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Archive for June, 2016

Toko Toko & Adventure

Posted by Heliocentrism on June 24, 2016

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

All Pictures

What have I gotten myself into?

One day Mark and I wanted an adventure. Well, actually I wanted the adventure. Then I demanded that Mark find me one… and it had to be within a 3 hour drive of our house.

I also specified that I wanted, “a good time that did not involve any temples, shrines, or hiking up any mountains or hills!” I was asking for a lot. Of all the tourist attractions in Japan, 90% are shrine, temple, or mountain related. Of the remaining 10%, we’ve already seen 94% of the ones within a day’s drive of where we live.

(Keep in mind that I have a tendency to just make up statistics and have no scientific evidence to back up any of this stuff up.)

Mark scoured the internet for something for us to see. He read through many blogs and websites with incomplete information until he found a few spots. Then he promised me three things, of which only 2 he would deliver.

  1. I would see a glowing cave.
  2. I could pretend to be Indiana Jones, minus the bone-crushing boulders.
  3. I could eat gold-flaked ice cream.

I was excited! We woke up early the next Wednesday, packed some sandwiches and Costco cookies, and headed south. Mark drove for 2 hours and he parked at a train station.

“Mark, you took me to a train station?”


“We drove for 2 hours… to take a train?”


I wondered if the task I threw at Mark was too much for him. “The poor man has cracked under the strain,” I thought as I walked toward the ticket machine inside the station. “No, no, not there,” Mark called to me. “Over there! That train station.” He pointed up the road adjacent to the station.

Mark ran up to a ticket counter in the first train station and bought tickets for the Toko Toko Train. He handed me my ticket and we walked up a small hill.

“I thought you said this was a train station,” I grumbled as we both stood in front of what was clearly a tram. “It calls itself a train,” he replied, “and this where you get on. So, I assumed that it was a train station. You can’t blame me if a tram believes itself to be a train.”

He was right. He could not be blamed. Besides, the train was kind of cute. If it thought of itself as a train, who am I to say otherwise?

“Where does this ‘train’ go?”

“Remember that onsen we found on the way here when we missed our turn?”



“Where else does it go?”

“That’s it. It’s only the 2 stops. Here and there.”

I looked at the time-table for the “train”. It ran 3 times a day.

“There are 3 ‘trains’ per day and only 1 stop besides this one!?”

“That’s correct.”

“What’s the point of this ‘train’?”

“The journey.”

A picture of a poster

Mark turned around and pointed to the photos plastered on the wall of the tram stop. “Not only are we going to see glowing tunnel art, but we’ll also get to see where wasabi grows. The whole ride will take about 40 minutes.”

The number of people waiting with us started to grow. We noticed that many of them had extra jackets and sweaters with them. I leaned towards Mark and asked, “Should we get our jackets from the car?”


By the time we got back with warmer clothes, the people waiting had been let on the “train”, though the tram was hardly full. We sat there enduring the 10-minute wait until the exact departure time. Every few minutes we stuck our heads out the non-windows to look into the tunnel. It was dark and we could not see very far into it.

Once we started up we entered the tunnel. We drove for about 15 minutes in the dark looking at plain concrete tunnel walls. It was cold and very unspectacular.

“Are you enjoying this Mark?”

“No. But give it time.”

Then the walls started to glow. I tried to get a photo of it, but all I got were blurs. The low lights made it impossible to get a picture at the whopping 5 mph we were going.

Part way, the tram stopped. We were let out to take pictures and walk around. I inspected the walls. Someone had painted tiny rocks with paint that glowed in black light. Then they glued those stones to big sheets of black paper and hung the sheets to the sides of the tunnel. Then black light was shone on the sheets.

I’ve always said, “If your town has no tourist attractions, just make one!” This is just what they did. And, it worked. This place is quite popular. There weren’t many people on the tram the day we went, but we went on a day where spring was just starting to appear. In the summer, this place is… well, packed is probably not the right word. There are still only 3 round-trip rides a day, but I’m sure the trams are longer… maybe.

On our ride we saw bats in the tunnels and wasabi in the fields. We almost saw cherry blossoms, but we were about a week too early to see the trees in full bloom. It was a peaceful ride until the tram started blasting out music to serve as a soundtrack for the view.

The tram operators/ tour guides are all senior citizens. They wear orange jackets over dark-colored clothes. They seemed like a bunch of friends doing this tram thing for the fun of it. I don’t know if they are volunteers, but if they get paid, it can’t be much. They enjoyed being asked questions by the tourists and giving out information. They have a sweet gig. Though, I question their taste in music.

