Akita #1: Namahage (なまはげ)

Only a few more days until 2015, and I can’t believe the year has gone so fast! Today’s postcard takes us up north to Akita prefecture, whose Namahage demons come out on New Year’s Eve looking for all the children who have been lazy during the year. Will the Namahage come for you? I’m pretty sure I’m out of luck!

Like Namahage? This is a great site with lots of information on the origins and current practices of the Namahage for those interested in learning more, and you can also watch a great video about it here produced by NHK for their great 5 minute Fudoki series.

A namahage wall hanging I bought in Akita, and the Namahage postcard

A namahage visited Tokyo and deigned to pose with people on the street

And another resided until recently in Tokyo Station’s Marunouchi building

Finally, some Namahage themed products from my visit to Akita a few years ago.

My visit to Akita was for the Kanto Festival in the summer, so I didn’t get a chance to see any Namahage, but even if you can’t be in Akita for New Years Eve, there are many opportunities to see Namahage. In Akita itself, in February the Namahage Sedo Festival is held, which gives participants a chance to see Namahage and get some rice cakes from them. (Watch a video about the Sedo Festival with English subtitles here) At the Namahage Museum in Oga you can experience Namahage year-round.

And if you can’t make it out to Akita yourself, consider visiting a Namahage-themed restaurant where you can eat Akita-style foods and be terrorized by Namahage yourself! here’s a short blurb about it in English, and there are restaurants like Namahage in Ginza (English here) where you can experience this. I like this video for a good idea of the restaurant, with some extra information about another Akita specialty also featured on a postcard… kiritanpo! You know, I’ll go to Tokyo in January… maybe I will get a chance to eat there myself?

Anyway, Happy New Year 2015 from Postacollect, and watch out for those Namahage New Years Eve!

Strawberries Part 2: Fukuoka #4 – Amaou Strawberries (あまおう)

Last week I talked about Tochigi’s strawberries. Now let’s look at Fukuoka! Fukuoka’s famous strawberry is the Amaou, supposedly standing for “amai” (sweet), “marui” (round), “ookii” (large), and “umai” (tasty/delicious). These strawberries are pretty expensive and can often be found in nice department stores in Japan and given as gifts.

I’ve never been to this area of Japan so I don’t have this postcard, but I DID find Fukuoka strawberries at my local grocery store, so I bought some along with Tochigi’s strawberries to have a STRAWBERRY FIGHT. They aren’t Amaou, but the Tochigi ones aren’t Tochiotome, so that’s probably good. Anyway, let’s look at the results:

Price: Tochigi’s berries were 200 yen, these are a little more expensive.

Amount: More came in the pack though, so that’s probably even anyway!

Size and shape: Tochigi strawberries are more diamond shaped while Fukuoka’s are more heart shaped, but about the same size.

Taste: …. yuuummmm! (Haha, I can’t tell the difference, they were both good!)

So while I’m sure comparing Amaou and Tochiotome will have different results, at this time I can definitely say that strawberries are awesome no matter where they’re from! But I encourage everyone to come to their own conclusions, especially if you can find Amaou or Tochiotome yourself. I did find a great article with some fantastic information on both kinds of strawberries I’d definitely give a read here.

If you are in Fukuoka from November to May, look around for opportunities to pick these strawberries. This website here has some great resources and tips.

Finally, as a bonus picture, I wasn’t the only one interested in the outcome of the strawberry match:

“I like the smell of Fukuoka strawberries!” says my cat.

Well I guess we have a winner after all. Sorry Tochigi, my cat is an expert!

2015.01.20: I’ve found a great video on Strawberries in Japan, including Tochigi’s and Fukuoka’s famous brands. It’s a bit long, but worth a watch for those with the time. It is from NHK’s BEGIN Japanology video, and you can watch it here.

Strawberries Part 1: Tochigi #1 – Strawberries (いちご)

It’s gotten cold here recently, and snow has started falling in many places across Japan, including, to my utter surprise, in my area as well. (It’s too early! I’m not ready for winter!) One thing I look forward to in the winter season is the strawberries. These berries brighten up the winter season, and are added into cakes and sweets all winter. My favorite strawberry treat is called a “daifuku”, a whole strawberry wrapped in tasty mochi with red bean paste. I can’t resist these.

