In the last few years or so, more and more Filipinos have been flocking to Japan—thanks to relaxed visa requirements, cheaper airfare, among other reasons—to marvel at its many historical and cultural sites, shop till they drop and, of course, go crazy over its never-ending ramen, sushi, yakitori and whatnot. Indeed, Japan seems to have become Filipinos' most popular go-to spot in Asia.
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While Japan is on everyone's mind, most Filipinos continue to stick to the obvious destinations—Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, with occasional forays to Hokkaido. Lost in the frenzy are other Japanese jewels worth a few days’ visit at the very least. One of them is the Aichi-Nagoya region which boasts an embarrassingly rich array of attractions—not to mention excellent-food still largely unknown to tourists.
Fish and fruits
Aichi Prefecture sits right at the center of Japan, and is easily accessible by train from Tokyo and Osaka. Its capital, Nagoya, is only 35 minutes away from Kyoto. While Aichi is known as Japan’s manufacturing hub, with big corporations like Toyota, Honda, Brother, Denso and Noritake setting their headquarters or factories there, it is replete with natural attractions—an extensive coastline, forests, mountains and farmland—outside Nagoya.
Himakajima Island, at the southern tip of Chita Peninsula, is a popular summer destination, well known for its seafood delights. Octopus is caught year round here, and you’ll find octopus symbols all over the island—on manhole covers, as roadside sculptures, even as cheap keychains.
One of the local specialities here is dried octopus. Here, it is prepared by slicing freshly caught octopus, marinating it in a soy mixture, and then string it on bamboo sticks to dry. There are lots of shops around the island that sell the dried octopus as well as nori and shirasu, a small dried white fish usually eaten for breakfast with noodles or rice.
If making dried octopus leaves you queasy, then orange fruit picking may be more your thing. At the Gamagori Orange Park near Mikawa Bay, rows of squat shrub-like trees hang heavy with oranges that visitors can pick, provided they consume it all. (That way, if you want to take home oranges, you have to buy them at the gift shop.) Fruit picking happens almost year round at Aichi. (They stop during winter.) While oranges, pears and persimmons are usually ripe for the picking in the autumn, visitors can pick melons and grapes in the summer, and strawberries in the spring.
Miso, sake and beer
The country’s culinary renown is grounded on the importance the Japanese put on its ingredients, including age-old traditional practices that ensure high quality. One of the most used and revered of ingredients in Japanese cooking is miso.
Made of fermented soybean, miso is an integral ingredient in Japanese cooking. Aichi happens to specialize in “hatcho” miso which is brown (versus the more familiar yellow and white miso) and with a slight acidity and bitterness. The Kakukyu Hatcho Miso factory in Okazaki has been producing it since 1645, using the same all-natural traditional method as was used centuries before. The factory now includes a museum and guided tour to help educate the uninitiated through a series of exhibits, complete with life-size mannequins. The process starts with soybeans being immersed in water, then steamed and molded into miso balls. They’re coated with koji mold (a microorganism used for fermentation), then packed into giant wooden casks. It takes 24 months for the soybean to transform into miso, with the microbial communities within the factory and its environs giving this hatcho miso its distinctive character. Unlike our bagoong factories back home, the place didn’t reek of rotting soybean, with only a faint aroma of miso hanging in the air. Hatcho miso is used especially in Nagoya style miso soup, giving it a richer, deeper flavor with just a hint of bitterness. It can flavor sauces and butter, and can even be used in chocolate and desserts.
Another traditional practice well known in the Chita Peninsula, south of Nagoya, is sake brewing, which was brought to the region from Nada (now Kobe) in the 17th century. Try visiting the Kunizakari Sake Museum by Nakano Sake Brewery. While the brewery has since moved to more modern facilities next door, the first floor of the museum’s 200-year-old wooden building is still used to store sake. There, you can get a guided tour on the history and process of sake brewing, getting close-ups of the wooden cauldron used to steam the rice for sake, old sake containers like the tsuno daru used for auspicious occasions, and a curious ceramic sake heater, among other items.
Worth a visit also in the Chita Peninsula is the striking Handa Red Brick Building that used to house the Kabuto beer brewery. This impressive historic building was built in 1898, one of the country’s largest brick structures at the time. It showcases Japan’s newfound industrial and technical ascendancy during the Meiji period, when it opened up to the West and rapidly modernized. While beer is no longer brewed onsite, the building houses old equipment and memorabilia from its heyday as a brewery.
The clean flavors of kaiseki
There’s nothing quite like a kaiseki meal, a formal multi-course dinner that showcases seasonal ingredients prepared by a master chef. The seaside Minamichita Hot Spring Resort is known for its onsen or hot springs bath. There, you can don a yukata (a cotton kimono robe) to enjoy a more casual version of a tradition kaiseki, which includes bites of fresh tuna, sweet shrimp, whiting and sea bream sashimi as well as all kinds of tempura. A dinner like this is clean, simple, devoid of much fat or oiliness, yet still filling. And, as you won’t feel too heavy afterward, it gives you all the more reason to take a dip in the hot spring pool to relax.
