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Friday, June 18, 2004

SANUKI, CHIBA PREFECTURE

Enjoy a taste of Boso's byways


Staff writer

When I got off the train at Sanuki-machi on the Uchibo Line in Chiba Prefecture, I realized, in a vague kind of way, that I knew the old little station. Perhaps I'd visited this rural town near the sea on a grade-school summer trip. Certainly, the 89-year-old station at the foot of the hills was exactly as I half-recalled it. And beyond, peacefulness and isolation are the outstanding qualities of an area just crying out for an exploration of its natural beauty.

News photo
Shozo Miya (above), sixth-generation head of his family's soy sause-makers, among vats in the factory built in 1871; the Miya Shoyuten merchant's house and storehouse.
News photo

Revisiting the town in Futtsu City in the western part of the Boso Peninsula this time, however, I was to leave with a quite different impression, thanks to local people there who have devoted themselves to rediscovering the hidden treasures linked to its long history.

"Actually, our theme is to explore a place which on first impression seems to have almost nothing of note," was how Sokichi Sugimura, director of the Tokyo-based Public Art Forum, which organized this tour, had put it. For him, that was nothing new, since the forum regularly organizes trips to off-the-beaten-track locales to foster appreciation of areas with a unique atmosphere and historical and cultural appeal.

Nonetheless, it was with a slight sense of ennui that, early on a gray and rainswept morning after a two-hour trip from Tokyo, I met the other members of this PAF tour at Sanuki-machi Station. Our mission: to learn the history of the place and then uncover the inconspicuous but precious evidence of its history.

Blessed with a temperate climate due to the moderating effect of the warm Black Current flowing from the Philippines and passing just offshore, the Boso Peninsula has long been an attractive area for human habitation. According to Sugimura, there is evidence of people living in the area in the Jomon Period (ca. 10,000 BC--ca. 300 BC), while afterward and throughout medieval times its abundant seafood and relatively easy access by sea to the whole of Japan ensured it remained an attractive area for settlement.

Still, when most people hear the name "Sanuki," they probably think about the old name of present-day Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku, which is famous for Sanuki udon (thick, wheat-flour noodles). But there will also be those who hear of Sanuki town and nearby areas in Chiba Prefecture and bring to mind Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate (1192-1333), Japan's first warrior government, who set up a base on the Boso Peninsula before founding the shogunate.

Later, in the Edo Period (1603-1867), the Sanuki area prospered around Sanuki Kame Castle, which some historical documents actually suggest predates the Tokugawa Shogunate. However, the castle, like so many others around the country, was finally razed to the ground soon after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Currently, the site which covers an enormous 68,040-sq.-meter expanse of greenery, is a favorite place for locals and visitors to stroll and take their ease.

Aesthetic traditions

Like the castle, though, the Sanuki area's historical identity was diminished when it merged into Futtsu City in 1971. Now, for many outsiders, its main claim to fame may be the nice beaches -- although even these are not as famous as others along the peninsula such as Tateyama and Katsuura.

News photo
the entrance to Miya's factory (above); Kumano Shrine along the road from the station to the old castle area of town.
News photo

As Sugimura put it: "At first sight, you may say there is nothing special in Sanuki-machi. But if you have a closer look, there are aesthetic local traditions to be found."

Along the road from the station this assertion is not immediately confirmed. There are almost no shops or restaurants. However, if you stroll along the road you will find it surrounded by beautiful fields presenting a typical countryside landscape, with the very local Kumano Shrine a particular point of interest set timelessly in its leafy precincts.

The road will take you to the area of the former castle town, where old traditional merchant houses used to be clustered. One, called Miya Shoyuten, remains a prime local landmark and the highlight of this trip.

Built in 1892, Miya Shoyuten is about a 20-minute stroll from the station. The home and shop of the head of the 170-year-old Tamasa-brand of soy sauce-makers, this stands beside the firm's factory built in 1871. There, to this day, eight vats each 3 meters in diameter continue to produce the famed local condiment, whose smell assails visitors as they approach.

The Miya company produces about 200,000, 1.8-liter bottles of soy sauce a year through the efforts of its six workers. Although the traditional method of production is hardly competitive in the mass-production age, Shozo Miya, president of Miya Shoyuten, has no regrets.

Reflecting on his company's long heritage, Miya, the sixth generation of the soy-sauce maker, said simply; "I would like to produce something that you can get only at this shop."

Simple, indeed, but perhaps nowadays it's an increasingly winning formula for success, as consumers tire of homogenized mass-produced fare and are turning to local brands and traditional tastes created in age-old ways.

For 70-year-old Miya, this growing market trend couldn't be happening at a better time, since he has spent many years just trying to survive in the face of cut-throat competition from major producers.

"While other small, old-established soy sauce firms have closed one after another, I have just been concentrating on preserving our taste," Miya said. "Then I realized that this firm has become one of only a few local soy sauce makers to have survived, and now our products are luckily being eagerly sought as the 'slow food' trend gathers pace."

Like the Miya Shoyuten merchant's house -- hand-made by traditional carpenters using prime hardwoods -- Miya's soy sauce may be living history, but it's because of exactly this that both are these days attracting increasing attention.

And of course, few among the steadily growing number of visitors leave without a bottle of the unique sauce.

Perhaps when you think of the Boso Peninsula, at this time of year you may be inclined to head for its famous beaches. But next time you go, don't forget the culture and history that Sanuki town has to offer -- as well as a taste of real .

shoyu


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