Autumn festivals and foliage November 2017 in Shiga Prefecture

Recommended festivals (matsuri), events, exhibitions, and fall leaves in Shiga Prefecture in November–December 2017. (Most official Web sites are in Japanese only.)

Compiled by Philbert Ono. Updated: Nov. 8, 2017

Little Edo Hikone Castle Festival Parade

Little Edo Hikone Castle Festival Parade

November 3, 2017
♦ Little Edo Hikone Castle Festival Parade, Hikone Castle, 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm
Very elaborate costume parade of mainly kids dressed as samurai and Edo-Period ladies. Highlights include the Hikone Gun Battalion giving a matchlock gun demo (in front of Horse Stable), Ii Naosuke played by an actor on horseback, fireman acrobatics, and Sarugaku dancers. The parade route starts from Joto Elementary School and proceeds along the road to the castle and passes in front of the Umaya Horse Stable. Video here. Short walk from JR Hikone Station. Map | Video | Photos
小江戸彦根の城まつりパレード
English: http://www.hikoneshi.com/en/event/articles/220
Japanese: http://www.hikoneshi.com/jp/event/articles/c/parade

Saimyoji

Saimyoji

November 18th-27th, 2017
Koto Sanzan Temple Trio autumn foliage, Kora, Aisho, and Higashi-Omi
Koto Sanzan (湖東三山) is a trio of large Tendai Buddhist temples famous for autumn leaves in eastern Shiga. They are Saimyoji (西明寺) in Kora, Kongorinji (金剛輪寺) in Aisho, and Hyakusaiji (百済寺) in Higashi-Omi (see map below). They are also famous for structures that are National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.

During the autumn foliage period, convenient shuttle buses (Koto Sanzan Shuttle Bus) run every day between Hikone Station and these three temples. For more details and the shuttle bus schedule in English, click here.

Eigenji

Eigenji

November 4th-26th, 2017
Eigenji Temple Autumn Foliage and Light-up, Higashi-Omi, 5:00 pm – 8:30 pm for light-up
Although this temple is not one of the Koto Sanzan Temple Trio, it’s also famous for autumn leaves with 3,000 maple trees. Along with Saimyoji, Eigenji is also one of Japan’s 100 Grand Autumn Foliage Sites. Established in 1361, Eigenji belongs to the Zen Rinzai Buddhist Sect (Eigenji School). Since it’s a different sect, Eigenji is not a member of the Koto Sanzan trio of Tendai Sect temples. Impressive during the day, but also beautiful at night when the leaves are illuminated along with the walking paths. Admission 500 yen.

From Ohmi Railways Yokaichi Station, go to Bus stop 1 and take the bus going to Eigenji Shako (永源寺車庫) and get off at Eigenji-mae (永源寺前). Takes about 35 min. Bus schedule from Yokaichi Station on weekdays | Saturday | Sunday. Note that from Eigenji-mae, the last bus for Yokaichi Station leaves at 7:26 pm on Sat./Sun. and 8:27 pm on weekdays. Map
永源寺 ライトアップ
Japanese: http://eigenji-t.jp

Zensuiji

Zensuiji and maples.

November 16–December 3, 2017
♦ Konan Sanzan Temple Trio Autumn Tour, Konan, all day
Not to be confused with Koto Sanzan, Konan Sanzan is a trio of Tendai Buddhist temples in the city of Konan. A small city like Konan is lucky to have as many as four National-Treasure structures at the three Konan Sanzan temples. Like Koto Sanzan, Konan Sanzan temples are also noted for autumn leaves. During this period, a convenient shuttle bus plies between the temples and train stations.

The temples are Jorakuji (常楽寺), Chojuji (長寿寺), and Zensuiji (善水時). Jorakuji has not one, but two buildings that are National Treasures: the Hondo main hall and three-story pagoda. Chojuji means, “Long Life Temple,” and its small, but distinctive Hondo hall is a National Treasure. Zensuiji has the largest and most impressive Hondo hall (National Treasure) bearing elegant roof lines. Not to be missed by architectural buffs. The three temples are all in quiet, rural neighborhoods.

