Recently, when enjoying a couple of leisurely afternoon pints in The Hub, my wife Mai and I chatted with an Aussie lad in Japan on his ‘trip of a lifetime.’ “So, where are you visiting?” my wife asked, more out of politeness than curiosity. “I spent a few days in Tokyo, went to Osaka and Kyoto, and after Nagoya, I’ll have a few more days in Tokyo,” he replied. “Oh, that sounds lovely,” Mai cooed, full of smiles. However, as soon as he’d drained his drink and bade us a farewell ‘G’day,’ Mai rolled her eyes. “Mottainai.” And I had to agree: what a waste.
Don’t get me wrong, Kyoto is stunning, Osaka’s a wild night out, and Tokyo has its ‘Big Smoke’ charm, but Japan is such a beautiful, diverse country it seems somewhat wasteful to just hit up the big cities. With that said, Japan’s far-flung spots can be difficult for foreigners, what with the language barrier and the myriad of cultural obstacles you might encounter.
Luckily for you, however, I am here with suggestions for places that land in that sweet spot of being both tourist-friendly (and thus easier) and a bit off the beaten track, starting with a cracking four-day tour that would fit perfectly into anyone’s ‘trip of a lifetime.’
Throw a rock anywhere in Japan with its long history of samurai infighting, and you hit a castle. Not all castles, however, are created equal, and the pick of the bunch can be found in Himeji, just 30 minutes on the bullet train from Osaka. Also known as Shirasagi-jo [White Heron Castle] due to its elegant white, sweeping walls, Himeji Castle is a UNESCO Heritage Site comprising over 80 buildings. Completed in 1609, it miraculously survived unscathed by earthquake, fire, and destruction during the Meiji Restoration, and it was even camouflaged during WW2 to protect it from American bombers. As a result, it is one of only 12 Japanese castles extant in their original state. The grounds themselves make up a landscape of incomparable beauty, and in late March, as the cherry blossoms bloom, you would be hard-pushed to find a more stunning view.
A 30-minute bus ride from Himeji Castle, atop Mount Shosha, you can find Engyoji, a sprawling Tendai Buddhist sect temple complex with a 1,000-year history. And if, once you arrive, you find yourself thinking, ‘I’m sure I’ve seen this place before,’ it is probably because you have. Though visited infrequently by foreign tourists due to its stunning beauty Engyoji is often used for Japanese TV dramas, and the Mitsunodo building was used in the bewitchingly shot, though woefully inaccurate, Tom Cruise atrocity The Last Samurai. However, the most notable building in this complex is Maniden, an astonishing hall perched upon wooden pillars on the steep hillside.
A ropeway can take you to and from the temple complex, but if you have the energy, it’s highly recommended to hike the hour up the hill. Used by pilgrims for centuries, along the route, you will discover all manner of statues, mini shrines, and beautiful viewing spots. However, if you decide to walk, remember you will want a couple of hours at the top, so an eye on the clock is advisable.
If it’s taking it easy and strolling around some old-school Japanese streets that you’re hankering after, then Kurashiki, an hour west of Himeji, is the spot. The tourist pamphlet calls Kurashiki’ The Venice of Japan,’ though, to be honest, Kurashiki falls short of this claim in two ways: it only has one canal running through it, and it doesn’t stink to high heaven when the floods come in (seriously, Venice is an overpriced dump).
What Kurashiki does have is Bikan Historical Quarter, a beautiful old town located around its canal that dates back to the Edo era (1602-1867), when it was an important rice distribution center for the region. In fact, Kurashiki roughly translates as ‘town of storehouses’, reflecting those days of commerce, and it holds true today, as it is a mecca for a different type of shopping: denim.
As well as being in the rice game, Kurashiki was a cotton farming area, and over time ‘Denim Street’ became the epicenter of the domestic jeans industry. All around the old town, you can find boutique denim shops of fantastic quality, and there are even places where you can design and craft your own jeans. However, if denim isn’t your thing, it is just as enjoyable to take a rickshaw around town with an English-speaking guide or float down the willow-lined canal on a boat tour. When that all gets too much, boost your energy levels with some sweet kibidango [millet dumplings], the favorite dish of Okayama Prefecture’s most famous (and mythical) son, Momotaro.
