IT'S STILL A BIG WORLD
This Off-the-Beaten Path Japanese Town Is a Hidden Gem
I went to Daigo-town in Ibaraki Prefecture to write about the struggles of Japan’s traditional lacquerware but found a town so charming, I’m going back this summer for vacation.
I’ve lived in Japan 30 years now and thus have the ennui of a Tokyoite who cannot be bothered to go the countryside, but recently realized how much I’d been missing when I spent a three days in Daigo-town, in Ibaraki Prefecture. After a few days there, I came back with a highly esteemed ink-stone, a newfound fondness for Japanese potato dishes, shamo cooking, the local green tea, and a bottle of a legendary whisky. I’m going back this August.
Daigo town is delightfully off the beaten path; it’s two and a half hours from Tokyo, to the north, in Ibaraki Prefecture. It’s not listed in the top 10 places foreign tourists go and there’s no bullet train (shinkansen) conveniently stopping there. You’ll need to take a local train but that’s great as well because the scenery is gorgeous. The town used to have 40,000 people at its peak and is now close to a population of 16,000. It’s struggling to survive, as many towns in Japan are struggling, and it is waking up to tourism as one way to do this. The town is spread out over hills and with some cobbled streets resembling Tokyo neighborhoods in the 1950s. There’s not a McDonald’s in sight. The convenience store next to the station closes at nine; it has no ATM.
Hidachi Daigo Station is where you’ll get off; the train will cost you $45 one-way. The best place to stay is a Japanese inn, Tamaya Ryokan, a one minute walk away from the station. Reservations are recommended. The inn has been in business over 100 years and while not particularly beautiful on the outside, the seven traditional Japanese rooms inside are elegantly laid out with the fresh tatami mats, low tables and minimalist decorations that look like they are from the Taisho era. The biggest rooms, which are 10 tatami mats in size, can easily house five or six people; it’s good for group travel. There are only futons, so if you’re not fond of sleeping on the floor, this is not the place for you. If you also find dealing with futons to be cumbersome, the staff will usually lay them out and put them away for you: no futon folding skills required.
It also has one more thing that makes it the ideal vacation spot, at least if you’re Japanese, its own hot spring bath. No Japanese vacation seems complete without soaking in the nutrient-filled warm waters of a natural hot-spring.
Before wandering around the town, I’d suggest you park your bags there first and get some lunch, at the inn itself. While eating, you may notice that the employees of the inn appear very similar—that’s because it’s run by four sisters, the oldest who is 83 and the youngest, 75. They cook, clean the rooms, and greet the guests. Sekiko Hasegawa, the second sister, is the chief innkeeper. The four of them seem to get along fabulously and is the custom in Japan, they refer to the eldest as “eldest sister” rather than by her actual name. The place is famous locally, not only for the hospitality, but for Okukuji Shamo cooking–delicacies created with special chickens (shamo) that were originally used for cockfighting.
Hasegawa says, “I can remember when the cock-fights were big events. Few people knew that they were actually tasty if you ate them.” They have been serving Shamo dishes since 1985 and they are open to the general public for lunch. I had the Shamo Oyako Don which means “parent and child over a bed of rice”. As you might guess from the semi-horrifying name, for this version of the dish, it’s a sunny-side up egg (child) over roasted and battered chicken (parent) on a bed of the local rice, which is some of the best rice in the country.
While I’ve eaten Oyako-don countless times, this time was extraordinary. The yolk of the egg was huge, bright orange, and tasted wonderfully rich, almost creamy. The chicken had a fatty beefy taste and a mouth-feel like good Japanese pork. I cleaned my plate.
After lunch, it’s time to explore the town. Since Daigo isn’t a town with a booming nightlife,make the most of the day.
Japan is a famous for lacquerware known as urushi, and to make it the authentic way, you need organic sap from the urushi tree. Due to the cold climate and soil composition, Daigo produces what some say is the finest raw urushi in Japan.
It is clear, dries quickly, and has a fragrance reminiscent of Japanese cypress. Organic urushi is rare and now is only used in approximately 2% of shiki (漆器) (lacquerware goods) sold in Japan. Daigo’s urushi is especially prized by craftsmen, including National Living Treasures. If you make arrangements in advance with the city, you can go to the fields of Urushi trees and see how the sap is extracted. The master urushikaki (person who scrapes urushi) is YuzoTobita, who is 84 and has been doing the work for 67 years.
There used to be a hundred people doing the work. Now there are, including Tobita, six or seven people continuing the tradition. It’s hard work. It takes up to ten years to grow an urushi tree and from one tree, at best you can extract 200 milliliters a year, essentially the equivalent of a giant-size can of Kirin Mets Cola.
After you’ve seen the urushi drawn from the sap, and maybe tried your hand at the work yourself—take a visit to Kijian, where you can see and buy great works of lacquerware, from $20 to several hundred dollars.
The master craftsman, Toru Tsuji will show you how the wares are made. It is an elaborate process, that is done in several stages but the results are beautifully crafted dishes and cups that are, for lack of a better word: shibui “cool, graceful, sober and restrained."
Tsuji, a graduate of one of Tokyo’s prestigious art universities, has created a specific brand name for his work Yamizonuri which is only available in Daigo. The facilities themselves were rebuilt from old warehouses dating back to the Meiji era. It can be a bit drafty during the day, so they will offer you the local tea, Okukujicha, which is a wonderfully mild green tea. It’s smooth, robust, and lacks the bitter after-taste of most Japanese tea. I’d say it was like the Kona coffee of matcha (low acidity, little bitterness).
