Silence filled the air, beauty was seen through the eyes all around. It felt like I had stepped back in time when I first arrived off the Tōhoku Shinkasen Train from Tokyo to our destination of Semboku city in the Akita Prefecture, Northern Japan. The pace of life was slow. Densely wooded mountains coloured in iridescent shades of Autumn colours surrounded the area, only to be broken up by the vast plains of rice producing fields.
What was I doing in this part of the world you may ask? I had been invited by a group of local governments from the Akita Prefecture to take part in a 3 day cycling trip sponsored by NorthTime Bikeway. I was part of a group of 6 Australian’s who had been invited, to experience the area and help promote the region to potentential Australian tourists.
We had just arrived back to the Akita Art Village Onsen Yupopo after enjoying a few hours of free time before we could check-in to our hotel rooms. I had been out riding with Blogger’s Ryan Miu (B Grade Cyclist), Matt de Neef (The Climbing Cyclist) and Photographer Damian Breach. We wasted no time in getting out on our bikes to explore the area. You can read all about that adventure in Part I of my Akita blog.
With smiles from ear to ear upon returning back to the hotel, albeit slightly wet and a little bit cold. I was ready to head to my room and take a nice long hot shower.
Staying at the Akita Art Village Onsen Yupopo was designed to be a ‘cultural’ experience. I quickly realised, at least what one part of the ‘cultural’ part meant once I got to my room. The room was basic with all the necessities, well almost all. As one key thing was missing. A shower. The accomodation had an Onsen as part of the complex, and this is the place you would do your daily bathing.
Onsens – also known as hot springs. Have long played an important role in Japan. Hundreds of years ago, people used them to heal wounds and injuries, and they are now seen as a therapeutic practice that helps restore both the mind and body
I’m no stranger to Japanese Onsens, having experienced them in previous trips to Japan. But to Westerner’s from modest up bringing’s, they can be pretty intimidating. I say they’re intimidating as you must bathe naked in the shared space. The bathing rooms are generally separated into male and female rooms, although sometimes you can find mixed bathing spaces. Once you come to terms with the lack of personal privacy and being naked around other people. It’s a very fascinating, relaxing and unique experience that you eventually embrace as part of ‘immersing yourself in the culture’.
Before entering the bath you must wash yourself from head to toe in the shower area. You take a plastic stool and bucket, and then sit down in front of one of the ‘shower stations’ that surround the baths. You then use the detachable shower head to rinse yourself down, and wash yourself with the supplied beauty supplies. Finally, after completing this process you are ready to go and soak in the bath. It is a process, but it’s worth it, as you can truly relax and disconnect from the outside world.
The Akita prefecture is an Onsen paradise that still remains almost undiscovered by tourists, especially foreign tourist. You can find natural indoor and outdoor onsens all over the region, with some of the most breathtaking being hidden deep in the mountains of Nyuto.
After feeling refreshed and very Zen from my Onsen experience, it was time to rejoin the group for our first ‘official’ event of the trip. A welcoming dinner at the hotel, arranged by our local host. We were joined by the other half of the invited guests – ‘Team Taiwan’. A similar group as to ‘Team Australia’ who were invited to help bring Taiwanese tourism to the Akita prefecture.
The dining room was a beautiful traditional style Japanese space where you had to remove your shoes upon entering and change them for slippers or go barefoot. The room was light and airy with bamboo mats across the floor. We were all given seating placements where we had ‘Team Australia’ on one side of the table and ‘Team Taiwan’ seated opposite in an attempt to integrate the two groups.
After a few welcoming speeches and introductions of all the people on the trip. We enjoyed great food and some interesting conversations with perhaps, a few things that got lost in translation at times.
We were served a traditional Kaiseki (Japanese tasting menu) style dinner. Consisting of around 12 small courses that are meticulous planned by the chef. Typically it’ll include;
- Sakizuke, an appetizer served with sake.
- Nimono, a simmered dish.
- Mukozuke, a sashimi dish.
- Hassun, an expression of the season.
- Yakimono — a grilled course.
- Hanmono or shokuji, a rice dish.
Sometimes Kaiseki dining can be quite overwhelming as you don’t know where to start, and you feel like the meals just keep on coming. But I’ve come to really enjoy this style of eating in Japan. The beauty of it is, that you get to enjoy an incredible culinary experience tasting foods that you’d probably never consider trying if you were choosing a single course directly from a menu.
As it had been a long day for most, the dinner didn’t drag on too long. With a satisfying meal having filled our stomachs. We said our goodnights and headed our separate ways off to bed to get some rest ahead of a full itinerary in the coming days.
With the sun barely in the sky, I was awoken by the sound of my good old phone alarm. Day 2 of the Akita adventure was upon us. I rolled out of bed and walked over to open the curtains of my room. I was greeted to a view of grey and rainy weather, not ideal for a day full of cycling. But that wasn’t going to dampen my spirits. I was still super excited to go exploring and see what adventures we would be treated to today.
After fuelling up for the morning activities on rice, Japanese omelettes, fresh fruit and miso soup from a traditional Japanese buffet style breakfast. We made our way outside the hotel to board buses that would be taking us to the ‘Opening Ceremony’ of the trip at the local Tazawako Station.
On arrival at the station we were greeted by local television crews, local government officials and sponsors of the trip. Kitted up ready to cycle. We posed for photos out the front of the station on the crisp and damp Autumn morning, before heading on inside for the ceremony.