Requiring train, bus, and ferry travel, getting to Naoshima from Kurashiki is possibly the most arduous leg of the trip. Unless you leave crazy early, you won’t arrive until midday, but it’s well worth it.
This part of the Seto Inland Sea has become an artistic haven, and nearby Shodoshima is perhaps the best-known. However, for those wanting to maximize their time, Naoshima is the best bang for your minute, and there is so much to uncover that I recommend taking a couple of days.
Most of the hostels and minshuku [guest houses] are found on the Honmaru side of the island, so after you’ve disembarked from the ferry and dropped off your bags, grab a rental electric bicycle from the shop near the port. It’s unmanned, so drop your cash in a little wooden box (this is Japan, so trust and honesty are big), and off you go. Riding southwest around the island will take you past some pleasant beaches, and while you are down that way, make sure you see the yellow pumpkin. Designed by Yayoi Kusama, one of Japan’s most famous eccentric artists, the yellow pumpkin, perched upon a pier overlooking the ocean, is perhaps the most iconic installment on the island. So important is it that, when it blew away during a typhoon in 2021, it made international news. It has fortunately been restored – and reinforced – and no trip to Naoshima is complete without seeing it.
Near Kusama’s structure is the Benesse House Museum and the Lee Ufan Museum, which are well worth visiting. If you are stuck for time because you, to choose an example entirely at random, spent too long sipping vending machine beers on the beach, it is advised that you continue southwest to the Chichu Art Museum. Chichu means underground, and the museum is built into the hillside so as not to disturb the natural flow of the island’s scenery. It was designed by the forerunner of contemporary Japanese architecture, Tadao Ando, and it houses huge murals from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series, the magnificent structures of Walter de Maria, and the somewhat mindboggling light interplay of James Turrell. Remember that you must make a reservation to visit the museum in advance, but it is worth the hassle.
The Chichu Gallery is not the be-all and end-all of art on the island, as there are so many other installations to discover. If Tadao Ando’s architecture bowled you over, you could see models and examples of his other work around Japan at the fabulous Ando Museum in Honmura.
Also very cool is the Art House Project. Taking seven traditional buildings scattered around the residential area, artists transformed them into works of art that interact with the local community. Particularly stunning is Go’o Shrine, in which a flight of glass stairs connects an underground stone chamber to the main hall, linking the underground and the surface to form a single world. However, if you want to see something nuts, head out to Haisha [meaning dentist], an old dentist’s surgery stuffed to the literal rafters with iconography from down the decades and, for some reason, a two-story-tall Statue of Liberty.
Naoshima’s main port is in Mayanoura, on the island’s west side, where there are a few nice restaurants and another of Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkins, a red one, but the best thing in the area is I Love Yu. A nice little pun – yu means ‘hot water’ – I Love Yu combines contemporary art installation and sento [public baths] and is a bathing experience like no other. Designed by Shinro Otake, the oddball artist responsible for the batshit-nuts mentioned above, Haisha, it intermingles recycled objects from all over Japan, and the outside is a veritable hotchpotch of weird and wonderful pieces. However, it gets really unusual inside with an erotic collage on the bath’s floor, a brightly painted glass ceiling, and vast tile murals of naked ama [female shellfish divers] on the walls. Oh, and an elephant statue in the center of the room, which I am sure has artistic relevance, but I’d be damned if I know what.
Soaked and relaxed, there is probably just enough time to pop to the convenience store to grab a couple of beers and a snack before heading to the nearby beach to watch the sun go down as you await the ferry back to the mainland. And from there, should you wish to continue to the main cities to gawk at the wildness of civilization, you can do so safe in the knowledge that, should you bump into my wife and me in a pub, you won’t hear that scathing word ‘mottanai‘ as soon as your back is turned.
Image by Photo-ac
Images by Mark Guthrie