Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

This is: Japan 2014

Going native

ABOVE LEFT: Breakfast in the Executive Lounge
ABOVE RIGHT: Ready to check out

I woke up at 4am, no doubt due to the effects of jet lag, and didn't manage to sleep properly again. A few hours later, we decided to have breakfast in the Executive Lounge - an option that was possible thanks to my status in the Hilton HHonors loyalty programme. It was pleasant enough, but didn't rank among the top tier of Asian lounges that we had been lucky enough to experience over recent years. As the coffee in particular was nothing to write home about, we decided to pop over to the station in search of a Starbucks branch but, improbable as it sounds, we couldn't manage to find one. We did however have nice, espresso-based coffees in a tiny café where, somewhat incongruously in the 21st century, absolutely everybody was smoking. How very retro!

ABOVE: Setting off for Kagaonsen
ABOVE: Journey's end: Thunderbirds are go!

It was soon time to check out of the Hilton and, in a sense, begin our real explorations of some of the lesser-known sights of this country. First order of business was to catch the Thunderbird Express to Kagaonsen. Everything seemed to be very well organised, with platform signs telling us exactly where to stand for the Green Car. The "2+1" seats looked fairly old, but comfortable, and they could be adjusted to face either way. Although Green Car travel involved a hefty premium over standard fares, we both decided there and then that it was definitely the way to go.

ABOVE: Lunch in Yamashiro
Ah yes, very droll!

On arrival at Kagaonsen station - 'onsen', I learned, means 'hot springs' - we took a local taxi to our next hotel, Beniya Mukayu, situated in the nearby Yamashiro area of Kaga. This would be our much anticipated stay at a Ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. Not surprisingly, it was too early to check in, so we left our luggage and took the hotel's funky elevator (of the type that runs up and down a steep slope) into Yamashiro. We quickly found a local restaurant, which turned out to be next door to the one recommended by the hotel staff - but this proved to be unimportant as the food was really good. I had Donburi - the word means 'rice bowl' and can refer to either the bowl itself or its contents, in this instance rice, salmon and vegetables, which could be moistened with a tasty broth. It all looked pretty as a picture, so naturally I took one!

Our hunger satisfied, we took a leisurely stroll around the area in the warm sunshine, but in truth there wasn't a huge amount to see and we soon found ourselves riding the elevator back to our new base.

BELOW: A few images of Yamashiro on a warm and sunny afternoon

This time they were ready for us and we received a welcome drink followed by a tour of the property, which ended at our fabulous Zen Executive Suite. It was all hugely impressive!

Beniya Mukayu: Ryokan Impressions

We both changed into the Yukata kimonos provided in our room, this being a casual summer garment that comes in men's and women's versions. We had been assured that this was an acceptable form of dress anywhere in the hotel, including the dining room, and that it could even be worn for short trips in the immediate area.

Beniya Mukayu: Tea Ceremony
LEFT: The owner of Beniya Mukayu performed a traditional Japanese tea ceremony for us as a gesture of hospitality.

As part of our introduction. we had been told that the owner of Beniya Mukayu had invited us to a traditional tea ceremony at 5pm. We made our way to the appropriate outbuilding at the appointed hour, entered a small, dimly lit room and took a seat on the floor. After a couple of minutes, a panel opened in the side wall and Mr Nakamichi came in and took up his position in front of the small urn and other equipment. Each action he took was executed with such care and precision that, for a few minutes, we both felt it would be disrespectful to speak. Eventually Bruce asked if we could take a couple of photos and thereafter things became much more chatty, in a quiet and dignified Japanese way. I was conscious that this was one of those authentic travel experiences that I would never forget and felt grateful - honoured, even - that the property owner had been willing to set time aside for this purpose.

We made our way to the dining room at 7pm, slightly anxious about our attire, and were relieved to see that all the other guests, with the exception of just two, were also wearing the Yukata. Rather than order à la carte, we decided to go with the amazing-looking eleven-course set menu, the cost of which was already included in our room rate. The menu is reproduced below and every single component of that meal both looked amazing and tasted absolutely delicious. Once again, it was an experience that will hopefully never be forgotten. We both regretted not having pictures, but we hadn't been sure of etiquette and didn't want to cause offence.

Beniya Mukayu: Gourmet Dinner
ABOVE: Eleven-course tasting menu (to be read right to left!)

After such a glorious feast, we took turns at soaking in the private outdoor hot tub attached to our room. Apart from any benefit derived from the spa water, it was a perfectly relaxing way to prepare for a restful night's sleep.

Monday 08 Sep

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