Road Trip on Joshin Dentetsu (Part 2)
Highlights this week include the Tomioka Silk Mill, a World Heritage Site; an eatery serving Gunma's famous Okkirikomi noodle dish; and a "geopark" with rare geographical formations and blue rocks.
Our two-day journey on Joshin Electric Railway’s Joshin Line in Gunma Prefecture continues. On the first day, before going to the Tomioka Silk Mill near Joshu-Tomioka Station, we stop by the Okatte Market first. It sells various vegetables at reasonable prices and even konnyaku, a speciality of Gunma. A stall owner tells us another local delicacy is Okkirikomi, a thicker version of udon noodles cooked with vegetables. One restaurant which serves the dish is Hayami, just beside the Tomioka Silk Mill.
Tomioka Silk Mill is one of the most well-known tourist spots in Gunma. In 1872, the mill was established as Japan's first full-scale silk-reeling factory owned by the government. It not only contributed to the development of the silk industry, but also played an important role in the modernisation of Japan. In 2014, the factory was recognised as a World Heritage Site.
At the mill, Mr Saito takes us on a tour. He shows us a place called Higashi-Okimayujo, which is a national treasure. The warehouse, which is 104m long, was used to store silkworm cocoons. At its longest, one cocoon from a silkworm can produce about 1,200m of silk thread. French brickwork is used in the mill, referring to alternating long and short bricks. They are unlike usual bricks which are all the same size and it is thus rare to see this kind of structure in Japan.
Mr Saito then shows us the main silk reeling building, established in 1872. The huge factory has a high ceiling and hundreds of silk reeling machines. The automatic machines were installed in 1966 and used until 1987. We also see photos from the old days, showing factory girls using the French reeling machines. They came to the Tomioka Silk Mill to learn silk reeling techniques. They would then return to their hometown to teach their skills to people there. That is how the silk production industry became popular all over Japan.
We get to try our hand at silk spinning. We learn how the threads are taken one by one from the cocoons, after which they are gathered and bundled to form a thicker thread. To make the threads stronger so that they do not break, hot water is mixed and the threads are then twisted. They are spun counter-clockwise on the spinner using one’s left hand, while the right hand is used to mix the hot water.
After our stint as “silk spinners”, we go to the recommended Okkirikomi restaurant Hayami beside the Tomioka Silk Mill. The owner explains the dish is unique because of the extra thick and flat udon noodles which are a centimetre wide. Back when silkworm farms were popular in this area, the working mothers at the farms were so busy that they did not have time to cut the noodles thin. That led to these thick udon noodles being created. At this restaurant, a Japanese-style soy sauce-based stock is used, along with six types of mushrooms and chicken. It also includes seasonal vegetables, daikon radish, carrots, taro and fried tofu.
We walk back to Joshu-Tomioka Station and travel on the 12pm train to Joshu-Nanokaichi, two stations away. We arrive in less than five minutes and visit a confectionery store to get recommendations. The owner suggests we visit Tomioka High School, built on a site that was a huge “residence town” in the past. It is now known as the “Nanokaichi clan residence town ruins”. The Kanazawa clan stayed here when they moved back and forth from Edo. We head to the high school and speak to some students who are on their lunch break.
We then walk around the historical site. It was built in the 1840s and has been registered as a National Tangible Cultural Property. Though most of the buildings here were burnt down in a fire in the mid-Edo period, a black gate and a building called “the palace” still remain. Toshitaka Maeda, the fifth son of Kaga's feudal lord Toshiie Maeda, ruled over this “residence town”. The family crest is plum blossoms and one can see the crest all over the building.
We visit the hall where assemblies are held with students. It has several Shoin-style elements, such as staggered shelves. In ancient times, this was the only proper building in Tomioka. So whenever the Emperor or the Empress visited, they stayed in the room at the farthest corner of the building. We get to see the high-ceilinged elegant room, where the feudal lord used to stay too. To establish a difference in social status, the floor in the room is slightly raised. Plum blossom patterns can be seen in various parts of the room, even on the nail head covers.
We next catch the 1.35pm train and arrive at Nanjai Station after 10 minutes. A few locals highly recommend we visit a store called Okinawaya. It boasts various products like candy, a huge variety of snacks and even daily necessities. It also sells a dish called Horumon-age, made of a tube-shaped fish paste which is breaded, deep-fried and served with sauce.
We go to the store, which is especially popular among elementary school kids. The current owner tells us the shop is called Okinawaya because the mother of the first owner lived in Okinawa. The locals came up with the nickname and they eventually decided to use it as the store name. At the shop, we also notice many side dishes in pots. The owner, who went to cooking school in Kansai, whips up all the dishes. We buy the recommended local speciality Horumon-age, served with the store’s special sauce which is mixed with soup stock.
After this, we take the 2.50pm train to the goal of our trip, Shimonita Station. It is 10 minutes away from Nanjai Station. A resident recommends we check out Shimonita Geopark for its geographical formations and the popular Aoiwa Park, known for its beautiful blue rocks. In ancient times, this town was at the bottom of the sea. The land got raised due to crustal changes, leading to the rare formations. About 200 million years ago, when the rocks were at the bottom of the sea, they turned blue due to pressure from a submarine volcano. The area around Shimonita is thus very scenic, with the surrounding mountains, a river, greenery and blue rocks. The geopark has also become a valuable place for conducting research.
The final stop of our two-day journey is Maruhei, which sells freshly made konnyaku. Located in a Japanese-style white-walled city storehouse, its homemade konnyaku is served with a special mustard vinegar miso.
1) Local delicacies of Gunma include the Okkirikomi noodle dish and konnyaku
2) Visit Shimonita Geopark and Aoiwa Park to see rare geographical formations and blue rocks