Omikami are enshrined. 

The gods originally descended atop a steep hill within the Hayatama compound.  There is a shrine there called Kamikura jinja but to reach it, you need to climb over 500 steep and uneven stone steps.  However, for pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo, it is mandatory to visit only the Hayatama Taisha.  

We take our requisite photo in front of the shrine and with this, we have completed two thirds of our Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. 

There are minor shrines within the compound like this one, which is located near the main entrance.

From this point,  it was just a few steps on to the sidewalks of Shingu City.  As I crossed the small bridge,  I looked back at the torii guarding the entrance and bowed deeply -- bidding the gods farewell. 
Having visited two of the three Grand Shrines, my Kumano Kodo pilgrimage was nearing its end. And yet somehow,  I just wanted to keep on walking.   

Lessons Learned

1. The sun can be quite fierce  on the open-air boats, don't forget your sunblock (as I did).
2. You can't bring your backpacks and handbags on board the boat, for obvious safety reasons.  They will put your things on the shuttle bus and give them back to you at the end of the ride.  Bring a small plastic bag to keep your camera and gadgets  in so they won't get wet.