Buzzing sounds at 4:35am. It’s the alarm.
I leapt out of bed and quickly got changed.
The first monorail leaves at 4:59am.
Hamamatsucho station where the monorail terminates on the Tokyo end is just 800m from the hotel. This was one of the major considerations in choosing the location, to catch the very first train to Haneda Airport.
There was a lot of traffic given the hour, the sky was still dark and darker still with the light drizzle. I got to the station with several minutes to spare, already there were many people lined up outside the ticket gate with large luggages with them also wanting to get to the airport as early as possible.
Y had landed early and had already passed customs. I sent a message to find some place or cafe to rest first.
The first train was an rapid service, took just 13 minutes to get to Haneda.
We met up outside the Lawson store, I also got a rice ball to tie me over till breakfast opens, and we headed to the Keikyu gates to go to Shinbashi.
There was a lot of people waiting to top up at the Keikyu machines so I took Y’s card and ran to the monorail side just on the other side of the terminal hall and topped up there.
Unfortunately we still missed the train, thankfully only had to wait 15 minutes for the next one.
The Keikyu line connected to the Asakusa metro, the train goes directly to Shinbashi in about 25 minutes. It had begun to rain moderately. We walked to Super Hotel, threw the luggages into my room for now and went back to Shinbashi station.
The rain did not look to be stopping anytime soon, I decided to shift the original plan of going to Meiji Jingu Outer Garden then breakfast at Shinjuku to the backup.
Tokyo station first for breakfast, then Shinjuku and arrive early at Jindaiji temple.
Tsukiji Sushi Sei at Gransta (the shopping street beneath Tokyo station inside the ticket area) opened at 7am.
Somehow despite missing the earlier train back at the airport, we were still a few minutes early and first waited by the Silver Bell.
This was the first proper meal I had planned to eat and actually ate since arriving in Japan, I commented.
We were the first one there, more people soon came and a line quickly formed behind us. It’s a holiday, I thought. The restaurant opened, we were asked to order first so I ordered the tai fish in sesame sauce and Y the grilled fish and fish egg then we were shown to a table. The was not very big, maybe 6 tables and a row of counter seats.
By the time our food arrived the place was full. And today was a holiday, imagine on a work day.
The set included the main dish, rice, pickles, eggroll, some seasoning and a small pot of soup. We were wondering what the pot was for before we found the instructions on the paper stand. The soup was meant to be poured into the rice bowl, it was recommended that this be done after half the rice had been eaten to enjoy a different rice experience.
That made sense.
Seasame tai fish
Grills fish with egg
Soup soaked rice
The fish was delicious if the portions a little small. The soup with rice was perfect on a cold morning, very light and gentle with a subtle flavour.
We did not sit for too long after finishing our meal, there were many people waiting outside.
The plan was to wait until 8am when Pensta opens. Maybe because it’s a public holiday or my memory had failed me, shops only begun to open at 7:30 and even then most shops not until 8. We ended up wandering at random, checking out the bento stalls and sweets shops.
Tokyo station sure have a lot of bentos. And Tokyo Banana seemingly have a stall at every corner and turn.
JR East’s suica IC cards have a penguin on them as mascot, Pensta is a store selling goods associated with the fluffy creature.
Cards, pens, mobile cases, pass cases, water bottles, even tooth brushes. There were also cookies and sweets. Small the shop may be, it held plenty curiosities.
Planned for first half of the day is Jindaiji and the Yumorinosato onsen nearby.
Jindaiji is about 30 minutes west of Shinjuku, a few km below Mitaka. It’s not a super popular spot because of its distance from train stations makes it not very accessible comparatively.
I ran across the location because I had already penciled in the sake brewery tour which is at Haijima on the far western side of Tokyo and wanted to find a place for Y to have some rest after the red eye flight.
I basically looked at every onsen, spa between Tokyo and Tachikawa. There’s LaQua at Tokyo Dome, Oedo Monogatari of course, there’s also Niwa no Yu at Toshima, several onsen baths in Kamata district, Akishima Onsen which is close but still some distance to Haijima.
Yumorinosato was chosen due to it being next to Jindaiji, a nice place to visit and still more or less along the chuo line axis to be considered on the way, and just about the right distance that arrival there won’t be too early nor late.
