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An Island Shrine, a Special Meal and a Unique Museum in Japan's Aichi Prefecture


In pursuit of a week-long adventure in Japan’s heartland Shoryudo RegionI sped west from Tokyo on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen. The train’s path followed the Old Tōkaidō Road (the 'eastern sea' road), used for centuries to travel between the governmental capital in Edo (modern Tokyo) and the Imperial capital in Kyoto. I was on my way to Aichi Prefecture which hugs the Pacific coast and offers a rich experience with culture, history, nature and culinary deliciousness.


I settled into my seat on the train, happy to be in Japan where public transportation makes it easy to explore all parts of the island nation. For intercity visits under three hours, I'll always take  the 200+ mph Shinkansen. 

Called the "bullet train" for good reason. Stand near railroad tracks as a Shinkansen passes and it feels like a jet on wheels is streaking by. Inside, when I'm sitting in a comfortable seat, reading a book or snacking on a bento box, I forget how fast we're traveling.  

I would definitely recommend taking a "bullet train" because the Shinkansen is as much a part of the Japanese experience as ramen or sushi. 


Takeshima Island, Gamagōri 


We lowered our umbrellas when the light rain stopped. 



As we walked on the bridge that stretched into Mikawa Bay, Hadano Hiroaki from the Gamagōri City Hall Tourism office took out a bag of chips. I thought he wanted us to sample one of the region’s local treats. But the chips were not for us. 

A dozen seagulls appeared out of the dark grey sky, swooping low and grabbing the chips from his outstretched hand. With a smile, he said he likes to feed the black headed gulls that migrate from Russia and pass through Gamagōri. 

The gulls weren’t the only visitors who frequented this part of Aichi Prefecture. Hiroaki wanted us to experience Takeshima Island

Revered as a national treasure, the island is the home of the Yaotomi Shrine. Hiroaki explained that the shrine was established in 1181 with a group of five Shinto shrines around a main plaza. Famously, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) stopped at the shrine to pray for victory before the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. His prayers were answered because he won that battle and went on to become the first shōgun of a unified Japan. 


We were joined by Tamotsu Itou, a friendly guide who enjoyed telling us about the island. As we walked across the narrow bridge, he pointed out the long poles in the water marking the position of clam beds that stretch between the island and the city beach. 


He pulled out a well-worn photograph to show us a crowd digging for clams in the ankle-deep water. Through our interpreter, Masayo Atobe, he explained that from early April to early June,  thousands arrive at low tide to dig for clams and celebrate the bounty of the sea. 


At the end of the bridge, we stopped in front of the large, stone torii gate, marking the dividing line between the material and spiritual worlds, the bridge and the island. We bowed twice to show respect. Itou explained that all torii gates are revered, but this torii gate might be the only one in Japan placed on a bridge, which made it quite unique.


Stepping onto the island, we walked up the hill. Itou pointed to the thick stands of bamboo that hemmed in the stone staircase. “’Take’,” he told us, “means ‘bamboo’, so Takeshima is ‘bamboo island’.” 



At the top of the hill we followed a path of weathered, moss-covered stones that led us to the covered temizusha (or temizuya) where we cleansed our hands and mouths as a dragon watched our every move. 

The overcast day added to the feeling of spirituality. There was a quiet serenity in the courtyard of the shrine where twisted prayer papers attached to long strands of cord glistening with drops of water. The stands of thick bamboo and pine trees dampened any noise that might have invaded the silence. Even if a jetliner had passed overhead, I doubt we would have heard it. 



In front of the Yaotomi Shrine, we bowed and clapped our hands to pay our respects to the Buddhist goddess Benzaiten (or Benten). Known also by her Shinto name, Ichikishima Hime No Mikoto, the goddess protects women in childbirth, lovers, those seeking material prosperity and people who pursue the arts, especially geisha.


As we were leaving, Itou gestured to the path leading away from the shrine and told us that if today had been sunny, we would have taken the half hour walk around the island to enjoy the beauty of the forest and the rocky shoreline. In warm weather, we would see lovers strolling hand-hand on the well-marked trail. 

Rokakudou Seafood & Steak House

The fresh sea air made us hungry. Happily, Gamagōri is celebrated for its bounty of seafood. The small seacoast town has many well-known restaurants. We were lucky to be invited for lunch at the Rokakudou Seafood & Steak House, part of the Gamagōri Classic Hotel


Inside the intimate dining room with a dozen small tables, we sat at the chef’s table, the better to watch chef Tadaaki Hatano at work. The prefix menu, in English and Japanese, illustrated his culinary point of view. He combined the lessons of  his Japanese heritage with his training as a French chef. Using the best ingredients available, the meal focused on local products from the land and sea.


