Central Japan – The Oft Overlooked Yet Unforgettable Japan
When people visualize Japan, they often imagine geishas and temples (frequent sights in Japan’s third-largest city of Kyoto) or the quirky anime and splashy architecture of Tokyo. Those cities, along with most of the country’s major cities and cultural highlights, are found on Honshu island, Japan’s mainland. Many travelers visit Kyoto and Tokyo, but few tour between those cities into central Honshu, the true lifeblood of Japan. Largely agricultural, this region is the food bowl for a nation that reveres its rice, Wagyu beef and flawless produce. But that’s just a taste of what this region has to offer. Home to stunning alpine scenery and Mount Fuji, traditional ryokan resorts, natural hot springs, unique museums, and beautifully preserved traditions and towns, central Japan is a must-see.
Utilizing high-speed bullet trains and buses, we left with a small group from Kyoto, toured central Japan and arrived in Tokyo six days later. The following highlights may pique your interest in experiencing the roads and rails less traveled.
Kanazawa: Kanazawa’s modern glass train station with massive cypress gate (with pillars resembling tsuzumi drums from the traditional Noh theater) was our first sign of the blended synergy of old and new typical of this city.
Its samurai homes and Geisha district look today as they did in the Edo period (17th to 19th centuries), when this city rivaled Kyoto and Edo (old Tokyo) in power and cultural achievements.
Begun in the early 1600s as private gardens for the Maeda samurai clan, Kenrokuen is one of Japan’s three great gardens. Its iconic cone-shaped rope structures (yukizuri) surround and protect the 350-year-old pines from heavy snows.
Skillful lacquerware, woodworking and ceramics are thriving businesses in modern shops (housed in ancient structures). The city is designated a UNESCO City of Crafts.
The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art seems completely at home, its curved glass walls reflecting the history surrounding them. There are remarkably creative exhibits; a favorite is the large faux swimming pool complete with people apparently walking and breathing 12 feet under (thanks to an invisible glass ceiling topped with rippling water).
Ryokans: With few hotels in Kanazawa, we traveled to the hot springs area of Wakura Onsen. Living in a volcanically active country can have its perks, such as an abundance of natural hot mineral springs or onsens. Built around these springs, ryokans are more than hotels; they allow guests to experience the unique and subtle beauty of Japanese culture and customs. Entering your room is akin to stepping into the world of the samurai with rice paper doors, low tables, floor-level chairs and woven tatami mats. Room attendants serve frothy matcha tea and “sweets” (neither the green tea lump or red bean in gelatin were remotely sweet), and then help you into your yukata (informal kimono), split-toed socks and slippers. All this is finessed with few words, just kind facial expressions and delicate hand motions. Dinners are traditional kaiseki-style works of art; 12-14 courses of flawlessly prepared and presented seasonal and regional specialties. After that, it’s a soak in the hot springs. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? It probably is when you understand and appreciate the near spirituality of the experience. For the uninitiated (us), it’s a minefield where missteps can lead to concerns that you have inadvertently caused offense in a culture based on grace, warmth and generosity.
Unaccustomed to changing “outside” shoes (uncomfortable wooden “flip-flops” called zori) for “one size fits no one” slippers before walking on our room’s tatami mats, we often forgot. Compounding the issue was yet another pair of slippers just for the toilet room. Whenever our attendant knocked, we quickly checked our footwear (invariably wrong) and furiously scrambled to change before she entered. And speaking of that toilet, our usual “carwash” version (it washes, dries and deodorizes) now had an added feature – a tank-topped faucet! Not for drinking, the clean water (which flows only after flushing) doubles for hand washing and tank refilling. Strange but ingenious!
For such a private and modest people, it seems peculiar that public nudity in onsens is commonplace. I was unsure whether to try it, but the dinner sake helped convince me and a fellow female traveler to join in. Despite reading up on proper etiquette, the lack of English-speaking attendants and/or arrows turned two normally competent women into bumbling fools. Placing all our clothing into a locker, we clutched our towels (the size and thickness of tea towels) in a failing attempt at modesty and found our way to a room of side-by-side cleansing “stations” (since bathers must be fully clean before entering the springs). With nothing but a low plastic stool, bucket and hand-held shower hose with cleansing products, our tea towels served triple duty as washcloth, towel and “coverage.” Surrounded by diminutive and lovely Japanese women and one little girl, everyone sat and focused on their cleansing except the little girl, who often glanced our way. In a country where the unsophisticated are called “potatoes,” when my companion wondered aloud what this little girl thought of us, I answered, “Older Japanese women look good, older gaijin (foreigner) women look like big white potatoes.” We giggled, we cleansed, we soaked (with our towels now balled up on top of our heads) and wondered why we came. After dressing, we spied massage chairs. My advice? Don’t get in one unless you understand the buttons. Quickly “locked in” as pads gripped our legs, these seemingly innocuous chairs became implements of torture. An attendant soon saved us (no doubt drawn by our squeals), graciously bowed and subtly gestured towards the exit. We left, sure that we had quashed the onsen’s normally zen-like state. Heading straight for the room’s deep soaker tub with ocean view to wash off the mineral smell, I had my sublime experience. And after a few nights sleeping on a floor-height futon, I even became adept at rolling out in the morning.
