Travel: Japan beyond the cherry blossoms – brunch feature

Sakura, kimono-clad geishas and the way of tea. These images flash upon my inward eye, so to speak, when I recall staring at the antique Satsuma tea set displayed in a Burma teak wood showcase in our dining room for hours. Thanks to my butter fingers I was, and still am, forbidden to touch the gold-plated crockery. But no one could stop me from visiting the country of its origin, I’d chuckle to myself, daydreaming in the midst of English literature classes where the Radiant Reader: Book Seven had a story of Japan called The Tidal Wave in which the village chief Hamaguchi heroically saves his Japanese hamlet from the tsunami.

Many moons later, when this dream finally took the shape of reality, Japan was far removed from the fairy-tale land my imagination had woven. In a good way. Because of all the things I learnt whilst traversing the land of the rising sun!

Take a stroll in the rock gardens or admire the beauty of maple trees inside the Entsuin temple complex

Take a stroll in the rock gardens or admire the beauty of maple trees inside the Entsuin temple complex

Sakura or the sought-after cherry blossom was out of question, given that airfares soar high during the season. Therefore, a more practical choice was the Tohuku region known for its scenic beauty. Perched at the tip of Honshu, the main island of Japan, this region comprises six prefectures namely Aomori, Akita, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata.

Move over, cockpit!

Travelling in the iconic Shinkansen or bullet trains is a given in Japan, but ever thought of learning to operate one? This experience is made possible at The Railway Museum, Omiya, in the Saitama prefecture, which is about an hour-long drive from Tokyo. And since we flew into the capital, it was hard to resist a visit before exploring the Tohuku region.

In the museum-village of Neputa you could take Tsugaru Shamisen lessons

In the museum-village of Neputa you could take Tsugaru Shamisen lessons

The museum is not only home to life size reproductions of real train cars from various eras but the huge HO-gauge model train layout sprawling on the second floor is worth gazing at. And while kids are usually huddled around the miniature railway behind the museum’s main building, older visitors can get behind the wheel of four different train simulators, including one that offers the thrill of driving the Series E5 Shinkansen.

The Railway Museum, Omiya, regales visitors with life-size reproductions of real train cars from various eras

The Railway Museum, Omiya, regales visitors with life-size reproductions of real train cars from various eras
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Shutterstock
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I sat on a realistic driver’s seat of the Tohoku Shinkansen Hayabusa to learn to operate it at the speed of 320 km/h under the guidance of an expert in white gloves. As I adjusted the speed with the precision of an expert driver, a video of the journey played on a panorama screen to replicate the ride. I was handed a certificate after successfully completing my ride.

Say a prayer

Matsushima, known for the beauty of the sea, is a 40-minute drive from Sendai and is also home to the famous Entsuin temple. Apart from its beautiful rock garden and maple trees, this is also where one can learn to make the Juzu or Buddhist prayer bead bracelets. A separate wooden enclose was my class venue. The shoes are taken off outside this sacred space and the 20-minute activity begins with choosing the kind of beads (natural stone, glass or plastic) you want for your Buddhist rosary. Then boxes of colourful beads arrive as participants sit on the matted floor and the instructor tells you to select your size for a wrist mala. I chose shades of green and was told by the expert there that my choice of colour reflected a need for prosperity and stability in relationships in my life. May be, may be not!

Roll, cut, boil

Hot and cold soba noodles made with buckwheat flour have always intrigued my inner chef and since Mokuzoshiki No Ie, where soba noodle classes are held, is just a short drive from Miyagikyo Distillery where we stopped to buy the famous Japanese Nikka whisky, I took a class. My teacher, Satou San, was a kind man who taught me how to knead the earthy buckwheat flour into a fluffy dough, which I then rolled into pasta-like sheets using a long wooden roller pin. After I made a giant square buckwheat roti with a huge belan and got a nod of approval from my teacher, I folded the sheet in a layered paratha-style fashion to be thinly sliced into noodles with a soba kiri knife. My butter fingers produced ribbon-sized noodles that were boiled and served to me alongside the slim, perfect soba noodles prepared by my teacher. Not a bad first try!

When in Japan, learn to make the loved soba noodles from an expert chef

When in Japan, learn to make the loved soba noodles from an expert chef

Let the music play

Ever heard of a museum-village? The Tsugaru-han Neputa Village, Hirosaki City, in the Aomiri prefecture is the perfect place to soak in the culture of the region. It is not only famous for its apples but it’s also where you can learn to play the much loved Tsugaru Shamisen. I couldn’t resist a snowy cone of apple softie before sitting down for my Tsugaru Shamisen lesson. The Tsugaru Shamisen is a musical instrument with three strings, played with a straight wooden stick called a bachi. Our teacher Sadao Kawamura taught us the basics of this folk genre, called the jazz of Japan. Then there was a live performance by the teacher and after that we happily moved to a Japanese garden called Yokien and brought some fresh apples on the way out.

Learn to operate a Series E5 Shinkansen in the Railway Museum

Learn to operate a Series E5 Shinkansen in the Railway Museum
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Getty images
)

Lessons in humility, perfection and thoughtfulness are endless in Japan. Ask any Japanese guide a question and observe them think for a while before giving you an accurate reply. There were no sakura, geishas or tea ceremonies, but plenty of matcha-flavoured Kit-Kat, cool kimono-style tops, cherry-flavoured candy and memories to carry home in this magical country.

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From HT Brunch, February 9, 2020

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