Strawberry Picking and Oyster Hut Day Trip

One chilly February morning, Jess (UK), Sally (Australia) and Grace (UK) were lucky enough to test out JTB’s inaugural Itoshima Strawberry Picking & Oyster Hut Day Trip – a jam-packed tour of Itoshima’s foodie hotspots, with come culture thrown in! You can join one of these tours too. At just ¥7,000/person, they are great value, including all transport, an English-speaking guide, and strawberries! Full details here.

• Just ¥7,000 /person!
• Sun., Tue. & Fri. (March 2016)
• About 8 hrs
• Min. 1 person
• Pick up and drop off in Tenjin or Hakata
• Includes English or Chinese-speaking guide

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We met our guide, Michiko-san, outside the Fukuoka Now offices. She was warm, friendly and – most importantly – her English was great. After being introduced to our driver, we bundled ourselves into the comfy taxi-bus, where we were immediately treated to classic Japanese hospitality in the form of bottled green tea and water.

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As we drove through town, Michiko proved a fountain of information, keeping up a running commentary on Fukuoka’s history, customs and local landmarks.

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Finally the city fell away, and we found ourselves driving along the coast, with the sea and pine trees on one side, and a mixture of farmland and architecturally innovative houses on the other. Michiko explained that Itoshima is a laidback area, famous for its delicious produce, active art scene and sandy beaches (we even saw one lone surfer braving the cold).

Our first stop was the famous Futamigaura Beach, where one of Kyushu’s most iconic Shinto landmarks can be found – the “Married Couple Rocks”. The rocks represent Izanagi and Izanami, the two central deities in the Japanese creation myth. Together Izanagi (the father) and Izanami (the mother) stirred the seas and conceived the islands of Japan. Here the two rocks are joined by a sacred rope (it weighs a whopping 1 ton and is 30 m long), which symbolises their bond. (If you want to see the rope-changing ceremony, the next will be on May 8.) In front of the rocks, but still in the water stands a white torii gate, a classic symbol of Shintoism.

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Next it was on to strawberry picking at Sakura Farm! Fukuoka is famous for its Amaou strawberries – Amaou being an acronym of akai (red), marui (round), oki (big), and umai (delicious). At Sakura Farm you’ll find a collection of greenhouses which grow strawberries throughout the winter months. Some of the strawberries are grown in troughs at waist level, and others are grown straight from the ground (these are apparently sweeter). As we entered the first greenhouse, the sweet smell of strawberries was overwhelming, and we were instantly salivating.

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All-you-can-eat strawberries are included in the tour package, so everyone receives a tasting cup, which you use to collect a helping of strawberries and/or as a receptacle for the stalks.

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Our guide explained the optimum picking methodology: hold the strawberry gently in your fingers, then flex your wrist downwards – this way, the strawberry comes away with minimum stalk (and minimum squishing)! We also learnt that it is best to twist off the the stem and eat your strawberry from the stem-end to the tip – this is to save the tip, the sweetest part, till last. We had 40 minutes to run wild with strawberry-lust, which was more than enough! If you want to take strawberries home, then it’s ¥200 per 100g.

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Stuffed with delicious, sweet strawberries, we thought we wouldn’t be able to eat another bite until evening – but that was before we pulled up at our next destination, the oyster huts of Itoshima. There are 27 oyster huts (otherwise known as kakigoya) in Itoshima, but that day our guide picked Mirukugaki Toyohisamaru.

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Donning our protective jackets (some of the oysters spurt hot sea water as they’re cooked, plus the ash and smoke from the grill gets into your clothes), we found a free table with an already burning BBQ; we gratefully warmed our hands against it whilst perusing the extensive menu.

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First we ordered the classic choice, the star of the show: oysters (¥1,000 per kg). To cook, grill each side for a couple of minutes, until the oyster opens with a small “pop”, then shuck it (ask the waitress for a demonstration if, like us, you prove incapable of figuring it out…) and enjoy with a drop of ponzu or soy sauce. Oysters are a wonderfully messy food, which meant we were glad of our protective hi-vis jackets – nothing to distract us from the plump, juicy oysters!

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We also tried sazai (horned turban shell, ¥1,000 for four), which, it turns out, are Japan’s Marmite – you either love them or hate them. These spiky spiral shells are home to creatures which bear more than a passing resemblance to an alien-leech hybrid. After working up our courage, we had a go – the final rating was two gaging fits and one thumbs up.

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Our group also enjoyed buttered scallops (¥150 each) – which were astounding in their sheer size – as well as scrummy crab claws (¥250 for two), delicious crab korokke (¥780 for three) and deep-fried breaded oysters (¥880 for three) – the last of which was a particular crowd pleaser. It should be noted that lunch is not included in the tour price.

