Monday, August 10

In the heart of the tea capital

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View of Mount Fuji from Nihondaira Yume Terrace.

JAPAN’s Shizuoka prefecture is known for many things, including Mount Fuji.

Travelling the popular tourist route between Tokyo and Osaka, the view of the iconic mountain is omnipresent for a good part of the journey through the central region.

Another ubiquitous sight is the endlessly rolling tea fields. Production in Shizuoka accounts for over 40 per cent of the nation’s overall tea industry, the largest share among tea-producing prefectures.

In the heart of it, the pulsing centre of activity is none other than the prefecture’s capital, Shizuoka City. A large concentration of tea producers, manufacturers, traders and industry experts is found here.

The World Tea Festival held over four days in Shizuoka City.

It was no wonder that the city hosted the triennial World Tea Festival, aimed at developing the tea capital as a centre for Japan’s tea production, culture, and research, and to spread the appeal of Japanese tea (Nihoncha).

I attended the event held in early November as part of continuous learning after acquiring the Nihoncha adviser certification this year. It was an eye-opening experience, meeting tea industry people like farmers, vendors, and educators, and tasting unfamiliar teas.

Shizuoka is home to many types of Japanese teas.

Lay tourists who seek delicious Japanese tea need not wait for industry events to enjoy similar learning and tasting opportunities.

Shizuoka City takes pride in its tea connection and there are agencies and companies that conduct farm tours and speciality cafe visits. Many modern tea cafes in the downtown area serve avant-garde menus using tea as the star ingredient.

Even if one does not have the time for tea tours, a stopover at Shizuoka O-Cha Plaza is sufficient. Just south of Shizuoka Station is where visitors can gain brief information about Shizuoka teas as well as a quick lesson in brewing and tasting.

Tea aside, Shizuoka City offers plenty of sightseeing options, being steeped in rich history and culture.

The small settlement at Utsunoya.

Shogunate founder shrine

Some 50 minutes’ bus ride from Shizuoka Station is the ornately-decorated Kunozan Toshogu Shrine. With a history of over 400 years, it enshrines Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Kunozan was his final resting place, built by order of his son in 1617.

The shrine was on the 216-metre Mount Kuno, fronting Suruga Bay. To reach the first gate, one needs to climb 1,159 stone steps that zigzag from the foothill.

The ascent was somewhat arduous, and I attempted it slowly. I was treated to spectacular views of the bay at every turn.

The Meiji Tunnel.

There were primary school pupils on a field trip that particular morning, with many running up past me as if it was a walk in the park for them. It left me mortified as I was practically gasping for air.

Kunozan Toshogu was a magnificent sight to behold. The buildings represent an Edo-period shrine architectural style known as Gongen-zukuri. Lacquers and gold-leaf foils were generously applied to give the buildings their resplendent appearance. There were many colourful sculptures and the Tokugawa crest was everywhere on roof tiles and walls.

The main building (honden) and the worship hall (haiden) were collectively designated as a National Treasure in 2010. Further steps behind these buildings led to the sombre mausoleum of Tokugawa. I have visited many shrines and Kunozan Toshogu certainly joined the ranks of the unforgettable.

From Mount Kuno, one cannot possibly miss the chance to visit one of the most scenic spots in the city.

View of Suruga Bay from Mount Kuno.

Bird’s eye view

At 307 metres, Nihondaira Plateau on Mount Udo is famous for views of Mount Fuji, Izu Peninsula, the Southern Alps, Miho Pine Grove, Shimizu Port, and Suruga Bay.

To get there from Kunozan Toshogu, I got on the Nihondaira Ropeway, which connects both locations in five minutes, riding across 1,065 metres of panoramic landscape.

Nihondaira is very much on the touristy path. Busloads of tourists, mostly foreigners, get off here to take photos at the Nihondaira Yume Terrace, a free-entry observation deck with a roofed terrace and walkways.

Opened in autumn last year, the eye-catching facility was the work of Kuma Kengo, a highly-acclaimed architect who also designed the New National Stadium for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. It was built with timber sourced locally in Shizuoka.

Nihondaira is also famous for its postcard view of tea fields with Mount Fuji as the backdrop. However, access to the fields is limited to customers of a tea store during the tea-picking season between April and October.

Having a clear blue sky overhead and an unobstructed view of the iconic peak was certainly a shutterbug’s dream but the place got congested very fast, especially on a weekend.

The Mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Walking through history

When the crowd gets exasperating, it is possible to go off the beaten path within the city limits. On the western side of the city, a district retains its historic atmosphere. Walking through it was like stepping into a bygone era.

Utsunoya is a mountain pass on the ancient Tokaido road connecting Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto. It is located between two former post-towns – Mariko, now part of present-day Shizuoka City, and Okabe in Fujieda City. A post-town was where travellers find food and rest before moving on to their next destination.

At Utsunoya, a small settlement still exists. It’s a quiet neighbourhood of stone pavements and wooden houses that appear unchanged since the Edo period.

An uphill walk towards the back of the settlement will lead to another historic site – the Meiji Tunnel. Dating from 1876, it was Japan’s first toll tunnel, built in response to increasing traffic between the two post-towns during the Meiji period. With the tunnel, the journey became less gruelling.

Going through the 203-metre tunnel will lead to Okabe. I did not attempt the passage as it was not my intent that particular day. I turned back towards Utsunoya, preparing to head into central Mariko by bus.

Mariko was one of the 53 authorised post-towns, number 20th when counted from Edo’s Nihonbashi, which was the start or end of the Tokaido depending on which direction travellers came from.

It was also the first area in Japan to produce black tea more than a century ago. ‘Father of Japanese Black Tea’ Tada Motokichi chose Mariko as his base after he brought back knowledge from his journeys through China and India. A stone monument dedicated to him stands on a temple grounds here.

A tororojiru set.

Ancient restaurant

Those familiar with Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) would recognise the name Utagawa Hiroshige and his series ‘53 Stations of the Tokaido’ that he completed in 1834.

His woodblock print of Mariko depicted a scene outside a thatched-roof teahouse where travellers were seen enjoying the food served by a woman carrying a baby on her back.

The teahouse was my goal for the day.

After walking part of the old Tokaido road and crossing a bridge spanning Mariko River, I finally saw the picturesque Chojiya. The restaurant still looks like it did in Hiroshige’s work.

Chojiya has existed since 1596, when its owner established it to serve tororojiru (grated yam soup). Mariko’s rapid development as a post-town in the Edo period made Chojiya popular among travellers to fuel up before or after crossing the rugged Utsunoya Pass.

Tororojiru is simple fare. Grated yam is mixed with miso soup made from homemade miso, dried bonito soup stock, and egg. The silky smooth gravy is then served on rice and topped with spring onions.

To dine in a restaurant that has been in operation for over 400 years was an atmospheric experience in itself, something I had specifically sought for on this trip. The hospitality extended the moment I stepped through the door was definitely something honed over the centuries.

Before heading back into bustling downtown Shizuoka, I rested my weary feet here at Chojiya like the countless travellers before me. Without hesitation, I partook of the centuries-old speciality dish. It was warm and hearty just like the vibe exuded by the tea capital.