Deriving its name from the geographical location – kita means “north” and kata means “direction”, the town of Kitakata is located at the northwestern part of Fukushima. To make it simple, almost close to the side of Nikko and relatively far from the damaged nuclear plant, with the current radiation level of almost the same as any other city in the world.
The locals saying best describes what the town of Kitakata is all about.
“A man who has turned 40 years old and does not yet own a storehouse is not yet a man”.
It is a town of commerce and merchants, where the prevailing architecture is a distinguished warehouse styled building called “kura” and where everyone seems to be running a business- either ramen shop or sake brewery.
Kitakata, though not a well-known foreign tourists destination particularly after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is very ready to entertain non-Japanese speaking visitors. From a helpful tourist information desk at the train station where English town maps are widely available for free, to the numerous English signage on the street, plus a loop bus touring around the storehouses, I’m very impressed on how easy to navigate the town is.
I always failed to mention this on my past post, but one of the best ways to document your journey across Japan is to collect souvenir stamps. A part of Japanese sightseeing culture, they are for free and available almost everywhere.
The first question often asked by visitors upon entering the tourist information desk is “Where is the best ramen shop?”. The lady at the desk will quickly respond by handing you a map with locations of over 100 ramen shop spread across town.
Kitakata is the ramen haven of the Tohoku Region. Sharing the spotlight with Sapporo and Hakata, Kitakata is considered as having one of the three best tasting ramen across Japan, no doubt why most people traveled just to eat ramen.
With 4,100 “kura” (storehouses) still remaining to date, walking the streets of Kitakata has a nostalgic appeal. I personally like the kura architecture- the white painted plastered walls and tiled-roof designed. The open window for ventilation with iron bar grills as protection from theft, for me is the most prevailing part of the traditional storehouses.
In front of each “kura” a small signage in Japanese is placed,stating the name of the establishment, the year it was founded and the product sold. Not all kura at Kitakata are used for trading purpose, some are old dormitories or royokan.
If there is one thing that I enjoyed the most at Kitakata is the free 20 minutes Sake brewery tour at Ohara Sake Brewery. Though, there are several brewery shops that provides a free tour and sake tasting, there is a particular reason why I choose Ohara Sake Brewery, and that is Classical Music.
Excerpts for the Sake brewery shop brochure:
Ohara Brewery was estbalished in 1717, and has been brewing its own distinctive sake for 280 years in Kitakata, a town itself famous for its high quality sake.
“Classic”, the name of our sake, plays on the Japanese word “kura” meaning warehouse.
Playing music to sake increase the fermentation activity of the yeast, improves the lasting power of the yeast form, which is essential in adding fruity flavor, and because of the masking power of music, it helps prevent yeast from dying, reducing complex, unwanted flavors.
Here is a quick tour on the process of creating a sake, I hope I remember them correctly.
First, rice is polished to reduce its size to finer grains (Rice Polishing). After which, the polished rice will be washed to remove any other impurities such as bran (Rice washing). The washed rice will be steamed using an iron vat to pre-gelatinize the rice starch (Rice steaming).
The steamed rice will be transfered to a brick room. Here, koji (mould) is expected to grow upon the steamed rice which in turn will create enzyme (Koji Room).
The next step is what set Ohara Brewery apart from the other sake manufacturer.
During the brewing process where water, mould and three additions of steamed rice are mixed in a tank, Bose speakers are positioned at the area to broadcast Mozart symphony to assist fermentation. This is based on the study done by the company about the compatibility of sake and music.
I asked the tour guide how long do they need to play the music, and she told me that for about 1 hour during daytime and night time for 30 days.
Apart from everything I learned about sake brewery, what makes a journey at rural area of Japan is discovering how humbling the town is and how accommodating the town people are. I enjoyed every minute I spent inside and outside the train, where I often befriended by other Japanese passenger despite my inability to converse well in Nihonggo.
Despite the bad weather, I had a fulfilling day exploring the town of Kitakata. It saddens me to think that what supposed to be a booming merchant/tourism city is now bypassed by most traveler due to radiation fear of Fukushima.
I hope one day all the trouble associated with Fukushima nuclear disaster will be gone and people will start to visit the land of kura, sake and ramen once again.