Kanagawa does it again: A day of culture and nature at the foot of Mt. Fuji
If you know my posting regarding my trip to “Manazuru“, you will have a pretty good idea of what you are about to experience here, as this is yet another trip organised by the incomparable Alice Gordenker – and if you have read this blog carefully, the name may sound familiar to you, as she was also “behind the scenes” by organising and leading the excursions, when I wrote my articles on the “Toguri Museum of Art“, on the project of “Amputee Venus” and the “Teien Art Museum“. Also you will find Alice Gordenker’s blog in my blogroll.
As in Manazuru, the Kanagawa prefecture was sponsoring the tour, as they are aiming at attracting more foreign tourists. And, one feels compelled to add: They are doing a very nice job with these tours.
Starting point for the whole one-day-trip was Shin Matsuda (新松田 / しんまつだ) (1) in the Kanagawa prefecture
If you feel that this map doesn’t quite show you enough details of the route we took during this excursion, here is an image of a slightly enhanced version of Google maps (click to enlarge) – the numbers in the map refer to destinations described in this posting:
You have never heard of Ashigara? Well, don’t be surprised – despite the fact that the area as a long and important history, it’s not one of those locations on every tourist’s itinerary. But the fact that important old roads cross the land – older than the Tōkaidō (東海道 / とうかいどう) – and that it is so close to the old castle city Odawara (小田原 / おだわら) and the even older capital of Japan, Kamakura (鎌倉 / かまくら) (12th to 14th century), make it far less surprising that also in our days it has lots of interesting spots to offer. And if you know a bit about Japanese legends, it will tell you something, that Kintaro (金太郎 / きんたろう) was born here in 956 A.D. – but you don’t have to consider yourself as “in bad company”, if you don’t know.
(2) Monzō Farm House (古民家文蔵 / こみんかもんぞう)
This traditional farm house (about 100 years old) was the first location where we got in touch with a rather particular aspect of Japanese culture: Aizome (藍染 / あいぞめ) – indigo dyeing. Who would have thought that one can learn how to dye a cloth and to actually make one’s own tenugui (手拭い / てぬぐい) – a traditional Japanese towel or handkerchief? I certainly hadn’t! But the results of the workshop were rather astonishing ones. And all that from some “green leaves” and lots of water (if I may take the liberty of describing it in this simplified way).
The Monzō House is also home to an NGO that works to rehome fine old kimono (着物 / きもの) from the Taishō (大正時代 / たいしょうじだい) and Shōwa (昭和時代 / しょうわじだい) eras. Some of the pieces are 50 or even 75 years old. They sell old kimono, but also refashion obi (帯 / おび) and kimono into handbags.
And while our hand-made tenugui were drying in the sun…
we went on to the next location on our itinerary – just around the corner, the
(3) Seto Yashiki (瀬戸屋敷 / せとやしき)
This second traditional house is even older than the first one – 300 years, and quite a bit fancier because it is the traditional home of the nanushi (名主 / なぬし) or village headman. The thatched roof alone is making all the difference – and an impressive one, too. Everyone who has visited traditional Japanese farm- and village-houses knows about the quiet charm of such buildings.
In preparation for the “Hina Matsuri” (雛祭り / ひなまつり), the Doll’s Festival (3 March, “Girls’ Day”), the ground floor of the building was decorated with large stair-scaffolds, covered with red cloths for the display of ornamental dolls, “hina ningyō” (雛人形 / ひなにんぎょう), representing the Emperor, Empress, attendants, and musicians in traditional court dress of the Heian period (794–1185 A.D.). Originally the festival was deemed to drive out evil spirits.
I’ve heard the story that Japanese girls have a particular fancy for these dolls – even though they are not to be played with, but just “admired”.
And, as with any good old superstition, also with this one strikt rules need to be observed: If the dolls are not taken down immediately after the festival, this will result in a late marriage of the daughter of the house.
Anyway, we were lucky, because a week later – or so – the house would have been crawling with people, admiring the gorgeous doll arrangements.
One of the highlights of the tour was a rather fancy tea tasting in the kura (蔵/ くら) (storage house) of the estate which also was the place for a chalk drawing exhibition of local people.
Growing tea in Ashigara is a rather new tradition. It was started after the Great Kantō Earthquake (1923) in order to re-vitalise the area. Today teas grown in Ashigara are among the best in the country. And even though I thought I knew a little about Japanese green tea, this one was an eye-opener. A tea somelier of the tea association explained the tea to us and guided us through the process of the different kinds of tea brew.
The tea leaves were put in a tea cup with a lid. A very small amout of hot water was put in a pitcher and cooled down there until it reached about body temperature (i.e. about 40°C – yes, yes, yes, I know, most people’s body temperature is a touch lower). These few drops of lukewarm water were poured around the tea leaves. After waiting for two minutes the extraordinarily impressive brew could be enjoyed by drinking directly from the cup, holding the tea leaves back with the cup’s lid. Words fail me to describe the taste of this first brew. It did not even remotely taste like tea. It was slighly sweet taste of a multitude of vegetable aromas. The word “umami” was the one to describe the taste – see an explanation below.
