I travel a great deal on my own without a guide, from various country to domestically throughout Japan. However, I am truly glad that YUTours was able to provide such an amazing travel experience throughout the Shiga Prefecture. The guides proved they had a cognoscente of Japanese culture and were extremely knowledgeable about the subject and areas we travelled to. Their insider knowledge and connections proved invaluable. Having such an amazing trip, to such a rural area would not have been physically, and mentally, possible without them!
The tour started promptly at 8:20AM, with Kusatsu Station in Shiga Prefecture being the starting point. While this is quite an early time for some, it is well worth waking up early. The tour takes the entire day and every second counts. Once arriving and meeting your tour group, your guide will provide you with the necessary train ticket to get to your next destination and proceed to explain the day’s itinerary to you.
The tour consists of a magnificent journey through the highlands and countryside that makes up the southern side of Shiga Prefecture. You will have the chance to visit Shigaraki, which is notoriously famous for its abundance of expert craftsmen, pottery artisans and a plethora of wild raccoon dogs, or tanuki as they are called in Japanese. Shigaraki is one of the oldest areas to participate in the art of pottery and ceramic making. It actually creates most of the ceramic tanuki sold throughout the country. Throughout the course of the day, participants will be able to visit an assortment of pottery studios and even have the opportunity to make your very own, one of a kind, Shigaraki-yaki, which is the local pottery. You will also be able to have a taste of the local cuisine, some very delicious, high quality, Omi beef. Your tour will come to end with a lovely visit to a tea master’s house, to sample various types of Japanese tea and learn the art of making tea, before you head back up to Shigraki Station bound for Ishiyama Station.
When you jump on the train at the start of your tour, you will be able to see the lovely view of the Shiga countryside via the Shigaraki Kogen Railway. It is the perfect way to start your morning. Once arriving at Shigaraki Station, you will be faced with a sight that you won’t see anywhere else! The station houses a vast amount of ceramic tanuki, all varying in size, both inside the station and outside on the waiting platforms. It is truly a sight to see. When I went, it was during the Christmas season and thus the tanuki were adorned in lovely Santa Clause costumes.
From there on, your guide will give you a more in depth explanation about the old town of Shigaraki before proceeding to lead you to your first official stop of the day. You will be able to visit a few different studios and shops on the main road from the station, all varying in price and what they sell.
Some of the pottery pieces sell for more than 500,000 JPY, which goes to show how amazing quality they are. The shop I went to gave me valuable insight into what was in store for me the rest of the day.
Once you move on from the first batch of shops, you will come across the gorgeous Shingu Shrine. Shingu Shrine is a Shinto shrine and perfectly captures the serenity of the quiet life in Shigaraki. Taking a stroll around the countryside is one of the best parts of the tour, for it lets you see a view you will not come across anywhere else.
You will travel uphill to visit some more pottery studios, of which are quite famous, and have the opportunity to speak with some of the expert craftsmen about their experience first-hand. You will also be able to see them working on various pieces, all ranging from small sizes to large kilns and pots.
The giant ovens that they use to bake the clay are absolutely stunning. If you are lucky, you will be able to see inside of it and possibly step inside as well for a perfect photo-op. You will be able to visit a few more studios and galleries, of which you may purchase some exquisite souvenirs that, will be sure to please even the hardest of gift-givers.
Your next stop on the tour? Hopefully, thanks to all the walking you’ve done up to this point, you will be hungry because this time you will be making another trek, back down the hills, to eat an absolutely satisfying lunch of the high quality Omi Beef. Omi beef is considered to be one of the top three meats in Japan, and it also is able to hold its own against Australian and USA beef. It is positively superb.
One of a Kind Experience
Once you are stuffed from the delicious lunch, you will move on to another, smaller studio, where you will have the opportunity to try your hand at making your very own Shigaraki-yaki. Upon meeting the master of the studio, who owns it along with his wife, you will proceed to the work area where you will receive the necessary directions and tools to make your masterpiece.
It will take you around 1-2 hours to make your pottery pieces, though that will allow you to make roughly 4 different kinds of pieces out of the 1-2 kilogram ball of clay you will receive. I ended up making two different types of cups, one large Japanese tea cup and another Western style mug, as well as two different types of medium to large sized plates. How many different pieces you have will vary on what you make and how big you make each piece from the large ball of lay you have. If you ever need any assistance in making your piece, do not hesitate to call the master or his wife over, they are more than happy to help you out. They are very kind and love to make conversation with you while you work, so it makes for a great atmosphere.
The average wait time to receive the pottery that one made at the shop back is roughly 3 months. While this wait time is a bit on the long side, I believe it is worth it to make such an amazing piece of Shigaraki-yaki, which is one of a kind. The items will either be shipped to you, if you are not able to return to the studio, or you are more than free to come pick up them yourself once they are ready.
The penultimate stop of the day is, in my opinion, the perfect way to end such a bustling day. You will take a taxi down to Asamiya to learn the art of tea from an expert tea maker and his wife. There you shall meet the master of the house and he will proceed to explain to you how to make Japanese tea, from the process of growing the tea leaves to harvesting them to drying them and finally to the brewing process. You will have the chance to learn about the various types of tea that are available in Japan, from the very well-known matcha, or green tea, to the lesser known teas outside of Japan, such as sencha, hojicha, Kabuse-cha, Gyokuro, Bancha, Kukicha, and genmaicha. You will also be able to play a game, where you are able to sample the various teas that were introduced to you. The catch? You will not be told what tea it is you are drinking, with some non-tea beverages are thrown in as well to try to catch you off guard, and you will have to try to figure out which tea is what. You will be given the answers at the end of the game, and it is quite fun to see how well your taste buds, or luck and guessing abilities, faired. Afterwards, you will receive some sweets and rice crackers to compliment the tea, as well as the chance to ask the master of the shop any questions that you have. It is the perfect way to relax and warm up after a long day of walking and craft making.
Eventually, it will be time for you to catch the community bus back to Shigaraki Station, where you will once again have the chance to view the beautiful scenery of the Shiga countryside the way locals do on the back roads. Once you arrive at Shigaraki Station, your tour guide will let you do some final souvenir shopping if you would need to, before you all head back up to the central Shiga where you will arrive at Ishiyama Station. Your guide will be able to assist you if you need to transfer to another train life to get back to your original destination. Before you depart from your guide, they will be kind enough to remind you that your pottery will be delivered to you in the future and that they are able to send you any photos that were taken throughout the day.
Would I Recommend It?
Capture The World experienced the Private Day Tour as a guest of YUTours and Shiga Prefecture Registered Travel Agency, however all opinions expressed are my honest opinions based on my personal experiences.