There’s a small detour during the transfer at Shinjuku to check out the penguin statue outside the southern exit.
Shinjuku Penguin Square
There’s a few ways to get to Jindaij, either Mitaka from the north or Choufu from the south. Mitaka is faster by Chuo line from Shinjuku but has a longer bus ride. Choufu on the Keio line is slower but much closer by bus. In general, going via Choufu is faster all things considered.
We checked the map for the Keio line station at Shinjuku, it was as confusing as ever. Thankfully the flight of stairs we decide to go down was the correct one.
It was still raining by the time we reached Choufu, the forecast said it would stop by lunchtime but looking at the skies that seemed unlikely.
The bus stop to Jindaiji is on opposite corner of the loop coming out the surprisingly new and fancy station. The bus waiting there was the one we wanted.
Does this go to Jindaiji? I asked.
No no, the driver answered.
I stepped back and check the route number. It’s the right one, then I realized the driver must be pedantic.
Jindaiji primary school? I asked again.
Primary school is fine. The driver replied.
The two stops were less than a hundred metres apart. The primary school stop is at the intersection while Jindaiji stop proper goes into the street and is right before the temple. There’s practically no difference for someone going to Jindaiji.
A quick 10 minute bus ride and we got off at the start of the Jindaiji main street.
Jindaiji is Tokyo’s second oldest temple. Sandwiched between the ruins of Jindaiji castle and a botanical garden the temple and surrounding area escaped modern encroachment and retained much of the traditional feel of the Edo era. The area is blessed with many natural springs and several streams flows through the area.
Jindaiji east entrance
Raindrops from heaven spattered on the stone paths. Pilgrims heading for worship on the timeless road.
The main thatched gate is covered in moss, it has stood here for over 300 years, the oldest structure in Jindaiji.
There was a small girl in formal kimono dress worshipping inside the main hall with her parent. It’s unclear whether today was actually a day with special meaning in Japanese tradition since we later saw another girl also in formal dress. Maybe some kind of growing up ceremony?
Jindaiji is home to a national treasure, a copper buddha statue from the late Asuka period sometime in the 7th century, one of the oldest in Kantou. The statue used to be gold plated but the gold was lost in a fire.
National treasure, Hokuho Buddha
It was housed in its own special display room which guests were allowed to view through the window. A monk standing on duty helpfully handed us Chinese pamphlets.
It was past 10, meaning it was time to head to the onsen.
Yumorinosato was about 5 minutes walk south of Jindaiji. Much like Jindaiji it retained much of the old traditional bath atmosphere.
Upon entering one is to remove thier shoes and put it into a shoe locker on the left, then take the shoe locker key to the front desk where one choose the desired plan.
Front desk area
Today was a holiday so it was 1200Y for unlimited time with provided towels (on weekday it’ll also include a yukata). The front desk took away the shoe locker key and gave us a numbered locker key and a towel voucher. Any purchases made in the bathhouse is charged to the number and the total paid at the end when checking out.
The place was old but quite cozy. It went through a change of management a few years ago and it looked like the new owner brought in new decorations like the suit of armor and potted plants, hung arts.
The interior could be broken into a few areas. Near the front desk was a little shop area where one could buy beauty products and some traditional Japanese souvenirs, the selection indicates the place sees quite a few foreigners. A long corridor goes all the way through the building, midway down the corridor there’s a reading area where juice and other drinks are also sold, outside the reading area is a foot onsen. At the end the corridor opens up into a foyer area where the bath entrance is and the stairs to the second floor, outside the foyer is a small garden where the source well of the onsen water is.
Between the bath entrances there’s a counter where one exchanges the voucher for towels then head on through to the changing rooms. The change room is huge with rows of lockers. I put my things into the locker and head on into the bath.
The onsen water here is drawn from over 1500m below. Much like many onsens in Tokyo the water is blackish (Tokyo use to be a swamp), one could not see one’s hand when dipped in just 5 cm deep.
The water is at a much more comfortable temperature than the ones in Kusatsu. I first settle into the indoor bath to warm myself before trying the outdoor ones.
