It was one of those typical sultry summer mornings in Japan. We met at the Urasa bullet train station in Minami Uonuma-shi of central eastern Niigata prefecture. Although I had received an itinerary, I was still not quite sure how the next few days would unfold, but as we winded through the countryside, the verdant green rice fields and lush surrounding hills imparted an immediate feeling of relaxation and I sat back to enjoy the ride.
We caravanned to Saifukuji, a nearby temple famous for intricate ceiling and wall carvings, and by arrival the heavy air had developed into a slow drizzle of rain.
This particularly powerful set of carvings had been completed by Uncho Ishikawa in the year 1857. Haven taken over five years to produce, the carvings tell a story of old lore, some almost phantasmagoric, but always vibrant and rich in visual themes: birds, tigers, and dragons all share the same space. One could get lost in the tale, almost like it was being told without words. I longed to lie down and wished the group that had gathered in the small cupola area to be gone, leaving me alone to absorb the deeply carved relief with its magnificent colors.
Alas that wish was not to be granted, but I did linger just a second or two longer after the others left - just to have one last minute in the presence of obvious greatness.
Set in the middle of rice fields is Irori Jinen, a casual eatery serving mountain vegetable fare. We stopped there for a set lunch before moving to our next stop: Sato-ke, a 260-year-old silkworm farmer’s house. The family had moved out a few decades previous, but the owner had preserved as much of the original feel of the house that he could.
I live in a similar vintage family silkworm house in outer Saitama so was familiar with the various rooms frozen in time, as well as the one refurbished a bit for modern living. The entryway of the house led into a dim kitchen area with a traditional doma (packed earth) floor. Konebachi (ceramic kneading bowls) and suribachi (grinding bowls) were stacked higgledy-piggledy next to the kamado (fire burning cooking hearth).
I wanted to shake the cobwebs out and return the old kitchen back to its previous glory days as the center of the house. But I also know the back-breaking work involved in cleaning off the dust of decades. Seiichi Sato, the owner of this old house, is a amiable man who obviously takes great pride in showing his historical family home to Japanese who most likely have never stepped foot in such a dwelling.
An acute ladder led to the upstairs area where the silk worms lived before that cottage industry was outsourced to Southeast Asia and China. Our eyes were drawn to the irori (an ash pit with a charcoal fire) from which iron pots or kettles are suspended over smoldering coals for simmering soups or boiling water.
And an eclectic collection of old household and farm tools were displayed along the wall facing the tatami-matted room with the irori. Collecting old tools is a hobby of Sato-san and his whole demeanor became animated when he showed us a thread-making box apparatus into which you feed raw silk to make thread skeins. Riveting!
In contrast to the humble silkworm farmer’s house, Meguro House was palpably the home of very wealthy people, though no less intriguing to visit. Also in contrast, Meguro House is well cared for—the ancient posts and beams gleam from being faithfully wiped.
After a quick but lively spiel by a personable attendant, we were left to wander freely, following the rabbit warren–like hallways and rooms in the house. The house is a living artifact that is a window into the very rarified daily life of upper society Japanese and, in that way, a fascinating cultural study.
Just across the parking lot from Meguro House lies Urashin, a typical minshuku (casual Japanese inn) in Uonuma. What sets Urashin apart from other minshuku is the gently engaging host: Masaki Yokoyama. He has an unassuming manner but periodically knelt down at the end of the low tables where we ate and unobtrusively imparted tidbits of local lore, thus giving us context for our visit. In this way, he became our unofficial guide for the evening and following day. And it was thanks to the tenor of Yokoyama-san’s demeanor that the subsequent activities unfolded so naturally and delightfully.
The food at Urashin is standard minshuku fare, but there were some stand out elements: miso soup made from Yokoyama-san’s homemade miso, Echigo pork, soft tofu with fine rounds of raw okra, cucumbers just picked from the garden with a dollop of homemade miso, and Yokoyama-san’s pearly rice—grown just a short walk away.
Koshihikari, the rice we would be served at every meal during the two days in Uonuma, was always expertly cooked at each venue and always both luminescent to the eye and fragrant to the tongue. This is rice like none other.
Legend for Koshihikari rice and sake, Uonuma is also a well-known for firefly viewing in the summer. And rightfully so. It had been 30 years since I had seen fireflies for the first (and only) time, so it was with quietly growing anticipation that I followed Yokoyama-san and the others across a small bridge over a narrow ravine. We stopped for a short while and as our eyes adjusted to the dark, we began to see the signature flickering, darting lights of the fireflies. The other members continued up the winding path towards small stream flowing into a pond but I stayed in my solitary spot. I reveled in the peace of being alone with the fireflies and could have stayed there all night. Eventually though, all good things must end, and I made my way back to Urashin to my comfy futon where I fell asleep to the gurgling of the stream below my window.
Window open, I slept deeply to the sound of the running water—a welcome relief from the stifling Saitama heat where I live. The stream sounds resembled the patter of rain drops, so I was lulled into thinking we would be cancelling a 6:30 a.m. morning stroll. No such luck! But once up, I enjoyed the crisp early morning air and the brilliant sky. We picked our way up a leisurely sloped path while Yokoyama-san offered the occasional commentary in a low-key fashion well-suited for the opening of a new day.
