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
[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.

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-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 Soy Town
[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.  

September 3, 2013

Best Traditional Towns in Japan - Western Japan (Takahashi, Tomonoura and Onomichi)

There are still several traditional towns in Japan where modernization ("concrete-ization") has been less rampant than in the larger cities. Here are a few of my favorites in Western Japan (Okayama and Hiroshima Prefectures): Bitchu-Takahashi, Tomonoura, and Onomichi. Although I give suggestions for visits to temples and small museums in these towns, in the first place they are all just nice for a relaxed stroll through narrow lanes with old houses...


[Takahashi - Raikyuji's Garden]
1. Bitchu-Takahashi
The tiny former castle town of Takahashi stretches north to south along the Takahashi River. Lying in a mountainous region of great scenic beauty, it has a thriving merchant district of Edo-era buildings near the river and a well-preserved section of samurai homes, still occupied by the descendants of that martial class. Takahashi also features several interesting temples, of which Shorenji and Yakushi-en stand on high stone platforms. The place to visit is, however, Raikyuji, which boasts a fine garden laid out by Kobori Enshu. The samurai houses stand in the Ishibayacho district, just beyond Raikyuji. The castle was built in 1683 and sitting at 420 meters above sea level, is the highest castle in Japan. There is a great view of the surrounding hills from the castle hill (but it is a pain to get there, so you may opt to observe the castle hill from the town!) P.S. "Bitchu" is the name of this region in Okayama; it is added to the name of the town because there are more towns of the name "Takahashi" in Japan.

Places to visit are:
  • The Zen-temple Raikyuji. The renowned garden designer and tea master Kobori Enshu (1579-1647) served as governor of Takahashiand at that time lived in Raikyuji. He designed the present garden in 1604. The shakkei garden is characterized by a bold, wavelike hedge and in its daring design can stand comparison with the best gardens in Kyoto. 
  • Shorenji. This Nichiren temple is noted for its stone-walled terraces, which create an unusual effect.
  • Ishibaiyacho district with samurai houses. Two samurai residences (the Haibara Samurai Residence and the Orii Samurai Residence) are open to the public. 
  • In the merchant quarter near the river, one merchant residence can be visited: the Ikegami Merchant House, a soy sauce producer.
  • There are two small museums in town, the Takahashi Folk Museum (in an atmospheric building) and the Takahashi Historical Museum.
  • Bitchu-Matsuyama-jo. The highest mountain fortress in Japan. It retains the features of a medieval mountain fortress, although the present keep is more modern, from 1683. The castle is little visited as it stands a 20 min taxi ride outside the town. Climbing the hill takes another 15 min.

    Bitchu-Takahashi is 36 min by Yakumo Express from Okayama City, or 55 min by ordinary train via the Hakubi Line.

    Bitchu-Takahashi in Japan Guide (with a handy map). Japan Times article


    P.S. Fukiya, deeper into the mountains, is a copper mining town with old rust-colored houses, but as it is an hour by infrequent bus from Bitchu-Takahashi, it is rather difficult to get to by public transport.

[Tomo no Ura] 

2. Tomonoura
A little gem of a fisher's village with superb views over the Inland Sea, and an interesting place to stroll through the winding, narrow streets. Located on the southern point of the Nunakuma Peninsula, Tomonoura has been a famous scenic spot since the Nara period, when it was eulogized in the Manyoshu poetry collection. It was always a center for Inland Sea trade and many travellers passed through the town - the most important are the Korean embassies which came to Japan in the Edo-period (it was usual for travelers from Kyushu to Edo to travel through the Inland Sea by boat, before landing in Muronotsu in Hyogo Pref. and then - after visiting Osaka and Kyoto - hitting the Tokaido Highway). They would lodge in the Taichoro Pavilion of Fukuzenji Temple from which they could enjoy the view of three small islands in the bay, one adorned with a red pagoda. This Chinese-style landscape would be perfectly framed in the windows of their lodgings. Another visitor to Tomonoura was koto-composer Miyagi Michio (1894–1956), who was here inspired to write his masterwork, "Haru no Umi," or "The Spring Sea." In addition, anime-director Miyazaki Hayao developed his idea for the film Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea (2008) while staying in Tomonoura.