There are two prefectures who reign supreme in strawberry production, Tochigi and Fukuoka. We’ll look at Fukuoka next post and focus on Tochigi for this one. Strawberries in Japan are grown November to May, although increasingly they are available in the off-season as well. Tochigi’s most famous style is called “Tochiotome” and were developed in 1996. Living in the Kanto region as I am, these are the easiest to find at local grocery stores.

In fact, I went yesterday and bought a few packs for science! Let’s take a look:

Mmm strawberries

I bought the cheaper ones, so they aren’t necessarily Tochiotome, but they are definitely from Tochigi!

My mini postcard posing with the strawberries

And just for fun!

I also bought a pack of Fukuoka strawberries, so tune in to next week’s post to see the face off between the two! Meanwhile, I’ve got some strawberries to eat.

By the way, strawberry picking is a popular activity in the winter, and there are places all over Japan to pick besides Tochigi or Fukuoka. If you’re in Japan during the winter and have some time, why don’t you soak in the winter sunshine, pick some strawberries, and have a fun day out in the country? Here is a great list of places in the Kanto region you can pick at: click here.

2015.01.20: I’ve found a great video on Strawberries in Japan, including Tochigi’s and Fukuoka’s famous brands. It’s a bit long, but worth a watch for those with the time. It is from NHK’s BEGIN Japanology video, and you can watch it here.

Tottori #4: Mandarin Ducks (オシドリ)

Sorry for the missed post last week, I’ve been knocked down by two different illnesses in as many weeks. On the plus side, I’ve drawn up a posting list for the next three months, so watch out for new posts every Monday like usual!

Okay, so today we’re taking a trip down South to Tottori Prefecture. I haven’t made it to this prefecture yet, so I don’t have this or any other card, but it is high on my “want to see list” because Tottori is the only place in Japan with honest-to-god sand dunes. Yes, there is a postcard of them, but today I’m focusing instead on the cute and cuddly-looking creatures featured on the 4th postcard and also which happen to be Tottori’s prefectural bird, Mandarin Ducks!

These beautifully colored ducks head to the Hino River in Western Tottori for a winter rest during November to March. Tourists to this area can photograph thousands of ducks floating in the river. Locals feed the ducks, which brings them back every year. Normally these birds are not commonly spotted, being extremely shy… but in Tottori they’ll pose for the cameras!

There isn’t a lot of information in English on Tottori or these famous birds, and as I said I’ve never been there so I don’t have any pictures. But I found a really nice video on youtube here featuring a few of these ducks on the Hino River. Please watch and enjoy!

Tochigi #4 – Ashigaka Gakkou (史跡足利学校)

I’ve been focusing a lot on Tochigi lately, and here is yet another Tochigi postcard, this one featuring the famous Ashikaga School in Ashikaga, Tochigi.

Ashikaga Gakkou is Japan’s oldest university, most likely founded in the ninth century, then restored in 1432 by Uesugi Norizane, who imported many Chinese books and brought the school to it’s highest prestige. During the Meiji Period, the school came under the management of Ashikaga Prefecture (now Tochigi Prefecture), and the school was disestablished and half used for an elementary school. Finally in the 1980s the elementary school was moved and restoration work began. This restoration took 10 years to complete, but result in the beautiful wood buildings tourists can see today.

The postcard depicts the middle gate of the school, called the “School Gate”. The kanji depicted are the Chinese characters for “School”, which was simplified in Japanese to “学校”.

