By Chew Yan Qiao
About a month ago, my colleague and I were blessed with the opportunity to stay at a minshuku (民宿) at Iide town in Yamagata Prefecture. Minshuku are Japanese-style “bed and breakfast” lodgings. They are usually family run, offering Japanese style rooms which often include one or two meals as part of the package price. Having thoroughly enjoyed my trip, I would like to share my experience with fellow Singaporeans looking for new adventures!
#1 Quiet, peaceful environment & homely atmosphere
Upon arrival at our minshuku, we found that it was surrounded by mountains and a vast number of trees. The calming sound of water running through the river and sight of plantations had us feeling like we were transported to the inaka (田舎、countryside). It was truly a beautiful sight that we are not able to see in Singapore.
The moment we stepped into the house, it gave off a homely and heartwarming vibe which radiated from every corner. The traditional tatami-style house was designed with wood structures and there was a pit in the middle where we could warm ourselves in the winter or just gather around to talk.
Our okami san (女将さん、lady owner), Nobuko san was an 81-year-old lady who has stayed in this small town her entire life. She started her minshuku business 10 years ago, targeting Japanese who were interested in staying at the countryside as a respite from their hectic work life. More importantly, she loves listening to stories from people of all walks of life. As night fell, we prepared our own futon to sleep. I was able to hear the calming sound of the river at the back of the house and slept soundly throughout the night.
#2 Hands on activities
We were supposed to experience vegetable farming or picking vegetables at the back of the mountains, but because of inconsistent rainfall coupled with the change of seasons, the ground was too muddy, making it difficult to move around. In replacement, we were given another option for a hands-on activity — making wagashi (和菓子、traditional Japanese confectioneries)!
The dessert we made was sasadango (笹団子), a wagashi from Niigata prefecture. It is filled with anko (アンコ、red bean paste) covered with a dough and wrapped with bamboo leaves (like how we have our local rice dumplings). It was my first time making wagashi and although it was difficult to get the fillings in into the wrapping leaves, I had a lot of fun making them. If I were to visit again, I would definitely try out vegetable picking from the mountains.
It was sooooo good. Really. I am not joking.
All of our meals were made by Nobuko san, and every single dish was prepared beautifully and believe me, just looking at it already builds up an appetite to devour all the good stuff. With such delicate arrangement and attention to the detail in every dish that was presented to the guest, I can only describe her as a top notch service provider. Her omotenashi (おもてなし、sense of hospitality) is simply killer!
One of her favourite ingredient to use was sansai (山菜、mountain vegetable). It can be found around the mountains and needs special preparation when cooking. “Only the natives know” Nobuko san jokingly told us.
Since Singapore does not have these vegetables, it was really exciting to taste these new veggies. The freshly picked vegetables boasted an earthy taste with a nice crunch, and it goes really well with Japanese rice. As you can see from the pictures, we were treated to tempura, beef stew, sashimi as well as pickles and fruits, all made with care by Nobuko san. The different tastes harmonised incredibly well together, creating an explosion of flavours. At the end of the meal, I felt super well fed and couldn’t help but let out “gochisousamadeshita~” in a satisfied sigh.
P.S. The rice used was from Yamagata Prefecture and is known as Tsuyahime (つや姫). With the natural lighting acting as a back light, with the rice literally sparkling and warm steam wafting, it was practically begging me to eat it!
#4 Nobuko san’s stories
We were fortunate to hear many of Nobuko san’s life stories such as how different it is living in the place now compared to 50 years ago,
and about her Europe trip with her friends when she was 70 years old. We were lucky to have a translator next to us to share what Nobuko
san said. I think even if you don’t understand the language, body language speaks for itself, and simply listening to her speak was extremely enjoyable.
#5 An experience that you can never get in Singapore
The whole home stay experience in a minshuku was really fun and exciting. Singaporeans would definitely love to have this on their checklist when travelling to Japan. If you want to compare, it feels like I was transported back to the kampong era from 50 years ago, but with better natural backdrops and a cooler home structure.
From the warm environment, authentic Japanese meals to the experience of making wagashi, the hospitality that I received filled my heart with warmth. I really enjoyed being able to travel and witness another culture so similar yet so different and interacting with it. It is truly amazing how travelling can bring us closer to one another, no matter our backgrounds and history.
農家民宿 いろり IRORI MINSHUKU 〒999-0436 Iide Town Iwakura, Nishiokitama-gun, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan Web: iide-irori.com Price: 1 Night 2 meals, ¥6,800 (SG $82~) For reseveration: firstname.lastname@example.org www.iikanjini.com/tomaru/