PEAK HOUR, 7AM, AND THE SUBWAY station was a seething mass of commuters. People from all walks of life seem to be rubbing shoulders and scurrying across platforms to get on the right trains. Might have been the Monday blues or the gloomy weather, but the station was a monochromatic canvas and the only colours seem to be coming from us – visitors in comfortable leisure wear lugging suitcases, evidently arriving from Haneda Airport due to its close proximity.
The train arrived right on schedule and was cleared out in a matter of minutes as the cleaning crew swiftly did their rounds. “Be careful on your way up and have a pleasant journey,” says the train attendant in Japanese as we board the Jetsu Shirikansen from Tokyo to Niigata. Our guide explained that the JR East Past we’ve utilised offers unlimited train rides in the region for any five days within 14 days of issuance, making it the best travel pass to explore Japan. Manners and etiquette form a huge part of Japanese culture and this was evident in the silence within the train cars. It was so easy to drift to sleep onboard these bullet trains compared to on planes, and so I did. Tsubame City has a long tradition in artisanal skills and the origin of the metal industry began as early as the Edo Period. Manufacturing techniques were so advanced that exporting of Western-style metal tableware began in 1914 and subsequently received international recognition. Visitors can purchase many lands of Western-style tableware, kitchenware, pots and more from Tsubame Local Industry Promotion Center, not too far off from the Tsubamesanjo Station.
Inside, an unnaturally loud and screeching sound filled the air and my attention was fixated on finding the source of the noise. As I edged towards the back of the store, I found an old man sitting, facing heavy machinery. He had thick grey-white hair and a focused look on his face, and his back was slightly hunched while working. He is Mr Yoshida, a knife master who has been practicing this art form for at least 50 years. There are two ways of making a knife, either by shaping iron and stamping it out from templates or, the traditional way of sticking a piece of hard and soft iron together. He explained that traditional knives are expensive due to the skill needed and the long hours pumped into producing a single knife. You will discover that the handmade knives have names engraved on them, and these are the names of the craftsmen who made it. Our conversation got interrupted when a customer walked over and handed her knife over to Mir Yoshida, followed by a piece of paper.
Minutes later, she left the center with her personally engraved knife. This customisation service is only available if you purchase a handmade knife and, if a knife master is present. The countryside beckoned. The sunshine was brilliant and though it was summer, temperatures were just right, maybe due to the fact that it was a port city, or the fact that we had just come from an all year round tropical country so we could deal with the heat. My stomach growled and I see that it is 12 noon, lunchtime. We are on our way to Omurashokudo, a modest eatery serving Seabura (pork back-fat) Ramen. This local specialty is made with very thick noodles and a layer of pork lard over the surface of the soup to keep it warm. The noodles are thick, but thinner than udon, and the soup is made from fish broth with a heavy soy flavor. Copious pork back-lard is topped over vegetables, minced onion and fishcake as condiments. If you are famished, go for the lunch sets here that only cost US$8 for a large bowl of ramen, a plate of curry rice and a small side salad.
After lunch, we paid a visit to two unique manufacturers – Gyokusendo and Takeda Kanagata Manufacturing. The former is a place where visitors can watch craftsmen create Tsuiki copperware by hammering and shaping a single sheet of copper into a finished artwork, usually a teapot. Tsuiki Copperware has been designated a “Japanese Intangible Cultural Treasure”, and new Gyokusendo creations are often presented to the Imperial Family to celebrate auspicious occasions. The latter is probably only going to be interesting for engineers or people who love machinery.
Takeda produces nameplates and creative goods apart from metal mold manufacturing products; the technology used is distinctive and makes it one of a kind in the world. What visitors can bring home though, are lifestyle products like cardholders and iPhone or iPad covers made of extra strong materials such as aluminum, brass and magnesium. Prices run on the steep end but the quality is impeccable, and the products are often bought by parents as a gift to their children as they step into the work force upon graduation.