BGM: Sene by Afro Celt Sound System
It's good to travel with an open mind.
Japan's pottery tradition is world-renown with thousands of years to its noble legacy. But for some reason, the mascot for several of the country's most prominent pottery "capitals" (like Mashiko in Tochigi Prefecture), is one and the same. Enter the wild and wily tanuki, Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus, aka "raccoon dog."
A real tanuki looks like this:
(Tanuki, Nanzenji Temple, Kyoto)
But hundreds of years of folk legend and artistic expression have turned it into this:
Apparently tanuki are both symbols of luck and expert shape-shifters, so hopefully they don't mind the exaggerated features of their modern representation (especially the drunk, glassy eyes and immensely huge genitalia). But when you see hundreds of them along the roadsides for sale, all having the same dazed expression and looking as if they'd sprung forth from the exact same pottery mold, then it can border on overkill (especially when you know that these towns became famous for more refined, profound works of art). So when we drove through Shigaraki Town (Shiga Prefecture) on our way to Uji, Kyoto, we just assumed it would be another Mashiko and decided to skip it, not thinking we were missing anything.
I do, however, believe that the cumulative hypnotizing effect of all those thousands of tanuki statues somehow worked on my unsuspecting husband. For a few months later, completely out of the blue, he asked me:
"Hey, wanna go to Shigaraki?"
Turning onto the Shigaraki IC from the Shinmeishin toll road, the foothills and peaks surrounding Mt. Konzeyama suddenly changed to bedazzling, topped with crumbling, ancient stone boulders and studded with scraggly pine trees -like scenery straight out of an ancient Chinese scroll. We exited the mountains completely enchanted at this point. Even if we were to see tanuki statues again, they wouldn't phase us this time. A hike through these mountains would easily fix that!
The smiling, weather-worn gentleman who took our highway toll cheerfully handed us a free tourist map and told us we were in great luck! We'd arrived just in time for the annual Shigaraki Pottery Festival! (Shigaraki Touki Matsuri, 信楽陶器まつり, October 6-8. My husband swore he didn't time it that way). Glowing with joy, we slowly eased onto Highway 307 and coasted down through quiet little Shigaraki, loosely situated along the untamed banks of the gracefully curving Daido River. We passed pastoral, golden rice fields and dense thickets of bamboo and deciduous forest. Every so often, we'd see a shop of cookie-cutter tanuki statues. But after getting a good look at the surrounding environment, we had a reassuring sense that there was much more to Shigaraki than we'd first given it credit for. Thrilled with our good fortune, we pulled up to Tanukiya Bunpuku （狸屋分福） for some good ole' mountain food: hand-cut noodles and tempura!
The simple, understated restaurant interior didn't distract from the rustic charm of the hand-thrown dishes, cups and cookery accenting every table. I immediately noticed the heavy jet-black "aladdin" jar in front of me and lifted the lid: inside was a gorgeously pressed cabbage and carrot pickle dish called "oshinko" (おしんこ）. What a delightful surprise! And it was self-service! With chopsticks, I served up a tiny portion for both my husband and myself. The veggies were crunchy, perfectly salted and spiked with dark-red slices of locally-grown chili pepper. It was a nice, healthy accompaniment to our nutty, starchy noodles.
According to the plucky, outspoken lady from Osaka who was enjoying some soba noodles at the next table, Tanukiya Bunpuku is known for its matsutake (松茸, "pine mushroom") cuisine. My husband and I had only seen imported Chinese matsutake in the supermarkets, but never had the chance to taste them. Considered the "black truffle" of Japanese mushrooms, the finest quality matsutake are the most expensive edible fungi in the world, fetching up to a thousand US dollars a pound (YIKES!). Were they really that delicious?!
(Above: imported matsutake mushrooms from China, two for 17$ US. According to a friend of mine, the more phallic the shape, the better the taste. Umbrella-like caps mean they're already on their way out).
