Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Niigata Hello Sandwich Workshop Weekend

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We just got back from an amazing weekend in the rice fields of Niigata. I was thrilled to be invited to host a workshop at Merry go round, a sweet little cozy venue right in the middle of the rice fields. For me it was a dream to be able to escape to the countryside for a moment. I love love love Tokyo but I also truly adore Japanese inaka (country side) and could really see myself living here for a little while. So we rented a teeny car from Shimokitazawa and headed off as the Typhoon was due to approach Tokyo.

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I was dressed in cozy jumpers and was talking so much the windows were fogging up. We plugged the music in, set the navi and set out. First stop, Sangengaya, to pick up Luke. It's funny how you get so used to riding bikes in Tokyo and you don't notice that particular streets are, in fact, one way. A few u-turns and reversing up some tiny Setagaya-ku streets we eventually made it to Luke. He was standing sheltered from the rain carrying only a tiny back pack and snacks bag. Boys travel so light.

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I usually travel by train in Japan so it was a lovely novelty to travel via car for a change. I spent much of the trip trying to remember kanji on the number plates on the cars in front of us. Here's some trivia for you: rental cars have number plates starting with 'wa' hiranaga, Tokyo has three number plate areas (the coolest being Shinagawa), commercial vehicles have green number plates and small engine cars have yellow number plates. (For those who want more please look here) The things you do to pass the time on road trips. And to keep the driver from falling asleep. Luke also told a lot of jokes upon request, but was disappointed that we didn't get them and soon gave up on us.

Another highlight of the drive was the road side service areas. They are kind of wild in Japan. A little bit school cafeteria and a little bit pachinko palour with food ticket numbers being called out loudly, teamed with the mixed fragrance of ramen, tempura, curry and coffee. We made our way through the steaming huts selling pork buns, oden and shumai and secured some seats. I love the way you can leave your bag on a table in Japan and it will be there when you come back with your fast food tray. It was only 10:30am but we soon found ourselves at a table eating a only-at-a-Japan-road-side-diner-combination of hot dogs, shumai and coffee.

For some reason I was convinced that it was hilarious that the back door and front door opened up completely so there was no pole or anything between the passengers seat and the back seat. Each time we would return to the car I went into some kind of crazy laughing fit. Embarrassingly, I think I even laugh-snorted at one stage. Very curious. Stir crazy from being in the car for too long, let's hope.

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Do you know the Japanese drama Kodoku no gurume? It's my favourite! When we finally made it to Niigata we had lunch at the road side restaurant from this episode. If you watch from 14:10 you can see the restaurant. We sat on the tatami mats you can see in the background and enjoyed udon, fried tofu, tempura, onigiri and beef stew. It wasn't until we were putting our shoes back on after leaving the tatami area that we spotted the signature of Goro (the star actor from Kodoku no gurume). Watching the drama I noticed this classic stereo was in the exact same place as in reality. 

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Back in the car and after only a few minutes drive we came across this gorgeous rice field view.
"Okay. Everyone out!"

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Great kanji font.
It was only me who got out of the car for this shot. 

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No one really wanted to stop here either, but I thought these houses were way too picturesque not to instagram.

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Incredibly beautiful old Japanese house. I took photos for as long as I could before I was noticed by some local residents.

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We were after some cheese to have with breakfast but couldn't spot a convenience store or supermarket anywhere. The only place we could find was a giant booze shop. 'They might have snack cheese', we thought. Alas, no cheese, but we did find these giant Asahi cans.

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So this is where we stayed! Upon arrival there was a log fire burning in a cozy room fitted out with beautiful timber. Our host, kumi-chan was standing by an open glass door to greet us. Moments later the door of the adjacent house opened out and Kumi-chan's mother and children also joined the welcome committe. It was so beautifully welcoming. That night, Kumi-chan and her family moved next door to her parents house and left her entire home to us to use freely. Kumi-chan's house was huge. The genkan itself almost bigger than our Tokyo apartment.

We unpacked the car (mostly craft stuff for the workshops) and within 30 minutes, the boys had made themselves at home watching Kumi-chan's Jamie Oliver DVDs and drinking red wine while Kumi-chan and I set up a mini Hello Sandwich exhibition of craft items from my Japanese craft book. You can imagine just how welcoming Kumi-chan and her family were to have been able to just make ourselves at home so easily in her space. One of those beautiful things about life. Kumi-chan and I set five workshop stations in the downstairs timber room and five upstairs in the kid-friendly room and then it was time for a short break before dinner.

