Trip to Gifu

Just spent a couple days in Gifu (mountainous prefecture in between Tokyo and Osaka).  A bit off the beaten tourist track, Gifu is a medium size Japanese city.  It is home to Daisuke, a very smart and talented interpreter and translator that we rely on for our work at the Wild Salmon Center.  He lives in Gifu with his American wife, Margie, and his 9 year old (and incredibly cute) daughter Akena (her name means ‘twilight’ in Japanese).  Along with a very demanding job as a freelance interpreter and translator, Daisuke works at his family sweet shop (making wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets) – he is the 7th generation master wagashi maker, carrying on a very cherished tradition in Japan.  He and his father produce amazing works of art, that are, of course, delicious!

Gifu Shoho-ji Daibutsu, a huge Buddha, built on a wooden frame and covered with paper from Buddhist sutra books.

Gifu Shoho-ji Daibutsu, a huge Buddha, built on a wooden frame and covered with paper from Buddhist sutra books.

Daisuke is keen on developing tourism in his town, and he put together a fantastic tour for us.  He took us to a Buddhist temple (3rd largest Buddha in Japan … the Buddha’s ears were over 2 m long! – Nico told me that was one enlightened Buddha!) and we visited a number of artisans and craftsmen making a variety of foods and crafts in traditional ways.  We visited a Buddhist temple (we meditated), a Shinto shrine, a tamari (soy sauce) operation, a potter’s studio and kiln,  a tofu “skin” company (the skin is lifted off of 80 oC soy milk, dried and prepared in different ways, including as “chips” which we all liked a lot), a gluten-based food shop (the gluten intolerant beware!), a Fujii Buddhist altar shop (we gilded bowls with gold leaf and enjoyed the incense ambience), and Daisuke’s own sweet shop where we tried our hand at creating seasonal sweets (iris flowers and cherry blossoms) made from rice and wheat flour and azuki bean paste.

At Yubaya Shoten, a family run business producing yuba, or tofu skins.  These are tubs of warm soy milk, and skin from surface is lifted with a stick and dried.

At Yubaya Shoten, a family run business producing yuba, or tofu skins. These are tubs of warm soy milk, and skin from surface is lifted with a stick and dried.

Daisuke showing us the craft of making wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets.

Daisuke showing us the craft of making wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets.

This is what wagashi is supposed to look like (this one a cherry blossom).  The ones we produced were, shall we say, a bit irregular!

This is what wagashi is supposed to look like (this one a cherry blossom). The ones we produced were, shall we say, a bit irregular!

We were constantly reminded of change in Japanese culture and society during our stay.  The main shopping/restaurant district in Gifu is looking like a ghost town now (we were there both Friday and Saturday nights), as much of the shopping, eating and entertainment happens in the sprawling outskirts of town.  Young people are drawn to Osaka and Tokyo for work, so there weren’t many young people out.  Daisuke, and a growing group of his small business colleagues, are trying to change that.  You can see their website here: http://experiencegifu.com/

Oh, I didn’t mention okonomiyaki – the Japanese pancake (which, I learned on this trip, is not a very apt description of this amazing delicacy)!  We had front row seating for the preparation, and it was as much a joy to watch the chef prepare it as it was to eat it.  The chef skillfully brought together a long list of interesting ingredients (shredded cabbage and daikon, seafood, beef, pickled ginger, eggs, sweet soy sauce, mayonnaise, and bonito fish flakes).  The finished product was plopped down in front of us, and we feasted.  As I write this, I am craving another, chased down, of course, by an Asahi “Super Dry” (the ubiquitous Japanese beer).

Okonomiyaki, or Japanese pancake, prepared right in front of us.  Just pure goodness.

Okonomiyaki, or Japanese pancake, prepared right in front of us. Just pure goodness.

Oh, I didn’t mention the Japanese beef – known to us in the US as ‘Kobe beef’.  Wow.  It looks like nothing I have ever seen – red with fat ‘veins’ running through it, giving it a marbled appearance.  You order only about 100 g of the stuff in a meal (a US steak eater would be quite perplexed to get this served to them on a plate).  Tender doesn’t really quite describe it.  Amazing works better!  Still considered a rare delicacy in Japan, Daisuke’s family has it maybe once a month.

Japanese beef served to us in Gifu. Amazingly tasty.  Note Cole's improper handling of his hashi.

Japanese beef served to us in Gifu. Amazingly tasty. Note Cole’s improper handling of his hashi.

Now back on shinkansen to Tsukuba, and some down time for my family as I begin planning and preparing for our trip to Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan where I will be visiting many colleagues and friends, and starting my field work.

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