Ultimate Japan: 6 must-see destinations
When in Japan, make like a local and head straight for these “pure Japan” spots
C. James Dale
1. Ancient Kyoto
Why: Let’s face it — most travelers can’t resist the magnetic pull of Japan’s former Imperial capital (794-1869), with its temples, shrines and (dwindling) ranks of geisha.
“Of course, many people from Western countries, like the United States and Canada, like to travel to time-honored cities like Kyoto,” says Mamoru Kobori of the Japan National Tourism Organization.
And lest we forget, the ancient city would have been obliterated by an atomic bomb at the end of World War II had it not been for U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who took it off the list of potential targets because he had fond memories of honeymooning there.
For years, people have visited Kyoto to stay in its old ryokans and eat traditional, multi-course kaiseki meals. But they should also consider exploring the city’s new side.
Entrepreneurs are gutting old teahouses and geisha houses and giving them new lives. Niti, located inside a former geisha house, is a sleek bar and café that seamlessly blends contemporary touches with Japanese tradition.
Tutto Bene, also inside a renovated geisha house, is where locals (and sometimes geisha) go to get their pizza fix.
You can still get the regular options, but more surprising are toppings that range from sardine with eggplant sauce to okura with Japanese shiso sprouts to octopus with rice sauce and basil paste.
Another fascinating stop is The Garden Oriental, an Italian restaurant and bar created inside the former house and studio of celebrated Japanese painter Seiho Takeuchi.
Getting there: Tokyo and Kyoto Stations are connected by the JR Tokaido Shinkansen, which makes the trip several times a day. The journey takes about 140 minutes and a one-way ticket costs ¥13,320.
2. Kumano Kodo pilgrimage
Why: It’s a side of Japan not many tourists see. Monks, retired emperors, aristocrats and regular folk have been hiking this pilgrimage route since the Heian period (794-1192).
The Kumano Kodo, on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2004, is a network of well-marked (in both Japanese and English) and well-maintained trails winding through the forests and fields, villages and towns that stretch across the southwestern Kii Peninsula in the Kansai region.
“It’s not like Kyoto or Nara — it’s a little off the beaten path,” says Brad Towle of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau.
“The routes lead to inspiring natural sacred sites, and along the way visitors can find isolated hot springs, delicious cuisine and authentic accommodations.”
Arriving at the main ancient shrines and temples may be the ultimate goal, but visiting the “Oji” subsidiary shrines or strolling past towering cedar and cypress trees, water-logged rice paddies and neat green-tea plantations is also immensely pleasurable.
You can take a private dip in the cloudy waters of the Tsuboyu bath (¥750) in Yunomine Onsen. At 1,800 years old, the onsen is believed to be one of the oldest in Japan.
Villagers use the water for soaking, cooking and even drinking.
The geological wonder known as the Kawayu Onsen is also worth experiencing. A hot spring bubbles just below the rocky banks of the Oto River. All you have to do is dig a hole, wait for it to fill up and then plunk yourself down. Voilà — instant personal onsen.
Getting there: Japan Airlines (JAL) flies three times a day between Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and Nanki-Shirahama Airport, which is a bus ride away from Tanabe City. The one-way flight takes 80 minutes and costs ¥29,170 (¥47,840 for the round trip).
Travelers can also board a high-speed train from Tokyo to Osaka, and then transfer to a local express line to Kii-Tanabe. The one-way trip takes about five hours and costs ¥16,520. Use the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau’s website to plan your hike and book accommodations.
3. Amazing Nagasaki
Why: Almost wiped off the map by the 1945 atomic bombing, Nagasaki has been rebuilt into an urban jewel on Japan’s third largest island, Kyushu.
Nagasaki grew from a tiny fishing village into an important port for trade with Europe and China. When the rest of Japan was practically cut off from the world for many centuries, Nagasaki kept its doors open.
These days, visitors come to learn about the city’s history, wander through its small but thriving Chinatown and marvel at the hillside Glover Gardens, which has a statue of Madame Butterfly to remind people of the Puccini opera that was set here.
Nagasaki also has deep Christian roots, with churches like Oura Catholic Church and monuments to missionaries who were executed in the 16th century and became known as the 26 Martyrs of Japan.
The best photo ops are from atop Mount Inasa, which towers 333 meters above the city. You can hike it or ride up on the Nagasaki Ropeway (¥1,200 round trip).
Another popular attraction is Gunkanjima, also known as Battleship Island, accessed via a 50-minute ferry ride.
“This former coal mining community on an island off the coast of Nagasaki Prefecture was abandoned 40 years ago and left to decay,” says Charles Spreckley of custom travel operator Bespoke Tokyo.
“A few years ago it was opened as an eerily romantic, almost apocalyptic tourist attraction.”
Getting there: Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines both fly every day between Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and Nagasaki. The trip takes two hours. Return tickets range from ¥53,000 to ¥80,000. Travelers can also ride the high-speed JR Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen from Tokyo to Fukuoka’s Hakata Station and transfer to the JR Kamome limited express train to Nagasaki. The one-way trip takes more than seven hours and costs ¥25,140.
4. Cool Karuizawa
Why: Because it’s one of the most beautiful places to be in Japan in autumn, because it’s several degrees cooler than Tokyo in the summer and because the thrill of being close to one of this country’s most active volcanoes will give your trip that added edge. The 2,568-meter Mount Asama erupted in 2009 and 2004 (an eruption in 1783 killed approximately 1,500 people).
However, the town’s natural beauty and charm help people to forget about the risks. Emperor Akihito met his future Empress on a tennis court here in 1957. John Lennon and Yoko Ono holidayed in Karuizawa in the 1970s and stayed at the Mampei Hotel.
The town has great hiking, hot springs and bird watching. Yacho-no-mori, or Wild Bird Forest, is home to about 120 species of bird.
Getting there: Karuizawa is a one-hour high-speed train ride from Tokyo Station. A one-way ticket costs ¥5,950. Express buses run from Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Yokohama. Single fares are about ¥3,000. The journey takes around three hours.
5. Pick a festival, any festival
Why: Because Japan, with its centuries of Shinto and Buddhist tradition, has no shortage of them. They’re colorful, fun and they take place throughout the year in different parts of the country.
Most people who have lived in this country, or who visit regularly, have their favorite. For Duff Trimble, whose Toronto-based Wabi-Sabi Japan customizes guided tours here, it’s the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival.
“It is likely the most powerful experience I had during my years in Japan — truly epic,” he says.
“I participated in the festival, which might explain my bias, but I believe this would be an amazing experience for anyone. It wraps up so many elements of Japanese culture in one experience.”
Similarly enthusiastic visitors to the July event — which takes place in Hakata, Fukuoka — typically head for the annual street-circuit race of one-ton, 10-meter-tall wheeled floats called yamakasa.
Bonus fact: If you really want to make like a local, avoid eating cucumbers for the duration of the two-week festival.
Apparently, slices of the green stuff look too similar to the emblem of one of the benevolent local gods for mere human consumption.
Getting there: Travelers can take the high-speed JR Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen from Tokyo to Fukuoka’s Hakata Station. The one-way trip takes five hours and costs ¥22,120. Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airlines both have daily flights between Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and Fukuoka. One-way fares start at about ¥25,000.
6. Tokyo’s glorious parks
Why: Because, while most people believe this sprawling metropolis — with its crowded crosswalks and sardine-can trains — is a steel, glass and concrete jungle (or the setting for Ridley Scott’s 1982 film “Blade Runner”), it actually has its fair share of green spaces.
The popular ones include Yoyogi Park, Shinjuku Gyoen and Ueno Park. But the small, yet stunning Happo-en garden in Shirokanedai is just as impressive.
The 50,000-square-meter park is billed as a reflection of “the natural beauty of Edo Japan,” and is worth seeing in any season, especially spring (for the cherry blossoms) and autumn (for the fiery fall colors).
A hut next to a pond, which is fed by a nearby stream, provides the perfect place for quiet contemplation, and to watch fat carp fling themselves into the air. Happo-en also hosts a Japanese teahouse and two restaurants.
Oh, and a chapel — it’s a popular place for weddings. Staff say they can have anywhere from 18 to 35 marriages a day in the busy spring-to-fall season.
So, along with enjoying the garden’s scenery, visitors can watch newlyweds pose for photos in traditional Japanese attire.
Getting there: Take the Yamanote Line to Meguro Station, transfer to the Namboku Line, and get off at Shirokanedai Station. Happo-en is a five-minute walk away.
Luxury lands in Okinawa at last
Two new hotels aim to attract travelers with deep pockets to Japan’s southern islands
C. James Dale
January 19, 2012
At first glance, Okinawa appears to have all the makings of a remarkable, subtropical travel experience — crystal-clear waters, top-notch scuba diving, endless stretches of beach, a generous helping of UNESCO World Heritage sites and delicious local cuisine to boot.
But while more than 5.5 million travelers, the vast majority Japanese, jet to this southern getaway annually, the wealthiest among them are hard-pressed to find what they’re looking for (if they go at all), starting with a suitable place to lay their heads.
“Top level accommodation has been sorely lacking,” said Duff Trimble, whose Toronto-based agency Wabi-Sabi Japan customizes vacations for the bespoke set. “Tourism on the main island is more geared toward the domestic traveler on a package tour.”
According to Trimble, none of Okinawa’s resorts could be considered five-star and can’t measure up to what’s available in Bali, Thailand or Vietnam.