One thing you have to understand is that two of the temples (Jorakuji and Chojuji) are on one side of the train tracks and the third temple (Zensuiji) is farther away on the other side of the tracks. So there are two separate bus routes going to the three temples and there’s a train ride between Jorakuji/Chojuji and Zensuiji.

The Konan Community bus called Meguri-kun runs from JR Ishibe Station (JR Kusatsu Line) to Jorakuji and Chojuji once an hour from 8:24 am to 3:45 pm. From Jorakuji, you can take the bus to Chojuji. From Chojuji, take the bus back to JR Ishibe Station and catch the train to JR Kosei Station one stop away. From JR Kosei Station, take the bus to Zensuiji (get off at the “Iwane” stop). The last bus leaves Zensuiji (Iwane) at 5:16 pm for JR Kosei Station. You can also tour the temples in reverse order, starting with Zensuiji. In the morning, buses leave JR Kosei Station (north exit kita-guchi) for Zensuiji at 8:28 am, 9:25 am, 10:15 am, 12:20 pm, 1:45 pm, 2:45 pm, 3:50 pm (except on weekends and holidays). Bus fare is ¥250 per ride for adults. ¥130 for kids.
Bus schedule in Japanese | Map
湖南三山めぐり

Hiyoshi Taisha torii lit up in autumn.

November 11th–26th, 2017, 5 pm–8:30 pm
Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine Maple Festival Light-up, Otsu
Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine at the foot of Mt. Hie in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture is the head shrine for all Hiyoshi, Hie, and Sanno Shrines in Japan (around 2,000). The spacious grounds includes two shrines that are National Treasures and 3,000 maple trees lit up at night 5:00 pm – 8:30 pm during this period. Even the green leaves look great against the dark sky. Highly recommended if you’re in that part of the city. Near Hiezan Sakamoto Station on the JR Kosei Line and Keihan Line’s Sakamoto Station. Map | Photos
もみじ祭
http://hiyoshitaisha.jp/event/momiji/

Ishiyama-dera

Ishiyama-dera

November 18–December 3, 2017
Ishiyama-dera Temple Autumn Foliage Light-up
, Otsu, 5:30 pm – 9:00 pm (enter by 8:30 pm)
Founded in 749, Ishiyama-dera, belonging to the Shingon Buddhist Sect, is the 13th Temple of the Saigoku Pilgrimage. The temple is noted for National Treasure architecture, cherry blossoms, and fall leaves. The maples are nice even during the day, but the evenings will include LED lights. Mini-concerts on weekends at 6:30 p.m. Map
三井寺 秋のライトアップ
English:
Japanese: https://www.ishiyamadera.or.jp/guide/event/atarayo

November 17th-26th, 2017
Miidera Temple Autumn Foliage Light-up
, Otsu, 5:00 pm – 9:00 pm (enter by 8:30 pm)
Established in the 7th century, Miidera temple, or Onjoji, is one of Otsu’s major temples and one of Japan’s four largest temples. It is the headquarters temple of the Tendai Jimon Buddhist Sect and former rival of Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei. It is a complex of numerous structures including National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties. The temple bell is famous for being one of the Omi Hakkei (Eight Views of Omi) depicted in ukiyoe prints. During this period, the temple’s three-story pagoda will also be open to the public. Map
三井寺 秋のライトアップ
English:
Japanese: http://miidera1200.jp/2017lightup-autumn/

Hyozu Taisha

Hyozu Taisha garden

November 17th-26th, 2017
Hyozu Taisha Shrine Garden Autumn Foliage Light-up, Yasu, 5:00 pm – 8:30 pm (until 9 pm on weekends and holidays)
Established in 717 (Nara Period), Hyozu Taisha Shrine has a noted Japanese garden with a pond ringed by small rolling hills and autumn leaves. The fall leaves certainly look colorful and impressive when illuminated in the evenings and reflected in the pond. Events and merchandise booths will be held on weekends.

A short bus ride from JR Yasu Station’s North Exit (Kita-guchi). Take the Yoshikawa Line (going to Nishi Kawahara 2-chome 西河原2丁目 or Ayame-hama あやめ浜) and get off at Hyozu Taisha 兵主大社. Buses are infrequent (schedule here). The last bus leaving Hyozu Taisha for Yasu Station leaves around 9:02 pm on weekdays and around 7:17 pm on Sat./Sun. Or take a taxi (costing about 2,000 yen from Yasu Station). Map
兵主大社庭園紅葉ライトアップ
Japanese: http://www.yasu-kankou.com/event/2017/10/post-35.html

Genkyuen

Genkyuen autumn foliage light-up.

