I’ve written about other Tamatsukuri Onsen sweets in the past, but today I’d like to introduce my favorite. It might seem more like a summery treat, but even in cold weather I usually treat myself to these. Hence, as a little break from the incoming summer heat, I have some photos from later winter and early spring trips to the onsen area. Even on cloudy evenings, the cherry blossoms there are lovely, after all.

Although there are places in Tamatsukuri famous for their fresh seafood, cute cafe atmosphere, or even for takoyaki, my favorite is this pair of stalls directly across the Tamayu River from Yu~yu, the cheapest option for a day trip to the onsen if you’re not staying overnight at a ryokan. Although I try to visit a different day trip (higaeri) onsen every time I go for a dip instead of just passing through the area, just because Yu~yu is cheap doesn’t mean it feels cheap. Out of all the ¥400 or so price ranged places I’ve been to, the magatama motifs in the design of the indoor/outdoor baths, the waterfalls, and both dry and wet saunas make Yu~yu feel plenty ritzy so long as you don’t mind having the sky to gaze at instead of a traditional garden. However, the overall design of the building makes me think of a fishbowl in the sky. Yu~yu is not only a primary spot in the onsen area for a somewhat cheaper bathing experience, but also a spot to buy local food products (both fresh and packaged to take home and hand out as gifts), as well as an event space, a spot to buy towels if you forgot to bring them for the outdoor ashiyu (foot onsen), and it’s also one of the biggest parking areas right in the middle of the strip of fancy ryokan–just be forewarned that the parking lot can full up pretty fast on the weekend! There are additional parking lots a little further down the street as well.

Now back to the important topic–sweets. No wait, before that–I just want to add that on a really cold visit to the onsen area, the vegetable and fruit juice vendor sells some really, really nice vegetable soup in a light broth. Sipping that soup while bundled up and sitting at the ashiyu with your friends and watching the snow fall is lovely. See? I don’t just love sweets, I love veggies, too.

Now back to sweets. Allow me to introduce you to the Ice Corotto, an addictive mix of textures and complimentary refreshing flavors that change with the seasons and local availability.

Gyuuhi is very similar to mochi in that it is rice-flour based and soft and stretchy, but it is more delicate in texture, more like a Turkish Delight. I don’t always like the chewing involved for a mouthful of mochi and therefore don’t typically like to eat the ice cream balls wrapped in mochi that I know so many people adore around the world whenever they can get their hands on them at grocers that supply Japanese snacks. However, I have developed quite a soft spot (get it?) for gyuuhi, and I inwardly cheer everytime we have a wagashi at my tea ceremony lessons wrapped in the stuff.

Although gyuuhi is already wonderfully made use of in traditional style Japanese confections, it also matches a more western style sweet like vanilla ice cream very well. Just vanilla ice cream and gyuuhi would be lacking in some flavor, which is where the fruit sauce comes in. The fruit sauce is not limited to fruit–in honor of the local tea culture matcha is a pretty typical flavor, and I recall seeing Izumo ginger on the menu, too. There are usually four to five local flavors to choose from on the hand-decorated menu. Local strawberries and blueberries and grapes and figs and, while we’re at it, kiwis and mangos are all nice, but this particular day I decided to take pictures of the lovely little experience, I went with an uplifting matcha and orange combination.

Although I do like the soft and delicate, springy texture of the gyuuhi and the creamy texture of the ice cream and the thick, icy texture of the fruit sauce, the crumb coating really does pull it all together. It’s sort of like the addictive and satisfying combination of crunchy and soft textures in a Take 5 candy bar, only it’s not so sweet that it makes you feel ill–rather, it’s just sweet enough to be refreshing without being overwhelming. It does plenty to satisfy my sweet tooth.

