I mentioned in a previous post that Ainokura, the UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring about 20 100-400 year old gassho-style homes in an 80-ish person town, had turned many of the traditional homes into inns, where guests stay on the ground floor and the owners stay on the upper floors, and into museums. Here are our experiences inside the historic gassho-style homes.
Our group spread out across three different inns: the college men staying in one, the college women (who by far outnumbered the men) in the largest inn/home in the town, and Don, Aardvark, the program residence director Naiya, and me staying in another.
We arrived at our inn a little after noon, which was well before check-in, so the owner, who also ran an origami & paper crafts shop from the side of the building, let us drop off our luggage. And while Don was settling the students in their inns, Naiya filled the owner in on our dietary peculiarities (Don was the only meat eater; Naiya is also vegetarian but way more adaptable than I am, since I don’t like seaweed and loathe mushrooms, which are the main Japanese replacements for meat). The owner was surprised by the challenges – which is important to note when I tell you later how amazing the food was!
Don, Naiya and the students went for a walk to nearby Kaminashi, which also featured traditional architecture. Aardvark and I had planned on joining, but just as we were to depart, she had a major crazy meltdown, and nothing was calming her down. Fair enough – this was Day 5 of relentless travel, sleeping in a new town every night, and she hadn’t had a nap since our journey began. But unfortunately, it was freezing cold (as in, snow actually falling) and there was nowhere for us to go: there was only one restaurant (which was really a combination of souvenir shop, vending machines and snack shop) in the town, but the seating was benches outside.
Out of options for somewhere quiet to take Aardvark, I went back to the home we were staying in, hoping they would not mind if I just calmed her down in the entryway where we’d stowed our luggage.
But the owner, hearing Aardvark’s screaming cries from across the building, came out and told me that although she had not finished preparing the rooms, we could come inside and she would set up the beds so Aardvark could take a nap (it was VERY clear that she was in desperate need of a nap. And possibly some warmth).
The woman had a bad shoulder and leg, so I was glad I was there while she was setting up and could actually get all the futons, pillows, duvets, etc., out of the closet for her and lay them out in the tatami rooms, and lug the heavy gas heater into the otherwise freezing cold room. I tried, in my best still-awful-Japanese, to convey that I would also set up Naiya’s rooms once I had Aardvark down for a nap (I’m not sure if it was clear or not, but by the time Aardvark was sleeping, her son had arrived and set up Naiya’s room for her, so phew).
Plus I was also just grateful she allowed us into her home hours before she needed to, giving us a warm place (ah, though I hate the smell of the ubiquitous-in-Japan gas heaters, they do warm up a tatami room quite quickly!) and a bed for Aardvark to nap in. It was a relief to be inside, after spending nearly all of the last two days outside in the cold, and for Aardvark the nap was an absolute necessity.
So I think we definitely had the better time than Don and the students, walking around in the cold, even if they got to do a lot more sight-seeing than I did!
Don came back a few hours later, while Aardvark was still asleep, and said he’d looked into the various places in town – the museums and washy-making workshop – that he thought we might have gone to, and when no one had seen us (because it was that small a town that he could just enter the establishments and describe us to strangers) he’d hoped to find us warm and napping. And he reported that the owner’s son was making us tea in the common/living room, which had yet another in-floor fireplace!
So I finally got to have a cup of floor-fireplace tea!
This is also where we had dinner that night and breakfast the next morning.
After our tea, we went out to explore (this is when we did the washy-making), returning home to find Don’s fish speared on a stick, roasting in the fireplace.
When dinner was ready, we were all (Naiya included – each inn apparently has all the guests eat together. Presumably, since they are so small, they mostly have guests who know each other anyway, but since these meals are made for us by the owners, it also makes sense that they would just do each meal all at once.
Anyway, on to the food. This was Aardvark’s meal: tempura, fruit, cheese, chips (They also brought rice and some more tofu dishes later).
Aardvark was particularly taken by the apple bunnies. She fed them her chips.
My meal was incredible. It was easily the best meal I’ve had in Japan this entire trip. Fresh Japanese tempura (the fried leaves and other foods in the middle left side) is unlike any kind of tempura you’ve had in the US, and it is infinitely better. (In fact, after the first time I had proper tempura in Japan, I stopped eating it in the US, it’s such a disappointment). This was no exception – the owners were amazing cooks. The leaf was some type of mountain fern common in this area – in fact, “mountain vegetables,” a collection of vegetables from, you guessed it, various mountain regions, are beloved in Japan and local vegetables were featured heavily in this meal. So, I had lots of foods I’ve never had before, and probably never will have again.
There was also a TON of tofu in this meal. Like, at least five different kinds of tofu, including two different kinds of handcrafted local tofu made by our hosts. There are three different tofus visible on this plate, at least one more in the covered bowl, then they also brought us one or two more dishes with tofu.
I’m bummed I didn’t post this earlier when the memory of this amazing meal was fresher in my mind. I am not gaga for tofu or anything, but nearly every aspect of this meal was incredible, including all the types of tofu. And most of the vegetables, which included more local greens, some type of local mountain bean thing, and bamboo, were incredible.
The one thing I could have done without was the “gluten.” It’s in the covered bowl, and it was in lieu of the special mushrooms that Niaya got in her vegetarian meal. It looked like a cider donut, but was SUPER chewy. I have never really understood what gluten is, except that I have friends and family with celiac, so to them it is very threatening; and that when I make sourdough bread, I want to knead it but also ferment it until I have “strong gluten structures,” but I just go with my instincts since I have no idea how I would recognize strong gluten structures or what they do to the bread (especially since sourdough bread is actually supposed to have fermented the gluten out?) Anyway, that’s a side note. The main point is the concept of gluten evades me.
So eating something that is just called “gluten” in translation actually seems strange and does not help me understand what it is. But, having had it at a few Japanese-style vegetarian restaurants, I can tell you it’s super chewy and I am not a fan.
STILL. This husband/wife team was notified not six hours earlier that they had to make dinner for three vegetarians, two of whom do not eat mushrooms, and wow! did they rise to the task. It was an incredible meal all around. It was so much food we could not finish it – though we politely did our best. And it really was the best meal I’ve had in Japan, and one of the best meals I’ve ever had, possibly. The next day, the students confirmed that at their respective inns, they also had some of the best, most filling meals they’ve had in Japan as well.
During dinner, the husband explained each of the local vegetables as he presented our dishes (and luckily Don translated for Aardvark and me, since it was pretty interesting). He also played a video for us about Ainokura. The next morning at breakfast, the wife took us through a history of the local crafts and musical instruments, getting us each to take a turn playing an ancient Buddhist instrument that has actually been incorporated into the local Shinto dances.
We later saw the instruments at one of the two local museums (D & A are playing them at the museum in these photos). (Also, Aardvark is pregnant with Giraffey in these photos, hence her bulging shirt. Obviously.) The owner of the first museum, who had to be at least 80 or 90 years old, started dancing the Shinto dances for us while she played the instruments. She was clearly passionate about her town’s history – and also super spry and spirited!
The woman working at the second museum was also the owner of the inn the guys were staying in. We started to feel like we knew everyone in town…and it was actually totally possible we did!)
A few other photos from the museum: the washi screens on the windows of one of the famously steep A-frame attics; an old fashioned phone that I just photographed because I thought it looked more like an old-fashioned robot; and…. the original playpen?!
This is the 20-day rock: if the top of this rock is visible on April 3rd, then the legend has it all the snow will have melted within 20 days.
The local Shrine.
Can you spot Don & Aardvark?