02.09.2014 - 02.09.2014
Japan is a weird blend of the ultra modern and the 1980's. One second you are having your sushi delivered directly to your table by an automated miniature train and the next your stumbling along a series of small antiquated trolleys, trying to find a single sign in English and how to pay for the train you just took. Apparently, you need to know how much the fare is first, then you go to a kiosk and pay for a receipt for that much. You can't just go to the kiosk and put in Aso to Kumamoto and get a ticket. Even so, we met a nice Japanese man who showed us the way and we made it to one of the nicest hostels we have stayed in. It was $28 and our only choice in the city. You could even purchase toiletries out of gashapon machines.
The main thing on our list to eat was horse. A local specialty, it is mainly served as sashimi or raw slices. While I was up for that I really wanted shabu shabu. This is a metal pot, filled with boiling water, that you cook your vegetables and thinly sliced meat in and then dip them in a sesame sauce or a citrus soy sauce. Unfortunately, my Japanese is terrible and while I can read the kanji for horse, we couldn't find shabu shabu. All of the waiters on the streets trying to pull customers into their shops would almost run away when they saw we were white. After looking for over an hour, we settled for another local specialty; Kumamoto ramen. This is similar to Hakata ramen which uses a pork bone broth. The difference is the noodles are thicker and the broth a bit stronger. Ben opted for traditional, I went for the Ryu Chasui Ramen. This had slices of BBQ pork and a chili bean sauce. The broth was milky, a great sign that the flavor would be fully developed, and the pork was falling apart. While I could have actually ordered this, restaurant had a special foreign language menu that they immediately gave us. At least my Japanese is good enough to read that.
In the morning we got a early start. We first headed off to Suizenji. This large garden and shrine was built in the 17th century and recreates the 53 post stations on the old road between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. It even has a miniature Mt. Fuji.
After this , we headed to the major sight in town. Kumamoto castle was built at the very beginning of the Edo period and is considered one of the three greatest castle of Japan. Unfortunately, the upheavel at the end of the Edo period (late 19th century) saw the destruction of most of the castle. This is a reconstruction they have been working on since the 1960's.
For lunch we finally found horse shabu shabu. The name literally means swish swish. The meat is so thin it only takes seconds to cook it. This horse is well marbled and succulent. Lacking the heavy beef taste it reminds me of veal. While the sesame sauce is creamy and works well with the vegetables it covers the subtle flavor of the horse. I much preferred the citrus, soy and fish sauce. Cools the meat down and gives it a nice acidic bite.