Osaka Castle, Chūō-ku, Osaka, Japan. Photograph from Pixabay
Travel Destinations

Aichi Prefecture: a whirlwind week in the heart of Japan

From sake to fugu, oranges to Toyota, the manufacturing and agricultural hub is rich with heritage, culture, fantastic food, and fun.
Raul Manzano | Feb 18 2019

A trip to Japan is always a welcome respite from work. I have been to the usual tourist cities in Japan—from Tokyo to Kyoto to Osaka. When an invitation came to visit Nagoya and its surroundings from the Aichi Prefecture Tourism Authority, I immediately jumped on the opportunity to visit a city that I have always wanted to visit. Aichi is located roughly in the center of the Japanese archipelago and is bordered by Mie, Gifu, Nagano, and Shizuoka. Aichi faces the Pacific Ocean to the south, bordered by the Ise and Mikawa coastlines. It is located in the Chubu Region. It has been a pivotal point for traffic between western and eastern Japan, and has flourished as a base for industries for centuries. The major industries of the prefecture are the ceramics in Seto and Tokoname, the automobile manufacturing in Toyota, and the woolen textile industry in Ichinomiya. The prefectural capital of Nagoya is the region’s largest and Japan’s fourth largest city. The City of Nagoya is the center of politics, economics, and culture of Aichi Prefecture.

Okazaki Castle (Okazaki-jo) was built over a four-year period by a ‘daimyo’ from the Mikawa region of Aichi Prefecture around the middle of the 15th century. The moat, which remains to this day, is from the time when the castle was built. Tokugawa Ieyasu, who began the Edo shogunate at the beginning of the 17th century, was born in this castle. His father, Matsudaira Hirotada, who governed this region, lived here. It was destroyed when political power passed from the shogunate to the Meiji Government, as it symbolized the political power of the samurai. The existing five-tiered ‘donjon’ was reconstructed in 1959. Information relating to Okazaki Castle is exhibited inside the ‘donjon.’

 

Sake and beer

The moment we landed in Nagoya, we were immediately brought on a familiarization tour of Nagoya. Our first stop was the Handa Red Brick Building. It was built in 1898 as the brewery of Kabuto Beer, and was among the five largest brick structures built during the Meiji Period. Because it was built as a brewery, which requires stable temperatures and humidity, the brick building has highly structural features. These include multi-layered cavity walls and brick-arch floor construction, which are rarely found today. The building was designed by Yorinaka Tsumaki, widely considered one of the three great names of Meiji period architecture. The brick building is the legacy of a brewing enterprise that boldly took on the four major brands of Sapporo, Asahi, Kirin, and Ebisu, during what was Japan’s early era of beer making.

Located in Handa City, to the west of Okazaki, the Kunizakari Sake Museum is the ideal place to learn about the history, preparation, and drinking of sake or ‘nihonshu’.

From beer making to sake brewing, our next stop was the Kunizakari Sake Museum. Opened in 1985, the museum is the ideal place to learn about the history, preparation, and drinking of sake or nihonshu. Kunizakari means “the prosperity of the country.” The brewery is located in Handa in the Chita Peninsula. At its peak, the Chita peninsula boasted of 227 sake breweries, but now only six remain. This building had been used for sake brewing for more than 200 years, and the first floor is still used to keep sake to this day.

The Handa Red Brick Building was the home of Kabuto Beer! Originally constructed in 1887, the old brewery is designated a National Tangible Cultural Property, being the largest red brick building remaining from the Meiji Period. The five-story building produced the nationally popular brew until 1921, when the company closed.

After the sake museum, we went to the Katana fishing port to catch a private boat to Himaka Island to have lunch. Himakajima is an island in Mikawa Bay in Aichi Prefecture off the coast of the Chita Peninsula, The island is famous for its sea produce such as octopus (taco) and puffer fish (fugu). Lunch was at the Hotel Himkaso, where we were served fresh fish dishes. After lunch, we walked around the small island and headed to an octopus drying facility where we were taught how to dry our own octopus.

At Himaka Island, we were taught how to dry octopus.

After a long flight to Nagoya via Singapore followed by a long day of touring, we finally checked into our hotel—the Kaieikan Shachitei Hotel, a ryokan (inn). We were booked into Japanese style rooms, where we had to sleep on tatami beds. It was very Zen-like. That evening, we donned our yukatas (kimonos) and had a typical kaiseki or kaiseki-ryori, a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. After dinner, a couple of us—dressed in our yukata—went to the local Family Mart and splurged on Japanese snacks for the rest of the trip.

