The dish that arrived on our table was met with confused feelings of fascination and disgust. It was still alive.
It was an abalone, and we watched aghast at its preparation. A humungous sea snail in a half-shell the size of my entire hand was placed on a small grill, whilst a fiery hot barbeque bead flamed below.
With horror, we watched as we realised that this mollusc was being cooked alive, fixed to the shell but writhing, squirming and trying to save itself. It jerked and curled with surprising force as bubbles formed along its edges, and the meat began to change colour.
In five minutes, the creature was dead and still, and it was time to try this delicacy. We weren’t thrilled to eat it after the show we had just witnessed, but we couldn’t pass up the chance (and I must admit, it was quite tasty).
Dressed in our yukata, sitting cross-legged under the low Japanese table, we’d enjoyed round after round of incredible food – thin, oily slices of beef that sizzled on a tabletop grill and melted in our mouths; chilled tofu with vegetables and pickles; grilled fish and crispy chicken karaage. This was all part of the awesome ryokan dining experience.
This was a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guesthouse, and the large kaiseki meal is part of the experience.
While we ate in our private dining room (a wooden-walled cubicle all to ourselves), staff were busy transforming our room by removing the coffee table, unrolling the futons on the tatami mats, and making the bed. When we arrived after eating, our room had transformed.
But before that, it was time for the onsen, which many ryokans have built-in. This ryokan had men and women’s onsen rooms; small, steamy geothermal-powered baths. We stripped down and rinsed off, before beginning the naked bathing experience.
As an added touch, there was an inside onsen, and a smaller pool outdoors (but enclosed, and still private), so I could bathe like a snow monkey!
We were in the tiny town of Izu. The Izu peninsula, about 100km south of Tokyo, is a relaxing getaway town for locals, and we visited on a wet and rainy weekend. During the day, we explored, admiring hand-made pottery in gift shops, and taking pictures of the pretty red bridges the jumped over the small river passing through the town.
Bye bye Japan (for now)!
It was our last stop and we were going to miss Japan – smiling for purikura photos and ordering vending machine coffees, feeling the cold of the winter through the floorboards under our feet as we explored cavernous temples, ringing bells to keep bears away on rainy mountain hikes, munching on takoyaki as our shinkansen zoomed across the countryside.
But it wouldn’t be for long, as we were already full of ideas for our inevitable return trip!