November 18–December 3, 2017
Genkyuen Garden Autumn Foliage Light-up, Hikone, 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm (enter by 8:30 pm)
Adjacent to Hikone Castle, Genkyuen was built as a castle garden in 1677 by Ii Naooki, the fourth lord of Hikone Castle. I would call this Shiga’s best place to view autumn foliage illumination. The pond’s reflection of the colorful autumn leaves at night doubles the impact. Hikone Castle in the background is also lit up for a perfect night scene. Reminds me of a master painter using a black canvas. Admission ¥700 (¥350 for jr high and younger). Short walk from JR Hikone Station. Map
錦秋の玄宮園ライトアップ
English: http://www.hikoneshi.com/en/event/articles/221
Japanese: http://www.hikoneshi.com/jp/event/articles/c/kinshu

November 18–December 10, 2017, 5:30 pm–8 pm (enter by 7:30 pm)
Kyorinbo Garden Autumn Foliage Light-up, Azuchi, Omi-Hachiman
Beautiful Japanese garden designed by Kobori Enshu. Part of a temple at the foot of Mt. Kinugasa. Autumn foliage at night is reputed to be most beautiful. Of course, you can also go during the day. Tripods/monopods and food are not allowed. No photography inside the buildings. The garden is usually open only on weekends and holidays, but it will be open every day during Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. Admission 500 yen (200 yen for jr high and younger). From JR Azuchi Station, take a taxi for 10-min. ride. Google Map
石の寺 教林坊 紅葉ライトアップ
http://www.d1.dion.ne.jp/~marche/kyourinbou/

Toyosato

Toyosato Elementary School (Image: toyosato-kanko.jp)

November 25–December 27, 2017, Sunset–10 pm
♦ Former Toyosato Elementary School Evening Illumination, Toyosato
Pretty outdoor and building illumination in the evening. Christmas illumination during Dec. 16th–27th. Designed by William Merrell Vories the school has become nationally famous as the backdrop for the popular K-ON! anime/manga series. For groups of four or more, guided tours of the old school are provided for a fee.
Japanese: http://toyosato-kanko.jp/event/illumi2017/
豊郷小学校旧校舎群ライトアップ&イルミネーション

Shaka-do

Shaka-do

October 1–December 10, 2017, 9 am–4 pm (until 3:30 pm in Dec.)
Enryakuji Shaka-do Hall Hidden Buddha Display, Otsu
In the Saito complex of Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei, the Shaka-do main temple hall will open its doors to reveal its principal object of worship, a seated Buddha (Shaka Nyorai). The Buddha revealed to the public only once every 33 years. Visitors can also see the hall’s naijin altar area.
Japanese: http://www.hieizan.or.jp/archives/2556

December 2nd–3rd, 2017, 6:30 am
Hot Air Balloon Over Lake Biwa, Takashima, early morning
Dramatic sight of hot-air balloons crossing Lake Biwa. They start off very early in the morning at Omi-Shirahama Beach so you would have stay near this beach in Takashima. The balloons aim to land in Notogawa in Higashi-Omi across the lake. Note that weather conditions can cancel the event.
熱気球琵琶湖横断
http://www.takashima-kanko.jp/new/20171123_1704.html

Date and venue to be confirmed. 
♦ Tonda Ningyo Puppet Show, Nagahama, 1:30 pm
The famous Tonda puppet troupe will perform three acts. Admission 1,200 yen at the door.
At JR Nagahama Station, go to Bus stop 1 and take the bus at 12:27 pm going to Nagahama Shiyakusho Azai-shisho-mae (長浜市役所浅井支所前) and get off at Biwa Shisho-mae (びわ支所前). Takes about 20 min. Only three buses go there on Sunday. Or take a taxi if you’re rich or going with friends. Google Map
人形浄瑠璃「冨田人形」