For an altogether different kind of meal, you should head on over to Shinpukuji Temple in Okazaki. First built in the 6th century, it’s the oldest Buddhist temple in Aichi, and one of the oldest in Japan. Although rebuilt and expanded, it still exudes an old-world tranquility, thanks in part to the serene forest surrounding the temple. Adjacent to it, is temple restaurant where they serve a vegetarian “bamboo shoot” meal; only bamboo utensils, plates, bowls, teacups and chopsticks are used here.
Nagoya boasts its fair share of fatty, indulgent food that we Filipinos love. And Nagoya’s tebasaki fried chicken wings and miso katsu are just two of them.
For the former, check out Sekai No Yamachan, an izakaya in the heart of Nagoya. Their chicken wings, fried without coating and seasoned with pepper, are positively addicting. Meanwhile, pork tonkatsu aficionados should dine at Yabaton. Nagoya’s most famous katsu restaurant specializes in miso katsu or deep-fried pork cutlet doused in a thick brown miso gravy and served on a sizzling plate, unapologetically rich and oozing with umami.
Other must-try Nagoya specialties include hitsumabushi or eel rice bowl, misonikomi udon or miso broth udon noodles, spicy Taiwan-style ramen, and tenmusu or shrimp tempura rice balls. And for matcha lovers, Aichi happens to be number one in matcha production in the entire country, supplying global companies such as Starbucks and Häagen Dazs with premium matcha powder. The place to visit is Nishio, the home of matcha, where tea plantations, matcha producers, teahouses and confectionery shops abound.
With a population of 2.2 million, Japan’s fourth largest city has all the attractions of big city life: lots of restaurants, hotels and shopping, of course. But unlike Osaka or Tokyo which can overwhelm with their sheer size, Nagoya is smaller, easier to get around, and devoid of those monstrous crowds. Landmarks include Nagoya Castle and Nagoya TV Tower with main shopping areas near the Nagoya and Sakae train stations.
Cherry blossoms in November? Yes indeed! In the Obara District, you’ll find the only place in Japan where its famous cherry trees bloom in profusion in the autumn months, peaking around early to late November.
First built in the 15 century, this castle was the birthplace of legendary Tokugawa Iyeyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan from 1600 to 1868. Today, the castle and surrounding park have been reconstructed, featuring exhibits on castle and samurai life. You can stroll through the park, climb the castle’s five stories for commanding views of the city, and enjoy a samurai performance, part acrobatics, part dance, part combat. If you’re lucky, you can get a photo-op with the resident samurais resplendent in their warrior costumes and weapons.
Atsuta Jingu Shrine
This religious Shinto site is considered one of the holiest in Japan, most famous as the shrine for the Kusanagi no Tsurugi sword. It is considered one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan, and is kept hidden from view.
Inax Live Museum and Pottery
Foot Path Aichi Prefecture is a ceramics hub, thanks to the pioneering INAX Corporation, manufacturer of ceramic tiles, pipes and sanitary wares. You can visit its museum, located in the pottery town of Tokoname, for a hands-on experience with pottery making, as well as an exhibit of tiles from all over the world, not to mention a curious collection of early toilet designs. Nearby is the Pottery Foot Path, a quaint village of winding walkways decorated with discarded ceramic pipes and tiles from the nearby INAX factory. A designated 1.6 kilometer foot path takes you through charming homes, art galleries, pottery studios, abandoned kilns, not to mention Toko-Nyan, a giant lucky cat figurine.
Toyota Commemorative Museum of industry and technology
If there’s only one place you should visit in Nagoya, it is this impressive museum established by the Toyota Group. The car manufacturer’s headquarters have always been in Aichi even when it was still a textile company founded by Sakichi Toyoda, often referred as the “King of Japanese Inventors.” His son Kiichiro Toyoda branched out into auto manufacturing in 1933 and the rest is history. Today, the museum sits on the original site of the textile company, proudly displaying Toyota’s long history of technological innovation. You’ll see its first passenger car built in 1936, followed by car models like the Corona and Corolla, plus its cutting-edge Prius hybrid and futuristic hydrogen-powered Mirai. Also on display is a fascinating collection of textile machinery from early manual looms to today’s computerized models. But the highlight is a violin-playing robot playing Mozart. Even if you’re not a car or textile aficionado, you’ll appreciate the fascinating history of Japan’s industrial golden age.
This story originally appeared on Food Magazine Issue 1 2017.
Photographs by Christian Valdes and Anne Marie Ozaeta