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Friday, Feb. 18, 2005
Pristine paradise an hour from Tokyo
Thanks to the newly opened Noto International Airport, Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa Prefecture is now just a one-hour flight from Tokyo, making one of the Hokuriku region's most popular tourist spots -- famed for its hot springs, local festivals, beaches and mountain scenery -- far more accessible.
Noto's pristine beauty is a big draw. This hook of land projecting into the Japan Sea has retained a magical unspoiled quality that is hard to find elsewhere. There are no neon signs, garish signboards or skyscrapers in sight. Even after the airport opened in July 2003, Noto's unspoilt environment has stayed unspoilt thanks to the unstinting efforts of local residents.
Of course, this does not necessarily mean that the area is a mere cluster of old and remote villages. Rather, it boasts many interesting sightseeing spots that perfectly encapsulate its vibrant culture, history and unique traditions.
"Noto-wa yasashiya, tsuchi-made-mo (Noto is kind, even the soil)," is a proverb coined to encapsulate the spirit of the region. For those who value quiet and warmhearted hospitality, Noto, with its relatively mild weather, is a perfect winter getaway.
The city of Wajima, a port town on the west coast, for example, is noted for its beautiful Wajima-nuri lacquerware. With its 1,000-year history, Wajima's lacquerware, which is used mostly for domestic utensils, has gained a worldwide reputation for its distinctive luster and remarkable durability. This is the result of time-honored techniques, with more than 120 stages involved in making one piece. Special surface decorations such as chinkin (the art of engraving lacquer and adorning it with gold leaf) or maki-e (gold raised lacquer painting) also characterize Wajima-nuri.
Severely hit by economic recession, the industry has drastically shrunken in recent decades, with the business now worth approximately half what it was at its peak. But of the 27,000 inhabitants of Wajima, more than 2,000 are still involved in the laborious, time-consuming process of producing lacquerware. These include two living national treasures and approximately 100 lacquerware artists.
If you walk through the streets of Wajima, you can find about 30 shops specializing in the famous lacquerware. Recent works include wares for daily use, rather than highly decorated ceremonial objects, so it's easy to find a good souvenir at a reasonable price.
You can actually try your hand at the chinkin decoration technique at Wajima Koubou Nagaya, where four working studios are lined up alongside souvenir shops. Tourists can learn the rudiments of the gold inlaying technique from local artisans, and whatever you work on can be sent to your home or office after a professional craftsman makes a final check.
Also of interest is the Ishikawa Wajima Urushi Art Museum, which is devoted to introducing fine lacquer masterpieces and the lacquerware traditions not only of Japan but also of other Asian countries, such as South Korea and Vietnam. The museum has a collection of more than 1,000 works, in a constantly revolving display. Special exhibitions are also held throughout the year. Currently on display are artworks featuring birds, including this year's sign of the zodiac in Chinese astrology -- the rooster -- and from March 3 through May 30, lacquerware made by contemporary craftsmen, including living national treasures, will be on show.
Noto has many good fishing ports, and is blessed with a bouniful cornucopia of seafood, almost all of which can be enjoyed at reasonable prices. Winter is the best season because you can try a variety of seafood -- crabs, oysters, abalones, shrimps, squids, yellowtails, cod, blowfish and types of seaweed that can rarely be found in Tokyo.
Through the end of March, a special welcoming campaign will be staged by many local restaurants in Noto. As part of the campaign, they offer seasonal menus, featuring those fruits of the sea at special prices. In Suzu, on the northern tip of the peninsula, for example, you can enjoy different kinds of crab dishes for 10,500 yen, and Anamizu on the east coast offers a set menu featuring charcoal-broiled oysters priced at 3,990 yen. If you want to try a variety of seaweed and marine plants, stop by at a beautiful minka restaurant, Shoya no Yakata, located in Sosogi, on the east coast where you can experience the delights of seaweed shabu-shabu.
Noto's food culture is very distinctive. Because the products are so fresh; no special skill is required to cook them. Local residents often use ishiru, a kind of fermented fish sauce, in place of soy sauce, to add a spicy note to the dishes. Ishiru is usually made of sardines or squid, naturally fermented over a certain period after being mixed with salt. One of the most popular local dishes is kaiso nabe, a hot-pot dish in which fish, vegetables and ishiru are simmered.
Wherever there is good food, there is bound to be good drink, and due to its chilly but fair weather, Noto is the perfect place for sake brewing. The region has well-defined styles and histories that are unique and interesting. Although modest in terms of volume produced, some of the finest sake in Japan is brewed in this region.
The secret of Noto sake is kept by the skilled and renowned Noto Toji, headbrewers originating in the Noto region. Still active today, albeit on a smaller scale compared with the industry's late Edo Period boom years, Noto Toji's expertise was tapped by sakagura (breweries) as far away as Kansai and Ise, drawing many of the most knowledgable brewers away from the region.
A total of 18 sakagura are still operating in Noto, of which six are concentrated in Wajima City. Kazuma Shuzo, for example, accepts tourists for an informative tour of the sake-brewing process. Traditionally, sakagura were strictly off-limits to women, but such restrictions seem to have become a thing of the past. If you visit one of those local breweries in wintertime, you will be able to try some freshly-brewed sake. Noto sake is fairly light, dry and fragrant, and if you want to sample a variety of local brewed sake with a small portion, visit newly opened sake bar Gyat in Wajima City. The bar offers more than 20 kinds of brands, such as the famous Chikuha and Genshu, at prices starting at 100 yen per 100 ml.
While staying in Wajima, don't forget to stroll through an asaichi (morning market) to snap up souvenirs. At around 7 a.m., an abundance of fish (both fresh and dried), other seafood products, vegetables and folk crafts are spread out on straw mats and tables for all to see. Before you purchase, check the prices at different vendors. You can ask for discounts and enjoy haggling.
To Noto, Air Nippon Co. (ANk) offers two round-trip flights a day from Haneda Airport. Through the end of February, two lucky passengers on each flight bound for Noto on weekdays will get about 600 grams of boiled crab. The crab will be sent to their home later. Before you set out, be sure to get a coupon book that can be used for additional service or discount at various stores in the Noto region and Kanazawa. For further information, call Noto Hanto Tourist Association at (0767) 53-7767 or Noto-no-Tabi Information Center at (0768) 26-2555.