An International Cycling Destination in Traditional Japan
Bicyclist & Beyond: A Voyage Of Traditional Japanese Proportions
For those who travel internationally, the ultimate destination may be one that is completely unknown. For others, a chance to do something they love while experiencing a different culture. And for many, it is the return home. As the world’s cities become internationalized, the Noto Peninsula on the Sea of Japan is one place where Japan can be visited as a historical destination. The region is surprisingly accessible and offers a huge sampling of traditional Japanese culture. Did I mention it has incredible cycling? Our crew went overseas to visit this area and discovered a land rich with experiences.
Ishikawa Prefecture & Noto Peninsula
Ishikawa is one of Japan’s 47 Prefectures, and its capital city is Kanazawa. The Noto Peninsula makes up most of northern Ishikawa, and is bordered by the sea on all sides except for the Japanese Alps in the southeast. Culturally, Ishikawa’s regions vary – each having their own style of world-class crafts and festivals. The area is still traditionally Japanese and was definitely a treat to visit – in contrast to many international destinations that have become homogenized due to tourism. Ishikawa’s culture of heritage and preservation certainly plays a role in the continued success of this enclave of traditional Japanese living.
Nanao & Wakuraonsen
We based our trip out of Nanao City, central to Noto, and the entrance to Notojima. Japan lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire, giving this region natural hot springs, captured by the Japanese using their tradition of onsen. In Wakura, a suburb of Nanao, we found a number of hotels that double as onsen spas. Nanao is a quiet city with accommodations, restaurants, shopping, and weeks of possible day trips into the peninsula. Ride a bike around the city paths, along the country roads, or across the bridge to Notojima. Finish your ride back in the city for fresh cuisine, libations, and relaxing onsen.
Notojima (Noto Island) is a rich source of traditional Japanese culture. The residents survive by fishing and harvesting sustainably from the forest, acting as stewards of the local ecosystem. Cuisine of the island is dominated by seafood, largely caught in the surrounding ocean. Two bridges connect the island to the mainland, where a forest-lined highway and country roads connect through farmlands and oceanside. Notojima has its own traditional festivals and many villages have their own Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple. Native plant and wildlife are well-preserved, including a pod of dolphins which recently made the surrounding waters home. A quiet and beautiful destination.
Many people in Tokyo and Kyoto do speak English, but in Ishikawa, English speakers are more difficult to find. Using trains is not a problem and train stations often have considerations for international travelers. Many restaurants will have an English menu, even if the staff do not speak English. Like most Japanese, they will whole-heartedly explain anything using gestures. We found our taxi drivers did not speak English, but all were very enthusiastic about making sure we found our hotel. Japanese is an interesting language to listen to; the Japanese are as polite in their conversations as they are in everything else. They acknowledge the speaker continuously, and have an almost competitive-like dedication to saying “thank you”. The two most helpful words you could learn in Japanese are probably arigatou (thank you) and sumimasen (excuse me/sorry). Learn these by observing Japanese speakers, and you will quickly find a multitude of ways to use them.
Japan was an incredibly easy country for us to traverse. The train network is a marvel of efficiency (sorry Europe!), connecting to almost every city in the country directly from the airport. Taxi drivers are friendly and polite, and will go out of their way to help lost passengers. The Shinkansen is the high-speed train of Japan, and crisscrosses the landscape, connecting major cities throughout the country. At one point, we clocked it at 140 mph with our GPS, but it reaches well above that. Nanao City is reachable by a 1-hour ride by local express train from Kanazawa, the capital of the Ishikawa Prefecture, which is around a 3-hour Shinkansen ride from Tokyo.
Traditional Japanese accommodations can be a challenge for those used to an American or European hotel. In most areas of Ishikawa, the traditional guesthouse, or ryokan, offers a pillow and comforter on a tatami mat for sleeping (on the floor), and bedroom walls can be very thin. However, the architecture often allows for roomy hallways and smart floor plans which can be highly modular. The Japanese also have a form of B&B and, if you’re staying in Nanao’s Wakura Onsen, which offers western style beds, your hotel will very likely feature a traditional onsen, or hot spring bath.
