Japan, suddenly “land of the rising sun” makes sense. Not only does the sun rise obnoxiously early but apparently the trade off is for it to set obnoxiously early as well. The sun is down by 4:30 or 5pm each day which only adds to our jetlag and need for sleep. The seven hour difference has made for some falling asleep in presentations, coffee runs, and a few crabby moments. But more than anything, for me it sinks in the gravity of where I am.
For most people, I think jetlag is a means to an end, something you just have to get through. And they are right. Its not fun, literally exhausting, and feels as if you may never get better or back to normal. Then a few days later you realize you aren’t dying for a nap or another hit of coffee after lunch. There are even a few moments that it drives home the idea of how far you have traveled. You have literally exhausted yourself from trying to change your perspective to accommodate the new surroundings.
Japan is definitely an adjustment. I knew it would be, I listened to all my favorite travelers’ podcasts on the country and read books and articles. But I don’t think there is anything that could adequately prepare you for arriving on this island. I have traveled to 22 countries in my lifetime, and think of myself as a prepared and up for anything. But until you understand what the difference between the east and west actually encompasses, you have no clue.
From the moment you wake up for your breakfast of rice, fish, seaweed, pickled veggies and tofu until you take off your shoes to enter your accommodation at the end of your day, every moment is new. In the past few days we have been adjusting to life in the far east, while learning about the culture of Japan and the gastronomy based in the Nagano Prefecture (prefecture is essentially a province). Our first full day was spent cooking with grannies and being invited into neighbors’ houses on a village tour before foraging in the mountains and learning to make soba noodles. The next day was sake and miso productions. Needless to say, we hit the ground running in Japan. And did I mention we’ve been running through a typhoon with another on the way?
Days start early in Japan (but thankfully they also end earlier than what we are used to in Italy). Monday morning we were at breakfast at seven and out the door by eight. Off to a neighboring village, the bus was greeted at the community center by waving locals. We split our group in two, half off to the kitchen with the grannies and the other to tour the town. We spent two hours walking around the sweet village of Sasahana, led by two locals and an interpreter, learning about architecture, local farming and life in the Japanese countryside in general.
Incredibly informative about production and preservation, along the way we were invited into a home for tea, and treats. The indoors beautifully renovated in traditional design, we eagerly huddled at the heated table on the floored. After our treats we were handed a paper crane on our way back outside. A beautiful example of the incredible hospitality we have seen since arriving. The Japanese kindness is astounding.
We returned to switch groups and spent the next couple hours learning to make miso soup and another local vegetable dish with a group of 8 local chefs of the village. The youngest 74 and oldest at 89, they were the sweetest tiny (literally tiny) women. After learning from the best, we all came together, visitors and locals, to eat together. Leaving just as we arrived, with impassioned waves, we had a 30 minute bus nap before heading onto the next event.
The afternoon as a similar situation, arriving in a village community center and split into two groups. My group went inside to learn how to make soba (buckwheat) noodles from a self-taught chef, innkeeper, farmer and miller of buckwheat. Soba is magic, a delicate touch, flour and a bit of water that stays crumbly until the second the creator sees its ready, then BAM, a dough the texture of modeling clay comes together. Trying our hands at rolling and cutting the noodles, it was translated that I had a natural talent at cutting and he now had someone with whom he could leave his business. After enjoying a couple other ways to experience the aromas and flavors of buckwheat, we were off to switch the group who had been foraging.
Taking off with a master forager into the surrounding mountains, I was completely distracted from the plants by the incredible valley full of fall colors. The colors and landscape of Japan are breathtaking. I missed most of the wisdom of our instructor while meeting a frog in the creek, and kicking up the leaves as we moved along. Thankfully, my classmates were not quite as enamored by the season and collected our grasses for us. We moved back into the kitchen to fry our plants into batter covered tempura.
When finished with the plants and the soba expertly cooked and cooled (didn’t know it was served cold until it was in my mouth, new things everyday), we were upstairs to share in dinner. Soba, a soy sauce and miso fried carp (with the head, of which the master forager pulled the cheek muscle for me to eat, it was creepy but delish!), preceded by bites of crickets and baby hornets. It was an eventful and long first day, we were all happy to see our bed mats when we returned home.
The next morning was early again, but this time it was off to see the process of making sake. Thankful for our pre-trip lecture on the production steps of sake, we were led through the factory from rice polishing, to soaking and steaming, fermentation and draining. The tour was incredibly interesting, and we left excited for our tasting later that day. We ate lunch before heading to a miso producer. A lesson in the production methods and uses of miso was about all our exhausted, jetlagged bodies could handle. Some of us not able to make it through without nodding off, we were thankful to be back on the bus afterwards for a cat nap.
The day ended in the tasting room of our morning’s sake producer. Led through a traditional tasting of five different sake, I now understand what all the fuss is about. Sake is amazing. Produced from the conversion of rice starches into sugars by the growing of Koji mold, and then left to ferment with more rice, yeast and water, its wonderful simple, balanced, clean and delicious. Brewed in a method more like beer, its delicate like a wine. I can’t really compare it fully to either because it truly is its own medium. Happy and in love with sake, we were off to dinner carrying a case of sake with us.
The next morning we checked out of Nagano prefecture and visiting the city before climbing in the bus for a long drive north. One of the best parts of territorial study trips is moving around. This trip takes us to five or six different locations. Off to see a tea plantation this afternoon and dinner before bed, we will be in our hostel and just as quickly as we arrive, we will leave in the morning for the next location in Tsuroka.
Until next time, stay hungry!
-The Very Hungry Traveler
* Wifi is not the most readily available (or reliable) commodity traveling through Japan so posts are coming out late, but they’re coming! Honestly, it’s a bit nice to not have internet on my phone. As much as I love taking you all with me on the road through Instagram stories and whatnot, being present has been paramount in a country where everything is so different. The disconnect is a beautiful change. So posts are a bit behind, and photos may or may not be with them, but they’re coming whenever I can.a