They are ¥500 for four balls of your flavors of choice, or ¥300 for two. I find two perfectly satisfying. Although there are many charms throughout the onsen area, for me, even if I’m not taking a full bath, it’s just not a trip to Tamatsukuri without a couple little mouthfuls of these and at least a quick dip in my favorite of the free ashiyu available–this is one is right down the stairs to the spot at the Tamayu River in between the vegetable/fruit juice (and soup!) and ice corotto stalls. Just watch out, this is the hottest of the ashiyu in the area, and at its source it’s the hottest onsen water I’ve ever experienced anywhere!


A few weeks ago, a friend and I had an afternoon open, so we figured we would go check out the Tottori Hana Kairou (Tottori Prefectural Flower Park) garden I’ve always heard so much about.

Turns out it’s not just one garden, it’s a series of several gardens. The flowers and trees seemingly stretch on forever, taking advantage of the natural surrounding hills and valleys and view of Mt. Daisen to create the illusion that the series of little worlds stretches out into more and more and more little worlds.

The flowers in this area vary according to season, but for this season I couldn’t help but hear the Wicked Witch of the West in my head.

I didn’t take enough photos to do it proper justice, as I was busy using a number of my senses to enjoy the park. This sign outside the herb garden made me quite happy–these people encourage enjoying plants like I enjoy plants! Quite often their textures get ignored in favor of their appearances or scents, and I get weird looks for touching the leaves and petals (for whatever seems it won’t damage me or the plant, anyway). At least the people in this part of the garden won’t think I’m weird, right?

I didn’t even take any pictures of the lilies, the signature flower of the garden, which were already in a bright bloom. The rose were taking center stage in many areas, especially with a temporary rose exhibition going on. As one small part of that, in encouraging people to interact more with their flower subjects, they had a set of very perfumed roses showing of the different types of scents roses carry.

That’s not to forget the orchids.

It was such a pleasant world of color that I don’t have too much else specific to report about the gardens (just an overwhelming sense of “oooh, pretty!”), but a couple non-floral things of note:

1. Concept benches! Along the elevated track circling the gardens, they had a number of creative benches designed and constructed by schools and other organizations.

2. Ice cream! Following up on a recent post about local specialties produced in ice cream form, I couldn’t pass up the park’s Tottori 20th Century Pear soft serve. Pear wouldn’t usually be my flavor of choice, but I’ve had these pears once before, and they were among the tastiest fruits I’ve ever eaten. I found it refreshingly tasty, but my friend more comments–that it was more like a sherbert, and that that halfway through she detected a flavor like apple juice.

And now for a little more prettiness:

Allium in flower language: “the correct assertion” or “infinite sorrows.” Would one of those sorrows happen to be that it can smell like onion?

I’m sometimes asked if I’ve tried any crazy ice cream flavors found throughout Japan. Well… no, not that weird. Or at least, I don’t find them weird enough to write home about.

Let’s make it clear that Japan is not usually as weird as the Internet would have you think it is. Plus, the “weird” food that Japanese people are actually crazy and excited about don’t seem to be quite as much of a focal point on the English speaking side of things. Allow me to fix that by having you see Youka Medama Oyaji from spooky Sakaiminato. Go. Look. They’re awesome.

Anyway, I cannot deny that there is a trend throughout the country of taking the local speciality–be it a fish or fruit or ramen–and presenting it in ice cream form, often for the sort of cringe-worthy results you’d expect to find at a US state fair, with each fried food stand trying to out do the others with a deep-frying some new combination of mega-calories. I don’t think many people choose to eat these ice creams for the sake of eating them, but rather for the sake of being able to say they’ve eaten them.

I’m not innocent of trying some strange things just to have the experience–I’ve probably had chocolate with everything but bugs, only because I haven’t had the opportunity yet. But when it comes to the specialities each region of Japan is so proud of, I figure I’d rather try them with my lunch, and just enjoy my ice cream as ice cream.

Then every so often you wind up finding an interesting spin on ice cream that really can just stand to be its own flavor without the fear-factor appeal. I’ve mentioned the soba-flavored ice cream before, but that was nice enough that I’d totally order it again just for the sake of having a refreshing little ice cream. It turns out I had two more ice creams that day, too. We were feeling adventurous and there is always room for more ice cream.

