I'd heard that Murakami was famous for its salmon. Somehow I didn't make the connection between the seaside town in northern Niigata and the succulent Murakami wagyu beef praised by star chefs like Grant Achatz. Nor did I realize that both Miyao Shuzo, producers of the formidable Shimeharitsuru sake, and Taiyo Shuzo, makers of the excellent Taiyozakari sake, were located in Murakami. I felt doubly stupid, since I'd just spoken to Taiyo's Hirata-san at the Niigata Sake no Jin tasting event the day before. Blame it on a lethal combination of too little sleep and too much sake, with a touch of let lag thrown in for good measure.
Our train pulled into Murakami station just past noon, and we headed straight for lunch at Notoshin, a charming ryotei specializing in salmon and Murakami beef. It's a wonderful space, quaint in all the right ways, with a wide, open tatami-covered main dining room that overlooks a tidy garden and salmon hanging outside of the windows in the back. Our meal arrived in a shiny black bento box. Inside, soy-simmered harumimasu (salmon trout -- the larger variety of salmon is only in season during autumn) garnished with a sweet and vibrant stewed kumquat, fresh sashimi, delicately flavored spring vegetables, and an assortment of small dishes were neatly arranged in compartments. Everything was tasty, but the thinly sliced Murakami beef nigiri, served with a dab of grated ginger and finely sliced scallions, was utterly decadent.
Our guide, Yamagai-san, led us around the city, along roads laid upon the moat that once surrounded Murakami's castle grounds, through neighborhoods lined with striking black walls and fences -- the way they were in the Edo period. Everywhere we went, we passed whole salmon hanging outside of houses and shops to dry in the sun.
At the Ioboya-kan Salmon Museum, they fertilize thousands of fish eggs in an attempt to increase salmon populations. The eggs are allowed to hatch and then the fry are released into the river once a year.
After touring the thatch-roofed summer house of a samurai, we raced to catch the sunset at the beach-side Shiomiso Onsen. My room afforded a spectacular view of the sea, and I enjoyed a Turner-esque moment from my balcony (I can paste in the boat with Photoshop later) with a cup of green tea.
Dinner was an elaborate spread of fresh seafood, Murakami beef shabu-shabu, and steak, served in one of the guest rooms. In keeping with the local spirit of the day, we toasted with cups of crisp, refreshing Shimeharitsuru and dry and slightly fatter Taiyozakari (both, I believe, were Honjozo) before easing into the rotenburo outdoor bath overlooking the sea.
I fell asleep to the sound of waves.