 

Orange and cherry blossoms

After a traditional Japanese breakfast, we headed to the Gamagori Classic Hotel to meet with the Aichi Prefecture tourism officials for a round-table discussion. Located on a hilltop, the Gamagori Classic Hotel features spectacular views of Takeshima Island, a gorgeous Japanese garden, and a cafe terrace offering panoramic sea views. The hotel has a remarkable history, where the Imperial Family members, including the Emperor and Empress Showa, used to stay. After the meeting, we moved on to Gamagori Orange Park for lunch. This facility has a 2.5-hectare orange farm with 25,000 mandarin orange trees and some 2.4-hectares of greenhouses, where strawberries and melons are grown at different times in the year. We were served by a Filipina during lunch. After lunch, it was orange picking time at the orchard. We were allowed to eat as many oranges as we could pick.

While ordinary cherry trees only bloom once in spring, the Obara ‘shikizakura’ blooms once in spring, and again from October to December. The small five-petaled blossoms are thought to indicate a cross between the ‘mamezakura’ and ‘edohigan’ species of cherry trees.

I was excited for our next stop: we were about to witness cherry blossoms in October. It is said that in the early 19th century, a physician, Genseki Fujimoto brought a seedling from Nagoya that became a parent tree and spread widely. In 1978, this tree became the official tree of the Obara District. While ordinary cherry trees only bloom once in spring, the Obarashikizakura blooms once in spring, and again from October to December. The small five petal blossoms are thought to indicate a cross between the mamezakura and edohigan species of cherry trees. The flowers begin to blossom at the end of October, and are at their peak from mid-November through early December. The peak period varies somewhat from year to year.

The Great Ieyasu Aoi Busho Tai, performing samurai team, wandering the grounds in full armor, or putting on an open-air show.

Growing in all parts of the district, the trees number approximately 10,000. Among them, the Maehora Shikizakura, aged more than 100 years, has been designated a natural monument by Aichi Prefecture and is carefully protected.

From Obara, we headed to Korankei Valley. During the 17th century, a monk from the temple of Kojakuji decided to plant a maple tree in the secluded valley where he built his temple. Soon after, many pilgrims and locals followed suit. They planted and took care of the maple trees of Korankei. It is in the fall that this valley must be visited, preferably between late October and late November. The result is that today, Korankei Valley has become the best place to admire the fall foliage, known as koyo, throughout central Japan. At this time, maple and gingko trees border the entire length of the river on either side. The effect is stunning—the entire area is a vast palette of different shades of red, green, and gold. The roads turn into scarlet corridors. The beauty lasts until the night, thanks to lights installed every season.

Food stalls at Korankei Valley.

 

Castle and temple

Our third day was going to be a busy day. We started the day with a visit to the Okazaki Castle. For three centuries, the castle, honored as the birthplace of the deified Iyeyasu and cradle of the Tokugawa Shogunate, was guarded successively by the hereditary vassal daimyos, who, though humbly fiefed, wielded enormous power. At the same time, Ozakazi was valued as a strategic point Tokaido Road. In the Meiji restoration period, the feudal clans were abolished and in 1873-1874, the castle was demolished, leaving only its moat and stone wall. In 1959, however, the three-tiered, five-floor donjon, together with the annex and well house, were masterfully reconstructed according to the original model. Another attraction is the Ieyasu and Mikawa Bushi (warrior) Museum, featuring the Great Ieyasu Aoi Busho Tai, a team of performing samurai wandering the grounds in full armor, or putting on open air shows.

Atsuta Jingu (Atsuta Shrine), familiarly known as Atsuta Sama (Venerable Atsuta) or Miya (the Shrine), has been one of the greatest centers of worship in Japan from ancient times. Visitors to the shrine, including those who practice the conventional New Year visit, now count nine million annually.

From Samurais to miso: after the castle, the group went to visit the Hatcho Miso plant. Miso is a fermented food made from two basic ingredients: soybeans and salt, and is regarded as one of the many condiments essential to Japanese cooking. Numerous kinds of miso exist in Japan depending on the region. Hatcho Miso has been producing miso since 1645 without altering their unique production method, which employs the basic ingredients. Known for its distinctive acidic, astringent and bitter flavor, the name Hatcho Miso is originally derived from the geographical name of Hatcho, where the miso used to be produced.

We then headed to the Shimpukuji Temple to have lunch. Before lunch, we went to the temple to be blessed by the head Buddhist monk. The temple was established by Monobe Masachi in the late 6th century, when he converted to Buddhism after he was exiled due to an offense committed by his father. A lot of bamboo grows around the temple. Young bamboo shoots are gathered, and the temple arranges them as Chikuzen Ryori, unique for variety for bamboo shoot cuisine also served in bamboo-made tableware.