To quote myself from the soba entry:

I tried this at a new Michi-no-Eki (a fancy style of road stations or rest stops throughout Japan, many of which are sights in and of themselves) in Unnan, located south of Izumo and Matsue (together with Okuizumo and Yasugi, these five cities/towns make up what is commonly know as the “Izumo region”). This Michi-no-Eki is called Tatara-ichibanchi and has a special focus on introducing local mythology (especially the Yamata-no-Orochi 8-headed giant serpent, which resided in Unnan), with the help of Shimane’s volunteer tourism ambassador, the scowling Yoshida-kun (whose day job happens to be attempting to take over the world). (Recall that Yoshida-kun and company have also volunteered their villianous services in telling Lafcadio Hearn‘s “Kwaidan” ghost stories.)

We left the soba restaurant for the Tatalover counter. In addition to spicy ramen and soy milk soup with mochi, they also had two kinds of soft serve: Orochi-no-Tsume and Otamahan.

If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, “Orochi” should sound familiar, but in case it doesn’t, you can start reading the legend of the Yamata-no-Orochi 8-headed serpent, or cut straight to how Unnan was the beast’s hometown. Orochi-no-Tsume–that is, “Claws of Orochi”–are a kind of chili pepper grown in Unnan. They are about three times longer than the more commonly known Taka-no-Tsume (“Claws of the Hawk”), so they are not quite as spicy and it’s easier to enjoy the sweetness of chili peppers–provided you’re okay with the afterbite. You can read more and see more pictures here and here.

Click for source

As for Otamahan, does the term Tamago-kake Gohan mean anything to you?

This is known as Japanese soul food, and although I don’t claim to know food culture from around the world in as much depth, it’s hard to think of another culture that so thoroughly enjoys raw eggs. Completely raw, not just runny. Besides being a folk cure for hangover and other ailments or serving as dipping sauce for sukiyaki hot pot, there is something wonderfully comforting about a simple, tasty bowl of Tamago-kake Gohan (sometimes abbreiviated TKG, like US PBJ). Literally, it’s cooked rice with egg added to it. I had heard of it and had raw egg here and there–I don’t really mind it–and had heard how big of a thing it is in Unnan, but one of my deepest impressions of the dish was when I was traveling with my naginata group to the Western Japan youth competition (I was tagging along to root them on!), and along the way we stopped for lunch at a Michi-no-Eki. One of the mom’s of the group was preparing this dish for her 3-year-old, and asked me if I ever had it, and then started gushing about the comforts of this particular kind of soul food, abruptly stopping herself wondering I would find the idea too gross. When I indicated I was fine, she offered me a taste. It was pretty much what I expected.

This is Otamahan style, click for source.

The following morning we all had teishoku breakfast together (teishoku is a set meal with multiple little dishes already planned by the host), and it included a raw egg for this dish. The thing about TKG is that you can’t use just any eggs, you have to be sure they’re really fresh, reliably tasty eggs (the local source of the eggs is a big part of Otamahan, which we’ll return to). After cracking that egg open in the dish provided and pouring it on to your rice, you add some soy sauce–this is essential–and stir it all together, and enjoy. Then again, you could mix the egg with soy sauce first, or you could add the directly on top of the rice, you could dig a well in the rice for the egg, or you could even use some cold rice… it’s really up to taste and habit. Some spins on the dish will include seaweed or green onions or whatever strikes their fancy.

Confident in my egg-cracking skills, I added my egg directly to the rice and only added a little bit of soy sauce so as not to drown out the flavor of the yolk. Sitting across a few different tables, the mom I had been talking with before asked her 7-year-old if I was trying the TKG, and she loudly announced that I was. This drew other’s attention to my breakfast and my first attempt at making this seemingly simply dish.

