The town of white walls and red roofs
With the city of Kurayoshi I am starting a probably longer series of postings related to a region of Japan that, despite the fact that it is even sung about (people familiar with Japanese “Enka” will surely know Kaori Mizumori’s “Tottori Sakyū”), doesn’t seem to be top of the list with Western tourists: Tottori prefecture (鳥取県 / とっとりけん). That is astonishing and at the same time a shame, as Tottori has not only the most amazing things to offer (when we come to the end of this series, you will have to ask yourself, what made you believe that true knowledge and insight into the Japanese culture was something that could only be found in Kyōto), but it is also the “Cradle of Japan” so to speak. In a nutshell: I had to learn (and was only too happy to do so) that this region of Japan deserves much more attention – especially from western visitors – when I was invited by the prefectural administration. It suggests itself that I am sharing these experiences with the rest of the world – well, with you, dear readers at least.
There are two reasons why I start my (probably) very colourful row of postings with Kurayoshi (倉吉 / くらよし) – a very simple one, and a rather deplorable one:
- Kurayoshi is located in the centre of the Tottori prefecture and can be reached by car from almost any corner of the prefecture within less than one hour (and without violating speed limits).
- On October 21, 2016 at 2:07 pm a strong earthquake (magnitude 6.3 – other sources speak of 6.6) with its hypocentre just 10 km below Kurayoshi jolted the prefecture. It caused considerable damage to the region around Kurayoshi – but it could also be felt at Japan’s southern main island, Kyūshū (九州 / きゅうしゅう) and in the capital of the country, 700 km away. But that should come as no surprise, as the earthquake had an intensity of “6-” on the Japanese scale (the third-highest level on this scale) that provides much more information on the destructive power of an earthquake.
But, as you can see on the tiny video clip below that I took on behalf of Alice Gordenker (attentive readers of my website know her already), the poeple of Kurayoshi quickly have regained a positive attitude and are looking forward to a bright future of their idyllic town:
So, please don’t be surprised, if you find some photosgraphs taken in December 2016 here that display blue covers on some of the roofs. The heavy tiles covering the roofs of the traditional buildings were those parts of the constructions that suffered most from the tremors. So many roofs were damaged that slaters can’t cope with the sudden demand in repairs. After all, the basic structure of the majority of the buildings remained unharmed, because earthquake resistance has always been one of the foremost considerations when building a house in Japan. And even if some buildings are not built to withstand heavy seismic shocks, they are at least relatively easy to reconstruct.
And last but not least, the most important news related to this earthquake is: There were no casualties to be reported.
But I don’t want to go on lamenting about natural disaster, which are – in a way – part of Japan’s very nature and which usually (and luckily) don’t have as grave an impact as some foreign newspaters make it sound.
Now it is time for some basic data about Kurayoshi: With its 50,000 inhabitants it is the third biggest city in the Tottori prefecture. And this fact alone gives you some indication as to the total population of Tottori, which is in fact the least populous in Japan. And its population is also not on the rise. But, as you will see during the course of this forthcoming series of postings about Tottori, this may be one of the particular charms of the region.
Even though nowadays Kurayoshi was founded only in 1953, it can look back on a considerably longer history. In medieval times it even was a proud castle city. And even in our days the city’s layout suggests, that a lot of city planning was done during the obviously prosperous Edo period (1603 to 1867). The large number of fire-protected storage buildings that still shape the character of whole streets, were undoubtedly built before the 20th century. And they are the ones from which the Kurayoshi derives its name, as every smart Japanese linguist can tell from the two characters that form the city’s name: “倉 / くら / kura” means “storage” or “warehouse” and “吉 / よし / yoshi” stands for “luck” or “good fortune”.
As mentioned above, it is the old storage houses and elegant city houses that are the actual attraction of Kurayoshi. Should you belong to those who believe that Japanese villages and towns are necessarily ugly (at least, if one applies European benchmarks), here (as at other locations in Tottori) you are being taught a lesson to the contrary.
