Most news items keep us informed about our world but are not part of our daily experience. However, sometimes an event happens that feels very personal and close to home. That was my experience when I heard about Japan’s Noto Peninsula earthquake on New Year’s Day 2024.
In March 2023 I spent an amazing day near the towns of Suzu and Wajima at the tip of the Noto Peninsula. Both are less than 20 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake.
I led a tour for collectors of Japanese dolls on our Ningyo tour, centered on 3/3 (March 3). This is when Japanese celebrate the Girl’s / Doll’s Day Hina Matsuri Festival. (Along with our Japan Gay Cultural Tour, we also assist specialty groups and individuals with customized Japan tours.)
Okunoto Salt Farm Village
We started our day in Tokyo before a 3-hour Shinkansen bullet train ride over the Japanese Alps. Our destination was Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan coast.
After a 2-hour bus ride on mostly 2-lane scenic roads, our first stop was at the Okunoto Salt Farm Village near Suzu. An energetic older man showed us the ancient method by which salt has been extracted from the sea for centuries.
The workers remove large amounts of sea water onto the sand, then gradually let it dry in the sun. They boil the residue in steam for almost a full day to separate the salt from brine and sand. The resulting hand-dried salt remains a delicacy among Japanese chefs and diners.
Kiriko Museum in Wajima Town
We next drove to Wajima, shown in many photos of the fires, tsunami, and other Noto earthquake damage. We visited the Kiriko Museum featuring majestic lanterns illuminating 3-story tall floats. Wajima residents take them out and parade them through town during August Shinto festivals. To allow maximum enjoyment, a sloping ramp allows a close-up view of the highest portions of the floats.
L’Atelier de Noto Restaurant in Wajima Town
By now we were getting hungry, so it was time for an early dinner. When I planned this day, I expected a light dinner at a pleasant local restaurant with Japanese cuisine. However, I was stunned to learn that one of Japan’s finest French restaurants was in this town of 27,000 two hours from the nearest big city!
We immediately booked a long table for the tasting menu at L’Atelier de Noto. The owner, Toshiya Ikehata, is from this remote region. As a young man he left for Paris to learn French cuisine from the masters. When he returned to Japan he worked in Japan’s culinary hub of Osaka. During a trip home to see his family, he rediscovered the rich variety of produce grown in Noto (the concept the French call “terroir”). This inspired him to open a restaurant there.
Our exquisite 5-course dinner, presided over by Ikehata-san, provided a wonderful showcase of the bounty of the nearby farms and the Sea of Japan:
- Noto oyster and seaweed flan with an edible chrysanthemum sauce
- Pumpkin soup with pink shrimp and whelk
- Risotto of snow crab and speared squid with (very carefully prepared) fugu (pufferfish)
- Noto beef with a type of shiitake mushrooms found only in Noto
- Sweet chestnut mousse with caramelized apple pieces and Crème Brûlée
Shiroyone Senmaida Rice Terraces
By the time we finished our early dinner, darkness had fallen, and we drove 10 miles along the rugged coast. We stopped in a dark parking lot, then walked to the edge of a bluff. Below us were 1000 illuminated terraced rice paddies flowing down the hillside to the crashing ocean waves. “Awe-inspiring” has become a cliché, but this was a moment that indeed inspired awe among all of us!
On winter and spring nights, when the rice stalks are dormant, local residents set out a vast number of LED lights each evening to mark the outline of each paddy. The color changes every few minutes, so it’s an ever-evolving vista.
A few of us walked along the paths toward the sea, far past any ambient light other than the sea of LEDs, first purple, then green. When we got to the bottom of the paddies and looked back up, the almost-full moon emerged from behind clouds to add its glow to the landscape.
And as we walked along the paths, I quietly played some ethereal traditional music that my partner Jake recorded for just this moment. The entire ambiance created one of my favorite travel experiences of a lifetime of travel.
Looking Ahead after Japan’s Noto Peninsula earthquake
It is too early to know what’s happened to the amazing places we visited and the people who so warmly welcomed us. However, we offer our best wishes to the people of Noto as they start their recovery from Japan’s Noto Peninsula earthquake on New Year’s Day that will forever change their lives. I look forward to the day when Noto will again be ready to offer another peak travel experience for our HE Travel clients!