This December, my adventures took me along the old streets of a country I had been dreaming to visit for many years, Japan. It was by far one of my most exhilarating and mindblowing change of scenery I had ever experienced, and all I dream of now, is to return to that country in 2019.
In the weeks preceding my visit to Saga, I had been asking around to a lot of friends if they’d heard of it before, and all the responses were negative, most of them had even never heard of the place, situated in the heart of the most Southern of the Japanese Islands, Kyushu. Even my ever so trusted friend Wikipedia hadn’t much to say about it, so I didn’t know what to expect, but we all know that’s how the best travel memories are always made.
The internal flight from Tokyo was just as seamless as a first class train ride would have been. I napped right after take off, and woke up as we started to land. The Ariake Sea below us was filled with cultures of Seaweed, I learnt after asking my seat neighbour, which is then dried to make Nori, one of the most renown products of the region (that’s just the beginning of the list of all the amazing things that are produced in Saga).
We started our visit by having lunch (the best way to start any visit in my humble opinion) at the top of Saga Prefectural Government Office, which offers a 360º viewing platform over Saga City. On the menu was one of Saga City local specialty, Sicilian Rice. It’s composed of rice, stir-fried meat mixed with vegetable salad, a delicious dressing and some Nori on top, without forgetting a perfectly poached egg hidden in the middle. It’s as delicious as it sounds, and I’m petitioning for it to become a thing back in London (and if it is already, please tell me where I can have it!).
After lunch, we headed to Nishiyamada Farm, to try ourselves at making Soba Noodles, but also visit the fields of oranges (which were some of the tastiest oranges I’ve ever had). I come from a rural region of Switzerland, grew up in a little place surrounded by farms, and this place transported me back straight into childhood, rich of all the knowledge of where food comes from, and how it’s made. Making our own noodles was a lot of fun, and some were more successful at it than others (hum hum, me).
Soon after we tasted our own self-made noodles, we headed to the mountains to the Hizen Nao Washi Papermaking Factory. This factory is one of the last of its kind remaining in Japan, and makes its paper from the mulberry trees fibres. They make Nao Washi paper, which is thick but lets light shine through and that is used notably for interior design purposes, such a lanterns or indoor screens, but it is also used by many of the neighbouring shrines. The process is still made fully by hand, just as it was hundreds of years ago. I couldn’t help but see the paper everywhere in the following days, and was fortunate enough to bring back my own piece of it, that I’ll try to do cyanotype prints with (but that’s another story, here’s some more info about washi paper)
We had one last stop for the day, and it was our final one, where we’d stay for the night and have dinner. We were staying in at the traditional Japanese hotel Warakuen in the town of Ureshino, which is renowned for its thermal tea baths. There’s even some hot springs streams in the heart of the city; in which you can walk barefoot. My room was composed of tatamis, and I slept on a futon. I even had my own private bath in the bathroom (which I enjoyed thoroughly). I soon discovered that the pride and joy of this region, was its unique green tea, Onsen. At dinner we enjoyed a broth infused with it, to cook our Saga Beef (another amazing local product). It was a feast and one of many to come ‘best meals of my life”.
I surprisingly slept rather well on the futon, even though being slightly sceptical of the idea at first (I’m quite fussy about my beds). I awoke hearing the sounds of the little pond next to my room, happily headed back to my bath, and went for another feast of a breakfast. The highlight this time was tofu boiled in tea infused water. It tasted absolutely incredible (put that in your food bucketlist, I now am a firm believer that everything should be boiled in an Onsen green tea broth). My now newly found passion was quite fitting for the next visit, Ureshino Chakoryukan Chaoshiru, a museum dedicated to the culture of tea in the region. We visited the fields of the tea farm, and then made our own designs of tea dyed handkerchiefs. Whilst the fabric was being cooked with the dye, Felix and I ventured in the field of widlflowers nearby the fields, getting lost in the beauty of the mountainous scenery. This place was truly a little gem full of wonders.
And the next place on the itinerary, was no short of wonders itself. We set off to Kashima, to visit the Yutoku Inari Shrine, dedicated to Inari, the kami whose messengers are foxes and the third largest of its kind in the country.Tomohisa Nabeshima, the chief priest of this Shinto shrine, gave us a tour of the grounds of this extraordinary institution that was built in 1687, during the Edo period.I was in awe of all that I was seeing around me whilst visiting the Shrine. Every place I looked at seemed more beautiful than the last thing I gazed upon, so rich in culture, and overflowing with a rich culture, and sentiments such as love and compassion. We once again tried our luck (quite rightly so) at a good fortune dispenser, where I once again got good (incredible even) news.
I could easily have stayed there for hours, and carried on exploring the surroundings of the shrine, such as hiking up to the succeeding Torii gates in the forest (I’ll go back for those!), but our stomachs were grumbling, and we set off to have lunch. As we stepped into the restaurant Kappo Chuo, our table was already laid for us, and it was one of these tables food stylists would die for. Everywhere you looked, there was some absolutely beautiful dish with some even more beautiful food on it. I was as hungry with my eyes than I was with my stomach, and I proceeded to take a lot of photos before eating it all away. Another one for the best meal of my life list (it’s getting quite long at this point!)
After that amazing lunch, we drove back to Hizen Hamashuku, the renowned Sake Brewery Avenue in Hamamachi, where we (I hope you guessed it) tried some Saké. We accessorily also learnt about the difference in grades of sake, and how it’s made, visited a cute little museum of toys from 40 years ago, but the highlight of it all were the ice cups we used to drink all the different sake available in the store. We didn’t come out of the store completely unaffected by the amount of sake we had tried, and we all shortly after fell asleep on the way to our accommodation for the night.
For more, watch my stories highlights on Instagram
* This trip is a paid partnership with TokyoLuxey and the Japanese Government who hosted and organised my stay in Japan