This time a small amout of water was cooled down to about 50°C and then the tea was brewed for about one minute. The result was a combination of the palatal sensation of the first brew and the fine aroma of green tea.
A slightly more generous amout of hot water was poored onto the tea leaves directly and the tea drunk right away. Even after this third brew from the same tea leaves the tea maintained a very distinct aroma and smell. Together with some sweets (Japanese green tea without Japanese sweets simply doesn’t work), this was pure enjoyment.
But another highlight was yet to come: At the end of the tasting we could actually eat the tea leaves from the cup. They were a soft, flavourful delight. If combined with a little bit of soy sauce or soy sauce with vinegar, these leaves opened yet another dimension of taste. In short: If you enjoy high quality green tea, don’t throw the leaves away after brewing – they make the perfect salad!
During the tea tasting we learned that this is all about “umami” (旨味 / うまみ), which is regarded as the “fifth basic taste” – in addition to “sweet”, sour”, “salty” and “bitter”. A hundred years ago, even Japanese didn’t know about “umami”, however the word became quite fashionable recently (especially in connection with the world-wide appreciation for Japanese food). One could translate it with “pleasant savory taste”. I don’t know, if this really is a “category of taste”, but if it is, the tea we tasted obviously belonged to it.
Before we moved on to the next point on our itinerary, we had a chance to enjoy hand-made “sato-ben (郷弁 / さとべん) – lunch boxes with lots of local vegetables and other palatal delights.
(4) Soga no Bairin (曽我梅林 / そがのばいりん)
The Soga no Bairin (曽我梅林 / そがのばいりん) (plum trea grove of Soga) near Odawara (小田原 / おだわら) was the perfect place for not only inhaling some Japanese culture and tradition, but also to enjoy the first signs of the approaching spring. Yet another highlight of the tour was the “Yabusame” (流鏑馬 / やぶさめ) (horseback archery). The one here in Soga is related to one of three most famous revenge stories of Japan: the Soga Monogatari (曽我物語 / そがものがたり), or “The Tale of the Soga Brothers”. It comes from a mediaval text called “Azuma Kagami” (吾妻鏡 or 東鑑 / あずまかがみ), the “Mirror of the East”, that was compiled after 1266 and chronicles events of the Kamakura Shogunate. In this story Soga Gorō and Soga Jūrō, who sought out their father’s murderer and avenge their father by killing him. The story has been told and retold, in a variety of forms, including kabuki (歌舞伎 / かぶき) and bunraku (文楽 / ぶんらく) (puppet plays). But it is based on a supposed-to-be true historical incident.
The horse archery is carried out on a 240 metres long track and is rather a ceremonial event than a sportive one. Even though it has its origins in martial arts, after World War II. it has been reduced to its Shintō sources and consists of a elaborate ceremony with Shintō priests and the ritual archery afterwards. For anybody who is not familiar with Shintō ceremonies (and who is?), the event draws its very particular charm from the period costumes all participants are wearing. In this case the dress code follows the “Takeda style” (武田流 / たけだりゅう) of horseback archery.
Have a look at the archers medieval costumes, the armour of the soldiers and the outfit of the grooms – a feast for the eyes (and most likely not the most comfortable thing to wear).
Maybe I wasn’t able to catch this in the most impressive way – but have alook at the pictures below in fast succession and see the archers move….
But the Soga no Bairin is always worth a detour – aside from the once-a-year opportunity of the Yabusame, which is held always on February 11 – the national holiday for the “Commemoration of the Founding of the Nation” (建国記念の日 / けんこくきねんのひ), when the first Emperor of Japan, the Jimmu Tennō (神武天皇 / じんむてんのう) ascended the throne in the year 660 B.C. (we are all far too young to have witnessed it personally…).
You’ll have to exercise some extensive search, if you are to find another place that offers 35,000 plum trees. Early February might be a touch too early for a visit (at least it was in this year), but the plum trees’ blossoms are a joy in any case. They are so delicate, so fragile and their fight against the forces of nature is so much more impressive than the blossoms of the cherry trees (one and a half months later), that I tend to appreciate the plum blossoms far more – their humble modesty seems to represent Japan far better than the overbearing glory of the famous cherry blossoms.
On a day like that you’ll find small booths that sell local goods (particularly those made of local plums) and tradional snacks.
And if the plum blossoms don’t satisfy your need for glory, have a look to the West and enjoy the majesty of Mt. Fuji (富士山 / ふじさん) – Japans sacred mountain also formed the backdrop for the archery event and ceremony.
