Christmas in Japan

The afternoon of Christmas Eve, Keisuke came to pick us up at our Ryokan in Yamanaka. Sean and I had spent the morning at the onsen and Skyping with family members to fill them in on our big news. Keisuke drove us all around Kaga on this cold, wintery day, and we had a blast.

First, we got some buckwheat soba at a little restaurant called Shinbo on the side of the road in Fukui. Soba noodles are served cold in a salty and savory broth. They were so much better than any I’ve ever had before — slippery and not gooey, tasty but not overly salty. Sean just about gave the cook a heart attack when he reached for the soy sauce! Keisuke regretted not having seen Sean reach out for the condiment; just because it’s on the table does NOT mean that you can liberally apply it to just anything! We had a good laugh, but the cook to a while to calm down.

After our lunch stop, we continued on in Keisuke’s awesome little car. He wanted to show us a famous vista point in Ishikawa called Tojinbo. It’s famous for its spectacular view of the Sea of Japan, but also for its haunting reputation as a popular place to commit suicide. (The pay phone there has money, a Bible, and notes to potential suicides, attempting to give them a last chance at changing their minds.) We parked and then braced ourselves against the icy cold wind that was whipping around the point. We walked passed seafood vendors and touristy shops that were clearly meant for a warmer time of year. The sky was cloudy and the waves were choppy, and the view was magnificent. We clambered around on rocks and took photos, and then after a few minutes our limbs were numb, so we decided it was time to head back to the warm car!

We then drove to another part of Kaga where we checked out a mochi factory. It was just about to close, but we got a quick peek at the machinery and a quick taste of a free sample! After picking up some groceries, we dropped off our things at Keisuke’s house. His mom wasn’t ready for us, so she shooed us off to grab coffee for a bit before dinner was served!

Keisuke’s hometown, Katayamazu, is like a Japanese Petaluma, if I had to compare it to somewhere back home. It’s quaint and small; it’s super clean, and it has a mix of older architecture and newer buildings. There are restaurants, cafes, cute neighborhoods, schools, and a nice downtown. To warm up a bit, we went to the foot bath, a long, narrow, and shallow pool filled with steamy hot water where people in the town take off their shoes and socks and enjoy the warmth on their bare feet. We shed our boots and socks, put our feet in the water, and just hung out and talked. What an awesome feature in a city!

We decided we needed some coffee too, so with our nice toasty feet, we got back into the car for a short couple minutes and arrived at a coffee shop. Sean had chai tea, and Keisuke and I both had some nice americanos. My favorite part of the cafe was definitely that they had blankets on every chair for people to put over the laps. I was amazed by the novelty of a coffee shop being so concerned with the coziness of its customers, but Keisuke informed me that every restaurant and cafe has blankets. Most places in Japan don’t have central heat, so it’s a more economical way to keep people warm and comfy. I remained thrilled and wrapped myself up!

By this time it was evening, so we figured that Keisuke’s mom would be ready for us. We drove back to their house and were warmly welcomed by the lovely hostess, and also her friend and her friend’s young daughter. We were guided into the living room, which was cozy and warm and featured a table with a blanket attached to it! Sean and I sat down and snuggled under the blanket as Mayumi served us an elaborate meal. We had soup, fish, sushi, rice, tea, and dessert over the course of a couple hours. Finally, when she was done serving and ready to relax, we watched a Japanese Christmas special with Mayumi. She and Keisuke explained to us all the celebrity gossip that was being discussed on the show, which featured the boy band SMAP. We had so much fun that night. It was wonderful spending Christmas Eve with a family, even though it wasn’t ours!

That night Sean and I slept soundly under electric blankets (did I mention that Japan in the winter is cold?!). It was interesting spending the night in a real Japanese house. It was fun to compare it to houses in the States. One big difference is the bathrooms. Toilets in Japanese houses are separate from the bath, so we showered, used the toilet, and brushed our teeth in three different places!

In the morning, we Skyped with family back home to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and then enjoyed a yummy Japanese breakfast. I love me some salmon, rice, and sencha in the morning!

Mayumi was such a kind hostess and even gave us presents. We left her warm home with wedding tea cups (one for the bride and one for the groom), some lovely tea, and memories of a special Christmas in Japan.

Keisuke wanted to show us his town’s new public bath in the daylight, so we went there for coffee. It was a crystal clear Christmas morning, and we loved sitting by the lake in the sunshine.

The drive from Katayamazu to Kanazawa was very pretty — farmland, ocean, mountains in the distance. And our stop between the two was very memorable too. We stopped for SUSHI and it was absolutely incredible. Fresh sashimi and nigiri on the west coast of Japan is as good as it gets! The fish we ate tasted like butter. The flavors were so distinct and intricate. I may never eat fish outside Japan ever again — that’s how spoiled I got by that sushi!

For the rest of the day, we spent time walking around the city of Kanazawa. Kanazawa is the biggest city in Kaga-shi and has some wonderful attractions. We visited a part of the town that looks a lot like Kyoto (in fact, it’s called the Kyoto of Ishikawa prefecture), a newly built replica of an imperial palace, gorgeous botanical gardens, and a traditional ramen restaurant.

Christmas 2013 will be one that I will remember very vividly forever. Keisuke and his mother were fabulous hosts, and we are so grateful to Keisuke for being our Ishikawa tour guide!

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