Road Trip: A Serene Soak in Walnut Grove

Miyazaki Bathhouse

The Miyazaki Bath House & Gallery is the remarkable restoration of a Japanese “osento,” possibly the last one in America. Just an hour from Auburn and 15 minutes from Sacramento in Walnut Grove, you’ll feel like you’re on another planet. Sorry, the ladies in the photo are not staff at the bath house!

I am not a particularly spiritual person.

I am not someone who has learned how to relax.

I am not hugely enamored with water (especially in the presence of wine).

Yet hidden away in the Delta, I have found a place that directly connects all three, awakening—or perhaps revealing—feelings of which I was unaware.  This is a hallowed site linked to an unfathomable culture, enshrined in time.  And, remarkably, though barely an hour from Auburn, it is of another world and another century.

Be forewarned:  this place should be shared only with someone you care about deeply, a soul mate. . .ok. . .with someone you love.  It is the Miyazaki Bath House & Gallery in Walnut Grove, possibly the last surviving Japanese “Osento” in America, a womb-like place for private, intimate bathing yielding a “unique and delightful sensory experience as you soak and unwind in steamy waters”.

I was drawn to the Miyazaki Bath House through my fascination and appreciation of the Delta region, more specifically the length of the Sacramento River pinched between the levies of Rt. 160 and River Rd. from Freeport to Rio Vista.  It all began for me 15 years ago with a random riverside ride to Antioch on my Harley, followed by a later return trip to the Ryde Hotel for Sunday brunch, culminating with weekend stays in my vintage trailer at Vieira’s Resort just past Isleton.

While some may be repulsed, I am drawn to these hamlets on the river, former Asian communities that have over decades fallen deeply into disrepair, decaying slowly at the water’s edge.  What is appealing to me is that though many buildings are vacant and crumbling, there are sturdy, determined people here who refuse to give up. . .modern homesteaders who see value in the past and have worked hard to rescue and restore what they can in a place unspoiled by Wal-Mart or Costco or franchise stores of any ilk.

Eschewing the directness of I-5, I always opt to exit the freeway at Pocket Rd., crossing over to Rt. 160 for a ride along the river through tunnels fashioned from tree canopies; alongside vineyards and orchards; through farmland as far as you can see.  Courtland, Locke and the other tiny villages on this route could fit seamlessly into the flatness and heat of Florida or Louisiana. . .it feels the same to me, right down to the occasional palm tree.

But it is Walnut Grove that is the true siren, luring me with frozen-in-time storefronts, formerly bustling businesses operated by Japanese and Chinese merchants: barbers, druggists and retailers of all types.  Some of the original neon still glows; there is a Buddhist temple; a surviving Japanese language school building. . .even two barracks-like structures, said to be moved here from the Tule Lake Internment Camp, a WWII detention center for Japanese-Americans.

exterior od B St.

This is a view of the building from “B” Street; gallery is on the first floor and the apartment is upstairs. Cost for two people overnight, including two-hours in the bath house is just $255, Monday through Thursday; $269, Friday through Sunday. You can also book two-hour baths without staying at the facility.

It is the Miyazaki Bath House & Gallery, however, that keeps pulling me back.  I learned of this place about a year ago after reading a travel piece by Sam McManis in the SacBee (click here for story).  My beloved Ellen is a huge fan of the Kabuki Springs & Spa in San Francisco’s Japantown—a must stop whenever she is in the City—so I immediately made a reservation for us to visit, including an overnight stay in a two-bedroom apartment above the bath house.

What a fabulous and rare find, one that I am only too happy to share with the readers of Window on Old Town.   The apartment has been carefully restored in harmony with what the space could have looked like during the turn of the 20th century.  You enter directly into a sitting area—a mash-up of Victorian- and Japanese-era furniture and decoration.  Then there are two cozy bedrooms, a bath with claw-foot tub and a full kitchen and dining room at the opposite end.  The kitchen is kitted out with everything you need to for cooking and serving, plus all the staples you might need, including a selection of coffee and tea.

Unless you are a B&B devotee, this may not be your cup of ginger tea.  But, if you seek out unique, one-off lodging, you won’t want to leave this dwelling.  I know I wanted to remain cocooned in the robe and slippers provided for our visit.  We were content to hang out and read, nap and just plain relax. . .very, very cool. . .


The gallery and tearoom showcase the art of co-owner Montserrat Wassam and a tatami platform bed, perfect for relaxing when you are not in the bath house. The two large rings in the foreground were created by co-owner Jeep Phillips to represent the immensity of the twin tunnels planned for the Delta. Note the people cutouts at the bottom of each ring. Pretty scary!

