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Monday, January 28, 2019

Exploring Japan Vol. 14 - Tea Plantations, Sake Breweries and Buddhist Statues

On our very first visit to Japan, my family and I split our time between a week in Tokyo and a week in Hiroshima.  Part of the reason was that for three years, I lived in a small town called Iwakuni, about 45 minutes from Hiroshima.  It had been my dream to go back and visit the places I used to go and since (at the time) we thought this would probably be the only chance we'd get to go, we made it a priority.

In planning the trip, we realized that even by bullet train, we were going to have a full day of train riding just to get from Tokyo to Hiroshima.  Round trip, that was going to cost us two days doing nothing but sitting and watching the world go by at 200 m.p.h.  We started looking for someplace in between where we could stop for a day and see something unusual.  

It didn't take long to find that we were going to be traveling right through the largest tea producing area in Japan.  Now, my wife doesn't like Japanese green tea, however she does love touring factories.  After some poking around, I found a local guide named Yumi who offered tours of the tea plantations in the area and we booked a stop for two nights in Fuji City.  Once we started corresponding with Yumi, she started recommending other places we could visit in the same day, including a sake brewery.  

We were sold!

So, roughly five days into our trip, we found ourselves here:

I have to tell you, there is no place I have found that's more beautiful than this tea plantation with majestic Mt. Fuji peeking through the clouds.  

Yumi introduced us to our tea plantation guide and he quickly walked us out into the fields. They'd recently cut the tea leaves but had left one row uncut specifically for us. 

After the tour of the plantation and some tea leaf picking, he led us to the factory itself.  Here we watched as truckloads of fresh green leaves were dumped into a hamper and started on their way through processing.  

The machine itself was huge and housed in a small warehouse that barely contained it. As a result, I wasn't able to get a good picture but below is what the dried leaves look like when they come out, ready for brewing.

Following the factory tour, Yumi took us to a small restaurant where we passed the tea leaves we'd picked to the owner.  As explained to us, the restaurant is owned by a retired woman who just loves cooking.  She opens only for lunch and only cooks with what she has available that day.  All of the ingredients are fresh and local.

The result was a lunch of many small and incredibly tasty items, including tempura fried tea leaves.  That's right, instead of brewing our leaves, she fried them and they were delicious!

After lunch, Yumi and her husband/driver took us sake tasting.  The brewery sat about a half hour from the restaurant and the drive there held incredible views of Mt. Fuji.  Once out of the car, we noticed that a small stream was flowing right alongside the road.  It was crystal clear and ice cold.  The water originates from Mt. Fuji and is the same water the brewery uses.

If you've ever seen this ball on a sake label, you may have wondered what it is.  Well, as explained to us, a sake brewery will hang it outside their shop when they are releasing a fresh batch, usually once a year.  The ball will be green when hung and then allowed to dry up over the year.  You can tell how fresh the sake is going to be by the state of the ball.

Don't worry, even though the sake may not be right out of the cask, a quality old sake is still very, very good.  Many people think that you have to drink sake hot.  That's not so.  In fact, heating sake is sometimes done to mask bad flavor. 

High quality sake is meant to be tasted at room temperature and let me tell you, this place had some excellent sake.  By the way, that's Yumi pointing and her husband is standing next to her.  She asked as we walked in whether we liked sake and I said I did.  She winked at me and said, "My husband and I are lushes!"

After trying a number of different samples, my favorite was this one:

This is a milk sake.  It's like a drinkable, alcoholic yogurt and it was freakin' AMAZING!  We grabbed a few bottles for home and for gifts and prepared to leave, when Yumi suddenly got excited.

While conversing in Japanese with the master brewer, he'd dropped a really cool bit of information.  Over a century ago, not long after the brewery was founded, an edict came down from the government that sought to banish Buddhism from Japan in favor of the state religion of Shinto.  As such, soldiers were removing Buddhist iconography from around the area.  The owner knew that along many of the trails up Mt. Fuji, there were beautiful statues perched in places of worship.  He couldn't bear the thought of those being destroyed, so he decided to make a series of clandestine hikes up to save as many as he could.

Once he brought them back, he created an alcove in an upper area of the brewery and placed them there for safekeeping.  The Master Brewer asked us if we'd like to see them.

Hell yes, we would!

And so, we were led up some stairs and along a catwalk that was obviously not built for tourists.  There were no handrails or safety netting.  This was a place just for the employees and owner, but here we were, getting a peek at something special!

High above the giant sake casks, there was a wooden floor and at the end sat the statues.

They were absolutely gorgeous and knowing we were seeing something exclusive made the moment even more special.

Yumi, her husband and our family hit it off.  They've invited us back to stay with them if we're ever in the area and while we haven't taken them up on it yet, we may still do so.  They had such a good time with us, they asked if we'd like to go for ice cream at their favorite place.  It's a small shop owned by a dairy next door and it was so far up a foothill and off the beaten path that no tourist would ever have found it without some local help.

After that, it was back to the train station and then to our hotel.  What started as a way to break up our trip, became one of our most memorable and favorite days in Japan.  

So once again, I'll implore you to seek out the stuff away from the crowds.  While tours are great ways to see a lot in a short amount of time, you will only scratch the surface.  Wandering off on your own almost always yields fantastic results.

And by the way, the cost of our day with Yumi as our personal guide and translator came out less than most of the tours available to us in Tokyo.  

Next week, we'll shift gears again and talk about something that everyone loves... 


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