ManCon travel editor Neil Sowerby visited Japan, as a guest of Finnair, four months before the Tsunami devastated the area north of Tokyo. His destination was far away to the west, a rural area physically untouched by the catastrophe. There he savoured thatch, communal bathing, poison blowfish – and the warmth of the local people. It was inappropriate to publish a holiday piece in the tragic aftermath of March 11, but now as Japan rebuilds and seeks to welcome tourists again, he feels it is right to salute an amazing country to experience...
OUTSIDE in the street an old man with sallow, sunken cheekbones is cracking open fish heads with a cleaver. Inside, Mazinger Z is rocketing his disembodied gauntlets at some Manga comic book foe. Welcome to Wajima, jewel of the Noto peninsula. Welcome to a Japan where old and new live in elaborate, if puzzling, harmony.
Wajima’s a port in a remote part of Western Honshu, home to a legendary street market where the fish is so fresh it flirts with you, as well as a museum alongside celebrating the town’s most famous son, cartoonist Go Nagai.
He has lived away, mostly in Tokyo, for much of his 65 years and is Professor in Osaka University’s Character Creative Arts Department. It’s all down to his popular creations, Devilman, Cutie Honey and robot hero Mazinger Z himself, built out of the indestructible metal chogokin and possessing an astonishing armoury of weapons.
The Japanese do take their comic art and anime films seriously. Not my bag, I must admit but, for 500 yen, the interactive museum was fun.
I wasn’t quite so sure about the pleasures of public bathing, which the Japanese are also fanatically keen on. But when you are going native, as we felt we had to in this traditional corner of Japan, it’s important not to upset your hosts.
Hence, while we were staying at a ryokan, or traditional hotel, down the road in Wakura Onsen, it was necessary to sleep at floor level on a futon, don the cotton kimono called a yukata and slippers (including a separate set for toilet visits) and share communal baths with a posse of other nude middle-aged men.
By now I had discovered that folding the yukata from the right instead of the left before tying it with its sash is an insult – it’s how the cadavers are covered at funerals. No wonder I was twitchy.
Onsen means hot springs for bathing, common across volcanic Japan. Waters can range from smelly sulphurous to sweetly earthy, lukewarm to boiling hot, natural to artificial. Our seafront ryokan had made the most of sitting atop a natural spring.
There’s a whole etiquette to the bath house. Pools are single sex. Wearing a costume is not allowed, yet there is no atmosphere of sleaze. Just mild embarrassment on my part. A small towel draped across my strategic parts, I showered first as instructed, washed myself separately since no soap or shampoo is allowed to contaminate the pool, and then took a dip in one of the outside tubs to the sound of the sea. Wondering what all the fuss had been about!
My intention had been to buy presents of lacquerware, a Wajima speciality but the prices for the proper stuff put me off. I could quite understand the expense, though. Countless layers of tree sap are brushed on to the delicate wooden bowls to create the lustrous finish.
Wajima is several hours drive away from the new international airport, Chubu Centair, half an hour south of Nagoya, Japan’s fourth biggest city. After touching down with Finnair (from Manchester via Helsinki) we had picked up a car and meandered northward through forests aflame with autumn maple.
Gujo Hachiman was out first port of call. From its artfully reconstructed medieval hilltop castle, Greensleeves incongruously the muzak soundtrack, the rural township spread out shaped like a fish in the valley.
Appropriate. The sound of trickling water is everywhere among its lanes of low dark houses with their slatted windows. It’s the kind of sleepy place where Japanese of a certain age go to rediscover the nation’s roots. Not that GH is not verse to a good party. Every late summer for nights on end the town is thronged with dancers at its famous Guji Odori festival.
At the museum two local lasses in traditional garb demonstrated the steps and hand movements. Clad in a borrowed yukata, I was urged to have a go. Alas, my fat toes were being crippled by the thonged wooden sandals called geja. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.
I had no such trouble with the array of dishes for our first lunch, where I rediscovered my love of Japanese pickles and fiery wasabi and acclimatised myself to the disconcerting appearance after every meal of a full bowl of plain rice and a cup of miso soup to settle a stomach already bursting.
At all the copious banquets laid on in our honour, there was a fish course, usually a deep-fried freshwater sweetfish. Down river near Gifu trained cormorants catch them by torchlight – an iconic Japanese tourist experience we unfortunately missed.
Another such iconic experience I had searched in vain for on a previous visit to Japan was fugu or poison blowfish. Chefs reputedly have to train for seven years before they are allowed to prepare the potentially lethal fish for the public. Members of the public who feel able to remove the appropriate parts and cook their own at home occasionally perish, prolonging the legend.
This time I struck lucky, though I was only told after the event. It was the fish course at another sumptuous hotel banquet. It came in tempura batter and tasted inevitably quite bland. Making up for that disappointment was the abundance of wild mushrooms and ferns done in delicious seasonal style.
