I do not recall how the day started but I believe it was granola and yogurt from the convenience store on the corner so that we could catch an early train to Sanjo. Sanjo is located just outside of the city of Niigata. It is known for its blacksmith craftsman and in the months before our trip, Jason arranged for us to visit and take a class at the Sanjo Blacksmith Dojo. Japan has a strong tradition of regional crafts each of which have master craftspeople. The government has set up a designation called DENSAN that recognizes and promotes these craftspeople in order to preserve these traditional arts. Our visit to Sanjo is one of two destinations plotted along our course for the sole purpose of experiencing a Japanese craft. There are several more of interest that we will have to go back for.
We walk to the train and find it running on time to the minute. Efficiency is not lacking in Japan; neither are beautiful public signs. The ride to Sanjo’s Kita-Sanjo station is just about an hour on the Yahiko Line and lands us just a block from the dojo. The area is peaceful, quiet. A contrast to the bustle of Niigata. I photograph some flowers outside of the station while I wait for Jason to return from the restroom.
(sign seen at the train station in Niigata)
We are here early with the intention of eating something before our class. We don’t have to go far. Just across the street from the station is a compelling structure from which the smell of spices emanates. Indeed, it is called the Sanjo Spice Laboratory, a curry restaurant whose four sides are open to the perfect day outside. We enter to the warm glow of light reflecting off the entirely cedar building which is adorned with beakers, plants, and books. We are encouraged to take a seat and given water and menus with some introductions. English is spoken here and the menu reflects an Indian influence. We order and Jason heads to the dojo to confirm that everything is all set for us. It is and he returns to a beautiful plate of one of the best lunches I have ever tasted.
After our meal we head the one block to the dojo, a large gray garage-style building on one side of a parking lot. We are greeted by the manager of the dojo, a middle-aged man with a weathered and friendly face who wears jeans and a chambray shirt. Aside from the Japanese features, he reminds me of my father who wore the same look on a daily basis. We sign some paperwork at the office window and then are led to the shop where we are given safety glasses, an apron and cuffs. We are introduced to two blacksmiths who will be our tutors for the instruction. We are making letter openers from nails.
(hammering the heated nail to flatten it; buffing the edges; stamping the mark of the dojo; the one missing step is a machine in which you sand the surface)
(nail to letter opener; holding a traditional nail turned snake as a gift for us from one of our tutors—making of video below)
This was one of the truly enriching experiences of the trip. Jason and I share a passion for making things, working with our hands; perhaps we each got this from our respective fathers. I connected with Jason’s dad when he taught me how to turn a pen and I connected with my own father less with words and more with working on projects together. Observing the speed and efficiency of the blacksmiths at work was greater appreciated having attempted the task ourselves and, despite the language barrier, we connected with one of the tutors whom we spent a fair amount of time afterward talking about the process of making Japanese knives and viewing various examples.
We remove our apron, glasses and cuffs and thank our teachers. We ask the manager about his recommendations of where to find knives made in the area by the DENSAN artisans. He walks us around the corner and down the block to a tiny shop that looks like the real thing but unfortunately it is closed. He is apologetic and recommends another store in downtown Sanjo. We thank him and embark on a very long walk through neighborhoods, across a bridge over the Shinano river, and to an outlet-size shopping district— large electronic and clothing stores, one of which advertises “American Jeans!”, car dealerships, and a mall. Inside the mall is the place we are looking for. It is fairly nondescript; white and minimal and full of glass cases, counters, and shelves of items that range from manufactured cutlery and knick knacks to hand-crafted knives and art pieces. Jason spends some time comparing the artisan’s seals stamped into the DENSAN certified knife selection. He holds each to feel the weight and balance of the forged steel and to test the rock of the blade. He selects a kitchen Deba knife for us and a wood-carving knife for his father. I find a tiny spoon and a pair of sewing scissors.
We leave the store and locate the closest transit station. I am dragging a bit but finally we are on the train and heading back to Niigata. The man I am sitting next to strikes up a conversation with me. He is from Sanjo but traveling to Niigata for a work event in the city, as far as I understand. I speak lovingly of Sanjo and he is touched and proud. Consistently I experience this reaction to my admiration of Japan. He asks about our journey and is impressed by where we’ve been, where we are going and the things we have chosen to see. I ask him if he knows of a good place to try Hegi Soba which is a regional noodle dish of Niigata. He does and has an insider tip: Niigata, which is both the name of the city and the region, is so identified by and proud of its Hegi Soba that they offer visitors vouchers to to several restaurants in order to try it. Our temporary guide brings us to a kiosk at the train station where we can retrieve these vouchers. He then walks us to one of the participating restaurants and inside where he speaks to the host before saying good bye and heading off to his event.
The dish did not disappoint and is much about the experience of how it is presented and eaten. Bite-sized twirled bundles of soba noodles are served on a traditional tray lined with a bamboo mat and accompanied by a sauce—this is where the magic happens, as Jason says. The sauce can be modified to your personal taste with the provided mustards, wasabi, and red pepper flakes and is what gives the mouthful its flavor. Additionally, we chose to have ours with nori (shredded dried seaweed) served on top of the noodles. Using your hashi, you pick up an entire bundle and douse it in the sauce before bringing it to your mouth and enjoying. It reminds me of the way my friend Nhu-y taught me to eat Pho. I will note here, as I could have during earlier experiences with ramen and other noodle dishes, that slurping is a tradition in Japan. The more you slurp, the more you allow the flavor to circulate your taste buds and the easier it is to tolerate the hot broth as it cools just enough in the process. It also shows respect to the chef and impresses native Japanese. Jason has bragged about being complimented for slurping like a Japanese person by a Japanese friend of his. Admittedly it took me some getting used since in America slurping is considered to be rude, at least where manners matter. But once adjusted, it is quite fun.
After dinner we are back to the hotel and to bed (well maybe there was a stop at the convenience store for some dessert treats). We are squeezing in a trip to a sake distillery in the morning before heading to Tokyo via Shinkansen, high-speed bullet train.