Postcards from Japan: Tasting Tohoku, becoming a sake sommelier and supporting affected communities, with Jess Hallams

Jess Hallams is a member of a special group of people who came to Japan 'for just one year' and never really left. During her JET Programme placement in Fukushima, she fell in love with the local people, and now continues to promote it from Miyagi prefecture where she works in tourism. Jess shared with us her tips on exploring and tasting Tohoku (trust us, there is plenty of delicious food there). Tohoku is a great place to visit for sake enthusiasts, this refreshing drink produced in Fukushima prefecture has been winning gold at the Annual Japan Sake Awards for seven years straight! Therefore, it doesn't come as a surprise that she is currently training to become a sake sommelier. 


Hi, thanks for talking to us today. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Sure! I’m Jess, originally from Canberra, Australia, and currently based in the beautiful Tohoku region of north-eastern Japan. I’ve spent the better part of the past decade living between Japan and Australia - first as an exchange student in Kanazawa (2010) and then returning on the JET Program in 2013. I spent three years as an ALT on JET based in the small town of Namie in Fukushima Prefecture. During my time in Fukushima, I completely fell in love with the nature, people, culture and food of Tohoku and felt an increasing urge to lift the lid on what is by far one of Japan’s best kept secrets! Tohoku is still very much an undiscovered region for the majority of international visitors, with less than 2% choosing to stay in the region in 2019 (in simpler times). This was one of the main motivating factors in my decision to leave JET and pursue a career in Japan’s tourism industry, which I have now been active in for five years or so. I currently work for a local DMO based in the coastal area of Miyagi Prefecture and balance my duties between local tourism management in Miyagi and tour development/guiding across the greater Tohoku region. 

 

What drew you to working and living in Japan? How did you find it?

Good question! I’m not sure I can narrow it down to one particular thing or moment, but perhaps a culmination of wonderful and formative Japan-related experiences growing up at a time where Japanese study was highly encouraged in Australia. Throughout my schooling my family frequently hosted Japanese students on short-term homestays and I was lucky enough to have two opportunities to visit Japan as a high-school student myself where I made some lifelong friends. When I first visited Japan, I can still remember being completely awestruck by the insanely beautiful landscape of the mountains and countryside and the fascinating culture that was simultaneously so different from my own, but somehow incredibly comfortable. I think having made those early human connections with Japan really made me feel at ‘home’ and probably has a lot to do with why I’m still here today, eight years after saying I would only stay for one…oops!

What’s your favourite memory from living in Japan?

This one I can’t even begin to answer…there’s simply been far too many! Particularly working in tourism for the past few years I’ve been lucky to have some pretty wild experiences, but I think some of my favourite memories involve the simple pleasures of living here: sitting in local izakaya after work and making random friends over great food and sake, driving to the local hot springs for a soak on a snowy winter weekend, and just the joy of showing my visiting family, friends and guests around and watching them fall in love with the country, too! 
I guess if I had to choose some favourite moments from recent memory, I think spending time with the fishermen and oyster farmers along the Miyagi coast definitely sticks out! The early mornings are a struggle but watching the sunrise from the back of a boat and being fed fresh sashimi and oysters straight from the water is certainly an invigorating way to start the day! 

Do you have any tips for people looking to make the big move to Japan?

Stop looking into it and do it – you won’t regret it! I think one of my biggest pushes would be to encourage people to consider living in the countryside. Whilst it may be a little harder to find work, the local lifestyle is incredibly rewarding. It sounds cliché but I really think rural Japan is where you’ll find the ‘real’ Japan, and where you’re more likely to make meaningful human connections with the locals and their culture. On a practical level, the quality of life is generally higher with much cheaper rent, super fresh food and nature at your doorstep! Also, Japan’s transport network is stellar so it’s easy enough to jump on a train to Tokyo or larger city if you need a metropolitan fix. Once the COVID situation settles and tourism is back on its feet (hopefully this side of 2022!) I think there will be lots of great opportunities to work in Japan’s tourism industry, so I would encourage travel enthusiasts to think about this as an option, too! 

We hear you are based in Sendai in Miyagi prefecture. Can you give us any travel tips to Miyagi for an authentic Japan trip?

I think I probably alluded to this in my last answer, but just choosing to visit Miyagi / the Tohoku region is in itself the first step to discovering an authentic Japan experience! As we have so few international visitors (or domestic tourists, for that matter) the local culture and nature are still very much protected from any negative impacts of over-tourism, and the whole area feels very ‘untouched’. In terms of tips for Miyagi travel specifically, I would really recommend coming up for around five days and basing yourself in Sendai City – the capital of Tohoku, only 90 mins from Tokyo – and taking some day trips out to the surrounding Miyagi countryside and neighbouring prefectures of Yamagata, Iwate and Fukushima. From the centre of Sendai City it’s only a 30-40 min train ride to the stunning Matsushima Bay (one of Japan’s ‘three scenic views’) and less than two hours to the mountains of Yamagata. If you can time your trip with some of the exciting local festivals held throughout the year, you’re guaranteed an even more memorable experience! (A great one coming up in May is the Tohoku ‘Kizuna-Matsuri’, featuring six of the biggest summer festivals from around the region!) 
From April 01 international residents in Japan will have access to the ‘JR East Welcome Pass’ which allows unlimited use of all JR trains in the Tohoku area (including from Tokyo all the way to Hakodate in Hokkaido) for five consecutive days! I highly recommend any Tokyoites looking to escape the city to take advantage of this, particularly with cherry blossom season just around the corner!

