Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

September 29, 2013

Best Traditional Towns in Japan - Kansai (Tatsuno, Tanba-Sasayama & Yuasa)

The Kansai area boasts many interesting old towns for those fond of strolling through history. Here is a first selection of three, lesser-known places: Tatsuno, Tanba-Sasayama (both in Hyogo Prefecture) and Yuasa (Wakayama Prefecture).

[Tatsuno - Castle]

1. Tatsuno
Tatsuno is a small former castle town in south-western Hyogo Prefecture, at just 15 kilometers distance from Himeji in the Harima region. Located on the Ibo River, Tatsuno thrived as a center of industry and transport. It is famous for three things: it was (and is) the center for the production of soy sauce in the Kansai (together with Shodoshima and - to a lesser degree - Yuasa below); it was (and is) also the center for the production of somen noodles in Western Japan (another center is Sakurai in Nara Pref.); and it was the birthplace of the poet Miki Rofu who wrote the children's song "Akatombo" ("Red Dragonfly"), which every Japanese knows. The old part of the small town, across the river, still exudes a nice historic atmosphere. You will be pleasantly surprised by the lack of tourists.

[Tatsuno - Soy Sauce Museum]

Places to visit:
  • Tatsuno "Usukuchi" Soy Sauce Museum
    Soy sauce developed from miso (it was initially a by-product of miso manufacture) in the 16th century, initially in Yuasa (see below). As a heavy press is necessary for making soy sauce, a real industry developed in contrast to the production of miso which often took place in small shops. Edo-period production centers for soy sauce were Noda, Choshi (both in Chiba Prefecture), Shodoshima and Tatsuno. Soy production in Tatsuno was started in the period 1587-1590 by Maruoya Magozaemon; in 1666 Maruoya Magouemon developed light colored shoyu ("usukuchi shoyu"), which became very popular in the Kansai region, as it adds flavor without coloring the ingredients, something which fits the delicate cuisine of Kyoto. This soy sauce became possible thanks to the water of the Ibo River which is soft, with minimal iron content (the higher the iron content, the darker the sauce sauce; and hard water is less suitable to extract subtle flavors than soft water). Other ingredients are also local, such as the salt from Ako. Tatsuno producers also make use of amazake (a sweet rice drink) to enhance the flavor, aroma and color of their soy sauce. Note, by the way, that despite the lighter color, Usukuchi Shoyu is somewhat saltier than the darker type. Tatsuno soy sauce has flourished through the ages and is still being produced by Higashimaru and others. The museum has been established in a retro building that used to be the office of the Higashimaru soy sauce company and displays soy sauce making tools that were used until the early Showa period. 
  • Site of Tatsuno Castle. The present castle with its white walls and turrets is a reconstruction. The original dates back to 1499 and sat on the top of the mountain; after that, a new castle was built in the present location at the foot of the same mountain in 1672. The castle grounds are a good sakura blossom spot. There is also a reconstruction of the Honmaru palace.
  • In Tatsuno Park stands a monument to the famous children's song "Akatombo (Red Dragonfly)" - it will even play the song for those who have forgotten the melody. 
  • In the small Tatsuno Municipal Museum of the History and Culture (near the castle) you can learn more about this interesting town.
  • Visit the "Somen no Sato" Museum of the Ibonoito company, a 15 min walk from the next JR station, Higashi-Hashisaki, to learn more about tenobe (hand-stretched) somen noodles. These fine wheat noodles have been produced in the area since 1418. The facility features a demonstration and sampling corner, a production site, shops, a diorama of somen making, etc. 
How to get there: The historical area in Tatsuno is a 20-minute walk from JR Hon-Tatsuno Station (across the river); Hon-Tatsuno is 20 minutes by local train on the JR Kishin line from Himeji. 

[Tanba-Sasayama - Tanba Pottery Museum]

2. Tanba-Sasayama
Sasayama in the Tanba area of Hyogo is a small castle town, located on a bucolic plain, that preserves many old buildings around the castle and in its old merchant's quarter. The tourist center of the town is housed in a retro building dating to 1924, called Taisho Romankan; there are also a restaurant inside, and a shop selling local produce, such as kuromame (black soy beans). Despite the long list of museums below, the greatest pleasure of Sasayama is just to stroll through the old town and make your own discoveries. As museums go, the three at the top of the below list are the best.