The place is curious in its large variety of baths and use of feng shui. Some of the outdoor baths have the name of the 4 mythical beasts carved in them, said to improve the onsen’s healing powers.
The onsen was surrounded by thick forests and one could hardly believe this was in the middle of Tokyo.
Waking up before 5 this morning was quite rough, a hot onsen was much needed.
After the bath I did a walk around, taking photos. Y had not come out yet so left a message and went upstairs where the restaurant and sleeping quarter is. The sleeping quarter is a large tatami space, maybe about 6 by 6 metres, where people could lie down to rest. Wicker weave pillow and cushions are stacked on the side for one to use as needed.
Cushion and pillow
Turned out Y came out not long after me but missed the message on Line. Ended up staying at the onsen a little longer than planned.
Feeling refreshed, we went back to Jindaiji for lunch. The rain had stopped just as forecasted, impressive.
Daikokuten and Ebisu along the way
In times past the area was more suited for growing buckwheat than rice and soba noodle became associated with the area. The soba here was presented to the shogun on hunting trips and received much praise.
There are some 20 odd soba restaurants around Jindaiji and competition is fierce. I had written down 3-4 ones that people have said were good and figured we’d see whichever one we run into first. That turned out to be Ikkyuan.
Waterwheel outside Ikkyuan
The place was down to earth like a common eatery, there are regular tables and also tatami rooms for larger groups. The workshop where they make their soba is right by the entrance as one walks in.
The place was not very busy yet and we sat down at a long wooden table.
The menu is somewhat confusing. There are 3 groups of soba noodles: 100%, 90% and 80%. We worked out this meant what percentage of flour the noodle is made of is buckwheat. 100% means all buckwheat, 90% means 10% is wheat flour.
We both go the 90% one. Y commented later maybe we should have each ordered a different ratio to see what was the difference.
The soba was served on a wicker plate together with a bowl of sauce, a bit of wasabi and spring onions and a pot of something soupy. I asked the staff what the soupy thing was and she explained it was soba-yu, or the water used to cook the soba. After one has finished the soba one should pour the soba-yu into what’s left of the sauce to create a soup that can be enjoyed.
The soba was much firmer and textured than other soba I’ve had before in Japan, can’t decide whether that’s good or not. Y seemed to like it, so that’s good.
The crowd was out in force now, the streets before the temple packed with visitors.
There were a few shops around Jindaiji. Some sold sweets, grilled rice cakes. There’s a craft shop where people could paint or make their own pottery.
There’s a Kitaro cafe/shop based on the manga about Japanese ghosts and monsters. On the roof of the cafe is a pair of giant geta, the walls painted with adorable monsters that appeared in the manga. On a tree outside there’s a treehouse where Kitaro is seen playing with his friends.
We probably needed another half hour, the area was much more interesting than anticipated. Unfortunately time was pressing, we still had to get to the sake brewery before 2:30pm.
We just missed the bus going to Mitaka. Admitted we didn’t so much as miss it but I thought we didn’t have to run for it because google map told me the bus wasn’t due to leave for another 5 minutes. Sadly google map didn’t know today was a holiday and bus ran on different times….
我們剛剛好錯過了去三鷹的巴士。嚴格說我們可以趕上的，但是google map說還有5分鐘所以我以為還不需用跑的。問題是google map不知道今天是假日，班次時間不同…
The next one was not due for another 15 minutes. Connecting at Mitaka was going to be a bit too close to get to Haijima on time, there did not seem to be other faster alternatives.
I shrugged it off for the time being and suggested we check out a watermill nearby till the next bus.
The watermill is just about 10 metres up the road. This is a still working actual watermill which can still used today to mill grains (have to fill in a form beforehand to apply for a time slot). Located next to the watermill is a small museum displaying the traditional tools used for farming back in the days.
We departed for Mitaka. Luck was not with us that day, the bus got into a little bit of traffic and we missed the connection entirely at Mitaka. Now we were in trouble.
We caught the next available train. I sent an email to the brewery that we would be about 20 minutes late. I was biting my lips, hope they won’t cancel our tour.
Haijima is on the western outskirts of Tokyo, on the border of what might be called rural Tokyo bounded by the Tama river. Across the river laid the Western Tama region where rice paddies and forested mountains could be found.
