The 丹波 region is an agricultural area north of 神戸 (こうべ - Kobe) on the eastern border of 兵庫 (ひょうご - Hyogo). It's probably the last thing you would imagine when thinking of Japan - compared to the bigger cities it's sparsely populated and forgoes the skyscrapers for sprawling rice paddies, ancient farmhouses and verdant hills. Don't let the lack of billboards and plasma screens put you off though - 丹波 has a rich cultural heritage and the farmland isn't just for show; the area is famous for its handmade crafts and fresh produce. If you feel you need a change of pace from rush-rush 大阪 (おおさか - Osaka) and 東京 (とうきょう - Tokyo), 丹波 may be just what the doctor ordered.
Originally, the 丹波 region was comprised of several small townships but these were recently combined to form two larger cities; 丹波 itself and 篠山 (ささやま - Sasayama). While it takes up a good share of the 兵庫 real estate, around three quarters of the area is covered by forest and the rest is quite sparsely populated. In total, just over a hundred thousand people live there, most of whom seem to be wedged into the basins between the surrounding mountains. 篠山 in particular seems to consist mostly of boundless cropland crisscrossed with narrow cart tracks, but there are pockets of historical significance; the sights and tastes of 丹波 seem to hold enough cultural interest to the rest of Japan to attract plenty of tourists.
Particularly famous is what's known as 丹波焼 (たんばやき - tamba yaki - Tamba pottery), which is one of Japan's six oldest types of ceramics. It's thought to date back well over 800 years and shows no signs of slowing; 篠山 currently has approximately 60 potteries in operation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's also home to the "Prefectural Museum of Ceramic Art" which features local, national and international displays of earthenware old and new. Those who find themselves inspired by all this can even try their hand at local "pottery classrooms" next door, where patient-looking teachers help their students create, glaze and fire designs of their own.
The early days of 丹波焼 made use of simple kilns dug into the side of a hill, where unglazed earthenware was placed to be fired for local use. Around 400 years ago however, the process was "modernised" with what's known as 登り窯 (のぼりがま - nobori gama - "rising kilns"), half buried tunnel-shaped furnaces that poke out of the end of a slope and incorporate several "segments" where pottery is woodfired at 1300 degrees for 60 hours at a time. The oldest standing 登り窯 is more than 100 years old, stretches 47 metres in length and is considered such an important part of the area's history that it's been declared a cultural asset to preserve it for the future. To be honest though, I don't think you could hurt it even if you tried.
The finished products range from traditional no-nonsense pots, bowls and cups to delicate vases, お酒 (おさけ - osake - sake) sets and tealights. There are also ceramic beer mugs, coffee cups and intricately decorated serving plates for those seeking something a little more contemporary. Huge central galleries offer individual potters and small companies the chance to display their works, most of which are beautiful and very reasonably priced. For the most part, 丹波焼 is bought and enjoyed within 兵庫 but its reputation is such that a significant amount is bought up and sent home by enthusiastic tourists from all over Japan.
丹波 has a harsh climate even by Japanese standards, with humid 夏 (なつ - natsu - summers) and bitterly cold 冬 (ふゆ - fuyu - winters). The upside of this is that a variety of produce can be grown at different times of the year and something always seems to be in season. 秋 (あき - aki - Autumn), for example is famous for its sweet 丹波栗 (たんばぐり - tamba guri - Tamba chestnuts), often made into 餅 (もち - mochi - rice cakes) and other 和菓子 (わがし - wagashi - Japanese sweets). Also popular during the colder months are 山芋 (やまいも - yama imo - Japanese yams, literally "mountain potatoes"), which are pure white and slightly sticky inside; they end up like buttery potatoes when boiled and can also be grated into rice or soup to make them thicker and creamier. The most unusual of the lot though would have to be 黒豆 (くろまめ - kuromame - black soybeans). If harvested at the usual time, the beans are very similar to regular 枝豆 (えだまめ - edamame - green soybeans). However, the "black" part comes from leaving them to mature further on the plants in the fields; by the time they're harvested, the withered crops look like they're just about ready for the bin. There's definitely method to the madness, however.
