Sep. 14th, 2017

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Today's goal was to go to Saijo, one of Japan's three best-known sake production areas. They've been making sake here for hundreds of years, and like scotch in Scotland, the secrets are handed down from master brewer to apprentice over the generations.

Trains into the countryside aren't Shinkansen, but seem to run just as smoothly. The main difference from the faster trains is the speed, but on the plus side, these slower trains give you a more leisurely view of the countryside as it passes by. On a rainy day it would be fun to just take one to the end of the line and back again. Another difference is that they're less well announced in English. On our outbound train, announcements were entirely in Japanese, though the station platforms were clearly signposted in English, with little arrows on the signs telling you which station you just came from and which one you're going to. So if you plan your trip in advance, and know a couple station names before and after your destination, it's not hard to figure out when to get up and head for the door or to detect when you've gone too far. And some trains are more up-to-date and have alternating English and Japanese text on the scrolling displays to tell you where you're at. So it takes a modicum of courage to strike off into the unknown, but really only a modicum.

Speaking of the countryside, Hiroshima's is lovely. Lushly forested hills, some a few hundred metres high, plunge downwards to river valleys covered densely with houses or filled with even lusher fields of rice and other, less recognizable crops. Lots of bamboo, with bright, pale green leaves and feathery crowns interspersed among the more abundant cedars and pines. It's a refreshing break from the city.

Saijo has a bit of an industrial look and feel, as its main industry seems to be sake. The sake plants are easy to spot from a distance, as they're large warehouse complexes, each with a single very thin and tall chimney. Our first sake brewery was Kamotsuru, which started our visit with a nice film overviewing the brewing process. Seems much more complex than making beer or whisky. A few points of interest: They use a special rice cultivar, Nishiki, that is optimal for fermenting. Polishing the rice can take as much as 100 hours, with the goal of removing the protein-rich outer layers and leaving only the concentrated starch at the core. (No idea what they do with the residue; my guess is animal feed.) They use two fungi at different stages of the process: one is a "mold" (aspergillis) that breaks the starch into sugars, and the other is a yeast to produce the alcohol. No tours of the actual production facilities, as I imagine the risk of bacterial or other contamination that would ruin the sake is too high.

Kamotsuru is a great place to start, as they offer tasting of 10 different liquors: 9 sakes, ranging from fairly sweet and fruity to quite dry, and one plum wine. Their sakes were very different from the Gekeikan and Hakutsuru brands we've tried at home: they were very thin, without much body, and had a very slow "start" before the flavour appears, but followed by a surprising and strong finish with many subtle taste variations among types. Obama tried some of their special product at a state dinner with Prime Minister Abe when he visited Japan, and Kamotsuru makes very sure you'll notice this—photos everywhere. All of their sakes were interestingly different, but on the whole, not to my taste. On the other hand, the other brewery that we had sufficient time and sobriety to visit (Saijotsuru) offered only two samples, but they had much more body—almost oily, though in a good way—and with stronger flavor throughout the tasting process. Of the two, I preferred the unpasteurized one, but both were very good.

On the way back to the train, we stopped for late lunch at a pleasant little restaurant with no English name that specialized in meats served in savoury gravy. I had what was basically a pork hamburger with a fried egg on top, and Shoshanna had a dish with two breaded chicken cutlets. Both came with a savoury miso soup, soba noodles cooked deliciously al dente in a light coating of tomato sauce, and a platter of sticky rice. Both meals were much bigger than they looked in the menu picture, and very filling. We decided that we were sufficiently ippai i-desu (full) we were unlikely to want dinner, though we saved enough room for an impulse buy at an artisanal bakery: a deep-fried rice ball crusted with sesame seeds and filled with intensely grape-flavoured bean paste.

After making it back to Hiroshima, we returned to the peace park to visit the victims' memorial, a fairly spartan place with two main features of interest: The first is a library with digitized information on as many victims and witnesses of the bombing as they were able to obtain, plus records of everyone known to have been killed based on government records. This didn't include Korean labourers (most of whom were probably slaves captured during Japan's military adventures on the continent before the war) and American POWs, but otherwise seems to have been quite comprehensive. The other was a hall of memory, reached by a ramp that spirals downwards quite some distance until you reach reach a large, open hall. At the centre is a peacefully trickling fountain, with the top carved in the shape of a watch with its hands frozen forever at 8:15, the time when the bomb detonated. The walls are a mosaic tiled with 140 000 tiles, one for each person known to have died within the first year after the bomb. In addition, two movies play upstairs: one explains (and shows) the horrific nature of the wounds caused by the bomb, and another re-tells the memories of survivors that were recorded 5 years after the bomb for a commemorative book that was never published. The movie is narrated and dramatized by actors, like Japanese shadow theatre, set against a background of photos and paintings. Truly horrific what these people endured.

Needing something a bit lighter, we stopped in at a roofed but open-ended semi-outdoor shopping mall—for me, mostly just to see people doing normal "life" things. Very different from the mall we went to in Kyoto several years ago, which was more about offering endless samples of all kinds of food. This one was designed for victims of fashion, including a great many young folk out shopping for cool. As an example of the different focus from what we'd expect in Canada, there were many brand-name shoe stores, like Asics and Reebok, that in the west would be stores for athletes. But here, they only sell dressy shoes. Some of the color palettes have to be seen to be believed; drugstores, of all things, are particularly garish. Some of the names are—ummmm—"unusual", like "Womb", for a clothing store. There's a surprising amount of English naming, presumably because English is still a sign of cool. Lots of fun eye candy if you've got a high tolerance for crowds.

On the way back, we stopped in at a tiny fruit store (the first one we'd seen) for some peaches (momo). They'll be breakfast or snacks tomorrow.

Our last tourism for the day was to be the Hiroshima kagura "theatre" troupe. They provide full-dress performances of traditional mythological stories, accompanied by musicians (this night, two drummers, a flutist, and someone playing small hand cymbals), much like kabuki or the kathakali performance we saw in India. Gorgeous and highly elaborate costumes and masks, with highly stylized movements and poses and very precise positioning. The first story was about Shouki, the god of protection from plague, defeating a demon who brings plague. Highly repetitive and seemed overly long and repetitive to accomplish that simple goal, though with graceful and smoothly polished work by the actors, but because we don't speak Japanese, I can't say what the actor was saying or what the lead musician was singing. That narrative might explain the repetition, or it might be an artistic statement about the frequent return of plague. The second was stronger, with more actors and tighter plotting (according to author/editor Geoff), and told of two samurai sent to capture a mother and son team of bandits. The good guys win, of course, defeating the bandits in a well-choreographed fight. When the samurai are about to execute the son, the mother offers her life if they will spare her son. The samurai take pity on her and instead adopt the son, turning him into a samurai himself.

Exhausted after a long day, we schlepped back to the ryokan and were asleep by 10. I barely remember getting horizontal!

No pictures of the performance (they asked that none be taken), but many other pictures I'll try to publish in coming days, as time permits.


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