First Day in Kokonoe Chou

First day at Kokonoe (1/2012),
My arrival to Kokonoe was by the bus and one of the few things which I can say from this journey was that I’ve not seen anything from the local scenery at all, registering only that we have been steadily climbing and due to that zig zaging the upcoming hills like a metronome. I was lucky enough to be taken directly to the house of Kazuhiro by an older lady, where the his wife Reikosan was already waiting for me. I’ve realized quickly that this is not the warmest part of Kyushu. The lifesaver in this part of Japan is the electric style of heating table called kotatzu, which is covered by a blanket. The only disadvantage is that you have to sit under with your knees bended or in other “Japanese position” which for me as European was not so easy. Our company for the start was the dog and TV, Kazuhiro was on some meeting. We had some basic conversation, my Japanese was poor but thanks God Reikosan’s English was better than my Japanese (not too difficult I’ve to say) so we could go through the basic topics like fmily etc. Because Kazuhiro called that he is suppose to come even later than expected we have dined without him. I’ve to say that from the start, Reikosan really impressed me as a very good chef. Her dishes were very variable in their flavors, textures and origins. The flavors were full and very unique for me because my chances to taste a Japanese cuisine till than were limited to my stay in San Francisco where I’ve visited Japanese town several times and to a few visits of Japanese bistro in Galway. What was very different from the start was the style how they prepared the rice. As you probably know, Japanese like to make their brown or rather white rice in a sticky way, what surprised me was that they do not add any salt or spice to the rice which they serve to the usual dishes, exception should be the sushi rice were a bit of salt and vinegar is added. If I pull together what I and several other Europeans found out as reasons for that during the course of time it is because the Japanese really enjoy their rice and they believe that they are able to distinguish very peculiar flavors based on the provinces where is the rice from and if the salt is added (not even mentioning such as crime as spice) the flavor is ruined. Well I’m writing this article a bit retro, so after month and half of eating the rice just as it is I’ve actually really started to enjoy it, felling that one of the advantages is that the each mouthful of rice is nicely “washing away” the previous flavor of other bites. And now we are moving to the “other bites” section and believe me there is a plenty to talk about.

For now I’ll just simply describe few concepts and give examples but trust me I’ll write several articles about that when I am more knowledgeable because through my travels around the world where I have been tasting many specific cuisines, Japanese is the most distinct till now. But lets start from the scratch. You have the empty table right, quite easy to imagine. I hope it is at least for me it is not a problem because when on the road I experience the world of an empty stomach, pocket and no table at all quite pretty often. Anyway add “part number one” and here Japanese probably split in two big groups. First would place a bowl of rice on the table or for the “protestants” cup of “ocha”, in other words green tea, my probably favorite here is “genmaicha” which I was introduced to in Chiapas in San Cristobal de las Casas by my French friend Sophie. You do not have to worry to much about the enmity of these two groups because it is after all just “first” or “second” the chance that there will be not both of these options on the table are really pretty slim (something like going to the pub in Bohemia after the work with your colleagues, no one driving and all of them are going to have non alcoholic ginger lemonade just with a splash of lemon for the taste with some nice piece of diet veggies (or five beers per capita with some nice spicy, heavy beef gulas with dumplings. Gues who would go for the first option, yes I know I’m quite minority nearly anywhere …) . There may be the third group of “koucha” which is the black tea variant mostly tolerated by the majority but if you suggest in you naivety to add sugar or not even saying milk, you are a history. But back to the table. Green tea for drink, bowl of rice to eat, well I think that this would satisfy Japanese quite pretty well but there is so much more to come.

The nice part about the Japanese catering is that it is done in kind of buffet style so majority of the dishes are in the middle of the table in separate bowls and plates and you serve yourself as you like. Well the serving is actually quite complicated but I’ll explain that later on in an appropriate post because it is a whole universe of “who first” how much etc. It kinds of concludes for me in a style “everyone can have everything” but how you reach something like that within lets say six people around the table who likes sometimes the same thing of limited quantity, well I’m here to find that out. Concerning my preferences if I can go by myself I’ve to say that I’m mostly skipping meat here and fish. Just shortly yes, fish is not being considered meat as poultry or beef, pork etc. It is something which you have on the table nearly always and it is very highly rated. All of that is nice and I really like it but what I really fall in love even before coming here is seaweed. Now I can safely say that I’m seriously addicted and it is really hard to pick up if I like more my dose of lightly cooked nori with dash of soy sauce and bit of miso, or just simple bite or two from the salad of wakame sometimes I kind of “day dream” about the last night kombu, ooo mayo may. Anyway the seaweed is just amazing and it is very likely that there will be at least one dish where seaweed is the major component of it. But to be honest third dish which is going to land on the table is mot likely to be the miso soup which especially under the Reikosan’s supervision is just small miracle, home made miso, few pieces of tofu, little veggie and yes, here it comes. If you are lucky you may get your hands on mochi, which is type of rice cake served heated up with my favorite variation till now being just a bit of sugar and soy sauce added, but believe me due to their stickiness and the rule that you should not hold your plate when you are cutting something with your chop sticks (at least not in the places where I’ve been up to now) it is quite some exercise. Quite for sure there will be at least one dish of vegetable salad, with some “sour” dressing, mung beans sprouts lightly fried with bit of soy sauce and some bamboo shoots are also very likely. One of my favorite ingredients is the one which I’ve avoided for many years of my life, mushrooms. I started to eat them in the last five years or so and really enjoy them in last two or three. What they are able to do here with shiitake mushrooms is just amazing. I can not skip their pickled vegetables of all variations, they are amazing and I am already planing what all am I going to hack them too. Now just last note on the topic for now, because do not forget we have made it just to the Reikosan’s living room, covering roughly two hours of my stay in Kokonoe, is nattō which I’ve actually tried before in San Francisco being offered by a friend and I was not very excited by then. The nattō beans are fermented by Bacillus subtilis creating very specific slimy matrix. Well now I’m a great fan and it is my favorite part of breakfast as is the case with many Japanese. In any case I recommend to have it with just a splash of soy sauce and sugar, mix it really well, I’ve been told to mix it fifty times in an circular motion clock wise motion and you have wonderful slimy miracle ready for you!