The woodland reserve in which we walked borders Yokoyama- san’s property and our destination was one of his rice fields. Yokoyama-san and the others stepped carefully, in single file, down the narrow side of the rice field while I stayed behind (we have our own rice fields so I was content to observe from the banks). Nonetheless this close-up visit to the actual site where the rice shoots are thriving is essential for cementing the visceral connection between the growing and serving of food. After the walk, Yokoyama-san plucked a few cucumbers from his small truck garden adjacent to the minshuku and served them to us with a healthy mound of his homemade miso.
After breakfast we piled into small cars and zipped over to Monozuki-mura a farm stand located a little ways down the road. By noon, the shelves full of local vegetables will be almost bare, but the farm baskets fashioned by an 80-something-year-old artisan and some local products will still remain.
And by noon, a line of people waiting to eat soba at Gentan, the shop next door to Monozuki- mura, will snake down the outside of the building. Gentan grows their own buckwheat in various fields around the Uonuma area and grinds the grain in small batches for the soba made in-house daily. Freshly ground buckwheat is crucial for fashioning best quality soba noodles. We did not have the opportunity to experience Gentan’s soba or the vegetables at Monozuki-mura, but I left with two intricately woven farm baskets that I put to good use for harvesting our own field vegetables in Saitama. And I hope that soba lunch will be part of the itinerary on future jaunts to Uonuma.
Next stop on our journey was “Furusato Square of Fukuyama Pass” to try our hand at making hakutan (white charcoal). Master charcoal maker, Hiroshi Nakagawa, had fired the wood three days previous in preparation for us making white charcoal that day.
We gathered in the entryway of the high ceilinged building housing his kiln while he skillfully demonstrated the five main steps and three tools necessary for extracting the bright red pieces of wood that will be used for high-heat charcoal cooking.
Several members of our group made a valiant effort under Nakagawa-san’s tutelage: first throwing ash over the long, thin glowing logs stacked against the back wall of the kiln to harden them, then toppling a portion of the fiery red logs with an extremely long hook implement, next dragging the toppled pieces of wood into the entryway of the kiln with a similarly long implement, and finally dragging the wood into a small growing pile about 8 meters away from the kiln with yet another tool—this time one with a wide flat blade, before finally throwing damp ash over the still smoldering wood in order to extinguish the last burning. Working up a sweat before lunch, our pleasantly tired group headed for one last charcoal experience before eating.
We gathered at Fukuyama Forest Experience House located nearby, and under the patient guidance of Hisashi Nomura sat down to make furin (wind chimes). Normally such a craft does not interest me since I have been running an immersion preschool for about twenty years and direct these activities myself. But the materials—charcoal, wood, and jute rope—were natural and the process was peaceful, and also resulted in a lovely wind chime that is hanging in the window of my school where I spend my day writing. Each time I glance outside, that peaceful feeling washes through me and my spirit becomes quiet.
Finally it was time for the much-anticipated outside barbecue using the white charcoal we had made. We trooped outside to a blue-sheeted structure rigged up on the grass. Amid gusts of smoke and sizzling meats we gathered around two barbecues shaded from the unforgiving July sun. Fat asparagus and Echigo pork washed down by slugs of Tamagawa sake hit the spot after the busy morning. (Next time I hope to bring vegetables from Monozuki-mura, the roadside stand, to throw on the barbeque as well.) Sated, we took a short rest inside before taking yet another tranquil hike up a trail through Fukuyama Woods with Yokoyama-san of Urashin Minshuku as our guide. Yokoyama- san paused periodically to point out native plants or unusual anomalies, and to allow us out-of-shape urbanites a chance to catch our breaths.
No visit to Uonuma would be complete without a tour of a sake brewery and ours culminated at Tamagawa sake brewery - the sake we had enjoyed with dinner at Urashin and at the outside barbecue party that day.
A first for me was a project whereby Tamagawa allows Setchuchozo Daiginjo, an elegant clear-flavored sake, to rest in bottles for several months in a structure cooled only by a covering of snow and ice so thick that, even with inevitable summer meltage, the basic integrity of the mound remains. After touring the brewery we tasted our way through their range sakes: from cherry blossom– flavored to a whiskey-like aged version. And an impressive wall of bottles held vintage Setchuchozo Daiginjo dating back many years, available for purchase by those with deep pockets. Deliciously relaxed and satisfied, we jumped on the train and headed home.
Irori Jinen: http://irori-jinen.sakura.ne.jp/index.html
Sato-Ke & Meguro house: http://www.city.uonuma.niigata.jp/megurotei/
Monozuki-mura & Gentan (Soba Restaurant):
Morihikari (Master class for making charcoal): https://www.morihikari.jp/
Tamagawa sake brewery: http://www.yukikura.com/
Snow-country Souvenir shop & Information center: http://www.miyukinosato.com/
Thus article was written with the kind co-operation of Uonuma city.