Our server, Shigeki Noguchi, offered us cloth napkins before presenting us with a hot vegetable soup in a pale white tureen. Potatoes, barley and beans added texture to a soup flavored by carrots, celery and red peppers. 

After the soup, there was a salad that balanced European and Japanese ingredients. Hatano combined soy sauce, grated apples, ginger, orange juice and salad oil to make a bright tasting dressing. Radicchio, shredded Savoy cabbage, carrots, daikon, cucumber, red radish, bitter green mizune and frisée, cucumber, red and green leaf lettuces, green and red peppers and taro leaf were tossed together, with tiny, translucent whitebait on top. Such delicious flavors, so many wonderful textures. 

Hatano embraced choice. To that end, the bread service included not butter nor olive oil, but small servings of Mikawa Shiro Tamari, a local white soy, house-made ponzu and crystal clear sesame oil. If I wanted to add salt, there was a choice of three. Andean salt used for all the dishes. Hiroshima salt for vegetables and fish and Dead Sea salt to season meat.

Smoke drifted up from Hatano’s blazingly hot teppan grill. Working in front of us, he quickly charred local rockfish, baby squid, slabs of Japanese eggplant and bright yellow kabocha. All conversation paused as we focused on our plates. Once again, delicious.

For dessert, Hatano encouraged us to order the fruit flambé. Having nodded to his Japanese roots during the meal, he went full-on French for his finale. Being a great chef can also mean being a showman. In that Hatano excelled. With grand gestures he caramelized grapes, kiwi, pineapple and orange sections. Setting a match to the pan, he ladled the flaming river of flavor onto a large scoop of ice cold vanilla ice cream. A delightful climax to a lovely meal.

After you have defeated your enemies, how do you keep the peace?

Many of the attractions of Shoryudo are historical. I came to the region because I wanted to learn more about Tokugawa Ieyasu who prayed for victory at the Yaotomi Shrine. After decades of struggle and against great odds he defeated all the warlords who opposed him. 


After he had unified Japan, Ieyasu built  Nagoya Castle for his ninth son. Over the centuries the castle suffered damage, especially during WWII. When I visited, the castle and its many buildings were undergoing a complex reconstruction that emphasized native materials and traditional construction techniques. When you visit Aichi Prefecture, the castle has to be on your bucket-list of stops. 

Having been victorious on the field of battle, Ieyasu faced a daunting problem. How to pacify the feudal lords and unify the country? 

By creating a system of five roads, he facilitated trade throughout the island nation. That led to prosperity, which is always a good way to keep everyone happy. The roads were also necessary for a more politically sophisticated purpose.

Ieyasu decreed that all lords must visit the seat of government in Edo (modern Tokyo) every other year. They were required to bring their families and stay for an extended period of time while they waited for an audience with the shogun.

Transportation in those days was mostly on foot. When nobles traveled, they required a great number of workmen, servants and retainers to accompany them. And since the journey could take many days or weeks, inns called honjin were constructed along the roads.

Ieyasu’s plan was diabolically clever. By requiring the bi-yearly visits, he effectively bankrupted the nobles. That made them dependent on the central government for financial support.

The system worked brilliantly. Until it didn’t. 

For over two-hundred and fifty years, the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1837) ruled Japan. But in the mid-19thcentury, the world was changing and the tightly controlled system created by Ieyasu wasn’t nimble enough to adjust to internal pressures and to the arrival of American and European nations. With their superior weapons, the Western powers demanded that Japan open their markets to trade and that was the beginning of the end for the Shogunate. 

At the Futagawa Shuku Honjin Museum, I was able to get an up-close-and-personal look at the ways in which nobles (daimyō) traveled between their homes and Edo. While an English language brochure was available, none of the exhibit signs were in English. Because the museum staff did not speak English, having an English-fluent guide made the experience much more rewarding.

Hayano Yumiko, the curator of the museum, started the tour by taking us into replicas of the honjin or inns.  

She explained that to accommodate the feudal lords, their servants and the commoners who traveled on the Tōkaidō Road, fifty-three stations provided shelter and food. Counting from Edo, Futagawa Shuku was the thirty-third honjin on the Tōkaidō Road. 

In a rough-hewn space with life-sized human figures, the museum had recreated a waki-honjin where servants and merchants would stay. 


