On a recent twelve-day journey to Japan, I was struck by the beauty and boldness of Shizuoka Prefecture, just a couple hours south of Tokyo. Boasting a breathtaking rugged coastline, the earliest cherry blossoms in Japan, the largest market share of wasabi, over 40% of the green tea grown in Japan, deliciously brewed Ginjoshu super-premium sake and the most ryokans or inns in Japan. I was thrilled to spend five days exploring this wondrous region that in many ways is a gourmet’s delight and a hidden gem.
Green tea was growing everywhere—in neighborhoods, on mountain terraces and in plantations manicured to perfection, awaiting their first of three harvests commencing this May. Tea is in fact one foundation of Japanese culture. The expression nichijo sahanji includes the character for “tea” and “meal” and translates as “an everyday occurrence.” This phrase has become deeply rooted in the life of Japanese people and its ultimate art form is the tea ceremony.
Tea is used in many forms and is said to be extremely healthy to ingest. Some Japanese have 6 to 10 cups per day. It can be found in foods, sweets, beverages, cosmetics and more. I had the opportunity to make matcha, the tea of the traditional tea ceremony blessed by nature with a sweet aroma and a brilliant green color. The tealeaves were ground by stone into a fine powder containing all of the natural flavor and nutrients of the entire leaf. Brilliantly delicious.
Wasabi fields nestled near Joren Falls could only surpass this luscious green color. I climbed down nearly one hundred wooden stairs to uncover a gorgeous waterfall abutted by wild wasabi nurtured by its pure waters, a naturally beautiful site found in this indigenous volcanically rich soil. Shizuoka also has some of the finest sake made in Japan and is home to 29 breweries. It was tremendous fun to visit a small brewery and to walk through a complex multi-step process of milling the fine rice, fermentation and aging. What also makes Shizuoka sake so good is the water, which is highly pure and sourced from Mount Fuji. So flavorful and so Japanese. Mother nature was in her glory.
It was lovely strolling through the quaint hot-spring village of Shuzenji on Izu Peninsula with its historic buildings and bamboo groves. The mystery of Shuzenji is what you cannot see from the streets—its world-class ryokans and onsens tucked away on perfectly groomed gardens hidden away from view. Frequented by foreign dignitaries, they offer only the finest of Japanese hospitality in a relaxing, refined and quintessential setting and a must part of the Japanese experience. Only a short distance from Tokyo, it is not a place to be missed.
It is said that timing is everything and I was fortunate to venture to Kawazu, which features the earliest bloom of cherry blossoms in Japan. First blooming in late January, Kawazu’s variety of cherry blossoms are a deeper pink and heartier than their cousin the Yoshino cherry tree. Lasting for over a month, Kawazu’s riverbanks were lined with these magnificent blossoms amidst its annual cherry blossom festival.
For an art aficionado like myself, it was wonderful to find the Tokaido Hiroshige Art Museum, a small boutique museum, exhibiting Hiroshige’s original ukiyo-e or woodblock prints illustrating his depiction of the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road. Also to be rivaled is the cuisine in Shizuoka, which was magnificent and included local specialties such as Alfonsino, a top-class fish on Tokyo tables and kakiage or fried cherry-colored shrimp, and a particular specialty of Shizuoka.
The Shinto deity Princess Konohanasakuya is believed to be as beautiful as a cherry blossom. Refusing to accept the fact that – like the fabled cherry blossoms – one day her beauty would fade, the Princess rode to the top of Mount Fuji on a white horse and leaving her sword behind at the summit, ascended to heaven. This “Cherry Princess” withheld our view of Mount Fuji but only for a short while where a glimpse can surely capture one’s imagination.
Shizuoka is just a brief journey from Tokyo and offers many special experiences for travelers wanting a weekend getaway or an adventure to incorporate as part of a larger trip. Let JapanQuest Journeys introduce you to Shizuoka and experience the very finest that Japan has to offer.
by Scott Gilman