Our last tour day (Sunday) was in Akita and we were fortunate enough to have a guide whose English was the best so far. Still accented but much easier to understand she was quite enjoyable to listen to. Well spoken and certainly well versed in Akita’s history and culture she gave insight to the area and even omelet-making tips.
Japan is made up of 45 prefectures, 1 circuit and 1 metropolis. Akita is a prefecture with 25 cities one of which is also named Akita. Summer temperatures can reach 34c but winter is fairly mild (from our standpoint) with temps down to only about -2.5c. Snow accumulations are about 100 cm (which I, personally, would also be thankful for).
Rice production in the area is third in Japan at 500,000 lbs. per year, but Sake is also very important in this prefecture.
The Hata-Hata fish (also known as Buriko) is one well known in Akita, but not necessarily enjoyed by all. It’s unusual in that it has no scales and is quite sticky to the touch. Fish sauce is produced by fermenting this fish (which is caught in the winter time) over a 3 year time frame. Of particular note is that Koji mold (same mold used to make Sake) is used in this process. In the end it is boiled for an hour, strained and bottled. The end product is commonly used in place of butter or milk to make omelets (and will be attempted when we get home).
Given that you have (hopefully) enjoyed reading of our adventures throughout these past 2 weeks, what do you suppose our first stop will be? Another market would be correct. But again, unique relative to others we have encountered. This was a full mix of grocery, fresh fish, liquor, tourist items and household goods. Few souvenirs had been purchased prior to this, but here an exception was made. There was no boatload of items, but things we had thought would actually be reasonable, usable and simply delectable.
Our second stop is the Sake Brewery and here I admit to once again failing to obtain important information. Like the name of the brewery for instance. No doubt it was mentioned, but being heard was only probable at best and remembered, apparently impossible. It has been around for over 300 years (no thanks to people like me) and is quite apparent inside. The timbers that make up joists, rafters, and support posts, and the iron straps that bind them all together, all clearly show their age. Yet such was craftsmanship in days gone by that they have all done their duty, keeping the brewers and their artistry safe and continuous.
Making Sake is quite the process. It starts with milling (removing the outer portion, sometimes referred to as polishing), washing, steeping and steaming. How much is milled will dictate the quality of the Sake. Daiginjo, the highest quality, uses rice that is milled down a minimum of 50% or more. Then Koji Mold is sprinkled on top which changes the starch of the steamed rice into sugar. This will change will take about 2 days.
The water and yeast are added to change the sugar into alcohol. This then allows the Moromi fermentation which takes about another 20 days. The last part is filtration. The Moromi is put into bags that are filled with air. These are then hung in a gigantic press which is used to squeeze out the Sake. This also results in a secondary product called Sake Cake. Keep in mind this is a highly simplified representation of the whole process. The end result, however, can be exceptional, always dependent on the brew master and the ingredients.
Our final stop was built in 1912. It was named Akarenga-kan and started out as the headquarters of the Akita Bank. It took 3 years and was built so well that it has never been damaged by earthquakes. In 1981, the building was given to the city of Akita. After reconstruction and refurbishment, in 1985 it re-opened as the Akarenga-kan Museum. It is home to the Katsuhira Tokushi Memorial and the Sekiya Shiro Memorial Room.
Katsuhira Tokushi (1904-1971) became a self-taught artist, skilled in designing, woodcarving and printing. This skillset led to wood block printing in which he also designed all of his own wood blocks to actually do the printing. Essentially, he would carve several identical pictures in several blocks of wood. He would then color different areas and then press this on to paper. Each piece of wood would be pressed separately, in turn, on to the paper to give the final full color picture. Oh…one other thing. Remember that to make this work properly, each design on the blocks of wood have to be carved as a mirror image to the final result. In essence, it’s all carved backwards.
The other artist in this museum is Sekiya Shiro (1907-1994). After studying for several years in a local silversmith shop, he became an apprentice in Tokyo. His mastery of the fusion technique called Hagiawase, which melded different metals other than just silver and bronze, is what he used to create stunning works of metallic beauty. In 1977 his work was recognized as an important cultural asset to Japan and he was awarded as a National Human Treasure.
Unfortunately no pictures were allowed of any of works done by either of these artists.
Back to the ship and after 5 days of tours every day, we can relax in the knowledge that a sea day lays ahead. But there is a downside.
Monday is that dreaded of all cruise days. The Last Day. It will be spent gathering belongings, deciding which clothes should be used to pack which breakables in. Opening and closing drawers more times than enough to make sure nothing is left behind. Trying to determine what really needs to go in the carry-on vs. what can be jammed in normal luggage.
There will be no separate update to these pages – what you see now is what you get. We hope you have enjoyed our missives and pictures left in this little area of ‘the cloud’. The trip has been, ultimately, all that we wanted. Maybe we didn’t do or see or taste all the things that were hoped for, but the experiences we had, that were never imagined, more than made up for any perceived shortfall.
Japan is one of those places you should at least consider to put on your bucket list, if not done so already. It is all that you have heard it to be and more than you can imagine.
…which will absolutely just lead to a new beginning.