When we got to the end of the ride, many of the tourists got off and headed into the woods.

“Do you want to walk on the hiking path for a little?” Mark was clearly trying to provoke me.

“Is it a hike up a hill or mountain?”

“Most likely.”

“Is there an escalator or ski lift?”


“Well, there’s your answer.”

We boarded the tram for the 40 minute ride back to our car. We enjoyed the peaceful journey, but not the terrible music, and vigorously waved to anyone in town who waved at the tram.

Pedestrians love to wave at people in trains (or “trains”) and I have never figured out why. I feel bad for them when no one on the train waves back, so I take up waving duties. Since there were very few tourists on the ride back and those who were, were tired from hiking, Mark and I had to step up our waving.

Justified & Ancient

Next we headed for the lost city of Mu.

Do you remember that very old cartoon that played on Nickelodeon in its early days? It was called The Mysterious Cities of Gold. One of the characters was a boy named Tao. The other kids found him on their journey and he joined them to make the trio that the show revolved around. Well, that character, Tao, was from the ancient and lost civilization of Mu.

Pakal and his “rocket”

It’s called The Mikawa Mu Valley, but it was really a mish-mash of the stuff on Ancient Aliens. (We really don’t know much about Mu. Many experts think Mu, like Atlantis, is just a myth.) The Mikawa Mu Valley combines artifacts from Incan, Mayan, Aztec, and Egyptian culture to make a huge treasure hunt.

It’s a big puzzle you walk around in. You have to look for clues that lead to more clues that lead to more clues… If you’re luck it will lead to an answer to the last question and a prize will be sent to you in the mail.

There were several kids in the caves, but they all had adults with them. I don’t think a child could do this his or her own. But, there was a lot more information in Japanese than in English. So, it’s hard to me to say how hard it would be for a Japanese speaking child.

You are given a booklet with instructions and a flashlight-pen. Don’t get any ideas about following the people you see in the labyrinth and copying their clues. Not everyone is looking for the same clues.

There are several courses that can be done at the same time by different groups. We did the one that came with a brown booklet. Mark and I had to follow the instructions of the characters called Muny and Muko, and only Muny and Muko. The other characters gave instructions for the course with booklets of different colors.

Other than the booklet course, there are many other courses that can be done. We saw clues that were clearly not for any of the booklets. But I have no information on them.

Just walking around in the cave was amazing. The owners went all out in planning and constructing this… I’m not sure what to call it. Walk-in puzzle? The adventure music at the start of the course enhances the atmosphere. Once inside, it’s cold and dark. There are ponds and water falls with ancient temples and artifacts down windy corridors.

If I lived near Mu, I would be here every weekend until I did all the courses.

There was a family with a brown booklet, like ours. We kept bumping into them, so we took it as a sign that we were on the right track. But then we saw them staring at a clue, that was clearly wrong. From that point, we should have diverged in our quests, but then they were right behind us again.

“Are they just copying what we’re doing?”


“Crap. Now we have to redo everything!”

We thought that if two sets of people came up with the same answer, the chances the answer was the correct one would be higher. But, if they were just copying us, we could have done something wrong along the way. We redid everything and ended up on a whole new other path of clues.

When we had finished and posted our answer, the guy who runs the place was closing up. We wanted to enjoy some gold flake ice cream to celebrate our victory, but he had already shut down the ice cream machine.

To make things worse, we are still waiting for our prize to be mailed to us…

On our way to the car, we saw a sign for a big water wheel.

“Do you want to see the big water wheel?”

“You know I do, Mark! I love water wheels.”

We got into our car and drove to the water wheel. As promised, it was very big. We stood at the small house attached to the wheel. “I wonder what this wheel powers,” I said looking around for Mark.

“Mark! Where are you going?”

“There is a Buddha at the top of these steps.” He pointed at a map.

“I don’t want to see a Buddha at the top of steps. It looks like a lot of steps…”

But Mark couldn’t hear me. He was half way up the steps and he had my camera.

He was gone for 20 minutes. When he came back he was breathing heavily. “I thought the Buddha was at the top of those steps, but there was only a small cave.”

“I had to climb a second set to stairs to get to the Buddha. And, he wasn’t even that big… There was stuff higher up, but I got tired.”

I sighed. “People who make temples are always tricking folks into climbing more steps, then more steps, then just a little more. It’s a Buddhist fitness scam!”

“I’m hungry. Any sandwiches left?”