…as is the bath house (click here for photos), which is included in the cost for two guests staying overnight.  There are two separate areas, and the entire place is reserved in two-hours blocks.  On one side is the bath, presenting numerous options for getting pruney.  There are two large soaking tubs, with showers in front of each.  There is also a raging steam room for those who can stand the heat (me, not so much).  Soak for a while in the pure, hot water and then lie down on a towel on the wooden-slat floor and close your eyes.  Enjoy cold water, hot tea and orange sections while you surrender under a vaulted ceiling in a room clad in cedar.  Much of the original tile was saved when the baths were brought back to life.  (Click here for story, photos and video about the baths and Walnut Grove on the Daily Republic web site.)

The opposite side is an art gallery and tearoom with a tatami platform bed, perfect for taking a break from the baths.  The lighting is subdued; it is dead quiet . . .the perfect environment for mediation—or, in my case—personal introspection.  I’ve never been anywhere that was as relaxing and soothing. . .a magnificent setting  for spending time alone with the person you care about.

This project was conceived and executed by San Franciscans Eugene “Jeep” Phillips and Montserrat Wassam.  Jeep is a builder who has specialized in restoring Victorian buildings in San Francisco.  He purchased the building, researched its history, engineered the renovation and obtained a grant to restore the structure and baths that had collapsed over time.  An artist, Montserrat supplies the design acumen and a native ability to bring the package together.  Together, the couple salvaged a magnificent remnant of Japanese culture, preserving it for another generation to enjoy.

Beyond Walnut Grove, the Delta offers an amazing array of fun things to do, in addition to the obvious draws of boating, fishing and water sports.  If you are a Window on Old Town reader, you necessarily love wine, and there is some good juice in the Delta.  For information here are two web site resources:  Clarksburg Wine Country with details about its member wineries; and The Old Sugar Mill, a former industrial plant that is now home to 11 wineries, retail shops and an events center.

For dinner, you have to try Guisti’s Place, a Delta landmark restaurant, family-owned by four generations since the mid-1940s.  This place is a throwback; the food is wholesome; it’s one-of-a-kind, no question about it. Thursday is “Italian Day,” good to know for planning purposes. Rated three stars by the SacBee’s Blair Anthony Roberston.

There are a couple of breakfast joints in Walnut Grove, but be sure to try Maya’s Trading Company for lunch.  Great old structure right across the street from the Miyazaki Bath House, but austere once you are in the front door.  The Mexican menu is wonderful, though, and most everything is house made.

So, if you’re in the market for a close-to-home getaway like you’ve never experienced, give Montserrat a call at the Miyazaki Bath House. . .and tell her Gary and Ellen sent you!




If “Chicago Hot Dogs” Are Back, So is Baseball

History of Chicago HotdogThe return of Chicago Hot Dogs to the Carpe Vino menu is as reliable as the return of swallows to San Juan Capistrano.  Set your Apple Watch because once again, we’re celebrating the opening day of baseball in the Friendly Confines—Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs—from April 7 to the 12.

This year, we’ve ordered 240 S. Rosen poppy seed buns from Chicago so that we’ll have plenty in stock to satisfy the huge demand for these tasty tube steaks.  No running out this year, we promise!

It all starts with raw materials imported from Chi-town:  S. Rosen poppy seed buns, steamed before serving; all-beef Vienna brand hot dogs (sourced locally); neon green relish; sport peppers; dill pickle spear; tomato, onion and yellow mustard (French’s is traditional).  The secret ingredient is celery salt.  The poppy seed, steamed bun is essential.  Ask for ketchup and I will personally escort you to the front door.

Each lovingly prepared dog is served with the one and only classic…french fries!  Cost is $8 each or TWO dawgs for $14 (trust me, it’s worth it) and this treat is served only in the wine bar.  Ask for a hot dog in the dining room and you’ll face ejection from the game!

“Neighborhood Electric Vehicle” is Our Newest Ride

electric carWe’ve acquired a four-passenger GEM with a diamond-plate truck bed as the newest addition to the Carpe Vino “fleet”, and you’ll be seeing it soon on the streets of Old Town.  Dubbed a “Neighborhood Electric Vehicle,” we’ll be using our GEM for two purposes: hauling cases of wine from storage and shuttling restaurant customers from Carpe Vino to the upper parking lot on Friday and Saturday evenings.

As of the first of the year, we have taken the lease on the Court St. building directly behind Carpe Vino.  We have our offices there and we use it to warehouse and ship wine, so the GEM is ideal for moving juice to and from the restaurant.  Also, we’re working on a private events room in the building; we’ll share more about that when it is completed.

The GEM is totally electric, licensed and street legal.  It is roomy and enclosed so we can use it as a shuttle all year.  We’re working on a graphics package to wrap it in, so this could be one of the coolest vehicles in Auburn.

This is actually the second GEM we have used at Carpe Vino.  We had a two-passenger version that was sold about five years ago.