December 3, 2017
♦ Tarobogu Shrine Fire Festival, Higashi-Omi, Noon – 4:00 pm
Held annually on the first Sunday of December, the Tarobo Shrine Fire Festival burns a big pile of 100,000 wooden prayer tablets called goma (護摩) collected from believers all over Japan. The tablet is written with the believer’s name, address, and prayer wish. The fire burns as a prayer for family health and safety. After the fire settles down, barefoot priests walk over the hot ashes. Very dramatic festival (photo here).
Short walk from Ohmi Railways Tarobogu-mae Station. Map
太郎坊宮お火焚大祭
http://www.tarobo.sakura.ne.jp/gyouzi.html

For art and museum exhibitions in Shiga, see Kansai Art Beat’s exhibition schedule for Shiga museums.

Setsubun Festivals in Shiga Prefecture

Ogre dancers at Taga Taisha Setsubun.

February 3 is the Setsubun Festival at many temples and shrines in Japan. It marks the beginning of spring (Feb. 4) according to the lunar calendar. They hold a religious ceremony and then throw fuku-mame lucky beans (dry soybeans) for worshippers to catch. They may also throw beans at ogre (oni) to chase away evil and bad luck (symbolized by the oni) and bring in good fortune (fuku). They usually shout, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (鬼は外! 福は内! Out with bad luck! In with good fortune!). The bean-throwing is called mame-maki. Like giving New Year’s prayers, Setsubun is a popular event because many people want to eliminate misfortune and invite good fortune to come in the new year.

In Shiga Prefecture, you can see the Setsubun festival on February 3 at the following temples and shrines. There may be slight variations in how they conduct the Setsubun festival. You don’t have to be Buddhist to see or participate in Setsubun (or any other Buddhist events in Japan). Just make sure to dress warmly and enjoy one of Japan’s major traditions.

Catching lucky beans at Taga Taisha.

♦ Taga Taisha Shrine Setsubun-sai (多賀大社 節分祭), Taga, Feb. 3, 11:00 am and 2:00 pm
Shiga’s biggest Setsubun festival is in Taga. They have impressive ogre (oni) dancers from Shimane Prefecture to act as the evil demons to be chased away. They will hold two bean-throwing (mame-maki) sessions. Expect a large crowd.

It starts with a religious ceremony in the shrine’s worship hall. The shrine’s outdoor stage will then show a dramatic performance by the ogres as they are chased away by priests throwing beans at them. The main event is when over 300 people born under the current year’s Oriental zodiac begin to throw soybeans and mochi to the crowd.

The soybeans are thrown in little paper bags, so they won’t get dirty if they fall to the ground. But the mochi are hard as a rock, so watch out. The bean-throwing is fun, but potentially dangerous with beans or mochi hitting your face/head and people shoving you around. Better to not pick up beans/mochi on the ground amid the jostling. Taking pictures is pretty risky as well. One mochi even hit my camera lens. Fortunately, no damage. You should always look up and see where the mochi and beans are flying.

Directions: Taga Taisha is a short walk from Ohmi Railways Taga Taisha-mae Station on the Taga Line.
Map | PhotosVideo | Taga Taisha website

Throwing beans at Zensuiji Setsubun-e.

♦ Zensuiji Setsubun-e (善水寺 節分会星祭), Konan, Feb. 3, 1:30 pm
Belonging to the Tendai Buddhist sect, Zensuiji temple is a National Treasure and one of the Konan Sanzan Temple Trio worth visiting at any time of the year. Their Setsubun festival is somewhat unique since it is held entirely inside the temple. It starts at 1:30 pm with priests chanting and the Goma fire ritual (護摩供奉修) with a small fire inside the temple burning worshippers’ wooden prayer sticks (write your wishes on the stick, ¥500 per stick).

After the hour-long fire ritual, the Three Ogres of Poison (三毒鬼) in different colors enter the temple. Each ogre represents one of the three Mahayana Buddhist poisons. The priest introduces the ogres and explains that the blue ogre (holding a rake to gather desired objects) is greed/desire (貪), red ogre is hate/anger (瞋), and yellow ogre is ignorance/delusion (痴). (This is also when babies in the audience frightened by the scary ogres start to cry.)