The opening ceremony began with a number of speeches, before we ‘Team Australia’ and ‘Team Taiwan’ were introduced on stage. We were dressed in an official event ‘Kimono’ style NorthTime bikeway jacket that was worn over our cycling attire. We posed for some more photos, before taking a kizuchi (wooden mallet) and cracking into a Sake Barrel to signify the offical start of the bike tour. This is called a Kagami Biraki ceremony, a common practice that takes place in Japan at opening ceremonies, sporting events, weddings and various other important events. After cracking into the sake barrel, a hishaku (wooden ladle) is used to fill the masu cups (a square shaped wooden cup) with sake from the barrel. Then it was ‘kanpai!’ (cheers) all around.
It was a really fun experience. Except I was slightly disappointed to be told that it was filled with ‘faux sake’, as in water. However, apparently we would get to enjoy the ‘real deal’ later on in the day.
With the weather not playing along, the Japanese meticulously planned schedule had to be altered. We were meant to start our cycle tour from the train station. But with heavy rain outside and the forecast saying it would be clearing in the afternoon. It was decided to skip the first leg of the cycle tour and take the buses to the lunch spot. Hoping the weather would then be clear to ride the remainder of the course. The only small problem with the adjusted plan was that the local TV needed some footage of us riding away from the station. So Matt, Ryan, Damian and I, lead by our local cycle tour guides had to do a few rainy hot laps in front of the station for the cameras.
It was about a 30min drive to the lunch spot – restaurant ORAE, a restaurant and craft brewery situated on the edge of the stunning Lake Tazawa, Japan’s deepest lake at 424m depth. The food made from local seasonal produce was served upon our arrival. There was no ‘designated’ seating arrangements this time, so I took a seat with the boys and we enjoyed our lunch, whilst taking in the stunning views of our surrounds.
We enjoyed around 20km of uninterrupted riding enjoying the picturesque surrounds of the Lake Tazawa area before making a stop at the Tazawako Kunimasu Miraikan. An information facility giving visitors an introduction to the history and culture of Lake Tazawa. The facility also aims to spread the message of lake conservation and how visitors can help preserve it well into the future.
It was only a short stop to see the facility and enjoy the stunning views as the facility is situated on the edge of the lake. A few of us were also asked to make interviews with the local TV whilst we were stopped. Doing interviews with local Japanese TV is a unique experience. I had a translator going back and forth between me and the interviewer translating between Japanese and English. For all I know she could’ve been saying anything back to him and I’d never know. But luckily I trusted her. 😉
With the interviews all done and dusted, we were back on our bikes for a brief moment before stopping back down the road at the famous golden Statue of Tatsuko. As the legend goes – Tatsuko was a beautiful girl who prayed to retain her beauty for eternity. She was told to drink the water of the lake and her prayer would be answered. But she drank too much of the lake water and was instead cursed and turned into a dragon. She couldn’t bare the thought to ever be seen this way by the local people, so she ran away to Lake Tazawa and eventually sunk to the bottom. She now stands in the form of a golden statue on the shores of the Lake as a local symbol of pureness and beauty.
Next to the statue you can find the Kansa-gu (Ukigi-jinja) Shrine. Famous for its matchmaking god, where you can buy charms and fortunes that can be then tied to the Shrine to bring good fortune.
The shrine is a beautiful ‘modern style’ red roofed wooden ‘hut’ that protrudes out over the lake and is connected by a short bridge built from the shore. It was given its name by the haiku poet and classics scholar Masudo Soushuu during the 6th year of the Meiji Period. Although it’s other name is the ‘ukigi-jinja’ (driftwood) shrine thanks to the 2m driftwood tree that protrudes out of the water nearby.
If you are lucky enough to visit the shrine in the Spring months. You can enjoy witnessing the cherry blossom tree that sits in front of the shrine at full bloom. And in the peak of winter you can often find the shrine covered in snow. It is certainly a beautiful spot that is worth the stop to enjoy the stunning surrounds, feed the fish or refuel the body at the local roadside food spot when making your journey around Lake Tawaza.
The cycle tour continued for the final stint of our days cycling. The scenery changed as we rode away from the lake and its surrounding mountains and traversed our way through the lower rice plains. Agriculture is one of the major industries that the Akita prefecture is dependant on, making it famous for its rice farming and sake breweries that can be found all around the prefecture.
Weaving our way through the smaller ‘country’ roads, we barely saw a car as our cycle guides led the way with a pretty solid pace. The low winter sun had finally made an appearance, which we were all pretty happy about.
There was one final stop before arriving back at the hotel to finish the ride. Turns out the Dakigaeri Gorge with the striking red Kami no iwahashi bridge that we discovered by accident on yesterdays adventure was the final destination of the days ‘tour’. It was only a short stop for the TV crew to capture some footage of us riding across the bridge before we made the short commute back to the hotel. We also used it as another opportunity to capture some ‘insta worthy’ shots.
It had been a long but beautiful day out exploring this absolutely stunning area. On arrival back to the hotel the onsen had my name written all over it. It was the perfect spot to go relax and unwind after a long day in the saddle.
In the evening we were spoilt with another lavish Kaiseki dinner at the hotel. This time we were joined by the sponsors and local prefecture hosts. It was a full house, everyone had their seating placements across the 4 separate tables in the room.
We were asked to dress in our Japanese yukata kimono’s from our hotel rooms along with our NorthTime bikeway jackets from the morning opening ceremony. I was all about this style of dress, it was so comfortable and easy. If only dressing up for dinner could always be like this.
The dinner began with more speeches before another Kagami Biraki ceremony. This time only the women in the room were asked to come up and join our main cycle guide to crack open the sake barrel. As promised, we were treated with ‘the real deal’ of local sake this time around.
Kagami Biraki Ceremony
Dinner was served and we were able to enjoy amazing food, plenty of sake and a great atmosphere including performances by local performers to finish of day 2 of this incredible trip.
To continue learning about my adventures from this ‘off the beaten path’ cycling destination. Stay tuned for the 3rd and final instalment of my Akita blog.