He said the same problem exists on the smaller of the archipelago’s 160 islands, such as Ishigaki, Taketomi and Iriomote in the Yaeyama chain.
“There are some nice places for backpackers and a few of the same resort-style properties as on the main island, but no high-end, intimate properties that might compare to places our clients have stayed in other countries.”
Red carpet treatment
Well, fuel up the private jet and pack the Louis Vuitton luggage because that’s about to change. Two hotel groups have Okinawa in their sights, and they’re offering travelers with deep pockets two different experiences.
One is Hoshinoya Okinawa, brought to you by the same folks who created Hoshinoya Karuizawa and Hoshinoya Kyoto — accommodations that are shaking up the traditional ryokan experience by promising “authentic Japan with modern comfort.”
“Okinawa is an area in Japan with a very unique culture,” said Yoshiharu Hoshino, the president ofHoshino Resort, speaking exclusively with CNNGo ahead of today’s media conference to officially launch his new property on Taketomi Island.
“Taketomi is the only island that is successfully preserving the authentic Okinawan culture and housing designs.”
Hoshino first visited the tiny island, which is less than six kilometers square, in 2005 to scout out a location. Once he settled on a 6.5-hectare piece of paradise, he returned again and again to attend community meetings and supervise the building of the 48-villa resort.
“Of course, seeing from the outsider’s eyes, the aesthetic of the island scenery is superb,” said Hoshino. “But talking with residents, I began to realize the people not only take pride in its beautiful scenery, but also in their traditional way of life.”
Hoshinoya Okinawa’s architects and designers attempted to reflect this by creating single-level, wooden villas, surrounded by stone walls, topped with red tiles, and watched over by lion-dog shiisa guardian statues.
The 46-meter pool is made in the elliptical image of a traditional Taketomi well. Dining options put the spotlight on the same high-vegetable, low-fat local cuisine that’s helped Okinawans achieve the world’s longest natural lifespan that averages well over 80 years old.
The library lounge is filled with books about the archipelago and outfitted with a shop selling local arts and crafts.
The hope is guests, who will pay ¥72,000 to ¥78,000 a night (meals not included), will immerse themselves in Okinawan culture, and that locals will benefit too.
“Currently, the island population has diminished to 320 people, and with scarce job opportunities people are obliged to move,” said Hoshino.
“This situation made me think of ways to preserve the island’s culture and scenery while maintaining the population, securing job opportunities and nurturing the tourism industry to be profitable with us.”
Putting on the Ritz
Not to be outdone, Ritz-Carlton is currently adding the finishing touches on its own Okinawa getaway, located on neighboring Ishigaki Island, which is the main hub for the Yaeyama islands.
The Ritz-Carlton, Okinawa is promising to blend the group’s style with local culture to create something “subtle and tranquil, yet truly luxurious.”
The property will have 97 guest rooms with a view (they’d better, given the ¥45,000 to ¥450,000 nightly rates), a pool and spa, an 18-hole golf course and evening baths in Cristal. OK, I made that last part up, but you get the idea.
“The Japanese have a long-standing and very strong relationship with The Ritz-Carlton brand through our two world-class hotels in Tokyo and Osaka,” said General Manager Jun Yoshie.
“This is a great opportunity for us to further strengthen our position in the country with the introduction of a luxury resort hotel in Okinawa.”
Deep pockets required
And so the race begins in southern Japan to court high-end clients, from so-called accessible luxury to absolute luxury travelers. According to the International Luxury Travel Market, tourists with such deep pockets generate 20 percent of the annual global travel revenue even though they represent only 3 percent of the traveling public.
But hotels need to do more than just offer excellent meals, luxurious linens, and opulence. A 2011 report [PDF] by the Horwath HTL group said the rich are more inclined to spend on intimate, personalized and authentic vacations.
“It’s now much more about providing them with insider access to great experiences, and also about how you coordinate and put together those experiences,” said Duff Trimble. “It’s how you connect the dots that really makes the difference between a high-quality trip or not.”
Trimble said he’s certain The Ritz-Carlton Okinawa will be “outstanding.” He also has high praise for the Hoshinoya group.
“They’re one of the few Japanese companies making a concerted effort to promote to the outside world, and to the luxury market,” he said “They get it. They totally know what they’re doing.”
Travelers who can afford a visit will soon be able to draw their own conclusions. Hoshinoya Okinawa is taking reservations starting June 1. The Ritz-Carlton Okinawa opens in May.
Getting there: All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines fly daily from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Naha, with connecting flights to other islands in the archipelago. The ferry ride from Ishigaki to Taketomi takes 10 minutes and costs ¥580.
JAPAN’S TOURISM INDUSTRY LOOKS FORWARD TO A BRIGHT, TROUBLE-FREE 2012
(Photo: Katie Van Camp)
C. James Dale
TOKYO—The Japanese capital is all dressed up for the holidays and people are bundling up to head out and enjoy the sights. Many flock to the brick-lined Yebisu Garden Place to see its solar-powered Christmas tree, hear live music, and marvel at the Baccarat Eternal Lights chandelier. Five-metres tall, three-metres wide, and adorned more than 8,400 crystal parts and 250 lights, it’s a mesmerizing display, symbolic perhaps of the hopes people here have for the future. After the pall that fell over this country following the March 11th disaster, most are looking forward to a brighter 2012.
That includes the folks who work in tourism. The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) says foreign visits dropped 73% in the days after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident. But with time, and thanks to a Herculean effort to salvage a $19.4 billion (CAD) industry, travelers are returning. As of October, visits were only down about 15% overall.
“It is recovering rather quickly,” says the JNTO’s Manoru Kobori. “Probably by the springtime when we see the cherry blossoms in full bloom we will see almost the same level as the year before (2010).”
If you’re considering a trip to Japan, here are some ideas you might want to add to your itinerary.
TOKYO This is a city of neighbourhoods and parks. Set aside time to walk the small side streets of Ebisu, Daikanyama, Omotesando, Shimokitazawa, and Koenji. You’ll stumble upon small cafés, standing bars, boutiques, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. If you’re in the city in April, stroll along the river in Nakameguro to see the cherry trees in all their glory. Take a break from pounding the pavement in these great green spaces: Yoyogi Park, Ueno Park, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Happo-en.
KAMAKURA Once the de-facto capital of Japan (1192-1333), Kamakura now is a laid-back beach town. An hour’s train ride from Tokyo, go during the week to avoid the crowds. Start with breakfast by the sea at bills restaurant in the Shichirigahama neighbourhood. Then go for a stroll on the sand and watch the surfers ply the waves. After that, see the sights, including the Hasedera Temple, the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, and the Great Buddha.
KYOTO Many of this city’s temples and shrines are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But take time to visit some of the smaller places of worship, such as the tiny Daihikaku Sensoji Temple, which is perched on a hill in the western Arashiyama district. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. And why just visit a temple when you can stay in one? The Shunkoin Temple offers rooms with private bathrooms and a shared kitchen. Email Reverend Taka Kawakami to make a reservation.
KARUIZAWA Generations have been coming to this town, located in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, to enjoy hot spring resorts (onsen), the colours of fall, and the cool of summer. Karuizawa is a one-hour high-speed train journey from Tokyo. The old Mampei Hotel, where John and Yoko once stayed, is still open. A modern-meets-traditional resort worth seeing is Hoshinoya Karuizawa, with its public-access onsen and riverside shopping and restaurant village.
IZU PENINSULA The perfect weekend getaway. In summer and early fall, Tokyoites enjoy its beaches, the best outside of Okinawa. Shimoda is one town worth checking out. Consider staying at White Beach Hotel, a place with functional rooms, a fun atmosphere, and good food (plus it’s 30 seconds from Ohama beach).
YAMANASHI PREFECTURE If you’re looking for a good day trip from Tokyo, head to this prefecture, Japan’s version of the Napa Valley. Yes, Japan makes its own wine with domestically grown grapes, and while it’s not yet on par with New Zealand or California, it’s getting there. Go to the Budo no Oka Center (Grape Hill Center), where for $14.50 CAD you can sample from hundreds of bottles in the “tasting cave.” Once your thirst has been quenched, head upstairs and have a barbeque on the terrace, with a view of the surrounding hills and vineyards.
TOHOKU Hoping to give back while you’re in Japan? Get in touch with the non-profit organizations that are doing good deeds in the devastated Tohoku region. Christine Lavoie-Gagnon, a Quebecer and long-time resident of Japan, started an international group called NADIA in the days after the disaster. She and her volunteers have been cleaning and fixing up homes in the city of Ishinomaki. Register for trips on their website.
This story is also featured in the Japan National Tourism Organization’s newsletter for January 2012.
EXPERIENCES NO CAMERA COULD CAPTURE
(Photo: Katie Van Camp)
C. James Dale
My eyes are supposed to be shut, but I can’t keep them from fluttering open. The simplicity of the sight creates an indelible memory. It’s dawn and the sun is spilling across the worn wooden floor of the Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto, one of the oldest Zen Buddhist temples in Japan. My wife and I are sitting on cushions, legs crossed, trying to meditate. An old monk is crouched nearby, chanting sutras and banging on instruments made of metal and wood.
Outside, the morning light illuminates the garden. Trees and tightly pruned shrubs and perfectly placed rocks take on an ethereal glow. August’s heat stirs like a beast awakening from a short but restful slumber. I close my eyes again.
