Experimental Journey (Japan)

When Ted and I started planning our third trip to Japan, we decided we wanted to experiment a bit and see some places that were off the beaten track.  To find likely destinations, we scoured a number of guidebooks and brochures for National Geographic tours (somehow we’re on their list, even though we’ve never taken any of their tours). We came up with a list of spots that are well known to Japanese visitors, although they have relatively few American tourists.

Getting to these places was no problem – it is pretty straightforward to make hotel reservations online, and there is a wonderful English language website with detailed information on the entire Japanese rail systems.   We were a little nervous about getting around, since there are not many English speakers outside the major cities and we speak no Japanese.  We are happy to report that things turned out well.  Even in the most remote locations, there was usually someone who could at least understand English.  Smiles, hand gestures, and the surprisingly good Google Translate app helped a lot.

We began our trip in Osaka, which is about 30 minutes by express train from Kansai Airport.  We stayed at the new Marriott Hotel, located on the upper floors of a 57-story building which, somewhat surprisingly, is the tallest building, not only in Osaka, but in all of Japan.

Haruka Tower (our hotel) from Tennoji Park
Haruka Tower (w/ Marriott hotel) from Tennoji Park

Although Osaka was Japan’s political capital for a brief period in the 8th Century, for most of its history it has been the country’s commercial capital.  It’s not a particularly beautiful city, but it has a freewheeling spirit that we quite enjoyed.  And it has some wonderful restaurants.  One night, we ate at a “robatayaki,” an informal restaurant where everyone sits around a large grill and shouts out order to the chef.  There was no English menu, but the chef and several of the other customers quickly took us in hand and showed us how to order (an experience that we would have several more times during the trip).


We also had a wonderful dinner at Michelin 3-starred Fujiya 1935, where the chef made outstanding European-style dishes with Japanese products (local fish with chrysanthemum beurre blanc; venison with persimmon) and even offered Japanese-made wine (made from grapes of American origin).  This restaurant has wonderful food and presentation without being overly formal or pretentious.  The chef is descended from the ancient and noble Fujiwara family whose original title was established in the 7th C by the Emperor Tenji.

Since we had already seen Osaka Castle on a prior trip, we visited the city’s other superstar attraction – the Aquarium.  The design of the facility seems to have been based on the Monterey Bay Aquarium – not a bad thing – and it showcased fish and marine mammals from all over the Pacific Rim, from tropical fish to penguins.  Quite enjoyable.

We did a day trip to Mount Koya, which is a famous temple complex about 30 miles south of Osaka.  Getting there was a trip in itself, requiring train, funicular and bus.  The first temples were built here in the 7th C by Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai, the man who introduced Buddhism to Japan.  The temple complex was huge – even with half a day, we couldn’t see everything, and we never even got to the famous national cemetery.   It is apparently possible to spend an overnight visit at the temple even as an individual traveler – something to think about for next time.

Konpon Daito (Great Stupa)
Koyasan: The Great Stupa

After Osaka, we spent a few days in Kyoto, which we have visited a few times before but can’t get enough of.  We were particularly happy to return to our home-away-from-home at the Hotel Mume.  Serendipitously, we arrived at the height of the city’s fall foliage season, which attracts visitors from all over Japan.

Eikando pond
Eikando Temple Gardens

In addition to visiting several temples which had impressed us on previous visits, we were also able to take a day trip to the Miho Museum.  The Miho, a private museum located about an hour outside of Kyoto, focuses on “cross-cultural” art from the Asian Silk Road.  Who knew, for example, that there was such a thing as Greco-Persian art?  The museum also features rotating special exhibits, which at the time of our visit featured a 17th C Japanese potter (surprisingly modern) and some outstandingly opulent Mughal jewelry.

Miho museum entrance
Miho Museum

The museum building itself, designed by I.M. Pei, was intended to evoke “Peach Blossom Land”, a mythical city in a traditional Chinese folktale.  We were familiar with this folk tale, as it happens, due to a recent production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has a cross-cultural mission of its own.  Cosmic karma!