Yosakoi Festivals: Uniquely Japanese, these festivals occur throughout Japan. With energetically choreographed dancing, teams in coordinated (and often outrageous) outfits all have one muscle-bound member who runs back and forth maneuvering a phenomenally large flag. Skipping our ryokan’s evening entertainment, we joined the crowds cheering them on.
Shirakawago: Nestled in the lower Japanese Alps, Shirakawago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its steeply pointed gassho-zukuri, thatch-roofed houses are designed to withstand heavy winter snows. Extended families once produced silk in these multi-story homes (with the silk worms cultivated in the attic). Now its 600 residents seem content with tourism, and the government covers the $100,000 re-thatching cost every 10 years.
Takayama: This is a small city in the mountainous Hida region. Its twice-yearly festivals draw thousands of visitors. Spectacular centuries-old wooden floats or yatai (some with mechanical dolls) are paraded through the streets, accompanied by bands in traditional dress, with food available at make-shift stalls (confusingly also called yatai). The rest of the year, these floats are displayed in the Yatai Museum.
The city was once home to Japan’s most skilled carpenters. The well-preserved Edo-era streets and wooden buildings now house craft shops, specialty food stores (with unintentionally funny signs to encourage tastings) and saki breweries (marked by hanging balls of cedar branches). Strangely, carp swim freely in the narrow canals, which line both sides of the streets.
Nearby Hida is where cattle receive sake massages, an occasional beer and listen to classical music to induce relaxation. Less well-known internationally than Kobe beef, Hida beef is equally esteemed after winning the Wagyu (meaning “Japanese beef”) Olympics. The high degree of even marbling makes for an extremely smooth texture and juicy flavor. That marbling’s high fat content requires a bit more cooking or it’s more like eating butter. Although experts claim that most of that fat is monounsaturated (“good fats” rich in Omega-3s), I remain unconvinced after eating steaks that melted in my mouth at Takayama’s highly rated Le Midi Restaurant.
Japanese Alps: The drive through central Japan has breathtaking scenery, with more than 70 percent of Japan’s landmass covered by forested mountains. But the drive can be long. With 3 1/2 hours between our Takayama ryokan and scheduled museum visit near Mount Fuji, we visited a “truck stop.” I add quotation marks because this was unlike any truck stop that I’ve ever imagined – aisles full of gourmet food stands, all manner of stores and lines of vending machines with every drink imaginable.
Itchiku Kubota Art Museum: A Japanese textile artist who dedicated his life to mastering the lost technique of tsujigahana (a painstakingly complex dye technique for silk), Kubota built this museum near the base of his muse, Mount Fuji. It’s Gaudi-inspired exterior gives no indication of the lofty pyramid-shaped gallery within. Enormous and breathtaking textured silk kimonos hang below massive, 1,000-year-old beams as part of his unfinished masterpiece, “Symphony of Light,” a series of 80 kimonos that together express the moods and seasons of Mount Fuji.
Hakone: Just an hour by train from Tokyo, this is a popular weekend getaway with many onsens. Criss-crossed by a collection of cable cars and mountainside funicular railways, Hakone’s Komagatake Ropeway (one of Japan’s highest aerial tramways) provides a view of Mount Fuji when the weather cooperates (it didn’t). This snow-capped mountain is an iconic symbol of Japan, a near symmetrical volcano and Japan’s highest point at 12,388 feet. Each year, tens of thousands of people set out on trails to reach the summit, many climbing overnight hoping for a spectacular sunrise.
The grand scale of the 19th- and 20th-century sculptures at the Hakone Open Air Museum seem right at home on manicured grounds surrounded by verdant mountains. The Picasso gallery holds one of world’s best collections, with 300 items donated by the artist’s daughter, and a stained-glass, multi-story tower entitled “Symphonic Sculpture” offers panoramic views. The tower’s spiral stairs and vibrant glass are dizzying. Even though painted footprints indicate direction on the stair treads, I often had to stop to remember if I was going up or down. Thankfully, the hot springs foot bath directly below was a perfect spot to reorient and refresh.
Interested in visiting Central Japan? Cruise vacations, even those that include a land component, infrequently travel to these inland sites. For that, you need a true land tour. A number of U.S. companies offer escorted small-group tours (top rated – Tauck, Abercrombie & Kent) and some English-speaking, Japanese-based companies offer customizable private and group tours (top rated – Inside Japan Tours, The Art of Travel). And for the truly adventurous, there’s an excellent website, www.japan-guide.com, to help you plan a tour all on your own.