Kumi-chan's husband is a manager of two local restaurants in the area, one Italian and the other Japanese. We decided on the Japanese one and all set out in Kumi-chan's car. Compared to Tokyo it was pitch black. Makuro. Kumi-chan wove in and out of the streets, driving through car parks and rice fields. It was so black she could have been driving blindfolded but her speed impressively showed her knowledge of the area. It wasn't until we arrived at the restaurant, Kometaro, which apparently has the worlds best rice, that Kumi-chan told us she was going to have to just drop us off because her daughter was ill. She insisted on picking us up, but we insisted on getting a taxi back to her house. We weren't dissapointed by the worlds best rice. And we ate probably the best tonkatsu of my life.

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We went from spotting giant Asahis to drinking 'thimble sized beers'. Hands are shown for scale.

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"Are you going to instagram that?"
"Because it would be so funny if you instagrammed pork katsu"

When we asked for the bill they wouldn't allow us to pay. Kumi-chan's husband had arranged for it to be taken care of!

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We slept on tatami mats in a little loft room. It's been so ling since I've slept on tatami. Sleeping with the scent of the woven mats was divine. Morning comes and this was the view from the breakfast table.

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Kumi-chan's husband gave us some bread from his Italian restaurant for our breakfast. I felt amazing cutting up that bread. Great light pouring in. Great company. Slowly(ish) pouring drip coffee for Luke and Mr Y. Standing in the sweetest of kitchens filled with cute ceramics and glassware. Looking out over rice fields and vegetable patches. Watching Japanese TV. I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay in that kitchen and live a happy humble Japanese life.

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Just next to the kitchen was this lovely view. I stared out of this window for the longest of times.

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Before my two workshops on Sunday we took off for a short misty morning walk around Kumi-chan's house.

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So beautiful.

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And it was soon time for the Hello Sandwich Niigata workshop with a rice field view! I took this shot just before the first participants arrived. The soup that accompanied our handmade lunch onigiri cooked in the Le Creuset pot on top of the log fire while we made handmade notebooks. Kumi-chan's 93 year old Obaachan is responsible for the vegetable patch through the door.

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I packed some Martha Stewart craft punches, of course. The workshops were a lot of fun and the participants were all super lovely. Each participant made a lovely mini handmade notebook to use as they wished. You can see Kumi-chans review and more pics of the workshop here.

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In between the morning and afternoon workshops Kumi-chan served these handmade onigiri with some vegetable and sausage soup. We sat on the floor drinking mugicha and chatting over onigiri. In the rice fields. I couldn't have been happier.

It was sad saying our goodbyes after the second workshop. A lot of bowing. A lot of hugs. A sip of coffee. And waving as we drove out of the driveway into the pitch black streets on our way back to Tokyo.

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Back in Tokyo and refreshed after a nights sleep I was inspired to cook some onigiri with the new crop (Shinmai) rice. I made half of the onigiri with pea, parsely and spring onions and the other half with shitake, asparagus, spring onion and black sesame. I served the onigiri with nabe of somen, tofu, daikon, carrot, ginger tsukune, shitake, asparagas leaf, cabbage and onion. And I sat down to lunch dreaming of ways to visit Niigata again.

Thank you so much Kumi-chan!

Love Love
Hello Sandwich


  1. My Japanese best friend lives in the countryside of Gifu and when my mother and I were hosted by her fabulous family, I enjoyed the Japanese country life tremendously. I've never been to Niigata but from your photos it looks a lovely place where to spend a week off busy Tokyo. And I am glad you Instagram everything, your hard work make me want to go back to Japan as soon as I can. I am glad you had a great time :)

    1. Hello Barbara,

      Thank you for your comment. Gifu is crazy beautiful! I really really love it there! I went to Shirakawago. I bet you've also enjoyed looking around there?

      I'm so happy you could enjoy this post! And thanks so much for enjoying my instagram pics! I have a bad bad bad habit of posting way too many...

      Love Sandwich

    2. Hello and thank you for your reply! :)

      Your photographs of Shirakawago are terrific. When I visited my friend we had very little time to see around (I managed to see a bit of Gifu City and Nagoya) but I am planning to go back next fall and Shirakawago is already in my schedule!

      I can't get tired of your amazing photos. Thank you for your hard work!


      Barbara :)

    3. Oh how lovely! I hope you can get back to visit again soon. It's awful not having enough time to see a place, isn't it. Story of my life. ha ha.

      Thank you once again.

      Love Sandwich

  2. Hi Eb, Wow! It looked amazing. Some of those trees are just beautiful. It looked like it was a fab time. Very inspiring atmosphere...

    1. Hi Cathy,

      Yes! I really really wanted to stay longer. I was a bit jealous of the two boys going off out and about on the Sunday. I really wanted to take more pics and explore more.

      Hopefully I can get back there soon.


