Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Japan Trip Day 5 - Kobe (beef) and Arima

Day 5 in Japan! We headed off to try their famous hot springs in the town of Arima, and then finished the day off with trying the legendary Japanese Kobe beef.

We started off the day by buying some Belgian waffles at the train station. The waffles were pretty good, especially for train station fare. They had  a large variety of flavours, from apple cinnamon, to maple walnut, and chocolate chip, and were warm and fresh when we got them. Honestly, why can't our train stations be this awesome?

Day 5 was supposed to be a rather relaxing day. We got up fairly early, and took a bus to the town of Arima, which is apparently known for its hot springs. The minute we got on the bus, we knew that we were headed for an area not commonly frequented by tourists. Everyone on the bus was local, and unlike the buses that headed off to major areas, this one didn't have a word of English displayed anywhere. 

We were a little confused about how the ticketing system worked. As it turned out, you can board the bus, and pay once you get off at your stop. And don't worry about not having exact change! The bus driver will usually have change on hand.

Looking bad, I realize that we were pretty lucky weather-wise for this trip. Every day was beautiful and sunny, and while it was hot and humid, it wasn't unbearably so.

The town of Arima was quaint and peaceful, and, like most of Japan, very clean.

Since Arima is fairly well-known for its onsen (hot springs), you'll find that a lot of inns will have hot spring spas in them. If you're planning on spending the day there, they usually offer combos that include access to the hot springs as well as sumptuous meals. We were originally planning on doing something like that, but ended up just going for the hot springs.

This is the particular establishment that we visited for our hot springs, called "Taikou no yu", and is located up a hill, at the back of an inn. For adults, it's 2400 yen per person, and 1200 yen per child. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside the hot springs, but the facilities were very nice. There are two indoor hot springs, one with regular water, and one with a reddish-yellow water, which I think contains some kind of special mineral, or iron, or sulfur. They also have an 'outdoor' area, which has a bamboo roof to shade some of the sun. The outdoor area contains baths of different shapes and sizes, from a small bucket to a rocky whirlpool-sized bath. 

Taikou no yu also offers other services, like massages, and a room where you can relax and rejuvinate your skin with the hot springs steam (at extra charge). There are also snack bars, a restaurant and a souvenir shop, in case you get hungry or want to purchase things.

Be advised, though, that almost nothing here has any English translation. The receptionist will hand you a map with minimal English when you check in, but everything else is just a lot of guesswork. 

Fair warning to those with tattoos: You may not be welcome at a hot spring. I don't read Japanese, but I'm assuming that what this means (it took us a while to figure it out). Unless it's just barring people whose skin is sprouting flowers, in which case, as you were.

So when you first go in, you leave your shoes in a small cupboard near the entrance, and you head to the cash to check in. The clerk will then offer you a map, towels and a set of loose, pajama-like clothes (you can choose from a variety of colours, such as pink, orange and green if you're a woman, or brown and green if you're a man), which you'll be wearing for whatever time you spend in the facilities. You then enter the changing room upstairs and change into these clothes, and leave all your regular clothes in the locker. Then, you head downstairs and enter another changing room, which leads to the hot springs. Here, you have to take everything off and leave them in a third locker. It's probably best to rinse oneself in the shower before and after entering the hot springs.

I won't lie, I didn't really enjoy my experience at the hot spring. I'm a pretty conservative person, and I don't like baring skin in public. So for me to walk around stark naked with strangers watching me was just plain uncomfortable. Of course, the Japanese are pretty used to this, so they don't feel awkward at all, but because we weren't, our discomfort made us stick out like sore thumbs, and so we garnered some much unwanted attention. Also, we might have stayed in the baths a little too long, because I was feeling light-headed and dizzy after.

If it weren't for the naked factor, I probably would have liked my onsen experience. Maybe next time I'll visit one where you're allowed to wear a bathing suit?