You were training to become a sake sommelier. How did this come about?

I am still technically training – officially and unofficially! Hopefully I will actually follow through on this goal in 2022 (it’s in writing now – hold me to it!). To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of sake before I moved to Fukushima and I think this was mostly because I didn’t really understand how to drink it. However, after probably a few too many nights eating out in local izakayas I discovered not only how diverse and delicious sake can be, but its power to connect people. In part due to its roots in the Shinto religion of Japan, sake is much more than just a beverage; it can be a very enjoyable gateway to discovering some of the deeper cultural nuances of Japan, and I would love to be able to share more of this side of sake with international visitors to Tohoku. It’s great to see sake continue to grow in popularity overseas, not only as a drink to enjoy with Japanese food but with a range of cuisines. I recently attended an event where it was suggested sake pairs better with cheese than wine – controversial opinion! But however and wherever people are ‘kampai-ing’ with sake, I’m excited for its potential to ultimately inspire them to visit the regions where it is made. 

What kind of places to eat would you recommend to people visiting Tohoku for the first time?

I’m often called-out for spamming my social media feed with pictures and videos of whatever I am eating but I honestly feel I’d be doing the world a disservice not to share! Tohoku is a food-lovers paradise. The region boasts some of the best fishing grounds in the world (let alone Japan) and mountainous countryside that lends itself to a rich food culture, coupled with some pretty unique culinary traditions that come with having to survive the very harsh, long winter. Of course, one of the best ways to taste the best of the local cuisine is to bravely walk into a tiny dive-bar or izakaya in the back streets of whichever town you happen to find yourself, but for a slightly less intimidating option (!), I also highly recommend visiting some of the amazing morning-markets. My favourite of all morning markets has to be the Tatehana Wharf Morning Market in Hachinohe (Aomori Prefecture, held every Sunday except between December-March) which boasts a whopping 400+ market stalls selling everything from fresh seafood, vegetable produce, ramen, fried-chicken, cars (?!)… it’s definitely a must and well worth the early start! Another great food experience is to stay overnight at a temple/pilgrim lodge and try some authentic ‘shojinryori’ vegetarian cuisine (the Dewasanzan area of Yamagata is a highlight for this) or even seeking out a farm-stay experience, where you can enjoy cooking a home-made meal together with the hosts, often using ingredients picked straight from their farm! 
If you’re planning a visit, come hungry!

How can people continue to support the people of Tohoku on their journey of recovery? 

Tohoku’s journey of recovery in ongoing even as we mark ten years since the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami this year. It goes without saying really but by far the best way to show continued support for the region is to come and visit yourself! Come and spend time in the communities that were affected, hear the stories of the incredible, resilient people and discover the deep love for their home and community that is the foundation upon which they are rebuilding. One of the most damaging impacts of the disaster has been Tohoku’s image painted as one of danger and hopelessness when in reality, and despite the hardship faced, it is an unspeakably beautiful and bright corner of the world which will leave you full of hope and appreciation for the simple joys of life. One brilliant way to show your support is to come and walk (part of) the Michinoku Coastal Trail; a newly opened walking trail that stretches for 1000km along the Pacific coast between Aomori and Fukushima, passing directly through the communities that were affected. It’s a great way to not only get a sense of the immense recovery process, but to connect with the people and make sure they know the world still has their back! 

The past months have been long and tough, but hopefully we can take the broken pieces and make something beautiful.
What is your favourite example of the kintsugi philosophy in Japan? (ie taking something that was broken and improving it, giving it a new lease of life)

I absolutely love the concept of Kintsugi! Following on from the last question, in many ways I think the whole coastal region of Tohoku is an example of the kintsugi philosophy and finding the beautiful and positive in something seemingly damaged. Although so many lost everything in the disaster, I am always astounded by how many people will turn around and say ‘but if it wasn’t for the disaster, I wouldn’t have achieved XXX, I wouldn’t have met XXX, I wouldn’t have appreciated XXX’. Their strength and ability to see beauty in such a momentous tragedy is incredibly humbling. Particularly during these uncertain times, I think we can probably all learn something from the Tohoku spirit! I hope that once a semblance of normal returns more people will have the chance to come and discover it for themselves. We’ll be waiting to welcome you!  

Follow Jess' adventures on her Instagram, Facebook, and find out more about Tohoku Local Secret Tours.

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