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Japan Hour

It's Lunch Time

Join us as we travel around Japan in search of interesting spots and delicious local cuisine. We first head to Niitsu, a town along the Shinano River in the southeast of Niigata City.

Join us as we travel around Japan in search of interesting spots and delicious local cuisine. We first head to Niitsu, a town along the Shinano River in the southeast of Niigata City. It has become a famous town because the Train Suite Shiki-shima, a top-grade sleeper train, stops by here. The train, which began operating in May last year, starts from Ueno in Tokyo and travels around the Tohoku, Hokkaido and Hokuriku areas. It has three types of rooms, with the most expensive Shiki-shima Suite costing a whopping 950,000 yen per person. Some of these rooms also come with their own cypress bathtub.

We will explore the area around Niitsu Station. We first wait for the famous Shiki-shima train to pull into the station. We notice all the passengers alighting at Niitsu. We find out that this is to enable maintenance to be done and cooking materials to be loaded onto the train. So passengers would take a bus to the next station, Higashi-Sanjo, from where they would board the train again.  

Once we have seen the Shiki-shima, we head to the "train shopping street". A local tells us that during the steam locomotive boom 50 years ago, the depot at Niitsu had locomotives and the area started to be known as a “train town”. So the town’s shopping street reflects this, with the aim of promoting Niitsu and attracting train fans. For example, the shutters of many stores along the street are decorated with paintings of trains. The paintings are done by shop staff, students and volunteers. 

We meet Mr Ishizuki, a third-generation manager of a fruit store. He shows us Cajyutta, a new style of enjoying fresh juice directly from fruits such as grapefruit. He explains that this way, the fruit doesn't come into contact with air or lose its full nutrition value. This year, he started offering such fresh juices to visitors of the “train shopping street”. 

We are keen to see what Mr Ishizuki is having for lunch so he drives us to his house. His wife prepares his favourite Java curry, radish and fried tofu stew, and Pikari Chamame edamame beans. These beans are the result of Kurosaki Chamame beans from Kurosaki-machi being cross-bred with Dadachamame beans from Yamagata. 

We return to the “train shopping street” and this time, we speak to Mr Yamagishi. He used to work at a construction consulting firm but decided to quit before his retirement age due to the recession 11 years ago. Now he is a house-husband and takes charge of the cleaning, laundry and cooking. His wife’s family owns a pharmacy and he stays with her on the second floor of the store. 

He agrees to show us the family’s dinner. Dishes include hamburger steak made from Japanese Black beef, taro with miso, boiled fish with mirin, boiled edamame beans, chilled yose tofu and stir-fried kinpira lotus root.  

Our next adventure takes us to the Soji-ji temple in in Tsurumi, Yokohama. It is the headquarters of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism with 700 years of history. It houses more than 100 trainee monks. The huge compound consists of several buildings and structures. The biggest building at the temple is called Daisodo. Our guide is Mr Matsuzaki, who trained for seven years at a temple in Fukuoka. He is now an instructor of trainee monks. He first takes us to the main building. We reach the place after walking for 10 minutes along a 150-metre-long corridor. We then go to a hall called Shuryo, where zen mediation sessions for the general public are held. 

We get to experience zen meditation. We learn how to sit cross-legged while resting our hips on meditation cushions called Zafu, the correct way to place our palms and even how to inhale and exhale properly. We are also told that for zen meditation, one has to face a wall, something called Menpeki.

We are interested to find out about the meals prepared at Soji-ji. Mr Matsuzaki tells us that for breakfast, the monks would eat rice porridge and pickles, with seasoning such as salt with sesame. He takes us to the kitchen to show us how lunch is prepared. About 10 trainee monks cook for 150 people for every meal; the monks are rotated every three months. The menus are passed down from the senior monks to the new monks. 

The monks prepare dishes such as fried tofu with thick buckwheat sauce; fried gelatine noodles with shishito green pepper and radish sprouts; boiled spinach with shiitake mushrooms and carrots; miso soup with seaweed and maitake mushrooms; and pickled radishes. The meals are transported in carts via an elevator. Everyone at the temple eats in a building called "Sodo", where trainee monks also do their zen meditation.  


1) Railway fans should check out the shopping street at Niitsu, which features items, paintings and decorations inspired by trains
2) Visit the Soji-ji Temple in Tsurumi, where one can learn zen meditation


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