In an adjoining space, another full-sized replica represented the accommodations for nobles and high government officials. These rooms were elegantly appointed with tatami mat floors and sliding doors between rooms. 


Breakfast and dinner were served in both inns and both had indoor toilets and baths. The inns were in such demand that a reservation would have to be made a year in advance. 

The trip was arduous because each lord needed to bring what his family would use on the trip and at court. Yumiko pointed out the wide entrances to the honjin which were necessary to accommodate the seven-foot-long and very heavy wooden cases that were filled with possessions. 

When a lord and his family left home, as many as eight-hundred members of his household would accompany them. Along the way, more help would be required. According to records preserved in the museum, sometimes as many as six hundred additional workers were hired. That meant the trip could require as many as 1,400 servants. For the most important daimyō, even more would be needed. 

Seeing the displays, it was easy to understand how the trips bankrupted the feudal lords, forcing them to be financially dependent on the shogun. 


The honjin provided not just shelter and sustenance, but a place for rest and contemplation. At the rear of the property a rock garden was landscaped with a small shrine overlooking Goyomatsu pine and Daidai orange trees. 


Inside the family-friendly museum, there were educational displays for children. In the main room, maps showed the location of the inns along the Tōkaidō Road. To document what life was like at the honjin, reproductions of colored woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) were on display.  



We all pressed close to the glass display cases so we could appreciate the wonderful detail of his portraits.



I especially loved the miniature diorama with a procession of retainers. At the rear, legions of servants carried the heavy boxes filled with possessions and household goods. 


Nobles and their families did not walk. They traveled in palanquins (norimono kago) which were carried by servants. Several full-sized replicas of the palanquins were also on display. No doubt traveling in a palanquin was a privilege, but, to me, it looked cramped and uncomfortable. 


The museum did an excellent job documenting the enormous resources required for the journey.

Next visit

I definitely want to spend more time on Takeshima Island, to come back in the spring to go clam digging and to visit with my wife, so we can walk hand-in-hand around the island. And, while we are in Gamagōri, I want to check out the Takeshima Aquarium and the Natural History Museum.

WHEN YOU GO

Lists of activities in the Shoryudo Region are available on https://www.jtbusa.com/shoryudo/

Staying in Nagoya makes exploring the area easy and convenient. Comfortable accommodations and reliable transportation are very available. Consult the Nagoya Information Center website: https://www.nagoya-info.jp/en/icenter/

Information about the Gamagōri area is available on http://www.gamagori.jp/en/index.html

Gamagōri Classic Hotel, 15-1 Takeshima-cho, Gamagōri-shi, Aichi Prefecture 443-0031, +81 553 68-1111, http://www.classic-hotel.jp (mostly in Japanese)

Futagawa Shuku Honjin Museum65 Aza Naka-machi, Futagawa-cho, Toyohashi City, Aichi Prefecture 441-3155, +81 532-41-8580 (Japanese only), http://futagawa-honjin.jp/en/

Gamagōri City Takeshima Aquarium, 1-6 Takeshima-cho, Gamagōri-shi, Aichi Prefecture 443-0031, +81 0533-68-2059.

Gamagōri Network Research Center, Natural History Museum - Sea of Life, 17-17 Minato-machi, Gamagōri-shi, Aichi Prefecture 443-0034, +81 533-66-1717

Nagoya Castle1-1 Honmaru, Naka-ku, Nagoya-shi, Aichi Prefecture 460-0031, +81 52-231-1700,
http://www.nagoyajo.city.nagoya.jp/13_english/. The meticulous restoration of the castle celebrates its architectural and artistic excellence. 

Rokakudou Seafood & Steak House,  Gamagori Classic Hotel Annex, 15-1 Takeshima-cho, Gamagōri-shi, Aichi Prefecture 443-0031, +81 533-68-1111.

Yaotomi ShrineTakeshima Island, 3-15 Takeshima-cho, Gamagōri-chi, Aichi 443-0031+81-533-68-2526. Guides like Tamotsu Itou volunteer their time. The only cost to visitors is a nominal fee paid when making the booking to cover the cost of the guide’s transportation. The guides will most likely speak only Japanese, so it is helpful to be accompanied by your a English-fluent guide you have booked separately. The web site is Japanese only: http://yaotomi.net. For more information about volunteer guides, contact the Gamagoōri City Tourist Association office by telephone +81-533-68-2526 or by email kankou@sk.aitai.ne.jp.

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