Instead of chasing away the ogres, the priest uses the power of Buddha to neutralize their poison hearts. Each of the three poisons have an antidote, such as knowledge to quell ignorance. All the ogres acquiesce and are thereby converted into “good” ogres.

At around 3 pm, the good ogres, priests, and other folks throw beans while shouting, “Fuku wa uchi! Oni mo uchi!” (福は内! 鬼も内! In with good fortune! In with ogres!). This is another unusual thing about Zensuiji’s Setsubun festival, they also welcome the ogres. But they are now good ogres. At the end of the festival, worshippers can have one of the three ogres eliminate their respective poison. The ogre taps the person to cleanse his/her poison. Very interesting Setsubun festival. Photography is permitted.

Directions: From JR Kosei Station on the JR Kusatsu Line, catch a bus bound for Shimoda (下田) and get off at Iwane (岩根). From there, walk up the hill, and follow the signs (if you can read Japanese). A small temple admission is charged.
Photos courtesy of Konan Tourism Association (湖南市観光協会).
Map | Zensuiji photos | VideoZensuiji website | Konan video

Good ogres cleanse worshippers’ poisons at Zensuiji’s Setsubun.

♦ Tachiki Jinja Shrine Setsubun Taisai (立木神社 節分大祭), Kusatsu, Feb. 3 at 3 pm, 5 pm, and 7 pm
Men and women born under the current year’s zodiac animal will throw beans three times on this day. Free ama-zake (sweet sake) and locally brewed sacred sake will be served to visitors. The shrine’s mikuji paper fortunes (sold for ¥200) will also be used in a drawing for many prizes.

Directions: 15-min. walk from JR Kusatsu Station‘s east exit (or take the Mame bus and get off at Tachiki Jinja-mae).
Map | Tachiki Shrine website

Minakuchi

Minakuchi Shrine

♦ Minakuchi Jinja Shrine Setsubun-sai (水口神社 節分祭), Koka, Feb. 3, 7 pm
Minakuchi Shrine’s Setsubun festival is mainly held in the evening from 7 pm when they hold a religious ceremony, perform a lion dance, chase away ogres, and throw lucky beans and mochi. From 3 pm to 7 pm, udon noodles and red bean soup (zenzai) will be available to warm you up. The shrine is most famous for the Minakuchi Hikiyama Matsuri in April.

Directions: 5-min. walk from Ohmi Railways Minakuchi Jonan Station. | Map

Wishing everyone good fortune this new year!

Zensuiji showing hidden Buddha

Flyer for Gokaicho.

Flyer for Gokaicho.

Zensuiji is one of the three Tendai Buddhist temples (called Konan Sanzan 湖南三山) in Konan, Shiga Prefecture designated as a National Treasure. The elegant lines of the thatched roof, Japanese gardens, and colorful autumn leaves make Zensuiji one of Shiga’s most aesthetic and popular temples.

Its main object of worship (Honzon 本尊) is Yakushi Nyorai Ruriko Nyorai (薬師瑠璃光如来), the Buddha of Medicine and Healing. It is a statue of a seated Buddha normally hidden from view in the Hondo main temple hall built in 1366.

However, for the first time in 14 years, this main statue will be exposed for public viewing from April 19 to June 14, 2015 to celebrate Zensuiji’s 1300th anniversary of its founding. The main statue is 102-cm high and an Important Cultural Property. The statue was last opened to the public in the temple in 2001 and 1949. This event of showing a hidden Buddha (hibutsu 秘仏) is called Gokaicho (御開帳).

The main statue was also displayed to the public in 2005 and 2006 at the Kyoto National Museum and Tokyo National Museum for a Buddhist art exhibition marking the 1200th anniversary of Tendai’s founding. It was the first and last time the main statue was displayed outside the temple. A photo of the seated main statue is here and pictured in the flyer above.

