A trip to Nikko, located in Tochigi Prefecture and a mere two hours from Tokyo by train, is a breath of fresh air both literally and figuratively.
Surrounded by verdant mountains, blessed with breathtaking waterfalls, and boasting one of Japan’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the area has a lot to offer, but Nikko’s locals are constantly exploring ways to expand the range of experiences guests can enjoy.
One of the treats that people who visit Nikko seek out, to eat or to take home as a souvenir, is yuba. This delicate but nutritious food is created by painstakingly skimming tofu milk and letting it dry. The resulting bean curd skin has a relatively neutral taste—perfect for absorbing sauces or flavorings—but its texture is what makes it so alluring. Some people describe yuba as rubbery, like the skin on a ball of fresh mozzarella cheese, but it’s hard to capture in words the delightfully springy play that yuba offers to the teeth; you have to try it yourself.
Yuba has for centuries been important to the multitude of vegetarian Buddhist priests inhabiting the temples of Nikko. It has provided the devout with an essential source of high protein that could be eaten raw, hot, cold, fried, or simmered, in any dish from soups to salads, or sweets to stir-fries. Unlike some unique Japanese foods—sea urchin gonads, this means you—yuba appeals to most foreign palettes, plus it’s gluten-free and low carb.
At Nikko Yuba, shop manager Yoshitaka Niizuma welcomes morning visitors to watch and learn how yuba is made, and afterwards, scoop up a bit of silky yuba themselves to sample on the spot. At the factory, in stainless steel tubs, firm gossamer films form as the surface of tofu milk cools. Readiness is tested by lightly pressing on the skin’s surface, and once the yuba is ready, it is freed from the tank edges with a flick of a small knife, then lifted with a thin metal rod, and gently draped on a drying pole.
The resulting yuba sheet is, Nikko-style, kept in its double-folded shape, and has marvelous patterns on its surface because of the way it is pulled from the tub. In Kyoto, the other city famous for producing yuba, sheets are pulled from one side and left unfolded. Yuba, in Nikko, is written with the Japanese characters for “warm bath wave,” unlike Kyoto’s yuba, known as “warm bath leaf.”
In Nikko Yuba’s shop area, where a surprising variety of products can be purchased, a miniature double tank of tofu milk awaits those who would like to taste the freshest version of yuba. Fanning the surface helps speed along the skin formation, and then a deft pull of a toothpick across the surface yields a fresh, soft “sashimi” of yuba. A delicious and sensual experience!
For those who want an exciting encounter with Nikko’s nature, Sup! Sup! company has the perfect way to explore the placid surface of Lake Chuzenji, located in the Nikko National Park. Tetsuya Iwasaki, a licensed master instructor of SUP (Stand Up Paddling) says the best season to experience this eco-friendly sport is from June through November, and if you are lucky enough to catch the weeks when the leaves turn colors, you will enjoy breathtaking views.
Iwasaki knows the perfect places to paddle in any month and in all weather conditions, from secret beaches to pretty shallows, and viewpoints you can only catch by being on a board. The mountains of Nikko are full of wildlife, as well, so in the quieter hours, you might spot monkeys, deer, tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog), civet cats, or even a stealthy red fox, coming to the water to drink.
For beginners, the main challenge of SUP boarding is to achieve enough balance to stand up on the board, but this is something that Iwasaki and other Sup! Sup! instructors are specially trained to help you conquer. Once you’ve mastered standing up, the feeling of skating over the water, and being one with the lake is wonderful. Iwasaki also stresses that one can enjoy boarding from a sitting or reclining position, too.
Sup! Sup! can handle groups of up to 20 people, and families are welcome, including children (from age 5-6), and if they are into it, pets of any size are also free to ride. Even if you are not a strong swimmer, Iwasaki says, each boarder wears a life jacket, so the sport is safe. Additionally, the boards used in the activity are exceptionally stable; Iwasaki nimbly demonstrates this by performing yoga poses and a headstand on his board! There’s even an extra-large “mega Sup,” to be used by those who want to join but prefer a more passive way to travel.
Sup! Sup! classes start out at the Lake Chuzenji Boathouse, where bathroom facilities and vending machines are available; showers can also be arranged nearby, but you will need to bring your own towels. You’ll also want to carry a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses or glasses with safety cord, a rash guard or t-shirt, shorts, windbreaker, and waterproof shoes. Courses include a beginner class, trail running with SUP, or Private Mega SUP. Packed lunches also can be arranged, for those calm moments when you relax on the lake, and gaze at the glorious surrounding mountains.
Behind the largest and most revered of the mountains that surround the lake, Mt. Nantai, is an area known as Oku Nikko (Nikko’s interior), and there you’ll find strawberry picking at Okazaki Farm’s Mt. Berry. A short drive from the extensive nature hiking area of Senjogahara Marshland, with its lovely outlooks and wild birds, Mt. Berry specializes in a relatively new variety of berry: the Natsu-Otome, or “summer girl.”
Owner Takahiko Okazaki grows his “girls” in a large, covered house, and offers there an all-you-can-eat-in-30-minutes experience. “You’d be surprised,” he says, “but some people can pick and eat more than 100 strawberries in that time.” The Natsu-Otome strawberry has an exquisite balance between sweetness and acidity, so it’s easy to imagine that some people cannot stop popping them. Strolling among the pure white strawberry flowers, with the faint background buzzing of bees safely in their box, is a brush with bliss.
Okazaki has farming in his blood; his grandfather first cleared their land, cultivating the highland plateau behind Mt. Nantai, and his father raised plants uniquely suited to the rarified air and elevation. The area, which plummets to minus 30-degrees Celsius in winter, offers in summer a refreshing respite from heat. Okazaki thought it would be ideal to bring people to Oku Nikko to enjoy the surroundings, and so devoted his farming skills to strawberries.
In the picking season at Mt. Berry, from August to October, groups up to a maximum of 20 each morning and afternoon are welcome to visit. The surrounds are peaceful, with the sounds of crickets singing, and Okazaki is looking into new ways to coax visitors to his small haven. Be sure to try some of Mt. Berry’s ice cream with tangy strawberry topping and be on the lookout for stargazing with strawberries events in the works. Should be “berry” nice.
Written by Kit Pancoast Nagamura
website(Japanese only): https://nikkoyuba.net/
website(Japanese only): https://www.supsup.jp/
Okazaki Farm’s Mt. Berry:
website(Japanese only): https://www.okazakino-jou.jp/
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