Biking in the Noto Peninsula is common and very normal. Bike paths snake through Kanazawa, and out into the peninsula. Most roads are wide, and drivers are slow and courteous. Many highways leading out of Nanao allow plenty of room for biking on the shoulder or feature bike paths along the side, making it easy to venture forth on your bike for as long as you’d like to travel. Notojima Island itself has a full-day of roads and climbs to explore, and with each turn, another valley, forest, or beach. This is a perfect destination for road cyclists or townies and commuters. Like SoCal, the Noto Peninsula has a wide range of roads, leaving cyclists free to plan the route of their dreams to any number of cultural destinations.
Safety and Resources
If visitors to the rural communities of the Noto Peninsula find it necessary to seek emergency medical care, the city of Nanao has three hospitals. We, unexpectedly, had to visit one on a Sunday afternoon and, contrary to traveler fears of getting injured in a foreign country, the care and treatment were compassionate, efficient and comparable to what you would expect from care in the U.S. Obtaining an airline’s medical insurance or just making sure to bring documentation from your personal medical provider is recommended in case of sport or accidental injury.
Arts and Crafts of Noto
Bicycling around the Noto Peninsula, we discovered how this rural area offers visitors a picture of an older Japan, where residents continue centuries-old practices and customs in harmony with nature. Agricultural fields are bordered by areas of yellow goldenrod and feathery susuki grass. Between the ocean and fields, groves of deep green pine forests appear on the low hills dotted with black-tiled, two-story farmhouses.
Traditional Residence and Garden
On Notojima Island, we saw traditional houses constructed of local clay and covered with wooden slats.Under the eaves of the black-tiled roofs, hung bunches of onions, garlic and rice stalks, away from the moist ground. Nearby ponds were filled with egrets, and household gardens provided the azuki beans we observed drying on mats in the sun. They would later become the red bean paste used in cooking and confections. Red peppers harvested from the garden are also used in a craft. Skillfully braided with rice stalks, they become a decorative strand reputed to ward off evil spirits. With the helpful instruction of an 80-year-old Notojima resident Mieko Tateno, we learned to make our own hanging pepper protectors.
By traveling to the western city of Wajima, on the Sea of Japan, we were able to enter the Wajima Kirimoto lacquerware factory. This family-owned business has been operating for centuries and offered us an inside view of the 7,000-year-old craft. The intensive process involves preparation of wood: shaping, sanding and covering with linen for durability, then numerous coatings of the special urushi-nuri, a toxic resin that creates luster and protects the wood from mold. Lacquerware is popularly known for the black and red serving dishes used for special occasions. But we saw examples of other pieces, such as furniture and counters, and colors developed for everyday living, promised that future generations will continue this beautiful craft.
A visit to the Tsuruno Sake Brewery, a family-owned business located in its original 12th generation structure, was an opportunity to view the complex steps required to brew the famous fermented rice beverage of Japan. Made only in winter to prevent bacterial contamination, the layers of the special small, very white rice is layered with koji, the steamed rice with mold spores cultivated into it, and water. Cooled by the wind in hemp covered wooden containers, the alcoholic beverage is produced by squeezing, filtering and bottling according to traditional and very precise methods.
Kumiko Woodworking Technique
Shoji screens are fairly well known in the West, but other types of window treatments are found in the Japanese house. On such structures, tategu, can be found the delicate technique of assembling wooden pieces without glue or nails, called kumiko. Developed over a thousand years ago in Japan, this technique has been refined and passed down through generations of craftsmen.
We were impressed by the creations of the Endo Tategu Factory and Tamura Tategu Factory. Ranging from lamp bases to large screens and partitions, they were adorned with millimeter-sized, precisely cut pieces of multi-colored wood, often depicting animals and landscapes. Only 20 craftsmen in all of Japan carry on this award-winning, centuries-old craft that requires exceptional precision and an artistic sensibility.