Places to visit:
  • Tanba Kotokan (Old Tanba Pottery Museum). Museum dedicated to traditional Tanba pottery, housed in a wonderful group of old rice storehouses. Beautiful old pots (ranging from the Kamakura-period to the Edo-period) in a wonderful environment. Tanba-yaki is not made in Tanba-Sasayama, but in the village of Tachikui, where you will find the kilns, and which also is home to the The Museum of Ceramic Art, Hyogo
  • Nohgaku Shiryokan (Noh Museum). Museum dedicated to the Noh Theater, displaying masks, robes, and instruments. A model of a Noh stage shows the large pots (of course, made from Tanba-yaki) placed beneath the wooden floor for acoustical effect. The connection of Tanba-Sasayama with Noh is via the Aoyama castle lords who in 1858 built a Noh stage at the local Kasuga Shrine.
  • Sasayama Rekishi Bijutsukan (Sasayama Historical Art Museum). The museum is housed in Japan's oldest district court building, which was in use from 1890 to 1981. On display are both artworks (often originally belonging to the Aoyama castle lords) and historical objects: screens, maps, the local pottery called Ohjiyama-yaki, lacquerware, porcelain, old armor, etc. 
  • Castle Ruin and Oshoin. Sasayama castle was built in 1609 at the order of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Oshoin palace building was destroyed by fire in 1944. It has now been reconstructed, using ancient building techniques, and with much attention to detail. 
  • Aoyama History MuseumThe entrance gate is a Nagaya gate from the Edo-period. Exhibits include printing blocks and other artifacts from the Edo-period. 
  • Anma's Historical Museum (Buke-yashiki Samurai House). Anma was a vassal of Aoyama, the feudal lord of Sasayama. In this traditional samurai house some furniture and cooking vessels are on display. 
  • Tamba Toji Sake Brewery Museum. The Tamba Toji Sake Brewery Museum explains the origin of the important Tamba Toji master brewers as well as the sake brewing process with displays of old-fashioned tools. There is also a sake brewery in town, the Homei Brewery, which is housed in a nice old building.
How to get there: Take the JR Takarazuka Line rapid service from Amagasaki to Sasayamaguchi, then 15 min bus to the center of the old town. Sasayama Tourism page. 
[Yuasa - the old town]

3. Yuasa
Yuasa, located about half an hour by train south of Wakayama City, is like Tatsuno another old soy town. In fact, it is the oldest soy town in Japan for it was here that soy sauce was discovered as a by-product from the manufacture of miso paste. That miso was called Kinzanji miso and it was made in Kokokuji Temple in nearby Yura. It is still being produced in Yuasa and served in its restaurants - as a pickled side dish, containing small bits of vegetables. Miso was not only used for soups, but was perhaps first and for all a pickling agent. The liquid that dripped out of the miso as it matures is technically known as miso-damari, and is a very thick sort of soy sauce. Yuasa flourished from the 17th to 19th centuries thanks to the production of both soy sauce and Kinzanji miso. In its heyday, there were 92 soy sauce factories, of which now four remain.

Places to visit:
  • The old quarter with historical homes is a 10 min walk from Yuasa station. There are no big destinations here, but Yuasa is just fun to walk around in. You will find a small (free) soy museum where old tools for making soy sauce are on display. In the same street are two old shops, Kadocho making and selling premium soy sauce (since 1841), and Ohta Hisasuke Ginsei making and selling miso. There is also a small (free) historical museum called Jinburo. Among the several temples in town, Jinsenji is probably the most interesting: it has a small dry garden in front of the main hall (dating from 1663) and outside, next to the gate, stands a monument dedicated to the great earthquake and tsunami of 1854. The townscape here has been designated as a special preservation district.
  • Yuasa Soy Sauce. Marushin Honke had retreated from soy sauce manufacturing in 1965, and concentrated on the more profitable Kinzanji Miso. However, in recent years under the name Yuasa Soy Sauce a separate soy sauce company was again set up. Traditional soy making takes place here and the factory is always open to visitors - with large parking lots for tour buses it is a bit commercialised, but the friendly staff gives detailed explanations, making a visit certainly worthwhile. They make various premium kinds of soy sauce - for example with black beans from Tanba - and are active in export. The factory and shop stand along Route 42, on the opposite side from the old town when coming from Yuasa Station. From the station, turn right and follow the road until you reach the large grounds of a school. Here turn right again, and keep going straight on, crossing the railroad, until you reach a busy road (Route 42). Here turn left and you will soon see the signboards of Yuasa Soy Sauce. 
  • Yuasa is part of the municipality of Arida, which thanks to the warm climate is one of the most famous mikan producing areas in Japan. In the season, you will see the mikan-tress on the hillsides when your train approaches Yuasa, and you can buy the fruit everywhere in town.
  • Another local delicacy is shirasu-don, whitebait over rice. You can taste it (together with Kinzanji miso) in Kadoya, a restaurant standing to the left on the opposite side of the street from the station.
How to get there: Yuasa is just over 40 min. from Wakayama City by JR Kinokuni line.