We thought we were hopeless, but the menu on the table advertised a generous plate of deep-fried matsutake mushrooms for under ten bucks! How could this be? They were imported, right? Checking with the chef, we learned that they were from Kyoto! (Again: LUCKY!) Without hesitation, we ordered one to share. It came to our table accented with fresh, green ginko leaves and a small dish of green tea salt for dipping. First bite: tough and stringy. Nothing special. It tasted like a crimini mushroom without the poop-like stink. But wait! What was that? With each successive bite, I felt the warm, woodsy flavor of the mushroom spread throughout my mouth like the lingering zing of wine! Each juicy, crunchy, oil-covered bite made the warming effect stronger, almost like a tingle. Soon I could detect the more subtle notes in the flavor- some mild sweetness, yet no bitterness of other mushrooms like shimeji or maitake. This was smooth and dare I say, exquisite! A mushroom that virtually "hummed" with flavor! Who knew?
With our bellies full, tongues zinging and hearts inspired by our culinary adventure, we backtracked to "Pottery Lane" (Yakimono Yokocho,やきもの横丁）, to get a feel for the local artistic style. Most of the pieces were in various shades of orange and terracotta, like the vivid, cheerful autumn leaves surrounding us.
After a brief wander, my husband wanted to see nearby Gyokkeiji Temple (玉桂寺). No doubt in an inspiring setting such as this, the local temple gardens have got to be something else, right?
Wrong! We were too spooked to linger! We high-tailed it out of there and fled back into town before the horror of the moment could catch up with us. (Stay tuned for an exciting feature blog on Gyokkeiji Temple!).
Back in town, parking officials from Tougei no Mori （陶芸の森), the designated site of the pottery festival, were announcing on loudspeakers that all parking spaces had completely filled up. We decided to put the festival on the back burner and zoomed up harrowing Highway 12 in search of Misuji Waterfall. The twisting one-lane road mellowed out after we passed the Country Club, opening up into a calming expanse of farmland. On the opposite side of the road from the famous Miho Museum, just around the bend, a charming group of thatched roof dwellings greeted us. The spacious parking lot was intoxicating with the sweet scent of fragrant olive bushes. I noticed something glinting in the sunlight under the shrubs: solar panels! Obviously this place must have nice bathrooms! (Lucky for us, we weren't disappointed).
The organic paradise Shigaraki no Sato （しがらきの里） is the brainchild of Shumei Natural Agriculture Network (秀明自然農法ネットワーク), a non-profit organization inspired by the teachings of naturalist and spiritual leader Mokichi Okada (1882-1955). Okada taught that soil naturally has enough power and nutrients to sustain life without the use of anything inorganic like fertilizers or pesticides. The farms at Shigaraki no Sato thoroughly utilize his philosophy of "natural agriculture" to produce seasonally fresh vegetables, grains and legumes. A huge fan of small-scale organic farming, I was so thrilled to finally see a place like this with my own eyes!
Shigaraki no Sato holds events throughout the year including farming lessons, educational lectures and dinner gatherings -all focusing on the importance of natural agriculture. One of the staff encouraged us to explore the houses and grounds. "This is free space," she said, arms wide open with pride. My husband and I first climbed up the steep stairs to discover every nook and cranny of the beautiful kominka （古民家） house, with its bamboo roof tied expertly together with hand-wound rope. The rush mat flooring and wood finish smelled heady and sweet. This ingenious living space was dark, warm and comforting like a cocoon. I actually asked the staff if I could live there, but only got friendly chuckles in reply. (But seriously. This house made me contemplate the kind of uninspired, box-like dwellings we confine ourselves to, today. Imagine all the social ills we could heal if our living spaces were this free-flowing and sustainable!)
We wandered like curious children across the tiny bridge and along the trickling brook singing its way towards the Tashiro River. Though the harvest season was nearly over, we could still see racks of drying rice, chilies and herbs in the farmhouse. Every turn provided a photo opportunity. It felt more like a garden than a farm.
