Japan Stories: October 1999

The Giant Flaming Snails of Izu

Just an hour or two from Tokyo is the Izu Penninsula, a favorite weekend getaway spot for Tokyo residents. Izu actually used to be a big honeymoon destination a long time ago, but now most newlywed couples prefer to vacation in places that are better geared to Japanese tourists, like Guam.

Izu is most famous for its natural hot springs, which we are keen to try out. We spend a few days in the tiny hamlet of Rendaiji at the Seiryuso inn. Our tour book says the inn has a great hot spring-fed bathhouse, but from the plaques we see in the hotel itself, Seiryuso is most proud of two facts: 1) President Jimmy Carter ate lunch there once during some summit, and 2) they have the "Largest Stone Lantern in Japan" in their driveway. 

The "Largest Stone Lantern in Japan" sits in the Seiryuso driveway (photo credit: somebody else)

The inn is quite beautiful, and very traditional. We have a very large room with a floor of tatami mats that looks out towards the entrance and garden.

Lots of dark wood and rice paper shutters in our traditional room

The hotel's staff is unbelievably attentive. We are in our room for less than a minute when a middle-aged woman bustles in and serves us green tea. This woman is assigned to our room and maybe one other, taking care of whatever ever we need, particularly meals. In this type of Japanese inn, breakfast and dinner are included in the room charge. For the next three days, this woman wakes us up early each morning to serve breakfast (whether we're ready or not), and visits us throughout the early evening to deliver an endless series of small dishes for dinner.

This style of dinner is called kaiseki: instead of a single big entree with one or two sides, you get a zillion little dishes with all sorts of stuff.

Jan gets ready to tuck into the first round of kaiseki dishes

Most of the kaiseki dishes are pretty weird. There is no culture on earth more omnivorous than the Japanese, and there is no creature or plant on land or sea that has not been considered for inclusion in a kaiseki dinner. Case in point is the giant snail visible on the right in the photo above, just below Jan's elbow. The snail is approximately the size of Jan's fist. The snail is also on fire.

Jan prepares to sample the Giant Flaming Snail

The Giant Flaming Snail in all its glory

The snail is... ahh, how shall we put this... not good. The snail has been chopped up into little chips, which have been cooked inside the snail shell in a seafood stock and flambéd in saké. These snail chips have a taste and texture similar to that used rubber tires might have if they were chopped up into little chips, cooked in a seafood stock, and flambéd in saké.

However, much of the rest of the meal is surprisingly edible. There's way too much of everything, though. At the beginning of the first dinner on the first night, the woman attending to our room gives us a menu with over 20 dishes listed on it. The Japanese writing on the menu is quite difficult, and neither of us can understand any of it. Angela asks how we're going to know what to order. Jan says, "I think we're going to get all of it." The first course alone is ten little dishes. We're quite proud of ourselves when we make a good dent in most of them. Then the woman clears them away and brings out more dishes. We do our best to eat those dishes. The woman clears those and, incredibly, returns with more dishes. We're groaning by the time we're finished.

Luckily, as a reward for making it through dinner, we can waddle down to the inn's wonderful baths and float comfortably in a beautiful setting. These baths are fed by natural hot springs, and some are situated in beautiful outdoor settings.

One of the outdoor hot spring-fed baths (photo credit: somebody else)

The baths are divided into two sections. An inn staffperson explains that, to make sure everyone gets to sample all the baths, the inn alternates which section is designated for men and which is for women. Jan notes that one of the bath sections is clearly much bigger and nicer than the other. He also notes that the bigger and nicer section is designated for women between the hours of 6:00 am and 10:00 pm, and is conveniently available to men during the middle of the night.

The surrounding hamlet of Rendaiji is pretty nice. After being woken up for our first breakfast at the inn, we take a walk around the area to look at some of the town's tiny temples and shrines.

Jizo statues in Rendaiji


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