Saturday, January 30, 2016

Made In Japan

Words by Marie Wee, picture adapted with Google, Executive summary by Darmansjah

Eat, drink and soak up the cultures of Japan in Nara. Lonely Planet goes behind the scenes to uncover the process of making well-loved Japanese products.

It all started in Nara. The history of Japan is believed to have begun in the Nara Prefecture of Kansai. Having been the strategic endpoint of the Silk Road, the city was amply nourished by imports and ideas. Today, the charming area is characterized by the juxtaposition of cultures old and new, and its unofficial mascot, the deer, which greets tourists by the herd, especially at Nara Park.

To truly appreciate some of the most common Japanese products, you’ll have to see and experience the intricate culture of their making. If you get down to stretching some of the longest rolls of dough, and stirring rice in a huge barrel, you’ll be rewarded with smooth vermicelli-like noodles in piping hot soup and the sweetest sake on a cold winter’s day.

World ‘s Finest Noodle

The legendary somen, acclaimed to be world’s thinnest noodles, are also called White Dragon, as these white wheat-based noodles are said to be as fine as the dragon’s beard at only 0.3mm in its thinnest variety. Somen is said to have first been made by a Buddhist priest who came from China to Nara in the 7th century. Coupled with the refreshing clear water of the region and improved techniques used to make it today, somen has become Nara’s very own produce.

A typical day of making somen starts at 4am on a sunny winter’s day as much of the process requires sunlight and also cold air with high humidity for better quality somen. When you book a somen-making session (simplified and indoors, of course) at Miwa Somen Yamamoto (, which was established in 1717, you’ll get to see a video filmed decades ago on the rigorous process of making somen by hand. The biggest surprise is that, somen are best eaten after two to three years of storage. Apparently, they get more chewy and can preserve their texture better than newly-made somen after being stored in a mud-walled warehouse for two to three hot-and-humid rainy seasons. After watching the video, it’ll be time to roll up your sleeves and start tugging gently at the noodles, pulling and letting go repeatedly, to coax them into stretching out. After the exercise and some photo-taking, you can enjoy professionally made somen at the restaurant while prettily packaged ones can be bought and brought home. (You’ll also get to bring home the noodles you pulled – due to its messy appearance and lack of maturity, for your own consumption! It’s still pretty good, though.)

The Sweetest Sip

Nara is also known as the birthplace of refined sake. Just like how popes used to make wines, here at Nara’s Sakurai City, the Buddhist priests were believed to have made rice wine to dedicate them to the deities. Kita Shuzo ( was founded in 1718 in Kashihara, Nara, and supplies the sacred sake used at the Kashihara Shrine. Till today, one can still find the humble ninth generation President, Hitoshi Kita, working in the brewery. He also personally takes visitors on a tour of the brewery, explaining each step of the sake-making process. He patiently details to us how the rice used for sake-making is different from the ones we eat, and that at least 30 per cent of the grain surface needs to be shaved off, up to 60 per cent, where the finest wine can be made from the purest centre of the grains.

“To retain the quality of our sake, we still maintain washing the rice by hands!” says Kita. After washing, it is critical to weigh the rice, as the amount (and also temperature) of water absorbed by the rice is measured up to a decimal point. The key to sake-brewing is that the rice is steamed, not boiled. The cooled rice is then used to make sake. Next up, the acrobatics-where you are encouraged to climb up a wooden ladder to reach the top of a huge barrel, so as to experience stirring – or rather “paddling in”, due to the large and weighty wooden stirrer-the rice wine that is in its initial stage. Of course, when the hard work is done, everyone gets to taste the different grades of sake produced, where the finest would be obvious even to the teetotaler with its crystal-clear sweet taste, versus the second and third grade one with slight tinges of sour notes.

Such is the sweetness of tasting success from hard work, so get ready for lots of hands-on activities in Nara, where you can truly experience and understand the cultures of Japan for yourself.

Other Activities Available in Nara

Serving Up Next

Learn how to prepare and serve the green tea formally through a process called Cha-no-yu at the Jikoin Temple, which is famous for its tea ceremony, western Nara.

Colour Me Indigo

Bring home your very own hand-dyed indigo handkerchief with a traditional lesson from the artisants. Western Nara.

Fresh Piking

The Asuka Rubies are Nara’s prized strawberries found in the Asuka Village. Here, visitors get to pick, eat and bring home some of the freshest strawberries at the farm from January to May. Eastern Nara. www.asukadeasobo.jpasukaichigo/ichigomap.

Cultural Dressing

Rent a kimono for a day and be styled from head to toe in true traditional Japanese fashion. Kimono rental shops are located along Nara’s historical street Naramachi. Northern Nara. Here are a couple of them: Kimono Asobi Nikkori, tel: +81 (0) 74 225 0029; Sara, tel: +81 (0) 74 224 1302 (two days in advance booking required).

Dear Deer

Learn to gather a heard of deer from various parts of Nara Park with the blow of a horn. You’ll have to book a course from the Foundation for the Protection of Deer in Nara Park in advance to get this cholse to the deer, Nara’s sacred messenger of god. Northern Nara. Tel.: 0742-22-2388

Getting To Nara

From Kansai Airport, take Nankai Limited Express (30 min) to Namba, followed by the Kintetsu Rapid Express (40 min) to Kintetsu Nara Station. Or, take the JR Limited Express (30 min) to Osaka-Abenobashi, followed by the Kintetsu Limited Express (45 min).

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