Video by Jakfoto Films
On fourth day, I woke up to a sound of a rooster at my brother’s cabin in Yamanashi prefecture. It was a chilly morning but I headed for a jog in the narrow mountain roads. As I walk through the dirt road, my brother’s two dogs looked at me with watchful eyes and don’t know what to think of me yet. I crossed a railroad track and started jogging. Now the only thing I feel is the weight of chilly air on my shoulders, sound of birds chirping and my breath. As I started jogging the sun started to rise and in far distance I could see a peak of Mount Fuji with snow on its top. The sun was finally up and along the road I saw cracked chestnuts and ripe persimmons waiting to be harvested. Back at my brother’s cabin, I enjoyed a warm bowl of oatmeal and heaping cup of rooibos tea next to a wood burning stove, and how delicious it tasted. Now my day is in full swing as we took a drive to 200 year old farmhouse that has been converted to an inn.
The farmhouse is about a twenty minute drive from my brother’s cabin, but there were no signs, to tell us that if in fact this is the inn we are looking for. We parked our car a few yards away from what appears to be a path leading to the farmhouse and started walking. As we strolled up the hill next to a vegetable garden with daikon radish and leeks, I can see hanging of about 100 or so of peeled persimmons on kitchen twine ready to be dried for the winter. And along the “nokishita”, or under the roofline of the house were dried Umeboshi are plums that were ready to be pickled. At this time, I knew that we had indeed found the right place.
The 200 year old farmhouse has been converted to a private inn by a professionally trained chef whose family owned the house and farm near by. At the farm grow their own rice, vegetables and fruits in their garden and raise chickens. He also hunts deer and wild boar and forages for wild mushrooms and young bamboo shoots in the mountains to serve their guests for dinner. In his farmhouse kitchen, there is a large stone grinder for grinding buckwheat flour for making soba noodles, and a wood burning stove for steaming rice. I am amazed at the amount of food he makes from scratch from ingredients which are grown on the farm and or foraged in the mountains (one of the only an exceptions is the dried Bonito he uses for traditional soup stocks). He brews his own soy sauce, pickles seasonal vegetables and fermented soybeans to make miso.
The farmhouse serves local sake, craft beers and whisky from the Suntory Distillery nearby.
I have visited the distillery many years ago with my husband and then infant son. This famous distillery is located in the woods at the base of the mountains, and is a must visit during our food tour. Along with guided tours of the distillery and tastings, there is also a restaurant, delicatessen and gift shop. Right now, Japan is making some of the finest whisky in the world, and this is the place to learn about the history and craft of whisky in Japan.
In the evening, I catch an express train back to Tokyo for more meetings with restaurant owners and chefs. As I am boarding the train packed with salary men and women, I realize my travels in Nagano and Yamanashi seems like a dream and now it was time to get back to the reality. I told myself it will only be a short goodbye until I return here next spring.
It was a warm, sunny day as I arrived at the wasabi farm located in a valley surrounded by a mountain range known as the Japanese Alps. From the farm, you can clearly see the dusting of snow covering the North Alps. This farm in an area called Azumino, is one of the largest in Japan and is also a popular attraction.
It is busy with visitors strolling the paths overlooking channels of mountain water peppered with wasabi plants. Azumino’s cool temperature and clean source of freshwater is an ideal place for growing wasabi. The root is planted in soil and gravel under a current of cold, fresh water. The farmers will cover the stream beds with black cloth doing hot and cold months to keep the air and water temperature at 13 degrees to protect the delicate plant.
In the perfect autumn sunshine, we decided to take a rest by sitting along the stream beds and sampled an unusual but delicious wasabi delicacies for sale: Steamed buns filled with wasabi leaves, local chicken and vegetables, grilled wasabi hot dogs, crispy wasabi crackers, and even freshly made wasabi ice cream!! All so delicious.
After indulging in our delicious wasabi delicacies, we drove down the steep mountain roads to tonight’s destination of town of Naraijyuku. The town is located in an area called Kiso. It is a historical area located along the Kiso river that has served as a postal town and merchant village. One killometer stretch of Naraijyukuis sits right on Japan’s Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Site and is recognized as a National Asset. All the building at this post town has been kept with the architectural integrity of Edo period of Japan.
Kiso is also famous for its lacquer dishwares. Lacquer finish is highly regarded in this region as lacquer sap is collected from trees and then hand applied to wooden dishware by craftsmen. This land-locked mountainous area is also known for Hinoki trees, a type of Japanese cypress tree. The wood is used to make the fine, decorative Japanese lacquerware that is so well known. The town’s history, architecture and fine crafts and worthy of a visit.
In the evening, we stopped at a lacquer center and had freshly made buckwheat noodle soup with wild mushrooms and mountain vegetables from the area for dinner. After dinner we strolled through a nearby a farmers’ market was selling golden persimmons, nameko mushrooms and other regional favorites.
Tomorrow, I will be meeting a professional chef/farmer to make rental arrangements for staying at his private Japanese farmhouse and country inn to make preparations for our Spring culinary travel tour to Japan.
The last week of October, I spent about three days in Tokyo meeting restaurant owners, going to cooking schools and checking out ramen shops. I spent the last day of my trip hanging out at Tsukiji – the world’s largest fish market. The day I visited Tsukiji, it was unusually warm, pleasant and sunny. I found myself relaxed and carefree as I strolled through the market admiring the shops and soaking up the spirit of the market.
On Monday, Tsukiji was bustling with energy, and everyone was preoccupied with their day’s business and driving their turret trucks at full speed. Tourists are everywhere. The coolers at food stalls were filled with catches of the season such as snow crab, pike fish, squid, salmon, mackerel and shelves with green tea, seaweed, bonito flakes, miso, pickled vegetables, wasabi roots and much more. As a matter of a fact, “Food Town” is a word used in Japanese to describe Tsukiji as one can find nearly everything you need for making traditional Japanese food. This is also where world class seafood auctions take place surrounded by a maze of retail shops and all kinds of restaurants.
I had a morning meeting with Mr. Noguchi who assisted me with planning a sushi workshop at near by restaurant for our guests during our tour. I was in luck that day as Mr. Noguchi treated me to a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the market. As you might know, due to its years of heavy use and also to make way for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Tsukiji’s inner market is moving this summer to Toyosu, a man-made island near by (if you sign up with us for our April and June trips, you might still be able to see the inner market as a group).
One of the must to do thing at Tsukiji is to shop and eat at one of the many restaurants serving the freshest sushi you can buy. After my meeting with Mr. Noguchi, I squeezed myself into a counter seat at very busy sushi restaurant and indulged on some of my favorites at the market; charred fally tuna, sea urchin, sardine, mackerel and salmon.
Hope to see you in Japan.