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Japan Hour

It's Lunch Time

This week, we go on a “lunchtime trip” to Fukuoka Prefecture's Yame City, known for its high-quality green tea.

This week, we go on a “lunchtime trip” to Fukuoka Prefecture's Yame City, known for its high-quality green tea. We first visit a tea plantation, Yame Central Tea Garden, which is 14 times bigger than Tokyo Dome. We then check out the Kurogi Ofuji Festival, which takes place annually from mid-April to early-May. About 30 booths open for business at the event, where one can enjoy provincial cuisine and purchase local goods. We get to sample some arum root jelly with spicy roe, called Akai Koibito. We then meet a lady steaming bamboo shoots at her booth. She also sells vegetables she has grown at the farm she manages. She lets us try bamboo shoots seasoned with soy sauce and sugar, and steamed bamboo shoots.

After this, we continue exploring the area and drop by Cake House Higashi. It sells about 20 kinds of cakes, with the most popular one being a cheesecake made of local Yame tea. Opened around 25 years ago, it even has a tearoom inside. We meet its owners, Kei and Shoko Higashi. We request to see what they are having for lunch. We find out that they start making their cakes early in the morning so for lunch, they would usually eat leftovers from dinner the day before. Today’s lunch includes bamboo shoots; vinegared miso with a mixture of cucumber and squid; and a marinade of onions and carrots. Another dish is a meat and potato stew, which has large chunks of potatoes, onions, carrots and beef. The ingredients are stewed together in a locally brewed soy sauce, sugar and sweet vinegar. For dessert, there is Tsuguchan cheesecake, created by Mr Higashi himself.

We then walk to the central area of the city, which boasts about 20 Buddhist altar stores. Yame City is a place of deep religious faith and altars have been made here since the 17th century. The town is now a major producer of Buddhist altars in western Japan. The altars were designated as a "national craftwork" in 1977. In a nearby traditional craftwork museum, the tallest altar in Japan, with a height of 6.5m, is on display.

We visit the Tsuru Buddhist Altar Main Store, which has been around since 1885. It is currently managed by its fourth-generation successor. Besides making and selling altars covered in gold leaf, the shop also refurbishes old altars for customers. The cheapest altars cost about 20,000 to 30,000 yen while the most expensive ones sell for a whopping 10 million yen. These exquisite altars are made from the very best materials such as selected premium wood, pure gold leaf and lacquer. The altars are meticulously made by proficient crafters in over 80 stages.

We observe the fourth-generation master Mr Tsuru painting lacquer onto an altar's sculpted areas and pasting gold foil over them. The finely sculpted parts have many uneven areas so it takes a lot of concentration to evenly paste the gold foil.

We are interested to see what Mr Tsuru is having for lunch so he takes us to his home, which is a five-minute drive away. His house is about 150 years old and has an earthen floor. There is a beautifully decorated altar in his home. It was made with meticulous care about 40 years ago, combining the skills of craftsmen and family members. We meet Mr Tsuru’s wife, Ms Junko, and his mother, Ms Sayoko. They first prepare a stew of bamboo shoots and chicken breast meat. The broth is made from kelp and bonito and a bit of sugar is added. Miso soup with rice wine sediment from a nearby rice wine distillery is also made. Other dishes include butterbur boiled in bonito broth and soy sauce; taro roots cooked in granulated sugar and soy sauce; chicken wings cooked in sweet vinegar; rice and beans topped with green peas; and potato salad.

Our next location is Isumi City in Chiba Prefecture. It is a port town at the southern tip of Kujukurima Beach. It is also home to the most-caught shrimp in the nation, Ise Shrimp. We first make our way to the port's morning market at Ohara Fishing Harbour. It is held every Sunday. Over 20 shops from the city will set up stalls selling seafood caught in Isumi and local products at reasonable prices. We drop by a seafood shop called Shimura Aquatic Products. Isumi City is known for its sea bream so we buy two fresh red sea bream, also called "cherry anthias".

We then check out a stall selling various kinds of dried seafood. The manager, Mr Jitsukata, agrees to let us see his lunch. After the morning market is over, we accompany him home. His father, the fourth-generation proprietor, and his mother Ms Rie are the directors of the company. The family prepares a provincial dish of Chiba Prefecture called Sangayaki. Sea bream fillet is marinated with a paste made of miso, ginger and sugar, chopped into chunky pieces, wrapped in a beefsteak leaf and then cooked in a frying pan. Another item served is a broth made from sea kelp and the unused parts of the sea bream which have been grilled. There is also octopus rice ball, a local Isumi dish.

After this, we head to a pastoral district. Isumi City is a key rice producer in the prefecture and the Isumi brand of rice is grown on the fine clay-like soil. The rice is known for being highly sticky and sweet. We meet Mr Tsurubuchi, who is working in a field. He was previously an Aikido instructor and became a rice farmer around four years ago. We are invited to his home to see what he is eating for dinner. We are introduced to Ms Shuko, his wife, and Ms Emiko, his mother.

There is sea bream sashimi served with homemade soy sauce. Horse mackerel from Kamo River is made into tempura using rice flour instead of wheat flour. The family also eats Kuniyoshi rice, named after the region in Isumi which grows rice. For dessert, the family has crunchy and delicious puffed rice.

1) Yame City is known for its high-quality green tea
2) Visit a port town’s morning market to buy fresh seafood and other local products


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