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Full and content, we gave up our jackets and it was all aboard the minibus for Suginoya Brewery. As we were driven through the luscious Itoshima countryside, Michiko-san gave us the lowdown on basic sake classifications: sake is either “junmai-shu (pure rice wine) or not.” If not, it has had some of the rice grain polished away (30%, 40% or 50%). The more grain that has been polished off, the stronger the umami taste.

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Now that we were bonafide sake connoisseurs, we were ready for the free sake tasting. Suginoya Brewery has been brewing sake for over 140 years, so the brewery and its shop are housed in a gorgeous, antiquated wooden building. When we asked about the curious green ball hanging outside the shop, our guide explained that it’s tradition for breweries to hang a fresh, green cedar ball outside when a new batch of sake is ready, so passing locals can tell when the sake is fresh (which is when it’s at its best); the browner the cedar ball, the less fresh the sake.

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Though this brewery is steeped in history, it’s certainly not afraid to try new things. Aside from classic sake (¥1,290 per 720 ml) and amazake (a sweet, non-alcoholic rice drink, ¥820 per 720 ml), there was a wide range of unusual flavors, including chocolate, orange, yoghurt and strawberry. The chocolate one in particular caught our group’s attention (¥1,200 per bottle), since it would not only make a nice digestif, but can also be drizzled over ice cream – chocolate sauce for grown-ups. Suginoya has also branched out into the world of craft beer, and it has fast become a favorite amongst Kyushan craft beer aficionados.

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On our way out we passed a very special bakery – it is owned by the brewery and the bakers here use the rice and water mix left over from the sake-brewing process, called ‘lees’, to make bagels and croissants. For ¥990, you can buy a bag which contains a plain bagel, a cheese bagel, a chocolate croissant, a chestnut croissant, and a small baguette of beer bread. Want to eat inside? The bakery has a cafe attached, which has an interesting view onto part of the brewery’s machinery.

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As we made our way out, we gave our hands a quick dip in hot water infused with more of the brewery’s lees (it seems you really can use sake lees for everything, so why not buy a pack at the brewery’s shop?); these waters are said to soften and beautify your skin.

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Next on our tour was Ito Aguri. This former soy sauce brewery has been converted into a fresh produce shop and restaurant, whilst retaining its charming, traditional wooden exterior. As we’ve already mentioned, Itoshima produce is famous for being utterly delicious, and this shop dedicates itself to sourcing local, organic food. Here you can pick up pork, vegetables (we particularly recommend the mushrooms!) and soy milk – all of which are produced locally! There are also a range of upmarket treats for the foodie in your life, including vanilla flower honey (¥1,080), soy sauce pudding (¥360) and various scrummy biscuits and snacks.

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Although we were too stuffed to even consider a snack in the adjoining cafe, we decided to check out the interior. The downstairs area keeps it simple with elegant yet simple wooden furnishings, but upstairs is a wonderful amalgamation of Japanese and Western vintage; old record players compete for space with traditional-style Japanese sliding screens.

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And last but not least, it was on to Ito King, a brand famed throughout Japan for its dorayaki (red-bean pancakes), which it makes with cream and whole Amaou strawberries – they’re so popular that by the time we got there they were almost all sold out (¥390~ for one)! There are other branches in Tenjin and at Fukuoka Airport, but not many visit this flagship store, where internal windows give shoppers a view onto the Ito King kitchen and you can buy the dorayaki at their freshest.

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The shop is small and take-away only, but its popularity means there’s a constant flow of customers. If you’re keen to try the dorayaki, we recommend asking your tour guide to rejig your schedule and take you there directly after lunch – otherwise they might sell out! But if you do miss out on the dorayaki, there’s lots else to try, like dried strawberries coated in chocolate, strawberry ice cream and strawberry rusks.

Enjoying even more dorayaki back at home!

Enjoying even more dorayaki back at home!

All three of us regarded this tour as one of our best days out in Japan, since it was rich in cultural and gastronomical experiences. We loved our chirpy, friendly guide, and the small group sizes (tours run from one person to twenty people) meant less hanging round – we didn’t have to wait for 40 tour-goers to use the bathroom and take their holiday snaps, we could just cram in experience after experience. Perhaps the best proof that this is a great tour is that we immediately wanted to do the whole thing again! This is the easiest way to cover so many of Itoshima’s best points in just one day.

Our driver and our guide

Our driver and our guide

• Just ¥7,000 /person!
• Sun., Tue. & Fri. (March 2016)
• About 8 hrs
• Min. 1 person
• Pick up and drop off in Tenjin or Hakata
• Includes English or Chinese-speaking guide

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Read the details about this tour and JTB x Fukuoka Now’s April and May tours here. Be sure to mention Fukuoka Now when you book – and we’ll continue to introduce more great tours!

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