Gracious…this trip booked up entirely in less than two hours after sign-ups opened. I’m very sorry for those who didn’t get the chance to sign up before it filled. I think this shows what a need there is for quality trips that are accessible to foreign residents and visitors — we need to find a way to make more of these. I will make a manual waiting list, so please contact me (with email address) if you’d like to stay on hold in case someone cancels. And thank you very much for your interest.
If you’ve never seen yabusame 流鏑馬 mounted archery, or even if you have, you should definitely come along on our next “Discover Another Kanagawa” excursion! We’ll enjoy VIP access to this exciting event, held once a year in the historical Soga-no-Bairin plum orchard, which should be full bloom. And that’s just one part of this fully guided day-trip in English to the Ashigara valley region. The date is Thursday Feb. 11, which is a national holiday. Other highlights include a chance to try your hand at traditional aizome 藍染 indigo dyeing, a very special tea tasting, tours of two traditional thatch-roof houses as well as a sake brewery, AND a stop at one of the 100 most beautiful waterfalls in Japan!
If you’re already convinced, you can go straight to either of the registration pages: Tabee Japan, which is all in English, sort of, but is finicky. Start by clicking on the circle on Feb. 11. If you read enough Japanese to sign up for things online, you can try Kanagawa Chikatabi, where the tour description is in English but the instructions are in Japanese. Otherwise, read on for the full tour description; these sign up links appear again at the end.
The historic Ashigara valley is located in the western-most part of Kanagawa Prefecture, very close to Mt. Fuji. The area was settled very early, with nearby rivers providing plenty of water for rice cultivation, and important roads passed through the area. Ashigara appears frequently in haiku and other traditional poetry, and is said to be the birthplace of the legendary folk hero Kintarō.
Our group, which is limited to 25 people, will meet at 8:45 am at Shin-Matsuda station on the Odakyu line (train information below), and head to a typical old thatch-roof farmhouse. There, we’ll learn about indigo, a traditional crop in the Ashigara region (along with rice and plums and tea, which we will also experience on our trip). We’ll try our hands at dying with indigo; you can take home a handkerchief or tenugui towel that you’ve dyed yourself.
The farmhouse is home to an NGO that recycles old kimono and obi and makes work for people with disabilities from the local community. So you can pick up vintage kimono and obi, as well as handbags and cushions made from them, at very reasonable prices. The highest price I saw on these bags made from gorgeous obi from prestigious Kyoto weavers 5,000 yen. If you’re not interested in shopping, you can wander around upstairs and look at interesting relics from earlier lifestyle.
Next we’ll walk three minutes down the dirt lane to another traditional house known as the Seto Yashiki. This one is older and more impressive because it was the hereditary home of the village head, or nanushi 名主. There’s a lot to see and learn about traditional architecture here, from the water-wheel and thatch roof, to the iron hearth for cooking and guest privy. We’ll also see evidence of how the explosion of Mt. Fuji in 1707 affected the area. (Hint: the entire valley was covered in volcanic ash, which is not exactly healthy for either people or crops.)
We’ll be too early for the Doll Festival (March 3) festivities there, but some of the decorations will already be up, most notably the tsuribina hanging decorations. These charming, colorful hangings are made out of scrap cloth by the local women’s association, and a representative will be on hand to talk to us and answer questions. If we’re lucky, we’ll also be able to see a large display of old dolls. The main event here, however, will be a mini-seminar about susuri-cha すずり茶, the rather unusual local way of enjoying Ashigara tea.
For lunch, we’ll have a special “sato-ben” 郷弁 (hometown box lunch) made especially for us by the ladies at Tsukasa Sozai, and presented in a woven box made from local bento. I chose for us the “Ashigara tea bento,” which includes rice cooked in tea instead of plain water. It makes the rice a really pretty color. I can’t wait to try the taste!
Next stop will be the Soga-no-Bairin 曽我梅林 plum orchard, which boasts 35,000 plum trees. Seriously — you can’t imagine what a sight it is to see so many plum trees in bloom, particularly when Mt. Fuji is visible in the background. I checked it out the other day, when only the earliest blossoms were open; it should be in full bloom when we’re there. This is the venue for the yabusame mounted archery. It’s a very special ritual, held here just once a year, so lots of people are expected. But we’ll be given a special place from which to observe, and a rider who can answer questions, so we should be able to see better, and learn more, than at the yabusame held in more known locations such as Kamakura and Nikko. There will of course be time to photograph the plum blossoms, and shop for local products, if you like.
After the plum orchard, we’ll move on to the nearby Ishii sake brewery, where Mr. Ishii himself will treat us to a private tour and tasting. February is the height of the sake-making season, so we’ll see actual sake in the making. Afterwards, we’ll be able to (freely!) sample their award-winning Soga no Homare 曽我の誉 (“Pride of Soga”) sakes — and plum wine made with plums from the very orchards we just visited! I’m pretty fussy about plum wine, and I promise this one is good. You can purchase whatever you want right at the brewery, and it’s a good opportunity to do so, because Soga no Homare is only sold within the prefecture. You can’t get it in Tokyo, and you certainly can’t get it in New York or Frankfurt or Milan! That makes it a nice gift for sake-loving friends, especially those overseas.
To sober everyone up before we get on the train, we’ll get a little fresh air at the beautiful Shasui no Taki waterfall, which is on the official list of the 100 most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. It’s a very pretty place, and just a short stroll through green woods, which should do us all some good. The “minus ions” in the air around waterfalls are supposedly good for your health, too.
This fully guided tour in English is organized in cooperation with Kanagawa Prefecture and local governments, and with a grant from the national government that makes it possible to offer it at half the actual cost. The fee of 6,000 yen per person includes lunch, the indigo dyeing workshop, the tea seminar, transportation by private bus within Ashigara, and all admission charges during the tour. Please pay your own train fare to and from Shin-Matsuda station.
(Train information: From Shinjuku station on the Odakyu Odawara Line, there is a “Romance Car” limited-express, which is a very nice train with all-reserved seating, departing at 7:30 am, arriving Shin-Matsuda at 8:31 am. (61 mins, 1,470 yen). This is the fastest, most comfortable way to get to our meeting point. You’re guaranteed a seat and you can buy or just reserve your ticket in advance here. (Ask for the Hakone #3 train on Feb. 11. The link for making reservations and purchases in English is on the tour sign-up page.) Or save a little money by taking the Odawara-bound regular express train, also on the Odakyu Odawara line, boarding at Shinjuku at 7:11 am to arrive in Shin-Matsuda at 8:35 am (1 hour, 22 mins; 780 yen). This train can also be boarded at Yoyogi Uehara at 7:16 (1 hr, 19 mins; 720 yen), but you’re unlikely to get a seat when you board. If you’re coming from Yokohama, there is “tokkyu” special express on the Sotetsu Line dep. 7:30 bound for Ebina station; arrive at Ebina at 7:54 and change to the Odakyu Odawara express train that departs Ebina at 8:00 arriving Shin-Matsuda at 8:35. (1 hour, 5 mins; 680 yen). The group will return to Shin-Matsuda station at the end of the tour, at approximately 5:45 pm, earlier if traffic allows.)
The group is limited to 20 people and should fill up quickly. If you’re interested please sign up as soon as possible. You’ve got two options: Tabee Japan, which is all in English, sort of, but is finicky. Start by clicking on the circle on Feb. 11. If you read enough Japanese to sign up for things online, you can try Kanagawa Chikatabi. The text about the tour is in English but the instructions are in Japanese. When you enter your name, do it all in capital letters, which I’ve heard works better. If you have any trouble, please let me know through the contact page on this blog and I’ll get you signed up.