Terrie's Take 917 (Tourism Edition) - Gourmet Ride in Aomori - Food as Content and a New Concept for Japan

Terrie's Take terrie at mailman.japaninc.com
Mon Oct 9 10:35:49 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, Oct 08 2017, Issue No. 917

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+++ Gourmet Ride in Aomori - Food as Content and a New Concept for Japan

Last week I had the pleasure to join a new concept in Japan, Gourmet 
Rides, in which one cycles through the countryside moving from one 
eating experience to another. The concept began in Sonoma Valley, with 
rides and food experiences called Gourmet Centuries. These are immensely 
popular, bringing in up to 300 riders per event. The idea is that you 
can take a less visually dramatic rural landscape and still turn it into 
a highly memorable experience by punctuating the ride with local food 
and beverages - preferably served outside in fields and rustic 
locations. This is a great concept to bring to Japan, where there are so 
many nondescript but verdant food-producing areas begging for foreign 

http://bit.ly/2xsFM6M [Sonoma riding experience]
http://bit.ly/2wGwDrG [Bologna area experience]

The brains behind Japan's first Gourmet Ride was the team at the 
Tokyo-based gourmet magazine, Cuisine Press. As a niche magazine 
publisher of some 8 years, the team produces high-grade guides to 
Japan's trending foods and eateries. They're an excellent and trusted 
resource for Japanese gourmands and were perfect as organizers for the 
first Gourmet Ride project.

Setting up a gourmet ride is not cheap - as not only do you need to 
arrange special catering by local chefs, in unusual settings, but you 
also need the cycling operation, complete with tour leaders/assistants, 
support car, permission from local authorities, etc. To get this project 
kicked off, Cuisine Press sought budget from the Tohoku Reconstruction 
fund, and got enough to put the first two rides together. I think the 
fact they got funding for a soft activity, versus building more roads 
and buildings, is a good indication that Kasumigaseki bureaucrats are 
waking up the idea that tourists (both foreign and Japanese) need 
inspiration to want to travel to northern Japan.

http://bit.ly/2kxt85q [Home page for Cuisine Press]

The location for the Aomori Gourmet Ride was in and around the 
northwestern city of Hirosaki and nearby Owani Onsen. Myself and two 
friends decided to drive up from Tokyo, a smooth but tiring 7-hour 
journey that is just a bit too far. It least it was cheaper than buying 
3 separate Shinkansen tickets (Shinkansen takes about 4 hours). We took 
our own bikes, although the Gourmet Press folks kindly offered rental 
road bikes if we needed them. The first night we stayed overnight in a 
regular western hotel in front of Takasaki station. Looking out from the 
hotel's top floor, we had a magnificent view of the stratovolcano Mount 
Iwaki, a mere 10km away as the crow flies - uncomfortably close if it 
decided to erupt again, which it last did so in 1863. Research shows 
that 10km is close enough for erupted projectiles to hit... Anyway, it 
looks amazing with the sun setting behind it.

[Continued below...]

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The next morning, we met the rest of the 30-strong rider group in front 
of Hirosaki Station, listened to the briefing, did our "rajio taiso" 
school kid exercises, then we were on our way. Quickly getting out of 
the city, we found ourselves amidst a sea of apple orchards. Since the 
ride was late September, the apple picking season was just a couple of 
weeks away and it's amazing just how many big bright juicy red apples 
one little tree can support. The Hirosaki area grows all sorts of 
varieties, with my favorite being the crisp-eating early-season Jonagolds.

Our first stop after 5km or so was the Hirosaki Apple Park, where local 
growers have put the 30-plus varieties grown in the area into one 
smallish block of land, and where guests can do taste tests. We were 
treated to local apple juice, apple pie, and of course raw apples just 

Riding on through rice fields, alongside tinkling streams, and past 
fully-laden apple orchards, we found ourselves racing some rather 
threatening rain clouds to the lunch venue, which was in a community 
hall servicing a little village called Hirano. Rain in Autumn in Aomori 
is a common occurrence, and comprises one of the biggest differences to 
gourmet rides in, say, Sonoma or Italy. But with temperatures still in 
the 20's during the day, wet doesn't equal cold. Luckily for us, we were 
inside when the heavens opened up, and the rain magically stopped as we 
were getting ready to set off again.

The lunch that Saturday was absolutely amazing. The Hirano community 
hall had been converted into an impromptu banquet room, and local 
(mostly very aged) ladies of the village had prepared a huge collection 
of plates of local specialties. We had everything from spicy pickled 
edamame still in the pod (first time to eat those) to a local 
unpronounceable vegetable that had been fermented with spores from a 
local tree, and which had a wonderful depth that can only come from 
fermentation. Of course there were various types of local fish, beans, 
leaves, and local sauces. We had a running commentary from the lead 
Obaa-san, who was obviously revered by the other ladies there. They were 
super friendly, looking much like smiling old farming ladies you see in 
the tourist brochures.