Well so as you can see there is generally quite nice selection of the various dishes on the table and you can enjoy yourself as you like. Well before I had all of this I took bath in onsen which is just a divine device here, highly recommend to every one, I’ve been already well fed when Kazuhiro returned from the meeting. We had a bit limited but nice chat and after some TV watching we packed our staff and left for Owate which is the farm house in the mountains where I was suppose to sleep. Again I’ve not seen too much from the journey except the snow. I’ve been quickly updated that we are close to 1000 m above the see level and that this part of Kyushu is actually being nicked named “Hokkaido in Kyushu”, which was funny as far as our water do not freezes by your bed … We have reached the house, got out of the car and well “welcome to the countryside!”

The place was far away from any major road just surrounded by mountains with many famous onsens on their slopes, clear starry sky and the only sound which could be heard at this time was the requesting voice of “yagis” two goats which Kazuhiro had for milk and as he hoped also for cheese which he was trying to produce. We have quickly cut some dry hay and fresh grass on the cutter which reminded me my mother cutting on a bit similar device bones for her hens years ago and once they were satisfied we have moved inside. Here I could not resist not to include some of the pictures because the place was just magical. With few exceptions the house was 150 years old, sturdy withstanding the nature of the place “tall and strong”. The first room which we have entered through shōji was with rough concrete floor and it was the working room. In the middle was traditional open fire place with few pots and wooden beams around. Big side board was holding many various ingredients ranging from various types of beans, pickled vegetables, dried fruits and nuts to pickled snakes. On a right hand side was an entrance to the main house and opsoite to the entrance doors was kitchen with the old style wooden stove used for making miso, konnnyaku, mochi and many other traditional foods. We took down our shoes and entered through another shōji the first room. It was a Japanese classic, with traditional tatami, paper walls and wooden beams as main support structure. I’ve been taken forward to the next room which was kind of commune room with several places of worship. We have crossed in to a small corridor and entered smaller traditional room which was dedicated to me. Kazuhiro showed me how to make traditional bed, prepared it for me and most importantly made me a hot bottle for my bed. I’ve slightly rearranged my things, undressed rather quickly due to the low temperature in the room (steam coming out of my mouth as was for Kokonoe usual) and started to relax. The place was magical, nice and quite just in valley with river, facing the tall mountains all around. The Tokimatsu family was living there for many and many generations so most of the community was actually really carrying the name. I’ve devoted another quarter of an hour to watching the smoke coming in to the room through the bamboo ceiling which was a traditional way of preservation of the house by itself. Due to the high humidity during the summer the smoke was not allowed to directly escape but it was kind of redistributed through the whole building to impregnate it especially the roof which was originally from special type of straw lasting up to fifty years if the fire was done often enough. The main reason why the inside of the house was not insulated at any way was that the humidity not cold was the major concern here. For most of the year, with the exception of let say three months during the winter the place was very hospitable with a nice climate. However the house needed to breath so it would not start to rot because quite everything was made from traditional materials like bamboo, wood, rice straw, paper et cetera. The selection of these materials was partly due to their availability and also partly because of their vigour during the earthquakes which was however more important in Honshū where earthquakes were far more often then here. Well one way or other I’ve really liked the place, it was kind of perfect for my opening stay in the Japanese countryside and I can say already that Kazuhiro’s family was a great one to start my life in Japan.

So for now I wish to all of you “Oyasuminasai,”

From Kyushu,

Frantisek

PS Many thanks to Daniel for his support, it was a big help for this post and many other of my activities.

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~ by algoldor on February 23, 2012.

2 Responses to “First Day in Kokonoe Chou”

  1. Hello! I have just found your blog, it is very interesting!
    I have just watched a documentary on TV and they talked about Mr. Tokimatsu. I though he was great and really like the way he thought. I am planning a trip to Japan with maybe homestay / WOOF in Kyushu. Do you think you can tell me how you got in touch with him?
    Thank you very much!
    Melanie

    • Hi Melanie,
      I’ve tried to reply already few weeks ago but the “wordpress” died in the mean while …

      Could you send me an email to algoldor@yahoo.com or algoldor@foodhackingbase.org so we can talk further? I’m not in touch with Mr. Tokimatsu anymore, but I’m in Chad Dupont who is based in Omura (with his wife Yasuko) and Shingo Hayashi who is based in Haki (I hope I remember the place properly, anyway not too far from Fukuoka). They are both great people and used to deal with foreigners, especially in case of Chad who is originally from Canada. Both of the contacts you can find by their name on Facebook, they are in my friends contacts too.

      Anyway write me a note if you want to discuss the things further, we are opening a restaurant now with my girlfriend in South Korea (island Jeju) so we are bit busy, that is the disclaimer for late replay 🙂

      Enjoy your trip!

      Sincerely,

      FAA

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