My husband suggested we follow the trail along the rice field to see where it led. The opalescent, sapphire-blue Tashiro River guided us along our way through the ever-increasing trees. The occasional din of roadside traffic grounded us, reassuring us that we hadn't strayed too far from civilization (though our cell phone reception had completely disappeared). The further we walked down the trail, the rockier, louder and more dramatic the river became. We were entranced! Did we accidentally enter a wormhole and return to our beloved Iya Valley in Tokushima Prefecture?
The air was divinely sweet and fresh with the heavy, natural perfume of cedar and pine as we stepped lightly on the spongy trail. Carpet-like moss covered ancient stones and fallen trees like royal cloaks of luxury. It was a tremendous sight to behold.
At one point, the river grew so loud we had to shout to hear each other. And then the water simply dropped off through jagged slate-colored teeth of stone into the glowing azure pool, below. We found it! Misuji Waterfall (Misuji no Taki, 三筋の滝)! The drop to the bottom is long and lethal and the heavy, old trees bear down hard along the eroding banks. Without easy access to the falls, this is certainly NOT a safe place for little children, the elderly or injured people like myself! So my husband bravely scooted close to the edge and took the vertical shot, then scaled the cliff-side trail down to the pool and took this glorious frontal photo. I was scared, but impressed.
Talk about a "holy moment!"
(The sign reads: "Danger! Don't come near!")
Our mission completed, we relaxed with a filling, savory meal at Tashiro Kougen no Sato （田代高原の郷), a restaurant that uses fresh rice and produce from Shigaraki no Sato. I had the curry set lunch that included a side salad and tangy rakkyo pickles. The freshly-harvested organic rice tasted particularly fluffy and pure.
We didn't want to tear ourselves away from this little paradise we'd discovered in quiet Tashiro Village. But we didn't want to miss the pottery festival, either. Had our luck finally run out? By the time we returned to the grounds of Tougei no Mori, the crowds had let up a bit. We easily found a decent parking spot and hiked slowly up the hill to catch the final hour of the town's annual shindig.
American rock & roll from the '60's serenaded us via huge jet-black JBL woofers on the kiddie hill as we caroused the colorful booths, enjoying the visual bouquet of seasonal, tasteful tableware for sale. Everyone was relaxed and mellow in kind of a hippie, artsy-fartsy way. (It was really groovy, man!)
The sheer variety of cups, vases, platters, figurines and chopstick rests was nothing short of staggering! But fortunately for us, an hour was just enough time to see the entire event. The artist Shoko-san posed for our photo with her lovingly crafted creations. Were we lucky today, or what?
Everyone we encountered here was so cheerful and inviting! We knew we'd be making our way back to Shigaraki again, soon. Throughout this inspiring, luck-filled journey, I personally learned a few essential lessons: always travel with an open mind. And when in Japan, never judge a town by its tanuki.
Access to Shigaraki no Sato and Misuji Falls
(By Train): From Kyoto, transfer to the JR Biwako Line bound for Nagahama or Maibara (platform 2) and get off at Ishiyama Station. From here, take the Teisan Bus (No 150) to the Miho Museum. If the museum is at your right, walk straight ahead down Highway 12 until you see the group of small thatched-roof farm houses on your left (Shigaraki no Sato). Here you can explore to your heart's content or follow the maps to the waterfall. (Maps are posted around the grounds in both English and Japanese). Misuji Waterfall is a short 15-minute hike from Shigaraki no Sato.
(By Car): Follow highway 12 from either end (Ritto or Shigaraki access) to the sign that says "Misuji Waterfall." There's a tiny gravel space for maybe two compact cars to park -but nothing more. It's perfectly fine to park at Shigaraki no Sato to hike to the waterfall, but be sure to check out the facility if you do (it's really nice!). Open from 10am to 5pm, closed during winter months.