Yamada Mike serves up yaki-imo. Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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Kurayoshi: 10 ways to experience history and culture first hand

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By Vicki L Beyer

Wandering through a well-preserved historical district is a rewarding activity for any tourist, but especially for those who are students of history and culture. Tottori Prefecture's Kurayoshi, a thriving trade center of the Edo Period (1603-1868), is just such a place, offering many rewarding sights and experiences. Here are 10 not to miss.

The Akagawara Warehouses

Particularly in the Edo Period, rice, grains and other produce from the surrounding area was brought into Kurayoshi for storage, processing and transshipment, resulting in the development of a factory/warehouse district which forms the backbone of today’s preservation area. The buildings have distinctive white-washed daub and wattle walls (called shirakabe) and reddish tile roofs that give them their name: “Akagawara.”

One of the main rows of Akagawara warehouses is built alongside a shallow, but fast-flowing canal populated by colorful, but lazy-looking, carp and healthy, green aquatic plants. Some of the warehouses have been converted into shops or restaurants that beckon passing visitors to explore, while others continue their traditional activities, including soy sauce production and sake brewing.

Wearing a kimono while exploring

Akagawara #1 is a former soy sauce brewery (look for the edges of the vats in the floor on the upper level) that has been converted into a souvenir shop offering local food and handicrafts, as well as vintage and antique ceramics. Also noteworthy here—particularly for female tourists—is the chance to don a kimono made of the local indigo-dyed kasuri fabric, all the better to enjoy your perambulation of the area. (Available for two-hour increments, from 11 a.m. or 2 p.m.; arrive 30 minutes earlier to get changed; 5,000 yen. Reservations at 0858-24- 5371 or kanko@apionet.or.jp)

Putting on a kimono is a rather involved affair, but the attendants are experienced, helpful and attentive, facilitating the entire experience. They’ll even sweep your hair into a chignon and stick a silk flower in it for that final flourish. The ensemble is completed with white tabi socks and appropriate footwear. Be sure to get instructions on how to walk in a kimono, lest you find yourself coming undone at some point while you’re out and about.

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Café Kura's coffee, served with sweet bean paste Photo: VICKI L BEYER

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Coffee beans are slowly fed into a small hole while the grinding stone is rotated. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Stone-ground coffee at Café Kura

Just a couple of doors down from Akagawara #1 is Café Kura, housed in Akagawara #5. Here you can get an excellent cup of coffee, interestingly served with a bit of sweet bean paste on the side that you stir into your coffee for a different flavor experience. Also, you can participate in the production of your coffee by grinding the freshly roasted beans yourself. We’re not talking about popping beans into a little electric grinder and pushing a button. Rather, the beans are placed atop a grinding stone equipped with a wooden dowel handle. They are slowly fed into a small hole while the stone is rotated counter-clockwise (this is your role, should you wish). The grooves on the bottom of the stone ensure that the beans are ground and the grounds work their way out the sides to fall into the groove on the board below. When the grinding is completed, the grounds are swept from the board into a filter to produce your cup of coffee.

To keep you occupied during your wait for your coffee, there are origami papers on each table. Many customers have left their origami creations on a set of shelves by the window, but there is still room for yours, too.

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The colorful Benten shrine at Dairenji Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Dairenji

Cross the busy street and continue to follow the canal upstream to reach Dairenji, a local temple with over 1,000 years of history. Although the current temple building is a modern ferro-concrete construction in an Indian style, it is the temple’s gate cum bell tower that is noteworthy. The bell pull hangs down invitingly. Go ahead, give the bell a single toll. Just next to the temple’s entrance is an intriguing little shrine to Benten, the goddess of music and arts.

Follow the lantern-line laneway leading away from Dairenji’s gate to reach the next main cross street and turn left. Here you will find a number of traditional shops and storefronts, many nearly a century old. Some still carry on their original businesses while others have been converted to selling souvenirs and local goods for tourists.

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Dyed threads are carefully aligned to weave kasuri fabric. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Kurayoshi Furusato Kogeikan

On the corner to your right is Kurayoshi Furusato Kogeikan, a craft center where you can see local ladies weaving traditional kasuri fabric. Kasuri is fabric woven with threads that have been pre-dyed to create the pattern on the cloth as each row of weft threads is carefully lined up with the existing fell and then battened into place. In Tottori, traditional indigo dye is used to create blue and white patterns, many quite complicated. It is a painstakingly slow and precise undertaking. Just watching enables one to appreciate the true value of these incredible textiles.

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Sake-related products in the window at Gensui Shozo Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Soy sauce and sake breweries

In the next block you will find on the left the Kuwata Soy Sauce Brewery and Gensui Shozo, a shop selling the local sake brew. At Kuwata they even sell a soy sauce flavored ice cream. Perhaps a tasting of the latest vintage at Gensui Shozo is more to your liking. The attendants here are happy to accommodate.

Petit tai yaki

Diagonally across from Gensui Shozo is the Kurayoshi Tourist Information Center, together with a small souvenir shop and a little shop where you can buy freshly made bite-sized tai-yaki sweets, perfect for munching as you meander.

Yaki-imo in the parking lot

If you’re too hungry for a bite-sized snack, consider buying a yaki-imo (roasted sweet potato) from Yamada Mike (pronounced “me-kay”), Kurayoshi’s famous potato-vending cat. If you’re lucky, you’ll find him just a bit further along the side street near the tourist bus parking lot. Mike, a cat the size of a human, provides excellent service, is happy to chat, and will sometimes even wink at you. Also near here look for the statue of Kotozakura Masakatsu, a Kurayoshi native son who rose to the pinnacle of Sumo wrestling, Yokozuna, in 1973.

Decorating a Hakota doll

Since the late 18th century, Kurayoshi has had its own local type of doll, called Hakota. Similar in shape to the Kokeshi dolls of Tohoku, the Hakota are made of papier-mache over a mold that is later removed. They are elaborately painted and then sealed with several layers of glue to give them a shine. The dolls have white faces and usually have a ribbon painted into their black hair as well as pretty red floral kimonos.

As hand-crafted objects, they are not cheap. The least expensive ones start around 1,200 yen, and nearly life-sized dolls are much more expensive. At two locations, one in Akagawara #2 and one in the next block after Gensui Shozo, you can have the opportunity to paint the face on a doll of your own, making her your unique creation (from 1,500 yen).

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Guests enjoy mochi shabu shabu at Seisui-an. Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Mochi lunch at Seisui-an

There are plenty of places where you can find a snack or a meal in Kurayoshi, but for a really special dining experience, try Seisui-an, located in another traditional building a couple of blocks east from Gensui Shozo. The beautifully-preserved building was originally used to produce and sell mochi: pounded rice cakes. While these activities continue (pick up some of their mochi to take home with you), today Seisui-an is also a restaurant specializing in mochi shabu-shabu. While shabu-shabu is usually thin slices of beef quickly swished in broth to cook them, here both beef and thin slices of mochi are served in shabu-shabu style. This is a unique way to serve mochi, made even more special by the 12 slices of mochi served as your meal. Each is a different color and flavor, fanned across the serving platter to look like juni-hitoe, the 12 layers of kimono worn by court ladies in the Heian Period more than 1,000 years ago.

These are highlights of Kurayoshi’s historical district; if you have time, poke around even more to find many other fascinating sights and activities and really soak up the historic atmosphere.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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