We knew little about Japan or the amazing experiences it offered nearly two years ago when we packed up our house in Montreal and prepared to move to this collection of islands on the other side of the planet. During our time here, we’ve seen this country at its best and its worst. We’ve debated leaving for good and staying for life. Japan has charmed us, challenged us, and changed us. We couldn’t ask for a better second home and, I’ve discovered, we’re not the only ones who feel this way.
“I love the incredible contrast Japan offers,” says Liezel Strauss, a South African art and design consultant based in Tokyo. “The deep-seated traditions found in an über-modern landscape.”
I’m scanning the photos on the Facebook page Strauss set up to promote her charity venture,My Japan. The images reveal a country where the past co-exists seamlessly with the present: portraits of Elvis impersonators and women in traditional clothing; shots of light snow falling on a crowd of pedestrians in the capital, Tokyo, and a narrow road winding through a bamboo forest in the ancient capital, Kyoto; stills of spring’s soft pink cherry blossoms and fall’s fiery red maple leaves.
Strauss launched My Japan after the March 11th earthquake and tsunami because she wanted to give back. She put out a call for submissions – what does Japan mean to you, she asked – and hundreds of photos poured in from more than 20 countries. Then she organized two exhibits and published a coffee table book. The proceeds support people in the devastated northeast. The publicity, though, could help the country as a whole.
“I want to spread the good news about Japan. I want people to come back here and see the beauty,” she says. “Japan needs visitors now more than ever.”
Poring over the My Japan photos encouraged me to scan through my own digital gallery, hundreds of pictures my wife and I took of the places we’ve been fortunate enough to see in this country. I click to enlarge one of Gentetsu Maeshiro, who’s proudly holding up a line of fish he caught in the East China Sea off Ishigaki Island in Okinawa. We met the 31-year-old on Sunset Beach just before he packed up his colourful catch and spear fishing gear to head home to his wife and three-year-old daughter. I remember asking him what he liked about living in Japan’s tropical paradise, where residents have the longest life expectancy in the world.
“Weather good, food good, air good, everything good,” he told me with a broad grin.
It doesn’t hurt that it’s also a stunningly pretty place. I click through photos of Ishigaki’s Kabira Bay, one of the most alluring spots in Okinawa. The shallow, turquoise water is surrounded by lush, green hills. In one shot, a young girl is captured hopping from one foot to another on honey-coloured sand.
“This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to,” my wife said to me at the time.
Another folder of photos triggers more memories. We’re floating on the Oigawa, a sleepy river that winds through Kyoto’s Arashiyama district. One thousand years ago, this mountainous area was a summer retreat for the nobility, a tranquil place to escape the heat. Now it’s home to one of Japan’s best hotels, Hoshinoya Kyoto.
Guests are ferried to the modern-meets-traditionalryokan by boat. As they round a bend in the river, the hotel makes a dramatic appearance, perched on a craggy hill surrounded by trees. Exquisite gardens snake through the property, connecting the 25 suites, which are filled with the sweet smell of tatami mats and outfitted with the very best in Japanese design: walls and sliding doors adorned with woodblock-printed paper, artisan furniture, and inviting hinoki wood bathtubs.
“I’ve never had such a sense of peace while traveling or felt better looked after,” American academic Sarah Hrdy told me after her visit. “I loved looking out my window at the forested hillsides and [the river].”
Most people who visit Japan have at least one moment when they marvel at what it has to offer. I’ve lost count of the times this country has wowed me: the vibrant fall colours of Karuizawa; the inviting beaches of Shimoda; and the limitless possibilities of Tokyo, a city of 13 million that can roar at one moment and whisper at the next.
“Japan is a surprisingly diverse country,” says Brad Towle, a Canadian who works for the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau. “From mega-cities to mountains to isolated hot springs, there’s always something new to experience.”
Catching up with Towle on email reminds me of the weekend we spent hiking the Kumano Kodo, a centuries-old pilgrimage route that winds through the lush hills and valleys of the western Kii Peninsula. We watched forest monks pray after they finished a long trek through the woods, visited sacred temples and shrines surrounded by old-growth trees and cascading waterfalls, and shared stories under the stars as we soaked in a riverside hot spring.
I hesitate before opening a folder of photos I took when I reported on the aftermath of the March 11th disaster for several news organizations. Months later, I’m still struck by the tsunami’s savagery and moved by the gentle stoicism of the individuals I met during that trip, people who greeted me with a smile even though they really had nothing to smile about. This, too, is Japan.
It makes me think back to that early August morning at the Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto. After my wife and I finished meditating, the monk offered us green tea. Life can get overwhelming, he said between sips. We should face those times with a smile.
It’s a moment no photograph could have captured, another indelible memory I will carry with me long after I leave this lovely country. That’s the Japan experience, I’ve come to learn. Pictures only tell part of the story. The rest is up to you.
The full version of this story appeared in Footprints, a magazine published by Flight Centre. A shortened version appeared in an Air Canada flyer.
DIVINE PATH: THE KUMANO KODO LINKS SHRINES, HOT SPRINGS AND SCENERY.
(Photos: Katie Van Camp)
C. James Dale
Fresh from a long hike through the lush hills and valleys of Japan’s southwestern Kii Peninsula, Shugendo monks stand in their mud-splashed boots in front of the thatched-roof pavilions of the Kumano Hongu Taisha. Some chant and pray, others blow conch shells. The monks, whose spirituality mixes Shintoism, Buddhism, Taoism and animism, have arrived to worship after navigating the Kumano Kodo — a network of well-marked and well-maintained trails that winds through forests, fields, towns and villages nearly 600 km from Tokyo. It’s a journey religious figures, royalty and regular folk have been making since the Heian period (794-1192).
The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes and the sacred sites they connect have attracted more attention since making the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2004, taking their place alongside Spain’s Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James). That has prompted local tourism authorities to make this hidden gem more accessible by putting up English signage along the four major routes (Nakahechi, Kohechi, Ohechi, Iseji) and creating an English-language version of its website, tb-kumano.jp. The site lets you download maps, book tour guides or reserve a night or two in the ryokan (traditional inns) and minshuku (family-run guesthouses) that line the trail. Itineraries can be as short as an hour or as long as a week.
As well as shrines, there are plenty of onsen, or hot springs, en route. Yunomine Onsen, discovered 1,800 years ago, is one of the oldest in Japan. The geological wonder known as the Kawayu Onsen is another popular spot. Hot-spring water bubbles just below the bank of the Oto River, so all would-be bathers have to do is dig a hole, let the waters seep in and then sit in it. If you don’t find heavenly bliss in one of the shrines, chances are you’ll encounter it in your own riverside bath.
“You can tell from the mud on their boots they’ve spent the last little while hiking in the woods,” said Brad Towle, a Canadian who works for a local tourism bureau and is tasked with luring international travellers here.
The monks, their robes accented with fur and beads and tiny black hats, prayed, chanted and blew the conch a little more before filing out of the main pavilion area, stopping along the way to greet visitors and pose for a picture or two.
“They go into the mountains to get power from nature,” Towle said.
It’s a journey that monks, retired emperors, aristocrats and regular folks have been making here since the Heian period (794-1192). The pilgrimage routes, known as the Kumano Kodo, and the sacred sites they connect have been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2004.
“It’s not like Kyoto or Nara. It’s a little off the beaten path,” Towle noted. “It’s a quiet, rural mountainous environment.”
The Kumano Kodo is a network of well-marked (Japanese/English) and well-maintained trails winding through the forests and fields, villages and towns that stretch across the Kii Peninsula. Arriving at the main ancient shrines and temples may be the ultimate goal, but visiting the “Oji” or subsidiary shrines or strolling past towering cedar and cypress trees, water-logged rice paddies and neat green tea plantations is also soul satisfying.
The pilgrimage my wife and I took started one Saturday morning at the tiny Shirahama airport following a quick, 50-minute hop from Tokyo. After Towle picked us up, our jam-packed, 48-hour tour of what is by far one of Japan’s undiscovered gems unfolded. First stop was Kiri-no-Sato Takahara, a restaurant and hotel that’s two hours from the beginning of the Nakahechi trail, the most popular of the Kumano Kodo’s four main pilgrimage routes. The recently built establishment is run by the energetic Jian Shino, who is comfortable conversing with guests in Japanese, English, Spanish and Mandarin. He’s part of the new breed of entrepreneur local officials are counting on to turn this region, which is struggling with population decline, into a must-visit tourist destination.
“Only about 10 per cent of our clients are foreigners, Americans and a lot of Europeans,” Shino told me as he served up some tasty cuisine on the outdoor terrace overlooking rolling hills.
Kiri-no-Sato Takahara has eight rooms with views that inspire quiet contemplation and an onsen (hot springs) where weary walkers can soak their feet. It also boasts a tapas bar, of all things. It was inspired by Shino’s love for Spanish culture.
“Next time you come, I will play flamenco guitar for you and your wife,” he promised.
Each of the distinct hotels, ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and minshuku (family-run guesthouses) along the Kumano Kodo provides its own brand of respite for the modern pilgrim who has spent hours or even days hiking. On the night we stayed at the Fujiya Ryokan in the town of Hongu (now part of Tanabe City), we found ourselves soaking under the stars in mineral-rich water, three Canadians sipping Japanese beer and musing about the prospects of Winnipeg’s new NHL team. With the chilly Oto River flowing by just a couple of metres away, we enjoyed the geological wonder known as the Kawayu Onsen. Just below the rocky riverbank, hot spring water bubbles, so all you have to do is dig a hole, let it seep in and then plunk yourself down. Voilà — instant onsen.