At another location, we met an artist, Heki Saguramu, who uses his wood working skills to create pieces that incorporate glass and display abstract patterns. Viewing his work showed us how modern interpretations of a traditional art can be very appealing and even whimsical.
Brought to the Noto Peninsula during the Maeda period hundreds of years ago, their traditional tea ceremony uses powdered green tea. Demonstrated by a master at the Kitajimaya Tea Shop, we enjoyed our experience grinding tea leaves and observing the brewing technique and ritual presentation of the cup of tea. Of special note was the green tea candy.
The traditional Japanese candle used for Buddhist celebrations, prayer and meditation since the 9th century, is shaped like a torch with the flat, circular top tapering to a narrower base. While all are made of organic materials (washi paper and wax obtained from the sumac tree), some are also made from plants found in central Nanao and produced in another shape unique to the Noto Peninsula. At the Takazawa Candle shop we were shown how the wick is hand-coated with wax, which makes it burn brighter and longer. After the wax has hardened, floral designs are often painted on these elegant candles available in many sizes.
On the Noto Peninsula, the bicycle is a common mode of transportation for residents and visitors alike. Available for rent, they are often used by visitors staying at an onsen (hot springs). At the Wakura Onsen we enjoyed the relaxing effects of the traditional Japanese bathing experience after a day of cycling through small farming communities and pine forests along the coast to various cultural destinations.
Bridal Curtain Museum
One of our destinations was the Hanayome Noren Museum where we viewed both old and modern examples of a local custom that originated in the Noto area in the 19th century and continues today. Bridal curtains bearing the bride’s family crest are hung at the entrance to the Buddhist altar room at the groom’s house for the bride to pass through as she begins a new life. The door-length or longer panels may be hand-painted on cotton or hemp. More often, silk is used and the kaga yuzen is made with a complicated silk print technique. Brilliant colors depict motifs from the Noto culture, such as a shellfish pail or treasure ship. Others we saw included representations of nature: a crane and turtle, a peacock, plum and peony
Enome Fishing Port
Central to the Noto culture is the seafood obtained from the ocean surrounding the peninsula. Observing the pre-dawn fishing activity at the Enome fishing port gave us insight into the relationship the residents have with the natural resources they rely on. One morning, flashlights in hand, we walked the pre-dawn streets from our guesthouse to the small, brightly lit wharf that was noisy with fish-sorting machinery and generators operating on the boats alongside the dock. Burly workers in their rubber boots carried bins and dumped shiny silver fish onto large tables. Once sorted, the catch was loaded onto nearby trucks. An old woman in a bandana cheerily gave instructions and tallied the morning’s work. The vice director of the Notojima Aquarium surveyed containers to see if there were any unusual species or especially old survivors. Owners of local guesthouses made selections for the meals they would serve their guests later that day.
As the sun rose over the sea, the small boats left the dock, their nets and equipment stored. Trucks began moving up the road and the bright lights were turned off. The only sound remaining was from the sea gulls, hovering in the morning wind and fighting for scraps. In the now quiet morning, we walked to a shrine overlooking the ocean where our guide shared the local history and explained the historical symbols and what they mean to the residents of Noto.
Shrines and Festivals
A country that integrates its Shinto and Buddhist heritage, Japan is covered with shrines. Whether inside or outside the home, permanent or portable, large or small, the many shrines in Noto show the respect for nature and natural phenomena that is incorporated into everyday life. Large shrines and Buddhist temples are public places where ceremonies and blessings take place. But any of the seasonal festivals, whether asking for good weather and a bountiful harvest or giving thanks because they have occurred, will include the display of a shrine. Often portable, and sometimes with lanterns that are meant to guide the spirits, shrines are part of the many local festivals that occur from March through September on the Noto Peninsula.
