May 28, 2011

Mitake Ravine Walk and Sawanoien

In the upper reaches of the Tama River, friends and I enjoyed walking along a ravine in verdancy.

We started at JR Mitake Station, walked across the Ome Kaido Street in front of the station, and took the path beside a ramen restaurant to go down and pass through under the Mitake Bridge. Then, we walked upstream along the walkway on the left side of the river.

Fresh greenery, sunshine and shade, bright dry riverbed, green pools, bubbling water in white, and dark shallows. The ravine in May is really full of beautiful things.

Anglers, kayak guys challenging the torrent hard, young people enjoying bouldering on huge rocks here and there on the shore, BBQ people, and a couple having a nap on a rock, all such people are having a good holiday. I think it is certainly true that humans should sometimes play with the nature to refresh both mind and body.

Well, we walked along the walkway for about 20 minutes and walked across the Kamiji Bridge to get to the opposite side of the river. The Kamiji Bridge, literally meaning a bridge of a god road, has been constructed on the way to the front gate of Mitake Shrine. Actually, you would see a big red torii gate of Mitake Shrine across the Yoshino Kaido Street, if you walked across this bridge and went up the slope connecting to the street. However, this time, we took a trail leading downstream just immediately after crossing the bridge. This was a narrow trail on the right bank of the river.

Unlike the walkway on the left bank, which was relatively flat and full of a lot of sunshine, the trail on the right bank went up and down somewhat like a mountain path, and was in the shade of trees on the whole. However, we once walked on the sandy ground on the riverbed at a point when we passed near the building of hydraulic power plant. We quickly walked across the sandy ground, which was heated by the direct sunlight, to take sanctuary in the shade, feeling relieved. Then, we went through under the Mitake Bridge again but on the opposite side of the river at this time, and passed in front of the Gyokudo Art Museum to get to the restaurant Imotoya for lunch.

I had Okutama-yamame-trout Sushi for lunch. The Okutama-yamae is a triploid female of the yamame-trout. This female fish, created by the use of biotechnology and raised at a fish farm, never spawns and it grows very big and tasty without consuming its energy in growing roes and spawning.

Probably having been seasoned by being sandwiched between kelp sheets, slightly pinkish Okutama-yamame fish was firm and elastic, and tasted very nice. When you have a chance to visit JR Mitake Station or its vicinity, I recommend you to have a try of Okutama-yamame sushi.

After leaving the restaurant, we walked across the Mitake-kobashi Bridge to the left bank again. If we want to, we could walk to Sawanoien run by Ozawa Syuzou, the brewery of Sawanoi sake, in about a 20-minute walk downstream from this bridge. And, of course, we wanted to go there. Actually, Sawanoien was, if anything, our original destination, and the walking was something like a lagniappe.

I had beer Sawabii, which was quite nice after sweating a bit from the walking.

And, after drinking this bottle of beer and taking a break for a while, we together enjoyed Sawanoi sake, Junmai Ginjo Soten Name (純米吟醸蒼天生酒) and Junmai Namazake Sawane (さわ音).

May 17, 2011

Enjoying shishimai lion dance over sake

At Yakumo Shrine in the Kawai district of the mountain town of Okutama, sambiki-shishimai or three-lion dances are dedicated annually on May 5. I visited this shrine to see these lion-dances and had nice time there last year. So, I invited some acquaintances to this event this year.

We, four people including me, started walking at JR Kawai Station toward Yakumo Shrine. Although it was May, the weather was cool or rather chilly. Soon, we left Route 411 (Ome Kaido) to take a minor winding road leading to the shrine. Festival andons (lampstand with a wooden frame and paper shade) had been set on the side of the road here and there on the way to the shrine. We saw a picture representing a monstrous beast, stag beetle, or any other childish motif was drawn on each andon. Probably, these pictures had been drawn by local grade school pupils. We also saw festival paper lanterns with the crest of mitsudomoe (three comma shaped figures arranged to form a circle) on them at the porches of some houses. As we got closer to the shrine, two long poles standing high and flying shrine banners in the wind came into our sight. While feeling such an atmosphere of the festival, we enjoyed an about-10-minute walk until finally getting to Yakumo Shrine.

The style of the lion dances dedicated to this shrine is the one called sambiki-shishimai or sasara-shishimai, which is popular in various districts in the Kanto area including Okutama, Chichibu, Ome, Akiruno, and other cities, towns, and villages. And, these dances of Yakumo Shrine in the Kawai district are especially recommendable.

I think I need to give some explanation on the architecture, setting, and atmosphere of Yakumo Shrine so that you can understand why I recommend the three-lion dances of this shrine.

The front approach to the shrine is a flight of stone stairs. If you look upward from the base of the stairs, you will find a two-story gate in the dimness of the cedar tree grove. The approach goes through under the gate leading you to an open space beyond it. This two-story gate, designated as a tangible folklore cultural property of Tokyo, has a unique structure; standing on the mountain slope, the front appears to be a two-story building while the back looks like a one-story building.

The upper floor of the gate on the back side serves as a stage for plays, dances, and other performing arts. However the three-lion dances are not performed on this stage but in the open space in front of the stage. The front approach leads to this center square, across which there is another flight of stone stairs. At the upper end of these stairs is the front shrine.