The thousands of hot springs that percolate to the surface of this volcanic nation are a big part of the travel experience in Japan. Along with shrines and temples, onsen provide the other thread that ties a Kumano Kodo trip together. It’s most evident, perhaps, in Yunomine Onsen, a tiny hamlet in the hills that made it onto the map about 1,800 years ago and is believed to be one of the oldest hot springs in Japan.
“It’s a good experience,” said Masako Sugimoto, who was leading a group of Japanese women in their 70s on a weekend hike. “It’s very hot. Ah!” she jokingly exclaimed, pretending to touch her toe into water.
Yunomine is a popular pit stop because it’s where the trailheads for two sections of the Kumano Kodo meet. We walked in on a misty, serene Sunday morning and followed a sulphury smell to a tiny wood shack that sits on a rock platform next to a creek and houses the famous Tsuboyu bath, where a private dip costs individuals or couples about $9 (750 Japanese yen). The small hole built into the stone is the only hot spring in the world that is a registered UNESCO World Heritage site. According to legend, its cloudy waters revived a sick adventurer in the 15th century.
“People come here because of the healing powers of the water,” Towle said. “They cook in it, they bathe in it, they breathe it.”
The cooking part, we discovered, happens in a pot of sorts that’s embedded in the side of the creek, a place where locals and visitors can boil up vegetables, such as bamboo and eggs.
Hiking and hot springs, worship and wonderful scenery, plus a little flamenco music to make it interesting. A pilgrimage along the Kumano Kodo is an off-the-beaten journey that has a distinct spiritual story. The imagery from one of our final stops still lingers in my mind. The rain was coming down hard as we stood looking out at the three-storey pagoda of the Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of the area’s three Grand Shrines. Just behind it, the tallest waterfall in Japan, the Nachi-no-Otaki, came crashing down from a cliff. A puff of clouds spilled into the valley from the surrounding hills and slowly formed into the shape of a dragon. It then opened its mouth as it swooped dramatically over the waterfall before dissipating and then disappearing altogether behind the pagoda.
JUST THE FACTS
ARRIVING Japan Airlines (JAL) offers three daily flights between Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and Nanki-Shirahama Airport. Travellers can also take a high-speed train from Tokyo to Kyoto, Nagoya or Osaka and then transfer to a local express line to Tanabe City.
SLEEPING Along the Kumano Kodo, the Kiri-no-Sato Takahara has a mixture of Japanese rooms (futons on the floor) and western rooms (beds). The Fujiya Ryokan looks onto the Oto River and the open-air Kawayu Onsen. The Hotel Nakanoshima, which has been around since the late 1950s, sits on its own private island and has outdoor onsen overlooking the sea (not to mention all-you-can-drink karaoke for about $37). It’s close to the Katsuura fresh fish market, the largest of its kind in Japan.
WEBSURFING The Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau’s English website is the best place to go to arrange a Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, including accommodation, onsen, meals, itineraries, tours, audio guides and much more. Visit tb-kumano.jp/en. For more information about Japan, go to ilovejapan.ca.
IZU PENINSULA: FOLLOW PERRY’S BLACK SHIPS TO JAPAN’S BEST BEACHES
Izu’s great escapes - working wonders for travelers since 1853
C. James Dale
Let’s be honest — travel in Japan can often focus too much on tradition and not enough on taking it easy.
Faced with a litany of temples, tea ceremonies and tatami mat-covered rooms, sometimes you just want to keep it simple and chill out. Sun, surf, sand … and maybe a kip in a queen-size bed.
Mabo, a 35-year-old hedonist, knows the perfect place for that. He spends his summers in Shimoda, a beach town on the tip of Japan’s Izu Peninsula.
“People come here from Tokyo because there’s no nature there,” he says, a floppy burlap hat shading his deeply tanned face. “Very blue sea, many good fish.”
For those of us who can’t pass the summer in Shimoda like Mabo, spending a weekend (or weekends) there is a solid plan B.
Less than three hours by train, and around four hours by car (depending on traffic), Shimoda’s a favorite for anyone looking to escape Tokyo’s crowds, concrete and crushing heat.
It’s just as alluring in early fall, when the beaches empty out and the air’s still warm.
History buffs will surely recognize Shimoda by name. That persistent American, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, sailed into this port in the mid-19th century after forcing Japan to end its 250-year-long period of isolation. Statues, plaques and replicas of Perry’s feared “Black Ships” pay tribute to that time.
There’s even the pretty Perry Road, located by a river with traditional buildings, cafés, restaurants and shops.
But with beautiful beaches (Tatadohama, Maisohama and Ohama are some of the names), secret coves and a sand-ski hill to explore, leaving the coast isn’t always top priority.
Groups of shirtless American guys in designer sunglasses toss around footballs on the hot sand, swigging from cans of cold Asahi beer. Japanese surfers perform elaborate, prolonged stretching routines before heading out to tackle the waves.
Others emerge from the sea, slick as seals in their black wetsuits, and head for home with their boards atop their heads.
“I love surfing, I love sea,” says Tomoko Mori, a mother-of-three who moved here from Tokyo a few years ago.
Shimoda’s laid-back lifestyle is its big draw. It’s also one of those places that’s popular, but not too popular.
“Japanese really undervalue their beaches,” says Mike Faller, the owner of White Beach Hotel. “I think the Izu Peninsula, outside of Okinawa, has the best beaches in Japan.”
Faller’s hotel, just a Frisbee toss from the beach, boasts that rare amenity in the Japanese hospitality industry (outside the five-star establishments) — queen-size beds. The rooms are slightly shabby, with wallpaper you might recognize from your grandparents’ house, but they’re functional.
The food is top-notch — hearty, Western-style breakfast options and tasty Italian dishes for lunch and dinner (the hotel is partnered with top Tokyo chef, Mario Frittoli).
Don’t leave without ordering one of Rome-native Thomas Pugliese’s creations from his wood-fired pizza oven. The dough-master, who sometimes has comical dabs of flour on his face, seems like he’s found the dream job.
“It’s wonderful here,” he says, looking out at the sea. “It’s so beautiful.”
Beauty can be found in plenty of other places on the Izu Peninsula, where great inland escapes are hidden away among the trees in tiny villages and towns.
Travelers with deep pockets will want to head to Arcana, a modern, luxury auberge near Shuzenji that stands quietly beside a rushing river, the Kanogawa.
Guests enter by walking past a crackling woodstove and then stroll down concrete pathways brushed lightly with moss to the three-story concrete structure that houses the hotel’s comfortable guest rooms.
Each suite has its own soaking tub, which is filled with piping-hot spring water and set into a balcony that faces the river.
“The water smells soft,” says Arcana staffer Shinjiro Kobayashi. “It’s very good for your skin.”
You’ll be forgiven if you just sit and soak, or lounge in your room. But if you do venture out, set aside some time to hike or drive the winding roads to the Joren Waterfall, the most prominent attraction in the area, where water cascades down a 25-meter cliff into a crystal-clear river.
In an angling kind of mood? ¥3,200 will buy you a rod for a day, 15 fish (if you can catch them), and cover the cost of cleaning them. You can also just keep it simple and pay ¥400 to get a fish on a stick, fresh off the fire.
Before you leave, make sure you pick up some of the wasabi that’s grown in tiered plantations alongside the river. It’s some of the best in Japan. About ¥1,000 will buy you a bag of the fresh stuff.
If you’re feeling adventurous, check out the nearby stores where you’ll find wasabi everything — beer, crackers, ice cream and even Kit Kat candy.
The Izu Peninsula and all it offers — wasabi, beaches, hot springs and, lest we forget, queen-size beds — is close enough to Tokyo to be accessible, but far enough away to make you forget the metropolis behind.
Once you’re on the local train to Shuzenji, chugging south with Mount Fuji at your back, or strolling on the beach with the waves licking at your feet, you’ll be happy you went. Go for a weekend and, guaranteed, you’ll book another trip. Or just do like Mabo does — stay all summer.
ISLAND HOPPING IN SOUTHERN JAPAN
C. James Dale
OKINAWA, JAPAN — The sun hangs low in the sky as the crowd on Kondoi Beach finishes up dinner and gets ready for the band to come on. A man with metal tongs pokes and prods at the leftovers of the feast, a large fish head that’s still smoking on the barbeque. Another man uses chopsticks to pick away at the remains of the carcass as the creature’s eye stares vacantly at passersby. This is Taketomi Night, a low-key celebration of the beauty and simplicity of this tiny outcropping of coral that’s part of Okinawa, Japan’s southern island chain.
As my wife and I stroll up the beach, the rough sand scraping our feet, we watch a girl plunk around in the warm waters of the East China Sea. Other folks are choosing to stay dry, their cameras and cellphones on standby to capture shots of the sunset. We come across Yutatsu Oyama, who’s heading in the opposite direction. The 73-year-old is the eighth generation of his family to call this place home.
“My mother died recently,” he confides. “She was 113.”