The head monk at Shimpukuji Templea prays over the devotees.

The afternoon was spent at the Tokoname area, where we visited the INAX Museums and the pottery footpath. Tokoname has been associated with ceramics production since at least the Heian Period. INAX Live Museums is an earth/ceramics museum complex where you can feel and experience the beauty, joy, history, and culture of earth/ceramics. The Museum consists of five facilities: the Kiln Plaza introducing the inside of kiln, terra-cotta (decor of architectural decoration) and old painted toilets; the INAX Tile Museum exhibiting approximately 1,000 decorative tiles from around the world; the INAX Tiling Labo providing workshops for tile-painting and pottery-making; INAX Clay Works promoting the beauty of clay; and INAX TILING LABO providing innovative pottery products. While the pottery footpath are comprised of small walking lanes, these walks take you through kilns and brick chimneys, past ceramic pipes and roofing tiles, and all other scenes of a thriving pottery town.

A typical Japanese ‘kaiseki’ or ‘kaiseki-ryōri,’ a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner at the Kaieikan Shachitei Hotel.

Toyota City

The fourth day was a relatively easy day with the afternoon devoted to shopping. In the morning, we visited the Atsuta Jingu Shrine. It is the second most eminent shrine after Ise Grand Shrine, enshrining the sword Kusunagi, one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan. After the shrine we visited the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology The facility features textile machinery, one of the core industries that helped build modern Japan, and the evolving world of automotive technology that continues to drive Japan’s growth.

An overview of the Automoble Pavilion at the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology. The pavilion floor looks just like a whole automobile factory placed in a huge sports arena.

The prefecture is naturally blessed by bountiful seas and lushly green mountains, and culturally blessed by the numerous relics, ruins, and other historical assets that have survived to the present day. Travelers here also encounter a wealth of distinctive folk crafts, festivals, and foods. It also has long manufacturing tradition, and Aichi leads Japan’s 47 prefectures in terms of the value of industrial shipments. Its products range from traditional items, such as pottery, textiles, and puppets to leading-edge industrial goods like automobiles and aircraft. The region has played a central role in the evolution of industrial technology in Japan.

Located around the middle of the Land of the Rising Sun, it has long served as a crossroads between the cultures of eastern and western Japan. Aichi is the perfect example of country’s perfectly balanced fusion of old and new. The four days we spent in Aichi Prefecture was not enough. But we did get a peek into the “Heart of Japan.”

Click on the image below for slideshow

Okazaki Castle grounds are now a tree-filled park, and a popular cherry blossom and wisteria viewing spot in spring. Entry is via the grand Otemon gate. 

The textile machinery pavilion at the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology. From the early spinning and weaving tools to the present textile machinery equipped with mechatronics, approximately 100 machines are displayed in one hall. 

The Nagoya TV Tower, the 90-meters-high observation deck offers 360-degree views of Nagoya and its surrounding areas. 

A traditional Japanese house along the Pottery Path at the Tokoname area. 

The INAX museum features some 150 elaborately designed and decorated porcelain toilets from Japan’s Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods. 

The entrance gate to the Atsuta Jingu shrine. 

At the headquarters of Hatcho Miso, the history and manufacturing process of Hatcho Miso, representing the traditional history of Okazaki, is provided by special guided tours of a museum and miso factory that are registered as “National Tangible Cultural Properties.”The Museum has a section describing the traditional manufacturing process using life-size mannequins, and exhibits items showing the relationship with the imperial household and signboards from the period when Hatcho Miso served the Emperor. 

Himaka-jima Island is famous for octopus and ‘fugu’ dishes, and visitors can enjoy bathing and fishing in the sea. 

A side view of the Handa Red Brick Building. 

steaming basket with bean sprouts, tofu, mushrooms, lobster, and leeks. 

Assortment of sushi-maguro, shake, and shime-aji. 

Soup with udon noodles, clams, and vegetables for breakfast. 

Tebasaki—literally translates to “wing tips” and refers to the cut of chicken as well as to a dish popular in ‘izakayas’ around the city of Nagoya. Unlike the other Japanese fried chicken, ‘tebasaki’ is always made with bone-in chicken wings, has little to no breading, and is seasoned after it’s fried. Despite the absence of any significant crust, the wings are fried until the skin is rice cracker crisp before being dunked in a sweet and peppery soy sauce based glaze. 

Egg custard 

Clear broth with noodles tebasaki. 

 

Photographs by Christian Valdes

This article originally appeared on Metro Society Magazine February 2017.