(It's Easter--Happy Easter Everyone--so I had to get the grail in here somewhere.)
I make no secret of my love for Japanese street food, especially the type you buy from vendor stalls on the approach to many of Japan's Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines.
|Potato on a Stick, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Japan|
I believe in the culturally and gastronomically unifying influence of street food, and Japan does street food particularly well. Normally, I find enough to sample without going too far afield--my normal research stops offer a plethora of tasty options (too many to try them all, if the truth be told).
However, every once in a while, I hear about a treat so rare--so unusual--that it merits a special trip. Case in point: a delicacy known as momiji tenpura, which is prepared in only one park at only one short time of year.
Momiji is the Japanese term for red (sometimes translated "colorful" or "autumnal") maple leaves. Most of you probably know the word "tempura" (tenpura in Japanese). And yes, momiji tempura is a sweet, tempura-fried maple leaf - a specialty of Minō Park, North of Osaka.
When I planned last autumn's research trip, I needed to go through Osaka to reach Mount Koya, a sacred mountain in Wakayama Province reachable only via a train from Osaka. However, since Osaka is one of Japan's most modern (read: industrial and crowded) cities, it's a place I tend to bypass in favor of more historically-rich locations.
That said . . . the lure of momiji tempura required me to make an exception. I booked a hotel room in Osaka and planned a day-long excursion into the mountains of Minō Park in search of this elusive seasonal treat.
Minō Park lies about 40 minutes north of Osaka Station by train. Signs at Minō Station direct visitors to the road that leads into the park itself - about a ten minute walk from the station. During the autumn foliage season, shops along the road sell pre-packaged boxes of momiji tempura, as well as treats like sparkling yuzu cider (Yuzu, a citrus fruit that tastes like a combination of lemon, lime, and orange, is a specialty of the Mino area).
|Yuzu Cider. Regional, tasty, and with a fantastic mascot.|
However, I'd heard rumors of stalls making fresh maple leaf tempura at the edge of the park, so I ignored the siren song of pre-boxed leaves and continued on my way.
In addition to sweet fried foliage, Minō Park is famous for Minō Falls, rated one of the top ten waterfalls in Japan. (By whom, I don't know, but it's definitely a beautiful waterfall.) To reach the falls, visitors must walk about 3 kilometers up a gorgeous wooded trail that parallels the river fed by Minō Falls.
|Autumn foliage just getting started in Mino Park.|
The trail passes a couple of Buddhist temples, where I stopped for photographs:
|Paradise, in the mountains North of Osaka.|
Eventually, the trail dead-ends at the 33-meter falls, which send a lovely, cool spray across the lake into which they fall.
|33-meter Minō Falls, one of the top ten waterfalls in Japan.|
An observation platform and bridge on the far side of the lake offer plenty of space for visitors to stand (or sit on the platform's built-in benches) and enjoy the falls.
|Mino Falls, Osaka, Japan|
Although the falls sit several kilometers inside a wooded park, with no private traffic allowed and no public access other than on foot, there are several restaurants--and an ice cream shop--immediately adjacent to the falls, in case visitors get hungry on the walk.
|Nothing around for miles...except ice cream, lunch, and snacks.|
After spending an hour enjoying the view, people-and-happy-dog watching on the viewing platform, and taking photos, I started back toward the entrance to the park.
|EVERYONE loves a waterfall!|
I stopped at a roadside vendor for a bag of freshly-roasted chestnuts (kuri) - another seasonal delicacy, scooped directly from the roaster into the bag and almost too hot to touch.
|Chestnuts, roasted on an open fire.|
Japanese chestnuts are a bit smaller, and sweeter, than their European and American counterparts.
|Delicious. They didn't last long.|
And yes, lest you think I forgot, I did find roadside vendors selling freshly-made bags of the elusive momiji tempura, which taste like a cross between candy and a sesame cookie--and no, you cannot actually taste the leaf, though it really is in there.
|Momiji Tenpura - tempura-fried maple leaves|
I ate far more of them than I should - and if I find myself in the Osaka area again in autumn, I'll definitely head back for another round of walking, waterfalls, and crunchy deep-friend maple leaves.
|Freshly prepared, quickly gone.|
The holy grail of Japanese street food, indeed.