Situated at the foot of the mountains this area is blessed with good spring water and has a long tradition of sake brewing since ancient times.
But there was no time to take in the scenery. Originally I had planned to walk the 1km distance to the brewery, now that we were late, I suggested we take a taxi instead. We got to the brewery about 20minutes later than the reserved time, I introduced myself to one of the staff and to my relief she just said welcome and called for our guide.
The brewery is called Ishikawa Brewery, one of around 6 brewery in Tokyo that offered tours and one of 2 that offered them in English.
Finding brewery tours took significant effort during planning.
Originally I had tried to look for tours by well known brands, however their factories were a prefecture or two out, or even in Kansai. Then looking at the individual breweries within Tokyo itself, many of them had already modernized and were brewing in concrete factory like buildings, which loses much of the charm of visiting a sake brewery.
The choices narrowed down to Ishikawa and Ozawa, both breweries with very long histories.
Ozawa is further west deeper into the Tama mountains. Founded in 1702 it retained its traditional storehouses and its tour includes seeing the natural mountain spring that the brewery takes its water from, within a cave 140m deep. It overlooks the nearby mountain river and there’s also a sake museum, a garden and tofu and craft shops, forming its own tourist spot.
The two downsides are it only offered English pamphlet, the tour is still in Japanese. And that it’s another 40 minutes by train from Haijima. Going there requires dedicating the whole day.
Ishikawa isn’t as scenic as Ozawa, but offered just as much if not more in other areas.
Our guide turned out to the the company director’s assistant. A middle aged woman with quite good English. She was friendly though reserved, perhaps because of having to speak in English she tried to stay to her notes.
Our tour begins with the main storehouse, built in 1880 and a registered tangible cultural properties. The storehouse is 3 storey tall and about 25m by 28m at its base. The earthern walls and doors are maybe 30cm thick, built to be fireproof to protect its contents in an age where fires often ravaged Japanese wooden houses.
The inside is cool and spacious. Around the sides laid several large tanks where sake is brewed, the second floor and up might be used to access the vats but otherwise did not look to have things stored up there. The beams and pillars and most of the rest of the wooden structure are the original wood, our guide noted. The brewery is a small one and they don’t make much sake each year, though they are slowly expanding.
Our guide explained the process of sake brewing to us, some of which I had some vague idea before, others she made much clearer. I had always thought sake just used koji and did not realize koji is only used to turn starch into sugar, yeast still have to be added to turn the sugar into alcohol.
Coming out the storehouse, she then pointed to the cedar ball hung above the door and asked us if we knew what it was. I had some general idea that it signalled that the new batch of sake is available. Turned out the ball meant much more. The cedar ball or sugidama is built fresh each year so that a cedar ball that’s just been hung out would be slightly green. Overtime the cedar ball would turn brown and this allowed people to know from a glance how long ago the sake was brewed.
The cedar ball here is extra big and extra heavy (I forgot how many kg, it was a scary number enough to crush someone), the lady laughed, because since they got a big storehouse it seemed appropriate to have a big one.
Above the storehouse’s door was also a length of rope (shimenawa), because sake used to been as sacred and in the old days women were not allowed to enter the place where sake is made. These days such restrictions are gone and there are many sake masters (Toji). There’s even a foreigner who became a famous sake master in Kyoto, Philip Harper, who appeared in a documentary, Kanpai – for the love of Sake.
在門上還有一條注連繩。因為酒又視為神物，古時候女性是不准進入釀酒的屋子的。現在那些限制已經沒了，也有很多女性的釀酒大師。京都還有一位外國人釀酒師，Philip Harper，曾在紀錄片Kanpai For the love of Sake中介紹過。
The brewery grounds is roughly a square surrounded by storehouses. The central space can be broken into two halves, separated by a cluster of small houses in the middle.
The main entrance and old storehouse is on the right side. Next to the old storehouse is a slightly newer one (1897, also a cultural property) which is used to age the sake.
Opposite the newer storehouse is the brewery’s shop selling its sake and beers.
