I couldn’t believe that my Japan tour was nearly halfway done and although we saw quite a bit, I felt like I only got a taste of what the culture had to offer. The journey continued as we passed through the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan, located in the southwest corner of Honshu–Japan’s main island.
Sake tasting at Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum, Kobe
On April 4, we departed Kyoto for Kobe, the capital city of the Hyogo Prefecture. We were about to learn the fine art of sake brewing (Japanese alcoholic beverages).
It’s not everyday that you walk into a bar and think about the process behind the drink you’re about to order, but I imagine it’s hard not to in Japan, where sake plays such a vital role in the culture and history of its people.
From its earliest beginnings more than 2,000 years ago, sake — traditionally made from rice and water — was produced as an offering to the gods and deities of Japan’s Shinto religion. Since then, it continues to act as a symbol of country’s culture, making appearances at various celebratory events.
Kobe is considered Japan’s top sake producing region due to the region’s favorable weather and abundance of rice and water, according to japan-guide.com. The Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum is just one of a few breweries in the area, offering insightful tours and life-size replicas to help attendees understand the sake-making process.
The tour ended with a sake tasting area and while I am by no means an expert, I know a few aficionados who would’ve been more than happy to trade places with me. I opted for the fruity drinks — the sweet and slightly-sour plum and yuzu (citrus) wines were simply delectable.
We traveled approximately 45 miles southwest to Awaji Island. To get to the island, we crossed over the Akashi Kaikyo Ohashi — the longest suspension bridge in the world — where we had lunch at a rest stop. That’s right, a rest stop — you know, the place where you stop to use the bathroom during a long road trip. But mind you, rest stops in Japan are unlike any other in the states.
Since we’re on the topic of bathrooms, I want to first talk about the toilets in Japan because there’s no way I can write about the country without mentioning the elephant in the room.
No trip to Asia is complete without encountering the squat toilet, or what I like to refer to as the dreaded “squatter.” There’s plenty of research that suggests that squatters have multiple health benefits — I won’t go into too much detail about that, but I’m sure you get the picture. Personally, I hate squatters simply because they’re hard on the knees, they smell horribly putrid about 98 percent of the time, and there’s almost always dirty water surrounding the toilet to slosh through.
But on the complete flip side, you’ll also find the miraculous Toto toilet. These toilets come equipped with a bidet (water spout) and other heavenly features like a sound effect button (for those who are shy when they go) and air deodorizer. My personal favorite: the heated seat that can make any trip to the bathroom a treat when it’s freezing outside.
These high-tech toilets contribute to my story of why rest stops in Japan are incredible. So if you can imagine the Totos along with a giant ferris wheel fronting a beautiful view of the water as well as a countless number of eateries at your fingertips, then you might agree that the Awaji Island rest stop is a tourist’s dream come true.
After enjoying some udon noodles, Hello Kitty-themed doughnuts caught my eye. Uh oh, I had discovered Mister Donut — an apparently popular doughnut franchise in Japan famous for “kawaii” (cute) looking doughnuts. As a Hello Kitty fanatic, I had to get my paws on one of these! And yes, they tasted as sweet as they looked.
Awaji Puppet Theatre
Awaji Island is renowned for “Awaji ningyo joruri” — traditional puppet shows that have a recorded history of more than 500 years. In its heyday, these shows — performed on elaborate stages in theatres on farmland — coincided with farming season. Troupes would perform during off seasons to provide leisure and entertainment to farming communities.
Although Word War II resulted in the art form’s slow demise, it has become a treasured performing art, thus gaining popularity in that sense.
We took our seats for the show we were about to watch — a drama called “Yama no dan” — and shortly thereafter, a man dressed in all black came out holding a mask with incredibly realistic facial features. With a translator’s voice over the loud speaker in the background, the man explained how the performers control the puppets which consist of a detachable head — with moveable eyes, mouth and eyebrows — along with a body and costume. Sometimes more than one person can operate a puppet at one time and these puppeteers do not provide dialogue. Instead, narration is done entirely by chanters accompanied by shamisen (Japanese string instruments).
As someone who grew up performing on stage for dance and theatre productions, I knew how important facial expressions were to conveying emotions to an audience. But what struck me the most while watching this show was how detail can play such a big role in storytelling. A slight shift in the puppet’s body movement, such as the twitch of an eyebrow or the slant of a mouth, can completely change the conveyed feeling. That held true for the chanters and how the volume of their voices could depict happiness, anger or sadness. This was fascinating.
Awa Odori in Tokushima
Our day ended in the Tokushima Prefecture, located on Shikoku Island. After a delicious sukiyaki (where food is cooked at your table) dinner at our hotel, we prepared for a long night of dancing — awa odori style!
We headed over to a small theatre a few blocks away from our hotel and took our seats as the show was about to start: about 20 or so energetic dancers, donned in kimono-like outfits, energetically bounced out in unison from behind the curtains.
From what I observed, it seemed like this was a pretty simple dance with a distinct pattern — for the most part, dancers would move their right arm up with their right leg and vice versa to match the upbeat rhythm of the shamisen, taiko drums and flutes.
After about three numbers, the announcer called some volunteers forward to for an awa odori contest.
“You only live once,” I thought as I giddily hopped onto stage. Sure enough, I picked up the steps relatively fast, but the only thing I was absolutely confident about was that I looked like a huge dork! But rest assured, I was a huge dork who was having a blast.
In case you’re wondering, I did not win the contest, but three people from my tour placed: Eri-chan (our bus assistant), Amy and Pamela! Congratulations!