Finding authentic Japan in/near Rockford, Ill.

One of the great things about group travel – when done well – is that strangers sometimes become friends. Fond memories of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, when shared by a cluster of people, tend to stay vivid longer.

This is what happened during my introduction to Asia five years ago, as a Wisconsin sister-state delegate during a Women of Wings goodwill exchange to the Chiba prefecture. One of the other nine travelers was a professional acquaintance, but the rest were strangers. Today we refer to each other as “Japanese sisters,” and we revisit pieces of our mutual adventure during frequent reunions.

Sometimes it is enough to sip plum wine and eat sushi with chopsticks, but too much to add bean cakes as dessert. We appreciate the work of a neatly prepared bento box lunch, a couple of us own silk haori jackets, and we routinely reward each other with simple but thoughtful gifts.

Fumiko Miyazaki, our trip organizer, keeps us up-to-date about the women we met while in her native country. Ruthanne Bessman of Wisconsin Public Radio, an accomplished origami artist and teacher, can count us among her eager but terminally elementary students.

Our exposure to genuine Japanese customs and culture means our expectations are relatively high when searching for authenticity close to home. Where we found it most recently was a huge surprise and delight.

Visit Rockford, Ill. – just across the southern border of Wisconsin – for a terrific introduction to Japan.

Eight people per table enjoy leisurely, teppan-style dining at JMK Nippon, a 250-seat restaurant that had a waiting list on a recent Tuesday night. “Nippon” is the native’s word for “Japan,” and teppan seating means entertainment as well as sustenance.

A chef expertly juggles, slices and dices fresh ingredients as his table of eight sips plum wine or fancy cocktails (like the Geisha, a mix of vodka, orange curacao and cranberry juice). Flames prompt applause as tabletop grilling begins.

Marinade recipes are longtime secrets of owner John Kobayashi’s family, who made their way to the Midwest from a Tokyo suburb about 20 years ago.

Expect freshly grilled chunks of lean meat, poultry or seafood, mixed with veggies and served with white or fried rice. Fumiko says a high caliber of rice was used, a significant detail because of recent spikes in retail price. Dipping sauces are tasty and ginger-based, not the ordinary sodium-rich soy or hot mustard.

Most dinner entrees are under $20. My meal, including one drink and tip, totaled $25. Also in the restaurant is a chef-tended sushi bar, plus karaoke. Décor – a plethora of wood carvings, sword collections, beautiful textiles – are described as authentic Asian imports and family heirlooms.

Group singing to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries occurred a half-dozen times during our visit, so this is a destination for special occasions. For more about JMK Nippon, 2551 N. Perryville Rd., call 815-877-0505.

Another place to find Japanese cuisine – tempura, noodle bowls, kobe beef burgers – is the restaurant at Anderson Japanese Gardens, a 12-acre haven of cool green tranquility. Attention to detail extends to the table settings and unusual selection of gift shop merchandise.

The careful arrangement of waterfalls, bridges, ponds with colorful koi, a teahouse and many nooks for sitting have earned the garden national recognition. The Roth Journal of Japanese Gardening rates it the best in North America.

Anderson’s garden designer was a student of a longtime, esteemed Japanese landscaper, and unusual textures/shapes play more of an aesthetic role than color – until leaves change in autumn.

For more about Anderson Japanese Gardens, 318 Spring Creek Rd., consult www.andersongardens.org or 815-229-9390. Admission is $7 (less for students, senior citizens). Guided tours can be arranged. Demonstrations of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony will be Sept. 27.

A visit is best when enjoyed at a slow, contemplative pace. The most mysterious building on garden property, a museum-quality guesthouse, is patterned after 16th century Sukiya architecture and can only be viewed through windows.

For an Oriental immersion overnight, consider a stay at Cliffbreakers Riverside Resort, which is known for the preservation of architectural remnants.

An unusual mix of treasures – stained glass and chandeliers from once-glorious hotels, water fountains and fireplaces from millionaire estates – were saved from demolition and adorn the property’s hotel rooms, meeting rooms, restaurant and bar.

So the Asian Suite is an eclectic mix of auction purchases and antiques from abroad, but it is easier to trace the history of some of the other accommodations, including the Sultan Suite, five rooms of furniture formerly owned by a sultan in Morocco. Tiger Woods spent the night here.

The property’s Rock River location means lovely scenery while dining or relaxing. For more about Cliffbreakers, 700 W. Riverside Blvd., consult www.cliffbreakers.com or 815-282-3033.

What else? We ventured an hour east, to Mitsuwa Marketplace in Arlington Heights, Ill., for lunch and an Asian shopping spree. The amazing food court and deli case make it easy to taste eel, squid or other exotic seafood without emptying the wallet.

Reading product labels will be a challenge, but employees can explain whatever you need to know. In the inventory of this roomy store are groceries, books, music, gifts and gadgets. For more about Mitsuwa Marketplace, 100 E. Algonquin Rd., consult www.mitsuwa.com or 847-956-6699.

Wisconsin’s next Women of Wings delegation goes to Chiba, Japan, for seven days in November. The cost of $2,000 includes airfare, lodging (home stays on most nights), all ground transportation and meals.

Also going on this goodwill trip will be representatives of Wisconsin culture, technology and education.

The deadline for applications is Aug. 29. To learn more, contact Janie Ritter at 608-661-6930. For more about Wisconsin-Chiba Inc., the nonprofit group that organizes these goodwill trips and nurtures this sister-state relationship, see www.wisconsinchiba.org.

Note: The Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau arranged for garden admission and overnight accommodations at Cliffbreakers.