Tour Day Four! wintry wonders in Miyagi

Tour Day Four! wintry wonders in Miyagi
Tour Day Four! wintry wonders in Miyagi

An unexpected snowfall brought us an unbelievable windfall of gorgeous scenery, as we wound south from Miyagi to Sendai and Koriyama.

The morning commenced with our first trip aboard the shinkansen: Japan’s famed bullet trains, flashing through the stations like liquid lightning, with the briefest of intervals at each stop to execute expedited itineraries the length of the country. I once caught the first train from Kagoshima to make an early morning flight to Singapore — the only public transit by land, air, or sea that could have carried me to Fukushima in time.

We assembled a luggage train of our own en route to the station, then settled gladly into the spacious seating. Outside increasingly snowy scenes whipped by, as our tour guide confessed he had never before witnessed this region under such an exquisitely frosty veil.

A scheduling snafoo cut our first stop short: we arrived too late to grill our own sasa-kamaboko, instead receiving our sticks hot from the oven. This well-loved snack exemplifies an aspect of food-making that has long tickled my fancy — how an eminently practical dish evolves into a form of art.

Kamaboko makes magic from fish when the catch exceeds the daily demand. Rather than let the fresh seafood go to waste, the Japanese devised savory cakes, which this company shapes into bamboo (“sasa”) leaves. The whimsical result reminded me of some cross between a kebab and a gingerbread man.

We exercised our ready fingers at lunch, gathering around steaming trays of yaki gaki — grilled oysters! The restaurant, a no-frills affair on the doorstep of the Matsushima Fish Market, provided us with gloves, tongs, and a chisel for extricating the treats from their sea-encrusted shells. Some favored us with a bonus: a cluster of mini-oysters clamped to their full-size cousins, almost invisible until a twist of the chisel popped open the prize.

Before boarding the bus again, we perused the ecletic wares of the local souvenir shop. I couldn’t resist chancing two ice creams of the “only in Japan” variety: whale and cricket! Drops of dark chocolate graced the cricket edition, which our resident ice cream expert (one of the tour participants, who owns her own shop in Philadelphia!) advised me had probably incorporated its exotic ingredient more for the protein than the flavor. The whale ice cream featured flecks of … well, presumably whale, a surprisingly pleasing mix of savory and sweet.

Later our guides blessed us with a bite each of a more conventional but no less delightful dessert, a cream cake manufactured only in that region.

We then caught the end of the work shift at the Ishinomaki Bay fishery, where we marveled at hand harvesting of that day’s outsize haul of oyster. The staff patiently fielded our questions as we puzzled out the process of planting oyster larvae in scallop shells. Imagine the cheering when we discovered that the fishery imports its scallop shells from Hokkaido!

To complement our visit to the dairy farm, we explored the property of Japan’s top beef fattening farmer: the heir of three generations of wagyu beef traditions. He personally conducted us to the abode of his sleepy-eyed stock.

Placid and languorous, they hardly troubled themselves about the disruption — though little wonder, with weekly massages and a soundtrack of classical music to nurture their serenity. The young ones showed more spirit, investigating us intently for signs that we might produce their afternoon meal.

“We all forgot about the cute calves,” one of us remarked later that evening at Steak House Hama. Overlooking the glittering city skyline, elegantly attired chefs dexterously transformed premium ingredients into an elaborate feast — culminating in choice cuts of top grade wagyu. I selected sirloin, the fattiest portion, served alongside slivers of paper-thin garlic chips.

A dazzling dessert course of strawberries and ice cream outdid all expectations, and then the chefs wheeled out a birthday cake in honor of our senior tour member. We sipped coffee and green tea from crystal cups and celebrated life, conscious of its superabundant blessings.

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