How to Kobe Beef

After our hot spring adventures, we took the bus back to the city, and explored a little and did some shopping. But mostly, we tried hunting for a place to try the famous Kobe beef.

In retrospect, it probably wasn't that hard to find a restaurant that served Kobe beef in Kobe (duh). Most teppenyaki restaurants probably sold it.The only problem was that we couldn't read Japanese, so we couldn't read most of the menus on display. Also my friend really wanted to try Kobe steak, and those were a bit harder to find.

By a pure stroke of luck, while we wandering down some very sketchy, empty underground corridor, we saw a restaurant with a glaring '100% KOBE BEEF' sign. Yes, we knew it was a tourist trap, but at that point, we were too tired to even care.

I don't get it either

Anyway, the waiter, a young Japanese man, saw that we were Chinese and brought us Chinese menus, as well as a table d'hôte menu, which had some English on it. The Chinese menu mainly explained the different cuts of Kobe beef and their prices, while the table d'hôte menu offered around four choices. You could get the minimal combination, which came with a soup, salad and main dish for (I think) 600 yen, or the extensive combination, which came with a soup, a kobe beef salad, and various appetizers and side dishes, for 1500 yen.

Regular beef hamburger steak
After trying to brokenly communicate with the waiter (who was kind of grouchy, mind you - a first for us since the start of our trip in Japan) to see what options they had other than the ridiculously expensive kobe beef, my mom decided to try the most beloved hamburger steak. It was actually quite good! The different spices used to season the steak were clearly distinguishable in the ground meat, and also cut some of the gamey taste of the meat. The hamburger steak also came with a tiny and cute mound of pasta, which, as far as pasta went, was fairly ordinary.

The salad and soup that came with the simple table d'hôte were also quite ordinary, although I did enjoy the creamy yet light dressing that came with the salad.

Kobe beef steak

Aaaand the moment of truth. Kobe beef steak! It came pre-sliced, with a side of grilled vegetables and garlicky mashed potatoes. You could order different sizes of steak, and this was the smallest one. But even this was priced at 6000 yen, before adding the price of the table d'hôte! I'm pretty sure we were heftily ripped off, but hey, we came to Kobe to try kobe beef, and try it we did.

I won't comment much on the cooking, since the preparation wasn't that special. I think the meat was brushed lightly with a sweet terriyaki sauce and then grilled until pink in the inside. It was good, but not outstanding.

The beef itself, on the other hand, was definitely something to behold. The term 'melt in your mouth' probably isn't too much of an exaggeration. The meat was so tender that biting into a piece of this beef was almost akin to biting into a piece of firm tofu, and once it hits your tongue, you can practically feel the meat dissolving in your mouth. The beefy taste you find in regular steak is also much more mild and muted here.

What allows from this extreme tenderness is the marbled texture of the meat. Unlike regular beef, the fat and muscle in naturally thoroughly mixed together, so that the meat is pink with veins of white running throughout.

Regular steak
In comparison, regular beef has a clear border between the muscle and the fat, and the meat is much more red. Taste-wise, the regular steak was much tougher and more chewy, with a distinct beefy flavour to it.

Ironically, my friend didn't really like the texture of the kobe beef, because she found it too fatty. But then again, she loves chewing through rare steaks and has a psychological aversion to fat on meat. I personally really enjoyed the kobe beef, but I think maybe steak wasn't the way to go with it. I have a friend who tried the kobe beef at a teppenyaki place in Japan, and she absolutely adored it, so if you're ever in Kobe, I'd suggest you check one of those places out. And do research before going, instead of going in blind, like we did... Although, beware: popular and well-known restaurants are bound to have some waiting lines.

Following that, we took the train to Osaka, where we got settled in to our hotel. And that concludes our sejour in Kobe! Onward to day 6...


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  5. Thanks for your blog post. Can you advice is the onsen in Taiko no Yu has gender separation? I am also shy but if the onsen only consist of all female, then i may give a try. Appreciate your advice.