Note: Tomonoura is in some danger of having its scenery spoiled by "development," such as a large bridge which may cut right through the small port town. See this article by WMF (the World Monuments Fund). 

Places to visit are:
  • Fukuzenji and Taichoro (Wave-facing Pavilion), the temple with pavilion where the Korean Embassies lodged, just next to the modern ferry landing. There are several memorabilia from these embassies on view, such as a calligraphy dated 1711 praising the view.
  • The Old Town with rows of fine old houses plus a distillery that makes Homeishu, a traditional medicinal liqueur.
  • The Temple and Shrine quarter in the north-east part of the town. The most interesting temple is Ankokuji, which has a 13th c.  Shaka Hall which is said to be one of the oldest Zen-style halls in Japan; the temple also has an interesting wooden Amida Triad; the Nunakuma Shrine - though itself concrete - has an early 17th c. Noh stage (presumably from Hideyoshi's Fushimi Castle in Kyoto).
  • Tomonoura Museum of History and Folklore. Local history and folklore museum. Includes a display of tai-ami, the fishing for sea bream (tai) which takes place in May with one large net pulled by a number of small boats. Other displays include a blacksmith's workshop for anchor making, and a koto used by Miyagi Michio.

    Tomonoura is 35 min by Tomotetsu bus from Fukuyama Station on the Shinkansen and Sanyo lines.

    English website of Fukuyama Tourist Information. Japan Times article.


Onomichi
 [Onomichi]

3. Onomichi
Onomichi is a port town on the inland sea, a traditional shipping center. For non-Japanese it is famous thanks to the iconic images at the beginning and end of Ozu Yasujiro's Tokyo Story, where it is the hometown of the elderly couple. It does not lie on the open sea, but across a channel we find the aptly name Mukai ("opposite") Island, now linked via a bridge. Onomichi lies on a steep hillside, crisscrossed by a warren of narrow slopes. The hills are studded with temples and there are also a few interesting small museums, as well as many literature monuments and film shooting spots. There is also a suitably old-fashioned Shotengai (arcaded shopping street). Onomichi is a starting point for trips to islands in the Inland Sea, either by bus via the new bridge system (Shimanami Kaido) or, as of old, by boat.

Places to visit are:
  • Jodoji Temple, at the eastern end of the town. The temple boasts a Main hall and a Tahoto Pagoda which are both national treasures. Visitors can also view a tea house that purportedly came from Hideyoshi's Fushimi Castle in Kyoto, and an interesting treasure house. Jodoji is a good starting point for a walk along the other temples, as Tenneiji (three-storied pagoda) and Saikokuji (with its gigantic straw sandals). Take a 5-min bus or taxi to Jodoji, and then walk back in a western direction towards the station and the hill with Senkoji.
  • Senkoji Temple can be reached by ropeway and is a sort of tourist trap, but the good thing is the view over the Inland sea from the temple, which is justly celebrated (and you can hike up the hill instead of using the ropeway). There is also a "literature walk" on the hill along stones on which haiku and other works have been carved (but you need some Japanese ability to appreciate this). 
  • The Onomichi Motion Picture Museum - see my previous post on Ozu Museums and Shooting Locations.
  • The Onomichi Literature Museum - comprising the residence of 20th c. writer Shiga Naoya. Another famous author who lived in Onomichi is Hayashi Fumiko (she went to high school here).
  • The Onomichi Museum of Art, designed by Ando Tadao.

    Onomichi has a Shinkansen Station, but that lies rather far from the city center. Coming from the east, it is easier to take an ordinary train on the JR Sanyo Line from Fukuyama - this takes only 18 min.

    Onomichi City English website. Japan Times article. Japan Guide with map.