“Nope. Just cookies.”

“Let’s stop at a ramen shop when we pass one,” Mark mumbled through a cookie-filled mouth.

Before we could get to a ramen shop, we passed a vending machine oasis. We had never really tried ramen at a vending machine oasis before, so we stopped.

We tried a bowl of ramen and one of odon. The ramen was good, but the odon was only so-so. We sat at the wobbly plastic table on wonky plastic chairs eating our food and sipping our drinks as we watched cars race by.

We thought about getting ice cream too. But something about the ad above put us off to the idea.


How to get there:

You can enter Japan by plane or boat. Though, the number of boats going to Japan from other countries has gone down significantly.

Americans get 90-day visas to Japan at the port of entry. Check with your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate for visa information.







  • Be careful what over the counter drugs you bring into Japan.  Actifed, Sudafed, Vicks inhalers, and Codeine are prohibited.
  • International ATMs are really hard to find; more so if you aren’t in a big city. Many places in Japan do not use credit cards. Take cash and call your bank to ask what ATMs or banks in Japan will work with your cash card.
    • ATMs have opening hours. Usually 9:00-18:00 (They have better work hours than most business men and women here.)
    • The Post Office bank seems to work with the most international cards.
  • You can get a Japan Railway, pass which saves you a lot of money on the trains, but you can only buy it before you get to Japan and you cannot be a resident of Japan. (I don’t have more information about it because I’ve only ever lived in Japan; I’ve never been a tourist here.)

Toko Toko Train

How to get there:


  • 0827-72-2002




Cost Toko Toko

  • Free parking across the street from the train station.


Hours Toko Toko

  • In the summer, when Japanese schools are on break, this train runs every day.
  • All other seasons, it generally runs only on the weekends. Check the website below for the exact dates.
  • Schedule



  • It is cold in the tunnel. So, if you go in spring or fall, bring a sweater.
  • You don’t have to take a round trip. You can just get a one-way ticket and catch a bus from the Souzukyo Onsen. (Unless, of course, you drove there. Then you will have to get a round-trip ticket to get back to your car.)

Mikawa Mu Valley

How to get there:

  • Coordinates 34°11’20.9″N 131°59’41.3″E


〒740-0505 Yamaguchi Prefecture, Iwakuni, 美川町根笠1564−1

564-1 Mikawamachi Nekasa, Iwakuni 740-0505, Yamaguchi Prefecture


  • 0827-77-0111




Cost Mu


  • 9:30 – 5:00
  • last admission is at 4:30



  • It is cold in the cave. So bring a sweater.
  • Of course, they sell Inca Cola at the restaurant across the street.



Posted in Honshū, Iwakuni 市, Japan, Yamaguchi 県 | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Making umeshu (japanese plum wine)

Posted by mracine on June 12, 2016

My wife asked me to blog about this experience.  I hope you enjoy it.

Today I am making umeshu also known as Japanese Plum wine.  The English name for this fruity alcoholic drink is a misnomer for several reasons.  First, it’s not wine.  It’s technically a cordial or liqueur.  Second, the fruit, ume, which is used to make umeshu isn’t a plum.  It comes from that same family as plumbs and apricots, but has its own distinctive taste.  I can only assume the reasons for misnaming the drink are the same reasons why bison and Native Americans were called Buffalo and Indians.  Some idiot called them that and everyone went with it.  The Japanese went a little on the nose with naming the drink umeshu. They just used the fruit name and put the word alcohol at the end. Their creativity always astounds me.

To make umeshu, you need just 3 ingredients.  Obviously, you need ume.  However, deciding the ripeness of the fruit impacts the final flavor.  For most traditional umeshu, you would use greenish unripe ume.  This provides a bite to the final flavor by adding tartness and acidity. If you decide to use a riper ume which looks yellowish red, you end up with a sweeter taste but lose some of its distinct flavor.

 The next ingredient is rock sugar.  You want to use rock sugar over regular sugar because ….  Well, maybe it effects how the sugar gets distributed over the ume?  Or maybe it’s easier to measure?  Or maybe the directions told me to do it this way and who am I to question traditional Japanese customs?  BTW, if you want your Umeshu to taste sweeter all you need to do is add more sugar.  I know, right?  I blew your frinken mind.

The last ingredient is alcohol.  The Japanese use shochu, but I am using soju.  “What’s the difference?” you might ask.  Oh, you didn’t!?  Well, I’m going to tell you anyways.  Soju is by far Korea’s favorite alcoholic beverage and has been for a long time.  Shochu became popular in Japan around 2003.  Soju is mass produced and relatively cheap.  Shochu has more brands and varied flavors, but usually cost more.  Also, shochu usually has a higher alcohol percentage.