“There’s a lot of egg white left in your shells, Buri-san… you sure you got enough in your rice?”
“Did you add soy sauce? It looks like you need more soy sauce.”
“Is it good? Of course it’s good. Doesn’t it make you just feel so comforted and happy and satisfied?”

Well… it’s no PBJ. It’s just another aspect of normal life in Japan that tastes very Japanese. So sure, it’s good. While I’m happy with it if that’s what’s on the menu, I wouldn’t go out of my way to make it myself. I’d be happier with some Orochi-no-Tsume, thanks.

And now, back to Unnan.

Obviously, Unnan is not the only place that appreciates some nice, fresh TKG with just the right proportion of all of the ingredients. But perhaps not every small town takes as much pride in their local TKG place, Unnan Otamahan Cafe.

Click for source and more photos

It’s a place everyone knows, but like most well-known restaurants displaying local character everywhere from Unnan to bustling business districts of Tokyo, they tend to take holidays on the more inopportune of days. Thus, also my friends in Unnan have thought taking me there many times, the timing never quite lines up right. I’ve nonetheless heard plenty about this neighborhood hangout. Although they offer a fuller menu now, the heart of the shop its TKG, and the beauty is in its simplicity–koshihikari rice from Izumo, Tanabe-no-Tamago brand eggs from free-range chickens in Okuiizumo, and star of the establishment, preservative and additive-free soy sauce specifically created for TKG, sold elsewhere under the Otamahan brandname (with scowling Shimane ambassador Yoshida-kun making appearances and comments on some labels).

Now, back to the ice cream.

The Orochi-no-Tsume ice cream was sweet and had the flavor of chili peppers, and just as you start to think “this isn’t so spicy” you get hit with the aftertaste. I mean that in a good way, so long as you enjoy spice.

As for the Otamahan, it’s not made with raw eggs or rice, but rather the ice cream is flavored with the Otamahan soy sauce. It’s drizzled with caramel on top.

It wasn’t bad, but my friends and I agreed that we preferred the Orochi-no-Tsume. There was one other soft-serve ice cream flavor available at another counter that day that I think was more of an eggy flavor, but I didn’t get around to trying it–yet, I suppose.

Well, that fun. Now I want to go find some ramune or black sesame flavored soft serve. There is a wonderful world of perfectly normal Japanese ice cream flavors beyond green tea!

Soba is a typical noodle dish that may come to mind when you think of Japanese cuisine. Served hot or cold to suit the weather, you dip the thin buckwheat noodles in dashi sauce as you slurp.

Or at least, that’s how I used to think about soba. Having gotten so used to Izumo Soba, I now find regular soba rather bland in comparison. Where’s the deep color? Where’s the aroma? Where’s the nutty taste and firm texture? Why bother making a mess with dipping when I can just stir the sauce in and eat it as is?

Regular soba is made with flour from the tiny unhulled buckwheat seeds, which makes for a rather uniform (and typically factory-prepared) consistency, but Izumo Soba is made using the entire seed, hull and all. This not only makes for more texture and taste, but also more nutrition.

A big close up on ting buckwheat hull (thanks, Wiki.)

Furthermore, Izumo Soba is still typically handmade (you can see photos of the process here on the Haneya restaurant homepage), and these makes for variations in each restuarant’s brand. Some people are very fierce in defending their favorites, and seeing as I’ve only tried a handful of the different Izumo Soba restaurants swarming around Izumo Taisha and Matsue Castle. Provided you don’t have a buckwheat allergy, eating Izumo Soba is pretty much essential when visiting the region, and the place I take people usually depends on where we happen to be standing around lunchtime or what kind of scenery we want, or wherever we can squeeze into the establishment on especially busy days!

Another difference you may have noticed in the above photo is how Izumo Soba is served. While you might usually picture soba served on a bamboo mat, this is charming, but it doesn’t make it very easy to take noodles with you on the go. The bentou-box approach has become pretty standard for Izumo Soba, especially when served in Warigo Soba style (I have yet to even hear of an Izumo Soba restuarant that doesn’t offer Warigo Soba). In this form, it is stacked in three little boxes and an extra box on top with the toppings.