The School Gate

Tickets and pamphlets

Restored building from the inside, looking out to the garden

Some pretty fall colors of red, yellow, and green in the school grounds

Restored wooden building from the outside

A Meiji Era building housing the Library and Historical Archives

The Ashikaga School can be reached on either the Tobu Isesaki Line to Ashikagashi Station or the JR Ryomo Line to Ashikaga Station, then on foot about 10-15 minutes. Hours are 9-5 April through September, and 9-4:30 October to March. Closing days are the third Monday of every month (or the following Tuesday if Monday is a holiday), and during the New Year from December 29th to the 31st. Entrance fee is 420 yen for adults, and 210 yen for High School Students. Junior High School age and younger get in free. There is an English pamphlet available, but little English signage. You can find out more information about visiting the schhool and other Ashikaga City attractions from the Ashikaga City page here.

Tokushima #4 – Naruto Sweet Potatoes (なると金時)

Today I heard the music of the Yaki-imo truck as it makes its delicious way around the neighborhood, selling piping hot sweet potatoes roasted over hot stones. In my area they sell regular old sweet potatoes (satsuma-imo) that are home grown, but if you’re lucky enough to be in Tokushima during this time, you might be able to get your hands on the sweet potato to put all others to shame, the Kintoki from Naruto. Grown in sandy soil instead of regular dirt, these sweet potatoes have a particular sweet and firm flesh, and are a brilliant red color.

I’ve never been to Tokushima, and I don’t have this postcard, but I can get Kintoki in my area. They’re pretty expensive though, and a friend of mine gave me a large number of sweet potatoes already from her garden, so I don’t see myself buying one anytime soon. But if I get a chance to take some pictures of some in the grocery store if I see them, or go sweet potato picking (more like pulling), I’ll edit and post some new pictures.

Tochigi #3: Gyoza (餃子)

I had a huge crisis deciding which Tochigi post to write first. On one hand, the fall colors of Nikko are probably pretty much over by now, and I wanted to post about the colors when you could still see them, but on the other, the Gyoza festival was last weekend and it is definitely over even though I’m posting about it now. Decisions, decisions. I finally went with Irohazaka since you can only see fall colors for a short time, but can eat Gyoza any time.

So now, let’s talk about gyoza! Gyoza (also called dumplings or potstickers) are indeed originally from China but carry a unique flavor that is popular all over the country. Tochigi Prefecture’s Utsunomiya City is doing its best to be called the “Gyoza Capital of Japan”, and there is a gyoza restaurant on every corner. There is also a fun Gyoza Festival held the first weekend of November every year, where you can try gyoza from restaurants all over the city.

I’ve always been a big fan of gyoza, and visited the Gyoza Festival in Utsunomiya two years ago, at the same time I went to see the fall colors of Nikko.

Gyoza and postcard

Entrance to the festival

Trying some different types of gyoza at the festival

If anyone is interested in more information about the festival, you can read my trip report about it here on Japan Guide, and the official Utsunomiya Gyoza website is here (Japanese only).

Happy Gyoza Eating!

Tochigi #6 – Irohazaka (いろは坂)

Lots of the postcards represented in the collection are seasonal, whether they’re depicting a once-a-year festival, a product that is harvested during a certain time, or flowers that have a growing season. Some have general seasonality, or don’t have anything specific that gives me a time period to say one season or another, but I’d say the majority of cards do. But what surprises me about the collection is that only one postcard features what I consider to be one of the highlights of Japan: fall colors, called “kouyou” here.

Just one! Okay, I know the cherry blossoms are better known (and you can bet I’ll be having a posting ball with that once spring comes), but I’d think the fall colors would have a little bit more representation!

So the one card that depicts the beautiful reds, oranges, yellows, and fading greens of fall is Tochigi’s sixth and most recent postcard showing the winding road of the Irohazaka in famous Nikko. The two roads that make up the Irohazaka connect lower Nikko with the higher elevated Okunikko, and have a fabulous and fun 48 hairpin turns together, hence the name “Iroha” which comes from the name of the Japanese alphabet which has 48 characters plus “zaka” for slope.

There’s not a place where you can see the roads as depicted on the cards, but an observation plateau on the upward road does give some views of the road curving down. We visited Nikko and Okunikko one busy fall weekend two years ago, and it was as crowded as it could be. Cars were taking a good three hours to make it up what should normally take maybe 20 minutes… luckily, we were on a motorcycle and could bypass a lot of the traffic, but it was still bad. We skipped the plateau in order to make it up to the top as soon as we could, but we did stop to see the waterfalls on the way down, so here are some pictures of those:

I have mostly videos of the crowds on the up road, this is the only picture, but those cars are stopped.

