Off The Beaten Trail in Japan: A Travel Diary
A traveller’s experience in the land of the rising sun
I’ll have to admit. I’ve always had a soft spot for Japan. Whether it was my Dad’s camera, my Mom’s sari or my latest gadget, carrying the ‘Made In Japan’ label meant something.
I was lucky that in my 20’s that I got to travel to Tokyo a few times for work. I got to experience the big city and I enjoyed the greatest melting pot of East meets West at that time.
So when I recently got invited to travel to the Western region of the country, the Chugoku region, I was most excited as I’d never gotten to travel the more rural areas of the country and I hadn’t really spent much time on the Sea Of Japan.
With support from JNTO (Japanese National Tourism Organization, http://www.japan.travel/en/destinations/), I embarked on a 5-day trip that literally took me from mountain peaks to bridges that literally led to nowhere and from sand dunes to a grave part of history from World War II.
As I prepared for my trip I reached out to my Japanese friends who seemed as excited as me as they themselves hadn’t really travelled to the prefectures I was going to be driving across. Despite amazing road connectivity, travelling around the Chugoku region wasn’t necessarily an easy proposition so I had no idea, what was lying ahead for me.
As a vegetarian, travelling to Japan always felt like a nightmare. Not because of the lack of options but rather the language barrier. However, in recent times I know there has been greater awareness and a better understanding of food diets and my trip started on a great note while aboard ANA Airlines when I was probably served the best Vegan meal of my airline travels! I was hoping the meal was a good premonition for meals to come!
This got further cemented upon landing in Tokyo when after a long bus shuttle from Narita Airport to Haneda Airport, I sat waiting for my connecting flight to Tottori, my first stop. I noticed a new Health restaurant at the terminal which offered a variety of drinks including ones that added CBD Oil. I was surprised to see this so publicly available and that too in a café but I was happy to see that the Japan I remembered being a culmination of the best of all cultures, seemed to still radiate strongly.
The quick flight to Tottori was an eventful one. As we flew above the coastline and I got to see literally hundreds of small islands off the coast, there in plain sight I got a gorgeous view of Mt. Fuji. I was elated to have sat on the right side of the aircraft to witness the beauty.
Now I’ve been to some small airports in my lifetime but I must admit I hadn’t necessarily seen a more cuter airport when we landed in Tottori. The Tottori airport which services the Tottori prefecture actually has been nicknamed the Tottori Sand Dunes Conan Airport which is a tribute to Tottori native Gosho Aoyama who created the wildly popular Detective Conan manga series. As I grabbed my bags and headed out, the airport felt like straight out of an animated drawing.
As it had been a long day, I retired to the hotel only to be served my first ever Kaiseki meal, a multi-course haute Japanese dinner. Tailored to my vegetarian restrictions, I was rewarded with a delightful meal and as far as day one goes, despite numerous modes of transport, my meals were first-rate and for me, my greatest anxiety about travelling in rural Japan was quickly alleviated.
Waking up in the quaint little Tottori downtown, I felt like I was in the middle of some suburban Midwestern town in the US. The weather didn’t seem to help as overcasts and a high chance of rain made our itinerary for the day seem a bit challenging. Thankfully we were able to flip our schedule and so we headed straight for the mountains, to Mt. Daisen to be exact.
Now I’ve skied in some of the best slopes in the US and Europe but I never heard about a view like this. As you ski down, you can clearly see on one side an unobstructed view of the Sea Of Japan. The contrast of the mountains and the sea in the same frame, well there’s seldom anything more beautiful. Of course, the weather was so noncompliant for us so we could barely enjoy the view. Still the joy of being in the snow, on the slopes with that backdrop, well, it doesn’t get any better.