Formally named Iwane-san Io-in Zensuiji (岩根山王院善水寺), Zensuiji was founded by Empress Genmei during 708-715 as a dojo (small hall) to pray for the protection of Japan. According to legend, in the early Heian Period (794-1185), Priest Saicho (founder of Tendai Buddhism based on Mt. Hiei) was in the Konan-Koka area to harvest wood to build a temple on Mt. Hiei (Enryakuji). A ray of light led him to the dojo temple. He found a paper mulberry leaf floating on the temple’s Momotsute Pond (百伝の池) written with the words, “Excellent medicine, now left here” (是好良薬 今留在此). A 5.5 cm high gold Yakushi Buddha statue then appeared from the pond. Saicho prayed to this Buddha for seven days for rain. His prayers then came true as heavy rains fell and continued all day and night. The gushing river helped him transport the wood he found to Lake Biwa to build his temple on Mt. Hiei.

Later when Emperor Kanmu (737–806) fell ill, Saicho prayed for his recovery by dedicating some water from Momotsute Pond. He then offered the sacred water to the emperor who soon got well. The temple was then named “Zensuiji,” meaning “Efficacious Water Temple.” People come here to pray for good health and to recover from illness. You can also drink or take home the Efficacious Water from Momotsute Pond flowing from a spring.

When the hidden Yakushi Nyorai statue was repaired in 1906, they found a lot of rice husks and a document dated 993 inside the Buddha. The document, called Kechien Kyomyo (結縁交名), listed the people (donors) who contributed to making the Buddha statue as a way to connect with the Buddha.

If you miss seeing the main statue after it becomes “hidden”again after June 14, you can still see 30 other impressive Buddhist statues in the main temple hall. Fifteen of them are Important Cultural Properties dated to be centuries or a thousand years old. Off the beaten path and well worth visiting.

Zensuiji is also soliciting donations to rethatch its 40-year-old roof this year.

Hours: 9 am–5 pm (enter by 4:30 pm)

Admission: ¥700 for adults, ¥300 for jr. and high schoolers, free for elementary school kids

Directions: At Kosei Station’s North Exit (Kitaguchi), take the Meguru-kun bus that stops at Iwane (岩根). Buses leave once an hour, taking about 12 min. Bus schedule here. From the Iwane bus stop, there is a pleasant hillside trail going up to Zensuiji, taking about 15 min. If you’re traveling with a friend or small group, you can take a taxi. Map here.

Address: 3518 Iwane, Konan, Shiga Prefecture (〒520-3252 滋賀県湖南市岩根3518)

Website: zensuiji.jp

Zensuiji photos | Zensuiji video

*Thanks to Yukiyo Mitaka in Konan for contributing to this post.
*The city of Konan, Zensuiji temple, and the Konan Tourist Association have permission to reprint parts of this post in their free English materials for foreign visitors.

Yahei hot chili peppers in Konan

P1090752

Meet Yukiyo Mitaka and Yuzu Sasaki (三峰 教代・佐々木 由珠), a young and peppy pair of hot chili pepper farmers in Konan, Shiga Prefecture, Japan. Under their company name and brand of fm craic (not a radio station), they grow a unique and local variety of super-hot chili peppers called yahei togarashi (弥平とうがらし).

They plant, grow, harvest, process, package, and sell the yahei hot chili peppers as blended spices, sauces, and confections. They do everything by themselves. Just the two of them. They’ve also become media darlings, appearing in numerous Japanese print media and even on TV. And they now appear here at shiga-ken.com, in English. They also appear in my new video introducing the city of Konan:

Video link: http://youtu.be/OjFnVdKMCKI

On a sunny November day in 2014, they gave me an exclusive tour of Konan and their chili pepper field near the Shimoda area where the yahei chili peppers were originally grown. It looked like the size of a football field or bigger. They grow about 1,000 yahei chili pepper plants.

P1090755

fm craic’s yahei hot chili pepper field in Konan.

P1090746

Yahei chili peppers are orange.

Yahei chili peppers are bright orange.

The harvest season (summer to early fall) was already over, but they still had yahei togarashi plants with bright orange peppers. Most were shriveled and not marketable. All the plants were going to be uprooted and disposed of since they were single-season only. They plant new seedlings every March and harvest in the heat of summer which is tough work.

I couldn’t believe that only the two of them did all the work on this huge field. No help from family members or friends either. They grow and plant the seedlings, till and fertilize the soil, grow the plants, harvest the peppers by hand in summer, process them, and use spoons to carefully fill little spice bottles. Totally homegrown and handmade product. A lot of work, but they can take it easy during the off-season winter months.