In America, you might have had shochu even if what you drank was called soju.  This is because soju isn’t considered a hard liquor and you don’t need a hard liquor license to sell it.  The Japanese, coming to the party late, lowered their shochu to 25% or less alcohol and slapped soju on the label to get around regulations.  Pride and craftsmanship means little to the all mighty dollar.

To be honest shochu and soju have similar tastes to me.  Soju is slightly sweeter and has a more consistent taste.   This is because the alcohol is distilled several times and the flavors are added afterwards.   On the other hand, Shochu is usually distilled once and the mild flavors aren’t as filtered.  Overall they both taste like a weak vodka.  Vodka is also an alternative ingredient if you can’t get your hands on soju or sochu.

When making umeshu, you just need a white liquor somewhere between 20-40% alcohol.  I had a 5 liter bottle from my trip to Korea, so I used that.  Usually when making umeshu in Japan, you would use a neutral flavored shochu.  Because the ume fruit is the main flavoring, buying expensive alcohol isn’t necessary.  Unless you’re the kind of person who insist on using “grey goose” with their Sunny-D flavor screw drivers.


Here is a picture of everything I need to make umeshu and a container to store it in.

  • 2 liters of ume
  • 1 liter of rock sugar
  • 5 liters of soju
  • 5 liter container

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  How am I going to fit everything in a 5 liter container?  Well, I can’t.   Doing the math, you probably figured out that I need to drink 3 liters of soju.  Hey, I never said making umeshu was going to be easy.

The container gave me directions.  However, trying to read Japanese in an intoxicated state makes it difficult… Plus, I can’t read Japanese. Luckily, the pictures are easy enough.


I heard putting the ume in a container of water for a few hours takes away some of the fruit’s bitterness.  So I let the fruit soak while I sobered up a bit.  After a few hours, I washed and rinsed the fruit a few times.


The next step is to remove the stems.  Yes. Yes.  The directions that came with the container says remove the stems first and then rinse them.  However, I feel superior to a glass jar and I do what I want.

Removing the stems was very easy.  Just stick in something sharp and it pops right off.  While removing the stems, I was on the lookout for bruised or rotten fruit.  I found only one.

IMG_20160609_201459 IMG_20160609_201539 IMG_20160609_203036

After giving the fruit another rinse…  Never defy the glass container directions!  You need to dry all the fruit.  So wipe them all dry with a clean paper towel.


The next step… or maybe this was the first step (oh, glass container I failed you!)?  I needed to clean the glass container.   I suppose this was the first step to give time for the container to dry.  Anyways, I just used paper towel and soju to sanitize the container.   Good enough, right!?


Next was putting everything in the container.  First some ume fruit.


Then some rock sugar.


Then more fruit and more sugar.  The container should mostly full but not all the way to the top.


The last step was to add in the alcohol.  I was sure to leave some space on top.  From what I’m told, the juices expand a bit. So how does the contents in an enclosed container increase?  Well, it can’t.  What I think happens is that osmosis causes the liquid from the ume to exit the fruit.  The ume fruit doesn’t float at the start of this process but sometimes does so in the end.  So one can conclude the increase of juice is caused by the displacement of liquid from inside the fruit to the outside.  Science!  Hell, yeah!

Or… maybe the sugar changes increases the density of the alcohol and that causes the fruit to float.  Then the answer to this riddle is “magic.”


After all this work, the only thing to do now is wait.  I placed the bottle in a cool dark location.  It takes about 6 months for fruit to steep and impart it flavors into the alcohol.   I will need to shake the bottle a few times ever couple of weeks, because the sugar will settle to the bottom.  I’ve heard that Umeshu tastes best 1 or 2 years in.  But I will be amazed if I’ll last the 6 months.

If you’re curious what the unripe ume taste like, see if you can tell from Josie’s reaction.

IMG_20160609_203137 IMG_20160609_210955

I’m going to hazard a guess, and say this is the reason why so much sugar is needed.

As for saving money, you’ll save close to half.  700 yen for the container.  1200 yen for the ume. 300 yen for the rock sugar.  800 yen for the soju.  So a total about 3000 yen for a 5 liters.  I think cheap plum wine cost somewhere between 700-1,500 yen liter.  If you make it again using the same container, you’ll save even more.

Posted in Japan | Leave a Comment »

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