As mentioned in my last post, the last weekend of October, I went on an overnight trip to Odate. Odate is a city about 3 hours north of Akita City, with it’s own unique cultural history and traditions. It is the home of たんぽ (tanpo), a traditional rice dish, and Hachiko; this city has a lot to offer visitors. This overnight tour was the first of it’s kind. Odate City is currently trying to develop a tour to attract more tourists to their area. This weekend was a trial run of the tour, so to speak, exclusive to AIU students.
This was a two day tour, but for the sake of my fingers and your eyes, I will split this experience into two separate posts.
Magewappa, Onigiri, & Apple Picking
We were welcomed first thing in the morning by three government officials of Odate City. They handed us informational packets on Odate and welcomed us onto the bus. After brief introductions, we hunkered down for the long bus ride.
Our first stop was the Junisho Community Center. Here we started the first activity of our program: making bento boxes. Not just any bento boxes but, Magewappa bento boxes. These special wooden boxes are an Odate specialty; made of local cedar wood trees and featuring stitching from the bark sakura trees, these boxes are preferred over plastic because of their fragrant odor, neat presentation, and being prefect for holding rice. Due to their material and how they’re made, Magewappas are very expensive. Depending on size, one box can range from $50 to over $100 USD. We got to make these treasures and keep them for free.
Our next stop was the Yokina Kasan Store, where an official welcome ceremony was held. Here, with the guidance of local women, we made our lunch. What was on the menu? Onigiri (rice balls) and tonjiru soup. One of our instructors was actually the best onigiri maker in all of Japan, which made the lessons even more interesting. Tonjiru literally means pork soup. This soup is made with a miso base, pork, and seasonal vegetables – it’s light but filling and made the perfect companion for our onigiri.
After lunch, we headed to a nearby apple orchard, where we first, did radio calisthenics to work off our lunch and warm up our bodies. I learned that doing radio calisthenics is a an everyday thing in Japan – one of my Japanese friends said they were tested on it in high school for gym!
Then, armed with baskets, we went out into the orchard and picked apples. This was my first time apple picking and it was definitely an enjoyable experience. We met the owner of the orchard, who explained to us that the apples were had picked were not yet available in stores, as they were still under development. The apples were delicious, crisp, and sweet.
Onsen and Farm Stay
The highlights of day were definitely the onsen and the farm stay. The onsen, or hot spring, we went to is located near the Aomori/Akita prefecture border – Odate Yatate Heights. Expanded in 1995, this onsen was originally built as a welfare facility for workers but is now open to tourists and the general public. The springs there were chloride springs, which gave the water an orange tinge. It is believed that chlorine springs are good for treating ailments like muscle pain, skin disease, and bad circulation. The bath was amazing. It took a while to get over my shyness about being seen naked by my friends, and some strangers; but once the nerves were gone, I was fully able to enjoy the orange outdoor bath.
The last stop of day one was our farm stays. In groups of 4-6 students, we were dropped off at the homes of farm owners, who housed us overnight. Here we learned how to make tanpo and kiritanpo. Tanpo, is essentially fire-grilled rice. Cooked rice is lightly mashed and molded onto a stick. Ironically, local Akita rice is preferred, as the grains keep their shape better than other brands, and retain a lot of their nutrients. From there, the sticks are placed into holders on a special, round tanpo grilling rack, with a flame at its center. As we waited for our tanpo to grill to our tastes, my host dad asked us questions about where we were from – giving me a great chance to practice the Japanese I’d learned so far!
Dinner was Kiritanpo and Shabu-shabu. Shabu-shabu is a hotpot dish with potatoes, pork, and vegetables. My host parents gave us freshly cut greens that we swished in the broth and ate, along with pieces of pork and potatoes. Turns out the name, shabu-shabu, is an onomatopoeia – it’s the sound the vegetables make as you swish them in the broth. Kiritanpo is another hotpot made of pork, veggies, greens, and – you guessed it – tanpo. This dish, as well as tanpo itself, is native to Akita Prefecture and is usually eaten during autumn and winter months.
Over dinner, we all sat around the low table and talked about Akita, Odate, and ourselves. I learned that my host dad used to be a salary man in Tokyo, but missed Akita so much, that he returned to take over the family farm. He personally grew everything we ate that night – from the rice used to make out tanpo to the flowers we had as side dishes. Yes, you read that right. I ate flowers for dinner. My host mom took English classes and used to practice Kyūdō, or archery – which I found out is considered a martial art. She also studied abroad in South Korea when she was younger and now bakes cookies as a hobby.
After dinner we were given traditional Japanese pajamas, called jinbei, and laid out our futons.
We stayed up talking to our hosts for a few more hours. We talked about our schools, our hometowns, and our aspirations in life – all over coffee and my host moms freshly baked tea cookies. Our hosts soon retired and, after another hour, so did we.
Until next time,