Beautiful colors on the way down!

The two waterfalls together

By the way, I would wholly recommend going to Nikko during the fall colors, but not on a weekend as the Irohazaka can get unbelievably backed up. If you must go, try to go up as early as possible; down’s usually not as bad. You can read more about the Irohazaka over at Japan Guide here, as well as the most recent report of the color status at Nikko here. Colors are early this year, so go soon if you’re going!

Wakayama #3 – Persimmon (柿)

I feel like every post I apologize for taking a long time to post, and if I do it for every post, then it doesn’t mean anything, so I’m not going to apologize this time.

Instead, I’m going to tell you that fall is in full swing here in Japan, with the days growing cooler, the nights downright cold, and fall colors creeping their way across the country. One of the ubiquitous fall fruits is the subject of today’s post… everybody’s favorite persimmon!

We call these “kaki” in Japanese. Apparently Wakayama Prefecture is famous for these yummy little fruits, but that’s kinda like being famous for air… these guys are ALL OVER the country. I must pass 20 heavily-laden trees on my way to my local train station, and often have to dodge fruit splatter from unpicked fallen ones. Everybody’s got a tree.

So you can buy them in the supermarket, but I doubt many people do; instead, they get them from their own tree, or their neighbors. I went to a hamburger restaurant today, and they were giving them away by the door for free!

Wasn’t kidding.

My neighbor’s tree

My husband picked this one (with their permission of course!)

You can pick kaki all over Japan, but since I’m supposed to be focusing on Wakayama (sorry Wakayama!) you can pick persimmon from September until about December in Katsuragi (link) for instance.

Enjoy a persimmon for a nice taste of fall, and I will do a better post for poor Wakayama at another time!

2015.01.20: I found a great video on the history of the persimmon tree in Japan by NHK here. It’s a bit long, but has lots of interesting information. It also mentions one of Nara’s postcards as well.

Shiga #2: Hikone Caste, Lake Biwa, & Chikubu Island (彦根城・琵琶湖・竹生島)

Most postcards just depict one place or feature of a prefecture, but a few are more ambitious. Shiga’s second postcard depicts three famous places in Shiga Prefecture: Hikone Castle, Lake Biwa, and Chikubu Island.

These three can definitely be seen altogether (on a clear day anyway), so it makes sense to put them together. I’ll give a little background on each before posting a few pictures.

Lake Biwa is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. It too is featured in the “Eight Views of Oumi” which I talked a tiny bit about when I introduced Tsukimi and Shiga’s 6th postcard. Chikubu Island is on Lake Biwa, and is a nationally designated Place of Scenic Beauty and Historic Site. There are both a shrine (Chikubushima Jinja) and a temple (Hougon-ji) on the island. Hougon-ji is a really interesting place and definitely worth reading up on. Finally, Hikone Castle is one of only 12 left in Japan with the original keep, and one of only four listed as a national treasure.

I visited Hikone Castle and Lake Biwa during Golden Week a few years ago, but unfortunately it was too cloudy to see Chikubu Island from the castle. Here are a few pictures nevertheless:

Hikone Castle from the back side

Looking out onto Lake Biwa. On a clear day we could’ve seen Chikubu Island.

The Castle has some nice garden areas around it not shown in the postcard, but which were very nice.

If you’ve in Shiga during the end of October/beginning of November, there’s a festival at and around the castle that looks really neat! The main event is November 3rd and you can read about it here. If you go, say “hi” to Hikonyan for me!

2015.01.20: NHK’s Fudoki program, which are short 5 minute videos on various Japan-related topics, has two videos uploaded, one about Hikone Castle’s Architecture (a short 5 minute video), and the other on Lake Biwa. There’s another NHK Program, BEGIN’s Japanology series, which has a much longer video on Lake Biwa here as well.