A ripe old age by any standard, but not unheard of in Okinawa, where good genes, good weather, and a diet rich in grains, tofu, seaweed and vegetables (such as the bitter goya) have given people here the longest life expectancy in the world. At last count, more than 400 centenarians resided on these islands.
Although Yutatsu spent a number of years working on mainland Japan, there was no question where he’d settle down when he retired.
“I don’t like Tokyo so much,” he admits. “It’s very crowded. It’s hard.”
Quite the opposite, in fact, of Taketomi and the dozens of islands that make up the Okinawa archipelago. The subtropical getaway, less than three hours by plane from the Japanese capital, is where travellers flock almost year-round to bask in the sun, snorkel or scuba dive through coral that teems with life, and enjoy the local cuisine and culture. While some only go as far as the main island, Okinawa Honto, others head farther south to discover smaller destinations such as Ishigaki and Taketomi, part of a group of islands known collectively as the Yaeyamas that are just a stone’s throw from Taiwan.
“People like the weather and the beaches,” taxi driver Shunki Misoko pointed out as we raced along Highway 390 toward the Ishigaki’s northern tip, which on the map looks like a long, knobbly stick floating in both the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea. Along the way we passed fields of spiky-topped pineapple, cactus-like dragon fruit and wispy sugar cane plantations.
Soon we were among the trickle of tourists at the Tamatorizaki Observation Point, taking in the beguiling view of the densely forested hills and the clusters of coral that dot the vibrant blue-green waters of the surrounding sea. That’s where we met Maeda and Hitomi Kazumi, sisters who’d rented a car to tour around for a few days.
“It’s a nice place to take time off and relax,” said Maeda, as her sister snapped pictures of the striking scenery.
In some cases, visitors fall in love with what Okinawa has to offer and just never leave. Case in point, the woman who runs the roadside ice cream truck that sits at the crest of a hill in northern Ishigaki. She left behind an advertising job in Tokyo five years ago to come here, raise some dairy cows, and sell refreshing treats to the lucky ones who happen by.
“The people are different here,” she noted, handing me a vanilla-flavoured ice cream, which instantly started melting in the 33C heat.
“Ishigaki people enjoy life. I don’t think of living in another place now.”
That sentiment kept coming up during our visit to Okinawa. Most of the tourists we met wished they could stay longer, and the locals couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. After walking along the nearly deserted Sunset Beach, its burning hot sand covered with broken bits of coral, we found ourselves chatting with Gentetsu Maeshiro. He’d just finished spearfishing and was carrying a colourful catch that included gilled creatures with names I couldn’t even guess — especially the Japanese ones. The 31-year-old farmer, born and raised on Ishigaki, was heading home to his wife, three-year-old daughter, and 90-head of cattle. When I asked if he’d ever considered moving away, he just laughed and shook his head in a “Why the heck would I leave all of this?” kind of way.
“Weather good, food good, air good, everything good,” he said in staccato English through a broad grin.
The allure of Okinawa and the laid-back lifestyle it provides can, at times, make mainland Japan seem like a neighbouring nation. Some still refer to this archipelago by its original name, the Ryukyu Islands, a kingdom that maintained so-called tributary relationships with China and Japan hundreds of years ago. The Japanese government officially annexed the Ryukyus and renamed them in the 1870s, but the sense of independence and cultural distinctiveness continues to play out here in the mindset, the music and the food, among other things.
“It’s quite something to have this in Japan,” said Tatiana, a Ukrainian who lives in Tokyo. “It’s another side of this country.”
The sheer prettiness of this place is what hooked us, especially the stunning, turquoise waters of Ishigaki’s Kabira Bay. The protected area, known to be a source of black pearls, is framed by golden sand and filled with coral shaped into blue-tipped tentacles and giant brains.
Our enchantment with Okinawa only deepened once we arrived on Taketomi, a short ferry ride from Ishigaki. We traded our bags for a couple of bikes at our hotel and braved the blazing heat on our quest to find the beach. One minute we were tearing down one of the bumpy main roads, flying past the island’s traditional wooden structures with their red brick tile roofs and stone walls. The next we were lost. But the best thing about Taketomi, all six square kilometres of it, is if you make a wrong turn, you’ll end up back where you started pretty quickly.
Once we got our bearings, we saw it all: the sleepy village, the sweaty water buffalo that pull cartloads of tourists up and down the dusty streets as drivers pluck away at three-stringed sashin, and Kaiji Beach with its star-shaped sand (really the remains of minute crustaceans).
By the time we ended up at Taketomi Night on Kondoi Beach, we were feeling a true affinity for this place. The real magic, we realized, sets in after sunset. The air grows cool, the crickets and birds start singing a soft soundtrack, and you find yourself pedaling along the peaceful roads with only the moon, the stars and the fireflies to guide you, reluctantly, to bed.
**Click here to read a similar version of this story, which was published by CNNGo on November 3, 2011.**
JUST THE FACTS
ARRIVING: All Nippon Airways (ANA) offers daily flights from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Naha, Okinawa, and connecting flights to other islands in the archipelago.
SLEEPING: The Busena Terrace Beach Resort ( www.terrace.co.jp/busena) is a secluded oasis in Nago, Okinawa that’s about a 70-minute drive from the Naha Airport. It’s the perfect place to unplug, laze around poolside, relax on the beach, or snorkel and scuba dive in the East China Sea. The ANA Intercontinental Ishigaki Resort ( www.anaintercontinental-ishigaki.jp) has one of the best beaches on the island. The cozy cottages of Fusaki Resort Village (www.fusaki.com), a great spot to watch the sunset, are also worth checking out. Villa Taketomi ( www.taketomi-v.com) has eight private villas (five Japanese, three Western) and offers delicious Okinawa-style meals.
TIPS: Swim in the designated areas to avoid jellyfish. Some beaches have vinegar bottles on hand in case you get stung. Consider bringing shoes you can wear in the water. On some beaches, the remains of the coral can be sharp. Make sure you check the tide schedule for Taketomi Island before you visit so you can take a proper swim in the sea.
WEB SURFING: www.ilovejapan.ca.
SOAKING IN THE SHADOW OF A SLEEPING VOLCANO
(Photo: C. James Dale)
C. James Dale
KARUIZAWA, JAPAN — At one point on the last night of my stay at Hoshinoya Karuizawa, I actually lost all sense of time and space.
“…55, 56, 57…”
I was counting and holding my breath in a dimly lit room, floating face down in water heated to perfection by a volcano.
“…58, 59, 60.”
I broke the surface, even though I felt I could have stayed under for minutes more. Surveying my surroundings, I remembered I was in the hotel’s meditation bath, a cavernous place guaranteed to “stimulate all of your five senses.”
Looking back on my visit to this eco-resort, those words could just as easily be used to describe the entire experience. Hoshinoya Karuizawa sits in the shadow of the still-active Mount Asama, some 150 kilometres northwest of Japan’s capital. The town of Karuizawa is sometimes referred to as the Hamptons of Tokyo, a highland getaway where people seek relief from summer’s heat and humidity or spend a weekend gazing at the brilliant autumn colours.
On the day I arrived by bullet train, the trees were displaying the full range of their palette, putting on a show that easily rivaled any you’d see in Canada. We drove through Karuizawa’s quaint town centre, then down narrow roads past the famous tennis court where Emperor Akihito proposed to Empress Michiko in the 1950s, the homes owned by the country’s political and cultural elite, and the old hotel where John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed while vacationing here.
At first glance, Hoshinoya Karuizawa looks like a traditional Japanese village, but it relies on modern technology to tap into a wealth of geo-thermal energy. An off-shoot of the Yukawa River, which also generates power, flows soothingly through the property, cascading over elevated rock beds and looping around 100-year-old trees. It pools in a reservoir where you’ll find some of the resort’s 77 guest suites; others are nestled into the hillside above. The rooms are warm and cozy with low lighting, and they come with traditional Japanese loungewear (just put it on … everybody does).
Along with the meditation bath, Hoshinoya Karuizawa also boasts an onsen (hot springs), which guests are encouraged to use after morning stretches. Men and women enter separate facilities, shower off, and, as is the custom, venture naked into the warm water. There’s no better way to start a crisp fall day than sitting outside in hot, mineral-infused water and watching the leaves fall gently to the ground. Hours later, your body will still feel the heat deep in its core.
During the day, guests can stroll through the gorgeous grounds or sign up for guided eco-tours and mountain bike rides. You can also walk over to Hoshinoya Karuizawa’s Haruniré Terrace, a picturesque boardwalk area along the Yukawa River that’s home to restaurants and small shops.
If retail therapy isn’t enough, then complete your day with a trip to the spa, where you’ll gain a new appreciation for Japanese sake. Massage therapists cover your body with scorching hot towels that are soaked in the rice-based alcoholic drink before they start rubbing you down. It smoothes skin and works away wrinkles, which is why the hotel suggests guests run a bath in their room and top it up with a bottle of sake.
RIVERSIDE SANCTUARY: HOSHINOYA KYOTO
(Photo: Katie Van Camp)
C. James Dale
In the travel business, a sense of arrival counts, and Hoshinoya Kyoto, in Japan’s old imperial capital, doesn’t disappoint. Instead of heading up a concrete driveway, guests board a boat in town and slip up the Oigawa, the sleepy river flowing through the Arashiyama district on the city’s outskirts, before glimpsing the hotel perched in the trees above. One thousand years ago, this mountainous area was a summer retreat for the nobility — a tranquil place to escape the heat. That link with the past is something Hoshinoya Kyoto strives to sustain. The buildings — once home to a traditionalryokan and, centuries before that, the residence of a prominent merchant — feature walls and sliding doors adorned with woodblock-printed paper in the local style, as well as artisanal furniture and hinoki-wood bathtubs.