We were hoping that the weather would improve as we headed then to the Sand Dunes. Stretching 2.4kms from North to South and almost 16kms East to West, the Tottori Sand Dunes are the biggest in Japan. The naturally occurring wind-wrought patterns on the sand are called “sand ripples” and as you walk through the dunes, you become mesmerized by the changing shape of the sand, all because of Mother Nature and the wind pattern and the climate. The cloudy rain-filled skies took a momentary break just around the time we arrived and it ended up creating an absolutely beautiful moment as you see the dunes with the Sea Of Japan again providing the most glorious backdrop.
As we proceeded onwards and began to leave Mt. Daisen behind, we couldn’t help but notice that from afar as the sun was setting, the mountain actually looked like Mt. Fuji. As we travelled to the tail end of the Tottori prefecture, we retired for the evening at a traditional Ryokan in Kaike Onsen. Overlooking the Sea Of Japan again, I sat there in the onsen close to midnight looking up to the stars, the sound of the sea and enjoying the natural hot springs. It couldn’t have been a more perfect end to a long day.
Not to be greedy but after an awesome end the night before, I started the day in the same way at the onsen – hoping to get some energy before we made our way further down the West coast.
Leaving the Tottori prefecture behind, we entered the Shimane prefecture. Our first stop was one of the most awesome places I’ve ever been to in one of the most unlikely places. We started the day at the Adachi Museum Of Art. Thinking that art is just confined to the inside walls of the galleries, it was quite an experience to see that every window in the museum was actually a frame to a living picture outside. See, the Adachi Museum’s garden is a work of art in and of itself. Ranked as the number one Japanese garden for 16 straight years is no small thing! Every day, every sky, every season changes the natural landscape of this art and to say an hour or two isn’t enough to take in the beauty of this place would be a great understatement. Seldom does a museum’s design actually exceed the artwork it houses but Adachi is a wonder of its own.
As we continued on our journey, we then made our way after yet another beautiful Kaiseki meal and a quick stop at Matsue Castle (one of the only 12 remaining original castles in Japan which immediately takes you back to the Edo period!), to the Izumo-Taisha Shrine. Arguably considered the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan, it is a heavily toured and worshipped shrine that feels like Mecca as it is historically believed to be the meeting place for all the Gods from across the land to meet (this happens every October).
As you walk through the Shrine, you can’t help but feel at peace. The approach towers in old pine trees and as you pass each God’s shrine you bow twice, clap four times (normally it is only twice) and then bow one more time. As I saw this collective prayer across the Izumo-Taisha, I did wonder why exactly there was so much of a lovefest. Upon further understanding, I learned that the Shrine was also believed to be the home of the god of beautiful encounters which explained why I was being told to pray for a relationship of my own! An added bonus was seeing certain trees in early bloom for cherry and plum blossoms! Even though a couple of weeks early, this was truly a gift of nature for me.
After such a lovely afternoon at the Shrine, we headed on our longest bus ride yet. It seemed there wasn’t really much along the countryside as far as where to stop so we ended up spending the night in Hagi, known as the hometown of many Japanese leaders in politics. It was a slightly rude awakening for me from the beauty I’d been seeing since the start of the trip. Hagi felt stuck in an era that wasn’t modern nor was it progressive. To see and realize this was actually a good reminder for me that while history can be beautiful, it’s important that with time, things must change and not every era of the past be revered.
Making our way onwards from Hagi couldn’t come soon enough and we headed to the Motonosumi Inari Shrine in Nagato. With 123 red Torii gates leading straight into the Sea Of Japan, this ridiculously picturesque Shrine is the smaller but arguably more beautiful seaside Shrine than Fushimi Inari in Kyoto. Unlike other shrines, the offertory box isn’t on the ground but almost five meters up, atop the entrance torii gate. It is believed that if successful, can throw a coin into the box, the wish will come true. Ironically enough, my wish did come true. After two failed attempts, on my third toss, I actually wished to get it in, and I did!
