Road Trip on Akechi Tetsudo (Part 2)
This week, we try dishes made from agar jelly, soak in a hot spring bath with healing properties, enjoy scenic views of Yamaoka from an observation deck and visit an old house of a wealthy farmer.
We continue our two-day journey of enquiry and discovery on Akechi Line, which runs in the southeastern part of Gifu Prefecture. On the first day, after having dinner at Izakaya Tono in the castle town of Iwamura, we head to our lodging for the night, Tojiya. The guesthouse’s owner, Mr Fuji, shows us some geta skates from pre-war times. In the early Showa period, Mr Fuji got a blacksmith in town make these skates, which were worn with tabi socks. During that time, the locals would pour water in rice fields and let it freeze so that people could do ice skating.
We are led to our spacious rooms. One room has tatami mats, with a paper sliding door called Satori no Mado. The room comes with a nice view of the guesthouse’s charming garden. Another room is made of wood, combining both traditional and modern elements. It also has a bath made with Japanese cypress.
The next morning, we leave the guesthouse at 10am and make a stopover at a Japanese confectionery store. It is known for its castella cakes. The eight-generation owner tells us some history about their cakes. Two hundred years ago, there was a doctor named Untaku Kamiya at the Iwamura Castle. He went to Nagasaki to learn medicine. He was taught by the famous Dr Philipp Franz von Siebold, who introduced him to castella cakes. Kamiya then taught the castella cake recipe to the first-generation owner of the confectionery store. The recipe was passed down through the generations and is still used to make the famous castella cakes. We buy some cakes as gifts before heading to Iwamura Station.
We travel by the 10.45am train to Hanashiro-Onsen Station, which is about five minutes away. We decide to catch the 1.05pm train from here later. A resident tells us that agar jelly is a popular item in this area. At the beginning of the Showa period, people started to make it in winter when they could not farm. The low temperatures were perfect for making it. In fact, the town of Yamaoka is a leading producer of agar jelly, with 80 per cent of the market share.
We head to a hot spring facility in front of the train station. It opened in 2009 and there is a restaurant inside, Hanashiro Chaya, where local speciality dishes featuring agar jelly are available. We order the ramen noodles made of agar jelly, vegetable salad topped with agar jelly and parfait with agar jelly. Yamaoka's agar jelly is a registered local trademark brand of Gifu Prefecture. Rich in fibre and low in calories, it can now be found in various popular products.
After our meal, we relax in the facility’s hot spring bath. It started in the Edo period and is famous for being a “medicine bath”. According to legend, when there was an epidemic at one point, many people were healed after soaking in this hot spring.
Our next stop is Yamaoka Station. The express train we ride on this time has a dining car where gourmet meals are served. On this particular day, we see passengers enjoying Goheimochi and a lunchbox filled with seasonal ingredients. The train ride to Yamaoka takes less than five minutes and our next train from Yamaoka Station is at 2.25pm. We happen to meet the president of the residents’ association here. He suggests we visit Iwakura Park, which commands a nice view of the entire town. Rice field art started about five years ago as a part of a town revitalisation project. In spring, rice plants of seven different colours are used to create beautiful designs in the paddy fields. The best time to see the colourful rice field art from Iwakura Park’s observatory platform is in June when the rice plants grow.
We take the train to the last stop along this line, Akechi Station. We notice a sign which states “Station Manager’s Sweet Potatoes”. We meet the manager, who has just started baking some sweet potatoes. He tells us they will be ready in about half an hour. We take the opportunity to ask him to recommend a popular spot. He suggests a store called Taisho Romantei, which sells more than 1,000 local products, some of which are related to Akechi Mitsuhide. The town of Akechi in Ena City is one of the several places believed to be the birthplace of the famous samurai. The town has a well, said to be used for his first bath. Many believe that Akechi Mitsuhide spent the first 30 years of his life in this town.
We first go to Romantei, which opened about three years ago. The products found here include malted rice, Akechi soy sauce, miso paste produced in Gifu Prefecture and fresh vegetables. There are also souvenirs, such as towels and pencils with the Akechi family crest. There is a restaurant, with the most popular dishes being those inspired by Akechi Mitsuhide. An example is a spicy Mitsuhide soy sauce, which has an entire hot pepper mixed inside. It goes well with tofu or hotpot. The Mitsuhide set lunch includes croquettes and miso soup made with local products. The most popular item on the menu is the Mitsuhide pudding. It is made of soy milk with arrowroot starch and agar. Since its launch in 2018, more than 2,500 of the puddings have been sold.
Later, Ms Nakamura, who works for the town’s Tourist Division, gives us directions to another famous attraction of the area, the old and traditional Miyake House. It is spacious and has a very high ceiling, with the centrepiece being a massive black column. The house, which belonged to a wealthy farmer during the Edo period, was “transferred” here from the Baki district in 1992. Managed by local volunteers, it has a Gassho-style thatched roof. We meet an elderly gentleman who uses cedar leaves to make a fire at the house’s fireplace. The fire is said to protect the thatched roof by coating it with soot, thereby preserving the house for longer.
We end our two-day trip along the Akechi Line on a sweet note by heading back to the station and buying the station manager’s delicious baked sweet potatoes for 200 yen.
1) Products made from local speciality agar jelly are a must-try item in Gifu Prefecture
2) June is the ideal time to see beautiful rice art at Iwakura Park near Yamaoka Station