  3. Your blog is amazing, I love it so much!! It is definitively the cure for creatives block. Can't wait to visit Japan ♡´・ᴗ・`♡

    1. Owww that's so sweet of you Cristina. Thank you!

      I'm so happy to hear you say that. Yay.

      Yes, please come and visit Japan soon!

      Love Sandwich

  4. thank you for these beautiful photographs. it looks similar to where I lived in Kanagawa and makes me really miss my beautiful mountain view x

    1. Hello Jenni,

      Thank you for your lovely comment. How lovely to have lived in Kanagawa! That must have been so pretty.

      I'm back in Shimokita now and I really miss that mountain view too...

      Ahhh city life vs country life...


  5. I've never been to Nigata but it looks so beautiful!!! I love your pictures :)

    I'm attending your workshop this Saturday! Can't wait to see you again :)


    1. Hello Saori,

      Yay! You're coming to the workshop! Yatta! I can't wait to meet you!

      Yes, please visit Niigata if you have the time one day too. Japan is so beautiful, I really wish I can travel more.

      See you soon yay!


  6. What an enjoyable post! Your posts always make me long to visit Japan one day, and this trip sounds like such a lovely adventure.

    1. Hello Polly.

      You're so kind. You've been such a wonderful Hello Sandwich reader and commenter ever since I first started. Thank you so much for always visiting and saying a little hello.

      I'm so happy to hear that you liked this post. I rambled on a little, but it's nice as a little diary too.

      Love Sandwich


  7. This is really amazing, Will you have a workshop coming up soon? I am based in Mie and have been following your blog for the past 1 year. :)

    1. Hello Kaelynn,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Yes! I have a workshop this Saturday and also one in Nagaya on 9th and then in Tokyo again on 22nd. Do any of those dates or location suit you?

      I always update the workshop details on this blog over here:

      Love Sandwich

  8. I have been a secret follower of your blog for the past 8 months from Singapore and have just moved to Japan a few months ago! I am so psyched to know that there will be a workshop in Nagoya. What time will it be? I have to work on the 9th, so I am hoping there will be an evening workshop.

    1. Hello Faith,

      Thank you so much for being a lovely secret follower. ha ha.

      It would be so nice if you could come to the workshop in Nagoya!
      Below are the details:

      GLOBE MART Workshop Schedule

      November / 8 (Sat)

      10:00 ~ 12:00 10 people maximum
      14:00 ~ 16:00 10 people maximum

      1 person 1,050 yen

      I hope I can see you there!

      Love Sandwich


    2. Oh man! I have to work until 3pm that day :( That's like the only Saturday in November that I have to work as well.. Feeling kinda crushed now. Are you organising any workshops in Nagoya anytime soon?

    3. What a shame Faith!
      Unfortunately I don't think I'll be going to Nagoya for a long time after this :(
      Please come to Tokyo one day soon and join us in a workshop if you can!
      Love Love
      Hello Sandwich

  9. Ah this was so delightful to read, as much as I love Tokyo I truly love the countryside as well!

    1. Thank you so much! That's so sweet of you to say.

      I know your feeling. I couldn't imagine really actually living anywhere else, but I can't help but dream about it...


  10. Your posts are so lovely, warm and friendly and always inspirational!

    I have been a complete Japanophile (is that a word?) since I was 4 years old and 'rowed to Japan' in the bathtub. I've been to Japan twice and would love to live there for a while but am stuck in Melbourne for the foreseeable future.
    Lucky I have Hello Sandwich to dream along with!

    By the way, I hope it's OK to pin your images on Pinterest - I always credit Hello Sandwich

    keep on blogging please!


    1. Thanks Kasia,

      That's so sweet of you. Ha ha you 'rowed to Japan' that's adorable! I love it. Melbourne is also a great city. I like it there a lot. Although the trams confuse me. I'm always trying to count the stops but then if the tram doesn't stop I can't count correctly and I don't have wi fi there and, well, it's just a big disaster. I'm much better at navigating around Tokyo's transport system.

      Thank you for pinning my images!

      Hope you enjoy the mt shop that opens tomorrow in Melbourne.

      Love Sandwich

  11. Hello Miss Sandwich,
    it's so refreshing to see Japan through your creative eye and I could almost taste those onigiri ! I am very eager to follow your adventures in buzzing Tokyo and in the beautiful rice fields :-)

  12. I studied at Niigata University for 3 months during the winter there and I still cannot forget the exquisite, delectable RICE they produce. I never knew eating rice alone could be so delicious. haha Of course the beautiful food, nature and people I will never forget. Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful photos and words, hope you enjoyed it as much as i did! I read your post at work and for those few minutes it made my heart happy :)