Reputedly the most exciting festivals are the kiriko, where Noto’s unique illuminated lantern floats, often up to 40 ft. high, are carried through the city streets along with portable shrines, mikoshi. Occurring from summer to autumn, the celebration begins after the floats are blessed by the Shinto priests, and sake is poured over them and into the mouths of the men who will carry them. The neighborhood-sponsored floats may only be carried by local residents, but outsiders are welcome to participate in the activities. As sake continues to flow freely and festival foods are consumed, singing from the individuals on the floats can be heard throughout the night along with the sound of taiko drums.
Koda Fire festival
A dynamic festival takes place in the Koda settlement area of Notojima each summer. Using rice ropes, a vertical structure is built in a special field and then a water-soaked tree trunk from a previous year is mounted inside the structure and set on fire. Flames soar 100 ft into the night sky and as the blaze lights the faces of celebrants, many believe that how the pillar of fire falls indicates whether the harvest from the fields or the sea will be good.
At the entrance to Nanao’s Fisherman’s Wharf, the location of a popular fish market and on-site barbecue, a 2-ton wooden wheel from a 20-ton festival float is on display. The floats are called hikiyama and are paraded around the city during the Seihakusai festival. Levers and sake-driven muscles are used to execute the engineering maneuvers needed to manipulate floats around corners as they move through the city streets during days of celebration.
Connection To Nature
During our visit to the Koda settlement on Notojima, we began to understand the connection residents of Noto have with nature and the care they take to live a sustainable life in harmony with their environment. The diverse ecosystems (humid forest, bamboo forest, marsh, plantation with irrigation systems, beach and sea side cliffs, in addition to seagrass) provide a welcoming habitat for native plants and animals, as well as various migratory bird species, including a recent visit by the rare Japanese crested ibis.
United Nation’s GIAHS distinction
This region is part of the United Nation’s Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS). Distinct from other heritage sites, regions with the GIAHS designation exhibit the interplay between the human community and its environment. Both shape each other and evolve in harmony. The Noto Peninsula has been affected by human habitation for 2,000 years, by way of rice paddies and the satoyama landscape. A satoyama landscape contains a mosaic of land uses, such as community gardens, forests, fisheries, water channels, and other uses that focus on generating a sustainable community.
Regional festivals and community stories are based on the interactions of humans and their environment. Multiple festivals celebrate the seasons and harvests on land and from the sea. Shared stories about the origin of towns are often inspired by nature-related events, which is the case of Wakura Onsen. It is said that during the Heian period, fisherman saw a white egret healing itself from steam rising from the ocean and that is how Wakura (rising steam) was discovered and the town was formed.
Gifts from the Land
Besides the farming activity throughout the Noto Peninsula, household and community gardens are common. Vegetables, such as onions, garlic, green onions, peppers, and eggplant are grown as well as vegetables native to this region: nakajimana (a green leaf vegetable), warabi (a Bracken fern), Noto’s “dainagon” azuki (large red beans), persimmon, yuzu (a citrus), and a variety of mushrooms, including shiitake. Crops are used in day-to-day cooking and sold in the marketplace to be used by local restaurants. Some, like the large seedpod natamame, are pickled. This particular pickled plant is eaten with curried rice.
The gardens are usually maintained by older women, oba-chan, whose charm and energy we found memorable and representative of Noto residents. The forest in this region is humid, dense and lush. Residents use the forest as a source for wood or to harvest understory crops, like mushrooms and edible wild plants. Locals see their use of the forest as a way to maintain the forest’s health and to prevent bamboo from invading the understory. In several areas, walking or riding a bike is allowed on forest paths.
Gifts from the Sea
Japan is well known for using resources provided by the ocean, including fish, shellfish, seaweed, and salt. On the Noto Peninsula, all of these resources are enjoyed and usually harvested using traditional and often locally developed methods. Various forms of traditional methods for obtaining sea salt are still used, even obtaining sea salt from seaweed. With over 200 different seaweed species, traditional food specialties using dried seaweed, nori, as well as fresh-raw seaweed, are numerous.One centuries-old method used for gathering food from the sea is diving. The Ama or “women of the sea” are freedivers who hunt for abalone, seaweed and shellfish. Plentiful and diverse, the fish and shellfish are reason enough to explore this region. Not only is the fresh seafood to be enjoyed, but also Noto’s traditional fish-based fermented sauces.
