World’s eyes on Japanese country life experience Why is “Otengusan” attracting foreign tourists?
Updated: May 16, 2019
“Country life experience” in Japan is becoming popular amongst tourists from western countries.
A hot spot that is currently attracting many tourists is “Otengusan” in Ashigawa-cho, Fuefuki city. Inside their traditional Japanese-style house with a thatched roof, you can experience making hoto (a noodle soup), which is one of Yamanashi’s local specialty foods.
Hoto is a hearty home cooked meal that has been loved by people in Yamanashi for a very long period of time. Here we’re going to look into its history and find out the reasons why “Otengusan” is popular amongst foreign tourists.
Mr. Eiji Ichikawa was born and raised in Ashigawa-cho, Fuefuki city. He runs a facility called “Otengusan” where you can experience country life in satoyama*. Besides welcoming people from all over the world at the facility, he grows vegetables and forages for wild mushrooms and mountain vegetables to feed guests, and he also travels to Tokyo and other places to promote Ashigawa-cho.
(*Satoyama … “Sato” means “village” and “yama” means mountain in Japanese and satoyama refers to woodland areas neighboring villages in Japanese countryside.)
A 300-year-old traditional Japanese-style house on a mountain
A single storied wooden house with a massive thatched roof stands solidly. This “Country life experience, Otengusan” is located along a class A river* called Ashigawa River and you can experience making soba (buckwheat noodles) and hoto.
(*Class A rivers … River systems deemed to be important for the national economy and people’s lives are classified as class A rivers and administered by the federal government.)
Ashigawa-cho, where this facility is located, is about 90 minutes away from Tokyo. This marginal village with no convenience stores or traffic lights is sometimes described as “a place frozen in time”.
“I think it was about four years ago. This travel agent discovered this area and organized tours for foreign tourists to visit here. Then this tour, thanks to the power of social media as well, it spread so quickly and became a hot topic. For example, you wouldn’t see foreigners around here ten years ago. Like it would be so unusual that if you did, everyone in this village would come out and have a look. But these days, 40 to 50 foreign tourists come and visit here by tour bus. We renovated our facility a little bit to cater for visitors from overseas as well.”
Mr. Eiji Ichikawa, the chairman of Ashigawa-cho Tourism Association, tells us how this all started. He was born and raised (almost all years) in Ashigawa-cho. He lived downtown only for three years when he was in high school but after graduating he came back to his hometown, where he now runs “Otengusan” and a camp site nearby and also does farming.
“This facility was originally opened for Japanese visitors to offer hoto making experience. But before Japanese people, foreign people took strong interest in here and we started having a lot of visitors from overseas. Then we changed this place a little bit to cater for foreign visitors like having tables and chairs and so on. ”
“Nobody would marry a girl who can’t make soba or hoto”
Hoto is one of Yamanashi’s local specialty foods. When you look into the background of how hoto took root in Yamanashi, you can see a geographical reason as well as a cultural aspect that is unique to Japan.
“Flour food culture remains in areas that are surrounded by mountains since flour is easy to preserve and process. When Japan suffered food shortage after the war, hoto was what people in this area ate. Hoto was cooked in a big pot and a big family surrounded the pot and ate together.
Typically this is how the mealtime went. First, the head of a family, a father gets served hoto noodles, vegetables and soup in his bowl. Next, a mother puts hoto noodles in their children’s bowls with chopsticks. Then lastly it’s a mother’s turn. But by the time she serves herself, all the noodles are gone.
A mother serves herself vegetables such as Chinese cabbage and pumpkin and soup. My wife often used to say ‘I want to eat a lot of hoto noodles until I’m full’. Mothers are selfless. Back then they worked at fields until dark, then made hoto noodles from scratch, then she didn’t eat them.
If you say something like this in this day and age, you might get told off but back in the day in this area, they used to say ‘Nobody would marry a girl who can’t make soba or hoto.’”
Mr. Ichikawa tells us that nowadays even at restaurants, they use noodles manufactured in noodle factories and you don’t find hand-made hoto noodles often anymore.
At “Otengusan”, you can have fresh hand-made noodles cooked in dashi* with lots of locally grown vegetables, and on top of that, the miso* they use is also homemade. Their passion and commitment plus having this special experience of making noodles from scratch yourself all make the hoto you have here taste superb and elevates it to the next level.
(*dashi … Japanese soup stock)
(*miso … a Japanese seasoning paste made by fermenting soy beans)
The “sleeper” culture of satoyama gets highly recognized as an exciting experience
They start making miso in March. Their homemade miso is made by blending two different types of koji* products, one is barley koji which aromatizes miso and the other is rice koji which adds sweetness. They let it ferment for a year and use it for hoto they make at the facility.
(*koji … a mold that is commonly used in Japanese culture to ferment soybeans.)
They offer seasonal ingredients such as mountain vegetables in spring and mushrooms in autumn. Ingredients they use are fresh and mainly produced locally. Their hoto made with care lets you enjoy a sense of season and is also well received.
“Visitors spend a long time to travel all the way up here in the mountains and I want them to enjoy a dish that is of excellent quality. My biggest pleasure is when our guests tell us they enjoyed it”, says Mr. Ichikawa.
Their hoto doesn’t have any meat or fish but has a lot of pumpkins and potatoes in it. It also has seasonal ingredients including various kinds of vegetables, mountain vegetables, mushrooms and deep-fried tofu. You add hot water to flour little by little as you knead it, then roll out the dough, fold it and cut it into strips. All those ingredients get simmered together in a big pot and when you have it, it introduces you to the taste of satoyama.
“When I see customers impressed saying that they didn’t expect it to be this delicious, it gives me such great pleasure and it’s not the same pleasure you feel when you receive money from customers”, says Mr. Ichikawa joyfully.
Challenge of reforming locals’ consciousness and passing on the technique to future generation
Their business name comes from the wish they have for their customers, which is for them to become “Tengu” after their experience at their facility (To become Tengu means “to feel good”).
“Although having some difficulties we experience to accept visitors from overseas, I feel very delighted to see that what we do is attracting the world’s attention and we have a lot of people visiting here. The challenge we’re facing is securing instructors from our community. The number of people who can make hoto noodles is decreasing.”
Depopulation is progressing in this town to the point where everyone knows almost everyone in the community.
“For this town to survive as a tourist destination where people can experience country life, local residents need to become aware of the charms of facilities like Otengusan, live in Ashigawa-cho and be proactive about working in Ashigawa-cho. I think what we need to do is to invigorate the local residents”, says Mr. Ichikawa.
To pass on the technique and culture that remain in satoyama. Not to lose the resources to wow the world. This town with potential to have a brighter future is looking for the power and ideas of young people.
＼Let's go see Mr.Ichikawa／
Store name： Country life experience Otengusan
Address： 1955,Ashigawa-cho,Araibara,Fuefuki City
Business hours： 10：00～15：00