Suitably stuffed and with the cloud burst just ended, we set out again 
and by mid-afternoon had arrived in Owani Onsen, where we would stay the 
night in a Fujiya hotel. I felt the ride was a bit short given the long 
drive up from Tokyo so I set out again with one of my companions to 
explore the back blocks of Owani Onsen. It was a perfect late fall 
afternoon, and as the sun started to get lower on the horizon, the 
fields of ready-to-harvest rice shone a golden glow that on my photos 
look like they are retouched. Of course, this being Aomori, the rice 
fields were interspersed with apple orchards, with many trees reaching 
out over the country lanes, laden with fruit.

Yes... if you are wondering if we snitched an apple, the thought crossed 
my mind, but given that we were guests in this heavenly place, we 
behaved ourselves - well at least until I found a loose one that had 
rolled out on the road. I do have to say it was super tasty, and must 
have fallen from the tree that day!

As evening set in, we arrived at the outdoor dining location which was 
the courtyard of the Owani Onsen travel center. I got myself a locally 
brewed ale (which was very good btw) and waited for a presentation by 
the local host, whom I shall nickname the Leader of the Bad Boys - 
because he is obviously an inspired maverick who wants to shake things 
up in his home town. I don't remember his name, but I learned that he 
runs several restaurants in Tokyo and has a finger in many pies (sake 
production, apples, local specialty produce such as onsen moyashi - a 
long-stemmed rarity). He welcomed us, and gave us the menu for the 
evening, which highlighted Italian-style prosciutto that the village was 
producing in an unused primary school just up the road. And, yes, he was 
commercially involved in this effort as well.

As he was speaking I noticed some odd cylinders on top of one of the 
roofs, and asked our magazine contact, "Are those fireworks?" She 
replied quietly, "Sssh, it's a surprise." So for the rest of the meal, I 
sat wondering when they would shoot them off. Sure enough, as we got to 
the dessert, the host announced that there would be a pyrotechnic 
display, and three guys got on the roof to do the honors. I had to 
laugh, because being the "bad boys brigade" they had blow torches to 
touch off the gun powder. There were some nice sky rockets, well, nice 
that is, until the low trajectory of these things showered us with 
debris from the explosions. We found ourselves peeking at each ascension 
and sky burst, then hurriedly closing our eyes afterwards to avoid the 
shower of fireworks dust! Not sure how much of it wound up in the 
remaining food, but later we found a rocket tip fallen next to a plate 
of bread.

After the sky rockets came the curtain of hell... Well, probably it was 
supposed to be a waterfall of sparklers. Unfortunately they had too much 
powder in the strands and what started off as a bunch of sparks soon 
degenerated into a cloud of unbreathable gunpowder smoke. Had the Bad 
Boys not been so sincere about their desire to please us, we might have 
thought they were pulling a prank on purpose. But, no, we knew they were 
trying their best to give us a night to remember. And after recovering 
from the experience, remember it we will! Countryside ambition knows no 
bounds and the Bad Boys are certainly pushing the limits in their 
efforts to revitalize their town.

After the fireworks finale, we returned to the Fujiya hotel for some 
down time and an onsen bath. Then the next day, bright and early, we 
were on the road again, visiting the aforementioned primary school with 
hundreds of legs of ham curing Italian style hanging from the classroom 
ceilings - kind of surreal and gross at the same time. I don't eat meat, 
but my companions were fascinated at the tasty display. Back on the 
bikes, we traveled to another apple orchard for another tasting, then 
finally wound up at the ramen restaurant belonging to the Bad Boys 
leader, where we ate his long-stemmed heirloom moyashi. Delicious and a 
fitting last meal for the trip.

If I had any complaints about the Cuisine Press's first Gourmet Ride, it 
was that it was too short, and 3-4 days of a similar schedule would have 
made an ideal destination tour. The first day's lunch in the community 
hall was an inspired touch, and if other similar experiences were 
possible, this tour would have huge word-of-mouth from the first-time 
guests posting photos and comments about it. One of Japan's special 
treasures is its food, and as readers will know, this is the Number One 
experience that inbound foreign travelers want to try. Combine that with 
bicycles, where you don't have to worry about public transport 
schedules, and where you can get out to remote farms and orchards and 
meet and mingle with the growers, and you have a memorable experience 
that can be effectively implemented anywhere in the country.

As the saying goes, "Content is King" and in this case, the content was 
gratefully consumed.

...The information janitors/

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Written by: Terrie Lloyd (terrie.lloyd at japaninc.com)

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