I’ve talked about the vivid landscapes of autumn leaves before, but Sasayama City, Hyogo Prefecture is known for another seasonal specialty: its winter botan nabe, a hotpot stew made with local wild mountain boar meat arranged delicately in the shape of a botan (tree peony) flower.Traces of botan nabe’s popularity are all across the town, with decorations of mountain boars appearing on bridges and in gigantic relief as taxidermy-like statues affixed to buildings. Souvenir shops sell mobile phone decorations and plush figures of mountain boars as well, for those who like eating their favorite animals. Of course, botan nabe is a hearty meal, making for a nice finale for a day of wandering through Sasayama’s shrines, castle, and rustic streets of old samurai houses (武家屋敷).I started the trip with a visit to Sasayama Castle and its famous central building Ooshoin (大書院). I recommend buying the 600 yen pass that gives you access to four locations across Sasayama: Sasayama Castle’s Ooshoin, the Historical Area of the Aoyama Clan, the Sasayama Historical Art Museum, and the Anma (Samurai Household) Museum. The original Ooshoin Building was constructed in 1609 and used for official state reception and governmental administration. A very knowledgeable guide explained on a tour around the complex that the highly decorated rooms often have artistic or literary themes, including the “Genji Room” (源氏之間) named for the depictions of the Tale of Genji, or the Grape Room (葡萄之間) named for its paintings of grapes. Ooshoin unfortunately burned down in 1944, but the local townspeople lobbied long and hard for its reconstruction, finally succeeding in 2000. Ooshoin stands today as a comparatively new reconstruction representing the sole castle constructed in 1609 upon Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s direct orders in his bid to topple the Toyotomi family entrenched in Osaka Castle. Tokugawa succeeded in his plan, uniting Japan under the regime of the Tokugawa Shogunate –a success that may not have been possible without the key power base of Sasayama Castle.That’s some of the history of Sasayama, which is home to centuries of samurai households, local storytelling, sake, and ceramic traditions. The amount of such historical detail was a little overwhelming for me, making for the perfect excuse for a mental break: lunch. I headed to a restaurant named Kai (懐) which serves a large variety of local dishes (11:00am – 8:00pm http://www.tanba-sasayama-kai.com/ Website Japanese-only). Besides the famous botan nabe, I would also like to introduce two more dishes. For the full Sasayama experience, go for Tamba Gozen (2,100 yen), which includes grilled mountain boar, mackerel sushi (def some of the best I’ve ever had), the famous local black beans, tempura, rice, miso soup, and more. For a cheaper set meal, go for the Hana Gozen (1,550 yen), which includes shrimp tempura, sashimi, local vegetables, rice, miso, and more. Then of course there is the full-on top-roast Botan Nabe Tokujo Roast (特上ロース 5,250 yen), which is most delicious during the mountain boar hunting season lasting from the middle of November to the beginning of March. Returning to the museums and preserved samurai houses, you can see a variety of artifacts like armor, printing technology, and more. One surprise I enjoyed was at the Anma Museum: a miniature garden that includes a pile of stones that mysteriously rings like a bell when water in poured upon it (called suikinkutsu, 水琴窟). Such simple pleasures were all people had for entertainment back before TVs, radios, and smartphones. For any souvenirs (commemorative artifacts in physical capitalistic form, as I call ‘em), I recommend going to Taisho Romankan (大正ロマン館), which sells preserved black beans, locally-made sake, mobile phone decorations, plush figures, black bean ice cream, and more. In any case, I hope that you at least take home a full belly and some happy memories from Sasayama.