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Sunday, May 15, 2011

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Sweet splendors: Akihime strawberries grow from a wall. MANDY BARTOK PHOTOS

Strawberries and shoguns in Shizuoka


By MANDY BARTOK
Special to The Japan Times

It's a clear spring morning and the view over Suruga Bay just outside of Shizuoka City is captivating. At least, that's what my travel companions say.

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Ancient splendor: A detail of sumptious, 17th-century Kunozan Toshogu Shrine.

As our car hugs the coastal road known as Ichigo Kaigan-dori, my husband and our friends are admiring the water. I, on the other hand, am more intrigued by the strawberry patches opposite the sea that give this byway its telling name — which translates as "Strawberry Coast Road."

I'll admit that my travels are often guided by my appetite, and Shizuoka's strawberries are certain to satisfy.

Shizuoka City is only an hour's train ride from Tokyo, but it often gets overlooked in the array of other intriguing destinations around the country.

True, the prefecture itself boasts a number of major highlights — the stunning scenery of the Hakone-Mount Fuji highlands and the hot springs of the Izu Peninsula, to name just a few. The region's main metropolis, however, rarely blips onto a visitor's radar. Major guidebooks such as "Lonely Planet" and "Rough Guide" give the city a pass, as do commuters and travelers on the Nozomi Shinkansen, which merely whizzes through Shizuoka Station on its way to Osaka and beyond.

Admittedly, I'm only here at the urging of our friends — one of whom hails from Shizuoka — but so far I've been pleasantly surprised by the city. We've timed our trip to coincide with cherry-blossom season, and Shizuoka has enough viewing spots to make for a gorgeous spring stroll.

Even the most popular hanami (cherry-blossom-viewing) locales, such as the park where once the city's castle stood, offer more elbow room than any of Tokyo's public spaces in the height of blossom mania. So, with ample room to spread out our blanket, we spend an afternoon indulging in Japan's sacred springtime ritual. But once the obligatory flower viewing is out of the way, we set our sights on the city's other attractions, beginning with some edible offerings.

The seaside road is littered with pick-your-own strawberry places, easily identifiable by the snowy white greenhouses that cling to the sloping hills abutting the Nihondaira Plain. The most delicious strawberries are said to be grown on the stone walls that line the properties near the bay, earning them the name ishigaki ichigo (stone-wall strawberries). The placement of the plants among the wall's crevices allows for their fruits to have maximum exposure to sunlight and creates additional heat from the stones' surface that aids in the plants' growth.

Most farmers here cultivate two varieties of the fruit: Beni-hoppe, which carry a slightly sour aftertaste, and syrupy-sweet Akihime. The latter was named by cultivator Akihiro Hagiwara, who introduced the engineered strawberry in 1992 — he combined part of his given name and hime ("princess"; a nod to his daughter). Akihime strawberries have since become staples in grocery stores around Japan, but I'm looking forward to sampling them at source.

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Sakura steps: Blossom over the 1,159 steps up to Kunozan Toshogu Shrine.

We ease our car slowly down one of the driveways that boasts hand-painted signs of the luscious red fruit. Breakfast is not that far in the past, but already my stomach is gearing up for our berry-gathering session. Rather than actually accumulating a load of fruit to take home, strawberry-picking here is more of the all-you-can-eat persuasion.

For around ¥1,500 apiece, we're given a small container of thick, sugary condensed milk and a half-hour time limit before being shown to our own private greenhouse on the slope. Don't feel cheated by the short amount of time on the clock — within minutes, our appetites have been thoroughly curbed and as the session draws to a close, we struggle to swallow a few final fruits. I know, however, that I'll be craving that exquisitely sweet taste later, so I purchase a container of Akihime berries for the trip back to Tokyo.

Just down the road, my friend Aya drops us off at the base of Mount Kuno, where a stone staircase built into the mountain leads to one of the city's most revered sites. Ignoring the pangs from our bloated bellies, we gather our strength and tackle the 1,159 steps up to the summit and the Kunozan Toshogu Shrine of the late Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan throughout the Edo Period, from 1603 to 1867.

While the first Tokugawa is more commonly associated with the hallowed shrines of distant Nikko, in Tochigi Prefecture, the peak of Mount Kuno was the powerful ruler's initial choice as his final resting place. During his years of feuding with local clan warlords, Tokugawa built and maintained a castle on the mountain's summit. But then, after unifying Japan in the early 17th century, he retired to nearby Sumpu Castle in today's Shizuoka City.

Still, though, the hilltop fortress remained close to his heart, and he indicated in his will his desire to be buried there. In accordance with his wish, the second Tokugawa shogun, Hidetada, had a shrine constructed to honor his father.

We wander through the forested shrine precincts, drinking in the sumptuous architecture and colorful edifices. Having recently been to the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, I'm nagged by a feeling of deja vu — yet unlike its northern counterpart, here the grounds are blissfully uncrowded and we're free to roam in relative peace.

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Many of the buildings here have been designated as national cultural treasures, and an onsite museum houses an impressive collection of 17th-century artifacts culled from Ieyasu's own household possessions. In the rear of the complex, the massive bell-shaped mausoleum stands silent, empty now for nearly 400 years. Though Tokugawa Ieyasu's bones were first interred at this site, the third shogun (Tokugawa Iemitsu) had them transported to Nikko. Part of his spirit, however, supposedly remains enshrined on Mount Kuno, and we duly pay our respects to the founder of the country's long-running "dynasty."

Back at the main gate, we line up to wait for the Nihondaira Ropeway, a cable car that soars above the nearby Nihondaira Plain. Once aloft, the landscape below us alternates between patches of candy-colored sakura blossoms and the vivid green leaves of the prefecture's renowned tea bushes, laid out immaculately in ruler-straight rows. And off in the distance, the waters of Suruga Bay glisten as before under the springtime sun. This time, however, I'm definitely paying attention.

You can pick strawberries at many farms along Ichigo Kaigan-dori between January and May. Expect to pay between ¥1,000 and ¥1,700 for a half-hour all-you-can-eat session in a greenhouse. Kunozan Toshogu Shrine is to the east of most of the strawberry farms (¥650 for adults; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May-October, but till 4 p.m. November-April). Tickets for the Nihondaira Ropeway cost ¥550 for a one-way trip for adults and ¥1,000 for a round trip. Children's tickets are half-price.


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