Exquisite gardens snaking through the property encourage you to sit and contemplate. Those hankering for more can make the short climb to the ramshackle Daihikaku Senkoji temple to sip tea and take in the view of the hills and central Kyoto. You can also venture onto the river at night and watch men fish with cormorants by firelight. But perhaps the most memorable experience happens at dawn, when guests can take part in a prayer ceremony led by a monk from one of Kyoto’s most prestigious Zen temples. Talk about heavenly getaways.
I can’t resist – it’s thrilling and, I’m ashamed to admit, addictive. A minute later, a geisha, or geiko as they’re known in Kyoto, appears, silently exiting from a sliding doorway and floating down the street toward us. “Here she comes,” my wife whispers as I fumble with the camera. The plan is to snap a few shots before she slips like a secret into another tea house, or ducks down an alleyway.
But before we can do that, two Japanese women, tourists in their own country, come sprinting up the stone-paved street. “Sumimasen!” they cry out. Thegeiko ignores their “excuse me” and quickens her pace. As the scene plays out in front of us, our feelings of sheepishness over how we’ve chosen to end our night in Japan’s former imperial capital start to melt away.
Geiko and their apprentices, known as maiko, have been the stars of Gion for more than three centuries. But just as their profession has morphed from performing for Japanese nobility to entertaining tourists, so too has this neighbourhood started to evolve. Gion’s protected status means the narrow streets of its historic quarter are still lined with wooden-faced townhouses, home to tea rooms and geisha houses.
It also amounts to tough restrictions for those wanting to open up a new business, so people are getting creative and changing this district from the inside out. New businesses with an international flavour are taking root behind old-style walls and sliding doors, striking a balance between tradition and trendy. Kyoto, long considered the cultural capital of Japan, is now defining itself as a leader when it comes to the art of respectful reinvention.
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
570-8 Gionmachi-minamigawa; 075-525-7128
After opening in July, Niti (pronounced nee-chee) became the new kid on the block in Gion’s historic quarter. A big-shot Kyoto bartender renovated this former geisha house, transforming it into a sleek watering hole that seamlessly blends contemporary touches with Japanese tradition. The floors are concrete, the cushioned seats sit ontatami mats, the chairs are mid-century modern, and the bar glows like the side of Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion. You can sip beer, cocktails and whisky while looking out at Niti’s tiny but ethereal Japanese garden. Clients must pay a bar charge of $12.50 (1,000 yen).
570-128 Minamigawa, 075-561-2203
While many foreigners come to Kyoto to eat top-notch Japanese food, locals are crazy about Italian fare. Tutto Bene, another new incarnation of a former geisha house, recently opened to meet the growing demand (its owner runs ristorante t.v.b., an Italian resto just around the corner). But given that this is Japan, Tutto Bene isn’t your average pizza parlour. You can still get the regular options, but why not surprise your taste buds with toppings that range from sardine with eggplant sauce to okura with Japanese shiso sprout to octopus with rice sauce and basil paste? The lunch deal is big enough to feed two. In fact, the pizza chef says men often opt to bring their geiko here over Japanese restaurants, and that geiko and maiko come by for pizza in their off hours.
SOME CAKE WITH YOUR BOOZE?
Corner of Shijo and Hanami-komichi streets, Izawa building, fifth floor; 075-532-2828
Gion Ghost is a former bar that, although it started its new life this summer as a dessert spot, still looks like its old self: the long counter, stools and bottles of booze remain. Now, the liquor – good liquor at that – is poured not into glasses, but into elaborately made cakes. My buddy, Japan Times drink columnist Nicholas Coldicott, was at first horrified at the idea of using El Tesoro tequila, Talisker 18 Years Old and Springbank 10 Years Old in dessert. “After tasting these creations,” he later said, “I’m beginning to think it would be a waste to drink the stuff.”
POP ART TO GO
Corner of Shijo and Higashioji streets; 075-525-0625
Many artists call Kyoto home, and Hideki Kimura is one of the most well known. His wall paintings can be found all over the city, but he’s also passionate about putting art on everyday objects. His Ki-Yan Stuzio Flying Hideki Project opened a second shop this summer in Gion, just across the street from the Yasaka Shrine, which is attached to the popular Maruyama Park. The store sells wildly hand-painted T-shirts, bags, cups, Japanese toe shoes and more.
OLD BRAND, NEW TWIST
577-3 Minamigawa, Gion-cho; 075-551-3544 ; www.ihee.jp
Balancing the trendy and traditional is Ihee, owned by Eirakuya, a Kyoto-based cotton wholesaler around since 1615. It opened its stylish location in Gion two years ago. Ihee and sub-boutiques Raak and Enveraak sell products made from beautifully designed Japanese fabrics: bags, scarves, hats and handkerchiefs.
IN JAPAN, HEALTHY MINDS REJUVENATE IN HEALTHY FORESTS
(Photo: C. James Dale)
C. James Dale
OKUTAMA, JAPAN - All I can say is it felt a little unnerving at the beginning. Not because I was walking on a trail called “Forest Therapy Road,” or because I had just embarked on a “forest bathing” experience. What struck me as strange, was that I hadn’t seen or heard another person, aside from my wife, for more than 15 minutes. Then there was the breeze, the sound of a stream and the sight of trees blanketing every vista. Tokyo – with its millions of people, traffic, trains, steel, glass, and the tiny concrete box apartment I called home – felt like a solar system away.
Many of us have been forest bathing before, we just didn’t know it. Forest bathing is translated from the Japaneseshinrin-yoku, which has been defined as “taking in the forest atmosphere.” While the good, old-fashioned term “walk in the woods” still applies in North America, shinrin-yoku has slowly made its way into the vernacular in Japan since a government agency coined it in 1982. More recently, Japanese scientists have started quantifying the impact forest bathing, and its more clinical-sounding cousin, forest therapy (shinrin-ryoho), can have on humans.
“The purpose of forest therapy is to provide preventive medical effects by relieving stress and recovering the immune system [diminished] by stress,” Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University explained. As Japan’s leading scholar on forest medicine, he’s carried out studies across the country. The results show forest bathing can significantly lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, along with blood pressure and heart rate. Other research points out that walking in the woods can boost the body’s immune system by increasing anti-cancer proteins and enhancing the so-called natural killer activity of certain cells. In this case, it’s believed humans benefit from breathing in phytoncides, the chemicals plants emit to protect themselves from rotting and insects.
“This proves that stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy,” Miyazaki told me. “From a preventive medicine perspective, we can also expect a reduction in national health-care expenditure.”
Miyazaki hopes his work will help create healthier forests and encourage better forest management. So far, it’s led to the establishment of more than 40 forest therapy sites across Japan. The goal is to set up 100 within the next decade. One of the closest to Tokyo is in Okutama, a tiny town northwest of the Japanese capital, home of that trail with the decidedly new age name: Forest Therapy Road. My wife and I made it our destination one sunny Saturday morning, weaving through the crowds and darting from tunnel to tunnel in Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku station in search of the right train. Less than two hours later, the landscape had changed and a sea of skyscrapers had given way to a vast carpet of tall trees and lush valleys.
After our train pulled into Okutama station, we climbed aboard a bus bound for Lake Okutama, sitting among people with walking poles poking out of their backpacks. On the ride up the hill, I chatted with two cheery older women from the Tokyo area who nodded and grinned when they told me they were on a forest bathing day trip. Everyone, it seemed, was here for the same reason.
“I think it’s great to get away from it all,” said Naoto Okamura, also from Tokyo, who was on his first trip to Okutama. “[Forest bathing] is a chance to leave the emotional baggage behind.”
The concept is simple, according to the experts. Humans have spent 99.9 per cent of their evolutionary history in natural environments. Getting back to nature is actually like a physiological homecoming.
So why was I feeling uneasy with no one around but the crickets and the birds and the solitary snake that slithered past us, prompting my wife to scream? It seems I’d adapted to life in Tokyo, had actually grown comfortable jockeying for space with 13-million people in an area less than half the size of Prince Edward Island. At the beginning of our hike, I found myself hurrying along, figuring the more kilometres I clocked on Forest Therapy Road the better my forest bathing experience would be.
“Slow down,” my wife called out. “You’re supposed to be feeling the energy of the trees, not rushing.”
I focused on readjusting to my surroundings, and it started to work. I could feel the stress slipping away, and I’d be willing to bet my cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate all took a much-needed dip. I thought back to a conversation I’d had less than an hour ago with Yoko Tamura of the Okutama Tourist Association. She was at a loss to explain her take on forest bathing in English, so she simply smiled, put her arms out with her palms up, looked skyward, and took a deep breath.
“It’s healthy,” Tamura said enthusiastically.
It’s also good for business. Okutama has been feeling a tourism bounce since it was declared a forest therapy site in April 2008. Tamura said more people have been making the trek here, and now around six thousand visitors come to the town on weekends during the fall high season to soak in the colours of autumn.