We had some wonderful food in Kyoto.    One afternoon, we wandered into the Japanese equivalent of a truck stop restaurant, which served ramen noodles in a wondrous homemade pork broth for the astonishing price of $6.  Most of the time, however, the owner of the small hotel where we were staying helped us make restaurant reservations.  We ate at a number of wonderful restaurants, including one featuring freshly-made tofu served 7 different ways (we may never eat store-bought tofu again).

On our last evening, we ate at an upscale izakaya restaurant that served a mixture of kaiseki dishes and sushi, a place so small (only 8 seats) that we would never have gotten in, let alone found, without our hotelier acting as intermediary.  The chef spoke little English, but he had a large encyclopedia of Japanese fish with English translations.  And that’s how we learned that one of the excellent dishes we had just sampled was fugu (pufferfish) – which must be carefully prepared because parts of the fish contain a deadly neurotoxin.  Obviously, we survived.

Chef Sato-san

After Kyoto, we traveled to Miyajima, a small island famous for its 11th C Shinto temple.  At low tide, you can walk in and around the temple’s enormous orange “Torii Gate”; at high tide, the gate seems to be floating in the water.

On Miyajima, we also visited the Daisho-in Temple complex, which is also connected to Kobo Daishi (the monk who founded Mount Koya.  The temples here have an amazingly quirky collection of statues, including a chipmunk dressed as a mendicant friar (a “chip-monk”?) and others sporting Blues-Brothers-style hats and sunglasses.  There were also several renditions of the “Seven Happy Deities,” short guys with droopy hats representing various occupations.  It was easy to imagine them “hi-ho’ing” off to work each morning.

A "chip-monk"?

In Miyajima we stayed at a ryokan.  A ryokan is a Japanese inn, often small and family-run, which offers traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast and a traditional Japanese bath.  Although many ryokans offer Western-style beds, this was a more traditional one where you slept on futons (which the hotelier helpfully put out for us each evening and put away for us each morning).  One of the nice things about ryokans is that inside the hotel you can change into a yukata (long robe) which is a surprisingly comfortable way to enjoy a nice dinner.

After Miyajima, we spent several days on the island of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands.  In Takamatsu, we visited the Ritsurin-Koen garden, which is famous all over Japan and features both Japanese and Western-style gardens.  When we arrived at the entrance, we were asked if we wanted an English guide.  We thought that meant an English-language brochure, but in fact the “guide” was an older woman, a park volunteer, who spoke surprisingly good English.  We have encountered such guides before in Japan – they are invariably well informed and are true volunteers (they neither ask for nor expect tips).

With our wonderful English-speaking guide
Linda and Ritsurin-Koen Guide

Our guide explained to us many particular features of the Japanese garden which would have been difficult to understand on our own. While Western gardens are often closed systems, Japanese gardens will often incorporate features outside the formal confines of the garden, for example, placing a small lake where it could reflect the greenery on a nearby mountainside – a practice known as “borrowed scenery.”

From Takamatsu, we took a day trip to Tokushima, a middle-sized city on the coast which is famous for various handcrafts, including indigo dying and puppet-making.  Tokushima is most famous within Japan, however, for its annual Awa Odori dance festival.  No one knows exactly how this dance tradition got started, but they’ve been dancing in the streets here for centuries, as evidenced by 18th C woodcuts, and a series of increasingly desperate regulations during the Shogun era, such as  “no dance parties shall last more than three days” and (my favorite) “dancing samurai must leave their swords at home.”

One of the dancers thanked us for coming
With Awa-Odori Dancer

These days, there’s an annual Awa Odori festival in August, which draws over a million visitors – some to watch, some to dance, many to  do both.  It’s the closest thing Japan has to Mardi Gras.  The rest of the year, you can take in an Awa Odori show at the local dance center – audience participation is definitely encouraged.