Delightful though Gujo Hachman is, it is really a staging post for the World Heritage Site wonders of Shirakawa-go, a kind of Japanese Shangri-la theme park. It’s the finest of several villages in the Hida region displaying huge houses with 60 degree “praying hands” style roofs thatched with susuki grass. The unique architectural style is known as Gassho-zukuri.
Home originally to several families (many descendants still live here) with attics designed to encourage silkworm to breed, the expensive maintenance is supplied by government funding.
The villages were kept unspoilt by their very remoteness. That’s all changed these days. The Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway make access easy and in high summer Shirakawa-go is a tourist honeypot. On a crisp November morning, snow capping the surrounding mountains, the visitor numbers were more bearable and it was a joy to wander among the rice paddies. Vivid orange shinugaki, astringent persimmon fruit, had been hung out to ripen. A quirky quartet of scarecrows watched a rethatching crew. Ancient carp basked in pools. Picture postcard Japan.
Elsewhere, as in the vast conurbation around Nagoya, vast swathes of post-war concrete ugliness swamp pockets of traditional settlement.
Even Kanazawa, historic city of the Samurai and today a cultural destination, seems at first encounter unremittingly modern downtown. There’s much to admire, though. It’s fun to wander the atmospheric Nagamachi quarter, preserved because the city escaped wartime bombing, and the wonderful Omi-Cho food market.
But the prime reason to visit Kanazawa is its Kenroku-en Gardens, officially one of Japan’s top three. I can only dream what it and the adjacent castle are like during cherry blossom time in the spring. As the autumn colours started to fade the trees were already being trussed up with ropes to protect them from the heavy snowfalls inevitable in the north west of Honshu.
The undulating garden with its ponds and summerhouses was established in the mid-17th century and first opened to the public in 1871. Our guide explained that Kenroku-en means “garden of six qualities” – spaciousness, seclusion, air of antiquity, ingenuity, flowing water and views. Six out of six for a must-see.
The hill town of Takayama was the end of our road trip. And that somehow felt right. Despite its obvious touristic concentration, it seemed to distil so many of the attractive elements of en route into a colourful yet calm finale. That was despite its architectural gem, the aridly restored 17th century government complex, Takayama-jinya, leaving me cold.
A couple of cups of saki soon warmed me up for a stroll around the merchant houses of San-Machi Suji quarter, their dark exteriors belying their bright attractive interiors. Traveller’s tip: the saki brew shops can be identified by large holly berry balls hanging outside).
Along the riverside crinkled market stallholders were laying out their wares, gnarled wasabi roots and nuts rubbing shoulders with the twee mementos the Japanese love so much.
For my pregnant daughter back home I bought a local speciality, a sarubobo amulet to bring luck for her future child. Sarubobos (it means baby monkey) are red human (or monkey) shaped dolls, with no facial features. Superstition has it you can wish the beauty you want for your offspring.
If the child is as beautiful as this corner of Japan, I am truly blessed.
If you don’t want to hitch your star to an organised tour, which is limiting, you have to accept that Japan really is for the intrepid independent traveller. In its favour is the hugely hospitable nature of its people in country areas and a very efficient national transport system – which has obviouslt been effected by the Tsunami and its aftermath.
The Foreign Office advises against “all but essential travel to those areas in Japan most affected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. This includes those coastal areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures which suffered extensive damage. These areas continue to experience disruptions to residential, business and transport infrastructure. There is also a continuing risk of aftershocks across the three prefectures. If your travel is essential, you should consult local contacts before travelling. We advise against all travel to within a 60km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility.”
Finnair (www.finnair.com) has five flights per week from Helsinki to Nagoya (not on Tuesdays or Sundays). Flight AY079 from Helsinki at 5.15pm, arriving in Nagoya next morning at 9.55am. Departures also five times per week :), not on Mondays or Wednesdays. Flight AY080 from Nagoya at 11.55am, arriving in Helsinki same day 3.15pm.
A connection flight from Manchester AY934 at 10.15am, arriving in Helsinki 3.05pm. Return from Helsinki on AY937 at 4pm, arriving in Manchester at 5pm.
Total travelling time from Manchester to Nagoya 14h40min, on return 14h05min.
Comparing to BA from Manchester 22h05min and from London 19h25min.
A lowest economy class fare at the moment is 785 euros including taxes and passenger fees. Fares are always based on availability and the traveling dates.
Hotels we stayed in:
Hotel Gujo Hachiman, from 9,450yen per person, with dinner and breakfast.
Wakura Hot Springs Takaya, from 15,750yen per person, with dinner and
ANA Crowne Plaza Kanazawa, from 8,100yen per person, with breakfast,
Nagoya Hilton, from 19,500yen per person, with breakfast,
Exchange rate: approx 100 yen = £1.
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