For dinner, or for an afternoon snack, head to Konnyaku Sekisho, where you can try out a local delicacy made from a special purplish potato, known as konnyaku. I’d always thought of konnyaku as a slimy sort of seaweed dish (even after three decades in Japan) but was surprised to find that the fresh stuff has a delightful taste that also absorbs the flavor of whatever it is served with. Konnyaku tends to produce jelly like dishes but can even be shaped into a faux steak or made into tempura. It is easily seasoned. In the way that it absorbs the flavor of other ingredients, it resembles fugu, Japanese blowfish. Of course, in the day, before non-poisonous species were bred, fugu could actually kill you. Konnnyaku can’t kill you—unless you choke on it.
Note: Konnyaku and its cousin in deadly Japanese cuisine, mochi (rice-cakes), do actually result in a number of choking deaths every year. So chew, chew, chew. Also, konnyaku sounds amazingly similar to the word konyaku (engaged to be married) which is also deadly in a different way. Pronounce it carefully to avoid calamity.
For part of my early dinner I had konnyaku sashimi that was amazing, even the texture felt like raw fish.
Some pieces were flavored with Japanese citrus. It turns out to be a nice alternative food for vegetarians or vegans in Japan. Konnyaku is also used to make shirataki noodles. Shirataki noodles have very few calories and make a wonderful pasta substitute for those who crave Italian food, but don’t want the Italian Dad-bod.
If you have an extra day, you should pay a visit to Taizan Sato, who makes ink-stones (suzuri) by hand, one stone at a time in his mountain home.
He often conducts workshops in making the stones and the fundamentals of calligraphy. If you are a serious student of calligraphy or Sumi-e (Japanese ink-paintings), the suzuri is as important to your craft as a camera is to a photographer. The surface is completely smooth when you look, but slightly raised so that you can gently grind the ink to your preferred gradation of color. His ink-stones themselves are coated with lacquer on the edges, after they are finished, which gives them an attractive luster and transforms them from simple tools to art objects.
I brought one home for a curator at the Metropolitan Art Museum, currently showing a well-reviewed exhibition on The Tale Of Genji. If you want to see great calligraphy and understand why a suzuri is worth having, check it out. Plus, you won’t even have to leave New York.
When you get back to the inn, the onsen is your oasis.
The slightly green water has a mild sulfur smell, as hot spring water sometimes does, and will make your skin feel moist and young. The bathtub can easily fit three to four people. This is useful in Japan where communal bathing is part of the onsen experience. The tub itself is made with Yamizo stones, a black stone from the Yamizo mountains which is in short supply and very expensive. The sisters will caution you not to stay in the bath too long but take a break between soaking and drying, to avoid a sort of hot spring bathing high. If you let them know that you like Japanese sake, usually after the bath, they will bring you a small sample to taste. The futons are warms; the rooms are lovely, you’ll sleep soundly.
By the way, if you can speak Japanese, the sisters are wonderful conversationalists.
One of them used to be married to a detective on the Ibaraki police force—who was primarily in the organized crime task force–basically, putting yakuza in jail. He passed away several years ago. As a former crime reporter, she and I hit it off. It turns out her husband was the lead detective on the Tokai-mura incident, one of several nuclear accidents that predated Japan’s Fukushima nuclear meltdown. We had much to discuss.
When you wake up with a mild hangover, and you decide that you liked the sake from the night before, across the street from the Japanese inn is an old liquor store, run by a cheerful fellow who an advise you on what kind of sake you should get, depending on your preferences such as fruity, dry, sweet, tart etc. He also has displayed on a shelf to the right of the door, a collection of old Japanese whisky, including a bottle from 1970. You may not know it, but the value of Japanese whisky is soaring and it is hard to find the old stuff, at any price. However, he won’t let you buy one of the old bottles–and believe me, I’ve tried. However, like many people in Daigo, he’s very friendly. His reasoning is that some of the whisky has evaporated over the decades, thus he would feel bad in selling it. However, after he understood that I was a reporter and perhaps in recognition of my persistence, on my last day in town, he gifted me a huge bottle of a legendary whisky that hasn’t been produced since the late 1980s. It’s called NEWS and was launched by Kirin-Seagram circa 1983.
NEWS, as a brand, was one of the first attempts to get the Japanese public to drink whisky at home—and not just when entertaining clients, as was the norm then. The company ran an over the top ad campaign starring Jan-Michael Vincent (before his Airwolf days).. The advertising slogan: “When you’ve come to hate dealing with pain in the ass stuff, booze tastes even better. NEWS (whisky)... for your personal life.” The campaign went well, until the actor checked himself in for treatment of alcoholism.
NEWS is now worth several hundred dollars a bottle, a quick internet search reveals.
Feeling a twinge of guilt, I took my bottle back to the owner of the store, explaining that I felt like I was ripping him off by taking it as a gift. He replied, “It’s fine. I have another bottle. Whisky is made to be consumed not to sit on a shelf gathering dust and evaporating. You should gather your friends and enjoy it—while it lasts.”..... I didn’t know whether he was referring to the whisky or the dying profession of journalism. Well, at least the value of NEWS—as a Japanese whisky—keeps going up. When we do finally drink it, I’ll write it up for The Daily Beast booze section. Cheers!
PS. I’ll be back in August for the annual Festival of The Dead in Daigo-town. It is celebrated there with glowing floating lanterns, fireworks and much panache. I’m planning stay at the Tamiya Ryokan again. This time I even hope to see the famous Fukuroda Waterfalls...and negotiate for those old whisky bottles.