Last Saturday the Magical Mystery Tour was waiting to take us away – but not quite as it did The Beatles!
This was in fact a Strawberry Mystery Tour run by Cuckoo Tours, part of the Kintetsu railway and bus company. It was an outing for the English friendship Bible study group that meets in our flat on Saturdays – in fact a rather late Christmas activity! There were five of us.
It was labelled as a ‘Mystery tour’ but we knew it involved strawberry picking, a vegetable farm, a traditional lunch and a sweet castle, but we didn’t know exactly whereabouts we were going or what the vegetables were going to be.
We met the others at 8 am at the silver clock in Nagoya’s main station then went to wait together for the bus and our guide. There are two clocks in the station, one gold and one silver, and both are convenient meeting points as they are at opposite ends of the main concourse. Very sensibly the meeting point for the tour group was in an underground shopping mall. The shops were not open yet (except for a McDonald’s and a few other eateries) so it wasn’t crowded but it was warm, and there were a surprising number of different tours gathered there. It was cold but bright and sunny with hardly a cloud in the sky, and there wasn’t any new snow. Most of the ice had melted, so the roads were safe.
Very soon we ventured outside to wait a few minutes for the bus (and two latecomers!) and then the bus set off towards Gifu, the next prefecture (like a county or canton) to the north of Nagoya, where we visited a chicory farm and factory.
Despite four of us having lived in Belgium for many years, none of us knew what chicory looked like growing, or that the root can be used to make alcohol. It turns out that it’s grown from seeds, and a tuber, like a potato, grows underground, with leafy veg like spinach on top. They cut off the leaves, then bring the root in to sit in the dark in trays, until the chicory that we know grows on top. Machines cut off the new leaves, and sell them for salad or whatever people want, and here they use the root to make a kind of gin called shochu. The alcohol content is about 20% but they also make a stronger one at 44% which they call grappa, like the Italian drink made from grapevines. They import pale-blue bottles from Germany, to bottle it. Pale blue because the chicory flowers are a kind of look a bit like pale-blue daisies.
Personally we don’t like chicory, but the Belgians sell it and cook it in great quantities.
After the little talk and a look in the room of trays, we went into the shop, where people could taste three kinds of the alcohol. Olwen had one sip of mine and it was enough for her, but I enjoyed it. There were other locally produced things for sale as well, but we didn’t buy anything.
After that, we went through long tunnels in the mountains (lots of really high ones with snow on top) and came to the next prefecture, Nagano. There we had an early lunch, in a cafe which caters for large groups. They thoughtfully sat the five of us at one table, because we’d made a group booking. (There are 15 of us in our Saturday group; 7 couldn’t go at all on any date, but 8 could go on 27th. However, gradually one or another dropped out, so there were only five of us in the end, which was disappointing in a way, because we had checked beforehand.)
The Japanese Alps
The lunch was a ‘Shabu-shabu’ which means everyone has a gas jet and a little pot of boiling water, plus about 150g of thinly sliced meat, and vegetables, a small plate of pickles, two sauces for dipping, some locally cooked mushrooms, and some soba noodles in a hot soup, plus tea, coffee, a little cake for dessert, and water. You cook your own meat and veg in the hot water and then dip it into one of your sauces, then eat. It’s fun to do, a bit like a Swiss fondue, and of course you can cook things to your liking. One of the sauces was sesame, and the other a kind of clear sweet sauce – I thought it tasted a bit of mustard. They were both good and indeed the meat doesn’t taste of anything much without them so they’re an important part of the meal.
About to enjoy our ‘shabu shabu’ lunch
After a short walk round the shop connected to the cafe, we went on to a small zoo for 40 minutes to stretch our legs, and let lunch settle. That was a surprise, and fun too. There was a sign saying the name of each animal in Chinese, Japanese and English, so we took a photo of three of us under the sign saying ‘human being’!
Then on to the strawberry greenhouses. The bus stopped at reception and our guide checked us in. We stayed in the bus, because the reception building wasn’t close to where we’d be picking. Reception told our guide which greenhouse to go to (there are at least 15 with long, long, wide rows of strawberries growing on shelves at waist height.) The bus drove us to the nearest car park and we were told we’d have 30 minutes in the greenhouse and then 10 minutes to get back to the bus. I guess they rotate the greenhouse to be picked from, so that each greenhouse gets a chance for the strawberries to ripen, and also there aren’t crowds all elbowing to pick at the same time. It was really good.
In the greenhouse they gave each of us an empty plastic punnet with about two tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk in one half, and nothing in the other. The empty half was to put the strawberry leaves in, and the milk was for dipping. Then we were set loose! At first you think 30 minutes isn’t very long, but then you discover that it’s plenty, and your tummy gets full quite quickly. Olwen ate 48 big and medium-sized strawberries and I guess I ate a similar quantity; we didn’t see any small ones. In Japan, you don’t pick to take away like you do in England, but only to eat on the spot.
After that we were stuffed, so on to the sweet castle, which looked like a typical Japanese castle, and where their speciality is apple pie, but they also make lots of other desserts and cakes. We had a couple of small testings, and bought three boxes of biscuits for our Saturday group next week. Our students always bring a ‘souvenir’ back from where they’ve been on holiday or on business, to share with the group. It’s a nice idea.
After that, there was a DVD to watch in the bus (in Japanese of course, with no subtitles!) and some of us slept. In the event, we arrived back at the station just before the ending so anyone watching was left in suspense! It was a frivolous silly kind of thing, so it didn’t matter.
All in all, it was a good day out, even if we did have to get up before 6 am to be sure of catching the bus!