Aizu: Delicious Food and Tradition in Deep Japan Part 2
January 31, 2018
On my second day in Aizu I joined a private tour with Temahima Utsuwa Trip to learn all about urushi. Urushi is the art of lacquer, used to coat wooden bowls, plates, and so on. This is a famous Japanese handcraft, and Aizu’s local industry is well-known.
As I was told during my tour, the process of making urushi lacquerware involves three steps: shaving the wood to the desired shape (woodturning), painting several coats of lacquer onto the wood, and finally decorating the lacquerware with fine designs (makie). The most important colors are black and red, with designs consisting of flowers, leaves, and so on, using other colors like gold, too. On the tour we visited three artisans, each specializing in one of the above steps, but first we visited an urushi tree plantation outside of the city.
The lacquer art uses the sap of the urushi tree, a kind of very fragile tree that requires care and attention. This sap is mixed with natural mineral or vegetable powder to make the lacquer.
At the urushi tree plantation
After visiting the plantation and learning about the trees, with my guide I visited the shop and atelier (workshop) of a famous artisan called Mr Miura, who makes bowls, plates, containers and cups out of wood. His work is incredible – he uses a lot of precious beautiful old dry pieces of wood. He uses natural urushi, without coloring, to coat the wood.
In front of Mr Miura’s shop
In Mr Miura’s workshop
Before and after the lacquer process
Mr Miura at work
My third visit of the day is to meet Mr Gido, a lacquerer whose atelier is in his house, a traditional white house. He was very welcoming, and I enjoyed discovering his work. In addition to the traditional black and red colors, he also pursues new expressions with blue colors in his work. He is actually working on the decoration of small watch parts, a very difficult job. He collaborates with a Japanese watch company called Campanola.
Mr Gido’s urushi palette
My last stop in the discovery of urushi art was to visit the atelier of Mr Yamauchi, a makie artisan.
He uses black or red lacquer pieces as a base, and adds traditional and intricate designs and patterns to them by either sprinkling gold or silver powder onto the wet lacquer or drawing the designs with colored lacquer-like paints. His workshop offers a session for the price of 5000 yen, where anyone can try, under the help of the master, drawing a makie design on their own urushi piece. It’s about 2 or 3 hours, then he will keep it, waiting for all painting to dry before sending it to you by post. It was a lot of fun to try this new art.
With Mr Yamauchi in his workshop
Tours with Temahima Utsuwa Trip are led by a dedicated English-speaking guide, and can be arranged on the below website. Tours normally require at least two participants, and advance reservations are essential.
The following video is a beautiful introduction to urushi and its artisans:
LUNCH: WAPPA MESHI
In Aizu I had lunch at a restaurant called Takino. Takino’s specialty is wappa meshi, a traditional Aizu dish which is rice with vegetables, fish or meat on top of the rice, all steamed in a box of Japanese cypress wood. A really fine place to discover a new meal, a new recipe, in a restaurant with real traditional decorations. Delicious food in deep Japan.
Takino, wappa meshi restaurant
Salmon wappa meshi
VISIT A SAKE BREWERY, SAKE SHOP AND TASTING
One stop not so far from the station is Suehiro Sake Brewery. An old sake maker with a small museum you can visit, with information about the history and the family of this brewery. The visit is short, with some explanations about the choice of rice for each different sake, but all the explanations were only in Japanese, so it was difficult for me to understand. I finished the visit by the brewery shop, where there is also a tasting area. The shop is of course full of sake, but it also has jam, honey, and other local farm food.
VISIT AT MUTOH KAMITEN
In the center of the city, still not so far from the train station (20 min by walking, or 5 min by Haikara-san bus), there is a Japanese paper (washi) shop. It’s a very good place to buy any kind of decorative paper, small or large. Some paper designs have typical Japanese pictures or scenes, and others are paper with inlays of small gold paper coils. Perfect for gifts, souvenirs, or making your own origami. Prices are very reasonable.
SOUTA SHOTEN (NIHONSHU SAKE TASTING)
This is another beautiful, large traditional house, transformed into a sake and gift shop.
There is a lot of choice in small bottles of nihonshu (sake), and additionally they have juice, local beer, Japanese wine, and farm products such as jam and honey.
Souta Shoten sake shop
My recommendation is nigori sake, a kind of unfiltered sake, white and opaque, due to the rice residue. It’s very good. There is a bar where it’s possible to do some tasting, but it’s not open all the time.
Directions: 5 min walk from the Aizu-wakamatsu train station. Follow the railroad, keeping it on your left, when you leave the train station.
MAMMA-JA FARMER’S MARKET
Continuing in the same direction, after the sake shop, continue following the railroad for about another 10 minutes. It looks like a large supermarket, but of only local farm products. There was a great selection of fruits and vegetables. As a tourist I can particularly recommend persimmons and apples, both famous local produce. And there was a very nice selection of jam, honey, fruit or vegetable sweet or salty sauces. The dried mountain mushrooms looked so good too. A big surprise was to discover so many bags of fresh blueberries, for a good price.
Persimmons at Mamma-ja
The train station of Aizu-Wakamatsu, as other major stations, has coin lockers of different sizes, so it’s easy here to keep your luggage, for around 300 yen.
Storage lockers in front of Aizu-Wakamatsu station
Another Japanese tradition is, when taking the train, to buy a bento box. This is a box of local food, easy to savor in the train. Each local station has their own style of bento box, ready to savor cold, and it’s prepared with delicious ingredients, including vegetables, rice, meat or fish, or vegetarian if necessary. It’s a nice way to have an enjoyable trip and enjoy the scenery of the deep countryside from a spacious seat in the train. And that is how I ended my trip.
Jean-paul Richard is a French teacher in Japan, where he has taught for 7 years. He is also a French cooking consultant and musician who tours all around Tokyo and other parts of the country. He likes culture and enjoys meeting new people and discovering new landscapes.