The main thing about yahei chili peppers is that compared to ordinary chili pepper spices sold in Japan (like shichimi), their yahei chili pepper spices are super hot. On the tip of a wet chopstick, I tasted a tiny dash of both. The regular, blended shichimi was not even hot. But just a little powder of yahei caused an immediate burning sensation on my tongue. Really hot stuff.

The spicy heat of chili peppers is measured by the Scoville scale. Yahei chili pepper is measured as having 100,000 Scoville heat units which is twice as hot as ordinary chili peppers in Japan. The girls also profess that it’s not only about the spicy hotness. Yahei chili peppers also have umami flavor and a mellow aroma.

The origin of Konan’s yahei hot chili peppers remains unclear. “Yahei” supposed to be the name of the man from Konan’s Shimoda area who brought over yahei hot chili peppers from overseas (probably Korea) over 100 years ago. “Yahei” was also a name given to succeeding generations, so it is unknown exactly which Yahei brought over the chili peppers. However, it is known that the local folks in Shimoda started growing yahei togarashi in their backyards for their own consumption. The peppers were pickled or heated as appetizers for sake rice wine.

fm craic was the first to go commercial with yahei togarashi, billed as Konan’s native vegetable. This has instilled some local pride and the girls have gotten a number of local food businesses to use their yahei chili pepper spices. It’s a good synergy and collaboration because they can then promote each other’s products and businesses. The girls are determined to improve and promote their local area and products. I cannot help but to root for their success.

Upper Secret, popular cafe in Konan.

Upper Secret, popular cafe in Konan.

One local business which uses yahei hot chili peppers is an American-style cafe called Upper Secret, a short walk from JR Kosei Station on the JR Kusatsu Line. We had lunch there and had the award-winning Indian chicken curry that used yahei chili peppers. Very good. The cafe opened only two years ago in September 2012 and it has become a local favorite. Manager Akane Kaikiri also speaks English because she studied in Oklahoma (of all places).

Besides curry, they had a good selection of yummy-looking, homemade desserts, pastries, cookies, etc. They also sell fm craic’s yahei chili pepper spices and sauces. It’s a nice cafe and a great place for lunch or coffee/tea. Open: 9 am–5:30 pm, closed Tue. Website

20141127UpperSecret

Upper Secret’s manager, Akane Kaikiri.

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Inside Upper Secret.

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Upper Secret’s Indian Chicken Curry using yahei chili peppers.

Yuzu and Yukiyo also manage Konan Marché (こなんマルシェ), a local gift shop selling local produce, food, crafts, and souvenirs. It’s like a Michi-no-eki (roadside rest area for drivers). Opened in autumn 2011 in a former convenience store, they sell a wide variety of local products. Besides yahei chili pepper spices, they have locally-grown vegetables like the unique Shimoda eggplant, rice, snacks and confections, local crafts like Shimoda-yaki pottery, and souvenirs designed with local mascots Ko-nyan (a cat) and Ishibe-don (a Tokaido Road traveler). “Ko-nyan” is a twist on “Konan” with “nyan” meaning “meow” in Japanese.

Konan Marché is open 10 am–7 pm, phone 0748-72-5275. (“Marché” is French for market.) The shop is in Mikumo, but will eventually move to a new location. Website

Konan Marché

Konan Marche

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fm craic’s chili pepper products.

fm craic sells four different blends of yahei hot chili pepper spices in small bottles for ¥630 each. It includes an all-purpose blend and one for curry. They also have two chili sauces, one sweet and one hot. Their products are nicknamed “Piriri” which means spicy hotness on your tongue. At Konan Marché, I bought and tried a few of the confections and snacks that used yahei chili peppers. Interesting how the hot chili taste comes afterward, like after you swallow. I liked their white brownies with small pieces of white chocolate and a dash of yahei chili pepper. It’s sweet at first, but there’s hot-chili aftertaste.

If you don’t have a car, the easiest place to buy yahei hot chili spices would be at Upper Secret near JR Kosei Station. They also sell at the Yurara Onsen hot spring facility near Zensuiji Temple. Or if you can read Japanese, order from their fm craic online store for shipping within Japan.

Upper Secret's booth at the 1st Geki-kara summit in Oct. 2014.