Outside the shop there’s a pair of 400 years old zelkova trees, worshipped as the gods Daikokuten (god of good harvest and fortune) and Benzaiten (god of wealth and fortune). Beneath the trees, well water from 150m below pours forth from a bamboo spout into a stone basin. I took some of the water in my bottle, did not taste too differently, not like in the mangas where characters yell out “the water is sweet”.
Twin zelkova tree
Twin zelkova tree
There’s a “corridor” connecting the left and right side of the center space. The side facing the outside houses the restaurant Zoukura, that’s apparently quite popular with the americans at Yokota air base on the other side of Haijima station. The food is said to be quite good, we did contemplate having dinner there but it was booked out. (Maybe I should have made a booking)
Above the restaurant is the museum, suggested that we visit after the tour.
On the inside of the corridor is a traditional Japanese mansion, with a long outer gate (nagayamon) opening onto a garden before the main residence. The owner of the brewery, the 18th generation Ishikawa, still lives here. On the door is the nameplate Ishikawa Iyahachiro. It’s a name inherited by the head of the family so the nameplate never changes. When a heir assumes the position as head of the family and as owner of the brewery, he changes his name to Iyahachiro. The son of the current owner is still young and wants to be a baseball player. The lady jokes, the kid does yet not know what is in store for him.
The long outer gate is built over 250 years ago (very much a cultural property) from time before the 13th head of Ishikawa family decided to venture into sake brewing. The Ishikawa family has deep roots and a long history in this region.
Stood against one of the wall is a giant wooden barrel, maybe 2 metres wide and 2 metres tall. It was the barrel they used to steam rice in, our guide explained. Back in the old days workers had to wake up in the middle of the night because it took them an hour or two just to start the fire and boil the water, several hours all up to steam the rice. And if the sake master decided it wasn’t steamed quite right, the whole thing will have to be redone. Nowaday with all the machines and automation, it only takes one person an hour.
We now get to the left side of the central space, and the courtyard here centres around a giant cauldron.
The brewery dabbled a little in beer making in the 1880s when beer was taking off in Japan. Lacking the bottling technology unfortunately the brewery had to give up beer brewing not long after, it was not until 1998 that it was taken up again by the 17th head.
The giant cauldron was left from the times the brewery first took up beer making. Though the brewery gave up on beer making, the cauldron was kept around but neglected, eventually getting buried beneath overgrowths and earth. Thus by lucky misfortune the cauldron escaped being molten down and made into weapons during the war years. There it laid quietly in the grounds until it was discovered and dug up.
On the outer face of the courtyard is another restaurant, this one a western styled one, ahead is the beer brewing workshop. Above the workshop is an entertainment space that is used to host parties, ceremonies and banquets. Sometimes they get to entertain high ranking officials from the US military.
Parked outside the workshop is an old car in working condition belonging to the owner.
Behind the giant cauldron is the original well used by the brewery before they dug the new 150m deep well. There is still water inside the old well, when we leaned over the grates we could hear the sound of rippling water below.
The old well
In the old days the workers would have to bring up water one bucket at a time. I can barely imagine what it must be like to fill up that giant cauldron behind us using just bucket.
By the well is another zelkova tree, at over 700 years old it is the oldest tree on the premise and around Haijima. The tree is seen as sacred tree and has shimenawa rope tied around it.
Part of the reason the brewery took up beer again is because sake could only be brewed in winter and expanding production can be difficult, while beer can be made all year round.
Apparently the sake staffs and beer staffs are separate divisions with few overlaps. The sake staff are busy half the year making sake then spend the other half of the year doing small maintenance and taking holidays ( during sake making it can be difficult to have even a day off).
The current Ishikawa head is quite ambitious, wanting to expand the brewery’s international appeal and make it like a Disney land of Japanese brewery.
We were then led to the shop for some sake tasting. We were given 3 types of sake.
The first was their new batch of standard sake. It was quite aromatic and better than the sake I can usually get in the shops.
Then an unfiltered sake which was slightly cloudy and gave a stronger taste and texture.
Last was an unfiltered unpasteurized sake, something that apparently could not be easily bought in regular shops because of regulations and the need to keep it refrigerated. An unpasteurized sake still has live yeast within it which gives it a more wild and fruity taste.