The toppings are mostly similar to what you’d expect in other soba servings–strips of dried seaweed, chopped green onions, maybe some katsuo flakes. However, instead of wasabi, Izumo Soba is usually served with momiji-oroshi. Literally translated, this grainy red topping is “grated maple leaves” but it is really a mixture of grated daikon radish and spicy red pepper. However, the toppings are not limited to this–I’ve also have Izumo Soba served with raw quail egg or sticky grated yam. Part of the fun of Warigo Soba is that you can try out different ratios and combinations of flavors in each dish. You add dashi (the sauce) on top and stir it all together before you start slurping, but you can add the leftover dashi to the the next dish for a strong flavor since it’s already soaked up some of the flavors in the first dish.

On that note, here is a handy video explaining how to eat Warigo style Izumo Soba like a pro!

Notice that drinking the water the soba was boiled in is an option. It’s known for how healthy it is, and has a smooth, light texture and flavor. One of the other popular ways to eat Izumo Soba is in the original water it was boiled in, with some flavor added to make it a nice broth. You can add additional toppings to this from there, and some establishments are known for their own touch on this, such as how Yakumo-an adds duck meat.

Way back in the Edo period when there were very clear distinctions between what different classes of people ate in the caste society, soba was considered commoner food (bare in mind that sushi started this way, too!). Despite how many members of the samurai class turned their nose up at such simple fare, one of the Izumo domain feudal lords was known for his love of good soba. While Matsudaira Harusato (better known by his tea name “Fumai”) is commonly associated with promoting tea culture (still very noticable today), he is also known for sneaking out of his quarters at night go dine at the cheap soba joints!

Nakamura Chaho credits him with the following words:

I drink tea, look for good tools, eat soba,
Garden, watch the nature’s beauty, and
Without other desire, laugh loudly.

I don’t know about Lord Fumai, but I usually desire dessert even after a satisfying soba meal.

It seems that weird ice cream flavors around Japan making use of the local speciality products (or at least making use of the creativity of the locals) has been a big topic around the internet lately, which I did not notice until I had people asking me if I’ve tried any weird ice cream flavors. Well, yes, but it’s not as I go looking for them. It’s more so that you can find them anywhere and my friends and I think, “gee, that’s interesting” and give it a shot. I wouldn’t say they were especially weird (but perhaps after living in Japan for a while my definition of weird has shifted), but I do have a favorite among them.

You can probably guess that I’m leading up to soba-flavored ice cream.

I tried this at a new Michi-no-Eki (a fancy style of road stations or rest stops throughout Japan, many of which are sights in and of themselves) in Unnan, located south of Izumo and Matsue (together with Okuizumo and Yasugi, these five cities/towns make up what is commonly know as the “Izumo region”). This Michi-no-Eki is called Tatara-ichibanchi and has a special focus on introducing local mythology (especially the Yamata-no-Orochi 8-headed giant serpent, which resided in Unnan), with the help of Shimane’s volunteer tourism ambassador, the scowling Yoshida-kun (whose day job happens to be attempting to take over the world). (Recall that Yoshida-kun and company have also volunteered their villianous services in telling Lafcadio Hearn‘s “Kwaidan” ghost stories.)

One of the gastronomical options at this rest stop is the Izumo Soba restaurant, Murage, and they offer this ice cream on their menu. In addition to the buckwheat seeds on top that provide a little crunch, their add components of the soba to the ice cream itself, and it’s a light, refreshing flavor. Unlike other flavor adventures which were more for the experience than for partaking of the treat again, this I would be happy to eat again just to enjoy it!

Izumo Soba is much the same way. It’s not only something I eat with people visiting, but it’s something I pick up at grocery store and use in my daily life, too. It’s not only for the experience as described–it’s simply really good soba.