Japanese folklore and legend are told through the Namahage cultural show in Akita Prefecture.
By CHULARAT SAENGPASSA
Home to hot springs, crater and caldera lakes and wooden samurai mansions, Akita Prefecture is the perfect place to spend a holiday
An hour’s flight north of Tokyo, Akita Prefecture in Japan’s Tohoku region is a quiet mountainous area that’s full of charm.
Famous for rice farming and sake breweries, its impressive landscape and rich history more than compensate for the lack of bustling shopping areas and nightlife, making it an ideal destination for anyone wanting to escape the madding crowd.
The prefecture is home to the ancient town of Kakunodate. Dating back to 1620, Kakunodate is famous for its samurai architecture and weeping cherry trees. Although the castle is long gone, today’s Kakunodate has retained many of the old samurai manses and visitors feel like they have travelled back in time as they stroll past the old buildings that line Samurai village.
Some of these samurai houses have been converted into souvenir shops and restaurants, with one of the largest, Aoyagi House, transformed into an open-air samurai museum. Now known as the Aoyagi Samurai Manor Museum, it displays samurai tools and household utensils as well as toys from the Edo Period.
Exhibits here have their roots in the original Aoyagi House and many of them were collected and used by members of the Aoyagi family during their lifetime.
The grand estate is also home to a shady garden boasting hundreds of rare plants. Among them is the aoyagi Yae Beni Shidare Zakura, an eight-petal red weeping cherry that’s magnificent when it’s in full bloom.
Not all the old samurai houses are open to the public though it is possible to admire them up close from the comparative comfort of a rickshaw.
From Kakunodate, tourists can take a train to other beauty spots in the prefecture. Many visitors, and particularly fans of the South Korean TV series “Iris”, opt to travel by road to the crater lake of Tazawa, where Choi Seunghee and Kim Hyuenjun embraced by the golden statue of a local girl called Tatsuko.
But even without its connection to the popular series, Tazawa is worth a visit. The deepest lake in Japan at 423 metres, it cannot freeze over even when the temperatures drop well below zero. According to legend, Tatsuko was a beautiful girl who prayed to retain her beauty forever but was instead cursed and turned into a dragon and eventually sunk to the bottom of Lake Tazawa. She now stands with her back to the clear blue waters, a figure of purity and beauty.
A short drive away is Oyasu Valley, its hot spring evident to the nose the moment we step down from the bus. But while the sulphur odour is less than pleasant, the landscape is amazing and it is easy to understand why even emperors once frequented the valley.
The beautiful landscape continues all the way to Oga city, which lies within the boundaries of the Oga Quasi-National Park, and is a popular destination for both birdwatchers and paragliders. Surrounded by steep cliffs and volcanic crater lakes, the Oga region is best known for its Namahage shows. Taking their name from the strange deity resembling a demon, these powerful drum performances were traditionally staged over the New Year period to offer blessings and dispel bad luck but are today regularly put on for tourists and performed by young locals who have refused to move to big cities in search of better-paying jobs.
Akita, which is believed to have given its name to the popular breed of dog, is also justifiably famous for its udon noodles and udon-making classes are available for those who would like to learn the technique.
Held at Sato Yosuke restaurant in Akita town, which can trace its origins back more than 150 years, the workshop teaches participants how to produce Japan’s famous Nihon Sandai Udon through the fermentation of the flour to drying, stretching and boiling.
The best part comes right at the end of the class when participants sit down to tuck into the tasty udon at this famous restaurant.
IF YOU GO
< Akita is about three hours by trains from Sendai Station and an hour’s flight from Haneda Airport.
< Visitors coming from Osaka should expect to spend six hours on the train.
< Thai tourists are allowed to enter the country without a visa for stays not exceeding 15 days.