Despite Okutama’s growing popularity, there’s plenty of forest bathing room to go around, so to speak. With hundreds of trails designed for serious hikers or families with small children, we only saw a handful of people during our three-hour walk. As we were leaving Forest Therapy Road, Daisuke Hisamatsu told us he liked coming here because it still wasn’t the top choice for day-trippers from Tokyo. He was tossing small rocks into Lake Okutama to the delight of his four-year-old daughter, and his wife was snapping photos, their infant son wrapped in a front pack and snuggled to close her chest.
“It’s very important for them to experience nature because Tokyo doesn’t have a lot of nature,” he said. “I think shinrin-yoku is not hard to do.”
It’s also addictive, apparently. On the bus back down to the train station, I struck up a conversation with Canadian ex-pat Rod Szasz, an experienced hiker who said he’s made the easy and inexpensive trip to Okutama at least 100 times.
“This is where I recharge myself,” said the former Vancouver Island resident, who’s lived in Japan for the past 20 years. “I was raised in the woods. If you don’t get out into [them], you don’t feel whole.”
Whole was exactly how I was feeling after my forest bathing experience; well, almost. When Szasz said he was going to the store to buy a bottle of beer before the express train left, I eagerly tagged along.
A short time later, we were sipping Okutama’s finest out of big, brown bottles while our train sped toward Tokyo. Szasz’s map was laid across his lap and he pointed out the best trails in the area as the green landscape slowly blended into villages, towns, and then cities.
A dozen or so stops later, my wife and I parted ways with our new friend, and our forest bathing trip felt like it was officially over. But like any good medicine, it had taken hold. We were refreshed and ready for re-entry into urban life. Even better, we felt reassured that the next time we needed a break from it all, an escape was well within reach.
WHEN MONEY IS NO OBJECT: JAPAN ON $10,000 A DAY
(Photo: C. James Dale)
C. James Dale
TOKYO - If money is no object, why fuss with taxi, train or bus transfers from the airport when you can hop into a helicopter? And not just any whirlybird – the $10-million Hermès helicopter. For luxury travellers heading to central Tokyo, it’s the only way to arrive in style.
“Our female passengers say it makes them feel like they’re inside a Hermès bag,” says Takako Otsuka of Mori Building City Air Services.
I hopped aboard this chic chopper one sunny December morning at a helipad a short drive from Narita International Airport’s busy runways and bustling terminals and settled back in the soft leather seats. Seconds later, I was hovering high above a landscape crisscrossed with expressways and train tracks, dotted with dwellings big and small. The ride to the heart of the Japanese capital is equal parts smooth and spectacular. After 15 minutes, we swooped past the iconic Tokyo Tower and touched down atop a midtown skyscraper.
Tom Cruise inaugurated this luxury airport transfer service in 2009, and since then it has ferried a few thousand passengers to and from Narita (the cost is $900 a person for a round trip). Once they land, though, where do the most affluent travellers unload Louis Vuitton cases of cash? I decided to start with the celebrities, and followed them to the Park Hyatt in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Cruise and company, Brangelina and George Lucas have all stayed at this hotel, but it’s more famous for hosting Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in the Oscar-winning film Lost in Translation.
I took the ear-popping elevator ride to the 41st floor and then grabbed another lift to a deluxe corner suite – almost, but not quite, the $11,000-a-night presidential suite.
The suite comes with a stunning view of Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park and a grand piano in case you’re inspired to play.
Things only got better after I headed to the Club on the Park spa, which boasts an onsen-inspired soaking room. I spent almost an hour hopping between the huge hot bath and the cold plunge pool before sitting in the serene lounge, sipping iced tea and watching the sun set behind the vast Tokyo skyline.
The next stop was the 52nd floor and the hotel’s vertigo-inducing New York Grill, where guests and Tokyoites alike tuck into prime, pricey Japanese beef and sip expensive wine and whisky. Manager George Akes was my host, dropping in on my table from time to time to fill my glass with Dom Pérignon or one of the restaurant’s exclusive wines, the W.E. Bottoms Pinot Noir from California’s Russian River Valley.
“What’s the most someone’s paid for a dinner here?” I asked him.
His matter-of-fact reply: “There was a couple that spent $5,000 one night.”
Good thing you don’t have to tip in Japan, I thought.
For visitors who lack the time to visit a ryokan – a Japanese inn – outside Tokyo, there’s always the Ritz Carlton in Roppongi Hills. Here, for nearly $2,000 a night, you can walk on tatami mats and bed down on futons. Before you do, though, top off your night with a Diamonds are Forever martini. Shaken or stirred, it comes with a one-carat diamond at the bottom and costs about $20,000.
But the leader of the luxury pack in Tokyo is The Peninsula, where you can book the best room, the Peninsula Suite, for almost $24,000 a night, or slum it in lesser digs starting at about $700. The hotel is anchored in the glamorous Ginza neighbourhood, with its Michelin-starred restaurants, designer boutiques and world-famous cocktail bars. All I cared about was my room, a sprawling suite with sheets that put the thread in “thread count.” But when I awoke on a rainy morning and watched out the window as fog engulfed the Imperial Palace, I remembered luxury travel is about more than being pampered at five-star hotels and zipping around in designer helicopters. In recent years, high-end travellers have shown they want to pull back the curtain and make cultural connections.
So that’s what I went looking for at the end of Japan’s sweltering summer on a tranquil river at Hoshinoya Kyoto. The renovated ryokan, which opened about a year ago, is in Arashiyama on the western outskirts of the country’s ancient capital. The experience starts before check-in at a dock on the Oi River where guests are greeted and then ferried to the hotel and its modern-meets-traditional suites (which range in price from just under $400 to about $850 a night).
Along with the very best in accommodation, food and service, Hoshinoya offers guests exclusive access to a dawn prayer ceremony at one of Japan’s oldest Zen Buddhist temples. I got up before sunrise to give it a try.
A short time later, I found myself kneeling on a tatami mat as a monk chanted sutras over and over again. My knees started to ache and one of my legs went numb. One moment I felt like I was floating, the next I was falling asleep.
This, I wondered, is luxury travel?
GOOD VIBRATIONS, JAPANESE STYLE
(Photo: C. James Dale)
C. James Dale
KAMAKURA, JAPAN - I realized I had truly fallen under this town’s spell when I found myself in a café shaking a small, giraffe-shaped maraca to the beat of a Tom Waits-infused, acoustic version of Prince’s “Kiss.” It seemed a fitting way to end a day that included crawling through a cave at a Buddhist temple, hanging out with the Great Buddha himself, and hearing people talk about the resurrection of a fallen 1,000-year-old tree. Here’s the back story.
Shortly after my wife and I had settled in Tokyo, a friend who helps North American musicians book gigs in Japan suggested we take a trip to Kamakura to see a concert. We said hai without hesitation. The city is best described as Tokyo’s laid-back neighbour (or old surfer buddy). It has beaches, Buddhist temples, ice cream shops, and cool restaurants and cafés — the perfect antidote to Tokyo’s frenetic, neon-splashed, steel-glass-and-concrete landscape.
We three met at the station one sunny Sunday morning and grabbed the direct train to Kamakura. In minutes, we were racing out of Tokyo, cutting across a peninsula, and heading toward Sagami Bay. The trip takes less than an hour and costs less than $15 return. The payoff is almost immediate. Soon after you step off the train, you start to unwind. Then it’s just a matter of what to see in the time you have. We figured we’d do better on a full stomach. Buddha doesn’t look like he skipped many meals, so why should we?
One way to get into the Kamakura vibe is to tour around with people who really know the place. My friend, Dan Rosen, moved to this city a couple of years ago after living in Tokyo for a few years and Kyoto for a decade. He whisked us from the train station to one of Kamakura’s best restaurants, 0467, which gets its name from the city’s area code. 0467 is a mix of old and new Japan. Weathered wooden beams butt against perfectly plastered walls and contemporary stonework. Its chefs serve up savory pasta dishes, curries, fish and meat, combining them with local vegetables.
Over coffee, I asked Dan (who works weekdays in Tokyo) why he decided to call Kamakura home.
“I like to see the blue sky everyday. And the mountains all around,” he said without hesitation, recalling the first time he saw Mount Fuji. “I was running along the beach one day and there it was. I said to myself, is that Fuji-san?”
The iconic mountain is just one of the many sights visitors and residents enjoy. After lunch, we started with the revered Hase Kannon Temple, or Hasedera. A few dollars will let you stroll through the temple’s luscious grounds, designed in Zen style to contribute to one’s enlightenment and contentment. But there is also sadness at this temple. One corner of Hasedera is filled with an army of small Jizo statues, representing the souls of miscarried, stillborn or aborted children. Candles and incense burn nearby, and the gurgle of a creek can be heard over the quiet.
The highest point of the Hasedera Buddhist temple provides an expansive view of one of Kamakura’s beaches, with its ant-sized surfers and windsurfers riding the waves. The lowest point is a small cave that contains the seven lucky gods of Japanese mythology. In between, you’ll find the nine-metre statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. According to legend, it was carved from a single piece of camphor wood in the 8th century. Monks sell offerings for the goddess — candles bearing various messages: I pray to recover from a disease; I pray to be able to meet a wonderful person; I pray for an easy delivery with a child.
