Part 2: Kusatsu
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Leaving the Seta River behind, we go to Kusatsu. The city is where the two great Edo-period highways, the Tokaido and Nakasendo, fused before continuing to Kyoto; Kusatsu-juku was the second-to-last stop on the road between the two capitals.
We first stop at the Tenjogawa sake brewery, one of Shiga’s 33, where the owner shows us around. The temperate cedar room, where koji is made; the smell of the wood mixed with the subtle aroma of rice fill our noses as soon as we go through the low door. At the far end of the building, past the large tanks, an impressive traditional press lies, covered with countless numbers that reveal its age. Our guide explains that this type of press gives sake a purer taste. He then offers us to sample all of his different products. I will leave their evaluation to sake lovers everywhere!
Leaving Tenjogawa, we walk to Hyosendo, a store and workshop where they make gourds from the eponymous vegetable. This building was one of the stops on the Tokaido, and it was immortalized by Hiroshige in his series on that theme. You can compare the art to reality thanks to the stone marker standing in front of the store to this day. The next 30 minutes are spent decorating our own gourds with coloured markers, and we leave with new mascots.
Back to our car, we cross over the Kusatsu River and stop at the spot where the two ancient roads once met. This part of the city has kept an olden air to it, and many of the buildings have stood the tests of time. As we go up the main street that used to be the Tokaido, a few students greet us from their bikes. We go to Taiki, an incense shop, after appreciating the few pieces of modern art along the way. We spend some time there making nioi bukuro, small pouches filled with the aromatic substance. After sniffing each of the 8 possible ingredients, we make our pick and grind and mix them with a pestle and mortar. I chose a spicy palette, which the shop owner helped me pour in the sachets after I was done grinding.
Following our fragrant undertaking, we went back to the junction and explored the area. A raised river flowed here at some point, but it was turned into a nice promenade with some restaurants and stores. We unfortunately didn’t have time to stop, because our final destination was waiting for us: the Tachiki Shinto shrine.
The shrine is at the other end of the road to Kusatsu-juku. Near the torii gate, you can find the remnants of the old pilgrimages that led here. The few buildings and the grounds are nothing imposing, but there are many ancient trees and deer statues are scattered here and there, showing the shrine’s relationship with Nara.
And so, our busy day ended in this little green space.