The absence of abundance (Tottori is one of the humble ones among the prefectures of the country) can in fact be a blessing, because it forces the people to make do with what they have and sometime protects them from the doubtful “glory” of “creations in concrete”.
Hence, Kurayoshi has preserved large parts of its charm of the old days of the Edo and the Meiji periods – und one should not be surprised, if he/she finds him/herself compelled to shout out loud: “Aah! Yes! That’s the real Japan!”. Time seems to have stopped here – and it has done so in a very pleasant way.
In some of the old buildings sake and soy sauce are being brewed – just like more than 100 years ago – others have been converted in the tasteful ateliers. Arts and crafts can be found here, as well as the occasional knickknackery.
For good reason Kurayoshi is famous for its ensembles of warehouses with white walls (shirakabe dozō gun / 白壁土蔵群 / しらかべどぞうぐん) and the stylish houses roofed with red tiles (aka-gawara / 赤瓦 / あかがわら).
The old storage houses alongside a picturesque channel (diverted from the nearby river) are a highlight. Some of them show another interesting detail: Their walls are not just painted in shining white, but are also covered with flamed cedar boards (i.e. “flamed” doesn’t really describe it, as these boards are downright charred). With this treatment the wood is not only astonishingly fire resistant, it also withstands nature’s influences much better. This technique of “charring” the wood is called “yakisugi” (焼杉 / やきすぎ).
Kuraoshi is so pretty that it simply invites for amazing strolls. Some of the buildings I would like to introduce in a little more detail.
Sumō Museum (琴櫻記念館)
In a rather inconspicuous building, set back a bit from the main street of the old town of Kurayoshi, you can find a little treasure you would not expect: The tiny, but rather exquisit “Kotozakura Sumō Museum” (琴櫻記念館 / ことざくらきねんかん), that is stuffed with memorablia of the life of a great son of the city: Masakatsu Kotozakura (琴櫻政勝 / ことざくらまさかつ) (whose real name was Norio Kamatani (鎌谷紀雄 / かまたにのりお)), was the 53rd Yokozuna (the highest rang among the Sumō wrestlers – a title gained only by 71 wrestlers during the course of the past 300 years). He was born on November 26, 1940 here in Kurayoshi (deceased on August 14, 2007 in Chiba prefecture).
The museum not only displays objects documenting the life of the weighty sportsman (at the height of his success he weighted almost 24 stone), but also convey a lot of things worth knowing about Sumō. It’s definitely worth a small detour – even if you’re not a hardcore Sumō fan.
Address of the Museum:
Opening Hours of the Museum:
Daily from 9 am to 5 pm
Closed during the New Year holidays
Restaurant “Seisuian” (清水庵)
Of course, sightseeing makes hungry! What better reason to sample some local delicacies? For example those served at the restaurant “Seisuian” (清水庵 / せいすいあん) – that is also located in one of the most beautiful old town houses (machiya / 町屋 / まちや).
The restaurant emphasises on particularly refined dishes made from and with “mochi” (餅 / もち). Dictionaries usually translate this with “sticky rice cake”, but I think, this translation is somewhat misleading, has mochi has very little in common with what one would associate with “cake”. Wikipedia gives a slightly better description: “rice is pounded into paste and molded into the desired shape”. It may have gained some infamous popularity in western media’s reports about fatalities from choking on mochi (not unlike some exaggerated reports that make eating blowfish sound like some sort of “Russian roulette”).
Mochi itself does not have a particularly prominent taste, but it can be used for quite a variety of dishes.
One of the “Seisuian’s” specialities is “Mochi Shabu Shabu” (しゃぶしゃぶ), that can be prepared by the guests themselves. “Shabu Shabu” is probably best known in conjunction with thinly cut raw beef that is being briefly dipped into boiling water or broth. And “Mochi Shabu Shabu” is just the same – using thinly cut mochi instead of beef. The broth gains additional aroma by adding vegetables, seafood and meat.