Then we were given some of their plum sake. Their plum sake was made from sake as opposed to shouchu, I am not entirely clear on what’s the difference. Y obviously understood the significance and chatted with the lady on which was more popular. The plum sake tasted really good.
The tour concluded here and we were left to explore the premise and shop as we like.
The museum upstairs contains a thorough tracing of the history of not just the brewery but the Ishikawa family itself.
For a small brewery its museum is very impressive and professional. It has on display the original brand and labels which the brewery labelled its beer, the changes the brewery went through over the years, including photos from the meiji era. There’s a gorgeous clay crafted ukiyoe depicting the traditional brewing process, of people steaming rice, laying rice, sprinkling koji, stirring the fermenting rice in the barrels.
The original beer by Ishikawa
People making sake
What really got my interest is the section detailing the history of the Ishikawa family. The family had a long history beginning in the Edo period as nanushi, sorta like a village leader/elder.
There’s a document pertaining to the Ishikawa family having been responsible for providing the shogun with ayu fish, and since ayu fish required good water, the Ishikawa family was also given management of (a portion?) the Tama river (which no doubt profited the family greatly). The Ishikawa family also dined emissaries from Korea, traded textiles and chalk from the Oume area and was eventually granted permission to establish a brewery. All showed how influential the Ishikawa family was.
In total the Ishikawa brewery has 6 registered tangible cultural properties.
Visiting the Ishikawa brewery is one of the best highlight out of all the trips. The sense of culture, curiosity and history is immense, almost hard to digest.
We last went back to the shop to decide what sake to buy.
I liked the plum sake. Then Y said their company sold better plum sake, so I put down the bottle in my hand.
It’s unfortunate that the unpasteurized sake required refrigeration, otherwise I would have bought one to bring back to Taiwan.
We ended up buying just two small bottles, an unpasteurized one to drink while we’re in Japan and another regular sake Y intended to bring back for family.
Night comes early in winter in Japan. Being near the mountains a chill crept into the air despite there still being light in the distant sky.
We walked back to Haijima station. Along the way I asked how tired Y was feeling.
There’s two plans for dinner, one was to go directly back to Shinbashi, check-in, have a rest then head out for dinner around Shinbashi.
The other plan was to go to Takadanobaba and have Suehiro ramen. The super heavy ramen I had before in Sendai on that exhausted night.
The ramen, I explained to Y, is super heavy, not fatty nor salty, just very rich in flavour.
While going via Takadanobaba was a slight detour compared to taking JR all the way to Shinbashi, it would be more on the way than if we tried to go there any other day, as Takadanobaba was connected to Haijima via the Seibu lines.
It’s about 45 minutes from Haijima to Takadanobaba with a transfer across the platform at Kodaira.
Suehiro ramen is about 200m down along the main street from the station. It was not quite 6 yet, there were few customers inside.
We ordered from the ticket machine. The ramen was the same price regardless of size. I was puzzled for a bit, then ultimately got the large sized one. Y suggested it was because they wanted to avoid the trouble of noodle refills and left it to the customers to decide up front how much to eat.
Suihero ramen provides a bowl of spring onions to add as much as one liked to balance the heavy taste. I dunked huge amounts of onion into my noodle and dug in. It was as good as I remembered, the flavour and warmth spreading to every corner of the body.
The soup is dark and slightly thick, topped with very thinly sliced, almost shredded chashu pork.
Spring onion bowl
The signature dish, despite being called Chinese Soba, is nothing like Chinese noodle…. That was my thought last time and again when I described to Y earlier. Now Y commented that it’s taste is indeed closer to Chinese than Japanese ramens, and I think there’s some truth to that.
My craving satiated, time to go back to Shinbashi.
Going from Takadanobaba to Shinbashi required taking the East-West line and transferring to the Ginza line.
There was a train waiting when we got to the platform and I made a mistake of getting ahead onto the train before Y. The door closed right behind me.
That was a stupid mistake. I sent a message for Y to take the next train and get off at Nihonbashi.
Fortunately nothing went awry and we met up again at Nihonbashi and transferred to the Ginza line. This time I made sure Y got on first and tried to make sure throughout the rest of the trip.
Originally I had planned to go out to see one illumination, but we were both too tired and each went to back to our rooms.