(5) Ishii Jōzō (石井醸造 / いしいじょうぞう) in Ōimachi (大井町 / おおいまち)
What would an outing to this part of Kanagawa prefecture (神奈川県 / かながわけん) be, without visiting a sake brewery? Here, where the earth is blessed with the clear waters from the Mt. Fuji area, some of the most delicious sakes of the country are being brewed. And one of those breweries is the Ishii Sake Brewery (Ishii Jōzō (石井醸造 / いしいじょうぞう) in Ōimachi (大井町 / おおいまち).
Their sake is very rightfully called “Pride of Soga” (Soga no homare / 曽我の譽 / そがのほまれ) – and local connoisseurs speak highly of it (unfortunately, it is not to be had outside the prefecture). The brewery is now run by the sixth generation of the Ishii family. The high season for sake brewing is winter, as the process requires cool temperatures. During this time it has been a long tradition that sake workers come down from Iwate prefecture (岩手県 / いわてけん), just for the work of producing sake, as sake brewing is still a rather labour-intensive process. And we had the chance to see it all with our own eys (I’m not an expert in sake brewing – so, please be gentle with me, should the order of the pictures not acurately represent the production process).
In addition to the traditional sake produkts the Ishii Jōzō also produces a most delicate plum wine (梅酒 / うめしゅ). In contrast to the often shōchū-based plum wines, here sake is used as a basis, resulting in afruity and delightflully not-so-sweet wine, made from the plums from Soga.
Or have a taste of the sake-soaked plums – even if you don’t like the sour plums (umeboshi / 梅干 / うめごし) Japan is famous for, you’ll love these ones. Our visit to the brewery included a most entertaining sake tasting – a few gulps of those delights for the taste-buds, and the whole group turned into quite a happy bunch.
Have a look at the liquors we sampled:
Ginjō Shu (吟醸酒 / ぎんじょうしゅ) (日本酒度+3～+4), 15 to 16 vol. % alcohol
Shiboritate (Genshu) (絞り立て / しぼりたて) (原酒 / げんしゅ) (日本酒度+4～+6) a freshy brewed, unfiltered sake with hefty 19 to 21 vol.% alcohol
Orizake (おり酒 / おりざけ) a very early stage of sake, still cloudy from the yeast and very slightly sparkling
Umeshu (梅酒 / うめしゅ) (12 to 13 vol. % alcohol)“, the one I was mentioning above.
(6) Shasui no taki (洒水の滝 / しゃすいのたき) in Yamakita (山北町 / やまきたまち)
After having endulged in sake, a little walk was just the perfect way to clear our heads. The “Shasui no Taki” (洒水の滝 / しゃすいのたき), Shasui-Waterfall, was – even though the spot will be more breathtaking in early summer – a well-selected destination. Just coming from the world of sake (酒), one might confuse the first kanji of the waterfall’s name (洒) with the one for sake – but it has one stroke less. Anyway, and much more importantly, the Shasui no Taki is regarded as one of the 100 famous waterfalls of Japan and has been listed as such in 1990 by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (actually: it’s number 31 on the list) after votes taken from all over the country. It also ist one of the 50 most beautiful landscapes of Kanagawa Prefeture (as published by the tourist agency of Kanagawa in 1979).
It is actually three waterfalls, with a total height of fall of 90 metres – the most impressive part is covered by the top fall with a length of 69 metres, and that is the one that can be seen best from a small red bridge at the bottom of the cascade.
En route to the Shasui no Taki one passes a rather pretty temple in the forest, the Saishō-ji (最勝寺 / さいしょうじ). It is home to a drum- (taiko / 太鼓 / たいこ)-school and a place for a large number of Jizō (地蔵 / じぞう), small statues of the Jizō-bosatsu or Kṣitigarbha to remember and appease “mizuko” (水子 / みずこ) (babies who have miscarried or were aborted).
How to get there:
The starting point of our tour (Shin Matsuda / 新松田 / しんまつだ) can most easily be reached from Shinjuku station (新宿駅 / しんじゅくえき) with local and rapid trains of the Odakyū line (小田急線 / おだきゅうせん). And if you want to give you that special treat you deserve, take one of the Odakyū line’s “Romancecars” (ロマンスカー) – that’ll cost you a few hundred yen extra, but is infinitely more comfortable.
Travel time (depending on your train selection): 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours.
Train fare (of course, also depending on your train selection): 780 Yen to 1.470 Yen (as per February 2016)
If your trip is supposed to start from Tōkyō, you may as well take a Shinkansen (新幹線 / しんかんせん) to Odawara ( 小田原 / おだわら) and change to the Odakyū line (小田急線 / おだきゅうせん) from there (bound for Shinjuku).
Travel time: Shinkansen: 35 minutes / Odakyū line: 8 minutes
Train fare: 3,440 Yen (incl. Shinkansen and Odakyū line) (as per February 2016)
Did you enjoy this posting? There is more about Ashigara here:
Minami Ashigara (南足柄)
– And yet another day of adventure and experience in Kanagawa