From the shrine, we made our way to the bridge to nowhere. Now in the Yamaguchi prefecture, we stopped at the Tsunoshima Bridge, one of those political pet projects to connect the main island with a smaller one. It wouldn’t have been such a highlight had we not stopped for lunch at a local café nearby overlooking the bridge. The café was everything progressive again that had disappeared for a few hours along our drive and to again see a well-connected and modern Japan even in such a remote area, it again showed the marriage between tradition and the now.
We continued on till the very end of the prefecture, landing on the coastal city of Shimonoseki. Nicknamed the “Fugu Capital” because it is the largest harvester of the pricey (and potentially lethal) pufferfish. Because of its unique location, the city is actually geographically the closest city to both South Korea and China. In fact, the city felt like the most modern place we’d visited yet.
While my nose couldn’t really handle the tour of the fish market, I did take the ferry and crossover to the Fukuoka prefecture just opposite there. Zoned now as a tourist landmark, Moji-Ku was a major port for trading with the US and the UK. The port terminal was created as a replica of Rome’s Termini Station so, despite the very Japanese backdrop and landscape, the waterfront area felt like a Boardwalk of the West.
A highlight for me was the Port Customs Museum which housed every pirated or bootleg or replica that tried to enter Japan. Known as the safeguards of original goods, it was something else to see the number of confiscated counterfeit items from jewellery to every brand under the sun from Supreme to Gucci to Louis Vuitton.
As we left the port city, we headed towards Japan’s largest karst plateau. Housed inside the geographical park are Japan’s largest limestone caves, the Akiyoshido Caves. We walked our ways almost for a km through the caves where time lapses create rock formations that seem to mimic at times the history and religious stories that keep the Japanese with faith. The caves themselves are grand but the location nestled in an almost enchanted forest-like backdrop make the caves a sight to see.
As we left the Yamaguchi prefecture behind us now, we headed to the last area of our trip, Hiroshima. I can’t say I was excited to visit the city but upon reaching, there was a sense of heaviness and healing that came across almost immediately. We started touring the city the best way possible, atop the roof of the Orizuru Tower literally across the street from the Atomic Bomb Dome. With a direct view from the top down, the building, itself a tribute to the folded paper crane, the symbol of peace in Hiroshima – it gave a real panoramic view of how the past unfolded and how the city also then rebuilt itself.
This was further then illustrated at the Peace Memorial Museum and the Children’s Peace Monument. For me, the latter resonated most powerfully. Sadako Sasaki was two years old when she survived the atomic bombing. However, the radiation from the attack subsequently led her and tens of thousands to develop leukaemia. She died at the age of 12 not before attempting to make 1000 paper cranes as a sign of not giving up hope. Her legacy continues not just in the tower but by the monument where literally thousands of cranes are delivered daily, made by school kids and other groups across the world and sent as a continued gesture for peace.
After such a powerful exploration of Hiroshima, we ended the tour by visiting one of Japan’s most scenic spots, Miyajima. Home to the iconic Itsukushima Shrine, the Shinden style shrine literally standing in the sea. About 200 metres from the front of the shrine is a vermilion coloured Torii gate, the most well-known symbol of the island. Depending upon the tide of the sea, we can see the gate as well as the remainder of the shrine under water. Miyajima is what many quintessentially expect and image the Japanese experience to be like – shrines, parks, pagodas, temples and of course nature in its purest and that is best shown by the hundreds of deers all living side by side the tourists and locals around the area.
I’ve never seen the water that colour combination of grey-white and blue as I did in Miyajima and as a beach man myself, seeing tradition, spirituality and nature all come together in the absolutely most gorgeous way – well, it the perfect way to end my tour.
Travelling through Western Japan and the Chugoku Region was probably one of the most ethereal experiences of my travel life. While modernization is required to make sure life goes on and no one or nothing is left behind, like the rest of the world, Japan too, has become a land of contradictions. But seeing how much of the country is still preserved in its history and how much hope still consumes its people – it has renewed my faith that nature and man can indeed coexist happily together.