In the Koto area, located in the East side of Lake Biwa, in Shiga Prefecture, many specialties grow in the abundant water flowing from Lake Biwa and the surrounding mountains. Especially, a wide variety of vegetables and fruits with different tastes and shapes. Some of them can only be savored in this area.
In November, we participated in a cycling tour called “Omi Al Fresco Dining” enjoying some of Ōmi’s unique products.
At 10am on Saturday, under the clear blue sky we feel the beautiful winter and fresh air. The meeting place gets crowded with participants.
After everyone has gathered, today’s schedule and cycling precautions are told.
Warm-up exercises are focused on stretching knees and calves. The monitors wish us a good trip by waving their hands. Now, it is time to leave.
“Let’s ride fast towards Taga’s district”, the guide says.
On the way, we pass through the street named “Seven Curves” where you can find some traditional Buddhist altars stores. The street was named that way because it turns 7 times. Not making it straight was a strategy of the governor in order to protect the city from invaders, who would have a hard time to reach Hikone Castle.
After biking for about 40 minutes, we started to perceive a beautiful yellow-green field.
“The characteristic of Taga’s carrots is that they have a very high sugar content compared to normal carrots, probably thanks to the cold climate and the presence of lots of minerals in Seri river water. The juice has obviously a sweet flavor. Even children who do not like carrots can fully enjoy.” Mister Tsuchida mentioned．(Chairman of the Taga Carrot Club).
We are thinking about where we should dig holes to collect carrots. Where is the best place? Which space should we choose? It is a fun time!
If you take the plunge and pull out from stalks, you will see a bright orange color in the soil. You do not have to force that much, carrots come out easily. You get used to it quickly!
Some of them are big as “daikon” (a Japanese white radish with big root) and some have strange shapes.
Afterwards, we wash carefully the harvested carrots with water and take them home as a souvenir.
Taga carrots are cultivated with less than half the normal amount of fertilizers and pesticides and have been certified as an environmentally friendly agricultural product by Shiga Prefecture. “It is best to eat raw as a stick. The leaves are delicious cooked as “Tempura”.” Mister Tsuchida added.
At the end of the harvest, carrot juice is ready. It is a nutritious juice made by adding sweet koji (a cultivated mould with rice, soy, or other foodstuffs, used to make fermented foods and drinks) from Taga town.
The natural sweetness of the juice makes it refreshing to drink.
We took a picture all together in the field holding carrots in hands. It was a very satisfying experience.
After cycling for about 5 minutes from the carrot field, we arrive at Taga Taisha.
Taga-taisha is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Izanagi and Izanami (The primordial gods of the Shinto religion who are believed to have created the islands of Japan and given birth to many of the other Shinto gods or kami.). This shrine is associated with long life, successful marriage and good fortune. The shrine is frequently referred to as O-taga-san (お多賀さん) by local residents. The gardens are a nationally designated Place of Scenic Beauty. The shrine has a beautiful garden and a stone bridge, which were constructed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (a Japanese samurai and daimyo (feudal lord) of the late Sengoku period regarded as the second “Great Unifier” of Japan) as an offering for his mother’s long life. The design of the garden is rare in Japan, a real enchantment for the eye.
We ask Mister Tomoyuki Kamo, the priest to take us around the garden.
After exploring, it’s time for a snack. We will have Itokiri-mochi, a specialty of Taga Town. A mochi filled up with red bean paste dedicated to the Japanese victory over the Mongols. That is why you can see the Mongolian flag on the sweet. This time, we will compare the two types of Itokiri-mochi, “Enjyudo” and “Tagaya”!
For Enjyudo, the smooth texture and a little saltiness make the sweetness stand out. For Tagaya, the mochi is soft and chewy, and the texture is irresistible! Both are very delicious.
After taking a break and filling up our stomach, here comes our second harvesting experience.
Aisho town is proud of cultivating Yamaimo at Hatasho (name of the area), “Yamaimo” is a Japanese-style potato. Another traditional vegetable in the region that we are going to pick!
A white flag is fluttering in the middle of a stunning landscape. Mister Kitamura who owns this field and Mister Kurokawa who has been cultivating this kind of potatoes for over 60 years, welcomed us.
At first glance, the field seems to be empty but as we look closely, we observe a few pointing out. We will carefully dig with a shovel while talking to each other. “There is one here! Oh! Another one there”.
You do not know what shape it has until you collect it. The rule is to dig up the soil from as far away as possible at first, then switch to a small shovel to proceed little by little.
While eating some, we are impressed of its stickiness. We just want to take a bite but the whole thing lifts up. If you eat it as it is, it will have a mellow sweet taste and if you add soy sauce, flavor is more marked.
It is said that Yamaimo were donated to his majesty the emperor and mister Kurokawa received the medal with yellow ribbon last year.
The Chef of Hikone Castle Resort and Spa explains the menu using the different vegetables collected previously. It was amazingly tasty. We can enjoy different textures of the same product. For example, tasting Taga’s carrots in a salad but also in the form of a dessert. Everyone has a feast and greatly appreciate eating the ingredients we harvested.
The final destination is “Homan Shrine” in Aisho town, we will visit the highlights of the precincts. Homan Shrine is said to have the benefits of good luck, marriage, and praying for beauty, and the votive tablet is also a cute heart shape!
Furthermore, there is a “heart stone” that allows you to fortune-telling. Behind the main shrine, there is a large tree called “Beauty Tree”, which is 300 years old, and it is said that touching the bark has benefits for your skin. Touch to charge the power of beautiful skin!
After a good visit, we will be on our way back home. The last snack is the popular product “Kumquat Daifuku” from the local long-established Japanese sweets shop “Shirohei Roho”. The gentle sweetness of white bean paste and the refreshing bitterness of kumquat healed the body tired from cycling. We get on the train from Echigawa Station on the Ohmi Railway to Hikone Station.
Here comes the end of our bike tour. We have biked for about 30 kilometers but it did not feel long since it was full of discoveries. It was a really satisfying experience from harvesting to tasting Ōmi’s local products. Furthermore, we have explored some of Shiga’s historical wonders cruising around beautiful sceneries and a refreshing nature.