We Surge into France with a Winner from Louis Latour

Marsannay_LouisLatour.155340Focusing on wines produced in California, Oregon and Washington has always been Carpe Vino’s sweet spot…and our comfort zone.  After 13 years zeroed in on West Coast juice, I’m comfortable rating us as experts of the region.

We’ve made a case for not straying far afield principally because we’re giving our customers what they want.  We seldom get requests for imported wines, and that’s no doubt because we’re located in the middle of California wine country.  I’m sure wine merchants in Marseille find the reciprocal to be true:  they don’t field many orders for Rombauer Chardonnay.

Truth be told, another reason we’ve not ventured far from wine regions with which we are familiar is there is a huge learning curve in mastering the basics and the nuances of Old World wines.  Understanding the appellations, chateaus, winemakers and even the language of French wines, for example, is clearly intimidating.

Italian wines also present substantial barriers, but are a bit less complicated.  The rest of the world—South Africa; Australia and New Zealand; Argentina and Chile—are much more user friendly.

What all of these diverse regions share is they are “hand-sells,” in wine industry parlance.  For the uninitiated among us, we’ve got to open bottles for tasting; plus there is an educational imperative:  People don’t buy what they don’t know or understand.

As Carpe Vino’s business has grown and we need greater access to more and more wine, we have made a commitment to consciously break out of our mold. . .to commit to seeking out new wines no matter where they are made, and perhaps equally important, to challenge ourselves to broaden our collective understanding of wines from around the world.

I personally embarked on this track a few years ago by traveling to some the great wine regions of the world.  Thus far I have explored Italy, Spain and South Africa.  In October, I’m serving as host for a group of 26 Carpe Vino Wine Club members on a “Pilgrimage to Provence”.   I’ll be in France for two weeks, and I hope to soak up as much insight as possible and tell the story when we return.

As long as I am able, I hope to make at least one international trip each year to see, smell and taste the greatest wines on the planet where they are vinted. These are cursory explorations at best, so we’ll work with our brokers and distributors to do a remote journey by sampling wines here in Old Town and bring the best tasting and best values into the shop.

We’re taking baby steps; we’re learning on the job.  In that quest, here’s my first selection for your consideration:

2011 Louis Latour Marsannay, Cote d’Or, $21

(Retail $28; Average on Wine, $25)

Two characteristics of this wine were immediately appealing to me beyond its translucent cranberry color in the glass:  it is 100% pinot noir from Burgundy and the fruit is much more restrained and subtle than the amped cousins to which we’re accustomed in California.  And the alcohol comes in at just 13%, resulting in a wine that in my mind is relentlessly respectful when paired with food. . .as the good Lord intended.

Right down to the label, there is an elegance and sophistication to this wine that bespeaks a 200+-year heritage and seven generations of family controlling the company. . .largely a négociant-based enterprise that seeks out the best juice and  fruit in Burgundy to make/blend amazing wines using both classic techniques and 21st century technology.

At a price point of just over twenty dollars, this wine is an excellent and affordable entry into the world of Burgundy.  And with a score of 89 points from Wine Spectator, it’s a winner.

You won’t find this wine at K&L, BevMo; it is in very limited distribution and fine wine shops in the Golden State, principally SoCal.

From the Louis Latour web site:  “Marsannay is the village marking the northern gateway to the Côte d’Or on leaving Dijon, the capital of Burgundy and home to the Ducs de Bourgogne. This village marks the beginning of the Route des Grands Crus which follows the N6 highway through the Côte d’Or. Wines from Marsannay are generally lively and robust; characteristics that come from the rich iron soil. Marsannay received its Appellation Contrôlée in 1987 in recognition of the consistently high quality of its wine.”

Wine Spectator Tasting Notes (89 Points):  “Black cherry is the main flavor theme, with touches of boysenberry, spice and mineral. Ripe and firm, displaying fine balance and length. Best from 2015 through 2021.”  –Bruce Sanderson

Winery Tasting Notes:  “Of a lovely ruby red color, the Marsannay 2011 reveals a nose of cherries and licorice. It is round and elegant in the mouth with smooth tannins.  Food Pairing:  Roasted duck, “coq au vin,” lamb stew, mature cheeses.”

Alcohol:  13%
Cases Produced:  2,500
Blend:  100% pinot noir
Winemaker:  Nathalie Bobard

If you managed to wade through the full story about Louis Latour Marsannay, you’re a great candidate to push the “Buy Now” button and place an order.  Regular discounts apply.




More information
Carpe Vino (Find Us) 1568 Lincoln Way Auburn, CA 95603
Phone Number: 530-823-0320
Get Directions to Carpe Vino
Bar & Restaurant Hours Tuesday - Saturday
4:00pm - 10:00 p.m.
Closed: Sunday and Monday
Dining Room Hours Tuesday - Saturday
5:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Closed: Sunday and Monday
Make A Reservation Guests must be 21 years of age or older.
Reservations are suggested for preferred seating, especially on weekends.