At this point, we were praying for more time at this temple. But we had to leave; the Great Buddha was calling. Daibustu is considered a national treasure, one of the main reasons people visit Kamakura. The 38-metre bronze statue was built in the 13th century, back when Kamakura’s samurais ruled Japan. It has survived earthquakes and tsunamis, and now the green giant (which has a reinforced neck) stands patiently by as visitors use him as a backdrop for photos, pray to him, give gifts and pay 20 cents to climb inside his belly. If you’ve still got spare change, chanting monks will take it off your hands, ringing a bell as you drop your yen into their bowls.
But while the Great Buddha is Kamakura’s big attraction, these days it’s a fallen giant that has been capturing the imagination of many Japanese. Since mid-March, thousands of visitors have flocked to one of Kamakura’s Shinto shrines to see the remains of an old tree. The 30-metre gingko towered over the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine for 1,000 years until a windstorm blew it down.
“They’re sad,” one rickshaw driver said of the people he’s ferried back and forth to visit the tree. “The ginkgo was the symbol of Kamakura.”
There’s a plan, though, that is giving hope to some. Shrine officials have cut a section of the ginkgo and planted it in the ground, expecting it will grow roots. If that fails, they’re also trying to make saplings out of branch cuttings. Despite the scientific hurdles, it’s not hard to find optimists in the crowd.
“After living for 1,000 years, the tree still has a vital energy,” said college student, Yu Usui. “It will grow again.”
One Kamakura native I met, Ishii, didn’t mourn the tree and seemed to loathe the packs of tourists in town. She talked about how the city is a drag because of the number of visitors. It didn’t help that U.S. President Barack Obama spoke about his childhood memories of Kamakura when he visited Japan last fall. Now every other ice cream shop is boasting it was the one that sold green tea ice cream to the boy who became the leader of the free world.
I tried to figure out how a Zen Buddhist would feel about Kamakura’s popularity problem, and drew a blank, which might have been a good thing. Then the main act, L.A.’s Jim Bianco, walked over to the corner, muttered something in Japanese, and started playing before the crowd of 20. After a few songs, he handed me that plastic giraffe maraca. I shook it like a pro and forgot about everything for a few minutes — the good, the bad, and the Buddha.
When we left the café, Kamakura’s narrow streets were deserted, its stores shuttered for the night. Dan told me it’s always like this after 7 p.m.
I wanted to return to one of the temples, or go lie on the ground and stare up at the Great Buddha’s big head. Instead, we went to the train station. On the way, I whispered to my wife, “We have to come back to stay for a while.”
REASONS YOU’LL NEVER FORGET NAGASAKI
C. James Dale
NAGASAKI, JAPAN — After an evening spent wandering around Nagasaki’s narrow streets, politely refusing massage offers and invites to hostess clubs, and chatting in a tiny basement bar with an older man who kept telling me about his friend in Winnipeg, I’d decided to call it a night. As I headed toward my hotel, the city’s busy Hamano-machi district seemed quiet, deserted — except for the three people who materialized just ahead of me, rounding a corner and walking quickly up a set of stairs. I looked at my phone — 1 a.m. Where could they be going?
Two short flights and a few strides later I was standing, puzzled, in front of a bookshelf. I barely blinked before it opened and a woman appeared, smiling and inviting me in. I’d stumbled upon Agio Bar & Café, one of the coolest cocktail spots in Nagasaki. I was ushered to a cushioned, boxy chair facing the bar and I sat — right next to one of the folks I’d followed in from the street.
“Hi, I’m Craig,” I said after a minute.
“Oliver,” he replied in a British accent, Manchester extraction.
“How’d you find out about this spot?” he asked.
“Um, I just, um, happened upon it.”
He seemed skeptical, but instead of questioning me further he turned to the bartender and ordered his drink in perfect Japanese. I did the same in my own version of the language. Oliver, I found out, had been living and teaching in the Nagasaki area for nearly a year. He’d just escaped a work party full of drunken colleagues singing karaoke.
The 23-year-old had picked the right place to chill out. Agio Bar & Café is a hip hideaway with low-lighting and comfortable seating, decorated with warm colours. It plays pictures from the 1940s and ’50s on a big screen that dominates one end of the bar. On this night, it was Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. As I looked away from the film and back at the bar, I noticed Oliver was sipping what appeared to be …
“Is that a girly drink?” I asked.
“No, it’s a gimli,” he said keeping his eyes on his mini-martini glass, a hint of annoyance in his tone. Then he said earnestly, “You know, Philip Marlowe drank them in the Raymond Chandler novels.”
It seemed appropriate. A bit of mystery was actually what I was going for on this trip, and the information I got from Oliver about this southern Japanese city helped me stick to my plan. I’d made a vow to navigate Nagasaki without constantly thumbing through a guidebook or obsessively checking the Internet for places to visit. I came here to cover the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing, but aside from that terrible event I knew very little about this city, which is situated on the western side of Japan’s third-largest island, Kyushu. Once my train arrived and I checked into the station hotel, JR Kyushu Hotel Nagasaki, I followed through with my decision to make this a voyage of aimless discovery.
An hour later I was lost. After heading south from the station toward what I thought was the centre of town, I ended up in front of a square where a group of women in multi-coloured kimonos was practising a traditional Japanese fan dance under glaring halogen lights. A young reporter (who’d obviously drawn the short straw on this Friday night) was there to cover the rehearsal for the local newspaper, and he told me the women were preparing for October’s Kunchi Festival, Nagasaki’s most famous annual event. The autumn ritual, which has been held since 1634, incorporates aspects of Chinese and Dutch culture. I snapped a couple of photos, got fresh directions from the reporter, and moved on.
Next stop on my stroll was Spectacles Bridge (Megane bashi), which humbly spans the Nakashima River. The 17th-century structure has outlived the samurai and the atomic bombing, and today it’s considered the oldest stone arch bridge in Japan. Take a minute to look at its reflection in the water and you’ll see where the name comes from — the arches create the image of eyeglasses, or megane in Japanese.
Once a tiny fishing village, Nagasaki itself grew to become a bridge between Japan and the West, the only link in fact during the country’s self-imposed period of exile, from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th. Walking around, it’s easy to find tributes to Ryoma Sakamoto, the samurai credited with leading an uprising to end Japan’s isolation. Present-day Nagasaki also bears the signs of its early interactions with other cultures. The former Dutch enclave of Dejima has been restored and the area around it is now home to new cafés, restaurants and bars. Christianity survived years of persecution and today refurbished churches, including the Oura Cathedral, share the landscape with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Plus, there’s a monument for the so-called 26 Martyrs of Japan, Christian missionaries who were executed here in 1597 on the orders of a Japanese lord.
Chinese culture has also thrived in Nagasaki. The city’s Chinatown, or Shinchi-machi, is the biggest in Japan, which is why a directionally challenged person such as myself was unable to miss it one morning while out hunting for a large latte. I walked through one of the grand, red-pillared gates just as many stores and restaurants were getting ready to greet the day. It was too early to enjoy some of the district’s popular noodle dishes, champon or sara udon, so I opted for something sweeter: Chinese sesame seed balls. A shop on a corner sold three for three bucks. Given that three is a lucky number in Chinese culture, I didn’t want to take any chances — I went back three times.
Luck, it seemed, was on my side because I managed to make it to one of Nagasaki’s most popular tourist spots a short time later. A friend had recommended a visit to Glover Garden, a collection of Western residences from the 19th century. I rode a set of escalators to the top of a hill that overlooks Nagasaki’s harbour.
It was here in 1863 where Scottish entrepreneur Thomas Glover built his home, which is now regarded as Japan’s oldest Western-style house. Visitors pay 600 yen (about $7.50) to see his former residence and the other buildings that make up this open-air museum, all preserved to appear as if their owners have just stepped out for a few hours. Glover Garden also has statues honouring Italian composer Puccini, who made Nagasaki the setting for one of his best-loved operas, “Madama Butterfly”, and Japanese soprano Tamaki Miura, who wowed the world in the first half of the 20th century by playing the lead, Cio-Cio San.
Even my opera-crazy mother would agree that the view from atop Glover Garden is probably as moving, even more moving, than any Puccini aria. Staring out over Nagasaki Bay, the buzzing of cicadas filled my ears and the centuries melted away as I imagined merchant ships sailing in and out with goods from far away lands. But it wasn’t until the next morning that I fully grasped Nagasaki’s panoramic beauty. Oliver, the gimli guzzler, had suggested I scale Mount Inasa-yama, which towers 333 metres above the city. The next morning I did. After a short bus ride to Fuchi-machi district, I was sailing to the top of the mountain in a cable car, known as the Nagasaki Ropeway. A round trip costs 1200 yen ($15), but you can also hike up and down if you have three hours to spare.
At Mt. Inasa’s observation deck, everything is laid out before you: Nagasaki’s buildings and bridges; its shrines and temples; its cemeteries, arranged precariously on the hillsides; its lush green landscape; the surrounding islands; and the sea. I spent a good chunk of time gazing at this new Nagasaki, born after the old one was all but obliterated on the morning of August 9, 1945.
These notions of rebirth and renewal swirled around my head for the rest of the weekend. They stayed with me as I watched the people of Nagasaki gather in Peace Park to remember the anniversary of that horrible summer morning. It was there where I was ashamedly faced with the fact that I knew so very little about this place. I didn’t regret my guerilla approach to sightseeing, but as the rain fell lightly on a choir of bombing survivors, I knew that when I returned, I’d pack a couple of dog-eared books about this city by the sea and a long to-do list.