Another noteworthy point of this Yakumo Shrine is that there are several stone-walled tiers on both sides of the stairs. These tiers serve as spectators’ seats so that visitors at this shrine can enjoy watching a play, dance, or any other performance art performed on the stage or in the center square. High-standing cedar trees surrounding the spectators’ seats, center square, and theater provide good shade for performers and spectators, and usher a comfortable energy flow into the precincts, producing a sacred atmosphere of a realm protected by some mysterious power.

As I described above, this shrine has a good atmosphere as a place for oblation of three-loin dances while the stone-walled tiers provides the spectators with comfortable seats where they can enjoy watching dances over sake and foods in a relaxing mood. For these two reasons, I recommend the lion dances of this shrine.

Thus, I planned a picnic theater party, and we brought foods and drinks including sake. We occupied some place on a stone-walled tier, set our foods and drinks and everything ready, and started enjoying lion dances.

The sakes we brought with us today were all Sawanoi bottles from the local sake brewery Ozawa Syuzou: Kamekuchi-shu, Soten Namazake, and Hanami-shinshu.

May 11, 2011

Matchmaking soba making?

It was nearly a month ago when I attended a soba (buckwheat vermicelli) making class held in an establishment in Ome City.

Among the participants of this class were Hachi san, Tarosaku san, and Hide san, with whom I often have a good time with drinking sake. K san, who I often saw at Sawanoien and other sake-related events or establishments, also attended the class. These friends of mine seemed to have gathered not for making soba but for drinking sake.

Actually, these members are hard drinkers. And to boot, the president of a certain sake brewery was among the participants. Naturally, we could expect that he had brought us some good sake.

Anyway, this was a soba making class, and not a sake drinking party.

Among the participants of the class, there are single women who had been invited by Tarosaku san, and single men who had been invited a man called E san.

This E san, who was a very obliging person, or busybody, was plotting to make this gathering a kind of matchmaking party! (Later, I understood the reason why he was asking us a lot of questions including, "how old are you," "are you married," etc. at the beginning of the class). However, most participants seemed to be indifferent to the matchmaking, but quite interested in the soba making. Of course, they were so because the soba making was actually very interesting.

The president and an employee of his brewery had brought bottles of nice sake including daiginjo from their company. We sipped the sake while making soba. Sake is also called sobamae (meaning a drink before eating soba). Since we were later to eat soba made by the soba-making master who was teaching us how to make soba, the sake was literally sobamae.

While being taught by the soba-making master, each of us made our own soba, which we could later bring it home. After the class, we all were treated to soba made and cooked by the master. The soba was served with tempura of wild vegetables and shiitake mushrooms. Very nice! We could hear bush warbler chirps at the venue located on the Tama River which began to be flanked by tender verdurous leaves of trees.

After most of the participants left for home, those still staying were Hachi san, Tarosaku san, the president, soba master, a potter, and I. Until this time, we had been drinking quite much, but still we continued drinking Sawanoi Hanami Shinshu.

This Hanami Shinshu is a honjozo namachozo sake, to which post-bottling pasteurization has been applied. It smells like wood, but is it a smell of namazake? Anyway, this is dry and easy to drink.

The photo below is a picture of the soba I made and ate on the same day for supper. Later, I heard from other participant that their soba was broken into pieces when it was being boiled. However, my soba was all right, and tasted good with a nice al-dente texture. I thought maybe I have a talent for making soba. :)

May 9, 2011

Tsukinowa, sake from Iwate

Among the breweries in the Tohoku area (Northeastern areas except Hokkaido) of Japan, there are many of those that have been stricken by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Around the end of March, people in Japan were in a mood of voluntary restraint about enjoying themselves with various amusements including hanami (cherry blossom viewing). Since people usually drink alcohol beverages during hanami, it was thought that reluctance of people in having parties under cherry blossoms would negatively affect the consumption of sake, and eventually it would affect the Japan's economy.

At that time, some breweries in Iwate Prefecture made several movies and placed them at the YouTube site. These movies were to encourage us to drink sake without cancelling our hanami party plans.

Those who had their families or relatives in disaster-stricken areas must have been very anxious about them and it must have been very difficult to have hanami parties merrily. So, although I understood the voluntary restraint mood would adversely affect Japan's economy, I also understood their feelings. Maybe, each of us should have thought about whether to refrain from having a hanami party or to what degree to make a fuss at such a party and determine our own stances.

Recently, I dropped in a nearby liquor shop and found they were running a campaign for supporting breweries in the Tohoku area and sufferers of the disaster, carrying several sake brands from the area. The brands included Uragasumi, Tsukinowa, and Daishichi. So, I bought Tsukinowa, which I had not known about until recently.

Soon after the first sip of this junmai sake, I had an image of expansive rice paddy fields in my mind, and I could see golden rice ears waving in the breeze there. This sake had the rich and full-flavored sweetness of rice with acidity characteristic of junmai sake that makes you secrete much saliva.

I can't taste sake in olden days and I don't know what it tasted like, but I guess, without any good foundation, this junmai sake tastes like sake in earlier times.