Upper Secret, winner of the 1st Geki-kara Summit.

Another impressive project was the “Yahei Gekikara (Super Spicy Hot) Summit” (弥平激辛サミット 2014) held for the first time on October 18, 2014. It was held together with the Ishibe-juku Matsuri Festival at the Ameyama Cultural Sports Park (Shukuba no Sato). They had food booths selling food using yahei hot chili peppers. It was a contest for the best spicy-hot food selected by popular vote and by a panel of food experts. The winner was Upper Secret’s Indian chicken curry dish. They received a cash prize and a free, year-long PR by the city of Konan. It has apparently replaced the previously held B-class gourmet event. I hope it becomes an annual event.

Shiga Governor Mikazuki at the fm craic booth at Shiga-Biwako Brand Fair at Osaka Station on Nov. 8-9, 2014.

Isn’t it amazing to see how far they’ve gone with some local chili peppers? Not strawberries, not grapes, but chili peppers of all things. Can you imagine?

Even their company name “fm craic” is intriguing for an agricultural company. “fm” refers to “farm” (as well as FM radio station) and “craic” is Irish meaning “fun and interesting.” So I guess they are “broadcasting” the “fun of farming.”

More young people (especially from the cities) are indeed getting interested in farming. If not as an occupation, at least as a temporary experience of getting down and dirty to plant rice, etc.

There’s a label for young farmers like Yuzu and Yukiyo. They call themselves “Noka Girls” (農家ガールズ) or Farm Gals which made me laugh. Shiga has a group of Noka Girls who keep in touch with other. They are all young women farmers. Definitely not the traditional image of old women farmers with bent-over backs.

Their background stories certainly is one reason for the media attention. A pair of young ladies quitting their unfulfilling jobs in the city, returning to their hometowns, and starting a business together. Something that all too many depopulating areas wish would happen more often.

Yuzu hails from Kusatsu. After graduating from a university in Kyoto, she studied the tea ceremony and Chinese language in Tianjin, China. She then worked for a travel agency in Osaka before moving back to Shiga.

Yukiyo is a native of Konan and studied in Boston, Massachusetts as an exchange student and also studied interpreting in the UK. So she speaks English well. She was working for a software firm in Tokyo before moving back to Shiga.

Both had a yearning to work in the food/farming business so they took a course in agriculture held by the Shiga Prefectural government. That’s where they met each other. Two inexperienced girls getting into the hard work of farming. They now have a lot to show for their hard work. It’s an interesting story for anybody. When they were starting out, veteran farmers in Konan were understandably skeptical of them. Like, “You gotta be kidding me.” But look at them now. They’ve come a long way in a few short years.

When you have the passion and the willingness to commit yourself, the wheels start to turn and things tend to fall into place. Shiga needs more people like them. Ambitious and determined folks out to improve their community. Konan is very lucky to have these two girls and it was a pleasure meeting them.

More about Konan | Map of Konan | Photos of Konan

*About the Konan video embedded above, it was my very first video introducing a city rather than just a single event or attraction. You can’t introduce everything about a city in a short video like this (about 10.5 min). So my strategy was to present some key words and images of Konan that people can remember.

The video also shows the indigo dyeing shop Konki Senshoku. The indigo dyeing master, Uenishi Tsuneo, helped us tie-dye a handkerchief when we visited in June 2011. I had an interesting talk with him and part of it is in the video. He speaks with a very rural and heavy Shiga dialect/accent. Since he talked like my late grandmother in Shiga, I could understand him. But he is rare one, I call him a “Living Treasure of Shiga.”

The video also shows a photo of Konan City Hall people showing drawings made by school kids in St. Johns, Michigan. Konan has friendship city relations with St. Johns. Every year since 20 years ago, artwork by elementary school kids in St. Johns are exhibited in Konan’s public library. And vice versa with artwork from Konan kids being displayed at Briggs Public Library in St. Johns. Website

Happy New Year 2015!

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Wishing ewe all a Happy 2015 filled with happy and fulfilling events in this Year of the Sheep/Ram.

This ewe lives in Konan, Shiga Prefecture. Her name is “Yurabo” (ゆら坊). Photographed in Nov. 2014.

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