After two popular tours to the Chikugo region, we took off for our final tour to Miyama, Yame, Chikugo and the town of Hirokawa. Local goods and craftsmanship were central themes of the tour, but the Chikugo River, which our bus passed by several times, was another. As we were to learn, many of the ingredients of the foods and products we would come in contact with owe their existence to this mighty river.
We had a peaceful start for the day as we approached the Honbo Garden of the Kiyomizu Temple in Miyama. Located inside a hilly area, we drove through a bamboo forest and then marched up some moss covered stone steps before arriving at a somewhat hidden temple. Seated by a viewing point facing the garden, we were given a detailed lecture by the temple’s head priest. Built 1,200 years ago by monk Sesshu and inspired by his visits to China, the garden combines planted objects with the natural elements around it, including the mountains and sky in the backdrop. To fully experience the nature, we were taught to close our eyes and use our other senses to appreciate the “view”.
Next, we stopped at a nearby roadside farmers’ market. On a Saturday morning, the spacious hall was full of local people doing their weekend grocery shopping. The market offered an impressive selection of fresh vegetables, fruits, pickles and other products, reflecting the bountiful agricultural sector in Chikugo region. The products were also considerably inexpensive compared to the ones sold in the city. Several of us picked up mikan (tangerines) and a specialty celery that was so popular that customers were limited to just one packet per day.
With bags filled with fresh goods, we continued our journey to Yame. First, we had lunch at Ginnoka, a cozy Japanese restaurant run by the nearby sake brewery Kitaya. We were served a variety of dishes, including green tea flavored soba and soup made with sake lees. The menu also featured many more familiar dishes, like tempura for main course and mochi in bean soup for dessert. Lunchtime was also a good time to get to know other participants of the tour, again coming from a variety of backgrounds.
With a full stomach, we took a short walk around the town lead by local volunteers. Several of the older buildings had to be restored, however, remaining loyal to the traditional style. This includes painting walls using the old white-wash method. Finally stopping at the Yame Traditional Craftwork Center, we saw an exhibition of a range of traditional handicrafts, including hina dolls, paper lanterns, woodwork, and bamboo crafts. The center also displayed the largest Buddhist family altar in Japan, well over two floors high. Each component of the altar is carefully crafted by an expert in that area, before being brought together to form the detailed final piece.
Leaving behind the crafts, we continued to learn about textiles at the 150-year-old factory of the garment manufacturer Miyata Orimono. We were guided through the full process of garment production including design, weaving and sewing. The focus of the tour was on hanten, a soft and warm cotton “coat” that is traditionally used as homewear in Japan. It was impressive to witness how the experienced staff could stuff each piece with a cotton layer in just over a minute. At the end of the tour, we also had an opportunity to try on some of these hanten. They were as soft and comfortable as they looked, and wearing them felt like wrapping into a duvet.
Next, we headed to a specialty shop to learn about one of the most well-known products of Yame: tea. We were given a presentation about tea production and various tea types, followed by a demonstration of how to correctly prepare matcha and green tea. We heard that tea ranges in its price and quality, the precious type being one that is picked early in the spring. We had an opportunity to try some of this high quality green tea, along with some sweets, crackers, tea flavoured steamed buns and, later, green tea ice cream. They also let us try grinding matcha manually which, like many other steps associated with tea making, turned out to be a calming experience.
Our final stop of the day was in the town of Hirokawa. Greeted warmly by the city officials wearing strawberry hats, we were given a short introduction to the region that is particularly known for its production of fruits. We later stopped at a shop selling a variety of Kurume kasuri textiles and other crafts produced in the local area, including pottery made by local students. The antique section of the shop also attracted a lot of interest, and a few of us managed to find some unique pieces of furnishing and ornaments there.
Overall, the February tour to Chikugo region was a success and well completed the trilogy of Chikugo Now tours. I particularly enjoyed the focus on local goods and craftsmanship this time, alongside with the opportunity to take a walk at many locations. The welcoming atmosphere could be truly felt, and several hosts generously treated us with snacks and souvenirs upon our arrival. Having this human contact and learning about the true livelihoods of the locals is what makes visits to the countryside so special and memorable.
Report by Ludi Wang
February 23, 2018
Chikugo Area Tourist Information