Sustenance and Tradition
It was inspiring to see how Noto residents understand the effect climate change has on their seasonal crops and harvests, as well as how their human activity affects the preservation of their ecosystem. They recognize themselves as part of nature and understand their impact on the land and sea. We found Noto unique and appreciate how methods used for sustenance can also help to retain traditions and cultural significance, even within a region that is becoming increasingly modern. With new technologies and an aging population, the Noto communities are working hard to sustain their satoyama landscapes and retain their cultural heritage.
Food & Dining
Finding food in Japan is fun and easy. Restaurants are numerous – from quick, inexpensive convenience stores to homey noodle houses to world-class restaurants. It would be helpful to learn a few table manners ahead of time, but most importantly, pour beverages for your dining partners, if you’d like a refill.
Our first dining experience in the Ishikawa Prefecture took place at the Kanazawa train station where we enjoyed soba noodles and rice balls wrapped in seaweed. With a vegan in the group, we made careful selections when traveling. But once we arrived at our ryokan, a traditional guesthouse, we were privileged to enjoy a superb range of seafood, the specialty of Noto. Our vegan was treated to special vegetable and grain dishes as substitutes. Catering to special diets is not common in Noto, but with such a variety of foods, all of us thoroughly enjoyed our meals.
At the elegant Oku-Noto, with a breathtaking view of the sea and local artwork surrounding our table for lunch, we enjoyed an introduction to sauces prepared with locally made ishiri. Although Noto is famous for their seafood, especially oysters, this special type of fermented, soy-like fish sauce made from squid and other fishes is equally well known. Family-owned restaurants may have a family member or local friend who creates their own supply of this sauce which is used extensively in dishes and soups.
For dinner at our guesthouse in Enome, we were seated near a sunken charcoal brazier where our hostess continuously grilled yellowtail, scallops, squid, oysters, and various succulent fish from the day’s catch along with mushrooms, peppers and a variety of other fresh vegetables. At the point where we couldn’t consume another bite, we asked for rice, which is the custom to signal satiety. Rice balls were then grilled and they were so delicious, we were able to consume a bit more before leaving our gracious hostess. In addition to the available alcoholic beverages, we enjoyed a robust, grain-roasted tea.
The next afternoon, it was a special treat to have lunch at Flatts. An Australian-born, Italian-trained chef and his local-born wife delighted us with a meal that consisted of ingredients from their own garden and prepared, pickled, fermented or just served fresh by their own hands. Since they spoke English, we had an opportunity to learn about fermentation and the challenges of using seasonal plants. Along with their guesthouses, their property hosts many fruit trees above a dramatic view of the ocean. Using traditional Japanese food preparation techniques creatively, Chef Flatt prepared a very memorable meal.
At Wakura Onsen we were more than impressed by the number of courses and variety of dishes beautifully presented at dinner. Ranging from soups and small samplings of vegetables to sizable portions of various fish and platters of crab legs, we enjoyed the feast before retiring to the hotel’s onsen. In contrast, we had our last lunch at Ishiri-tei in Nanao, located in a small and cozy repurposed bank building. It was no less enjoyable and demonstrated that Noto’s friendly hospitality and expertly prepared seafood and vegetable dishes are consistently good throughout the region.
The Japanese love to imbibe and have general customs specific to drinking tea, beer, and sake. The Noto Peninsula is home to a number of sake and beer breweries, with options readily available at stores and restaurants. Plan a ride that begins or ends at a brewery or restaurant just as you would back home. Soba Tea, derived from roasted buckwheat, stood out among beverages, as well as Shochu – a clear liquor falling between sake and vodka in strength. Vending machines are also available nearly everywhere (even roadsides), and supply a number of cold and hot drinks – including beer and coffee!
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