Once they've been picked, 黒豆 are much easier on the senses. They have a pleasant nutty fragrance and taste surprisingly sweet and treacly. The flavour lends itself well to almost anything - they can be eaten raw, dried or cooked in dozens of different ways. Traditionally, 黒豆 are eaten as part of お正月 (おしょうがつ - oshougatsu - New Year) celebrations and can also be used to make 味噌 (みそ - miso), 豆腐 (とうふ - tofu) and occasionally even お酒. Beyond that, the only limit to the variations is the imagination of the local shops - cookies, cakes, tea, coffee, bread, 和菓子 and Western desserts all get the 黒豆 treatment.
The carnivores needn't go hungry, of course - the abundant farmland and wildlife have earned 丹波 a reputation for gourmet meat dishes. 篠山牛 (ささやまぎゅう - sasayama gyuu - Sasayama Beef), for example, is on par with 神戸ビーフ (Kobe Beef) in every way except price and can be enjoyed at any of the area's many 鉄板焼き (てっぱんやき - teppanyaki) restaurants. Out in the wilderness, the spiralling 鹿 (しか - shika - deer) population needs to be kept under control to prevent damage to crops, meaning the use of venison is also becoming more widespread. Most famous of all, however is a 鍋 (なべ - nabe - hot pot) dish called "ぼたん鍋" ("botan nabe"), which is made with 猪 (いのしし - inoshishi - boar) meat.
The word "botan" means "peony", which is a reference to the flower-like arrangement of the 猪 meat. Like other 鍋, ぼたん鍋 is cooked in a stock pot at the table. In this case the だし (dashi - stock) is dark and heavy, made with different varieties of 味噌 and sometimes quite strongly spiced; 猪 has quite a gamey smell and flavour and the rich soup is supposed to offset this slightly. It's also served with 豆腐 and fresh local vegetables such as 山芋, cabbage and mushrooms which help to balance out the weight of the meat. Surprisingly, 猪 actually tastes more like beef than pork, but it's much denser than both and apparently softens the longer it's cooked. As a whole, ぼたん鍋 is an unusual addition to the stable of Japanese food given the usual dislike of strong smells and tastes, but it does a very good job of keeping the 丹波 cold out of your bones.
Once suitably fed and watered, it might be time for a bit of sightseeing and culture. The old part of the city is a good place to start as a reminder of 篠山 City's previous life as a castle town, with narrow streets and traditional merchant housing on either side. The area feels very much like some of the more traditional parts of 京都 (きょうと - Kyoto), with ample foot traffic and hole-in-the-wall shops selling おみやげ (omiyage - souvenirs) and bric-a-brac. It's also home to an old shrine that runs 能 (のう - Noh) performances and hosts 秋祭り (あきまつり - aki matsuri - The Autumn Festival) in October, a lively 御輿 (みこし - mikoshi - portable shrine) celebration that brings the city to a standstill. By 篠山 standards, the merchant district is a short walk from the centre of town and the connecting 商店街 (しょうてんがい - shoutengai - shopping street) ensures tourists have more interesting things to look at on the way than 黒豆 plants and tractors.
Nearby lie the ruins of 篠山 castle, originally built as a base from which to capture 大阪城 (おおさかじょう - oosaka jou - Osaka Castle) but now little more than a floor plan due to a fire that swept through it in 1944. The castle's huge reading room, matched only in size by 二条城 (にじょうじょう - nijoujou - Nijou Castle), is the only part that's been rebuilt; it's furnished in the original style and features displays that show how the castle fits into the history of 丹波 and the rest of the prefecture. The other rooms are left to the imagination - they're just marked out on the ground where they originally stood, with labels indicating which was which. The extra space must come in handy though - the castle grounds are home to the "Dekansho Festival" in mid-August, which is a local variation on お盆 (おぼん - Obon) with dancing, 花火 (はなび - hanabi - fireworks) and snacks made from local produce. The ruins are still worth a visit at other times of the year though, even just for the view - like any good castle, this one offers a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.
丹波 may not be the most exciting place in the world - particularly if you're used to cosmopolitan 神戸 and too-much-is-never-enough 東京 - but the beautiful views, gorgeous food and hand-made craft more than make up for it. No matter what time of year, there always seems to be something to eat, see or experience that you'd never find elsewhere; I'd thoroughly recommend visiting 篠山 and enjoying a change of pace. Unless you're a boar, in which case I suggest a quick change of pace in the opposite direction.