We took another day trip to the Iya Valley, one of the most scenically beautiful (and isolated) valleys in all of Japan.  You can get a sense of how remote it was by the fact that trains to one of the few towns in the area ran only once an hour, and many had only a single car.  (By comparison, bullet trains from Kyoto to Tokyo run ever 15-20 minutes, and typically have 16 cars.)  Although the guidebooks cheerfully suggested renting a car, we booked a 5-hour taxi tour, which turned out to be a good decision, given the left-hand-side-of-the-road driving, the paucity of English-language signs, and the fact that in many places the road was only one lane wide.  Although we had been told that the driver would speak only Japanese, in fact they found us a driver with serviceable English.  She had grown up in the area and had many stories to tell.

Iya Valley w/ Rainbow

Although the Iya Valley has been populated for centuries, remote mountainous areas of Japan like these have been losing population for decades.  In the tiny village of Nagoro, a local artist, who had spent most of her life in Osaka, returned in retirement to her native village to find that the population had shrunk from nearly 300 to less than 30.  In response, she created a series of life-sized mannequins to represent the people who had gone.  This place is sometimes called the “Scarecrow Village,” but in fact the mannequins are incredibly life-like – women gardening in fields that are no longer cultivated, children sitting on benches in schools that are no longer operating, people waiting at the bus stop for busses that no longer run.  It’s a fascinating, but poignant, site.

Nagoro, "Scarecrow Village" -- bus stop
Scarecrow Village Bus Stop

After Takamatsu, we spent a day on the island of Naoshima, a short ferry ride away.  We stayed at Benesse House, an unusual hotel located inside a modern art museum.  Most of the artists were unfamiliar to us, but we did enjoy the outdoor sculpture park.  Just up the hill from our hotel was the Chichu Museum, which includes five Monet “water lily” paintings in a specially designed room with neither furniture nor barriers.  You could view the paintings from a variety of vantage points – close enough to see the brushstrokes, or far enough way that the “impressionist” daubings looked highly detailed.


Public art, Miyanoura
Naoshima public art

The Chichu also had an outdoor garden which, I remarked, was designed to evoke Monet’s garden at Giverny.  The guy watering the lawn, overhearing me, said in perfect English,  “Oh – you’ve been to Giverny – what do you think?”  We spent some time discussing the differences between this garden and the one in France.  He told us about how, unlike Monet, whose house was situate on a river, he had to bring the water down from over the nearby mountain to the garden site.  At that point, we realized that the man we were talking to wasn’t just the guy watering the lawn.

We spent the last two days of our trip in ryokans in smaller towns.  The first was in Kurashiki, a middle-sized Japanese city that, unusually, has retained its historic 17th C center. The ryokan is in fact a converted Kura, a merchant’s warehouse.  Like many ryokans, this place offered a very nice communal bath.  The hotel staff, aware of the fact that American couples liked to bathe together (not the typical practice in Japan), offered us an hour all to ourselves.  In this ryokan, dinner was served course-by-course in your room, which was very nice but tested our ability to sit on the floor for long periods.  Breakfast (not served in-room) is an even more complicated affair, involving perhaps a dozen different food items, including fish-heads grilled at table.

Canal and foliage in rain
Kurashiki Bikan District (canal)

For our final night, we went to Tomonoura, a small fishing village with a highly-recommended ryokan.  In this hotel, each room had its own cedar bath on the terrace, with slats cleverly arranged so that you could see out but no one could see in.  Here dinner was served in the restaurant downstairs, which Ted found more comfortable (although you can still eat in your robe).  There isn’t much to do in Tomonoura other than putter around looking at the many temples, which was fine with us.  We wandered into one small place and encountered a caretaker in the garden.  She gave us a leaf, and showed us how to inscribe a wish, in any language, and leave it at the temple – all in all, a fitting end to our trip.

Tomonoura from hillside temple
Tomonoura Village

More photos here.