Terrie's Take 913 (Tourism Edition) -- A Little Place You've Probably Never Heard Of - Senboku, Akita
terrie at mailman.japaninc.com
Sun Sep 10 22:45:25 JST 2017
* * * * * * * * TERRIE'S (TOURISM) TAKE - BY TERRIE LLOYD * * * * * *
A bi-weekly focused look at the tourism sector in Japan, by Terrie
Lloyd, a long-term technology and media entrepreneur living in Japan.
Tourism Sector Edition Sunday, Sep 10, 2017, Issue No. 913
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+++ A Little Place You've Probably Never Heard Of - Senboku, Akita
Early last week, I traveled to the Senboku region of Akita, to assist
with a cycling project Japan Travel is doing there for three local city
governments. While there is some dramatic scenery in Akita, much of the
region is comprised of rural rice growing valleys surrounded by
mountains - which is pretty but not really postcard worthy. There is one
inland gem, though, and that is Kakunodate, home to one of the best
preserved samurai residential districts in the country. Compared with
the hordes that visit Kyoto every day, Kakunodate is an oasis of
tranquility and beauty - and the bonus is that the town is served with
it's own convenient Shinkansen stop.
The Kakunodate samurai district was established in 1620 by one Lord
Ashina Yoshikatsu, and at its peak featured about 80 samurai homes and
to the south about 350 merchant houses. Each surviving samurai residence
has a generous plot of land, wonderful period architecture, and in the
spring, a plethora (over 400) cherry trees. In summer you can wander
around half a dozen or so city blocks cloaked by a verdant canopy of
huge trees and buzzing cicadas, while following the black creosoted
fencing separating each property from the public road. The smell of
creosote is heavy in the air, but not sharp, and is redolent of days
gone by when it was used to preserve house timbers instead of paint.
So Kakunodate is most traveler's main reason to visit the Senboku
region. Our job was to figure out how to get one-day visitors to the
area to stay on and visit other sites, including two less well-endowed
cities to the south, Daisen (the site of a Shindo 5+ earthquake earlier
this week) and Misato. This is where the bicycles come in, since
visiting tourists do need some way to get around. Yes, they could and do
rent cars from any of the 3 companies located just outside the station,
however, some nationalities (including China) can't use their driver's
licenses in Japan, and furthermore, driving in rural Japan is probably
more of a language challenge than many tourists are ready for on their
first or second visit. So bikes are the go-to mode of transport.
My job was to visit the standard list of tourist attractions that
Japanese domestic travelers go to, and see which ones would be worthy of
a foreign tourist working a cycling sweat for. Since I'd already been to
Kakunodate before, my first stop this time around was Lake Tazawa to the
north - actually Japan's deepest lake, at 425m and thus a few meters
deeper than lake Shikotsu in Hokkaido.
As a side note, since Tazawako is just 249m above sea level, the bottom
of the lake is actually 174m below sea level - deep enough that it never
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So let me just say that if you have been looking for the perfect lake
cycling experience, look no further! Tazawako has it all. It is an
amazingly beautiful caldera lake, with mirror image reflections of the
surrounding mountains and a paved road in excellent condition that
circumnavigates it for the full 35 kilometers. During the whole circuit,
you're seldom more than a few meters from the water side, and apart from
the 3 modest hills on the western flank, the road is flat to undulating
- which is just as well, because you WILL be distracted by the sheer
beauty before you. Almost no houses, no traffic, just a cheery
"Konnichiwa!" from cyclists coming the other way. This lake is
definitely going into my list of Top 10 best places to cycle in Japan.
After Tazawako and Kakunodate, the other sights of Senboku pale in
comparison. However, among the places worth visiting are the Kinpou
forest temple, with some of the biggest (and oldest) cedar trees I've
ever seen, a skillfully converted-but-suitably-rustic "Kura"
warehouse-cum-coffee shop in Omagari called "Everyday Omagari", the
massive Saku no Yu onsen built in the middle of the rice paddies, the
lavender fields in the foothills of Misato, and the spectacular
Dakigaeri Ravine complete with classic arched wooden bridge.
http://bit.ly/2widhYO (Kinpou Shrine)
http://bit.ly/2gVcBXs (Dakigaeri Ravine)
But probably the highlight of my visit, and presenting a classic
challenge of how to repeat the experience for tourists to follow, was an
encounter I had with a little old man in the Rokugo Springs area of
Misato, who wanted to know what I was doing...
Firstly, let me back up a bit. The springs were on my list of locations
to check out. The area is not visually outstanding in any way, being
located in a valley basin about 10km across and nestled in among many
rice fields and a sleepy neighborhood of low-cost rural homes built
after the war. Certainly not a tourist attraction in the normal sense.
However, as I was about to learn, the springs are number 10 on the land
ministry's top 100 pure fresh water sources in Japan. The water drains
from the surrounding mountains and presumably makes its way over the
decades through the valley substrate before reappearing in one of 10
ancient springs in the area. I can testify that the water here tastes
different, with a "thick" mineral feel. It's good enough that people
from around the area bring large water bottles to collect the water and
use it in their cooking.
Anyway, I stopped at one of the springs so that I could fill my water
bottle. I wasn't sure if the pond was still in good condition, given
that there were houses built right next door. As I hesitated, I noticed
an old fellow checking me out and I called out to him, "Can I drink
this?" He responded, "Yes, but I know somewhere better, follow me." He
obviously wasn't put out by a random foreigner showing up on his back
doorstep. I followed him to the end of the narrow road and there he
gestured to his liquor shop - LOL he was a sake seller! No wonder he
knew somewhere better for water!
http://bit.ly/2vNdkwj (Little sake shop in Rokugo, Senboku)
With that he guided me inside and took me down a set of stairs to reveal
his own private pond. A concreted square with very clean sand in the
bottom, a cooling watermelon to one side, and a visible flow of water
welling up. Sure enough, after filling my water bottle, I took a long
drink and it was as delicious as he had said. His pond turns out to be
one of the 10 landmark sources, and is named Hatachi Spring.
http://bit.ly/2vN2Gpp (Hatachi-ya's Pond)
I then returned to the shop, and he gave me some sake samples to try. I
was torn between a unique lavender-infused number that didn't taste of
lavender but certainly had an extra taste dimension, and another local
brand which was dry and equally good. I asked him where the brewery was
located, and he pointed "Just over there," meaning in the neighborhood.
Of course, with water like that it wouldn't be surprising to find a
brewery here. But as I learned later, most of them have already shut
down, partly due to a big fire that devastated the township 50 years
ago, and more recently due to the fall-off in sake demand domestically.
After bidding farewell to the friendly old guy, I checked out the
immediate neighborhood and found an ancient sake brewery (Yachio Shuzo)
that looked like it had just shut down. What a sad sight, especially
given the fantastic location and the rather beautiful logo they designed
for it way back in 1913 when it was founded.
Yeah, so, a great experience in an otherwise nondescript location. Now,
we just have to figure out how to "bottle" that experience. In my
opinion, Misato City should make some restoration loans available either
to the Yachio brewery family or another younger local sake producer, and
get the sake factory back up and running. A combination of a beautiful
old building, some of the best water in Japan, and any amount of rice
you could want, would make for a killer tourist attraction. Especially
if the brewery was set up as a rustic hotel as well. Never would some
featureless rice fields appear so attractive to foreign tourists.
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+++ ABOUT US
Written by: Terrie Lloyd (terrie.lloyd at japaninc.com)
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