This is the final piece covering my winter vacation to Aichi Prefecture. Prior to meeting Emi, it was never really in my mind to specifically visit Aichi (despite having a lofty 47 prefecture goal a la Cheeserland), let alone spend as much time as we did.
As everyone probably knows by now, Japan is divided into prefectures and Aichi is located West/South-West of Tokyo, next to Shizuoka. Nagoya, Japan’s 4th largest incorporated city is the capital of Aichi. On the map above, you can see that Anjo and Okazaki are somewhat of a midpoint between Nagoya and Gamagori, and these are the two cities that we spent New Year’s Eve and the first few days of 2020.
The population of Anjo sits at around 190,000 people. To give you an idea and to name a few benchmark cities:
Tokyo: 9.27 million (2015)
Sydney: 5.23 million (2018)
Kuala Lumpur: 1.8 million (2017)
Ipoh: 657,000 (2010)
Driving into Anjo, we saw a lot of green fields, outlined by quiet roads and the beautiful expanse of a blue sky. It’s aesthetically very different to Ipoh of course, but the vibe of driving to Emi’s family home was not unlike when my mom used to drive us to my Ah Chor’s house the day before Chinese New Year.
We didn’t do much of the general things to do and see in Anjo. Rather it was more about spending time with family and partaking in tradition. Honestly, one of my favourite moments was going shopping at their local supermarket! After living in Tokyo for so long, I’ve forgotten that you can actually have large supermarkets with produce that doesn’t cost more than eating out 笑.
Another thing we also did was visit the Anytime Fitness in Anjo, of which I think there is only one, and also many times more spacious than the gyms we’ve seen in Tokyo.
On New Year’s Eve we had shabu-shabu, featuring buri also known as Japanese amberjack or yellowtail, and a mountain of vegetables and mushrooms. Winter is the season for buri, because that’s when the fish reach their highest fat content and the best taste.
I’ve definitely had buri in Tokyo as well as in Malaysia and Sydney, but none have had the taste or the texture that I had that evening. I think a really fatty piece of buri is comparable to ootoro (fatty tuna) so if you have the opportunity to visit Japan in winter, definitely try to order it at a restaurant.
Post-dinner, I got to relive my greatest Nagasaki high school exchange memory of rolling in complete satiety inside a kotatsu. At this point, my body is also about 70% mandarins, not least because it is the cheapest and most widely available fruit, but this totally doesn’t stop me from eating three more after dinner. Eating mandarins, in a kotatsu while watching kohaku, there’s nothing more Japanese than that or so my colleagues have told me.
While I still think Malaysia is the ultimate food-obsessed nation of the world, my time with Emi’s family in this short time frame could really give my people a run for their ringgit. Only a couple of hours post-shabu-shabu (and likely still peeling my sixth mandarin), we were sitting around the dining table again for toshikoshi soba. This is a Japanese tradition to eat at midnight on New Year’s Eve, symbolising crossing over into the new year with a fresh. clean slate. Soba is buckwheat noodles and the standard type usually has wheat mixed into it, but Emi was able to find 100% buckwheat for me and my gluten intolerance. There are a lot of parallels to this with some of the traditions my family observe such as keeping a small amount of rice leftover on your plate at New Year’s Eve dinner (saving some wealth for the next year) and birthday e-fu noodles that carry the meaning of longevity.
Thankfully the next tradition that follows is one that asks us to move around. This was Hatsumode, the first Shinto shrine visit of the New Year. Being just after midnight, the temperature was frighteningly cold, so much that Emi put me into five layers, the last one being my -15 to -25 degree weather-appropriate Canada Goose jacket.
At each shrine we were greeted by other residents of the neighbourhood, some of who were offering sake, amazake, oshiruko and bags of snacks. In total, we visited three different local shrines that night.
An Emi-specific tradition was the main agenda for the first day of 2020, purchasing his precious Under Armour fukubukuro which basically forms his entire fitness wardrobe for the rest of the year. Fukubukuro are ‘lucky bags’ sold at stores during the first few days of the New Year. The contents are unknown (although clothing is usually organised by size) and the selling price of the bag is usually 50% of the true value of the products, making it a great bargain. Really popular ones are normally very hard to get in Tokyo, so going to a quieter part of Japan definitely has the advantage of less competition. Above is not his Under Armour fukubukuro but a sandwich fukubukuro.
Snapshot of our osechi-ryōri more food-oriented New Years protocol. There’s a symbolic meaning to every ingredient and every item.
The last but not least highlight of the trip is our day excursion out to Okazaki. Its population is about twice the size of Anjo and looks far more industrial. Sengoku jidai and/or Samurai Warriors fans will appreciate that Tokugawa Ieyasu (founder and first shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan) was born in Okazaki Castle.
The sun was out so it wasn’t too cold and it was peaceful enough despite the crowds that populated the shrine for hatsumode. My favourite find was the random kitsune shrine that we stumbled upon where we made an aburaage offering.
During particularly stressful periods in life, Emi and I will often daydream about running away from the big city to start our potato farm. I don’t know if that will ever eventuate or if it’s something we truly desire, but there’s a certain simplicity to living quietly that only inaka places can offer. I’m so grateful for the hospitality and the opportunity to be part of day-to-day life with family, that in so many ways is far more ‘Japanese’ than donning a kimono in Asakusa, racing around illegally on Maricart or patroning the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. This post has been a deviation in terms of what and how I normally write but I hope it inspires you to find rich experiences in Japan, in the most unexpected of places.