The scoop of the “Seisuian’s” mochi is, that the standard menues contain a variety of twelve different “tastes” of mochi: carot, shiitake mushrooms, powdered green tea, pumpkin, sesame, blueberry, pepper, corn, mugwort, shrimp, yuzu and chestnut – each offering just a very delicate hint of the respective substance, but in any case a palatal epiphany.
Address of the restaurant:
Opening hours of the restaurant:
Lunch: 11 am to 2 pm
Dinner: 5:30 pm to 9 pm (last order: 8 pm)
Mochi Shabu Shabu: 11 am to 9 pm
No regular days off
Tottori Nijisseiki Pear Museum (鳥取二十世紀梨記念館)
For all of you, who have an interest in pears, or Asian pears in particular, the Pear Museum of Kurayoshi is a must. Its home is a huge pear-shaped dome in the centre of the city and it is prepared to teach you all you need to know about growing pears in Tottori (the Tottori Pear is the prefecture’s pride and joy) – which it does it hands-on and sometimes also in a way that’s very suitable for children.
The pears of Tottori (and elsewhere in Japan) do not just “ripen” on the trees, they are individually taken care of. During the process of the fuits’ growths they are repeatedly re-wrapped to protect them from nature’s harms. No wonder those pears cannot be compared with most of the fruits one would be able to buy in a western supermarket – neither their optical appearance, nor their taste and certainly not their price.
Have a look at a display of the diversity of pears of the world! And don’t miss the opportunity to taste the local crop!
The whole museum is set up around its centre and most impressive show-piece: A 74 year old pear tree of Kurayoshi that was donated by the local master pear cultivator Kiyoomi Inamura (稲村清臣) in 1999. Mr. Inamura generously allowed the tree to be transplanted from it original location to the Memorial Centre to be displayed as a symbol tree. When the tree was still “alive” it used to bear approximately 4,000 fruits every year.
The tree is quite a sight! One hardly gets a chance to see a tree in all it parts, from its roots to its trunk and up to its branches on an artful trellis.
Hint: Try the pear soft ice cream that can be bought in the museum’s foyer.
Address of the Pear Museum:
Tottori Nijisseiki Nashi Kinenkan
Kurayoshi Park Square
Opening hours of the Pear Museum:
Daily from 9 am to 7 pm.
Closed every 1st, 3rd and 5th monday of the month (if a holiday, closed on the next day)
Closed during the New Year holidays (December 29 to January 3)
Adults (from high school students): 300 Yen
Children (elementary and junior high school students: 150 Yen
Pre-school aged and younger children: free
(there are discounts for groups)
How to reach the old part of town of Kurayoshi:
Kurayoshi can be reach in less than three hours from e.g. Ōsaka station (大阪) via the “Super Hakuto” (スーパーはくと) of the JR San’in Main line (山陰本線 / さんいんほんせｎ).
As the distance between Kurayoshi station and the sights of the city is rather long, you should consider taking a taxi from the station to Uomachi (魚町 / うおまち) or enter a bus of the “Park Square Line” (パークスクエア線) at bus stop no. 2 to Nishi Kurayoshi (西倉吉 / にしくらよし). After about 15 minutes bus ride get off at the bus stop “Shirakabe Dozōgunmae” (白壁土蔵群前しらかべどぞうぐんまえ). The district with the old town houses and warehouses alongside the channel is right in the north of this bus stop.
Please observe: The map below does not represent the route the bus or a taxi would take.
Should you wish to learn more about the fascinating Tottori prefecture, why don’t you also have a look at the following:
Tottori Sand Museum (砂の美術館)
-Travel Around the World in Sand
Tottori: Sand Dunes (鳥取砂丘) (English version)
– The Sahara, in the middle of Japan?
Tottori Folk Crafts Museum (鳥取民芸美術館)
– Have a look and be amazed – thanks to Shōya Yoshida
– Stucco plasterers of the world – watch out!
Tottori: Wakasa (鳥取･若桜)
– A gem, hidden in the mountains