The first time I went to Japan eight years ago, I expected to be transported to a magical landscape of rolling green hills, mossy shrines and hidden mysteries. I was not disappointed, and I’ve since returned to the countryside four times, covering my bases in the southern, central, and northern parts of Japan. In my most recent trip, I lived out one of my dreams of apprenticing in a traditional Japanese miso and koji shop. While miso is largely known for the soup it made famous, koji is only just gaining worldwide popularity. Traditionally a grain that is inoculated and fermented with the mold, Aspergillus oryzae, koji is the ingredient that gives soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, sake and miso their life and character. It’s no wonder that Japan has deemed it their “National Fungus.”
A family I met on a previous trip to the northern prefecture called Yamagata (which literally translates to “mountain-shaped”) welcomed me to their home. Here, I spent a month learning traditional koji making techniques. In addition to fabricating koji, miso and other koji products, they also run a cozy café that sells koji goods ranging from koji brownies to koji curry. A traditional Japanese wooden building, the interior smelled like my own paradise would: cedar, salty sour miso and baked goods.
My days were divided by work in the café, the koji workshop, and cozy evenings in their home, all located on the same plot of land. Evenings were spent relishing Okaasan’s Japanese home cooking, stitching away at my sashiko project, or Japanese embroidery, and obsessive study of koji and Japanese. Since the family only spoke a few words of Japanese, I spent most of my free time improving my intermediate level of Japanese. I balanced Japanese study by reading manga for fun and memorizing technical koji-related terms such as “enzymatic activity” and “lactic acid.”
When I wasn’t making koji, working in the cafe, and studying Japanese, I indulged in some local outings with the café owners and their daughters. As the region is well-known for its onsens, or hot springs, and mountains, there are plenty of excursions to choose from that are suitable for any season. It was my second time in Yamagata, so I knew to come prepared with this gear:
If relaxing in hot springs is your thing, you’ll want to purchase a waterproof toiletry bag for your onsen trips. Although classic Japanese onsen bags are draw-string lined with a water resistant interior, I find the zipper and simple triangular shape of the Topo Designs toiletry bag keeps your goods more accessible and better organized. Come prepared with a toiletry bag, a few yen, and a towel, and nothing can stop you from trying several of the 420 hot springs that Yamagata offers.
Essentially a rectangular patterned cloth, the Japanese use tenugui for just about anything you can do with a rectangular piece of patterned cloth. I used it to cover my hair while making koji, to dry dishes at the café, as a towel at onsens, to wrap gifts, to tie up my bento box…you might need a few.
In homes, temples, even cultural buildings and some restaurants, you will need to take off your shoes. The Japanese have been doing it their whole life, and they do it very quickly. In order to keep up, and to avoid creating a traffic jam in the entryway, slip-on shoes have become my shoe of choice when I am in Japan.
During my apprenticeship, no photos or videos were allowed. I was told that I would only be allowed a notebook if I wanted to document what I was learning. These Rite in the Rain notebooks fit perfectly in the breast pocket of my working T-shirt. I chose a water-resistant one that could stand up to the humid muro room, where koji is made, and any water damage it might face in my backpack, or possible accidents that can occur while drinking senchatea.
There is not much to do during the winter in a small countryside town in Japan. As the family spent their evenings on their own projects in front of the TV, I took up sashiko, Japanese embroidery. It’s a perfect activity for meditating on your day and is a welcomed break from the hard brainwork of language immersion.
Japan is well-known for its pottery and tea culture, so it would be a shame not to bring some pieces back as a souvenir. Crafting tableware for around 200 years, this Yamagata shop called Seiryugama uses local materials to produce their clay and glaze. They are especially known for their poetic glaze called Zansetsu which means “the remaining snow in early spring.”
More than just an e-reader, the Kindle is indispensable for language learning. With a built-in dictionary, you can look up words with a flick of your finger. When your brain is fried, you can switch to something lighter in your native tongue. Did I mention that it’s waterproof, allowing you to soak and read in high-tech Japanese bathtubs without a single worry?