I recently took a whirlwind trip to Japan where I visited Tokyo, Hakata, Kurume, and perhaps my favorite destination of all the charming town of Hirokawamachi in the space of four days. The trip was organized by my good friend Kazuko Nagao, the Okonomiyaki Queen of NYC, and sponsored by the local government of Hirokawamachi. I’d like to thank the the Hirokamachi Board of Tourism for their gracious hospitality!
After seeing posts of my onigiri breakfasts in Tokyo, my good friend Stanford had encouraged me to try a traditional Japanese breakfast so I was glad to start day two of my Hirokawamachi adventure with just such a repast, prepared by Chef Kodai Nishizaka at Hirokawa Sato Cafe. It’s not on the regular menu, but Nishizaka-san prepared it especially for us that morning. It consisted of rice, homemade miso soup and cool tofu accompanied by grilled salmon, bean sprouts, tamago, and pickles. Along with a bright cup of green tea, the light meal was a great way to start the day.
After breakfast I stepped outside and marveled at the green and beige 1965 retro bus. Every year during the last two weekends of November, the local tourism board provides free shuttle service for Taibaru Icho Meguri, or ginkgo leaf peeping using the vintage vehicle. Soon we met Kaoru Miyamoto, our driver who was clad in a snazzy chauffeur’s uniform. He’s one of only two men in town who can wrangle the 1962 manual steering schoolbus. Normally, it’s packed with leaf peepers, but that day our crew of four were the only folks on the field trip. “Sit up front next to the driver Joe-san,” Sakata-san instructed, so I did. We were soon on our way south to the golden grove of ginkgos.
After basking in the golden glow of Taibaru Icho Meguri we went to view foliage of a different sort, gerbera daisies. Yasuhiko Umeda and his wife, Chikako Umeda, took us into their greenhouse where they grow hundreds of the flowers in vibrant colors, including lemon yellow, and my favorite, juicy orange. We also paid a visit to Hirokawa Produce, where 20,000 of the flowers are packed and shipped daily to Western Japan.
I had been wondering were Sakata-san’s groovy looking pants and tunic were made and soon found out when we visited his family business, Sakata-Orimono. Founded in 1948, it produces vividly dyed and patterned textiles for use in men and women’s clothing, using a traditional method known as Kurume Kasuri. The name is said to come from the way dyed ﬁbers create patterns that seem scratched /faded or kasu-reru in Japanese.
The first thing he showed us was tie-dying, not hippy style mind you, but a process where long cords are sectioned off with knots, the knots remain white, while the rest of the thread takes on the color. The multicolored fibers stretch out for about 20 or 30 feet and are left to dry outside the factory. Next was the factory itself where a room full of automated looms cranked out fabric in a wide variety of colors and patterns. And then Sakata-san took us to his workshop where he has a hand loom. He demonstrated how to use and then let me give it a try. Let’s just say I’m glad I am writer and not a weaver.
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The part of the process that fascinated me the most though was the indigo dye vats, which Sakata-san has to tend to personally. It seems as if it is the one part of the process at Sakata-Orimono that can’t be automated. Though I suspect that Sakata-san enjoys the solitary aspect and physicality of this part of his craft.
Learning about traditional textiles is hungry business so were soon headed south to Washokuno Satoshi, a restaurant whose name means, “a place where chef create beautiful Japanese Food.” The setting, overlooking a hillside was certainly beautiful. Chef Satoshi Baba’s lunch set had all sorts of goodies: sashimi, mountain yam, an amazing stick of fried shrimp. Green tea was the beverage of choice and also the flavoring in the dessert, yamecha pound cake. As lunch was winding down Baba-san introduced himself and gifted me with a half dozen roasted sweet potatoes wrapped in the funny pages.
Next we visited Shikada Sangyo, a local producer of sudare, or traditional bamboo shades. Although the company was founded in 1912, the traditional craft predates Japan’s Meiji period (1868-1912). Bamboo has played a part in Japanese culture since the 10th century as evidenced in the folktale, The Story of the Bamboo Cutter. In this tale, the baby Princess Kaguya springs forth from a bamboo tree after it has been sliced in two by a bamboo cutter. I was amazed to see how giant lengths of bamboo are winnowed down in the Shikada Sangyo factory. They didn’t allow me to operate that machine, but I did take a turn at device that binds the thin pieces of bamboo together to create sudare.
Throughout the trip I’d been drinking as much vending machine coffee as my nervous system could handle, so my hosts decided to give me a real experience with Japanese coffee culture, a visit to a kissaten, or Japanese coffeeshop specializing in pourover coffee and lunch.
The 40-year-old Toyo is favorite lunch spot of Sakata-san and I can see why. For one thing the coffee, a blend featuring Indonesian beans, lovingly prepared by the owner was amazing. “Oh Joe-san, they have spaghetti napolitan,” Kazuko said. “You have to try it.” Soon we were presented with a plate of pasta and Japanese labelled Kraft parmesan. Kazuko also insisted that we have Tabasco. The spaghetti in a slightly sweet ketchup based sauced fortified with peppers, green onions, bits of ham and bacon, was quite tasty. I could easily see how it’s a comfort food for many. The story goes that the dish was created by Head Chef Shigetada Irie at the New Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan shortly after World War II and was inspired by the spaghetti and tomato sauce dish that the U.S. troops were eating overseas.
My two days in Hirokawamachi ended with a visit to Hirokawa Asai Ichiba, a souvenir shop adjacent to the cafe where we had breakfast. There the manager Keiichi Ushijima demonstrated a hand loom, to make kurume kasuri. The shop sells plenty of the traditional garments, thankfully Ushijima-san doesn’t weave them all by hand!
I also got to meat town mascot Machiko and shared the sweet potatoes, which were still warm four hours later, with my new friends from Hirokawamachi. Throughout the trip they commented to Kazuko, “Wow, Joe-san really loves Queens.” And, now I love Hirokawamachi too.